Sweet 16 Preview: Biggest questions facing teams in South Region

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The Sweet 16 will kick off on Thursday, and the beautiful thing about the final four rounds of this year’s NCAA tournament is that we are guaranteed to have 15 games that will feature dynamite matchups.

There’s an argument to be made that the top 15 teams in the country are still alive, with the 16th being the hottest team in all of college basketball.

With that in mind, we are going to dive into every team left, region by region, and give you the biggest question that needs to be answered if they are going to have a chance to win the national title. 

First up, the South. 

VIRGINIA: Are they mentally tough enough to win two more games?

Look, this is not going to stop being a thing until Virginia does what they need to do to ensure that it is no longer a thing.

Tony Bennett has had this thing rolling in Charlottesville for six years now. In the previous five NCAA tournament, there were four times that Virginia was a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. In those seasons, they lost to:

  • No. 4 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in 2014.
  • No. 7 seed Michigan State in the second round in 2015.
  • No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Elite 8 in 2016, when they blew a 15 point lead in the final eight minutes.
  • UMBC.

And at this point, I think that it is pretty evident that this is a mental thing. If the meltdown against UMBC wasn’t enough to tip you off, then the way that Virginia started against Gardner-Webb in the first round this season — digging a 30-16 hole as they played about as scared as a team as good as Virginia can play — should have been all the proof that you needed.

At this point it is not about the opponent to me, not when the other three teams in their region are all beatable.

It’s about Virginia.

And their ability to handle the moment.

TENNESSEE: How good is Tennessee defensively?

Last year, with essentially this same group of guys, Tennessee finished the season as the No. 6 defense in KenPom’s rankings. This year, that is not the case. The Vols are hovering around the top 40 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. They go through stretches where it seems like they are coasting — frankly, this is a thing on both ends of the floor — and where this has been manifesting is with their ability to run teams off of the three-point line.

In Tennessee’s last six games, they have been lit up from the perimeter. They’re 4-2 in that stretch, which includes the two NCAA tournament games where they blew big leads. When Colgate erased a 15 point second half deficit to take the lead in the first round, they shot 15-for-29 from three. Iowa’s comeback was more a result of the Hawkeyes pounding the ball into the paint, where their bigs were able to go one-on-one because Tennessee didn’t want to leave shooters. Auburn shot 15-for-40 from three in their blowout win in the SEC title game.

I say all that to say this: Tennessee, who ranks 207th in defensive three-point percentage, is likely going to have to get through Purdue — who gets 39 percent of their points from beyond the arc this season — and Virginia — who is sixth-nationally in three-point percentage — to get to the Final Four.

(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

PURDUE: Will we get Good Carsen or Bad Carsen?

The most impressive part about the coaching job that Matt Painter has done this season, the incredible thing about the fact that Purdue won a share of the Big Ten regular season title this year, is that all of this happened while Carsen Edwards was busy operating as a super-high usage and uber-low efficiency player. There were just nine players in college basketball this season that posted a higher usage rate that Edwards — putting that in context, R.J. Barrett wasn’t even all that close — but Edwards finished Big Ten play with an offensive rating of 100.0 (which is not good) while shooting 34 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three. In the four games before exploding for 42 points against Villanova, he shot 26.9 percent from the field. He was 4-for-24 at Indiana. He was 3-for-16 at Nebraska. He was 7-for-35 in two games against Michigan State.

And despite all of that, Purdue still finished the season with the fifth-best offense in the country and the second-best offense in the Big Ten, according to KenPom.

Point being, when Edwards struggles, Purdue is still really good.

But when he gets it going?

When he’s Good Carsen instead of Bad Carsen?

The Boilermakers are downright scary.

Should I mention that Tennessee has really struggled to guard on the perimeter since they lost to Auburn to close the regular season?

OREGON: Just how good are the Ducks?

Oregon might be the hottest team in college basketball right now. They’ve won ten straight games. Eight of those games have been either on the road or on a neutral court. They are in the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed, and they are playing precisely the brand of basketball that Dana Altman has become famous for: A talented lead guard surrounded by three big, athletic wings and one ridiculously athletic rim-protector in the middle.

(Let me take a victory lap here: I said before the season started that Oregon would be better playing Kenny Wooten at the five and not playing Bol Bol, and … well … here we are.)

But they haven’t really beaten anyone all that impressive during this run. Eight of the ten wins in this streak came against Pac-12 competition, and even those they won at Washington and beat Washington by 20 on a neutral court, it’s still a Washington team that lost to Cal. The win over Wisconsin is solid, but it seems silly to get too worked up over beating the fifth-beat team in the Big Ten.

