The questions now are: can the Ducks keep dancing and will chalk keep dominating now that we’ve reached the Sweet 16?
Let’s start with the Ducks, since a win over Virginia would be the tournament’s biggest upset yet based on seed disparity.
Oregon’s success owes a lot to its matchup zone, a defensive strategy that requires its guards to pressure the ball and communicate on switches. Ehab Amin ranked fifth in steal rate (5.1 percent) and places in the 80th percentile for points allowed per possession when tabbed as the primary defender. Will Richardson, a 6-foot-5 freshman, receives high marks for his zone defense against spot-up shooters (92 percentile), rim runners (99th percentile) and against three-point shooters (85th percentile). Point guard Payton Pritchard, meanwhile, can shut down opponents in isolation (79th percentile) and around the basket (85th percentile). Those three allow center Kenny Wooten to use his 6-foot-9, 235-pound frame to protect the rim (39 percent field goal rate against) and block shots (13 percent block rate, eighth highest in the nation).
For example, head coach Dana Altman employed a double team with Wooten against Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ. Happ is able to muscle Louis King down low into the post but with Wooten lurking near the basket, it ends up being a blocked shot instead, one of three blocked shots on Happ for the game.
So far, its working: the Ducks held No. 5 Wisconsin to just 54 points when it beat the Badgers in the Round of 64 and then they stifled the Anteaters in the Round of 32, holding UC Irvine to 54 points as well, averaging out to just 0.7 points per possession in the NCAA tournament. However, their next opponent, Virginia, is no stranger to the zone defense.
The Cavaliers scored one point per possession against man defenses and were slightly more efficient against zone defenses (1.04 points per possession) in 2018-19. The biggest offensive adjustment for Virginia included more cuts to the basket at the expense of screens, a strategy change that plays upon Oregon’s weakness: when facing cuts against their zone defense, the Ducks drop to the 23rd percentile in defensive efficiency, allowing a robust 1.16 points per possession and an effective field goal rate of over 62 percent.
Here’s how likely we are to see an upset (based on seed) in the other Sweet 16 games.
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Purdue, 7:29 p.m., TBS
Chance of an upset: 42 percent
Purdue’s defense has gone from good during the regular season and Big Ten conference tournament (63rd percentile combined) to great in the tournament (97th percentile), holding opponents to 0.72 points per possession and 37 percent shooting over two games. Spot-up shooters, a staple of Tennessee’s offense, are only 10 for 38 against Purdue through the first two rounds of March Madness.
In fact, the Volunteers averaged 1.06 points per possession on spot-up shooting this season, placing them in the 95th percentile. Three of their five losses this year had them averaging 0.3 points per possession or less on this play type, per data from Synergy Sports. That could be a key for Purdue to pull off the upset.
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Texas Tech, 9:39 p.m., CBS
Chance of an upset: 41 percent
Expect Texas Tech to challenge Michigan the same way Michigan State did in its three wins over the Wolverines this year: force them to beat you off the dribble or hit tough shots from outside.
The Wolverines have already proven it is difficult for them to beat defenses one-on-one: four-fifths of their starting lineup — guards Zavier Simpson and Jordan Poole plus forwards Charles Matthews and Ignas Brazdeikis — all rank in the 49th percentile or worse for scoring efficiency in isolation during the entire 2018-19 campaign. And Michigan shoots just 32 percent on jump shots off the dribble.
If the Wolverines try to go inside, expect the Red Raiders’ versatile center Tariq Owens, a 6-foot-11, 205-pound transfer from St. John’s, to remain an imposing presence at the rim. His block rate (12.1 percent) ranks 11th in the country and opponents are only shooting 24 percent against him from the field around the rim.
Owens can also throw down a nasty dunk as well.
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Houston, 9:59 p.m., TBS
Chance of an upset: 37 percent
Houston’s Corey Davis Jr. is going to be a handful for Kentucky’s ninth-ranked defense. The senior guard is averaging 17.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists a game this season and is a career 40 percent shooter from behind the arc. He shot 10 for 26 on three-point attempts against No. 14 Georgia State and No. 11 Ohio State in the tournament including a respectable 4-for-10 when guarded on catch-and-shoot attempts.
Defensively, Houston limits shooters to a 47 percent field goal rate around the basket (97th percentile) and a nationwide-low effective field goal rate of 37 percent on all jump shots, two possession types that account for 80 percent of Kentucky’s offense in the half court.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Auburn, 7:29 p.m., TBS
Chance of an upset: 27 percent
Auburn has won 10 straight games, including the SEC tournament title, by adhering to a very simple formula: shoot the three.
The Tigers have scored a whopping 44 percent of their points on made three-pointers this season, which ranks seventh in the country, and hoist nearly half their field goal attempts from behind the arc. They’ve made 38 percent of those shots, good for 16th in the nation.
North Carolina’s defense isn’t designed to stop the three-point attempt — offenses shot 43 percent of their attempts behind the arc against them this season — so if the Tigers get hot from long range, this has upset potential.
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 4 Virginia Tech, 9:39 p.m., CBS
Chance of an upset: 24 percent
The Hokies advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for just the second time in school history and for the first time since 1967. To advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in 52 years they will need to slow Duke down in transition and force them into half-court situations.
That plays into the Hokies’ preferred tempo. Virginia Tech is one of the slowest teams in the nation, generating just 64 possessions per game (332nd out of 353 Division I programs) while forcing opponents to use, on average, 19 seconds on the shot clock. If the Hokies can extend that just a little longer, Duke could be in for a surprise: the Blue Devils are 30 for 82 (37 percent) on shot attempts with four seconds or less on the clock this season, partially because last-second shots come from distance and Duke struggles to shoot from long range.
No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 LSU, 7:09 p.m., CBS
Chance of an upset: 21 percent
It would have been easy for LSU, the regular-season champion of the SEC, to phone in the season when coach Will Wade was suspended indefinitely earlier this month after he was allegedly caught on a wiretap discussing a possible payment to a player.
Instead, the Tigers dispatched No. 14 Yale in the Round of 64 and then dealt a heartbreaking loss to the Maryland Terrapins despite shooting 7-of-24 from three-point range. Now they face a Michigan State team with one glaring weakness: turnovers.
The Spartans committed 22 turnovers on 65 possessions (34 percent) against Minnesota in the second round, the highest rate this year since a loss at Illinois in February (24 turnovers over 71 possessions), and their third game of the season with a turnover rate greater than 30 percent. LSU’s defense, by comparison, forces turnovers on 20 percent of their opponents’ possessions (70th in the nation) with a 12 percent steal rate (sixth-best).
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Florida State, 7:09 p.m., CBS
Chance of an upset: 19 percent
Florida State already has an upset against Gonzaga on its resume: they defeated the fourth-seeded Bulldogs as a No. 9 seed in last year’s Sweet 16 en route to a surprise run to the Elite Eight.
You could argue the Seminoles are a much better team this year. Their adjusted efficiency margins on both sides of the ball have improved — their offense is ranked 28th compared to 43rd in 2018 and their defense has risen from the 33rd to the 10th-best in the country — and their depth is going to be difficult to deal with, especially sophomore forward Mfiondu Kabengele, Florida State’s leading scorer.
Kabengele hasn’t started a game in his college career yet chipped in 21 points and 10 rebounds on 6-of-13 shooting against No. 13 Vermont and then scored 22 points with seven rebounds and three blocks in 23 minutes against No. 12 Murray State. Plus, he can do anything coach Leonard Hamilton wants him to do, and that includes relying on Kabengele’s ability to pick-and-pop from behind the arc when an opposing team tries to cut off his penetration to the rim.