Monday, March 12, 2018

How Well Did The Computers Predict The Field?

While I no longer have the time to do regular blogging, I'd like to try to keep these annual "How well did the computers predict the field?" posts going for the sake of historical data.

The first 2018 data: the root squared mean difference between each team's seed and where the teams would be if ranked strictly by the rating systems (1-11 seeds only). Again I am measuring RPI, BPI Strength of Record (resume strength) and Pomeroy (pure team strength):

Note that all of these numbers are as of Monday morning (i.e. they include all of the results up through Selection Sunday but do not include any post-Selection Sunday tournaments).

Average Rating Error:
2.22 - Pomeroy
2.25 - BPI SOR
2.96 - RPI


Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):

33. Middle Tennessee (3)
34. USC (1)
38. Louisville (2)
39. Western Kentucky (4)
40. Saint Mary's (1)
50. Boise State (4)
52. Temple (5)
55. Northeastern (-)
56. Nebraska (5)
58. Marquette (2)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
66. Arizona St (11)
64. North Carolina St (9)
61. Virginia Tech (8)
54. Florida St (9)
53. Kansas St (9)
51. Texas (10)
49. Oklahoma (10)
46. Florida (6)
45. Syracuse (11)
44. Creighton (8)

  BPI Strength of Record

Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):

31. Nebraska (5)
41. Marquette (2)
42. Louisville (2)
43. Oklahoma State (2)
44. Baylor (1)
48. Middle Tennessee (3)
50. Saint Mary's (1)
52. Mississippi State (4)
53. Notre Dame (1)
55. Maryland (-)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
69. Arizona State (11)
54. UCLA (11)
49. Missouri (8)
47. Syracuse (11)
40. Oklahoma (10)
39. Florida State (9)
38. North Carolina St (9)
37. Nevada (7)
36. Butler (10)
35. Creighton (8)


Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):

28. Saint Mary's (1)
29. Penn State (4)
31. Notre Dame (1)
33. Louisville (2)
34. Baylor (1)
40. USC (1)
46. Maryland (-)
52. Middle Tennessee (3)
53. Marquette (2)
56. Oklahoma St (2)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
69. St. Bonaventure (11)
63. Providence (10)
54. Syracuse (11)
51. Alabama (9)
49. Rhode Island (7)
48. UCLA (11)
47. Oklahoma (10)
45. Arizona St (11)
44. Kansas St (9)
42. NC State (9)


Does The RPI Matter As Much As It Used To?
One of the fascinating statistical quirks this year is that by pure computer numbers, the Pomeroy ratings were actually a slightly better predictor of NCAA Tournament seed than the RPI or the BPI. Last year, the BPI was the strongest.

Another piece of evidence for raw RPIs mattering less than they used to is which teams got left out. In the decade-or-so that I've been tracking this data, there have been plenty of RPI Top 40 teams to get left out, but only mid-majors. This year was the first time I tracked an RPI Top 40 major conference team getting left out, and in fact this year there were two - USC and Louisville (more on them in a moment). At the same time, while RPI 60+ teams have gotten in before (there's usually been 1 or 2 per year since the bracket expanded to 68), having two of them earn single-digit seeds is interesting. And Oklahoma State was on the bubble with an RPI of 88, which would have blown away the all-time record for worst RPI to ever earn an at-large bid (72, by Syracuse in 2016).

That said, while this is all a minor improvement, it's not a major one. The fact is that raw RPI ratings have never really been the way that RPI dominates the Selection process. Nobody in the last decade or two would ever argue that an RPI #30 team needs to be ahead of an RPI #40 team for that reason alone - they'd argue it using other metrics, such as "Record vs RPI Top 50". The problem with those metrics was that they have a huge major conference bias, since mid-majors can very rarely get RPI Top 50 teams on their home court. To fix this, the NCAA made a big show this year of switching to a quadrant system which rewards playing on the road.

This all sounds great! Unfortunately, it didn't quite go to plan...

"Quadrants? What are quadrants?"
What Is The Point Of Quadrants, Exactly?
After the NCAA made a big deal of the quadrant system this offseason, it's remarkable how little they ever actually came up yesterday. I watched the entire CBS/TNT Selection Show, and then a couple hours of ESPN bracket analysis, and I think I heard the phrase "tier" or "quadrant" come up just two or three times total.

To demonstrate the problem of ignoring one's own metrics, let's take the instructive case of Syracuse vs Middle Tennessee:

Record vs RPI Top 100:
8-11 Syracuse
4-6 Middle Tennessee

Record vs RPI Tiers 1+2:
7-11 Syracuse
5-4 Middle Tennessee

By the traditional "Record vs RPI Top 100" metric, it looks like Syracuse and Middle Tennessee both won about 40% of their games vs decent opponents, and thus we can give Syracuse the tiebreak because they had the higher RPI win (RPI #11 Clemson). But the quadrant/tier system significantly improves Middle Tennessee's numbers, and recognizes that they played a lot more on the road than Syracuse. In fact, Middle Tennessee led all of Division I with 12 road victories (a 12-1 record), while Syracuse went just 4-6 in true road games.

Of course, if we want to really use "analytics", we can abandon the crappy RPI metrics and just use Pomeroy's tier system:

Record vs KenPom Tier A:
3-8 Syracuse
3-3 Middle Tennessee

Once we look at non-RPI metrics, we recognize that in fact Syracuse's best win wasn't over Clemson at all (since it came at home), but on the road at Louisville. Suddenly, a Syracuse team which played all season in the ACC somehow ended up with its most impressive win coming over an NIT team? Woof. Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee's victory at Murray State rates really strong (not as strong as Syracuse's best win, but close, despite far fewer chances against elite opponents).

You can apply this same analysis to other quirky at-large teams. Those two RPI Top 40 major conference teams that got left out? USC was left out because they had literally zero RPI Top 25 wins. Louisville went an ungodly 0-11 vs the RPI Top 50. These are all traditional, RPI-heavy reasons why teams got left out. The fact that Louisville's record vs quality opponents looks different by the better metrics (a 4-10 record vs KenPom Tier A opponents, which is similar to other major conference bubble teams) didn't matter, because the Selection Committee is still stuck in RPI-based metrics.

When The RPI Does And Does Not Matter Is Instructive
In terms of pure strength of record, it's clear that the best resume left out was Nebraska. It was noted by quite a few analytics folks this year that the RPI was just way down on the Big Ten compared to better metrics. The league was certainly down, but not as much as the RPI thought it was. So it's not a surprise that Nebraska actually showed up as the strongest resume to get left out of the field via BPI despite clearly not even being a serious bubble team on Selection Sunday (only earning a 5 seed in the NIT). Heck, even Maryland was one of the ten best resumes left out according to BPI, and they couldn't even get into the NIT.

Yet interestingly, the glamor teams in the Big Ten didn't suffer this same fate. Michigan State was 14th in RPI and just 3-4 vs the RPI Tier 1 (a worse RPI Tier 1 record than San Diego State, who needed an auto bid to make the field), yet they still got a 3 seed. Ohio State and Purdue also were a seed line or two higher than their RPI resumes really should have put them (since the RPI really viewed the Big Ten as basically a strong mid-major conference this season). The Selection Committee still ranked those teams highly because they are sexy #brands with a couple of sexy wins on national television. The RPI data got ignored when it was convenient.

Thinking, Fast And Slow
The inconsistent use of RPI and the total abandonment of the very RPI quadrant system that the NCAA created this season right when it was convenient is a reminder that, fundamentally, the Selection process is irrational.

By that phrase, I don't mean that in the sense of "LOL what a bunch of morons!" Everybody in that Selection Committee room is a reasonably intelligent and accomplished adult. What I mean is the basic concept for the classic book "Thinking, Fast And Slow", by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Summarizing decades of fascinating psychological research, Kahneman points out that human thought can be fundamentally separated into two categories: System 1 (fast, automatic, stereotypic, unconscious) and System 2 (slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating).

What the research shows is that pure rational thought is actually very difficult and emotionally taxing, so much so that the body reacts to it very similarly to how it reacts to a difficult physical exercise workout. It's why after taking difficult tests in school you often feel physically exhausted despite not leaving your chair for three hours. It's just hard damn work. Also, it takes a long time to solve even the most simple, linear problem, and we simply could not make it through life intricately breaking down each decision we make. And thus most of our decisions in life are System 1. A complex multi-variable problem like picking out an apartment (price, square footage, view, neighborhood, number of rooms, furniture, kitchen, amenities, parking, etc) will end up just coming down to a snap judgment - we all just invent a post-hoc narrative to explain what was fundamentally an emotional and irrational decision.

