The Best Head-to-Head Matchups in the Sweet 16 of the 2016 NCAA Tournament
The NCAA tournament has reached the second week, which means the spotlight goes from talking about seeds—and either general upsets or "chalk"—to focusing on individual battles that will swing the Sweet 16 games.
Teams have gotten to this point because they know how to hide flaws, capitalize on strengths and assert willpower. They know where to go and can often figure how to slow down opponents' best options.
Here are eight pivotal player matchups, one for each game Thursday and Friday.
We look at a true point guard battle, of course, but we also examine star power, valuable veterans, high-level big men and even a senior vs. freshman showdown in the paint between Indiana and North Carolina.
Read on to see an octet of great duels that will determine who will reach the Elite Eight.
Ryan Arcidiacono vs. Angel Rodriguez
Teams: No. 2 Villanova (31-5) vs. No. 3 Miami (27-7)
When: Thursday, 7:10 p.m. ET (CBS)
Where: South Regional, Louisville
Villanova finally surpassed its first-week NCAA tournament roadblock, reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009. That means life is certainly good, but it's also daunting again in looking ahead to similarly guard-oriented Miami.
There are two Angel Rodriguez point guards to consider. The excellent one came forth in the Hurricanes' first two games. He scored a total of 52 points in wins against Buffalo and Wichita State, even outshining fellow veteran point guard Fred VanVleet in the second-round affair of a relatively breezy eight-point win.
He'll be matched up against Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who is by comparison a quieter player who more or less picks his spots rather than Rodriguez's all-out determination of his team's fortunes.
Rodriguez can score from all over the floor, and he rips out opponents' hearts with points scored late into the shot clock. Meanwhile, Arcidiacono's success will often be dictated by how Villanova's big men play. If they're thriving inside, that will leave plenty of room for him to get wide-open looks from the perimeter, where he's at a career-best clip (37.5 percent) after knocking down six of the nine attempts he's taken while reaching the Sweet 16.
Both are incredibly balanced players who take roughly the same number of two-point attempts as threes. They each shoot 80 percent or better from the foul line and control their own foul troubles. Rodriguez's assist and turnover rates are both markedly higher, meaning the obvious: His impact will be easier to notice.
When Rodriguez is rolling, Villanova and every other team in the country may be at his whim.
The Miami senior threw an alley-oop pass from about 40 feet against Wichita State, right when it seemed like the Shockers were going to get control of the game. He added 10 points in the final two-and-a-half minutes, as well. That game, he totaled five assists and four steals—but also seven turnovers.
Granted, the turnover and steal numbers were abnormally high, even by Rodriguez's Jekyll and Hyde nature.
Arcidiacono and Rodriguez both have the ball in their hands constantly as entrusted leaders of guard-heavy teams. They each can set up teammates or take over themselves. This could be a last-possession type of game, and it'll likely come down to these two.
From last year to this year, Rodriguez has become much more reliable, as he's posted career highs in two-point field-goal percentage and is shooting 10.4 percent better on the whole this season. Arcidiacono is reliable too, but Rodriguez's upside is greater.
That confidence should spread to his teammates and be just enough to move the Hurricanes into their first Elite Eight in school history.
Buddy Hield vs. Danuel House
Teams: No. 2 Oklahoma (27-7) vs. No. 3 Texas A&M (28-8)
When: Thursday, 7:37 p.m. ET (TBS)
Where: West Regional, Anaheim
When talking about Oklahoma, the discussion virtually starts and stops with senior Buddy Hield. So it's only proper to analyze the wing matchup against Texas A&M's Danuel House.
Perhaps Hield and his fellow Sooners thought momentarily they'd be playing Northern Iowa in the Sweet 16. With 44 seconds left, the Panthers led by 12 points. But House and Co. forced overtime and won after the second one.
House was a streaky 6-of-17 from the field, missing his first nine shots and being held scoreless until there was five minutes, 14 seconds left in regulation. He has to feel like he has a new lease on basketball life. But he also is aware his previous game's influence is not going to cut it against the relentless Hield, who can also go off in droves and won't go scoreless for nearly so long.
Hield has been tested harshly a couple of times emotionally this year. There was the great effort (46 points) in triple overtime at Kansas that came up short. Then in the Big 12 tournament semifinals, his amazing half-court shot was ruled to be still on his fingertips as the clock expired, giving West Virginia a two-point win.
But he's found a second wind to lead the Sooners. Hield already has scored 63 points in two tournament games. He most notably had 29 in the second half against VCU in what was a tug-of-war until he went off in bunches.
House is quite a talent, but Hield simply shoots more and is more accurate either inside or outside the arc.
There's no question Hield is going to take his shots. The challenge for the Aggies, and especially House, is to keep up and then take advantage of any Oklahoma drought. Facing the Sooners on one day of rest (like for an Elite Eight game) would be a far more preferable challenge. As it is, look for Hield to take over again.
There was nothing like Hield in the SEC—or arguably anywhere else in America this year—and he will get his team through to the Elite Eight. Some tough breaks earlier this season have only helped the Sooners figure out how to make the most out of their rare talent.
