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Tuesday, March 25, 2014
A road map to the Sweet 16

By Eamonn Brennan
ESPN.com

SOUTH REGION | EAST REGION | MIDWEST REGION | WEST REGION

How did Stanford outlast Kansas? What fresh horror did Baylor unleash upon Doug McDermott? What are Kentucky and Tennessee doing differently? What should we expect from public favorites Florida, Arizona, Louisville and Michigan State? Why is Virginia's defense so good?

Oh, also: Dayton? Huh?

Faster than you can pronounce Bison with a Z, the 2014 NCAA tournament has whittled its 68 hopefuls to a taut 16. How did the scattered surprises pull off their upsets? What did the big boys do to stay on track? And what can we expect from the remaining teams in the field as they play their second straight two-game tournaments in Memphis, Anaheim, New York and Indianapolis?

The answers, and much more, await in your Sweet 16 scouting report:

SOUTH REGION

Dayton vs. Stanford (Thursday, 7:15 p.m. ET); Florida vs. UCLA (Thursday, 9:45 p.m. ET)

No. 1 Florida

How they got here: Florida is a Sweet 16 regular; the Gators have been eating at the same table in this joint each of the past four years. The difference now is that Florida is its region's clear favorite, a more balanced and intelligent team than any of the three Elite Eight groups that preceded it. Consistent, incremental progress has kept Florida unbeaten since Dec. 2,  when the Gators, still juggling injuries and suspensions, took a six-man rotation to fellow Sweet 16 participant UConn and lost just 65-64. Back then, forward Casey Prather emerged as the Gators' star; last weekend, Scottie Wilbekin's brilliant play carried Florida's offense past Pitt. Their balance is borderline unfair.

Key trait: Billy Donovan's team enters the weekend ranked No. 2 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Save blocking shots, there is nothing Florida's defense doesn't do extremely well. And, according to Ken Pomeroy's possession data, the Gators' grinding man-to-man defense frustrates opposing offenses into the second-longest possessions (20.2 seconds; rank: 350th) in the country. Every trip downcourt is a nightmare.  

No. 4 UCLA

How they got here: Disguised by the less-than-warm welcome Steve Alford (and his crazy contract) received last April was the talent Alford inherited when he arrived in Westwood. Chief among it: one-of-a-kind point forward Kyle Anderson and uber-productive shooting guard Jordan Adams. Alford also has managed to coax some defense out of a group that played almost none of it a year ago. The result? Two wholly impressive, never-in-doubt, early-round wins against Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin, and a crack at Florida in the Sweet 16.

Key trait: UCLA is a brilliant finesse offense. The Bruins don't draw many fouls or chase down their own rebounds, but they turn it over on just 14.6 percent of their possessions, shoot 38.6 percent from 3 and 53.0 percent from 2, and average 15 seconds per offensive possession, among the 15 fastest teams in the country. How that style -- and Anderson and Adams' ability to get shots from anywhere -- holds up against Florida's stagnation-by-design defense will likely be the difference in the game.

No. 11 Dayton

How they got here: When Dayton upset Gonzaga in the first round of the Maui Invitational back in November, the Flyers looked dangerous. Then they lost at Illinois State and at home to USC in the nonconference, and started A-10 play 1-5, and only emerged from obscurity when it was time to talk bubble in late February. Needless to say, few people saw Dayton outlasting Ohio State and Syracuse in the same weekend in Buffalo, N.Y., but that's exactly what Archie Miller's team did last week, thanks both to bad shooting by its opponents and opportunistic offense from a dynamic group of wings.

Key trait: Dayton's defense in its upset specials owed as much to the Buckeyes' and Orange's shooting woes as anything else. Syracuse famously made one shot -- one! -- outside the paint against Dayton. But the Flyers deserve credit for intelligent plans in both games, and for executing, especially by cleaning up on the defensive glass: Dayton grabbed 89 percent of OSU's misses and 69 percent of Syracuse's. It was enough.  

No. 10 Stanford

How they got here: As Dayton showed, you usually don't go from bubble team to the Sweet 16 without getting a couple of breaks. Stanford's may well have been its draw. The Cardinal -- a marginal, decent, mostly overlooked team all season -- proved to be the wrong kind of opponent for both New Mexico and Kansas, which combined to shoot 9-of-37 from 3. Johnny Dawkins' team was especially expert against the Jayhawks: They zoned a poor-shooting team and begged it to let fly, closed off driving lanes for Andrew Wiggins, challenged every shot at the rim and rebounded KU's copious misses.

