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:


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.


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:


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.


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:

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.


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.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Day 5 Picking The Lines

Yesterday was one of the craziest days of the NCAA Tournament that I can ever remember. It busted a lot of brackets, and also led to my worst day against the spread in the seven years that I've picked all of the games.

One of the things that I preach about every year, but which is constantly forgotten, is just how tiny a 40 minute sample size is. Crazy things can happen, and trying to draw narratives about players, teams, coaches, or programs over single NCAA Tournament games is irrational and dumb.

So for example, when Middle Tennessee beats Michigan State, nobody suddenly thinks that this proves that Middle Tennessee was better than Michigan State this past season. Nobody thinks that it means Tom Izzo can't coach in the NCAA Tournament either, because neither of those are narratives that we're interested in. Yet we do it with other teams and coaches. Purdue lost? Fire Matt Painter! Arizona lost? Sean Miller just can't take this team to the next level! Baylor lost? LOL Scott Drew sucks. But why? Why is Purdue's loss or Arizona's loss or Baylor's loss any more meaningful than Michigan State's loss? Why have we mentally decided that one game is a fluke, while another means something? Particularly when so many games yesterday were decided right at the buzzer.

As a side note, I think West Virginia's putrid performance needs a special mention. Since we're all obsessed with scores, I saw that the "college basketball quality of play sucks" crowd in the media was fixated on the low Wisconsin/Pittsburgh score, but that game was low scoring more because of the crazy slow tempo (54 possessions) than the scoring. Pitt scored 0.80 PPP in the loss, which was identical to what West Virginia scored against Stephen F Austin. And I watched a significant chunk of Wisconsin/Pitt, and both teams were getting decent shots, but they were just not shooting well. In contrast, a full 80% of the points West Virginia scored were at the free throw line, in transition, or as second chance points. When West Virginia was in a halfcourt offense, it was just completely hopeless. Of all the college basketball I have watched in my life, I have literally never seen a more hopeless offense than West Virginia yesterday. And I say that as somebody who has watched about twenty different West Virginia games over the last two seasons - I'm familiar with how ugly "Press Virginia" looks even when it's going well. But West Virginia simply picked the worst time of the year to put on their ever worst performance.

Anyway, let's get to today's games, which surely can't live up to yesterday, but which hopefully will have fewer surprises against the spread.

Yesterday ATS: 5-11-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 17-18-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Wichita St (-2) over Miami: Wichita State is really good, as we already know before they dominated what is probably the best team in the Pac-12. So this line, while surprising to some, is fair. Wichita State's defense has been great all season, and it was great against Arizona as well. They are particularly good at keeping scorers out of the lane and forcing jump shots, which is not what Miami wants to do. Offensively, Wichita State is not a good jump shooting team, but they hit jump shots poorly against Arizona and it didn't matter.

Duke (-6) over Yale: Defensive rebounding will obviously be the concern for Duke here. Yale is an excellent rebounding team, but it's worth noting that they were outrebounded by a Baylor team that is pretty bad at defensive rebounding themselves (though not as bad as Duke). But with a spread this small, you only want to take Yale if you really think that this is a toss-up game, and I just don't see that. Duke's offense is so athletic and talented.

Kentucky (-3.5) over Indiana: As much as Indiana's defense has improved this season, they are still heavily dependent on their offense, and specifically on outside shooting to carry them. They shot the lights out against Chattanooga (10-for-16 on threes), and so they won in a rout. But with a poor shooting night, they easily could have lost. As much as Kentucky's defense has dropped off this season in the paint, John Calipari teams are always good at preventing three-pointers. Kentucky was 17th in the nation, and 1st in the SEC, in defense 3PA/FGA. It's hard to fathom Indiana winning this game in the paint.

Iowa State (-6.5) over UALR: Yesterday, while I was on twitter bemoaning what a toxic waste dump the West Virginia offense was, one person suggested to me that Iowa State today would cleanse my palette. I hope they're right. Iowa State is also the luckiest team playing today. Purdue was an absolutely nightmare match-up for them with their size and depth. By knocking them out in the craziest game of the Round of 64, UALR poses a far, far easier challenge. Also, as a team that doesn't go after offensive rebounds and doesn't draw a lot of fouls, they can't take advantage of Iowa State's two weaknesses. I like the Cyclones in a rout here.

