(1) Gonzaga vs. (4) West Virginia
Initial Thoughts: The Zags did what Villanova, Duke, Louisville, and Florida State could not do – they made the second weekend! I know that completely blows the mind of every east coast basketball fan who was absolutely certain that they were garbage and ESPN’s babies/eastern blue bloods would reign supreme, but it’s true. Just breathe, you’ll get over it. The Bulldogs nearly blew the doors off Northwestern, but ended having to earn it down the stretch as the Journalists/Wildcats pulled back within 6 with just under five minutes left. Also, a quick shout-out to the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State: they hopped out to a 15-12 lead over Gonzaga and won our crew an excellent +475 bet on them being the first to 15 points. West Virginia, on the other hand, controlled both of their first-weekend games basically wire-to-wire, out-rebounding their opponents by a combined 76-60 tally and scoring 1.17 points per possession over the two games.
Gonzaga on Offense: The first thing you have to talk about when a team is facing West Virginia is whether they can handle the pressure. Now granted, the Zags haven’t faced athleticism/insanity like this in the West Coast Conference (nor in their second-round game against Northwestern), but you have to like what the numbers say: the Bulldogs’ offense is scoring 1.225 points per possession against press defense this year, good for the 99th percentile in the entire country, both numbers per Synergy. This is helped by having two 6’3 ball-handlers in Josh Perkins and Nigel Williams-Goss who can see over most traps and make smart decisions. One thing they don’t have that often helps against West Virginia, though: a forward who can bring it up against Nathan Adrian or Esa Ahmad.
Once they get into the half-court, they once again have an advantage with Mount Poland aka Przemek Karnowski. West Virginia plays some strong fellas at center, but it’s Karnowski’s passing that I expect to shine through in this one. The Mountaineers will want to swarm him, and his ability to find his post buddy (whether it’s Jonathan Williams or Killian Tillie) as well as open shooters like Jordan Mathews will be crucial. Gonzaga is a scoring a hilarious 1.46 points per possession on post-ups on kick-outs when the defense commits to post-ups, per Synergy, employing deadly ball movement to cut open over-aggressive foes:
On the perimeter, West Virginia has the quick guards to keep Williams-Goss out of the lane for the most part, so the offense may involve more pick-and-roll than isolation for him. Again, ball movement will be key against the pressuring/over-helping WV defense, and the Zags have basically never faced trapping out of the PnR this year.
West Virginia on Offense: West Va will face a much tougher challenge in this round, having faced the 85th- and 60th-ranked KenPom defenses thus far – Gonzaga is a pristine numero uno. As mentioned, the Fightin’ Huggy Bears love to score off their defensive pressure, but they’ve actually been quite strong in the half-court as well.
They’ll attack the rim in waves, both with athletic drivers and relentless offensive rebounding. Ahmad comes to mind as a mismatch, as his size and strength at the three will cause nightmares for Mathews or Silas Melson (despite Melson being an excellent defender). Forcing Gonzaga to guard Ahmad in isolation and especially cutting situations will be important for WV, as he should be able to create space to finish against the smaller defenders, even if they’re in sound position:
On the glass, Gonzaga is extremely stout defensively due to always having two skilled bigs on the floor, and when they play the ever-impressive Zach Collins and Williams together, they really wall off the paint. Williams-Goss is also a notably strong rebounder for a guard, something that will come in handy with Huggins often sending at least three to the offensive glass in hopes of an easy put-back or a kick-out three. Keeping West Virginia from getting over, say, 30% of their misses is a major goal for Mark Few and the Zags.
Key Factor(s): I know I just talked about it, but it’s the rebounding and the battle of the bigs. This is one of the very rare games where West Virginia’s posts won’t have a major advantage, physicality-wise, on the interior, and I expect Collins to again make his presence known off the bench. Both coaches are absolutely excellent, and even though Few has never been to a Final Four, he can definitely keep up with the Hall of Famer on the other bench.
Final Predictions: A little concerned about bias here, as the Zags have been a favorite of 3MW (and myself) all year, whereas I struggle to enjoy the hack-until-they-can’t-call-it strategy that West Virginia sometimes employs. Also, the Mountaineers have undisputedly been one of the best teams in the tournament so far as they’ve breezed past two strong would-be challengers already. The matchup inside and the Zags ability to take care of the ball is the key, and having a Bob Cousy finalist at PG should definitely help the #1 seed. 82-74, Zags.
