(1) Virginia vs. (16) UMBC
- Matt Cox
Initial Thoughts: You may have already seen the video below, but it's a mandatory prerequisite before reading any more of this preview:
That clip above serves two purposes:
- To give you a courtesy reminder of one of the best moments from Championship Week, which sent the Retrievers back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2008...
- To show one example of what UMBC needs to replicate at least 13 times against Virginia to have a chance to compete against the Hoos' steel curtain defense
Virginia on Offense: As someone who ran the mover / blocker offense all throughout high-school, watching Kyle Guy run his defender off a bajillion screens, admittedly, brings back some fond nostalgia from my younger years. But enough about my irrelevant ex-playing days - all you need to know is that UVA should have no issues scoring at their usual rate of efficiency. UMBC has made a living this year by winning the turnover battle, and if there's one thing the Cavaliers' backcourt does as well as anyone in the nation it's protecting the rock.
UMBC on Offense: Here's a fun fact that mighttttt influence your perception of UMBC's coach Ryan Odom - he's a former long-time assistant of none other than Seth Greenberg! Yup, that's right - Odom spent 8 long years in Blacksburg studying under Greenberg's wing during the fun era of Va Tech hoops where it became an annual tradition to hear the Hokies name come up in bubble conversations. Take that for what it's worth, but back to the actual analysis...
KJ Maura and Jairus Lyles dominate the ball handling and playmaking for the Retrievers and, as alluded to above, both are reliable decision-makers with the ball in their hands. And while conventional wisdom would lead you to believe that UVA could give two shits about forcing turnovers, per traditional pack line principles, the 'Hoos were actually among the nation's best at generating steals this season - UVA forced more turnovers on a per possession basis than any team in the ACC and finished 2nd in defensive steal rate. So while taking the ball away is not a core staple of Tony Bennett's defense, it's precisely what has elevated the Cavs defense from elite to historic.
Key Factor(s): It's pretty simple - UMBC has to make tough, contested 3s to have any shot of swinging the improbable upset here. Fortunately for Odom, his Retrievers feature an abundance of long range snipers and UMBC has proven they can fill it up even against top-tier length and athleticism - just refer to the 14/28 3pt shooting barrage against Arizona way back in November. Unfortunately, UVA's defense is a whole different beast, and banking on a repeat performance of that shooting display could be foolish.
Final Predictions: For those of you degenerates out there, don't be scared to take Virginia simply because of the overall low game total projection - UVA is the G.O.A.T at covering double digit spreads, despite barely cracking 60 points themselves on most nights. In fact, the Cavs are 20-10 against the number this year, but also 20-10 on Unders (Vegas is still struggling to set the O/U total line low enough). But forget all that noise - I'm saying screw the data and betting on the Cavs offense scoring at will, as well as praying UMBC gets hot enough from deep to pick up the point slack and surpass the total threshold.
SU Pick: Virginia
ATS Pick: UMBC +22
O/U Pick: Over 121.5
(8) Creighton vs. (9) Kansas State
Initial Thoughts: *Googles "latest news on Dean Wade and Barry Brown injury status"*
Damn, lady luck must've made a quick trip to Manhattan, Kansas this weekend. Local reports have indicated the fighting Bruce Webbers will get not one but both of their two all-league caliber players - Barry Brown (eye) and Dean Wade (foot) - back in the lineup just in time for Friday afternoon's tilt with Creighton.
But let's be honest: the real drama surrounding this 8/9 showdown is Marcus Foster's quest for revenge against his former school and head coach. Going all the way back to 2013-14, you may remember Foster bursting onto the scene as one of the more promising freshman standouts in the Big-12 for the Wildcats. But after a tumultuous sophomore season, the Wichita Falls, TX native took his talents to Omaha, where he has matured substantially both on and off the court under the wing of Greg McDermott.
