Monday, March 28, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Small Conferences, Part II

Northeast Conference

Relative to recent history, this was actually a strong season for the Northeast Conference. The conference rarely has two teams as strong as their top four were, and LIU was a really strong 15 seed. I actually thought they deserved a 14 seed. Considering that this conference has been getting a lot of 16 seeds in recent years, that qualifies as a successful year. In fact, the only three wins the NEC has ever had in the NCAA Tournament have all come in play-in games (16/16 play-in games in 2006 and 2008, and a 12/12 play-in game in 1983). Even worse, other than those play-in games, you have to go back to 1968 to find any kind of postseason win: an NIT win by LIU over Bradley. So can the NEC improve to the point that they can get a team with a high enough seed that they can realistically win an NCAA Tournament game?

We can start with LIU, since they dominated the conference in 2010-11, and actually put up a pretty good fight against North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. LIU plays an uptempo style (third in the nation with 75.1 possessions per game) and they have an explosive set of guards on both sides of the floor. Two players from their starting rotation will graduate, but neither is critical, and they return six different players that scored at least six points per game last season. They still will have two good ball handlers (CJ Garner and Jason Brickman), several good perimeter defenders (Jamal Olasewere, CJ Garner and Julian Boyd all averaged more than one steal per game), and a couple of good outside shooters (two returning regulars hit over 38% behind the arc last season). Their biggest flaw is in the paint, where they could really use players that can both score and defend. They do have two decent young bigs in Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere, both of whom were sophomores in 2010-11.

Robert Morris, the team that represented the NEC in the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and fell in overtime to LIU in the 2011 NEC tournament title game, is the opposite of LIU. They like to grind the ball (second slowest tempo of all teams in the NEC). Robert Morris is also a very young team. In their nine man rotation in 2010-11, only one was a junior and only one was a senior. They were turn their five top scorers, top two rebounders and top two assist men. They also return two different regulars that shot at least 42% behind the arc on the year (they led all teams with a 39.1 3P% in NEC play). Robert Morris received a blow when Elton Roy, the star of their 2010 recruiting class, decided to transfer out, but they've got a quality transfer showing up in the form of Mike McFadden from Iona, who I believe will have three years of eligibility left. And they have two very promising young players in Coron Williams (a freshman) and Lijah Thompson (sophomore), with two more good recruits in the 2011 class: 6'7" Keith Armstrong and 6'2" David Appolon. It's hard to not expect them to be improved next season.

Quinnipiac was the second best team in the NEC this past season, and they actually were rewarded with a bid to the CIT, where they lost their opening game by seven points to Buffalo. They succeeded by absolutely dominating the boards in the NEC - they led the conference in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, although they weren't really good at anything else. They lose only two players from their nine man rotation, although one was their best rebounder (Justin Rutty - 4.0 offensive boards per game). They have one more year of eligibility for their best player, James Johnson (16.1 ppg, 38.5 3P%, 3.5 apg, 1.6 spg), but they have no other good outside shooters. They have a good prospect in Dominique Langston (7.1 ppg, 2.0 apg as a true freshman), but unless they find some other shooting they'll probably be held back from actually winning the NEC title with as good as LIU and Robert Morris are likely to be.

A sleeper team has to be Wagner, a program that is off to a really good start in one year under the Hurley Brothers. They swept Quinnipiac and also beat Robert Morris, and won at Bucknell during their non-conference slate. And they did it with zero seniors earning more than ten minutes per game. They shoot the ball well (77% at the line, 37% behind the arc), but have to clean up their ball handling (6th in the NEC in offensive turnover rate) and rebounding (12th in offensive rebounding rate, 9th in defensive rebounding rate). Latif Rivers (2.9 apg as a true freshman) could be the future at point guard, and they're bringing in two more big bodies (Eugene McRory and Mario Moody) with their 2011 recruiting class. The team will definitely be better and could potentially contend for a conference title, although they're most likely at least a year away from actually winning.

The NEC should be even better next year, and could actually have a team in play for a 13 seed, but I think it's going to come down to Robert Morris and LIU. LIU will still be playing an exciting, uptempo style, but Robert Morris should be far improved with a whole lot of depth. Since I've been following the Pomeroy ratings the NEC has never had a single team in the Top 100. They could potentially have two next year. But of those two, Robert Morris is my pick.

