(1) Kansas vs. (4) Purdue
Initial Thoughts: While the Jayhawks have been on cruise control since their journey to Phoenix began late last week (dismantled UC Davis by 38 and Michigan State by 20), Purdue has had a much bumpier road to the Sweet-16. After grinding out an opening round win against a pesky Vermont team that plays at sloth’s pace offensively, they went toe-to-toe with the race car that is the Iowa State Cyclones and their transition-focused attack two days later. The Boilermakers seemed to have this second challenge all figured out for the first 25 minutes of action, until they watched a comfortable 19-point lead quickly evaporate with under 3 minutes left in regulation. Sure enough, Matt Painter went to his meal ticket - POTY candidate Caleb ‘Biggie’ Swanigan – repeatedly down low on the block, who proceeded to go to work on the undersized Deonte Burton. Despite a relatively off shooting night inside the arc (5/13 on 2-point FGs), Swanigan left no doubt that he’s one of the most unstoppable weapons in the college game. 'Biggie' showed off his unique versatility, connecting on 3 of his 6 trey balls, dishing out 7 assists and hauling in 12 boards, all while only turning over 3 times on a high 33% usage rate. It’s worth mentioning his ‘paint partner in crime’, Isaac Haas, was almost as dominant offensively in the 15 minutes of action he saw, scoring 14 points on just 8 shots. It’s quite obvious that the key to this game – as it always seems to be with the Boilermakers’ two trees - will be how both of them matchup with the a Jayhawks roster that features 3-4 dangerous offensive playmakers on the floor at almost all times.
Kansas on Offense: Let’s start off with breaking down how Kansas can attack the Purdue bigs. As we’ve discussed in length here at 3MW, Bill Self has fully adopted the NBA’s “pace and space” approach with a patented 4-out, 1-in lineup that leverages the hyper-athletic and versatile Josh Jackson at the 4. This means that KU typically only plays one true low-post player for a vast majority of the time, which is typically Landen Lucas, However, it’s worth noting that Self has been allocating more and more minutes to the talented 6’10 sophomore Carlton Bragg, as well as talented Ole Miss transfer Dwight Coleby. Because Painter doesn't prefer to play his two interior monsters on the floor at the same time, Jackson will likely be matched up 1v1 with Vince Edwards, an outstanding defender at 6’8 225 pounds, who has the length and quickness to check Jackson on the perimeter. So while Jackson’s top-notch talent and skillset makes him virtually impossible to shut down (especially now with an emerging confidence in his outside jumper), KU will not get many opportunities to torch Swanigan or Haas at the 4 position, meaning they'll need other ways to score the basketball efficiently. (see Matchup section below for the obvious solution here). One ‘roll-of-the-dice’ lineup combination that could pay dividends is if Self decides to put Jackson at the 5 for an ultra-small lineup. For those that watched the Iowa State/Purdue matchup in the round of 32, Swanigan had some trouble guarding Deonte Burton in the half-court and looked confused trying to find the right balance of how far to extend vs. how far to lay off each time Burton touched the ball on the perimeter.
Purdue on Offense: Purdue’s offense, as mentioned in our preview of the first round matchup with Vermont, is extremely post-up focused, which will feature a paint touch by either Swanigan or Haas on almost every possession. As Steve Prohm and the Cyclones quickly found, the obvious strategy of double-teaming the post is not nearly as effective as one might think. The Boilers love to get a ton of open 3s from kick-outs, evidenced by the relatively high-percentage of points tallied from the land of plenty this season (please refer to the point distribution of Purdue’s scoring so far this year, courtesy of kenpom.com, below):
Notice the national ranks in the small black numbers to the right of the blue numbers, which indicates Purdue is the 92nd most 3-ball reliant team in the nation, where they cash in on a scolding hot 40.4% of their attempts, good for 6th best in the entire country. The advantage for Kansas here is that unlike Iowa State, the combination of Lucas, Bragg and Coleby are all 6’9+ and each is a burly 240 pounds, meaning they shouldn’t require the desperate double team that many teams are forced to throw at ‘Biggie’ and Haas. The chess match here will be how Self chooses to defend the post touches, whether that be a hard/immediate double, a dig down by the perimeter guards or a stay-at-home approach to the 3-point shooters - I think the latter is the correct answer.
