2021 NCAA Tournament Previews: Friday, Early Evening Games

#4 Oklahoma State (-8.5) vs. #13 Liberty
6:25 pm, TBS
Only Loyola-Chicago was more criminally underseeded than the Cowboys of Ok State.  Hard to imagine what The Committee was thinking here as a 4-seed over West Virginia, but that’s what happened.  And, now they have to endure the pure pain of playing Liberty here.

Oklahoma State
Cade Cunningham will very likely be only the 4th Big XII player since 1960 to be the Top Pick in the NBA Draft (Danny Manning in 1988, Blake Griffin in 2009, and Andrew Wiggins in 2014).  Cunningham is averaging 19.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.4 spg, 0.9 bpg, with shooting percentages of 46/43/86% and has been as good as advertised.  Cunningham is flanked by a legit Number Two in 6’5” JR Ice Likelele (9.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.1 spg, 50% FG, 41% from three), but they have both missed games down the stretch, allowing others to step up, most notably 6’3” SO Avery Anderson (11.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.3 spg, 48% FG, 85% FT), 6’9″ SO Kalib Boone (9.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 65% FG), and 6’7″ Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe (9.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 53% FG), who have all really stepped up when Cunningham out.  This is not a one-man show, like many people thought.  And, it’s not a two-man show, like I definitely thought.  This team is legit.  They’ve only lost 3 of their last 13 games – one at Kansas, one at Baylor, and the Big XII title game against Texas.

Liberty
How good is Liberty you ask?  VERY good.  I mean how could these are “champions for Christ” ever lose since they are playing for their Lord and Savior…..Jerry Fallw…I mean, uh, never mind.  Anyway, say what you will about objectively cultish behavior, this team is as good as any low-major team you will see – yet again!  Ritchie McKay has this Flames team rolling again despite the loss of program legends in Caleb Homesley and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz.  And, in a divergence from the typical Liberty teams, this version is more built around a legitimately good offense than their typical lockdown defense.   But, don’t get that twisted – they still play that UVA-style, pack-line defense that is supported by a slowdown offensive tempo.  It’s just that their efficiencies are a little worse on D and a little better on O this year than normal.  And, a lot of that might have to do with the fact that their best player is only 5’9″ and a bit limited defensively.  But, don’t worry, this 5’9″ Darius McGhee can PLAY.  He combines “parking lot” range with incredible efficiency.  Despite playing on a deep team that runs the 10th slowest offense in America, McGhee is still averaging 15.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.1 apg and has hit 81 threes at an over 40% clip.  He’s incredible…and 5’9″.  They have two steady leaders who have seen it all in 6’1″ SR PG Chris Parker (10.3 ppg, 3.5 apg, 46/37/82%) and 6’4″ SR wing Elijah Cuffee (9.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 48/42/85%).  They are very perimeter-oriented and somewhat small, so the emergence of 6’9″ SO Blake Preston (8.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 64% FG) has been very important in the overall development of this team.  They have won 12 straight and, other than the ASUN title game which didn’t matter for them (they were in the tournament regardless), they haven’t had a game closer than 10 since January.

The Matchup
Strangely, the glaring issue of the four “units” in this game is the Liberty defense, which is the only unit outside the top-50…and they are 167th in adjusted defense.  Now, a lot of that is schedule-dependent in that the “adjusted” is adjusted for competition and they didn’t play much, which shows you just how good this offense is at 52nd.  Strangely, though, the smallish Flames have been outstanding at clearing defensive rebounds (14th nationally), which is one of the strengths of the Cowboys.  Also, strange is that when Liberty has the ball, neither team is good on the boards, as one of the biggest glaring weaknesses for OK State is allowing offensive boards, but Liberty doesn’t crash the glass.  It may rear its head in future rounds for the ‘Boys, but this isn’t the team that will beat them there.  The “upset alert” here will come if the Cowboys aren’t able to stop the Liberty offense.  The Flames are 10th in the nation on 3-pointers (38.8%), 9th in the nation on 2-pointers (56.7%), and 20th in the nation on free throws (77.8%).  Combined with a VERY slow tempo, the Cowboys will have to get stops.  OSU wants to run (27th in tempo), so the slowdown could frustrate the young team.

