Elite Guard Play Defines Sweet Sixteen Matchups in the East
By Matt Sottile
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament never fails to disappoint. Ever. A field of 68 has now been narrowed down to 16 teams, all of which are only two wins away from securing a trip to San Antonio for the Final Four. The 2018 edition of the single greatest event in sports has already given us a handful of buzzer beaters, two contests that went to overtime, a 22 point comeback with 7 minutes left in the game, two double digit seeds that are still alive, and a 98 year old nun that captured that hearts of America.
On top of all that, the overall #1 seed in the field, the Virginia Cavaliers, a team that set the record for the most wins ever during ACC regular season play this year (17-1), were toppled by the cinderella of all cinderellas, the UMBC Retrievers, who became the first ever 16 seed to do the unthinkable: eliminate one of the top four seeds before UVA even got a chance to process what had transpired late into Saturday night, in a game that now has its place firmly solidified as one of the greatest upsets in sports history. Not only did UMBC, a 20.5 point underdog, defeat the team ranked 2nd in defensive efficiency in the country, they throttled them by 20 points. The South Regional will be the first ever in which none of the top four seeds advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. Surely, more surprises and captivating stories await us in the second weekend of play. I’m just excited to get a chance to cover three of those contests at TD Garden Friday night and Sunday afternoon.
The East was the most chalk-heavy region of the four, but that’s not saying much, considering how much chaos unfolded last weekend. Four of the top five seeds will be playing in Boston Friday night, including a pair of old Big East foes led by a duo of coaches who are all too familiar with one another, a team that has never advanced to the Elite Eight in program history, and a ballclub trying to amend its recent March disappointments, albeit with one of their biggest (literally and figuratively) stars sidelined with a fractured elbow. The first of the two Sweet Sixteen contests will get underway Friday night at 7:27 EST, and should promise to be one of the best matchups of the entire NCAA Tournament. We will break down both games, highlight some matchups to watch out for, and make predictions as to who will fight to live another day and square off on Sunday afternoon for a berth in the 2018 Final Four.
#1 VILLANOVA WILDCATS (32-4, 14-4 BIG EAST) vs. #5 WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS (26-10, 11-7 BIG 12) — 7:27 EST, TBS
Two former Big East heavyweights will square off in the first game of the night, in what could prove to be one of the most entertaining games of the entire NCAA Tournament. Villanova features the highest scoring offense in the country (86.9 ppg), led by their standout junior guard Jalen Brunson.
The Wildcats shot the lights out against Radford in their First Round game, finishing 14 for 27 from behind the arc. They began their tournament run by sinking 13 of their first 16 shots, and they never looked back from there.
Against Alabama, Villanova came out a bit flat in the first half and struggled to find offensive success against another squad with an elite point guard, one that pressured Villanova and held them to only 32 first half points. It was Donte DiVincenzo that kept the Wildcats in the lead for the first 20 minutes, before Mikal Bridges lit up the scoreboard and poured in five second half three pointers.
The Wildcats made their first six threes of the second half, and quickly extended a lead that stood at five into a 25 point margin, thanks to a 24-5 run following the intermission.
Villanova’s ability to blow a close game open in a matter of minutes makes them the deadliest team still alive in the field. Their 31 three pointers are the most ever for a team after only two games in the NCAA Tournament. Brunson, Bridges, and DiVincenzo have remained red hot from downtown, while Phil Booth’s return from a broken hand has deepened their roster and allowed the Wildcats to shuffle in waves of deadly three point shooters.
The West Virginia Mountaineers are tasked with stopping what has consistently been the best offense in college basketball this season. If there is a team that has the capability to contain Nova’s mighty offense, look no further than Press Virginia.
Bob Huggins’ squad averages 20.2 points per game off turnovers, which is the highest figure among all major conference teams this season. Their senior leader, Jevon Carter, is a stud on both sides of the ball, as he was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season. Carter forced 11 steals in the first weekend of the tournament en route to two sizable WVU victories.
Jay Wright commended West Virginia’s style of play and their defensive toughness, stating in his Thursday press conference, “I think it’s going to be the kind of game where we’re going to have to get in it, kind of take a punch in the mouth there for a second, and then get ready to adjust because it’s hard to simulate. We just haven’t seen it anywhere else this year.”
Villanova isn’t the only team in this region with tournament experience and stellar guard play. In addition to Jevon Carter, senior guard Daxter Miles, Jr. is averaging 12.8 points per game this season, but he has struggled to find his groove after two tournament games, shooting only 7-for-17 from the floor.
When asked about their senior leadership and advice they would offer the younger players on the team, Carter responded, “Teams are going to make their run. Just don’t feed into the crowd. Stay focused. Stay within the game plan. Don’t take [any] possessions off because one possession could cost you a game. And just play. Don’t worry about it being the NCAA Tournament. Just give it everything you’ve got. You’re going to win, or you’re going to lose.”
