SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Here are your convenient NCAA tournament storylines for this East Region:

The Louisville Cardinals, a team that couldn't score all season, is somehow almost inexplicably in the Sweet 16 and two games away from Rick Pitino's eighth Final Four.

[+] EnlargeBuddy Hield
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesBuddy Hield has averaged 17.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game this season.

The Michigan State Spartans, up and down all year and not really on anyone's radar, is of course back in the Sweet 16 because that's what Tom Izzo does every year.

The NC State Wolfpack, the upstarts that are loaded with talent, are suddenly putting it together.

Oh and then there are the Oklahoma Sooners.

The Sooners are just the highest seed left in this crazy region.

"To hear everyone talk, it sounds like maybe we're not," coach Lon Kruger said. "It's OK. It's nothing we can control."

The Sooners' anonymity is in part due to their coach. Kruger is a lifer, with success strewn across the country, but he has never been a "me guy," a rare exception in profession where the coach is the face of every franchise.

It's also because Oklahoma played in the insanity known as the Big 12, where one team's success melded with another and as always, everyone took a back seat to Kansas.

But the Sooners are not only the favorite here; they're also the only team with a conference player of the year on the roster.

That would be Buddy Hield, a wildly gifted player who somehow never quite attracted national attention. That could very well change this weekend because if Oklahoma is to get past Michigan State in this regional semifinal and knock on the door of the Final Four, Hield will get him there.

"What' he's done this year, the MVP of the league, the fact that he can score from inside and outside," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "He seems to play hard every day. I just have a great respect for what he's accomplished."

The Bahamian native averaged 17.3 points per game and 5.4 rebounds. He's a free spirit with an engaging personality that hides a nasty game. He's failed to reach double figures just three times this season, gifted not just with a pure shot but also with savvy shot selection.

This game, he admits, will be difficult. On the other bench sits Lourawls ‘TumTum” Nairn (owner of the greatest name in college basketball), a fellow Bahamian who counts Hield as a mentor and friend.

"I consider him my brother," Hield said. "It's just fun matching up with someone from the Bahamas. Someone's going to lose tomorrow. I just hope it's not me."

If it's not, perhaps Hield -- and by extension Oklahoma -- will finally earn a headline.

The Duke Blue Devils rank second in adjusted offense, according to Ken Pomeroy, and certainly having a center like Jahlil Okafor, who draws so much attention inside, is a big reason. But Justise Winslow is also a big part of what makes it possible.

The 6-foot-6 freshman forward celebrated his 19th birthday Thursday and also got a chance to play in his hometown of Houston in their arena workout. Winslow’s ability to play power forward and as another scoring threat to the Blue Devils' lineup has made their offense so difficult to stop.

[+] EnlargeJustise Winslow
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsDuke freshman Justise Winslow is a matchup nightmare.

"Winslow is a big key for them," Utah Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "… Certainly the last eight games, I believe that he's starting and posing a threat as an undersized 4-man, really athletic, you know -- supremely talented guy, like a lot of guys on Duke’s roster are."

Nobody else is quite like Winslow, who averages 12.1 points and 6.3 rebounds and is easily Duke's most versatile player.

Amile Jefferson started 26 games at power forward for Duke. And while he’s a rebounder and tough defender, opponents don’t have to fear him offensively. They do when Winslow is in the lineup at the 4.

Defensively, Duke doesn’t lose much because of Winslow’s strength in the post.

"He’s 6-6, but he’s 225 [pounds]," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "[Shane] Battier was 6-8 and 210 and played there. … In AAU primarily, Justise guarded everybody."

Krzyzewski always thought it possible to play Winslow at power forward. Once he did, it allowed Krzyzewski to insert guard Matt Jones – a 38-percent 3-point shooter -- into the starting lineup. It also allowed Winslow to have mismatches on the offensive end, usually against bigger players who are too slow to keep up with him.

Krzyzewski initially attempted the smaller lineup on Jan. 11 against the NC State Wolfpack, but Winslow was still recovering from multiple injuries and it didn’t work. But Krzyzewski came back to it.

"I struggled at the beginning of the year with a lot of the 4 stuff, but … I’m really starting to figure it out," Winslow said. "A lot of times when I’m being guarded by a bigger guy, I can use my speed and my quickness to give them problems on the defensive end, and then on the offensive end to attack."

