Sunday, January 15, 2017

W-8 BP68

There are always a few weeks every season where it's hard to find 68 teams to fill in the bracket with. For whatever reason it's a bad week for bubble teams, and the bubble just seems awfully soft. This is one of those weeks. There is little stability down in the 11-12 seed range, and expect that area of the bracket to continue to churn.

In the end, two projected at-large bids changed this week. Northwestern and VCU came in while Ohio St and Oklahoma St dropped out. There were also two auto-bid changes, as UC-Irvine is the new Big West favorite (replacing Long Beach St) and LIU is the new NEC favorite (replacing Wagner).

This is also the first week of the "Full Bubble", which I start every year on the first bracket on or after January 15th. The Full Bubble is an exercise in mathematically eliminating teams from at-large contention with each bracket. I start with a zillion of teams, and then each bracket will narrow it down until we just have the Selection Sunday bubble. This year, the Full Bubble starts with 82 teams, and by Selection Sunday we'll be down close to 10.

Capitalized teams are projected automatic bid winners. Remember that this is a projection of what the bracket will look like on Selection Sunday, and not a measure of where teams would be if the season ended now:

1. KENTUCKY (SEC)
1. VILLANOVA (BIG EAST)
1. KANSAS (BIG 12)
1. DUKE (ACC)

2. North Carolina
2. WISCONSIN (BIG TEN)
2. Virginia
2. Baylor

3. West Virginia
3. GONZAGA (WCC)
3. ARIZONA (PAC-12)
3. Louisville

4. Purdue
4. UCLA
4. Butler
4. Creighton

5. Oregon
5. Florida
5. Xavier
5. CINCINNATI (AAC)

6. Florida State
6. Notre Dame
6. Saint Mary's
6. Iowa State

7. SMU
7. South Carolina
7. Indiana
7. Clemson

8. Virginia Tech
8. USC
8. DAYTON (ATLANTIC TEN)
8. WICHITA STATE (MVC)

9. Michigan State
9. TCU
9. Maryland
9. Miami - Florida

10. Kansas State
10. Michigan
10. Houston
10. Minnesota

11. Texas Tech
11. Arkansas
11. California
11. VCU

12. MIDDLE TENNESSEE (CONFERENCE USA)
12. Rhode Island
12. Northwestern
12. UNC-WILMINGTON (COLONIAL)
12. NEVADA (MOUNTAIN WEST)
12. TEXAS-ARLINGTON (SUN BELT)

13. EAST TENNESSEE ST (SOCON)
13. OAKLAND (HORIZON)
13. FORT WAYNE (SUMMIT)
13. AKRON (MAC)

14. MONMOUTH (MAAC)
14. PRINCETON (IVY LEAGUE)
14. FLORIDA GULF COAST (ATLANTIC SUN)
14. NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)

15. VERMONT (AMERICA EAST)
15. LEHIGH (PATRIOT)
15. BELMONT (OVC)
15. WINTHROP (BIG SOUTH)

16. UC-IRVINE (BIG WEST)
16. WEBER STATE (BIG SKY)
16. NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL (MEAC)
16. NEW ORLEANS (SOUTHLAND)
16. TEXAS SOUTHERN (SWAC)
16. LIU (NEC)

Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
Wake Forest, Marquette, Seton Hall, Oklahoma St, Illinois St, Utah

Decent resumes, but not good enough:
UCF, North Carolina St, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio St, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas A&M, BYU

Long shots, but still in the at-large discussion:
Memphis, Temple, Davidson, La Salle, St. Bonaventure, Georgetown, Providence, Iowa, Penn St, Oklahoma, Texas, Charleston, Northeastern, Valparaiso, Boise St, San Diego St, Arizona St, Colorado, Stanford, Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi, Mississippi St, Vanderbilt, Chattanooga

Still alive, but pretty much need a miracle:
UConn, Tulsa, Boston College, Georgia Tech, George Mason, George Washington, UMass, Richmond, St. Joseph's, DePaul, St. John's, Rutgers, William & Mary, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Green Bay, Harvard, Canisius, Iona, Eastern Michigan, Ohio, Toledo, Loyola-Chicago, Missouri St, Southern Illinois, Colorado St, Fresno St, New Mexico, Wyoming, Tennessee St, Oregon St, Washington, Washington St, LSU, Missouri, North Dakota St, Arkansas St, Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Lafayette, San Francisco,

Sunday, January 08, 2017

W-9 BP68

With a full and healthy roster, I don't think there are a lot of questions that Duke has the most talented team in the nation. Of course, they might never be truly healthy and together all season long. Just as the freshmen are starting to get back to full strength, Amile Jefferson went down with an injury yesterday of unknown severity, and Grayson Allen might face yet another suspension for tripping. And Coach K will be out for at least a few more weeks. There is still plenty of time for Duke to get back on track, but at this point I have to drop them as the #1 overall projected seed. The ACC is just too good at the top to do otherwise.

There were three other changes to the Field of 68 this week. California moves in for Texas A&M. Two auto bid projections changed as well. Oakland is the new Horizon League favorite (replacing Valparaiso) and New Orleans is the new Southland favorite (replacing Stephen F Austin).

Capitalized teams are projected automatic bid winners. Remember that this is a projection of what the bracket will look like on Selection Sunday, and not a measure of where teams would be if the season ended now:

1. KENTUCKY (SEC)
1. VILLANOVA (BIG EAST)
1. KANSAS (BIG 12)
1. DUKE (ACC)

2. North Carolina
2. WISCONSIN (BIG TEN)
2. Virginia
2. Baylor

3. GONZAGA (WCC)
3. ARIZONA (PAC-12)
3. West Virginia
3. Louisville

4. Purdue
4. UCLA
4. Butler
4. Creighton

5. WICHITA STATE (MISSOURI VALLEY)
5. Oregon
5. Florida
5. Xavier

6. Indiana
6. CINCINNATI (AAC)
6. Florida State
6. Iowa State

7. Notre Dame
7. Saint Mary's
7. Clemson
7. SMU

8. South Carolina
8. USC
8. Michigan
8. Virginia Tech

9. Arkansas
9. Minnesota
9. Miami-Florida
9. DAYTON (ATLANTIC TEN)

10. Texas Tech
10. Kansas State
10. Maryland
10. Michigan State

11. Rhode Island
11. TCU
11. Houston
11. Ohio State

12. MIDDLE TENNESSEE (CONFERENCE USA)
12. Oklahoma State
12. California
12. UNC-WILMINGTON (COLONIAL)
12. NEVADA (MOUNTAIN WEST)
12. TEXAS-ARLINGTON (SUN BELT)

13. EAST TENNESSEE ST (SOCON)
13. OAKLAND (HORIZON)
13. FORT WAYNE (SUMMIT)
13. AKRON (MAC)

14. MONMOUTH (MAAC)
14. PRINCETON (IVY LEAGUE)
14. FLORIDA GULF COAST (ATLANTIC SUN)
14. NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)

15. VERMONT (AMERICA EAST)
15. LEHIGH (PATRIOT)
15. BELMONT (OVC)
15. WINTHROP (BIG SOUTH)

16. LONG BEACH STATE (BIG WEST)
16. WEBER STATE (BIG SKY)
16. NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL (MEAC)
16. NEW ORLEANS (SOUTHLAND)
16. TEXAS SOUTHERN (SWAC)
16. WAGNER (NEC)

Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
North Carolina St, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, VCU, Marquette, Seton Hall, Northwestern, Texas A&M

Other teams with a decent shot, but that need to improve their resume:
UCF, Memphis, Syracuse, St. Bonaventure, Providence, Illinois, Nebraska, Illinois St, Colorado, Utah, Georgia, Tennessee, BYU

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on, but that need to dramatically improve their resume:
Temple, Davidson, La Salle, St. Joseph's, Georgetown, Iowa, Penn St, Oklahoma, Texas, Charleston, Valparaiso, Evansville, Boise St, New Mexico, San Diego St, Arizona St, Stanford, Washington, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Chattanooga

Sunday, January 01, 2017

W-10 BP68

It's New Year's Day and we are just ten weeks out from Selection Sunday. With college football nearing a close, we are very close to college basketball coming to the sporting fore.

In terms of the projected bracket, the biggest change this week is in the Pac-12, where I have made Arizona the favorite, replacing UCLA. My blog piece here talks about why I think UCLA is due to decline, and we've already seen a bit of that, as their shooting has cooled off since I published that. I know that I'm lower on Oregon than most, but that is partially due to being skeptical of their big week. Beating UCLA and USC isn't as impressive as the media thinks it is since both games were at home and both of those teams are (in my opinion) overrated by the polls. To put it in perspective, according to Sagarin and Pomeroy a road game at California (which Arizona won this week) is equivalent in difficulty to a home game against UCLA. Right or wrong, it's clearly a three team race.

There were two changes to the Field of 68 this week. Houston moves in as an at-large team, replacing Seton Hall. And Stephen F Austin moves in as the new Southland favorite, replacing Sam Houston St.

