NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: 16 Things to Know Heading into the Sweet 16

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2021

NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: 16 Things to Know Heading into the Sweet 16

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    With the sound of ripping brackets still echoing across the countryside, the Sweet 16 is set after a wild opening weekend of the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament.

    Only seven teams remain from the top four seed lines, with one No. 1 seed, two No. 2 seeds, three No. 3 seeds and three No. 4 seeds failing to reach the third round.

    On the other end of the spectrum, there are four double-digit seeds still standing, with Nos. 11 UCLA and Syracuse and No. 12 Oregon State joining this year's Cinderella, No. 15 Oral Roberts.

    Before things get rolling again Saturday, let's run through the field with 16 things you need to know heading into the Sweet 16. It's a mix of fun facts, significant statistics and noteworthy individual performance.


Alabama Is Capable of Shooting Its Way to the Final Four

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    John Petty Jr.
    John Petty Jr.Associated Press

    The Alabama Crimson Tide buried 16 three-pointers in a 96-77 victory over Maryland to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004.

    The hot shooting from beyond the arc was nothing new.

    They attempted only 16 threes in a low-scoring game against No. 15 seed Iona in their opener, but that was more of an anomaly than their performance Monday night.

    The Crimson Tide have connected on 10 or more three-pointers in 21 of their 32 games, and they rank among the national leaders in made threes (10.7, fourth) and attempted threes (30.0, fourth) per game.

    That deadly long-range shooting, coupled with an efficient defense, gives Alabama as high a ceiling as any team outside of Gonzaga and Baylor.

    As long as the Tide don't go cold from deepthey are 7-4 in games in which they make fewer than 10 threesthis team could easily still be standing a week from now.

Arkansas Is a Title Contender with Justin Smith in the Lineup

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    Justin Smith
    Justin SmithDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Arkansas senior forward Justin Smith missed four games with an ankle injury earlier this year. The Razorbacks went 1-3 during that stretch and lost another game when he played just 18 minutes and scored five points on the road against Alabama in his return.

    Aside from that brief five-game bump in the road, they have gone 23-2 and looked very much the part of a national title contender when Smith is healthy and contributing.

    The Indiana transfer had 29 points and 13 rebounds against Colgate in the opening round, and he followed that up with 20 points and six rebounds against Texas Tech on Sunday.

    When the 6'7" Smith, 6'6" Moses Moody and 6'6" Jalen Tate are all on the floor at the same time, the Razorbacks are a tough team to match up against. Moody is the future lottery pick who gets the bulk of the attention, but Smith may be the biggest X-factor as the team eyes a Final Four run.

The Final Four Looked Very Different Last Time Baylor Was There

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    Jared Butler
    Jared ButlerMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Scott Drew has done a phenomenal job building Baylor into a perennial contender in the Big 12 since taking over a program that had long been an afterthought prior to the 2003-04 season.

    In 18 years at the helm, Drew has led the Bears to the NCAA tournament nine times, and they were a No. 1 seed for the first time ever this year.

    However, they are still searching for their first Final Four appearance since 1950.

    Back then, the tournament field consisted of eight teams, so a 56-55 victory over BYU was all it took to clinch a spot in the Final Four. They lost their next game and then lost the third-place game in a much-different-looking March Madness.

    After blowing out No. 16 seed Hartford in their opener, they sprinted out to a 42-29 lead in the first half against No. 9 seed Wisconsin on Sunday behind Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, who each finished with 16 points.

    The Bears are the best three-point shooting team in the nation with a blistering 41.5 percent clip, but they don't live and die by the three like some sharp-shooting teams.

    Villanova is up next, followed by the winner of Arkansas vs. Oral Roberts. That's all that stands between Baylor and a long-awaited return to the Final Four.

Creighton Finally Survived the Opening Weekend

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    Marcus Zegarowski
    Marcus ZegarowskiMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Creighton Bluejays are finally in the Sweet 16.

    In 14 trips to the NCAA tournament since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, they had failed to survive the opening weekend each time. That included three straight one-win performances during the Doug McDermott era.

    This, the 15th tournament squad, might not be the most talented of the bunch, but it's now the most successful.

    The Bluejays survived a scare from No. 13 UC Santa Barbara with a dramatic one-point win in the opener and then won handily over another double-digit seed with a 72-58 victory over Ohio in which they built a 39-24 halftime lead.

    All five starters scored in double figures Monday, and they were led by Marcus Zegarowski, who tallied 20 points and knocked down four three-pointers.

