March S[imulation]adness: Oregon-Michigan Round of 32 preview

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Two teams that reached the Round of 32 in different ways

The one-seed Oregon Ducks, who finished second in the final AP Poll of the season, had no trouble with 16-seed Seattle in the first round of our simulated NCAA Tournament. The widely-regarded national contenders throttled their first round opponent, 92-35, with senior Sabrina Ionescu — who was just announced as one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy — posting a triple-double with 22 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists. It was Ionescu’s ninth triple-double of the season.

Next up, they battle with ninth-seeded Michigan in the Portland bracket, hosting the Wolverines in what will be their final home game in Eugene.

“The last game of the season for the Ducks inside Matthew Knight Arena means one thing… the atmosphere will be electric,” says former Emory head coach and current women’s basketball analyst Christy Thomaskutty.

The Wolverines reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament by upsetting the eighth-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks, 81-71, thanks to sophomore Naz Hillmon’s 24 points and 11 rebounds. For Hillmon, a two-time All-Big Ten First Team award winner, it was her 12th double-double of the season.

“I think Naz is, as we have seen all year long, one of the best players in the country,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico told High Post Hoops. “The greater the challenge, the better her performance. She is an outstanding basketball player and rises to any opportunity. The NCAA Tournament is just another opportunity for her to show her skills and level of play. I am not surprised by what she could do against a great Arkansas team. In the next round against Oregon, she would look forward to facing some of the top players in the country and challenging herself against the best.”

Michigan has reached the Round of 32 for the third straight year under coach Kim Barnes Arico, but have yet to advance to the Sweet 16 during that stretch. They fell to Baylor in the second round in 2018 and Louisville in 2019, and face a tall task with Oregon in 2020.

Oregon is an offensive machine, outscoring their opponents on the season by an average of 86 points per game to 58. While Ionescu leads the charge — she averages 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and nine assists per game — the Ducks have two other players averaging over 16 points in Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally.

Hebard is particularly proficient in the paint where she spends most of her time, shooting 68.5% from the field and averaging 9.6 rebounds per game. This inside play is complemented by the outside shooting of Erin Boley, who connects from long range at a 44% clip.

“Obviously Oregon is loaded with All-Americans and led by the player of the year, Sabrina Ionescu,” Barnes Arico said. “They are a big tough match up, but we have talked to our team all year that it is just one day and anything can happen. We just have to be our best Michigan team that day. We think we are a solid defensive team who can match up against their top three and they will have to match up with our top three. I think it could be a great basketball game and excited to test ourselves against the best.”

Michigan struggles to get consistent scoring from players besides Hillmon, especially with third-leading scorer Kayla Robbins sidelined since January with an ACL tear. Their next leading scorer is All-Big Ten Second Team member Amy Dilk, who averages 11.6 points and 4.5 assists per game.

Thomaskutty expects the visitors to remain competitive early, but for the Ducks to respond by forcing Michigan into giveaways, something the Wolverines have been prone to doing this season.

“Kim Barnes Arico always has her team ready to compete and I expect nothing different as they try to take down Goliath,” said Thomaskutty. “Michigan will jump out to a quick lead behind the strong performances of Amy Dilk and Naz Hillmon. However, Michigan turnovers will allow Oregon to catch back up quickly.”

Michigan averages 16 turnovers per game this season, while Oregon averages just 11. Ionescu engineers this ball protection, with a greater than 3:1 assist to turnover ratio.

“This Ducks offense puts so much pressure on you with all of their screening action — on ball and off ball — that ultimately this will be where they create separation,” Thomaskutty added. “And once Oregon gets a lead on you, the offense really opens up with their transition game and screen on the ball action.”

Oregon would be wise to contain Hillmon by employing double-teams and forcing Michigan’s outside threats, such as Akienreh Johnson and Hailey Brown, to beat them. Michigan faces a much more daunting challenge, as double-teaming Hebard in the paint opens up looks for Oregon shooters such as Boley and Taylor Chavez.

Thomaskutty expects the Ducks to advance to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance with another triple double from Ionescu and a double-double from Hebard.

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