Virginia (-7.5) over Butler: This is probably the toughest game of the day to pick against the spread. It's a very fair line. Butler's offense against Virginia's defense will be something of the unstoppable force vs the immovable object, though Virginia's defense has been particularly "immovable" over the past six weeks or so (after some relatively ugly defensive performances early in the season). But the part of Virginia that the media never mentions (due to pacism) is how incredibly efficient the Virginia offense is. Butler might really struggle to stop them, and that's why I'd be stunned if they actually pull the upset.

Kansas (-8) over UConn: Both of these teams are fantastic defensively. The difference to me is how well Kansas shoots the ball. The Jayhawks hit 42.1% of their three-pointer this season, which was third best in the nation. Daniel Hamilton is an excellent player, but UConn just does not have the overall firepower offensively to keep up with the Jayhawks. This game is hardly a mismatch, and UConn has the ability to win this game if the Jayhawks go cold, but Kansas is clearly the significantly better team.

Gonzaga (PK) over Utah: This spread is not a surprise at all. Not only is Gonzaga a strong 11 seed, but Utah is easily the weakest of the 3 seeds. Utah deserved their seed, but they got there by going 10-2 in games decided by six points or fewer. The Domantas Sabonis/Jakob Poeltl match-up will be worth the price of admission alone, but Utah is not likely to test Gonzaga's lack of depth, particularly in the backcourt. One significant advantage that Utah has is that they led the nation in defensive FTRate, something which will come in handy against a Gonzaga team that hit at a 76% clip during the season. But I think Gonzaga is truly the stronger team, and anytime a stronger team has a significantly lower seed, I think that's a great bet.

North Carolina (-10) over Providence: This seems like a big spread, but it's really not. North Carolina is favored by 11 in Pomeroy and by 12 in Sagarin. Providence was lucky in close games this season, and was not nearly as strong as their resume. North Carolina also has waves and waves of athletic, long big men who can both defend Ben Bentil and also get after the glass, where Providence struggled. The Tar Heels are not at all dependent on jump shooting, so the only way Providence can pull this game out will be if all of their key players have big nights at the same time. I'd bet against that.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Day 4 Picking The Lines

It was nice to see the mid-majors perform well, for the most part, yesterday. All the media people laughing at Wichita State's high Pomeroy ratings, or who scoffed at Yale as a bunch of slow white guys, were awfully quiet.

One of the old trends that continued was that teams outscored in conference play (Texas Tech, Colorado, and USC) all lost. Oregon State also was outscored in conference play, so that's worth keeping an eye on.

If there's one performance that really stands out from yesterday it's Kentucky's utter domination of Stony Brook. It's not purely reasonable to think this way, but North Carolina fans had to be nervous watching that while they spent a half struggling with Florida Gulf Coast.

Yesterday ATS: 9-6-1
2016 Tournament ATS: 12-7-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Syracuse (+1.5) over Dayton: Syracuse should not have gotten into the NCAA Tournament, but they're a Tournament quality team. In contrast, Dayton was very lucky in close games (13-3 in games decided by six points or fewer) and is not nearly as strong as their resume. I'm also very concerned by what Dayton's inefficient offense will do against the Syracuse zone, which flummoxes even efficient offenses that aren't used to seeing it.

Villanova (-17.5) over UNC Asheville: It's impossible to have a strong opinion on this line, and it's a hard line to predict because it's basically going to come down to whether or not Villanova is hitting their threes. The only chance Asheville has to keep this game close is for Villanova to go cold... which of course has happened plenty of times this season.

Oregon State (+4) over VCU: There are two ways to think about this game. First of all, Oregon State is clearly a team with a very inflated RPI, and the Vegas line reflects that. You generally want to bet against teams like that. On the other hand, VCU is still a team that relies heavily on forcing turnovers defensively (there's not quite as much #havoc, but the team still looks pretty similar to Shaka Smart's teams), and Oregon State led the Pac-12 in offensive turnover rate. I took VCU in my bracket, and give them the narrow edge to win the game, but that Vegas spread has gotten just a little bit too high. This should be an awfully even game, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it come down to the final minute.

California (-5) over Hawaii: The line moved about three points here after it was announced that Tyrone Wallace was injured and would miss the game. That's reasonable movement, but it's worth remembering that Cal lost Wallace for five games in the middle of Pac-12 play, and didn't suffer too much of a decline. The injury matters, but it's hardly crippling to California. The biggest concern I have for Hawaii is that they are foul prone, and Cal led the Pac-12 in offensive FTRate. Hawaii's offense is not good, and if Cal is on a steady moving walkway to the free throw line, Cal should win this game even if they don't shoot the ball well.

