All season, I've been updating my list of the toughest individual matchups in college hoops, and now that we've reached the Sweet 16, I'm looking at the one player in each game the opposing coach will have the toughest time devising a game plan against.
Here are my matchup nightmares for each of the Sweet 16 teams.
Michigan is going to have to account for Withey on both ends of the floor Friday night. The Wolverines' defensive game plan needs to be centered on defending KU's high-low action, in which Withey is the key factor, and their offensive game plan needs to focus on pulling him away from the basket to allow for high-percentage looks near the rim.
North Carolina, with its small lineup, had no answers for Withey on Sunday, and Michigan freshman Mitch McGary is going to have a very tough time matching up with him. McGary had a great game against VCU, but asking him to replicate it against the Jayhawks and Withey is probably too much. There will be fewer transition, second-shot and open shot opportunities against Kansas, and those were the areas in which McGary excelled versus the Rams. KU's defense is so solid that it never gets put in rotation.
I've gotta stick with Burke for this one, even if it's the obvious answer. When you begin a defensive game plan for Michigan, it starts with Burke. He's great in transition, dominates in ball-screen action, and can make plays for teammates or score on the drive or with his jump shot.
The really scary thing about Burke is that you can tell he's beginning to trust his teammates more. He's a much more willing passer than he was early in the season, and he showed a lot to me against VCU in that, even when he wasn't making his shots, he didn't let it carry over to any other parts of his game. That's big in the tournament.
The good news for KU is that it has Elijah Johnson available to guard Burke, and Johnson was one of the best on-ball defenders in the tournament last season. If he can contain Burke and keep him out of the lane, the Jayhawks can eliminate the Wolverines' opportunities to get room-and-rhythm jump shots.
It's hard to figure out how to defend Murphy. Every time he sets a screen, he's a threat to score, as a stretch 4 shooting off of a pick-and-pop or rolling to the basket, as he recently has developed an ability to score from the post. He's also really dangerous in transition, getting open for 3s. He doesn't need a lot of shots to score a lot of points, and his UF teammates do a great job of locating him.
I think FGCU will try to keep him on the perimeter and try to make him defend at the other end. There won't be one guy guarding him; instead, the Eagles will switch every screen.
Every time Comer touches the ball, it's a potential assist. He makes high-risk, high-reward passes and has a very good feel for where his teammates are on the floor. The Eagles use a lot of European-style spacing, and their balance deserves some of the credit for their improbable run so far. Comer is key to this, getting everybody involved and seeing all five defenders.
My guess is that Florida will have Scottie Wilbekin guard Comer, and that the Gators will give him minimal help because he's a very good on-ball defender. But their shot selection will be their best defense against Comer and the Eagles because, if the Gators keep the Eagles from getting out in transition, FGCU is going to have a very tough time scoring against Florida in the halfcourt.
You could almost always make a case for Oladipo being a matchup nightmare, but it's especially true for this game. Against the Syracuse zone, Oladipo's ability to get to the offensive glass, get into seams off the drive, and catch in the middle of the zone to either shoot or get the ball to open teammates will be critical. He's a tough one for the Orange to account for. On defense, Oladipo likely will have the responsibility of defending Brandon Triche, which is important because when Triche plays well, Syracuse plays well.
Fair isn't a guy who can break you down off the dribble, but his cumulative effect on the game could give Indiana trouble. He runs the floor hard; he is difficult to keep off the offensive glass; and his length on defense creates turnovers, which could be Syracuse's best offense against IU. And even though he doesn't have a lot of plays run for him, Fair can score.
I've written about Larkin a lot this season, but I have to pick him for this one, too. He is the one who makes everything go for Miami -- his ability to see all five defenders, make the correct read on ball screens, and either score himself or distribute to his teammates is really hard to defend. He's a menace defensively, as well, as he has great hands, feet and anticipation.