Capitalized teams are projected automatic bid winners. Remember that this is a projection of what the bracket will look like on Selection Sunday, and not a measure of where teams would be if the season ended now:

1. DUKE (ACC)
1. KENTUCKY (SEC)
1. VILLANOVA (BIG EAST)
1. KANSAS (BIG 12)

2. North Carolina
2. WISCONSIN (BIG TEN)
2. Virginia
2. GONZAGA (WCC)

3. Baylor
3. ARIZONA (PAC-12)
3. Louisville
3. West Virginia

4. Purdue
4. UCLA
4. WICHITA STATE (MISSOURI VALLEY)
4. Indiana

5. Creighton
5. Butler
5. Florida
5. Xavier

6. Florida State
6. Oregon
6. Iowa State
6. CINCINNATI (AAC)

7. Notre Dame
7. Saint Mary's
7. Clemson
7. Michigan

8. Virginia Tech
8. Miami-Florida
8. SMU
8. Texas Tech

9. South Carolina
9. USC
9. Oklahoma State
9. Ohio State

10. Kansas State
10. Arkansas
10. Maryland
10. DAYTON (ATLANTIC TEN)

11. TCU
11. Michigan St
11. Texas A&M
11. Minnesota

12. Rhode Island
12. Houston
12. MIDDLE TENNESSEE (CONFERENCE USA)
12. UNC-WILMINGTON (COLONIAL)
12. TEXAS-ARLINGTON (SUN BELT)
12. NEVADA (MOUNTAIN WEST)

13. VALPARAISO (HORIZON)
13. EAST TENNESSEE ST (SOCON)
13. FORT WAYNE (SUMMIT)
13. AKRON (MAC)

14. MONMOUTH (MAAC)
14. PRINCETON (IVY LEAGUE)
14. FLORIDA GULF COAST (ATLANTIC SUN)
14. NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)

15. VERMONT (AMERICA EAST)
15. LEHIGH (PATRIOT)
15. BELMONT (OVC)
15. STEPHEN F AUSTIN (SOUTHLAND)

16. WINTHROP (BIG SOUTH)
16. LONG BEACH STATE (BIG WEST)
16. WEBER STATE (BIG SKY)
16. NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL (MEAC)
16. TEXAS SOUTHERN (SWAC)
16. WAGNER (NEC)

Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
North Carolina St, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, VCU, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, Northwestern, California, Colorado

Other teams with a decent shot, but that need to improve their resume:
UCF, Memphis, Temple, Syracuse, Davidson, St. Bonaventure, Georgetown, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, San Diego St, Utah, Georgia, Tennessee, BYU

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on, but that need to dramatically improve their resume:
UConn, La Salle, UMass, St. Joseph's, Nebraska, Penn St, Rutgers, Texas, Charleston, Evansville, Illinois St, Boise St, New Mexico, Arizona St, Stanford, Washington, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Chattanooga

Sunday, December 25, 2016

W-11 BP68

Things are always a bit quiet during finals week, and so there was little change near the top of the bracket. There was some churn near the bottom, however, as bad losses knocked Houston, Providence, and Syracuse out of the projected bracket. In their place entered Kansas State, Seton Hall, and TCU.

One observation this season is that the battle for 1 seeds is awfully wide open. While there have been some recent seasons where, even by the middle of December, it was obvious that we were down to just five or six serious contenders for 1 seeds, at this point I can make an argument for at least twelve. And we might not get too much clarity until these teams start playing each other in conference play.

Capitalized teams are projected automatic bid winners. Remember that this is a projection of what the bracket will look like on Selection Sunday, and not a measure of where teams would be if the season ended now:

1. DUKE (ACC)
1. KENTUCKY (SEC)
1. VILLANOVA (BIG EAST)
1. KANSAS (BIG 12)

2. North Carolina
2. WISCONSIN (BIG TEN)
2. Virginia
2. GONZAGA (WCC)

3. UCLA (PAC-12)
3. Baylor
3. Louisville
3. Indiana

4. Creighton
4. West Virginia
4. WICHITA STATE (MISSOURI VALLEY)
4. Arizona

5. Purdue
5. Butler
5. Florida
5. Xavier

6. Florida State
6. Iowa State
6. CINCINNATI (AAC)
6. Notre Dame

7. Saint Mary's
7. Oregon
7. Michigan
7. South Carolina

8. USC
8. Clemson
8. Minnesota
8. Miami-Florida

9. Texas Tech
9. Virginia Tech
9. Ohio State
9. Arkansas

10. DAYTON (ATLANTIC TEN)
10. SMU
10. Texas A&M
10. Oklahoma State

11. Michigan St
11. Rhode Island
11. Maryland
11. Kansas State

12. Seton Hall
12. TCU
12. MIDDLE TENNESSEE (CONFERENCE USA)
12. UNC-WILMINGTON (COLONIAL)
12. TEXAS-ARLINGTON (SUN BELT)
12. NEVADA (MOUNTAIN WEST)

13. VALPARAISO (HORIZON)
13. EAST TENNESSEE ST (SOCON)
13. FORT WAYNE (SUMMIT)
13. AKRON (MAC)

14. MONMOUTH (MAAC)
14. PRINCETON (IVY LEAGUE)
14. FLORIDA GULF COAST (ATLANTIC SUN)
14. NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)

15. SAM HOUSTON STATE (SOUTHLAND)
15. VERMONT (AMERICA EAST)
15. LEHIGH (PATRIOT)
15. BELMONT (OVC)

16. WINTHROP (BIG SOUTH)
16. LONG BEACH STATE (BIG WEST)
16. WEBER STATE (BIG SKY)
16. NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL (MEAC)
16. TEXAS SOUTHERN (SWAC)
16. WAGNER (NEC)

Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
Houston, Temple, North Carolina St, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Wake Forest, VCU, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Northwestern, California, Colorado

Other teams with a decent shot, but that need to improve their resume:
UCF, UConn, Memphis, Davidson, St. Bonaventure, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, San Diego St, Stanford, Utah, Georgia, Tennessee, BYU

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on, but that need to dramatically improve their resume:
George Mason, George Washington, La Salle, UMass, St. Joseph's, Nebraska, Penn St, Rutgers, Charleston, Old Dominion, Rice, Evansville, Illinois St, Loyola-Chicago, Northern Iowa, Boise St, New Mexico, Arizona St, Washington, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Chattanooga

Monday, December 19, 2016

Why UCLA Will Likely Regress


Is UCLA due to regress? On first glance that is a trite question: Of course they are. They started the season ranked around 20th in the human polls and are now a clear #2. Knowing nothing but those two facts one would project that UCLA is more likely to drop from #2 than rise to #1 over the next three months.

But is there something unique about UCLA that makes them more likely to regress? This tweet below is a view that I have seen a few people suggest:
I'm not sure what "Final Four good" means when an 8 seed or worse has made the Final Four five times in the last six seasons, but it is definitely true that historically teams with more balance have had more NCAA Tournament success than teams without that balance. When you pick Final Four teams in your bracket in March, look for teams that are Top 20 in both Pomeroy offense and defense and you're going to increase your chances of success.

Of course, teams great on only one side of the ball have had success, too. Two seasons ago, the Jerian Grant-led Notre Dame team finished 2nd in Pomeroy offense and 102nd in defense while going 14-4 in the ACC, winning the ACC tournament, earning a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and nearly toppling 37-0 Kentucky in the Elite 8. The year before that, the Doug McDermott-led Creighton team finished 2nd in Pomeroy offense and 125th in defense while going 14-4 in the Big East and earning a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.


At this time, UCLA's offensive/defensive gap isn't even as extreme as those aforementioned teams. They currently sit 2nd in Pomeroy offense and 68th in defense. But what is concerning is how they have gotten this far, which is on shooting. They came into Saturday's Ohio State game the #1 ranked team in the nation in 2P%, 3P% and eFG% shooting. They have now declined to 3rd in 3P% shooting but still lead the nation in eFG% at 64.0%.

Is UCLA a good shooting team? Yep. And they will continue to stay ranked high, but that eFG% will almost certainly not stay at 64% all season long. I wrote about this last season with regards to Saint Mary's, another team that got off to a surprisingly hot start thanks to hot shooting and in spite of bad defense, which then faded as their shooting regressed.

I hear the criticism to that last paragraph: Saint Mary's regressed hardest on 3P% shooting, yet UCLA leads the nation in 2P% shooting. And that's true, but UCLA leads the nation in 2P% shooting largely because the lead the nation in two-point jump shooting (49.0%). UCLA is only 282nd in the nation in the percentage of shots attempted at the rim (31.4%).

Right now, UCLA has a 64.0 eFG%. How does that compare with the best shooting Division I team the past five seasons (you'll notice that our friends Notre Dame and Creighton are on there)?

2015-16: 58.7% (Indiana)
2014-15: 58.3% (Notre Dame)
2013-14: 58.9% (Creighton)
2012-13: 58.2% (Creighton)
2011-12: 58.0% (Missouri)

In other words, over the course of a season, statistics with a luck component will regress somewhat. Even if UCLA ends up the best shooting team in the nation, they're going to end up in the 58% range, not 64%. And that 6% can mean a lot when you are allowing 0.97 PPP. In fact, if you just take out UCLA's five games against Pomeroy Top 100 opponents (Nebraska, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Ohio State), UCLA is allowing 1.06 PPP. The fact is that UCLA is a jump shooting team that doesn't get a lot of rebounds and doesn't get to the line, so when those shots don't fall they are going to lose.

UCLA is a good team, and they're certainly a contender in the Pac-12, but if you're going to pick a team that is likely to regress, you want to pick a team that relies on hot jump shooting and does not rebound or play defense well. In other words, you choose UCLA.

UCLA currently sits 9th overall in the Pomeroy ratings, well ahead of the second best Pac-12 team (Arizona - 20th). Arizona also sits 16 spots down from UCLA in both the AP and Coaches Poll right now. But if Arizona can get back Allonzo Trier then they will improve. And so if we do believe that UCLA is likely to regress, then one can make a very strong argument that it is Arizona - not UCLA - that should be considered the Pac-12 favorite right now.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

W-12 BP68

Your eyes don't deceive you, this is my first bracket projection of the season. My current job simply does not allow me the time to do the extended previews that I used to do, and so I didn't feel confident projecting a bracket until a month or so of games had happened.

