(8) Saint Joseph's vs. (9) Cincinnati
Initial Thoughts: This is far and away one of the tougher games to assess in round 1. Both squads seem to be relatively undervalued in the public eye, with neither the American or A10 getting a ton of national love this year. With how deep and competitive the two leagues were, it's almost impossible to pick out which teams are the real contenders from each.
The American was especially tough to dissect, with their top 5 teams all squarely on the bubble only two weeks ago. Cincy was probably on the safe side of the bubble, but they solidified their at-large birth by knocking off SMU on their home floor the last game of the year. They were then fortunate enough to get 4-days rest before playing a marathon classic against UCONN in their first game of the AAC tournament. Four overtimes and one 65-footer later, the Bearcats wound up on the losing end of what may have been the game of the year in college basketball. They will officially get a full week to recover from that war, so I doubt it should affect their legs too much.
St. Joes on Offense: The Hawks rely a ton offensively on their two attacking wings, DeAndre' Bembry and Isaiah Miles. Both possess long 6'7 frames and are matchup nightmares for whoever St. Joes plays, especially when Phil Martelli decides to go "small" by playing Bembry or Miles at the 4 position, and even 5 position at times. If Mick Cronin chooses to play man-to-man, Cincy certainly has the length and athletes to defend these two relatively effectively. 6'8 AAC defensive player of the year Gary Clark is the obvious candidate to check Bembry or Miles, depending on what other matchups are on the floor. Cronin may actually consider throwing some zone at the Hawks, which would significantly limit the 1 on 1 ability of Miles and Bembry in the half-court. But regardless of how he balances their defensive look, Cincy's traditional man-to-man defense is "pack-line esque", which is focused on limiting penetration and protecting the rim, and dares you to beat them with outside jumpers.
Therefore, the Hawks are going to have to knock down some 3s to score somewhat efficiently in this game. Bembry and Miles are more than capable of extending their range, and with the length on their release, they shouldn't be bothered by the Cincy wings closing out. Bembry did have a tough year shooting it from the outside (26%), but Miles was superb from long range, hitting 39% of his 160 attempts.
The key for St. Joes will be their two other guards, Shavar Newkirk and Aaron Brown. Both will need to make quick decisions moving the ball offensively when Cincy goes zone, and ensure that Miles and Bembry catch the ball in the right spots when Cincy goes man.
Cincy on Offense: St. Joe's plays a similar style of man defense that Cincy plays, letting their opponents shoot from the outside (they've allowed the 334th most 3s attempted against them) to ensure driving lanes are covered. However, Martelli may make things even more difficult on the already offensively challenged Bearcats to score, by throwing some zone right back in their face. He has shown it a bit this year, albeit much less than Cronin has, but I think he may be even more tempted to play it against a team that struggles mightily to make jump shots.
Taking a deeper dive at the Cincy's offensive splits, you see the significant drop-off in their offensive efficiency when the play against zone, compared to man.
You can specifically see how reliant the Bearcats are in getting transition baskets, and just how inefficient they are when they settle for jump-shots ("Spot Up").
Regardless of what defense Martelli decides to play, he will definitely make Cincy knock down outside jumpers, something they failed to do consistently all year.
Key Factor(s): 6'10 shot-blocking specialist Ocatavius Ellis simply needs to be a monster in this game for Cincy, both defensively and on the offensive glass. He is the one player St. Joe's has no real matchup for, with Bembry and Miles usually being the tallest players on the floor for the Hawks. Ellis must be dominant on the offensive glass, and force the St. Joe "semi-bigs" to get a body on him every possession. However, even without a true 5-man to body Ellis, St. Joes has still proven to be excellent team rebounding team this year (ranked 31st in defensive rebounding), led by, you guessed it, Bembry and Miles.
