Down go Villanova and Kansas, and here comes Zion vs. Tacko
Half of the Sweet 16 field was established on Saturday, with the other half of the remaining 2019 NCAA tournament field to follow Sunday. ESPN.com’s panel of college basketball experts weighed in on what has impressed them (and what hasn’t) in the round of 32 so far and what they expect to see from Sunday’s action.
What (or who) impressed you most on Saturday?
Jeff Borzello, college basketball Insider: It has to be Purdue and Carsen Edwards in their 26-point win over Villanova. The Boilermakers weren’t all that impressive the past few games, losing twice to Minnesota and letting Old Dominion hang around in the first round. Much of Purdue’s struggles offensively could be attributed to Edwards’ inefficiency in those games. In the four games leading up to Saturday, he shot 27.0 percent from the field (24-for-89 FGA) and 24.4 percent from 3-point range (11-45 3PT).
But on Saturday, Edwards went off. He finished with 42 points on 12-for-21 shooting, including 9-for-16 from 3-point range. Villanova simply had no answer for him. When Edwards has it going like that offensively, Purdue is capable of beating anyone in the country. Matt Haarms provided balance on the inside, and Ryan Cline made shots from the perimeter. Defensively, the Boilermakers held Villanova to fewer than one point per possession for the first time in the Wildcats’ past eight games. They might be hitting their stride heading into the tournament’s second weekend.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Two words: Brandon Clarke. The junior scored 36 points on 15-of-18 shooting to go with five blocks in Gonzaga’s 83-71 win over Baylor. He’s arguably the best player in the country not named “Zion” or “Ja,” and he showed it Saturday night. Nor is this some crazy opinion from out of left field: Mark Few’s star is projected as a first-round pick in 2019. Future historians are going to wonder two things about college basketball awards in our era. One, how Ja Morant did not win Ohio Valley Conference freshman of the year in 2017-18, and two, how Clarke didn’t win West Coast Conference Player of the Year in 2018-19.
By the way, honorable mention for this award goes to Auburn and Bryce Brown. The senior rang up 25 points on 7-of-11 shooting on his 3s as the Tigers ran past Kansas. That was one impressive and not entirely expected sight.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: I thought Kentucky played a pretty impressive game against Wofford. Without PJ Washington — who is a legitimate pro — John Calipari’s club was able to coerce Wofford into a miserable offensive game, including a season-worst 8-for-27 (29.6 percent) from deep. Freshman blue-chipper Tyler Herro did not have his best shooting performance, but his sensational effort defensively helped limit Fletcher Magee — who has made more 3-pointers than anyone else in college basketball history — to an 0-for-12 effort from distance.
Kentucky’s discipline as a whole against the Terriers’ high-level sets and skill stood out in a big way. We know this team wants to get its athletes in space — an experienced and sound Wofford bunch made sure that did not happen — but the young Cats’ defensive effort ensured that they moved on to the second weekend and will surely pay off in a major way moving forward.
Murray State bowed out of the tournament, though Ja Morant (28 points, five assists) was again impressive. What will we be saying about Morant five years from now?
Borzello: Morant is a star. He’s a star now, and he’s going to be a star in five years. Of course, the NBA is filled with star point guards right now, so all-NBA or even All-Star might be a stretch at that point, but Morant is going to be an above-average starter in the NBA.
His combination of athleticism and vision is unparalleled at the college level, and he answered some questions in the NCAA tournament. NBA scouts had some concerns about his turnovers and his outside shooting ability, but Morant totaled 45 points, 16 rebounds and 20 assists in two games — while turning the ball over nine times and shooting 7-for-8 from 3-point range. He dealt with Florida State’s length and size fairly well, and I think he will only get better moving forward.
Gasaway: Morant is going to be in the prime of an NBA career that will showcase his talents far better than two quick visits to the 2018 and 2019 NCAA tournaments could. Scouts rave about his court vision, his handle and his ability to change directions. That’s all great, and it’s also encouraging that his college stats translate so well to the next level. Yes, he committed a high number of turnovers on occasion as a sophomore, and his intensity on defense will need an upgrade. But you don’t see this level of potential coming out of college every day. Depending on the franchise and the talent around him (particularly the outside shooting of his teammates), Morant could be picking apart opposing NBA defenses off the dribble as the starter for a playoff team.
Schultz: Morant has all the traits to be the NBA’s next great point guard. Maybe we’ll ask why the team that took Zion Williamson No. 1 overall did not choose Morant. I love Zion, but that is how exceptional and distinct Morant’s talent is. Aside from the highlight-reel dunks, there is tremendous substance to his game. Not only does he see the floor, but Morant — who leads the nation in assists with more than 10 dimes per game — also has the necessary basketball acumen to deliver pinpoint passes from the most challenging of positions. Better yet, he is a very willing passer, displaying both the creativity and feel to dictate his precise terms to a defense. Additionally, he is a tough shot-maker, showcasing the aptitude to isolate in 1-4 sets and thriving in pick-and-roll, a staple of any NBA offense.