The issue with NCAA Tournament selection is that the process is actually monumentally complicated. We are supposed to judge dozens of different teams (and their opponents) by winning percentage, strength of schedule, strength of record, best wins, best records vs arbitrary quadrants, multiple team strength metrics, road warriors, conference titles, injured and suspended players, and more. As I wrote in 2014 when I (accurately) predicted how college football playoff selection would play out, it's simply an impossible problem to tackle. If I ask you to solve a series of math problems like 4y + 8 = 28 then I presume that most of my readers could solve that, even if it would get exhausting after a while, but those are linear problems. To solve NCAA Tournament selection is so complex that even a powerful computer model cannot really make sense of it (the BPI tournament odds that ESPN kept shoving down our throats in February and early March were a constant source of mirth and amusement).

So what happens when you have a problem too complex to solve? Daniel Kahneman explains that what we do is to reflexively solve the problem using System 1 thinking: We intuitively come to an answer, and then grasp for the justification later. So the Selection Committee makes snap mental judgments, driven heavily by subconscious stereotyping and narratives, and then decides later which metrics justify the decisions that they already wanted to make.

And this is why the mid-majors like Middle Tennessee will simply always lose those bubble battles with 8-10 Big 12 or 9-9 ACC teams. Subconsciously, the people on that Selection Committee simply will not understand that a road game at Murray State is equivalent to a home game vs a Top 25 team. It just doesn't mentally compute. When Selection Chair Bruce Rasmussen said that Middle Tennessee went out and scheduled good teams "but just didn't beat any of them", he apparently wasn't aware that they actually won their 2nd toughest non-conference game. He didn't realize that the road game at Murray State (which they won by 5) was a tougher opponent than the neutral court game vs USC (which they lost by 5).

In the end, System 1 thinking is always going to dominate in the Selection room. Forcing new quadrant metrics on them won't change anything, because fundamentally these are snap, irrational judgments. The quadrants will only get referenced when they are convenient to get referenced - they won't drive decisions. The only way to adjust the results of System 1 thinking is to get newer, younger, analytically-savvy people in the room who fundamentally, subconsciously, emotionally understand how difficult a road game is vs a decent mid-major. Then and only then will anything change.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Previewing The 2017 NBA Draft

There are a lot of skilled big man in this draft, including Gonzaga's Zach Collins

There are a lot of problems with directly comping one draft pick to another. Some are obvious, such as that they tend to be lazy, based on skin color and handedness. Lonzo Ball gets comped to Jason Kidd even though Kidd made only 24 three-pointers as a college freshman at a 29% clip, simply because their faces look very similar. So one-on-one comps are not particularly accurate or useful. But an underrated problem with draft comps is pretending that draft picks are deterministic.

To give an example, let's say that you think a 2016-17 college player is identical to 2008-09 Steph Curry. Where do you draft him? Better question: If you could go back in a time machine to the 2009 NBA Draft and you were running an NBA team, where would you draft Steph Curry? First, right? He ended up the best player in the draft, after all. The problem is, assuming that in every parallel universe, 2009 Steph Curry turns into 2017 Steph Curry is to assume a purely deterministic world where player development and health are guaranteed.

Think about it another way: Every time a player gets missed in the draft, because Steph Curry only goes #7 or Draymond Green goes #35, what do we all say? "Oh, we should have known he'd be a good pick, because [/reason]". We believe that we learned something and that we will be better at finding diamonds in the rough next time. But are we?

Nope. Study after study shows that nobody is really significantly better than random chance at drafting, and drafting skill has not improved over decades. In other words, we don't really know anything, and we aren't really learning anything. If the Golden State Warriors really had a brilliant process to find Steph Curry and Draymond Green then they'd likely find another superstar or two in their drafts over the next few years... but I bet that they won't. The null hypothesis is that they fell ass backwards into a few lucky drafts and that they aren't any more likely than, say, the Pacers to hit on their next few draft picks.

So after all of that I bet you're asking "Why is Jeff pretending that he knows anything about draft picks?" And I don't have a good answer for you. But, hey, I do this every year. As always, I'm only going to talk about Division I college players. Let's do this:

Green Room Guys:


Zach Collins - This draft is just chock full of skilled big men. It's the trend these days, after all. And Collins isn't as underrated as he was back in February, since the Gonzaga run in the NCAA Tournament brought him to the attention of the general public. But Collins is already a good outside shooter, he's an elite weak-side shot blocker, and he's an efficient scorer in the post who knows how to draw contact. He's got the skills that you need for a potential NBA All-Star. In the "tall white guy" comparison, Lauri Markkanen is a better shooter, and I do like Markkanen a lot, but Markkanen is much more of a pure jump shooter and he lacks the defensive skills of Collins, so Markkanen doesn't really have the super high ceiling in the NBA that Collins has.

Jonathan Isaac - On the list of skilled big men in this draft, Jonathan Isaac might be the most athletic. He's a really strong all-around defender who has the potential to be a good defender both on the perimeter and in the paint. Also, if you're looking for a big man who has a chance to develop a three-point stroke in the NBA, look at Isaac's 81% free throw shooting in ACC play, which portends good three-point shooting down the road (think: Kawhi Leonard).


Lonzo Ball - It feels like a perfect sports media narrative setup with Ball. He's been anointed the next Steph Curry and a sure thing superstar, and if it doesn't work out then everybody can blame his attention-starved father. I don't care about any of that. But here's the thing: Ball is a good shooter, but he was only a 41% three-point shooter in college, and his poor free throw shooting is a concern for future improvement (elite NBA three-point shooters are rarely not elite free throw shooters). He was an effective scorer around the rim, but it remains to be seen if he can keep that up against NBA-sized defenders. UCLA was a good team this season, but Ball hardly did this on his own - the UCLA roster has four other players likely to make the NBA (TJ Leaf, Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welch, and Ike Anigbogu), as well as an established NCAA veteran star in Bryce Alford. Ball is a good player, but he is very far from a sure thing in the NBA.

Malik Monk - The problem with Malik Monk as an NBA star is that it's unclear what his role would be. He was a 40% three-point shooter in college, but there aren't a lot of 6'3" guys in the NBA who survive entirely on standing in the corner and hitting threes. Monk is not yet a good scorer off the dribble, and he was hardly an elite defender. It's just not a profile that historically has led to NBA stardom.

Late 1st/Early 2nd Round Guys:


Jawun Evans - Jawun Evans' national stock wasn't helped by the fact that Oklahoma State was itself badly underrated this season, and because they went one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament after running into the Michigan buzzsaw. But the fact is that Evans improved dramatically year over year, and carried Oklahoma State all season long. His 6'1" size is a concern, and it's why I'd avoid taking him in the Top 10 of the Draft, but he's a spark plug offensively who would be an ideal ball handler right now to lead the second team offense for an NBA team.

Jordan Bell - Bell has always been a really good all-around defender, but what I like about him as a late first round sleeper is the fact that his offensive game has evolved and improved significantly over his three years at Oregon. He's gone from almost non-existent offensively as a freshman (and an ugly 50% at the free throw line) to a solid complementary scorer (and 69% at the free throw line). If he can continue that improvement, he could be a really nice role player for the type of good NBA team that will likely be drafting him late in the first round.


Harry Giles - The injury concerns are real, of course. But in addition, his skill set is just not one particularly well suited to the modern NBA. He's tall, but he's not particularly quick, and he lacks a jump shot. And despite his height and length, he wasn't a particularly good shot blocker either. If you're drafting Giles, you are counting both on him staying healthy and on him clicking with a shooting coach and developing a jump shot.

Kyle Kuzma - Kuzma's draft stock seems to be all over the place, from a lottery pick to early second round, but most have him as a first rounder, and that's just mystifying based on his profile. He's a junior who hasn't shown significant improvement, and doesn't have an elite carrying skill. Kuzma is an athletic 6'9" player, but you're counting on him to develop a significantly better jump shot if you think he's going to be an NBA starter.

Everybody Else:


Sindarius Thornwell - Thornwell is likely not going to go until at least halfway through the second round, which is the part of the draft where a bunch of players will get drafted who won't even make it to the NBA. Why not take a shot on the guy who single-handedly dragged South Carolina to the Final Four and was one of the most efficient players in the nation this past season, on both sides of the ball. Also, despite being a senior, Thornwell showed significant improvement year over year at South Carolina, which suggests he might just be a late developer. That's got to be worth a mid-second round flyer.

Chris Boucher - Boucher is one of the most talented shot blockers I've ever seen, and he's a decent offensive player as well. I'm not sure if he'll ever develop the offensive game to be an NBA starter, but his defensive arsenal makes him a bench weapon immediately. 


PJ Dozier - Scouts love the idea of a 6'7" point guard, but Dozier is a project who almost certainly is going to need significant time in the D-League. He's a poor shooter and not a particularly good passer - he was basically the point guard by default for South Carolina because there were no other options. Dozier could potentially become a good player five years from now, but he's a lottery ticket at best.

