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One Big Question for Each Men’s Sweet 16 Matchup

Can UCLA handle Drew Timme? Does Princeton have what it takes to keep up its Cinderella run? And can Texas run Xavier’s limited lineup off the floor? That and more ahead of the Sweet 16.

AP/Ringer illustration

Chaos reigned over the first weekend of the men’s NCAA tournament. No. 1 seed Purdue and 2-seed Arizona went crashing out in historic first-round shockers; they were promptly joined by 1-seed Kansas and 2-seed Marquette in the following days. Duke, which brought America’s longest active win streak into the dance, also went home sooner than expected, leaving us with a Sweet 16 largely lacking in brand recognition. There aren’t a lot of traditional powers left in the field—but as a result, the second weekend is giving us a slate of fascinating matchups that should make for entertaining games. Let’s preview the round of 16 by digging into eight key questions that could decide each of the upcoming matchups.

How will UCLA defend Gonzaga’s Drew Timme?

With his team having played Gonzaga in both of the past two seasons, Mick Cronin has seen a lot of Drew Timme. He’s also seen Timme score a lot of points on his defense. The Zags star put up 25 points in the team’s dramatic Final Four victory over UCLA two years ago. Then he backed that up with an 18-point outing in a win the following season. In that game, Cronin threw double-teams at Timme when he went to work in the post. But because Timme is a good passer, UCLA had to send those doubles late to avoid kick-out passes for open 3s. And the crafty big man just sped up his process and got his shot off before the doubles could arrive.

This year, Cronin has two good low-post defenders in freshman Adem Bona and senior Kenneth Nwuba, which could give him the confidence to just play Timme straight up. That’s probably his best bet, given that the Zags move the ball quickly and hunt open 3-pointers whenever a team sends extra help to the post.

If Cronin does trust his bigs to play Timme one-on-one, he’ll need them to stay out of foul trouble. Gonzaga’s career scoring leader knows how to draw a whistle and is fully capable of grinding down a team’s front line. “It’s the hardest thing to do, is prepare for a guy that puts the pressure on the officials every time he’s in the low post,” Cronin said this week, via the Los Angeles Times. “So you’ve got to be able to defend without fouling, which is really hard with the way he plays.”

Complicating matters, Timme can step outside and take bigger, lumbering defenders off the dribble, so it’s not as simple as throwing a bunch of size at him.

Cronin’s team has played a decent amount of zone defense this year, and that might be a useful tool in this game. It would allow UCLA to get bodies around Timme when he’s down near the rim and to cut off his drives with quicker defenders on the perimeter. But even if zone isn’t the answer, Cronin certainly needs a new approach to slow down Timme. If he doesn’t come up with an effective one, Gonzaga will cut UCLA’s tourney run short for a second time in three seasons.

Can Miami’s backcourt handle Houston’s pressure defense?

Houston’s no. 1–ranked defense is built on disruption. Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars attack specific areas of opposing offenses in an effort to throw off their timing and force contested jumpers late in the shot clock. For example, if a team runs pick-and-roll, the screener’s defender will almost always hedge it aggressively, aiming to get the ball handler to retreat toward half court and pick up his dribble. It’s been a tremendously successful strategy this season, as Houston ranks third in pick-and-roll defense, per Synergy. And it’s a tactic Miami, a team that runs a lot of ball screens for its talented backcourt, will have to reckon with on Friday if it’s going to stand a chance.

Having Isaiah Wong on your team is a pretty good answer to aggressive pick-and-roll coverages. At 6-foot-4, he has the height to see over those double-teams and make skip passes to open shooters. Houston’s opponents have also found some success by slipping the screen early or having the screener cut his roll to the basket short so the ball handler can get rid of the ball before the trap gets there, and Wong is capable of making those all day. He also has the ability to split those doubles and create offense for himself or others against a rotating defense. Indiana couldn’t keep him out of the lane in Miami’s second-round win.

The ACC Player of the Year won’t be the best player on the court on Friday night, but he will be the most important one. If Wong is unable to handle Houston’s pressure, this game will get away from Miami in a hurry. If he can, we could be in for one of the more entertaining games of the tournament.

Does Xavier have the depth to hang with Texas for 40 minutes?

Xavier’s bench players combined to play just 24.8 percent of the team’s minutes this season. That ranks 310th in the country, and coach Sean Miller has had to shorten his rotation even further—down to just seven players—after a season-ending injury to big man Zach Freemantle. This Musketeers team is painfully thin. The starters rarely leave the court for more than a quick breather. And foul trouble can leave them option-less.

