NCAA Tournament 1st and 2nd Round Previews

JT
Thomson
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Vishnu
Parasuraman
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The Canes earned the #6 seed in the South Region and will face Loyola-Chicago on Thursday afternoon. If Miami advances, they will face the winner of Tennessee-Wright State game. The Canes’ bracket is as follows:

And the entire region is here:

#11 Loyola-Chicago (28-5)
Thursday, March 15, 3:00pm, truTV

Loyola-Chicago is quickly becoming a trendy pick to beat the Hurricanes. Why? You’ll hear many arguments:

  1. They won in Gainesville early this year.
  2. They have 5 players that average in double-figures.
  3. They have 3 starters who average at or 40% from 3.
  4. The Ramblers are 5th in the country in points allowed per game, at 62.2.

Let’s unpack these numbers. Their overall record is 28-5, with their marquee out of conference win coming against Florida. Other than that, they didn’t challenge themselves out of conference. Of note, in addition to Florida, they also played Wright State (the 14 seed) in the season opener and beat them by 4 points. Those are the only 2 tournament teams that the Ramblers played.

So where did Loyola-Chicago’s losses come from? One was a blowout loss to Boise State and another was to a bad Milwaukee team. The other 3 losses came in conference. The Ramblers won their other 28 games. From a player standpoint, there are 2 things that stand out: (1) they are short and (2) they can shoot from many positions. Let’s start with leading scorer Clayton Cluster, who is an Iowa State transfer. Cluster is the Ramblers’ leading scorer at 13.4 PPG but what jumps out is his efficiency. Cluster shoots 52.3% from the field, and 44% from 3. He’s also a good FT shooter. Beyond Cluster, there are 2 other high FG%, high 3% shooters that score between 11 and 12 PPG: Donte Ingram and Marques Townes. Aundre Jackson and Cameron Krutwig are the other players averaging in double-figures. Krutwig is the only size that the Loyola-Chicago has, at 6-9, but he is a also heavy so the Canes need to meet his challenge.

How do the Canes win? Simple. Ja’Quan Newton takes Cluster out of his game. If Lykes is on Cluster (a possibility), then he’ll really need to lock in. From there, the Canes should have a huge advantage in the paint. After months of battling big men in the ACC, Dewan Huell and Ebuka Izundu should be relieved here, and must deliver. That’s where the Canes big advantage is. They also need to push pace a little and score high. The Ramblers don’t allow a lot of points, but also don’t score a lot. The Canes need to get this game into the 70s or higher, and see if the Ramblers have enough offense to keep up. Miami has better size and athletes, and must exploit those advantages. If it becomes a grind, the balance shifts towards the Ramblers. More than anything else, this is a game where the Canes need to dominate in the paint, because this is a toss-up according to the Ken Pom Ratings:

#3 Tennessee or #14 Wright State
Saturday, March 17, Time and Channel TBD

Should Miami beat Loyola, it will face the winner of Tennessee-Wright State. As that game tips off ahead of Miami, the Canes will know their opponent, and as Tennessee is almost a two-touchdown favorite over Wright State, that opponent is likely to be Tennessee. However, as “This Is March”, we will take a look at both teams.

#14 Wright State (25-9)

The Raiders of Wright State qualified for the tournament by winning the Horizon League championship. During the regular season, they finished second in the conference by one game behind Northern Kentucky, going 14-4 against conference opponents. Their conference tournament run was not exactly daunting, as they beat Green Bay (13-20), Milwaukee (16-17) and Cleveland State (12-23), all of whom had losing records in conference play. Despite finishing behind Northern Kentucky, the only two top-100 wins (according to KenPom) Wright State notched on the season were over Northern Kentucky. Wright State lost to Loyola Chicago by 4 to open the season, lost by 19 to Murray State in the third game of the season, and lost by 18 to Western Kentucky in early December. However, the Raiders did do something Miami failed to do this year: beat Georgia Tech on the road in what was most likely their most impressive victory. Wright State is coached by Scott Nagy in his second year at the school, after bringing South Dakota State from Division II all the way to a Summitt Conference power mainstay. This Raiders team only features one senior, and actually relies on two Freshman for a good deal of their production. They are not exactly a great shooting team (34% from 3, 48% from 2), and overall, they are one of the worst offensive teams in the tournament. Needless to say, there’s a reason why they are one of the biggest underdogs in this tournament.

