NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16 Preview

There’s a scene in The Sopranos where A.J., with his two-day-old understanding of nihilism and the works of “Niche,” tells his parents that “death just underscores the ultimate absurdity of life.” I disagree, but I do believe single elimination underscores the ultimate absurdity of the NCAA Tournament. It’s so stupid it’s beautiful; distilling an entire season’s worth of work in 40 minutes is a laughably small sample. However, it’s what makes this tournament the greatest, and it’s what gives us the calamity we all crave. The world needs the underdogs. And we sure got them last weekend.

A pair of 1 and 2 seeds were knocked out; half of the top 8 seeds in the whole thing went home just like that. Now, we briefly noted last week the amount of parity in college basketball this year when discussing Houston, and I’ll note KenPom’s pre-tournament projections gave us coin flip odds of multiple 1-seeds going out before the round of 16. Seeing it all play out, however, was a different story entirely. A 15 and 16 winning in the same tournament! A 15-seed going into the Sweet Sixteen for the third year in a row! It’s an overused word, but it was legitimately unprecedented for these things to happen at once. However, the delightful matchups we’ve got coming up soon suggest the best is yet to come for this dance.


4 Tennessee vs. 9 FAU (9:00, Thursday)

Tennessee def. 13 ULL 58-55 and 5 Duke 65-52

Florida Atlantic def. 8 Memphis 66-65 and 16 FDU 78-70

Tennessee became a favorite for many in America after thrashing Duke, holding the Blue Devils to only 52. They’ve allowed a combined 107 points in 2 tourney games, which is about par for the course for a Rick Barnes defense. Jon Scheyer has a bright future, but the 2nd half decision to zone up against the Vols, one of the best offensive rebounding teams in America, was a questionable one. That decision also got Olivier Nkamhoua going; he had a textbook offensive performance to break the zone’s weak spots, getting into the middle of the zone to splash a midrange jumper, attacking the “slot” on the baseline for a big dunk, then hitting a few big threes from the wing. That led to a 20-point second half and a 27-point outing overall. Tennessee led the entire second half.

But what in the wide world of sports happened in Columbus, Ohio? 16-seed FDU, only in the dance due to a technicality regarding NEC tournament champs Merrimack and their transition to D1, become the SECOND 16 SEED EVER to defeat a 1, knocking out Purdue in an all-timer. Sure, I may have said turnovers and cold shooting could knock Purdue out early, but seeing FDU’s beautiful, relentless defensive pressure in action was staggering. I definitely didn’t have that fate in mind for the Boilermakers in the first round. FAU had their hands full with that Knights squad after an equally thrilling 66-65 game against Memphis won on the last possession.

Nothing gets easier for the Owls now. A controversial late (attempted) dunk with the game “over” against FDU turned their potential Cinderella story into a Villain Arc for many. We’re going to see strength-on-strength at the Garden Thursday, with the #1 3PT defense of Tennessee (holding opponents to only 26.4% from deep) facing off against an explosive FAU shooting team, who takes 44% of their shots beyond the arc at a 36.7% clip. FAU has struggled from deep in the tournament, and they could see issues if they can’t get inside against Tennessee. Only 32.3% of the Owls’ shots are close 2s, and Tennessee allows opponents to get to the rim only 33.2% of the time. FAU also struggles to get to the FT line in large part due to this shot selection (296th in FTr nationally), which is problematic, as Tennessee’s foul issues have disappeared in the past 4 games. The Vols haven’t had an opponent FTr above 22.8% in that timeframe. The Owls have to connect from deep; winning a low-scoring game like they did against Memphis will be extremely difficult against the best defense in the nation by efficiency.

3 Kansas State vs. 7 Michigan State (6:30, Thursday)

Kansas St. def. 14 Montana St. 77-65 and 6 Kentucky 75-69

Michigan St. def. 10 USC 72-62 and 2 Marquette 69-60

Remember when Michigan State’s path to advancing was hitting the 3 ball? So that was a lie. After winning exactly one game this regular season where they hit 5 or less threes, they’ve advanced to the Sweet Sixteen hitting a grand total of 7 threes in 2 games. The reason? Defense and Tom Izzo. I didn’t predict a run, but I did say the vibe was he was “due” for one. The Hall of Famer has made the Elite Eight or farther as a 5-seed or higher 4 times, highlighted by a 2015 run to the Final Four as a 7. Sparty has been to the Final Four quite literally at least once every 5 years since the Clinton Administration. They’re two wins away from doing it again. One of the worst defenses at forcing turnovers in America has averaged a 21.0 TOV% through the first two rounds. Kansas State survived an inspired performance from Oscar Tshiebwe to knock Kentucky out; they turned the rock over on only 11% of their possessions in that game. When turnovers aren’t an issue, Marquis Nowell makes beautiful things happen in transition with his incredible 41.0% assist rate.

