WEST REGION SWEET 16
Sports writers often try to get a jump on deadlines by starting their columns before a game is actually over. I fell into that trap as I had Northern Iowa penciled in with the upset and had started to figure out how they would counter Oklahoma. Then the madness started and the Panthers couldn’t get the ball inbounds against a swarming Texas A&M defense. Despite upsets ruling the first weekend, we have chalk in the West. The committee set up some really interesting match ups. Let’s look at some of the potential keys to the games.
No. 1 Oregon vs. No. 4 Duke
Key Matchup: Dillon Brooks vs. the Blue Devil defense. As someone who picked Duke to lose in the first round, perhaps I shouldn’t be listened to. Granted, Duke has faced two double-digit seeds to get to the Sweet 16 and did not win either game by more than eight points. The 6-foot-6 Brooks is going to be all kinds of trouble for the Blue Devils. The sophomore can score from all over the court and is good at setting up his teammates. He is too big for the Blue Devil wings such as Matt Jones and Brandon Ingram, and too quick for the forwards. Coach Mike Krzyzewski will need to figure out some way to slow down Brooks, who willed the Ducks past St. Joseph’s with 25 points.
Duke will Win IF: it can get the Oregon forwards in foul trouble. Most of the teams in the Sweet 16 do not have impressive depth. The Ducks only go seven deep in most games and they are particularly thin on the front line with bouncy Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell as rim protectors. Brandon Ingram and Allen are good at attacking the basket. They combined to attempt 41 free throws in the first weekend of the Big Dance. It would be highly beneficial for Duke if they could get the Duck bigs in foul trouble.
Oregon will Win IF: it can slow down Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram. The Duke wings are skilled and aggressive. The good news for Oregon is that they have some defensive-oriented players to match up with the Blue Devil pair. Boucher and Bell combined for 4.7 blocks per game and will alter any shots taken around the basket. Wings Dwayne Benjamin and Elgin Cook have enough size to give Allen and Ingram problems. Even freshman point guard Tyler Dorsey is tall enough (6-4) to help on defense.
Player to Watch: Grayson Allen, Duke. It should be noted that Allen has never lost a game in the NCAA tournament. He broke out with 25 combined points in the wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin last year in the Final Four. College basketball’s best villain has not been held below 15 points over the last three months and just three times this season. Allen has attempted 7.0 free throws per game (making 84.1 percent) and has hit 41.9 percent of his 3-pointers. He could certainly go bananas and lift the Blue Devils into the Elite Eight.
Prediction: My bracket has enough red slashes to give Wes Craven pause. However, I did go with Oregon in my initial West preview and I am going to stick with the Ducks. Duke will be the best team that Oregon has played and the Blue Devils have a talented offense. The game should be high scoring and I expect the Ducks defense to get a few more stops.
No. 2 Oklahoma vs. 3. Texas A&M
Key Matchup: Buddy Hield vs. the Aggie defense. While the Sooners are not a one-man team, they look to Hield to lead the way. He scores points in bunches. Just when it looks like he is having a bad game, he will go on a 3-point scoring binge. Texas A&M has a number of players they can put on Hield to attempt to slow him down. Jalen Jones and Danuel House are big enough to cause Hield some issues, while 6-8 freshman D.J. Hogg could spend some time on Hield as well. The Aggies may be best off trying to let someone else beat them.
Oklahoma will Win IF: it can keep the Aggies off the boards. Texas A&M will have a size advantage and Oklahoma will have to find a way to clog the lane and keep the Aggies from beating them in the paint. The Sooners are excellent on the defensive perimeter and should be able to deny the post. Khadeem Lattin could be a key figure. Oklahoma also likes to tap rebounds back rather than collecting them. It would help if players like Ryan Spangler just grabbed the boards.
Texas A&M will Win IF: it can consistently contest 3-point shots. I think defensive 3-point percentage is largely an unhelpful stat. The Aggies are not going to be able to stop the Sooners from taking 3-pointers, but they should at least contest all of the long range bombs from Hield, Spangler, Isaiah Cousins, and Jordan Woodard. Oklahoma has hit 42.5 percent of its 3-pointers, but that percentage will fall if the Aggies can consistently scramble around the perimeter and keep Hield and friends from getting open looks.
Player to Watch: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma. I think both Cousins and Woodard are excellent, underrated players. They both hit at least 43.0 percent of their 3-pointers. That being said, all eyes will shift to Hield, who has averaged 31.5 points in two tournament wins. He is a quick and accurate 3-point shooter, and he is also nearly automatic from the free throw line (89.0 percent). With Denzel Valentine crashing out of the tournament in the first round, Hield can solidify his candidacy for national Player of the Year (even if the voting has already occurred) with a few more big games on the Big Dance stage.
Prediction: For 39 minutes and 16 seconds, Texas A&M looked flummoxed by Northern Iowa and ready to bow out to a smaller team. Things fell together perfectly for an incredible rally to upend the Panthers in double-overtime. Oklahoma is a similar but much better team than NIU. A full court press is not going to bother the experienced Sooner backcourt. The Aggies would need everything to fall into place again against Oklahoma, and I just can’t see that happening. Oklahoma wins.