By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
#2 Villanova vs. #15 UNC-Asheville
Everyone seems focused on whether the Wildcats will end their recent stretch of not making it out of the second round, but first, Jay Wright and company have to deal with a pesky UNC-Asheville team Friday afternoon. UNC-Asheville won in Georgetown this season, so they’ll enter play confident in the fact that they can hang with a team from the Big East.
Certainly, there’s not too much of a need for concern, as 2 seeds are 117-7 (0.944 winning percentage) against 15 seeds all-time entering the 2016 tournament. However, the Bulldogs do possess one key skill that could pose a threat to Villanova: they sport the best three-point defense in the nation, holding opponents to 28.4%. Given that the three-ball has been the core focus of the Villanova offense since Jay Wright arrived on the Main Line, it’ll be interesting to watch which team is able to play to its particular strength in that matchup.
Still, Villanova should be able to control the glass and score in the paint with relative ease. The Bulldogs do not give regular minutes to a single player taller than 6’6″. The team said Thursday afternoon that Daniel Ochefu is 100% following the ankle injury that limited him in the Big East tournament. If that’s the case, look for him to have a huge performance against the undersized UNC-Asheville frontline.
#10 Temple vs. #7 Iowa
After a 2-year hiatus, the Owls will return to the NCAA tournament to face an Iowa team who most observers aren’t too sure what to make of entering play Friday. The Hawkeyes were a top-5 team in the nation not too long ago. They stomped Wichita State by 23 earlier this season and swept both meetings against Michigan State, including beating the Spartans by 17 on the road. However, they’ve also lost 5 of their last 6 games, so Temple might catching the Hawkeyes at the perfect time.
As a team, Iowa relies heavily on shots from behind the arc, knocking down 38.2% of their three point attempts, good for 34th in the nation. Leading scorers Jarrod Uthoff (18.9 ppg) and Peter Jok (16.2 ppg) each hoist a ton of threes, both shooting around 40% from behind the arc.
Uthoff, in particular, is the player Temple will have to make a top priority to stop. He is a complete player, a big forward who is very effective at stepping outside, but also ranks second on the team in rebounding. I’d imagine Obi Enechionyia will draw the defensive assignment, as he’s the Owls’ best chance at matching Uthoff’s combination of size and mobility; there’s a lot riding on the sophomore’s shoulders.
Fortunately, for Temple, the have been quite effective this season at limiting the long ball. The Owls rank 32nd nationally in three-point FG defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 31.4%. If they can play to their usual form in that area, and squeeze together together just offense, Temple might be able to pull off the upset.
#8 Saint Joseph’s vs. #9 Cincinnati
The Hawks enter the tournament on a roll, knocking off George Washington, Dayton, and VCU in succession to be crowned A-10 tournament champions. Unfortunately for St. Joe’s, the A-10 still holds its title game on Sunday. Not only did that cost the Hawks one less day of rest, but it didn’t seem like the selection committee factored in that victory very much in the seeding.
Whatever the case, the Hawks will have to face the Bearcats Friday night in Spokane. In games against common opponents, Cincinnati did beat VCU on the road earlier this season, but was swept in its two meetings with Temple this season. The Bearcats are coming off their loss in the 4-overtime thriller to UConn in the AAC tournament. Given that game was last Friday, Cincinnati has had plenty of rest, but who knows if there are any lingering effects to losing in such a heartbreaking fashion.
One thing we know the Bearcats can do is play defense; Cincinnati had the 9th best defensive rating in the country, according to KenPom.com. If DeAndre Bembry and Isaiah Miles are going to have their usual big games, the Hawks would be best served trying to speed the game up. Cincinnati really strives to slow things down and play a methodical game on both ends; they were ranked well into the 300’s in terms of pace among NCAA teams this season (also per KenPom). St. Joe’s was ranked among the top-70 fastest-playing teams, so the Hawks are certainly comfortable trying to get up and down the floor. These two squads are fairly evenly matched; whichever side dictates the pace of play should prove victorious.