Monday, March 14, 2011

Complete West Region Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

Last year Duke was given a very soft path to the Final Four - they were basically given a bye to the Elite 8. A lot of people felt like this was done intentionally to protect Duke. Well, you can make the argument that this year Duke has the single hardest path of any 1 seed to the Final Four. From top to bottom the East region is definitely the best, but a lot of that is because of how ridiculously stacked the bottom half of that draw is (North Carolina, Syracuse, Washington, Xavier, Marquette), and the 1 seed (Ohio State) can only play one of those teams in the Elite 8. Duke's got a route to the Final Four that rivals Ohio State's route. Whoever wins the 8/9 game will be very good, and Duke's got the strongest combination of 4 and 5 seeds. And if they get to the Elite 8 and have to play San Diego State it will basically be a road game because it will be played in Anaheim. But before we get to the Elite 8, let's start with the opening rounds.

First/Second Round:

My Picks:
1. Duke over 16. Hampton
9. Tennessee over 8. Michigan
4. Texas over 13. Oakland
5. Arizona over 12. Memphis
3. UConn over 14. Bucknell
6. Cincinnati over 11. Missouri
7. Temple over 10. Penn State
2. San Diego State over 15. Northern Colorado

The West region is the only one without any play-in (or "first round") games, so we can jump right into the Round of 64. You can move Duke and San Diego State ahead without thinking. Northern Colorado is actually a pretty good team, but they depend on rebounding, and there's no way they're going to get those rebounds against San Diego State. Put some thought into that UConn/Bucknell game, for a few reasons. I've talked several times about why UConn should be expected to under-perform in the NCAA Tournament, and you can read here for my thoughts about that. In addition, Bucknell isn't a team that you want to face. They have one play, and one play only, on offense: shooting threes. They shot 40% behind arc (7th in the nation) for the season, but only 47% on twos (207th in the nation) and finished 319th in the nation in offensive rebounding. UConn's defense is strongest in the paint, and they have been vulnerable to outside shooting, such as in their losses to Notre Dame and St. John's. If Bucknell gets really hot, they could pull the upset. I'm picking UConn, but keep in mind later their path difficulty.

Moving to the more competitive games, I didn't think Michigan deserved an 8 seed on body of work, but they're not a weak 8 seed at all. John Beilein has turned the keys of the car over to Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway, Jr., and the team has taken off. They've won 9 of their last 13 games, and of those four losses, two were to Ohio State, one was on a banked buzzer beater against Wisconsin, and the other was a two point loss at Illinois. So they're playing really good basketball right now. Tennessee, meanwhile, has been the most up-and-down team in the nation. They went out and beat Pittsburgh and Villanova, and swept Vanderbilt, but they also lost to Charlotte, Oakland, Arkansas, Charleston and Mississippi State. But that said, they've been really fading down the stretch. Other than the sweep of Vanderbilt, they actually haven't beaten a team in the RPI Top 80 since mid-January. And in those Vanderbilt wins they won by forcing a ton of turnovers (an average of 18.5 over those two games) and got an uncharacteristically cold Vanderbilt team (combined 8-for-34 shooting on threes). Michigan, like basically every other team in the Big Ten, never turns the ball over. So all signs seem to point to Michigan, but my worry is Michigan's youth. They are the youngest team that earned an at-large bid to the Tournament. Their three most important players (Morris, Hardaway and Jordan Margan) are, respectively, a sophomore, freshman and freshman. The second youngest team to earn an at-large bid, according to Pomeroy, is UConn, but I give them a semi-pass because they can lean on Kemba Walker, who has been a star at UConn for three years now. And experience really does matter. Tennessee is a tough, aggressive defensive team, and I just worry that in the glare of the big moment Michigan will revert back to the team they were early in the season, launching three after three and not letting Morris and Hardaway attack the rim. So I'm giving the narrow edge to Tennessee.

Oakland is a very good 13 seed. Most years they'd be the best 13 seed in the draw, except this year we've got Belmont, the best 13 seed ever. Oakland put together a really good non-conference schedule again this year, and again proved themselves competitive. They only knocked off Tennessee, but they had a 1-point loss to Michigan State and a competitive loss to Illinois. The problem is, they drew a beast of an opponent in Texas. A week or two ago Texas was still in the 1 seed picture, and both Sagarin and Pomeroy still rate them as the fourth best team in the country. Now, I don't think they're the fourth best team - I think they've faded a bit down the stretch, and there's no coach I would trust less to guide his team to a Final Four trip than Rick Barnes. But Oakland is not going to score on Texas, so don't over-think this one.