It’s thus no surprise that I think the turnover margin is the key to this game. KSU is 8-7 when turning it over on at least 20% of possessions with the majority of those wins against weak OOC opponents; they’re 17-2 otherwise. MSU has only forced turnovers on 15.1% of opponents’ possessions this year, but as said, they’ve turned a new leaf in March. This battle will dictate the tempo of the game. KSU wants to run, ranking 46th in tempo. When that happens it’s the Nowell show, as he uses his speed and craftiness to find easy buckets for the Wildcats. MSU settling into a half court game (306th in tempo) will favor them, as it has in their low-scoring games thus far. If the Spartans experience some 3PT regression up to their season average, the odds are good for them to keep dancing. However, KSU has shown they can roll over you if they hold onto the ball and follow their tried-and-true formula on offense of Nowell and Keyontae Johnson.


8 Arkansas vs. 4 Connecticut (7:15, Thursday)

UConn def. 13 Iona 87-63 and St. Mary’s 70-55

Arkansas def. Illinois 73-63 and Kansas 72-71

Entering the Big Dance, the Hogs had lost 4 of 5 and 6 of 9. So much for momentum; they knocked off 1-seed and defending champs Kansas in a dramatic late rally. UConn has also rallied in the second half; they’ve outscored their 2 tourney opponents 89-49 through their first 2 games. Big man Adam Sanogo had 52 in those games, and the Huskies are 11-0 on the year when he scores 20+. The scariest thing is that they hardly needed their elite offensive rebounding against a very good St. Mary’s team, torching one of the best defenses in America to the tune of a 64 eFG%.

The good news for the Hogs here is that they can bang down low with anyone in the country. They’re averse to outside jumpers, and rightfully so, as they’re a porous 31.3% shooting team from deep. Only 27.8% of their shots are threes, and UConn isn’t great at keeping opponents out of the paint, with 38.8% of opponents’ FGA coming as close twos. Arkansas shoots an excellent 67% from there. However, Arkansas’s mediocre rebounding (138th in DRB%) is going to be put to the test against a Huskies team that collects 38.8% of their own missed shots.

3 Gonzaga vs. 2 UCLA (9:45, Thursday)

Gonzaga def. 14 Grand Canyon 82-70 and 6 TCU 84-81

UCLA def. 15 UNCA 86-53 and 7 Northwestern 68-63

2006, Adam Morrison, Crying, Heartbreaker, 2021 Final Four, Rematch, Jalen Suggs, Buzzer Beater, etc. That just about covers all the bases for the NCAA’s storybook Sweet 16 matchup. Be prepared to hear these words ad nauseum Thursday night. But guess what? This is also just an incredible matchup in general. UCLA vs. Gonzaga hasn’t disappointed in their previous tournament meetings, and this one shouldn’t either. The number one offense in the country faces the number one on defense via KenPom’s pre-tournament efficiency (Tennessee has just barely passed UCLA in defense for now.) Neither team had much drama in getting here, though TCU gave the Zags a good scare before a second-half offensive surge.

The box office matchups here are the veterans PG Tyger Campbell and F Jaime Jacquez against Gonzaga’s own veterans in Drew Timme and sharpshooter Julian Strawther. Across the board, you’ll find UCLA’s defense is elite in terms of the four factors, while the Zags offense is elite in those same categories. Each side is respectively top 20 in eFG% (or eFG% against), 2PT%, and TOV%. And once again, we have a fast Zags team (40th in tempo) vs. a slow UCLA squad (243rd). One key difference is that UCLA takes great care of the basketball, with only a 15.1 TOV%, while the Zags defense struggles to turn teams over (18.3%). Even without Jaylen Clark, UCLA was able to get a very similar Arizona offense (coached by Mark Few’s longtime assistant Tommy Lloyd) into a rock fight in the PAC-12 Championship. The Zags aren’t on Zona’s level defensively, even if they are still dancing, so Gonzaga may struggle to win that sort of game. However, you don’t need me to tell you Gonzaga is a machine offensively, and they’re perfectly capable of overcoming UCLA’s elite 3PT (31.0%) and interior (53.3%) defense. UCLA can give the Zags issues by making them settle for threes and limiting Timme inside. I am so excited for this basketball game.


