Monday, March 14, 2011

Complete East Region Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

Ohio State was given the #1 overall seed, as expected. Yet for the second straight year the #1 overall seed was given by far the hardest region. What exactly does the #1 overall seed get, anyway? The weakest 16 seed? Ohio State is my pick to win the region, but it will be very tough. North Carolina, Syracuse and Kentucky are all legitimate Final Four contenders.

First/Second Round:

My Picks:
16. Texas-San Antonio over 16. Alabama State
12. Clemson over 12. UAB

1. Ohio State over 16. Texas-San Antonio
8. George Mason over 9. Villanova
5. West Virginia vs 12. Clemson
4. Kentucky over 13. Princeton
3. Syracuse over 14. Indiana State
11. Marquette over 6. Xavier
7. Washington over 10. Georgia
2. North Carolina over 15. LIU

It's going to take a while to get used to calling this the "Second Round". To briefly go through the play-in games, in case your bracket includes those, I think Clemson over UAB is an easy pick. Clemson is getting a lot of flack for being 0-5 against the RPI Top 50, but that's the perfect example of a deceptive stat. Of those five losses, four came against UNC and Duke, and only one of those four games came at home - a two point loss to North Carolina. The other loss was a one point loss to Old Dominion on a neutral floor back in November. They've won their last five games against teams with an RPI between 50 and 75. Clemson plays stifling defense and is not an easy team for anybody to beat. UAB isn't particularly good at anything. They might be the worst team to earn an at-large bid, and I'll be pretty shocked if they beat Clemson. As for the 16/16 play-in game, I can't tell you much. I haven't seen either of those two teams play. But the computers all love UT-San Antonio, and as a rule of thumb you should always bet against the SWAC.

Moving into the "second round", we've got a few easy games you can skip over: Ohio State, North Carolina and Syracuse will all roll. With the pace LIU plays that North Carolina game should be fun to watch, but fun as in a 110-70 final score, not as in a close game. Indiana State is not a bad team, but Syracuse is not a good match-up for them. Indiana State's offense is poor, and they turn the ball over a lot. Syracuse plays their great zone defense and gets a whole lot of their offense off turnovers. The best way to beat Syracuse is if you're a team that can hit threes, have athletic attacking players, and don't turn the ball over. None of those describe Indiana State. I also consider the Kentucky/Princeton game fairly one-sided. Princeton finished the season 11-2 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, while Kentucky finished 1-6 in the same types of games. It doesn't take a Princeton grad to tell you that this means that Kentucky is even better than their seed, and Princeton is even worse. All of those close losses in road SEC games created the myth that Kentucky couldn't win close games and couldn't win away from home. But APBRmetricians knew that was nonsense. Kentucky beat Vanderbilt by two on Senior Night and then won at Tennessee and dominated the SEC tournament - proving that the conventional wisdom had been nonsense. Kentucky is a very good and dangerous team. Princeton will not knock them out.

Moving to the competitive games, I'll start at the top. That George Mason vs Villanova game is very intriguing one. On talent alone and resume alone, Villanova should be dominant. But Nova has fallen apart, losing five straight games, including that embarrassing loss to South Florida in the Big East tournament. And we saw this happen last year, when Villanova fell apart down the stretch, and in the Tournament barely survived the 15 seed Robert Morris in overtime before getting handled by 10 seed Saint Mary's. And George Mason is no Robert Morris. This is a team that went 16-2 in a Colonial Athletic Association that got three bids into the NCAA Tournament. They put up points on everybody and have long, athletic guards that can pester the Villanova trio of Maalik Wayns and the Two Coreys (Corey Fisher & Corey Stokes). Typically Villanova struggles if they're not hitting their threes. Stokes and Fisher haven't been entirely healthy either. Now, if you believe that Villanova is going to wake up and play like they did in January then pick them. They've got more talent. But last year gives me no evidence to see them turn things around. I'm taking George Mason.