Creighton on Offense: The efficiency leap Marcus Foster took this season while seamlessly sliding into the undisputed alpha-dog role is why Creighton is where they are today (ok fine, the Jays may have been slightly overseeded). Whenever the Jays fail to get a quick shot out in transition - which is a rare occurrence by the way - Foster becomes immensely important in the half-court offense. While Doug McDermott's offense utilizes constant pass and screen action, whenever late shot clock situations arise the Jays can call upon one of the best 'last resort' options in college basketball. Few guards in America are as adept at creating their own shot off the dribble, which becomes an invaluable skill when the shot clock begins to wind down. And because I think K-State dictates the tempo to a slower pace than the Jays would like in this game, Foster's 1-v-1 isolation brilliance may need to shine through here - note that this will be no easy task against the stout perimeter defensive front of the Wildcats.
Kansas State on Offense: I can't stress enough the importance of Barry Brown and Dean Wade's health. Collectively, they provide a jolt of dynamic playmaking and outside shooting to what can sometimes look like a rather vanilla offense. Brown's transition to more of a lead guard has been paramount for Bruce Webber, who was struggling to find a consistent answer at the point guard spot. And after Kamau Stokes' injury opened the door of opportunity for sophomore Carter Diarra to make his mark in the lineup, the Wildcats may have found something in the top-5 of Brown, Diarra, Xavier Sneed, Wade and Makol Mawien. The length across all 5 positions adds a new level of difficulty to what was already a sound defensive unit and Diarra has emerged as a consistent long-range shooting threat, which was a gaping void for much of the season.
Key Factor(s): Since both coaches play man-to-man almost exclusively, winning the 1 on 1 matchups will be critical. Specifically, the head-to-head duel at the 4 spot between Dean Wade and Ronnie Harrell will ultimately determine who marches on to the next round. Harrell is a hyper-versatile two-way player that McDermott has used a million different ways during his three seasons at Creighton (that is, when he's been healthy). With the injuries to Creighton's frontcourt this season, Harrell's ability to guard Wade both inside and out makes him the obvious candidate to draw the defensive assignment. But even Harrell may have some issues stopping Wade down on the low block - just refer to the Kansas / K-State matchups in the regular season when Bill Self was forced to go zone because the Jayhawks had no defensive answer for the 6'10 Wade on the interior.
Final Predictions: As high as I've been on Creighton all season (and love what I've seen from Jacob Epperson as of late), I think K-State is the right play here. Both backcourts are excellent defensively, so I see both groups of guards having a tough time getting anything going toward the rim. This is why the battle of the frontcourts will be enormous and I give the slight edge to the Wildcats in this domain.
SU Pick: Kansas State
ATS Pick: Kansas State +1.5
O/U Pick: Under 144.5
(5) Kentucky vs. (12) Davidson
Initial Thoughts: I love how the committee blatantly pinned the perrenerial 'David[son]' against the perennial Goliath in the notoriously upset-friendly 5 / 12 matchup. And guess what - I'm buying all the way into that storyline in this particular game (sorry Big Blue nation).
Kentucky on Offense: While a lot has been made of John Calipari's decision to play more zone this season, the same narrative rings true for Bob McKillop and the other Wildcats. After playing man-to-man almost exclusively last year, Davidson showcased zone on 25% of all defensive possessions this year, per synergy - for context, that ranks as the 75th highest rate in the nation. As basketball savant Jordan Majewski astutely pointed out, it would be wise for Davidson to utilize the zone extensively against a Kentucky team that has struggled to hit outside shots all year long. Also, you have to think McKillop still has vivid memories of his last trip to the NCAA tournament back in 2015, when Iowa's enormous frontline dismantled Davidson on the glass en route to a 30-point opening round blowout. While zone schemes are prone to missed defensive box out assignments, sagging back into the zone may not be a terrible play against UK.
Davidson on Offense: This side of the ball is where the matchup gets fun. Against a typical UK team in years past, Davidson's tricky motion offense would be nightmarish for a freshmen-dominant roster to learn and adapt to - but Cal's implementation of his own zone to Kentucky's team defensive blueprint adds in a new wrinkle this year. So the question becomes, "can Davidson can replicate their season long offensive efficiency, regardless of what defensive look UK throws at them?"
Well of course they can! That is, if you buy-in to what they've done against zone defenses so far this season as a valid predictor...