However, it's even more critical that Ellis be locked in on the other end, specifically patrolling the paint area for when Bembry and Miles penetrate. Both Bembry and Miles like to operate in ISO settings out of the pinch post, so getting Ellis matched up with them in those specific situations will make it tougher on the two wings to get a clean look in the midrange.
Similar to the Iowa/Temple game in the South region, this should be a very low-scoring affair. The pace should remain slow throughout, and both squads will be shooting more jump shots than they'd probably prefer. The difference is that the Hawks have more role players who are capable of shooting from the outside, and I trust the talent of Bembry and Miles to create enough clean looks for themselves, either in the midrange or from three. I'll dabble the Hawks, and "double-dabble" the under.
SU Pick: St. Joes
ATS Pick: St. Joes +2
O/U Pick: Under 135
(5) Baylor vs. (12) Yale
Initial Thoughts: Man the Ivy League league regular season rarely disappoints from an entertaining perspective. While Yale was the preseason favorite, and appeared to be the front-runner entering conference play, the tides shifted fast when they saw worthy adversary emerge in the young Princeton Tigers. Princeton surprised everyone with their faster-than-expected development this year, and were in the driver's seat to take down the league crown entering the month of March. That all ended on March 4th, when Harvard strolled into and stunned the Tigers in their home building, re-opening the window for Yale. The Bulldogs of New Haven, Connecticut seized their opportunity when they went on the road to face a tough Columbia team and smacked them by 16, clinching their first tournament appearance since 1962.
However, Yale will be without one of their better perimeter shooters/scorers in Jack Montague for their opening round game against Baylor, who was recently expelled for rape charges.
Baylor on Offense: Yale has played man-to-man almost exclusively this year, so I don't see anything changing here. This should allow Baylor to exploit Yale with their go-to mismatch man Taurean Prince. Prince is one the most underrated scorers in the country and is super comfortable scoring from all over the floor. He's effective working in the post down-low and has an excellent touch around this rim. He is also more than capable of extending this touch out to 15-feet and even out to the 3-point line. His percentages fell off a bit toward the end of the year, but I think he is a better shooter/finisher than the 47/35 splits he posted this year.
The issue for Yale is that they will have to match Sears on either Prince, or linebacker Rico Gathers. If Sears is matched up with Prince, he will be drawn away from the basket, which will limit the rim protection Yale will need badly in this game. If Sears lines up with Gathers, Brandon Sherrod for Yale will have to take Prince. Sherrod is a very good athlete for his big frame (6'6 240), and good shot-blocker in his own right, but no one in the Ivy league possess Prince's length, athleticism, strength and skillset. That matchup will intrigue the hell out of me, because if Sherrod/Sears can hold their own against Prince/Gathers and Jonathon Motley, this game could become very interesting.
Yale on Offense: Scott Drew has played zone on 55% of all Baylor's defensive possessions this year, so Yale will be preparing for a defense they faced a decent amount already in the regular season (18.1% of the time). Yale has also been on-fire as of late from the outside and Sears is an excellent passing big (2nd on team in assists) to anchor the high-post on offense. Envisioning Sears working the free-throw line areas and shuffling balls all-around the perimeter, or to Sherrod working the baseline, I think Yale will have some success scoring against the Bears.
Key Factor(s): This game will be won or lost on the boards. Yale is currently ranked 7th in BOTH offensive and defensive rebounding percentage (!!!), while the Bears are ranked 3rd in offensive rebounding, but just 126th in defensive rebounding (???). The zone scheme hurts Baylor's rebounding consistency on the defensive end, but there's no denying how scary they are to keep off the offensive glass, with Prince, Gathers and Motley flying in from everywhere on missed shots. However, if those three don't sure up the defensive boards, Gathers and Sherrod will be patiently waiting to snag any Yale misses, which will lead to kick-outs and other 2nd shot opportunities.
