Saturday, April 02, 2011

Final Four Preview

Total through Elite 8 Against The Spread: 39-24-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Butler (-3) over VCU: Much has been made about VCU's run to the Final Four, and for good reason. You can click here to see my posts on them the past couple of weeks. The vast improvement by VCU on both ends of the floor has been like nothing I've ever seen. Offensively, VCU is shooting 43.8% behind the arc through the NCAA Tournament compared to only 47.5% on twos in Colonial play. They put up 1.43 points per possession against a Purdue team that was the best defense in the Big Ten and whose previous worst defensive performance this season was 1.23 in a loss at Ohio State, the single best offense in the entire nation. They also put up 1.20 PPP against Georgetown, which was more than the Hoyas had given up to any Big East team this entire season. Defensively, VCU entered the NCAA Tournament having given up at least 1 PPP in 13 of their final 14 games, including 1.41 against Northeastern. They have held four of their five NCAA Tournament opponents under 1 PPP, including holding Kansas to their single worst offensive performance of the entire season. And the only team to break 1 PPP against VCU this Tournament? Purdue... and I've already talked about what VCU's offense did in that game.

VCU has clearly been the best team so far this NCAA Tournament. And they can be clearly contrasted to Butler and UConn, the two Final Four teams that have been lucky - escaping with one and two point wins. But with that all said, Butler is better than VCU. They were better over the length of the season, and Butler's computer ratings are underrating them because of that horrid stretch in the dog days of late-January/early-Feburary when they couldn't find the proper motivation and lost a series of terrible games. But they had turned on their play long before the NCAA Tournament started, having won their final nine games, most of them in total blowouts. When I was doing my Sweet 16 preview I talked about how I thought VCU's magic would disappear after the days off. We see often in the NCAA Tournament that a team pulling a big upset on Thursday/Friday can keep that momentum going on Saturday/Sunday, but that momentum often gets lost after heading back to campus and having a few days to think about it. Once I saw that VCU's magic had continued against Florida State, I rode them again when previewing their Elite 8 game against Kansas.

A lot of media folks have been making a big deal out of three point shooting, and whether Butler's three point defense can stop VCU's hot three point offense. The reality, however, is that VCU's offense isn't that dependent on threes, and Butler isn't a great three-point shooting defense anyway (sixth best in the Horizon League). The real match-ups that matter are rebounding and ball handling. VCU's offense actually depends on their defense forcing turnovers, and Butler has had trouble with this (250th in the nation in offensive turnover rate) and may have to go small to deal with VCU's pressure. But meanwhile, Butler has dominated the boards all season long and throughout the NCAA Tournament and VCU has really struggled there (321st in the nation in defensive rebounding rate). VCU's been out-hustling teams so far this Tournament, but they won't out-hustle Butler. So VCU's only chance to win will be forcing a lot of turnovers or else getting white hot again behind the arc. I think VCU's magical run is coming to an end, and Butler is my pick.

Kentucky (-2) over UConn: Much has been made of UConn being 12-0 in neutral court tournament games this season, but an important fact is that seven of those 12 wins were by four points or less. So they've been very lucky. I know that "Kemba Walker just wills his team to victory", but I'm not sure how he "willed" Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne to both miss open threes in the final seconds of their Elite 8 game. Over the length of the season Kentucky has been the better team, and it's important to remember that they were at one point the team that couldn't win close games. Kentucky started the season 1-6 in SEC road games and 0-6 in games decided by five points or less. Even during the worst of that streak I talked about how that had much more to do with luck than anything else, and statisticians always warn that there's very little correlation between "clutch" play and future performance (see here and here for examples).

The big concern I have with UConn is that other than Kemba Walker they do not have scorers. They finished 13th in the Big East in 3P% and 12th in eFG%. They also finished 15th in the Big East in defensive turnover rate, so they're not going to get easy baskets. They rely on winning the rebounding battle, not turning the ball over and getting lucky with another big Kemba Walker shot in the clutch. Kentucky led the SEC in offensive turnover rate and was only 9th in defensive turnover rate, so we're likely due for a low turnover game, but the Wildcats do struggle to rebound. There will bit a lot of pressure on Josh Harrellson again to stay on the floor and be a dominant force. Kentucky is a much better shooting team than UConn, and they can put up points quickly. UConn will want to slow this game down and keep it low scoring. If Kentucky can't hit their threes then UConn can definitely win.

While I'm no Jim Calhoun fan, I'll always root against John Calipari, who I think should be banned by the NCAA (see here and here for examples). If you don't think Calipari broke some rules this season I've got a bridge to sell you, and I worry that if Calipari does win a national title this year that the NCAA will be very wary of starting an investigation that will lead to pulling away a national title from a school (they've had no problem taking away Final Fours from schools, but taking away a national title is a whole new ballgame). But you can't bet according to your rooting interests. Kentucky is the favorite.

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