Sweet 16 Picks 2017: East, West Regions
|Rawle Alkins, Arizona|
After holding on to defeat the defending champion Villanova Wildcats and watching second-seeded Duke lose in the region, the path to a Final Four is clear for Wisconsin. However, it is not at all a breeze (this is March, after all) and they will collide with Florida in the Sweet 16. The Gators responded from a rough end to the regular season to blow past both East Tennessee State and Virginia, holding the Cavaliers to just 39 points in the victory. The thing that jumps out about both of these teams is the experience in the backcourt, which has fueled their runs so far. Wisconsin has one of the most clutch players in school history in senior Bronson Koenig, who hit a number of big shots to sink Villanova, along with long-time contributor Zak Showalter. Meanwhile, Florida has gotten a big performance from senior Kasey Hill, whose impressive passing ability (4.5 APG) and aggressive rim-attacking has fueled their offense. He is aided by senior Canyon Barry, an intriguing transfer from College of Charleston, whose under-hand free throw shooting is a site to behold, along with leading scorer KeVaughn Allen, who has impressive range. That trio of guards, when paired with swingman Devin Robinson, is very dangerous and gives the Gators' offense some serious bite. The Badgers have long been a great defensive team, but it will be interesting to see how Greg Gard chooses to handle so many dynamic offensive weapons. The Badgers don't have quite the electric scoring punch Florida has, but they have rock-solid veterans that are as reliable as they get. Fellow senior big men Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ have been terrific all season long, and both have gotten a good taste of March, without actually winning it all. Having those two down low is a distinct advantage for Wisconsin especially when considering John Egbunu, Florida's starting center and superb shot-blocker, is out for the rest of the year. Wisconsin plays a pretty similar style to Virginia; a slow, methodical attack with good defense. That formula didn't stop the rolling Gators in the second round, but I think it should be different here. Wisconsin has more scoring punch than Virginia, and the experience level of the three premier seniors should lead them to a huge victory.
Wisconsin by nine
East Region Semifinal: 3 Baylor Bears vs. 7 South Carolina Gamecocks
Who would have thought this would be one of the semifinals in this region? With Duke rolling and situated as a two seed, and SMU also looking very scary, it didn't look like there was any chance Baylor nor South Carolina would be sitting here. But, that is why they play the games, and one of these teams are going to playing in the Elite Eight. The Gamecocks haven't seen this much success ever, but the big stage shouldn't scare them. They have a number of impressive guards and wings that can score anywhere, namely Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice, who were huge parts in their win over Duke. Thornwell is a former highly touted recruit who went to South Carolina to turn things around, and there is little question he has. Notice, meanwhile, is a physical player that should match up well against Baylor's size throughout their lineup. If there is a glaring hole on South Carolina, it is the lack of much post presence beyond forward Chris Silva. Against the Bears, who run their offense through the frontcourt so much that is worrying. Silva will have to be able to stop, or at least contain forward Johnathan Motley. The junior is averaging very near a double-double (17.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG) and can score every time that he touches the ball. Fellow forward Jo Lual-Acuil isn't quite the offensive demon that Motley is, but finishes well around the basket and is a force on the glass, which is so important in gaining more possessions, a component of winning basketball. While those two bang in the paint, Miami transfer Manu Lecomte has run the show at point. Lecomte is still inefficient at times and will have a tough matchup against a swarming South Carolina D, but he has proven he can take over games with his shooting and playmaking ability. Florida versus Wisconsin was a great example of polar opposites squaring off, and I think this game has some similarities. Both of these teams can score in a hurry, but tend to do it in varying ways. Whoever comes into this game hot is obviously going to have the upper hand, and right now South Carolina is playing better. It is hard to call the Gamecocks true Cinderellas, considering they are from the SEC and have been good all year, but this team has been a major surprise and if their offense can keep playing the way they have been, I like them to win a thriller.