Key trait: Size. Among Stanford's starters are a 6-foot-11 center (Stefan Nastic), a 6-10 power forward (Dwight Powell) and a 6-7 combo forward (Josh Huestis), and it brings 6-10 John Gage off the bench, forming one of the five or 10 tallest teams in the country. All four players rebound and protect the rim. Dayton is quicker and more skilled on the offensive end, but can the Flyers shoot it well enough over the top of the Cardinal's length?

EAST REGION

Iowa State vs. Connecticut (Friday, 7:27 p.m. ET); Virginia vs. MSU (Friday, 9:57 p.m. ET)

No. 1 Virginia

How they got here: This veteran culmination of four years of up-and-down UVa basketball stumbled out of the gate, losing at Green Bay and by 35 at Tennessee (to say nothing of that 38-point outing in a home loss to Wisconsin in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge). But thanks to its lockdown defense and efficient, often overpowering scoring from Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, UVa has gone 21-2 and won the ACC regular-season and tourney title -- and their first two tourney games -- since that loss to the Vols on Dec. 30.

Key trait: At least three Sweet 16 teams play some form of pack-line defense, but only one coach can claim it as his birthright. In the late 1980s, Green Bay coach Dick Bennett -- Cavs coach Tony Bennett's father -- pioneered the gapping, matchup man-to-man defense employed by Arizona, Wisconsin and, naturally, Virginia. And boy, does it work: UVa ranks among the nation's 10 best teams in opponents' effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding rate, 2-point shooting and points per possession. There is no such thing as an easy shot against this pack-line, and few second chances to boot. 

No. 4 Michigan State

How they got here: Preseason predictions aren't as worthless as you think. Back when everyone thought Kentucky was one of the best teams in the country -- not looking so bad now, is it? -- the nation's hoops punditry was equally excited about Michigan State. The only problem? The Spartans couldn't stay healthy. Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson all battled various overlapping injuries for most of the season, and from Jan. 25 on MSU never strung consecutive Big Ten wins together. Only recently have we seen the Spartans at full strength, and now that we have, consumer confidence in Tom Izzo's team -- picked by the public to win this regional -- has reached its mid-November highs.

Key trait: Offensive balance. The Spartans shoot nearly 40 percent from 3 as a team; they don't have a player in their regular rotation -- including hilariously skilled, hyperathletic center Payne -- who doesn't shoot at least 35 percent from 3. (The low number in that group, by the way? Gary Harris.) What makes Michigan State so difficult to guard is also what makes them difficult to scout: The Spartans can score in transition or in the half court, at the rim or on the perimeter. When they get going, they can bury you before you know it. (See: Crimson, Harvard.) This is going to be an amazing game.

No. 3 Iowa State

How they got here: Fred Hoiberg would be one of the most likable coaches in the country no matter how good his teams were, or what style of basketball they played; consider it a bonus that his teams are both very good and very entertaining. In 2013-14, Hoiberg got the best possible version out of the style and team makeup he has leaned on since arriving in Ames. Senior guard DeAndre Kane (ditto Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang) is basically the platonic ideal of a Hoiberg Cyclone: a 6-4 point guard big enough and skilled enough to play any position on the court, often at breakneck speed. His genius takeover of ISU's third-round win over North Carolina saved the Cyclones at the last possible moment.

Key trait: When Niang lost the rest of his tournament to a fractured foot, it was safe to wonder whether the Cyclones could still run the devastating spread offense they've thrived on all season long. After all, Niang's combination of size and guard skills made it all work. But junior forward Dustin Hogue is an even better offensive rebounder, and Monte Morris and Naz Long are more than capable of picking up extra minutes. Iowa State will run at you, score a bunch of points and look really good doing it.

No. 7 Connecticut

How they got here: Were there no such thing as a Doug McDermott, Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier would be the front-runner for all manner of player of the year awards. He has had a remarkable season: 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals per game while shooting 45.2 percent from 2 and 38.8 percent from 3 -- and finding a teammate for an assist on 31.0 percent of his possessions. UConn coach Kevin Ollie structured everything the Huskies do around Napier's brilliance, and paired it with a top-10 defense that protects the interior as well as any team in the country. By the time Napier had returned from injury to last week's win over No. 2 seed Villanova, and tossed in another bonkers scoop at the rim, did anyone even consider it an upset?

Key trait: For all of Napier's brilliance -- and he has been brilliant -- the Huskies are where they are because of sound defensive principles and great perimeter shooting. The latter is almost as important as the former: If Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey weren't so potent from the perimeter, UConn's offense would be easy to stop. They are, and it's not.