West Virginia might need to heed Carter’s advice in order to play within their own heads: I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the fans are decked out in navy blue and white tonight, given how many Villanova alumni have stayed in the northeast, as well as how big of a presence the university has around this area. Boston is no exception.
West Virginia has made it clear that despite facing off against an elite offensive team, they will not be afraid to push the pace themselves and run up the score. Their recipe for success might come from building up an early lead and making Villanova uncomfortable with their full court sideline press.
Head coach Bob Huggins told the media in Boston on Thursday, “I don’t think we want [the score] in the 60s and 70s. We’re better when we score, and we’re better when the game’s sped up. We’re going to try to speed the game up and play at a faster pace.”
Huggins and Villanova head coach Jay Wright are no strangers to one another. They went 3-3 against one another from 2007-2012, while both schools were members of the Big East. Huggins will have to construct a gameplan that forces Villanova to work the ball inside. If the Cats get hot from three, the game could be put just out of reach for the Mountaineers, who would be forced to go shot for shot with the best offense in the country.
Against Marshall, WVU sophomore forward Lamont West came off the bench and contributed 18 points in 23 minutes of game action. He will need to step up again and help fellow big men Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate win the matchup down low. To do so, they’ll need to limit how often the Villanova guards are able to penetrate and get to the hoop, as well as limit ‘Nova Big East Freshman of the Year Omari Spellman and standout tournament player Mikal Bridges.
In what should prove to be a high-scoring back and forth affair, if Villanova is able to survive the defensive test that Huggins will throw at them and advance to the Elite Eight, they could pave a much easier path for themselves than the one they were forced to go through when they took home the National Championship in 2016.
Matchup to Watch: Jalen Brunson vs. Jevon Carter
Need I say more here? Brunson will be facing one of the best point guards in the country for the second game in a row, but unlike in their Second Round game vs. Alabama, in which Collin Sexton was matched up with Phil Booth for most of the game, these two guards will be constantly at each other’s side.
These two played both grew up in Chicago and played on the same AAU team in eighth and ninth grade, so there will be no unfamiliarities between them.
When asked about Brunson’s style, Carter stated, “He’s very smart. He’s crafty. He knows how to use his body well… we’re very familiar with one another.”
If Carter can continue his stellar defensive play and slow down one of the hottest guards in the country, it will wreak havoc for a Villanova team that has rarely been slowed down this season. Carter will also need to lead the scoring for West Virginia and run up the score tonight. 70 points isn’t going to cut it for them, regardless of how well they play defensively.
Prediction: #1 Villanova 83, #5 West Virginia 79
This is one of the most talented squads that Jay Wright has ever coached. In addition to having a barrage of three point shooters at his disposal, he also has big men that can space the floor and shoot the ball from deep. Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate will have to play tremendously on both ends of the floor, because all eyes will be on Jevon Carter in the backcourt. I think this will be Villanova’s toughest test they face all year long, but their depth and lights-out shooting will be enough to propel them to the Elite Eight.
#2 PURDUE BOILERMAKERS (30-6, 15-3 B1G) vs. #3 TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS (26-9, 11-7 BIG 12) — 9:57 EST, TBS
The last time Matt Painter coached against Chris Beard in the NCAA Tournament, in 2016, Beard was leading 12th seeded Arkansas Little-Rock to an upset over Purdue in overtime. He was hired by UNLV after his tournament run, but was the head man in town for only 19 days. He instead elected to rejoin Texas Tech, a team he was an assistant coach for from 2001-2011, after Tubby Smith chose to pack his bags and accept the head coaching position at Memphis.
Keenan Evans is the unchallenged leader on the floor for the Red Raiders: the senior guard is a monster in the second half and has carried his team to two victories last weekend over Stephen F. Austin and Florida. Evans poured in 19 of his 23 points against SFA in the second half, and added another 22 against Florida, a team that missed three straight three pointers in their last possession, which would have sent the game into overtime.
Evans and freshman guard Zhaire Smith lead the Texas Tech backcourt and are combining for over 29 points per game this season. Evans dealt a with foot injury that forced him to miss a portion of the Big 12 schedule, but his injury has also allowed the team to play with a different style and intensity without their star guard. He is still feeling the effects from his sprained toe, but it hasn’t stopped him from leading his squad in the second half and advancing the Red Raiders out of the first weekend.
“Keenan Evans has been a warrior. He’s got a situation with his toe that’s not easy. It’s a lot of pain… It’s been one of the most impressive things I’ve seen. Our trainer, Chris Williams, our team doctor and Keenan, it’s been just a lot of work. Simply stated, a lot of guys wouldn’t even be playing on it right now. Keenan is playing on it and playing at a high level. He’s just an absolute warrior. At the end of the season, I think the true story will come out,” said head coach Chris Beard in a press conference delivered at TD Garden on Thursday.
This game also features elite point guards that have a history with one another. Carsen Edwards of Purdue squared off against Keenan Evans in the Texas high school state playoffs, and sent Evans’ team home packing. Evans will surely use this as motivation on a much bigger stage, and hope that Edwards doesn’t send him home again for the last time in his collegiate career.