Texas coach Rodney Terry doesn’t have to worry about any of that. The Longhorns rotation goes nine deep, which helps them sustain a faster pace and a more aggressive style of defense. Texas can’t match Xavier’s offensive firepower, but if this turns into a running game, the Big 12 champs should be able to outlast their Sweet 16 opponents.

Xavier generally plays at a quick pace but has slowed things of late. Expect that to continue against Texas. In Colby Jones and Souley Boum, Miller has two penetrators he can rely on to create offense in the half court. When those two are attacking the rim, it opens up space for big Jack Nunge on the interior and sharpshooter Adam Kunkel on the outside. Penn State was able to take a second-half lead on the Horns by infiltrating the paint and kicking the ball out for 3s. Jones and Boum can wreak similar havoc—but they’ll need to be well-rested if they’re going to do it for a full 40 minutes.

Can Michigan State cope with K-State’s athleticism?

It’s March, so of course Tom Izzo’s team is peaking. His Spartans are back in the Sweet 16 yet again after grinding down USC and Marquette with hard-nosed defense and a disciplined half-court offense. That sounds like your typical Izzo-coached team. But while the results are familiar, the method isn’t. This isn’t the most talented team Michigan State has brought to the Sweet 16. AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker form a strong backcourt and Joey Hauser is great from deep, but Walker was the only Spartan to make an All–Big Ten team. And, overall, the team lacks athleticism and has to play a more conservative brand of defense. Per, Michigan State ranks 275th in Hakeem Percentage, which measures how often a defense steals the ball or blocks a shot.

Now here’s the issue: Kansas State can run and jump with any team in the country, and having played a rigorous conference slate in the Big 12, they’re also comfortable operating in a grind-it-out, half-court game. No matter the pace, staying in front of these Wildcats can be tough. Keyontae Johnson is a big, strong wing with a soft touch from deep and NBA-level hops. Point guard Markquis Nowell is undersized but might be the quickest player left in the tournament. K-State will put Nowell in a lot of ball screens, and that will be tough on Michigan State’s bigs, who won’t be able to sag off and contain his dribble without conceding midrange jumpers and floaters.

Michigan State has no chance if this turns into a track meet. It’ll need to protect the ball and make shots to slow things down and keep K-State out of its transition game. Izzo is a master at bending games—especially tournament games—to his liking, so I wouldn’t count out the Spartans even if they are outmatched on paper.

How will Arkansas fare without a size advantage?

My bracket is mostly in shambles, but I did manage to call Arkansas over Kansas. Not that it was that difficult to predict. The Jayhawks were good, but they had one major flaw: They weren’t very big. The Razorbacks’ point guard, Anthony Black, is the same height as Kansas’s center, K.J. Adams. I figured Arkansas’s size would overwhelm and wear down a thin Kansas front line. That’s what happened. The Hogs grabbed rebounds on 40.5 percent of their own misses; they shot 60 percent in the paint; and they went to the line 26 times. That’s how you win a game despite making only three shots from deep.

UConn offers a much bigger challenge. I mean that literally. The Huskies—the nation’s 28th tallest team, per KenPom—are led by big man Adama Sanogo. He’s a bully on the boards, he blocks shots, and he’s an impossible cover in the post, averaging 1.04 points on post-ups (86th percentile), per Synergy. Behind him is 7-foot-2 freshman Donovan Clingan, who’s already blocked five shots through two tournament games. Even UConn’s wings, Jordan Hawkins (6-foot-5) and Andre Jackson (6-foot-6), have size and length. The Huskies do not start a player shorter than 6-foot-5. Arkansas is in for a much tougher fight on the interior. Eric Musselman will need to tweak his game plan if he’s going to have any hope of whipping his shirt off after this one.

That won’t be easy. The Razorbacks have followed the same script all season: They don’t shoot a lot of 3s, and they’re not overly accurate when they do. Only nine schools made fewer 3s per game this season. If the shots aren’t falling Thursday night, Arkansas will just have to take its chances attacking UConn’s bigs. The Huskies are foul-prone, and Musselman’s team draws whistles at a high rate. But Arkansas will have to get to the rim early and often—that’s the most realistic path to victory.

Can Florida Atlantic keep Tennessee off the offensive glass?