Let me be clear here: I think that Oregon is legit, but there certainly is a possibility that all this success is simply a by-product of kicking the tail of everyone in a bad league and getting hot against a No. 5 seed at the right time.

Gardner, Beekman lift No. 8 Virginia past No. 22 N.C. State

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Virginia coach Tony Bennett had a simple message for his team after a poor defensive performance in a loss at Virginia Tech.

“Talk is cheap. Do it. Show us, to our players, to us as a staff, show up, work in practice, step to between the lines and don’t lose yourself in anything but what your job is,” Bennett said he told his players and assistants in the two days of practice since the 74-68 loss.

The team clearly got the message.

Jayden Gardner scored 18 points, Reece Beekman added 15 and No. 8 Virginia cooled off red-hot No. 22 North Carolina State 63-50 on Tuesday night.

“We had a great two days before State, you know, preparation and just diving in,” Gardner said. “It’s just this is the time of the season we need to lock in and you know, we’re playing for something. … We’re trying to win a championship.”

The Cavaliers (18-4, 10-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) handed the Wolfpack (19-6, 9-5) their second loss in 10 games and moved into a share of first place in the conference with Clemson and Pittsburgh.

The Wolfpack arrived leading the ACC with an average of 79.6 points and were 19-2 when scoring at least 70, but became the 38th consecutive league opponent held below 70 points at John Paul Jones Arena.

“Obviously, as I watched the Virginia Tech game and knew that those guys dropped the game and, you know, any time you’re going to play a very good defensive team on their home floor, you know you’re going to get that energy,” North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts said.

Terquavion Smith led N.C. State with 19 points and Casey Morsell, who spent his first two seasons at Virginia and was jeered nearly every time he touched the ball in his first game back, had 18 points before fouling out in the final minute.

Jarkel Joiner, the Wolfpack’s No. 2 scorer at 16.2 points per game, missed 12 of his 14 shots and scored five points. D.J. Burns Jr. (eight points) was the only other Wolfpack player to score.

Reserve forward Kadin Shedrick, who did not play in Virginia’s loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday, had 10 points and six rebounds for the Cavaliers.

Virginia scored the first six points of the second half to open its largest lead at 40-20, but the Wolfpack began whittling away, fueled by a 12-6 burst in which Smith and Morsell each hit a pair of 3-pointers.

“In the past, we’ve been able to control the tempo and to get those guys to play a little bit faster and even turn them over,” said Keatts, whose team had won three of the last four meetings. “But we couldn’t.”

N.C. State twice closed within nine points but got no closer. Morsell’s 3 made it 55-46 with 3:46 to play, but Beekman made a free throw and then took a no-look pass from Kihei Clark for an easy backdoor layup.

Virginia closed the first half on an 8-2 run to lead 34-20 at the break. The Wolfpack missed 10 straight shots before Burns scored just before the half.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack got scoring from just three players – Smith with nine points, Morsell with seven and Burns with four – in the opening half. They shot 25.8% with Smith going 4 for 13 and Joiner 0 for 6. … Burns picked up his third personal foul less than a minute into the second half after getting the ball stolen by Beekman. He stayed in the game and drew his fourth foul on a drive by Clark with 16:03 left.

Virginia: Beekman started the game ranking first in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio (3.0) and third in assists (5.1). He had four assists and one turnover. Clark started first in assists (6.0) and second in assist/turnover ratio (2.8). He had six assists and three turnovers.

UP NEXT

N.C. State: At Boston College on Saturday.

Virginia: Hosts Duke on Saturday.

Michigan St. rallies to win after giving up lead to Maryland

Maryland v Michigan State
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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Joey Hauser scored 20 points and Tyson Walker had 17 and Michigan State rallied after scoring the game’s first 15 points to beat Maryland 63-58 on Tuesday.

A.J. Hoggard had 10 rebounds and eight assists for Michigan State.

Jahmir Young scored 17 points for Maryland, Hakim Hart 12, Julian Reese 11 and Donta Scott 10 for the Terrapins.

The Spartans (15-9, 7-6 Big Ten) used an 8-0 run in which Walker made a layup and 3-pointer wrapped around a 3 from Jaden Akins for a 52-48 lead with 7:44 remaining and Michigan State led for the remainder.

The Terrapins erupted for a 12-0 run in less than three minutes in the second half turning a 38-26 deficit into a 38-all tie. Young and Hart posted back-to-back three-point plays, and Hart’s 3-pointer with 13:01 knotted it at 38. Prior to that 3, Hart was 3-for-last-27 shooting from beyond the arc. Maryland finished shooting 3 of 22 from distance.

Michigan State started the game with a 15-0 run and led 31-22 at halftime. Coming off an 81-46 win over Maryland (16-8, 7-6 Big Ten) on Saturday, the Terrapins have yet to win back-to-back contests in almost three years.