I also think the 5/12 game is an easy pick here. Memphis is not a good team, at all. They finished 13-1 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, which is the best I can recall seeing. They're the anti-Duquesne (0-7 in the same situations). So that means Memphis isn't nearly as good as their resume, which is why their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 41st and their Sagarin PREDICTOR is 84th (see here for more about what that means). Throw in the fact that Memphis is arguably the single youngest team in the bracket (depending on how you define "youngest" it's either them or Michigan), and I wouldn't have picked them to beat just about anybody in the entire field.

Missouri games are very simple. They will press you like crazy, and they'll turn you over, but if you beat the press you will score. Their half court defense is terrible. So if you can avoid turnovers you will beat them. Missouri tends to actually better against non-conference opponents that aren't used to that style of play. The only team in the Big East that plays anything close to that style is Louisville, but what Louisville does isn't really a true full court press, and they don't do it all game either. Cincinnati did handle Louisville well the one time they played, but for the season they did turn the ball over (10th in Big East play in offensive turnover percentage). Cincinnati plays a very good half court defense, so Missouri will struggle to score if they're not forcing turnovers. This is a tough pick, but I'm giving the edge to Cincinnati. The fact that they handled Louisville's pressure and have simply been playing a lot better down the stretch of the season is why I'm making them the pick.

Temple looked really good in November and December when they beat Georgetown, Maryland and Georgia. But a home win over Richmond is their only win against a team rated higher than 98th in Pomeroy's ratings in the past four months. They're very similar to Boston College in the way they play - they're very solid in all facets of the game, but they're not particularly great at anything. There's nothing that they can lean on in a big moment. Penn State has something they can lean on in a big moment - Talor Battle, who is one of those players who can go the whole game without scoring and then put up 20 points in four minutes. He's got tremendous range. And Penn State has been playing their best ball in the past few weeks. They've won seven of their last ten, and of those three losses, two came against Ohio State, and one was at Wisconsin. So that sounds like Penn State is the pick, but there are two reasons to pick Temple. One, let's remember where Penn State before making their run in the Big Ten tournament. Without that three point win over Wisconsin they're probably in the NIT, and heading into that Big Ten tournament they hadn't beaten an RPI Top 50 team away from home. In addition, Penn State is a team that doesn't know what they're doing in the Tournament. Almost all of Temple's key players are seniors and juniors, and they have been waiting for a full year to make up for that first round loss to Cornell last year. Penn State is a popular upset pick, but player psychology dominates in the NCAA Tournament. I'm going with Temple.

Third Round:

My Picks:
1. Duke over 9. Tennessee
5. Arizona over 4. Texas
6. Cincinnati over 3. UConn
2. San Diego State over 7. Temple

I actually think that the easiest pick here is San Diego State over Temple. And I would like them in a romp over Penn State also. Neither Temple or Penn State is really as good as their seed, and both made the dreaded "overrated" list. San Diego State is a legitimate Final Four contender, and they are so dominant on the boards that they will score points. Temple will really struggle to score against San Diego's defense, which is rated by Pomeroy as the fourth best in the nation. I also think that Duke over Tennessee is a pretty easy pick. Tennessee tries to out-athlete teams, and nobody beats Duke by out-athleting them. You have to out-execute Duke, which Tennessee won't do. Tennessee will try to force Duke to settle for a lot of threes, the way that St. John's did, but Tennessee doesn't really have the size to force Duke out of the paint. Besides, this game is in Charlotte, and Duke never loses NCAA Tournament games in the state of North Carolina.

Texas vs Arizona is a really good game. Both of them are Final Four sleepers. Arizona has excellent perimeter play, and they led the Pac-10 in three-point shooting percentage on both offense and defense. Remember, Derrick Williams may by 6'8", but he's actually still got a shot at setting the mark for all-time highest three-point shooting percentage. The all-time record is Glenn Tropf, who shot 63.4% for Holy Cross in 1988. Derrick Williams is at 60.3%. Williams can also play near the rim, and is an excellent rebounder and drew a jaw-dropping 7.9 fouls per 40 minutes on the floor (the second highest mark by any player from a BCS conference was Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli, who drew 7.4). But Texas does have long, athletic interior defenders, and they led the Big 12 in fewest free throws allowed (a 30.0 defensive free throw rate in Big 12 play).