Middle Tennessee (+18) over Michigan State: Conference USA was down this season, but as far as 15 seeds go, Middle Tennessee is a fairly strong one. They also match up well with Michigan State in that they led Conference USA in defensive turnover and rebounding rate. Michigan State's backcourt is vulnerable to turning the ball over, and their offense relies in large part on offensive rebounds (they led the Big Ten in offensive rebounding rate). That said, Middle Tennessee will struggle otherwise to stop the awfully efficient Michigan State offense, so an actual upset seems really unlikely.

Iowa (-7) over Temple: The Vegas line is in line with the computers. Temple is just not a very good team, and might be the weakest at-large team in over a decade. They had a soft at-large resume to begin with, and achieved it with very good luck in close games. Like Fran Dunphy teams always are, Temple is solid defensively and they don't make a lot of mistakes, but offensively they just have absolutely nothing going on. There isn't a single scorer who you are worried about. Iowa has several different guys who can go off, and if they're hitting their jump shots then this will quickly turn into a rout.

Oklahoma (-14.5) over Cal St Bakersfield: If you're taking Cal State Bakersfield here, you're believing that their strong performance in WAC play is legit, because their non-conference performance was fairly ugly. They turned things around in conference play, in large part due to an aggressive defense that turned teams over. Oklahoma has certainly proved vulnerable to aggressive defenses that can turn them over, but it's always good to be skeptical of teams that force a lot of turnovers in small leagues. That often doesn't translate against a bigger, faster, more athletic opponent like Oklahoma. It's not a huge sample size, but in three non-conference games against higher quality opponents (Saint Mary's, Arizona State, and Fresno State), those turnovers disappeared, and Bakersfield got routed. I'll ride with Oklahoma here.

Maryland (-9.5) over South Dakota State: Maryland has struggled a bit down the stretch. Offensively, they're very difficult to keep away from the basket, but they're also sloppy and turnover-prone. That said, South Dakota State doesn't have the type of defense that is really going to challenge them. I'm also concerned about how effective star freshman Mike Daum will be against an awfully athletic Maryland front line.

Wisconsin (-2) over Pittsburgh: This Vegas line is right where the computers have it, but it's worth noting that early season play is factored significantly into that. Wisconsin has played significantly better in the second half of the season than the first half, while Pitt faded a bit down the stretch. So considering the last month or six weeks of play, Wisconsin has been more than two points better than Pitt. Is there a match-up advantage for Pitt to make up for that? Perhaps, in that they are an aggressive offensive rebounding team against a Wisconsin team that has struggled on the defensive glass. But Pitt also struggles with ball handling, while Wisconsin led the Big Ten in defensive turnover rate.

West Virginia (-8) over Stephen F. Austin: Stephen F. Austin has great computer numbers, but you have to be skeptical of numbers that came against a schedule that soft. They led the entire nation in defensive turnover rate, but did it by turning over weak opponents like crazy. That often doesn't translate against upper level opponents, as it didn't when they were demolished by Baylor earlier this season. On top of that, West Virginia relies more than any team in the nation in forcing steals and getting offensive rebounds, and Stephen F Austin is both a poor rebounding team and a poor ball handling team. I expect this to be a rout.

Green Bay (+13.5) over Texas A&M: This game has the potential to be ugly, as both teams do a good job of forcing turnovers. "Tempo" is the single most over-used narrative in basketball, but it could be a factor here. Green Bay likes to drive the pace as quickly as then can and get easy transition buckets, but they struggle in a half court offense. Texas A&M likes to grind out defensive possessions. If Green Bay can up the pace and have the advantage in fastbreak points, they could win this game outright.

Holy Cross (+23) over Oregon: It's hard to have a strong opinion on a 1/16 game, and obviously it would be an absolutely stunning upset if Holy Cross actually won. And I don't think they're winning this game either. But Holy Cross plays a deliberate style where they make few mistakes - they take care of the ball, protect the defensive glass, and limit fouls. They force other teams to beat them. Oregon is much better, so they'll be able to beat Holy Cross, but the Ducks rely significantly on second chance and transition points. I don't think Holy Cross is good fodder for that type of rout.

