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Prospect Watch: what to watch for in the Elite Eight

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This weekend presents a number of intriguing prospect matches, the kind we’ve been waiting for all tournament

Rhode Island v Duke Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Every year there are plenty of upsets and mayhem, but with an odd distribution of the victorious underdogs this season, we’re left with a somewhat lopsided bracket as we whittle down the competition to four. Much of the premiere draft talent is gone, but for draft diehards, there is still plenty to chew on in our four elite eight matchups.

With games split between Saturday and Sunday, this is your one-stop-shop weekend watching guide.


SATURDAY

Loyola-Chicago vs Kansas St - 5:09 CT (TBS)

Well. If you had this regional final on your bracket, goodonya, and you’re a liar. Faithful readers of Prospect Watch know that I am a devout Loyola-Chicago stan. The story is just too much fun.

LUC shares the ball so well and has contributors all over the floor, so if one player is cold, another steps up. That was the case Thursday night when their closest thing to an NBA prospect, Donte Ingram, was fairly unproductive. He was bolstered by junior leader Clayton Custer and the shooting of Marques Townes.

This matchup is interesting because both teams like to use smaller lineups. Kansas State may still get only limited production from their best offensive weapon, junior forward Dean Wade. He played eight minutes Thursday, recovering from a foot injury, but it didn’t matter. Kansas State found their leader in sophomore Xavier Sneed, who looked absolutely unstoppable against the length and athleticism of Kentucky; posting 22 points (7-of-14 from the field, 5-of-8 from three) and nine rebounds. It’s possible this tournament run will help Sneed make his draft case next season.

Michigan vs Florida St - 7:49 CT (TBS)

The West regional semifinals saw another upset and an utter blowout, with Gonzaga and Texas A&M getting run out of the gym. Michigan put on a wire-to-wire offensive performance that was something to behold, hitting 10 threes in the first half, and shooting 14-of-24 on the game. Florida State dominated in the second half up against a Bulldogs squad on a 16-game win streak.

The Seminoles, an underdog in all three games, steal wins with a cast of contributors — seven different players average at least seven points per game this season. The potential of freshman Mfiondu Kabengele, the 6’9, 235 pound Canadian forward who comes off the bench and averages only 14 minutes per game, is taking shape. He spends time as the Noles’ five, but has the ability to stretch the floor (10-of-26 from three), as well as a strong frame, solid length, and great instincts. With per-40 minute averages of 20 points and 12.7 rebounds, scouts will have their eyes on his play across from Michigan’s best player.

The Wolverines big man Mo Wagner busted out of his slump Thursday night, posting 21 points (8-of-12, 3-of-3 from deep). He was supported by a stellar game from guards Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman on the perimeter. Wagner is still the most interesting draft prospect from the group. He has holes in his game, but could be a solid stretch five off the bench in the NBA, with the sort of shooting, energy, and passion he brings to the floor.

SUNDAY

Villanova vs Texas Tech - 1:20 CT (CBS)

Nova got a serious test from the feisty Mountaineers Friday night. But Jalen Brunson, along with the outside firepower of Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman (combined 8-of-12 from three), were the difference for the Wildcats. Coach Jay Wright said after the game that it was the most physically and mentally challenging game they’ve played in some time. Still, there’s no rest for the weary as Nova faces another stout Big 12 defense in Texas Tech. The Red Raiders did work against a solid, but beat up, Purdue squad, pulling away in the second half.

This is a really great matchup of two teams playing at a high level. To start, we’ll have another premiere point guard battle in Jalen Brunson and Keenan Evans — two veteran guards with elite playmaking skills. Their styles differ some, and both will be looking to impose themselves early.

At Prospect Watch, we’re most excited for the Mikal Bridges versus Zhaire Smith battle. Because of how the Red Raiders use the versatile Smith, we may see them opposite each other only for stretches. Instead, we should get some of Bridges guarding Evans, as Villanova will want to slow down the core of the Tech offense. The Red Raiders have a crew of lengthy athletic combo wings and forwards that they throw all over the floor. This is the sort of clash you’d expect in a final four game, and we’re lucky to get it a round early.

Duke vs Kansas - 4:05 CT (CBS)

We’re finally getting a real blue blood battle, with two teams clicking at the right time. Though both Duke and Kansas have let teams stick around a little longer than they should, their best players are playing well at the right time.

Prospect Watch will definitely have eyes on the post, where Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. will have to deal with Kansas mountain Udoka Azubuike. The seven-foot, 280 pound (one more time: SEVEN FOOT, 280 POUND) sophomore center has returned from injury and was effective in 25 minutes against Clemson (14 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks). Bagley and Carter complement each other offensively and cover for each other defensively in the zone. But they will have their hands full.

On the perimeter, look for Duke senior Grayson Allen and freshman Gary Trent Jr. as they try to contain the Jayhawks’ perimeter crew of Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and LaGerald Vick. Kansas can throw a lot of different weapons at you, and they should be able to find a number of ways to attack Duke’s zone. Newman in particular is playing his best basketball at the right time.

See you next week to break down our final four!