Friday, March 25, 2011
A Know-It-All's Guide to the Southwest
By Eamonn Brennan
Here's Part IV in our Know-It-All's Guide to the Sweet 16: the Southwest. Click here for Part III, which previews the East region.
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 12 Richmond
Friday, 7:27 p.m. ET (San Antonio)
Breakdown: Let's get something out of the way: Richmond totally has a shot to win this game.
Why? Well, for one, it's the NCAA tournament, and anybody has a shot to beat anybody. Just as Shaka Smart says. (And he would know.)
Two, the Spiders are a really good team, and they have been for the better part of a season. They have everything you need to win in the NCAA tournament: great guard play (Kevin Anderson), NBA-level talent (Justin Harper), a coherent system and a whip-smart coach who knows how to make the pieces fit (Princeton offense, Chris Mooney).
Now, with that in mind, let's be real. On paper, this is a brutal matchup for Richmond.
It's not just that Kansas is, well, Kansas. It's that Kansas, among any of the top teams left in the bracket, matches up best with these Spiders. Richmond creates defensive problems for many opponents because it features a unique combination of forwards (Harper, Dan Geriot) who use a variation of the Princeton system to take, and make, shots from the perimeter. Anderson runs the show, and he's one of the best guards in the country, but if he didn't work with efficient shooters at every position, Richmond wouldn't give so many teams fits. Against bigger, slower teams that would prefer not to have to guard a player like Harper out to 20 feet, the Spiders are as tricky a matchup as any team in the country.
The problem? Kansas is perfectly happy to guard athletic forwards out to 20 feet. The Jayhawks happen to have two such players: twins Marcus and Markieff Morris. Usually, the problem is trying to defend that duo. (Seriously, the fact that two of these guys are on one team is borderline unfair.) For Richmond, the problem will be that both players can match up with Harper, and the rest of KU's rock-solid defense will be able to focus on Anderson and Geriot.
There are bright sides for Richmond. For starters, the Spiders rank among the nation's best teams in half-court offense. According to Synergy, Richmond's half-court attack is the fifth-best in the tournament. The Spiders play at a glacial pace (they rank No. 318 in the country in tempo this season), which means they play a lot of half-court offense. Richmond is also one of the more experienced teams in the tournament. Those are all good signs.
But unless the Spiders get hot and stay hot, and find a way to keep Kansas from doing what it usually does on the offensive end -- tons of passing, tons of assists, tons of offensive rebounds, tons of open looks -- the Spiders undoubtedly will face an uphill battle. Then again, so did Northern Iowa. So did Butler. So did every team that plays a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and a lot of those teams aren't as good as Mooney's.
Anybody can beat anybody. It's the NCAA tournament. But that doesn't mean Richmond fans have to love this matchup. I sure wouldn't.
Impress (or annoy) your friends: "You know what I was just thinking? There's a lot of stuff in basketball that happens outside of anyone's control. Well, yeah, the referees probably count, but I wasn't thinking of the refs. I was thinking about opponent free throw percentage. Think about it: There's really not much you can do about how well opponents shoot free throws against you, you know? You cannot foul, obviously, but once you do foul, you're kind of just ... watching.
"For example: Kansas ranks No. 328 in the nation in opponents' free throw percentage this season. Teams that play against Kansas shoot 3 percent better (72.9) than the national average (69.2). It's literally the only below-average thing on KU's statistical résumé, and the Jayhawks have no control over it whatsoever. That's kind of interesting, right? No? Whatever, I'm totally tweeting this."
No. 10 Florida State vs. No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth
Friday, 9:57 p.m. ET (San Antonio)
Breakdown: Speaking of things in basketball being outside players' and coaches' control, as happy as everyone is to see a fantastic, exciting mid-major team like VCU defy all expectations, you also have to feel for Georgetown and Purdue. Specifically, you have to feel for Purdue's E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson and Georgetown's Chris Wright and Austin Freeman. All four players were seniors, all four meant everything to their programs (and vice versa) during their careers, and all four played their last game against the force of nature that is the Virginia Commonwealth Rams.
Sure, neither team played remotely well, Purdue, especially. But sometimes you just run up against an incredibly hot team that comes out of nowhere at the perfect time, and bam. Season over. Career, too.
So the question for VCU going forward is neither insightful nor original. But it does have the benefit of validity: Can the Rams keep it up?
After all, this is the same VCU team -- well, in name, at least -- that finished the regular season ranked in the high 60s in adjusted offensive efficiency and well outside the top 100 on the other end of the floor. It's the same team that lost to Northeastern on Feb. 2. It's the same team that ended the regular season by losing four of its last five games. What if the Rams just had a really hot week? What if shooters got hot at the right times? What if the matchups -- against two bigger, slower teams poorly designed to handle frenetic, up-tempo basketball -- were just favorable?
We'll get a pretty good idea Friday night. If the Rams really are the dominant offense that dropped 1.48 points per possession against Purdue's top-10 D, Shaka Smart's team will be in decent position to topple 10-seed Florida State. If the Rams don't stay hot -- if they don't make the most of the few open looks they'll get against FSU's rangy, hyperathletic, No. 1-ranked defense -- they'll quickly find themselves in a close, physical, bruising game, and we haven't seen this VCU team play one of those in the NCAA tournament just yet.
If there's a defense that can put a stop to the Rams' insane hotness, it's FSU. Then again, if there's an offense designed to allow VCU easy buckets off the full-court press, it's FSU. Thanks to that press, the Rams force opponents into turnovers at a high rate. With its 23.0 percent turnover percentage, Florida State all too readily coughs up the ball.
Basically, this game will come down to FSU's offense. Frankly, the Seminoles probably will slow down VCU. There aren't too many teams that can score on Leonard Hamilton's bunch. But if Florida State is betrayed by its offense, by turnovers, by poor shooting and stagnant half-court play -- basically, if the Noles play like they did all season rather than like they did against Notre Dame on Sunday -- the Rams might well be moving on to the Elite Eight. And this time, they'll have their defense to thank.
Impress (or annoy) your friends: "Trivia time! What was the last CAA team to (A) beat Wichita State in Wichita during BracketBusters, (B) win 23 games and get a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament, much to the chagrin of television analysts, (C) win its first tournament game versus a No. 6 seed that had 21 wins and went 10-8 in conference play and (D) win its third-round game against a No. 3 seed with seven losses and a split with the No. 1 team in the country on its résumé? No Googling! Yep: The 2006 George Mason Patriots. You can't tell me that's not eerie."