Tennessee wants to make this game unwatchable. If Rick Barnes has his way, it will be excruciatingly slow and brutally physical. First team to 60 wins. That’s how Tennessee approaches every game. As senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua put it after the round of 32 win over Duke, the Vols bring teams “into the mud.” Tennessee is mostly known for its hard-nosed defense, but that physicality has been an asset on both sides of the court. The Vols have struggled to shoot this season, ranking 218th in 3-point-shooting percentage, and Zakai Zeigler’s late-season injury cost them their most reliable source of offense. But Tennessee has overcome all those bricks by mauling the offensive glass. Only six schools have rebounded their misses at a higher rate, per KenPom, which has helped keep the Vols afloat.

Ending defensive possessions after a miss is a priority for every team, but it will be especially important for Florida Atlantic in this matchup. The Owls like to get out on the break and set a quick pace, which is harder to do if wings have to stay back to help on the glass. In 7-foot-1 center Vladislav Goldin and star guard Johnell Davis, Florida Atlantic has two of the better defensive rebounders at their respective positions, so they may be just fine without taking extra precautions. And Davis, who grabbed 12 boards in the second-round win over Fairleigh Dickinson, is particularly dangerous when he grabs a board and immediately leads the break. The sophomore ranks 166th (out of more than 3,000 players) with 102 points scored in transition, per Synergy. He’ll need to add to that total if the Owls are going to hang with their SEC competition.

Scoring against this nasty Tennessee team in half-court situations has been a daunting task all year. The Vols have surrendered 0.76 points per possession in the half court—only two teams have been stingier in those situations, according to Synergy. When Tennessee can drag games into the mud, to steal a phrase from Nkamhoua, it rarely loses. FAU’s task will be keeping that from happening.

How many Alabama 3s will San Diego State be willing to give up?

Judging by the data, the answer is “a lot of them.” San Diego State is generally content to give up perimeter shots if it means cutting off driving and passing lanes to the interior. That pack-line style of defense has helped the Aztecs finish in the top 10 in defensive efficiency in three of the past four years. But good, and willing, 3-point-shooting teams can create issues for the defensive scheme. And unfortunately for SDSU, Alabama is one of those teams.

Nate Oats, with his endless supply of talent, has taken the “space and pace” philosophy to the extreme this year. Bama rarely shoots midrange jump shots. Only 4.2 percent of its attempts have come from that range, the lowest rate in the country according to

Against better shooting teams, San Diego State won’t help nearly as much on drives, but in Brandon Miller and Jahvon Quinerly, Alabama has two players who can consistently exploit that extra space. Maybe Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher can strike the right balance—where his defense gets pressure on shooters but can still cut off drives for Miller and Quinerly—but against a dynamic offense, he may just have to pick his poison and live with the result. If his backcourt can’t contain Alabama’s dribble drives, spreading out the defense to take away the 3 would be the most efficient option.

Can Princeton’s Tosan Evbuomwan counteract Ryan Kalkbrenner’s rim protection?

Princeton doesn’t see a lot of 7-footers in the Ivy League, so playing against Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner could take some getting used to. The 7-foot-1 junior cuts an imposing figure in front of the rim, and coach Greg McDermott has built Creighton’s entire defense, which ranks 13th in defensive efficiency, around that interior presence. The Tigers managed the challenge of playing against Oumar Ballo and Azuolas Tubelis just fine in the first round, but neither of Arizona’s big men can match Kalkbrenner’s defensive prowess. The Creighton center just won his second Big East Defensive Player of the Year award last week.

The Tigers may have the counter to Kalkbrenner in forward Tosan Evbuomwan. He’s nominally a power forward—and will play the 5 for large chunks of games—but he functions more like a point guard and acts as the playmaking hub for the Tigers offense. Having a big man who can handle the ball on the perimeter creates awkward matchups for opposing bigs. Evbuomwan has the handle to take them off the dribble, collapse the defense, and create for others. He can even do it against some wing defenders.

As good as Kalkbrenner is at defending the rim, he does like to chase blocks. When he whiffs or over-helps, it creates easy opportunities for putbacks and dunks. Evbuomwan, who’s averaging 4.7 assists per game, is crafty enough to catch Creighton’s big man out of position if he can beat his defender off the dribble and access the paint.

I do wonder whether Princeton will go small more often in this game to draw Kalkbrenner away from the basket. Evbuomwan has spent a lot of time at the 5 for the Tigers, so it wouldn’t be totally out of character for coach Mitch Henderson. Kalkbrenner is a bit stiff and would have a hard time sticking in front of Evbuomwan—or any of the other smaller players on the court. That would create a size mismatch on the other end, of course, but Kalkbrenner isn’t a great post-up player and scores most of his points on lobs and putbacks, which Princeton can prevent with active, high-effort defense. Given the size disparity in this one, how the coaches decide to match up will go a long way in deciding the outcome.