If you've got UAB beating Clemson then pick West Virginia to beat them. UAB is not remotely as good as West Virginia is. But Clemson is. In fact, both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate this game as basically a toss-up. But the key thing for me is rebounding. West Virginia had been on a roll down the stretch, beating Notre Dame, UConn and Louisville in the month, but then they went into the Big East tournament and got shocked by Marquette in their first game. What changed? Rebounding. West Virginia is very long and athletic and they were the best offensive rebounding team in the Big East this season. Without those rebounds they actually are a poor offensive team. They don't have any good outside shooters other than Casey Mitchell, who is streaky. Against Marquette they were outworked and got kept off the boards. In Big East play this year, West Virginia went 2-6 in games where they had an offensive rebounding percentage below 35%. In games where they were above 35% they went 9-2. They lost to Marquette because they were kept to an OR% of only 26.6%. Clemson is a below average rebounding team, and gave up an average OR% of 32.8% in ACC play. West Virginia is a whole lot better on the offensive boards than the average ACC team, so it would make sense to expect them to pass that 35% mark. So unless Clemson puts on a textbook boxing out performance, West Virginia has to be the favorite.

Marquette over Xavier, to me, is an obvious pick. First, as I've noted, with 11/6 and 12/5 upsets you want to pick major conference teams to upset mid-majors. Besides that, both Sagarin and Pomeroy actually rate Marquette as the better team. Xavier fans will be quick to challenge that the computer ratings include all of those games from November and December when they weren't nearly as good as they are now. And that would be a good point. But I have several counters. First, Xavier's offense relies on Tu Holloway taking over, and also on the team drawing a lot of fouls and getting to the line (where they shoot a very good 74.8%). But Marquette oozes athleticism, and has what seems like 17 different athletic guards that they'll be able to throw at Holloway. And Marquette doesn't commit a lot of fouls, so they're not going to do Xavier any favors. Marquette's flaw is that they are very undisciplined on offense, and if you play sound defense against them they will struggle to score and they'll gift you a bunch of turnovers and stupid shot attempts. But Xavier doesn't play that type of defense. Marquette is the clear favorite, in my opinion.

The final game, Washington vs Georgia, is another relatively easy pick for me. Washington is very, very good. Last season they spent almost the entire year struggling to live up to their potential, and were on the bubble before getting hot in the Pac-10 tournament, earning an 11 seed, and then going to the Sweet 16. That all seems to describe this year again. And they were gift-wrapped their opponent. Georgia deserved to be in the Field of 68, but not as a 10 seed. And Georgia went 9-4 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, so they're not even as good as their resume. Georgia plays pretty good defense in slow, deliberate games, but Washington will force turnovers and turn up the tempo on them. I expect this game to be a romp.

Third Round:

My Picks:
1. Ohio State over 8. George Mason
4. Kentucky over 5. West Virginia
3. Syracuse over 11. Marquette
2. North Carolina over 7. Washington

What's a third round? Like I said, it's going to take a while to get used to these new names. Let me start at the top, with a relatively game to pick. Who on George Mason is going to guard Jared Sullinger? George Mason has good perimeter defenders that can harass Ohio State's outside shooters, but Sullinger is going to be drawing extra defenders and that will open things up for Ohio State's shooters. At least three of Jon Diebler, Aaron Craft, William Buford and David Lighty will be on the floor at any given time in the game, and all are strong three-point shooters. Defensively, Aaron Craft is one of the best shutdown perimeter defenders in the nation, and David Lighty is one of the best all-around defenders in the nation. They should put Cam Long in a straight-jacket for the game, and George Mason's only chance will be if their other players can get hot behind the arc.