A good argument for Arizona is that Texas can't really take advantage of their weaknesses. Texas does not have a lot of perimeter defense other than Dogus Balbay. They finished second in the Big 12 in offensive rebounding rate, but only shot 48% on two-point attempts. Their offense relies a lot on those second chances. But Arizona is the best defensive rebounding team in the Pac-10. Arizona finished a horrid 280th in the nation in defensive two-point shooting percentage but, like I said, Texas can't take advantage. Texas is a tremendous interior defensive team, but Arizona scores on everybody. And they have a balanced attack, so Texas can't just stick Dogus Balbay on one player to shut him down. I'm worried about the fact that Arizona is still very young and you figure that Sean Miller's team should still be another year away from really being successful, but Texas is very young, too. When Dogus Balbay isn't on the court they tend to play very undisciplined on offense, and they rely on freshmen and sophomores (Jordan Hamilton, J'Covan Brown and Tristan Thompson). And is there any coach you trust less in this situation than Rick Barnes? Texas is the better overall team, but Arizona is my pick.

The UConn/Cincinnati game is another close game. These teams did play in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago and UConn won by 8, but I wouldn't draw too many conclusions from that. UConn shot 10-for-19 behind the arc, despite only being a 33.2% three-point shooting team on the season. Cincinnati also committed 17 turnovers in only 62 possessions (a 27.4% rate) despite having a season average of only a 22.7% rate, and UConn was actually second worst in the Big East with only a 16.3% defensive turnover rate in Big East Conference games. So those statistical flukes were the reason that UConn won - is there any reason to think it was anything other than a fluke? Not really. Cincinnati is a very good defense team, and they have the athletes to guard Kemba Walker. And they've been playing much better down the stretch - particularly Yancy Gates, who responded well to being yanked from the starting lineup, and since being re-inserted to the starting lineup has been playing the best ball of his career. I don't buy the idea that UConn will be physically tired from the Big East tournament - they will have had four full days off before playing Bucknell and then will have another day off before this game. But teams that go on those big conference tournament runs tend to have mental letdowns, which could happen to UConn in their first game. I think it will happen here.

Sweet 16:

My Picks:
1. Duke vs 5. Arizona
2. San Diego State vs 6. Cincinnati

Duke can't be too happy about heading to the west coast to potentially play Arizona and then San Diego State. I actually think they match up well with Arizona, though. The Wildcats finished 10th in the Pac-10 in forced turnover percentage, and 6th in the conference in offensive rebounding rate. So if they beat you it's going to be because they out-shoot you - they're not likely to earn more possessions and more shots. Duke isn't a great rebounding team without Brian Zoubek, but they play outstanding defense. They simply do not allow offensive penetration, so Arizona is going to have to shoot threes to win. Of course, Arizona is a really good three-point shooting team. But they're not used to defenses that pressure in the half court like Duke.

A big worry for Duke is three-point shooting. They can get too three-point happy, and Arizona has excellent three-point defense. But I think the emergence of Ryan Kelly is important, because Arizona doesn't have somebody in their core rotation who is nearly as tall as he is. And besides, there's always a chance that Kyrie Irving will come back, so I think Duke is the pick.

I think Texas is a tougher opponent for Duke. If you've got Texas making the Sweet 16, you should think very seriously about taking them. Texas plays stifling defense, and they will dominate Duke on the boards. Duke will struggle to score against them, and if Texas gets too many second-chance points there will be big problems. Of course, you'd have ask yourself if you're really going to take Rick Barnes over Coach K in the NCAA Tournament.

