Kansas State vs. Butler (4:30 PM): A complete contrast in styles and systems, the West regional final will be highly competitive. Kansas State has faced a variety of challenges in the NCAA Tournament, dominating North Texas before pulling away from BYU late to reach the Sweet 16. The Wildcats then played the best game of the tourney against Xavier, with Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly willing KSU to a win. On the other side, Butler has constantly surpassed the expectations, overcoming a first-half deficit to blow out UTEP in the first round and then escaping against Murray State in the second. The Bulldogs then pulled off a huge upset of Syracuse in the Sweet 16, making key baskets late to beat the Orange.
The key for Kansas State if it is going to reach the Final Four will be to take advantage of its quickness and talent edge in the backcourt. Pullen and Denis Clemente are excellent offensive players who need to get into the lane and score at the rim. Furthermore, the Wildcats have to get second chances. Butler is excellent on the defensive glass, while Kelly and Jamar Samuels thrive on the offensive boards. Defensively, Kansas State has to defend the perimeter, not allowing Gordon Hayward and co. to heat up from outside. The Wildcats also have to limit their fouls. They rank near the bottom of Division-I in fouls, while Butler draws fouls at a high rate. Forcing turnovers would also give them an advantage.
On the other side, Butler needs to do a lot of things in order to get home to Indianapolis and play in the Final Four. On the offensive end, the Bulldogs have to be aggressive and attack the rim. Kansas State tends to foul way too often, while Butler is adept at getting to the charity stripe. Inside, Matt Howard has to get points and a few offensive boards in order to provide balance for Hayward and Shelvin Mack to score from the perimeter. On the defensive side, Mack and Ronald Nored absolutely have to keep Pullen and Clemente out of the lane and also defend them around the arc. When those two are scoring, Kansas State is impossible to stop. Inside, Willie Veasley will need to play big against Kelly or Samuels; he will be undersized against one of those two. Butler also has to keep Kansas State off the glass and the free-throw line.
The difference will be Kansas State’s inside-outside balance and ability to get points in a variety of ways. The tempo will also be a huge factor – Butler wants to slow it down, while Kansas State would like to get some transition points. Whoever wins that battle could win the game. Prediction: Kansas State 65, Butler 60
Kentucky vs. West Virginia (7:00 PM): Quite possibly the two best teams left in the NCAA Tournament, this game is poised to be one of the best games of the season. There are great coaches on both benches and plenty of talent and future NBA players on each roster. Kentucky is the highest-seeded team remaining in the Big Dance, as the Wildcats throttled East Tennessee State and Wake Forest before ending Cornell’s dreams in the Sweet 16. West Virginia has started slow against each of its opponents – Morgan State, Missouri and Washington – before pulling away in the second half and moving onto the next round.
The primary offensive key for Kentucky against West Virginia will be to attack the basket from the opening tip. West Virginia has had trouble guarding dribble penetration throughout the season and now often line up with five forwards. John Wall and Eric Bledsoe need to try to get into the lane on nearly every possession. Additionally, the Mountaineers struggle with fouls, so Kentucky needs to try and get the bigs in foul trouble. Defensively, it is imperative for the Wildcats to control the glass. West Virginia is the best offensive rebounding in the country; DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson have to keep them off the boards. Forcing West Virginia to shoot threes would also help; the Mountaineers are not an effective jump-shooting team.
On the other side, West Virginia needs to take care of the ball. Without Darryl Bryant, the Mountaineers only have one consistent guard, Joe Mazzulla, and they have had problems with turnovers all season. If Kentucky is able to get turnovers and get transition points, West Virginia will have trouble. Along with that, the Mountaineers have to keep this a half-court game. When the Wildcats are running and getting fast breaks, they are much more effective. Additionally, West Virginia has to get better shooting from Da’Sean Butler; he has struggled with accuracy all postseason. Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones have been solid, but this team will go as Butler goes. The Mountaineers also have to get their usual number of offensive rebounds; they excel on the boards. Defensively, West Virginia has to box out. Cousins is a beast on the glass and can dominate on the interior. Keeping Kentucky on the perimeter and out of the lane is a must. Wall can get past any defender, but the Wildcats are not a very good three-point shooting team.
The difference in the end will be the ability of Kentucky to keep West Virginia off the glass with Cousins and Patterson. With the Mountaineers unable to get consistent points on the rim, they will become a jump-shooting team. When that happens, they are much easier to beat. Prediction: Kentucky 71, West Virginia 67