There are currently eight teams left in the 2015 NCAA Tournament - something we like to call the Elite 8 - and while the overwhelming favorites going into the final 7 games of the season is a team from the SEC, we can at least stop and appreciate that currently, 25% of the field is B1G. With that in mind, I wanted to take a moment and step back to look at everyone left. I might also be trying to gain inspiration for your Saturday music lists by giving you the best rap tracks for each region. Oh, and by best, I mean, "Jesse is doing that thing where he inserts far too many videos because he easily gets sidetracked."
And so... the Essential Elite 8 Preview, now without any pesky Big XII teams...
The Midwest Region
Not unlike the beautiful musings of the St. Lunatics, the Midwest region has more or less ended up the way we would have expected. Kansas lost early as a two seed, Kentucky basketballmurdered the three teams who dared step in their path, Notre Dame shot the ball really well, and low and behold we have the two teams that most people probably picked to matchup with a Final Four berth on the line. Let's look at the two teams.
How'd they get here: Far too easily? Kentucky had no aspirations for being upset early. They beat Hampton 79-56, Cincinnati 64-51, and as you probably saw on Thursday, they assaulted West Virginia 78-39 in a game that was arguably not that close. Kentucky's defensive sets are almost impenetrable and if we're completely honest, they still have a little room to grow over the next few games.
Strengths: They literally have more talent on their bench at any given point in time than most of college basketball. That sort of sums up how I'm feeling about them right now.
Weaknesses? Uh, the expectations to be as good as they might be? I don't know. After that WVa game, I don't like anybody's chances unless Kentucky decides to go ahead and take a night off. This team doesn't seem like it's too inclined to do so.
So what you're saying is... I - and the rest of the generally sane world - think they're going to win it all.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
One second, I'm talking about Notre Dame basketball which means I get to post my favorite Notre Dame Basketball Vine
But for reals yo, Jerian Grant is one of the most fun players in basketball because of noise like that. I've said it before and will repeat it again, there is generally nothing more entertaining than guys who have no fear despite everything telling them they should. Irrational. Confidence. Is. Awesome.
But uh, how did they get here? Notre Dame had to survive a ridiculous scare up front against Northeastern, and save a bad possesion by the Huskies at the end of that game, the Irish might not be this far. Still, Notre Dame survived and then beat perennial over-achievers Butler and Wichita State. It wasn't always pretty, but Notre Dame is now on a little bit of a run. They clamp down on defense when it matters, and if they can shoot 75% like they did in the second half of last night's Sweet 16 matchup against the Shockers, Notre Dame has a chance - a small one, mind you - to knock off the Wildcats.
Strengths: Offense. They have a lot of it. KenPom lists them as the third most efficient offense out there, and they showed how last night. Grant may be leading the way in the scoring department, but the Irish have other talented scorers with Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson, and Pat Connaughton all averaging in double digits this season. This team can shoot, and that is at least something that should concern Kentucky. A little bit...
Weaknesses: Defense, rebounding, other things not offense. Remember that KenPom offense? The defense is not quite as good. In fact, it's sitting at a cool 100 in the KenPom rankings. In their three games in the tournament, Notre Dame has been outrebounded 105-89 with a 41-17 deficiency on the offensive boards. That's not a good thing, especially with Kentucky on the horizon, a team that has outrebounded its three opponents 133-102.
So what you're saying is... I think the Fighting Irish are a fun basketball team that will get the life sucked out of them by Kentucky. I highly recommend that they don't trash talk before the game.
Predictions for the Midwest
Kentucky will win this game by a lot of points, in which a bunch of Kentucky players score in double digits. Sorry Notre Dame, this is just a buzzsaw situation.
The West Region
So you know how I said the Midwest was more or less what we expected? This is probably even more predictable. When the brackets came out, everyone got a little excited about a rematch of Arizona and Wisconsin, but even the rest of the bracket was what we more or less thought could happen. A Big XII 3 seed losing? Check. The team that beat them losing to the next highest seed left? Check. A lot of hype about a kid with a funny last name who ends up not being able to overcome the talent of the major conference team? Check. Like I said, it was predictable, but at least it was also fun. Let's get to our Elite 8 reps from the West. I feel like I should also tie in the West themed rap song, but pretty much every tie-in I have includes drug references, and so we move on.
Let's talk about Nigel Hayes being awesome at life for a second...