According to Synergy, Davidson posted a top-30 nationally ranked offense on a per possession basis against zones this year. If this surprises you, well it really shouldn't... As all Davidson squads seem to have under the direction of McKillop, the Wildcats' roster is once again stockpiled with a bevy of passers and shooters at all 5 positions on the floor.
Key Factor(s): While Kentucky's outrageous length at all 5 positions could easily end up being too much for Bob McKillip's boys to handle, I actually think the Davidson has enough size and athleticism to avoid being overwhelmed. McKillop's two lead guards, Jox Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady, stand 6'4 and 6'5 respectively, and the perimeter is rounded out by the sharpshooting 6'6 KiShawn Prichett on the wing.
Final Predictions: Guys, this is not just some cute, fluffy upset cinderella fairy tale - Davidson is actually good. If Ken Pomeroy's models could talk (and I'm sure they'll be able to soon), they'd tell you Davidson is every bit as good as Kansas State, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Alabama, Syracuse and UCLA.
Ultimately, I think talent wins out there in a fun X and O matchup duel between two great coaches, but Davidson should keep it tight the whole way.
SU Pick: Kentucky
ATS Pick: Davidson +6
O/U Pick: Over 143.5
(4) Arizona vs. (13) Buffalo
Initial Thoughts: Arizona is working on an “us against the world” resume for the ages, as they’ve now defeated the entire Pac 12 (twice), the NCAA (Trier is eligible), ESPN (wiretap this), and the FBI (so far). It’s starting to feel like this is the time Sean Miller finally makes the Final Four, despite being mired in controversy surrounding his recruiting practices, right before he and most of his team goes their separate professional ways. First, though, the Wildcats have to face Nate Oats and his Buffalo Bulls, this year’s dominant force out of the MAC. The Bulls have a superb perimeter trio, a stretch big man, and more athleticism than most mid-majors can muster, making it less than a certainty that the Wildcats waltz into the weekend.
Arizona on Offense: Obviously, no one on Buffalo can match the behemoth that is DeAndre Ayton. The incredibly skilled 7-footer will be a nightmare for a Bulls frontline that lacks either height or girth, and Oats will have to employ a few tricks (hard doubles, dig downs from the guards) to prevent Ayton from going completely bonkers. Dusan Ristic will also have plenty of chances to score on the block – those two constitute a post-up attack that ranks in the 99th percentile nationally in points per possession, and they’ll face a soft-ish post defense team in Buffalo that struggled to stop the few back-to-the-basket threats they faced. Buffalo played almost no zone (99.8% man), so we’re unlikely to see that, but Oats may want to consider that as a curveball against a Wildcats offense that shredded man-to-man (just be careful to avoid copious Ayton alley-oops like USC allowed in the Pac 12 title game).
Arizona may also live at the line in this one, as Buffalo’s aggressive run-you-off-the-line man often exposes its bigs to free drives from opposing guards. Allonzo Trier’s eyes lit up at that sentence, as he excels at attacking off the dribble, and while Buffalo has multiple wing athletes to throw at him, he’s too good to completely shut down.
Buffalo on Offense: Arizona can definitely score on Buffalo on the interior, but Buffalo is just as likely to rack up points against the Wildcats’ shoddy perimeter defense. Wes Clark and CJ Massinburg are the primary creators and drivers, and both can also nail threes if Arizona is lazy with its closeouts. Another major matchup advantage for Buffalo is that both of their primary “bigs” (Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris – who is more of a big wing) can shoot. Perkins is very comfortable in pick-and-pop action, something that Ristic and Ayton will have issues dealing with, while Harris is one of the best knockdown shooters in the entire MAC (43% on 201 attempts).
If they can succeed in pulling Arizona’s size away from the rim, the driving lanes will open up for Clark, Massinburg, Davonta Jordan, and Jayvon Graves. Rawle Alkins can only guard one of those guys, and the rest of Arizona’s guards range from “blah” to “bad” on D.
Key Factor(s): How locked in will Arizona be? Have they heard everyone singing their praises after winning the Pac 12 regular season and tournament titles, talking the Wildcats up as a possible Final Four team in a difficult region? Buffalo is well-coached by Oats and will bring it against the flying-high squad from the desert, and while I don’t think an outright win is likely, I think Buffalo gives Arizona everything it can handle.
