Sweet 16 (Thursday Games)

By Jeff Rapp, March 25th, 2010

OK, I have licked my wounds and made a few “bracket adjustments” so that I may now go ahead and preview the upcoming Sweet 16 games that begin Thursday evening.

As you may recall, last time I checked into Predictions, I stuck my neck out and tried to call all 32 first-round matchups of the NCAA Tournament. Let’s just say that a week later my neck is still sore, but somewhat intact. I came out of that round at 23-9, which really isn’t that bad. (BTW, special thanks go out to Notre Lame center Luke Harangody, who apparently forgot how to play roundball against Old Dominion – Old Dominion! – thereby ruining a 75-percent approval rating. OK, better now.)

But now it’s time to move on and see if I can improve the percentages. Therefore the following is a blow-by-blow look at the third round of the tournament with a quick dissection of the four games on tap for Thursday, which, of course, will be broadcast by the eye network (I’ll check in again tomorrow with predictions for the other four Sweet 16 contests including a look at Ohio State’s next challenge):

WEST REGIONAL (Thursday)

Who: No. 1 Syracuse (30-4) vs. No. 5 Butler (30-4)
When: 7:07 p.m. Eastern
Where: Energy Solutions Arena, Salt Lake City
Line: Syracuse by 6
What To Watch: The ’Cuse is rolling, even without center Arinze Onuaku. who averaged right around 10 points and five rebounds a game this season. Behind the shooting and playmaking of guard Andy Rautins and the all-around excellence of forward Wesley Johnson, The Big East Player of the Year, the Orange took out Vermont and Gonzaga with no difficulty whatsoever. While other All-Americans have not lived up to their billing so far in this year’s Big Dance – Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds and Kansas’ Sherron Collins come to mind – Johnson has been dynamite, averaging 24.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. He will be matched with Butler’s Gordon Hayward, an underrated and talented performer in his own right. Butler has its highest seed in its 10 NCAA Tournament appearances and has been ranked as high as No. 11 in the polls this season. Still, this is being billed as David vs. Goliath, something that concerns SU head coach Jim Boeheim. “They’re as good a team as I’ve seen all year,” Boeheim said of the Bulldogs. Of course, BU coach Brad Stevens could have said the same thing.
My Call: Butler is a well-coached and capable outfit but dominated a bad Horizon League and only had to get by 12th-seeded UTEP and 13th-seeded Murray State to get here. Syracuse, meanwhile, is poised for a deep run and can affect the Bulldog shooters with its active and lengthy zone defense.
Syracuse by 11

Who: No. 2 Kansas State (28-7) vs. No. 6 Xavier (26-8)
When: approx. 9:37 p.m. Eastern
Where: Energy Solutions Arena, Salt Lake City
Line: Kansas State by 5
What To Watch: K-State guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, a onetime Ohio State recruit, run the show and have given foes headaches all season. Yet another former Chicago schoolboy in this tournament, Pullen has been terrific in the Wildcats’ wins over North Texas and BYU, averaging 24.5 ppg and 3.5 steals per game. Clemente, meanwhile, has doled out nine assists in those two contests. Xavier showed some grit in getting by Pitt on Sunday and wing Jordan Crawford put together his own personal highlight reel as the team shifted past Minnesota in the first round. Crawford has scored 55 points and nailed 9 of 18 three-point attempts so far in the tourney. Also, guards Dante Jackson and Terrell Holloway are role players but hold up well to the expectations of first-year coach Chris Mack. Both teams averaged right around 80 ppg this season but K-State could be more comfortable in a track meet.
My Call: Pullen and some of his veteran teammates seem to be rallying behind the fact that Xavier trounced his Wildcats 103-77 on New Year’s Eve 2007, a painful memory that they want to erase. XU is certainly capable of pulling off this upset but here’s guessing Crawford and the Musketeers come up one bomb short.
Kansas State by 3

EAST REGIONAL (Thursday)

Who: No. 2 West Virginia (29-6) vs. No. 11 Washington (26-9)
When: 7:27 p.m. Eastern
Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse
Line: West Virginia by 4½
What To Watch: The Mountaineers have been ranked in the top 10 virtually all season and won three more games while playing in a much better conference. Still, the gap here is not as wide as one might think. The Huskies are becoming highly opportunistic and remain formidable offensively, logging right around 80 ppg. WVU forward Da’Sean Butler struggled from the field and managed just nine points in the opening round win over Morgan State but he returned to his beastly ways with 28 points and eight rebounds in the 68-59 win over Missouri on Saturday. Fellow forward Devin Ebanks pulled down 20 total boards and drew lots of contact inside, hitting 16 of 18 free throws in the two victories. UW’s Quincy Pondexter gives up three inches to the 6-9 Ebanks but he is highly effective in and around the lane. He shot better than 53 percent from the field this season and is averaging 18.0 ppg and 8.0 rpg in the NCAA tourney.
My Call: All signs point to WVU, which manages to slow down high-octane offenses and will be in familiar Big East country while the Huskies, who won their two games in San Jose, will be adjusting to a three-time-zone difference. Still, I can’t help but pick a surprise here, especially considering how fortunate the Mountaineers have been in close games this season.
Washington by 2

Who: No. 1 Kentucky (34-2) vs. No. 12 Cornell (29-4)
When: approx. 9:57 p.m. Eastern
Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse
Line: Kentucky by 8½
What To Watch: Cornell shoots an amazing 43.4 percent from long range as a team and much of the success can be attributed to the efficiency preached by Big Red head coach Steve Donahue. It also helps to have sharpshooter Ryan Wittman, son of former Indiana Hoosier Randy Wittman (another offspring who makes me feel old). Wittman burned Temple, the nation’s best team defensively against the three, with 20 points and 4-of-6 shooting from deep. Two days later he put up 24 points and nailed three more treys in the dismantling of Wisconsin. And yet Wittman has been outdone by teammate Louis Dale, a 5-11 point guard who recorded 47 points and 10 assists in the last two outings. It’s all very impressive until you look across the aisle to John Calipari’s Wildcats, who have resembled an NBA team much of the season and in the destruction of East Tennessee State and Wake Forest. DeMarcus Cousins has dominated the paint and vapor-fast guard John Wall and Eric Bledsoe appear on top of their game. Wall, an All-American point guard, has logged 31 points and doled out 18 assists so far in the NCAA Tournament.
My Call: Most are predicting a blowout here, and while I do believe that the Wildcats’ athleticism eventually will wear down Cornell and take over I still believe midnight won’t come all that quickly for this Cinderella.

Kentucky by 7