2024 NCAA Tournament: How every Sweet 16 underdog can pull off an upset, reach Elite Eight

0
8

The 2024 NCAA Tournament hasn’t featured nearly the madness of last season’s. This year, all four No. 1 seeds and all four No. 2 seeds are into the Sweet 16. At this point last year, just two No. 1 seeds were alive, and just two No. 2 seeds joined them in the Sweet 16. This year, the sum of the seeds of the teams still competing for the title is 52. Last year, it was 78.
But madness lurks, always. The last time all four No. 1 seeds made the Elite Eight is 2016. The last time all four No. 2 seeds made the Elite Eight is 1996. And the last time all eight combined made the Elite Eight is … never. In fact, we’ve only gotten seven top-two seeds in the Elite Eight once: in 2007.
So, for as good as the favorites have looked, history says at least one is going down in the Sweet 16. Here’s how each underdog can pull it off.
All per-possession and specific play-type stats are via Synergy. All times ET and lines from SportsLine consensus.
Thursday, 7:09 p.m. | CBS, March Madness Live
Line: Arizona -7
Keys for Clemson: Attack the post, defend the 3-point shot
Clemson isn’t the worst seed left — that belongs to No. 11 seed NC State — but the Tigers might be an even more unlikely story. They lost three of their final four games coming into Selection Sunday, including a 21-point blowout to lowly Boston College in their ACC Tournament opener.
Yet here they are, and they’ve done it with their strengths: post scoring and free-throw shooting. The Tigers have scored 27 points on post ups in the tournament, sixth among all teams, and they had 17 against Baylor, their most in a game since late January. Only Purdue and Gonzaga have scored more points off post ups this season. Now comes Arizona, a team that finished 210th in post-up points allowed in the regular season. The Tigers are also shooting 79% from the free-throw line in the tournament, on par with their 79% rate overall this season, ninth in D-I.
The big question will be 3-point defense. Clemson held New Mexico to 3 for 23 from deep and Baylor to 6 for 24. The Lobos weren’t a good 3-point shooting team, but the Bears were. Now comes an Arizona team shooting 37% from three, 20th in Division I. Can the Tigers keep that up … and get some luck?
Thursday, 7:39 p.m. | TBS, March Madness Live
Line: UConn -11
Keys for San Diego State: Get a monster game from Jaedon LeDee, force 3-pointers
Like I said before the tournament started, it’s hard to find faults with UConn. The Huskies are second nationally in offensive efficiency and eighth in defensive efficiency per kenpom.com. Their only notable “flaw” — if you can call it that — is relatively pedestrian 3-point defense, but San Diego State ranks 299th in 3-point shooting percentage.
The hope here is a whole lot of Jaedon LeDee on offense and a whole lot of 3-pointers forced on defense. LeDee has been incredible in postseason play, In three Mountain West Tournament games plus two NCAA Tournament games, he’s averaging 27.8 points and 9.4 rebounds on 60% shooting and taking nearly 11 free throws per game. He’s even made five of six 3-pointers. It’s an absolutely scorching hot stretch, and if he can draw Donovan Clingan away from the basket and/or get him in foul trouble, that’s a great start for the Aztecs.
Defensively, San Diego State must keep UConn’s terrific offense from getting too many interior looks. It’s easier said than done, but the Huskies are just 18 for 75 from deep (24%) in their three losses this year, and they went just 3 for 22 from deep in their second-round win over Northwestern.
Thursday, 30 minutes after the conclusion of Arizona vs. Clemson | CBS, March Madness Live
Line: North Carolina -4
Keys for Alabama: Run and rebound
Alabama at its best overwhelms opponents with relentless pace, a ton of 3-pointers and high-percentage 2-pointers and a helter-skelter defense. North Carolina, meanwhile, allows the second-fewest points per transition possession but is just 101st in points per transition possession offensively.
Alabama can only get out and run, though, if it rebounds, and that’s been a weakness all year; Alabama is 245th in defensive rebounding percentage. North Carolina, meanwhile, had the highest offensive rebounding percentage in ACC play. Nate Oats’ team must group-rebound and then look to push. If it can get the Tar Heels in a track meet and nail some 3-pointers, maybe an upset is in the offing.
Thursday, 30 minutes after the conclusion of UConn vs. San Diego State | CBS, March Madness Live
Line: Iowa State -1.5
Keys for Illinois: Run … and run back
Illinois’ offense is awesome. According to KenPom.com, the Illini have the best offense in the nation. Illinois’ defense is decidedly less awesome. According to KenPom, the Illini have the 92nd-best defense in the nation. That’s second-worst among teams remaining in the tournament, only better than Alabama.
Hence, Illinois’ goals are similar to Alabama’s. Illinois must run to attack the Cyclones’ excellent defense before it can get set. The Cyclones don’t allow a ton of transition opportunities, but the one-man transition that is Terrence Shannon Jr. can change that. His 7.6 transition points per game are most in D-I. He’ll have to toe the line of aggressive and under control.