The Terrapins host Penn State on Saturday. Michigan State travels to play Ohio State on Sunday.

Arkansas pulls away from Kentucky in 2nd half, wins 88-73

Arkansas v Kentucky
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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Ricky Council IV scored 20 points, Anthony Black had 19 and Arkansas used a blazing second half to pull away and beat Kentucky 88-73 on Tuesday night, giving coach Eric Musselman his 200th collegiate victory.

Black added five assists and five steals. Makhel Mitchell and Davonte Davis scored 15 points each and Jordan Walsh 13 for the Razorbacks (17-7, 6-5 SEC) who have won five straight conference games, including three in a row. It was Arkansas’ third straight win over the Wildcats (16-8, 7-4). The teams meet again in Fayetteville in a regular-season finale on March 4.

Cason Wallace scored 24 points to lead Kentucky, which had won six straight conference games. Chris Livingston added 13 points and Jacob Toppin and Antonio Reeves 11 each.

After a first half with 11 lead changes, there were none in the second when Arkansas shot 72% and Council and Black combined for 25 points.

Three steals, including two by Black who turned them into consecutive dunks, fueled an 11-3 run to begin the second half for a 52-43 lead. A basket by Black made it a double-digit lead with eight minutes left as the Razorbacks sank 7 of 9 over that span to finish the game. They made 8 of 10 free throws over the final two minutes.

Kentucky coach John Calipari was given a technical foul with 33 seconds left in the first half. Black sank the resulting free throws for a three-point lead before Daimion Collins’ midrange jumper made it 41-40 at halftime.

Both teams shot over 50% in the first half with Wallace leading all scorers with 11 points. Kentucky dipped under 50% for the game while Arkansas finished at 63% and outscored the Wildcats 46-28 in the paint.

Arkansas is home against Mississippi State and Kentucky is at Georgia, both games on Saturday.

Tulane secures 101-94 OT win over Cincinnati

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NEW ORLEANS – Kevin Cross and Jalen Cook scored 27 points each as Tulane took down Cincinnati 101-94 in overtime on Tuesday night.

Cross added 15 rebounds and six assists for the Green Wave (16-7, 9-3 American Athletic Conference). Cook added 14 assists. Jaylen Forbes scored 24 points and shot 6 for 15 (3 for 6 from 3-point range) and 9 of 9 from the free throw line.

Landers Nolley II finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and four assists for the Bearcats (16-9, 7-5). Ody Oguama added 16 points and 13 rebounds for Cincinnati. In addition, David Dejulius finished with 12 points, eight assists and three steals.

Tulane entered halftime down 37-28. Cross paced the team in scoring in the first half with 10 points. Forbes scored 18 second-half points and hit the game-tying 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime.

Tulane scored seven unanswered points to break a tie and lead with 42 seconds left in overtime.

No. 16 Oklahoma women take 1st lead in OT, rally past Baylor

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WACO, Texas – Ana Llanusa and Skylar Vann each scored 20 points and No. 16 Oklahoma took its first lead of the game in overtime before rallying past Baylor 98-92 on Tuesday night.

The Sooners trailed for 39 minutes in regulation and were down 75-63 with 5:19 left in regulation.

Baylor turned it over twice on inbounds plays in the closing seconds of regulation and Taylor Robertson tied at 83-all on a wide-open 3-pointer with 14 seconds left.

Llanusa started overtime with a 3-pointer, and she finished with eight points during the extra session. Baylor never led in overtime, shooting 2 of 6.

Robertson, who tied Danielle Robinson’s program record of 140 starts, finished with 14 points and three 3s for Oklahoma (19-4, 9-3 Big 12), which trails Texas (18-6, 9-2) in the hunt for its first conference title since 2009. Nevaeh Tot added 13 points, Liz Scott added 11 points and eight rebounds and Madi Williams had nine points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

The Sooners, the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense at 86.5 points per game, have scored at least 88 points 14 times this season, seven in conference.

Caitlin Bickle scored a career-high 30 points with four 3s and Sarah Andrews added 20 points for Baylor (16-7, 7-4). Freshman Darianna Littlepage-Buggs had 14 points and 17 rebounds and Ja’Mee Asberry scored 11. Jaden Owens had 14 of Baylor’s 25 assists on 32 field goals.

Bickle was 8 of 11 from the field, including 4 of 7 from distance, and Littlepage-Buggs recorded her sixth double-double in the last seven games.

It was the first time in 20 years the Sooners were ranked in game against an unranked Bears squad. Oklahoma continues its road trip at Kansas State on Sunday. Baylor plays at Oklahoma State on Saturday.