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The Arizona Wildcats only know they will play a team with black and gold colors in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Otherwise, Sean Miller and Co. must wait longer than most teams to adequately prepare for their opening game Thursday in the South Regional.
Wichita State (24-8) and Vanderbilt (19-13) will play each other in the play-in game at 6:10 Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio, for the right to face the sixth-seeded Wildcats (25-8) in the first round matchup at Providence, R.I., on Thursday at approximately 6:20 p.m.
What’s in store for Arizona with Wichita State or Vanderbilt?
Any high-scoring wings or stretch fours that can cause problems?
Players have been known to go off against Arizona this season. Santa Clara small forward Jared Brownridge (44 points), Providence wing Kris Dunn (11 of his 19 points in the last four minutes), Gonzaga versatile forward Kyle Wiltjer (33 points) and Cal wing player Jordan Mathews (28 points) come to mind.
The Wildcats’ defensive void is at the wing and power forward positions if the opposition has a player that can extend the Wildcats at those positions. Arizona has only one true wing with Allonzo Trier and he is more of a natural shooting guard at 6’5″. Mark Tollefsen can extend but he is more of a rangy power forward without the ability to create off the dribble.
The opposition can spread out and expose Arizona’s defense by having players on the wing or frontcourt who can play inside and outside. Vanderbilt or Wichita State have a player like that?
Wichita State has 6’4″ guard Ron Baker, but he has made only 35.8 percent of his three-pointers and is more of a blue-collar guy leading the team with 4.8 rebounds a game. Markis McDuffie is a 6’8″ wing but he is a freshman who weighs a scant 185 pounds. He shoots only 30.9 percent (21 of 68) from three-point range.
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Worst strength of record among teams in the field:
Wichita St (56th)
Vanderbilt vs. Wichita State: best First Four game ever?
Wichita State a 3-point favorite over Vanderbilt on Tuesday; winner plays Arizona on Thursday.
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Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis, a 6’5″ guard, and Jeff Roberson, 6’6″ wing, can shoot from the outside. Fisher-Davis has made 79 of his team-high 173 three-point attempts (45.8 percent). Roberson had made 30 of his 66 three-point attempts. But he is the Commodores’ sixth option offensively based on field goal attempts.
Fisher-Davis is usually the third option behind 7-foot center Damion Jones and point guard Wade Baldwin and he averages only 9.9 points a game.
Luke Kornet is a 7’1″ post player who moves out to the perimeter often, trying 88 three-pointers, but he has made only 25 for a percentage of 28.4. He is Vandy’s fifth option.
Kornet a poor man’s Chris Boucher.
Much like Oregon’s Chris Boucher, known for his ability to shoot from three-point range while being a shot-block specialist on defense, Kornet has a similar game. In addition to having a green light to shoot from the outside like Boucher, Kornet has 82 blocked shots.
Combining Kornet with Jones — who figures to battle Kaleb Tarczewski inside — that could cause a problem from a size and versatility standpoint for the Wildcats. Kornet can often pull Ryan Anderson from his comfort zone around the basket on the offensive end.
Guard play a difference maker for Wichita State
Gifted point guard Fred VanVleet and Baker, Wichita State’s veteran backcourt, combine for 26.2 points, 8.9 assists and 7.9 rebounds a game. They have 261 assists compared to only 96 turnovers.
Facing a backcourt like that — the best Arizona will go against all season — will be a tough task for Arizona’s Kadeem Allen, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Gabe York.
Consistency for those three guards has been the biggest question mark of the Wildcats this season and that has contributed to Arizona failing to put together a solid 40 minutes more often than not.
VanVleet and Baker also spearhead a defense that allows opponents to shoot only 38.5 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from three-point range. In other words, Arizona’s guards, including Trier, will face a difficult challenge.
What about Vanderbilt’s guards?
Baldwin, a 6’3″ guard, leads the Commodores in scoring (14.3 points a game) while also showing good playmaking ability (5.1 assists a game) and accuracy from the perimeter (41.4 percent from three-point range).
Fisher-Davis loves to shoot and will present a challenge for Trier, Allen and Tollefsen roaming the perimeter while opening lanes for Baldwin and interior looks to Jones and Kornet. Another player who takes an abundance of three-pointers is guard Riley LaChance, who has made 42 of his 116 attempts (36.2 percent) from beyond the arc.
Defensively, Vandy is also strong on the perimeter, limiting opponents to only 29.2 percent from three-point range. Baldwin, Fisher-Davis and LaChance combine for 74 steals.
Either opponent has depth and talent in the backcourt that will be make things difficult for Arizona to get on track.
Wichita State higher rated by Ken Pomeroy.
The Shockers, known for their experienced backcourt of VanVleet and Baker, has an impressive No. 12 ranking at KenPom.com (which features a series of predictive ratings based on many analytics). Oregon is only three spots better. Teams like No. 15 Xavier, No. 17 Texas A&M and No. 18 Iowa State are rated lower. Arizona is No. 16.
Vanderbilt is rated No. 27 by Pomeroy, higher than No. 28 Gonzaga, No. 29 Utah and No. 30 Texas.
According to the Sagarin power ratings, Wichita State is No. 25 and Vanderbilt No. 23. Arizona is No. 12.
Pomeroy projects Wichita State to defeat Vanderbilt 67-65 based on each team’s efficiency ratings.
Vandy lost to Dayton at home this season. Sure Millers will discuss if Commodores play the Wildcats.
Who has Wichita State beaten?
The Shockers shocked Utah with a 67-50 victory on Dec. 12 at home but that was their only win against an RPI Top 50 team. Much like the Utes’ loss against Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament game, Jakob Poeltl was the team’s lone double-figure scorer with 11 points. The Utes do not match up well with guard-oriented teams obviously.
The next best — and only other impressive — victory was at Northern Iowa on Jan. 20 by 19 points (74-55).
Wichita State lost by three points against USC in a holiday tournament Orlando, Fla., and took Seton Hall to overtime on the road on Dec. 19 before losing to the Big East tournament champions.
Who has Vanderbilt beaten?
The Commodores have two impressive double-digit victories at home against Texas A&M and Kentucky — two teams that advanced to the SEC tournament championship. Their best win on the road was at Florida, rated No. 51 RPI, by an 87-74 score on Feb. 23.
Vanderbilt is helter-skelter, losing three games to teams rated lower than 100 in the RPI, including a 67-65 setback to No. 146 Tennessee in the SEC tournament. The Commodores lost at home to a disappointing LSU team that scored at will in a 90-82 victory on Jan. 2.
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I remember back in the preseason debating Vanderbilt and Wichita State as potential Final Four teams. That First Four game is awesome.
Kevin Stallings has gone to the Sweet 16 every time he’s on the hot seat, so Wichita and Miami should beware.
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.