16 thoughts ahead of the Sweet 16
It’s only fitting that a tournament 2 years in the making has been, in a word, bananas.
We’ve had more upsets through 2 rounds than any NCAA Tournament ever. By the way, the NCAA defines an “upset” as a win from “a team seeded 5 spots or more lower than its opponent.” There have already been 12 (!) such occurrences. We’ve already seen 3 of the top 8 teams bow out before the second weekend.
But that’s all in the past. What’s in the future is a Sweet 16 slate that has storylines galore.
Two SEC teams remain, which is 1 more than the mighty Big Ten, which was responsible for all 3 of those top 8 teams that got bounced in the opening weekend. The Pac-12 is suddenly a juggernaut in a big revenue sport and meanwhile, the Loyola-Chicagos and Oregon States are playing well beyond their seeds.
(Save me the argument about why Illinois got such a raw deal for facing Loyola in the second round. You’re a 1-seed. Show up to play. Also, if you’re going to compete for a national title, you’re still in need of roughly 4 wins against a team as good as that anyway.)
So, let’s look ahead to the Sweet 16 with — wait for it — 16 thoughts.
1. That Arkansas-Oral Roberts over/under is wild
It opened at 162.5 (!) and has since been bet down to 159. With a 10.5-point opening line, which has since gone up to about Arkansas -11.5 depending on where you look, that’s essentially hoping for an 86-75 final. That’s a ton of points. Just for a little perspective, the only other Sweet 16 games that opened with an over/under within 14 points of that 162.5 was Gonzaga-Creighton at 157.5.
So why is that Arkansas-Oral Roberts number so high? Go back to when they played in December. It was 87-76. Obviously both are different teams now — you’re lying if you thought either team would meet again in the Sweet 16 — but that game was clearly on the minds of oddsmakers.
The total points scored for Arkansas’ first-round game against Colgate was 153, and for Texas Tech, it was only 134. But Oral Roberts, which averages 81.5 points per game, had a total of 147 points in the overtime win against Ohio State and then 159 in the late comeback win against Florida.
Still, this comes down to the fact that we already saw these teams light up the scoreboard against each other, and both enter with top-20 offenses that are north of 80 points per contest. Arkansas can light up the scoreboard in a hurry with Moses Moody and Justin Smith, and Oral Roberts is second in America in 3-pointers made.
Points, points, points!
2. Speaking of Oral Roberts …
I thought this stat was fascinating:
Oral Roberts joins 1997 Chattanooga as the only teams to win its Round of 64 and 32 games outright as an underdog of at least nine points.
— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) March 22, 2021
(Shameless plug: For a full Sweet 16 gambling breakdown from Chris “Bear” Fallica, listen to the latest episode of The Saturday Down South Podcast.)
The oddsmakers have Oral Roberts as an 11-point underdog. In other words, they’re tripling down on Oral Roberts collapsing. Like, they’re assuming a Summit League team who was 13-10 in the last week of February isn’t going to keep this up. It’s the second 15-seed to ever make it to the Sweet 16. Who was the first? Florida Gulf Coast, AKA “Dunk City.”
This is your excuse to take 4 minutes out of your day and relive the greatness that was Dunk City:
There are a lot of parallels there. FGCU was 19-10 in the last week of February, and then it beat the 2-seed and the 7-seed to get to the Sweet 16. But in that matchup against Florida, a double-digit lead was washed away and FGCU lost by, ironically enough, 12 points.
Will history repeat itself with Oral Roberts? The oddsmakers are bracing for it.
3. UCLA’s road to an Alabama matchup in the Sweet 16 has been _________.
UCLA is the only team in the NCAA Tournament with 3 victories, but let’s look at where those 3 wins came from:
- No. 11 seed Michigan State (15-12 entering tournament)
- No. 6 seed BYU (2 wins vs. NCAA Tournament teams)
- No. 14 seed Abilene Christian (No. 85 in KenPom rankings)
That’s not to take away anything from Mick Cronin’s squad, which had lost 4 games in a row entering the NCAA Tournament (against the gauntlet Pac-12) and appeared to be a team that backed into the field. But you could make the case that in terms of a favorable road to a Sweet 16, that’s certainly about as good as it gets for an 11-seed.