VJ Beachem - It's hard to see where the upside is on Beachem, who was a good college player but is a 6'8" player who is not particularly athletic or a particularly good shooter. Just a classic NCAA basketball star destined for a long EuroLeague career.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Title Game Picking The Lines

There is a significant segment both of the media and of ordinary sports fans who simply cannot accept the idea of a "mid-major" program being on par with a blue blood. After all, these mid-majors aren't stacked with one-and-done guys like Duke or Kentucky, or getting steady 4- and 5-star guys like North Carolina or Kansas. They play too many white guys, damnit!

And so the excuses come thick and fast. We hear that they didn't play anybody in the regular season and got an unjustified seed:
But it doesn't matter because Gonzaga always falters in the NCAA Tournament:
And if Gonzaga wins? Meh, who did they play, anyway?
Of course, the idea that Gonzaga's path to the Final Four was any easier than North Carolina's path to the Final Four is simply not borne out by the facts (Gonzaga's route to the Final 4 is on the left while North Carolina's is on the right, with both images from

No matter what happens tonight, there will be some who will find a negative angle for Gonzaga - there will still be whining about how easy of a path they had to get here. But if they defeat 1 seed North Carolina in a title game, it will be a fitting topper for an extraordinary nearly-two-decade run for Gonzaga hoops as one of the premier programs in the nation.

It's been a weird NCAA Tournament picking the spread, and easily my worst performance ever, but let's do this one more time:

Saturday ATS: 0-2-0
2017 Tournament ATS: 32-31-3 (51%)
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

Gonzaga (+1) over North Carolina: This is a "public" line, as they say. Most every computer rating, including Pomeroy, Sagarin, and BPI all have Gonzaga as a narrow favorite here. And Gonzaga has played better throughout the NCAA Tournament thus far.

As has been obvious for a long time, the way to beat North Carolina is to neutralize them on the glass, and if you can't do that then you need to shoot the lights out from deep (North Carolina was dead last in the ACC in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio, so if you get hot from behind the arc they won't do much to slow you down). Gonzaga certainly has the size to withstand North Carolina and they are a solid defensive rebounding team, though not a great one. The fact that North Carolina does not draw a lot of fouls should help Gonzaga's front line stay in tact more than it was during their foul-prone game against South Carolina.

Defensively, North Carolina certainly has the size to throw at Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins. As noted above, North Carolina is far more vulnerable to outside shooting than paint scoring, and Gonzaga is a solid shooting team but hardly great. It's trite to say this, but if Gonzaga shoots well then they likely win this game but if they go cold then they probably won't.

In the end, I think Gonzaga is just a good value here. They are likely the better team, have been playing better over the last few weeks, and match up reasonably well in terms of personnel. They are my pick to win.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Final Four Picking The Lines

After having so many strong teams that just didn't quite have the breaks go their way, it's nice to see Gonzaga finally break through and make a Final Four. They've had to deal with "Well who did they beat, anyway?" "They'd struggle to go .500 in a real conference" garbage every season.

NCAA Tournament results, of course, prove nothing. South Carolina made the Final Four, too, and they barely even deserved to make the NCAA Tournament at all. But Gonzaga was #1 in Pomeroy for a reason, and their ungodly +0.37 PPP advantage in WCC play was impressive for a reason. Anything can happen in a small sample size, and if Gonzaga had fallen in the Second Round to Northwestern then this still would have been a great Gonzaga team, but it was inevitable that one of these years they'd finally have the lucky breaks fall in their direction.

Gonzaga is, unsurprisingly, the gambling favorite to win the NCAA Tournament right now. Even if you don't believe in the advanced computer ratings which have Gonzaga is the best team in the Final Four, the fact is that Gonzaga has a significantly softer Final Four opponent than North Carolina does. Mark Few might never have a better chance to win a national title than he does right now.

Sunday ATS: 1-1-0
2017 Tournament ATS: 32-29-3 (52%)
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

Gonzaga (-7) over South Carolina: South Carolina has to regress to the mean at some point right? Right?... Anyway, if there's one area of South Carolina's run that has been most surprising it has been their offensive explosion, pouring in 1.17 PPP against a difficult NCAA Tournament schedule after scoring just 1.00 PPP in SEC play. This has been due to a combination of factors, including both offensive rebounding and a high free throw rate. Gonzaga certainly has the size and skill to limit those two areas, though of course they have to score, too. The test for South Carolina will be how their post defense, which isn't particularly deep, handles Gonzaga's massive front line. Przemek Karnowski could have a monster game.

North Carolina (-5) over Oregon: This is a big Vegas spread, but understandable. It's become clear that the Chris Boucher injury isn't going to sink Oregon (he had lost his role in the starting lineup and seen his minutes decline even before getting hurt), but Oregon's front line has a major match-up problem here. North Carolina's offense is heavily dependent on offensive rebounding, having led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage while finishing just 10th in ACC play in both 3P% and eFG% shooting. Oregon finished just 9th in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding percentage. That said, Oregon has a big outside shooting advantage, having hit 38% of their three-pointers this season, including 43% during their NCAA Tournament run. North Carolina was dead last in the ACC in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio. So if Oregon wins, it'll be because they got hot behind the arc. It's a realistic scenario, but not one I'm willing to bet on.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Elite 8 Day 2 Picking The Lines

Anytime Bill Self loses in the NCAA Tournament, the Bill Self #HotTakes fire out from the people in the media that you expect:
I've debunked these sorts of narratives before, and the way to analyze NCAA Tournament performance is to use Performance Against Seed Expectation. How has Self done? As a Kansas coach, he's been expected to win 37.4 games and has won 33. If we throw in his other coaching stops he's been expected to win 45.3 games and has won 43. In other words, he's won ever so slightly fewer games than expected against some extraordinarily good seeds. In 14 seasons he's had a 1 seed seven times and has never been below a 4 seed. That is remarkable.

So don't fall for these sorts of dumb narratives about coaches. The reason Self's tournament losses are always upsets is because he's always favored. The coach who has the most losses in upsets, or who loses the most in late NCAA Tournament rounds, is by definition a fantastic coach. You've got to get to those games to lose them.

Anyway, let's get to today's games:

Yesterday ATS: 2-0-0
2017 Tournament ATS: 31-28-3 (53%)
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

Florida (-3.5) over South Carolina: Rather than breaking down match-ups, you really just have to ask yourself if you believe in South Carolina. Because South Carolina has played amazingly well for three games, but it kind of came out of nowhere:

Both Kansas and Xavier had been playing out of their minds for three games, and both regressed in their Elite 8 game. That doesn't mean South Carolina necessarily will regress too, but it's a reminder that "momentum" is not real, and a three game explosion is more than likely an anomaly. South Carolina's defense is excellent, of course, but the difference between a defense that gave up 0.93 PPP in SEC play and one that gave up 0.94 PPP in SEC play is not significant. Florida is the better team.

Kentucky (+2.5) over North Carolina: With two teams that play very high tempos and that score efficiently, this could be a very high scoring game unless John Calipari successfully slows the game down the way that he did against UCLA. I'm going with Kentucky here because I'm not exactly sure why North Carolina is supposed to be the better team. Statistically the two teams were almost exactly even this season. Also, as good as North Carolina's offense has been, a lot of their success has come from out-athleting teams - they led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage but were just 10th in the ACC in eFG% and 12th in FT%. If Kentucky can keep North Carolina contained on the glass (the Wildcats led the SEC in defensive rebounding percentage) then I like their chances to win.outright.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Elite 8 Day 1 Picking The Lines

Just as we all expected, the game of the night was Wisconsin/Florida rather than Kentucky/UCLA.

Of course, the media narrative on Kentucky/UCLA is all wrong:
The reality is that Kentucky allowed 1.15 PPP last night while allowing 1.17 PPP back on December 3rd. The difference was that there were 83 possessions on December 3rd compared to just 65 possessions last night. What Kentucky did was grind that game down to a halt, figuring that a half court game would benefit them more than UCLA, and it worked out.

To be fair, I'm not that sure we can expect long-time major television college basketball analysts to know the difference between what good defense and slow tempo looks like. But, sure, "the eye test" is a reliable metric, you guys.

Interestingly enough, this had been easily the highest tempo team that John Calipari has coached at Kentucky. Not only was 65 possessions the third slowest game that UCLA had played this season, but it was also the 3rd slowest game that Kentucky had played this season.

