Duke vs Arizona, UConn vs San Diego St: Sweet 16 West Region Preview

3/25 Update, Postgame Reaction:

Connecticut 74, San Diego State 67
I’ll quickly review some questionable strategy before getting to the controversy. The UConn Huskies, and their star, Kemba Walker, are great in transition. San Diego State, despite what you may have heard from last night’s TV announcers, prefers to play a half court game. It has athletic, versatile big men that can, at times, electrify on the break, but that is certainly not the Aztecs’ strength.

So it was baffling why Steve Fisher’s squad tried to run with the Huskies in the first half last night. It led to a lot of careless turnovers and a 36-37 halftime deficit. A coach once told me it could be a pride thing—players wanting to show they can run with the opponent—so maybe that was a factor.

Equally questionable was UConn’s decision to slow the tempo for large stretches of the second half. That played right into the hands of San Diego State, which was able to tie the game before the second media timeout. When reserve Jamaal Franklin stole the inbounds pass and found Billy White inside to give the Aztecs a 53-49 lead, Jim Calhoun called timeout.

Commence controversy.

The basket came on the right side of the court and the San Diego State players had retreated back on defense, so most of them had to cross half court to return to their bench. Likewise, the UConn players had to cross the Aztecs’ path to return to their bench on the other side of the court.

This happens all the time in college basketball: one team (often including its bench players) celebrates while the other team dejectedly returns to its bench. This was the case at the 9:20 mark of this game, but what made it unique is that when Franklin and Walker bumped shoulders, Walker fell to the floor as if he had been tackled by a linebacker. We see this type of acting all the time when players are trying to draw a charge, but that is during actual game action.

My initial disgust was directed towards Walker, but he is certainly free to attempt a stunt like this. The blame lies with the officials who decided a technical foul should be assessed to Franklin. Some will point out that Walker didn’t even see Franklin coming, but slow-motion replays showed that was because Walker was too busy jawing with another San Diego State player.

Things did not go well for the Aztecs after this incident, as they found themselves on the wrong side of an 11-1 run to go down 60-54. Even then they had six minutes to respond, so saying the technical foul was a complete game-changer is a bit unfair. But it was certainly an unfortunate call, yet another in a March that seems to be dominated by them.

Arizona 93, Duke 77
I can’t say I saw the Duke-Arizona result coming. The fact that the Wildcats won was not a shocker—Michigan doesn’t have the talent of Arizona yet came within a basket of eliminating the Blue Devils, and exposed some of their deficiencies in the process.

Duke doesn’t quite have the supporting cast to withstand a poor performance from one of its stars—Nolan Smith shot 3-for-14—especially when it comes on the same night the opposition scored at will. Derrick Williams scored 25 of his 32 points in the first half to keep ’Zona within striking distance. In the second half, the rest of the Wildcats came alive, as Arizona went on a 19-2 run to seize control and run away with the victory.

Original Post:
On Thursday night, the Sweet 16 games get underway in the West region and Southeast region. In the West region, played in Anaheim, California, the Connecticut Huskies play the San Diego State Aztecs (7:15 EST, CBS) while the Duke Blue Devils take on the Arizona Wildcats (9:45, CBS). The winners meet for the right to go to the Final Four in Houston.

Below is a preview of the four teams (with the seed noted), outlining how each school advanced through the bracket as well as their strengths and weaknesses. There are also anecdotes from my trip to Las Vegas last weekend for the first two rounds of the Tournament.

No. 1 Duke
How they got here: By benefitting from the surprise return of Kyrie Irving, who had been sitting since Dec. 4 with a foot injury. The star freshman point guard led Duke with 14 points in a 42-point demolishing of Hampton, then scored 11, including Duke’s final field goal, to help the Blue Devils survive a pesky Michigan team 73-71.

Why you should have seen it coming: Is a Sweet 16 appearance ever surprising for Duke? Public opinion seemed to be split over whether the Blue Devils would face an athletic Tennessee team that had knocked off another No. 1 seed, Pitt, earlier in the season, or the Wolverines, whose changing defenses and complex offense can be difficult for even the more talented opponents to solve. It was the latter, and while Michigan gave the Dukies all they could handle, Coach K has a veteran team that isn’t easily rattled. And if you knew that not only would Irving return, but that he’d somehow look pretty darn good, then you probably picked Duke to reach Houston.

Why they may not go much further: The victory over Michigan wasn’t exactly convincing, as the baby Wolverines had a great look in the lane that would have sent the game to overtime. Leading by 15 with less than 11 minutes remaining, Duke couldn’t put Michigan away, struggling against the 1-3-1 zone.

The games only get tougher from here, as Duke leaves the friendly confines of North Carolina and heads west to face Derrick Williams and Arizona before a potential matchup with Kemba Walker and red-hot UConn or underrated San Diego State (remember, in California). Duke has already attempted 39 three-pointers in this Tourney, and another poor shooting performance like the one against Michigan (5-for-20 from deep) could lead to the end for the Blue Devils.

Vegas anecdote: A co-worker of mine went to Hampton, so I was prepared to take the 20+ points I was sure to get and bet against Duke in Round One. Standing in line, a fellow bettor told me he saw Hampton’s conference championship game and “they looked horrible.” Horrible enough to lose by 25? “Absolutely,” he said. That, coupled with my co-worker saying it was “unfair” that her alma mater had to play a basketball powerhouse like Duke, led me to stay away from the game, which proved to be a wise decision.

