An improbable run with wins over three other NCAA Tournament teams landed Oregon State in its first NCAA Tournament since 2016, and just its third since 1990.
Tennessee, meanwhile, returns after making the Sweet 16 in 2019 and coming an overtime away from the Elite Eight. This season marks three consecutive Big Dance appearances for the Volunteers under Rick Barnes, the third-winningest active coach without a national championship.
Tennessee's 2020-21 team has looked capable of a Final Four run at times during this campaign, but Oregon State's momentum and veteran leadership make for a challenging First Round contest.
Midwest Region: No. 12 Oregon State (17-12) vs. No. 5 Tennessee (18-8)
Time: Friday, March 19 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: Tennessee -8
Keys for Oregon State
After a rough start to the 2020-21 season, Oregon State came along during Pac-12 play. The Beavers scored marquee wins over Oregon and USC in back-to-back games in January, foreshadowing their impressive run through Vegas and the conference tournament.
While stingy defense has been the hallmark of Wayne Tinkle-coached teams, this Oregon State bunch's ability to click offensively has been a defining trait. The Beavers are one of the most unselfish teams in college basketball, scoring almost 60 percent of all their made field goals off of assists. Senior guard Ethan Thompson, Oregon State's leading scorer at 15.3 points per game, is one of two Beavers ranked in the top 200 of all Div. I players for assist rate along with Gianni Hunt.
Oregon State's efficient ball movement results in very few turnovers, and the Beavers can knock down the 3-pointer with some consistency at 34.6 percent. The long-range shot will be necessary against a Tennessee defense that is one of the Tournament's best at defending in the interior, allowing just 44.8 percent shooting from inside the 3-point arc. Warith Alatishe will need to make scoring contributions on second-chance opportunities.
Keys for Tennessee
Barnes-coached teams at Texas were known primarily for their offensive prowess. His T.J. Ford-led Final Four team in 2003, for example, ranked third in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom metrics. The Kevin Durant squad of 2007 was sixth in that category.
At Tennessee, Barnes' offensive strategy has continued to flourish behind NBA talent. The 2018-19 team was third nationally in adjusted efficiency, but this year's Vols flipped the script. UT comes into the Indiana Bubble with the fourth-highest adjusted defensive efficiency, thanks to the disruptive play of Josiah Jordan-James and Yves Pons, both of whom rank in the top 200 among Div. I players for shot-blocking percentage, and the turnover-creation of Jordan-James, Jaden Springer, and Keon Johnson.
Tennessee averages the 11th-most blocked shots by percent of possessions in the nation and is 16th in its 2-point field-goal percentage allowance. Put simply, the way to beat Tennessee is to figure out how to push the pace on its outstanding defense. In every loss but one this season, the Vols allowed more than 70 points.
UT must keep Oregon State off the offensive glass. The Vols gave up double-digit offensive rebounds in each of their final two losses to Auburn and Alabama.
Twelve-over-five upsets are virtually a given in each NCAA Tournament. With three straight wins over Tournament teams propelling it into the Big Dance, Oregon State may be primed to be one such squad to do so in 2021. Tennessee's stellar defense could carry it far, perhaps all the way to the Final Four, but the Vols have been prone to lapses in the last month of the regular season.
Keeping Alatishe away from easy put-backs, which is his strength, will be critical.
Prediction: Oregon State 71, Tennessee 68
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.