Final Predictions: When I initially began this preview, I was leaning hard Baylor, given it felt like Baylor possessed all of the same strengths as Yale, but just had more talent at their disposal. However, unless Scott Drew plays a significantly larger amount of man in this game, I think Yale will get super comfortable on the offensive side, and generate enough open looks and snag enough offensive rebounds to score efficiently. And because Sherrod, Sears and Nick Victor are all excellent on the defensive glass, I don't see a Baylor bloodbath on the offensive boards. Regardless, this one should be a shootout, and I lean Yale slightly
SU Pick: Yale
ATS Pick: Yale +5
O/U Pick: Over 136.5
(4) Duke vs. (13) UNC Wilmington
Initial Thoughts: The Devils were running on empty entering the ACC tournament, and officially ran out of gas in OT against the Irish. With their injuries and complete lack of depth, this 1-week period of rest should be a godsend for the Devils, given they have not had a week off since January. And while Duke is enjoying their week of recovery, UNC Wilmington has been on a mini-vacation, having not played since March 7th, when they defeated Hofstra in the CAA tournament title. It will be interesting to see how much the long layoff affects the Seahawks rhythm or momentum coming into this in-state clash.
Duke on Offense: The key here will be how Duke handles the full-court pressure of the Seahawks. Wilmington pressed 28% of all defensive possessions this year, the 5th most in the entire country. Just for context of how much that is, Louisville also pressed 28% of the time, which is ironic because Wilmington's head coach Kevin Keatts is a Rick Pitino disciple. This comparison led me to think back to the Louisville/Duke game at Louisville on February 20th, in which Duke blew a double-digit lead over the final 4 minutes of the game. A major reason for the collapse were the 18 turnovers committed by the Blue Devils, including 15 from Ingram and Allen combined. However, except for 3-4 that occurred during the Louisville rally, a ton of these were mostly from Ingram forcing the action in the half-court, and were not generated directly off the press.
So while you may be skeptical of me comparing the famous Rick Pitino full-court pressure to that of UNC Wilmington's, you may be shocked at just how effective Keatts presss was this year. In full-court pressing situations, albeit against weaker competition, the Seahawks allowed fewer points per possession and actually forced more turnovers than Louisville's press.
The key concern I have here for Duke is Derryck Thornton being responsible for most of the ball-handling duties. He was not confident at all handling the full-court pressure in their first meeting with Louisville at home, and his 21% TO Rate this year is far and away the highest on the Duke roster. If he comes out shaky protecting the ball, his confidence will plummet early, which will put a ton of strain on Matt Jones and Luke Kennard to bring up the ball.
However, IF the Devils can get the ball across half court, the Devils should be able to operate in their comfort zone, which is centered around giving Allen and Ingram a ton of ball-screens and space to attack off the dribble. This will be an issue for Wilmington, given that they foul a TON with their in-your-face, 4-guard and 5-guard lineups. In fact, the Seahawks fouled more than any other team in the country this year, outside of West Virginia. Duke should get to the line a bunch in this one, assuming Ingram and Allen don't settle for jumpers.
UNC Wilmington on Offense: Although I'm in no position to criticize one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball, I will say that some of the zone defenses Coach K has shown this year have been absolute trash. Particularly in their 2-3 zone, Duke looks completely lost defending the middle, giving teams easy looks from 12-15 out anytime they want them. Just ask Brice Johnson if he's ever scored 20 points easier, at any level.
However, K shouldn't need to play a ton of zone in this one, with Wilmington having no one in particular who scares you on the inside. Duke just needs to play solid man-to-man, without overextending their pressure too much, ensuring that Fleming and the other Wilmington guards don't get into the teeth of the defense.
The interesting mismatch Wilmington could try to create is with Marshall Plumlee, by going with a 5-out lineup, which would force him to drift a little further away from the rim. The one issue is that whoever would play the "5" in this lineup for the Seahawks would not be a great shooter. So even if Wilmington throws out this look, Plumlee should just dare his matchup to make a 15-18 footer. The main guy in this role for Wilmington is CJ Bryce, who did hit 44% of his 3s this year, but on only 27 attempts. Beyond that, there isn't another real outside shooting threat to assume this "stretch-5" role.
