Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Complete Southeast Region Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

Before I say anything, I want to give you a statistic that will blow your mind. That statistic is the Ken Pomeroy ratings - the best team quality ratings. Last season when we went into the Tournament, Pomeroy had Duke a narrow #1 over Kansas, and received a lot of scorn from the mainstream media about it. When Duke won he had a great last laugh, which I posted about here. In general there is some fairly good variation between the Pomeroy ratings and seeds because the Selection Committee is grading teams on resume strength rather than team strength. Taking advantage of teams with a resume that is far different from team quality is a good way to do well in your bracket competition. Please see here and here for more about this.

But despite the fact that we normally see some variation between the Pomeroy numbers and the seeds I have never, ever seen anything remotely like what is going on in the Southeast region. What I'm going to post next are the 17 teams in the Southeast region ranked by their Pomeroy rating, with their seed written to the right in parentheses:

5. Pittsburgh (1)
9. Wisconsin (4)
13. BYU (3)
16. Utah State (12)
18. Belmont (13)
19. Florida (2)
27. Gonzaga (11)
29. Kansas State (5)
35. St. John's (6)
41. Michigan State (10)
52. Old Dominion (9)
53. UCLA (7)
54. Butler (8)
86. Wofford (14)
125. UC-Santa Barbara (15)
143. UNC-Asheville (16)
210. Arkansas-Little Rock (16)

To put that in words, we have a bracket where the 12 and 13 seeds are rated as better than the 2 seed. There's a little bit of margin of error on Pomeroy, but not that much. We have a tremendously overrated 2 seed, and a pair of ridiculously good 12 and 13 seeds. In fact, I'm certain that Belmont is the best 13 seed ever, and I'm pretty confident that Utah State is the best 12 seed ever. Meanwhile, it's not just the 2 seed that is weak - the 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 seeds are all weak also. And that BYU rating is obviously fake. They were rated in the 6-8 range by Pomeroy all year, and since the Brandon Davies injury have plummeted to a 13, and anybody who watched them play in the Mountain West tournament knows that there is no way they're one of the 13 best teams in the country and they will continue to fall. So top to bottom this is still a weak region.

I'm going to get to the individual match-ups in a moment, since building your bracket isn't just about taking the teams with the best Pomeroy or Sagarin PREDICTOR ratings, but those numbers are unbelievable. I knew that the 12 and 13 seeds were really strong, but putting all those numbers together blew my mind.

Okay, time to get to the actual match-ups:

First/Second Round:

My Picks:
16. UNC-Asheville over 16. UALR

1. Pittsburgh over 16. UNC-Asheville
9. Old Dominion over 8. Butler
4. Wisconsin over 13. Belmont
12. Utah State over 5. Kansas State
3. BYU over 14. Wofford
11. Gonzaga over 6. St. John's
10. Michigan State over 7. UCLA
2. Florida over 15. UC-Santa Barbara

I'm not going to break down that 16/16 play-in game for you since you probably don't even count it in your bracket contest, and unless you're an alumnus of one of those schools you don't care. The two teams came out of conference that were nearly identical in quality and UNC-Asheville finished much better (11-7 vs 7-9). And both Pomeroy and Sagarin rate UNC-Asheville as the clearly better team. Good enough for me. You can move Pittsburgh ahead without thinking. Florida is also a relatively easy pick over UC-Santa Barbara. UCSB did beat UNLV by six in December, but there are some major caveats. UNLV had just traveled cross-country after a brutal close loss at Louisville, and they came out half-asleep and had by far their worst shooting performance of the year, at the same time that UCSB shot out of their minds, with a 60.2 eFG% (compared to UCSB's season average of 51.9%, against a much easier opponent on average than UNLV). I treat that upset like an Illinois-Chicago over Illinois upset - a fluke that really means nothing. UCSB has some good shooters, but they rely a lot on guys that are 6'4" and 6'5" making shots in the lane, which is way easier to do in the Big West than it will be against Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. So pick Florida and move on.