South Carolina by three
West Region Semifinal: 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. 4 West Virginia
Despite being labeled as the "No. 1 seed most likely to lose" by so many, Gonzaga is still very much alive, and continues their quest to slay their March demons. They will get fourth-seeded West Virginia, who has used their frantic and aggressive "Press Virginia" full court-defense to control the tempo of games and overpower 13th-seeded Bucknell and fifth-seeded Notre Dame. That press is going to be out in full force in this one, and it will be interesting to see how Gonzaga handles it. There is so much going on and so much speed on WVU's defense that it is so easy to lose control and the Mountaineers thrive off of that. So much of what they do offensively also leans off that defense, because their offense is pretty bad in the half-court. The Bulldogs are going to look to star Nigel Williams-Goss and sophomore Josh Perkins to be the main men handling that pressure. Williams-Goss is terrific, and one of the major reasons why Gonzaga went 32-1 in the regular season. Perkins is a great ball-handler and has a great feel for the game. Having a week to prepare for that press also helps, but it is so hard to know how a team will react to it, which makes West Virginia so mysterious and so scary. When they do advance the ball up, Gonzaga has an abundance of further options to work with, namely Prezemek Karnowski and Zach Collins down low. Karnowski is absolutely massive and demands attention, which can open up lanes and openings for other Bulldogs. Collins, meanwhile, is just a freshman but his shooting touch and poise are already well past his age. If those guys get enough touches, against a thin WVU frontcourt, Gonzaga should be win. Yet, the Mountaineers have weapons of their own beyond that press. Junior Jevon Carter is streaky but still a terrific scorer, while Nathan Adrian is their main option in the post. Guards Tarik Phillip and Daxter Miles Jr. will also contribute on both sides of the ball, and the Mountaineers have plenty of players that can hit the three, which is such a large component to their offense. It is hard to know which version of West Virginia will come out every night, but I think they should be hyped up and ready to go. Even so, Gonzaga has always had an extremely poised and calm demeanor under head coach Mark Few, which should serve them well here. If Williams-Goss and Perkins can control the pressure, they shouldn't have too much trouble.
Gonzaga by five
West Region Semifinal: 2 Arizona Wildcats vs. 11 Xavier Musketeers
Here is a crazy stat: Xavier has made six Sweet 16s over the past decade, the exact same number as college basketball powerhouses Duke and Kentucky over that span. It just goes to show how consistent the Musketeers are, and a dominant showing in the second round over Florida State has this team thinking bigger as they move on. Yet, Arizona is far from a slouch and my pre-NCAA Tournament Champion (not to say I'm biased) is still rolling, beating a sneaky St. Mary's squad to advance. The Wildcats have their fair share of playmakers in every part of the game, namely Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen. Markkanen was a relatively unknown commodity prior to the year, but has developed into a legitimate stud, averaging 15.8 PPG and 7.2 rebounds per game. He is a versatile and smart offensive player, and it will be interesting to see who Xavier chooses to match up against him. Trier was suspended to begin the year for performance-enhancing drugs but has since returned and taken back his role as the Wildcats most reliable scoring weapon. Add in steady point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, powerful wing Rawle Alkins and crazy athletic Kobi Simmons, and there is no wonder why 'Zona won the Pac-12. That offense will have to be feeling it in this one, because the Musketeers have certainly been feeling it themselves. Despite the absence of injured point guard Edmund Sumner, Xavier is still really, really scary. Long-time guard Trevon Blueitt doesn't get a lot of national attention but is extremely reliable, while youthful Quentin Goodin has wowed in taking over the reigns of the offense. Valuable guard J.P. Macura, who has long been Xavier's sixth man, has also been thrust into a larger role and the sharpshooter has impressed. Yet, I worry about the Musketeers' lack of frontcourt help, because so many teams in this Tournament are good at dumping it down low. 'Zona should utilize Markkanen and center Chase Comanche plenty down there and if they can slow Xavier's hot shooting they should have no trouble taking down the last Big East team in the field.