Winslow has figured it out and his 13-point, 12-rebound performance against the San Diego State Aztecs in the Round of 32 is evidence.

Senior guard Quinn Cook said it all comes back to Winslow maturing during practice.

"When he first got here, he felt like he could turn it on and off and coach got on him a lot about his habits in practice," Cook said. "When he practices well, he plays even better. I think he’s figured out mentally what he needs to do."

No one has shut down Duke Blue Devils center Jahlil Okafor for an entire game this season. That one game he was held to single digits? Okafor scored just six points during a season-low 19 minutes as the Blue Devils jumped on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons early en route to a 43-point win.

[+] EnlargeJakob Poeltl
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUtah's Jakob Poetl hopes to take his 15 points per game in the NCAA tournament right at Duke's Jahlil Okafor.

The Utah Utes are likely to see the Okafor who has shot 21-of-27 during two NCAA tournament games. His 19.0 average in points in the paint during the tournament is higher than that of six NCAA tournament teams, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

So no, Utes 7-foot center Jakob Poeltl isn't going to be the one to stop him.

"He's very versatile; you can't give him any advantage in any kind of way," Poeltl said. "If he gets that step in front of you, it's very hard to guard him. What I have to do is to guard him straight up and try to make him take bad shots and get the boards."

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak isn't going to just leave Poeltl on Okafor by himself. Krystkowiak effectively devised plans to clog the lane in the NCAA. The Utes have allowed 20.0 paint points per game in the NCAA tournament, fewest among Sweet 16 teams.

He's got a few other big bodies to throw at the Blue Devils big man in 7-footer Dallin Bachynski and, if need be, 6-foot-10 Jeremy Olsen.

Both took turns emulating Okafor on the scout team this week, although Bachynski conceded it "may not be quite as fast or the footwork as good." Bachynski said he could tell Poeltl was looking forward to the challenge.

"It's going to be something that you can remember," Bachynski said. "Depending on how you do, it'll be a memory you hold on to or it might be one you want to forget. I think it's great that Jakob is looking forward to it. I'm excited to see how he does."

Poeltl has had a chance to watch Okafor and Duke during the regular season. He's heard the knock on Okafor's defense like everyone else has. It's an area that Poeltl has to exploit to help put the Utes in a position to win.

Poeltl averaged just 9.1 points overall this season, but against the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks and Georgetown Hoyas in the NCAA tournament, he's led the team with 15.0 points per game. He's 12-for-13 from the field in those two games, which is the highest field goal percentage (92.3) among players with at least five attempts according to Stats & Info.

So, yeah, Poeltl should be able to make Okafor work defensively.

"I'll try to take advantage of that; I'm sure he's going to be 100 percent focused," Poeltl said. "I'll definitely try to take advantage of my size and on offense too, try to take my shots if he gives me something. I'll take my chances."

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It is hard to paint the NC State Wolfpack, what with their epic national championship and Tobacco Road real estate, as college basketball's little engine that could, but the team sure is having fun trying.

The chip on the Wolfpack's collective shoulder is wider than a canyon; their need to prove themselves borderline desperate.

[+] EnlargeBeejay Anya
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY SportsThe Wolfpack are counting on Beejay Anya and Abdul-Malik Abu to again dominate inside.

"I think a lot of people are doubting us, thinking that we've run into a little luck," Beejay Anya said. "I feel as if we want to show everybody that we deserve to be here, that we're one of the best teams in the tournament."

Look, let's face it. NC State comes by its doubters honestly. This team, unpredictable since about Dec. 1, had all the stability of a wet piece of spaghetti until a weekend ago. And then a win against LSU in the first round of the NCAA tournament and a stunning upset of top-seeded Villanova changed the narrative of its season altogether. Now the Wolfpack, set to face the ACC rival Louisville Cardinals on Friday here in the Sweet 16, are a dangerous mix of confidence and borderline arrogance.

"People are afraid of us, deep down inside," Abdul-Malik Abu said. "Nobody wants to lose to us."

Well, nobody wants to lose to anybody right now, but point taken.