There will be some people picking Wofford over BYU, but I'm not one of them. BYU has really, really struggled since they lost Brandon Davies, but Wofford is not the type of team that can take advantage. BYU's problems are depth and front court defense. Wofford plays at a deliberate pace and will allow BYU to play their five starters for almost 40 minutes. Their best player is a post player (Noah Dahlman), but he's only 6'6" and 215 pounds. Noah Hartsock will be able to handle him one-on-one. If you're picking Wofford here then you're counting on Dahlman dominating the paint. This will force BYU to play a zone and sag down on Dahlman, which will open things up outside for Wofford's shooters, who are indeed very good (their 40.7% three-point shooting was fifth in the nation). But even if this game turns into a three-point shooting contest, are you really going to bet against Jimmer Fredette in that kind of game? San Diego State held him to 10-for-25 shooting, but they did it by game planning their entire defense in a way I haven't seen since teams had to defend Steph Curry on Davidson, and they did it by rotating through three different defenders who are all, individually, far beyond any defender that Wofford has.

The 4/13 game between Wisconsin and Belmont is a very sexy upset pick. And for good reason - Belmont is rated the 18th best team in the country by Pomeroy and 27th by Sagarin. Wisconsin fans are rightfully mad that they got Belmont. But I see it from a different perspective. I think Belmont fans should be mad that they got Wisconsin. Let me give you some stats first: Belmont was 57th in the nation in tempo with 69.6 possessions per game. Wisconsin is dead last in the nation with 57.1 possessions per game. Belmont is second in the nation in both defensive turnover percentage (27.6%) and defensive steal percentage (13.9%). Wisconsin finished first in the nation in offensive turnover percentage (13.1%) and fourth in offensive steal percentage (6.5%). Belmont finished 14th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (37.9%). Wisconsin led the Big Ten in defensive rebounding percentage (72.6% total, 73.3% in Big Ten games). So what you have is a Belmont team that wants to run up and down the floor, turns people over incessantly and lives on the offensive boards. And you have a Wisconsin team that wants to walk up and down the floor and never, ever turns the ball over or allows too many offensive boards. It's a battle of wills.

But that's the problem for Belmont. Wisconsin always wins battle of wins. They will keep the game slow, and they won't turn the ball over. I can guarantee that no matter what happens, Wisconsin is not going to have a turnover rate of 27.2% in this game. In Big Ten play, the worst they had was a 19.0% turnover rate in that horrible collapse at Michigan State early on, after which Bo Ryan tightened up his rotation to clean things up. It's the same thing with rebounding. Wisconsin did allow more than a 37.9% offensive rebounding rate (Belmont's season average) three times in Big Ten play, but all came on January 15th or earlier. Since January 15th the worst they have allowed has been 30.8% in their loss to Penn State. So Belmont will try to full court press Wisconsin the whole game, and they probably will force more turnovers than Wisconsin likes to give up. But this game will be played a lot slower than Belmont wants, and they'll have far fewer steals and offensive rebounds than they're used to. Belmont's offensive efficiency will suddenly get a whole lot worse when they're not getting that. And worst of all: Belmont's aggressive defense caused them to finish 304th in the nation in free throw rate, allowing a FTA/FGA ratio of 0.459 for the season. Wisconsin normally doesn't get to the free throw line that much, but when they do they are shooting an unbelievable 82.4% as a team, which is on pace to break the all-time Division I record of 82.2% set by Harvard in 1983-84. So this is why the story of this game shouldn't be that Wisconsin got a raw deal, it should be that the best Atlantic Sun team ever, with the talent to make a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 run, got a horrible first round match-up. Wisconsin is my pick.

The 5/12 game in this region is also a sexy upset pick, and on this one I'm on board. First of all, both Sagarin and Pomeroy actually rate Utah State as the better team. Sagarin projects a one point victory for Utah State, and Pomeroy projects a three point victory. Historically, 12/5 upsets tend to be major conference teams upsetting mid-majors, but the converse happens enough. And besides, Kansas State is not a good team to pick for an NCAA Tournament run against any opponent. They turn the ball over like crazy (11th in the Big 12 in offensive turnover rate), they are horrible at the free throw line (65.1% on the season), they commit a lot of fouls (11th in the Big 12 in defensive free throw rate) and don't box out well (1st in the Big 12 in offensive rebounding percentage, 6th in defensive rebounding percentage). On top of that they're very dependent on outside shooting (5th in the Big 12 in three-point percentage, 10th in two-point percentage). Curtis Kelly is their only interior threat, and Jacob Pullen has a history of not giving him the ball in close games because he doesn't trust anybody but himself to win games. Utah State is the opposite: they're second in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, third in the WAC in offensive turnover percentage, and 73.6% at the free throw line. Throw in the fact that Utah State is, according to Pomeroy, the third most experienced team in the Tournament while Kansas State is the 13th least experienced... I just can't think of a single reason to pick Kansas State in this game.

