Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday's Elite Eight Previews

Louisville vs. Michigan State (2:20 PM): Two teams who got off to slow starts this season but are playing some of their best basketball at the right time. Louisville has played very well the past three games, dominating the second half against Morehead State, escaping against Siena in the second round and absolutely annihilating Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen on Friday. Michigan State defeated Robert Morris handily in the first round but was threatened by both USC and Kansas. Against USC, they buckled down defensively late to pull away. In the Sweet Sixteen, it looked like Kansas was going to knock off the Spartans, but Kalin Lucas took over and led MSU to the win.

If Louisville is going to advance to the Final Four, it needs to force turnovers with its press. Siena broke the press fairly easily, and Michigan State has one of the best point guards in the country in Lucas. Furthermore, Earl Clark is going to have to contain Raymar Morgan, who will play despite a broken nice. Another key is going to be defensive rebounding; Michigan State thrives off of second chances, and Louisville needs to limit those opportunities. Offensively, Louisville will need to hit its three-pointers and get good point guard play. Edgar Sosa, Preston Knowles and Andre McGee have been solid thus far and need to continue. Also, Jerry Smith will need to hit a few threes early to spread the defense out. A big key could be Earl Clark – Michigan State doesn’t have anyone who can guard him.

For Michigan State, it needs to get production from Morgan. He only played 13 minutes against Kansas and had four points – they need more than that from him. Additionally, Lucas will need to handle the Louisville pressure and be able to take advantage of his huge edge at the point guard spot. Getting another 20-point, nine-rebound performance from Goran Suton would be helpful as well. The Michigan State bench could be a key, as guys like Chris Allen and Durrell Summers need to step up. Defensively, the Spartans have to keep Terrence Williams and Clark from taking over on the offensive end. Both players are very difficult to defend.

In the end, Louisville’s outstanding team defense and the match-up problems that Clark and Williams cause will be the difference. Prediction: Louisville 66, Michigan State 62

North Carolina vs. Oklahoma (5:05 PM): Two of the powerhouse teams in the country all season long will face off for a spot in the Final Four. North Carolina has coasted to the Elite Eight, dominating Radford in the first round before getting a competitive game from LSU for the first 30-35 minutes. Ty Lawson then took over and the Tar Heels rolled to the Sweet Sixteen, where they blew Gonzaga out in one of the more surprising margins of the round. Oklahoma struggled down the stretch of the season, but has completely turned it around in the Big Dance. The Sooners dismantled Morgan State in the first round and then pulled away from Michigan down the stretch in the second. Against a hot Syracuse team in the Sweet Sixteen, Oklahoma jumped out to an early lead and never looked back en route to a 17-point win that was not even that close. This game will feature a phenomenal head-to-head battle between two of the nation’s premier players, Blake Griffin and Tyler Hansbrough. That match-up highlights what should be an exciting game.

The key for North Carolina will be stopping Griffin, obviously. He is nearly impossible to contain, but the Tar Heels have the athletes and personnel to match-up with him. Furthermore, they will have to get out on the perimeter shooters that take the pressure off of Griffin. Offensively, North Carolina wants to push tempo and create transition opportunities. Lawson is much too quick for any of the Oklahoma guards to handle, and will be able to get into the lane at will. The Sooners are not that impressive defensively and Wayne Ellington and Danny Green could see open shots from three.

On the other side, Oklahoma is going to have to really lock down defensively and make it a half-court affair. North Carolina has so much offensive talent and the Sooners have not been the most impressive defensive team this season. Griffin will have to defend Hansbrough very tough, and Willie Warren, Tony Crocker and Austin Johnson need to be able to stay on their men and not double-down too often. If UNC is scoring both inside and out, it is going to be a long night for Oklahoma. Furthermore, Oklahoma has to slow the pace of the game down. If they can make it a possession-by-possession half-court game, North Carolina will need to play defense on every possession and execute offensively in the half-court. Offensively, Warren needs to have a big day and Crocker has to hit his open shots when UNC double-teams Griffin.

Down the stretch, North Carolina simply has too many options offensively and I don’t think Oklahoma will be able to keep up with them. Prediction: North Carolina 85, Oklahoma 77

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