Daniel Evans, Blake Hofstad and Davis Jones are previewing every game of the NCAA Tournament. Check out all of their previews here.
Daniel’s Take: Kansas relied on a gigantic game from Jeff Withey (16 points, 16 rebounds) and a great second half (outscored UNC 39-18) to pull away from North Carolina and move into the Sweet 16). The Jayhawks looked pretty pedestrian for the first 60 minutes of this tournament, nearly losing to Western Kentucky before sputtering along against former Kansas coach Roy Williams’ Tar Heels. They picked it up in the second half. It’s important to remember that Kansas leading scorer Ben McLemore scored two points on 0 for 9 shooting in this game. How many teams could win a game when their leading scorer shot so poorly?
Meanwhile, Michigan obliterated VCU on Saturday to move onto the Sweet 16. Behind tremendous guard play from Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., this team looks like it might be headed towards a national championship. Sometimes when the brackets come out people worry too much about seeding. If I had written a month ago that I was taking Kansas over Michigan in my bracket, it would have been regarded as an upset. Remember that Michigan was once ranked No. 1 in the country and Kansas was on a three game losing streak at one point.
Guard play is what wins games in the tournament. I told my colleague Blake Hofstad that Michigan and Florida would meet in the South regional final (I picked it in my pre-tournament bracket). Right now that is looking pretty good. Michigan is playing fantastic basketball, led by Burke. He’s arguably the best player in the country and has Hardaway and Nik Stauskas around him to help spread the defense. Although Withey will cause problems inside, Michigan will may enough threes to neutralize the big man’s impact. I’ll take Michigan to advance and take on the Gators, as I projected in my pre-tournament bracket.
Blake’s Take: Once again, Kansas’ performance in the second half was a vast departure from what they accomplished in the first half. The Jayhawks turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, which, obviously, kept them from getting into any sort of groove on the offensive end. The Tar Heels jumped out to a 9 point lead at the half, thanks to the turnovers and missed opportunities on the part of their opponent. The team that emerged from the locker room in the second half was completely different. Yes, the Jayhawks kept turning the ball over, but on offense, they looked like they expected to score every single time down the floor. Travis Releford was aggressive, Jeff Withey and Kevin Young got some great looks inside, and Naadir Tharpe played with swagger off the bench. But once again, Ben McLemore struggled. Mightily. McLemore was 0-9 from the field and had just two points. It’s incredible that Kansas was able to win despite an awful performance from its best player. McLemore can’t play like that again.
Michigan quietly might have put together the most impressive performance of the Tournament thus far against VCU. The Wolverines only turned it over 12 times against a defense that thrives on getting easy points off of turnovers. Trey Burke had 7 of those turnovers, but this clearly had to do with just how much he handled the ball. The real story here was the performance of John Beilein’s highly touted freshmen. Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III combined to go 17-21 from the field for 35 points and 23 rebounds. To gauge the impact they had on the game, consider that VCU as a team had 21 boards. If McGary and Robinson keep that up, Michigan will be nearly impossible to beat.
My bracket is covered in red, and both teams I had in the Elite Eight of the South region are already out, so I can pick whoever I want here, and I’m going with the Wolverines. Kansas can’t come out flat like they have in the first two games and expect to turn it around so easily against Michigan. The Wolverines won’t shoot 28% from the field like North Carolina did, and McGary and Robinson playing with confidence is huge. The Jayhawks smothered the glass against North Carolina, so that’s why the rebounding of McGary and Robinson is so huge. I expect the 1 seed to go down.
Davis’s Take: Kansas should consider themselves lucky that they’re still in the tournament. After how poorly they’ve played in each of their games (No three-pointers and 17 TOs against Western Kentucky? 22 TOs against North Carolina?), the Jayhawks are making a dangerous habit of being pushed to the brink of elimination. They’ve played especially poorly in the first half, shooting 25% against UNC and going more than seven minutes from the opening tip-off without a single field goal. Ben McLemore has yet to find any sort of offensive rhythm. I agree with Daniel, though–how many teams could win after such a performance from their leading scorer? How many teams could win after such a performance period? This is what has impressed me the most about Kansas. After all, winning ugly in March is better than losing pretty.
On the flip-side, Michigan has been winning very pretty. They dismantled Shaka Smart’s Havoc defense and committed only 12 turnovers in the process, which is even more impressive considering that the Rams came into the game forcing a nation-best 19.9 turnovers per game. The Wolverines know how to take care of the ball, they know how to be efficient with the ball, and they know how to be fast with the ball. From an opponent’s perspective, it’s a frightening combination.
So yeah, I’m picking Michigan. But I do think that the Wolverines have weaknesses that can be exploited. For one, their forwards need to score in order to win. Glenn Robinson III scored less than 10 points in all but one of their regular season losses. In every loss, long-range specialist Tim Hardaway Jr. made just two threes or less. Another question mark for this game will be the play of Travis Releford. When he gets hot early, the Jayhawks are nearly unstoppable, as they are 26-0 this year and 47-1 over the last three seasons when he scores at least nine points. Michigan has had some problems defending taller guards, and failing to contain Releford could mean bad news for John Beilein’s club.
Containing Trey Burke, however, is what will make or break this game for Kansas–a goal much easier said than done. What will make it even more difficult is that the Jayhawks haven’t really succeeded in this department against other star players. Guard Marcus Smart torched them for 25 points in February in an Oklahoma State upset. Baylor’s Pierre Jackson, a point guard with a similar build to Burke’s, led the Bears to a win while going for 28 points on 11-13 shooting. There’s a chance that Kansas can stop Burke, but I have a hard time thinking that this game will be much different. Michigan advances to the Elite Eight.