Yesterday ATS 2-2-0
2017 Tournament ATS: 29-28-3 (51%)
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

Gonzaga (-8) over Xavier: This spread seems large, yet Sagarin has it at 9 points and Pomeroy has it as 10. And, of course, Xavier's games with Edmond Sumner are still inflating their rating. Xavier has looked great so far this NCAA Tournament, of course, but they've also benefited from some outside shooting luck. What about the match-ups? Xavier certainly has the size to match Gonzaga defensively, but I worry about their ability to score. A big reason they've been able to score efficiently without Sumner has been their ability to get easy baskets off of offensive rebounds and in and around the paint, but Gonzaga's length and defensive tenacity forces opponents further away from the basket. Xavier is only a 34.9% three-point shooting team.

Oregon (+6.5) over Kansas: Kansas has played out of their minds for their three NCAA Tournament games, including probably their best performance of the entire season in the Sweet 16 against Purdue. Is it worth it to believe that they have radically improved over the last two weeks? Probably not. In the end, I don't think either of these defenses really matches up particularly well with the opposing offenses. Both teams shoot well from beyond the arc and neither defends the perimeter particularly well. Even without Chris Boucher, Oregon's interior defense is still fairly strong, and Kansas's lack of a true post scorer could limit them in the paint. The reason I'm picking Oregon here is because I like their chances of grinding this into a low-scoring game, and keeping it close late.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Sweet 16 Day 2 Picking The Lines

It's going to take some time to process just what Kansas is doing this NCAA Tournament. They are scoring an ungodly 1.34 PPP over three games after scoring just 1.13 PPP in Big 12 play. Their best offensive efficiency in Big 12 play this season was 1.27 PPP while their worst offensive efficiency in the NCAA Tournament this far has been 1.28 PPP.

Before you say "momentum", if teams could carry "momentum" from game to game then this hot streak wouldn't have even happened, since Kansas had actually slid to a season-worst 10th in the Pomeroy ratings at the end of the regular season. This hot streak is unsustainable long term, of course, but there is no more "long term". As we saw with Villanova last season, it's not that unprecedented for a team to get really hot for six straight games. If Kansas keeps scoring like they've been scoring the last three games, they're going to be almost impossible for anybody to beat.

Let's get to today's games:

Yesterday ATS: 2-1-1
2017 Tournament ATS: 27-26-3 (51%)
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

Butler (+7.5) over North Carolina: North Carolina is the better team, but this is an awfully big spread considering how good Butler is. Rating systems like Sagarin and Pomeroy have the true line closer to 4 points. North Carolina likes to get easy baskets off of offensive rebounds and in transition, yet Butler is strong both on the defensive glass and with transition defense. I expect this game to be slower paced than North Carolina likes it, and for this game to be decided in the final minute.

Baylor (-3.5) over South Carolina: So do we really believe that South Carolina is suddenly as good as they've looked the last two games? Because it came out of nowhere, with them having gone 3-6 down the stretch of the season. Sindarius Thornwell is obviously a fantastic player, but South Carolina's offense as a whole is really ugly (1.00 PPP in SEC play). As strong as their defense is, their one weakness is on the defensive glass, where they were just 9th in SEC play. Baylor led the Big 12 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. And so even if both teams struggle to find open shots, I expect Baylor's advantage in easy put-back baskets to be the difference here.

Kentucky (+1) over UCLA: With two blue chip programs, two teams playing at blur-fast tempos, and two squads with elite offenses, this is going to be the premier game of the night for television ratings. I like Kentucky here for two reasons, besides the fact that their defense is a lot better. The first is that Kentucky has always had a strong perimeter defense under John Calipari and this year is no different - they will be able to run UCLA's shooters off the three-point line better than most. Second of all, UCLA is the significantly weaker rebounding team. So to me, the only way UCLA wins is if they shoot significantly better from outside. 

Wisconsin (+1.5) over Florida: In contrast to the Kentucky/UCLA game it will be up against on television, expect a slow-tempo, defensive battle. Wisconsin led the Big Ten in defensive efficiency while Florida's defense was rated by Pomeroy as the 3rd best in the entire nation. I do think that Wisconsin has two advantages in this game. First of all, Florida's defense is best at preventing three-pointers, yet Wisconsin's offense tends to work inside-out and is not particularly dependent on outside shots. Second, Florida has struggled with defensive rebounding since losing John Egbunu, and Wisconsin is very strong on the offensive glass. Wisconsin is vulnerable to teams that can put them in foul trouble, but Florida just doesn't draw a lot of fouls, and they were just 9th in the SEC in offensive FTRate. In my opinion, Wisconsin is the slight favorite to win this game outright.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sweet 16 Day 1 Picking The Lines

This NCAA Tournament has lacked huge upsets and buzzer beaters, but it has been played at a really high level of basketball. In general, the sport is just getting better and better each year as the talent pool grows deeper, but the lack of upsets also played a role in keeping the big boys in more games.

And in the end, the high quality of basketball has just made this a really entertaining product. We don't need shocking upsets when we can watch powers like Kentucky/Wichita State and Wisconsin/Villanova trading punches at a high level for 40 minutes. And as we head into the penultimate weekend of the season, it's nothing but high quality of basketball ahead. And hey, who knows, maybe we'll still get a buzzer beater, too.

Sunday ATS: 3-5-0
2017 Tournament ATS: 25-25-2 (50%)
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

Oregon (+1.5) over Michigan: This is a fair line, as most computer ratings have a healthy Oregon as a slight favorite (Oregon, of course, is missing Chris Boucher). I don't think the Boucher absence will matter nearly as much as usual against Michigan, however, as the Wolverines are almost exclusively a perimeter shooting team. Oregon's perimeter defense is not great, but acceptable (7th in the Pac-12 in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio). Michigan has been playing remarkably well for the past couple of weeks, and maybe they will keep it up and Derrick Walton will continue his Kemba Walker impression, but if they don't then they don't particularly match up well with Oregon's weaknesses, and the Ducks are probably the better team.

Gonzaga (-3) over West Virginia: This line is small enough, particularly with the fact that Gonzaga shoots 73% at the free throw line if they need to lock up a game late, that I'd just pick whoever you think is going to win this game. West Virginia is a fantastic team as far as 4 seeds go. That said, Gonzaga is a strong 1 seed, and they have a team that is built to withstand Press Virginia. They have depth, experience, and savvy in a backcourt led by Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, and Josh Perkins, and they have the front court length and talent to protect the defensive glass. This West Virginia team is more capable of scoring efficiently in the half court than other recent vintages of Press Virginia have been, but still not good enough to win a controlled-style game against a team as good as the Zags.

Purdue (+5) over Kansas: I chose Purdue outright in my bracket and I'm going to stick with that pick here. Kansas had an incredible game against Michigan State, though the final score was deceptive as to how big the margin was for most of the 40 minutes. And overall, the Jayhawks came into the NCAA Tournament rated as easily the weakest 1 seed. As a match-up, Purdue's biggest problem is going to be staying in front of Frank Mason. But Kansas's front court size is a concern as well, against a Purdue front line that had its way with Iowa State. As good as Josh Jackson is, Caleb Swanigan is better.

Xavier (+7.5) over Arizona: Arizona is the better team, and Xavier's demolition of Florida State was probably a bit of a fluke, but this is an awfully large Vegas line. Xavier has a ton of length and size, and they will be able to match Arizona body-for-body inside, even if they don't have a big man quite as skilled as Lauri Markkanen. Offensively, Xavier passes the ball really well, and they have been surprisingly efficient offensively since losing point guard Edmond Sumner. A Xavier win would be an upset, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them play close enough to cover in a defeat.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Day 6 Picking The Lines

We had all hoped that the chalk-heavy first round meant that we would have some spectacular games in the second round, and we had a taste of that yesterday. Wisconsin/Villanova was the standout game, of course, but Gonzaga/Northwestern and a couple of other games were also excellent.

In a lot of ways, however, Saturday was just an appetizer for Sunday. Kentucky/Wichita State is the headliner, but Louisville/Michigan and Michigan State/Kansas are both high quality games between elite programs, and we have several other potentially really fun match-ups. Get ready to make a dent in your couch today.

Yesterday ATS: 4-4-0
2017 Tournament ATS: 22-20-2 (52%)
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

Louisville (-3.5) over Michigan: If Michigan shoots the lights out like they did against Oklahoma State, obviously they can win this game, but if the shots aren't falling at above season average rates, they don't match up well against Louisville. The Cardinals are ferocious defensively in the paint and will make it difficult for Derrick Walton to be as effective as he usually is with the dribble drive. Louisville should also be able to take advantage of Michigan's small front line on the glass. Meanwhile, Louisville is vulnerable against teams that attack and draw contact (Louisville was dead last in the ACC in defensive FTRate), but Michigan is just not that style of team.

