Breaking down the biggest key that will determine the continued success or failure of each team in the Sweet 16.
March Madness gets even more serious when we approach the second weekend.
The first two rounds are generally filled with exciting upsets and buzzer beaters, all of which we root for — and there was certainly no shortage of upsets this year. But now, as the Sweet 16 gets ready to tip off, the reality of being halfway to the Final Four gets … well, real.
Cinderellas (looking at your, Oral Roberts) have to sustain their opening weekend magic, underdogs have to find consistency, and favorites have to handle the immense threat of newfound game pressure from elite opponents.
What has to go right for everyone to continue dancing? Here’s a look at the biggest key for each Sweet 16 team:
Loyola Chicago Ramblers
Lucas Williamson as legitimate second scoring option. Cameron Krutwig is as reliable as they come, and Loyola knows what they’re going to get on the defensive end every night. But when Williamson is also a force offensively, the Ramblers can hang with anyone as we learned last weekend. The senior had a game-high 21 points against Georgia Tech and was the third-highest scorer in the game against Illinois with 14 points.
Oregon State Beavers
Continued dominance from Roman Silva. The senior big man was a fairly mediocre player during the regular season. His size (7-1, 265 pounds) gave opponents some issues, but he wasn’t a consistently impactful force for Oregon State. That has changed in the NCAA Tournament. He is tied for the tournament lead in total blocks (seven) and has posted career highs in points (16), rebounds (12) and blocks (four) in the last two games.
Ethan Thompson and Jarod Lucas have been steadying offensive forces on the perimeter, yet Silva’s emergence has made this group Sweet 16-caliber. The Beavers will need him to be effective against Krutwig.
Defend the interior. Baylor doesn’t have to change much of its game plan because the Bears have been the second best team in the country all season long. However, their biggest weaknesses have been on the glass (261st in defensive rebound rate) and defending the interior. Doing those things at just an adequate level will help the Bears continue to roll.
Superstar play from Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Villanova’s presence in the Sweet 16 without Collin Gillespie is a testament to the program Jay Wright has built. Justin Moore has stepped up nicely in the backcourt, but it has been Robinson-Earl who has taken the mantle as the go-to offensive option. Robinson-Earl leads the Wildcats in points, rebounds, blocks, and assists in the tournament. Everything Villanova does runs through Robinson-Earl. Villanova will go as far has he takes them.
Play at their pace. Arkansas plays at the 17th-fastest tempo in the country. It’s a versatile team with a lot of athleticism, which maxes the rapid approach. But when the Razorbacks are forced to play at a slower pace, they struggle. Eric Musselman’s squad trailed Colgate by double digits in the first half because of that and nearly blew a late lead to Texas Tech once the Red Raiders slowed the game down. As long as this group can get out in transition consistently, they’re extremely tough to beat.
Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
At least 50 points combined from Abmas and Obanor. Is asking for 50 points from two players a lot? Yes. But it has also been necessary for Oral Roberts’ Cinderella run. Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor combined for 59 points in their upset of Ohio State and 54 in the win over Florida. They are ORU’s only players capable of producing at a high level against NCAA Tournament-type competition and have to carry the scoring load because of it. The duo has been up to the task so far, and it must continue.
Impactful play from DeJon Jarreau. Houston’s star guard suffered a hip injury in the second-round win over Rutgers. He’s going to play against Syracuse, but it was clear that Jarreau — Houston’s third-leading scorer and leading assist man — was very limited against the Scarlet Knights. He will likely be responsible for operating the middle of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, which is the most important position against that defense.
The Cougars have Final Four talent when healthy and, given the upsets in their region, have a great chance to still get there. But they won’t be able do so without Jarreau having a positive impact. He doesn’t have to be a superstar, but he does have to make a few plays.
Buddy Boeheim continues hot streak. Yes, Syracuse’s zone has been giving opponents fits in the NCAA Tournament, but Boeheim’s red-hot shooting has been the biggest driving force behind their success. Since the start of the ACC Tournament, the junior is averaging 28.3 points per game on 60-percent shooting, including 55.8 percent shooting from three. That level of efficiency from a perimeter player is simply absurd, but he has to keep that up if the Orange are going to continue their run.
