Sweet 16 Preview: Will Kansas Keep Marching?
After the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the odds are that the left side of your bracket is looking pretty clean.
That's because the South and West Regions avoided the chaos of the East and Midwest and sent both of its 1 seeds, 2 seeds, and 3 seeds on to the second weekend, along with a 4 seed and 5 seed. The result is four regional semifinal matchups with point spreads under seven.
The first weekend of the tournament was incredible and will be a hard act to follow. But I'd definitely have my TV tuned to college hoops on Thursday if I were you.
Here's our look at each of Thursday's four matchups, tipping off what should be a compelling and hotly-contested battle to get to the Elite Eight.
(2) Villanova vs. (3) Miami
7:10 p.m., CBS, South Region - Louisville
There may not be two teams matching up in the Sweet 16 that have more similar personnel than Villanova and Miami. Each team has four guards/wings with scoring averages in double figures, while both are anchored by a big man who can rebound and protect the rim. When each team's starting five goes out for the opening tip, this game could look like a mirror match, which is a big reason why Thursday's first game could be its most closely contested.
Villanova's offensive and defensive execution during the tournament's first weekend translated to 59 percent shooting over the two games, including 49 percent from three-point range (23-for-47). Villanova's defense didn't provide a struggling Iowa squad any opportunities to get going, as the Wildcats consistently generated points off of turnovers and disjointed Iowa possessions to secure a 19-point win. Though their outside shooting has been hot, Villanova ranks third in the country at two-point field goal percentage, and 56 percent of points scored against Miami come via two-pointers (third-most among the remaining field), according to KenPom. Villanova's offense is at their best when operating in an inside-out fashion, which is what makes their point guard tandem of Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson, along with center Daniel Ochefu, so key to creating good offensive looks.
Miami, like Villanova, rates as a team that is effective at scoring inside, despite a guard-heavy approach, and also knocks down free throws at an above-average clip. No player is more key to what Miami does than fifth-year senior point guard Angel Rodriguez. In Miami's two first weekend wins, Rodriguez scored 52 points combined, including a 9-of-11 shooting performance against Wichita State. In Miami's two most recent losses, Rodriguez was held to 14 points combined. For as guard-oriented as Miami is, their assists-to-field goals made ratio ranks just 263rd in the country, which only further increases the importance of strong individual shooting performances by Rodriguez and the rest of the Miami guards.
While these teams are similar on offense, our Defensive Efficiency numbers give Villanova a significant edge (Villanova ranks 9th and Miami is 85th). The Wildcats should have plenty of different looks to throw at Rodriguez and sharpshooter Sheldon McClellan. But as Villanova aims to keep up with Miami's potent perimeter, they will need to be mindful of staying out of foul trouble, as the Hurricanes are the best team in the Sweet 16 field at getting to the line.
According to numberFire Live, Villanova has a 60% chance to defeat Miami.
(2) Oklahoma vs. (3) Texas A&M
7:37 p.m., TBS, West Region - Anaheim
The Texas A&M Aggies saw their life flash before their eyes, down double-digits in the final minute to Northern Iowa in the Round of 32. The good fortune associated with that comeback has been well-chronicled, but it should not serve as an indication that the Aggies are not capable of giving Buddy Hield and the Sooners all they can handle on Thursday night.
Texas A&M generates turnovers at a better clip than any team left in the field and will look to utilize that defensive pressure against an Oklahoma squad that is middle of the pack when it comes to ball control. Texas A&M, if they can keep Hield and Oklahoma's sharpshooters in check, has two offensive stars of their own to help them counteract Oklahoma's potent scoring ability. Senior swingmen Danuel House and Jalen Jones both average more than 15 points per game, and House, in particular, has taken his scoring to another level of late. Over A&M's last three games, which includes the SEC Championship overtime loss to Kentucky, House has averaged just fewer than 25 points per game.
The statistical profile for Oklahoma's offense against Texas A&M's defense suggests that the Sooners will be letting it fly from three-point range in a big way. Oklahoma knocks down threes at the second-best percentage nationally (42.5 percent), with their top three scorers all shooting threes at 43 percent or better this season. While Texas A&M does a pretty good job of defending the three, only Syracuse's zone defense faces more three-point attempts than Texas A&M of the teams in the Sweet 16. Hield has been unstoppable thus far in the tournament with 63 points in his first two games. The key for A&M will be disallowing Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard from joining Hield on a scoring spree.