The Pick:  Liberty +8.5
Confidence Level (5-point scale):  *****
I know that this doesn’t seem like all that many points for a Big XII team with the future #1 pick against a team from the ASUN, but I really, really like this play.  The last time we had a Tournament, the Flames got busy upsetting 5-seeded Miss State in the First Round and giving #4 Va Tech all they could handle in the Second Round.  They played a non-conf full of power conf teams and even got back-to-back wins over Miss State and South Carolina.  They played Purdue tight, only lost by 4 against TCU, and only lost by 9 on the road at Mizzou.  They will not be afraid.  I am not predicting an upset here because I think Cunningham could will his team to a win, but if you’re giving me 8.5 points, I’m running to the window to bet that.  I don’t like rooting for good things to happen to Liberty University, but gotta be intellectually honest here and this is a good team at a slow pace that is unafraid against a hyped-up power conference team that is probably smelling themselves a little.  They might not win, but they should cover 8.5.

#8 North Carolina (-1.5) vs. #9 Wisconsin
7:10 pm, CBS
The 8/9 game is who…and who???  The preseason AP poll had Carolina sitting at #16 and Wisconsin at #7 – in the country…not the South Regional.  And, now one of these loaded rosters will be out of the tournament and the other one will have to face Baylor on Sunday (apologies to Hartford…or Baylor, if I jinxed it).  Wow!

North Carolina
This Carolina team is one of those always interesting mismatched parts kind of a college team.  Their frontcourt is outstanding.  And, it’s not because of the insanely overrated 6’10” SR Garrison Brooks (10.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg), who was somehow named ACC Preseason POY, but is now just taking minutes away from better players.  The best player in this excellent frontcourt is clearly 6’10” SO Armando Bacot (12.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 63% FG), who has had a quietly outstanding year for the Heels despite only playing 22 mpg.  They also have a pair of 5-star freshmen that are getting better and better.  6’11” FR Day’Ron Sharpe (9.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg) has been getting steady PT from the beginning, but is definitely improving.  7’1″ FR Walker Kessler (4.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg) played sparingly for 3/4 of the season, but has been getting a lot more PT lately and has been a spark.  This frontcourt is deep and excellent.  The flip side of this Carolina team is that their backcourt is VERY thin and incredibly young.  The only trusted pure guards on this team are two five-star, but shaky freshman, 6’4″ Caleb Love (10.5 ppg, 3.6 apg, 1.2 spg, but ugly shooting numbers of 31% FG and 26% from three) and 6’0″ R.J. Davis (8.6 ppg and slightly less ugly shooting numbers of 35% FG and 32% from three).  But, like the 5-star freshman bigs, these 5-star freshman guards are getting better as the season goes on.  The problem is that there is no one else to bail them out when they go through their rookie struggles.  It’s just Love, Davis, fellow freshman 6’5″ Kerwin Walton (8.2 ppg, 42% from three), who is just a shooter and that’s all, unless you include the old man Andrew Platek.  But, with two 5-star FR bigs and two 5-star FR guards, they have one guy tying it all together on both ends of the floop – 6’8″ JR Leaky Black (5.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.3 spg).  Black’s poor shooting numbers (37/22/69%) are indicative of his offensive struggles, but he is the unquestioned leader of this team and best all-around defender.

Wisconsin
This one I just don’t understand, so don’t come to me for answers here.  The Badgers won a ridiculously good Big Ten last year and – literally – brought EVERYONE back.  They are older than the Chicago Bulls.  And, yet they finished 10-10 this year.  No injuries, no player issues, no nothing.  Same team – championship one year…mediocrity the next.  And, it’s not like this can be schedule-related as the best Big Ten team they have beaten this year is Rutgers, so none of their 10 conf wins were against any of the five team ahead of them in the standings.  They’ve lost 5 of their last 7.  It makes no sense.  They are led by 6’0” SR D’Mitrick Trice (13.7 ppg 3.4 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.0 spg, 38% from three), who has been steady as ever.  Former Buckeye 6’10” SR Micah Potter (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 52/39/85%) is great…when he doesn’t disappear, and like Potter, 6’11” SR Nate Reuvers (8.2 ppg, 3.2 , who is the program leader in blocks, has the ability to step outside and hit a three.  Brad Davison (9.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.1 spg, and an awful 32% FG) likes hitting people in the balls and taking ridiculous charges, so that’s fun, and Aleem Ford (8.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg) offers a spark off the bench with much-needed versatility and the ability to guard multiple positions.  FR Jonathan Davis (who was Mr. Basketball in WI and runner-up for Mr. Football) is gonna be great, but will there be anyone left with him?  The rest of this roster is nothing but seniors.  They have the 13th best defense in the country, but what is wrong with this team?!?  I have no answers – and, honestly, I wish I did because I REALLY like this team (other than Davison, obviously…)