Final Predictions: This one should be an up-and-down affair, as Buffalo definitely wants to push tempo, and Arizona doesn’t usually mind that. The Wildcats need to make sure to slow down and feed their hungry hippos in the paint, though, because that’s where their biggest advantage lies. Both teams can score on each other in this one, and since I don’t think Buffalo is outclassed at all on the perimeter, talent-wise, I think they hang around.
SU Pick: Arizona
ATS Pick: Buffalo +9
O/U Pick: Over 157
(6) Miami (FL) vs. (11) Loyola Chicago
Initial Thoughts: In a matter of 24-hours I've come full circle on this game - while my gut reaction was a hard lean in favor of the Canes when the bracket was finally announced (you know, after that disastrous attempt to dress up the Selection Show by TBS), some deeper analysis has illuminated some key factors in this matchup I hadn't yet considered...
Miami FL on Offense: The first of those dynamics is Loyola's ability to defend the steady stream of pick n rolls Jim Larranaga throws at you on offense. As aforementioned, Miami FL ran screen and roll on close to 20% of their offensive possessions this season, the most of any team in this year's field. If you're unfamiliar with the Ramblers roster makeup, what they lack in true size (for the exception of big Cam Krutwig) they make up for in hybrid versatility, which they have in spades (see Donte Ingram, Aundre Jackson and Marques Townes). This interchangeability is a key ingredient in Loyola's stifling screen and roll defense, which ranked in the top-10 percentile nationally in points per possession allowed (both when the ball handler shoots and passes), per synergy.
Loyola Chi on Offense: Loyola will in many ways be facing a clone of themselves defensively in this matchup - Miami's roster is oozing with top-flight athletes at the forward position, which should help them to stay connected to all of Loyola's shooters. The key here is the containment of Clayton Custer, the ex Iowa State transfer who typically initiates the Ramblers offense from the point. Loyola lost just twice this year with Custer in the lineup (@ Boise and @ Bradley), so make sure to apply an asterisk next to the head-scratching Milwaukee, Missouri State and Indiana State stains on their regular season resume. Just how important is he on the offensive side of the ball - well, I'll let the advanced on/off PPP differential metrics from hooplens.com tell the story:
Key Factor(s): The Canes and Ramblers each stumbled upon a hidden gem in each of their respective freshman classes: Cam Krutwig for Loyola and Chris Lykes for Miami. The two could not be more polar opposite from each other - At 6'9 260 lbs., Krutwig is a bruising interior banger who is a wizard scoring on the low-block, while the miniature Lykes is one of the fastest end-to-end players in college basketball. Both of them have delivered lightning in a bottle in multiple games this season for their respective squads, so a game breaking performance from either could be the difference in this ultra-tight matchup.
Final Predictions: It seems like everyone and their mother is siding with the Ramblers here for a 6/11 "upset", but I'm far less confident than the masses - I have great respect for both coaches and each will have their teams well prepared to defend what the other brings to the table on offense. Hence, the under feels like the right bet here, but I guess I will follow the groupthink and dabble Chicago's [new] hometown team (sorry Northwestern).
SU Pick: Loyola Chi
ATS Pick: Loyola Chi +2
O/U Pick: Under 134
(3) Tennessee vs. (14) Wright State
Initial Thoughts: I love the coaching matchup here, as I’ve really come around on Rick Barnes this year (like many Longhorn fans, I soured on him quite a bit towards the end of his Texas tenure), and Scott Nagy has proven to be a superb coach in his own right at both South Dakota State and now Wright State. Both rosters are physical, hard-hat-and-lunch-pail-type teams, and the interior battles should be awfully fun to watch.
Tennessee on Offense: It’s no secret that Tennessee wants to play through their Bash Brothers, Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, especially in the post and in high-low action with them feeding each other. They have the shooters to space the floor around them, meaning your rotations need to be crisp to avoid giving up open shots when you send doubles (or risk the paint duo scoring at will one-on-one). Luckily Nagy’s teams are up to the task, a well-schooled bunch that forces opponents into tough shots, takes care of the defensive glass, and can swipe the ball away if opponents are careless.
