South Preview: Sweet 16
#1 Baylor vs. #5 Villanova
This is a battle between two of college basketball’s elite programs over the last few years. The one seed Baylor Bears went 24-2 in the regular season, and defeated #16 Hartford and #9 Wisconsin with ease. They are led by a trio of star guards, Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague. They have averaged around 47 points, 11 assists and five steals per game, with Mitchell and Butler likely being first round draft selections. Baylor is an offensive juggernaut, ranking fourth in scoring offense with almost 84 points per game, and first in three-point shooting at 41.5% from behind the arc. The Villanova Wildcats are led by versatile forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who leads the team in points, rebounds, steals and blocks. They have rebounded well after a poor end to the season, exacerbated by losing senior leader Collin Gillespie. After losing three of their final four games in the regular season, Villanova responded by defeating #12 Winthrop and #13 North Texas by an average of 16.5 points per game. While they do not have the high-octane offense of the Bears, they do one important aspect of offense incredibly well–take care of the ball. They rank first in the country in turnovers per game, with less than nine, and rank second in assist to turnover ratio.
The Bears will look to push the pace, attacking from the perimeter with a very guard-centric attack. The Wildcats, who are not particularly stout against the three-point shots (ranking 253rd in opponent threes made per game), need to slow the game down, limit turnovers and take smart shots. The Bears have looked unstoppable, continuing their dominant play from the regular season, while Villanova has unquestionably quelled concerns regarding Gillespie’s absence. There will be plenty of intriguing individual matchups throughout this game, but for an upset to occur, Robinson-Earl will need to take over on both ends of the court. Baylor is extremely talented, but lack interior size, and will likely defend Robinson-Earl with the 6’5, 250 Mark Vital. Vital is a solid defender, but the Wildcat forward has four inches on him, and will need to play like the projected first round pick he is. Besides just the on-court battles, this will be one of the best coaching battles of the tournament. The Wildcats are led by two-time national champion Jay Wright, while the Bears are led by reigning two-time Big 12 Coach of the Year Scott Drew. Wright has the championship pedigree, while Drew has been one of the best coaches in the sport over the last two years. This should be a fascinating game.
Keys to the game:
Baylor: Dominate the perimeter. This is nothing new for the Bears, whose five leading scorers are listed as guards. They can win this game by shooting it from deep like they have during the regular season. Villanova has a deeper frontcourt than the Bears, so they need to look to win the game by pushing in transition, and allowing stars Butler and Mitchell to control the offense. Butler, a consensus first-team All American, and Mitchell, a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award, should be well up to the task.
Villanova: Slow the pace, and work the ball inside with consistency. Baylor has some elite shooters, and will run Villanova off the floor if Jay Wright’s squad cannot control the tempo. The Wildcat’s main advantage is the depth and skill of their frontcourt, and they need to use every bit of that advantage. Limiting possessions suits Villanova, and continuing to force the ball inside can expose Baylor at their weakest position. Getting either Vital or Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua in early foul trouble could make the difference.
Prediction: Villanova can’t stop the three-point barrage from Baylor, who uses their plethora of guards to run away from the Wildcats in the second half of a double-digit win.
#3 Arkansas vs. #15 Oral Roberts
The Arkansas Razorbacks will face off against the biggest Cinderella of the tournament, Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles joined Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 as the only two 15 seeds to make the Sweet 16. They have defeated #2 Ohio State and #7 Florida on their way through the tournament. Each game came down to the wire, and both ended in one possession victories. The Golden Eagles are led by the NCAA’s leading scorer, the 6’1 sophomore Max Abmas. He averaged over 24 points per game in the regular season, and raised his output to 29 and 26 against the Buckeyes and Gators. Aside from Abmas, stretch forward Kevin Obanor is their other main player. He has averaged 19 points and 9.6 rebounds, while shooting 47% from behind the arc. Although they were fourth in the Summit conference in the regular season, the Golden Eagles are more than just a Cinderella story. They can flat out shoot the basketball, ranking first in the nation in threes made per game, and twelfth in percentage from deep. If the game comes down to the free throw line, Oral Roberts should feel supremely confident, ranking first in the nation in free throw percentage as well. Arkansas Head coach Eric Musselman will be tasked with slowing down that prolific attack, while getting his own stars good looks. The Razorbacks also rely on a dynamic guard and forward, with guard Moses Moody a likely lottery pick, and Justin Smith capable of bruising inside. They defeated #14 Colgate 85-68 in the first round, and beat #6 Texas Tech 68-66 in the following game. Smith took over in both victories, scoring a total of 49 points and pulling down 19 rebounds. The Razorbacks play with a whirring pace, as they rank fifth in points per game, and sixth in attempts per game. Unlike Oral Roberts, they do not have many weapons from behind the three-point arc, but can run up the score through aggressive transition attacks. The Razorbacks will also look to be assertive defensively, with six players averaging at least one steal per game. With Arkansas already potent in transition, Oral Roberts will need to focus on ball security as a main priority to pull off a historic upset. With a win, Oral Roberts would become the first #15 seed to ever make it to the elite eight.
Keys to the game
Oral Roberts: Get scorching from deep. They are one of the best pure shooting teams in the country, and all four of their top scorers hit at least 35% of their attempts from long range. They need to utilize the three ball to keep pace with one of the fastest offenses in the country. The Golden Eagles can’t rely on a defense that has been porous this season, and need to find the range from deep to mitigate other liabilities on the interior and on the defensive end.
Arkansas: Crash the glass. The Razorbacks ranked 15th in the country in rebounds per game, and will need to continue to track down the caroms in this game. Oral Roberts will put up shots from deep, and those misses will turn into long rebounds. Limiting extra possessions, and getting out in transition off the glass will be key to ignite their offense. Plus, gaining some extra possessions through offensive rebounds could be vital.
Prediction: While Oral Roberts have been the positive surprise of the entire tournament, this is a challenging matchup. Arkansas uses their size advantage to dominate the glass, and win the game.