If there is a corner section of the NC State Prove Them Wrong Society, it's located with the big men. Almost all of the pregame conversation centered around Cat Barber, the one-time Louisville recruit turned Wolfpack savior. Before him, it was all about Trevor Lacey.

The big guys? They're serviceable.

Except the truth is, without Anya, Abu and Lennard Freeman, NC State doesn't beat Villanova. It was that trio's inside presence that helped create an overwhelming 34 points in the paint against the Wildcats and lift NC State to this Sweet 16 game.

The matchup between Barber and Louisville guard Terry Rozier might draw the most eyeballs.

How the NC State big men fare will determine who wins this game.

"They're very physical inside," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.

He should know. Just a little more than a month ago, the Wolfpack came to Louisville, riding a two-game losing streak that included a devastating loss to Wake Forest, and promptly thumped the Cardinals by nine. They won in no small part because Anya, Abu and Freeman combined for 21 points and, more critically, limited Montrezl Harrell to just seven -- the second fewest he's managed this season.

"I didn't see too many doubles," Harrell said. "They had a really tough D on me to make sure I couldn't get to the basket."

No doubt they will do the same -- Anya said as much, admitting that the game plan is to be as physical with Harrell as possible -- and if they succeed, perhaps the Wolfpack will finally rid themselves of all the doubters.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- When Chris Jones was booted from the Louisville Cardinals basketball team in February, every fan of the Cards and every sportswriter or sportscaster who wrote or spoke of the Cards had the same thought -- Terry Rozier just got a whole lot more important.

As for Rozier himself?

(Insert shoulder shrug here.)

Either the sophomore is a masterful tale-teller or he was truly unmoved.

“It was the same as if we had Chris, really," Rozier said. “I never felt like I had to do anything more."

[+] EnlargeRozier
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsTerry Rozier scored 25 points in Louisville's NCAA tournament victory over Northern Iowa.

He might not have felt it, but he did. And he has, in fact, done more, and that is in no small part why the Cardinals are here, preparing for Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup against NC State. It’s also why no player is more critical for the Cards than Rozier.

This isn’t about matchups, though the battle with the Wolfpack’s Cat Barber should be fun to watch.

This is about Louisville.

This doesn’t qualify as breaking news but it’s worth noting -- Louisville struggles to score.

It has all season and ranks, in Rick Pitino’s estimation, as perhaps the most woebegone scoring team he’s had at the school.

Losing Jones and his 13.7 points per game didn’t exactly help the Cards’ cause.

As the only other experienced guard left -- Quentin Snider was shoved in to replace Jones -- the onus fell on Rozier to find the points.

He didn’t, at least not immediately.

After a 22-point game against Miami in the immediate aftermath following Jones’ dismissal, Rozier struggled. He made 11 of his next 37 shots, scoring just 32 points over the Cards’ next three games.

“I think that it’s just, you’re playing with a backcourt mate for so long, for four months, and suddenly there’s a big change and you’ve got to get used to the change more than anything else," Pitino said.

Had Rozier not adapted, odds are Louisville would be home watching this NCAA tournament weekend. Because he did, here the Cardinals are.

Since those initial games, he’s made 19 of his past 43 (44 percent from the floor vs. 29 percent) and against Northern Iowa, a team many thought Louisville would struggle against, he scored 25, slashing to the rim and pulling up for jumpers from essentially anywhere he wanted to be.

The difference? The nonchalant Rozier gave it the same amount of attention as he did to playing without Jones.

“I know a lot of people said I was pressing, but that wasn’t the case at all," Rozier said. “I never felt that way. I wasn’t doing anything differently than I am now. I was taking the same shots. They just weren’t falling."

Kevin Pangos doesn’t let details slide.

The senior guard saw some slippage in how the Gonzaga Bulldogs were functioning. The focus of the team seemed to be a little off, and he wasn’t having it.

"I felt like we were getting a little complacent and during the course of the season, that happens, that’s normal," Pangos said. "But if you just accept it and don’t build off it and change it, that’s going to hurt you. I just wanted this team to be at its peak for as much of the season as we could."

Pangos decided it was time for a players-only meeting.

[+] EnlargeKevin Pangos
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsKevin Pangos sets the example for the Zags on and off the court.

On their off day.

During a 16-game winning streak.