#3 Tennessee (25-8)

Tennessee came out of nowhere this year, as the Volunteers were widely projected to be one of the more pedestrian SEC teams in 2018. After longtime Texas head coach Rick Barnes parted ways with the program in 2015, he joined another UT with an ugly shade of Orange, this time in Knoxville. The results have been trending upwards ever since, as the Volunteers went from 15-19 to 16-16 to this year’s impressive 25-8 mark, winning the SEC’s regular-season championship before falling to Kentucky by 5 in the SEC Tournament championship game.

The Volunteers are certainly battle-tested, as they challenged themselves significantly in the non-conference schedule with wins over Purdue, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Furman, and Wake Forest. They also played well in losses to Villanova and North Carolina. While SEC basketball has been deservedly mocked in years past, the SEC improved its standard of play tremendously this year, with Tennessee notching impressive conference wins against Kentucky (twice) and Florida, while regularly beating the above-average teams on the schedule. If there is a weakness in the resume, it would be how Tennessee fared against the other SEC teams that made the NCAA tournament. This year, eight SEC teams made the Dance: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Auburn, Missouri and Texas A&M. The Volunteers went 5-5 against those teams, with the only road win being against Florida (it did avenge a road loss to Arkansas by beating them handily in the SEC tournament on a neutral court).

So where did this explosive year come from? Well, it’s not a veteran team that finally matured, and quite the opposite actually, as the team relies primarily on sophomores to get the job done, in addition to a couple of juniors. The Volunteers feature a 7 man rotation, balanced scoring, balanced rebounding and balanced ball-distribution. Grant Williams, 6’7″ forward, leads the team with 15.3 points per game, while doing a little bit of everything else (except shoot three-pointers). Admiral Schofield, 6’5″ wing, averages 13.8 points per game, while also doing a little bit of everything else, and is more than capable of making three-pointers, shooting nearly 5 per game at a 40% clip. The true calling of this team, however, comes on the defensive end as the Volunteers are one of the most efficient defensive teams in the country (KenPom has them ranked 4th). They do an excellent job of causing teams to miss shots, although they do allow a significant amount of offensive rebounds and free throw attempts.

How do the Canes win? It’s cliche, but they’re going to have to make shots, especially at the free-throw line. Miami actually did a decent job of gaining offensive rebounds against some very good ACC competition, so they’ll need to take advantage of second-chance opportunities. With how Tennessee has given up free throw chances, Miami will need to turn in a solid free-throw shooting display, which it has shown capable of doing at times. The other area where Miami must, MUST play better is in transition defense. When the Canes get their defense set, they perform at a high level. But all too frequently, they find themselves ball-watching in transition, only to give up a rather easy basket. The Volunteers are certainly beatable, especially for a 3 seed, and perhaps as this will be the Volunteers first post-season experience since 2014, they come out a bit nervous on the big stage as a favorite.

