(2) Villanova vs. (3) Miami (FL)
Initial Thoughts: Two teams I’ve told myself I wouldn’t trust all year – Miami because of their guards’ questionable decision-making, Villanova because of their frustrating postseason flameouts – and both have proven me wrong by making it to the second weekend. Both had two of the most impressive performances of the second round, in my opinion, with Villanova blowing Iowa off the floor and Miami beating a brutally tough, extremely experienced Wichita State team. Whoever comes out of this matchup in Louisville the winner will have way out-performed my expectations.
Villanova on Offense: Villanova thrives on its outstanding ball movement, whipping the ball around the perimeter until they find the first open outside shot (24th in 3PA/FGA, 25th in Assists/FGM). It also helps to have an experienced post threat in Daniel Ochefu, a solid passer who is adept at making the right decision when double-teamed. With a plethora of perimeter threats and a wealth of experience, their offense is difficult to defend.
Defensively, Miami is also very impressive, with a ton of length on the perimeter and an elite rebounder and shot-blocker anchoring the defense in Tonye Jekiri. Miami plays almost exclusively man-to-man on defense, banking on Jekiri as an anchor to run opponents off the three-point line (26th in 3PA/FGA) and turn them into an isolation, pull-up jump shooting team (28th in assists/FGM). This makes for an interesting stylistic battle, as Villanova wants exactly what Miami takes away.
Miami (FL) on Offense: As mentioned, the ‘Canes are deep and versatile, but offensively, Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan are what make them go on offense. Rodriguez is a jitterbug, weaving in and out when using ball screens and constantly probing the lane. He sometimes gets into trouble trying to be too fancy with his passing, but overall he’s been a solid floor general this year. McClellan, on the other hand, has been absurdly efficient, attacking the rim with reckless abandon to shoot almost 200 free throws while still avoiding turning the ball over.
Villanova’s defense can struggle when big ball-handlers attack the paint against them, even with defensive whiz kid Mikal Bridges wreaking havoc. Villanova will need to sag off defensively against Rodriguez and McClellan and make them shooters; Miami’s offense struggles when they don’t get drives into the lane. Miami can get streak hot from the outside, but no one shoots at a particularly high volume, so walling off the paint and forcing them to chuck outside their comfort zone has proven to be the best defense against them.
The Hurricanes love to run pick-and-roll with Rodriguez and McClellan (and even JaQuan Newton and Davon Reed), and Nova’s defense of that particular play will be crucial. Ochefu, Jenkins, and Reynolds are actually relatively mobile, and Nova has only given up 0.61ppp to PnR ball-handlers per Synergy, an incredibly effective rate.
Key Factor(s): The battle on Villanova’s offensive end between their desire to shoot threes and Miami’s desire to run the Cats off the line will be a fantastic chess match. I think Villanova has the advantage on Miami’s offensive end with their penchant for turning driving teams into jump shooters and their PnR defense, but the other end of the floor is a major toss-up to me. My best guess is Miami is able to run Nova off the line somewhat effectively, but the Wildcats are still able to find ways to score.
Do I Trust the Coaches?: In spite of myself, I think I do trust both guys. Jay Wright’s teams always play hard, they take good shots, and they don’t turn the ball over. Losing early in the postseason a few times shouldn’t be a complete death knell in the Wright’s record, as maddening as those losses were (just get one defensive rebound against NC State! Just one!). Larranaga, on the other hand, was the mastermind behind the most insane Final Four run of my lifetime, and he’s done a terrific job with the current squad of Hurricanes.
Predictions: With the advantage that the Wildcats have on their defensive end, I lean that way. Four points is a lot for a game I feel is kind of a toss-up, but I see this being a 70-62, 72-65 type game where Nova is up 4 the whole game and extends a little bit late as Miami gets desperate. I’m pumped to see the coaching matchup, with both guys capable of preparing a unique game plan for their specific opponent and making adjustments throughout. Both teams actually play pretty slowly (257th and 277th in tempo), so I’m leaning under – I think that’s a good bet unless both teams are unreasonably hot from the outside.
SU Pick: Villanova
ATS Pick: Villanova -4
O/U Pick: Under 140
(2) Oklahoma vs. (3) Texas A&M
Initial Thoughts: I honestly can’t believe I’m writing this preview – Texas A&M’s comeback was the most miraculous combination of one team making all the right plays and another making all the wrong ones (along with an officiating gaffe or two). I had the Aggies pegged as a prime candidate high seed to get upset because I don’t trust Anthony Collins (more on that below), and UNI’s defense suffocated them for 39 minutes. But against all odds, Billy Kennedy’s squad kept fighting, and it probably gives us a better game here (no offense to UNI – but their style tends to muck up opposing offenses).