I hope to have time to knock out some blog posts soon to talk about some of these teams. UCLA in particular is a team with interesting underlying metrics. But that is for another time.

For now, remember that this is a projection of what the bracket will look like on Selection Sunday, and not a measure of where teams would be if the season ended now:

1. DUKE (ACC)
1. KENTUCKY (SEC)
1. VILLANOVA (BIG EAST)
1. KANSAS (BIG 12)

2. North Carolina
2. WISCONSIN (BIG TEN)
2. Virginia
2. GONZAGA (WCC)

3. UCLA (PAC-12)
3. Baylor
3. Louisville
3. Indiana

4. Creighton
4. West Virginia
4. WICHITA STATE (MISSOURI VALLEY)
4. Arizona

5. Purdue
5. Butler
5. Florida
5. Xavier

6. Iowa State
6. Florida State
6. CINCINNATI (AAC)
6. Notre Dame

7. Saint Mary's
7. Oregon
7. Michigan
7. South Carolina

8. USC
8. Minnesota
8. Miami-Florida
8. Michigan St

9. Virginia Tech
9. Clemson
9. Ohio State
9. Texas Tech

10. DAYTON (ATLANTIC TEN)
10. Texas A&M
10. Arkansas
10. SMU

11. Syracuse
11. Oklahoma State
11. Rhode Island
11. Providence

12. Houston
12. Maryland
12. MIDDLE TENNESSEE (CONFERENCE USA)
12. UNC-WILMINGTON (COLONIAL)
12. TEXAS-ARLINGTON (SUN BELT)
12. NEVADA (MOUNTAIN WEST)

13. VALPARAISO (HORIZON)
13. EAST TENNESSEE ST (SOCON)
13. FORT WAYNE (SUMMIT)
13. AKRON (MAC)

14. MONMOUTH (MAAC)
14. PRINCETON (IVY LEAGUE)
14. FLORIDA GULF COAST (ATLANTIC SUN)
14. NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)

15. SAM HOUSTON STATE (SOUTHLAND)
15. VERMONT (AMERICA EAST)
15. LEHIGH (PATRIOT)
15. BELMONT (OVC)

16. WINTHROP (BIG SOUTH)
16. LONG BEACH STATE (BIG WEST)
16. WEBER STATE (BIG SKY)
16. NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL (MEAC)
16. WAGNER (NEC)
16. TEXAS SOUTHERN (SWAC)

Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
Temple, North Carolina St, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, VCU, Marquette, Seton Hall, Northwestern, Kansas St, Oklahoma, TCU, California, Colorado, Stanford

Other teams with a decent shot, but that need to improve their resume:
UCF, UConn, Memphis, Davidson, St. Bonaventure, Georgetown, Illinois, Iowa, Texas, Northern Iowa, San Diego St, Arizona St, Utah, Georgia, Tennessee, BYU

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on, but that need to dramatically improve their resume:
Tulsa, Georgia Tech, George Mason, George Washington, La Salle, UMass, St. Joseph's, Nebraska, Penn St, Rutgers, UAB, Old Dominion, Rice, Charleston, Oakland, Iona, Eastern Michigan, Ohio, Evansville, Illinois St, Loyola-Chicago, Boise St, Colorado St, New Mexico, Washington, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Chattanooga

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Overton Windows And The College Football Playoffs


Joseph P. Overton was a long time public policy expert at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and he's the namesake for a popular concept in policy wonkery known as the "Overton Window".

In short, the premise of the Overton Window is that on any given issue debate, humans narrow down the set of choices into reasonable options and unreasonable options. We create a range of plausible opinions within which we choose our own personal favorite. To take a political example, imagine the issue of abortion. There are a number of positions that we accept are reasonably held by people, and thus inside the Overton Window - say, that abortion should be legal in the first two trimesters but not the third, or that abortion should be banned except within the first trimester. In contrast, there are positions on abortion that we consider so ridiculous that we'd never spend a moment thinking about and thus are outside the Overton Window - say, that we should be able to kill 6 month old babies, or that any woman who gets an abortion for any reason whatsoever should be thrown in jail for life.

Over time, Overton Windows can shift, and the shifting of Overton Windows in public policy is an area of intense study. But whatever the Overton Window is at any given moment in time is the range of opinions that any normal person will be willing to consider thinking about. Anything outside that window will be dismissed without a moment of rational thought. We don't spend any time thinking about positions outside the Overton Window because they are so preposterous as to be laughable to even consider. 


College Football Rankings Are Dominated By Overton Windows
Imagine if you attempted to honestly try what a football pollster claims to do. Imagine if you tried to analyze dozens of different teams, then take into account all 12 or 13 games that each of them have played, then take into account the hundreds of games played by the teams on their schedules, then take into account home/road, then take into account the scores, then take into account how they looked playing, then take into account injuries, then take into account who finished stronger, then take into account....

It's exhausting even thinking about it. It's impossible. So instead what we do is make it simpler. We start with our generic AP Poll style rankings, and then consider tiebreakers. We all know how the AP Poll rankings work: Teams within each conference are ranked by number of losses, and teams with the same number of losses are broken up by head-to-head and, if not that, by strength of schedule. Then we mash the conferences together by how we view their strengths, so a 1-loss SEC team will be ahead of a 1-loss Big Ten team, and a 1-loss Big 12 team will be ahead of a 2-loss Big 12 team. And so on.

This season, we all considered the debate between 2-loss Penn State and 1-loss Washington as an argument within the Overton Window. But 2-loss Penn State vs 4-loss LSU? No, that is not allowed. Even though plenty of reputable computer rating systems have LSU ahead of Penn State, and there's a good chance that LSU would be favored in Vegas over Penn State on a neutral field, if you were to suggest to somebody arguing that we want to rank "The Four Best Teams" that LSU be considered ahead of Penn State, you would break their brain. The suggestion is outside the Overton Window, and thus beyond the pale to even discuss.

How Well Did The Rankings Correlate With The Computers?
The answer to this is the same as it was last season and will continue to be for the foreseeable future thanks to our tight Overton Windows. The five computer ratings are as follows:

1) AP Poll
2) FPI Strength of Record (measure of resume strength)
3) Massey Ratings (measure of resume strength)
4) Sagarin PREDICTOR (measure of team strength)
5) S&P (advanced measure of team strength)

In general, one would expect the Playoff Committee to basically track the AP Poll, for measures of resume strength to be closer than measures of team strength, and for the S&P to be the furthest off. The reason the S&P will be further off from the Playoff Rankings than the Sagarin PREDICTOR is because the PREDICTOR just looks at scores of games while the S&P looks to control for randomness within those scores, such as teams that have had a lot of turnover luck.

The Playoff Rankings line up with the AP Poll even more than it appears from that graph since the nature of a mean-squared calculation is that a few teams at the bottom of the Top 25 being four or five spots off throws the average. The Top 12 teams are all within one spot of the AP Poll, and the only difference in the Top 9 was Clemson and Ohio State being swapped, a distinction without a difference since they're going to play each other anyway.

In contrast, measures of resume strength (Massey and FPI Strength of Record) were off by an average of around five slots. The Sagarin PREDICTOR was off by an average of eight slots. And the S&P was off by a whopping 14 slots. And that's not just getting dragged down by the bottom of the Top 25. A full three teams in the Top 10 (Penn State, Wisconsin, and Colorado) are at least seven spots off their S&P ranking. That's huge.

So let's say that we were truly ranking teams by how good they were? If we really wanted the "Four Best Teams"? The S&P and Sagarin both say that USC and LSU had as good of a case at Penn State. If we care about best resumes? Well, the Massey ratings have USC in and both Penn State and Clemson out.

Why Wasn't Oklahoma A Playoff Contender, Exactly?

Most media coverage is focusing on Penn State getting left out for Washington, and rightly so. Penn State is out of the playoffs because they played a couple of competitive non-conference games and lost one (on the road), while Washington played three cupcakes and got to the finish line with only one loss. If Penn State had played three cupcakes in non-conference play then they'd have been in over Washington.

But what about Oklahoma? The Sooners are outside the Overton Window why, exactly? The answer is: Two losses. But they have two losses because they lost to Ohio State in non-conference play. Had that Ohio State game been replaced with Rutgers, Oklahoma would have gone 11-1, won the Big 12 title, and been basically a lock for the Playoff Top Four. Even with Ohio State being replaced by Rutgers, Oklahoma's strength of schedule still would have been ahead of 1-loss Washington.

Let's go even further: Why wasn't USC a contender? Three losses, of course. But one of those losses was to Alabama. Take that out and suddenly they're 10-2 with wins over Washington and Colorado and two very tough road losses (Stanford and Utah).

And why wasn't LSU a contender? Four losses, of course. But, again, one was to Wisconsin in non-conference play and another was by 5 points at Auburn. One bounce of the football against Auburn and replace Wisconsin with a cupacke, and LSU is 10-2 out of the SEC West and would have had a hell of a case to pass Washington for that fourth spot.

But if you sat through ESPN's four hour selection show (and God help you if you did), you wouldn't have heard a single person suggest Oklahoma or USC or LSU, because "number of losses" trumps all and pushed those teams out of the Overton Window of acceptable opinions.

How Do You Design A Schedule To Make The Playoffs?

1) Be in a Power 5 league
2) Schedule only cupcakes in non-conference play
3) Lose at most one game in conference play

If you do those three things then you're a near certainty to get in. Nobody is ever going to rank a 1-loss team behind a 2-loss team from the same conference. In fact, it has literally never happened in any of the three College Football Playoff seasons that a team was ranked behind a team from the same conference with more losses. Never. Once.