Ohio Valley Conference

Even though Murray State won the regular season Ohio Valley title, the story of the OVC was Morehead State, with Kenneth Faried setting the Division I career rebounding record and leading Morehead State to an NCAA Tournament victory over Louisville. But not only will Faried be gone next year, but so will their primary playmaker (Demonte Harper - 3.4 apg) and their second best offensive rebounder (Sam Goodman). They were already a poor ball handling team, and that's just going to get worse, and they're a poor shooting team, so without the rebounding they won't have much left. The do have a bunch of young players with size, and the hope for Morehead State will be that by learning from Faried they will gain strength and play with intensity on the boards. They also might be able to get some decent ball handling from Lamont Austin (3.8 assists per 40 minutes played, and a 1.5 A/TO ratio). But I just don't see how this team doesn't have a huge drop-off next year.

Murray State won 13+ games in OVC play for the sixth straight season, and won their second consecutive regular season title, but a shocking loss to Tennessee Tech in the OVC tournament semifinals sent them to the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament. They do lose three seniors from their regular rotation, including two very good shooters. They had three starters that shot between 39% and 41% behind the arc, and two of them will graduate. But even so, Murray State is still going to be dangerous. Their biggest strength was forcing steals and getting layups and they still retain most of their top perimeter defenders. They also still have two more years of eligibility from Edward Daniel, who had 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes played and was the best rebounder on the team in 2010-11. Ivan Aska is another good rebounder back. Shawn Jackson and Chris Griffin were two other bigs that played well in limited minutes as true freshmen in 2010-11, so Murray State's front line should even be better in 2011-12. But the concern comes back to the shooting. Murray State will contend for the Ohio Valley title in 2011-12 simply because they contend every year, but the only way they'll be as good or better than they were in 2010-11 will be if they can find some shooters to spread out the floor.

The only other team that seriously contended with Murray State and Morehead State in 2010-11 was Austin Peay. And Austin Peay did it with only one senior on the roster. To be fair, that senior (Caleb Brown) was the team's primary ball handler and leading assist man (4.7 per game), but Austin Peay has other point guard options, including TyShwan Edmondson and Tyrone Caldwell. Caldwell has the more efficient ball handling stats, but hasn't played many minutes, so you never know what happens to players when they have to start instead of playing in short bursts off the bench. But Austin Peay's ball handling wasn't a strength in 2010-11 anyway. They were a strong defensive team (they led the OVC in defensive eFG%) and they can shoot (they return three different regulars that shot 36% or better behind the arc this past season). They will potentially start four seniors next year, and will definitely be a serious contender in the OVC.

If a team from the second tier of the conference contends for a conference title next year it will likely be Tennessee Tech or Tennessee State. Tennessee Tech was the fourth best team in the conference in 2010-11 according to Sagarin and Pomeroy and they knocked off Murray State in the OVC tournament before falling to Morehead State in the title game. They actually earned a bid to the CIT where they fell in a close game to Western Michigan. And Tennessee Tech did that with only one senior on the roster. They return their leading scorer (Kevin Murphy - 17.0 per game) and a good playmaker (Zac Swansey - 6.4 apg). But what bothers me about Tennessee Tech is that they don't have anybody that is really good at anything, and as a team they weren't really good at anything. So even though they should be improved next year since basically everybody is back, is their talent ceiling really high enough to challenge teams like Murray State and Austin Peay?

Tennessee State wasn't a good team at all this past season (outside the Top 230 in every computer rating), but they did it with zero seniors. Of the eight players that earned double-digit minutes per game, they were two juniors, four sophomores and two freshmen. And they're adding even more depth with a couple of transfers in of Jordan Cyphers from Utah and Bawa Muniru from Indiana. Neither player did anything at their previous schools, but that doesn't mean that they can't succeed at a lower level conference. They can shoot the ball (37.6% behind the arc as a team, including four regulars that shoot over 38%) and also led the OVC in 3P% defense. With so much depth and the fact that they already have the ability to beat good teams if they're shooting the ball well (they beat Morehead State and Austin Peay this past year, and only lost by five at Memphis), Tennessee State has to be a darkhorse team for next season.

