The first two rounds of the 2019 NCAA Tournament saw more chalk than a powerlifter’s convention. Twelve of the sixteen teams to make the Sweet Sixteen are top-three seeds within their region, and rather clearly the nation’s top teams. There was a brief flurry revolving around Ja Morant’s dazzling performance against Marquette, as well as some memorable finishes like the Duke Blue Devils come-from-behind victory against Central Florida.
From a scouting perspective, seeing top-tier prospects continually face the best competition available provides authentic and meaningful data points. Judging Zion Williamson or RJ Barrett of Duke when they play North Dakota State doesn’t give much validation for how players perform against NBA-level talent. The deeper into the tournament they go, however, the more relevant the scouting becomes.
As we look forward to the round of sixteen, here are a few intriguing matchups and subplots that could either reveal warts for top prospects or prove their elite status heading into the NBA Draft.
Michigan wolverines vs. texas tech red raiders
What to Watch: NBA scorers against elite defenses
While the Virginia Cavaliers have the best defensive reputation in college year after year, the Texas Tech Red Raiders and Michigan Wolverines are ranked first and second respectively in defensive efficiency. This is undoubtedly going to be a unique challenge for each team amid a defensive-minded battle.
The Red Raiders are long and disruptive, applying ball pressure, aggressive one-on-one defense and relying on the shot-blocking prowess of human pogo-stick Tariq Evans. Their lottery pick prospect, Jarrett Culver, is a swiss army knife defender, possessing the ability to guard 1 thru 4 with great impact. Head coach Chris Beard can employ him anywhere and find success.
The Red Raiders switch most screens, so there is little sense in thinking of him as a lock-down threat that only guards the best player. Their 23.1 percent turnover rate is a tremendous challenge for all opponents; Culver’s on-ball peskiness and off-ball instincts play an important role in that achievement.
Michigan is a little more unorthodox, particularly with how they defend passing lanes. Traditionally speaking, most pro-style defenses use a “bluff-and-recover” system, where help defenders on the perimeter fake at the ball to stay close enough to their own man so that a backdoor cut or wide-open shot does not occur.
The Wolverines turn that on its head, jumping towards the ball with their chests open, mirroring the ball and disrupting easy kick-out opportunities. It’s a unique system and not one seen at many levels of basketball. They certainly provide a more mental challenge for the pure-motion style of Texas Tech.
Culver needs to show his impact on both ends. The opportunity is there for him to be a one-on-one scorer thanks to Michigan’s aggressive off-ball defense.
If Culver isn’t able to get to the rim or score in isolations, the Red Raiders will go home and his offensive ceiling will appear lower heading into draft day. He was an effective isolation scorer through the season, particularly on the left side of the floor. He loves to back down and mismatch post smaller defenders, going to his patented fadeaway jumper that is basically impossible to stop:
Jarrett Culver makes the difficult look easy. pic.twitter.com/ctmsmn07kJ
— LastWordHoops (@LastWordHoops) March 24, 2019
Perhaps the opposite is true for Ignas Brazdeikis, the top prospect for the Wolverines. Texas Tech is a defense that switches nearly every screen, caring little about matchups thanks to their immense length and aggression 1 thru 4.
Brazdeikis’ Synergy stats tell the story. He’s above the 85th percentile in efficiency as both a pick-and-roll ball handler and roll man, a feat that shows his versatility. The ball screen is frequently neutralized to a certain degree against switching defenses. That may limit his creativity. He was also only 5-15 on pull-up jumpers after attacking a closeout from spot-up situations. While he’s a great finisher at the basket, the Red Raiders take both the basket and catch-and-shoot away at high rates.
Brazdeikis may need to find the mid-range game to score consistently.
These are two sleepers heading into draft season. Culver could play himself into the top-half of the lottery, while Brazdeikis is searching for the security that comes with a legitimate first-round selection. They may not go directly head-to-head for many stretches on Thursday night, but their abilities to put a stamp on the game will be done by simultaneously playing to their strengths and attacking the strength of their opponent. This may be the most evenly-matched game of the tournament.
Virginia Cavaliers vs. Oregon Ducks
What to Watch: De’Andre Hunter vs. elite rim protection
Despite the successes of head coach Tony Bennett at the University of Virginia, he has not been able to include an elite NBA talent on his resume. Hunter has quietly turned himself into a legitimate top-ten prospect, however, and is a player whose versatility, defensive polish and impressive athleticism give him upward mobility between now and draft night.
Hunter will certainly be challenged by an Oregon squad too hot to be overlooked. The Ducks provide pressure on the perimeter to force turnovers, a necessary strategy against the nation’s stingiest defense.
If Oregon gets behind early, they will release the hounds and knife for turnovers. What allows the Ducks to play that style and be successful? They have the nation’s best shot blocker patrolling near the rim. Kenny Wooten of Oregon has blocked 3.7 shots per 40 minutes, which equates to nearly thirteen percent of all opponent field goal attempts.
Hunter is shooting 69.5 percent at the rim, according to Synergy Sports Tech, and that comes from a slate against ACC competition. He is a legitimate finisher, but the Ducks offer a far more unique challenge thanks to Wooten. Hunter’s strength on offense is his versatility and how he lets the game come to him, rarely forcing bad shots or leaving the confines of Virginia’s offensive structure. We may need to see a little more takeover from Hunter, however, especially against a talented team that is shooting the lights out.
