How they got here: Purdue blew out No. 14 seed St. Peter's. Virginia Commonwealth, after disposing of USC in Dayton, blew out No. 6 seed Georgetown. One of those results was a major surprise. It wasn’t shocking to see the Rams beat Georgetown -- that seemed like a plausible result, given the Hoyas’ late-season struggles -- but it was a shock to see VCU so thoroughly handle their battle-tested Big East foes. Coupled with VCU’s win against the Trojans and its deep run in the CAA tournament in early March, it’s safe to call the Rams one of the nation’s hottest, most confident teams.
Storyline: VCU coach Shaka Smart hasn’t shied away from that age-old classic coaching chestnut: “No one believed in us.” Smart has boosted his athletic Rams into the round of 32 by capitalizing on that discontent; he even showed his players a video of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi saying the Rams “couldn’t defend me” in advance of Friday night’s game. But after the dominating win over the Hoyas, can the Rams really say no one believes in them? Or will they find -- or create -- more disrespect to fuel their fire?
Players to watch: Purdue forward JaJuan Johnson and Purdue guard E'Twaun Moore are always players to watch. The Boilers are built around their two stars, and the explanation for their consistent excellence in 2010 and 2011 starts with both. But Purdue can’t rely only on their stars. They’ll also need big games from Ryne Smith and Lewis Jackson. Jackson will be crucial. VCU’s pressing defense put Georgetown in uncomfortable situations from the opening tip Friday night. The lightning-quick Jackson will have to handle that pressure competently.
Meanwhile, the Rams’ pressure will be a major focus of their attack, and to turn that up-tempo play into points, they’ll need to get another big game from point guard Joey Rodriguez and another hot shooting night from guard Brandon Rozzell.
What to look for: A battle of styles. It’s no secret Purdue comes from the slow-down, grind-it-out Big Ten, and the Boilermakers’ success has always come in the half court. Purdue’s offense is classic patient motion. Its defense is designed around checking opponents with aggressive half court man-to-man. VCU, on the other hand, likes to force an up-tempo style; the Rams like to press, force turnovers, run at the rim and make the game as skittish and unpredictable as possible. The first few minutes will be key. Purdue has to assert itself much more soundly than Georgetown did if Matt Painter’s team want to keep the Rams from controlling the game’s trajectory.
Quoteable: “Any time somebody presses you, you've got to be able to attack when it's there and be under control and take good shots. When it's not there, be able to run half-court offense. But that is the theme of a pressing team. They're trying to get you to get at a speed you're not used to. You've got to play fast but under control.” -- Purdue coach Matt Painter
How they got here: Notre Dame got a bit of a test from pesky 15-seed Akron on Friday, but the Fighting Irish eventually put the Zips away in the second half. Florida State, on the other hand, had a much tougher path. The Seminoles relied on their trademark defense to stall No. 7-seed Texas A&M 57-50. It was one of the tournament’s ugliest games, but it was plenty pretty to the Noles.
Storyline: It sounds weird, but in some ways, the Irish are still fighting for respect. Many -- including President Barack Obama -- believe Purdue is the team to beat in the bottom half of the Southwest region despite the Irish’s stellar offense and 14-4 finish in the rough-and-tumble Big East. This veteran team has its sights set on the highest of postseason goals. But first they have to find a way to score against Florida State.
Players to watch: Ben Hansbrough is the Big East player of the year. The reasons for that honor -- Hansbrough manages to be both an efficient scorer and a fantastic distributor, not to mention this team’s de facto leader -- are not mysterious. Hansbrough didn’t play well against Akron, but he didn’t really need to. Facing one of the nation’s top defenses, he will have to be comprehensively good on Friday. Also keep an eye on ND forward Scott Martin, who adds a crucial mid-range scoring option to a stacked group of perimeter shooters.
On Friday, Florida State forward Chris Singleton played his first game since a Feb. 19 foot injury. While he wasn’t at full strength, he did contribute a key 3-pointer to help FSU fend off a second-half A&M run. Singleton is likely to get more time Sunday, and his unique mix of hyper-athletic defense and creative offense could be the difference for the Seminoles.
What to look for: Perhaps the best offense-versus-defense matchup of the entire tournament. Per Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metric, Notre Dame’s offense is the third-best unit in the entire country. By the same standard, Florida State’s defense is the single stingiest in the nation. It’s strength versus strength, and whoever can execute at the opposite end -- can Florida State’s ugly offense get buckets against ND’s so-so defense? -- will be the winner.
Quotable: "I don't know about it. I was very young then and wasn't really paying attention to stuff like that.” -- Florida State guard Derwin Kitchen on whether he was familiar with the classic 1993 Notre Dame-Florida State football game.