Kentucky (-4.5) over Wichita State: This is a potential Revenge Game for 8-seed Kentucky knocking off 1-seed Wichita State three seasons ago, although none of the regulars on Wichita State's roster actually played in that game. As good as Wichita State has been, I'm worried about Kentucky's length here. Wichita State is a 40% three-point shooting team, but Kentucky's perimeter defense is good at running teams off of the three-point line (as John Calipari teams almost always are).

Michigan State (+8) over Kansas: Both of these teams had uncharacteristically good performances and surprisingly large blowouts in their first round games. This is an awfully big spread, however, against a Michigan State team that has clearly been playing their best basketball of the season over the last month, with a fully healthy and dangerous Miles Bridges, and with the development of a really nice freshman crop. In addition, Michigan State's strong defensive rebounding is going to put pressure on Kansas to hit outside shots. The Jayhawks certainly can shoot well (40.6% on threes this season), but if the shots don't fall then this is a game that they can lose.

Arkansas (+11) over North Carolina: Even if Joel Berry plays, it's unlikely that he'll be 100%. If we believe this late season Arkansas spurt (they've risen from 59th to 38th in the Pomeroy ratings over the last five weeks) then this is too large of a spread even for a fully healthy Tar Heels roster. Arkansas doesn't have any match-up advantages, but they're a solid team and I'd be surprised if they get completely trucked.

Rhode Island (+5.5) over Oregon: Defensively, Rhode Island matches up well with Oregon. The Ducks were 2nd in the Pac-12 in 3PA/FGA ratio and hit threes at a 42% clip, yet Rhode Island led the Atlantic Ten in both defensive 3PA/FGA ratio and 3P% (whichever of those you choose to believe matters). If Oregon is not scoring particularly efficiently, and with a defense that has obviously taken a significant hit without Chris Boucher, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Rhode Island wins this game outright.

Baylor (-6.5) over USC: USC has oddly been getting a lot of hype the last couple of days. I think it's because so many people really didn't see them play this season, being buried late at night and on the Pac-12 Network. And yes, they played well the last two games, but both games were decided in the final minute, and this is the same USC team that entered the NCAA Tournament having gone 2-9 vs KenPom Tier A/B teams since Christmas. Baylor's defense, and their length in particular, are a further difficulty level from either Providence or SMU. Baylor's elite rebounding (they led the Big 12 in both offensive and defensive rebounding efficiency) will challenge a USC team that was 10th in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding rate.

South Carolina (+7.5) over Duke: I'm trying my best not to overreact to that tremendous South Carolina second half against Marquette, where they simply looked better than they've looked all season long. But my real match-up concern here is Duke's ability to handle South Carolina's pressure defense, which led the SEC in both steal and turnover rates. Duke, as talented as they are on offense, does not have a real point guard, and they will potentially struggle with turnovers. If the Blue Devils get hot behind the arc, however, I'm skeptical that South Carolina's offense will be able to repeat anything like the 1.29 PPP that they poured in against Marquette.

Cincinnati (+4) over UCLA: I picked Cincinnati to win this game outright, and so I'm going to stick with my pick here. There are three reasons for that. First of all, UCLA is overrated, as Pomeroy has this game basically a toss-up (though Sagarin has the spread closer to 4). Second, UCLA's dependence on outside shooting makes me nervous, particularly against a defense as long and athletic as Cincinnati. Third, Cincinnati is an elite offensive rebounding team (20th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage), which could pose problems for a UCLA front line that is tall but not particularly physical. The counter-argument, of course, is that UCLA has the ability to put up points in bunches in a way that Cincinnati does not. If the Bruins get hot behind the arc, they can obviously defeat anybody.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Day 5 Picking The Lines

People are complaining about how chalky the NCAA Tournament has been. It's the first year without a 13+ seed in the second round since 2007, and even the 12 seed that won (Middle Tennessee) was favored in Vegas. But despite that, we have had some really good basketball games, and the lack of upsets sets us up for some absolutely fantastic second round match-ups. First round upsets are all fun and games until you end up spending your Saturday or Sunday watching a 12 and 13 seed playing each other. This weekend will, instead, be packed with great match-ups.

There are no bad teams left. Every team tipping off today has a legitimate argument that they deserve to be here, and should expect to be competitive. Let's get to the match-ups:

Yesterday ATS: 9-6-1
2017 Tournament ATS: 18-16-2 (53%)
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

West Virginia (-2.5) over Notre Dame: Notre Dame's depth and front court size are going to be tested by Press Virginia. Matt Farrell has been perhaps the most improved player in the nation this season, and his ability to take care of the ball against relentless pressure will be key to the Irish potentially winning this game. One other advantage that Notre Dame has is their 79.5% free throw shooting considering how much West Virginia fouls. But aside from their match-up advantages, West Virginia has simply been the better team this season.

Villanova (-6) over Wisconsin: This game is an interesting contrast in styles. On one hand, Villanova is going to struggle to defend both Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes in the post, as they just don't have much big man depth after Darryl Reynolds. On the other hand, Villanova's wings are so explosive and athletic that I'm not sure how Wisconsin can defend all of them either. Villanova is also a team that is awfully efficient offensively, while Wisconsin is a team that can get into a rut when their outside shots aren't falling (they were falling, of course, in that Virginia Tech game). In the end, it's a tough call on this spread. I'm going with Villanova because they hit 79.2% at the free throw line this season, so if they're winning at all in the final minute I think they'll hit enough free throws to cover.

Gonzaga (-11) over Northwestern: This is a big spread, but it's a fair spread. The difference in this game, more than anything, is Gonzaga's ridiculous size and height. In the first round, Dererk Pardon was able to defend 7-footer Luke Kornet by using his physicality and shoving the skinny Kornet out of the way, but that isn't going to fly against the monstrous Przemek Karnowski. Without much in the way out of outside shooting (Northwestern was 13th in the Big Ten with 30.9% three-point shooting in conference play), I expect Gonzaga's ownership of the paint to deliver a victory.

Xavier (+6.5) over Florida State: Florida State is the better team, but not by much, and this game could easily go down to the final possession. Florida State is a massive team, but they're vulnerable to teams that are aggressive in the paint. Xavier, who led the Big East in offensive rebounding rate and FTRate, fit that bill. That said, if there's a quick whistle for both teams, Florida State has significantly more depth.

Butler (-3.5) over Middle Tennessee: Middle Tennessee was a one point favorite against Minnesota, so it wasn't even an "upset" when they crushed Minnesota (that final score was deceptively close, to be honest). This Middle Tennessee team is awfully good, and it's a shame that RPI obsession would've relegated them to the NIT had they failed to win the Conference USA tournament. But Butler is not short-handed Minnesota, and their ability to pass the ball and executive on offense will challenge a Middle Tennessee defense that is not particularly strong inside. With a spread this small I'd only take Middle Tennessee if you really think they're going to win, and I expect Butler to pull this one out.

Saint Mary's (+5) over Arizona: I chose Saint Mary's to win this game outright in my bracket. Offensively, they are one of the most efficient teams in the nation, and can light up the scoreboard with 40% three-point shooting. Defensively, they have enough size to hang with Arizona. Jock Landale vs Lauri Markkanen will be a hell of a match-up. Despite the Vegas line, most computer ratings have this game significantly closer - basically a toss-up. I'll take the points.

Virginia (+2) over Florida: This is an Elite 8 game in the 2nd round. The two teams are 8th and 9th in the Pomeroy ratings at the moment, and both are among the best defensive teams in the nation. Considering that Florida will likely not be getting as many baskets as they usually get off of turnovers, this game will likely come down to whether or not Florida hits their outside shots at a high rate. This is definitely a game to enjoy, but it's not really one where anybody can have a strong opinion on who should be favored. Personally, I just think Virginia is a slightly better team than an Egbunu-less Florida.

Purdue (PK) over Iowa State: I took Purdue in my bracket simply because I think they're a really tough match-up for Iowa State. The size that they bring with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas is going to be so hard for Iowa State to deal with. Outside of 6'8" freshman Solomon Young, Iowa State's only big man is 6'5" Deonte Burton. And defensively, I'm not sure that I buy that Iowa State will have big mismatches with Burton against defenders like Haas - if it is Burton and not Monte Morris who is Iowa State's primary playmaker then that is a huge problem for the Cyclones. Purdue's three-point defense is very strong as well.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Day 4 Picking The Lines

It was a relatively quiet Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament. There were no significant upsets, no buzzer beaters, and really just a handful of tough finishes against the spread.

But don't get down, because we have a second day coming up, and we all know that we never have a super crazy day both days of the Round of 64. Besides, even a weak day of the NCAA Tournament early rounds is still a great day of hoops.