Key Factor(s): I think this game will come down to the play of Frank Mason and Devonte Graham - arguably the best backcourt tandem in the country - both of whom will need to have impactful and efficient performances for the Jayhawks to advance to the Elite 8. Due to Painter’s straight-up, man-to-man defensive scheme that exhibits precise off-ball rotations and rarely gambles for steals, few teams have been able to poke holes in Purdue’s D this year. However, there are two primary weaknesses that opponents can exploit if you have the right personnel to execute it: The first is a rare 5 that can stretch out Haas or Swanigan on the perimeter, but still hold his own defensively on the block - successful precedents this year include Burton for Iowa State throughout parts of last round's game and DJ Wilson and Moritz Wager of Michigan, who managed to take down Purdue twice this season. Since none of the KU bigs present the versatility of the aforementioned examples, the second way is by having dynamic, playmaking guards that can simply beat the Purdue backcourt off the bounce. This is precisely where I think Mason and Graham can consistently beat the likes of PJ Thompson, Dakota Mathias, Ryan Cline, Carsen Edwards and Spike Albrecht, similar to what Nate Mason of Minnesota or Peter Jok of Iowa did to the Boiler backcourt in Big Ten play.
Final Predictions: From a betting perspective, the Jayhawks are now 5-point favorites (the line opened at -4) and are currently receiving 76% of all bets placed on the game, per sportsinsights.com. The total is a whopping 156, which means oddsmakers foresee a high-scoring game in this one, a lot of which is based on the fact that both teams like to get out and run when given the opportunity, particularly Kansas. However, both teams are disciplined in retreating back on defense, so I don’t envision a track-meet paced game that I think Vegas is predicting here. And in a relatively slow tempo affair that forces both teams to execute consistently in the half-court, I think this ends up being a nail-biter for the full 40 minutes. I give a slight lean to Purdue from a wagering perspective but I trust Mr. Mason to outshine his POTY competitor ‘Biggie’ Swanigan over the final two or three possessions to squeak by the boys of West Lafayette and march on to the Elite 8 – especially in front of what should be a KU-dominant crowd at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
SU Pick: Kansas
ATS Pick: Purdue +5
O/U Pick: Under 156
(3) Oregon vs. (7) Michigan
Initial Thoughts: At this point, I’m not sure the ’96 Bulls could stop the March magic of the Wolverines. If you haven’t heard the backstory of what happened to Michigan’s plane just moments before takeoff on their flight to the Big Ten tournament, feel free to hop out from that rock you’ve been living under for the past two weeks. Over a 56 hour span this weekend, Michigan dispatched the nation’s most efficient offense in Oklahoma State and then promptly avenged their 2013 national championship loss to Rick Pitino and Louisville to advance to the Sweet 16. The higher-seeded Ducks, on the other hand, have been somewhat inconsistent in postseason play, looking anywhere from unguardable to vulnerable in their first two showdowns to get to this point. After almost running Iona out of the gym for the first 30 minutes, the Ducks took a quick cat-nap late in the second half, giving Oregon -14 backers a scare. A late run by the Gaels made the final score look as if the game was marginally competitive, but in reality it was never in doubt. A similar second half letdown occurred just two nights later when a crazy back-and-forth game almost saw the Ducks get ousted by an uber-athletic and physical Rhode Island team who came in playing their best ball of the year. The bottom line is that both of these teams have successfully lived by Jimmy V's motto of "survive and advance", making any close calls or minor hiccups a moot point at this juncture.