St. John's vs Gonzaga is another game where both Sagarin and Pomeroy actually think that the higher seed is inferior, although it's closer than KSU/USU. Sagarin makes Gonzaga only a half-point favorite. Pomeroy has them as a 1 point favorite, with a 53% chance to win. Normally if two teams are even in the Tournament you want to give the tiebreaker to the team with the lower seed, because they tend to come in with more fire and focus. So is there a reason to overrule that history to pick St. John's here? St. John's fans will argue that this team is a whole lot better than it was in the early part of the season, and that's definitely true. But so is Gonzaga. Anybody who's watched Sportscenter for more than five minutes total over the past two months knows about St. John's, so I'll fill you all in on Gonzaga instead. The Zags have historically been a good defensive team, but were horrible in the early part of this season and reached a low when they lost consecutive games in January to San Francisco and Santa Clara where they allowed a combined 1.24 points per possession. As the season got going their defense dramatically improved, culminating in an impressive 1.02 PPP allowed against Saint Mary's in the WCC tournament title game (impressive when you consider that Saint Mary's averaged 1.17 PPP on offense throughout the year). Gonzaga has also gotten an offensive spark from the emergence of Marquise Carter, and David Stockton has helped calm things down on offense by taking over point guard duties and taking care of the ball.

St. John's received devastating news when they found out a few days ago that DJ Kennedy's injury would keep him out for the rest of the season. Kennedy is the team's second best scorer behind Dwight Hardy. Kennedy also gave the team some height and insider presence, because they're just not a very big team. And Gonzaga will present them with a big challenge in both Robert Sacre (7'0") and the rapidly improving Sam Dower (6'9"). And if one of them gets in foul trouble, Kelly Olynyk (6'11") can score in the post as well. St. John's doesn't have a single player on their roster over 6'8". If this is a half court game, St. John's doesn't have a chance. The Johnnies can only win this game if they force a lot of turnovers and can turn up the tempo. But Gonzaga likely won't help them. Gonzaga only finished 152nd in the nation in offensive turnover rate, but they finished 2nd in WCC play because they improved drastically throughout the season, and those turnover stats are just distorted by some really sloppy, poor play in December. St. John's turned teams over on 24.3% of possessions during the season, but Gonzaga only turned it over at greater than a 19% rate once in the past month. To me, Gonzaga is the clear pick here.

Michigan State isn't a particularly strong 10 seed, but UCLA is a very soft 7 seed. You can see from this post that they really deserved a 9 or 10 seed. But since Michigan State isn't particularly strong either, that's not a reason to necessarily pick them. These teams are actually very similar. They're both defense-first teams that have size and rebound well but tend to lose turnover battles. Both teams can score a lot in the paint but struggle to shoot from outside. But I give the edge to Michigan State for a couple of reasons. First, they are playing a lot better now than they were a couple of months ago when they had that hideous stretch where they lost five out of six, with two of the losses being complete embarrassments (a 20 point loss to Iowa and a 26 point demolition against Wisconsin). They went into that slump because their defense fell apart, and their defense has really tightened up down the stretch. During their slump they gave up more than 1 PPP in seven straight games, including an unbelievable 1.51 against Wisconsin. Since then they've held opponents under 1 PPP in five of eight games. UCLA hasn't shown any obvious improvement over the season. Their best win (BYU) was before Christmas. And this UCLA team is very young, while this Michigan State team returned the core of a Final Four team and was #2 in the country preseason after all. So Michigan State is my pick.