Ohio State didn't get in because they beat Oklahoma - they got in because they lost one fewer game than Penn State. One of the biggest breaks the Buckeyes got was not having to play in the Big Ten title game and having to risk a loss to Wisconsin that would have knocked them out of the playoffs. They had their one loss, and so they were locked into the playoffs by sitting home on the couch.

There might not be another area of sports commentary with an Overton Window as tight as college football polling. "Number of losses" has such a complete chokehold over the sport that it suffocates all other debate. And until that changes it harms the sport, since any team with national title hopes has a strong incentive to schedule nothing but cupcakes, and invitations to conference title games are punishments rather than rewards. Don't we want more competitive games to watch?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Michigan Is One Of The Four Best Teams, But They Cannot Be Allowed In The Playoffs. Here Is Why:


Ohio State and Michigan came into yesterday's game with a single loss apiece. Besides the normal interest sports fans have in a Michigan/Ohio State game, it was assumed that a playoff spot was on the line. And it showed up in the tv ratings:
The fact is that, in a loss, Michigan impressed. The game effectively was a draw, on the road at Ohio State. In overtime, the game literally came down to a 50/50 call, the 4th down scramble by JT Barrett that could have gone either way. It was so close that whatever call was made on the field necessarily had to stand on review. Had officials ruled Barrett an inch short, Michigan would have won. But they did not, and Ohio State won on the next play. It's literally as close as a game can get.

And the computer ratings recognize that. Michigan's ratings in metrics like the S&P and Sagarin all rose slightly after yesterday's games. And naturally, this is leading commentators to declare that Michigan should not be punished for a loss, and that as one of the four best teams in the nation they must be allowed into the playoffs. Here's a smattering:
Is Michigan one of the four best teams in the country? Probably.

The most accurate ratings for college football (and the ratings that most closely match the Vegas lines) are the S&P and Sagarin, and they both have Michigan safely in the Top 4. While there might be some rating you can find somewhere with Michigan outside the Top 4, it's safe to say that there's a general consensus in the computer models that Michigan is one of the four best teams:

But even though Michigan is one of the four "best" teams, they cannot be allowed in the playoffs.

Why? Because at the end of a season, teams must be rewarded for wins and losses, not for how good they are.

First of all, we all know who the best team in college football is. It's Alabama, and it's not that close. But if we wanted to give the title to the best team, we'd just halt the season right now and hand the trophy to Alabama. Alabama was the best team in the country two seasons ago, and they got knocked off in the playoffs by Ohio State. On any given day, anybody can beat anybody, and the whole point of having a playoffs is to add excitement by increasing the odds that an unlikely team wins the national title.

More importantly, if we rank teams by how good they are rather than by wins and losses, games would stop mattering. Why on Earth would anybody but Big Ten fans give a shit whether Michigan or Ohio State won that overtime? No matter whether that JT Barrett 4th down run was ruled a first down or not, both Michigan and Ohio State were going to end up in the Top 3 of the Sagarin and S&P ratings. So why would any non-Big Ten fans care about whether it was converted? Michigan fans complain that they had bad luck - and they're right! - but that's the point of playing the games. There is random luck, and it leads to unpredictability, and it forces us to watch and care.

To use a college basketball example: Imagine any game that comes down to a buzzer beating shot. Don't you want to care if that shot goes in? Because the Pomeroy ratings don't - not by any measurable amount. But it matters for their resume, and as long as the Selection Committee judges teams by their resume and not by how good they are, we are all going to care about whether that shot goes on in or not.


"Wait a second!" cries the Michigan fan reading this piece. "We have three wins over Top 10 teams! Our resume is still worthy of Top 4!"

While this argument isn't necessarily false, it's a poor one. Despite how common we hear television commentators (and Selection Committee Chair Kirby Hocutt) talk about metrics like "Top 10 wins" or "Record vs the Top 25", these are lousy metrics for four big reasons:

1) They are wholly arbitrary. Why care about Top 10 wins when we could care about Top 15? Top 25? Top 35? Fans are always going to set the line somewhere convenient for their team.
2) They necessarily only look at a fraction of a team's resume. Why only look at three games when we can look at all twelve?
3) The correlation between where teams are ranked in the Playoff Rankings and how good they are is a bit tenuous.
4) They do not take home/road into account.

As far as Michigan goes this season, #4 is a major factor. All three of their "Top Ten wins" came at home. Take their win over Penn State, for example, According to the Sagarin ratings, a home game against Penn State (AP #8) is equivalent to a road game against North Carolina (AP not receiving votes). Somehow that "Top 10 win" seems a wee bit less impressive when it sounds like a win over 8-4 North Carolina.

Say what you will about ESPN's FPI, but it's a decent rating system, and ESPN is nice enough to put out a "strength of record" metric. It asks a simple question: What are the odds that an average Top 25 team would equal or better your record against your schedule? Here is where that stands at the moment:

In other words, an average Top 25 team would have a 4% chance of going 11-1 or 12-0 against Ohio State's schedule, but a 96% chance of going 10-2 or worse. Clearly, if you look at resumes, Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson are our three playoffs locks (assuming Clemson avoids an ACC title game loss), with Wisconsin, Washington, and Colorado fighting it out for the fourth spot. Michigan is way back at 8th, and there's no realistic scenario where they can get back to the Top Four.

Sure, we can choose to rank teams by how good they are rather than by how impressive their wins and losses are, but if we do that then we would never have a reason to watch a game like Michigan/Ohio State yesterday. And I enjoyed caring about who won that game.

If you want to give the national title to the best team, just give it to Alabama right now. But if we're going to do a proper playoff system, where the four most deserving teams get in, then we have to leave out at least one of the four "best" teams. We have to leave out Michigan.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Carson Wentz, And "Moneyball" Confirmation Bias


The NFL is an insular sports league, and it responded as one would expect to hearing that the Cleveland Browns had hired one of the guys from the movie "Moneyball" to be their new President. We were deluged with content from establishment writers asking whether "Moneyball" could work in the NFL (here, here, here, here, and here, among countless others).

As one would expect, the mocking from NFL old timers was swift and brutal. Brian Billick declared it impossible to analyze the NFL with numbers:

Bill Polian dismissed the entire concept of finding an undervalued player:

Leave aside the fact that "Moneyball" is a vague term that nobody has ever really defined, and that nearly every NFL team already has an analytics department, because the narrative was set: We had our new front in the culture war between "old school know-how" and "new school nerds". All we needed was a proxy fight - a specific player or game or statistic that this debate could hinge upon. It appears that we've found one in Carson Wentz.

During the 2016 NFL Draft, the Browns had the second overall pick, and they made the decision to trade down, and to grab a slew of picks (a first, second, and third round pick in 2016 plus a first and second round pick in 2017). This sort of move is an obvious one for an analytics-heavy team to do, as research has shown that trading down in the NFL Draft tends to be beneficial (see here and here). After all, the draft is a crapshoot, and so giving yourself five shots at a good prospect is generally better than putting all of your eggs in one basket. But the media pressed DePodesta on the move, and his safe, corporate answer on resisting the temptation to draft a quarterback just because one is available at #2 turned into "DePodesta thinks Carson Wentz sucks", basically.

And now that Carson Wentz has had a nice two first starts to his career, the final judgment is in: Moneyball has failed in the NFL.

Now, let's not forget how much hype there was for quarterbacks like Vince Young, Mark Sanchez, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, and numerous other guys early in their careers who later turned into laughingstocks. Let's assume for one moment that all of the Carson Wentz hype ends up being right, and he ends up as a Hall of Famer: Does this mean anything? No.

The NFL Draft is, for the most part, a crapshoot. In fact, everybody who has tried to find "skill" in drafting has failed to find any. Study after study finds that all teams and general managers will, in the long run, draft no better than random chance. In the same way that anybody who sits down at a roulette wheel can win on their first few spins, some teams and general managers will have hot streaks in the Draft, but the roulette wheel will eventually turn against you, as will the Draft. It is why the media crowning general managers because they hit on one or two guys in a Draft is so pointless - it's the logical equivalent of crowning a guy for hitting on "red" three times in a row at a roulette wheel.

So has DePodesta found a way to do slightly better than random chance in the NFL Draft? Maybe? But it will be five or six years minimum before we can even start asking a question like that, and realistically we will need more than a decade of data to answer it with any confidence.

But never mind that, because old school scouts just "knew" that Carson Wentz was a sure thing, until those damned protractors and calculators got in the way. You see, when DePodesta took over the Browns, they brought on a bunch of new scouts (as new team management generally does), and allowed some of their old scouts to have their contracts expire and move on. DePodesta was even nice enough to let these guys go early, to not leave them on as lame ducks through the Draft. This was covered as utter non-news at the time (here and here for examples). When DePodesta traded down, nobody mentioned the scouts being a factor: It was simple analytics orthodoxy to trade down and grab more picks.

Now I don't know if you've heard, but Carson Wentz had two good games, and that has brought out everybody's favorite #AnonymousScout to tell you that he knew all along that Wentz was a sure-fire hit. In fact, DePodesta fired those old scouts because they were so high on that Wentz guy that the "analytics" hated... or something. CBS's Jason La Canfora laid it on thick:

Get that? They fired "experienced", "old school" scouts, general managers, and personnel directors. A bunch of savvy veterans that lived and breathed football. Old-timers who had been through the wars over the years, who had seen everything that there was to see in the sport, and who just knew deep down in their guts how to land a great quarterback. You know, the guys who used first round picks on Johnny Manziel and Brandon Weeden.

Even assuming these scouts are telling what they perceive the truth to be, what they are experiencing is confirmation bias. We are all bombarded with information throughout our day, most of which we cannot hope to process, and so our brains choose to process what they want to process. And so we end up remembering events that fit into narratives we want to believe, and fail to remember events that don't. Scouts all remember those guys that they "knew" were going to be good who ended up being good, and fail to remember the guys they "knew" were going to be good who ended up busting. As I pointed out above, nobody in the NFL has really demonstrated the long term ability to draft better than random chance.