I think Cincinnati will have a really hard time scoring against San Diego State. San Diego State finished 9th in the nation in defensive effective field goal percentage, and Cincinnati finished 10th in the Big East in offensive effective field goal percentage. And San Diego State turns the ball over less than Cincy does, and they will dominate the boards, particularly if Yancy Gates has to come out of the game. UConn would be a tougher match-up for San Diego State because they have several players who can bang with San Diego State in the paint. UConn finished 7th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and 253rd in defensive rebounding percentage. San Diego State was 18th and 69th, respectively. We'll see a lot of second chance points if this game comes to pass. But I would worry about the fact that San Diego State has several terrific perimeter defenders. Against BYU on Saturday they rotated defenders on Jimmer Fredette and never let him breathe. And UConn will only go as far as Kemba Walker takes them - they have nobody else that can really score. Not only that, but everybody other than Kemba is very young, and you worry about them in big moments if they can't lean on Kemba to make the big shot.

One thing to keep in mind with San Diego State here is that they've got a virtual free pass to the Sweet 16. Cincy and UConn will both have to get through tough first round opponents and then each other. So even if you think that Cincy or UConn is the slight favorite head-to-head against San Diego State you should still take San Diego State here, for the reasons I listed here. So unless you really feel strongly about one of those two teams, take San Diego State.

Elite 8:

My Pick:
2. San Diego State over 1. Duke

Over the length of the season Duke was better than San Diego State. I don't think there's much question about that. But first of all, this game will be played in Anaheim - it's basically a road game for Duke. And second of all, I think San Diego State is a terrible match-up for Duke for a variety of reasons. Duke had their success last year on the boards, but they're much weaker in that facet of the game this year. Duke finished 10th in the ACC in defensive rebounding percentage, while San Diego State was tops in the Mountain West (and 18th nationally) in offensive rebounding percentage. In addition, San Diego State is a team built on the inside-out. Three of their four best players are paint players (and the fourth, DJ Gay, is an assassin in big moments, which means that San Diego State still has that perimeter player that you need to create offense in big moments in the NCAA Tournament). Duke plays at their worst when they avoid the paint and launch threes.

Not all signs point to San Diego State, of course. A worry is that San Diego State does not have an outside shooting threat, and Duke will place their bigs in the paint and make it very difficult for San Diego State to score. No team does a better job of helping on defense than Duke. So San Diego State might struggle to score, even with those offensive rebounds. If Duke shuts them down and gets hot behind the arc then they'll win. But for most of the past decade we've been saying that Duke is dangerous if they can get hot behind the arc, and they haven't had a lot of success with that. Also keep in mind that San Diego State has the easier route the Elite 8. I'd much rather play Penn State/Temple than Tennessee/Michigan. And I'd much rather play UConn/Cincinnati than Texas/Arizona. So there's a better chance that Duke gets upset early than San Diego State. So San Diego State is the pick.

I think that the team San Diego State would be most afraid of here would be Texas. Texas has a lot of size and finished second in the Big 12 in offensive rebounding percentage, and third in defensive rebounding percentage. And their defense is really good. Dogus Balbay can take DJ Gay out of the game, forcing San Diego State to get all of their offense from their frontcourt, and San Diego State hasn't seen interior defenders like Tristan Thompson in the Mountain West. Thompson was second in the entire Big 12 (behind Missouri's Laurence Bowers) in block percentage. So if you've got Texas in this spot, you might want to pick them to the Final Four. But I don't think Texas gets here, and I've got San Diego State in the Final Four.


Saptak said...

Good stuff.

I haven't seen any San Diego State games but do they have the offense to get to the Final Four?

I'm also a little hesitant because in terms of psychology, this is a school thats never even had a tournament win. I don't know much about them at all, but I could see any team in their position being happy just to be there and to have had the season that they've had.

Jeff said...

I've seen San Diego State play a lot, and they can score the ball. They have tremendous offensive rebounders, and they also have several guys who can create their own shot. Kawhi Leonard is an All-American level athlete, and DJ Gay is the poor man's Kemba Walker.

And they won't be just happy to be here. Last year they got an 11 seed and were robbed, and got a horribly tough draw. They should have been better than an 11 seed, and they drew as a 6 seed a Tennessee team that really should have been a 4 or 5. Tennessee beat SDSU by 3 and went all the way to the Elite 8, where they lost by 1 point to Michigan State.

SDSU came in to this season as everybody's favorite in the Mountain West, with a coach who has won a National Championship when he was at Michigan, expecting big things. Those kids will be devastated if they don't at least get to the second weekend.

Justin said...