Landen Lucas vs. Diamond Stone
Teams: No. 1 Kansas (32-4) vs. No. 5 Maryland (27-8)
When: Thursday, 9:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
Where: South Regional, Louisville
Terrific matchups abound in this one, too, from point guard (Melo Trimble vs. Frank Mason III) to small forward (Jake Layman vs. Wayne Selden Jr.). But the biggest one to consider pits two big men who have traveled completely different individual paths to the Sweet 16.
Maryland freshman Diamond Stone, even in November, seemed to be the perfect piece at the perfect time for the Terrapins. That has proved to be true, as he's been a vital cog inside as a complement to Trimble. Stone shoots nearly 57 percent and takes most of his shots at the rim. He is the team's second-best scorer (12.7) on an amazingly balanced team with five players who average double figures.
Lucas is also on a balanced offensive team. He averages 5.5 points, which is actually sixth on the team behind all four other starters along with sixth man Svi Mykhailiuk.
While Stone came off the bench at the beginning of the season, with head coach Mark Turgeon's hope to eventually start him, Lucas was probably an unlikely target to the KU coaching staff or even its legions of fans. It wasn't until after a three-game road losing streak to start conference play that the Jayhawks really made a shift to him—basically abandoning veteran Hunter Mickelson (who had played quite well in a summer tour) and freshman Cheick Diallo.
Lucas averages a team-best 6.5 rebounds, and that's what he's there to do: dirty work and glass work.
The question is not if he can match Stone's scoring, but rather what his overall impact will be. That means staying out of foul trouble. Stone takes more than twice as many shots. In a national landscape virtually void of true centers, Lucas didn't see anyone of Stone's type in Big 12 play, when he became an increasingly improved option; a quiet but vital factor in Kansas not losing since a Jan. 25 setback at Iowa State.
Both teams' fates could be determined by their centers. Lucas likely won't win the individual battle, but by keeping the points and rebounds totals close to Stone's output, he'll do just enough to make sure the Jayhawks get back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2012.
Dillon Brooks vs. Brandon Ingram
Teams: No. 1 Oregon (30-6) vs. No. 4 Duke (25-10)
When: Thursday, 9:55 p.m. ET (TBS)
Where: West Regional, Anaheim
The beauty of the evolution of basketball is on full display with this matchup. Oregon's Dillon Brooks and Duke's Brandon Ingram are guys who can play everywhere from primary ballhandler to power forward. They are sleek scorers who have their offenses running through them most of the time.
The Ducks have more players who can carry the offensive load, though. They can go to Elgin Cook, Tyler Dorsey and Chris Boucher to exploit mismatches. Their versatility is hard to guard.
Ingram doesn't have the same luxury at Duke. The freshman, along with sophomore guard Grayson Allen, has to bring it every night for the Blue Devils to have a chance. It's been a long season, but the virtue in this matchup is having a few days to recover from a trying first two rounds of the tournament.
Oregon's strength is having a bunch of players close to Ingram's size who are virtually interchangeable. Throw in an upgraded experience level, and it would seem Brooks—along with his team getting to play much closer to home—has an advantage.
But this is rise-and-shine time for Ingram and Allen, and they seem to know it—even if the Blue Devils can often still look young while escaping with victories.
Ingram and Brooks post similar stats. Ingram is at 17.1 points, 6.8 rebounds; Brooks goes for 16.8 and 5.6.
Another matchup to consider is how Duke's guard lineup will handle the Ducks' constant pressure. But once the ball is in a half-court setting, it's on Ingram to make teams pay. Ingram will also need to be a virtuoso on the glass and hit his threes, as he shoots a marvelous 41.5 percent and can aggravate the Ducks' plan by forcing them to respect his range.
Brooks, however, has too much around him and will get through to the next round just by staying even with Ingram's output.
Malcolm Brogdon vs. Georges Niang
Teams: No. 1 Virginia (28-7) vs. No. 4 Iowa State (23-11)
When: Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET (CBS)
Where: Midwest Regional, Chicago
What would the Sweet 16 be without a complete contrast in styles? Iowa State will try to keep the ball moving. Virginia will try to turn the United Center court into quicksand on the Cyclones—at least while playing defense.
The winner will surely come down to the battle of Virginia's standout stopper, Malcolm Brogdon, and Iowa State's star scorer, Georges Niang.
They don't play the same position. Brogdon is three inches shorter and is a wing, while Niang is a 6'8" power forward. But Niang's versatility and value will likely command the fellow senior's attention. Perhaps even right from the start.
Brogdon is heralded by KenPom's formulas as the country's best player. It's hard to argue after his performance Sunday against Butler.
He held Butler's Andrew Chrabascz (who is 6'7") without a basket for the final 16 minutes after the Bulldogs standout had made nine of his first 11 shots. Oh, by the way, Brogdon also chipped in 22 points, five assists and five rebounds.
This will be a battle of wills. Niang can score from virtually anywhere on the floor. The question becomes how he goes after points against the Cavaliers, and whether Brogdon can make a vital impact at both ends of the floor.