There are other solid prospects to watch in this one, like Oregon’s Louis King and Virginia’s Ty Jerome. But neither player has the ability to put their stamp on a game like Hunter, especially with lockdown defense. If we see Hunter guarding King for long stretches, that could be a pro-style matchup that reveals a lot about both prospects.
Nothing would help Hunter’s draft stock more than a great performance that stifles the streaking Ducks.
LSU Tigers vs. Michigan State Spartans
What to Watch: Naz Reid battling an undersized frontcourt
An under-the-radar first-round prospect, LSU’s big man Naz Reid is a near-seven-footer that made 28 three-pointers and shot 35 percent from deep.
Reid’s shot release is unorthodox, as his feet barely leave the ground, but he’s had three games with at least three treys on the season. If he gets hot, the Tigers have an added dimension to their offense most college bigs cannot account for.
That’s where the matchup with the Spartans comes into play. Reid has an immense size advantage against the Michigan State frontcourt, where they start 6’8″ Xavier Tillman and 6’7′ Kenny Goins. Reid’s frontcourt stablemate, 6’11” Kavell Bigby-Williams, will also be licking his chops on the interior. The Spartans must find ways to neutralize the Tigers’ size, and may turn to their bench, where center Nick Ward can make an impact.
The matchup disparities are fascinating, and could illuminate some of the struggles Reid could find at the next level. Due to the size advantage for both, the Tigers would be wise to pound it inside, utilizing Reid’s 51 percent shooting from two-point range. Because of his shooting ability, they may also elect to play through Bigby-Williams on the inside and station Reid on the perimeter, making a full defensive collapse from Michigan State more difficult.
LSU already beat one of the Big Ten’s elite teams in terms of size during the last round, outlasting the Maryland Terrapins. The high-low connection of Bigby-Williams and Reid was difficult for the Terps to stop:
— InsideTheTigers.com (@InsideLSU) March 23, 2019
Reid could flash his versatile inside-outside game and help the Tigers exploit any matchup advantage they’re given. Or he could cede those points back on the other end, where he’ll struggle to contain either of the Spartans’ undersized and athletic bigs. Michigan State’s Tillman is averaging 15 points through the first two tournament games. If he’s an aggressive scorer against Reid, that could reveal a large worry about the latter’s transition to the next level: Guarding face-up bigs.
Reid isn’t known as a strong rim protector, as he only has 23 blocks on the season and struggles to move laterally as well as vertically.
Perhaps no borderline first-rounder has more on the line in one matchup than Reid. The dichotomy of styles between these two frontcourts not only will shine a spotlight on those scouting questions but provide intrigue and drama for those who tune in on Friday night.
Duke Blue Devils vs. Virginia Tech Hokies
What to Watch: Duke’s Outside Shooting & Adjustments after UCF
Mike Krzyzewski’s gang has four first-round talents, including two of the top players in the draft. So any breakdown of their keys to victory include a full look at their core.
The scare from Sunday’s near upset at the hands of UCF should be enough to adjust how the Blue Devils are prepared. Point guard Tre Jones, a projected mid-to-late first-round selection, was guarded by the 7’6″ Tacko Fall, being dared to shoot and virtually undefended on the perimeter. Shooting consistency is his weakness, and he played right into the opponent’s hands by launching when open during thesecond halff.
Jones finished the game 1-of-8 from deep, and he has not made multiple three-pointers in a game since November:
UCF coach (and Duke legend) Johnny Dawkins put 7’6” Tako Fall on Duke’s point guard Tre Jones and told him not to guard Jones and just dare him to shoot. It worked because Jones put up a couple bricks. pic.twitter.com/isqKPCPh11
— Chad Cook's AugBball (@AugBball) March 24, 2019
Without a doubt, Coach K and his gang of studs will have a plan in place to utilize Jones if he isn’t defended tightly, with or without the ball. Part of that plan also will rely on covering up the shortcomings in RJ Barrett’s game.
Barrett is already an elite, polished scorer on all levels that should stack up well next to the NBA’s elite. But his decision-making leaves a ton to be desired, where he takes difficult, contested shots instead of simple passes or reads to involve his teammates. Playing with such a talented group, Barrett cannot feel the necessity of scoring in bulk. His shot selection is a serious red flag.
Duke is suceptible to an upset thanks to those guys and the ease of defending them: Ignore Jones and load-up on Barrett since he isn’t looking to pass. They both need to be willing passers if Duke is going to win.
That said, any time a game plan is predicated on passing and making plays for others, there needs to be someone that puts the ball in the hoop.
That’s where Zion Williamson and Cameron Reddish, two high-lottery talents, come into play. If Zion and Reddish are knocking down outside shots, the Virginia Tech Hokies are in for a long day. The first time these two squads met, Zion was absent after his shoe exploded and he tweaked his knee. This go-round should be much different due to the presence of the most physically-imposing collegiate player perhaps ever.
This all goes without mentioning the X-Factor for the Hokies, a hot-shooting prospect that is slowly climbing his way into lottery discussion.
A long and lanky wing, Nickeil Alexander-Walker has the ability to keep his team in games. A great showing from him, particularly defensively, will leave scouts buzzing about his ability to impact games at the next level. The Hokies have a large hill to climb, and will undoubtedly emulate the gameplan of UCF from last weekend.
With the Blue Devils prepared, this may come down to which star group gets hottest from deep.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Sports-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of March 28, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.