Remember as we head into games involving teams like Oklahoma State and Wichita State which are "KenPom darlings" that nothing that happens in the NCAA Tournament justifies or disproves anything. On any given day, any team can beat any other team, and one result simply does not a sensible narrative make. When a 15 seed defeats a 2 seed, nobody says that this proves that the 15 seed should have been seeded higher or that the RPI sucks for having the 2 seed so high, so if Wichita State or Oklahoma State loses today it says literally nothing about how accurate the computer ratings are.

Yesterday ATS: 7-8-1
2017 Tournament ATS: 9-10-1 (47%)
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

Oklahoma State (+2.5) over Michigan: I picked Oklahoma State to win this game outright. Oklahoma State has just been playing so well over the last month and has a point guard in Jawun Evans who can take over. Also, Oklahoma State's aggressive crashing of the glass will pose problems for a Michigan team that, despite a lot of height, doesn't really have a lot of "size" and can be out-muscled in the paint. Also, as a general rule of thumb, I like betting against teams that just pulled off miraculous conference tournament runs, as a form of statistical regression.

Baylor (-12.5) over New Mexico State: Statistically, Baylor is a hard team to figure out. New Mexico State relies heavily on second-chance points to score, and Baylor was just 201st in the nation in defensive rebounding rate, yet Baylor also led the Big 12 in defensive rebounding rate in conference play. Baylor has historically struggled at defensive rebounding under Scott Drew, but having watched them plenty this year I believe in the in-conference stats. The fact is that Baylor has played an inordinately large number of elite offensive rebounding teams. As good as New Mexico State's rebounding stats are, they've been inflated by playing in such a weak conference.

Seton Hall (+1) over Arkansas: For Arkansas to win this game, they need a huge performance from Moses Kingsley. Angel Delgado is a monster for Seton Hall, and if Kingsley gets in foul trouble then the Arkansas front line drops off in quality and size very quickly. Seton Hall's front line is very athletic and aggressive, and I don't know if Arkansas will be able to handle that. The Razorbacks were just 13th in the SEC in defensive rebounding rate.

Iona (+15) over Oregon: Flying across the country to play Oregon doesn't sound like fun, but at the same time it's hard to justify a 15 point spread. Sagarin has the spread at 16, but Pomeroy only has it at 13, and Chris Boucher is a massive loss. If Oregon covers, it'll likely be because Jordan Bell annihilated Iona on the glass. The Gaels had a miserable defensive rebounding performance in the MAAC title game, and so they'll need to clean that up.

Jacksonville State (+19.5) over Louisville: It's hard to totally justify a 19.5 point spread in a game that will likely be played at a slow tempo. Jacksonville State is a feisty team that both can get hot from outside and has a 7-footer who is a significant defensive presence. I wouldn't be completely shocked if Jacksonville State keeps this game competitive.

SMU (-6.5) over USC: This is a big spread, but if you believe the advanced metrics on SMU then the Mustangs are a good value here. In addition, SMU was 8th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and are going against a USC team that was 10th in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding percentage, despite a relatively tall front line. Jordan McLaughlin will be a match-up problem, but I'm skeptical that he's good enough to overcome SMU's overall talent advantage.

North Carolina (-26.5) over Texas Southern: Texas Southern is literally the shortest team in the nation (just one of their top six minute earners is over 6'4"), which might be a problem against a North Carolina team that has wings who are 6'8", and which led the ACC in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Obviously the backdoor cover is always an option in a game like this, but I'd be stunned if this isn't a rout.

Rhode Island (PK) over Creighton: Creighton hasn't dropped off too much without Mo Watson, but their offense has become more dependent on outside shooting. They hit 40% behind the arc this season, while finishing dead last in the Big East in both offensive rebounding and FTRate. Rhode Island's three-point defense led the Atlantic Ten, and they have a pair of athletic, aggressive front court players in Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson. In general, Rhode Island suffered through some injuries this season, but they've been fully healthy and rolling for over a month now, and have a chance to really open some eyes in the NCAA Tournament.

UC Davis (+23.5) over Kansas: I don't have strong feelings about this line, as it's fair and will likely come down to how garbage time plays out. I'm a little uncomfortable with Kansas in general, though. They've had a lot of luck in close games this season (11-3 in games decided by six points or fewer), and thus are rated as easily the weakest of the 1 seeds. Josh Jackson will be back, but his suspension was for an ugly situation, and the team will have his controversy swirling over them. I wouldn't be shocked if they underperform in this NCAA Tournament.

Dayton (+6) over Wichita State: I picked Wichita State to win this game, and believe that they'll likely win, but at some point it's worth remembering that this is a really good Dayton team that is explosive offensively. There's a particular concern because of Dayton's ability to drive and draw contact - Wichita State is a deep roster, but they can be foul prone (181st in the nation in defensive FTRate). This game could come down to the final shot.

Duke (-20) over Troy: This line is bigger than the computers put it, but there's a reason for that (and not just pro-Duke bias in public perception). Duke has suffered through a lot of injuries this season, but we knew all along that they had the most talented roster in the nation, and they've really showed it down the stretch. They are a better team than the computers say that they are, and I expect them to roll over Troy.

Cincinnati (-3.5) over Kansas State: Usually, Bruce Weber teams are excellent at defensive rebounding, but that is not so this year. Kansas State was 9th in the Big 12, and 296th in the nation, in defensive rebounding percentage. Gary Clark could potentially have a field day, particularly if DJ Johnson gets into foul trouble. With a Vegas line this small, just pick the team that you expect to win.

Michigan State (+2.5) over Miami-Florida: Michigan State is a freshman-heavy team, with freshmen making up four of the eight players in their regular rotation. Unsurprisingly, they've gotten better as the season has gone along, particularly after Miles Bridges got fully healthy. I picked them in my bracket simply because I think they're the better team right now.

Kentucky (-20) over Northern Kentucky: I don't have strong feelings about this spread. I chose Kentucky simply because the Wildcats have tended to out-athlete inferior opponents and run them off the court this season, rather than just letting them hang around.

Marquette (+1.5) over South Carolina: I chose Marquette to win this game in my bracket. South Carolina is a team with an ugly offense that has been in a slow fade for months, having gone just 3-7 vs Pomeroy Tier A/B opponents since January 20th. As a rule of thumb, I always like to bet against teams that are significantly over-seeded, and no team is more over-seeded in this year's bracket than South Carolina.

Kent State (+18.5) over UCLA: UCLA has become a very "public" team this season, so it's not surprising that the Vegas line is a 2-3 points away from where the computers have it. That said, there are no obvious mis-matches in this game aside from UCLA just being a better team, so I don't have strong opinions on this spread, other than just fading the public.

Day 3 Picking The Lines

In the First Four games I went 0-2 on 16/16 games and 2-0 on 11/11 games. I could probably craft some kind of small sample size narrative out of that if I really wanted to.

Anyway, the appetizers are over and the main course is here. The best sporting event in the world is getting ready to tip off with 16 games. Let's do this.

(on the off chance that you haven't finished your bracket yet, you can find my full bracket breakdown here)

Yesterday ATS: 1-1-0
2017 Tournament ATS: 2-2-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

Notre Dame (-6.5) over Princeton: As good as this Princeton team is, Notre Dame is a bad match-up for them. The Irish are very well coached, and will be prepared for the Princeton offense. At the same time, they are not dependent on the turnovers and free throws that Princeton is so good at taking away. Bonzie Colson also seems like a massive mismatch considering the Princeton front line.

Virginia (-7.5) over UNC Wilmington: Virginia is not a team that tends to play down to its competition. Their defensive pressure is so fierce, particularly against a small team that doesn't hit outside shots particularly well. UNC Wilmington did get some easy baskets by leading the Colonial in defensive turnover rate, but Virginia is always solid with the ball.

Winthrop (+11) over Butler: The line is very fair in this game and I don't have strong feelings one way or the other. Butler is obviously very likely to win, but Winthrop is a team that can be pesky, particularly on the defensive end. Butler does not have a particularly formidable front line as far as power teams go, and Winthrop has a strong defensive interior presence in 6'8" Xavier Cooks. I wouldn't be surprised if this game is very competitive at halftime.

South Dakota State (+22.5) at Gonzaga: South Dakota State obviously isn't winning this game, but it will be fascinating to watch Mike Daum play against the huge Gonzaga front court. His athleticism and range will make him a difficult defensive match-up, as I'm not quite sure who Przemek Karnowski is going to be able to defend on this roster. South Dakota State got blown off the court by California and Wichita State back in non-conference play, but their level of play is so much higher now than it was a few months ago. They are an awfully difficult 16 seed, as far as potential 16 seed draws go.

West Virginia (-14) over Bucknell: Bucknell is a team that has struggled with turnovers and which has an undersized front line that doesn't rebound well. That makes West Virginia's frenetic press and offensive rebounding attack a nightmare match-up. I'd be stunned if Bucknell made a serious run at winning this game.