History tells us that Murray State and Austin Peay tend to dominate this conference, and both look to be really good again. But as good as Murray State has been in recent years, I think that the lack of shooters is a huge question mark. Austin Peay is the more certain thing, and should definitely be improved. In my opinion, Austin Peay is the favorite.

Patriot League

Bucknell absolutely dominated the Patriot League in 2010-11, and were probably the best team that the Patriot League has produced since those Bucknell teams that won a couple of NCAA Tournament games in 2005 and 2006 (remember, that 2005-06 Bucknell team actually earned a 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament). Obviously the 2010-11 Bucknell team doesn't compare to the Kevin Bettencourt/Chris McNaughton/Charles Lee teams, but they do a lot of things in common. They still play that tight defense (23rd in the nation in eFG% against) and can hit threes (40% for the season). And this year's team was very young: their starting lineup consisted of three sophomores, a junior and a senior. They lose only two players from their regular rotation, and only one other player in their rotation was a junior. So this is a team that should continue to progress the next two seasons at least. Mike Muscala is the team's go-to scorer (14.9 ppg, 52% shooting, 7.3 rpg), although their most efficient scorer is actually Bryson Johnson (11.7 ppg, 45.6 3P%). The team's biggest concern in 2011-12 will be replacing Darryl Shazier, who led the team with 5.4 apg. Rising-senior Bryan Cohen was second on the team in assists, but the most promising option might be Ryan Hill, who had 3.8 assists per 40 minutes played in limited opportunities as a true freshman in 2010-11. As far as I can tell, Bucknell does not have a point guard in their 2011 recruiting class, so the development of Hill might be the difference between winning or not winning an NCAA Tournament game over the next two years, while they've still got Muscala and Johnson.

The only other team to finish above .500 in the Patriot League in 2010-11 was American University, and they won't disappear next year. They lose three starters to graduation, but return everybody else, and they could have four senior starters next season. Their most important player (Stephen Lumpkins: 13.5 ppg, 59% shooting, 8.2 rpg, 1.3 bpg) will return for one more year. He's most important because they won games last year in the paint - they led the Patriot League in 2P%, defensive rebounding percentage and offensive block percentage. A key player will be Tony Wroblicky, a 6'10" center who was a big time recruit (by Patriot League standards) in 2010. He's already a force physically (10 rebounds per 40 minutes played in limited minutes) and if he can develop some offense then American could be as good as they were this past season.

If there's a sleeper team for next year it's Lehigh. They lose four seniors that got decent minutes at times, but only one was a starter, and the other four starters consisted of three sophomores and a freshman. They've got a really nice playmaker in Macky McKnight, who had 3.7 assists per game in 2010-11, including a 2.3 A/TO ratio that is really impressive for a true freshman. But the worry for Lehigh will be about who he's giving the ball to. The only player that shot over 32% on threes will graduate, and they were only 7th in the Patriot in eFG% in 2010-11. If they can find some shooters for McKnight and can clean up their defense (6th in eFG% defense).

But let's be honest: Bucknell dominated the Patriot League this past season and should be even better next season. A big question for them will simply be if they can do well enough to earn a 13 or 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament so that they can have a real shot at winning an NCAA Tournament game.

Southern Conference

Coming into this season I thought the conference would be a battle between College of Charleston and Davidson, but Davidson really struggled, and Wofford stepped up and became a Top 100 team and actually won the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. And Wofford was the type of team that is dangerous in the NCAA Tournament because they could shoot the ball (40% behind the arc as a team for the year) and had a star on the inside in Noah Dahlman. But their three stars (Dahlman, Cameron Rundles and Jamar Diggs) all graduate. In all, five players from their seven man regular rotation will be gone. The two returners (Brad Loesing and Kevin Giltner) both will be seniors and both are excellent outside shooters (43% and 42% on threes in 2010-11, respectively), but there's not much left beyond that. Josh Corry, a 2010 recruit, was thought to be the go-to scorer of the future, but he chose to transfer out. Aerris Smith, a 6'7" 260 pound forward, was a relatively highly rated recruit in 2010, but barely played at all as a freshman. Showing up in 2011 will be Karl Cochran, a point guard, and Lucas Brown, a shooting guard. Unless they pick up a couple of big time Juco transfers, I don't see how
Wofford doesn't take a big step back next year.