Brogdon was the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year. He's no stranger to giving up height, having guarded Duke's Brandon Ingram (who's right around 6'9") or Villanova's Kris Jenkins (6'6").
Brogdon has seen it all and will have enough in him (especially coming off a few days of rest) to advance Virginia to the Elite Eight, which has to be an especially awesome feeling considering tournament nemesis Michigan State is out of the picture.
Ethan Happ vs. Zach Auguste
Teams: No. 6 Notre Dame (23-11) vs. No. 7 Wisconsin (22-12)
When: Friday, 7:27 p.m. ET (TBS)
Where: East Regional, Philadelphia
College basketball in recent years has relied so heavily on freshmen, yet this year it's been well documented how important seniors have become. So, it seems inevitable to find an intriguing matchup of the two classes. That's where to look with Wisconsin's 6'9" freshman, Ethan Happ, as he'll have a major rebounding battle with 6'10" Fighting Irish senior Zach Auguste.
Not many people could've figured the Badgers would get this far this year. But Happ has been a significant reason for the surge. He produced 33 points and 16 rebounds in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
But Auguste has been even better, with 26 points and 27 rebounds (nine on the offensive end, compared to Happ's five in the opening weekend).
Wisconsin will rely on strong defense and has to improve its offense, which comes and goes in dramatic waves. If Happ isn't able to create extra possessions, it could be a quick trip back to Madison. He'll also need to keep up his strong defense: Pittsburgh's Michael Young had just six points and five rebounds against UW in the first round, while Xavier's James Farr was scoreless from the field with one rebound.
Auguste is top 35 at both ends of the floor in rebounding efficiency. Both of these guys know their roles; the question is who'll do it better when squaring off.
This being the year of the older guy, we'll stick with that premise and figure Auguste keeps Wisconsin from second chances and also has some putbacks that get the Irish to the Elite Eight. This is assuming the Irish have learned from their turnover fest (13) against Stephen F. Austin. Getting more shots up gives Auguste a greater chance to make an impact.
Trevor Cooney vs. Eric McClellan
Teams: No. 10 Syracuse (21-13) vs. No. 11 Gonzaga (28-7)
When: Friday, 9:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
Where: Midwest Regional, Chicago
This is another game with three or four key individual matchups. But the right thing to do is look at the shooting guards for Gonzaga and Syracuse.
Eric McClellan has been a saving grace at both ends of the floor for the Bulldogs, even after a rough start as Mark Few's team found trouble replacing its pair of four-year starting guards (Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.). McClellan has finally stepped into Bell's role, even being named the West Coast Conference's top defender. But it's his offense that has really come on lately—from 9.6 points per game in the regular season to 18.4 in the postseason, counting the WCC tournament.
The 6'4" senior likes to get into the lane, as he's taken nearly twice as many shots from inside the arc as beyond it.
But facing that "Rubik's Cube" zone defense of Syracuse will make that hard.
Then McClellan has to keep his head on enough to prevent Trevor Cooney from getting going.
Cooney is as streaky of a dominant shooter as you'll find left in the NCAA tournament. He's 6-of-12 from three in two NCAA tournament games (better than his 34.9 percent average), but in the three games before that—all Orange losses, by the way—he made just seven of the 23 attempts.
However, McClellan may also be called upon to guard Michael Gbinije, which is no easy task. The fellow senior is three inches taller (6'7") and shoots nearly 48 percent from the field (41.1 from the arc).
If McClellan can continue doing his job, though, it'll make all of the difference as Gonzaga tries to return to the Elite Eight. In bigger teammates, Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga has ample experience and consistency to move on in the tournament.
Brice Johnson vs. Thomas Bryant
Teams: No. 1 North Carolina (30-6) vs. No. 5 Indiana (27-7)
When: Friday, 9:57 p.m. ET (TBS)
Where: East Regional, Philadelphia
Look no further than the number 71 to figure out how these two can make an impact.
Indiana freshman Thomas Bryant is shooting a remarkable 71.2 percent from the field...for the season. North Carolina veteran Brice Johnson isn't quite as efficient (61.9 percent), but he's been every bit as good as Bryant during UNC's five postseason games (counting the ACC tournament), making 32 of his 45 field-goal attempts.
There's no question Indiana starts and stops with Yogi Ferrell—and for good reason. He's a senior point guard who can score from all over the floor, and he's been through everything in Bloomington. This is his time to shine.
He sure could use Bryant finding his spots against UNC, though. Bryant has taken 180 fewer shots than Johnson inside the arc this year but still knows how to score craftily inside and off extra opportunities.
They'll try to keep each other honest at both ends of the floor, too, attempting to draw fouls to get each other to the bench. Bryant wound up in foul trouble against Kentucky last weekend, as he was limited to seven first-half minutes. He'll need to rekindle the kind of resolve he had against the Wildcats after halftime, when he scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half.
Nothing will come easy, though. Johnson is a better shot-blocker (1.5 per game against Bryant's 0.9), which gives him the edge—just as the Tar Heels should have a slim margin in advancing in Philly.
Advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.