(5) Oklahoma State vs. (12) Oregon
(5) Oklahoma State Cowboys
After missing out on the NCAA Tournament the last two years, the Cowboys (24-8, 13-5) are back in the big dance and they have freshman guard Marcus Smart largely to thank for that. Smart, who takes no plays off and works as hard as anyone in college basketball, was named the Player and Freshman of the Year in the Big 12 after averaging 15 points, five rebounds, four assist and three steals a game. He has two fellow future pros on the wings in Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash. The sharpshooting Phil Forte, Smart’s longtime best friend, has also been an impact freshman, scoring 10 a night. His shooting has become vital as the Cowboys see defenses really sag in when he’s not out on the court since shooting from distance is not a strength of Brown, Nash or Smart. The Cowboys played the 41st toughest schedule in the country and finished the regular season with a top 25 RPI. They went 2-3 against teams in the same range, with their best wins coming against Kansas and Kansas State. They narrowly fell to Gonzaga on New Year’s Eve. The Cowboys have the capability of winning multiple games in the tournament for the first time since 2005, but it’s going to take strong efforts from their stars and not allowing teams to lure them into the trap of settling for jump shots.
(12) Oregon Ducks
After missing out on an opportunity to win the Pac 12 regular season championship due to stumbling late, the Ducks (26-8, 12-6) bounced back to take the Pac 12 tournament championship. They are dancing for the first time since 2008. The Ducks are a team with good depth and experience, with four of their top five players being seniors. E.J. Singler leads a very balanced offensive attack for the Ducks with 11.6 points a game. Five other Ducks average at least eight points. Inside the paint they have two transfers in Tony Woods and Arsalan Kazemi who provide good size and length. They helped the Ducks outrebound their opponents by six on average during the regular season. The Ducks will rarely hurt their opponents from deep and also have trouble taking care of the basketball. They gave it up 15 times a game, which is amongst the highest turnover rate of any tournament team. Their strength of schedule was ranked just outside of the top 100 and they were 47th in the RPI. They were 2-0 against the RPI top 25, knocking off Arizona and UNLV. Their bad losses came at the hands of Stanford, UTEP and Utah. For the Ducks to advance they have to be effective in attacking inside then out and take much better care of the basketball than they usually do.
HOOPSWORLD’s Pick: Oregon. The committee reward the Cowboys very much for their fifth seed; they’d have been better off being seeded lower because their competition still wouldn’t have been as tough.