The best team in the SoCon all year was probably the College of Charleston, but they lose four seniors from their rotation, including their superstar Andrew Goudelock (23.7 ppg, 40.7 3P%, 4.2 apg). They do return three quality players in Andrew Lawrence (5.8 ppg, 38.8 3P%, 1.7 apg, 1.0 spg), Willis Hall (8.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Trent Wiedeman (8.4 ppg, 62% shooting, 6.6 rpg). Wiedeman should be the go-to scorer next year, and he along with Hall already made up the two best rebounders on the team, so that part of Charleston's game (a weakness in 2010-11) should be improved. Wiedeman was the star of a strong 2010 recruiting class that also had James Carlton (a 6'8" forward) and Jordan Scott (a 5'11" shooting guard) as key cogs. Scott and Carlton will be expected to take on much larger roles in 2011-12. The star of the 2011 recruiting class, without question, is 6'9" center Adjehi Baru (Rivals: 26, Scout: 3 C), a true blue chip recruit who turned down offers from North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia Tech to go to a Charleston team where he could start right away. The recruiting was also impacted by Patrick Branin, a lesser member of the 2011 recruiting class, who was Baru's high school and AAU teammate, and whose father is actually Baru's legal guardian. However he got to Charleston, he will likely be an immediate force, giving Charleston a lot of quality size. Anthony Stitt and Trevonte Dixon are a pair of quality 2011 recruits that will provide backcourt depth as well. Baru's play, and whether he needs a year or two of seasoning, will determine whether Charleston will be improved next season, but they'll certainly contend for another SoCon title.

Davidson was a team that disappointed, but they were better than their final record. In the non-conference they beat Nebraska and almost won at St. John's, then faded with a hideous stretch of seven losses in eight games to start the 2011 calendar year, but won nine of their final ten regular season games and had a respectable performance in the CBI, where they thumped James Madison by 20, then lost to a Creighton team that followed up that game by destroying Central Florida by 18. Bob McKillop's son, Brendan, was the only senior on the team. In fact, of the seven players that earned at least 15 minutes per game, one was Brendan McKillop, but the other six were freshmen and sophomores. On the inside they are anchored by Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks. Frank Ben-Eze provides rebounding depth, but isn't much of a scorer. Their top two perimeter scorers are JP Kuhlman and Nik Cochran, both of whom hit more than 45 threes during the season, although neither hit higher than 38%. If they can improve that outside shooting then it will add a new dimension to the team. On the wing they have two promising players that were freshmen in 2010-11: Tom Droney and Jordan Downing. Both are athletic but were poor shooters and turned the ball over a lot - typical for true freshmen. With some added seasoning, there's no way this Davidson team isn't improved next season.

The champion of the SoCon North was Western Carolina, and they did it with only two seniors in their regular rotation. That said, the two seniors represented their leading scorer and assist man (Mike Williams) and their leading rebounder (Richie Gordon). They had four true freshmen that earned at least 13 minutes per game this past season, including two of their starters, so the future is still bright, but it's hard to see them not taking a step back in 2011-12. Chattanooga was the co-champion in the regular season in the SoCon North, although they had three seniors among the eight players that earned double-digit minutes per game. They do return their star Omar Wattad (14.3 ppg, 36.1 3P%, 2.0 apg) and their key playmaker (Keegan Bell - 5.7 apg) for one more season, so they should still have some offense. The toughest loss to replace will be DeAntre Jefferson, who led the team in defensive rebounding, which is important since that's the only important category that Chattanooga led the SoCon in. Chris Early is a good returning rebounder, but they will likely need an improvement from Sam Watson, who has the physical size to be a good rebounder but hasn't played much yet in his career. I can definitely see Chattanooga winning the SoCon North in 2011-12, but I'll be very surprised if the eventual champion doesn't come out of the SoCon South.

Like last year, I've got to pick Charleston and Davidson as the two dominant teams in the SoCon. Charleston could very well be even better than they were this past season, but they could improve and still come up short. Davidson was a lot better in 2010-11 than their overall record would suggest, and they're extremely young with a very good coach, so it's natural to expect them to improve leaps and bounds. I think either Charleston or Davidson will be good enough to scare major conference foes next March, but I'm giving the preseason edge to Davidson.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Open Thread + Picking The Lines

The NCAA Tournament continues to surprise me this year. It's been one of the most topsy-turvy I can recall. And while statistics say that over the long haul there is almost no correlation between having won close games in the past and winning close games in the future, we sure have had a few teams that continue to win close game after close game (Butler and UConn being the most blatant).

