After going 4-0 on our best bets in the first round, Three Man Weave and I are back with our two favorite plays of the Sweet 16. Don't worry: We have you covered with one Thursday game and one on Friday, so you can sweat out both days with us.
Virginia vs. Oregon
3MW Pick: Virginia -8.5
The Thursday night Sweet 16 encore pins two defensive steel curtains against one another. While Virginia’s impenetrable Pack Line man-to-man defense has been a household brand for years now, the masses are slowly becoming familiar with the amorphous Oregon zone that has become the backbone of the Ducks’ stymying defense—though, with all due respect to Dana Altman, I think my grandmother could devise an effective defensive scheme with a human bouncy ball (Kenny Wooten) roaming the lane defensively.
The parallels between the Hoos and the Ducks don’t end there. Both are allergic to pushing the tempo and much prefer to execute in the half-court rather than rush shots in transition. Oregon is coming off its slowest paced game of the entire season (58 possessions against UC Irvine), an impressive feat for a team with the longest average offensive possession length in the Pac-12, and Virginia came one possession shy of matching its season-low possession total with a snail-paced 56-possession affair against Oklahoma. All that culminates in a game total lower than Tone Low’s voice—119 to be exact, the number currently posted at Pinnacle.
Casual fans, feel free to hit the hay early as this should be a low scoring snoozer…
Basketball junkies, tune in for what should be a fascinating chess match between two of the game’s best coaching minds...
While most are still trying to wash away the sour taste in their mouths from the Cavaliers’ abysmal first-half outing against Gardner-Webb, I firmly believe this offense is ripe for a breakout performance. Against those Runnin’ Bulldogs, the Hoos turned it over 15 times, shot 30% from three, converted just 62% from the charity stripe and still scored 1.13 points per possession (PPP)—a figure by no means worthy of a standing ovation, but commendable given those uncharacteristic shooting and turnover issues. Then, just two days later against Oklahoma, three-point marksman Kyle Guy went 0 for 10 from the land of plenty and the Cavaliers scored at roughly the same rate of efficiency (1.12 PPP) against a top-25 nationally ranked defense.
The challenge UVA faces here is Dana Altman’s tricky matchup zone. When I glanced back at Virginia’s past opponents over the past decade scanning for a somewhat reasonable comp, I landed on Louisville during the latter years of the Rick Pitino era. From 2015–17 (timeline coincides with Louisville’s move to the ACC and the last season Pitino was the head coach at UL), Virginia and Louisville played six times. Here were the Cavaliers’ offensive performances in the six games against the Cardinals during that span: 0.95, 1.04, 1.03, 1.17, 1.00 and 1.16, which computes to a lackluster average of 1.06.
I will concede that using these figures as a reliable proxy could be a reach of an assumption. Virginia’s roster core is completely different now and drawing parallels between Pitino’s matchup zone and Altman’s matchup zone is somewhat of an "apples-to-oranges" comparison. What’s more important than how well UVA fared in those matchups is the simple fact that Bennett has seen and prepared for a relatively similar defensive scheme six different times in the past. Effectively, I feel pretty comfy betting on Tony Bennett to solve this puzzle and to have the Cavaliers well-prepared offensively.
On the other side of the ball, Mamadi Diakite is the man to monitor. After Tony Bennett opted to slot Diakite in the starting lineup over Jack Salt against the more mobile Sooner frontline last game, Diakite answered the call of duty by racking up 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in just 28 minutes of action. Diakite’s superior bounce and lateral quickness will be pivotal against the versatile wing/forward tandem of Paul White and Louis King, both of whom are adept at scoring off the bounce. Diakite’s ability to slide his feet and stay in-front in both ball-screen action and switches should bear out to be a far better solution than the slower Salt.
Getting in front of this Ducks steam is scary, but if there’s a team who can unravel Oregon’s perplexing zone, it’s Virginia. Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy are two of the most cerebral guards in the nation and both will be moving on a string, each controlled by master puppeteer Tony Bennett—the same guy who brilliantly decimated Syracuse’s 2–3 zone with the savvy move of sliding Ty Jerome into the high-post on offense. Again, this Oregon zone does not emulate the ‘Cuse zone but it’s that precedent of being able to adapt and make schematic changes on the fly that leads me to believe Virginia is the right side in this one—I just don’t see a path to Oregon scoring consistently.
