This week’s slate of NCAA tournament games should feature a variety of exciting matchups. There’s no question that 16 quality teams are still alive.
But that will change soon.
And the following matchups could play crucial roles in the final outcomes.
Here are five individual Sweet 16 matchups that I’m excited about:
Mitch McGary (Michigan) versus Jeff Withey (Kansas), Friday, Dallas: Michigan’s win against VCU helped change my perspective on McGary. He just had a different rhythm and vibe in that game. In one outing -- the most crucial matchup of his career and his team’s season -- McGary (21 points, 10-for-11 from the field, 14 rebounds) had matured from a freshman to a man. He was active and strong and fluid and determined. But he’s about to run into a 7-foot problem.
Withey is playing like a man possessed right now. He’s clearly hungry for a ring. In two Kansas wins in the NCAA tournament, he’s averaged 16.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG and 6.0 BPG. McGary has been challenged by some talented defenders in the Big Ten. But Withey is a different test. He’s not only talented, he’s experienced. He battled Anthony Davis in the national title game last season. So he’s not afraid of anyone. This pairing could ignite a war in the paint.
Peyton Siva/Russ Smith (Louisville) versus Johnathan Loyd/Dominic Artis/Damyean Dotson (Oregon), Friday, Indianapolis: So this goes against the “individual” premise of this piece. But I couldn’t pick just one player. And with Rick Pitino’s wacky zone looks and Dana Altman’s guard rotation, you just never know who will be on the floor at the same time. But I picked these matchups based on one element: I’m a speed junkie. This might be the fastest guard setup in NCAA tournament history. They should play this game on turf.
Siva and Smith lead an attack that’s ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency and forces turnovers on 28 percent of its opponents’ possessions (second in the country), both according to Ken Pomeroy. That could be a problem for an Oregon squad that led the Pac-12 with 14.2 turnovers per game. Artis, Dotson and Loyd love to go (the Ducks are 48th in adjusted tempo, per Pomeroy). So this could be the fastest game in the Big Dance. But it’s also a platform for chaos. Oregon’s speed versus Russdiculous? Don’t blink.
Victor Oladipo (Indiana) versus Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse), Thursday, Washington, D.C.: There’s no guarantee the game will start this way. But at some point, things could turn and Tom Crean might be forced to put the country’s top overall defender on one of the country’s most dynamic point guards. Sometimes, the most troubling defender for MCW is MCW (3.5 turnovers per game). But when the 6-foot-6 maestro is efficient, it’s easy to see the pro qualities that have positioned him as a potential lottery pick (11.8 PPG, 7.6 APG, 2.7 SPG).
David Stern probably will call Oladipo’s name in this summer’s draft, too. The 6-5 All-American is active on both ends of the floor, and his ability to defend players of all sizes has been an asset for a Hoosiers team that earned the Big Ten’s regular-season title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney. Oladipo (2.1 SPG) will be crucial for Indiana’s offense, too. He’s shooting 43.3 percent from beyond the arc. Oladipo-MCW, if we see it play out, could be the game’s most critical matchup.
Aaron Craft (Ohio State) versus Mark Lyons (Arizona), Thursday, Los Angeles: Lyons has carried the Wildcats to the Sweet 16. The West Region did Arizona a few favors to ease its path. Harvard’s dismissal of New Mexico certainly helped. But Lyons has been phenomenal. He scored 50 points, shot 20-for-32 from the field and connected on six of his 13 3-point attempts in two wins against Belmont and Harvard. When Sean Miller lured Lyons to Tucson, he needed a leader. He needed a veteran who could help him mold his talented young recruiting class. And Lyons has played that role for the program. Plus, he’s elevated his game at a pivotal time.
But Craft is a dream-killer. He proved as much with his poise in the final minutes of Ohio State’s win against Iowa State last weekend. Craft wasn’t perfect. But with the game on the line, he didn’t panic. That game winner exemplified the trust his teammates have in him, too. Point guards don’t like him, though. He’s recorded eight steals in two NCAA tournament games. Cyclones point guard Korie Lucious committed five turnovers against his pressure. Craft is coming after Lyons this week.
Adreian Payne (Michigan State) versus Ryan Kelly (Duke), Friday, Indianapolis: Last year, Payne told me he wanted to play point guard for Tom Izzo in 2012-13. Izzo laughed when I mentioned the idea. He’s certainly no PG, but Payne has played like an extremely athletic stretch-4 in recent weeks. He’s not your average big man. He was off in Michigan State’s first two tournament games (0-for-4), but he’s shooting 40.5 percent from the 3-point line. And at the rim, he’s a human pogo stick (five blocks against Memphis).
Kelly, however, is the definition of a stretch-4. He’s the toughest matchup for the majority of Duke’s opponents. He’s 6-11 and he’s shooting 45.9 percent from the 3-point line. And he’s improved as a defender. He also has a very underrated Kevin McHale-like post game. This is a matchup between two guys who get buckets in a multitude of ways. They’ll be chasing each other all day. Get your popcorn ready for this one.