    They share the ball extremely well, are an experienced group with three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup and can ride the three-ball when they get hot from deep.

    Maybe this is the most talented team Greg McDermott has had...

The Florida State Defense Is Locked In

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The key to success for Florida State is defense.

    When the Seminoles are playing well on the defensive end, they can smother opposing teams with a deep roster filled with long and athletic players who can close passing lanes in the blink of an eye.

    When they're not playing well defensively, it's not pretty.

    "Every now and then, Florida State seems to just not care about playing defense, especially away from home. In each of their losses, the Seminoles allowed at least 76 points to offenses that aren't exactly elite. They also had to gut out a 92-85 overtime win over a not-good Wake Forest squad," B/R's Kerry Miller wrote.

    Two games into the NCAA tournament, the defense has been fantastic.

    The Seminoles held UNC Greensboro to 54 points and 31.7 percent shooting in a 10-point win during the first round, and then they completely shut down Colorado on Monday.

    The Buffaloes, who were fresh off a season-high 96-point explosion against Georgetown, turned in their second-lowest offensive output of the year with 53 points on 35.7 percent shooting from the floor and just a 6-of-25 performance from beyond the arc.

    This Florida State team has Final Four potential when it's locking up opponents.

Gonzaga Continues to Bury Teams Early

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    Drew Timme
    Drew TimmeAJ Mast/Associated Press

    The Gonzaga Bulldogs are not taking any chances playing down to a lesser opponent during a wild NCAA tournament filled with upsets.

    "We've definitely seen the games going on, but you know, it's March and anything can happen," star big man Drew Timme told reporters. "We're treating this game like we're a 16-seed and we're the underdog. You've gotta bring that fire. All it takes is one good game and you can be out. We're bringing our all, every single game."

    The Bulldogs outscored opponents by an average of 23.6 points per game during the regular season, and much of that margin of victory was established by halftime.

    They led at the half in 23 of their 26 games leading up to the NCAA tournament by an average margin of 17.3 points. The only times they trailed were by a combined 18 points, and they rallied to win by double digits against Pacific and BYU and by five points over West Virginia.

    That first-half dominance has continued during March Madness.

    They built a 43-23 lead against No. 16 Norfolk State in their opener on Saturday en route to a 43-point victory, and they held a 46-34 advantage over No. 8 Oklahoma on Monday on their way to a 16-point win.

    As long as the Zags keep coming out hot, it's going to be awfully difficult for anyone to have a chance.

The Houston Defense Is Living Up to the Hype

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    Even in a down year for the AAC as a whole, Houston allowing just 58.9 points per game in conference play is a clear indication this team is special on the defensive end. The Cougars are 23-0 when they hold opponents below 65 points this season, and they have given up more than 70 points just twice.

    As expected, No. 15 seed Cleveland State failed to make much noise on the offensive end, scoring just 56 points on 38.6 percent shooting in a 31-point loss. Rutgers put up a far bigger fight Sunday, shooting 44.0 percent from the floor and pushing the Cougars to the limit in a three-point game, but it still only scored 60 points.

    A red-hot Syracuse team that torched an excellent San Diego State defense in the opening round is up next, and something will have to give in that matchup.

    With a good-not-great offense that can go quiet at times, this Houston team will go as far as the defense carries it. It just so happens to be good enough to carry it to the Final Four and beyond.

Don't Call Loyola-Chicago a Cinderella Team

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    Cameron Krutwig
    Cameron KrutwigPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    For those of you who missed my column on Loyola-Chicago following its upset win over No. 1 seed Illinois, here are the main takeaways.

    The Ramblers had no business being a No. 8 seed.

    They rank No. 7 overall in the rankings and were No. 17 in the final AP poll that was released on March 15, yet they somehow ended up as many as four seed lines lower than some of the teams ranked behind them.

    They also have the No. 1 defense in the nation according to KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency, and it held Illinois to a season-low 58 points and forced 17 turnovers.

    On the offensive end, Cameron Krutwig is one of the few big men in the nation capable of posting a triple-double, and he's far from a one-man show on an experienced roster loaded with perimeter talent and three-point shooting.

    This team should have been a No. 4 or No. 5 seed despite a weak resume that stems from playing in a thin Missouri Valley Conference, and it is a bona fide Final Four contender if it continues to play as it did Sunday.

Michigan Is Finding Ways to Fill the Isaiah Livers Void

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    Chaundee Brown Jr.
    Chaundee Brown Jr.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    With senior forward Isaiah Livers (13.1 PPG, 6.0 RPG) sidelined indefinitely by a foot injury, many pundits were quick to peg the Michigan Wolverines as the No. 1 seed most likely to make an early exit.

