(1) Virginia vs. (12) Oregon
Initial Thoughts: Is it just me or is there a hint of hypocrisy with the ‘academia-first’ NCAA scheduling a 10PM tip-off on a school night? So much for our youth getting a well-rested night of sleep before hitting the books early Friday morning!
NCAA bashing tangents aside, this one may not be worth staying up for anyway. The Thursday night Sweet-16 encore pins two defensive steel curtains against one another. While Virginia’s impenetrable pack line man-to-man defense has been a household brand for years now, the masses are slowly becoming familiar with the amorphous Oregon zone that has become the backbone of the Ducks’ stymying defense – though, with all due respect to Dana Altman, I think my grandmother could devise an effective defensive scheme with a human bouncy ball (Kenny Wooten) roaming the lane defensively.
The parallels between the Hoos and the Ducks don’t end there. Both are allergic to pushing the tempo and much prefer to execute in the half-court rather than rush shots in transition. Oregon is coming off its slowest paced game of the entire season (58 possessions against UC Irvine), an impressive feat for a team with the longest average offensive possession length in the Pac-12, and Virginia came one possession shy of matching its season low possession total with a snail-paced 56-possession affair against Oklahoma (is there a synonym for ‘possession’, yikes). All that culminates in a game total lower than Tone Low’s voice – 119 to be exact, the number currently posted at Pinnacle.
Casual fans, feel free to hit the hay early as this should be a low scoring snoozer…
Basketball junkies, tune in for what should be a fascinating chess match between two of the game’s best coaching minds...
Virginia on Offense: While most are still trying to wash away the sour taste in their mouths from the Cavaliers’ abysmal first half outing against Gardner Webb, I firmly believe this offense is ripe for a breakout performance. Against those Runnin’ Bulldogs, the Hoos turned it over 15 times, shot 30% from 3, converted just 62% from the charity stripe and still scored 1.13 points per possession (PPP) – a figure by no means worthy of a standing ovation, but commendable given those uncharacteristic shooting and turnover issues. Then, just two days later against Oklahoma, 3-point marksman Kyle Guy went 0-10 from the land of plenty and the Cavaliers scored at roughly the same rate of efficiency (1.12 PPP) against a top-25 nationally ranked defense.
The challenge UVA faces here is Dana Altman’s tricky matchup zone. When I glanced back at Virginia’s past opponents over the past decade scanning for a somewhat reasonable comp, I landed on Louisville during the latter years of the Rick Pitino era. From 2015-2017 (timeline coincides with Louisville’s move to the ACC and the last season Pitino was the head coach at UL), Virginia and Louisville played 6 times - here were the Cavaliers’ offensive performances in the six games against the Cardinals during that span: 0.95, 1.04, 1.03, 1.17, 1.00 and 1.16, which computes to a lackluster average of 1.06.
I will concede that using these figures as a reliable proxy could be a reach of an assumption. Virginia’s roster core is completely different now and drawing parallels between Pitino’s matchup zone and Altman’s matchup zone is somewhat of an ‘apples-to-oranges’ comparison. What’s more important than how well UVA fared in those matchups is the simple fact that Bennett has seen and prepared for a relatively similar defensive scheme six different times in the past. Effectively, I feel pretty comfy betting on Tony Bennett to solve this puzzle and to have the Cavaliers well-prepared offensively.
Oregon on Offense: People can talk about the emergence of the now healthy Louis King or the improved consistency of both Paul White and Ehab Amin, but let’s not kid ourselves – Peyton Pritchard is the Ducks’ ticker. It doesn’t take a hardcore data scientist to show the correlation between Pritchard’s statistical improvement during the month of March (see green column on the right below) and Oregon’s 10-game win streak.
Just parsing out a few segments of the UC Irvine game proves how vital Pritchard is as the engine to the Ducks’ offense. When the Anteaters made an early second half charge to regain the lead – which coincided with a five-minute Oregon scoring drought – Pritchard was noticeably passive offensively, hesitantly probing around the perimeter with the ball afraid to attack and put pressure on the defense. When he finally broke out of his shell, Oregon reasserted itself with a momentum-crushing run of their own to extend the lead late, fueled by a few Pritchard pull-up triples and a hard lefty drive to the bucket.
Kihei Clark will likely draw the assignment on Pritchard when he’s on the floor, a 1-v-1 matchup that could determine the outcome of this game. Clark gives up a lot of size to Pritchard, but this isn’t foreign territory for the 5’9 jitter bug – in fact, it’s that relatively low center of gravity that’s bothered bigger opposing guards all season who struggle to get lower and explode past the smaller Clark.
