Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Complete Sweet 16 Previews

Here are my previews for the Sweet 16 games to be played on Thursday and Friday. Please come back when those games are actually going on to discuss them in an Open Thread I'll set up.

Rather than give a big introduction to the Sweet 16, let me just go game by game:

Round of 32 ATS: 12-4
Total through Round of 32 ATS: 34-17-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

San Diego State (PK) over UConn: It is very interesting to me that the Big East team performing best in the NCAA Tournament has been UConn. The old argument was that the Big East underperforms in the NCAA Tournament because they "beat up on each other", yet the team that has been most beat up by playing more Big East opponents throughout the year than any other team has been the most successful. They're overrated by the general public, though, and that line is a couple of points too far in their favor because of it. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy project SDSU as about two points better on a neutral floor, and Pomeroy gives them an additional two points because it's "semi-home", and the game is being played not too far from their campus and more than 3000 miles from UConn's campus. I actually had projected UConn to go down to Cincinnati in the Round of 32, and I think they would have lost if Cincy hadn't put them on the free throw line all game. UConn ended up with 30 free throw attempts in a game where they had only 44 field goal attempts, giving them a FTA/FGA (FTR) of 68, which is double the 34 they'd averaged throughout the year. In fact, they had only had a FTR over 60 in one previous game this entire season, and that was against Wichita State way back in November. Cincinnati did finish 15th in the Big East in defensive FTR. SDSU, however, led the Mountain West in defensive FTR, and was 21st in the nation. So don't expect a repeat of that.

UConn doesn't shoot the ball well from the field at all, and they don't force turnovers, so if they're not getting to the free throw line they only win when they get a lot of offensive rebounds. SDSU isn't a great defensive rebounding team, but they're decent (60th in the nation in defensive free throw percentage), and they are a great offensive rebounding team. UConn is actually a much worse defensive rebounding team than SDSU (12th in the Big East and 206th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage). This year, UConn is 20-3 when having a higher offensive rebounding percentage than their opponent, and 8-6 when they don't. SDSU has dominated the boards in both NCAA Tournament games thus far, and even if they are held to a draw against UConn they should win. If nothing else, bet against the "public" and take SDSU.

Florida (-2.5) over BYU: BYU's destruction of Gonzaga was impressive, but misleading. BYU shot out of their minds (50% behind the arc, compared to 36% for the season), which did more than just score points. It got Gonzaga out of their game - they went small, despite having three really good post scorers. Robert Sacre, Sam Dower and Kelly Olynyk combined for 52 minutes and only 18 shot attempts. Particularly against BYU, where their weaknesses are post defense and depth, you have to force the ball in there to get offense and to force fouls. Of course, Florida's backcourt has at times this year done the same thing - Kenny Boynton and Ervin Walker occasionally start launching shot after shot while not probing the post enough.

But assuming Florida sticks to the plan, they are very good offensively in the paint, and do not depend on outside shooting. They are also a very good rebounding team, which will be another problem for BYU, particularly since I expect Dave Rose to stick with the zone he's been using since Brandon Davies was kicked off the team. BYU's best offensive ratings come not from three-point shooting, but actually ball handling (turnover percentage) and free throw percentage. But Florida doesn't rely on turning you over and they don't foul (they led the SEC in defensive free throw rate), so BYU will not be able to play to their strength. There's always a chance that Jimmer Fredette can start swishing 30-footers and carries his team to the Elite 8, but he actually is able to do that less likely than often you'd think from watching his highlight reels. Florida is a better team, and they're my pick.

Arizona (+8.5) over Duke: I think Duke will win this game, but this spread is awfully high. Arizona actually matches up really well with Duke. They finished third in the nation in three-point shooting defense (29.1%), and Duke's biggest struggles this season have come when they're not hitting outside shots. Arizona's biggest weakness is a lack of height defensively, and they were only 9th in the Pac-10 in 2P% defense, and their regular rotation contains nobody over 6'8" (Kyryl Natyazhko is 6'11" and can bang bodies, but Sean Miller doesn't play him much). But Duke doesn't have much post offense, and in tight games they tend to go with small lineups so they are quicker defensively and more explosive offensively. Late in the game against Michigan, Coach K kept the Plumlees on the bench, going with either three or four guards, and only Ryan Kelly and/or Kyle Singler in the frontcourt. And neither Kelly or Singler is a back-to-the-basket offensive player anyway. Also, nobody in the country draws more fouls than Derrick Williams, which can be a problem for a thin Duke team. The only way this game is a blowout will be if Duke has an abnormally strong outside shooting day.

Wisconsin (-5) over Butler: Both Sagarin and Pomeroy project a seven point win for Wisconsin, though I think they're underrating Butler. Butler's computer rating is drawn down by a few horrendous losses midseason, but I've talked about those losses several times. I thought Butler had trouble concentrating against low-level opponents after all of their success last season, and they played their best ball in the biggest games, which was why I continued to project them as the automatic bid winner from the Horizon League even when every other bracketologist and their sister was favoring Cleveland State. But that said, Wisconsin is a bad match-up for Butler. Butler's strengths are that they don't turn the ball over and get defensive rebounds, but Wisconsin doesn't rely on getting turnovers or offensive boards. Butler's strategy of having their bigs aggressively hedge on picks is a problem against a Wisconsin team where every single big can pop out and hit threes. In addition, Butler is 228th in the nation in defensive free throw rate, which is a problem against a Wisconsin team shooting 82.3% from the line this season.

