Big Ten Geeks: Inside Friday's Sweet 16 battles
Recently we previewed Thursday’s NCAA Tournament games involving Big Ten teams. Today, we look at Friday’s matchups for the two representatives from the Great Lakes State.
Tonight’s games: Michigan vs. Kansas, 7:37 p.m. ET, then Michigan State vs. Duke, approx. 9:45 pm ET, Indianapolis, IN
Michigan vs. Kansas, 7:37 pm ET, Arlington, TX
This matchup is fascinating. Kansas sports the nation’s best two-point defense, led by shotblocker extraordinaire Jeff Withey, while Michigan’s vaunted offense led the Big Ten in two-point shooting. Will Withey’s presence stifle the Beilein offense, or will the emergence of Mitch McGary as an offensive rebounding beast force the big man to stay home? Does Michigan become more like teams of Beilein past, hoisting lots of threes, or will the Wolverines stick to the more balanced approach that has carried them this season? I can’t wait to see it play out.
A key to the game could come on the other end, where Kansas’ two-point-heavy offense has a tendency to turn the ball over. As we’ve seen all season, Michigan can absolutely destroy you in the open court, and Withey’s defensive excellence doesn’t translate well to an up-and-down game. The Jayhawks excel at getting shots in close (a whopping 41 percent of their attempts come at the rim), either through penetration or offensive rebounds, but turnovers are often the nasty side effect of penetration. One of the positive side effects, Kansas’ hefty free throw rate, might be neutralized by a Wolverine defense that gives up the nation’s lowest free throw rate. There’s just so much about this matchup that is yin and yang.
KenPom projects a 69-68 Michigan win in 66 possessions, and I’m going to take Michigan by a slightly wider margin. My optimism stems from the improved defense shown by the Wolverines in the NCAA tournament, as they have held two good offenses to a combined 0.87 points per possession. I know we’ve hailed Jordan Morgan’s defense here in the past, but it feels like Michigan is so much more dynamic at both ends with McGary in the lineup. Assuming McGary doesn’t have another “four fouls in eight minutes” performance like he did against Indiana, I like the Wolverines to topple Kansas by five.
Michigan State vs. Duke, approx. 9:45 pm ET, Indianapolis, IN
This is another heavyweight matchup of two teams that could conceivably win the whole thing. The most interesting battle will be when Duke’s outstanding offense has the ball against Michigan State’s outstanding defense. The Blue Devils are a perimeter-oriented team with added bonus of Mason Plumlee’s interior abilities. Duke will hoist threes from every position but center, and it is one of the nation’s most accurate teams (40.3 percent from three). Statistically, Duke’s offense looks an awful lot like that of Michigan, which provides some encouragement for MSU fans–the Spartans are one of only three teams to hold the Wolverines under a point per trip this season (Wisconsin and Ohio State are the others). In fact, Michigan State pulled off that feat twice, perhaps indicating that slowing down Duke’s prolific offense won’t be as impossible for the Spartans as we might think.
At the other end, Michigan State faces a Duke defense that is well-known for its ability to defend the three-point line. For years, Mike Krzyzewski has had the Blue Devils in the nation’s top 10 at limiting opponent three-point attempts, though this season’s edition has slipped every so slightly to 27th. Still, perimeter looks are tough to come by against Duke, a fact that still matters even if the Spartans aren’t all that dependent on threes. The Blue Devils held Creighton’s excellent offense to a paltry 0.78 points per trip in an easy round-of-32 win.
Perhaps the most exploitable aspect of the Blue Devils’ defense is their inability to control the defensive glass. Duke was 11th in the ACC in defensive rebounding percentage, and Michigan State, as always, can be dangerous on the offensive glass. Look for this advantage to loom large in this game, as the Spartans will absolutely need second chances to counteract their persistent turnover problem.
KenPom projects a narrow 67-66 Duke victory in 65 possessions. I’m anticipating a lower-scoring game, but with just as narrow a margin. This indeed looks like a coin-flip to me, but I’ll reluctantly take Duke in a battle of attrition. First to 60 wins.