Previewing and predicting Friday's Sweet 16 games
The Sweet 16.
It’s the stuff of dreams, a benchmark goal for even the best programs. After correctly predicting the outcome of all 4 Sweet 16 games on Thursday, we’re back with 4 more for Friday.
Who will be “Elite?”
We preview and predict Friday’s Sweet 16 games:
(5) San Diego State vs. (1) Alabama
When and Where: South Region, Louisville, Kentucky, 6:45 PM, TBS
The Skinny: The Aztecs are exactly the type of team that has given mighty Alabama fits this season. Like Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas A&M, Brian Dutcher’s San Diego State team plays methodical, slow basketball and they strangle you on defense, where they are exceptionally good at running teams off the three point line. The Aztecs rank 4th nationally in 3 point defense (28.7% against), per KenPom, and are among the 5 best teams left in the field in limiting the number of attempts from deep as well. Alabama, however, has 2 players who are absolute defense-busters in Brandon Miller and Jahvon Quinerly. Miller can shoot over anyone, making him a late shot clock escape valve, and both he and Quinerly are splendid at driving the gaps and attacking the tin.
Quinerly ranks 34th in the country in assist rate, and 8th nationally in drive and kick assists, per Hoops Lens. The problem for San Diego State, and really everyone that plays Alabama, is that Nate Oats’ team is magnificent on defense, which means that even if the Crimson Tide do not get their customary 73 possessions a game, that isn’t necessarily “Advantage, Aztecs.”
In fact, Alabama’s ability to get stops in low possession games are why the team has won the past 2 games played at 67 possessions or fewer by 20+ points. Both wins came against NCAA Tournament teams (Mississippi State, Maryland). This game might not be very close.
The Pick: Alabama 68, San Diego State 54
(5) Miami vs. (1) Houston
When and Where: Midwest Region, Kansas City, 7:15 PM, CBS
The Skinny: What a game this should be.
Two of the best teams left in the field play in the Sweet 16, which is always fun until one has to go home. Both teams are veteran squads led by tremendous guards. Houston is led by All-American Marcus Sasser and All-AAC guard Jamal Shead. The Hurricanes are led by ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong and sharpshooting combo guard Nijel Pack. Could Jordan Miller, the most versatile player on either team, be the difference? The Miami wing, who averaged 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists on the year and is a mismatch nightmare with his size, first burst and strength, struggled a bit in Miami’s opening win over Drake, which contributed to just how close the game ended up being.
The national media likes to fixate on Wong when it comes to Miami, but the bottom line is Jordan Miller is our most effective and important player (been saying this on here since December 2021) and he had one of his three worst games of his UM career last night. Tentative…
— Kartik Krishnaiyer ?? ??? (@kkfla737) March 18, 2023
In fact, Miller and Wong went just 3-for-17 against Drake, combining for only 12 points, and the Hurricanes won anyway. That’s what happens when you have a third elite guard like Miami does in Nijel Pack.
Houston, meanwhile, played 3 “so-so” halves before looking like the team that spent the bulk of the season in the top 5 and finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in KenPom. The lone team in the field in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, Houston has more balance than Miami. They also have a third magnificent guard to match the Hurricanes, because Tramon Mark has been sensational in the Big Dance. Mark scored 26 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in Houston’s comeback win over Auburn, and he’s why the Canes can’t just fixate on slowing Sasser and Shead.
The Pick: Houston 75, Miami 74
(15) Princeton vs. (6) Creighton
When and Where: South Region, Louisville, 9 PM, TBS
The Skinny: The most intriguing part of this not-quite David vs. Goliath battle between the Tigers and the Bluejays will be watching how Creighton handles Tosan Evbuomwan, the 6-8 Englishman whom neither Missouri or Arizona had any clue how to defend. Evbuomwan is the key to Princeton’s “2.0” version of the Princeton offense, which incorporates Princeton concepts into modern 4 out, 1 in basketball. EvbUOmwan is, for lack of a better word, the rover, the guy who can shoot from distance but optimally will pass from the perimeter and punish the bigs who follow him away from the bucket. The big man scored just 9 points against Missouri, but he had 5 assists and drew critical attention away from Princeton’s other shooters, including Ryan Langborg.
He’s also quick enough to be a mismatch for taller, more plodding bigs, as he showed in Princeton’s win over Arizona when he scored 15 points and dished out another 4 assists, and helped the Tigers outscore 2 seed Arizona in the paint.
Princeton will need a mismatch to exploit to win, and that might be the best path, because Creighton’s guards, especially Ryan Nembhard, who cooked Baylor for 30 points, are starting to look like the top-10 team basketball writers saw when they evaluated Creighton in the preseason. See, writers aren’t always wrong! It just takes 30+ games sometimes …
The Pick: Creighton 74, Princeton 66
(3) Xavier vs. (2) Texas
When and Where: Midwest Region, Kansas City, 9:45 PM, CBS
The Skinny: Shooters shoot. That’s this game in two words. Expect a fast paced game where both teams let it fly early and often and points are scored at a high clip. The difference should be Texas’ ability to defend, but sometimes numbers are deceptive. The Longhorns boast a top-10 defense from an efficiency standpoint, for example. But they rank 93rd in 3-point percentage defense (32.3) and 90th in points allowed (67.2). Xavier, ranked 9th nationally in efficiency and 4th in 3-point percentage (38.9%), is well-equipped to match up with that, provided they take care of the basketball, which they have failed to do at times this season (just 99th nationally in turnover rate).
Can Texas (19th nationally in forcing turnovers) force Xavier mistakes and score some easy points in transition? And will this be the NCAA Tournament game where Xavier really misses the physicality, glue-guy mentality of Zach Freemantle, who averaged 15 and 7 for the Musketeers before being lost for the season to an injury last month? An intriguing game, but give me the coaching nous of Sean Miller in a close one.
The Pick: Xavier 82, Texas 77