Key Factor(s): This all comes down to transition defense for the Devils. I don't see any real issues with Duke defending the Seahawks in the half-court, given Wilmington has no real interior bodies to beat up the thin Devil front-line. The Seahawks point guard Jordan Talley generally leads the the Hawks in transition, so his decision-making in the open court will be huge, especially if Wilmington can get a couple of long rebounds off Duke missed threes, which should present decent opportunities to run.
Final Predictions: Duke's tournament destiny this year is incredibly matchup driven, given the imbalance between their perimeter depth/reliance and their big depth/reliance. However, this round 1 date with Wilmington should not give the Devils any major problems. I think Duke rolls in this one, especially with a full week of rest after the ACC tournament. The line opened at 9.5, and is up to 10.5 and even 11 in some books already. With heavy public money coming in on the Devils, I don't see a ton of resistance with this line, so get in early if you can.
SU Pick: Duke
ATS Pick: Duke -10.5
O/U Pick: Over 157
(6) Texas vs. (11) Northern Iowa
Initial Thoughts: This game features two outstanding coaches in Shaka Smart and Ben Jacobsen, who rely heavily on their respective point guards, Isaiah Taylor for the Horns and Wes Washpun for the Panthers. Taylor and Washpun both heavily dominant the ball on offense and are the sure bets to take the big shots late in games. Washpun's game-winning jumper to knock off Evansville in the Missouri Valley tournament will only boost his already absurdly high confidence level. Taylor will have to be fully locked-in on the defensive end, because slowing down Washpun's penetration is critical to stopping the Panthers offensively.
Northern Iowa on Offense: Washpun leads the Panthers in both scoring and assists, so projecting their game-to-game outcome is highly determined by how efficiently he plays. He was absolutely brilliant in their marquee regular season wins of North Carolina and Iowa St., but has also been a train-wreck at times, specifically in their horrific losses to Loyola Chicago (twice).
Where Washpun is at his best is in pick-n-roll and iso situations, where he loves to set up his defender with a hesitation crossover, and drive hard into the body of his defender to get into teeth of the defense. While I think he settles for his patented pull-up midrange too much, he has fully embraced a facilitating role this year, constantly finding open shooters when the help defense collapses.
I wonder how concerned Shaka is with guarding this pick-n-roll action and if he'll consider showing some zone looks, which he has played a bit in Big 12 play. I think ultimately, he'd rather take his chances with Taylor checking Washpun than let the elite UNI shooters feast against the zone.
This brings me to the Washpun vs. Taylor matchup up-top, and the ball-screen defense of Texas. The bottom table below shows just how effective Northern Iowa is in both "Isolation" and pick-n-roll ("P&R Ball Handler") situations, which is almost always Washpun (refer to bottom row and third from bottom row):
While Texas has been stout overall defensively this year, they aren't as elite defending in pick-n-roll settings, or in isolation settings, something they'll see Washpun featured in a ton (refer to bottom two rows):
Texas on Offense: The one area where Northern Iowa can be exposed is on the inside. When they lost to Missouri State in early January, the Bears shot 60% on their 2-point attempts by simply getting a ton of easy looks off cuts to the rim. They generally don't play much size, except for when 6'10 Bennett Koch comes off the bench, but even he doesn't provide a ton of rim protection. Their best defender, both on the inside and on the perimeter, is Jeremy Morgan and it really isn't close. The problem is that Texas doesn't really utilize a dynamic wing scorer, thus limiting his defensive value in this matchup.
The panthers will need to be more concerned with the skilled Texas bigs, especially Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert. Ibeh took 3 years to realize just how skilled he is for his size, and in his senior year, he has been revolutionary for Shaka Smart, especially with Cam Ridley being injured for an extended period of time. Lammert has assumed a true stretch-4 role for Shaka this year, which has created a ton more spacing for Taylor and freshman Kerwin Roach to penetrate.