Alabama is far and away the toughest foe that UCLA has seen so far.
4. The betting public seems to love Alabama
Following an aerial assault against Maryland, the Crimson Tide opened as a 4.5-point favorite against UCLA. That line has since moved to Alabama -6.5.
It appears that Monday night’s showing against Maryland is having a much bigger impact than the somewhat sluggish opening-round game against Iona, and understandably so. When you rain 3-pointers in primetime, the world notices. Terps coach Mark Turgeon called Alabama “the fifth 1-seed.” It’s certainly getting that sort of treatment from the betting public.
It’ll be interesting to see if that line gets up to Alabama -8 the further removed we get from Monday’s offensive showing.
5. A “something has to give”
That is, UCLA’s 3-point defense vs. Alabama’s 3-point offense. They play 2 totally different styles, and it shows. The Crimson Tide had 5 players (Josh Primo, Jahvon Quinerly, Alex Reese, John Petty Jr. and Jaden Shackelford) make multiple 3-pointers in that beatdown against Maryland. In 3 NCAA Tournament games, UCLA has allowed these 3-point clips:
- Abilene Christian, 4-for-19
- BYU 3-for-17
- MSU, 6-for-18
- TOTAL, 13-for-54 (24%)
Yes, Alabama made more 3s against Maryland (16) than UCLA allowed in 3 NCAA Tournament games (13). Alabama also had more players make double-digit 3s against Maryland (5) than UCLA allowed in 3 NCAA Tournament games (3).
The interesting thing? UCLA ranks No. 212 in 3-point defense. The Bruins might like to slow things down, but that doesn’t suggest they’ll make life impossible for those Alabama shooters. Alabama, on the other hand, ranks No. 10 defending the 3-pointer. And UCLA’s ability to defend Alabama’s 3-point shooting — the Crimson Tide rank No. 1 in America in made threes and threes attempted — will be an entirely different challenge than its first 3 games. None of UCLA’s first 3 NCAA Tournament opponents ranked in the top 40 in 3-point attempts.
Still, an intriguing showdown awaits.
6. Is Loyola set up for another Final Four run?
It certainly feels like it. That right side of the bracket parted like the Red Sea. Loyola, thanks to its impressive win against No. 1 seed Illinois, could theoretically face double-digit seeds in its next 2 games. That would mean Syracuse and Buddy Boeheim staying red hot and taking down No. 2 seed Houston (more thoughts on that later).
That would be ironic considering the big gripe was that Loyola got an unfair seed after it entered the tournament in the top 10 in KenPom. Then again, Oregon State just took down Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State, and the Beavers did claim the loaded Pac-12 Tournament title. They could be catching Loyola at the perfect time after earning “media darling” status for the last week.
Still, Cameron Krutwig, Sister Jean and the Ramblers are 7-point favorites. Loyola is +170 to win the region compared to +115 for Houston, so it’s not a consensus thought that the Ramblers are destined for their second Final Four in 4 years.
But if Loyola were to advance to the Elite Eight, would it be favored against Syracuse AND Houston? That’s not crazy. I mean, how could you bet against this guy?
Cameron Krutwig was on a mission today 😤
19pts | 12reb | 5ast
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 21, 2021
7. I’m sort of surprised that Michigan is still +125 to win the region
I thought LSU-Michigan felt like a regional final. The Wolverines pulled away late, but that felt like a game in which there really wasn’t much margin for error at all. I don’t think there’s any question that Michigan’s road to the Final Four is tougher than Gonzaga or Baylor’s road.
An Isaiah Livers-less Michigan squad would have to beat Florida State (Michigan is only a 2.5-point favorite) and then possibly Alabama to get there. With what both of those teams do from a defensive standpoint, that’s incredibly daunting. Having to go 40 minutes against those squads in a 48-hour stretch seems like it’s asking for a ton.
Could Michigan do it? Sure, especially if Eli Brooks and Chaundee Brown are both going to continue to score more than double their season averages. Juwan Howard’s team is certainly tough as nails.
But at only +125 to win the region? If I were a betting man, I’d be much more interested in Alabama +180 or Florida State at +300.
(Now watch Michigan go win a national title and make that look incredibly stupid.)