Sure, he probably wasn't accidentally making this comment - no matter what he says - but that makes it all the better. Hayes is a good basketball player, but he's also a personality, and while it pains me to admit it... I sort of love all of it.
How'd they get here: This is a B1G team, and as such, we've covered their march forward so far. Go ahead and start with the meme-heavy recap of their win over North Carolina here. I'll wait. Good? Good. So for those who haven't been paying attention, Wisconsin has marched forward with a steady offense and the belief that a late lead is as good as a win more often than not. With wins over Coastal Carolina, Oregon, and North Carolina under their belts, they look to keep Arizona in its place. Of course, I'm not too sure the Wildcats will like that.
Wait a minute, Wisconsin-Arizona in the Elite 8 sounds familiar...
SO MANY VIDEOS JESSE! Alright, let's talk about strengths: Wisconsin's offense has been stellar this season. Remember the part where I said Notre Dame is KenPom's 3rd best offense? Well, Wisconsin is the best. This is a supremely efficient team with scorers all over the place. They can go inside-out, they have length, they have height, and did I mention they can score? Frank Kaminsky is the All-American, and his footwork for a 7' dude is pretty amazing. Even so, Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, and Josh Gasser have shown they can all certainly do their parts as well. This is a well rounded team who has the height and skill to hang with just about anybody. When we talk about teams that can bang with Kentucky, Wisconsin might be the only ones who can do it. To get there, they'll have to take down Arizona - a team I still think is the second best team in the nation.
Weaknesses: So, the things I said about Notre Dame on defense? Wisconsin isn't that bad, but this isn't exactly the Wisconsin of yesterday either. Sure, Bo likes to play stingy defense, but the Badgers have been all over the place on defense this year. Right now, they're 50th in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, and even the most diehard Wisconsin fan will tell you that nothing is guaranteed. This Wisconsin team can generally outscore you at will, but if the offense slows down, look out. Fortunately they're only running up against one of the best defensive teams in basketball and arguably the one with the best offense to back it up in Arizona. I guess it's good that the Wildcats aren't looking for revenge or anything...
So what you're saying is... I'm still on the Wisconsin bandwagon until further notice, but Arizona won't exactly be a cakewalk. Even if they do make the Final Four, I still think this is Kentucky's tournament to lose. The Badgers are doing everything they can right now and they seem to be playing about as good as one could hope. My thoughts? Enjoy the ride Badger fans. Oh, and enjoy Kaminsky's run here. He's a fun player to watch.
So... do you think they still remember last year? "Yeah, well, we've had all year to think about Wisconsin." - Coach Sean Miller after his win over Xavier.
But uh... DID YOU SEE HOW CLOSE THAT GAME WAS LAST YEAR?
Right. Let's get to how they got here: Arizona had to beat Texas Southern, Ohio State, and Xavier to get to the Elite 8. While that might seem like a murderer's row, it was still at least as difficult as Notre Dame, and now they have Wisconsin on the other end of that journey. Arizona had to hold on in their matchup with the Musketeers, but ultimately went on a devastating 21-9 run to finish the game out. This Wildcat team was determined and here they are.
Strengths: Arizona seems to be one of those teams that just feels pretty good in everything. Sure, they might not be the most spectacular team in any one phase, but they probably possess some elite talent everywhere. In any non-Kentucky-is-insane year, I'd pick this team as the best in the country, but here we are. KenPom lists the Wildcats as the seventh best offense and third best defense. They are led offensively by Stanley Johnson and Brandon Ashley, the latter of which has come on as of late, going so far as to win the Player of the Tournament during the Pac 12 tourney. T.J. McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson round out the scoring as a whole and anchor what was the best out west this season.
Weaknesses: Xavier's Matt Stainbrook certainly proved troublesome in the first half, and he's a lesser version of Frank Kaminsky. Arizona doesn't matchup particularly well in that situation, and while it's ill-advised to assume that Wisconsin just gets to have its way with the Wildcats, I'm guessing that Frank the Tank is going to get his, but Arizona will need to find a way to make sure that it's not one of those career days. Otherwise things will get bad quickly.
Predictions for the West
I should probably pick Arizona over Wisconsin as that seems to make a lot of sense, but this is a Big Ten blog and I don't particularly feel like giving credit to the Pac 12 just yet. This should be an incredibly close game regardless. Let's say Kaminsky scores 28 and the Badgers punch their ticket to the final four with a 78-73 win.