I think Marquette will put Junior Cadougan on Larkin and do its best to push up on him and get over the Canes' ball screens, trying to extend the defense and making Larkin work in the full court.
Blue is playing at an elite level right now. He is fearless taking it to the basket, and that, along with his ability to make shots in recent games, makes him very tough to defend. He wants the ball in late-game situations, and he is playing with the swagger of a player who knows this is his team right now.
I expect Miami to put Durand Scott on Blue, and this should be one of the best individual matchups in the tournament. Scott is strong enough and determined enough to defend Blue, and he's a guy who might feel a little underappreciated after having some tough breaks throughout his college career. He knows that this is his stage to shine on by shutting down his opponent's best player.
At 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds, Early could give La Salle problems. He's very versatile, with the ability to score and rebound in the post and also to step out and hit a jump shot. He is the type of player who has given the Explorers problems this season, and, to be honest, I'm not sure who is going to guard him. No matter what, he likely will be defended by a smaller player, and he will be a very tough matchup.
It's not just that Galloway has a city game, it's that he has a Philly city game, which is a double dose of trouble for defenses. This entire team has a great feel for the game, but his is the best. His ability to rack it and shoot it with range makes him a really tough cover.
I expect Wichita State to put Malcolm Armstead on him, but the Shockers will defend him by committee. This Wichita State team plays angry, so I'm expecting it to embrace the challenge of shutting Galloway down. There's nothing better than a team that plays angry.
Thad Matta uses Thomas in so many ways, which makes him really difficult to prepare for. He can shoot the 3, can post up, can score off the pick-and-pop and has become a much better passer this season.
Arizona coach Sean Miller is taking a page out of the book of his mentor Matta, basically playing Hill as a mirror image of Thomas as a stretch 4, having moved Kevin Parrom to the 3. Hill can shoot it, can rack it, has a middle game and is hard to keep off the glass. Both of these teams are going to have to guard these 4-men by committee and decide how to defend ball screens against them.
Smith is another guy I've written a lot about this season, but he's going to be the toughest matchup for Oregon. It's not just that he can beat people off the dribble, it's that he is so tough to contain in transition. Oregon's guards are quick, but they're young, which means they turn the ball over. Against Smith, that is trouble.
This is the strangest matchup nightmare I've ever selected. Rick Pitino isn't going to lose any sleep worrying about Kazemi scoring on Louisville, but his rebounding could cause the Cards trouble. Kazemi is impossible to prepare for because, even though everyone in the arena knows he's only in there to rebound, he still gets a lot of boards because he treats every shot as if it's a pass off the backboard. Louisville could be a little vulnerable on the boards in its matchup zone and coming out of its press in transition, and Kazemi's rebounding is the Ducks' best chance to generate extra possessions, given that they figure to lose a few to turnovers.
Michigan State is better equipped than most to handle Kelly because I don't think the Spartans will need to over-help, allowing them to stay home on all shooters, Kelly included. But he's still a tough matchup thanks to his versatility, and the guy who will be guarding him, Adreian Payne, is a little bigger and not used to having to chase players out on the perimeter. He had to chase Deshaun Thomas when MSU played Ohio State this season, but he didn't have to do it on a regular basis. Kelly will look to take advantage of that.
On the surface, this might not seem like a tough matchup for Duke because Mason Plumlee is a very capable defender at the 5. But when you consider the lack of depth in Duke's frontcourt, you can see why Nix could become an issue.
Nix is a guy who has really improved offensively this season. He's crafty enough to draw fouls on Plumlee and good enough to score often in the post if Plumlee plays off of him at all to avoid fouls. If Nix and the Spartans can get Plumlee out of the game, who rebounds for Duke? This is a game that will be won on the backboards, so if Plumlee's minutes are limited, that's a huge advantage for Michigan State.
However, one way Plumlee can cause problems for Nix is with his ability to run the floor. If Duke takes advantage of that mismatch, that could limit Nix's effectiveness.