So if Carson Wentz continues to play well, expect to continue seeing the bashing of Paul DePodesta and of "draft analytics". But don't expect to see any bashing of "old school scouting" because everybody passed on Russell Wilson for two rounds or Antonio Brown for five rounds. And don't expect to see any bashing of the New England Patriots because in the 5th round of the 2000 Draft they passed on Tom Brady to grab Jeff Marriott, a lineman out of Missouri who never played a down in a regular season NFL game (what idiots, amirite?). Because those latter two narratives are not narratives that anybody in the press is interested in.

Bashing "Moneyball" in the NFL? The media is very interested in that narrative.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Glockner's Book And The State Of Analytics


If you haven't read it yet, I recommend reading Andy Glockner's book inside the NBA and the analytics world. It's a good overview of the current state of analytics at the NBA, college, and prep levels.

As a general rule of thumb, it's hard to go wrong with a book that gets a behind-the-scenes look at basketball. When you follow sports on a daily basis, you are bombarded with the mind-numbing beat reporting, full of its vapid "What motivated you to come up big today?" questions. When you get an insider's book you instead learn about stories like Nick U'Ren's invention of the Golden State Warriors "death lineup" and how it turned the tide in the 2015 NBA Finals, which Andy goes into in depth in the final chapter.

One issue you're always going to have with a book focusing on "Here is the state of the world now" is that the book reads differently depending on when you consume it. It was a bit disconcerting reading Andy talk about the high expectations for the Cavs in 2015-16 about a week after the Cavs won the 2016 title. If I have one criticism of this book it's one that is probably unavoidable on a topic like this, which is a general lack of structure. It feels more like a series of long vignettes than a single book, though that's fine for me, as I could read the book chapter by chapter.

Here are a few conclusions that I had about the topics covered in the book:

Analytics is everywhere and nowhere
The debate over whether you need analytics to build a team is long over in professional sports. Every NBA team has analytics staff. Some teams use it more than others, of course, but the stupid dualism of "stats vs scouts" only exists in the minds of terrible sportswriting dinosaurs.

That said, most advances are happening behind closed doors. The early part of this century, where analytics was developing rapidly in the open Internet, are long gone. Anybody who comes up with a real advance these days is quickly snapped up by a front office and his/her work becomes proprietary. As Andy admits repeatedly throughout the book, teams simply were not willing to tell him about their newest analytics. It's a competitive advantage to keep it secret.

Analytics is in every facet of the game
It's become a bit of a narrative at this point that "the next realm for analytics is injury prevention", but there's no question that teams are looking for any advantage that they can get in whatever aspect of the game is possible. For example, Andy spends a large chunk of his book covering P3, a firm that does advanced training and biometrics. They are capable of watching the way players jump to tell that they are putting more weight on their right knee than their left knee, tracing that back to overcompensating from an old injury, and predict/prevent the way that will cause a future injury. Andy also goes in depth into the advanced video and biometric analysis, some of it with P3 as well, that allowed Kyle Korver to become such a deadly three-point weapon.

One of the more annoying media stereotypes of "analytics" is that it's just a bunch of dudes calculating WAR and whining about who got left out of the Hall of Fame. The fact is that "analytics" really just means "objective analysis". It means that you are interpreting data, whatever that data is. Measuring the force on various joints of a player's body while he jumps is data that can be analyzed and used to create a better, healthier player. That is "analytics", too.

Analytics is far more entrenched at the pro level
NBA teams have huge front office staffs, often managed by folks who never played the sport. It's thus natural that it's front offices that have embraced analytics before coaches and players. As Andy mentions, the last frontier of analytics acceptance is players and (unsurprising since so many of them were recently elite players) coaches.

College programs, far more than the NBA, are dictatorships ruled over by a single coach with significantly smaller staffs. It's natural that modern analytics just are not nearly as entrenched at that level. Andy discusses coaches like Buzz Williams and Steve Wojciechowski that are using modern analytics like SportVU to inform their development styles, but they are few and far between. Andy even mentions a subscription to Ken Pomeroy's website as a mountain too high for a large number of college coaches.

One of the most misused terms is "Moneyball", which the media often seems to interpret as "acquiring baseball players with high on-base percentages". If the term has any meaning, it refers to finding market inefficiencies, wherever they are. And to that end, modern analytics seems to be a far larger market inefficiency at the college level than the pro level. College coaches: take note.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Previewing The 2016 NBA Draft

Ellenson (left) and Bentil (right) are two of the prospects I'm high on this year.
What's that? I'm actually blogging! I know... weird.

But my new job has had me quite busy, and I haven't had the time for offseason blogging, which is a bit of a luxury. But my NBA Draft Preview has become an annual tradition. Last year's is here.

As always, I'm only going to comment on college players. I don't have educated opinions on the European players, and unless you're Fran Fraschilla then you don't have one either.

Also, as always, I've broken down players into three categories: Guys invited to the Green Room, guys certain to be drafted but who weren't invited to the Green Room, and borderline second round/undrafted guys. Let's do this:


Green Room Guys:


Underrated:

Henry Ellenson - I've actually seen some projections that don't even have Ellenson going in the Lottery. One of the things to remember is that most NBA writers don't really watch much college basketball, and when they do watch it tends to be Duke, Kentucky, and a couple other blue chip programs. Ellenson was stuck on a miserably bad Marquette team that you weren't watching unless you were a fan of them or a team that they were playing, or unless they really love college hoops. In other words, you've got a whole bunch of NBA Draft writers who never saw Ellenson play in a full game. The fact is that Ellenson would be considered a much better prospect if he had played on Kentucky.

Ellenson is a risky pick, of course, but he has the potential to be a real star in the NBA. He is a true 6'11" in shoes and he's fantastically athletic, able to physically dominate both ends of the court. He didn't hit three-pointers at a great clip this past season (29%), but he has confidence in his jump shot and has a solid mid-range jumper (41% this past season). If he can eventually expand his range to the three-point line, which is a reasonable projection, he'll become a nightmare to defend on the wings.

Domantas Sabonis - Sabonis could have come out after his freshman year and been drafted. What you want to see in a guy who came back for his sophomore season is improvement, particularly in areas where he was weaker as a freshman. And Sabonis absolutely improved in a big way (This is also true for Jakob Poeltl, by the way, but of the two I'm giving the "underrated" edge to Sabonis).

Sabonis was already a monster rebounder and athlete, but he became a significantly more complete player a sophomore. He became a significantly better defender, both on the perimeter and in the paint. Offensively he became a better passer and a much more confident shooter. As a freshman, only 28% of his shots were jumpers, and only 6% were from beyond 10 feet. As a sophomore, 47% of his shots were jumpers, with a full 21% beyond 10 feet (the latter at a very respectable 46.9 eFG%). You have to figure that he will eventually become one of the most physical players in the NBA. And now that his offensive game is progressing nicely, he has NBA All-Star potential.


Overrated:

Buddy Hield - As a college player, Hield was actually underrated until his senior season. He was an analytics darling, and he was a deserved NPOY as a senior. But I've seen mock drafts with Hield going as high as #3 overall, and most mocks have him in the Top 5. It is just awfully hard for a senior to justify a Top 5 pick, and in particular one who didn't really improve that much from year to year aside from his three-point shooting taking a big jump between his junior and senior seasons.

An additional concern with Hield's NBA potential is that he did most of his damage by chucking up long jumpers. A full half of his shots taken were threes, and most of those were taken off the dribble. By all means, the NBA has room for three-point sharpshooters, but Hield is not your traditional "stand in the corner and hit spot-up three-pointers when we pass it to you" guy, and even if he was... is that really worth a Top 5 pick? I haven't seen evidence that Hield is going to be able to score at the rim against NBA paint defenders, and he's not an elite defender. I just don't see where the upside is here.

Skal Labissiere - Obviously Labissiere is a raw talent freak. There's a reason that he was so hyped coming out of high school, and why he's still likely to be a Lottery pick. But it matters how badly he struggled as a freshman. Offensively, he just didn't have the ability to create offense against power conference quality opponents, and he lacked any post moves. Most of his scoring came on 5-12 foot jump shots. And defensively he's just a disaster. He blocked a reasonable number of shots, but blocks and steals can be deceptive stats when you have players who take a lot of risks. Labissiere's 7.6 fouls/40 minutes were second highest in the SEC, and John Calipari rarely trusted him to defend quality big men. Obviously Labissiere has a high ceiling, and he might pay off down the road, but he has a very low floor. Things could go south to the point that he's playing in Europe in four years.


Late 1st/Early 2nd Round Guys:


Underrated:

Ben Bentil - In my opinion, it was Bentil and not Kris Dunn who was Providence's best player this past season. And in my opinion it is Bentil and not Kris Dunn who is Providence's best NBA prospect. Bentil improved dramatically year over year, going from a defense/rebound guy to Providence's go-to scorer. He even showed flashes of a nice three-point stroke late in the season. He'll probably be a wing in the NBA, but he has the quickness and athleticism to defend other wings.  To me, the fact that most mock drafts don't even have Bentil as a first round pick is ridiculous. I think that you can justify a Lottery pick on him.

Deandre' Bembry - It's hard to get a great read on Bembry because there are holes in his game. He's not a good outside shooter yet, for example. But despite the fact that opponents knew that, Bembry was still a fantastically efficient offensive player, both in creating his own shots and setting up his teammates. If he can develop that outside shot, he's the type of wing that you can run a lot of your offense through. He might even be a point guard in the NBA. And defensively, he doesn't put up elite stats, but he was probably the best defensive player on a strong Saint Joseph's team. You're not drafting him for his defense, but he's not going to hurt you there either.