So while Texas will have a significant height advantage in this game, their lineup with Lammert floating around outside won't be able to exploit the undersized Panthers that much on the interior. If Jacobsen is smart, he will ensure his de is tightly compacted to stop the penetration of Roach and Taylor, and focus on winning the battle on the defensive boards.
Key Factor(s): With Shaka on the sidelines, the full-court pressure is always a factor that's in-play. Texas has not shown a ton of press this year, but when they have, it's been effective, generating a turnover on one out of every four possessions.
Northern Iowa is excellent at taking care of the ball as a team (17th in the country in TO rate), but they did have issues dealing with Stephen F. Austin's pressure way back in November, turning it over 17 times. They won by 10 points at home, but it does raise some concern about the Panthers ability to handle pressure. I think Shaka will look at this precedent, and ramp up some of their full-court and half-court pressure.
Final Predictions: I think whoever prevails in this one will take down the Aggies in round 2. With that said, I don't think Texas will be able to exploit their size advantage on offense, which should put a ton of pressure on Taylor, Roach and Felix to generate offense for the Horns. I trust the Panthers more to score against Texas in the half-court and don't foresee any massive issues dealing with their pressure (if Shaka decides to dial it up). I'm going to need a good game from Wesley "Wash-n-Dry" Washpun to ensure this bet cashes, but he has to be confident coming off his heroics last weekend in St. Louis. Give me the Panthers in a grind-it-out game that feels like is heading for under territory, even with the extremely low total.
SU Pick: Northern Iowa
ATS Pick: Northern Iowa +4.5
O/U Pick: Under 125
(3) Texas A&M vs. (14) Green Bay
Initial Thoughts: Reflecting back to my preseason analysis of Green Bay, I ended up being relatively accurate with how good I thought the Phoenix would be. After a disappointing start to non-conference play, and some hiccups in the early going of Horizon league play, Green Bay flipped the switch down the stretch, and rattled off 4-straight neutral site wins to clinch the Horizon tournament championship. They survived what was almost an epic collapse to Valpo, letting Alec Peters get a layup on a 90-foot full-court pass with two seconds left in regulation. The Phoenix would inevitably prevail in overtime, and take down Wright State the very next night to secure their ticket to the madness.
I think the best explanation for why Green Bay has gotten better over the last month is the increasing comfort level playing in the nation's fastest pace offense under new head coach Linc Darner. After ranking in the middle of the pack nationally in possessions per game last year under Brian Wardle, the Phoenix now average an absurd 13 seconds per possession.
Green Bay on Offense: While Carrington Love and Jordan Fouse were the notable returners for the Phoenix entering the year, it has been Charles Cooper who has emerged to become the most feared player on Green Bay offensively. Cooper is lightning-fast in the open court, and has fit gorgeously in Linc Warner's non-stop fast-break system. He will put a ton of pressure on Caruso and House to get back on defense and step in-front of him in transition.
What's impressive is how little Green Bay turns the ball over, despite their blistering-fast pace, currently ranking 27th in the nation in TO rate. Senior point-guard Carrington Love should get most of the credit for this, given his personal TO rate that ranks just outside of the top-150 in the country. Love and Cooper together give the Phoenix two guards that have elite quickness, which will make Caruso and House test their lateral quickness for a full 40-minutes. They'll be looking to penetrate relentlessly and find open shooters on the wing, including Khalil Small and Turner Botz, each of whom hit a respectable 37% of their 3s this year.
Texas A&M on Offense: A&M has a similar round 1 task as Duke does against Wilmington. The Aggies must handle the relentless pressure Linc Warner and his Phoenix will throw at them. The closest stylistic comparables to Green Bay that the Aggies saw this year are Florida and UNC Asheville. Against Asheville, the Aggies had no problem taking care of the ball, winning the turnover battle 19 to 9, en route to a 30-point win. The difference here is that Green Bay will pick-up full-court a lot more than Asheville typically does. A&M also fared well against Florida, turning it over just 7 times in each of those two games, giving me additional confidence they should not be rattled by the Phoenix press.