    Not so fast.

    Wake Forest transfer and former 4-star recruit Chaundee Brown Jr. was one of the most productive bench players in the Big Ten this year, averaging 7.4 points and 2.9 rebounds while shooting 39.0 percent from beyond the arc in 20.1 minutes per game.

    He was a non-factor against Texas Southern in the opening round, failing to get into the point column in 16 minutes of action, but he was the X-factor against LSU.

    The 6'5" senior poured in 21 points on an efficient 6-of-9 shooting night in 27 minutes, scoring 20 points in a game for the first time since Feb. 25, 2020, when he was still at Wake Forest.

    Senior Eli Brooks also stepped up with a season-high 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting while dishing out seven assists from his point guard spot.

    Add in future NBA players Franz Wagner (15 points, 7 rebounds) and Hunter Dickinson (12 points, 11 rebounds) and there's enough talent on this team for the Wolverines to make a title push even with Livers watching from the sidelines.

Oral Roberts Is a Battle-Tested Underdog

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    Max Abmas
    Max AbmasRobert Franklin/Associated Press

    Oral Roberts has not looked the least bit intimidated by major conference opponents Ohio State and Florida on its way to a pair of stunning victories and an unlikely Sweet 16 run as a No. 15 seed.

    A quick look at the grueling nonconference schedule explains the comfort level:

    • Nov. 25 vs. Missouri
    • Dec. 2 vs. Wichita State
    • Dec. 8 vs. Oklahoma State
    • Dec. 16 vs. Oklahoma
    • Dec. 20 vs Arkansas

    The Golden Eagles went 0-5 in those games but lost by just five points against Wichita State, five points against Oklahoma State and six points against Oklahoma.

    With the nation's leading scorer in Max Abmas (24.6 PPG), a stellar secondary star in Kevin Obanor (19.0 PPG, 9.6 RPG) and fantastic three-point shooting (38.5 3PT%), they have proved capable of stacking up to any team in the nation.

    The Golden Eagles led by 10 points at halftime before ultimately losing to Arkansas by 11 points in their first meeting earlier this year. Don't count them out in the rematch.

Oregon Essentially Has Five of the Same Player

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    Chris Duarte
    Chris DuartePaul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Oregon Ducks don't exactly come at opponents with a variety of looks. Here's a rundown of their starting lineup:

    • Will Richardson (6'5", 11.1 PPG, 38.9 3PT%)
    • Eric Williams Jr. (6'6", 10.4 PPG, 35.7 3PT%)
    • LJ Figueroa (6'6", 12.3 PPG, 37.6 3PT%)
    • Chris Duarte (6'6", 16.7 PPG, 43.0 3PT%)
    • Eugene Omoruyi (6'6", 16.7 PPG, 38.4 3PT%)

    All five are averaging at least 30 minutes per game, so that's the look opponents are going to see for the bulk of a contest against the Ducks.

    Unable to match up physically with Luka Garza when they faced off against Iowa on Monday, they instead took away everyone else.

    Garza scored 36 points in his collegiate swan song, but fellow starters Jordan Bohannon, CJ Fredrick and Connor McCaffery were all kept out of the scoring column as the Hawkeyes shot just 45.6 percent from the floor despite a 14-of-20 night from their star.

    They may not have a traditional point guard or an imposing inside presence, but the Ducks create matchup problems all over the floor and know how to game-plan against a mismatched opponent.

Weaknesses Have Become Strengths for Oregon State

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    Ethan Thompson
    Ethan ThompsonUncredited/Associated Press

    The current run Oregon State is on defies logic.

    When the regular season wrapped up on March 7, this was a 14-12 team sitting well outside the projected NCAA tournament field after shooting a "meh" 34.2 percent from beyond the arc.

    Out of nowhere, the Beavers caught fire from deep for three straight games in the Pac-12 tournament, shooting 29-of-66 (43.9 percent) from deep to steal an automatic bid.

    That hot shooting carried over to their opening-round game against Tennessee when they knocked down 10 of 21 deep balls in a 70-56 upset victory, but they cooled off against Oklahoma State on Sunday with just six made threes on 20 attempts.

    Luckily, they absolutely dominated on the boards with a staggering 49-28 rebounding advantage.

    Entering the NCAA tournament, their rebounding numbers were essentially a push with a narrow 31.3 to 30.8 per-game advantage over opponents.

    What out-of-nowhere strength will present itself next? Loyola-Chicago will soon find out.

