By: Brian Dernulc
Salt Lake City plays host to the West Regional as a couple of big time teams from major conferences match up against a couple of big time teams from mid-major conferences. Butler and Xavier are mid-major by conference affiliation only. They have proven time and again this decade that they are more than capable of competing against the big boys from the major conferences and I don’t think this year will be any different. They will bring it. Syracuse and Kansas St. are going to have to do the same if they wish to advance to the Regional Finals and I think they know that. Gus Johnson is calling this set of games and he has had a tough draw so far with no real close games. I hope that continues until the nightcap when Kansas St. and Xavier take the floor. On to the games…
#1 Syracuse v. #5 Butler
So I guess Wes Johnson’s hand is healthy and Arinze Onuaku’s quad/knee is not. If the Gonzaga game is any indication, that tradeoff is one the Orange can live with if they must. The ‘Cuse have a favorable draw as the tournament progresses for a team now lacking quality depth inside. Gonzaga probably provided the toughest test for them inside until a possible national championship matchup. Butler is small and without getting ahead of myself so are pretty much all the other teams on the left side of the bracket. If Wes and Andy Rautins continue to shoot like they did against the Zags and the 2-3 zone continues to work hard on the perimeter it won’t matter who the hell plays inside for them or their opponent though. In this game, however, I think they should start by attacking the basket early and often. They should exploit the major size and athletic advantage they have against Butler and be relentless in attacking the basket which will open up the outside shot as the game progresses. With all the talk about Onuaku’s absence a lot of people have forgot that Rick Jackson is no slouch. He is more than equipped to handle himself down low and the small(er) lineup they have been forced to use has been their best lineup for most of the season. Jackson needs to see the ball early. Matt Howard, Butler’s only real big man, has not played well this tournament and is prone to foul trouble. Syracuse must take advantage of that by getting Jackson the ball and by having Kris Joseph and the Triche/Jardine point guard combo get into the point to get easy buckets or get to the foul line. I think it would be a mistake for them to rely on the outside shot again and risk starting slow and keeping all of Butler’s resources available to them.
Butler needs to shoot the three ball well if they expect to beat Syracuse. Although the Syracuse defense has forced teams into bad long range shooting percentages this tournament and for a good portion of the season, we all know that teams can catch fire against the zone if they move the ball well to get open looks or if the zone gets lazy. The latter has hardly been the case this season so Butler must do the former. Their best player, Gordon Hayward, has been a nonfactor this tournament thus far and that must change. With all due respect to UTEP and Murray St., and I’m not sure much is due, Syracuse is much better than them. Butler needed a second half collapse by UTEP to run away from them and it wasn’t until the buzzer sounded that the game against 13 seeded Murray St. was decided. As I mentioned earlier, Matt Howard, must stay out of foul trouble. He has been forced to sit a lot because of fouls this tournament and that has prevented him from ever getting it going on the offensive end. If he’s sitting, not only does it kill them on defense, but it removes an option from them on offense. Finally, Butler must find a way to at least keep the rebounding battle close. They lost the rebounding battle against UTEP and got killed by Murray St. on the boards, a team with less size, skill, and athleticism than Syracuse. As I have mentioned on several other occasions, Syracuse shoots over 50% on the season. If you give them second opportunities on offense, the percentages indicate they will score on the second opportunity. On the flip side, they hold their opponents to under 40% shooting so a failure by Butler to get any second chance points will result in less possessions and subsequently, less points. You all know where my heart is in this game and any team capable of shooting the three pointer at a high percentage scares me, but I really don’t think this game should be close. Syracuse looks to be back to playing their best basketball on both ends of the court and they are clearly the better team. I’m cautiously optimistic, but that should result in a Syracuse win. The Pick: Syracuse
#2 Kansas St. v. #6 Xavier
The longer we keep around the Frank Martin angry face, the better, in my opinion. He is quickly becoming one of my favorite coaches in college basketball and in this day and age, I’m amazed at how his players respond to him. Players these days love to be coddled and told how good they are and seem to prefer coaches who are more like friends than mentors. Frank Martin is not trying to be anyone’s friend when it comes to basketball and his players clearly respect him for that. He doesn’t hesitate to point out their mistakes and he doesn’t hesitate to do it the only way he knows how. He doesn’t do it because he is a dick, he does it to get the best out of his players. Kudos to him for being who he is and kudos to his players for understanding that and responding positively to it. As far as the actual basketball goes, this team is playing well right now. Jacob Pullen and his beard are on fire and the big men are furiously crashing the boards and creating second chances. They are also getting after it on the defensive end of the floor as they shut down BYU’s Jimmer Fredette in the second round after he had his way with Florida on Day 1. If Pullen and Denis Clemente stay hot and the defense keeps playing this way, Xavier is in trouble.
The X’s Jordan Crawford might be the most impressive perimeter scorer so far in this tournament. I told you from the outset that although he was occasionally selfish, this kid could score in bunches. He’s doing just that. He’s scored over 25 points in each of his first two games and is not shooting a bad percentage to boot. Players like him are dangerous because he is capable of keeping his team in games or keeping the opponents at bay when they make runs. He is a little oversized for Pullen, who spent most of the game on Fredette so I’m curious to see how Kansas St. chooses to defend him. Xavier also has revenge on the mind. The Wildcats took it to them early in the season and that can’t sit well with them. Both teams are better since then and that usually works in favor of the better team, which is Kansas St., but you can never discount the pride that kicks in when you get another shot at a team that whooped your ass already. Plus, they are coming off a win against Pittsburgh, who is a very tough, and very good defensive team so I don’t think they will be intimidated by Kansas St.’s toughness, but I am not sure they have enough firepower. The Pick: Kansas St.
Once again, my original pick to come out of this region was Syracuse and they have only reinforced my pick so nothing has changed.
Stay Tuned for my other Sweet 16 Previews!