Our numbers have the disparity in offensive ranks (Oklahoma 21st, Texas A&M 42nd) nearly identical to the difference in defensive ranks (Texas A&M 19th, Oklahoma 43rd), so no one should be surprised if this one goes down to the wire with Oklahoma holding a slight edge in our game projection.
numberFire Live sees Oklahoma with a 56% chance to defeat Texas A&M.
(1) Kansas vs. (5) Maryland
9:40 p.m., CBS, South Region - Louisville
Maryland is perhaps one of just a handful of teams who can feel good about how their personnel stacks up against a talented and well-rounded Kansas squad that hasn't lost since January 25. The question, as it has been all year, is whether the Terps, as a team, can be equal to or greater than the sum of their parts. They'll need to be on Thursday if they want to pull the upset against the Jayhawks.
Our nERD metric, which estimates by how many points a team would be expected to beat an average team on a neutral court, has the Jayhawks almost six points ahead of the Terrapins, the widest margin found in Thursday's matchups. Kansas is as balanced as they come -- their offense and defense rank 6th and 25th, respectively, in our efficiency measures. According to KenPom, Kansas has the 8th-highest Effective Field Goal percentage in the country, while allowing the 16th-lowest Effective Field Goal percentage to opponents. The Jayhawks are led by the inside-outside tandem of forward Perry Ellis and guard Wayne Selden Jr., who each went for more than 20 points as the Jayhawks easily defeated Connecticut in the second round.
Despite featuring a starting lineup with five guys who all score more than 11 points per game, Maryland had to grind out their first two tournament wins against South Dakota State and Hawaii. The Terps finally pulled away from Hawaii thanks in large part to 13-of-14 free-throw shooting by point guard Melo Trimble. Despite some inconsistency and under-performance this year, Maryland can be a lot to handle on the offensive side, as they rank inside the top 10 nationally at two-point field goal percentage and free-throw percentage. On the defensive side, Diamond Stone and Robert Carter give Maryland shot-blocking ability that makes them one of the best teams in the country at protecting the rim.
Maryland's turnover woes, on both sides of the ball, are what could hold them back from making a serious run at upsetting the top-seeded Jayhawks. Per KenPom, Maryland ranks 242nd in the country in ball control (percentage of possessions resulting in a turnover), while ranking 278th at generating turnovers on defense.
Kansas has a 64% chance to beat Maryland, per numberFire Live.
(1) Oregon vs. (4) Duke
10:07 p.m., TBS, West Region - Anaheim
Lack of depth? Down year? Well, Duke still managed to find their way to the Sweet 16, and in a West Region that our power rankings suggest is the widest open in terms of which team will get through to the Final Four, Coach K's undermanned squad might just have what it takes to follow up last year's National Championship with a return to the tournament's final weekend.
Standing in their way, however, will be a talented Oregon squad still looking, in some ways, to make their mark nationally. After being the most contested choice as a 1 seed by analysts on Selection Sunday, the Ducks needed a comeback in the final five minutes against Saint Joseph's to avoid exiting the tournament prematurely. While we view the Ducks as the weakest 1 seed, per our Sweet 16 power rankings, the landscape of the West is such that none of these teams can be counted out, and the Ducks certainly have the personnel to string together a strong second weekend in Anaheim. Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook, and Tyler Dorsey are double-digit scorers on the perimeter, while Chris Boucher protects the rim with three blocks per game. Oregon is a balanced team offensively that scores efficiently inside the perimeter and takes good care of the ball.
Duke's offensive headliners, Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen, can go toe-to-toe with any team's one-two offensive punch, but we're getting to the stage in the tournament where the Blue Devils will need to rely more on their supporting cast to keep advancing. Duke will look to freshman guard Luke Kennard to emerge as a third scoring option to counteract the Ducks balanced offensive attack. Kennard's recent scoring output has been inconsistent, as one can only expect from a freshman. Duke will likely need something closer to the 13 points he posted against Yale than the 2-of-9 shooting performance from Kennard in Duke's matchup with UNC Wilmington. Another important factor is center Marshall Plumlee, the emotional leader of Duke. The senior has stepped up his play in March, as he scored 23 against UNC Wilmington and grabbed 10 boards and registered 5 blocks against Yale. Kennard and Plumlee will both be key for a Duke team that will look to make up for a lack of experience with offensive firepower, particularly from beyond the arc.
This game could come down to the battle for second-chance points, as both squads are much better at grabbing offensive rebounds than they are at stopping their opposition from winning on the offensive glass. Oregon is 45th and Duke is 49th nationally in Offensive Rebound Rate, according to KenPom, while the teams rank 225th and 335th, respectively, in preventing opponents from hitting the offensive boards.
Our numbers favor Oregon (62%) to beat Duke.