Kentucky vs West Virginia is a nice match-up. Both teams are very athletic, long and talented. Kentucky has great perimeter scorers, and West Virginia has great perimeter defenders. The worry for West Virginia is that if they don't rebound and force turnovers they really struggle to score. They actually finished the season 204th in the nation in effective field goal percentage. One of the most underrated facets of Kentucky is how good Brandon Knight is at keeping the offense under control. They finished 9th in the nation (and first in the SEC) in offensive turnover rate. And they will be able to compete on the boards. Kentucky is the all-around better team, so I just don't see any reason to pick West Virginia.

Syracuse and Marquette played this season, but only once. Since we had 11 Big East teams in the Tournament the Selection Committee was forced to break their long-standing practice of not placing teams from the same conference so that they could play before the Sweet 16. To deal with this they made sure that Big East teams that had to play in the second round would be teams that only played each other once during the year. Marquette won that one match-up by six at home, which will cause a lot of people to pick them in their bracket. I'm going to disagree. First, Marquette shot the ball really well in that game - they haven't shot better than that 59.6 eFG% in any game since. In addition they got the benefit of some hometown calls, with 33 free throw attempts in a game where they only had 44 shot attempts from the field - a 75% free throw rate, their best in any game they've played in more than a year. Under normal conditions you'd figure that Syracuse is a horrible match-up for Marquette. Marquette's offense is very dependent on one-on-one play, and they don't play good team offense. That's the type of play that the Syracuse zone eats up. To beat Syracuse you've got to be a great passing team that knows precisely how to probe and attack the zone, the way that Louisville, Georgetown and Seton Hall all did against Syracuse this season. Marquette can't do that. To me, Syracuse is a big favorite.

The Washington vs North Carolina game should be a "get your popcorn ready" game. Both teams love to run and both put up a lot of points. I might add that both of these teams have, at least lately, gotten themselves into a lot of early holes and have had to work their way out. There will be a lot of pressure on Kendall Marshall to take care of the ball, because Washington will press when they fall behind and they're very good at it. But North Carolina has bigs that can run and handle the ball, so they should be able to handle Washington's press better than most. Washington is a very good team that I could see picking to the Sweet 16 or even Elite 8 with the right draw, but I think North Carolina is a bad match-up for them. If there's a reason to pick Washington it's the fact that North Carolina often plays to what they think their competition is. If they walk in thinking Washington is just another 7 seed that they should crush just by showing up and putting on their uniform then they could fall behind early. But I think they'll be ready and they're my pick.

Sweet 16:

My Picks:
1. Ohio State over 4. Kentucky
3. Syracuse over 2. North Carolina

If these two games come to pass they should both be terrific. The Ohio State vs Kentucky game, in particular, will have a Final Four feel. The key to beating Ohio State is having somebody that can body up with Jared Sullinger and handle him one-on-one without committing too many fouls, so that your fellow defenders can stay with Ohio State's shooters. The two teams that beat Ohio State this season, Purdue and Wisconsin, were both able to do that. I do think Kentucky has that guy in Josh Harrellson, who is very underrated in his ability to bang inside and grab tough rebounds. If he gets in foul trouble, though, that will put a lot of pressure on Eloy Vargas to play big minutes. I don't think Kentucky is going to want to risk putting Terrence Jones on Sullinger because of a fear of getting him in foul trouble. I think that the worry for Kentucky offensively is outside shooting. They run Calipari's classic dribble drive offense, and depend on hitting outside shots. Ohio State does not have a tremendous three-point shooting defense, but it's good enough. And Ohio State is used to dealing with great offenses all over the Big Ten, so they will be able to handle Kentucky. I could see myself picking Kentucky over some of the other 1 seeds, but Ohio State is just a little bit too much. I'm picking the Buckeyes.