1 Alabama vs. 5 San Diego State (6:30, Friday)

Alabama def. 16 TX A&M CC 96-75 and 8 Maryland 71-52

SDSU def. 12 Charleston 63-57 and 13 Furman 75-52.

Alabama showed how they can beat you both ways in the first round with their top-rated defense. They posted an absurd 131 offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in the first round, only to follow it up with an equally absurd 76 defensive rating (same thing for points allowed) against Maryland. SDSU had to contend with a pair of hot mid-majors in Charleston and Furman. As predicted, Furman hit just enough threes to give Virginia fits, winning dramatically late, but they were no match for SDSU’s defensive intensity. 

While the Aztecs have the defensive chops and athleticism to disrupt Alabama like Tennessee did back in February, the Tide can match their prowess on that end. Both teams are top 5 in defensive efficiency, and both teams hold opponents to below 29% from deep. For the Aztecs to win, they have to muck this game up and force turnovers. 4 of the Tide’s 5 losses were the product of a TOV% over 25%, with the only exception being their complete defensive implosion against Oklahoma (they lost 93-69). Suffice to say Alabama isn’t likely to have that happen again. The Aztecs will also have to manage the defensive boards against a great rebounding Alabama team (24th in ORB%). Charleston’s pesky offensive rebounding made for good practice there, but Alabama’s speed is a different beast entirely. The hopes of the MWC’s first ever Elite Eight ride on SDSU; it would do wonders for the conference’s reputation after its other tourney participants went 0-3 last week and had a dreadful 0-10 stretch in the dance until the Aztecs’ first round win last week.

6 Creighton vs. 15 Princeton (9:00, Friday)

Creighton def. 11 NC State 72-63 and 3 Baylor 85-76

Princeton def. 2 Arizona 59-55 and 7 Missouri 78-63

I may have liked Creighton last week, but I never thought I’d be typing the words “Creighton vs. Princeton” for this write-up. The Tigers somehow held Arizona nearly 30 points below their average on the season. Remember when I questioned their ability to control the pace? (Some of my takes aged better than this one, don’t worry.) Well, Arizona had some turnover issues (nearly 20% of possessions ended in one), but Princeton managed to hold the Wildcats to 63 possessions on offense with beautifully executed offense of their own to dictate the tempo. It was no surprise then when they obliterated an awful Missouri defense in round 2. It was surprising, however, that this is the third year in a row we’ve had a 15 in the Sweet Sixteen. 7 15-seeds have won since 2012 after only 4 had won previously. On one hand, this screams regression to the mean due to the Law of Large Numbers: most 2-seeds are favored to win roughly 90% of the time. The outcomes are thus becoming more reflective of that probability. However, 15s are also unequivocally getting better; the introduction of the First Four for the final 4 at-large teams has bumped what used to be dangerous 13 and 14 seeds down a line or two. Some auto qualifiers used to be 11s; now everyone’s getting knocked down a peg.

How does Princeton keep it going? They keep executing their pretty offense out of the post with point-forward Tosan Evbuomwan, who’s averaging 12 points, 8 boards, and 4.5 assists so far. However, the cuts that have made the Tigers so successful will be tough against a Creighton D that allows opponents to take close 2s only 32% of the time; by comparison, Princeton has been getting there 44% of the time this season. Princeton also struggles to get to the foul line, ranking 195th in FTr, and we mentioned last week just how good Creighton is without fouling (2nd in FTr allowed). The Jays lit Baylor’s defense up, shooting 46% from deep, but Princeton, as we’ve already seen, can defend the 3PT line well; they held Arizona and Missouri to a combined 9 made threes, with neither team even sniffing 30% from distance.

The previews for the remainder of Friday’s games will be up soon!

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