The Elite Eight begins with two intriguing matchups Saturday. Florida and Louisville overcame late-season challenges to reach this stage. Syracuse and Ohio State might be the most competitive matchup in the field.
(4) Louisville vs. (7) Florida, 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Things to know: Florida coach Billy Donovan once starred for Louisville's Rick Pitino at Providence. That’s the TV-friendly storyline that’s dominated the buildup to this Elite Eight matchup.
But first, we have to answer one question: How on earth did we end up with Florida and Louisville playing for a trip to New Orleans?
Prior to the NCAA tournament, the Gators had lost four of five. Three of those losses were by double digits. Before Louisville earned the Big East tournament crown, the Cardinals had lost four of six.
There just weren’t many reasons to consider this as a potential Elite Eight matchup once the Big Dance began. But both teams are riding serious momentum created by Sweet 16 upsets.
Louisville knocked off 1-seed Michigan State with one of the best defensive efforts in NCAA tourney history. The Spartans scored only 44 points, the lowest tally by a 1-seed since the introduction of the shot clock. Florida sent Marquette home after holding the Golden Eagles to 30.8 percent from the field.
The two teams have been carried by two athletes who’ve stepped up in the NCAA tournament.
Bradley Beal has recorded the following stat lines in Florida’s three NCAA victories: 14 points and 11 rebounds against Virginia; 14 points and 9 rebounds against Norfolk State; 21 points and 6 rebounds against Marquette. The freshman has competed like a veteran.
Louisville, No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, has been the beneficiary of Gorgui Dieng’s surprising NCAA tournament production. The 6-foot-11 sophomore from Senegal has recorded 12 blocks and 5 steals in the Big Dance.
Look for the Cardinals to pressure point guard Erving Walker (8 turnovers in three NCAA tournament games), harass Florida’s potent shooters and dare the Gators to challenge Dieng inside. Look for the Gators to rely on Beal to play catalyst again and slice and dice a Louisville defense that doesn’t match up well with him.
The journey: Louisville defeated Davidson, New Mexico and Michigan State to reach the Elite Eight. Florida earned its shot at New Orleans with wins over Virginia, Norfolk State and Marquette.
Monitor his progress: When Patric Young gets touches (just 13 points on 9 shots combined in team’s last two games), the Gators are a better team. With Dieng surging for Louisville, the Gators need Young to produce on both ends of the floor.
Numbers to impress your friends: Michigan State shot just 22.2 percent from the field against Louisville’s zone (45 of 48 half-court possessions), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Game’s most crucial question: How will Louisville guard Beal?
The matchup: Peyton Siva vs. Walker. Two speedy point guards who aren’t afraid to attack bigger defenders.
Don’t touch that remote because … Both teams have overachieved thus far. And Dieng’s defensive prowess is worth watching.
(1) Syracuse vs. (2) Ohio State, 7:05 p.m. ET, CBS
Things to know: One of two No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups in the Elite Eight, Syracuse versus Ohio State features an intriguing personnel matchup.
Syracuse has reached the Elite Eight, its first since 2003, via a zone that is anchored by depth, length and athleticism. The Orange have three of the toughest guards in the field -- Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Brandon Triche. The trio scored 38 points combined against Wisconsin on Thursday. And the Cuse's frontcourt length is unmatched (C.J. Fair, Baye Keita, Rakeem Christmas).
It’s easy to focus on the 14 3-pointers that the Badgers hit against Syracuse in their one-point loss in the Sweet 16. But the final possession -- Jordan Taylor air-balled a 3-pointer -- showcased Syracuse’s defensive lockdown ability. The Badgers couldn’t find a good shot. Wisconsin shot 52 percent from the 3-point line against Syracuse but was 7-for-22 (31.8 percent) on 2-pointers.
Syracuse has everything a national championship contender needs. Ohio State, however, possesses the same profile.
Aaron Craft is the best pure point guard in the field. The sophomore is averaging 12.0 points, 4.0 steals and 6.3 assists in the NCAA tournament. The only blemish on his tourney experience thus far has been his issues with turnovers (11 in three games). That could be a problem against a Syracuse team that entered the Sweet 16 forcing turnovers on nearly one-quarter of its opponents’ possessions.
But Craft is not the Buckeyes' only weapon. Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger comprise the best frontcourt in the field. The sophomores combined for 49 points and 18 rebounds in the Sweet 16 victory over Cincinnati. Syracuse’s chances of neutralizing the tandem decreased when Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for NCAA tournament play.
But the Buckeyes are also one of the top defensive teams in the country (No. 2 in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings). Syracuse loves to play an up-tempo game, considering its knack for forcing turnovers and scoring on the break. But the Buckeyes (73rd in Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo ratings) can run, too.
Both teams are talented enough to adjust to any situation and/or style. Look for Ohio State to go to Thomas and Sullinger early in the paint. Syracuse doesn’t have the beef to keep the duo from the bucket. Look for Syracuse to trap William Buford and Craft (eight combined turnovers against Cincinnati) and to attack Thomas and Sullinger on offense, seeking early fouls.
The journey: Ohio State defeated Loyola (Md.), Gonzaga and Cincinnati to reach the Elite Eight. Syracuse beat UNC Asheville, Kansas State and Wisconsin.
Monitor his progress: This is a William Buford game. The Buckeyes will need the senior in order to advance to New Orleans. His shooting touch could be a crucial weapon against Syracuse’s zone. But Buford has disappeared at times this season. He scored four points against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16. The Buckeyes will need more from him against Syracuse.
Numbers to impress your friends: Ohio State has scored 55 points off 39 forced turnovers in three NCAA tournament games.
Game’s most crucial question: Will Ohio State crack Syracuse’s zone, despite Craft’s turnover challenges and a 33.6 percent clip from the 3-point line?
The matchup: Craft versus Jardine. Jardine leads one of the best transition attacks in the country. Craft is one of the nation’s top transition defenders. Both have cracked double digits in turnovers in the NCAA tournament.
Don’t touch that remote because … This matchup features two teams with few weaknesses and plenty of star power.