Final Four Preview: (1) Baylor vs. (2) Houston

No long-winded introduction here; this is merely the game I’ve been hoping to see since the Field of 68 was announced. (Though I’m still a little sore over Ohio State blowing it in the first round. I root for you people once and that’s how you repay me?) These are two shot volume machines, with Houston being the very best team in America in terms of generating shots per 100 possessions. Baylor hits a ton of threes; Houston brutalizes you for 40 minutes. It’s the most enjoyable matchup of styles we’ll get until the title game.

When Houston has the ball

No proper Houston preview can start without heading directly to their prime strength (and Baylor’s main team weakness): rebounding. Or, if you prefer, shot volume versus shot efficiency. I started noticing a very specific trend that I decided to call The Houston because no other team does it so frequently and so brutally. To achieve The Houston, you need to rebound 35% or more of your misses and turn it over on 16% or less of your possessions. Houston did it 15 times this season. No other team in America got past eight.

It’s why the Cougars’ struggles in actually hitting shots has been the B-story of sorts. In the NCAA Tournament alone, Houston has posted 63, 62, and 67 points in their last three games, with an eFG% of 44.1%, 44.2%, and 41.1% along the way. They went 9-for-30 on two-pointers against Oregon State and 14-for-37 against Rutgers. By all means, teams that post those numbers generally shouldn’t be anywhere near the Final Four. And yet: here’s the Houston Cougars, who have only posted a sub-1 PPP five times this year and keep getting there because of an absolutely bonkers amount of offensive rebounds.

The Cougars have rebounded 39.8% of their misses, the second-highest rate in college basketball and the highest by any Final Four team not named North Carolina since 2014. This is important, because we should note that offensive rebounding percentage has slowly dwindled over the last 15 years and tied for an all-time low this season at just 28%. Offensive rebounds will always be important, but they don’t hold the same level of importance that they did in, say, 2006. You can’t tell Kelvin Sampson and the Houston Cougars that, though. You certainly can’t tell their opponents this March, either. Houston has attempted 51 more field goals and 13 more free throws than their NCAA Tournament opposition because they are demolishing the glass:

Houston has been held below a 30% OREB% twice all season, the last of which was over two months ago against Temple. It really hasn’t mattered as to who the opposition is, either. Houston has played teams ranked 25th (Boise State), 31st (Memphis, twice), and 38th (Western Kentucky) in defensive rebounding; the Cougars went for 41.7%, 36.6%, 37.9%, and 35.3% OREB%, respectively. They’ve gone 43% or better in three of four NCAA Tournament games.

This is a serious problem for Baylor before we even get to actual attacks/counterattacks strategy. The Bears rank 273rd in defensive rebounding percentage, easily the lowest ranking of the remaining Final Four teams. In the team’s first loss to Kansas in late February, the Bears allowed the Jayhawks to rebound an astounding 48.3% of their misses, which helped Kansas overcome a 3-for-16 day from deep and Baylor winning the turnover battle 14-3.

If that level of poor defensive rebounding shows up, the Bears may be done before the game even starts. Even if their normal levels attend, it’s going to be very tough. Of Baylor’s four NCAA Tournament opponents, only one (Arkansas) ranked above the national average in offensive rebounding. They haven’t really faced a tough test on this front since playing West Virginia in early March, but even Arkansas and Villanova easily beat their season averages in terms of offensive rebounding. Villanova, a team that averaged rebounding 27.8% of their misses this year and is not exactly tall, got back a third of their missed shots. Arkansas: 37.9%.

If Baylor can’t clean this up, the game really could swing Houston’s way to an extent a lot of people may not expect.

Beyond the rebounding battle, there’s two clear areas where Houston has to succeed: finding open shots from deep and avoiding getting themselves into a mid-range chuck-fest. Houston would be a fairly ideal underdog in a different setting for two reasons: they keep the tempo very slow (64.9 possessions per game, 319th of 347 teams) and they jack up lots of threes. 42.5% of all Houston shots are from downtown, and their 34.9% hit rate is a bit above the national average.

The primary shooter is Quentin Grimes, the Kansas transfer who entered late-bloomer status this year and quietly became one of the best players in college basketball. Grimes is shooting 41.2% from deep on 240 attempts, and as evidenced by Houston’s run so far, he’s very unafraid to shoot. Grimes has taken a hilarious 39 three-point attempts in four games, but he’s backing it up by having hit 17 of these so far (43.6%). In fact, Grimes has hit at least four threes in seven straight games and nine of the last ten despite being the primary offensive focus for opponents to gameplan against, which is very impressive.

Grimes has been lethal this year in the Cougars’ rare transition runs: 30-for-59 in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock and 69-for-181 on all other attempts. It’s not natural for Houston to run and gun, but when you have a shooter as good as Grimes, you’re kind of obligated to do it occasionally. Watch for Houston to push the pace off of steals and, every now and then, off of a particularly bad Baylor miss.

Baylor’s defense has been excellent this season, and aside from a blip in February/March due to their three-week COVID pause, they’ve been hard to score on. The most successful team to do so in this Tournament was easily Arkansas, who didn’t shoot particularly well from deep but worked to push the pace off of misses + rare steals. By doing so, it earned the Razorbacks several open layups when Baylor wasn’t settled, as well as forcing some key Bear defenders into foul trouble. Still, this is a Baylor defense that’s excellent at guarding threes and even better at forcing the right people to take them.

