(1) Kansas vs. (5) Clemson
- Ky McKeon
Initial Thoughts: The first Midwest Sweet Sixteen battle features the Jayhawks of Kansas vs. the Tigers of Clemson. KU comes in after a shaky opening weekend in which it narrowly edged out Seton Hall and gave Penn backers (particularly “First to 15” backers) something to cheer for the game prior. Udoka Azubuike, KU’s 8-foot sea monster on the block, should be fully healthy for the Clemson tilt, a luxury Bill Self’s squad had to go without in their first two bouts (though 22 minutes vs. Hall isn’t anything to sneeze at).
Clemson has exceeded everyone’s expectations thus far in the Tourney. After being a popular pick to be upset in the first round to dangerous mid-major New Mexico State, the Tigers WOMPED the Tigers of Auburn by 31 points in what was the biggest blowout of the Big Dance thus far. Clemson’s recent run comes without Donte Grantham, arguably the team’s best player before he succumbed to injury on January 20th.
In a way, this game will feel familiar for each squad, as Auburn in many ways emulates Kansas’s style of play, while Seton Hall possesses similar aspects to Clemson. The winner gets a date with Duke or Syracuse for the chance at a Final Four.
Kansas on Offense: Though the Jayhawks are not a deep squad, they possess an armory of weapons capable of putting points on the board in a hurry. Everything goes through Devonte’ Graham, the point guard and team leader who put up 29 points on an overmatched Penn team in the first round. Graham’s ability to break down defenses off ball screens and find open shooters when the defense commits on his drives opens up the entire offense for Kansas. But even when Graham struggles, as he did against Seton Hall, KU has others that can step up and carry the scoring load.
Enter Malik Newman, a former Miss State transfer who poured in 28 points on 8/14 shooting against the Pirates in Round 2. Newman, like Graham, excels in the pick-n-roll, but he’s most dangerous in isolation where he scores 1.136ppp, which ranks in the 93rd percentile in the country per Synergy. His individual scoring ability functions as a bail out option for the Jayhawks on offense – when the clock is ticking down, just give it to Malik and let him work:
Clemson is very good at stopping the pick-n-roll, ranking 17th in the county in points per possession allowed (0.639ppp per Synergy). Brownell and Co. are going to be focused on stopping this aspect of the KU offense (particularly Graham), meaning Iso opportunities for Newman should be plentiful. The Tigers have the ball stoppers to compete with Newman and Graham off the bounce (just ask Auburn’s Jared Harper and Bruce Brown), but for the season guys like Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell have struggled in defending one-on-one situations.
Shooting, of course, is crucial to Kansas’s success (the Jayhawks are a blistering 16/38 from downtown this Tourney), and Clemson has been lit up by teams in the past. If guys like Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk are hitting shots, the Tigers will struggle to win this basketball game.
Finally, the X-factor for KU on offense will be Azubuike, who put up 10 & 7 against a good Seton Hall frontline despite not being fully healthy. Clemson has done well defending the post this year, especially Elijah Thomas who completely ate Auburn’s lunch in Round 2, swatting 3 shots and grabbing 8 boards on the defensive glass. The battle between Thomas and Azubuike will be an intriguing one, especially because Thomas has been known to be foul prone in his career – Clemson has capable backup post defenders, but it doesn’t have anybody near the level of Thomas on offense.
Clemson on Offense: *Seamless transition to Clemson’s offense* - Thomas destroyed Auburn’s weak middle to the tune of 18 points on 7/10 shooting. Azubuike is not weak in the middle. The Kansas behemoth is allowing only 0.649ppp in post-up situations (83rd percentile nationally, per Synergy) and was the 7th best defensive rebounder by rate in the Big 12 this season. Clemson isn’t an all post-reliant squad, but Thomas is a large part of their offensive arsenal – shutting him down would be a major step towards KU’s Elite Eight aspirations.
The Tigers primarily like to play through their guards, particularly off pick-n-roll scenarios where they score at the 50th best rate in the country. Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed carved up Auburn in the pick-n-roll, scoring at efficient rates and opening up three-point looks for Gabe DeVoe, who went 6/9 from the Land of Plenty. That’s really been the bread and butter of Clemson’s offense all season – pick-n-roll, attack the rack, hit open shooters when the defense commits. Watch who Lagerald Vick guards in the game – if he’s marking DeVoe, I’d be nervous as a Kansas fan. Vick is statistically one of the worst spot-up shooter defenders in the entire country, allowing 1.094ppp in spot-up situations.
One interesting wrinkle we’ve seen so far in Clemson’s first two contests is the way the Tigers have been comfortable, and exceled at, pushing the pace. Clemson hasn’t played fast at all this season, but in both Tourney contests Brownell’s squad has thrived in the 71-possession games. Reed has been dominant scoring in transition in the first two games, and Clemson as a squad ranks in the 93rd percentile in the country in scoring in transition. Kansas likes to push the tempo a bit, which could be right up Clemson’s alley – the Tigers are 7-2 this season in games over 70 possessions.
Key Factor(s): Elijah Thomas v. Udoka Azubuike. Both men are beasts in the paint, but only one will prove victorious. Thomas isn’t exactly small at 6’9” 240 lbs., but he’s dwarfed by Doke, who checks in at 7’0” 280 lbs. I think Azubuike has the much better chance to neutralize Thomas in this game, and Thomas’s ability to produce points is far more important to Clemson’s offense than Azubuike’s scoring to KU’s. Neither team is very deep, but Clemson is thinner up front than a Kansas squad that can fins serviceable minutes from Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa off the pine.