If Kennedy is smart, he should have Jalen Jones, Danuel House and Alex Caruso handle the bulk of the ball-handling duties. All three are over 6'5, and should be able to easily to throw over the top against the Green Bay traps. Caruso has historically had a high turnover rate, but most of these are from trying to make perfect passes in the half-court, and have less to do with his overall decision-making and dribbling abilities. Anthony Collins will also be involved as well, who I trust the least BY FAR out of these other 3 perimeter guys. He simply should not play a lot in this game, given his historical carelessness with the basketball, and knowing that A&M shouldn't need his outside shooting ability much in this game.
Despite the plethora of weapons the Aggies have on offense, Green Bay actually has decent personnel to match up with them in the half-court. The tough mismatch for most of Texas A&M's opponents this year has been Jalen Jones, the 6'7 do-it-all swingman, that can drive, shoot, post-up and distribute effectively. Green Bay has a similar mold to Jones in Jordan Fouse, who actually I predicted preseason would lead this team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks (lol). While that was probably a lofty goal in hindsight, Fouse still maintained his exceptional defensive prowess, posting a top-100 steal rate (behind only his teammate Carrington Love) and top-250 block rate.
The other tough match will be the McDonalds All-American freshman center Tyler Davis, who was uber efficient in his first year playing collegiate hoops. The Phoenix were blah at defending the post this year, but I think the physicality of the 6'8 230 Lowe will be enough to keep Davis from operating at ease on the low-block. Stopping these two dudes will be critical for Green Bay to have any shot of getting enough stops in the half-court.
Key Factor(s): The Aggies true vulnerability is actually on the defensive glass, where despite their elite size in side and length on the wings, they ranked 205th in the country. This is a golden opportunity for Jordan Fouse and Kenneth Lowe, each of whom are superb leapers at 6'7 and 6'8 respectably, to clean up a bunch of outside misses for the Phoenix. If they can get their hands on 4-5 offensive rebounds each in this game, Green Bay has a real shot to keep this one close.
Final Predictions: Similar to my Duke/Wilmington analysis, I'm betting on the guards of the bigger school to make good decisions in pressure situations. I don't see this game being boring AT ALL, and fully expect a track meet going both ways. With this clearly favoring Green Bay, I am going to lean the Phoenix and lean even harder on the over.
SU Pick: Texas A&M
ATS Pick: Green Bay +13
O/U Pick: Over 155
(7) Oregon St. vs. (10) VCU
Initial Thoughts: This matchup features two coaches who are rising stars in the collegiate game: Wayne Tinkle, in only in his second year at Oregon State, and Will Wade, in his first year at VCU replacing Shaka Smart.
The biggest adjustment watching the VCU play with no Shaka on the sidelines was accepting the fact they are no longer going to press you for 40 minutes a game. Wade has scaled back the 90-foot pressure Smart patented, but that hasn't certainly hasn't reduced the level of "havoc" VCU still creates. The Rams, in their suffocating man-to-man defense, are forcing turnovers on 22% of their opponents possessions, good for 14th in the country. While Briante Weber, one of my all-time favorite college players, is no longer spearheading the perimeter defense, a disciple in sophomore Doug Brooks may be following in his footsteps. Brooks posted a ridiculous 7% steal rate in his 15-20 minutes a game, good for the best in the country, which matched Weber's steal rate in 2014. Brooks, along with starting point guard JeQuan Lewis, will see plenty of action on Gary Payton III throughout the course of the game. GP3 will have to play well if the Beavers have any hopes of advancing to the next round, especially with their second best player, and coach's son, Tres Tinkle out for this game.