Oklahoma has been very good in this tournament so far, and Buddy Hield has been every bit the Player of the Year he showed himself to be during the regular season. The whole team is tough and experienced, with shooting for days, and they play solid defense. The largest question around them is depth – they’re unbeatable when Woodard and Cousins both play well, but when one of them is off, they’re a lot more vulnerable.
Texas A&M on Offense: I’ve talked a fair amount about teams that play dual point guards – Texas A&M is another one of those, with grad transfer Anthony Collins from USF and senior Alex Caruso combining to make Texas A&M one of the best passing teams in the country (17th in assist rate). With the two point guards, A&M is extremely effective in transition (and gets out into a fair amount), something that Oklahoma struggles with a little bit. The Aggies have plenty of shooting, too with 7 players having made at least 27 threes. I don’t fully trust Collins’ decision-making – he makes great passes at times, but he also commits some terrible turnovers at times, too. Luckily, Oklahoma’s defense isn’t going to pressure much at all, even in the half-court.
None of this is to even mention the Aggies best two players, 6’7 wing Danuel House and 6’7 tweener forward Jalen Jones. They’re long and athletic, threats from inside and out, and they’ll both be challenges for Oklahoma’s strict man-to-man to handle. Hield is the only true “longer” wing, and he’s still only 6’4, meaning he and Isaiah Cousins will have to play big and one of either Khadeem Lattin or Ryan Spangler will have to follow Jones out to the perimeter. My money is on Spangler, with the hope of leaving Lattin’s rim protection in the paint. Dante Buford, a 6’7 freshman, could be a huge x-factor defensively for the Sooners.
Texas A&M thrives on ball movement offensively, using their passing to score of the pick and roll and subsequent spot-ups, post-ups, and drives. Oklahoma’s defense is elite at the rim and wants to keep you out of the lane and force you to score over them; as mentioned, Texas A&M has the shooters to do that.
Oklahoma on Offense: Anyone who’s watched OU this year knows their offense thrives on creating outside shots for Hield, Cousins, Woodard, and even Spangler. The three guards can all drive, dish, and shoot (all well over 40% from deep), and very few teams have enough perimeter defense to handle all three guys. Texas A&M, on the other hand, allows a ton of threes out of their sometimes-man, sometimes-zone defense. OU hasn’t faced many zones this year (because of all that shooting), but they’ve lit it up in the possessions they’ve faced against it to the tune of 1.06ppp. I think the Aggies would be better off staying in man-to-man, using Collins on Woodard and throwing the length of Caruso (6’5) and House at Cousins and Hield, respectively.
Oklahoma loves to get out in transition and is adept at finding their shooters that way, as well; however, Texas A&M is very good at limiting those opportunities. Without transition, Oklahoma isn’t going to get much at the rim, as Spangler, Khadeem Lattin, and Buford aren’t going to post up and Tyler Davis and Tony Trocha-Morelos are good enough rim protectors to deter most drives.
Key Factor(s): This is a toss-up between who’s hot from the outside and who gets the most transition opportunities. Texas A&M’s plethora of shooters don’t at a high volume or at great percentages, compared to Oklahoma, who only has three shooters but they’re all elite at high volumes. They’ll likely need all three to be hitting to win this one. In the transition battle, both teams will try to limit the opponents’ chances, but the plethora of guards on the floor make it very unlikely that the teams’ transition offenses will be taken away altogether.
Do I Trust the Coaches?: To be honest, I’m a little lukewarm on both. I love how Lon Kruger is successful everywhere he goes, but every time I watch his team in a close game, the late offense leaves me really frustrated. They devolve into isolations for Hield or Cousins while everyone else stands around. That can work, as both are great players, but even just having one run of screens to distract the defense while the other attacks would help open up the defense. He ends up relying too much on individual talent, in my humble opinion. On the other hand, Billy Kennedy is a relative unknown at this level, as this is only his third tournament ever, first Sweet 16 ever, and first tournament as a top 12 seed (he won a game as a 13-seed at Murray State). That alone gives me pause, and I’m not sure what to take from the UNI game – should I be down on him for the first 39 minutes, or high on them for the comeback + ensuing mental toughness in overtime?
