Posted on March 25, 2022
Arizona stumbled in one of the toughest matchups of the round, losing to Houston in San Antonio, but UCLA remains alive and will battle a North Carolina team that just took down the 1-seed Baylor.
Victories in both games would have provided the Pac-12 much-needed revenue to distribute to its schools, but with that possibility gone, the Conference can at least salvage the national reputation it built last year with a Bruin win.
I preview the UCLA contest here, and my pick along with Stephen Vilardo’s appear at the bottom.
No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 4 UCLA
Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Friday, March 25
6:39 pm PT, CBS
The Tar Heels finished third in the ACC this season, entering the Sweet 16 with a potent scoring offense supplemented by elite rebounding.
North Carolina shoots the three well (46th in the country), knocks down its free throws (19th in the nation), shares the ball willingly (37th overall), and has respectable shot-blocking numbers (89th in Division I).
Yet, its rebounding is what probably concerns Mick Cronin the most. The Tar Heels snag 40.3 boards per night, landing them 10th in the country out of the 350 teams.
But, the perennial Blue Blood does not take care of the ball as well as they should.
Averaging 11.9 turnovers per game (105th overall), the comparison to UCLA’s number is stark. The Bruins are third in all of college basketball, committing just 8.8 per night.
The lack of extra possessions provided to its opponents has brought UCLA to this game, allowing it to win slow-paced grinders that turn ugly.
Tempo figures to be one of the deciding factors, with UNC holding the fourth-highest adjusted tempo rating of the teams left in the Big Dance, according to KenPom.
Comparatively, UCLA’s pace is the fourth-slowest of the 16 teams left in the Tournament.
If the game turns into an up and down track meet, the Bruins chances of winning likely decrease.
But if Cronin can keep the game low-scoring with his hallmark emphasis on physical defense, UCLA should emerge with the win.
Still, Jaimie Jaquez Jr.’s ankle injury is a wildcard that could change the game, although it would be a shock if he didn’t give it a go.
Johnny Juzang will need to step up if he’s not fully effective, along with Jules Bernard and Tyger Campbell.
Yet, with the depth to take down any team in the country, UCLA has the roster to handle North Carolina.
The Tar Heels defensive efficiency numbers (42nd in Ken Pom and 11th out of the remaining teams) are nearly identical to USC’s and Colorado’s, which doesn’t particularly strike fear into the Bruins’ staff.
As long as UCLA keeps the game at the pace it wants with physical defensive rebounding, it should take care of business and advance to another Elite 8.
No. 5 Houston v. No. 1 Arizona
AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX
Thursday, March 24
6:59 pm PT, TBS
The champions of the American Athletic Conference are fresh off a Final Four run last season, and are elite in nearly every analytic category and metric out there.
But, there are two glaring holes in their numbers: free throw percentage and 3-point percentage.
Kelvin Sampson’s squad is only a slightly above average team from deep, connecting on 34.2 percent of their shots. That lands them 153th in the nation from the perimeter, while their 8.0 made threes per game is 117th in Division I basketball.
Yet, it’s the Cougars’ free throw shooting that’s their greatest flaw. As a team, Houston only knocks down 66.7 percent of their shots from the charity stripe, which ranks 316th in the country.
Identifying the Cougars’ weakness may be one thing, but designing a game plan to exploit those issues is a whole different story.
Arizona’s perimeter defense was statistically solid against TCU, holding the Horned Frogs to 6-of-26 from beyond the arc.
And over the 36-game season, the Wildcats are holding opponents to 32.5 percent from three (121st in the country) and are second in the nation in two-point field goal defense (41.7 percent).
Defending with effective switching, traps, double teams, and an emphasis on fighting through screens and defensive rebounding is probably high on Lloyd’s game plan.
The aggressive style of defense is risky, but with the athletes to match Houston’s skill, it’s likely a gamble UA will make.
On offense, the focus promises to be on limiting turnovers. UH ranks 63rd in the country at forcing mistakes, generating 14.36 per game.
The Achille’s Heel of Arizona all season has been its TOs, and it won’t win if it continues to turn the ball over at the rate it has this tournament.
Making matters worse, Houston’s tempo is second-slowest of the remaining 16 teams, and any additional possessions given to it figure to be devastating.
But if the Wildcats can keep their mistakes in the single digits and prevent the Cougars from getting hot from beyond the arc, they have the offensive firepower, size, skill, and depth to advance to their fourth Elite 8 since the 2010-11 season.
Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament Game Picks
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