Avoid a slow start. Gonzaga is the best team in the country. Period. When the Bulldogs are at their peak, Baylor is the only team that can even put up a fight. But sometimes it takes the Zags a little bit to get going. They fell behind both Norfolk State and Oklahoma during the first portion of both games before taking over. This is a problem that plagued them during the regular season, too, but hasn’t been detrimental to this point.
This could can change given the level of competition left. As we all know, the longer an underdog hangs around in the NCAA Tournament, the favorite can be crushed by the intense game pressure. The Bulldogs have passed every test with flying colors, but they don’t need to make their job more difficult.
Make at least 10 three-pointers. Surprise — you need to make shots to win games! As simple as that sounds, Creighton’s dependency on the three makes it exponentially more important for the Bluejays. They’re 37th in 3-point attempt rate and 33rd in the percentage of total points from behind the arc. Ten threes is a lot to ask, but it’s going to take a lot to beat Gonzaga.
Score at least 70 points. Michigan is 19-0 when it hits the 70-point mark this season compared to just 3-4 otherwise. Juwan Howard’s squad is excellent defensively so when the offensive output is adequate, UM is extremely difficult to beat.
This has been more of a struggle recently, too, as the Wolverines have only scored 70 or more three times in the last seven games. A number of injuries, particularly the foot injury to Isaiah Livers, have played a role in this recent slide. The good news is that two of those three came in their first two NCAA Tournament games, but Florida State is a different animal.
Florida State Seminoles
Limit turnovers. Florida State is dominant at its best. At their worst, the ‘Noles have lost to teams like UCF and Notre Dame. Why? Turnovers.
The Seminoles are 254th nationally in turnover rate and have put up some dreadful performances in that regard recently. They turned it over 17 times in a loss to UNC on Feb. 27, 18 times when they beat UNC in the ACC Tournament, and 25 times in their loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC title game.
So far in the NCAA Tournament, they’re turning it over 15 times per game but still won the turnover battle against Colorado. That has to continue.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Make at least 38 percent of their three-pointers. Alabama relies on the three even more than Creighton, ranking 17th in 3-point attempt rate and 15th in percentage of total points coming from three. For as good as the Crimson Tide are defensively, they are very much still reliant on the “live-by-the-three-die-by-the-three” mantra.
Alabama shoots 35.5 percent from three on the season, but 38 percent seems to be the magic number. When Alabama doesn’t shoot 38 percent from three, it is 2-4. When they make at least 38 percent of their threes, the Crimson Tide are 24-2. Quite the difference!
Major offensive contributions from Jaime Jaquez. Johnny Juzang has emerged as a star during the NCAA Tournament, and it has been his offensive contributions that have helped UCLA the most. He’s averaging 16.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game in the Big Dance, and the scoring is significantly up from where it was in the regular season (12.2 ppg).
The Bruins have been looking for a secondary scorer since they lost Chris Smith earlier this year. Jaquez has been inconsistent in that role but has given UCLA what it needed at the most opportune time, which must continue during this run.
Hold opponents to 65 points or fewer. USC’s defense is really good. Its collective combination of length, athleticism, and quickness helps lead the nation in interior defense and has the Trojans ranked fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency. If you’re looking for a magic number for this squad like with Alabama, that number is 65.
The Trojans are 16-2 this season when giving up 65 points or fewer compared to 8-5 when they allow more. More recently, they won nine games in a row when giving up 65 or fwer while losing four of their last five when giving up more.
Win the 3-point battle. Much of Oregon’s success this season has come from beyond the arc. The Ducks don’t shoot from deep as often as Alabama or Creighton, but they do shoot a better percentage (38.2) than both teams. On the flip side, they’re not the best at defending the three (147th in 3-point defense). That’s been the bottom line for Dana Altman’s group this season.
If Oregon makes more 3-pointers and/or shoots a higher percentage, they generally win. When they don’t, they lose. That will be especially important given the defenses they are set to face in the West Region.
Header image courtesy of Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.