8. I promise not to make any football references to Oregon-USC
It’s a basketball game, and it should be a really good one. Both teams look far better than their seeds (USC is a 6 and Oregon is a 7). I was high on Oregon and NCAA Tournament extraordinaire Dana Altman coming into March, and that was before we found out that the Pac-12 was apparently Murderers’ Row. I had the Ducks beating Iowa because of the Hawkeyes’ defense (if we can call it that), though I didn’t think it would look quite that dominant.
What I didn’t see coming was USC giving Kansas a wedgie and stealing its lunch money. Go figure that we’re staring at a Sweet 16 with a bunch of schools more known for football than basketball, these 2 being part of that.
OK, I made it roughly 4 sentences before resorting to a football reference. I tried.
9. Are we set up for a bunch of blowouts? Maybe not
Half of the Sweet 16 matchups are single-digit seeds vs. double-digit seeds. Thus, half the games currently have lines of 8 points or greater.
Let’s offer up another stat from Fallica to try and make sense of this:
Dating back to 2012, double-digit seeds facing single-digit seeds in the Sweet 16 have covered 10 of the last 12 games. That’s a stark contrast from the previous seven games where they didn’t cover any.
— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) March 23, 2021
Recency bias favors the likes of Oral Roberts, Syracuse, UCLA and Oregon State. All of those teams are at least 6-point underdogs. If the trend flips back to its pre-2012 ways, that means were destined for a bunch of snoozers. Here’s hoping that’s not the case.
10. I think we’re setting up for a Final Four without conference bragging rights
But the narratives! The Pac-12 has all the bragging rights going into the Sweet 16. That’s undeniable. Here’s the current breakdown of Sweet 16 teams by conference:
- Pac-12: 4
- ACC: 2
- Big East: 2
- SEC: 2
- AAC: 1
- Big 12: 1
- Big Ten: 1
- Missouri Valley: 1
- Summit: 1
- WCC: 1
If any conference gets multiple teams in the Final Four, it has bragging rights. Duh. But I certainly wouldn’t bet on that happening.
Much to Bill Walton’s chagrin, that even includes the Pac-12. The USC-Oregon game will automatically knock that number to 3 ahead of the Elite Eight, and Oregon State is a 7-point underdog against Loyola while UCLA is a 6.5-point underdog against Alabama. Considering the USC-Oregon winner will likely face Gonzaga, there’s actually a pretty good chance that no Pac-12 teams make the Final Four (UCLA has the best odds at +600).
Honestly, I think the odds are better for the SEC to get 2 teams into the Final Four than the Pac-12. I don’t think that’ll happen, though, especially if both Alabama and Arkansas have to face 1-seeds in the Elite Eight. The 2 Big East teams (Creighton and Villanova) are matched up in the Sweet 16 against the top 2 overall teams in the tournament in Gonzaga and Baylor, so those odds certainly aren’t great.
The ACC’s odds don’t seem great, either. Florida State and Syracuse both rank No. 3 out of 4 in their respective regions in terms of odds to make it to the Final Four. FSU’s Final Four odds are +300 (I don’t hate that) and Syracuse’s are +500. That would be quite the parlay to hit. It’s essentially 4 games, all of which those teams would likely be underdogs, unless UCLA were to beat Alabama in the Sweet 16.
So yeah, get your conference bragging out of the way now because it’ll probably be a thing of the past by the time the Final Four field is set.
11. Here’s a list of coaches who have been to the Sweet 16 before 2021
- Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
- Dana Altman, Oregon
- Eric Musselman, Arkansas
- Kelvin Sampson, Houston
- Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
- Porter Moser, Loyola
- Scott Drew, Baylor
- Andy Enfield, USC
- Jay Wright, Villanova
- Mark Few, Gonzaga
- Mick Cronin, UCLA
That’s 11 of the 16 coaches in the field who have that experience. The coaches who are making their first trip to the second weekend of the tournament are Nate Oats (Alabama), Paul Mills (Oral Roberts), Wayne Tinkle (Oregon State), Juwan Howard (Michigan) and Greg McDermott (Creighton).
(I know. It’s stunning that McDermott never got there with his son, Doug McDermott.)