Oregon St. on Offense: Everything for the Beavers centers around Payton, who led his team in both scoring and assists this year. He does a relatively good job of taking care of the basketball, which will be critical in this matchup against the Rams defensive pressure. The one place where I think GP3 can take advantage of the VCU guards is with his size and athleticism. At 6'3 190, his strength immediately jumps out at you (he has abnormally large biceps for a point-guard) and watching him sky for a rebound confirms how genetically gifted he is (thanks dad!). He'll be primarily matched up with VCU's Lewis, who is noticeable smaller at 6'1, 175. Payton is excellent operating in the midrange area, and should be able to get his pull up jumper in the lane whenever he wants over the smaller Lewis.
No Tres Tinkle in this game is a significant offensive loss for the Beavers, but in this particular matchup, he may not be missed as much you think. VCU is a top-25 team in limiting opponent 3-point attempts, which is a staple of the Shaka Smart extended man-to-man defensive principles. Excessively hard closeouts would limit Tinkle's looks on the perimeter, and force him to be a one dimensional scorer inside the arc. Though he's incredibly skilled for a freshman, and capable of scoring around the rim, the Beavers may be better served specializing with a true small or true big lineup. By going small, Tinkle could play more 4-guard sets against the smaller VCU lineup to handle the pressure, like Stephen Thompson or Langston Morris-Walker. However, seeing what he's done the last few games, he will most likely go bigger, starting true freshman center Drew Eubanks in Tinkle's place.
VCU on Offense: Whenever you play Oregon State, you must prepare for their 1-3-1 half-court zone. According to the advanced numbers, the Beavers played zone on 48% of their opponents possessions this season. However, with no Tinkle in the lineup, it will probably handcuff his father in playing too much 1-3-1, with the risk of having two slow 6'10 guys having to cover a ton of ground defensively (Olaf Schaftennar and Eubanks). Therefore, I think Tinkle will play Morris-Walker a ton more in this game than he played in the Pac-12 tournament, to ensure they can still throw their zone look at VCU. The Rams have shown some success this season playing against zone defenses, specifically against their crosstown rival, Richmond. While Richmond plays more of a match-up zone than a 1-3-1, the Rams took down the Spiders twice this year, racking up 26 assists in a 87-74 win just over a month ago.
When Oregon State does go man-to-man, they'll have a tough challenge defending VCU's half-court sets. The Rams get a ton of off-ball movement in their motion offense, which generates a lot of great screening action geared to get their quick guards in pick-n-roll settings, or to get Melvin Johnson open looks from the outside. While Oregon State typically defends ball screens well, they give up a ton of open jump shots, which could spell danger if those shots are falling for the Rams. VCU actually has some interesting player-by-player shooting splits, which balances out to being an overall "average" 3-point shooting team. While Melvin Johnson is the clear marksman (39% and the all-time VCU 3-point shooter), senior Korey Billbury and Lewis both shot 41% each from beyond the arc this year. However, Doug Brooks and Jordan Burgess each took a relatively high-volume of 3s themselves, and only cashed in 27% combined of those attempts. While Brooks just simply needs to shoot less, Burgess has just had a disappointing junior year across the board. He was an ESPN top-100 recruit when he followed in his older brother's footsteps to play in Richmond 3-years ago and it's head-scratching that he finds himself coming off the bench, getting just 15-20 minutes a game.
Key Factor(s): This game will most likely be won on the boards. Because neither team is elite at getting to the line, or shooting from the outside, I think there will a ton of live ball misses in this game. VCU holds a clear edge in rebounding, specifically on the offensive side, where future NFL tight-end (and my 2nd cousin) Mo Alie-Cox and freak wing athlete Justin Tillman will be all over the the glass. Despite the 6'10, 6'10 frontline Tinkle will throw out, Schaftenaar is a downy-soft stretch-4 man, and Eubanks is just a freshman. It's never encouraging when your 6'3 point guard has a higher defensive rebounding rate than both of your 6'10 frontline bigs...
