The Sweet Sixteen is here! Eight games, all between teams that have the talent or the magic to work their way to the Elite Eight or Final Four. This is the weekend that separates the championship contenders from the cute Cinderella stories. Here’s how all eight games will be decided:
Loyola Chicago vs. Oregon State (Saturday, 2:40 PM ET)
In a recent article I wrote for the Action Network, I looked at the 3-point luck of the double-digit seeds who have advanced to this weekend. The Beavers felt the most due for regression and Loyola is not a great opponent to meet with your luck about to switch.
The Ramblers motion offense will find open looks on one end and Loyola has the top ranked defense in the nation, per KenPom.
Baylor vs. Villanova (Saturday, 5:15 PM ET)
I love this match-up because Scott Drew’s current Baylor team feels like the Villanova teams of a previous era. The Bears are led by a quartet of guards, with versatile, active big men, and they are driven by the 3-point shot. Perhaps most importantly, the Bears play tight perimeter defense.
Villanova’s backcourt, sans the injured Collin Gillespie, will be tested by Baylor’s guards. Davion Mitchell is the best perimeter defender in college basketball, but Jared Butler and MaCio Teague aren’t slouches either. A key swing in this game comes via Villanova forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Can he relieve Villanova’s guards and be the offensive initiator? He’ll be guarded by Mark Vital, another All-American level defender.
Arkansas vs. Oral Roberts (Saturday, 7:25 PM ET)
This game will be played at a break-neck pace, thanks to two coaches who buy into modern styles of basketball. Arkansas will look to push the pace time and time again. The Hogs have to look to future NBA lottery pick Moses Moody for production. He’s taken just 19 field goal attempts in the tournament and Oral Roberts does not have a swingman who can keep him out of the paint.
On the other end, Oral Roberts will run pick-and-roll all night long. Arkansas has the athletes to switch screens, but college basketball’s leading scorer Max Abmas could make them pay for doing so. Hogs head coach Eric Musselman likely needs to stay small with Connor Vanover glued to the bench.
Houston vs. Syracuse (Saturday, 9:55 PM ET)
Any Syracuse game is going to come down to their opponent’s execution offensively against Jim Boeheim’s zone defense. Houston lucks out in getting nearly a week to prepare for the zone, rather than having to face Syracuse in the middle of a tournament weekend.
Houston’s offense is built around three creators: Quentin Grimes. DeJon Jarreau, and Marcus Sasser.
Grimes is their most prolific scorer, leading the team in field goal attempts. He does most of his damage from outside the arc, where he shoots 42 percent. After transferring from Kansas, he has developed into the kind of shooter that can really stretch the Syracuse zone and test its limits.
Jarreau, who fought through a hip injury in the first two rounds of tournament play, is more of a slasher. He can test the zone by attacking into its gaps. If he stays on the perimeter or gets sucked into playing one-on-one with his nearest defender, Syracuse is happy to let him take contested 2-pointers.
Lastly, Sasser is the definition of streaky shooter. He was just 1-9 from the field against Rutgers. He could fall in love with hoisting 3s over top the zone. In two games against Tulsa, which also plays zone defense, Sasser had mixed results. In late December, Sasser made just two of ten from outside the arc and the Cougars lost to Tulsa. When the teams met again in January, Sasser hit six shots from long range (in 12 tries) and Houston won in a blowout.
It will be crucial to see if Kelvin Sampson chooses to use any of his creating guards as the trigger-man in the center of the Syracuse zone or if he trusts his bigs to pass out of the middle. I worry if Sasser, Grimes, and Jarreau stay parked on the perimeter, they’ll tend to settle for jumpers.
Gonzaga vs. Creighton (Sunday, 2:10 PM ET)
There’s a recipe to beating Gonzaga. It’s hard, but its possible.
Step One: Guard Drew Timme without needing to double-team him.
Step Two: Gonzaga shoots sub-27 percent from beyond the arc.
Step Three: Make 15 or more 3-pointers.
It’s not easy to check even one of those boxes. No one is beating this talented, deep, well-coached Gonzaga team without checking all three.
Step One is the most crucial because it directly affects your ability to achieve Step Two. To date, no one has really limited Timme to the degree that would greatly affect the Gonzaga offense. His season low in the scoring column came when he scored 9 points in 19 minutes in a rout of Dixie State. He has yet to shoot under 40 percent from the field in a game this season. The closest attempt may have been Derek Culver of West Virginia who “held” Timme to 17 points on 17 field goal attempts. It may not be a coincidence that Gonzaga shot 4 of 16 from outside the arc in that game and won by a single-digit margin for the only time this season.
Of the other five teams to luck into a cold Gonzaga outside shooting night, three were just as icy offensively themselves and the others (Portland and Northwestern State) allowed dominant Timme performances.
No one has made 15 threes against the Zags yet this year. Virginia made 10, but allowed the Zags to score 98 points. Not to be outdone, Portland made 13, the most for any Zags opponent this season, though the Zags hung 116 points on the Pilots.
The checklist is there. Creighton does not exactly fit the parameters. The Bluejays have made 15 or more 3s twice this season and can cross their fingers as hard as any other team hoping to catch Gonzaga on a cold night. Timme, however, should have a leg up on Christian Bishop in the post. If Bishop can play his best or Timme slides into foul trouble, maybe Creighton has the answers.
Michigan vs. Florida State (Sunday, 5:00 PM ET)
I’ll take a second to plug something else I wrote this week, rather than regurgitate it here. In looking for “x-factor” performers to watch this season, I highlighted Michigan’s Chaundee Brown. Without Isaiah Livers in the lineup, Michigan needs Brown to recreate Livers’ shooting and perimeter defense. He did so mightily against LSU, scoring 21 points on just nine field goal attempts.
Alabama vs. UCLA (Sunday, 7:15 PM ET)
UCLA is going to have to try anything it can to slow this game down. You know when a soccer team is trying to pull off an upset late and they start kicking the ball into the stands and faking injuries to stall for time? Despite the fact that basketball does not use a running clock and stoppage time, UCLA might have to resort to those kinds of tactics.
The Tide want this game to be half track meet and half shooting contest. If they make the Bruins run up and down, Alabama is deeper, more skilled, and more athletic.
USC v. Oregon (Sunday, 9:45 ET)
Finally, some vindication for all those Pac-12 games I half stayed awake to see. I get the Pac-12 Network somehow (this seems to be an issue for the rest of the college basketball world) and I have been trumpeting the conference’s strength all season long.
The first and only time these teams met, USC ran away with the game from the opening tap. The Trojans burst to a 19-5 lead and never looked back. USC’s Tahj Eaddy made his season high from beyond the 3-point line and the Oregon offense sputtered.
The real test for the Ducks will come in the paint. The Mobley brothers are not easy to deal with inside. The Trojans are an excellent offensive rebounding team and dominate the area around the rim defensively. Oregon doesn’t have the size to tangle with USC on the interior, but could stretch the Trojans to the perimeter. Oregon’s frontcourt, which is made up of players no bigger than 6-foot-6, has to find ways to offset the USC size advantage.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.