MIDWEST

Tennessee vs. Michigan (Friday, 7:15 p.m. ET); Kentucky vs. Louisville (Friday, 9:45 p.m. ET)

No. 8 Kentucky

How they got here: If you're reading this column, you almost certainly watched Sunday's masterpiece of a third-round game between Kentucky and unbeaten No. 1 seed Wichita State. And you may be asking yourself: How in the name of Captain Planet did that team in blue get seeded eighth? Your point is well taken. Truth is, it wasn't all that long ago that Kentucky's group of massively hyped freshmen was quite literally shrugging its way through the SEC schedule. They just about drove John Calipari mad in the process. Only in the past few weeks have Aaron and Andrew Harrison begun to play the way Calipari had hoped, devastating opposing defenses with physical drives to the lane, working Calipari's simple-but-effective dribble-drive sets ... and thus only recently has Kentucky begun to resemble the team everyone expected in October. Now that the Wildcats do, duck.

Key trait: All season, even in its worst outings, Kentucky's floor has been impressively maintained by one facet of its game: interior offensive strength. To be more specific, star freshman forward Julius Randle has bulled his way through opposing defenses all season, tearing down offensive rebounds and earning constant trips to the line. UK has never had to shoot the ball all that well, because Randle has made the Wildcats the second-best offensive rebounding team in the country, and earned 268 free throw attempts in doing so. Put simply? He's a beast.

No. 4 Louisville

How they got here: The Cardinals' seed was the most oft-cited complaint directed at the selection committee this season, but folks shouldn't have been so surprised. Yes, Louisville played the best basketball down the stretch of the season, and yes, advanced analytics tell us Rick Pitino's team is one of the best two or three teams in the country. But because the Cardinals' nonconference schedule was weak, and its own league suffered from bottom-half drag, the committee saw a résumé that belied just how devastatingly good Russ Smith and the defending national champions had been for months. Oh well: Nearly 10 percent of the 11 million ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets picked the Cardinals to win the national title anyway.

Key trait: It's hard to pick just one. There is Smith's unmatched ability to create his own shot and find teammates in unforeseeable ways; there is Montrezl Harrell's low-post strength; there is Luke Hancock's calm, timely playmaking, which paid dividends in the Cardinals' first-round scare against Manhattan. But more than anything, Louisville shreds opponents because it presses and harasses out to 30 feet, and sometimes 94. Smith is just as valuable as the lead fixture in a defense that both turns opponents over at a high rate and holds opponents to the fourth-lowest effective field goal percentage in the country -- exactly the style that carried Louisville to a national title last season.

No. 2 Michigan

How they got here: How good is John Beilein? The Wolverines lost national player of the year Trey Burke and starting shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA draft. In December, they lost forward Mitch McGary -- the breakout star of last year's Final Four run -- to (likely) season-ending back surgery. But Beilein recalibrated his team, got a bona fide star turn out of guard Nik Stauskas and went out and won the Big Ten anyway. On Saturday, Michigan was on full display against No. 7 seed Texas. The Wolverines shot 14-of-28 from 3, scored 1.39 points per trip and barely broke a sweat.

Key trait: Perimeter shooting. Michigan entered the tournament, alongside Creighton, as the field's two highest-variance teams -- capable of an early-round exit or a deep title run depending almost entirely on how well they shot the ball. You saw what happened to Creighton. Fun fact: The Wolverines ranked 10th in the Big Ten this season in defensive efficiency. Simply put, they are not a good defensive team. If Stauskas has an off night, or Caris LeVert or Derrick Walton struggle, the Wolverines could get run. If they're on, boy, are they ever on.  

No. 11 Tennessee

How they got here: As we wrote on Selection Sunday, no team entered the tournament with a wider gap between its seed (a First Four-bound No. 11) and what its per-possession performance told us about how good it actually was. Despite entering the tournament ranked in the top 15 in adjusted efficiency, Tennessee earned its seed by getting swept by Texas A&M and losing to Vanderbilt in SEC play (among other foibles, such as Nov. 28's neutral-court loss to UTEP). But like Kentucky, the Vols figured it out just in time. Since beating Iowa in the First Four, UT has utterly destroyed UMass and Mercer, and no team enters the second weekend looking more dangerous than this one.

Key trait: Girth. Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon are not, by basketball standards, tall: Both are listed at 6-8, and even that may be generous. But they are as physically imposing a combination as any in the country. On Sunday, the Vols grabbed 83 percent of their misses in the first half against Mercer, which is so off the charts it's almost hilarious. Pair that with scoring from Jordan McRae and emergent stuff from Josh Richardson on the wing, and you've got a daunting inside-out group well-suited to bullying the Wolverines.