How confident are you that Mizzou will beat Cincy? You said it yourself that Cincy hasnt really faced anyone close to their style of play except Louisville who didnt even press the whole game. Would it surprise you if Mizzou won and could you see them getting past UConn or even San Diego St. if they do get past Cincy?

Justin said...

I'm sorry Jeff, I meant the first question of that post to be in how confident are you that Cincy would beat Mizzou since thats what you indicated in your bracket. I'm thinkin about advancing Mizzou so i'm just gettin your thoughts

Jeff said...

I think Missouri is certainly a legitimate pick to win over Cincinnati. When they get teams backed up and start forcing a few turnovers, getting the crowd worked up, they can go on scoring spurts unlike any team in the country. If Cincinnati doesn't prepare properly for the press or doesn't react well mentally to it, they will lose.

And if you have Mizzou against UConn, again its not silly to predict another upset. UConn does not have a lot of ball handlers, and Shabazz Napier in particular would scare me to death if I was Jim Calhoun coaching against Missouri, because Napier will be a turnover machine.

But no major conference team in the nation had a worse home/road split than Missouri. And that home/road split is due entirely to defense (I talked about this extensively in a post here). I think they're a team that feeds off the crowd, and when they don't have that crowd they're just a step slow on the press, and that's a killer since they are so poor defensively against teams that beat the press. It's also possible that road teams that come into Missouri are intimidated by the crowd and get a little sloppier against the press.

But if you think Missouri can play in the NCAA Tournament like they do at home, pick 'em. They're certainly good enough.

Aaron said...

I cannot wait to see your picks for the South East / Final four.
I read this blog a lot, and you always provide very useful information for brackets.
Go Pitt!

Thanks Jeff!

Jeff said...

I'm working on the Southeast now. My plan is to post it before I go to sleep tonight. Hopefully within the next hour or so.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff I really enjoy your insight that you give on each game. I have one question though. You talked about the Cincinati game being a tough call over Missouri. So my question to you is if Missouri wins that game who do you like in the third round when they play UConn?

Jeff said...

That would be a tough game to pick. If Kemba Walker gets knocked out of that game for any reason (foul trouble or injury) that young UConn team might get eaten up by the Mizzou press. But I was impressed with how UConn handled the Louisville defensive pressure in the Big East tournament title game, even when Kemba was on the bench for about 7 minutes of game time late in the first half.

I'd give the narrow edge to UConn, but Missouri is a perfectly fine pick there.

Anonymous said...

When do you post the final two and the champions?

Keith said...

Awesome stuff! I heard that Kyrie Irving is practicing with the team and that he could be ready for game 1. If he is effective AND stays healthy, do you see Duke going to the Final Four and pos further?

Jeff said...

Duke has the ability to win the National Title with or without Kyrie Irving. A lot will depend on how much he can play, and he obviously will make the team better, but let's not pretend he's a dramatic upgrade. His minutes will just take minutes away from Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, who are both excellent players.

Saptak said...

Some people's reactions to SDU over Duke has been that Duke's guards will kill SDU's. I'm actually liking SDU because I don't want all 4 number one seeds, but really, what's your reaction to that?

Thanks in advance, you've been a huge help.

Jeff said...

If you're talking about San Diego State not being able to defend Duke's guards, I don't really see that as the case at all. First of all, San Diego State's starting backcourt is pretty good. I really like DJ Gay. And if Duke goes with a three guard lineup, Kawhi Leonard can defend guards because he's so athletic - and with his length it's so difficult to shoot over him. In the Mountain West tournament title game, SDSU was rotating defenders on Jimmer Fredette, but I actually thought Leonard was the most effective.

Leonard would struggle against a tiny point guard like Kyrie Irving, but he could definitely guard a player like Andre Dawkins.

Duke's backcourt, in the end, is definitely better. I think Duke has the best backcourt in the country. But their frontcourt has major flaws, particularly on the offensive end. And remember, the knock on Duke for the past 6 or 7 years was that they were a team that always flamed out early in the NCAA Tournament, and what changed last year was that they became a really good rebounding team. Rebounding is more important in the Tournament than it is in the regular season.

They aren't nearly as good on the boards this year, and could get destroyed there by SDSU. I see no reason why "How can SDSU defend Duke's guards?" is more pertinent than "How can Duke defend SDSU's forwards and keep them off the boards?"