Xavier (-13) over Weber State: This is a fair line, but I don't think Weber State is the type of small conference team likely to pull a stunning upset. They tended to grind out wins in the Big Sky, controlling the paint and earning a large free throw advantage. Xavier is not going to be pushed around in the paint by Weber State. I love Joel Bolomboy, but I don't think he's any better than James Farr.

Michigan (+3) over Notre Dame: Notre Dame was the slightly better team this season, so that line is fair, but I think Michigan has two match-up advantages. First, Michigan led the nation in defensive FTRate, which matters against a Notre Dame team that led the Big East by hitting 77% of free throws in conference play. Also, Michigan's biggest defensive weakness is dominant big men, and Notre Dame really only has one effective post scorer (Zach Auguste). And while Auguste has cut down on the fouls he's committed this season, he is still vulnerable to foul trouble.

Texas (-4.5) over Northern Iowa: There is always a lot of #havoc talk when Shaka Smart is involved, but the reality is that Texas runs nothing of the sort. Shaka Smart is no dummy, and he knew that the personnel he inherited could not play that type of game. The Longhorns play similar to how they did last season. And thus the fact that Northern Iowa is excellent at preventing turnovers doesn't really matter too much here. The match-up that sticks out to me is that Texas led the Big 12 in defensive 3PA/FGA, while Northern Iowa's offense relies heavily on the outside shot. Take the outside shot away and UNI's offense becomes fairly impotent.

Cincinnati (-2.5) over St. Joseph's: Cincinnati has had some awful luck in close games, and they're clearly better than their resume, so that Vegas line is fair. Cincinnati is the same team that they always are: physical and dominant both defensively and on the glass. If St. Joe's wins this game, it's because they are able to limit Cincinnati's second chance points. But offensively, I'm just not sure how St. Joe's scores. To have any hope against Cincinnati's defense you need to be able to hit outside jumpers to open things up. Isaiah Miles is the only decent outside shooter that the Hawks have.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Day 3 Picking The Lines

We had to suffer through some ugly basketball in the First Four games (aside from, unsurprisingly, Wichita State/Vanderbilt). But the green veggies are over and it's time for the steak. The real NCAA Tournament is here. Let's do this.

Remember that if you still haven't finished filling out your bracket, I picked the full thing here.

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

UNC Wilmington (+10.5) over Duke: This line is just a wee bit ridiculous. I know, I know... you're shocked to see Duke with a very "public" line in an NCAA Tournament game. Me, too. We'll get through this together.

On a serious note, the Colonial was the most underrated conference in the nation this season, and UNC-Wilmington's 14-4 record was impressive. People see the name "UNC Wilmington" and assume they are from some tiny conference, when in fact they won a regular season title in a conference stronger than the Mountain West. They are also a team that will run Duke's outside shooters off the three-point line (11th in the nation in defensive 3PA/FGA). I'm not saying that UNC-Wilmington will win this game, particularly since I'd worry about a big game from Grayson Allen, but they should keep this close.

Butler (-4.5) over Texas Tech: Using nothing but computer metrics, Butler is the obvious pick here. Texas Tech, as I've written about extensively, got its high seed because they did a beautiful job of gaming the RPI with their schedule. Throw in some luck in late season close games, and both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate Butler the better team. In terms of personnel, I don't like how bad Texas Tech's three-point defense is considering Butler's 39% season-long three-point shooting. If the Red Raiders pull the upset, it'll be because they got Butler's (relatively thin) front line in foul trouble.

UConn (-3.5) over Colorado: Everybody and their sister is picking UConn to win this game. In large part that's because of UConn's two recent miraculous tourney runs, which personally say nothing to me about how they'll do this year. But UConn is simply the better team. Colorado is another team that (like Texas Tech) had an inflated RPI. Colorado also had some good luck in close games (they're only 55th in Pomeroy), and was particularly bad on the road. In road/neutral games, Colorado was 0-10 vs the Pomeroy Top 100, while UConn went 7-7. Colorado would need a significant match-up advantage for me to pick them here, and I don't see one.

Iowa State (-8) over Iona: This is a fair line, and it's hard to feel too strongly one way or other other. My biggest concern with taking the points here is how high scoring this game will be, with the winner having a good chance to finish with 90+ points. If Iowa State gets an early lead, they could blow this game open awfully quickly. Iona has certainly been a better team in conference play with AJ English, but I'm not sure how they can ever get a defensive stop against this Iowa State starting lineup. And Iona doesn't have the players to take advantage of Iowa State's biggest problem: rebounding.

