Originally written on In The Neutral Zone  |  Last updated 11/17/14
It’s the most, wonderful time, of the year. March Madness baby. Forget Birthdays and Christmastime. I’ll take the March (and now early April) festivities over anything. The East/West Regions will play their semifinal game on Thursday night while the South & Midwest will be Friday night. Thursday #1 Indiana Hoosiers (29-6, At Large) vs #4 Syracuse Orange (28-9, At Large) The Orange will look to eliminate the Hoosiers from the NCAA tournament just as Indiana did to them 25 years ago. Indiana has done well against the 2-3 zone this year, which is Syracuse’s primary defense. The Hoosiers are shooting 52.8% against zone defenses (+6.5% better in comparison to zone), according to Synergy Sports Tech. IU is also averaging 1.12 PPP (point per possession) against zone, ranking #6 in offensive efficiency for Division 1. All signs point to the Hoosiers success against the zone in this match up. Syracuse has looked great so far in this year’s tournament, beating up on Montana 81-34 and then advancing to the 3rd round where they held on against Cal for a 6 point win. The Orange’s offense was stagnant in the 2nd half against Cal, going 12 minutes without a bucket. Look for Indiana to play some zone against Syracuse where, unlike the Hoosiers, they shoot a lower percentage than against man defense. James Southerland is the key for Cuse and can get hot in a hurry. #3 Marquette Golden Eagles (25-8, At Large) vs #2 Miami Hurricanes (29-6, ACC Reg. Season/Tournament Champs) Miami will be without big man Reggie Johnson, who averages 6.7 pts and 7 rebounds/game. The big fella EATS glass when he is in the ball game. The Hurricanes will need to have full effort on the glass to replace his numbers. With him out, this makes Miami’s post game nearly non-existant. This means defenders will now provide almost zero help in the post and this leaves less room for Miami’s shooters. Davante Gardner and Chris Otule, who is blind in one eye, finish well in the paint and find a way to get offensive rebounds. The battle in the paint and how Marquette handle’s the Hurricane’s ball screens will be the determining factor in who wins. Miami absolutely loves high ball screens with Shane Larkin and a big at the top of the key. Marquette has been excellent defending ball handlers in pick & roll situations. Johnson’s absence and Marquette’s stellar defense against the ball screens spell out trouble for Miami. #6 Arizona Wildcats (27-7, At Large) vs #2 Ohio State Buckeyes (28-7, B1G Tournament Champs) Arizona has played a relatively easy schedule in comparison to the rest of the tournament. With wins over Belmont by 17 and Harvard by 23, the Wildcats seem ready for their biggest test of year. Ohio State, coming off of a cold blooded Aaron Craft game winner, is starting to get its offense rolling. That’s scary for the rest of the field when an elite defensive team like this is putting it all together. The youth of Arizona makes me reluctant to pick them against a veteran-led team in OSU. Aaron Craft SHOULD lock up Mark Lyons, but with Lyons, you never know what type of effort you are going to get. #13 La Salle Explorers (24-9, At Large) vs #9 Wichita State Wheat Shockers (28-8, At Large) 2 things: 1.) The Explorers vs Wheat Shockers sounds like a game that should be on Backyard Basketball. 2.) Why is no one giving La Salle any love? The Explorers are in the same position as Florida Gulf Coast, AKA Dunk City, and even won an extra game in the tournament in the play in game, but their story is not nearly as big. Wichita State shocked me by beating Pittsburgh and then shocked the world as they took out No. 1 seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs. I think the Shockers, who never officialy adopted the popular name Wheat Shockers, end La Salle’s run and advance on to the elite to face the winner of OSU/Zona. Friday #12 Oregon Ducks (28-8, Pac 12 Tournament Champs) vs. #1 Louisville Cardinals (31-5, Big East Tournament Champs) A 12 seed in the Sweet 16? Not as crazy as you thought. This is not a cinderella story by any means. Oregon should have been seeded about 3-5 spots to low. The Pac 12 tournament champs were seeded lower than #6 UCLA, despite a better resume and taking the head to head series over the Bruins. The Ducks have been very impressive in their wins over #4 Saint Louis (17 points margin) and #5 Oklahoma State (13 pts). The Dominic Artis vs Peyton Siva matchup will be a good one. Artis was shut out (0-7 FGs) in the win against Saint Louis but can score against the best. The Artis/Damyean Dotson duo leads the Ducks and will have to step up to knock off the tournament’s #1 overall seed. Oregon can’t get into a track meet with the Cardinals. #4 Michigan Wolverines (28-7, At Large) vs #1 Kansas Jayhawks (31-5, Big 12 Regular Season/Tournament Champs) The story of the tournament for the Wolverines has been Mitch McGary. The 6-10 freshman averaged 7 points and 6 boards in the regular season. In the 2 games in this years tournament, McGary is averaging 17 points and 12.5 rebounds, more than doubling his regular season output statistically. He’s finally slimmed down to his size that allowed him to run the floor the way that made recruiting analysts across the country salivate over the one-time Rivals No. 2 overall player in the 2012 class. But he’s not going up against Tony Fiegen (South Dakota State) or Juvonte Reddic (VCU). Kansas will really test him with Jeff Withey.He’s capable of shutting down the paint all together. Travis Releford had a career day for the Jayhawks in the 3rd round against North Carolina. #2 Duke Blue Devils (29-5, At Large) vs. #3 Michigan State Spartans (27-8 , At Large) Derrick Nix vs Mason Plumlee Adrien Payne vs Ryan Kelly I give the front court advantage to Michigan State. I’m not sure if the Dookies can handle Derrick Nix (can anyone?) and Adrien Payne. Mason Plumlee is a dominating offensive force against most teams, but he will have some struggles against Payne’s length/athleticism and Nix’s enormous size. He must get some scoring help from guys like Seth Curry and Quinn Cook. Look for Plumlee to face up to the basket, using his speed, when being defended by Nix. Ryan Kelly has struggled with his outisde shot, 2 for 17, since his 36 point outburst vs. Miami earlier this month. He has averaged  only 8.6 pts/game since then, including a 1-point performance (28 mins., 0/5 FGs) last round against Creighton. Doug McDermott AKA “Dougie McBuckets” shut him down. Michigan State will likely put Payne on him. Duke needs him to return to old form to help their chances. It will be interesting to see how Coach K and company handle Nix in the post. They may have to resort to doubling if they can’t keep him in check, but the Spartans have an arsenal of 3-point shooters in Gary Harris, Keith Appling, Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, etc. Even Adrien Payne has joined the 3-point shooting party as of the last half of the season. This should be an epic game coming down to the last possession or two. #15 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (26-10, Atlantic Sun Tournament Champs) vs. #3 Florida Gators (28-7, SEC Regular Season/Tournament Champs) If seeing freakin’ Florida Gulf Coast catch lobs against Georgetown and San Diego State didn’t get you excited, I’m not sure if any sports underdog story will. I think I am more excited for this “Battle of Florida” than any other game not named Indiana/Syracuse.  I can’t remember another team that has captivated the nation’s attention as well as FGCU has in just 2 games. George Mason was a great story and Florida Gulf Coast can make theirs movie-esque with a win over the in-state Gators. These FGCU players aren’t a bunch of nobody’s off the street. Brett Comer was a fomrer Florida International commit and played with New Oreleans Hornets guard Austin Rivers at Winter Park High School in Florida. Doc Rivers, Austin’s father, is not surpised by Comer’s fearless lob passes in traffic. Eric McKnight was a former ESPNU Top 100 recruit. Not many Atlantic Sun programs can claim that. Florida is the best defensive team Dunk City has faced all year. This one will be fun.
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