SU Pick: Gonzaga
ATS Pick: Gonzaga -3.5
O/U Pick: Over 148
(2) Arizona vs. (11) Xavier
Initial Thoughts: This is not the matchup we expected here...sorry Seminole fans. Arizona survived a hard-fought battle with a West Coast Conference team, and they hope to find themselves in a rematch with another one in the next round with a chance to play in Glendale on the line. However, they’ll have to first get past the surprising Musketeers, who are suddenly playing outstanding basketball after struggling down the stretch. They played well against Maryland, but then really unleashed a can of whoopass against Florida State, with Chris Mack running coaching circles around poor Leonard Hamilton. This one could be a sneaky-good game despite the 9-seed difference, and I’m hoping for a classic that’s as good as the last-time a Xavier team unexpectedly faced a 2-seed in the bottom-left corner of the bracket.
Arizona on Offense: The ‘Cats run a ton of perimeter pick-and-roll (25th-most in the country) and spread offense; it helps to have a stable of guards like theirs who can all handle the ball and create off the dribble. Allonzo Trier has more or less become the focal point since his return, but Kadeem Allen, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and Rawle Alkins (who will play despite a broken finger) are all capable of creating offense for themselves and others. Kobi Simmons is as well, but for some reason, Sean Miller has launched him into the hot Arizona sun, never to return. A typical ‘Cats possession will start with a high pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll with Lauri Markkanen on the perimeter and a cross-lane dive from the other post to create a quick post-up opportunity, like this:
Chance Comanche or Dusan Ristic often gets a one-on-one opportunity out of this, and Xavier’s 5-men aren’t massive stalwarts on the inside. Markkanen is also a giant threat in this scenario, both as a shooter and a driver, though Malcolm Bernard and Kaiser Gates at the four both offer decent matchups who can move with him on the perimeter.
The key for Xavier will be containing the multitude of Arizona perimeter threats. They just did an excellent job of that against Florida State’s dynamic perimeter, so they have to feel pretty solid about the possibility. They did so by playing almost exclusively zone (59 out of 65 half-court possessions!), a strategy that many teams have employed against the Wildcats (faced zone 33% of possessions, a very high amount nationally). Chris Mack mixed it up a ton, playing some 2-3, a little 1-3-1, and a ton of the amorphous 1-1-3 matchup zone that Scott Drew runs so frequently.
1-1-3 - notice how withdrawn the wings are:
Arizona doesn’t shoot many threes at all, so forcing the ‘Cats to heave could take them out of their comfort zone. They do have high-level shooters, of course, but that’s not their main objective offensively, and seducing them into falling in love with the three probably leaves X less exposed than they’d be against the slashing of Arizona’s guards out of the pick-and-roll (Xavier is very poor at defending the PnR, according to the numbers). I’d expect Chris Mack to employ a bunch of zone again in this one, relying on his bigs to keep Arizona off the offensive glass in the meantime.
Xavier on Offense: Arizona, on the other hand, will play almost exclusively man-to-man defensively. Not having Sumner’s break-em-down dribble drives has hurt, but lately, the Musketeers have started to figure things out without him. Instead of dribble penetration, they’ve used crisp ball movement and precise offense to produce open shots, and they repeatedly caught FSU sleeping off the ball for easy buckets. Watch JP Macura look like he’s lazily going cross-court before breaking hard to the basket for an easy lay-up while FSU hits the snooze button:
A few possessions later, Trevon Blueitt catches Jonathan Isaac leaning too far to help on that same Macura cut to bury a three:
These types of moves and counter-moves have become the Muskies’ specialty, and while a Sean Miller defense can be a whole different animal, this isn’t one of his top-3 monster units like the Elite 8 teams of 2014 and 2015. The ‘Cats will need to be on their toes (and study the scouting report!!) in order to take away what Xavier likes to do most.
Xavier also scored a ton in transition and on the offensive glass (hello, Tyrique Jones!) and off their defense against Florida State, but this Arizona team is pretty solid at taking away the offensive glass and quick opportunities on the break. As long as they avoid turning the ball over and box out Jones/Sean O'Mara/RaShid Gaston, the transition game and the glass shouldn’t kill Arizona like it did FSU.
Key Factor(s): Three of the four coaches in this region fit into the “best coach to never make a Final Four” discussion, and two of them reside here. Miller and Mack are both phenomenal, seemingly destined to make it to college basketball’s greatest stage at some point, but to me, the difference will be Miller simply having more talent to play with. Mack’s brilliance was on display in the Round of 32, but with time to prepare for the goofy 1-1-3, Miller shouldn’t be nearly as baffled as Florida State was.
Final Predictions: Two well-coached teams squaring off in this one, and I think it will be a relatively even, hard-fought battle that is slowed down by Xavier’s zone. I’ve long been high on this Arizona squad, though, and I think the passing of their guards and the dead-eye shooting of the Markksman make the difference in a late victory. 72-66, Arizona.
SU Pick: Arizona
ATS Pick: Xavier +7.5
O/U Pick: Under 145