Maybe more important is can Illinois get stops? Iowa State doesn’t play particularly fast, but when the Cyclones do run, they’re effective: 32nd nationally in points per transition possession. Illinois, meanwhile, is simply awful in transition defense: 299th in transition points allowed. They allowed 20+ transition points in two of their three losses since the start of February. They can’t have a repeat performance.
South: (11) NC State vs. (2) Marquette
Friday, 7:09 p.m. | CBS, March Madness Live
Line: Marquette -6.5
Key for NC State: Limit Tyler Kolek
The Wolfpack have plenty of scoring options. They have the best vibes in the nation. They’re 7-0 in the last week and a half. They’ve been much, much better offensively over this stretch no one saw coming, but they’ve only been slightly better defensively.
That has to change against Marquette, and especially against Tyler Kolek. The Golden Eagles star is a relentless left-handed driver who has the finishing and passing abilities to take over. He had 21 points and 11 assists in the second-round win over Colorado.
NC State has not been good at defending Kolek’s greatest strength: as a pick and roll ball handler. The Wolfpack allow 9.9 points per game on these plays, tied for 268th nationally. The Golden Eagles do a terrific job screening for Kolek, and he often does the rest, scoring or drawing fouls or finding a plethora of shooters, cutters and lob threats. Expect ace defender Casey Morsell to draw the Kolek assignment, but the Wolfpack’s bigs and help defenders will face a stern test, too.
Midwest: (5) Gonzaga vs. (1) Purdue
Friday, 7:39 p.m. | TBS, March Madness Live
Line: Purdue -5.5
Keys for Gonzaga: Graham Ike defends, aggressive guards
Beating Purdue starts with limiting Zach Edey, and I have no doubt Mark Few will come up with a good plan. Edey, of course, is a game plan destroyer, but Graham Ike is about as good of a chance as you’ll get. He ranks in the 98th percentile defending post ups this season, and he has the size, strength and experience to make Edey’s life a little bit more challenging than usual. When Ohio State stunned Purdue in February, the Buckeyes used a similarly sized, similarly strong post defender in Zed Key, smart double teams and excellent rotations to force Edey into a season-high six turnovers.
So that’s the defense. Whatever Ike adds on offense is a plus. Much of the scoring burden, though, will fall to the guards. Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman can take advantage of a Boilermaker defense that is just OK defending the pick and roll and not very good defending cutters, two areas in which the Bulldogs excel. Hickman has been excellent in the tournament, while Nembhard has been quiet. Gonzaga will need both to be excellent against Purdue.
Thursday, 30 minutes after the conclusion of Marquette vs. NC State | CBS, March Madness Live
Line: Houston -4
Keys for Duke: Rebounding and toughness
While there are numbers to measure rebounding, there aren’t numbers to measure toughness. Here’s what we can say: Houston is as tough as they come. Duke’s toughness will be determined in this game.
Duke has its best defensive rebounding team since 2007, and it will be put to the ultimate test. Houston is the 11th-best offensive rebounding team in the nation. If there’s a common theme in the Blue Devils’ most high-profile losses this season, it’s struggling on the glass. They allowed 12 offensive rebounds in an early-season home loss to Arizona and allowed 20 combined offensive rebounds across two losses to North Carolina.
Toughness as a whole, though, is more of a mindset. In Duke’s ACC Tournament loss to NC State, Jon Scheyer said Jared McCain “wasn’t himself” after a freak accident pregame that resulted in some stitches. There can’t be any excuses at this stage. Houston creates adversity for opponents and takes it on headfirst when faced with its own. The defense, physicality and offensive rebounding are relentless. How Duke holds up mentally for 40 minutes will likely determine whether it gets 40 more in the Elite Eight.
Friday, 30 minutes after the conclusion of Purdue vs. Gonzaga | TBS, March Madness Live
Line: Tennessee -3
Keys for Creighton: Take care of the ball, don’t foul
Creighton has had double-digit turnovers in seven of its nine losses this season, and ball security will be paramount against Tennessee: The Volunteers had the highest turnover rate forced in SEC play and forced 16 Texas turnovers in their second-round 62-58 win. On a night when Tennessee absolutely could not shoot (33.8%), a 15-5 edge in points off turnovers loomed large. Creighton’s turnover rate isn’t bad, but it’s not great either: 15.4%, 69th nationally.
On the other end, the Bluejays allow the lowest free-throw rate in the nation. It’s going to have to continue that way. Tennessee is not a great shooting team, but it is extraordinarily physical, and Dalton Knecht is a big-time scorer who draws nearly six fouls per game. Creighton will have to work hard and smart to keep him off the line and not give the Volunteers freebies.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here