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NCAA Sweet 16 preview: trends, upsets and matchups


When people talk about the current state of basketball, they love to talk about the rise of the three-pointer. Teams are learning to jack up three ball after three ball after three ball, whether or not it’s a good shot. A decent three is inherently more valuable than an easy two. Right?

Well, here we are at the Sweet 16 with, presumably, the 16 best college basketball teams in the country. The most interesting thing? Only one team (Stanford) scores 34.1% or more of their points from three-point range, putting them in the top 50 in the country. Only two teams rank within the top 100 — Stanford and Iowa. The nation’s leading scoring team, Maryland, only gets 27.1% of its points from three-point range, 188th in the nation.

The message is clear: An open two-pointer is still better than a contested three. It doesn’t matter if you play fast or slow, if you have two dominant bigs or five speedy guards. The NCAA’s top teams are all doing the same thing. They’re taking high percentage looks rather than shooting threes for the sake of it.

Knowing the three ball might not prove to be a difference maker, these are the three most interesting matchups of the weekend. 

Most likely upset: No. 2 Louisville vs No. 6 Oregon

During the first two games of the NCAA tournament, Oregon is playing some of its best basketball of the season. And Louisville is playing some of its worst. 

The Cardinals have posted an offensive rating below 100 in five of their last seven games. That wasn’t the case for most of the season. In 17 of their previous 21 games, they posted an offensive rating above 100. During this bumpy stretch, Louisville’s star guard, Dana Evans, has averaged just 14.8 points per game while shooting 32.7% from the field.

The Ducks and their suffocating zone defense won’t help much with Louisville’s offensive woes. And the Ducks’ success is directly tied to their defense. In all but one of their 15 wins, opposing teams have shot below 40% from the field. In all but one of their 8 losses, teams have shot above 40%. If Oregon can continue funneling offensive players into 6-foot-5 Nyara Sabally and 6-foot-7 Sedona Prince, they could walk away with another upset.

Most underrated game: No. 2 Maryland vs No. 6 Texas

Of the eight Sweet 16 matchups, Maryland has the second highest chance of winning at 86.6% according to Her Hoop Stats. But don’t write off Texas just yet. Led by forward Charli Collier, a Big 12 All-Defensive selection, and guard Celeste Taylor, who averages 2.2 steals per game, the Longhorns have quietly emerged as one of the country’s strongest defensive teams. In the last 11 games, they have allowed more than 70 points just once. 

But Maryland is a different beast. They put up 91.3 points per game, shoot 40.6% from three, and feature six (six!) players who average double figures. Here’s the thing: Texas has played Baylor — the country’s third ranked scoring offense — three times this season. The Longhorns lost all three of those games, but they held Baylor to 60, 64, and 66 points in each of those outings — three of Baylor’s lowest scoring outings all season. It’s clear that Texas can shut down the NCAA’s best offenses, but it’s unclear if they can score enough in return. 

The difference is, Maryland can’t play defense like Baylor. Could Texas slow down Maryland enough to eke out a win? It’s certainly a possibility. And if Texas can’t stop Maryland, at least you’ll get to watch the Terrapins go for 100 points — for the eighth time this season.

Best head-to-head matchup: Jordan Nixon (No. 2 Texas A&M) vs Aari McDonald (No. 3 Arizona)

Yes, I know, Caitlin Clark versus Paige Bueckers is the most exciting first round matchup. But that’s too easy. I’ll take a different route how about Texas A&M guard Jordan Nixon vs. Arizona guard Aari McDonald? 

Nixon has been arguably the hottest player in the tournament thus far, averaging 23 points per game while shooting 57.8% from the field. McDonald, who was named Pac 12 Player of the Year and Co-Defensive Player of the Year, is arguably the best defender in the country. And McDonald’s playing some solid basketball of her own. Just look at the fourth quarter of Arizona’s last game.

With five minutes left in the Round of 32, the Wildcats trailed BYU by five points. That is, until McDonald willed them to victory. She scored seven points in those final minutes, hitting a mean step back, blazing by her defender for a lay-up, and then sealing the game with a steal. 

“It might’ve been the best five minutes by a UA basketball player, any gender, any game, since Miles Simon at the 1997 Final Four,” wrote Greg Hasen of the Arizona Daily Star.

It’s almost a cliche at this point, but it’s true: In March, you need clutch guards. This matchup has two of them.