Beard will try to do something no Texas Tech coach has ever done, not even Hall of Famer and college basketball legend Bob Knight. That is, lead the Red Raiders to their first Elite Eight in program history.
To do so, they will will have to take down Purdue, a team that despite not being at full strength, still has its share of weapons offensively. 7’2” senior center Isaac Haas was being backed down against Cal State Fullerton last Friday, when he was sent flying back and collided hard with the hardwood. He was wincing in pain and grabbing at his right arm. It was later announced that he had fractured his right elbow, and his status for the rest of the tournament was in question.
The engineering department at Purdue was tasked with fitted Haas with a brace that would be approved by the NCAA and allow him to finish his last season in college making an impact on the court, rather than cheering on his team from the sidelines. The big man was warming up prior to Sunday’s Second Round matchup against Butler, but he was visibly grimacing and it was determined that the brace was too bulky, and would be too large to be safe for other players matching up against him.
The injury will require Haas to have surgery, but as of Friday afternoon, the NCAA approved the new brace created for him. His status is still unclear for their Sweet Sixteen matchup. Filling his spot down low is another giant, 7’3” freshman Matt Haarms, one of the best young shot blockers in the nation.
Haarms, a player averaging only 17 minutes a game, stepped in and logged 19 minutes against Butler, while contributing seven points and six rebounds in a 76-73 win, a game that was too close for comfort for Boilermaker fans after Butler stormed back in the last few minutes and had a chance to tie the game late.
Purdue has shifted to a smaller lineup after the injury to Haas. Vincent Edwards has taken on more of a wing role, giving Purdue more room to space the floor and allowing him to get shots off from behind the arc and drive on defenders. Edwards led his team in scoring against Butler with 20 points, going 6 for 8 from the floor and 2 for 2 from downtown.
Despite possibly playing without their Haas, Carsen Edwards, who leads the team with 18.2 points per game, will still be a force for the Boilermakers. He led his team to the Big Ten title game after dropping 53 points in their first two conference tournament games. He will be challenged by Keenan Evans and the swarming perimeter defense of Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders are fourth in the country in defensive efficiency and Evans has generated turnovers in bunches for his team. Purdue’s smaller lineup may help them speed up the pace of play, but more attention will be focused on containing Carsen and Vincent Edwards, as well as sharpshooting guard Dakota Mathias, who will see significant time in this game.
Mathias and Vincent Edwards have both been prepared to see time matching up against star guard Keenan Evans.
Vincent Edwards said, “I’m pretty sure we’ll both get on him a little bit throughout the game, the way our defense plays. But I think it’s going to be a tough challenge. He’s a good player. He really gets them going, and he creates plays for them down the stretch… He’s their leader and their floor general.”
Both teams enter this game without a ton of recent experience in March. Purdue has suffered disappointing early exits in recent years, while Texas Tech is playing in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2005. The winner of tonight’s game will potentially get a crack at Villanova, the most talented team in the tournament, with a trip to the Final Four on the line. That’s enough for these players fighting through injuries to get hyped and play their best basketball of the season with the bright lights on and the pressure at its highest level.
Matchup To Watch: Keenan Evans vs. Purdue’s Guards
Purdue should shuffle a couple different players on the floor to matchup against Keenan Evans, a player that performs at his best in the second half, often catching players off guard and wearing them down after the first 30 minutes of play.
Nojel Eastern might be the reserve Purdue needs to contain Evans, even if it is only 8-10 minutes of production off the bench. Butler’s Kamar Baldwin was held to only 14 points last Sunday, which helped propel Purdue to a victory.
Evans is a fiesty guard who is solid defensively, and if he can eliminate one of Purdue’s weapons, presumably Carsen Edwards, Texas Tech would be able to drive the ball inside on the other end and take advantage of open options in the corner.
Texas Tech is already a scrappy defensive team, and one of the national leaders in defensive efficiency. A lack of depth in the Purdue frontcourt will turn all the attention to the Boilermakers’ guards, and whoever is able to shut down the other team’s facilitators will have the advantage and move on to the Elite Eight.
Prediction: #3 Texas Tech 77, #2 Purdue 70
I just don’t see how Purdue can beat Texas Tech without Isaac Haas. If they were playing with their pair of giants who dominate the glass and lock down the paint defensively, they could force Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith to shoot the ball from deep, while giving their own offense more opportunities to work the ball inside and wear down Texas Tech’s interior defense. Even if Haas decides to play, he is by no means a guarantee to perform well, and Texas Tech could adopt a “hack a Haas” strategy, electing to place him on the free throw line and earn his points there. The Red Raiders will be too tough for the Boilermakers to handle, and it’s always a security blanket having a senior point guard that is built for high pressure situations down the stretch in March. Keenan Evans leads his team to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history for a date against the top seeded Villanova Wildcats.