The Most Important Match-Ups in the Sweet Sixteen

Gonzaga’s bigs vs. Florida State’s frontline

No game features a better clash of raw ability than what we’ll see in painted areas in Anaheim, when the Zags and Noles face off. Florida State’s lineup features 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje and 6-foot-10 Mfiondu Kabengele, the tandem of which would give any team problems.

Koudmadje is the tallest player remaining in the NCAA Tournament (we all miss you, Tacko Fall), with the length to alter any shot and dominate the defensive glass. If he qualified for the minutes requirement for the stat, Koumadje would boast the highest defensive rebounding rate of any player left in the Sweet Sixteen. His block rate would similarly rank second among remaining players. His foul issues and conditioning make it hard for him to stay on the floor for long stretches, yet when Koumadje is in the game, he leaves a mark on every possession.

Kabengele is similar. He also struggles with staying on the court, mostly due to foul trouble. The sophomore forward is whistled for 4.8 fouls per 40 minutes of play, often leaving him on the sidelines. Florida State head coach brings Kabengele off the bench, despite Kabengele being the team’s leading scorer (and best player). The fear of losing Kabengele to early fouls isn’t worth playing him for the first few minutes of play, in Hamilton’s eyes.

He is, however, a real weapon on both ends of the floor. Kabengele leads the Seminoles in scoring 13.4 points per game, in under 22 minutes of play. Per 40 minutes, Kabengele can match offensive numbers with the nation’s best offensive players, putting up 25 points on 16.4 field goal attempts. According to Hoop-Math.com, Kabengele takes about half his shots at the rim, making 64.4% from that range. He’s also able to step out and stretch the defense, hitting better than 38 percent from beyond the arc. He offers a real challenge for any defensive unit when on the floor.

Gonzaga may be as well suited to handle a player like Kabengele as any team in college basketball. Mark Few’s front line is the most athletic set of bigs in the nation. Though neither has the pure height of Koumadje (and yes, the Kabengele/Koumadje name similarity gets confusing), the Zag big men make up for it with wingspan, functional leaping ability, basketball IQ and high activity levels.

It starts with Rui Hachimura, recently named a first team All-American. After coming to Gonzaga from Japan, Hachimura could barely speak English and was so raw on the court as a freshman, he played less than five minutes per game. With two years to learn the language and the game, receiving some high level coaching from Few and his staff, Hachimura has blossomed into a monster. As a junior, he is averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.0 steals. Hachimura is shooting 60.3/46.7/74.6 from the field, 3-point land, and foul line, absurd numbers for a 6-foot-10 big man. Two years ago, he couldn’t walk and dribble at the same time. Now he’s capable of hard drives to the rim, face up moves, beautiful post footwork, and even a step back jump shot. His development has been remarkable.

It has been aided, without question, by Gonzaga’s addition of Brandon Clarke. After transferring from San Jose State, Clarke joined the growing list of Gonzaga players to sit out a season, develop their game to a new level, and return as one of college basketball’s best players. Kelly Olynyk started the trend, redshirting amidst a middling career. After a year to tune up his body and his game, Olynyk was All-American. Next was Kyle Wiltjer, who transferred from a talented team at Kentucky. After working with Few’s staff for a year, Wiltjer was the focus of the Zags offense when he could take the floor the following year.

Clarke was a good player at San Jose State, posting 17.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 2.6 blocks per game. After a year on the Gonzaga scout team, biding his time and honing his skills, Clarke returned as one of the best two-way players in the nation. His stats this season, at times, don’t seem possible. In 35 games, Clarke has blocked more shots (107) than he’s missed (105). He’s what analytics nerds dream about at night, ranking in the top 15 in the nation this season in offensive rating, field goal shooting, true shooting, effective field goal percentage, 2-point shooting percentage, block rate, and win shares.

