It’s time for the big boys to play. The West Regional played out to chalk with the top four seeds reaching the Sweet 16 and the regional championship weekend.
Sooners Illustrated takes a look ahead to this weekend’s action (Full disclosure though – Justin’s bracket is an absolute mess):
No. 1 Oregon Ducks vs. No. 4 Duke Blue Devils
Quick summary: There’s not going to be a ton of defense in this game. There’s also not a ton of depth on either bench. Oregon squeaked past St. Joe’s thanks to a late rally despite trailing for much of the game. But both offenses come at the apex of prolific. Both average more than 79 points per game. While Oregon allows 68 points per game on defense, the Blue Devils allows more than 70. The West Region could quickly become the offensive bracket. Duke has the individual firepower: Grayson Allen. Oregon has an offensive attack that isn’t position-based and has the ability to drive to the basket, bully small wings or pick-and-roll.
Key matchup: Can Duke stop Oregon’s offense? The Ducks come in with one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the nation, and coach Dana Altman has made a habit of figuring out how to pick apart defenses. Dillon Brooks and Elgin Cook are both 6-foot-6, 200-plus and run the floor. Tyler Dorsey and Casey Benson can both get to the rim. Then there’s 6-foot-10 pick-and-pop specialist Chris Boucher.
Player to Watch: Keep an eye on Duke forward Brandon Ingram. If the Blue Devils are going to pull off the upset, then the freshman is going to pull off something just short of a miracle. It might not need to be on the offensive end, but if Ingram can make some plays to stop Oregon that would definitely help. Duke was put in a tight spot when it lost senior forward Amile Jefferson for the year in early March. Ingram has scored at least 20 points in both NCAA Tournament games this year. His slender 6-foot-9 body will need to play a little bigger alongside 7-footer Marshall Plumlee.
X-factor: Oregon point guard Tyler Dorsey was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school. Just one year after graduation, Dorsey returns to his home city for the Sweet 16. He’s becoming a far better player in the last few weeks, shooting at least 40 percent in the last five games before the NCAA Tournament. He has at least nine points in the past seven games.
Prediction/Guess: In a game where defense is optional, it will probably come down to which team plays defense with more consistency – or maybe just gets one or two stops. Oregon is going to be that team.
No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners vs. No. 3 Texas A&M Aggies
Summary: There are a lot of similarities between these two teams. Both have four senior starters – well, Jordan Woodard is almost a senior. Both are wing dominant, although do it differently. Where Oklahoma leans on its elite jump shooting, Texas A&M takes it’s 6-foot-7 wings and has them attack the basket. Both teams are prone to going into lulls, in the season and in games. It’ll be another up-tempo, offense-oriented game with optional defense. The Aggies have done far more surviving through the first two rounds of the tournament than advancing. Will that finally catch up to them against a team that can make their athleticism?
Key matchup: Tyler Davis vs. Khadeem Lattin. The first two rounds of the tournament haven’t been easy for Lattin, who has drawn the defensive responsibility of the opposing teams’ dominant pivots. Aly Ahmed and Mo Alie-Cox both were trudging and strong veterans that bullied Lattin a bit. Lattin will have his hands for with Texas A&M’s 6-foot-10, 265-pound freshman. Davis is averaging 11.1 points per game and was coming into his own at the end of the regular season.
Non-Buddy Hield Player to Watch: Everyone knows that this is Hield’s show. So looking past the likely Naismith Player of the Year: Who is the player to watch? Texas A&M point guard Alex Caruso is the engine that keeps the Aggies’ offense on the track. He came into the NCAA Tournament as the distributor of the offense and is averaging five assists per game. The senior shined Sunday night against Northern Iowa. He scored 25 points, a season-high for the senior. Before that, he scored in single digits in seven of the previous eight games. If he can parlay that scoring surge into more than just a pass-first role, Texas A&M will be a handful for more than just the Sooners.
X-factor: Across the court, Oklahoma point guard Isaiah Cousins remains the biggest x-factor in the Sooners’ tournament run. He has shot-making ability rivaled by only Hield and is Oklahoma’s best one-on-one dribbler. Woodard has staked a small claim to being Oklahoma’s x-factor, and the Sooners will need one of them. Woodard will catch eyes because he’ll be facing consistent defensive mismatches.
Prediction/Guess: The Oklahoma seniors have put a lot into getting back to the Sweet 16 after last year’s loss in the same round. Michigan State was a bruising interior attack. Texas A&M isn’t much different. What’s different this year is Hield, who said he took some plays off last year against the Spartans when he shouldn’t have. It’s hard to bet against the Bahamian at this point, especially against a team that isn’t known for its defense. Sooners move on to the Elite 8.
Who wins out?
Before the end of the weekend, a Final Four ticket will be punched. It’s either Oregon or Oklahoma. This particular Elite 8 matchup is bound to be an offensive affair. A lot of fun to watch but for fans of either team, it should be gut-wrenching. Does the Buddy saga finally end or does he write another chapter? Hield will be Regional MVP, and Oklahoma moves on.