An Elite Eight-Pack of Questions Team's Will Need to Answer to Advance to the Final Four
A one (Louisville), two two's (Duke and Ohio State), two three's (Florida and Marquette), two four's (Michigan and Syracuse), and a nine seed (Wichita State) are all that remain. The perfect blend of chalk and entropy come together as only one top-line team remains and we have a nine seed still left. Here are eight predictions for this round:
1. Louisville will need another big game from Russ Smith - Smith has averaged 27 points per game in the tournament thus far and tied a career high with 31 last night and has at times, carried Louisville to victory almost single handedly. When Smith struggles, the team does as well. One needs to look no further than the 5 overtime game against Notre Dame where he shot 4-19 from the field. In losses, Smith is shooting 32% from the field, in wins, he is shooting 43.9%. If Smith shoots well, Louisville has a good shot to win.
2. Mason Plumlee needs to step up - Seth Curry has been carrying this team as of late, and since his return, other than his explosion of points against Miami, Ryan Kelly has not been as effective. Plumlee is averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game throughout the season, yet has been awful during the tournament. Against Creighton, Plumlee was only able to muster up 10 points and 5 rebounds. Yesterday against Michigan State, he put up 14 points and 7 rebounds. These are hardly bad statistics; however, they hardly scream "Player of the Year." Plumlee will likely be matched up against Gorgui Dieng, who, while never being flashy, always puts up excellent numbers (he blocked four shots against Oregon, and has only missed 2 field goals all tournament). If Plumlee can play like the Naismith candidate he is, Duke will not have to rely on Seth Curry nearly as much as they have thus far.
3. Does Vander Blue have another big game in him - Coming out of Madison Memorial High School, Vander Blue was ranked as the 7th best Shooting Guard in the country. Though Blue suffered through some growing pains, the NCAA Tournament has given him the national stage to show just how good he can be down the stretch. A lifetime 27.9% three-point shooter, Blue is 5-10 during the tournament from three, a perfect 12-12 from the free throw line, and shooting 50% from the field while averaging a shade under 20 points per game. In their regular season victory over Syracuse, Blue scored only 6 points and the team was lifted by Davante Gardner, a 290 pound zone-wrecker, who scored 26 points on 7-7 shooting. There are only two ways to beat the zone -- shoot over it, or blast through it. Blue's preferred method of dribble driving will not work against this zone, so if he can hit shots and feed Gardner, the Golden Eagles will advance to the Final Four.
4. Can Syracuse rebound - In a man to man defense, when a shot goes up, everyone has someone to box-out. In a zone, that gets a little more difficult as communication and spacing are incredibly important. Syracuse will need to limit second-shot opportunities from the bigger Marquette team. Marquette pulls in a remarkable 36.4% of missed shots this season and 38.6% during the tournament. Meanwhile, Syracuse was 292nd in the country at opponent rebounding percentage. If Syracuse can limit second-shot opportunities as much as they can, then they have a good shot to advance.
5. Can Malcolm Armstead get through Aaron Craft - Aaron Craft is arguably the best defensive player in college basketball right now. His ability to disrupt the flow of an offense by making a point guard uncomfortable for 94 feet is unparalleled. Wichita State runs their offense through point guard Malcolm Armstead (16 points, 4 assists and almost 5 rebounds per game during the tournament). Wichita State likes to run, and if they can assert their tempo on the Buckeyes and if Armstead can hold onto the basketball, Wichita State has a chance to "Shocker" the world (what kind of post would this be without a Shocker pun?).
6. Can Ohio State find a third option - We all know Deshaun Thomas is an excellent scorer. The last time Thomas scored fewer than 10 points, the Buckeyes were bounced from the NCAA Tournament last year in the Final Four. Aaron Craft, though not a scorer by any stretch of the imagination, is a steady presence on the offensive side of the ball with no hesitation taking big shots. The big question for the Buckeyes is "who is the third option?" LaQuinton Ross has stepped up over the past two games, scoring 17 in each of the Buckeye's last two contests; however, in the Buckeye's 7 losses, Ross has scored double-figures just twice. Lenzelle Smith Jr. has been largely a non-factor in the NCAA Tournament, and if the Buckeye's want to win, at least one of those two players need to score.
7. Which Mitch will we get - This season, Mitch McGary averaged 7.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. During the NCAA Tournament, he has averaged 19.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game. McGary was highly touted coming out of high school, but still a very raw player. I cannot remember the last time I have seen this much improvement over the course of the season. If McGary can pull in offensive rebounds (he is averaging 4 per game over the course of the tournament), and put those in for second chance points (he is a 60.4% shooter from the field), then Michigan has a good chance to advance.
8. Can Florida set the tone early - With their 12-point win last night, Florida is still win-less in single-digit games. Last night, Michigan showed a resiliency that no lead is too great for them to come back from. Florida had the 8th best field goal percentage in the country this past season, and Michigan's defensive is suspect at best (look at the second half of the Wisconsin game in the Big Ten Tournament as an example). Plain and simple, if Florida can knock down the open looks that Michigan will concede, then the Gators will coast into the Final Four. If shots have trouble dropping, then we will see if Florida can win a close game for the first time all year.