Michigan St., Duke should be a battle
Here's how I see the two name matchups on Friday shaking out.
The confidence from taking Duke to the wire at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge should come in handy for Michigan State in this rematch. Duke prevailed 81-74 in a very physical game in which 51 fouls were called and 56 free throws were shot.
Michigan State is a more complete team than they were back in December now that freshman Drew Neitzel has elevated his game. The Spartans are 8-2 since coach Tom Izzo inserted him into the starting lineup. Nietzel's playmaking allows Chris Hill to move back to the two-guard spot where he has knocked down 59 three-pointers this season. Neitzel only had one assist and no points in ten minutes of play against Duke in December. How he reacts to the pressures of the Sweet 16, especially versus Sean Dockery and Daniel Ewing, will be a key to this game.
The strength of this Spartans team is its five wing players (Shannon Brown, Hill, Maurice Ager, Kelvin Torbert, Alan Anderson) who collectively average 56.5 points per game. Four of the five were in double figures in the first game with the Blue Devils.
As important as those wing players are to the Spartans' success, they will rely on the play of center Paul Davis. He must replicate his strong 17-point, ten rebound performance in the first game against Duke and Shelden Williams. He also needs to try to neutralize Williams by getting him in early foul trouble to take advantage of the Blue Devils' lack of depth.
While J.J. Redick and Ewing have been tremendous on the perimeter and have received the lion's share of publicity, it's Williams' all-around play and defensive prowess that powers Duke. They are in trouble when he isn't on the floor.
Defensively, the Spartans must do a much better job on Redick and Ewing this time around as each connected for 29 points and five three-pointers each. Limiting their effectiveness especially with the Spartans depth on the wing will be important.
The Spartans must be aware of Redick's ability to move without the ball and keep Ewing from getting to the lane, while contesting every jump shot. Brown and Ager have to be alert at all times because Redick needs very little space to get his shot off.
While Duke's offense isn't complicated, their ability to spread the floor versus man defense will have to be neutralized. Coach Izzo has never hesitated to use a zone defense, but if he does the Spartans must know where Redick, Ewing and Lee Melchionni are when they get off the bus at the Frank Erwin Center. Of course, coach Izzo isn't planning on letting Duke shoot 51-percent from the field again.
Coach K's ability to manipulate a short bench has been masterful this season. Ewing, Redick and Williams would be among the odds on favorites to win an NCAA-sponsored three on three contest. But it's been the contributions of Melchionni, DeMarcus Nelson and Reggie Love that helped gain the No. 1 seed in the Austin Regional.
While Ewing doesn't run the point as well as his high school teammate T.J. Ford, he's certainly become a complete guard. Redick, the player opponents love to hate, takes and makes more tough shots than any player this side of Salim Stoudamire, although Lute Olsen may argue with that. If Williams can replicate his season average of 15-points and 11-rebounds along with blocking his normal four shots per game, the Blue Devils will be in good position to possibly win this game.
Melchionne, Nelson and Shavlik Randolph were non-factors in the first game. If the Spartans do neutralize Redick and Ewing better than they did the first time than Coach K's role players will have to come up big.
Defensively, Duke's man defense will be traditionally solid unless fatigue or foul trouble becomes a factor. Against Michigan State, this could be the case because of the aforementioned physical nature of the game and the depth of the Spartans. This game should be another close one and could go to the wire.
I sense because of the way the first game played out that coach Izzo will make this a crusade. There were a lot of cheap shots in the first game and some pretty good taunts by the Cameron crazies and Izzo won't let his team forget that. Ultimately Duke's ability to stay out of foul trouble and Michigan State's point guard play vs. Dockery and Ewing will decide this game.
This game may look like an easy walk for North Carolina, but Villanova will provide a tougher challenge than most think.
It's easy to see why the Tar Heels are probably going to be heavily favored coming into this game. They have an excellent inside-outside game, are coached by one of the game's best coaches in Roy Williams and are playing sharp basketball. On top of that, they are playing a Villanova team that is missing one of its best players (Curtis Sumpter).
The Heels will try to turn the tempo up against the Wildcats because the Heels are one of the nation's best at running the break and that's one of the reasons they lead the nation in scoring. The Heels have no problems with either shooting a 3 off the break or quickly pounding it inside to Sean May. Of course that's when they aren't attacking the hoop at will.
They also do a very good job of running their half court from the full court. What I mean by that is they rush up the court and set up quickly, which allows them to catch teams off guard and get easy baskets.
Defensively, the Heels will rely on coach Williams' staple half-court pressure defense. This team has bought into this defense completely this season and has done a great job pressuring opposing teams all season. Against the Wildcats, the Heels will try to intelligently pressure the Wildcats without giving up dribble penetration. Williams realizes that Wildcats swingmen Mike Nardi, Randy Foye and Allan Ray are all dangerous behind the arc and are just as lethal attacking the basket with the dribble. The Tar Heels know they can get out in transition and get their offense in high gear by contesting jump shots and shutting off driving lanes.
Meanwhile, Villanova coach Jay Wright will try to get his team to continue to play disciplined one-on-one basketball. Wright gives his guards as much freedom to play one-on-one as any coach in the country and they don't abuse the privilege. Because of their discipline the Wildcats ability to penetrate to the basket to attack the rim or to kick out for the open three has made them a tough team to guard all season.
The loss of Curtis Sumpter hurts in this regard because as a small forward playing the power forward position he had become a mismatch nightmare for opponents. Luckily for the Wildcats, Jason Fraser has in this tournament become the inside force many Wildcat fans have hoped for three years ago when he was a high school All-American. His ability to get the Tar Heels' frontline in foul trouble could create an opening for Nova to pull off a huge upset.
Overall this is an uphill battle, but no team has handled adversity better than Villanova. Already this season Nova has lost Sumpter and Fraser for parts of the regular season and they endured a scary emergency landing after taking off and returning to the Providence, Rhode Island airport. After that incident, Wright's team have thrown caution to the wind and played great ever since. Who knows maybe 20 years after the win over Georgetown they have another near perfect game in them.
Fran Fraschilla is an analyst for ESPN.
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