The path to a Butler win relies on several things. First, they will need to go small so that they can force Wisconsin into a low three-point shooting percentage, and so they can break down the Wisconsin perimeter defense. Wisconsin will have trouble guarding Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant at the same time. Butler needs Matt Howard and Andrew Smith to somehow stay out of foul trouble (the way they did in the second half against Old Dominion), and they need Khyle Marshall to continue his coming out party with another strong day on the boards. Butler will also need a good three-point shooting day, which is very possible against a Wisconsin team that is poor defending the three (10th in the Big Ten in 3P% defense). But all of those things working out for Butler are unlikely, and Wisconsin is a solid favorite.

North Carolina (-4.5) over Marquette: With a spread this small, you've got to think Marquette has a plausible chance of winning to take them, and I don't. That game against Syracuse was a perfect game from their perspective. They shot 5-for-11 behind the arc, which stretched out the zone and allowed them to dominate the boards and get to the line a lot. They also hit 83% at the line, compared to only 69.5% for the season. Marquette depends heavily on getting to the line, and unfortunately they're not going to get any help from a North Carolina team that was second in the entire nation with a 24.5 defensive free throw rate. North Carolina is going to turn up the tempo in this game, which is going to be a challenge for a relatively poor Marquette defense (13th in the Big East in defensive eFG%), and also a relatively thin Marquette bench. I also wonder how Marquette is going to deal with the tremendous size that North Carolina has. Marquette had a great run to get to the Sweet 16, but UNC is very happy about it as well. They would have had much more trouble with Syracuse.

Richmond (+10.5) over Kansas: There are a lot of Kansas fans with a lot of angst over their region. Yes, they have only a 10, 11 and 12 seed potentially in their way, but that also means a lot of pressure. It would be an absolute disaster for Kansas to fail to make the Final Four now, and historically Bill Self's teams have not dealt well with that kind of Tournament pressure. I still expect them to beat Richmond, but the margin of victory is going to depend on their three point defense. Richmond is not a small team at all, but their best offense comes behind the arc. In fact, of their seven biggest minute earners, six of them shot 39% or better behind the arc on the season. Kansas, meanwhile, finished 2nd in the Big 12 with a 33% defensive 3P%. If Richmond is hitting their shots then this will be close. This is doubly true because Kansas likes to run and Richmond likes to grind games out, and a lot of missed threes will mean a lot of long rebounds and Kansas fast breaks. Even without fast breaks, the problem for Richmond will be in the paint. They were only 8th in the Atlantic Ten in 2P% defense, and are also a poor rebounding team. Kansas led the nation in offensive 2P% and they have a bunch of strong rebounders. I think this game will be close, so I'll take the points.

Ohio State (-5.5) over Kentucky: Probably the biggest misperception of Ohio State is that they are depending on "one-and-done" players. In fact, they only have one of those players, and their starting lineup has three seniors and a junior in it. To be fair, Aaron Craft (a freshman) comes off the bench and plays more minutes than Dallas Lauderdale (one of the senior starters), but this is still a relatively experienced Ohio State team. Kentucky, on the other hand, plays a six man rotation in almost all games, of which three are freshmen. Their two biggest contributors, Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight, are both freshmen. In the NCAA Tournament you always want to lean on the more experienced team. I also see no way that Kentucky can slow down Ohio State's offense. Even if Josh Harrellson can do well against Jared Sullinger in one-on-one defensive situations, OSU will still hit a lot of threes against a Kentucky team that finished ninth in the SEC in 3P% defense. OSU is hitting an absurd 42.4% of their threes this season (the next best by any major conference team is 39.9% by Arizona).

Kentucky can score also. They led the SEC in offensive turnover percentage and can shoot really well beyond the arc. They've scored at least 1.05 PPP in 12 of their last 13 games. Of course, Ohio State has held opponents below 1.05 PPP in seven of their last eight games, and the one team in that streak to break 1.05 was Wisconsin, a team even more efficient offensively than Kentucky. So unless Kentucky is shooting abnormally well beyond the arc, I don't see how they can keep up offensively. That point spread isn't large enough for me.

Florida State (-4) over VCU: You want to know the craziest single statistic involving any Sweet 16 team? VCU is averaging only 65.3 possessions per game this season, which makes them only the 244th quickest team. Anybody who has watched the 3.6 nanoseconds it takes them to get into their offense even off of made baskets would be jarred by that stat. I've talked quite a bit about how remarkable VCU's offense has been in this NCAA Tournament (see here for details), but FSU has the best defense in the nation. FSU is also tenth in the nation in 3P% defense, which is important since there's no way VCU scores in the paint in this game. VCU doesn't have a lot of paint offense anyway, and nobody scores in the paint against FSU. A particularly important stat is that VCU was only 8th in the Colonial in offensive block percentage, which means that FSU's long post players are going to be swatting just about anything that comes near them.

FSU's offense is not good, and the argument can be made that even if VCU struggles to shoot that they'll still score enough to win the game. And that's certainly possible. But it's worth noting that FSU's biggest strength on offense is offensive rebounding, and VCU is only 306th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. Of course, FSU is not good at ball handling, and VCU did force a lot of turnovers against USC and Georgetown, so that will be something VCU can exploit. But even if they do force 12-14 turnovers, I think it's still important to remember that the VCU we've seen the past three games is not the real VCU. They had a magical run, but momentum in the NCAA Tournament rarely passes from week to week. Most teams that have magical Sweet 16 runs get swatted down by a reality check in that Sweet 16 game. VCU is still the single worst team to earn an at-large bid, and FSU is clearly the better all-around team. The Seminoles are my pick.

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