The East Region
The Elite 8 has three 1 seeds, two 2 seeds, a 3 seed, and none of those are found in the East. Instead we have two legendary coaches leading obviously flawed teams into battle for what seems like the hundredth time for each. Rick Pitino has 7 final four appearances under his belt whereas Tom Izzo has 6, and honestly, all of this is making me sad to think about considering I am a Nebraska fan and I don't even know what the Final Four is apparently. Let's just move on.
Michigan State Spartans
So how in the world did this happen? Remember that time that Michigan State lost to Nebraska? Me neither... Michigan State did what they seem to do in March and got hot at the right time. It sounds cliche at this point, but you just don't overlook an Izzo team in tournaments. Michigan State was a 7 seed which meant they had to go through 10 seed Georgia, 2 seed Virginia, and 3 seed Oklahoma. Now, if you remember our previews of the tournament, we were pretty sure that this was a path that we thought Michigan State could get itself through, but it depended on which team showed up. Led by Seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, this team outplayed its seeding and find themselves a game away from the Final Four... again. Add a hot shooting Denzel Valentine - who can play a little defense himself - and you have a pretty solid team.
Strengths: This isn't to knock the Spartan roster, but the biggest strength Michigan State has at this point is Izzo. While we cannot confirm he is a wizard, we're all pretty sure the guy is a wizard. The bloviating from the announcers is probably going to get even more absurd if they beat Louisville, but it's hard to argue with the record. The guy has this things figured out. FiveThirtyEight did an article earlier in the week talking about just how good Izzo has done, and it's worth reading. They measured wins above average seed placement and it makes a strong argument that he's simply the best tournament coach... followed closely by another guy we'll talk about in a moment.
Weaknesses: Other than the fact that they just can't shoot free throws? Actually, let's talk about that. There are 351 teams in NCAA D1 basketball. Michigan State finished 336 in FT%. That's insanely bad. I realize that in clutch time last night, they hit everything they needed to hit, but you'd be insane to think this isn't a problem. Remember that year when Memphis could have won a National Championship if they just hit their free throws? This is one of those things that comes back to bite you in the ass at the worst possible time.
So what you're saying is... that Michigan State can absolutely take this to the National Championship game - where they would still get murdered by Kentucky because I'm going to keep pointing out how good that team is in hopes of maybe jinxing them or something - and their inconsistent past plus terrible free throw shooting could get them blown out. In Izzo we trust, but it's hard to predict what this team will do.
The Louisville Cardinals
How did they get here? Everyone needs a little bit of good fortune, and Louisville had it. In the first round, Pitino's crew needed late heroics to seal a win over the 13 seeded UC-Irvine Anteaters that included both some free throws to get the lead, and a steal to keep it. From there it was a showdown with the Northern Iowa Panthers, in which Pitino's crew got all sorts of defensive and while the final score - and really, the final few minutes - belonged to Louisville, that was a game that was tighter than the box score implied. Oh, and last night they had to beat NC State, who was trying to keep a run that included knocking out 1 seed Virginia alive. Didn't happen, and now we have another Pitino Elite 8 appearance.
Strengths: Remember what I said about Izzo? Let's just go ahead and say that Rick Pitino more or less is the same sort of wizard. Louisville was forced to dismiss Chris Jones after Rape charges earlier this year, and it looked grim for the Cardinals. The team was bereft of scoring and leadership, and I'm guessing that a lot of fans had given up. But hey, remember that chart above talking about coaches who outdo themselves in March? Pitino is almost as good as Izzo. I'm never sure what a good coach does, but when you see patterns of success like both of these guys, you just smile and nod and appreciate that they are - in fact - wizards.
Weaknesses: THEY ALMOST LOST TO UC-IRVINE AND WE WOULD BE WRITING COLUMNS ABOUT THE DEMISE OF PITINO AND HIS INABILITY TO HANDLE A TEAM.
Okay, that was maybe a bit hyperbolic, but you have to admit that Louisville is also wildly inconsistent and can definitely lose to anyone on any given night. That said, they are a pretty good defensive team that just gets stuck in ruts from a scoring perspective. I have no doubt that their matchup with the Spartans will be one of those rock fights that we all love, and it will have no lack of knockout punches... maybe even in the literal sense.
So what you're saying is... I don't watch nearly enough Louisville basketball to say for sure how this team will do. On one hand, this was a group that was picked to be here early in the season. We expected them to be good, and while they've had their lumps this year, Pitino is good enough to lead his team into battle against anyone - sans Kentucky (see, this is a recurring thing now) - and that includes Michigan State. That said, I don't think they can consistently score on a defense as good as Sparty either.
