The 2018 NCAA Tournament has certainly lived up to its billing as March Madness. We have seen No. 16 UMBC stun Virginia, the top seeded team in the tournament. The defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels got steamrolled by No. 7 Texas A&M, who appears to be peaking at the right time. Syracuse also shut down trendy national champion pick Michigan State to continue its unlikely run.
We have witnessed history numerous times this tournament, and it is safe to assume the upsets will not stop. Let’s dive in and take a look at how the chips have fallen in each region and what fans should expect moving forward.
Is No. 5 Kentucky a Final Four Lock?
When the bracket was revealed, it appeared that Kentucky would potentially have to get through Arizona, Virginia and Cincinnati to reach the Final Four. Thanks to the chaos that subsumed the South Region, Kentucky, a No. 5 seed, is the highest ranked team to reach the Sweet 16. Now coach John Calipari needs to defeat No. 9 Kansas State and either No. 7 Nevada or No. 11 Loyola-Chicago to reach San Antonio.
That being said, is Kentucky a lock to make the Final Four?
While they are certainly the heavy favorite, Kentucky is by no means a sure thing to reach San Antonio. However, this Kentucky team is clicking at the right time. In a 95-75 Round of 32 victory over Buffalo, four players scored double-digits. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander anchors the Kentucky offense, having dominated both games in the tournament. In Kentucky’s 78-73 win over Davidson, Gilgeous-Alexander scored 19 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out seven assists and recorded five steals.
The key for Kentucky to continue its march to San Antonio is the play of both Kevin Knox and Wenyen Gabriel. Knox willed Kentucky past Davidson with 25 points on 50 percent shooting, but only mustered eight points against Buffalo. Meanwhile, Gabriel was a non-factor against Davidson, only scoring one point. But against Buffalo, Gabriel torched the Bulls by scoring 16 points and hauling in 12 rebounds.
Calipari needs these two players to show up on the same day moving forward. Gabriel’s ability to stretch the floor was dearly missed against Davidson, as the Wildcats did not record a single 3-point shot. This will create more space for Knox to work in the middle of the defense. Knox’s specialties are his mid-range shot and ability to get to the free-throw line (he shot 11 free throws against Davidson).
With all of this being said, the remaining three teams in the South all pose unique challenges to Kentucky. Kansas State ranks 20th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. Barry Brown has buoyed Kansas State’s offense in the tournament thus far, scoring 18 points against both Creighton and UMBC.
Kansas State wants to slow down the pace of play and disrupt their opponent’s offensive rhythm. They are a tenacious on-ball defensive squad that is battle-tested thanks to a difficult Big 12 schedule this season. State’s defense held Creighton and UMBC to 33.8 and 29.8 percent shooting from the field respectively. The problem for Kansas State is on the other end of the court. Outside of Brown, State does not have any consistent offensive threats.
Loyola-Chicago and Nevada have each shown that they are unafraid of the spotlight in the tournament. The Ramblers relied on two game-winning shots with under five seconds to play. The Ramblers attack their opponents with a balanced offensive style. No player has scored over 16 points per game thus far in the tournament. Their defense leads into their offense.
Nevada is an explosive offensive team that can get up and down the court quickly. All five of their starters are capable of scoring double-digits. The Achilles heel of the Wolfpack could be their short bench or tendency to come out of the gate sluggish. Nevada needed two big comebacks to defeat both Texas and Cincinnati.
In short, Kentucky needs to play their best basketball moving forward if Calipari wants a chance to raise his second title banner at Kentucky.
Does Defense Win Championships?
The East Regional Sweet 16 features a tantalizing matchup between Villanova and West Virginia. Villanova features a high-flying offensive style that emphasizes the three ball. Meanwhile, West Virginia plays a pressure-oriented defense that is capable of dictating the pace of play.
Villanova has arguably been the most dominant team in the tournament. Mikal Bridges has been nothing short of dominant in both games. In Villanova’s 81-58 demolition of Alabama, Bridges poured in 23 points while shooting 62.5 percent from three.
The X-factor for Villanova is the offensive production of Donte DiVincenzo. DiVincenzo scored 18 points and dished out five assists against Alabama. When DiVincenzo’s shot is falling, Jay Wright’s squad becomes nearly unstoppable.
West Virginia comes into the this game after crushing Murray State and Marshall, two vastly overmatched teams. Everyone knew West Virginia’s defense could disrupt any team, but the question was whether they could muster up enough offense to make a run to the Final Four. Luckily for Bob Huggins, his team has averaged 89.5 points per game in the tournament.
Senior point guard Jevon Carter has anchored West Virginia so far, averaging 24.5 points per game. But the reemergence of Teddy Allen (16 points against Murray State), Lamont West (18 points against Marshall) and Esa Ahmad (12 and 10 points respectively) have added another dimension to this Mountaineer team.
Regardless, this showdown will be decided by whether Press Virginia can slow down Villanova’s 3-point offense. West Virginia’s defense wears opposing teams down and completely throws them off balance. West Virginia forced 16 and 18 turnovers against Murray State and Marshall respectively. Granted, there is a large step up in guard play from those two teams to Villanova.
Villanova’s versatile lineup is equipped to handle the relentless West Virginia pressure. Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, DiVincenzo and Bridges can all handle the ball and push it up the court. The key for teams playing against West Virginia is to not just beat the press, but attack it. Villanova is built similarly to Kansas, a team that beat West Virginia three times this season by attacking the press to score.
The key for West Virginia will be to avoid any prolonged scoring droughts. Even a great defensive team cannot entirely contain an offensive juggernaut like Villanova the whole game. West Virginia does a great job of jumping on teams with their intensity and pressure, but their inability to consistently implement their pressure after scoring tends to be their Achilles heel. Huggins needs Dexter Miles to rediscover his shot from the Big 12 Tournament if West Virginia wants a chance to take down Villanova.
Wild, Wild West
The West Region saw the two top seeds, Xavier and North Carolina, fall hard in the Round of 32. Florida State avenged last season’s Round of 32 demolition at the hands of Xavier with a late-game comeback that catapulted them into the Sweet 16. Texas A&M destroyed the defending national champs from start to finish in a game that was not remotely competitive.
The intriguing aspect of this region is that all four remaining teams have a legitimate shot to make the Final Four. Gonzaga and Michigan, with all their talent, have looked shaky at times throughout the tournament. Texas A&M seems to have rediscovered their form from earlier in the season, and Florida State showed the grit and toughness necessary for a deep tournament run.
Texas A&M showcases a lineup that is long and dangerous offensively. Tyler Davis is a 6-foot-10, 266 pound behemoth who creates mismatches by simply walking onto the court. Davis controls the paint in most games and his efficiency is key for the Aggies.
However, the team that is the most equipped to escape the West, and reach the championship game, is Gonzaga. Gonzaga’s versatility matches up with every team on the left side of the bracket. Zach Norvell has torched teams from behind the arc and Johnathan Williams has bullied opponents in the paint. Josh Perkins brings experience at the point guard position, and we are still waiting for Killian Tillie to erupt from three.
Featured image by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America.
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