The Matchup
Both teams have top-15 defenses, and Wisconsin is top-30 on offense; UNC is top-50.  There are a couple interesting matchups here.  Most obvious is on the baords.  UNC is probably the best rebounding team in America, as a qualitative statement, and the numbers show that they are, at least, the best offensive rebounding team in the country, as they rebound more of their misses (41.3%) than anyone else…and, they have a lot of misses!  And, while Potter and Reuvers are 6’10” and 6’11”, they are not very good rebounders.  Another interesting wrinkle is the turnover battle.  Wisconsin is the 2nd best team in the country at avoiding turnovers, but UNC is decent at forcing them.  On the flip side, UNC has been killed by their own turnovers this year, but Wisconsin has not been good at forcing them.  Should be interesting.

The Pick:  North Carolina -1.5
Confidence Level (5-point scale):  *
Man, I don’t know.  Both teams have vastly underachieved.  I think Wisconsin has the better team on paper, but UNC has been playing better.  I think that the rebounding difference might just be too much, but I don’t know.

#2 Houston (-20) vs. #15 Cleveland State
7:15 pm, truTV
This will not be a 2/15 upset.  Houston is probably the weakest #2-seed, but they are a worthy 2-seed, and Cleveland State doesn’t have the horses.

Houston
Gonzaga, Illinois, Michigan, Houston…that’s the list.  The only four teams in America that have a top-15 offense and a top-15 defense.  The Cougs have been in the AP Top Ten pretty much the whole season.  And, this is after the AAC Preseason POY, Caleb Mills, decided to leave the team after just 4 games (he is transferring to Florida next year).  But, Kelvin Sampson – one of the best in the business – didn’t look back and this team is awesome.  6’5” JR Quentin Grimes (17.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.2 spg, 39% from three) has stepped up and had himself a possible POY season.  The former 5-star Kansas recruit is a superstar.  And, he’s been joined by the breakout star of the AAC, 6’1” SO Marcus Sasser (13.5 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.4 spg), who took The Leap here as a sophomore.  The third man in one of the nation’s best backcourts is 6’5” SR Dejon Jarreau (10.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.5 spg, 38% from three), who is a savvy vet who can be whoever you need him to be and is a terrific defender.  6’7” SR Justin Gorham (8.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 39% from three) has come over from Towson and become a terrific rebounder with stretch-four potential on offense.  The next great Coug is 6’5” FR Tramon Mark (8.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg), who is still working through freshman growing pains, but can be special.

Cleveland State
If people actually considered all teams in National Coach of the Year voting, Dennis Gates of Cleveland State should garner some support.  But, we all know it’ll go to Few or Drew or Howard – and that’s fine – but I could argue that Gates has done the best job of anyone in the country this year…or at least as good as one of those coaches of a Top-3 team.  6’5″ SR Torrey Patton (14.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.0 spg) is an outstanding mid-major player, but this team is centered around their defense, which was the best in the Horizon and 115th in the nation.  Flanking Patton on the wings are two 6’4″ JR with different games.  Tre Gomillion (10.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, 51% FG) is more of an undersized, bruising forward, while D’Hoi Hodge (10.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.7 spg) is more of a slender, slashing wing.  6’3″ SR Craig Beaudion (9.6 ppg, 3.4 apg, 1.2 spg, 41% from three) is a steady PG with good size.  But, the interior is thin and small as 6’8″ SR Algevon Eichelberger and 6’9″ JR Deante Johnson are really the only two true bigs they have and they’re not all that “big.”