I AM A B1G WRITER AND SO MICHIGAN STATE IT IS.
Seriously, though, I think Izzo's team is going to win this game with experience and coaching. Look for Valentine to lock down Terry Rozier, and maybe go ahead and put up quite a few points himself. Let's go Sparty with the 55-51 win.
The South Region
Whereas the East was about the upstarts, the South is about the two teams you expected to be here. Duke is the one seed everyone expects to play Kentucky for all the marbles. Gonzaga is the two seed that had a chance at a one seed for the greater part of this season. While there were some surprises in the Sweet 16, the Elite 8 is about as predictable as anything in this tournament.
The Duke Blue Devils
How did they get here? By beating Robert Morris, San Diego State, and Utah. The first two were nothing more than speed bumps in their quest to get to the Final Four. Utah was a much more challenging opponent, but even then, Coach K and his merry band of Freshman phenoms did what you have to do in March and overcame the Utes. It was a fairly straight forward affair to get here, honestly, and the most I can say is that Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow aren't messing around.
Strengths: Sure, John Calipari is annoying and smarmy, and he does what it takes to win at recruiting. That said, Coach K knows this game as well as anyone and with the one-and-done thing being important now, he has loaded his team with talent everywhere. Okafor is a terror in the paint, Winslow proved how much respect you have to have for him beyond the arc last night, and the rest of the cast can fill in as needed. Quinn Cook and Jones round out the double digit scorers for this team, and KenPom confirms they can score, ranking them as the third best offense.
Weaknesses: Focus? Truth be told, I only saw Duke play a few times in the regular season, and those were against Wisconsin, Notre Dame - first time, and then the OT game against North Carolina. While they have legitimately as much talent as anyone in the tournament - including Kentucky to be honest - they also seem to fall into the trap that many young teams do. They lose focus on the little things. Of course, this is nitpicking on what is easily one of the best teams in basketball. Duke is good. There's just not a lot else to say about it.
So what you're saying is... Duke is good at basketball, and having elite talent to go with elite coaching gets you good paths to the Final Four.
Wait, Gonzaga hasn't lost in a weird early exit yet? I'm legitimately surprised as you. The Bulldogs are actually a pretty scary team when they're firing on all cylinders. They have offensive weapons everywhere, and as long as they remember to play defense, no guarantees, they will destroy you. Iowa learned that the hard way in the tournament.
Okay, so how did they get here? Gonzaga had the 2 seed draw and went through North Dakota State easily. They then took out Iowa in an even easier fashion. Oh, and last night they took care of business against UCLA. Seriously, this was similar to Duke in that there wasn't much standing in their path to a showdown with the Devils.
Strengths: Gonzaga can score points in bunches. Kyle Wiltjer, Kevin Pangos, Przemek Karnowski, and Byron Wesley all average double digits in scoring, and the Bulldogs have three guys - Wiltjer, Pangos, and Gary Bell, Jr. - who have hit 50 or more threes this season. As a team, KenPom has them as the fourth most efficient offense in the nation, and when you add in the fact that they have size for rebounding - with 7' Karnowski and 6' 10" Wiltjer - well, it's a scary team. Mark Few has arguably his best group playing at its highest level ever. This is a fun team to watch.
Weaknesses: I guess we could technically still hold it against them that they played not-elite talent and that is the reason their stat line is what it is, but Gonzaga has gone out and beat everyone they're supposed to so far. While not defensively elite like some of the other teams in the Elite 8, they more than hold their own. I guess the best you could say is that perhaps they just haven't seen the likes of a Duke yet this year. In earnest, can they compete with the elite talent that will get thrown at them?
So what you're saying is... That I'm super excited to watch Duke-Gonzaga because the matchup should be pretty even. The Zags can score, and they have the inside size to at least bang with Okafor and company. Will that hold up for 40 minutes? It looks like they're up to the challenge at least. I wouldn't count out Mark Few's bunch now.
The South Prediction
This is a tough one, but I'm actually going to go with Gonzaga over Duke. Both teams have crazy offenses and good defenses. I just think that the upper classmen at Gonazga will help them over the top on Sunday. It should be a high scoring affair, and I predict the Bulldogs as a 78-77 winner at the buzzer. Fun times, right?
So there you have it. We will have gamethreads up for both days. Let's go B1G, and enjoy what's left of the season. This is where it gets really fun.