Nagy’s teams can be vulnerable from deep, though, and a hot day from Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, and/or James Daniel could sink the Raiders. Kyle Alexander is terrific at hunting down offensive rebounds and kicking the ball out so it can be swung to an open shooter, but again, Wright State has the size in Loudon Love and Parker Ernsthausen to keep him off the glass. The bigger worry is how those big bodies deal with the mobility of Williams and Schofield – they’re both at a high risk of foul trouble in those matchups.
Wright State on Offense: Wright State’s anemic offense against Tennessee’s nationally elite defense sounds like a recipe for disaster for Nagy’s bunch, and they’ll need to take advantage of the Vols’ propensity for fouling to earn some easy points. They don’t traditionally attack Tennessee’s biggest weakness – strangely, the defensive glass – consistently enough to take advantage of it, so getting to the bonus early will be huge. Wright State also needs a hot shooting night from gunner Grant Benzinger, which is a tall ask against Tennessee’s quick and lanky guards.
Key Factor(s): Can the Raiders find enough ways to generate points? Despite the athleticism mismatches at the 3 and 4, I trust Nagy to employ a limiting scheme on defense – I just worry about whether they can put the biscuit against the basket in this one.
Final Predictions: I expect an ugly, halfcourt grind here, as Tennessee prefers to out-execute you in the halfcourt and Wright State should be content with a lower-possession game. For that reason, the under is my preferred bet on the board, and given that tempo expectation, I think I’ll take the underdog and the points as well. I don’t feel great about it – Tennessee winning by 20ish would make sense from a talent perspective – but Nagy could find enough ways to junk it up to keep it close (if not “super interesting”).
SU Pick: Tennessee
ATS Pick: Wright State +12.5
O/U Pick: Under 132
(7) Nevada vs. (10) Texas
Initial Thoughts: This one is a battle of strength-on-strength and weakness-on-weakness – Nevada’s 10th-ranked offense (per KenPom) takes on Texas’s 10-ranked defense, while on the other end, it’s Texas’s 94th-ranked offense against Nevada’s 105th-ranked defense. Eric Musselman’s Wolfpack are down to six primary rotation players, although 6’8, 235-pound Elijah Foster may be needed in the paint in the one. Texas, on the other hand, got Mo Bamba back against Texas Tech, and he looked good in 14 minutes despite the loss. Despite the short rotation, Nevada will be the team that wants to speed this one up, while Texas will prefer a methodical, ugly game.
Nevada on Offense: First, the compelling end of the court. Nevada’s biggest weapon in this one will be its multipositional versatility (they’ll often play a lineup featuring five 6’7 guys). The Mo Bamba/Jericho Sims center combination is ridiculously stout at the rim for Texas, but Nevada has the luxury of being able to line up Jordan Carolina at the five, an inside-out threat who can pull the Texas trees away from the basket and shoot over them or attack them off the bounce. To keep his shot-swatters inside, I’d expect we see some zone from the Longhorns, although that exposes them to the possibility of losing shooters like Kendall Stephens and Caleb Martin. Nevada shredded man and zone alike, so Shaka will likely mix it up in the hopes of confusing Eric Musselman’s offense.
More problematic for the Wolfpack is its lack of a true point guard following Lindsey Drew’s season-ending injury. Instead, Nevada uses a “by-committee” approach, allowing the ball skills of the Martin twins to be on full display. Although they’re identical twins, the Martins’ disparate games makes them a difficult matchup (I think it would be even harder if their jersey numbers were 23 and 32 or something like that – they’re 10 and 11 in actuality). Caleb is a certified sniper from deep, while Cody facilitates more and creates inside the arc. If a defender hesitates for even a second trying to decipher which is which, they’ll burn you one way or another.
Nevada loves to score in transition, despite their complete lack of depth, so Texas getting back on defense will be crucial. The Longhorns were decent in terms of transition opportunities allowed, so they’ll need to maintain that focus to avoid giving up too many easy points (especially given how elite their halfcourt D is).