Butler/Old Dominion is an overrated game, honestly. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate these teams in the 50-60 range, so they're both overrated at the seeds they're at. ODU has a good resume, but they went 6-2 in games decided by five points or less. Butler had a hideous stretch mid-season where they lost to UW-Milwaukee twice, and also lost to Valparaiso, Wright State and Youngstown State. I do give them credit for improving down the stretch, and also for playing best against the best opponents. They have raised their game all year long when they needed it most, as if they got bored during the dog days of the Horizon League season, coming off that trip to the NCAA Tournament Championship Game. A worry for Butler, though, is ODU's front line. ODU led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage for the second straight year, and they are doing it against legitimate opposition. The Colonial was a much better league than the Horizon in 2010-11. Front line size has always been a problem for Butler, even last year. Matt Howard is their best front court player by far, and he gets in foul trouble walking off the bus. Andrew Smith has improved a lot this year and will provide size when Howard inevitably gets in foul trouble, but that's basically it. Khyle Marshall is probably their third best big man/rebounder, but he's only 6'7", 210 pounds, and he's struggled a bit as a freshman and has seen his minutes decrease throughout the season. I don't see how Butler handles Frank Hassell and Keyon Carter. ODU is my pick.

Second Round:

My Picks:
1. Pittsburgh over 9. Old Dominion
4. Wisconsin over 12. Utah State
3. BYU over 11. Gonzaga
2. Florida over 10. Michigan State

I'll start at the top here. I've already talked about how Old Dominion has led the nation in offensive rebounding for two years straight. But the team that finished second this year? Pittsburgh. And they did it against better competition. And the reality is that if ODU isn't dominating the boards they're vulnerable, and just don't score much. They are 187th in the nation in effective field goal percentage and 201st in offensive turnover percentage. Pittsburgh plays defense that is perfect for ODU. They like to play a tight defense that allows offenses to operate on the perimeter but completely shuts them down in the paint. Old Dominion is not only a bad three-point shooting team (32.9% on the season) but they are a horrid three-point shooting defense (300th in the nation, 9th in the CAA). Pitt has a couple of outstanding outside shooters in Gilbert Brown and Ashton Gibbs. Brad Wanaker can shoot, too. Pitt is the obvious pick here.

While Wisconsin got a very tough second round game in Belmont, their draw does open up if they can survive that game. They are opposite a soft 5 seed in Kansas State, and I'm picking KSU to lose to USU anyway. Utah State is a very good 12 seed, but you can't complain about drawing a very good 12 seed in the round of 32 when you could be in another region and be drawing Arizona here. Utah State is a strong match-up against Wisconsin. They're very similar teams, in fact. Both teams like a slow pace and play sound defense without forcing a lot of turnovers. Both teams have size and can shoot the ball fairly well. If there's one thing Utah State lacks, though, it's three-point shooting. They have one very good outside shooter (Brian Green), but as a team shot only 35.8%. Wisconsin's biggest weakness is three-point shooting defense, and I don't see Utah State really exploiting that. And if they can't, and this is just a grinding game of teams trying to hit two-pointers in a half court game, you have to give the edge to Wisconsin. They're the better team with the better players.

BYU vs Gonzaga is an interesting contrast in styles. BYU is going to try to shoot threes all day long, and Gonzaga has a terrible three-point defense (263rd in the nation). But Gonzaga will work the ball through their bigs (Robert Sacre and Sam Dower), and BYU has almost no height at all. BYU didn't lose just Brandon Davies - they also lost Chris Collinsworth. That gives them only one player in the regular rotation over 6'6" (Noah Hartsock). One advantage BYU has is the location of this game. It will be played at altitude in Denver, and any team from the Mountain West is used to playing at elevation all the time. What BYU is going to try to do is this game is a combination of two things. First, they're going to try to sag their defense to help on the bigs, hoping that Gonzaga doesn't have anybody get hot behind the arc (none of their regulars shoot above 37% behind the arc). Then they're going to try to run, despite how thin they are, to wear out Gonzaga in this game at altitude. But if Gonzaga is able to get Noah Hartsock in foul trouble then that really falls apart, because they won't have any depth at all and will wear out. The biggest challenge for Gonzaga is finding a way to slow down Jimmer Fredette. They don't really have a premier perimeter defender. They'll probably rotate Steven Gray and Marquise Carter on the job. But Jimmer has been playing out of his mind the past couple of weeks, and I see no reason why it should stop against a bad three-point shooting defense like Gonzaga. BYU will have a big crowd advantage and will be used to playing in that type of environment. I give BYU the very slight edge.