Predictions: I think this is pretty close to a toss-up as to who wins – Texas A&M’s depth and length will bother OU, but OU should get their fair share of threes and won’t allow many points at the rim. The coaching matchup isn’t much to get interested in, so I can’t use that as a tie-breaker like normal. I’m expecting a close game, and in that case, I want the points.
SU Pick: Texas A&M
ATS Pick: Texas A&M +2.5
O/U Pick: Under 147
(1) Kansas vs. (5) Maryland
Initial Thoughts: Most of us would not have predicted a NCAA tourney matchup between two top-5 teams in the Sweet 16 way back in November. Once 2016 rolled around, both squads took a very different path of momentum leading in to the Big Dance, and I can’t say I was super surprised. I’ve been relatively vocal (and perhaps biased) about my thoughts on the Terps core group from the past 2 years, specifically how the advanced numbers have not aligned with their juicy AP rank and sexy NBA talent. This game features a dream matchup for a diehard collegiate hoop fan, with the perennial senior-led powerhouse program on one side, and the on-the-rise uber-talented once-upon-a-time powerhouse program on the other.
Kansas on Offense: While I called out Perry Ellis on the defensive end in my 1st round preview against Austin Peay, he continues to be Mr. Efficient on the offensive end. KU completely dismantled the Governors offensively, with Peay having no choice but to hack anytime the Jayhawks decided to attack the rim. The Beakers were particularly money in transition, forcing turnovers it seemed like every other possession. They kept the train rolling into a stout UCONN defense, where they pulled to an early 40-16 1st half lead against the nation’s 14th best defense.
While Wayne Selden playing more like Dr. Jekyll and less like Mr. Hyde alters the ceiling of how good this team can be, Ellis is the key to this matchup. In the UCONN game, he drew a ton of the Husky bigs away from the rim, most of whom are true rim protectors and are not athletic enough to step out and defend him on drives or contest his newly developed 3-point shot. Sure enough, Ellis finished with 21 points, on just 2 foul shots and 2 threes, proving his damage was done on jumpers, drives and off-ball cuts.
The Terps present a slightly different animal with their defensive frontline, particularly with Robert Carter and Jake Layman. Both are equally as tall/long as Ellis, and are much more mobile on the perimeter than Ellis’s previous matchups. Turgeon will be faced with a huge dilemma on who to match-up with Ellis. While I personally think going a little smaller with Carter or Layman on Ellis may actually be beneficial, limiting Diamond Stone’s playing time will impact their offensive firepower. Carter specifically is the ideal match for Ellis in this game, given Layman has not been asked to defend the post a ton this year, and he has certainly not defended a scorer as crafty as Ellis on the inside. The good thing for Turgeon here is that Self has played a ton of lineups featuring Lucas and Ellis both on the floor at the same time, allowing him to play his traditional massive lineup of Stone, Carter and Layman at the 5, 4 and 3 respectively. This look actually leaves the long Layman to man up with Selden, who will have a 5-inch size disadvantage and may have trouble getting his clean spot-up 3 looks that he’s been so money on this year.
Maryland on Offense: This is where the matchup of Ellis vs. the Maryland bigs becomes even more intriguing. In my Austin Peay preview, I highlighted Ellis’s limitations as a post-defender, but Chris Horton was 20 minutes late to the party to exploit his lack of elite size and athleticism. And I as I suspected, Self played a ton of Landen Lucas, a more capable post defender and rim protector. Lucas is 6’10, and a thick 240, so he is the perfect candidate to go against Diamond Stone on the low block.
While the Jayhawks interior matchup is for the most part solid, their perimeter matchups at the 1 and 2 slots are excellent. Graham and Mason are both elite defenders, and they tend to disrupt bigger guards when they get up into them well beyond the arc. Just ask Buddy Hield about these two when they synced up in Norman, Oklahoma.
This then leaves the matchup with Layman and Selden on the wing. Both have been exceptionally efficient this year, but inconsistent in their assertiveness on the offensive end. While the 5-inch advantage Layman has on Selden makes me think he needs to look to attack the rim, or find opportunities to score near the rim, the reality is he still prefers to float on the perimeter. Layman has attempted 139 3s this year, compared to 130 2s and only 89 free throws.
Key Factor(s): Maryland turnovers kick-starting Kansas transition offense. Melo Trimble must have the best PR representative of any guard in the country, because NO ONE wants to talk about his questionable decision-making, particularly late in the season. This is precisely where KU can generate easy opportunities on the break, which is where Graham, Mason and Selden all excel. If Maryland can stay disciplined and ensure they get a shot every time down the floor, they will give their bigs an opportunity to crash the boards and ensure the Jayhawks get no easy buckets on the other end. Given both the Terps and the Hawks rank in the top-100 in the country in allowing transition opportunities to their opponents, I see this game being played primarily in the half court.