Texas on Offense: There’s not much exciting to discuss on either side of the ball here. Texas is the worst 3-point shooting team in the entire NCAA Tournament (by percentage), and they were the only team in the bottom 40 in the country to make the field. This brickiness combined with not being elite any any other one area led to the stagnation that often plagued the ‘Horns offensively. Matt Coleman has had a solid freshman year at the point, and Mo Bamba flashes potential in the post, but against a good defense, scoring points is almost always a struggle.
Luckily for the ‘Horns, though, they aren’t playing a good defense. Due to their short rotation, the Wolfpack can’t play overly physically on defense, but they also don’t play any zone, so the result is a soft-ish man-to-man. Their length up and down the lineup helps offset that somewhat – guards have a lot of trouble finishing against them – but bigs like Bamba and Dylan Osetkowski can score against them. Nevada’s defense also allows plenty of open triples, but that’s like letting a dog eat chocolate against Texas, so perhaps that works to the ‘Pack’s advantage.
Key Factor(s): The chess match at the 4 and 5 is probably the biggest single factor here. Shaka will want to have a shot-blocker on the court at all times in Bamba and Sims, but if they/Osetkowski can’t cover Caroline and the Martins to the perimeter and in space, Nevada could open up the normally compact and disciplined Texas defense. On the other hand, if the Texas bigs can score and/or get to the line consistently, Nevada is in major trouble without any depth.
Final Predictions: I’ve watched too many Texas brickathons to trust them in this one. Sure, Nevada has lost to San Diego State twice in the past week and a half, but I think the Aztecs might actually be a better team than Texas at this point anyways (for more sizzling takes like that, read the West Region preview!). Nevada’s had time to rest their short rotation, and the versatile offensive attack should be able to find enough buckets to make up for their blah defense, 79-73.
SU Pick: Nevada
ATS Pick: Nevada -1
O/U Pick: Over 143.5
(2) Cincinnati vs. (15) Georgia State
Initial Thoughts: The NCAA tournament is simply a more fun event with Ron Hunter and the pride of Atlanta back in the field of 68. His Panthers got an absolutely brutal draw against Mick Cronin and the Bearcats smothering defense, which ranks as one of the best units college basketball has seen in recent memory.
Cincinnati on Offense: Cincy has seen their fare share of zone this season playing in the AAC, but Ron Hunter's trademark matchup zone is not cut from the same cloth as typical 2-3 zones. The Bearcats are not a great outside shooting team and rely heavily on chasing down their own misses to generate a decent chunk of their points offensively. So on one hand, the pack-it-in zone scheme should force UC to chuck it from the cheap seats (good for Georgia State), it will also open up gaping holes for Cincy's front line athletes to clean up the offensive boards at will (not so good for Georgia State).
Georgia State on Offense: No team in the bracket puts their eggs in one basket more than Georgia State relies on D'Marcus Simonds to create offense. Simonds is an tremendous penetrator as he uses his plus-size and quick burst of speed to carve through opposing defenses from the point of attack. The lone flaw in his game is, ironically, what his supporting cast of characters excel at - shooting. While Simonds made just 26% of his 122 3-point attempts this season, the Panthers rained in 39% of their treys as a team. The one area where you can exploit the Bearcats, particularly when Cronin switches to his own matchup zone, is with open shots from the perimeter.
Key Factor(s): After transferring in from NC State back in 2016, Kyle Washington has put together back-to-back productive seasons in his new home in Cincinnati. The only real nitpick I have in his game is that he can be a bit erratic when he catches the ball on offense. Per recent UC games when the Bearcats had to solve zone defensive schemes, Washington was typically the trigger man in the middle of the defense and got a ton of opportunities to convert in the 8-10 foot area in the paint. He sometimes rushes his unorthodox, awkward, lefty floater, but the season long percentages indicate he's more than capable of finishing those opportunities. Washington will have to be efficient scoring from this area of the floor, as well as a willing passer when the Panthers zone collapses on him in the lane for UC to have success offensively.
Final Predictions: Cincy should advance here with relative ease, but the question comes down to the spread and total picks. While I did watch UC struggle in a couple of instances against zone defenses in the regular season - refer to Tulsa at home and UCF @ UCF - I trust that Cronin will have his guys well organized in their set half-court offense in this game.