Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Complete Final Four Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

The four teams that I've got playing in the Final Four are Ohio State, Pittsburgh, San Diego State and Purdue. I don't expect you guys to have the same four teams I do, so I will talk about other top contenders. I will also break down all the teams in this country into three tiers, because in my opinion there are clear delineations between the serious National Title contenders, the serious Final Four contenders, and the dark horse Final Four contenders.

My Picks:

Final Four:
1. Ohio State over 2. San Diego State
1. Pittsburgh over 3. Purdue

I'm going to start by discussing the Final Four game between the winners of the East and West regions. In the case of my bracket, I've got Ohio State and San Diego State playing each other. Ohio State is actually #1 in Pomeroy's Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. It's amazing that they've achieved that when you consider that they don't have a truly elite offensive playmaker, the way that they did with Evan Turner, or even Mike Conley (people forget now, but Conley was the best offensive player on that Final Four team, not Greg Oden). This year's offense completely revolves around Jared Sullinger. He draws so many fouls and is such a force that most defenses have to help, and Ohio State surrounds Sullinger with a tremendous array of shooters. Technically, Dallas Lauderdale starts and Aaron Craft comes off the bench (Craft was the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year), but Craft actually plays 30 minutes per game and Lauderdale only plays 16. And when Craft is out there, and the lineup around Sullinger is he, William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler - all of those guys shoot 39% or better behind the arc. Diebler actually took six three-pointers per game on the season at a 50% clip.

San Diego State's strength is front court defense, but this is actually a problem for them against OSU. Those big guys are going to have to chase 6'5" guys around the perimeter instead of playing in the paint. And those guys aren't going to have a big advantage on the other end of the floor, either. Most people don't realize how big this Ohio State team is. Lighty is 6'5", 220 pounds, and he has successfully guarded many Big Ten bigs. Buford is 6'5" and Diebler is actually 6'6". They were the fourth best defensive rebounding team in the Big Ten and will not get blown away by San Diego State (first in the Mountain West, and 18th nationally, in offensive rebounding percentage).

San Diego State's defense has been excellent this year. In 19 Mountain West games (16 in the regular season, 3 in the post season) they held opponents under 1 PPP on 14 occasions. Their two losses on the season (both against BYU) were among the five games where they allowed more than 1 PPP, allowing more than 1.1 PPP in fact in each. The problem is, Ohio State is going to score. They've been held under 0.98 PPP only twice the entire season. Once was in their loss at Purdue. The other time was on the road at Florida State, the team that is (in my opinion) the single best defense in the entire nation. So assuming that Ohio State scores, can SDSU keep up?

San Diego State is actually not a good shooting team. They finished 204th in the nation in eFG%. But they scored points (the 24th best offense in the nation, according to Pomeroy) because they didn't turn the ball over and could really get after the offensive boards. The problem is that Ohio State's strengths match up well here. Ohio State's weakness on defense in shooting defense (132nd in the nation, and 6th in the Big Ten, in eFG% against), and they can defend the boards (22nd in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage). And they led the Big Ten in defensive turnover percentage, so they will be able to force a few turnovers. In the 2011 calendar year San Diego State has played six games against teams in the Pomeroy Top 50 on defense. In four of those six they failed to break 1.02 PPP offensively, and one other was that BYU game in the Mountain West tournament title when BYU had no bench and was completely worn out, and Jimmer Fredette had to basically stop playing defense so he could save his energy for the offensive end. Ohio State is 10th in the nation in defense, according to Pomeroy. Ohio State is my pick.

I don't like the chances of UConn getting here at all, but I can certainly see Duke or Texas getting here. Both Duke and Texas have a lot of size that can defend Sullinger. Duke has a ridiculous amount of height, and will cause defensive problems for Ohio State. Their depth also will test a relatively thin Ohio State team. And Ohio State's poor field goal percentage defense will be a problem against a Duke team that can definitely shoot the ball. If Duke throws out Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Kyle Singler, how exactly would Ohio State defend that? That lineup would be vulnerable to Ohio State's three-point shooting, but Duke did lead the ACC in three-point percentage defense, so they should be able to get out there well enough, especially since either of the two Plumlees will be able to handle Sullinger well enough one-on-one. If you've got Duke getting through to the Final Four, I'd think very seriously about taking them over Ohio State.