Final Predictions: Clemson is scrappy enough to keep this one close and may even have a chance to win at the end in a tight game. Straight-up, I’ll take the senior leadership of Graham and the overwhelming coaching advantage of Bill Self over Brad Brownell, but ATS I lean the Orange Kitties.
SU Pick: Kansas
ATS Pick: Clemson +5
O/U Pick: Over 142.5
(2) Duke vs. (11) Syracuse
- Ky McKeon
Initial Thoughts: “Yawwwwwwwwwwnn” say the Dukies. Coach K’s Blue Devils absolutely CRUISED to victory in their first two NCAA Tournament matchups, winning by 22 over Iona and 25 over Rhode Island. Duke has the largest margin of victory out of any team in the Tourney thus far, and it’s not hard to see why with the embarrassing array of talent donning the blue and white.
Duke will get Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen, an ACC conference foe and one the Devils completely shut down in the pair’s only meeting of the season. The Orange come in riding high after squeaking by Arizona State in the play-in game, then squeaking by TCU in the first round, and finally squeaking by Michigan State in the second. Credit ‘Cuse’s outstanding defense for its success thus far – the Orange have allowed 0.93ppp, 0.87ppp and 0.88ppp over their three Tourney games, which will need to continue if they want to contend with the Dukies.
Duke on Offense: Questions surrounding Duke this season have revolved around how well the Devils shoot from outside. Though the public narrative seems to suggest Duke is a team with an outside shooting weakness, the numbers strongly beg to differ. Duke ranks 40th in the country in 3P% behind four players that shoot over 38% from downtown; Trevon Duval has been the stinky outlier of the otherwise scorching Duke perimeter, but even he has stroked from deep to the tune of 5/9 in the Big Dance.
Shooting is going to be crucial against a Syracuse defense that is looking to defend you with its patented 2-3 zone. As is often the case with zone teams, ‘Cuse allows some of the most three-point attempts in the country, but unlike most zone teams, the Orange don’t allow easy looks. They rank 27th in 3P% defense and rank 50th in PPP allowed from spot-ups (per Synergy). Duke has fared well this year against zones, pouring in 1.025ppp when facing zone (50th best mark in the nation), but struggled greatly in an ugly affair with Syracuse earlier this season. In that matchup, Duke shot 2/18 from downtown yet still won the game by 16 thanks to piss poor Orange offense and some help from the charity stripe.
So can Syracuse’s zone slow down Duke again on Friday? If they challenge shooters like this, then yes:
Despite playing a zone, Boeheim’s squad is so good at closing out on shooters thanks to the length of their perimeter defenders. This makes it challenging even for big wings and forwards like Duke’s to score consistently from the outside. Theoretically, Duke should murder a zone with its dynamic freshman forward duo in Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter - both bigs are ideal high post zone breakers with their shooting and passing ability. In the February 24th contest, Bagley may not have been 100% coming off an injury and he still poured in 19 points on 8/9 shooting. Carter, too, had a game with 16 and 10, and both should have field days on the glass against the Orange, who rebound at a poor rate out of the zone (and Duke is quite literally the best offensive glass team in the country).
Finally, Duke’s guards accounted for all of that dreadful 2/18 shooting performance in the February matchup (Allen 0/6, Trent 1/6, Duval 1/5, Goldwire 0/1) – I doubt that happens again.
Syracuse on Offense: For how brilliant Syracuse has been on defense this season, they’ve been equally as barftastic on the offensive end. The Orange haven’t scored over 1.00ppp since March 5th against Wake Forest and put up an anemic 0.69ppp in their first meeting with Duke.
Syracuse is a penetration-reliant offense, one that needs trips to the free throw line to put points on the board. The guards partake in a little “my turn, your turn” isolation contest and hurl up shots at the rim in hopes of the ball bouncing in or being corralled by one of their many excellent offensive rebounders. You know what tends to stop isolation-heavy offenses? A zone! In a recent coaching philosophy transition, Coach K has almost exclusively switched his defense to a zone look, a decision that has paid dividends. The Devils rank 32nd in the country in points given up while in their zone defense, which ranks higher than Syracuse, and give up a miniscule 0.638ppp in isolation situations (18th best in the country). Duke’s zone allows killer athletes like Duval use his length to bother shooters while also making up for his sometimes lacking attention to detail on the defensive end.
The Orange are going to struggle to score in this game, especially if Duke cuts off driving lanes and takes care of business on the boards. Syracuse is shooting a mere 31.8% from deep this season and went 6/25 in the first game against Duke. If I were Coach Boeheim, I would tell my team to crash the glass like they’ve never crashed before, and draw contract when near the bucket. The former is doable and a small alley in which ‘Cuse can beat the Devils; the latter is a tall order given Duke ranks #1 in the country in defensive free throw rate (aka they don’t foul a lot).
Key Factor(s): In a tempo-free game, this match heavily favors Duke, a team that can score in a magnitude of ways, shoot from the outside, and punish the glass. Thankfully, college basketball games aren’t played in a vacuum, so the Orange have one card up their collective sleeve they can play. Syracuse will have to slow this game down to a grinding halt to have any chance at hanging with Duke. As I pointed out in my play-in game write-up, the Orange have been masters at controlling pace this season, playing only five games with over 70 possessions (the first Duke game was 64). And, if we want to break it all down to an arbitrary number – the magic digit is 60. Every ‘Cuse game this Tournament has had 60 possessions and the Orange are 4-0 in games with exactly 60 possessions this season.
Final Predictions: While I think Syracuse can succeed in controlling the tempo, I don’t see how they score against the Blue Devil zone. Further, I don’t think Duke will shoot 11% from deep again, and Marvin Bagley is 100% healthy. Devils for me.