Syracuse Thriving as a Double-Digit Seed Is Nothing New

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    Buddy Boeheim
    Buddy BoeheimDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    We should have seen this coming from a high-seeded Syracuse team.

    In 2016, Syracuse backed into the NCAA tournament with a 1-5 record in its last six games, falling from a peak of No. 14 in the AP poll to a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament field. Led by future NBA players Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon, the Orange upset No. 1 Virginia in the Midwest Region to reach the Final Four before losing to North Carolina.

    Two years later, Syracuse went 20-13 with an 8-10 record in ACC play to earn a spot in one of the First Four games as a No. 11 seed. It beat Arizona State by four points to move on to the 64-team field, upset No. 6 TCU in the opening round, snuck past No. 3 Michigan State to reach the Sweet 16 and almost pulled off another shocker against Duke in a four-point Sweet 16 loss.

    Slotted as a No. 11 seed once again, the Orange hung 78 points on a vaunted San Diego State defense on Friday before eking out a three-point win over No. 3 West Virginia on Sunday.

    With Buddy Boeheim averaging 26.0 points in six March games and the entire team shooting well from deep, Syracuse could be in for another unlikely Final Four trip in a chaotic Midwest Region.

Johnny Juzang Is a Budding Star for UCLA

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    Johnny Juzang
    Johnny JuzangDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    A 4-star recruit and the No. 33 overall player in the 2019 recruiting class, Johnny Juzang was part of another loaded Kentucky recruiting class that was headlined by Tyrese Maxey.

    Unlike Maxey but like countless other highly touted freshmen before him, he struggled to play his way into the rotation and finished the 2019-20 season averaging 2.9 points and 12.3 minutes per game.

    He entered the transfer portal and received a waiver to play immediately upon landing at UCLA, and that can now be pointed to as a turning point for the Bruins.

    The 6'6" guard has settled in as the season has progressed, and he's peaking at the perfect time.

    • First 10 games: 10.9 PPG, 38.8 FG%, 31.1 3PT%
    • Next 11 games: 16.9 PPG, 42.8 FG%, 36.6 3PT%
    • NCAA tournament: 22.3 PPG, 51.0 FG%, 39.1 3PT%

    This UCLA team is well-balanced on offense with six different players who average double figures, and it spent much of the season without a clear go-to scorer.

    Having one now with so many established supporting pieces makes the Bruins that much more dangerous.

USC Is More Than Just Evan Mobley

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    Evan Mobley
    Evan MobleyPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Freshman standout Evan Mobley carried the USC Trojans early in the season.

    The future lottery pick averaged 16.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.1 blocks over the first 21 games, and the Trojans went 18-3 to briefly sneak into the No. 1 seed picture in mid-February.

    He seemed to run out of gas a bit down the stretch, with his averages dropping to 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks over the team's final six regular-season games.

    During that same stretch, USC was 3-3.

    It's a promising sign then that in an 85-51 blowout win over Kansas on Monday, Mobley took just six shots. He still finished with 10 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and three blocks, but the Trojans didn't need to lean on him as hard offensively as they did early in the year.

    His older brother, Isaiah Mobley (17 points, 8 rebounds), Isaiah White (13 points), Tahj Eaddy (12 points) and Chevez Goodwin (10 points) all pulled their weight, and USC shot 57.1 percent from the floor.

    There's more to this team than just a future top-three NBA draft pick, and now it will face a conference foe in Oregon.

The Collin Gillespie Storyline Has Been a Non-Story for Villanova

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    Chris Arcidiacono
    Chris ArcidiaconoMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    The loss of Collin Gillespie to a season-ending injury was reason enough for many to write off No. 5 Villanova as an afterthought in this year's tournament. The senior guard averaged 14.0 points and a team-high 4.6 assists while running point for the Wildcats offense.

    The team looked lost in its first game without him, suffering a 54-52 loss to sub-.500 Providence before bowing out in the first round of the Big East tournament five days later.

    Squaring off against a talented Winthrop team that went 23-1 prior to the NCAA tournament, Villanova was a popular pick to make an early exit. Instead, the Wildcats have had one of the most comfortable trips to the Sweet 16, besting Winthrop by 10 points in the opener and then blowing out No. 13 North Texas by 23 points on Sunday.

    Sophomore Chris Arcidiacono has moved into the starting lineup, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has been shouldering even more of the offensive load. So far, it's working.

    As long as they continue to take care of the basketball and shoot the deep ball well, Gillespie's absence will be a non-story rather than a major limiting factor.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.


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