Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Know-It-All's Guide, Part 2: Southeast
By Eamonn Brennan
Here's Part 2, the Southeast, in our Know-It-All's Guide to the Sweet 16. Click here for Part 1, which previews the West region.
No. 3 BYU vs. No. 2 Florida
Thursday, 7:27 p.m. ET (New Orleans)
Breakdown: If I had to guess, I'd say the most popular question in any ESPN.com college hoops chat is "Who do you think will win and why?" My chat Monday was no different. By far the most frequently asked question -- it was the first one I answered, after all -- was about BYU-Florida. The question, basically, boiled down to this: "Didn't BYU beat Florida in the first round last year? Why should this year be any different?"
Well, besides the fact that it's been more than a year since that game happened, there are a few reasons:
1. Florida is better in every way. It's true that the Gators, who returned five starters from last season's so-so team, aren't all that different in 2011. What isn't true is that this team is somehow the same team that got Jimmered last March. In fact, the Gators have evolved into a much better, more comprehensive version of themselves. They still rely on low-post play and offensive rebounding, and they're still not the best 3-point shooting team in the country, but they are better in each of those categories.
2. This BYU team is different, too. Whether it's much better is up for debate. The college hoops universe has spent much of the 2010-11 season in the throes of Jimmer Mania, and for good reason: Jimmer Fredette is (probably) the best player in the country. But, believe it or not, he was actually more efficient last season. He also took far fewer shots; Fredette hovered in the top 60 in usage rate last season, but this season he's No. 2 in the nation in usage rate and No. 1 in the nation in shot percentage, i.e., the percentage of available shots he takes for his team. That statistic has only grown more notable in recent weeks, as BYU coach Dave Rose has responded to the loss of forward Brandon Davies by shifting even more of his team's offensive responsibility to Fredette. You might not have thought this was possible, but apparently it was.
This could be read a couple of ways. You could make the argument that BYU's offense is less versatile this season, that the loss of Davies makes the Cougars essentially a one-man team. (That's not entirely fair, as Jackson Emery, Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo are plenty capable, too, but when any player takes 38 percent of your shots, it's worth pointing out.) You also could argue that Florida's defense, which is OK but not great and which was torched by Fredette for 37 points last March, is even more vulnerable against this season's Jimmer -- a once-in-a-generation player with an entire offense designed around his unique ability to score.
Simply put, the Gators have to control the game. You can't run up and down with BYU. You have to make Fredette grind it out in the half court, and you have to do your best to pressure him with multiple defenders without giving up easy looks for Emery and Hartsock. (It will be interesting to see whether Billy Donovan puts the 6-foot-10 Chandler Parsons on Fredette. That could be a fascinating matchup.)
On the offensive end, UF's guards -- Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, especially -- have to avoid the temptation to launch 3s against BYU's zone, something the inconsistent duo has been unable to do for much of their time in Donovan's backcourt. Lots of 3s equal long rebounds, and no team in the nation is better at running off long rebounds than Brigham Young. The Gators have to play to their strengths: Parsons has to work to the rim, Vernon Macklin needs touches inside, and Alex Tyus and Patric Young have to corral offensive boards.
Sure, these two teams are similar to last season's squads; the personnel are too similar for that not to be the case. But that's no guarantee of a similar result. By most measures, Thursday's game seems like a toss-up.
Impress (or annoy) your friends: "Everybody hopped on the Jimmer bandwagon this season, but I've been into him since his sophomore year. I think my favorite Jimmer season was probably last year -- he didn't have as much hoopla, but real college basketball fans would know he was slightly more efficient last season. Now he's just so ... mainstream. Although this season did give us the Jimmer Facebook thread. Wait, what? Hand me that laptop; you guys gotta see this."
No. 8 Butler vs.No. 4 Wisconsin Thursday, approx. 9:57 p.m. ET (New Orleans)
Breakdown: After you get done being a Jimmer Fredette hipster (not to be confused with "hoopster," i.e., a person who wears an ironic vintage jersey to Pitchfork every year), you can extend your detached, knowing commentary to this game, where it will take a genuinely dedicated basketball fan to appreciate the style of basketball being played by both teams.
In other words: This is not going to be an up-and-down thriller. Butler's defensive style -- the strategy that took the Bulldogs all the way to the national championship last year -- eschews offensive rebounding in favor of preventing transition buckets and forming a defensive shell in the half court. That style has worked again this March. Butler isn't the elite defensive team it was in 2009-10 -- there's another factoid to keep in your pocket -- but the Bulldogs have been greatly helped by the return of guard Ronald Nored, who takes a unique level of pride in his ability to hassle opposing teams' star guards.
Stylistically, Wisconsin is a great matchup for the Bulldogs. Bo Ryan's team is the slowest in the country. The Badgers prefer to walk the ball up the floor, take as much off the shot clock as possible, and get any number of good looks out of the swing offense that Ryan has perfected in his remarkably consistent run in Madison. This season, Wisconsin has more than the system -- Jordan Taylor can create and make shots from just about anywhere on the floor, and Jon Leuer is a ruthless, versatile interior -- but even with all that offense, the Badgers won't be looking to speed up anything.
So, no, Butler won't have to hurry back down the floor. This game will be played at a glacial pace. That means a low-scoring, tight affair, one in which the margin will never be more than a few possessions and one that will come down to a handful of key plays late in the game. That's how both teams got here -- Wisconsin barely outlasted Kansas State in the final moments Saturday, and let's not go into that Butler-Pittsburgh finish -- and that's how the winner will advance Thursday night.
Impress (or annoy) your friends: "Do you guys read the New Yorker? A couple of years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece about how undermatched teams should play hectic, up-tempo basketball to change the strategy of the game. I'll send you the link.
"I agreed with Gladwell on his premise -- if you're an underdog, you have to be different -- but disagree with his prescription. Just look at Wisconsin. If I ran a team that hardly ever lands elite recruits, I would do what Bo Ryan does. I'd get guys who never turn the ball over, who don't need a disproportionate number of touches on offense, who almost always make their free throws and who don't care whether we play fast or slow. And then I'd learn the swing offense and make my team walk the ball up the floor. Man, I could totally be a college basketball coach."