Predictions

THOMSON

Upon hearing the matchup against Loyola-Chicago, my initial reaction was that of every tournament cliche: “Oh great, a mid-major program that is probably battle-tested, been through the ringer a few times, well-coached and can make it rain from beyond the arc.” I have quickly read-through most of the national pundits on Loyola-Chicago, as I frankly did not know one thing about them before the matchup was announced (no, not even that they had beaten Florida back in early December). Honestly, I am somewhat perplexed and shocked that Loyola Chicago is the team that so many of the national pundits are picking as their double-digit seed trendy upset selection. I know that it is difficult for mid-major programs to find quality non-conference games, but outside of Florida, the Ramblers did not even *try* to schedule a tough game, having only played one other team that qualifies as good in Boise State and they got blown out in that game. Yes, they beat the Gators, who are legitimately good. But back in early December, Florida played a stretch of games that went Stanford, Gonzaga, Duke, Florida State, Loyola-Chicago, Cincinnati and Clemson. First off, that’s a ridiculous scheduling job by the Gators, but it’s also rather obvious that it was a trap game all the way for Florida. Loyola is also not a team filled with guys that have been knocking on the post-season door, or has extensive post-season experience, that will not be phased on the big stage. They’ve had a losing conference record in each of the past two-seasons, and this will be this group’s first taste post-season play beyond early conference tournament exits in every year before this year. Nothing against head coach Porter Moser, but this will also be his first time ever coaching in the NCAA Tournament, as he’s been the man in charge for the past 7 years, and the Ramblers never sniffed a tournament opportunity. So it’s not like this a team that has been on the verge of the NCAA Tournament, and finally put it all together. No, this is truly a Cinderella season for Loyola Chicago, a team that was widely picked to finish no better than 3rd in the conference before the season began. Yes, Loyola Chicago has been lauded for their defensive ability, but a closer inspection of those numbers shows a team that does everything pretty well, but I would have expected them to dominate a Missouri Valley Conference in those metrics considering their reputation: however, MVC teams shot pretty well against the Ramblers all things considered. Miami has a size-advantage on most teams in the country, and will have an even bigger advantage against Loyola-Chicago, which is one of the smaller teams in the country, much less in this matchup. This is a game where Miami has the advantage in size, experience, coaching, and, with how trendy the pick of Loyola Chicago has become, the motivation. Sure, this COULD BE an upset pick, after all, “This Is March”, but I will be extremely disappointed if Miami loses this game. Miami wins by 10.

Assuming Miami gets past Loyola-Chicago, the likely scenario is facing Tennessee. The Volunteers are a very good basketball team that has earned its way to a 3 seed this year, but all things considered, this is the 3 seed you would want to face if you are Miami. There are very few teams that played as well as Miami did away from home, so this should feel like another big matchup against a quality team away from Coral Gables. Tennessee actually fits the profile of a mid-major Cinderella more than that of Loyola Chicago, as they do rely significantly on transition scoring with lots of very good shooters beyond the arc. As a result, Miami needs to focus defensively, as the Volunteers are less scary in a traditional halfcourt set. March is all about how the bracket falls in front of you, and Miami was given a gift by avoiding Michigan and Michigan State, and arguably even other four seeds (Arizona, Wichita State in particular). Let’s find ourselves in the Sweet 16 once again: Miami wins by 7.

PARASURAMAN

It’s hard to rate this Canes team. They seem to play entire stretches of low IQ basketball and you always feel like they are underachieving. And yet they have achieved as a team, finishing in 3rd place in the ACC, and winning several challenging road games. So what do we make of this? That anything can happen, from the highest of highs, to the lowest of lows, sometimes within the same game. If the Canes can play solid defense, their athleticism should show. But if there is lazy defense, which is something Miami has shown at times in each game this year, Loyola-Chicago has plenty of weapons from 3 to kill the Canes. In addition, they’ll take the air out of the ball to lower the score, so giving up easy and cheap baskets just makes it that much more difficult to come back. With that said, if the Canes can force turnovers and pick the pace up, forcing the game into the 70s, this will favor them. And I like that to happen. I think Miami’s front court athleticism and quickness on the perimeter really bothers the Ramblers, who are just not used to playing against a team with this level of skill. And with that, the Canes will pull away and win by double-digits. 

After Loyola-Chicago, the Canes will face (likely) Tennessee. The Volunteers are a strong team, and will be favored. But I think the Canes can win this game. Miami’s guards can control the pace, and make Tennessee execute in the half court. That will take Tennessee out of their game. Also, the Volunteers struggles were almost exclusively away from home, so I expect some struggles here on a neutral site. Now, I use the term struggles loosely because Tennessee has had a great season. In a game like this, experience counts for a lot, and the Canes are making a habit of playing in the NCAA Tournament. The program is used to being here. Finally, the coaching mismatch is pretty large here. Rick Barnes is a great program builder (which he has proven at Clemson, Texas, and now Tennessee). But he isn’t a great game day coach. Coach Larranaga is. All-in-all, I expect the Canes to play a close first half, but pull away a bit in the 2nd and win by 6 on their way to the Sweet 16. 

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