Final Predictions: My lean on this game has wavered back and forth over the last 48 hours, with my internal demons wrestling between my love for KU and hate for the Terps. Looking at the current public betting percentages, it seems the masses have finally come full circle on Maryland, with 69% of all wagers coming on the Beakers side, despite the Terps getting a full 7 points. This just feels like the right time to “zig”, while the sheep “zag”. Therefore, I am officially restarting the Turtle bandwagon Thursday evening, in hopes that their superior talent allows them to take the mighty Jayhawks right down to the wire. Make no mistake about it, Kansas is the clear favorite to remove the nets in Houston in a few weeks, but this matchup may give them a mini-scare. I also plan on giving Las Vegas a scare of my own, when I lay large sums of cash on the under, assuming the total continues to hover above 140.
ATS: Maryland +6.5
O/U: Under 144
(1) Oregon vs. (4) Duke
Initial Thoughts: Hmmmm, the seeds still feel like they are next to the wrong teams in this one, but I’m in no way insinuating either team here was under or over seeded by the committee. Regardless of the subscript number next to their names, both teams here should provide an offensive display of fireworks Thursday… but in my true against-the-grain nature, I am not sold that this will be the 100-95 shootout most folks are anticipating.
Duke on Offense: The key here is how the Devils handle the 1-3-1 zone look of the Ducks. Just for context, Oregon currently plays zone on just under of 40% of their possessions, so Duke will get plenty of opportunities to attack against a man-to-man look, which is truly where they thrive.
Given Coach K has played some 1-3-1 of his own this year, his players may understand the nuances of where the gaps lie. However, no one on the Devils schedule this year played a significant amount of 1-3-1 zone, so it will still require an initial adjustment. I fully trust Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard to be in full attack mode regardless of the defensive look. Matt Jones will have even more real estate to set up shop on the baseline for his patented corner pocket trey ball.
K will have an interesting dilemma on where to put Ingram in this scheme. Putting him at the high-post feels like the right approach, but it will be an awkward situation for him having to catch the ball a ton with his back facing the basket. What is really important is how the top-2 guards attack the first 3 defenders for the Ducks. Derryck Thornton played a ton better against Yale, particularly as a facilitator, and he cannot afford to play hesitantly at one of those two slots.
The interesting wrinkle here is that despite all the talk about Duke’s rebounding woes, the numbers indicate they are actually an excellent offensive rebounding team (top-50 per kenpom). A lot of this is probably a result of long-misses off of threes, but it’s important to note because the Ducks primary weakness on the defensive end lies in protecting their glass. Outside of Boucher, it is very much a rebounding by committee group that can be exploited.
Oregon on Offense: While that rebounding dynamic may present an under-the-radar opportunity for Duke to score even more efficiently than they already do, it is no secret how Oregon can get a TON of easy buckets in this game: Send 4 dudes to the rim on every shot. Duke continues to frustrate me with their hesitancy to consistently play up-tempo, thus reducing the need for Dana Altman to get two or more guards back on transition to protect against fast-break opportunities. And given many of these guards are 6’4 – 6’7, they have a chance to have a field day on the glass against the smaller Thornton, Jones, Kennard and even Allen.
However, Oregon’s first-shot offense should actually be somewhat limited due to something they they simply are not used to seeing in Pac-12 play. I’ll tease this for the appropriately-but cliché section labeled: “Key Factors”.
Key Factor(s): The matchup between Dillon Brooks and Brandon Ingram. The Ducks this year have not faced many teams in Pac-12 play that feature a legit stretch 4 like Brandon Ingram. Brooks has feasted off of dominating true post bigs on the offensive end. When Duke goes man, which they should for the vast majority of this game, Brooks will not have the juicy matchup he is accustomed to seeing. Therefore, the other Ducks perimeter guys and wings must show up big, particularly on the offensive end if they want to score at the clip they have for much of the year.
Final Predictions: While you could go back and forth on which team will be able to more effectively exploit the other on the offensive end, I think the slight edge leans to the Devils, given this is a rare matchup that Oregon has seen this year. Therefore, I think Ingram wins the battle between him and Brooks, one that will ultimately make the primary difference in this game, particularly when Oregon is in their man-to-man defense.
ATS: Duke +3
O/U: Over 156.5