No. 5 Arizona
How they got here: On the broad shoulders of sophomore forward Derrick Williams, who made game-winning plays in each of Arizona’s first two contests. In a battle with 12 seed Memphis, Wesley Witherspoon grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed free throw and attempted a layup that would have sent the game to overtime, but Williams came out of nowhere to swat away the shot and preserve the victory.

Two days later, in what was a wild and controversial finish against 4 seed Texas, Williams drove to the hoop and completed an improbable and-one basket, making the foul shot to give the Wildcats a one-point lead with less than 10 seconds remaining. On Texas’ ensuing possession, Williams soared high to challenge the shot attempt at the buzzer to seal the victory.

Why you should have seen it coming: You’ve heard it before: Big players make big plays in big games. That’s exactly what Williams did in the opening weekend and is why he’s considered to be a top pick in the NBA draft. When a team has a superstar, you always have to assume he can carry the team for a couple of rounds.

Why they may not go much further: Arizona earned its spot in the Sweet 16, but it was certainly aided by a late-game meltdown by Texas. The Wildcats can’t expect Duke to do the same. The Blue Devils don’t have one player who can match Williams in the post, but they have enough big bodies to perhaps slow him down, and that could spell trouble for ’Zona.

Vegas anecdote: Arizona always has a lot of fans in Vegas, as many as any other school, and they were loud and proud when the Wildcats overcame a sluggish start to take the lead against Memphis. While Arizona held on for the win, it did not cover, leading to the always interesting bittersweet fan reaction: happy their team is advancing, but upset they can’t cash their tickets. Ah, the joys of sports betting.

No. 2 San Diego State
How they got here: By getting the March Madness monkey off their back, beating Northern Colorado for its first ever NCAA Tournament victory, and following it up with a double-overtime win over 7 seed Temple. The Aztecs, as they have all season, excelled on the defensive end, limiting the Bears to 33 percent shooting and Temple to 38 percent. They outrebounded the two opponents by a total of 21.

Why you should have seen it coming: The Mountain West Conference was strong this year, so the Aztecs’ 14-2 league record (with both losses coming against BYU) and conference tournament championship was impressive. Oh, and San Diego St. went undefeated out of conference, including a victory at Gonzaga. They have a potential NBA lottery pick in sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, who leads an extremely athletic frontcourt. The Aztecs have three senior starters, including clutch-shooting point guard D.J. Gay.

Why they may not go much further: The Aztecs sometimes struggle offensively, at least when compared to other teams vying for a spot in Houston. They scored just 18 points in the second half against Temple. The starting backcourt of Gay and Chase Tapley, along with reserve James Rahon, will have to provide enough perimeter scoring to at least come close to matching what UConn and potentially Duke can do offensively.

Vegas anecdote: San Diego St. provided my most memorable Tourney game of the weekend. While my friends and I wanted the Aztecs to win—for betting purposes and as fans of the team—we also wanted them to cover the 5.5-point spread, something that didn’t seem likely as the game went into the first and then second overtime. But Leonard’s two free throws put San Diego St. up five, and his steal and breakaway dunk with 20 seconds left gave the Aztecs the magical seven-point lead. This led to rowdy rejoicing—among friends and strangers alike—in the aisle of the Hilton theater.

No. 3 Connecticut
How they got here: By showing absolutely no hangover effects from a five-wins-in-five-days Big East tournament run. UConn opened on Thursday, just five days after their improbable march in Madison Square Garden, and walloped Bucknell, taking a 17-point halftime lead en route to an 81-52 victory. They led by just three against fellow Big East member Cincinnati with less than five minutes left, but pulled away for a 69-58 win. Kemba Walker picked up right where he left off in New York. Playing all but six minutes so far, Walker has led his team in scoring in both Tourney games, shot 20-for-20 from the free throw line, and posted 17 assists against just four turnovers.

Rise and fire. Kemba (probably) drains a jumper. (Credit: Kevin Scheller/The Daily Campus)

Why you should have seen it coming: You’re familiar with this Kemba guy, right? OK, I thought so, but if you’ve been watching UConn lately you know that Walker’s young supporting cast has been playing well also. With all the big wins the Huskies scored this season—five victories over teams given 4 seeds or better—an appearance in the Sweet 16 is no surprise.

Why they may not go much further: This team has to run out of gas at some point…maybe. Even if fatigue doesn’t set in, inexperience might. UConn starts three freshmen and a sophomore, and has two other underclassmen play prominent roles off the bench. No one is playing better than Connecticut right now, but I still think San Diego State is a better team, as is Duke, should the regional finals be a rematch of the 1999 title game.

Vegas anecdote: Unfortunately for me, the UConn-Cincinnati game was the last game on Saturday and I didn’t have much rooting interest since I had chosen Missouri in my bracket. But that’s what Vegas is for, so I bet on UConn for the second half and sweated it out as they covered the line.

5 thoughts on “Duke vs Arizona, UConn vs San Diego St: Sweet 16 West Region Preview”

  1. Duke has enough big bodies to slow down Derrick Williams. The Plumlee brothers and Ryan Kelly give Duke 15 fouls to use against him and they don't dish out cheap ones. I like the way Arizona is playing right now but if Williams doesn't draw double teams then Duke may dominate. Also, I was in attendance when VT beat Duke (without Kyrie Irving) and was really impressed with Nolan Smith's toughness and quick first step. Adding Kyrie Irving makes Duke significantly more athletic because now opposing teams have two speedsters to contain. Without him, I'd give Arizona the edge.

  2. That technical foul on Franklin was such a joke. Unbelievable that it could be called after a video review! Kemba looked like he git shot and Franklin was looking at his teammates, not at kemba. If the opposite happened I bet the refs don't call a technical on uconn.

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