Lastly: ball screens. We haven’t seen Houston run a massive amount of these over their last couple of games, as both Syracuse and Oregon State went heavy with zone defense in an attempt to force the Cougars to shoot over the top of them. Houston has a good zone offense, but zones take away Houston’s two most efficient play types: transition ball and the pick-and-roll. Houston’s ball-screen offense ranks in the 80th-percentile, per Synergy, with the ball handler having a ton of success. The main ball handlers this season have been DeJon Jarreau, Marcus Sasser, and Grimes, with Grimes/Sasser being more likely to pull up for threes and Jarreau being more likely to take a mid-range jumper.

Baylor’s goal in this game should be taking away these jumpers from Jarreau and forcing him/Sasser to shoot over the top of them instead. Neither Jarreau (35.2% 3PT%) nor Sasser (32.6%) are quite as automatic from deep as you’d hope, but both are solid rim scorers, and everyone in Houston’s main rotation converts at least 57% of their attempts at the rim. The problem: they don’t get to the rim all that often (25.8% of all attempts). If Baylor can drag Houston’s possessions out and force them to take 25-footers deep in the shot clock, it’s an optimal outcome for Scott Drew and company.

They just have to remember to rebound. Good luck!

NEXT PAGE: When Baylor has the ball

Final Four Preview: (1) Gonzaga vs. (11) UCLA

Amazingly, of all possible games Gonzaga could’ve been involved in to make the national title game, this is the opponent they drew. The team responsible for what was the definitive Gonzaga loss for a generation. The team that went all the way to the title game that year. A program with so much history, so many championships, and so much success…and a program that we are now simultaneously treating as a massive underdog against the team that championed being the underdog.

This is a weird game to preview, but I can’t help but love it. It’s been a weird year. We deserved at least one out-of-nowhere Final Four game, and I’m sure Gonzaga fans are probably happy that they’re the likely beneficiary of such a draw. But: you cannot underestimate this UCLA team. No one has for weeks now, not after they knocked off analytics darling Alabama and sentimental favorite Michigan. (Do you realize how cool Juwan Howard has to be to make Michigan a sentimental favorite?) They’re coming into this one with nothing to lose against the one team that hasn’t experienced a loss to date. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

NEXT PAGE: When UCLA has the ball

Game Preview: (12) Oregon State vs. (8) Loyola Chicago

Here comes a Sweet Sixteen fixture that roughly 0.36% of people appear to have projected, per ESPN. It was one thing for Loyola Chicago to be a top 10 KenPom team, to be underrated the entire season, to get an 8 seed they deserved better than…but it was honestly an entire other thing for an Oregon State team that entered the Pac-12 Tournament outside the KenPom top 100 to be here, too.

To put it in perspective, think of it this way: every other 12 seed, two 13 seeds, and a 14 seed all were picked by more people to make the Sweet Sixteen than the Beavers. Who could blame them? The Beavers have gone from an afterthought that hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 39 years to 40 minutes away from their second Elite Eight appearance in the last 55 years. For Loyola, it’s a chance to show everyone that 2018 wasn’t a one-hit wonder. While this isn’t the game anyone saw coming, it’s perhaps the game with the richest possible storylines.

NEXT PAGE: When Oregon State has the ball

Key stats and notes for each Sweet Sixteen matchup

During the regular season, I provided what I called “stat sheets” to a few key people. These included broadcasters, SIDs, and anyone that was curious. Tennessee’s season is over, but college basketball isn’t, and it seems like a waste to not do these anymore. I don’t know if any broadcasters will end up seeing these, but if it helps even one fan view a game through a different lens, I’ve done well.

In order are this weekend’s eight Sweet Sixteen games, with stats and notes on all 16 teams involved. I’m going to be doing these for the Elite Eight, Final Four, and National Championship, and as fewer games are played, the sheets will grow larger.

NEXT PAGE: Saturday’s games

How stats and history would pick the 2021 NCAA Tournament

BIG LARGE UPDATE: I made a Google Doc showing how this method has performed over the last five NCAA Tournaments. It would have correctly selected three of five champions and 14 of 20 Final Four teams. You can check it out here

Last year, to avoid the depression of knowing the NCAA Tournament was cancelled, I posted a super-long statistical breakdown of how the stats I’ve collected over the years would’ve picked every game of the NCAA Tournament. It was really fun to put together, and I made myself a promise that when the 2021 Tournament came around, I’d do it again for the real thing.

Well, here we are. After the longest year in human history, the 2021 Tournament is right around the corner. Matchups were revealed yesterday evening, and I’ve spent the night and morning putting together what I think is 99% likely to be my own bracket. Does this mean you should copy it exactly? Of course not. What’s the fun in that?

What this is is simply a game-by-game projection of the field of 68 based on a document I’ve put together since 2018. Bart Torvik has an amazing page on his site with detailed historical KenPom projections of each game over the last 20 years of postseason play. Using that, I’ve accumulated enough data to make informed, quality guesses on how the NCAA Tournament may go.

The only NCAA Tournament I’ve had the chance to apply this to was 2019’s. It correctly identified three of the Final Four teams, missing only on Gonzaga, and said Virginia would be the national champion. It also correctly picked three Round of 64 upsets and went 26-6 in the first round. I’m hoping to beat both numbers this year, and we’ll simply have to see how it plays out.

First disclaimer: I feel confident that at least 90%, if not more, of the picks on the following pages will be the same ones I make in an actual ESPN bracket selection. That said, I reserve the right to change selections up to Friday morning, and if they’re meaningful, I’ll send out the article again with alterations.

Final disclaimer: this method is going to end up missing on several games and picks throughout March and early April. This is simply how it works, because it is impossible to have a perfect bracket.

To click ahead to a preferred section, use the below menu:

NEXT PAGE: Round of 64 picks