How much does that Sweet 16 experience matter? I’d say at least some. Not all coaches game-plan well when they have that extra time. There’s also this weird element of staying in Indianapolis and knowing how to keep a team loose with such a long layoff in the same place. Who knows if that’ll be used as an excuse if a 1-seed falters in the Sweet 16.
What’s interesting is that for all the talk about the non-blue blood field, 69% of the remaining field has a coach with Sweet 16 experience. Let’s take it a step beyond that …
12. Here’s a list of coaches who have been to multiple Sweet 16s before 2021
- Jim Boeheim, Syracuse (19)
- Mark Few, Gonzaga (9)
- Jay Wright, Villanova (6)
- Leonard Hamilton, FSU (4)
- Kelvin Sampson, Houston (4)
- Scott Drew, Baylor (4)
- Dana Altman, Oregon (4)
So 7 of the 16 coaches left, which is nearly half the field, have been to at least 4 Sweet 16s. Again, just because Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Bill Self don’t have teams in the field doesn’t mean it’s loaded with inexperienced coaches.
13. But look at the coaches in the 2019 Final Four
Three of the 4 coaches (Bruce Pearl, Chris Beard and Tony Bennett) in the 2019 Final Four had never made it that far. Bennett and Beard faced off for a national title, yet each had been to just 1 Elite Eight before that season.
In each of the last 3 Final Fours, there was at least 1 newcomer coach. In order for that trend to continue, 1 of these coaches would have to win twice this weekend:
- Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
- Mick Cronin, UCLA
- Nate Oats, Alabama
- Eric Musselman, Arkansas
- Greg McDermott, Creighton
- Scott Drew, Baylor
- Paul Mills, Oral Roberts
- Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State
- Juwan Howard, Michigan
- Andy Enfield, USC
Wait. On second thought … I can guarantee that will happen. Why? All 4 remaining coaches in the East region have never been to a Final Four.
The streak lives!
14. Enough about coaches. My favorite betting line of the weekend is _______.
Syracuse +6. And that’s coming from someone who picked Houston to go to the Final Four. But 6 points just feels like too much for Houston to be giving. The Cougars blow out bad teams, but they usually play down to the wire against the good ones.
Also, Buddy Boeheim looked like Steph Curry at Davidson in those first 2 games. I think that line is so in favor of Houston in part because the Cougars rank No. 5 in America defending the 3-pointer, and the assumption is that with nearly a week to prepare, Sampson’s team will have a game plan to run Boeheim off those clean looks from deep.
That could happen. I still wouldn’t bet against a shooter that hot. The guy averaged 6 made 3-pointers in his 4 postseason games so far. That includes the ACC Tournament. He looks like someone who is shooting with all the confidence in the world, and Syracuse is darn dangerous when that happens.
Houston, on the other hand, needed a late comeback to get past Rutgers in Round 2, and with the exception of the Texas Tech game back in November, Houston didn’t face a single NCAA Tournament team that got beyond the play-in game.
Syracuse might not win, but keeping it within 2 possessions seems plenty realistic.
15. The best game of the Sweet 16 will be _______ vs. _______.
Florida State vs. Michigan.
I almost went with Baylor-Villanova because in terms of guard play, it’s hard not to love the way that sets up, even though the Wildcats are without Collin Gillespie. Just because I think that has blowout potential, I’ll instead go with a game that feels like it’ll come down to the final minute.
Michigan’s response without Livers in that LSU game was remarkable. Hunter Dickinson picked up some dumb fouls and Michigan still found ways to stay within itself and battle against an LSU squad who delivered quite the haymaker. Florida State, meanwhile, has played in a couple of rock fights to start off the NCAA Tournament. Neither opponent cracked 55 points against that length. How will Dickinson handle that? That’ll be quite the matchup.
Something to remember? When Michigan scores 68 points, it’s 20-0. When Michigan scores 67 or less, it’s 2-4. FSU is much more comfortable playing in those defensive struggles.
This might feel like a different sport than Oregon-Iowa, but don’t be surprised if we get lead changes galore and a nail-biter finish.
16. I’m just so glad to be here
By “here,” I mean sitting on my couch watching hours and hours of basketball. This tournament never fails to deliver and my goodness, did I miss it.
Cheers to another 4 days of madness.