East Tennessee State (+10.5) over Florida: East Tennessee State is just an awfully dangerous 13 seed, having won at Mississippi State and nearly taking out Tennessee. Their ability to create fast break opportunities and draw contact could test a short-handed Florida front line that has been missing John Egbunu for close to a month. With the superb senior TJ Cromer as primary playmaker, East Tennessee State is built like a classic March Cinderella.

Middle Tennessee (-1) over Minnesota: I picked this 12/5 "upset" in my bracket, as much as an upset as it would be for a really good Middle Tennessee team to beat a Minnesota team that just lost Akeem Springs to a season-ending injury. Middle Tennessee picked up some "bad" losses, as mid-majors tend to do through random chance, but they're an awfully impressive 6-1 vs Pomeroy Tier A/B opponents, including a road win at Ole Miss and a 23 point smoking of Vanderbilt. They are so balanced and steady on both sides of the ball, and I worry about Minnesota's ability to score consistently against any kind of decent defense.

Vanderbilt (-2) over Northwestern: Vanderbilt is a tough match-up for Northwestern in two key ways. First, Luke Kornet is going to be a hassle for a Northwestern front line that gets pretty small after Dererk Pardon. Second, Vanderbilt's tendency to launch tons of three-pointers and to score in bunches presents a problem for a Northwestern team that likes to grind out low-scoring games. The Wildcats were just 12th in tempo and 9th in offensive efficiency in Big Ten play. If Northwestern wins this game, it'll likely be because Vanderbilt's outside shots aren't falling.

Xavier (+2) over Maryland: Xavier isn't the Top 20 team that they were with Edmond Sumner, but they've righted the ship over the last couple of weeks and are playing solid basketball. Maryland, of course, had yet another season where luck in close games led them to finish higher in the standings than where their statistical peripherals said that they were. My biggest concern for Maryland in this game is their front line holding off a Xavier team that led the Big East in offensive rebounding rate and FTRate in conference play.

Villanova (-26.5) over Mount St. Mary's: It's hard to have strong feelings about a game with a spread like this. Villanova could dominate most of the game and Mount St. Mary's could backdoor cover. The reason I'm choosing Villanova is because they have a history of not fooling around with inferior opponents, and because I think they'll come out motivated to look good considering how disrespected they've been in the media heading into the Tournament. They're perhaps the best team in the tourney and they are the defending national champs, yet you basically never hear about them.

Saint Mary's (-4.5) over VCU: VCU can still force turnovers and score easy baskets, but it's not the #HAVOC of old. These days they get more of their easy buckets from second chance opportunities than off of their defensive pressure, with a couple of ferocious big men in Mo Allie-Cox and Justin Tillman. But Saint Mary's has a ton of front court talent and actually led the nation in defensive rebounding rate. None of VCU's top seven minute earners are over 6'7", which will make Jock Landale a match-up problem.

Vermont (+10) over Purdue: Vermont is perhaps the most dangerous of the 12/13 seeds, and I expect them to give Purdue trouble. And that is particularly because Vermont's three-point defense is so good, and because their front line is fairly big and strong as far as America East teams go. Purdue should win, but don't be surprised if Vermont keeps this one very competitive into the second half.

Florida State (-12) over Florida Gulf Coast: On Selection Sunday, it was odd to see the CBS folks talking about Florida Gulf Coast like this is the Andy Enfield team. But this is a very different team these days. They're no longer #DunkCity, they're now the team playing at the 261st fastest tempo in the nation, and which led the Atlantic Sun in defensive efficiency in conference play. The problem is that Florida Gulf Coast depends on offensive rebounding for offense, as they were dead last in the Atlantic Sun in 3P% shooting. Florida State's defensive rebounding isn't good, but they have a massive size advantage, and should get plenty of offensive rebounds themselves. Without a rebounding advantage, I don't see how FGCU competes in this game.

Wisconsin (-5.5) over Virginia Tech: A lot of this game will come down to what you believe three-point defense is. Virginia Tech, of course, depends heavily on the three, as they were 3rd in the ACC in 3PA/FGA rate and hit them at a 41.4% clip in conference play. Wisconsin opponents shot 38% behind the arc this season, which puts them 305th in the nation. Modern analytics generally has found that 3P% defense is almost entirely luck, and that the real measure of three-point defense is 3PA/FGA rate, and Wisconsin was 4th best in the Big Ten there. My regular readers, of course, know that I'm with the analytic orthodoxy here. And if Virginia Tech isn't pouring in threes, they will get annihilated on the boards, and just don't have a defense capable of stopping an efficient offense like Wisconsin has. I'll take the Badgers.

Arizona (-17) over North Dakota: Being a foul-prone team, as North Dakota is, is never a good sign against an Arizona team with a vast athleticism advantage and which also hit 75.8% at the line as a team this season. Also, North Dakota's defense was strongest in its ability to force turnovers, and as a general rule I'm skeptical of high defensive turnover rates from small leagues against elite major conference talent.

Iowa State (-6.5) over Nevada: Like the Wisconsin/Virginia Tech game above, this game comes down to what you believe three-point defense is. Nevada held opponents to 30.7% three-point shooting, which was 15th best in the nation, but they were just 7th in the Mountain West in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio. Iowa State is an outside shooting team that I expect will get a lot of open shots. The Cyclones are vulnerable to big teams that can get after the glass, but Nevada is not that kind of team.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Day 2 Picking The Lines

There's always something just a little weird and unsatisfying about First Four games. They are fun to watch, and both of the games last night were at least entertaining, but the stakes just don't feel the same. I know that it's official an "NCAA Tournament victory", but it doesn't feel that way.

Regardless, we have one more night with a couple of games before the real fun starts tomorrow at noon.

Also, remember that my full NCAA Tournament previews game by game are all posted here. Use that to guide your bracket picking.

Let's get to the games:

Yesterday ATS: 1-1-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

North Carolina Central (-3.5) over UC Davis: North Carolina Central is, from a raw talent perspective, just a better team than UC Davis. And computer ratings aside, North Carolina Central went out and repeatedly played major conference teams competitively, including winning at Missouri and nearly winning at Ohio State. UC Davis only played California, and they got smoked. In addition, UC Davis was a team that depended heavily on FT shooting, leading the Big West in FTRate. That is a dependency that tends to lead to a higher-than-normal homecourt advantage, and UC Davis was 9-0 at home versus 5-9 on the road.

USC (-2.5) over Providence: Generally with a spread as small as 2.5 points I just pick the team I think will win. Providence was an ugly 5-9 team away from home this season, and is a decent all-around team that just doesn't excel anywhere. USC has a player in Jordan McLaughlin who can dominate the ball and who I trust more than any other player in this game. I don't have any strong feelings about picking this game, but Providence simply does not have an obvious match-up advantage, so I'll take USC.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How Well Did The Computers Predict The Field?

This is my annual post where I break down the computer numbers of the bubble teams. Three ratings are included this year:

RPI (naturally)
BPI Strength of Record (a measure of resume strength)
Pomeroy (a measure of team strength)

Average Rating Error is the root squared mean of the difference between each team's seed and where the team's seed would be if ranked strictly by the rating system (looking at 1-11 seeds only).

Below that is listed the ten lowest-rated at-large teams and the ten highest-rated non-NCAA Tournament teams in each computer system.

Note that all of these numbers are as of Monday morning (i.e. they include all of the results up through Selection Sunday but do not include any post-Selection Sunday tournaments).

Average Rating Error:
1.59 - BPI SOR
2.21 - RPI
2.66 - Pomeroy


Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):

33. Illinois State (1)
45. UT-Arlington (6)
49. Monmouth (4)
52. Georgia (2)
53. California (1)
54. Houston (2)
58. Akron (7)
60. Belmont (7)
62. Charleston (5)
64. Illinois (2)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
61. Marquette (10)
57. Kansas St (11)
56. Providence (11)
51. Northwestern (8)
50. Michigan State (9)
48. Virginia Tech (9)
44. Seton Hall (9)
43. South Carolina (7)
42. Miami-Florida (8)
41. USC (11)

  BPI Strength of Record

Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):

45. Illinois State (1)
51. Clemson (2)
53. TCU (4)
54. Georgia (2)
55. Monmouth (4)
57. Indiana (3)
58. Syracuse (1)
59. Pittsburgh (-)
60. Illinois (2)
61. UT-Arlington (6)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
52. Vanderbilt (9)
48. Michigan State (9)
46. Marquette (10)
44. Providence (11)
43. USC (11)
42. VCU (10)
41. Dayton (7)
40. South Carolina (7)
37. Kansas State (11)
36. Wake Forest (11)


Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):

34. Clemson (2)
41. TCU (4)
42. Indiana (3)
46. Texas Tech (-)
47. Utah (3)
49. Houston (2)
50. Syracuse (1)
51. Illinois State (1)
54. Alabama (3)
57. Georgia (2)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
61. USC (11)
56. Providence (11)
53. Seton Hall (9)
52. VCU (10)
45. Maryland (6)
44. Virginia Tech (9)
43. Michigan State (9)
40. Xavier (11)
39. Northwestern (8)
38. Arkansas (8)


Remember, we're judging resumes here
In order to deny the power that RPI has over the Selection Committee, it's often pointed out that some highly rated RPI teams get left out. This year, for example, RPI #33 Illinois State got left out. Last year, four RPI Top 40 teams got left out (#30 St. Bonaventure, #34 Akron, #38 Saint Mary's, and #39 Princeton). The year before there were also four RPI Top 40 teams left out (#29 Colorado State, #34 Temple, #45 Tulsa, and #46 Old Dominion).