Please join me in the comments to this post to chat about today's games. Here are my thoughts on the two games coming:

Saturday ATS: 1-1
Total through Saturday ATS: 38-23-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

VCU (+11.5) over Kansas: You'll notice that I didn't include VCU on my list with Butler and UConn, and that's because VCU hasn't been lucky. Despite being by far the worst team given an at-large bid this year, they've flipped a switch and have just played great for the past four games. They put up 1.20 PPP against Georgetown and then an insane 1.43 against Purdue. Even the 0.97 PPP they put up against Florida State was impressive when you consider that FSU is (in my opinion) the clear best defense in the nation. And one thing that's really important to point out here is that the only real weakness Kansas has is ball handling (they were only 112th in the nation, and 6th in the Big 12, in offensive turnover rate), and VCU can really pressure ball handlers (they led the Colonial in both defensive turnover rate and defensive steal rate). Kansas knows that they've been handed a gift draw, particularly now that they're due to face Butler if they make the Final Four, and they're going to be very nervous about blowing it against such a wildly inferior VCU team. As poor as VCU was this year as a whole, they only lost one game by more than 12 points. I just think that spread is way too large, and honestly a win here for VCU wouldn't be any more surprising than Butler making the Final Four.

North Carolina (+1) over Kentucky: I know that Pomeroy is projecting a two point victory for Kentucky and Sagarin is projecting about a 1.5 point victory, but I strongly disagree for a few reasons. First of all, UNC's computer ratings are a bit deflated by their weak play early in the season. They've been playing their best ball lately. Despite the fact that Kentucky's gotten their best wins late in the season, from the perspective of the computers there actually hasn't been much of an improvement in Kentucky throughout the year, and they simply changed from having close unlucky losses to close lucky wins. But more importantly, Sagarin and Pomeroy do not take into account individual player match-ups, and I think there's a huge edge for UNC there. UNC will push the pace - they are averaging 73 possessions per game - and Kentucky doesn't like to run. Only three times all year did the play a Top 100 team in a game with more than 70 possessions, and they went 1-2 in those games, including that loss to North Carolina. Kentucky plays a six man rotation, and they are likely going to wear out. There's going to be huge pressure on Josh Harrellson to stay with Tyler Zeller and John Henson up-and-down the floor. If either Harrellson or Terrence Jones gets in foul trouble it's going to be a major problem. The one way Kentucky can win this game is with outside shooting. They're a better outside shooting team (although North Carolina is the better three-point defensive team), and if they can get hot then they can put up enough points to keep up with North Carolina. But Kentucky's been living off of their half court defense, and North Carolina is likely not going to give them a lot of opportunities to play half court defense. I can't see Kentucky beating North Carolina. But then again, I couldn't see Kentucky beating Ohio State, and then the Buckeyes chose to launch 20 foot contested jumpers all game and blew their chance of a National Title. With UConn getting out of the West Region, either Kentucky or North Carolina will very likely be my Final Four pick (UConn might be favored in Vegas just because they're so overrated by the public), and Kansas is the only team that will scare them on the other side of the bracket. So this game will have massive NCAA Title implications. My pick is UNC.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saturday Open Thread + Picking The Lines

This will be the open thread for today's games. The Sweet 16 results were shocking almost across the board. This has been the craziest set of upsets we've had in a Tournament in years. But I'll still try my best to preview the games:

