The Best Head-to-Head Matchups in the Sweet 16

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 25, 2021

USC's Evan Mobley (right) works on Ochai Agbaji of Kansas
USC's Evan Mobley (right) works on Ochai Agbaji of KansasPaul Sancya/Associated Press

Even the people living under rocks know about the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament. 

In its opening weekend, the 2021 Big Dance was loud enough for everyone to hear, setting a record for the most upsets before the Sweet 16 and highest seed total among the third-round field. 

It's been tough to process. For every Oregon State, there was an Oral Roberts. For every Syracuse, there was a North Texas. It's made for a ton of fun, a deluge of great stories and a wide stage for several underdog teams that probably never deserved to be underdogs in the first place.

So maybe this Sweet 16 isn't rife with household names—which were lacking even before the upsets—but, boy, is it ever exciting. The ceiling's off, the shooting is hot fire, the defense is a wall of ice and something's gotta give.

Here are the best head-to-head matchups in the Sweet 16. It's a tough thing to quantify, but we've defined a good head-to-head matchup as one that goes beyond the two teams involved in a given game. In other words, these are the matchups within the matchups.


Oregon State backcourt vs. Loyola-Chicago backcourt

Lucas Williamson (right) bothers Ayo Dosunmu
Lucas Williamson (right) bothers Ayo DosunmuMark Humphrey/Associated Press

Teams: No. 8 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (26-4) vs. No. 12 Oregon State Beavers (19-12)

Region: Midwest

Date: Saturday, 2:40 p.m. ET

Moneyline: Loyola-Chicago -278 

Lucas Williamson and Braden Norris know how to make life difficult for opposing guards. The Loyola-Chicago backcourt tandem gummed up the great Ayo Dosunmu and slowed the Illinois offense to crawl, combining for three steals. Illinois usually shoots 37.2 percent from three. In that second-round loss, it only managed 28.6 percent.

The Oregon State Beavers are no strangers to grinding out wins. They outrebounded Oklahoma State 52-32 and made their living at the free-throw line, converting 32 of 35 attempts, including 15-of-16 for guard Ethan Thompson and 7-of-7 for backcourt mate Jarod Lucas.

If Oregon State is going to overcome the best defense standing, it likely won't be able to count on another 15 points from Maurice Calloo, who went 10 points over his season average in a game that saw him meet his former team in Oklahoma State. That puts a lot of pressure on Thompson and Lucas, but they seem prepared for the grind after the team stormed out of nowhere to win the Pac-12 tournament (it wouldn't be here without that automatic bid) and took down No. 5 Tennessee before the Cowboys.

The Beavers also don't rely heavily on transition, ranking No. 303 on KenPom.com's tempo ratings to Loyola's 342, so they're slightly Loyola-proof in their offense. Loyola's the favorite, but it might have drawn a team that can take what the Ramblers are dishing out. 


Oral Roberts vs. the History Books

Kevin Obanor
Kevin ObanorAJ Mast/Associated Press

Teams: No. 3 Arkansas Razorbacks (24-6) vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (18-10)

Region: South

Date: Saturday, 7:25 p.m. ET

Moneyline: Arkansas -625 

Where did Kevin Obanor come from? 

All he's done in the tournament is average 29.0 points per game on 48.6 percent shooting and grab 11.0 rebounds per contest. Before the tournament, he wasn't even Oral Roberts' leading scorer.

It's hard to ask much more of this Golden Eagles squad. They're the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 since that Florida Gulf Coast "Dunk City” team in 2013. A No. 15 seed has never reached the Elite Eight.

That's the reality. Will Oral Roberts write a new page in the history books? The Golden Eagles already punched far above their weight. That shows they can do it again, but as the lopsided odds point out, their yellow brick road may be reaching an end.

Arkansas ranks 10th in KenPom's defensive rankings, and the Razorbacks will be sure to key on Obanor and top scorer Max Abmas, who chipped in 26 points against Florida and led the nation in scoring this season with 24.6 points per contest.

After Obanor and Abmas, there's a big drop-off, especially since the team's third-leading scorer, RJ Glasper, has been out since early February with an undisclosed injury.  

Arkansas can defend 90 feet, and it was a thing of twisted beauty to watch the Razorbacks turn the screws on a precocious Colgate team to force 22 turnovers and avoid an early shocker of their own. They force turnovers, draw timely charges and get big stops when needed. Texas Tech can tell you all about that, with the Razorbacks clamping the lid on their attempt to tie the game in the final seconds last Sunday.

If the Golden Eagles can topple the Razorbacks, they'll be one of a kind in tournament history, in an event that already stands alone in the record books.


Tourney's Hottest-Shooting Team vs. Its (Almost) Stingiest Defense

Buddy Boeheim of Syracuse
Buddy Boeheim of SyracuseDarron Cummings/Associated Press

Teams: No. 2 Houston Cougars (26-3) vs. No. 11 Syracuse Orange (18-9)

Region: Midwest

Date: Saturday, 9:55 p.m. ET

Moneyline: Houston -250

It entered as a No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region, but Syracuse is No. 1 in the entire field with 29 made three-pointers, which the Orange are hitting at a 50 percent clip. As a whole, they're shooting a molten 68 percent from the floor, which also leads the field.

The Cougars have stayed true to type in the tournament. KenPom's No. 11 team for defensive efficiency held Cleveland State to 56 points and Rutgers to 60.

Houston's more balanced than in years past, but its offense has a huge challenge in shooting over that Syracuse 2-3 zone.

On the other side, Houston could be the William H. Macy to Syracuse's hot streak, not only because of defense but also because of rebounding. The Cougars finished the regular season seventh in the nation with 40.9 rebounds per game and have averaged 38.9 in the tournament.


Oregon's Backcourt vs. USC's Frontcourt

Chris Duarte dunks
Chris Duarte dunksDarron Cummings/Associated Press

Teams: No. 6 USC Trojans (24-7) vs. No. 7 Oregon Ducks (22-6)

Region: West

Date: Sunday, 9:45 p.m. ET

Moneyline: USC -143

It's only been a few days since the words "Pac-12 showdown” began turning heads at the national level, but here we are.

The Ducks automatically advanced to the round of 32 after positive COVID-19 tests forced VCU to essentially forfeit its first-round game. But Oregon showed it didn't need any favors in handing the No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes their own tail feathers Monday in a 95-80 rout.

The Ducks overcame 36 points from the season's defining player, Luka Garza, behind tough senior guards Chris Duarte (23 points on 9-of-12 shooting, 7 assists) and LJ Figueroa (21 points on 8-of-14 FG, 7 rebounds, 3 steals).

USC applied its own beating to No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks, a 34-point 85-51 win. It was the third-worst loss in Kansas history and the worst since Gerald Ford was the president and phones were still attached to the wall with cords. Evan Mobley is the shiniest Trojan as a likely high-lottery pick, but brother Isaiah reminded the country this isn't a one-man show, with 17 points on 4-of-5 three-point shooting, eight rebounds and four assists. 

In USC and Oregon's lone meeting in February, the Trojans walked away with a 72-58 victory. But the Ducks have gone 7-1 since, in part because of the emergence of Figueroa, who averaged 16.4 points in those contests, substantially above his 12.6 season average. That speaks to the Ducks' true strength—balance—which they show on both ends.

As they did with Garza, they could essentially concede a big game to Mobley. But which Mobley? It's not such an easy game to play with USC as it is with Iowa, is it? But with two battle-tested, well-rounded and underrated teams looking for respect both in their own conference and across the nation, there are plenty of players and stakes to watch.


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