Yale (+5) over Baylor: If there's going to be a 12/5 upset, this is the one I think is most likely. For Yale to win, however, they're going to need to prove that their excellent rebounding efficiencies are true skill, and will not disappear against a Baylor front line that is far more athletic than what Yale faced in the Ivy League. The Justin Sears/Rico Gathers match-up will be worth the price of admission alone.

Virginia (-24) over Hampton: It's impossible to have strong feelings about 1/16 games. Virginia could dominate this game and Hampton could backdoor cover. That said, if I have to pick one side here, I don't like that Hampton is a team that wants to run and get easy second-chance points. Virginia will not allow any of that.

Austin Peay (+26) over Kansas: Once again, it's hard to have strong feelings here. Realistically, Austin Peay has no chance to seriously compete in this game, but Kansas is a jump shot heavy team, so they're going to need to shoot well to cover.

Purdue (-9) over UALR: This is a fair line, but as one of the shortest teams in the country I can't fathom how UALR defends the massive Purdue front line. Smaller teams can cause Purdue trouble when they press defensively and force turnovers against Purdue's underwhelming backcourt, but UALR doesn't do that either. Little Rock was 21st in the nation in 3P%, but Matt Painter teams are almost always good at getting shooters off the three-point line. I like Purdue to win fairly easily here.

Buffalo (+14.5) over Miami: This game will likely come down to how it is reffed. Buffalo is a physical team that gets after the glass, controls the paint, and gets to the free throw line. Miami can be susceptible to teams like that, particularly if Tonye Jekiri gets in foul trouble. That said, Miami was 2nd best in the ACC in defensive FTRate, so in general they were pretty good at not having foul trouble. Buffalo will want the refs to call this one tight. Miami has been an inconsistent team this season, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if they run Buffalo off the court, but they also could lose this game outright.

Chattanooga (+12) over Indiana: Indiana is always a tough team to pick against the spread because they are so dependent on outside shooting. If those threes are dropping at a high clip, they'll win in a rout. But if they struggle to hit shots, Chattanooga is good enough to win this game outright. The big difference for Indiana this year relative to last year has been interior defense, primarily in the form of Thomas Bryant (Max Biefeldt). The match-up to watch, for sure, will be how Justin Tuoyo handles the Indiana front line.

Florida Gulf Coast (+22) over North Carolina: This is a fair line, so it's hard to have a strong opinion on this game. I do think that this Florida Gulf Coast front line is athletic and talented, and should be able to keep North Carolina off the offensive glass. The Tar Heels offense has a tendency to get bogged down when they're not getting easy second chance points. They will still win, but I'm betting that it won't be a total rout.

Fresno State (+9) over Utah: Utah has been very lucky in close games this season (10-2 in games decided by six points or fewer), so the computers are not fans of them. They will very plausibly be Vegas underdogs against 11 seed Gonzaga, if those two teams get there. But they have to get there, and Utah has a tough test as well. Fresno State has an aggressive perimeter defense which led the Mountain West in defensive steal rate, and which will cause problems for a Utah backcourt that is underwhelming. If Utah covers, it will likely be because Jakob Poeltl had a monster game.

Arizona (-2) over Wichita State: I took Arizona in my bracket, and I'm going to stick with them here, but this is obviously an unfair Round of 64 match-up. These are two teams that would have been great Final Four sleepers if not for this terrible draw. In the end, I think Arizona is a deeper, bigger roster, and think that they dominate the paint and rebounding battles. As good as Wichita State has been, the lack of competition in conference play puts a little bit of doubt on their efficiency numbers. Arizona, in contrast, has been absolutely fantastic in Pac-12 play ever since they got fully healthy. Even with the early injuries, they still finished as the most efficient team in Pac-12 play (+0.14 PPP, compared to +0.10 PPP for Oregon).

Stony Brook (+14.5) over Kentucky: Unless you were a fan of an America East rival, you were very happy to see Stony Brook finally break through with this core of players. And it will be fascinating to watch what Jameel Warney can do against a Kentucky front line that has been far from intimidating defensively (particularly compared to the incredible paint defenses John Calipari has rolled out for the most part the past five seasons). But this is a very "public" line, as Pomeroy has it at 10 points and Sagarin at 12. The test for Stony Brook will be holding their own on the defensive glass. If they can, they should cover the spread.