"I have the experience so I just try to tell the young guys or anybody what it’s going to take," Pangos said. "It’s my job to be the glue guy."

To call Pangos just a glue guy is a bit of a misnomer. He’s more than that. Pangos is the team’s second-leading scorer and actually leads them in made 3-pointers. But pointing to his statistics isn’t the way he wants to lead.

He sets an example for the Zags on and off the court.

"He literally lives this," said forward Angel Nunez. "He’s not up late ever. He doesn’t really want to party, he just wants to be in the gym and focus on winning and making sure everyone is on the same page."

For the Zags to run efficiently, it has to be that way.

Kyle Wiltjer leads the team in scoring. Domantas Sabonis, who leads the Zags in rebounding, gives them a boost from off the bench. But Pangos is the heart of the team.

Whether it’s a shot that needs to be made, a pass that no one saw coming, or a charge that needs to be taken, Pangos is the guy to make it happen.

"No question he’s our leader, he gets us going," Wiltjer said. "When we’re joking around, he makes sure we’re serious. He’s such a competitor; he wants to win so bad."

UCLA Bruins coach Steve Alford has the option of putting either of his 6-foot-4 guards in Norman Powell or Isaac Hamilton on the smaller Pangos in UCLA's Sweet 16 matchup with the Zags. If the Bruins can somehow hinder his vision or impede his speed, they can disrupt the Zags offensively. And they had better find a way to do it, or it could get ugly.

In Gonzaga’s 87-74 win over UCLA on Dec. 13, the Bulldogs averaged 126.1 points per 100 possessions, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It was the second most allowed by the Bruins this season.

Pangos, who averages 4.9 assists per game, is the main reason the Zags rank fourth in offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy. None of those things matter to Pangos if it doesn’t result in the program’s first trip to the Final Four.

"It’s been on our mind since day one, and I think that’s been a good thing," Pangos said. "We’ve been motivated and hungry to try and accomplish this all year. I think that showed in our performance last weekend when we showed up."

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – To answer the question, yes, Denzel Valentine has seen the picture.

About 40 times, or at least that’s how many text messages he received after a celebratory picture of the Michigan State Spartans junior, edited to pure Internet perfection, went viral.

[+] EnlargeDenzel Valentine
AP Photo/Nell RedmondThe Internet had fun with a photo of Denzel Valentine celebrating Michigan State's victory over Virginia.

The picture, in its context, is sheer joy, a player caught in mid-euphoria after the Spartans upset Virginia to reach the Sweet 16. The picture, in the hand of editing pirates, is pure hilarity – Valentine, skipping down the yellow brick road alongside the Tin Man, Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion.

But hey, Valentine could probably guard all three anyway.

In a season when the symphony has been strumming along to defense, Valentine is a maestro. It is not so much that he is a shutdown defender as he is a versatile one, able to make his 6-foot-5 frame big enough to handle a post player and small enough to contain a point guard.

And that versatility will come in handy on Friday, when the Spartans face Oklahoma in a regional semifinal.

This game will not be like the one the Spartans just played. If there is a 180-degree flip to Virginia’s rock fight, it is the Sooners’ freewheeling offense. Oklahoma’s adjusted tempo ranks 57th in the country; Virginia’s was 349th. The Sooners squeeze nine more possessions out of a 40-minute game than the Cavaliers.

Whether or not Valentine matches up with Buddy Hield, the Big 12 Player of the Year, is almost irrelevant. Simply stopping the Sooners and slowing down their game will be key.

“Sometimes [Denzel] has made a mistake or two here or there, but it’s partially my fault," Tom Izzo said. “I’m moving him all over. He’s not the greatest athlete, but probably one of the more intelligent players I’ve had, so his ability to do that is enormous."

Valentine comes by that intelligence genetically.

He is both the son of a coach (his father, former Spartans player Carlton Valentine, coached him at Lansing Sexton High School) and the younger brother of one (Drew, a former player at Oakland University, is now a graduate manager with Michigan State). So Denzel grew up caring less about glory and more about winning.

“I’ve guarded multiple people this year, whether it’s guards or big men or a tiny point guard; it really doesn’t matter," Valentine said. “I’ll just guard whoever I need to guard, and whoever Coach tells me to guard, I’ll do it. It really doesn’t matter."