If you want to want to read a deeper dive on Virginia-Oregon as well as Tennessee-Purdue, definitely check out 3MW's Sweet 16 preview of the South Region.
Virginia Tech vs. Duke
Meyer's Pick: Virginia Tech +7.5
We just saw UCF give Duke some major fits thanks to its size, but also because of daring the Blue Devils to shoot the three and limiting their transition opportunities. According to Synergy, Duke took just three shots in transition out of 42 possessions (7.1%) in the second half, and just 11 shots in transition overall in 80 possessions (13.8). Per hoop-math, 28.3% of Duke’s shots have come in transition this season, which is the 18th-highest mark in the country. When you force Duke into more half-court possessions, that when its offense can become more vulnerable, especially if you can protect the rim and force the Blue Devils to take more threes. Duke made just 20 of its 42 two-point shots (47.6%), a far cry from its 57.9% shooting on twos overall this season (fourth in CBB). In fact, it was a strong perimeter shooting night that saved the Blue Devils. They ended up taking 25 threes, and made 10 of them (40.0%). That is much better than their season-long track record from beyond the arc (30.7%, 329th in CBB).
Virginia Tech does not have UCF’s size, but the Hokies do a great job of limiting looks near the rim. Buzz Williams’s modified Pack Line is designed for opponents to shoot as many threes as possible, as outside of Kerry Blackshear, the Hokies just don’t have much size to work with. Per Hoop-Math, VT allows the 21st-lowest percentage of opponents’ shots in CBB to come at the rim. So whenever Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett are looking to drive, expect to see Hokies defenders either sag off their man along the perimeter or in some cases, abandon them. The Hokies are going to force Duke’s perimeter shooters to beat them, as an open Tre Jones or Jordan Goldwire three would be a win compared to letting Williamson or Barrett get into the paint. And expect the Blue Devils to get plenty of threes, as opponents’ three-point attempt rate against VT is 50.4%, which is the second-highest mark in the country.
Bsides forcing Duke to take a bunch of shots from outside, Virginia Tech also does a good job limiting transition looks. The Hokies have allowed 18.6% of total shots attempts to come in transition, which is tied for the 17th-lowest mark in CBB.
Simply put: This is a defense that is designed to be Duke’s worst nightmare (besides the lack of size).
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, runs a four-out offense that features a good amount of pick-and-rolls. In the Hokies’ matchup against Duke in Blacksburg, they went heavy with PnRs featuring point guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Blackshear. Duke struggled to contain it, and also sometimes helped off VT’s corner shooters in trying to defend the rim. While VT only shot 8 of 26 from three in that one (30.8%), Duke can’t expect to get as lucky this time around if it surrenders that many good looks from the outside. The Hokies on the season shoot 39.5% from three, which is ninth-best in the country.
Now, that 77–72 win over Duke was with Zion Williamson out due to injury, but Hokies star point guard Justin Robinson was out as well. Robinson came back for the start of March Madness, and looked much sharper in the second round against Liberty compared to the first round vs. Saint Louis. With Robinson being out for so long, some rust in his initial action back is certainly expected. With him getting his legs back, he is another extremely dangerous weapon for VT. And keep in mind, when he wasn’t playing against Duke, the Hokies still registered a whopping 1.22 PPP. Both Alexander-Walker and Robinson are excellent passers, and expect VT to get plenty of open shot opportunities, which makes its offense lethal since everyone on the floor for the Hokies can shoot well.
The biggest difference for VT this season with Robinson on the floor and without has been its turnover rate. With Robinson on the floor, VT’s TO% is 15.9 according to Hoop Lens. Without him, the TO% goes all the way up to 19.7. To put this into better perspective, Buffalo at 15.9% is the 24th-lowest TO rate this season, while Clemson at 19.7 is tied for 256th. Fewer turnovers means more efficient offense and cutting down transition opportunities for the opponent, so having both point guards on the floor really elevates VT to a different level.
Now I don’t expect this Sweet 16 battle to resemble the first matchup between these two, but I still love the challenges that Virginia Tech’s schemes present to Duke on offense and defense. At 7.5, the line is too high due to paying the Duke premium on the market, and I’ll gladly back the underdog here in what should be a very competitive game.