4. Tennessee (10/23, 7/11/SEC)- Can a team with truly elite defense but underperforming attack win a national championship? Rick Barnes and Tennessee are about to find out.
The Volunteers had a bizarre season, losing to Colorado, Florida and Vanderbilt but beating Kansas, Texas and Alabama by an average of 11.3 points. When Tennessee shoots, their defense can propel them to a win against anyone. Overall, Tennessee ranks 1st in the nation in defensive standings and holds opponents with the second fewest points per game in the country.
To put in a deep run, Tennessee will rely heavily on Uruguayan guard Santiago Vescovi (12.9 PPG, 38.5 3-pt FG percent) and Finland forward Oliver Nkamhoua to carry the attacking load after the Starting point guard Zakai Zigler was lost for the season with an ACL tear he suffered in late February.
The loss of Zigler is a major blow to Tennessee’s Final Four hopefuls. Sophomore Jahmai Mashack has taken on much of the ball-handling duties in Zigler’s absence, but Tennessee undoubtedly has a lot less depth at either end without Zigler in the lineup.
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Even with Zigler in the lineup, Tennessee has struggled defensively. The volunteers rank a dismal 288th in field goal percentage and 289th in 3-point field goal percentage nationally. But they play at a slow pace (229th in the country) that allows them to control the pace of the game, and with a lockdown defense it won’t always take an offensive blast to win. Overall, they rank 66th in offensive standings, lower than any national champions in the last decade.
Still, Tennessee remains a talented group. Barnes has notoriously underperformed in the NCAA tournament, but could this be the group bucking the trend?
Louisiana Lafayette forward Jordan Brown (21) goes to the basket against Houston in the second half of an NCAA collegiate basketball game Tuesday, December 14, 2021 in Houston. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)
13.Louisiana (26-7, 13-5/Sun Belt)- The glorious-named Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana secured their NCAA ticket for the first time since 2014 by beating South Alabama in the Sun Belt title game. Louisiana is a dangerous, low-ranking group that has won 26 games this season in the country’s 17th-best league by NET rating.
Louisiana is led by junior forward Jordan Brown, who has previously played in both Nevada and Arizona. Brown is averaging over 19 points per game this season, along with nearly 9 rebounds. Brown is leading an offensive in Louisiana that ranks in the top 50 in offensive ratings nationwide. Louisiana is also one of the top rebounding teams in the country, ranking in the top 20 in terms of overall rebounding percentage.
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To create an early upset, Louisiana will look to keep Brown involved and get to the free-throw line, where they attempt over 21 shots a game from the foul line. If they can do that and stop Tennessee from exploding offensively, they could be late on this one.