Key Factor(s): Mamadi Diakite is the man to monitor - he isn’t hard to find, just locate the worst haircut on the floor and you’ve found him. After Tony Bennett opted to slot Diakite in the starting lineup over Jack Salt against the more mobile Sooner frontline last game, Diakite answered the call of duty by racking up 14 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in just 28 minutes of action. Diakite’s superior bounce and lateral quickness will be pivotal against the versatile wing / forward tandem of Paul White and Louis King, both of whom are adept at scoring off the bounce. Diakite’s ability to slide his feet and stay in-front in both ball screen action and switches should bear out to be a far better solution than the slower Salt.
Final Predictions: Getting in front of this Ducks steam is scary, but if there’s a team who can unravel Oregon’s perplexing zone, it’s Virginia. Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy are two of the most cerebral guards in the nation and both will be moving on a string, each controlled by master puppeteer Tony Bennett – the same guy who brilliantly decimated Syracuse’s 2-3 zone with the savvy move of sliding Ty Jerome into the high-post on offense. Again, this Oregon zone does not emulate the ‘Cuse zone but it’s that precedent of being able to adapt and make schematic changes on the fly that leads me to believe Virginia is the right side in this one - I just don’t see a path to Oregon scoring consistently.
SU Pick: Virginia
ATS Pick: Virginia -8.5
O/U Pick: Under 119
(2) Tennessee vs. (3) Purdue
Initial Thoughts: Below is a picture of me and my two closest friends after we watched our Tennessee -8 tickets turn from winning lottery tickets to worthless shreds of papers, courtesy of the Volunteers curling up in the fetal position in the second half against against Iowa…
After a 25-point lead in regulation evaporated into thin air, Grant Williams effectively said ‘enough of this crap’ and took the game over in the bonus period, propelling Tennessee to a 83-77 victory in overtime - good news for Vols fans; bad news for Vols -8 backers.
All personal bickering aside, a lot of fuss was made in the 24-hours after the game about Rick Barnes honoring Admiral Schofield’s request to remove him from the game in favor of Kyle Alexander – for those that aren’t aware, Schofield told the coaching staff to take him out of the game and put in Alexander instead. While this was certainly a head-scratching move by Barnes, I’m far more disturbed by the lack of killer instinct the Vols played with down the stretch. It was almost as if Tennessee was playing ‘burn offense’ for the entire second half, opting to focus on milking clock instead of putting their foot on Iowa’s throat. Fortunately for Rocky Top nation, the Vols’ passive approach to playing with a lead shouldn’t be an issue in what should be a back-and-forth, tightly contested battle with Purdue on Thursday.
While Tennessee flirted with danger in each of its opening round bouts, the Boilermakers steamrolled their way to the Sweet-16. After comfortably dispatching a formidable Old Dominion squad in Round 1, Carsen Edwards caught fire against the defending national champs in the Round of 32. Villanova will spend all summer licking its wounds from that 26-point spanking the Boilers laid on them over the weekend and Purdue enters the Sweet-16 looking like a runaway freight train.
Purdue on Offense: Turns out bowing out early in the Big Ten tournament was just what the doctor ordered for Purdue and its offensive catalyst Carsen Edwards. As referenced in our opening round previews, there were some lingering concerns surrounding Edwards’ sore back, which many speculated had contributed to his shooting woes over the final month of the season. Whether that was overblown banter from the rumor mill or the pre-tournament week of recovery did in fact help Edwards get right, the Boilers’ explosive lead guard is unquestionably back in peak condition now.
Edwards went bananas against the Wildcats on Saturday, pouring in 42 points and cashing in on 9 of 16 from behind the stripe to lead all scorers. What exacerbated Nova’s problems was every time Edwards missed, they couldn’t keep the bigger Boilermakers off the offensive boards. Purdue hauled in 12 of its own misses, four of which were snagged by 7-4 giant Matt Haarms. Haarms deserves a lot of credit for carrying a heavy burden inside down the stretch, a much larger share than what was demanded of him during the season when Trevion Williams was eating up 10-15 minutes on a nightly basis. With Williams’ minutes in a slight decline over the past month, Haarms has been forced to push his conditioning to the limit. Up until late February, Haarms had never in his career tallied more than 30 minutes in a single game – in the last seven tilts, ‘the Dutch Destroyer’ (nickname copyright still pending) has surpassed the 30-minute mark four different times, two of which have come in the tournament.