Michigan State over Florida will get a lot of buzz as a potential upset, and for good reason. Florida is a horribly overrated 2 seed. But despite that, let's be honest and admit that Florida is a much better team than Michigan State. Florida has a number of players that can score in the paint, and their goal will be to attack there. They are a very good offensive rebounding team, and they will also hope to get Draymond Green in foul trouble. Green is the only good offensive post player that Michigan State has, and they do run a lot of their offense through him because he's a good passer - similar to Goran Suton a few years back. When Green is out, Michigan State's offense tends to turn into a lot of Kalin Lucas jump shots. Durrell Summers can be a good scorer, but he's streaky, and when he struggles to score he also gets disheartened defensively and things tend to break down when it gets to that. The worry for Florida is, of course, actually executing this strategy. Kenny Boynton and Ervin Walker are a very talented back court, but they're also impatient. And I've watched those two dribble around and take stupid shots over and over again, going several minutes of game time without any post player touch the ball. If they do that then they'll probably lose. But I don't think they will. Florida is my pick.

Sweet 16:

My Picks:
1. Pittsburgh over 4. Wisconsin
2. Florida over 3. BYU

If Pittsburgh does end up playing Wisconsin it should be a very good game. The teams are similar - they're both very well coached and play a deliberate style with a deceptively efficient offense. Both teams play passive defensively, allowing outside movement and shots while prohibiting easy baskets in the paint. Pitt has physically strong guards that will be able to play sound defense even when Wisconsin inverts their guards, and Pitt doesn't put teams on the line much, so Wisconsin won't be able to take advantage of their free throw shooting. The worry that I have here for Wisconsin is that I don't see how they stop the Pitt offense. They've struggled defensively lately, and will definitely struggle to guard all of Pitt's offensive weapons (Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown). Pitt's defense will not make scoring easy on Wisconsin. The best chance Wisconsin has will be if Keaton Nankivil and Jon Leuer both shoot the ball well from deep, which they have done at times. Pitt will probably have to pull Gary McGhee if that happens (we all saw what Kemba Walker did to him when he was trying to play defense 20 feet from the hoop), and that will neutralize any rebounding advantage Pitt has. So if you're picking Wisconsin then you're counting on that outside shooting, which is not reliable. On top of that, Pitt has the much easier path to the Sweet 16, so unless you've got a really good reason to pick Wisconsin over Pitt, you should take Pitt here. Pitt is my pick.

No matter who you pick in the bottom part of this bracket you're not going to feel good about it. Of the 8 sub-regions that feed into the Elite 8 spots, none is remotely as weak as the bottom half of the Southeast region. Florida? BYU? St. John's? Gonzaga? Michigan State? Ugh. I've got BYU against Florida, so I'll start with that match-up. I think Florida is a tough match-up for BYU. BYU won't have the same home court advantage in New Orleans against Florida, and Florida has several quick perimeter defenders who are good at limiting three-point opportunities. Florida also has several good post player that will give BYU problems. Chandler Parsons will be a particularly difficult problem. He's going to be taller than every BYU player, yet he can move like a guard and can score from all over the floor. Not only do they have post presences in Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus, but Ervin Walker will be able to get into the lane against BYU's defense and led the team in fouls drawn (5.1 per 40 minutes). Florida is also a good offensive rebounding team (9th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage), so they'll give BYU's under-sized team a lot of trouble there also. So as much as Florida is a terribly weak 2 seed, they were given a gift of a draw by the Selection Committee and are my pick for the Elite 8.