Even a scarecrow, a tin man, a lion and a girl in a gingham dress.

NCAA Tournament Live: Sweet 16

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26
4:00
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The Sweet 16 is upon us and we've got you covered from Syracuse to Los Angeles. Keep this page open starting at 7 p.m. ET as our reporters bring your real-time reaction and analysis of all of Thursday's regional semifinal games.

Who is this masked man for the UCLA Bruins, you ask?

It’s just Kevon Looney.

And, OK, that mask is to help protect facial injuries he suffered against USC in the Pac-12 tournament and not an attempt to keep his true identity concealed. But his qualities on the court seem like something conjured by Stan Lee in creating a comic-book hero.

[+] EnlargeKevon Looney
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsWho's that masked man? It's Kevon Looney, who just might be the key player for UCLA against Gonzaga.

"He looks better with the mask; he’s pretty ugly with it off," joked UCLA center Tony Parker, who is also Looney's roommate on road trips. "... He really can do it all -- don't tell him I said that."

The secret is out. The 6-foot-9 freshman owns a double-XL wingspan, which is probably why he led UCLA and ranked second in the Pac-12 with 9.2 rebounds per game. He plays power forward but has the ballhandling skills and court vision of a small forward. He’s comfortable stepping out on the perimeter to defend.

He has that sneaky strength, too, for a player with a wiry frame. Remember his follow dunk at USC that broke off a portion of the basket?

Looney, who is considered a future NBA lottery pick, leads all freshmen nationally with 15 double-doubles this season. That’s four more than Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and seven more than Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns.

His weakness? It’s probably his midrange game, where he’s making only 24 percent of his 2-point jumpers. He has also fouled out of six games -- the most of any UCLA player, including Parker, who has committed 13 more fouls overall.

When Looney is good, he can be great -- like the time he dropped 27 points and 19 rebounds in the Bruins' 86-81 double-overtime win over Stanford. He doesn’t have to have a career offensive performance for the Bruins to upset the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Friday in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.

He might just need one defensively.

Looney will likely get the first crack at defending the Zags’ sharpshooting stretch 4, Kyle Wiltjer. When the two teams met in December, Wiltjer played like a veteran schooling a rookie, scoring a game-high 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting.

"When we go man-to-man that will probably be my matchup," Looney said. "He’s a great player. He really killed us a lot the first time, so I’m going to try to keep him under control this time."

It won’t be Looney's job alone. UCLA coach Steve Alford will keep the defensive looks changing by sprinkling in some zone and some full-court trapping. But Looney knows if he can bother Wiltjer and take some of his scoring away, the Zags will be a different team.

"Yeah, he can really shoot the ball and post the ball," Looney said. "He’s really versatile, so I’ll try to get him out of this comfort zone and try to speed him up and make it sort of an athletic game for him."

Guards who matter in March

March, 26, 2015
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Seth Greenberg explains why the North Carolina Tar Heels' Marcus Paige and Notre Dame Fighting Irish's Jerian Grant will be crucial to their team's success in the NCAA tournament.

Tipoff Live recap: Sweet 16 edition

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26
9:00
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The NCAA tournament has arrived at the Sweet 16. Our reporters and analysts gathered to break down the big matchups in all four regions.

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina Tar Heels guard Nate Britt, ever the jokester in the ear of Marcus Paige, picked up on the similarities before anyone else.

"He was just calling me Kemba Walker, Shabazz [Napier] as a joke," Paige said, laughing at the references to key Connecticut Huskies who stepped up at tournament time. "But he likes to do that anyway. He gets on my nerves, but that’s my guy."

Maybe Britt was inspired by head coach Roy Williams, who referenced the 2011 Huskies in a postgame celebration during the Heels’ ACC tournament run; both Walker and Napier epitomized how elite-level point guards can impose their will during the NCAA tournament. Or maybe Britt simply was projecting what he saw from how Napier led the Huskies to the title last season. Either way, Britt has repeated the name-calling.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesMarcus Paige has elevated his game in the NCAA tournament, averaging 17 points and five assists.

It might only become more frequent if Paige can help North Carolina get past Wisconsin on Thursday and advance to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.