With Edwards beginning to find his stroke and with Haarms ascending into more of a full-time asset, I’m severely worried for how Tennessee will matchup defensively with the Boilermakers. For as much as I adore the Volunteers’ mature mental makeup and marvel at their bodybuilder physiques, neither of those traits have translated to the defensive side of the ball recently. Tennessee has shown a propensity to let shooters run free on the perimeter, which has been compounded by inconsistent box out habits on the defensive glass.
This does not bode well against Matt Painter’s motion-intensive offense, which will run the sharpshooting Edwards and his running mate Ryan Cline off a flurry of screens. Even when opposing defenses are able to shut down the initial triggerman, Purdue’s precise cutting and screening action sets up a multitude of counter options that feast on discombobulated defenses. After watching Tennessee let Auburn and Iowa get open look after open look through much simpler offensive sets, I fear for how the Volunteers will defend the Boilermakers’ next-level off-ball movement.
The clip below is just one snip-it of Painter’s half-court offensive wizardry - the play sets up as if it’s going to be a double-stagger for Carsen Edwards, but Edwards immediately turns and re-screens the initial screener, Ryan Cline (#14), for the same action. Michigan State is clearly ready for it here, but I’m not convinced Tennessee will be as prepared as Purdue’s Big Ten brethren with just a few days to prepare for this convoluted mix of screens.
Tennessee on Offense: In case you haven’t been watching closely, it’s this side of the ball that’s kept the Vols above water during some close calls this season. The secret sauce to Tennessee’s sustained offensive success has been the personnel’s propensity to create mismatches – most notably the Bash Brothers, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield – along with their exceptional inside-out balance, which keeps opposing guards from collapsing on Williams and Kyle Alexander down low. Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden are all knockdown shooters from deep but are also adept attacking hard closeouts with a pull-up midrange jumper off the bounce. Depending upon the 5-man lineup Barnes trots out, the Vols are always armed with four to five multi-level scorers on the floor. With so many versatile scoring threats, you can’t simply key in on one guy to shut down the Vols – if you do, Tennessee’s collective unselfishness will burn you via quick ball rotations which typically manifests in high-quality shots. Granted, many of these attempts come from the analytically-cursed midrange area but almost all of them are open and uncontested.
In the first two round of the tourney, Tennessee was able to lean on its brawn and physicality to bend the defense inside, opening up inside-out and subsequent ball reversals to generate easy shots. However, this won’t stand against the Boilermakers – Purdue hails from the bruising Big Ten which features some of the nation’s most imposing front courts, many of whom they bullied inside themselves this season. This means Tennessee’s half-court offense, which is characterized by a myriad of screens (down screens, baseline screens and staggered screens for curls), will have to be pristine to free up space for open looks. Grant Williams is typically the first option here, but UT’s array of offensive threats prevents the defense from diverting too much attention to Williams inside. The clip below gives a flavor of the frequently used baseline big-to-big screening action that is used to get Williams a touch in the short corner:
Key Factor(s): Kyle Alexander will have to bring his big boy pants to Louisville if the Vols hope to compete inside against the Boilermakers. Given how well Alexander played against Iowa’s frontline and with the looming matchup against 7-4 monster Matt Haarms inside, it’d only make sense that Alexander will see his minutes rise even higher in the Sweet-16. For context, here are the lineup combinations Barnes has opted to roll out over the last five games - I’d expect to see less of that small-ball lineup (see top row) on Thursday:
Against one of the most dominant offensive rebounding teams left in the tournament, Alexanders’ size will be pivotal. Isolating the last five games using hooplens.com’s advanced on / off figures, Alexander has been the foundation of the Vols’ defensive rebounding fortress. While the overall defense has been poor regardless of whether or not Alexander has been out there, please hone in on the gargantuan difference in opponent offensive rebounding percentage when Alexander is on the court compared to when he sits:
Final Predictions: It should be abundantly clear which way I’m leaning in this one. The only way I see Purdue struggling is if Tennessee is able to get Haarms in foul trouble, but Haarms’ extensive length should enable him to body Williams and Alexander straight-up without risking unnecessary fouls. This will be the first time in a few games the Volunteers won’t have an edge in the strength / physicality / toughness department, and I think that ultimately comes back to bite them in this matchup.