Overrated:

Damian Jones - Jones is listed as a 7-footer, which automatically bumps him in most people's minds, but he's not Jakob Poeltl-sized. In fact, at the official NBA Draft combine, he was only measured at a quarter of an inch taller than Henry Ellenson, with one extra inch of wingspan. And Jones is nowhere near the athlete or scorer than Ellenson is. And for a "big guy", Jones isn't an elite rebounder or post defender either. Most mock drafts have him as a first round pick, yet it's hard not to think that he'd be considered a borderline undrafted guy if he was a single inch shorter. And considering the fact that Jones played three years at Vanderbilt and didn't display much year-over-year improvement, I'm not sure why anybody would expect a large improvement in the NBA.

Cheick Diallo - Diallo is, of course, a similar situation to Skal Labissiere. Both had some questionable academic situations coming into college, and both found themselves significant disappointments as freshmen at major programs. But while Labissiere at least occasionally found himself useful for a few minutes at a time off the bench, Diallo basically was taken out of the Kansas regular rotation late in the season. In their seven Big 12 tournament + NCAA Tournament games, Diallo played more than a single minute in a game just once, and it came in their first round blowout of Austin Peay.

What was the problem with Diallo this season? He just wasn't really good at much of anything. Offensively he was a mess, unable to create or shoot. Defensively he did rebound and block shots well, but his aggressiveness often got out of hand, and he was foul prone. Bill Self simply felt that Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg gave him a better chance to win.

Everybody Else:


Underrated:
 
Perry Ellis - There's a chance that some clever team will take Ellis early in the second round, but it's not even a guarantee that he'll get drafted at all. And to me, that's nuts. Ellis is hardly a sexy pick, in large part because even as a freshman he already looked like he was 30 years old. Ellis is no athletic monster either. But he is fantastically efficient, on both ends of the court, and he did it at the highest level of college basketball. Ellis is never going to make an NBA All-Star team, but he's also a guy who could end up playing in the NBA for a decade. Considering how many second round picks never even play in the NBA, that's just great second round value.

If you're a GM, nobody in the press is going to laud you for picking Ellis. He's going to be seen as a boring pick with no upside. But he's just good at absolutely everything that you need a guy to be good at in a basketball game, and you're never going to regret putting him on the court.

Fred VanVleet - Obviously the observation that Wichita State utterly fell apart this past season when VanVleet was hurt is a relatively small sample size (only six games where he was hurt/limited), but the fact is that VanVleet was the primary playmaker on a Wichita State program that was Top 10 in Pomeroy the past three seasons. VanVleet and Ron Baker are both being treated as similar prospects (likely late second round guys), but that confuses me. VanVleet is the better dribbler, the better passer, the better shooter, and probably the better defender as well. VanVleet has the potential to be a an above average starting NBA point guard. It's hard for me to see Ron Baker ever starting for a decent NBA team.

Overrated:

Kay Felder -This pains me, because I like to see "unknown" guys from smaller schools make it big in the NBA. But I'm not sure what the precedent is in the modern NBA is for a 5'9" guy who can't shoot the ball real well being an effective NBA player. Felder is a great playmaker, and he led the entire nation with a 50.0% assist rate this past season, but the fact is that NBA teams aren't going to help defend a guy who can't really shoot and who is never going to be able to finish at the rim against NBA defenders.

Isaiah Whitehead - Whitehead had his best stretch of play of his career during the Big East tournament, which caused him to shoot up media "draft boards" and which led him to leave college early to go pro. He was also, of course, a big prospect out of high school. But you can't judge a guy on a handful of games, and there are a number of red flags with Whitehead. One is that he absolutely killed the locker room as a freshman at Seton Hall. The veteran players couldn't deal with him, and it led to the transfers out of Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina. When Whitehead got hurt, Seton Hall actually played their best ball of the season. Whitehead was a much more effective player as a sophomore, in large part because he got to dominate the ball and play hero ball. But he's just not good enough to play hero ball as an NBA player. He's going to have to be able to accept being a complementary piece.

In addition, Whitehead is just not an efficient scorer. He hit two-pointers at a 38% clip as a freshman and a 39% clip as a sophomore, which is awful. That's because he forces a lot of terrible shots. So while Whitehead put up good counting stats as a sophomore, he just was not an efficient player. And if you think he's going to handle well being stuck deep on the bench for a couple of years in the NBA, I'll refer you back to his freshman year at Seton Hall. With guys like Perry Ellis, Fred VanVleet, and Demetrius Jackson likely available in the mid-to-late second round, I don't see why you'd spend a pick on a guy like Whitehead.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Title Game Picking The Lines

Final Four ATS: 1-1-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 35-30-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Villanova (+3) over North Carolina: For the first time since 2008, the #1 and #2 teams in the Pomeroy ratings are facing off in the title game. It's interesting that in a season with so much of a reputation for parity (deserved or not), we end up with arguably the two best teams in the nation playing each other for the title. Of course, the "public" and the media clearly have been riding the Tar Heels, which explains this crazy Vegas line. Villanova was #1 in the Pomeroy ratings even before their historic demolition of Oklahoma, and they are #1 in the Sagarin PREDICTOR and most other computer ratings as well. But even after that Oklahoma game, the public and the media still seem skeptical of Jay "his teams always wilt in March" Wright. So what can we say about the match-ups?

When North Carolina has the ball, Villanova will pose many of the same challenges and opportunities than Syracuse did. They are good at keeping opponents out of the paint and will force a lot of longer jumpers, where the Tar Heels struggle, but their biggest weakness is on the defensive glass. They are nowhere near as awful on the defensive glass as Syracuse is, but the Tar Heels will have an opportunity to score a lot of second chance points.

Offensively, Villanova will pose a vastly tougher challenge for North Carolina than Syracuse did. The Orange don't pass the ball well and forced up a ton of terrible shots. Villanova, in contrast, passes the ball exceptionally well, and they will work for the open shot. North Carolina's defense is very strong in the paint, while Villanova has proven to be very good at scoring in the paint, so that will be a key match-up to watch.

The deciding factor in this game could potentially be the refereeing. Villanova is a deep team, but their depth is primarily in the backcourt, and they don't have the waves of athletic big men that the Tar Heels can present. If the refs have a tight whistle, and Daniel Ochefu picks up some early foul trouble, then the Tar Heels will be able to take over the paint like they did against Syracuse. But if Villanova's bigs can stay out of foul trouble, I do think that they will move the ball better offensively and will get better shots than the Tar Heels will. And so barring foul trouble, I think Villanova is the slightly better team. With public money pushing the Tar Heels out to a 3 point favorite, I've got to take the points here.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Final Four Picking The Lines

It feels like it's been about two months since we've had a college basketball game, right? I mean, we had CIT, CBI, and NIT games, but the last NCAA Tournament game was just an eternity ago. Thankfully, it's back tonight, so let's get back to the previews:

Sunday ATS: 1-1-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 34-29-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Villanova (-2) over Oklahoma: Villanova will never beat back the media reputation that they are a team that lives and dies with the three, but the reality is that Oklahoma is more dependent on outside shooting than Villanova is. While 48% of the shots that Villanova took in their first 15 games this season were three-pointers, only 40% of their shots have been three-pointers since. In contrast, Oklahoma increased their shooting dependency late in the season, taking 44.1% of their shots in Big 12 play from beyond the arc. The one game this NCAA Tournament where they did not shoot above their season average (31% on threes vs VCU) they struggled and nearly lost to a significantly inferior team. In their other three games they have hit a ridiculous 49.3% of their three-pointers. In contrast, Villanova defeated Kansas despite ugly 4-for-18 three-point shooting. Kansas didn't shoot much better, but Villanova won that game with their suffocating defense and their ability to score in the paint. That's not to say that Oklahoma doesn't come to this game with strong defense as well, but their offense just does not have the same number of options, and they will go stagnant if those three-pointers aren't going in. Buddy Hield has been the best player in the NCAA Tournament so far, and he can almost single-handedly win this game for the Sooners, but he's going to need to have one of the best games of his career to overcome the depth of Villanova.

Before I move on, I want to address the "You know that these two teams played and Oklahoma won by 23 points, right?". Yes, I'm aware. But this was back in the early part of the season when Villanova was chucking threes constantly (the majority of their shots from the field, in fact, were three-pointers). More importantly, the shooting was awfully fluky. Oklahoma hit 54% of their three-pointers while Villanova was an atrocious 4-for-32 (13%). In fact, only four other Division I teams in the past five seasons shot 32 or more three-pointers in a game while hitting 13% or fewer. That game was so fluky that it becomes just not at all instructive. So, yeah, if Oklahoma hits 50%+ of their threes and Villanova hits under 15% of theirs then Oklahoma will win big. But if Villanova hits 50%+ of their threes while Oklahoma hits under 15% of theirs then Villanova will win big. Both of those previous sentences fall under the "No, duh" category of analysis.

Syracuse (+9.5) over North Carolina: North Carolina and Syracuse played twice during the regular season, and though the Tar Heels won both games, they were played quite differently. They had a narrow win at a home and a romp of a win on the road. When things went well (the romp on the road), they benefited from Syracuse getting far too jump shot happy. When the Tar Heels struggled, it was they who got caught taking too many jump shots. North Carolina is, in general, a poor jump shooting team - they hit 28% of their three-pointers in ACC play, which was dead worst in the league. The Syracuse zone, as you know, tends to force a lot of long jump shots. Of course, the Tar Heels are also third in the nation in offensive rebounding rate, while this Syracuse team has been horrible on the defensive glass. In the previous round, Syracuse benefited from playing a Virginia team that didn't look to rebound its own misses. That obviously will not be the case here against the Tar Heels.