Providence (-2) over USC: With a spread this small you just want to pick the team you think is going to win, and I took Providence in my bracket. Providence was probably the slightly better team this season, and Ben Bentil will be a mismatch for a USC front line that has struggled with paint defense and defensive rebounding. Kris Dunn also will be able to lock up Jordan McLaughlin defensively. 

Gonzaga (-1.5) over Seton Hall: I took Gonzaga in my bracket. Seton Hall is getting a ton of hype because of that magical Big East tournament run, but for the rest of the season prior to two weeks ago they were a bubble quality team. It's generally smart to bet on "regression" in a situation like that. On top of that, Seton Hall has struggled against strong offensive rebounding teams, particularly if Angel Delgado gets in foul trouble. Domantas Sabonis could have a monster game.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Day 2 Picking The Lines

Last night we didn't exactly kick off with the two most exciting games in the history of the sport, though the Wichita State/Vanderbilt game was (unsurprisingly) high quality. It was a shame that a team as good as Vanderbilt was forced to play a buzzsaw like Wichita State in a play-in game, rather than a more First Four-quality team.

Remember, 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: 2-0-0
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Holy Cross (+2) over Southern: Once again, I beg you not to gamble actually American currency on a 16/16 play-in game. That said, I picked Holy Cross in my bracket. They have played significantly better over the past few weeks, and certainly have the coaching advantage. I also think that Holy Cross is a team that doesn't beat themselves with turnovers or fouls or lazy rebounding. They'll force a mediocre Southern team to go out and out-execute them, and I don't think that they will.

Tulsa (+4) over Michigan: I took Tulsa to win this game in my bracket. With no Caris LeVert, Michigan has faded pretty badly down the stretch. They take a ton of threes because they can't get to the basket, but don't hit them at a high rate. And defensively they struggle with dribble drivers who can get into the lane, which Tulsa has.

Just remember that no matter how many games Tulsa wins in the NCAA Tournament, even if they win the national title, it will not in any way change the fact that they should be playing in the NIT. Their resume was way too soft to get in.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Day 1 Picking The Lines

This is Day 1 of my daily "Picking The Lines" posts. Remember, I am not pretending to guarantee success, and I pick each game simply as a blogging gimmick to discuss each game. Betting a few dollars on a game to add interest is fun, but betting a large sum of money is probably a bad idea. Don't gamble, kids.

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:

2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Florida Gulf Coast (-6) over Fairleigh Dickinson: Because I'm picking every game, I have to pick the 16/16 games, but come on guys. Don't bet real money on a 16/16 play-in game. Don't be that kind of degenerate. Anyway... FGCU is by any metric you choose the better team, and the 6 point spread is basically in line with the computer ratings. They're not just better, but more athletic, and they have the chance to run Fairleigh Dickinson off the court.

Wichita State (-3.5) over Vanderbilt: Wichita State's great computer numbers are due in large part to destroying the competition in the Missouri Valley. Their non-conference computer numbers were basically identical to Vanderbilt. That said, destroying a conference has value, even if the Missouri Valley was not particularly strong this year. And second of all, Wichita State was badly shorthanded in non-conference play, and did not look at all like themselves until mid-December. They don't really have anybody who can defend Vanderbilt's 7-footers, but the reality is that this Commodores team doesn't do a lot of their scoring in the paint. They have a perimeter-focused offense, which is where Wichita State's defense is strongest. One final concern is that Vanderbilt went just 5-11 in road/neutral games, including just 1-10 in road/neutral games against the Pomeroy Top 100.

It's completely unfair that two teams this good have to play in a play-in game, but since we're stuck here, give Wichita State the edge.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Complete Final Four Analysis

My Picks:

1. Kansas over 2. Oklahoma
1. North Carolina over 2. Michigan State

1. North Carolina over 1. Kansas

We have a lot of parity... like usual: Last year's situation, with four or five teams clearly better than everybody else, was atypical. We don't have a clear best team this season... but that's normal! Statistically, the level of parity between the top and mid-level teams in the bracket is, despite what you may have heard, not really larger this season than the average college hoops season. But the average college hoops season is crazy. It's the nature of the sport.