WEST

Baylor vs. Wisconsin (Thursday, 7:47 p.m. ET); Arizona vs. SDSU (Thursday, 10:17 p.m. ET)

No. 1 Arizona

How they got here: In the year of the freshman, no freshman has been both as good and as taken for granted as Arizona's Aaron Gordon. Gordon isn't just a freaky-athletic 3/4 flying at the rim for alley-oops (though he is most certainly that). He's also the versatile linchpin of a Wildcats defense that carried Arizona to a Pac-12 title and a No. 1 seed despite the midseason loss of one of its most important players (forward Brandon Ashley). On the perimeter, Nick Johnson has submitted an All-American-level two-way season, while point guard T.J. McConnell and center Kaleb Tarczewski (and freshman wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) fill out a team that most resembles the Monstars from "Space Jam."

Key trait: Like Virginia and an ever-widening host of teams across the country, Arizona also plays a pack-line man-to-man defense. But it's safe to say no team has ever put so much athletic talent -- or used it so well -- in the service of pack-line principles. The Wildcats are the nation's best defense on a per-possession basis. They have been pretty much all season. It is what makes them such a daunting task for any team in the bracket, and especially San Diego State. You might match up athletically with Arizona. You might get a few stops. But how do you score on Sean Miller's team?

No. 4 San Diego State

How they got here: This was supposed to be a quiet year in Viejas Arena. San Diego State was supposed to rebuild. Instead, Steve Fisher recovered from a series of offseason losses (Jamaal Franklin to the NBA, Chase Tapley and others to graduation) and, from who remained, assembled what might be the best defensive team of his career. Meanwhile, longtime role player Xavier Thames morphed into a scoring force with the ball in his hands. The result? A 31-4 record and another Mountain West title. So much for rebuilding.

Key trait: San Diego State is not a difficult team to figure out. On offense, the Aztecs give Thames the ball, send approximately 7,000 ball screens per game at his defenders and let him go to work. On defense, they play good, hard, fundamental man-to-man. Knowing these things doesn't make it any easier to solve, though, because both Thames and (especially) that defense are so very good at setting the terms of the engagement. But if you can somehow take Thames out of the game, San Diego State can't score. Arizona looks well-suited to do exactly that.

No. 6 Baylor

How they got here: True story: As of Feb. 8, Baylor was 2-8 in Big 12 play. But then point guard Kenny Chery finally got fully healthy, and center Isaiah Austin started to genuinely embrace his role on the interior, and all of a sudden the Bears rattled off 11 wins leading up to Sunday's absolute demolition of Creighton and star forward Doug McDermott.

Key trait: What makes Baylor suddenly so tough was readily apparent against the Bluejays and college basketball's No. 5 all-time leading scorer Sunday night. It can be summed up in one word: length. Baylor has a nice combination of heady guard play from Chery and sharpshooter Brady Heslip on the perimeter and tons of size in Austin (a 7-footer with a crazy wingspan) and Cory Jefferson. For most of the season, Baylor used that length better on the offensive end, where it was one of the nation's best second-chance teams. Now, Scott Drew is using that size to frustrate opponents with an adaptive, reactive 1-3-1 zone. Can Wisconsin shoot over it?

No. 2 Wisconsin

How they got here: Wisconsin has been one of the best teams in the country for all but two weeks of the season. Those two weeks came in late January, when a team that had beaten Florida, Saint Louis and Virginia suddenly lost five of six, including losses to Indiana, Minnesota and (weirdest of all) at home to Northwestern. Other than that, Bo Ryan's team has been a top-end version of the teams he always produces: smart, versatile, efficient and experienced. Saturday's third-round win over a really hot Oregon team, in front of a raucous Milwaukee crowd, was an awfully good primer.

Key trait: This team is slightly different from many of Ryan's previous teams in a couple of key ways. For one, it is faster -- the Badgers average nearly 65 possessions per game, light speed in comparison to their usual low-60s deliberation. For another, it is a merely good, but not great, defensive team. No, where Wisconsin really wins its games is on the offensive end, where it (typically) almost never turns the ball over, spends more than 20 seconds per play hunting a good shot and moves its cast of versatile big men (Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes) in and out of spaced-out cuts that wear down even the best defenses over 40 minutes. Wisconsin could have a tougher time -- not unlike Creighton -- running its stuff against Baylor's unusual zone look. Then again, we don't really know. We may understand how each team got to the Sweet 16. We can recount each story, and scout each possession. But when just 80 minutes of basketball separate a team from its trip to the Final Four, scouting reports only go so far. Fortunately for us, the vast gulf between what we think might happen, and what actually does, is exactly why this thing is so fun.