Because of Morant’s elite above-the-rim finishing ability, his explosive first step propels him to the basket, where few NBA guards possess such special finishing ability. The turnovers do not worry me, nor does the subpar 3-point jumper. Morant is a high-usage lead guard — a la Russell Westbrook — who displays good form and balance (he improved from 30.7 percent shooting on 3s as a freshman to 34.4 percent as a sophomore) and is exactly the type of freakishly gifted, downhill lead guard thriving in today’s spread-oriented pro game.
What is the most pressing question you want answered on Sunday?
Gasaway: Can Buffalo earn the Mid-American Conference’s first spot in the Sweet 16 since 2012? The Bulls looked like a team that can give Texas Tech a handful in their 91-74 win over Arizona State. Nick Perkins, CJ Massinburg and Jeremy Harris scored a combined 60 points on 18-of-33 shooting, and UB lit up the Sun Devils for 1.23 points per possession. Sustaining those high numbers against the favored Red Raiders likely isn’t in the cards, and the Tech defense will be the best unit on the court statistically on either side of the ball for either team. Nevertheless, Chris Beard will have to have his team ready for Buffalo because, on paper, this lines up as a close game.
Borzello: Is Justin Robinson fully healthy? Virginia Tech’s star point guard returned Friday after missing 12 games due to a foot injury. He played 28 minutes and finished with nine points and two assists. He clearly wasn’t at full strength, though, and turned it over four times. Robinson also had several stretches in the second half in which he was walking off — more accurately, limping off — various knocks to his foot. If he’s 100 percent, Virginia Tech should handle Liberty and give Duke a run in the Sweet 16. If he’s anything less, the Hokies are not as dangerous.
Schultz: Great points by Gasaway and Borzello about Justin Robinson’s Hokies and the Buffalo Bulls out of the MAC. I am equally curious about 13-seed UC Irvine, though. With their size, quickness and ability to defend — holding opponents to 38 percent shooting on the season — the Anteaters beat up a physical albeit depleted K-State team. No team in America guards the 2-pointer better than Irvine does, which matters because few teams are more disciplined on both sides of the ball than Dana Altman’s bunch from Eugene.
It has been a revelation watching the Ducks’ transformation without injured potential top-five pick Bol Bol back since early January. Altman’s entire team was built around Bol’s diverse and rare skill set. Let’s see how junior point guard and Pac-12 tournament MVP Payton Pritchard (tallying a team-high 4.6 APG) handles the Anteaters’ active defense. If the creative Pritchard cannot create good looks — both for himself and others — Oregon will lose this game. If he can, the Ducks will advance to their third Sweet 16 in four years. It’s that simple.
Duke, North Carolina and Virginia are all in action Sunday. Which No. 1 seed is in most danger of losing?
Borzello: I’ll preface it by saying I don’t think any of the three will lose, but if there’s one most in danger, I would go with North Carolina. That has more to do with Washington than anything else, as I think the Huskies are flat-out better than UCF and Oklahoma, the other 1-seed opponents. Washington seemed to snap out of whatever was wrong late in the season on Friday, stifling the Utah State offense and making 10 3-pointers.
If the Huskies can control tempo and make shots, they can stay in the game against Carolina. That 2-3 zone defense is difficult to prepare for on short notice, even though Carolina has played against Syracuse’s version for years. The Tar Heels should still win, but it could be closer than expected.
Gasaway: Do I think Duke is going to lose to UCF? Well, no, but to borrow the language of Giant Killers, it isn’t completely crazy, either. Start with what Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said after his Cougars lost at home for the first and only time this season to the Knights: “He takes away half your playbook.” “He” of course is Tacko Fall. The 7-foot-6 senior isn’t the last word in quickness, and one can certainly envision the Blue Devils getting to the rim in transition or on drive-and-dish action. But one thing that Fall does make much more problematic is straight-line drives ending in a dunk over the opponent — or, for that matter, lobbing over the opponent for a dunk. Fall can complicate things for Duke in a way that few opposing players left in the tournament can.
Schultz: Does North Carolina shoot it well enough to handle the Huskies’ stingy 2-3 matchup zone? Mike Hopkins’ defense is constructed around the reigning two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Matisse Thybulle, who leads the country with his 3.5 steals per game and whose presence at the top of the zone could not only frustrate the smaller Coby White on the perimeter but also hound Luke Maye around the mid-post. The Heels rank just 75th nationally, converting 36.4 percent of their 3s, and they will have to be better against the regular-season Pac-12 champs. Washington predicates its defense on contesting 3s and using its length and quickness to create deflections and steals. If North Carolina can cut the zone up, it will go a long way in determining whether this team has enough to help Roy Williams win his fourth national title — including his third in Chapel Hill — and the seventh in school history.
More at http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/26344726/down-go-villanova-kansas-here-comes-zion-vs-tacko