Paige has been a different player since the postseason began. He’s averaging 17.0 points and 5.0 assists, which is up from 13.5 and 4.4 during the regular season. His shooting percentage jumped from 40.6 percent in the regular season to 45.3 percent -- all while playing 37 minutes per game, which is nearly five more minutes than he played in the regular season.

"I’m healthy, that’s the biggest part," said Paige, who has improved his 3-point shooting percentage from 38.5 to 41.4. "I’m a little more aggressive than I have been attacking the basket."

And the Huskies similarities? Walker elevated a team that finished ninth in the Big East and parlayed five straight wins to capture the league tournament crown into six straight wins for the national title as a 3-seed. Walker averaged 24.5 points and 5.0 assists in the 2011 NCAA tournament.

Napier’s run was even more unlikely, leading the Huskies as a 7-seed to the national championship. Napier averaged 18.7 points and 3.8 assists last postseason.

"When you get to tournament play, I think the [value of] guard play is more exaggerated because they control the basketball so much," Williams said. "And if you have one guy …"

When Williams was an assistant at Carolina in 1984, Steve Alford was that guy for Indiana. Williams believed the Heels were the best team in the country that season and would have beaten any team in a best-of-seven series. But in the one-game urgency of the NCAA tournament, a guard who can control the game often can make the difference.

Paige can be that guy for Carolina.

"I hope so, but I think he’s done that somewhat for three years," Williams said. "We’ve got to get some other guys to step up. Shabazz was phenomenal last year, but [Ryan] Boatright and those other guys really, really played well also."

The biggest difference between Paige and the former UConn guards is they both assumed more ownership of their respective championship teams. (Not to mention got to the free throw line more.) During the regular season especially, Paige could at times be too unselfish.

With the chance to take the lead in regulation of a tie game at Louisville, Paige deferred to J.P. Tokoto taking the shot on their second-to-last possession. During the entire schedule of February games, Paige never led the team outright in shot attempts.

Looks like that has changed. Paige is Carolina’s best player and looks like he’s starting to understand that.

In the Heels’ win over Virginia in the ACC tournament, his up-and-under move against Malcolm Brogdon, who was voted co-defensive player of the year by the league's coaches, helped stop the Cavs’ momentum.

"When it gets intense and it’s a one- or two-possession game," Paige said, "you’re so focused on what’s going on on the court and your sense of urgency is elevated to such a high level that you’re not thinking ‘Oh, this could win the game.’ In the moment, you’re kind of zoned out in a good way -- I guess zoned in is a better way to talk about it."

Had Paige consistently done that in the regular season, he might have lived up to the lofty preseason expectations. Instead, his performances remained low key during the regular season.

A lot of that was due to the plantar fasciitis in his left foot that plagued him for the better part of December through February. It wasn’t until the second-to-last game of the regular season against Georgia Tech, Paige said, that his foot finally was pain free.

His play since then has reflected him being back to full health, but the healed foot is not the only reason he's elevated his play.

Asked about the factors in his improvement, Paige said, "I would say confidence, health and understanding I have to be a playmaker at this time of the year."

The Heels’ postseason fortunes might rest on that understanding.

3-point shot: Keys to Sweet 16 matchups

March, 26, 2015
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Andy Katz gives a key for three of Thursday's games as the Sweet 16 begins.

LOS ANGELES -- Bo Ryan once pursued J.P. Tokoto, but the North Carolina Tar Heels guard ultimately chose to play for Roy Williams.

[+] EnlargeBronson Koenig
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsBronson Koenig is averaging 13.8 points and 3.2 assists in Wisconsin's last five games.

Well, Williams chased Wisconsin Badgers point guard Bronson Koenig hard, but the sophomore picked Ryan.

The latter decision is one of the most significant factors in Wisconsin's advancement to the Sweet 16.

“I think with [Josh] Gasser and Bronson both, they're really good players,” Williams said. “They can hurt you offensively or defensively.”

In early January, point guard Traevon Jackson suffered a fractured foot in a loss at Rutgers. Jackson is probable for Thursday's game. But Koenig has been in charge during his time away. The sophomore has been superb in a difficult situation.

