March S[imulation]adness: South Dakota, Bucknell aim for history against NCAA regulars

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: Ellie Mack #40 of the Bucknell Bison dribbles the ball by Morgan Bartner #2 of the American Eagles during a women's college basketball game at the Bender Arena on February 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: Ellie Mack #40 of the Bucknell Bison dribbles the ball by Morgan Bartner #2 of the American Eagles during a women's college basketball game at the Bender Arena on February 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

At least one mid-major will crack the Sweet Sixteen

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After a pair of first-round victories, two Pacific Northwest powerhouses are looking to return to their customary NCAA Tournament glory by continuing to win on their home floors — but they’ll have their work cut out for them in the second round.

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In the Fort Wayne region, four-seed Oregon State defeated Gonzaga last season to make its fourth straight Sweet Sixteen, extending its NCAA home-court win streak to eight games (now nine, with the 78-61 win over Coastal Carolina in our first round). While the Beavers’ season has been rougher than they anticipated, including Pac-12 sweeps courtesy of Oregon and Stanford and several injuries, it’s hard to count them out at home. In spite of everything, they’re 15-3 there — including the first-round win — in 2019-20.

Four-seed Gonzaga, meanwhile, has made four Sweet Sixteens ever — but that doesn’t mean the Bulldogs are any farther away from their fifth trip over in the Portland region. Despite multiple key injuries in last year’s postseason, they still made that aforementioned Oregon State loss count. While Gonzaga is still finding its way around the loss of Katie Campbell to injury this season, its 81-55 win over Stony Brook in our first round had to inspire some confidence: it’s the Zags’ largest-ever margin of victory in the NCAA Tournament, not to mention its highest point total since February 6.

Enter the disruptors: five-seed South Dakota, champion of the Summit League who earned its first-ever Division I NCAA Tournament victory by holding off IUPUI in the first round; and Bucknell, champion of the Patriot League, who did the same as they earned the 12 vs. 5 upset of Florida State.

Here’s how these conference champions can compete with their favored opponents and make their first Sweet Sixteens:

South Dakota aims for offense-heavy shutdown

While the competition the Coyotes faced in the Summit League isn’t exactly comparable to Oregon State’s Pac-12 schedule, their offensive consistency was what made their 19-0 regular-season and tournament sweep look so easy.

Because the Yotes didn’t just beat everyone this season (save their two losses) — they steamrolled everyone. They rank sixth in the nation in scoring margin, which includes a 32.1 average in conference play, where only two games (including the tournament championship) were decided by single digits. Naturally, this means South Dakota also finds itself in the top 10 nationally in points per game.

South Dakota is led by All-American Ciara Duffy, who registered 14 points and eight assists against IUPUI. Duffy, Hannah Sjerven and Taylor Frederick all shoot 50 percent or better, while Chloe Lamb joins the trio when it comes to the team’s double-digit scorers. Shutting down the Yotes’ top scorer isn’t enough — there are four of them out there to contend with.

While the Yotes and the Beavers are incredibly similar statistically, one area where South Dakota stands out is in forcing turnovers. Both teams have similar assist-to-turnover ratios, but Oregon State turns it over 14.2 times per game to South Dakota’s 12 — and where the Yotes can capitalize is in their steals advantage of almost five per game. The Beavers on average allow more steals than they grab themselves, leaving a window for the Yotes’ high-octane offense to grab even more points.

Against an eerily similar opponent, can Bucknell break through?

Bucknell and Gonzaga typify their brand of mid-major success story: Big on defense, combined with just enough offense to get the job done. Their “best player” doesn’t necessarily stand out on a national stage, but the teams make up for the lack of a bona fide star with their notable depth.

Basically, it’s just another conference game for these teams, if their clone was in their conference along with them.

While many of their major statistics are extremely similar — scoring offense and defense, field goal and 3-point percentage, free throw percentage — the glass is where the first major battle takes place. Gonzaga’s +8.2 rebounding margin compared to Bucknell’s +2.7 favors the Zags on the surface, of course.

But the Bison’s forte is defensive rebounding, and their Patriot-best 76.9 percent average in that area compared to Gonzaga’s WCC-best offensive rebounding percentage of 40.3 percent could disrupt the Zags’ attempts at second-chance points — or vice versa. (Both percentages are better than any of their respective conference opponents offer.)

Bucknell’s 12.5 turnovers per game (in both conference games and overall) also stands out — it’s good for 23rd in the country. This could be complicated in-game by Gonzaga’s +3.4 steals advantage, a margin the Bison aren’t used to facing. But waiting for the Zags to commit turnovers isn’t a bad idea — they averaged 14.7 per game in conference play.

In short, both Gonzaga and Bucknell will be uniquely (yet familiarly) challenged here. Each team’s top scorer had a statement first round: Jill Townsend had 21 points for the Bulldogs against Stony Brook, while Ellie Mack led with 19 points (on 4-6 shooting from three) in the Bison’s upset of Florida State. It’s that continued production that can drive each team to success in the second round.

“For Bucknell to leave Spokane with the victory, they would have to win the possessions battle – take care of the ball and win the glass,” said Christy Thomaskutty. “Unfortunately, I think both of these areas the Zags will win with ease – especially on their home floor. I expect Gonzaga to win by double digits and advance to the Sweet Sixteen.”

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