Previewing Saturday's Most Intriguing Round of 32 Games

Can Shabazz Napier push UConn into the Sweet 16?

Thursday seems like a week ago, doesn't it?

We're now through the first round - sorry, the second round - of the NCAA Tournament, and we've seen the usual NCAA Tournament surprises. It never gets old though - I think most of America could watch Duke lose to Mercer on repeat. But we know, going into every Big Dance, that crazy things are going to happen. And the 2014 version hasn't been any different.

To get you even more excited, I've taken a look at the four best games, analytically speaking, that we'll be watching on Saturday. While a game like the North Dakota State and San Diego State contest will still bring thrills I'm sure, I dug into the ones that didn't seem so statistically lopsided. Take a look at what to expect below.

Want to know who will surprise, who will bust out, and who will take the tournament? Check out our bracket picks, our game simulator, and more!

Check It Out

Florida (1 seed, 4th in nERD) vs.
Pittsburgh (9 seed, 19th in nERD)

The Gators survived a slight scare against 16 seed Albany on Thursday, and will have another tough matchup against Pitt in the Round of 32. Specifically, watch how they handle Pitt big man Talib Zanna, who’s now fully healthy and on a tear – he’s averaged over 17 points and nearly 12 rebounds per game over his last three.

Pitt’s been an underrated team all season long, and actually rank as a top-20 team in terms of nERD. They play slow, and are far more efficient on offense than most give them credit for. Defense is typically the way Pitt has been successful in the past – and that’s not different this year – but the Panthers offense ranks 24th in the country in effectiveness, 11 spots better than their defense. Much of that can be credited to their ability to pass the ball, as they ranked 21st in assists.

Florida, however, plays even better defense, and is analytically superior. They have three seniors who average double-digit scoring, and were able to shoot over 50 percent from the floor against Albany in Round 1. But their defense ranks sixth-best in the country, and will press teams in order to create turnovers and confusion.

This game will be slow, methodical and defensive-oriented. To expect a blowout wouldn’t be fair.

Michigan State (4 seed, 9th in nERD) vs.
Harvard (12 seed, 37th in nERD)

Harvard beating Cincinnati was numberFire’s favorite 12/5 upset, as they only ranked eight spots behind their opponent, Cincinnati, in nERD. That worked out well.

The Crimson play very good defense, ranking 13th in points allowed per game and 10th according to our efficiency numbers. Their raw rebounding numbers don’t look good, but they do rank 32nd in defensive rebounding percentage in the country.

They’ll go up against Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans, a team that’s coming together to play their best ball at the right time. Sparty’s great offensively, and pass it around well, coming in the tournament with the sixth-most assists in the country. They also shoot over 47% from the field, good for the 31st-best mark in the nation.

Both teams play at a similar pace – Michigan State a little faster – but Harvard will need to step it up defensively in order to win. Yes, they were able to beat Cincinnati, but the Bearcats can be weak offensively, as shown yesterday. Michigan State hasn’t scored fewer than 67 points since March 1st.

Villanova (2 seed, 5th in nERD) vs.
Connecticut (7 seed, 26th in nERD)

It seems as though nobody’s talking about ‘Nova thanks to their one-point loss to Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament. But they’re a very good team, ranking fifth in nERD with a top 30 offense and defense.

The Wildcats are deep, and consistently are rotating players in and out of games. In fact, nine different guys averaged at least 11.8 minutes per game for Villanova this year, something vastly different than what the Huskies saw in their first NCAA Tournament game.

Villanova relies heavily on the three, but struggled behind the arc in their opening contest against Milwaukee, going 4 for 23. Connecticut, their Round of 32 opponent, isn’t strong at defending the three ball, so taking advantage will be important for Villanova. That is, if they’re not slumping.

To be fair, the Huskies aren’t bad themselves, finishing 26th in nERD this year. They play a solid defense, holding opponents to just 39 percent from the field. They also were a top 10 team this season in the blocks category. Dikembe Mutombo approves.

However, most teams beat UConn on the defensive glass, as the Huskies ranked 256th in defensive rebounding percentage this year. Villanova isn’t bad at getting offensive boards, and will be a tougher test than St. Joseph’s was for UConn in Round 1.

UConn gets great guard play from senior Shabazz Napier, and a bad game from him will almost certainly mean goodbye for the Huskies. His end-game stat line against Saint Joseph’s looks fine, but they relied more on him than they had over their previous six games, per ESPN (46% vs. 36%). Stopping Napier will be Villanova’s top task, and if he struggles, Nova should be able to move on.

Wisconsin (2 seed, 11th in nERD) vs.
Oregon (7 seed, 24th in nERD)

Wisconsin started their game against American looking like they needed help, and at one point in the first half, the score was 20 to 20. And then they played like the Wisconsin team that deserved a two seed in this year’s tournament, going on a 55-15 run to end the game. No, I’m not making that up.

Unlike most Bo Ryan teams, this Badgers squad plays offense. While their raw numbers aren’t impressive – they ranked 92nd in points per game – their efficiency is, ranking sixth-best in the country according to our numbers. In adjusted rating, they're a top five offensive team.

The reason they don’t score more is because they’re slow. Of the 68 teams that made the Big Dance, Wisconsin had the ninth-slowest pace this season, just ahead of Big Ten friends, Michigan.

The Ducks are coming off a high-scoring affair with BYU, and, like the Badgers, are an offensive-oriented team. They rank 17th according to our metrics, while their defense is listed as just the 148th-best.

Advantage Wisconsin? Well, not quite. The Ducks run at a much faster pace, which is a big reason for the high-scoring contest against the Cougars in the Round of 64 (BYU was the fastest team in the tournament, too). If Oregon can dictate the speed of the game, they may be able to pull the upset, though it’s not like the Ducks come into the contest as a massive underdog – they still ranked 24th in nERD this year, thanks to a 19th-ranked strength of schedule.