— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 21, 2022
Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin, shown here dunking against TCU Sunday night, is the player to watch in the Sweet 16 at the AT&T Center.
The NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 in the South region features a few individual offensive stylists on each of the four teams that could inspire even the most over-the-hill, couch potatoes to sign up for gym memberships in April.
Then again, some of your friends in the forever out-of-shape category may just want to tune into the games to watch the theatrics unfold, just for the heck of it.
Some, no doubt, will be inspired only to reach for another bag of chips, or for one more adult beverage — which is fine.
Regardless, we’ll explore this afternoon what both of Thursday night’s games will have to offer in terms of ball players who have the ability to score in streaks at the AT&T Center.
In the first game that tips off at 6:29 p.m., the 11th-seeded Michigan Wolverines will call on center Hunter Dickinson and guard Eli Brooks to do damage against the two-seed Villanova Wildcats.
They Wolverines will be tasked with slowing down some pretty good shot-makers on the Wildcats, as well, namely All-American guard Collin Gillespie and his backcourt mate, Justin Moore.
In the 8:59 p.m. nightcap, the high-flying, top-seeded Arizona Wildcats will showcase perhaps the most highly-rated player in the Sweet 16 in 6-foot-6 guard Bennedict Mathurin, plus a few other standouts, namely, forward Azuolas Tubelis and 7-1 center Christian Koloko.
The fifth-seeded Cougars, possibly the best defensive team in San Antonio this weekend, probably will prefer to play at a somewhat deliberate pace to keep the Wildcats from taking too many shots.
Also, the Cougars’ two best offensive threats — Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark — are injured and out for the season.
Regardless, Houston will start guards in Kyler Edwards, Jamal Shead and Taze Moore who can shoot and play in transition in stretches if it’s necessary. They’ve also got center Josh Carlton and reliable veteran forward Fabian White, a career 49 percent shooter.
Michigan vs. Villanova
In the opener, Dickinson, a 7-foot-1, 260-pound sophomore from Virginia, has emerged as a player who has carried the erratic Wolverines to back-to-back victories for the first time in a few months.
A left-hander with a deft touch from all three levels, he produced 48 points on 16 of 23 shooting combined against Colorado State and third-seeded Tennessee.
In one of his best outings of the season, Dickinson had 27 points and 11 rebounds in a 76-68 upset of the Volunteers.
Michigan coach Juwan Howard, one of the best big men in the nation when he played for the Wolverines, talked about the potential for a good show between Dickinson and Villanova’s Eric Dixon.
Though Dixon is only 6-7, Howard lauded his skillset.
“I know they talked about the guard play from Gillespie and Moore and others,” Howard said. “But Dixon, when you’re a 6-7 center … sometimes you look at that as slight. But he’s not just a center. He’s a basketball player … a competitive basketball player built with a lot of strength, toughness …
“(He) can shoot the basketball extremely well … (He) plays with a high IQ.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright said that he recruited Brooks out of high school at Spring Grove, Pa. In that regard, the coach knows what Michigan’s 6-1, fifth-year senior will bring to the table.
“I did see him getting this good, and this is what we thought he would be,” Wright said. “That’s why we recruited him. As I remember it — I’m not always good at this, but he visited our place, and then he told us he was going to take a visit to Michigan and then made his decision.
“Then he called me and told me he was going to Michigan. That’s what I remember.
“Great, great kid. Great family. This is kind of what we thought he’d be. We thought he’d be a four-year guy and a great player and winner, (a)champion by the time he was done … it’s a shame we got to go against him because you root for a guy like that.”
Houston vs. Arizona
Mathurin emerged as a hot topic of discussion in media interviews — and some of it was for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with basketball.
The Associated Press published a story saying that Mathurin, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, communicated by email to the TCU athletic department in an attempt to apologize following reports on social media that indicated he might have made contact with a TCU dance team member after a round of 32 game in San Diego last weekend.
Mathurin, who scored 30 points to lead the Wildcats past the Horned Frogs, reportedly was bowing to the crowd after the 85-80 overtime victory Sunday night.
As he turned toward the tunnel, the AP story said, “he appears to be looking the opposite way with his arms still outstretched when his left hand goes near the woman’s chest, though it is unclear whether there is any contact.”
Asked to respond Wednesday, Mathurin told reporters, “Yeah, I actually sent an e-mail trying to reach out to the cheerleader and sent (it) through the TCU athletic department. I reached out to her, and that is it.”
He declined to answer a follow-up question about whether he recalled touching the dancer when leaving the floor.
“I answered your question,” Mathurin said.
Playing against the Horned Frogs, the sophomore shooting guard sank a 3-pointer to tie the game in regulation and then scored six more points in overtime as Arizona survived against ninth-seeded TCU.
“He’s the best guard we’ve seen,” said Sampson, a former San Antonio Spurs assistant coach under Gregg Popovich. “That’s not coach speak, that’s the truth. I was in the NBA for six seasons, and he’s an NBA guy.
“He’s not going to go in and be a role player. He’ll start. He’s going to get drafted so high that they’re going to start him.”
In the Cougars, the Wildcats will need to guard an array of talent that, as a group, averages 75.2 points. The Cougars shoot 47.1 percent from the field as a team, including 34.4 percent from three.
“I’m so impressed just with how (their) players do what they’re told to do,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “Just the effort they play with. They max out every effort area. They’re well drilled on offense. They know the shots they want to take.
“They know who’s taking them, where they’re coming from, and they obviously do an amazing job offensive bounding. And then, defensively, the effort and energy they play with and attention to detail, it’s almost unmatched.”
With players buying into Sampson’s system, Houston ranks fourth in the nation in scoring defense (59 points per game), first in field goal percentage defense (37.5) and 11th in 3-point defense (28.8).
Nonetheless, the Cougars can also fill it up on offense, and the explosions can come from seemingly any position.
For instance, they have had three different players lead the team in scoring over the last five games.
In a span of three games at the American Athletic Conference tournament and two in the NCAA tournament, White and Edwards have led the Cougars in scoring twice, while Moore, who is usually a distributor, exploded for a season-high 21 in a 68-53 thumping of fourth-seeded Illinois on Sunday afternoon.
“Three-hour drive from home, we’re expecting a big turnout,” Carlton said. “But we also know Arizona … has a big fan base. We know their fans travel well, but we’re really expecting for our fans to show up.
“That’s the big benefit of having this game so close to home, being able to have the fans be there and support.
Game One: Michigan (19-14) vs. Villanova (28-7).
Game Two: Arizona (33-3) vs. Houston (31-5)
— Jerry Briggs (@JerryBriggs) March 23, 2022