I don't think Texas scares Ohio State nearly as much. I think Texas will struggle to score against the Buckeyes. When Dogus Balbay is in there, Ohio State won't respect his shooting and will place their best defenders on the Texas's top scorers. When Balbay is out of the game, Texas tends to devolve into a lot of one-on-one offense, which Ohio State will eat up. Texas is (according to Pomeroy) the best defense in the country. I think Florida State would be better if not for losing Xavier Gibson and Chris Singleton for long stretches, but no matter - Texas is very good defensively. But Texas doesn't force turnovers and is not a great defensive rebounding team - they are great defensively by challenging shots and leading the nation in eFG% against. But against Ohio State? The Buckeyes are going to hit enough shots to get their points. I already talked a few paragraphs ago about how rare it is that OSU gets held under 1 PPP. So Texas is going to have to score, and I don't see where it's coming from.

If Ohio State goes down in their region, it could realistically be to North Carolina, Syracuse or Kentucky. I think San Diego State would prefer to play Syracuse, honestly. Because Syracuse plays in a zone all the time they're not a good defensive rebounding team (209th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage). Remember that offensive rebounding is the main catalyst for San Diego State's offense. The team that they'd fear most among that trio would be North Carolina. The Tar Heels are a good rebounding team (first in the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage, and second defensively), and they are deep and will run. San Diego State likes a deliberate pace, and they actually have depth problems if you can wear out their starters or get them in foul trouble. UNC has the athleticism and length to guard everybody that SDSU has, and so unless they absolutely dominate the boards I think SDSU will not be able to keep up with the pace of the game or the pace of the scoring.

On the other side of the draw I've got Pittsburgh playing Purdue. This is an interesting match-up when you consider Purdue's success over the past few years against Wisconsin. Pittsburgh plays an extremely similar style of basketball to Wisconsin, only with better rebounders. Both of these teams score very efficiently, and Purdue has an outstanding shutdown defense. I do worry about Purdue's ability to handle the fact that Pitt has three players that can attack off the dribble - Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown. One wild card here is Talib Zanna, who is the second best rebounder on Pitt but has been out for several weeks with a thumb injury. The time table he got when he originally was hurt (3-to-6 weeks) will end by the Final Four, so he might be back. Purdue is a solid rebounding team, but they will lose on the boards against a full strength Pitt team, particularly if Zanna is in the lineup.

What Purdue is going to try to do will be to go small so that they can stay with Pitt on the perimeter. This is one place that the loss of Kelsey Barlow will hurt. But the fact that JaJuan Johnson is such a good help defender will help provide cover, and Johnson will be able to be aggressive since Gary McGhee isn't a scoring threat. Offensively, Purdue is going to have to hit outside shots. Pitt led the Big East in two-point percentage defense, and they did it by giving teams freedom to move the ball outside the arc, but by playing very physical defense in the paint. Purdue doesn't score a lot in the paint anyway, so they're not going to challenge Pitt there. JaJuan Johnson can score in the paint, but he prefers to be facing the basket, and he'll have more of an advantage playing that way against whichever player Pitt has guarding him (particularly if he's being guarded by McGhee). But if Purdue is depending on this becoming a jump shooting game, I don't think they can win that way. Pitt has better shooters. So to me, Pitt is the pick here. I just don't see a reason to lean toward Purdue.

If you don't have Purdue here then you probably have Kansas or Notre Dame. If we have a Pitt/Notre Dame Final Four it will be a re-match from the regular season, when Notre Dame went into Pitt and won. But that was something of a fluky game. Pitt dominated the boards and had more steals, but Notre Dame hit 9-for-18 behind the arc. Anything close to their season average there would have given Pitt the win. Pitt finished second in the Big East in three-point shooting defense, so it's not like they can't defend out there. Whenever Notre Dame and Pitt play it is whatever the opposite of a "clash of styles" is. Both teams can shoot well, both defend the paint well, and both are underrated offensively because they play at a deliberate pace. But the problem with picking Notre Dame too far is that they are so dependent on one single player. If Ben Hansbrough gets in foul trouble or gets hurt their entire offense suffers tremendously. Pitt has so many interchangeable parts. They barely missed a beat when Ashton Gibbs missed a few games, and Gibbs is their best scorer. So I don't think under any circumstance should you be picking Notre Dame to make the National Championship game.

Kansas would be a formidable opponent for Pitt. They led the Big 12 in offensive two-point shooting percentage, and were 7th in the entire nation in three-point shooting defense. That means that they can simultaneously attack Pitt's defense while taking away their outside shooting game. Both teams led their conference in defensive rebounding percentage, so Kansas will be able to match Pitt on the boards. And Pitt can't take advantage of Kansas's weakness, which is ball handling. Pitt doesn't pressure much when playing perimeter defense, and they finished 15th in the Big East in defensive steal percentage. If you can't turn Kansas over they're almost impossible to beat, so I would favor Kansas over Pitt.