He’s only 6-foot-8 but somehow feels, plays, and acts so much bigger. Clarke is averaging 3.1 blocks per game this season, including six rejections in a win over Duke in Maui. Clarke attacks defensively, forcing offensive players into difficult decisions at the rim or at the mesh point of a pick-and-roll. He effortlessly switches onto, and stops, guards and ball-handlers.¬†Offensively, he’s near automatic in the paint. Clark is shooting 72 percent inside the arc, thanks to a collection of thunderous dunks and a surprisingly deft ability for floaters and push shots.

In total, the season he’s put on display is as good as few we’ve ever seen. Since the 2000, just five other players have averaged 17 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks and 1 steal over the course of a season. Clarke gives Gonzaga a weapon on both ends of the floor, capable of completely wrecking an opposing coach’s gameplan.

Thursday’s game will be decided by these four players. If Clarke and Hachimura manhandle Kabengele and Koumadje, the Zags will roll. If the pure size and skill of the Florida State frontline is too much for Gonzaga, the Seminoles have a chance to steal the game.

Houston’s guards vs. Kentucky’s backcourt

This season, Houston’s success has been driven by its guards, namely Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks. Between the two, they average a combined 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists. Both shoot better than 38 percent from long range on more than 8 attempts per game. Davis and Brooks are dangerous scorers, yet both might be better on the defensive end. They’ve helped Houston play some of the best defense in college basketball. The Cougars lead the nation in effective field goal percentage allowed and 3-point percentage allowed. Davis and Brooks are a big part of that, with fast feet to close out on open shooters. The Houston guards are ruthless on the perimeter, making any opposing guard face brutal split second decisions.

Against Kentucky, that could be a major advantage. Big Blue has gotten better throughout the season as its frontcourt has developed. Keldon Johnson and PJ Washington have both played at elite levels this season, growing into future lottery picks and some of the most versatile bigs left in this tournament.

Kentucky’s backcourt has been more of a question all year long. The Cats grew into a new team when Ashton Hagans became the lead guard in John Calipari’s offense, supplanting the now-transferring Quade Green. Hagans provided a spark. He’s an aggressive ball-handler, capable of changing the game with his ability to dribble drive into the paint.

With all the good that Hagans brings, he’s just as liable to hurt the Wildcats. Hagans has posted a turnover rate of 26.8, meaning he turns the ball over on more than a quarter of the possessions for which he’s responsible. That far outweighs the turnover rates of other freshman point guards¬† on tournament teams, like Coby White (19.1) , Devon Dotson (19.8), and Andrew Nembhard (22.4).

Hagans is joined in the backcourt by Tyler Herro, who is a great shooter, but leaves plenty to be desired off-the-dribble. With Davis, Brooks, and the other Cougars providing constant pressure, Hagans is susceptible to turnovers and Herro does not make for a perfect safety valve. Even if Kentucky isn’t posting outrageous turnover numbers, the Houston defense is strong enough to prevent Kentucky from getting the ball to the areas of the court where it wants to operate its offensive. If Hagans can’t penetrate and the Wildcats can’t input the ball to their scorers on the block, Big Blue will have trouble scoring.

Jordan Bone vs. Carsen Edwards

Purdue’s superscorer has been the best offensive player in the tournament so far. Old Dominion could barely contain him and Villanova had even less luck. Edwards is averaging 38 points through two tournament games, on just 22 shots per game. He was red hot this past weekend, sinking 13 of 28 from long range. In two games, Edwards also played 39 of a possible 40 minutes for the Boilermakers. Quite simply, he’s the reason Purdue is still in this tournament with a chance to win more this March.

 

Tennessee is lucky to have one of the best defensive guards in America on its roster, Jordan Bone. In games against the strong point guards on the Vols’ schedule, Bone has shined, locking down opposing creators. Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins did score against Tennessee, shooting 0-6 in 37 minutes. In two games versus the Vols, Andrew Nembhard scored 4 total points on just 2-17 shooting.

Perkins and Nembhard are nice players. Neither is anywhere close to Edwards. Bone faces his toughest test of the season. If he forces Edwards into a host of shots from beyond his range or always has a hand in Edwards’ grill, Tennessee’s fate looks a lot better. Then again, the way Edwards is shooting, he might make those shots anyway, sparking a Purdue win.

*****

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

 

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