Tuesday, July 14, 2020

NCAA Tournament projection: West Region Elite Eight

April 5, 2020
Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman (23) defends the ball against LSU’s forward Darius Days (22) and guard Skylar Mays (4) during the game against LSU at Capital One Arena on March 29, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Tigers, 80-63.
Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman (23) defends the ball against LSU’s forward Darius Days (22) and guard Skylar Mays (4) during the game against LSU at Capital One Arena on March 29, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Tigers, 80-63. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

Yes, we don’t have March Madness, but because of great minds like Joe Lunardi at ESPN, we can have a glimpse at what the bracket might have looked like. In the latest State News series, we analyze and project what the NCAA tournament may have looked like, round by round, region by region.

Here is our projection of the West Region Elite Eight.

No. 6 BYU vs. No. 8 Louisiana State

Preview: After a mostly boring first round, the West got about as weird as it could get to stage a high-stakes showdown that nobody saw coming. Louisiana State returns to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2006 amid Will Wade’s first NCAA Tournament wins as head coach of the Tigers, a run headlined by a massive upset over No. 1-seed Gonzaga and an FBI investigation into Wade.

LSU’s surprising run wouldn’t have been possible without the transcendent play of Skylar Mays and Trendon Watford, and they’ve been duly rewarded for their efforts; both players have shot up NBA draft boards with each and every game showcasing their abilities. However, as we’ve seen in many tournaments before, talent doesn’t always make the best story and that sentiment applies perfectly to this matchup.

Enter BYU. Despite earning a higher-seed than LSU, the Cougars have shocked the nation in Mark Pope’s first year as head coach with their improbable run to the regional final. BYU’s humility and explosive offense have made them an easy team to root for in a tournament that has seen high-seeds mount deep runs. The support will surely be on display in Los Angeles but can the Cougars give LSU a run for their money?

LSU’s offense has improved throughout the tournament, and there’s little doubt that they’ll be able to contend with BYU’s gaudy shooting statistics. With this, fans should anticipate a high-scoring contest, but there’s a lot more to look for. Expect a battle on the boards between Yoeli Childs and Darius Days and an aggressive defensive attack from BYU. Momentum won’t be much of an issue for either team to acquire but maintaining it will be the key in a game that seems destined to go down to the wire.

From a seeding perspective, this matchup doesn’t bode well for the Cougars. No. 6 seeds boast a 1-3 record against No. 8 seeds in past NCAA Tournament matchups and bookmakers side with the past, listing LSU as -4.5 point favorites with a trip to Atlanta on the line.

Prediction: For these two teams, the lights have never been brighter than they are at Staples Center in Los Angeles for this regional matchup. Mays, destined for a further relationship with the arena, calls it a “dream” to be playing in such a historic venue and under the banners that the late Kobe Bryant brought to the city of Los Angeles.

BYU proves from the get-go that they won’t be awed by the glitz and glamour, taking an early 8-3 lead after a Jake Toolson three. However, LSU battles back quickly and the game proves to be a back-and-forth affair, albeit without the fireworks that were rightfully anticipated.

Barring their hot start, the Cougars have been dreadful from the arc and look lost without their most prized asset. Their saving grace? LSU has been even worse, painfully grinding to grow their lead and then promptly letting Childs finish out pick-and-rolls over and over to put the Cougars right back within one.

Furthermore, Wade is less than pleased with a rash of turnovers in the final five minutes of the first half, mistakes that enable BYU to take a thin 37-36 lead at halftime. Neither team is playing their best basketball on either end of the floor and it shows on the stat sheets: Mays has pitched in only three points for the Tigers while Childs leads all players with eight.

The back-and-forth affair continues dramatically throughout the second half until BYU finally gets hot to ride a string of LSU fouls and key shots from Dalton Nixon to take a considerable 59-52 lead with 4:32 left in the game. Javonte Smart hits from deep to draw the Tigers closer, Watford catches a steal off T.J. Haws and Days puts it back up to make it 59-57 in a quick comeback effort.

BYU’s offense is scrambled to say the least. Toolson hoists a desperate three, misses and Smart, the hero of the last five minutes, finally ties the game up 59-59 with 1:28 left in the game.

The Staples Center roars as Mays’ pass is intercepted by Alex Barcello and he takes it the distance to give the Cougars a slim two-point lead. LSU gets it back and fails to produce as the Cougars take it down the floor and give it to Childs this time. He puts BYU up 63-59 with 0:44 seconds left, forcing the Tigers to go all in to come out with the win.

Mays works it out and sends it from deep. His shot is to no avail, however, and after Smart fouls Haws, the Cougars go up 65-59 and hold on to earn their first-ever Final Four berth.

Childs (15 points, 14 rebounds) is the clear choice for player of the game and at long last, the Cougars are destined to fight another day.

Final Four matchup:

No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 6 BYU

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