If you don't have Pitt getting to the Final Four, I'm not quite sure who you'd have in their place. Wisconsin is the second best team in that region, but their route is tough. BYU? Florida? I'm not sure those teams have a high enough chance to bother going through all of the permutations. I feel like Pitt is the safest Final Four team, although if you'd like to hear my thoughts on a particular Final Four match-up just let me know in the comments and I can put more thought into it. And like I said, if you've got Pitt in the Final Four, the team they'll be most afraid of is Kansas. Against anybody else, I think Pitt is the clear favorite.

Championship Game:
1. Ohio State over 1. Pittsburgh

With all the talk about mediocrity and parity this year in college basketball, I think that there are actually some very distinct tiers of quality in college basketball. I noticed this while putting my bracket together every week throughout the year. In my opinion, the four number 1 seeds have been the clear four best teams in the country all year long. Duke, Pitt, Ohio State and Kansas are all truly legitimate National Title contenders, and it's fair to pick any of them to win your bracket. Texas, at their best, has been as good as those four. But Texas has been inconsistent, and I don't trust them in big moments, and I certainly don't trust Rick Barnes. If Texas plays to their best for six straight games they'll win the National Title, but I personally wouldn't put my bracket fate in their hands. And after that, I just don't see any other team that at their best can seriously rival Duke, Pitt, OSU and Kansas at their best.

There is a clear second tier of teams, and these are all teams that you can put in your Final Four. I'd include (in alphabetical order) Connecticut, Georgetown (if Chris Wright is at 100%), Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Purdue, San Diego State, Syracuse and Wisconsin. Throw Texas in there also. BYU was in that tier before they lost Brandon Davies. All of those teams are the ones you should seriously consider picking to your Final Four to avoid picking all four 1 seeds - I obviously chose to take Purdue and San Diego State, but you don't have to take them just because I did. But I just don't think I can see any of these teams winning a National Title. All of them have real flaws that I've detailed throughout the Tournament previews already. Each of them have the ability to beat a particular 1 seed where they have favorable lineup match-ups, but winning more than one in a row, against different styles of play? Don't bet on it.

In my opinion there's a clear third tier of teams. Here I'd put (again in alphabetical order) Arizona, BYU, Cincinnati, Florida, Missouri, St. John's, Vanderbilt, Washington and West Virginia. If you have a good feeling about any of those teams, it's not crazy to put them in a Final Four. Particularly if you're in a large bracket competition and need something out of the ordinary to happen to win. Every two or three years a team at that level breaks through and makes a Final Four run. But don't pick one of those teams to win the National Title. All of those teams could realistically go down on the first weekend - some of them can go down in the first round. If you're just in a bracket contest with a few friends from school or work, don't pick a team to win the National Title that might go down so early. If you pick a team like Kansas and they go down in the second round (like last year) at least you have the comfort that everybody else in your contest got killed also, so you didn't lose too much ground.

But this year, I just don't see myself picking outside of those four 1 seeds to win the title. I put two of those 1 seeds in the Final Four, and I picked both to make the finals. So if we do have Ohio State vs Pittsburgh, who would have the advantage? Both of these teams are loaded with perimeter players that can shoot well and play solid defense. The biggest match-up of concern is, of course, Jared Sullinger. There will be a lot of pressure on Gary McGhee to guard him one-on-one without fouling. If McGhee is out of the game it becomes a big problem. I don't think Pitt has anybody else who can guard Sullinger one-on-one. And if you are doubling Sullinger, Ohio State will light you up from behind the arc.

The biggest concern offensively for Pitt would be ball handling. Pitt was actually 12th in the Big East in offensive turnover rate, although to be fair that sounds worse than it really is. Pitt's offensive turnover rate in Big East play was 19.8%, compared to Ohio State's 16.4%, which was fifth in Big Ten play. So over the course of a game that means Pitt is only likely to average about two more turnovers, which is unlikely to be the deciding factor in the game. But the fact that Pitt doesn't have interior offense to speak of means that Ohio State will be able to get up on Pitt and pressure. Unlike most Big Ten teams, who typically like to sit back in a low-risk defensive style and don't force a lot of turnovers, Ohio State will get up in your face far from the basket. OSU led the Big Ten in both defensive steal and turnover rates, which is particularly impressive when you remember that they led the nation in free throw rate (a FTA/FGA of 0.209) - so they were forcing turnovers without fouling. Of course, Pitt doesn't shoot free throws well anyway (67.2% on the season).