In the end, this is a fair Vegas line. Both teams have clear weaknesses than can be exploited by the other. To me, the tiebreaker is that Syracuse has been fairly aggressive with the offensive glass in the NCAA Tournament, and that they shoot the three-pointer well. The Tar Heels have struggled to defend against both of those. In the end, I think Syracuse has a good opportunity to turn this game into a slower paced slog, with both teams resorting to launching jump shots and chasing the rebounds. If that's the case, this game turns from a blowout into something of a toss-up, in which case I'll take the points.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Elite 8 Day 2 Picking The Lines

It's interesting that in a year defined so much by parity that we've mostly seen the top teams go through. In my Final Four preview I suggested six teams that were potentially the best in the country, and if the two heavy favorites win today then all four of the Final Four teams will come from that group of six. Normally, one would expect that a year with a few great teams (like last year) would end up in a chalk-ish Final Four while one with more parity would end up with chaos... but not always.

One of the analytical concepts I try to stress a lot is probability. Every game is a probability. The media often lampoons computer ratings after a computer rating darling loses to an underdog, but of course, they should lose sometimes. Take the North Carolina/Notre Dame game, which the Pomeroy ratings have as a huge blowout at a 9 point spread. The ratings still have Notre Dame with a 21% chance to win the game. In other words, if they play five times, Notre Dame should win once. And hey, what do you know, Notre Dame did beat North Carolina this season. If North Carolina played Notre Dame 20 times and never lost, then that would be stronger evidence of the computer ratings being wrong than Notre Dame winning once.

And so if we played this NCAA Tournament a whole bunch of times, I'd bet that most of the time we end up with chaos. But we only play it once, and weird things can happen when you play it once. Notre Dame and Syracuse being in the Elite 8 qualify as "weird" things, of course. But so is us likely having such a chalk-ish Final Four.

On the plus side, that means that we are likely heading into some fantastic games next week. And it's hard to complain about that.

Yesterday ATS: 2-0-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 33-28-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Notre Dame (+10) over North Carolina: North Carolina beat Notre Dame by 31 points in the ACC tournament, so this line was always going to be on the high side. Of course, the Irish beat North Carolina in South Bend back in February, and so I'm not sure why that game isn't getting talked about at all. We can look at those two games as somewhat instructive. Obviously that 31 point win for North Carolina involved some fluky bad shooting by Notre Dame, but the Irish were also annihilated on the glass. North Carolina was the best offensive rebounding team in the ACC and Notre Dame is a mediocre defensive rebounding team, so it's not a surprise to see the Tar Heels do well there, but in their win over the Tar Heels, Notre Dame got after the offensive glass themselves, and kept rebounding basically even. And to me, that will be the difference in this game. Notre Dame will slow the pace down and force the Tar Heels to score in the half court. If they can keep the rebounding reasonably close, they'll have a chance to win.

Syracuse (+8) over Virginia: Virginia's offense is playing incredibly well right now. They have scored 1.10 PPP or more in 10 of their last 11 games, with 5 of those 11 games coming against Top 5 ACC defenses. Of course, Syracuse is a Top 5 ACC defense as well, and their zone is a difficult match-up for Virginia. The Cavaliers shoot the three-pointer well (40.3%), but they don't like to shoot a high volume of them. They're going to have to hit a lot of them against Syracuse. In contrast, Syracuse loves to chuck up a ton of three-pointers (they led the ACC in 3PA/FGA), which is the type of shot that they'll get all day against the pack-line. Virginia is the better team, of course, but they don't ever really get after the offensive glass, which is Syracuse's biggest problem. This game will very likely come down to outside jump shooting, and 8 points are a lot of points to give.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Elite 8 Day 1 Picking The Lines

Every year before the NCAA Tournament I preach that you cannot judge teams, coaches, or programs based on what happens in a one-and-done tournament, and every year I end up spending one of these "Picking The Lines" posts talking down a narrative. And here we are.

This year the narrative is that the ACC is the best conference, since they have a full half of the Elite 8. Certainly, North Carolina and Virginia have been dominant, but we knew that they were elite teams coming in. Teams like Duke and Miami got wiped out in blowouts, while mediocre ACC teams like Syracuse and Notre Dame have gotten lucky in close games. The reality is that ACC teams combined to play close to 300 games this season. Justifying an entire league because Kyle Wiltjer missed a crucial shot, or because the refs looked the other way as Nigel Hayes got hacked in the backcourt, is pretty dumb and irrational. Yeah, Syracuse stunned Gonzaga yesterday, but they also lost to St. John's by 12 points. You don't get to pick one game by one team and have it define an entire conference.

We can debate how we define "the best conference", but by any kind of average computer rating it was the Big 12 by quite a bit this season, and a handful of games in the NCAA Tournament don't change that. A few fluky wins doesn't change the fact that Boston College and Wake Forest were in the ACC, too. It all has to matter.

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

Yesterday ATS: 2-2-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 31-28-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Villanova (+2) over Kansas: I took Kansas in my bracket, but I think that there's something to be said for how utterly dominant Villanova has been so far. #Momentum is not a thing that exists, but teams do get better or worse as seasons go along, and Villanova is currently playing their best basketball of the season. In large part, this game is going to come down to which team hits their outside shots at a higher rate. I do worry about the Kansas ball handling against Villanova's pressure defense. If Villanova's outside shots aren't falling, however, the Kansas interior defense is dominant.

Oklahoma (+1) over Oregon: This Vegas line is fair, but I do think that it would be a mistake to overreact too much to that blowout of Duke. Oregon was great, but it was still just one game. My biggest concern in this game is an Oregon defense that has a great shot blocker in Chris Boucher, but which has struggled to defend the three-point line. Oklahoma led the Big 12 in the fraction of offense from three-pointers, and they were dead last in the fraction of offense gotten from two-pointers. They're happy to chuck up threes. Offensively, Oregon will pose difficulty for an Oklahoma front line that isn't particularly deep, but Oklahoma has proven to be a solid defensive rebounding team and they protect the paint reasonably well, if not at the same level as Oregon. The Ducks looked great on Thursday, but I'd bet on regression here.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Sweet 16 Day 2 Picking The Lines

It was a day for chalk yesterday, which isn't so bad. It means that we're set up for some absolutely epic Elite 8 games on Saturday. A game like Kansas vs Villanova would be better than quite a few National Title games in recent seasons.

Oregon's rout of Duke puts into perspective again the importance of bracketing. Arizona outplayed Oregon during Pac-12 play, but got stuck with an incredibly difficult Round of 64 game against Wichita State. Give them Oregon's draw (or a fellow 6 seed like Notre Dame) and they might still be alive. But that's why it's bracketing that is more important than seeding.

To give another example, Syracuse earned a 10 seed, which meant that they ended up playing a weak 7 seed and a 15 seed to make the Sweet 16 - a far, far easier draw than they would have had as, for example, the 8 seed drawn against Cincinnati. In the end, there's not much that can be done to balance that out, even with a good Selection Committee. Who could have foreseen Middle Tennessee knocking off Michigan State? But it's just another reminder of why NCAA Tournament success, in any given season, is so luck-dependent.

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

Yesterday ATS: 3-1-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 29-26-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Virginia (-5) over Iowa State: There aren't any clear match-up advantages here, other than that Iowa State's offense likes to attack the paint both with the dribble and pass. They are 4th in the nation in 2P%, and were 2nd in the Big 12 in the fraction of points scored on two-pointers. The pack-line defense tends to push teams out and to force them to hit outside jump shots, where Iowa State is strong, but not as strong as they are inside. Considering how efficient Virginia's offense is, and how ugly Iowa State's defense has been at times this season, Iowa State will have to be nearly perfect offensively to pull this upset off.

Wisconsin (+1) over Notre Dame: This Vegas line is confusing to me. Pomeroy has Wisconsin as a 1 point favorite. Sagarin has Notre Dame a very slight (less than 1 point) favorite, but Wisconsin has typically gotten a little benefit of the doubt from Vegas the past few weeks since they've clearly improved significantly as the season has gone along. Notre Dame, in contrast, has basically squeaked past a couple of not-quite-elite teams in the NCAA Tournament thus far. In terms of match-ups, I do think Notre Dame matches up pretty well in that they take care of the ball and do not commit fouls. Wisconsin has proven the ability to get after the offensive glass, though, and to draw fouls in the paint. Notre Dame is always at a huge disadvantage if Zach Auguste gets into foul trouble. In other words, I don't see enough of a mismatch in this game to overcome the fact that Wisconsin has been playing better basketball than Notre Dame the past two months.

Gonzaga (-4) over Syracuse: You want to pass the ball well, and you want to shoot the ball well from outside, if you're going to take on the Syracuse zone. The Zags can do both of those, and they can also get after the glass against a Syracuse team that struggles with defensive rebounds even more than Jim Boeheim teams usually do. The concern with picking Gonzaga here is that Syracuse loves to chuck threes (they led the ACC in 3PA/FGA). The Orange don't hit threes at a great rate (36% for the season), but they have the ability to get hot, and most of their best performances this season involved hot outside shooting. If they can get hot against Gonzaga, they have the capability to take them out. But I wouldn't bet on it.