I would like BYU a lot better here if they were playing Michigan State. The Spartans don't have anybody obvious to guard Jimmer Fredette, and on the season were horrible at three-point defense (9th in the Big Ten in three-point defense). The Spartans also don't have the post scorers to challenge BYU's under-sized front line. Even Draymond Greene is more comfortable playing away from the basket, facing his defender. BYU will force Michigan State to hit outside shots, and I don't like their odds at that. So if you've got BYU vs Michigan State here, I'd take BYU.

Elite 8:

My Pick:
1. Pittsburgh over 2. Florida

The top half of the Southeast region is much tougher than the bottom half. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate Wisconsin as the second best team in the region after Pitt, and Wisconsin also plays a style of play that matches up well against Pittsburgh. So for both of those reasons, Wisconsin will give Pitt more of a fight than any team from the bottom half of the bracket. Florida, in particular, is a good match-up for Pitt. Florida depends heavily on rebounding advantages, but Pitt is better on the boards than they are. Without that rebounding advantage, I just don't see how Florida can score enough to keep up with Pitt, one of the most offensively efficient teams in the nation.

I don't think Pitt is too worried about BYU or Michigan State either. Michigan State plays the same Big Ten style of basketball that Wisconsin plays, but less efficiently. And Pitt will put up a whole lot of points against BYU, and they won't let BYU run. Pitt will force a slow pace on BYU and will force them to play in the half court. Pitt also has long, athletic perimeter defenders that they can throw on Jimmer Fredette to make his shots more difficult.

If you've got Wisconsin getting past Pitt, you should obviously pick them over Michigan State. The two teams play similar styles and Wisconsin outplayed them head-to-head during the regular season. Wisconsin against Florida would be a good battle. I think I'd actually give Florida the edge there because they have more depth, and Wisconsin will struggle defensively if either Jon Leuer or Keaton Nankivil get into foul trouble. And, of course, Florida has a much easier path to the Elite 8 than Wisconsin does, so that would be the tiebreaker.

But I think Pitt is probably the safest Final Four pick in the Tournament. They simply have the easiest draw. If Wisconsin gets taken out before the Sweet 16 then Pitt will basically have a cakewalk to the Elite 8 where they'll go up against the winner of the weakest Elite 8 sub-regional. I think you need a really good reason to pick somebody else to win this region.


Steve said...

Hi Jeff, I'm a big Pitt fan, and I believe they'll make it to the final four this year.

How do you think their history of always coming up short will effect Pitt even though they have a really easy road ahead of them?

Jeff said...

I don't think there's any reason why Jamie Dixon should struggle in the Tournament. Historically we always talk about how certain coaches can't come up with big wins in the Tournament... until they do. I remember when Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and Bill Self were all coaches who couldn't get the big win. Heck, Dean Smith was a coach who "couldn't win the big one".

I joke about Rick Barnes all the time, but that's because he's a terrible in-game coach. Jamie Dixon is a very good in-game coach. His teams play very solid, fundamental basketball.

In Jamie Dixon's case, I think he's inherited that reputation from previous coaches - there's always been this stigma that Pitt hasn't made the Fianl Four (yes, they made one... in 1941). Even when Ben Howland was the coach there I remember that the conventional wisdom was that Pitt would always choke in the Tournament.

In Jamie Dixon's time at Pitt, he's only gotten a 1 seed once before, in 2009, when they lost in the Elite 8 by 2 points to a really good Villanova team. Last year they under-performed as a 3 seed, but we knew going in that Pitt was a weak team that had been over-seeded because of widespread pro-Big East bias (go back to my posts pre-Tournament last year. I talked many times about how Pitt and New Mexico were two extremely weak 3 seeds, and both went out in the second round).

The two other times Dixon has had elite teams were 2004 and 2007, and in both cases he got a 3 seed and lost in the Sweet 16 to the 2 seed, which isn't under-performing in any sense.

So there's no reason to pick against Pitt because you think that they "always come up short".

Anonymous said...


I think the mid majors turned the tables on your "watch out for mid majors being upset in the 5-12 and 6-11 games. Richmond over Vanderbilt, VCU over Georgetown, Gonzaga over St. Johns. However, Arizona did beat Memphis and K-State did beat Utah State. So the mid-majors pulled 3 "upsets" and the BCS got one. Still...love your analysis.