He scored 15 points in Wisconsin's regular-season finale at the Ohio State Buckeyes. He went 7-for-14 in a Big Ten semifinals matchup against the Purdue Boilermakers. He went 7-for-8 from the free throw line in Wisconsin's win over the Oregon Ducks in the second round.

“Well, I'm really happy for him right now,” Williams said Wednesday during pregame media conferences. “And you hate for Traevon to get hurt. But Bronson has really stepped up and has been, from the distance of 1,000 miles or whatever it is, he's been really crucial to their success. I loved him as a kid, loved him as a player, wanted him badly. As you know, made several trips to La Crosse. The high school coach was really a good coach. He was one of those recruiting situations that I really enjoyed, but in the end he went somewhere else. I pulled for him like crazy. I'll pull for him like crazy tomorrow. I just won't pull for his whole team to do well. But he's a big-time young man that I really enjoyed recruiting.”

Koenig is averaging 13.8 points and 3.2 assists in Wisconsin's last five games. He has connected on 12 of his 26 3-point attempts during that same stretch.

Ryan has won a lot of games with Jackson. But Koenig's growth and maturity have helped the program maintain continuity after Jackson's injury.

In Wisconsin's first two NCAA tournament games, Nigel Hayes, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky combined to score 109 points and grab 47 rebounds. That trio's effectiveness has been the headline throughout the season.

And the three players will be significant on Thursday, too.

But Koenig will have to deal with Marcus Paige. And he'll be asked to help the Badgers maintain their poise against North Carolina's pressure.

If he unravels, his squad could fall with him. If he excels, the Badgers will follow him, too.

Win or lose, Koenig will be a key figure in Thursday's matchup.

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LOS ANGELES -- He's not just the Uber guy.

In December, ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil documented the off-court gig that Xavier Musketeers big man Matt Stainbrook picked up to offset the costs of his tuition after giving his brother his scholarship.

But Stainbrook is more than a good story.

He's Xavier's most important player in Thursday's NCAA tournament Sweet 16 matchup against the Arizona Wildcats.

The 6-foot-10, 263-pound big man is averaging 12.1 PPG and 6.9 RPG. He's shooting 77 percent from the free throw line. He's ranked in the top-40 in offensive efficiency among the players with a usage rate of 20 percent or higher, according to kenpom.com.

[+] EnlargeMatt Stainbrook
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsXavier will need its talented big man to help stop a talented Arizona frontcourt.

He went 4-for-5 in Xavier's win over Georgia State in the second round. He finished with 20 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block in his team's first-round victory over Ole Miss.

Arizona has one of the nation's top frontcourts. Kaleb Tarczewski, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley are a load for any opponent. Stainbrook will have to fight through that length and athleticism to get buckets on the offensive end and help a team that's No. 233 in block rate and No. 151 in offensive rebounding rate overcome its size and talent disadvantages inside.

Chris Mack said Stainbrook struggled with his confidence earlier this season, but he has regained it in recent weeks. Just in time for the most important game of the year.

“He was named preseason all-Big East,” Mack said Wednesday during the team's pregame news conference. “So for a guy like that to really lose his confidence was surprising. Now, he didn't lose it for a long stretch, and understand that he is 1A on the scouting report of every team we play. But there isn't a defense that Matt hasn't seen, teams that really crowd him from the perimeter. Teams that trap him with the other post, teams that trap him off the dribble, trap him on the catch. It was really good to see him rebound when his back and our team's back was against the wall at Creighton. That was, for us, a huge game. For our team to have the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, we needed to win at Creighton, at least that's what we thought at the time. And for Matt to go 26 points against a team that was crowding him, gave not only Matt, but the rest of his teammates the confidence to say, 'Hey, Matt's back.' But I was surprised that he went through that little bit of a lull that you talked about.”

Stainbrook said it was a tough stretch for him.

“When you have one bad game, sometimes it rolls into two and three,” he said on Wednesday. “It's tough where you start getting in the gym and shots aren't falling and stuff like that, and you start reading what everyone's saying about you on every sort of social media. That is something I've sort of blocked out now where I'm not really caring what other people say. So I'm just trying to play hard and give it my best. I'd say probably my lack of confidence is what got me in that sort of stretch.”

Xavier needs a confident and effective Stainbrook to upset Arizona and reach the Elite Eight.

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