North Carolina (-5.5) over Indiana: The amazing part of Indiana's performance against Kentucky wasn't that they won, but that they won despite poor outside shooting. Indiana's defense has been transformed this season with the additions of Thomas Bryant and Max Biefeldt, and they have the ability to win even when they're not shooting well (something they couldn't do against quality teams last season). That said, Kentucky's offensive execution was approximately "tire fire", and the Tar Heels will pose a much stiffer test. North Carolina is rolling into form, as arguably only Villanova has played better than them in the NCAA Tournament thus far. They can score in so many different ways, and they can attack the glass against a Hoosiers team that has been inconsistent there all season long. The key match-up will be Marcus Paige vs Yogi Ferrell. For Indiana to win, Yogi will need to significantly outplay his counterpart.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sweet 16 Day 1 Picking The Lines

The talk of parity this year was more than a little bit overdone, something I've talked about before. And while NCAA Tournament results don't prove anything either way, it is worth noting that we're reasonably chalk-ish as we head into the Sweet 16. All four 1 seeds are still around, something which only happens about half of the time. We also don't have any really unqualified teams. The lowest seed remaining is Syracuse, and they got here by getting a 15 seed in the Round of 32, but even they are more than capable of a big upset.

The result of this is that we have eight really awesome games lined up for today and tomorrow. Games like North Carolina/Indiana and Kansas/Maryland are just a small piece of the fun. The NCAA Tournament has been fantastic so far, and there's no reason to think that's going to change tonight.

Let's get to the first half of the Sweet 16 games:

Sunday Yesterday ATS: 3-5-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 26-25-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Villanova (-4) over Miami (FL): These two teams match up reasonably well. They're both good at what the other team does well. I certainly don't see any obvious match-up advantages, other than that Miami's poor outside shooting (32.6% on threes in ACC play) will give them difficulties against a Villanova defense which is fantastic at defending the paint. The difference to me in this game is simply that Villanova is a better basketball team, and has been playing some of its best basketball down the stretch. With a spread as small as 4.5 points, if one team is clearly better, I'd rather just take them. There's always a risk of a team not covering a small spread, and that's happened to me an unfortunately large amount the past couple of tourney days (including Notre Dame somehow winning without covering 1.5 points), but I'm not going to overreact to that. Take the better team, and the team playing better basketball right now, and that's Villanova.

Texas A&M (+2.5) over Oklahoma: Ever so quietly, Oklahoma's performance the past few weeks has been a little bit down from where they were in January. The turnovers are still a concern offensively, and their defensive effort has dropped off a bit as well. At the same time, Texas A&M is surging, getting past that early February lull and playing their best basketball of the season down the stretch. Their offense in particular will cause troubles with their physicality and aggressiveness inside, against an Oklahoma defense that is strongest on the perimeter and which has struggled with defensive rebounding. Throw in the penchant for the Aggies to force turnovers, and this really is a toss-up game at this point. I'll take the points.

Kansas (-6.5) over Maryland: It's hard to know exactly what to make of that Maryland/Hawaii game. Maryland appeared to be on the ropes when Hawaii just basically fell apart over the final ten minutes. I don't think that performance will really assuage the concerns of Maryland's slide in play the past few weeks. The Hawaii game broke a streak of seven consecutive games against Pomeroy Top 100 opponents where Maryland had allowed at least 1 PPP, and Kansas's offense will again pose a test with their ability to hit outside shots and to hit the offensive glass when they need to. If Maryland does pull this game out, their one match-up advantage appears to be the inside duo of Robert Carter and Diamond Stone. I'm not sure that Perry Ellis is a good defensive match-up against either of them, and I wonder if Bill Self will be forced to go deeper into his front court bench than he usually likes to. But I just see no evidence based on performance the past few weeks that Maryland can beat Kansas unless there's a fluky shooting performance.

Oregon (-3) over Duke: Amazingly, the public seems to have turned on Duke. I can't find a respected computer rating which has Oregon as this large of a favorite. But there's a reason folks have soured on Duke, which is the loss of Amile Jefferson and their decline in play since mid-February. Duke has been weakest on the defensive glass, which is somewhere that Oregon can attack. The saving grace for Duke when they've played well has been outside shooting, and Oregon's three-point defense is not great. If Duke wins this game, it will be because they hit outside shots at a high rate.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Day 6 Picking The Lines

The driving media narrative about the NCAA Tournament so far is that the Pac-12 stinks and was overrated... which is both true and false. The Pac-12 was overrated, and we knew that they were over-seeded. The bracket was built by the RPI this year, and the Pac-12 easily had the most inflated conference RPI of any of the multi-bid leagues. But drawing conclusions from five or six games is also a bit silly.

Remember, of the six Pac-12 teams to lose thus far, five were Vegas underdogs at tip-off, and the one that wasn't (California) was badly undermanned due to injuries. So even though Oregon State as a 7 seed losing to a 10 seed is being called a "double-digit seed upset", they were a 4.5 point underdog in Vegas. They didn't really "underperform"... we knew they weren't as good as VCU.

On Selection Sunday, there were three teams that were outside the Top 40 of the Massey, Pomeroy, and Sagarin ratings but still earned single digit seeds. All three were in the Pac-12 (Oregon State, Colorado, and USC), and all three lost their opening games as Vegas underdogs.

The thing is that Pac-12 teams could have gotten lucky and pulled some upsets. Arizona could have made the Sweet 16, or Utah, or Oregon State, and then the narrative would have been how the Pac-12 was under-rated. But you can't draw narratives about conferences from a sample size of five or six games. The Pac-12 was over-seeded, and that would have been true even if the conference's teams had all played well the past three days.

As for today's games, this is an awfully difficult batch to pick against the spread. A remarkable six of the eight games have consensus Vegas spreads between 6 or 7 points. All have clear favorites, but how many of those underdogs will cover? It's a tough call.

Anyway, let's get to those games:

Yesterday ATS: 6-2-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 23-20-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Villanova (-7) over Iowa: This is a difficult spread to pick because of how dependent both of these teams are on outside jump shooting. If one of these teams hits outside shots at a significantly higher rate than the other, they're almost certain to win. There are two reasons to like Villanova here. First, they're simply a better passing team. Iowa has a tendency to get clogged up and force bad hero ball when aggressive defenses disrupt their offense. And Villanova is one of the best teams in the country at keeping opponents out of the paint.

Notre Dame (-1.5) over Stephen F Austin: Considering how horrifically ugly that Stephen F Austin/West Virginia game was, I'm not sure what we really learned about this Stephen F Austin team. What I like about Notre Dame is two things. First, they led the ACC in offensive turnover rate, so I doubt they'll allowing the Lumberjacks the easy baskets they enjoyed against West Virginia. Second, they led the ACC with 77% FT shooting in conference play, which will come in handy against a Lumberjacks team that tends to commit a lot of fouls. The Irish simply have a lot of high basketball IQ players who will avoid the dumb mistakes and make the right passes far, far more than West Virginia did on Friday. 

VCU (+6.5) over Oklahoma: Oklahoma has struggled this season against teams that can force turnovers and get after the offensive glass. The Sooners defense is fantastic in the half court, but if you can grab a bunch of easy baskets it puts a lot of pressure on Buddy Hield to have a big game. Offensively, Oklahoma likes to chuck up threes, where they were second in the nation with 43% three-point shooting, but VCU has made a big improvement this past season at preventing threes, leading the Atlantic Ten in defensive 3PA/FGA. You can make a good case that Oklahoma should fear this game more than any potential Sweet 16 opponent.

Syracuse (-6.5) over Middle Tennessee: Middle Tennessee shout out of their minds against Michigan State, hitting 11-for-19 behind the arc. They shot the ball well during the regular season (39% on threes), but expecting that type of explosion again is unrealistic. And considering that they are not known as a good passing team, and have never seen a zone like Syracuse runs, the only hope Middle Tennessee has in this game is to shoot 40%+ on threes again. It's usually wise to bet on regression.

Hawaii (+7) over Maryland: Maryland's inconsistency and late season slide has been a little bit hard to understand. But the complete list of teams that they have beaten away from home since January 9th is: Nebraska, Ohio State, and South Dakota State... and they nearly blew that South Dakota State game on Friday. Just on pure quality of play the last month or two, that spread is too high. I do like that Maryland does a good job of not committing fouls against a Hawaii team that likes to play physical in the paint, but that's not enough of a match-up advantage for me to want to take the Terps here.

Texas A&M (-6.5) over Northern Iowa: It's hard to feel strongly about this line, which is very fair. My biggest concern for Northern Iowa is how they'll deal with the athletic, physical front line that the Aggies possess. I had the same concern about the Texas game, and the Longhorns had a significant advantage in both rebounding and paint points. Northern Iowa won that game at the line (and with their miracle buzzer beater, of course), but the Aggies led the SEC in defensive FTRate, so I doubt we'll see that again.

Xavier (-4.5) over Wisconsin: I wouldn't have too many concerns about Wisconsin despite that 47 point performance. They scored 0.87 PPP despite some awful jump shooting. Their offense hasn't been great, but it's been fairly good over the last month or two. My concern for Wisconsin is that they no longer are elite at defensive rebounding and avoiding fouls. Xavier led the Big East in FTRate and was second in offensive rebounding rate. Wisconsin is either going to need to draw a ton of fouls themselves, or shoot the ball really well, to pull off this upset.

Oregon (-6.5) over Saint Joseph's: In all, six of the eight games today have spreads between 6 and 7 points, most of which are difficult to make calls on. The favored team is favored for a reason. In this case, both Oregon and Saint Joseph's were teams that were overrated for their seeds. Saint Joseph's has been on a really nice four game stretch, primarily due to an offense that has really been clicking. But their offense has been strong because they don't make mistakes, not because they have a great individual scorer. Oregon has a unique defensive weapon in Chris Boucher, who I think should disrupt a lot of those easy baskets in the lane. Certainly it wouldn't be the biggest upset in the world if Oregon lost, and this is probably a "stay away" game, but if I have to pick a team I'll take Oregon.