Final Predictions: In addition to the rebounding disparity, I also think the Beavers not named Gary Payton will have some issues holding on to the ball, which should give the Rams more easy buckets in transition. Give me VCU in this one, and I'll throw a penny on the over as "well".
SU Pick: VCU
ATS Pick: VCU -4.5
O/U Pick: Over 141
(2) Oklahoma vs. (15) Bakersfield
Initial Thoughts: Ever since the Sooners got routed on the road at Kansas State, I've began to form some skepticism around how elite this team really is. I was quick to call out my coaching frustrations in the epic triple-OT showdown against Kansas, and now feel slightly vindicated that others are beginning to voice their concerns about OU too, specifically on the offensive end. The overreliance on Buddy Hield to make outside shots has become increasingly problematic, especially when teams have athletic, big guards that can match up with him. And anytime an elite time like OU over-relies on the jump shot to bury opponents, it can be a dangerous game if those shots aren't falling (see Villanova last year).
Oklahoma on Offense: You may be getting sick of this storyline by now, but here we have another pressing dynamic with Bakersfield. While we've already covered the pressing defenses of Green Bay and UNC Wilmington above, this officially your 3rd pressing team in the West region. Bakersfield is composed of a ton of athletic guards, who pick up full court on 20% of all their opponents possessions, which ranks just behind Wilmington and just ahead of Green Bay (in other words, Wilmington presses slightly more than Bakersfield and Green Bay). The Roadrunners terrorized the WAC this year with this pressure, forcing turnovers on 25% of all their opponents possessions when they pressed and 20% on all other possessions.
However, the Roadrunners are not just a renegade, all-out gambling defensive team, but actually a solid defensive team. For as much as they expose the paint in their press and extended man-to-man defense, Bakersfield does an excellent job recovering back and rotating over, limiting easy chances at the rim. The Roadrunners were 10th in the country in effective FG% defense, and TOP 10 in 2-point percentage defense, which is anchored by their 6'9 250 pound senior beast, Aly Ahmed. Ahmed, along with Kevin Mays, are the only two seniors on the roster, which is rounded out with a bunch of JUCO transfers. Head coach Rod Barnes has clearly prioritized bringing in athletes however he can get them, and it's now starting to pay dividends in his 5th year at Bakersfield.
The point here is that Oklahoma's guards must be sharp on Friday. If Buddy goes into tunnel vision mode, or if Isaiah Cousins throws it away 7 times like he did last game against a similar style West Virginia team, the Sooners will be sweating in round 1. However, the Sooners did take 2 of 3 from the Mountaineers this year, and were especially impressive in the game at Morganstown, when they routed the 'Neers by 14, and only turned it over 9 times.
Bakersfield on Offense: While Ahmed provides a decent scoring punch inside, Bakersfield still relies primarily on 2nd chance buckets to score efficiently. 6'4 220 pound Kevin Mays will be a nightmare for OU to keep off the glass, given Kruger won't always be able to throw Lattin or Spangler on him. This will put a TON of pressure on Cousins or Hield to be engaged on the defensive boards, or they'll be stuck watching Mays, who posted a top 25 offensive rebounding rate in the country this year, give Bakersfield countless extra possessions and 2nd chance opportunities.
Key Factor(s): Lon Kruger will have a ton of interesting defensive matchup decisions to make in this one, and how he handles those before the tip, and how he makes adjustments throughout the course of the game, will determine how easily Bakersfield will be able to score in the half-court.
Final Predictions: This game is almost impossible to predict. Part of me thinks the big OU guards will attack the pressure with fearlessness, and get easy dunks on the other end for Spangler and Lattin. The other part of me really feels like this is a classic Sooner-sleepwalk, in which Buddy will have to display some inefficient, hero-ball heroics in the second half to propel OU on to the next round.