Oregon on Offense: As mentioned in the Round 1 preview of Oregon and Iona, the Ducks are one of the most lethal offensive teams in the country, particularly against pure man-to-man defenses, thanks to X-factor Dillon Brooks who sets the tone for the free-flowing, spread-it-out offense head coach Dana Altman likes to run. The key for Oregon is their ability exploit mismatches at the forward positions, given that Brooks presents a nightmare matchup for opposing defenders at the 4, while the bruising Jordan Bell bangs down low at the 5. Despite beating the Pokes in round 1, Michigan did struggle on the defensive end against a similar perimeter-based offense (surrendered 1.40 points per possession), which featured two versatile comps in Jeffrey Carroll and Leyton Hammonds, although neither possesses the skill and talent of Brooks.
This is where my concerns lie for the Wolverines bigs in Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson, neither of whom have had to check a player as dynamic as Brooks this year. Head coach John Beilein made the smart decision by limiting Wagner's minutes in the matchup with Okie State, and apportioning his clock to Duncan Robinson at the small ball 4 to better cover Carroll and Hammonds. I foresee him going with a similar approach here in this matchup, but this could be problematic for the sharpshooting Robinson on the defensive end if he gets isolated too often with Brooks on the wing. A key characteristic of this year's Michigan defense is that the guards will extend beyond the 3-point line to pick their 1v1 matchups, which should set up Brooks and Tyler Dorsey for ample opportunities to attack off the dribble.
Michigan on Offense: In Iona's garbage time run late in the 2nd half against Oregon, they may have exposed one of the few weaknesses in the Ducks' defensive unit - the 3-point line. Altman likes to rely on his zone schemes, usually a 1-3-1 three quarter court look, which tends to surrender a healthy amount of open 3s to the the Ducks' opponents. However, a lot of this may actually be a well-calculated decision by Altman and here's why: he gets the peace-of-mind that his elite slot-blockers never venture too far from the lane and also knows his closeouts on the perimeter usually involve average to above-average length, which provide a quality contest to shooters. Still, Iona proved that this defensive unit can be scored on if you have multiple perimeter weapons capable of getting white-hot from deep, which is precisely what the Wolverines bring to the table. There's no secret that Michigan lives and dies by the long ball - they ranked 19th nationally in 3-point attempts and knocked down an impressive 39% as a team.
However, in a matchup that seemed to be a tricky on one paper for the Wolverine bigs going up against an army of Louisville rim-protecting monsters, Moritz Wagner dusted off the rust from playing just 14 minutes against Oklahoma State and exploded for 26 points on just 13 shots. But the wrinkle in this Oregon matchup is that Bell is a much more versatile defender, and thus, a much better 1v1 assignment for either Wagner or Wilson, whoever Altman has him guard. This will be a great cat-and-mouse game between the two coaches whenever Oregon goes man, in terms of whether or not Beilein plays both bigs and tries to post up a relatively undersized Brooks down low, or goes with a 4-out, 1-in matchup with Robinson stepping in for either Wagner or Wilson.
Key Factor(s): On paper, the primary mismatch for the Ducks to exploit is simply on the offensive glass. Oregon has gobbled up a ton of their missed shots in the tournament thus far (15 offensive rebounds in both games), led by Bell's relentless pursuit on the boards, who has more than compensated for the injured Chris Boucher. The Wolverines ranked 231st nationally in defensive rebounding rate this season, per kenpom.com, which presents a major opportunity for the Ducks to score even more efficiently in the half-court. Look for Bell, Brooks and 6'11 Kavell Bibgy-Williams to wreak havoc on the boards, particularly when Michigan goes to a smaller lineup with either Wagner or Wilson on the bench.
Final Predictions: My gut violently disagrees with going against a Michigan team that's showing no sign of slowing down since the calendar flipped to March, but the Xs and Os tell me the Ducks have a slight edge in this one. Apologies in advance to Derrick Walton and Wolverine nation, but I think the magical ride may come to a screeching halt against an Oregon team that is on a mission of their own to get to the Final 4 - especially after coming up one game short last year.