Is there a mis-match that works in Pitt's favor? I think their best mis-match will be whoever Jon Diebler has to guard. When Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown are all playing with somebody like Nasir Robinson, Jon Diebler will have to guard one of them. Pitt will probably try to take whoever is being guarded by Diebler and let him attack, spreading out the floor so that Ohio State's other perimeter defenders can't really help. If they can beat Diebler repeatedly they might force a few fouls on a helping Jared Sullinger. And if they can get Sullinger out of the game then everything changes. Dallas Lauderdale is no more of an offensive threat than any of the bigs Pitt will play, and Pitt will have the athletic advantage in the backcourt and on the wings. Without Sullinger to draw the attention of the defense, Ohio State's offense bogs down. They don't have a perimeter creator nearly as good as Gibbs or Wanamaker. So that would be the formula for a Pitt win.

I would give the edge to Ohio State, though. Sullinger, like the rest of his teammates, doesn't commit a lot of fouls. In 21 games against Big Ten teams this year he fouled out only once, and reached four fouls on only five other occasions. For the season he's committing only 3.0 fouls per 40 minutes. To put that in perspective, the only other Big Ten players that are 6'9" or taller that fouled less often than Sullinger were Jon Leuer, JaJuan Johnson and Mike Davis. That Matta has built a perfect team around Sullinger - perimeter defenders that can protect him, and perimeter shooters that will hit shots when open. They were the best team in the country all year, and are (in my opinion) the best team we've seen since the 2008-09 North Carolina team. I don't get the whining about the lack of great teams this year. What do people want? Ohio State lost two games all year, playing in the deepest and (according to Sagarin and Pomeroy) the best conference in the nation. And those two losses were close road losses to Purdue and Wisconsin, two teams that went undefeated at home on the year and are among the ten best teams in the nation according to both Sagarin and Pomeroy. Is a team not "great" unless they go undefeated? Ohio State has a difficult path to the Final Four, but it could be worse. And they're the best team, and match up well with all of their most likely opponents. They are my pick to win the National Title.


Ron said...

You would not happen to have a final score prediction would you sir?

Will said...

I followed some of your advice last year, and it hlped me a lot. I was just curious though, what adjustments did you make about your bracket picks this year that you learned from last year's rather unpredictable tournament?

Jeff said...

Well, if you're looking for scoring, you have Ohio State averaging 65 possessions and Pitt averaging 64. Assuming that they each put up something like 1.05 PPP against each other, you're looking at about 130 points. Almost all of the top teams this year play at a slow pace, so pick a low score.

As for adjustments from last year, I don't think I've changed my views on anything big. I've just tried as best I can to study the teams and players throughout the year.

There's luck and randomness in this Tournament, which is why it's so much fun. If I could pick every game I'd start buying lotto tickets...

Cameron said...

Hey Jeff,

If it came to rise, what are your thoughts on a Louisville pitt rematch? And based on the read, I figure you'd take pitt, but could you also cover a Louisville Ohio st final? Thanks man!


Jeff said...

I'd favor Pitt over Louisville, but not by much. Pitt will want to dominate the boards against the smaller Louisville team, but Louisville will try to turn over a Pitt team that can have trouble with ball handling. When these teams played in Louisville this year, Louisville enforced their will. They forced Pitt to turn the ball over on 25% of their offensive possessions, and Pitt actually lost the rebounding battle. In a Tournament situation, though, the pace typically slows down. It's why picking teams that can rebound the ball is so important.

I think Louisville would have a really hard time with Sullinger. And Ohio State is very athletic and good with the ball, and they score on everybody. I talked about how rare it is for Ohio State to be held under 1 PPP? Well, Louisville is 3-6 against Big East teams this year when allowing more than 1 PPP against them. They are 11-1 when holding teams under 1 PPP. I don't see how they keep up with Ohio State's offense.

Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts on Ohio State-Kansas matchup? I'm leaning towards picking Ohio State right now.

Jeff said...

I'd lean toward Ohio State, too, but Kansas would be a tough out for them. Ohio State's defense is most vulnerable against teams that can shoot, which Kansas can. Kansas also has the size and athleticism to guard Ohio State's offense.

Gina Black said...

Now that Purdue's Kelsey Barlow is suspended....what do you think of Purdue's chances of making the Final Four?

Jeff said...

I don't think the loss of Barlow is a big deal. He only plays about 15 minutes per game, and he's only good on the defensive end of the floor. He's only really missed if Purdue plays a team with a deep, athletic backcourt that will tax Purdue's backcourt depth.

Cameron said...

Hey Jeff,

I think I'm set on a pitt OSU Nat'l championship, but the formula you mentioned for pitt to be successful scares me into picking them even though you said you think OSU has the advantage in this game...with that, what were the match ups in which sullinger fouled out this yr? Did you watch those games? Do any of those teams remind you of pitt's style? And if so, do you remember what he did or what caused him to foul out in those games? Did OSU look vulnerable in those games regardless of opponent? Any help is much appreciated...Thanks man!