Who is the best team?: Each of the four teams I have in my Final Four was, at one point this season, considered the best team in the nation. Until they lost the ACC title game, Virginia was the #1 team in Pomeroy. And if you want to argue that Villanova is the best team (they were #1 in Pomeroy for most of January and February) I won't disagree with that either. There are a lot of different ways you can go. That said...

Don't get weird with your title picks: Look, if you are in a 1000 person bracket contest and only the winner makes money, then by all means pick a team like Iowa or UConn and hope to hit the jackpot. But if you're trying for a solid finish in your bracket pool, you want to avoid teams that could go down early. Don't let your bracket get busted the first weekend. Teams like North Carolina and Kansas are, simply put, the most likely to still be around in a week or two.

Want a sleeper?: Look for teams that are balanced on both sides of the ball, and teams that are playing their best ball late in the season. My two favorite national title sleepers are Purdue and Arizona, and for those two reasons.

Why North Carolina?: There are several reasons why North Carolina is my title pick. First of all, they are balanced. They are very strong offensively and defensively, they have elite talent in the backcourt and front court, they tend to win turnover battles, they tend to win rebounding battles, and they never have foul trouble. North Carolina is also not a team at all reliant on jump shooting or outside shooting, which are always red flags for teams that need to win six straight games. In addition, North Carolina's bracket is relatively soft. There's hype about Kentucky as the 4 seed, but that's overdone because of the Kentucky brand. They have a soft 8/9 match-up and probably the softest 2 seed. All in all, North Carolina is the team least likely (in my opinion) to go down early and bust your bracket. And you can make a good case that the Tar Heels are the best team in the nation and would be a deserved Final Four favorite.

Anything can happen in a single elimination tournament, but I think that if you played the tourney 10,000 times, the Tar Heels would be the most common winner.

Complete West Region Analysis

My Picks:
16. Holy Cross over 16. Southern

1. Oregon over 16. Holy Cross
9. Cincinnati over 8. St. Joseph's
5. Baylor over 12. Yale
4. Duke over 13. UNC-Wilmington
6. Texas over 11. Northern Iowa
3. Texas A&M over 14. Green Bay
10. VCU over 7. Oregon State
2. Oklahoma over 15. Cal State Bakersfield

1. Oregon over 9. Cincinnati
5. Baylor over 4. Duke
6. Texas over 3. Texas A&M
2. Oklahoma over 7. VCU

1. Oregon over 5. Baylor
2. Oklahoma over 6. Texas

2. Oklahoma over 1. Oregon

The West is the "Region Of Life": From top to bottom, this is the weakest region. Oregon is obviously the weakest 1 seed, and there isn't another seed line that is particularly strong, other than perhaps Cincinnati as a strong 9 seed. Duke will be a popular pick, but that's on reputation rather than performance. Without Amile Jefferson they are very thin, particularly in the front court, and they have scuffled quite a bit down the stretch. If we have a region where a 9+ seed goes to an Elite 8, this would be the region. In the end, I'm going with the best team, which I believe is Oklahoma. They also have the best player, and probably a slightly easier draw to the Elite 8 than Oregon or any other team faces. But don't be surprised to see this region blow up your bracket.

VCU will give Oklahoma problems... if they get there: We have seen all season that Oklahoma can be turnover prone, and it's hurt them badly in their losses. That said, VCU is no sure thing to get past Oregon State despite how over-seeded the Beavers are (VCU is currently a 4.5 point favorite in Vegas). Oregon State led the Pac-12 in both offensive and defensive turnover rate, and VCU doesn't win too often when they lose the turnover battle.

Yale has a real shot: If you are in a bracket competition where you get extra value for picking upsets, I'd think very hard about taking Yale over Baylor in a classic 12/5 upset. Justin Sears is a true stud (his absence led to their one disastrous performance of the season against Albany), and the computers rate Yale as nearly as good as Baylor. My one concern, and the reason why I think Baylor still has the slight edge, is that Yale depends heavily on offensive rebounds and drawing fouls, which are two skills that often do not translate well when small conference teams against more athletic opponents.

Yeah, Northern Iowa beat North Carolina and Iowa State, but...: Northern Iowa had two very narrow wins over elite teams, yes, but they were one or two plays from losing both games, so don't draw too many "giant killer" narratives. More importantly, Northern Iowa relies heavily on hitting threes (they led the Missouri Valley in 3PA/FGA and hit them at a 37% clip) while Texas is excellent at stopping three-point shooting. Texas is the deserved favorite.