Syracuse vs North Carolina is an interesting contrast in styles. But one thing I will say is that it's very rare that other teams impose their tempo on Syracuse. Syracuse will slow this game down and they will turn it into a grind. A worry for North Carolina is their lack of outside shooting, and the fact that offensively they tend to struggle most against sound defenses. If Harrison Barnes shoots like he did against Clemson then all bets are off, but I'm not wiling to count on that happening again. North Carolina's offense depends a lot on their guards beating their initial defender. But what we saw against Duke in the ACC tournament title was Duke playing terrific help defense, and North Carolina's offense never got going. Unable to get to the rim they had a terrible shooting day. Syracuse is always a great help defense team. If North Carolina's threes are falling then they'll open up the zone, but otherwise they're in trouble. Syracuse has the bodies to man up against John Henson and Tyler Zeller down low, and I give the edge to Syracuse.

Elite 8:

My Pick:
1. Ohio State over 3. Syracuse

I actually think Kentucky is a more formidable opponent for Ohio State than Syracuse. I think Ohio State is a horrible match-up for the Syracuse zone. They have so many good shooters that they'll be able to stretch the zone, and Jared Sullinger has the ability to go right at Rick Jackson in the paint. If Jackson gets in foul trouble then the Syracuse offense really become weak, because they don't have a lot of interior options as it is. With Aaron Craft and David Lighty shutting down Syracuse's perimeter options, Syracuse will struggle to score if they're not forcing turnovers, which they won't do against Ohio State. I just don't see where Syracuse gets their offense from.

If you picked North Carolina to make the Elite 8, I don't think the story changes much. Ohio State will force their tempo on the game and will not allow North Carolina to run. The only real worry for Ohio State will be if John Henson and Tyler Zeller both get going, and the Buckeyes are forced to go with a big lineup with both Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale in there to play defense. When those two are in the game at the same time it forces Ohio State to get out of their primary set, where they work the ball through Sullinger and the other four players stand at the three-point arc to take advantage of helping defenders. Lauderdale is an offensive black hole, and North Carolina will be able to help off him against Sullinger. I'd still pick Ohio State to win the game, but I'd think more carefully about it.

If you picked Kentucky to take out Ohio State, I would like their chances against Syracuse. They don't turn the ball over and they hit threes, which is the formula for beating Syracuse. A Kentucky vs North Carolina match-up would be very interesting. I wonder how Kentucky would deal with North Carolina's depth and size. North Carolina also would actually be the more experienced team against Kentucky, as opposed to potential games against Ohio State and Syracuse. So I think I'd actually take North Carolina in this game, although I'll put more thought into it if they game actually comes to pass. But like I said, I don't think either Kentucky or North Carolina will even get to this game.


Cameron said...

Hey Jeff,

It doesn't scare you how well Kentucky has been playing?? I really want to pick them to pull the upset over the mediocre looking (as of late) buckeyes but their inexperience in heat of the moment games scares me also...of all brackets I'm having the hardest time feeling content when I complete this bracket (the duke one is close behind) but I need more factual data or insight to help make this decision easier either way...any additional info you can supply is greatly appreciated. Thanks!! -cam

Jeff said...

Well, I'm not sure what stats you are looking for. Kentucky is playing very well, but honestly there historically isn't a lot of overlap between good play in conference tournaments and good play in the NCAA Tournament. Whatever momentum you have gets sapped in the week before these teams enter the Tournament.

A big warning flag with Kentucky is how young they are. They're even younger than last year, and this Ohio State team oozes experience. Their best defender, David Lighty, was a key cog on that 2006-07 team that played in the National Title game with Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook. Experience matters a lot in the NCAA Tournament.

And like I said in this post, match-ups matter. Although I've already gone through those in this post, so I don't want to just repeat it in the comments.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of Xavier playing its first game near Cleveland, essentially a home game? Is Marquette still the better choice?

Jeff said...

I don't think it matters too much for Xavier for a couple reasons. First, they don't have a huge fan base. And second, home court advantage only means so much. Even true home court advantage is only worth four points. It will be less for Xavier, and I expect Marquette to win by more than four.

I just think Marquette over Xavier is such an obvious pick that I was willing to overlook distance.