By Ryan Mayer
Once the final buzzer sounds this Sunday night, we’ll know the four teams that have successfully navigated the treacherous NCAA Tournament and will take center stage in Houston, Texas on Saturday, April 2 to play in the Final Four.
Now that most of us are finally over the sting of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament – which were two rounds that turned brackets across the country into confetti – we can now focus on attempting to make some sense of the next two rounds of the NCAA Tournament – the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8.
As part of our continuing Final Four prediction series, it’s time to get to the region that has been by far the most eccentric and confusing through the first weekend of the tournament. It’s also the one that made America collectively throw away their brackets before the end of Day 2: the Midwest region.
Going into the tournament in highlighting this region, I mentioned the interesting phenomenon of the number 2-seed (Michigan State) in the region being considered the team to beat rather than the number 1-seed (Virginia). Then, in some tournament loopiness, the Spartans got smacked in the mouth by Middle Tennessee State and suddenly the region became the Wild West. We’ve got a one vs four match-up in the top-half which seems normal enough, until you consider how we got there with Arkansas Little-Rock knocking out a dark horse regional finalist in Purdue on Day 1. That led to the Trojans facing a perennially under-achieving Iowa State team in round 2, where the Cyclones dispatched them easily.
Then we get to the bottom half, where, to put it nicely, all hell has broken loose. Aside from the 15 over 2 upset by Middle Tennessee State, you had a Syracuse team many thought shouldn’t be in the tournament upset Dayton, Gonzaga knock off red-hot Seton Hall and a good Utah squad, and Syracuse then beating up on the Blue Raiders. Which all leads to a 10 vs 11 game for the right to play in the regional final.
Wackiness aside, this has played out as a dream scenario for the Virginia Cavaliers to make the Final Four for the first time since the 1983-84 season. The Cavaliers are the same as they have been the past couple years, defensively stingy, while being offensively efficient. Their style contrasts greatly with that of their opponent in the Sweet 16, Iowa State. The Cyclones love to push the tempo and rack up high scoring totals. However, it is much easier to slow the pace of a game down than it is to speed it up. Iowa State isn’t a pressing, create turnovers, get out on the fast break style of team. Rather, they like to work the possession quickly and get shots up early in the shot clock and push the ball in transition off of rebounds. Virginia can combat that simply by walking the ball up the floor, running their sets and using a majority of the clock. The Cyclones have better size to match-up with Virginia than Butler did, but I think the Cavaliers can choke the tempo down to their pace, which would enable them to win.
On the bottom side of the bracket, you’ve got Syracuse and the famed 2-3 zone, which may be the most difficult defense to prepare for on short notice, especially if you’ve never faced it before. Attempting to simulate the length and athleticism of the Syracuse players with a scout team is nearly impossible. However, Gonzaga may have the ability to break that zone. The Bulldogs shoot well from the outside at 15/36 (41%) in the tournament so far, but also have a good inside game working with Domantas Sabonis, post-ups from Kyle Wiltjer and slashing play from their guards. Sabonis and Wiltjer are able to facilitate as well, and I think they’ll be able to find the soft spots to attack in the middle of that zone. The X-factor for Syracuse will be whether Trevor Cooney can shoot it as well as he did last time out. If the Orange get four threes from Cooney to go along with the great play from guard Michael Gbnije, they could very easily find themselves in the Elite Eight. However, Syracuse has been entirely too inconsistent this season for me to feel comfortable with them continuing to play well.
That would leave a match-up between Gonzaga and Virginia in the Elite Eight for the opportunity to make a trip to the Final Four. Once again, come March, I’ll always take the better defensive team than the offensive one, because this late in the tournament, legs can get tired, shots come up a little shorter, and offense can fade. A team that plays stingy defense the way the Cavaliers do can really wear down a team like Gonzaga at this point. That and the fact that I don’t see the Bulldogs having anyone who can guard Malcolm Brogdon in a one-on-one situation, leads me to believe that Tony Bennett’s crew will finally pull it off and make it to the Final Four.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.