The Matchup
Not much here that could possibly favor Cleveland State.  Houston is #1 in the country in eFG% against, but CSU is pretty efficient, so maybe they can crack this defense?  One spot that the Cougs could really exploit is on the offensive glass.  CSU is not big and they are 302nd in the country in defensive rebounding, while Houston is #2 – behind only Carolina – in offensive rebounding.

The Pick:  Houston -20.5
Confidence Level (5-point scale):  ***
I rarely give this many points, but this game could be really ugly.  And, Houston isn’t afraid to blow the doors off people (just ask Cincy).  The only pause is that neither team is all that fast, tempo-wise, so 20.5 is a bit harder to cover.  But, this looks like a 78-49 kind of a game.

#4 Purdue (-7.5) vs. #13 North Texas
7:25 pm, TN
This is a very, very interesting game.  The youth of Purdue against the experience of NT.  The Mean Green’s stalwart defense against a big like Travion Williams.  This is a great game.

Purdue
When you hear about the “best recruiting classes,” you never hear about Purdue.  And, you didn’t hear about it this year, either.  And, even now, if people talk about the best freshman classes, who is mentioning Purdue?  Well, maybe “they” should.  The Boilermakers had FOUR different freshmen to win Big Ten Freshman of the Week – 7’4” Zach Edey (8.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 61% FG, who also used to be a pitcher and….hockey player?!?), 6’6” Mason Gillis (5.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg), 6’4” Jaden Ivey (10.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.9 apg), and 6’5” Brandon Newman (8.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg).  That is the first time that any team has had four.  Michigan had three in 2013 (McGary, Stauskas, and Robinson III) and Ohio State had three in 2011 (Sullinger, Thomas, and Craft), but never four.  And, these four FR just add to 6’5” JR sharpshooter Sasha Stefanovic (9.7 ppg, 2.6 apg, 42% from three) and 6’4” JR Eric Hunter (9.0 ppg, 2.8 apg, 1.1 spg) to support the ABSOLUTE MONSTER in the middle, 6’10” JR Trevion Williams (15.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.0 apg, 53% FG).  I called Williams the “most underrated player in America” last year in this space…and, I’m not all that sure it’s not still true.  Probably not, because he’s starting to get some recognition, but this dude is unstoppable.  The Boiler team – and underrated coach Matt Painter – is top-25 on offense and defense, and have won 11 of their last 15 in one of the two hardest leagues in America.

North Texas
The Mean Green are led by 6’4” SR Javion Hamlet (14.4 ppg, 4.1 apg, 44/37/89%), who was the CUSA POY last year, has been the leader and star of this team since he arrived on campus last year from the JUCO ranks.  And, he’s surrounded by the same wingmen, as this team is the 23rd most experienced and 94th in continuity this year.  Most notably, while Hamlet controls the outside, he leans on 6’10” Zachary Simmons (10.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.1 apg, 66% FG) to control the inside.  The wide-bodied Simmons is a load.  On the wings are 6’4” James Reese (11.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and 6’6” Thomas Bell (10.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 55% FG).  This is a strong, athletic team that is athletic and tenacious on D.  They are very good at forcing turnovers and protecting the rim.

The Matchup
The matchup here is going to be whether the Mean Green can disrupt the Boilers offense as much as they have disrupted CUSA teams this year.  They force a ton of turnovers (53rd most) and are 20th in opponents’ eFG%.  North Texas is very good at getting offensive rebounding, but Purdue is great on the defensive glass.  Both teams are comfortable in slow, methodical games.  I honestly think that this all comes down to whether Travion Williams DOMINATES or not.

The Pick:  North Texas +7.5
Confidence Level (5-point scale):  ****
I don’t necessarily think this is a great upset pick, straight up, though I do think there’s a chance, but I really like the Mean Green to keep it close here.  Both teams are slow and North Texas is gonna try to muck it up even more than usual.  With all the young Boilers, they might need to just lean on Williams and scrap out a 63-58 kind of a win.  Gimme the Green and gimme those points.

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