It’s easy to fall into the trap of only discussing ranked teams as the NCAA tournament nears.
But the programs we least suspect often have a significant impact on how March Madness unfolds. See: Syracuse, 2016. The Orange carried a 9-9 ACC record into the NCAA tournament last year and wound up making the Final Four.
Last season, Oklahoma State ranked 153rd in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency and finished 12-20. This season, the Cowboys rank second in the country in offense, and they’re 15-8 heading into a showdown against Baylor.
It’s safe to say that Brad Underwood has lived up to the hype. So has Jawun Evans; if the Cowboys were one of the top teams in the nation, Evans would warrant Naismith consideration. He’s that good.
Evans has a Chris Paul-like command to his game – everything Oklahoma State does on offense flows through him, and with good reason. Evans is averaging 26.6 points and 7.8 assists per 40 minutes, and he’s a member of the dying mid-range assassin breed.
Evans has help. Oklahoma State retrieves 39.9 percent of its own misses, which ranks third in the country. Jeffrey Carroll, a 6-6 forward, is averaging 17.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game this season; the Pokes are also sinking more than 40 percent of their 3s.
Oklahoma State heaves long-range bombs and crashes the glass without much regard for getting back on defense. It shows; OSU ranks 122nd in America in adjusted defensive efficiency. But a great point guard plus a great coach is a recipe for a dangerous NCAA tournament team. Look out for these guys.
Marquette suffered a tough home loss against Butler on Tuesday night, but like Oklahoma State, the Golden Eagles have been lethal offensively this season.
Marquette leads the nation in 3-point shooting (42.4 percent) and ranks ninth offensively overall. Almost 40 percent of its total offense comes from behind the 3-point arc, and the Golden Eagles have doubled (or tripled) down on the pace-and-space style of play.
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They have the personnel to keep opposing coaches up at night. Markus Howard is hitting 51.9 percent of his 3s. Andrew Rowsey is at 47.2 percent. Sam Hauser, 45.3 percent. The list goes on and on.
Marquette just wins the math battle. If they make enough 3s, they will beat you. It doesn’t matter if you’re Villanova. The Golden Eagles play a high-risk, high-reward style; they could catch fire in the NCAA tournament and pull off a few upsets, or they could flame out in game one. Marquette is not a good defensive team – the Golden Eagles rank ninth in the Big East in points allowed per possession. But if they could just prevent points at an average rate, they’d be very dangerous.
USC has quietly compiled a 20-4 record with a 7-4 mark in the Pac-12. UCLA gets the bulk of the Los Angeles headlines – it’s easy to see why – but the Trojans have been solid in every facet, and you’ll be hearing more about them in March.
USC is balanced – it has seven guys that score 7.7 points per game or more. The Trojans are also very difficult to puncture on the interior; Chimezie Metu and Elijah Stewart each average more than a rejection per game, and as a team, USC ranks 17th in the country in block rate.
We can say this about the Trojans: they won’t beat themselves. With Oregon, UCLA and Arizona looming, it would be nice for them to steal at least one of those games. Regardless, this team wins the matchups it’s supposed to, which is an underrated skill to have in the upset-saturated world we live in.
In case you haven’t noticed, the Big 12 is deep. Like, really deep. With that in mind, it makes Kansas and Baylor look even better.
The Wildcats caught the Bears on Saturday, and they almost upset Kansas a few days later. Kansas State makes life extremely difficult on opposing guards – opponents turn the ball over on 23.6 percent of their possessions against the Wildcats, the eighth-highest mark in the country. Bruce Weber employs a hyper-aggressive scheme that’s geared to speed up the opponent and produce easy buckets for Kansas State.
The issue: if the offense remains calm and careful with the ball, the Wildcats are left scrambling. Foes sink a blistering 39.1 percent of their 3s against Kansas State, which is one of the highest marks in the country. Still, KSU has proven it can beat the best teams in America. Nobody will be itching at the chance to play the Wildcats in March.
The Flyers continue to cruise under the radar, but they’re doing what they always do. Dayton is 18-5 on the year with a 9-2 Atlantic-10 mark, and they’re winning with defense.
As usual, Dayton plays small. If the run-and-gun, 3-point movement is how offense is evolving, Archie Miller uses a new-age defense; the Flyers have one of the most switchable rosters in the country, and that’s no accident. Dayton walls off screen-and-roll penetration because it switches like-sized players – pick-and-pop 3s are hard to come by against the Flyers, as opponents only make 30.8 percent of their attempts from distance.
Dayton’s top five scorers all stand 6-7 or shorter, but they’re surprisingly stout on the defensive glass. You’ve seen the names before: Charles Cooke, Kendall Pollard, Scoochie Smith. We’ll see if they can make postseason noise in March.
Like USC, TCU doesn’t do anything spectacular, but it’s solid in every aspect of the game. The Horned Frogs have a top-50 offense and defense. They have a bunch of guys who do everything at a B-plus level; Kenrich Williams exemplifies what TCU is this season. Williams averages 10 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game. One potential issue: the Frogs rank 204th in the country in 3-point percentage. But they’ve fared well in Big 12 without much of a deep threat, and like Dixon’s Pitt teams, you can never count these guys out.