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Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Know-It-All's Guide, Part 1: West

By Eamonn Brennan

After one of the wilder and more controversy-ridden first weeks in NCAA tournament history, 68 teams have become 16. And after literally hours -- hours! -- spent scouting the field and selecting your picks, your bracket (as always) is busted.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t flash a little hoops knowledge this weekend. To aid in this objective, yours truly has prepared a quick breakdown featuring plenty of tempo-free statistics for the Sweet 16 games you’ll be watching this weekend. It's designed to not only preview this weekend’s action, but also help you sound like you’ve been following the sport with intellectual zeal for months. Your cohorts might have better bracket odds than you do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk around their ridicule.

If this preview proves prophetic, you can keep all the credit. If it’s way off base, blame me. How’s that for a sweet deal?

For the Know-It-All’s Guide to the Sweet 16, let's begin out West ...

No. 3 Connecticut vs. No. 2 San Diego State
Thursday, 7:15 p.m. ET (Anaheim, Calif.)


Breakdown: Connecticut has a reputation for being a one-man team. In many ways, that reputation is deserved; take star guard Kemba Walker out of the lineup, and these Huskies might not even make the NCAA tournament. But Walker is here, and although the Huskies lack a knockdown shooter to complement him, they grab enough of their misses -- 39 percent, the seventh-highest figure in the country -- that Walker, unlike BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, doesn’t have to be hyper-efficient for UConn to win the game.

Alex Oriakhi grabs a rebound, gets an easy look or kicks it out to his star, and all of sudden, a borderline unguardable guard is coming at you for the second time in 30 seconds. That’s no fun. Throw in the increased contributions of role players such as Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith and Shabazz Napier, and it’s no wonder the Big East tournament champion will arrive in Anaheim as one of the hottest teams in the country, with two of the most efficient, impressive performances in the NCAA tournament under its belt.

If anyone can slow down UConn, however, it’s San Diego State. The Aztecs boast the second-best defensive efficiency in the country this season; that’s the primary reason SDSU is undefeated against everyone but the Jimmer-led BYU Cougars in 2010-11. Because of those matchups with Jimmer, perhaps no team in the country is better prepared to play a high-usage ballhandler and scorer like Walker. The Aztecs don’t force many turnovers, but they do force you to take bad shots, especially on the inside. The Huskies will get to the offensive glass Thursday. Whether they’re able to get good second looks against Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and Kawhi Leonard is another question entirely.

Impress (or annoy) your friends: “I’m not saying Connecticut isn’t going to win, but have you seen the statistical odds for teams that have to travel over 1,500 miles more than their opponents? Jim Calhoun always loves to play out west, but the deck is stacked against the Huskies here big time.”

No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 1 Duke
Thursday, approx. 9:45 p.m. ET (Anaheim, Calif.)

Breakdown: Unlike its fellow No. 1 seeds -- especially Ohio State, because, wow, that George Mason game, yikes -- Duke did not look impressive in its round-of-32 win over Michigan. Yes, the Blue Devils controlled most of the game, but they allowed more than a few open dunks in transition, plenty of easy 2-point attempts and a lot of open 3s to a perimeter-oriented Wolverines team. Duke deserves some credit for holding Zack Novak and Tim Hardaway Jr. to a combined 5-of-15 from beyond the arc, but anyone who watched that game knows that more of those shots could have fallen.

In other words, Arizona is a scary matchup for the Blue Devils. Not only do the Wildcats shoot the ball from long range as well as anyone in the country -- Sean Miller’s team ranks among the top 10 in Division I in 3-point field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage -- but they also have this guy named Derrick Williams. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Williams is earning a reputation for late-game heroics. He made the game-sealing block in Arizona’s first-round win over Memphis, and he scored the game-winning, no-look, how-did-that-go-in! three-point play to down fourth-seeded Texas on Sunday.

Williams presents huge matchup problems for the Blue Devils. He is too big to be guarded by Kyle Singler, and has too much range (he shoots 58.1 percent from 3) and high-pivot ability to be guarded by one of the Plumlees.

In other words, expect an up-tempo, high-scoring game. Keep your eye on the continued return of Duke freshman Kyrie Irving, who Coach K says will play “significant minutes” in the Sweet 16 and beyond. Keep your eye on Arizona’s shooters. And above all, keep your eye on Williams. If anyone can come up with a way to defend the uber-efficient future lottery pick, it’s Mike Krzyzewski. But it’s hard to figure out just who on this Duke team can do so.

Impress (or annoy) your friends: “Why isn’t Derrick Williams the player of the year? He has a higher offensive rating than any other player in the NCAA tournament and all but one player (Hofstra’s Charles Jenkins) in all of college basketball this season. He’s the most efficient scorer in the country, he almost never takes bad shots, he’s more athletic than you think and he rebounds. Somehow, still, this guy deserves more love. I’m telling you guys ... Williams is going to be a great pro. Just you watch.”