Remember that we're judging resume strength here, and even the Selection Committee is aware that the RPI is a horrible measure of that. The RPI ranking itself has never been the primary seeding mechanism, and so it's not a shock that BPI Strength of Resume correlates better with NCAA Tournament seed than RPI.

That said, it was surprising to me just how close the BPI Strength of Resume was to seed. Just one team outside the Top 50 earned an at-large bid, while just one team inside the Top 50 was denied. Looking at the Average Rating Error, it's clear that BPI Strength of Record was far, far more accurate than RPI.

The RPI Is Screwing Mid-Majors As Badly As Ever
You might have noticed something above. Notice how all of those RPI Top 40 teams that got left out were mid-majors? In fact, in the nine years that I've been doing these "How Well Did The Computers Predict The Field" posts, 16 teams from the RPI Top 40 have been denied, and all of them have been from outside the Power 6 conferences. Why? Because the bracket is dominated by RPI peripherals.

RPI Top 50 and RPI Top 100 wins have and will continue to dominate the process. Not only is this unfair to mid-majors who cannot get RPI Top 50 opponents on their homecourt, but by using RPI Top 50 wins as a counting stat rather than as a rate stat, mid-majors are penalized twice (why exactly is a 6-8 record vs the RPI Top 50 seen as profoundly more impressive than a 3-4 record vs the RPI Top 50?).
Winning on the road at decent mid-majors is very hard, and you don't get rewarded for it. Mid-majors like Illinois State are forced to play those games, and so Illinois State suffered "bad" losses, all away from home and against decent mid-majors (San Francisco, Tulsa, and Murray State). Major conference teams avoid those games like the plague.

Syracuse was able to pile up RPI Top 50 home wins over the likes of Wake Forest and Miami-Florida. Illinois State would've been in the bracket easily if they could have ever gotten back-end RPI Top 50 teams like Wake Forest and Miami-Florida to show up on their home court. The system isn't fair, and we know that it isn't fair, but it's going to continue until the Selection Committee is willing to admit the problem.

Worst Bracket Mistakes
Once we understand that we're measuring resumes here, it's clear that the biggest snub was not Syracuse (the team that ESPN was trying hard to push), but Illinois State. Syracuse had its 6 RPI Top 50 wins only, and the rest of its resume was not even particularly close to at-large worthy. It's also clear that mid-majors like Monmouth and UT-Arlington deserved actual consideration. I threw UT-Arlington into my bracket because I thought that the Selection Committee would be under pressure to add a goofy mid-major rather than using the last spot on a thoroughly mediocre Kansas State resume, and UT-Arlington's resume scratched a lot of typical Selection Committee itches, but it was not to be. They had no time for mid-majors this year.

You want to know how badly the Selection Committee hated mid-majors this year? Even by Strength of Record, if we ignore how good a team was, Wichita State showed up 30th in the BPI SOR ratings. This means that they deserved an 8 seed even if we completely and utterly disregarded how good they are.  Yet they got a 10 seed. Once again: The idea that the advanced analytical models are actually being used in the Selection Committee room is utter garbage.

An underrated bracket mistake is Vanderbilt, who had the weakest resume in the at-large field according to BPI yet earned a 9 seed. Why? Because of a non-conference strength of schedule and an overall strength of schedule ranked #1 in the nation by RPI. The problem is that Pomeroy rated their strength of schedule just 33rd in non-conference play and 17th overall. Vanderbilt did a great job manipulating their RPI SOS with lots of games against the likes of Bucknell, Belmont, and Chattanooga. I've written before about how coaches can easily manipulate this very key metric. The RPI doesn't just screw up the bracket because of RPI Top 50/100 wins, but also because of RPI SOS. It's a virus in the system that infects everything.

Day 1 Picking The Lines

This is Day 1 of my daily "Picking The Lines" posts. Remember that gambling is for fun only, and this is really just a blogging gimmick to talk about each game. Never bet significant sums of money on sporting events.

As always, the Vegas lines used will be the VegasInsider consensus line at the time the post goes live on the blog.

Anyway, it's time to get this tournament started. Join in the comments section on these posts daily to talk about the games as they happen, or tweet at me.

Let's get to the games:

2016 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2010-15 ATS: 220-167-11 (57%)

New Orleans (-1.5) over Mount St. Mary's: You have to be a gambling degenerate to actually throw real money on a 16/16 play-in game. That said, with a spread this small I'm just going to pick whoever I think is going to win the game. New Orleans isn't just the team higher rated in the computers, but they're a more athletic team, with the ability to apply a lot of defensive pressure and to get to the line in a way that Mount St. Mary's simply can't.

Kansas State (PK) over Wake Forest: Kansas State is a team that I didn't think deserved a spot in the NCAA Tournament due to a very mediocre non-conference strength of schedule, conference W-L record, and RPI Top 50/100 records. That said, they are better than their resume, suffering from a little bit of bad luck in close games. Also, the Big 12 was just ridiculously strong, with no opportunities for easy victories. Both of these teams have mismatches, from Kansas State's pressure defense to Wake Forest's John Collins inside, but when all else fails I give the coaching advantage to Bruce Weber. Criticize Weber's recruiting all you want, but he's one of the best game coaches that you'll find in Division I basketball.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Complete 2017 NCAA Tournament Analysis

Below, you will find links to my bracket breakdown. I choose the winner of each game, by region and then in the Final Four itself. Don't expect a breakdown of each game, but rather some larger observations about what to watch out for, what to focus on in your bracket pool, and where I would recommend taking risks and chances.

Look for the picks against the spread each day on the blog.  I will be picking each game against the VegasInsider consensus line spread.

Complete Final Four Analysis

My Picks:

2. Duke over 1. Gonzaga
1. North Carolina over 4. Purdue

2. Duke over 1. North Carolina

Don't get too cute: Want to pick a 10 seed to the Sweet 16 or a 4 seed to the Final Four? Have some fun, particularly when you are in a pool with a lot of contenders or where upsets are rewarded. But I generally recommend staying away from low seeds for your title game teams, because you really risk having your bracket blow up in your face during the opening weekend. The fact is that the Final Four is likely to be heavy on 1 and 2 seeds, so don't fight it. If some 11 seed makes the Final Four, the odds are that you aren't going to get lucky enough to pick that team anyway.

Look for balance: In general when picking Final Four teams, look for teams that are in the Top 20 of both Pomeroy offensive and defensive efficiency, or at least something right around there. While some unbalanced teams have managed to get through to a championship by being incredible on one side of the ball, history says that you want to pick balanced teams, as they are less likely to be undone by a single thing going wrong. An example team that I would stay away from, for example, is UCLA.

Bracket difficulty matters: When two teams you are deciding between seem like relatively equal opponents, look to see who had the easier path to get there. Which team is more likely to get taken out early? In my bracket, that led me to stay away from Villanova, who are likely going to have to face two very difficult opponents (Wisconsin and then either Florida or Virginia) before they even get to an Elite 8 game. In contrast, North Carolina and Duke were given total cakewalks to the Elite 8. It's not a coincidence that those are the two teams I have in my title game.

Who is the best team?: Gonzaga is #1 in most metrics, though it's fair to assign a slightly larger statistical uncertainty to them than to a team that has faced a more consistently difficult schedule. Villanova is the defending champs and might just be the best team in the nation, though as I said earlier their bracket is a nightmare. The most talented roster of all, and the team that is finally humming at the level that we were expecting all season long, is Duke. There is such a ridiculous amount of talent and athleticism there that I was leaning toward taking them as my national champion pick even before the brackets were released. The fact that they have a relatively soft path to the Elite 8 and that the 1 seed in their bracket has a greater than 50% chance of failing to make the Elite 8 in most computer models seals it for me. Duke is my pick.