Round of 16 ATS: 3-5
Total through Round of 16 ATS: 37-22-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Florida (-4) over Butler: Butler's magical run has been different from VCU's. VCU has been playing out of their minds, and they've just played great basketball on both ends of the floor. If they'd played like this all season they wouldn't have been such a shocking Elite 8 team. Butler is different. I knew that the computers were underrating them because they had those awful results during the middle of the season when they fell to Youngstown State and got swept by UW-Milwaukee. They just didn't have the appropriate concentration and motivation. Their defense has picked things up considerably. But they've also been just very lucky in the NCAA Tournament. They've won their three games by a combined ten points, benefited from ice cold shooting from ODU and Wisconsin, and were given some gifts down the stretch by a brain-dead Pittsburgh team. VCU confounds me with how well they're playing, but Butler still is who I thought they were. They're a well-coached team that can a few things well but nothing great, and can struggle against over-powering front lines or teams that can shoot. Butler's done a good job so far of keeping opponents off the offensive boards (particularly in that ODU game), but Florida will really test them, particularly with their front court depth. If Andrew Smith is not 100% it's going to be a big problem. Wisconsin did Butler a favor by launching outside shots instead of attacking the paint, but I doubt Florida will repeat that error. Florida can struggle against teams that have a lot of post offense, but Butler really doesn't have that. They get a lot of second chance offense, but don't post their bigs up in the paint often. Butler could continue their magical run, but unlike the talking heads on television I can't say "The stats support Team A, but Team B has magic so I'm picking them." If both of these teams play an average game, Florida will win.

Arizona (+3) over UConn: You want to see a crazy stat on UConn? They were 195th in the nation in eFG%, but Pomeroy rates their offense 11th most efficient in the nation. The reason? They are 7th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and led the Big East in offensive turnover rate. They simply take more shots than their opponents. Arizona finished dead last in the Pac-10 in forcing turnovers and first in defensive rebounding. So they won't turn over UConn, but UConn hasn't been turning the ball over anyway, and Arizona should be able to keep UConn off the boards. A big worry for UConn is finding a way to deal with Derrick Williams. They simply don't have a player who can both guard him on the perimeter and in the paint (Roscoe Smith is probably the best shot physically, but I don't see him containing Williams one-on-one all game). I wonder if Jim Calhoun will be willing to play a zone, because that's probably his best shot of containing Williams. Arizona's biggest weakness is post defense, and they are particularly thin on the bench inside as well. UConn's best shot is to go big with Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu, and to pound the ball inside. But short of actually getting Derrick Williams in foul trouble, the edge has to go to an Arizona team that is so explosive offensively right now. Unless UConn dominates the offensive glass against the best defensive rebounding team in the Pac-10, I don't see how they keep up offensively.

But I went 3-5 in Sweet 16 games... so what do I know anyway?

2011-12 Preview: Small Conferences, Part I

Southland Conference

There have been years where the Southland Conference produced dangerous teams. Sam Houston State, Stephen F Austin, Northwestern State and Texas A&M-CC have all produced teams that scared major conference opponents in the past few years. This wasn't one of those years, and it was made even worse when UT-San Antonio pulled a few upsets and earned the automatic bid, making them easy fodder for Ohio State. I'll start this preview with them. UTSA actually only loses one player from their rotation to graduation, but it's their best player: Devin Gibson, who led the team in points (17.0), assists (5.4) and steals (2.6) per game. He was their do-everything player and will not be replaceable. Probably the closest player offensively is Sei Paye, who had 1.6 apg and can shoot the ball. A key player is going to be Jeromie Hill, a lightly recruited player out of Australia who blew up as a freshman, hitting 40% behind the arc and scored 13.4 ppg. With his height (6'8") he can potentially become a good rebounder as well, and he could soon be the go-to player. UTSA was poor defensively last season, and that's just going to get worse without Gibson, so their ability to score in bunches will be key. They have other strong outside shooters, so expect them to be reliant on that next year.

The regular season champion was McNeese State, although they were underwhelming. Honestly, they only won because they were in the Southland East, which was much weaker than the Southland West. They weren't really good at anything. Their top stat on Pomeroy was ball handling (they led the Southland in offensive turnover percentage), but their two best ball handlers (Diego Kapelan and PJ Alawoya) both graduate, as do three other players from their regular rotation. The only player that started at least 20 games that will return is Patrick Richard, who's good at getting to the basket and scoring, but will not be enough for McNeese State to repeat. They will get a quality transfer in Will Brown, a 6'9" athletic forward from New Mexico, who should have two years of eligibility left.

The computers both thought that Sam Houston State was the best team in the conference in 2010-11, but they lose a ton to graduation as well. Their toughest loss will be Gilberto Clavell, who led the team in points (19.5) and rebounds (7.3) per game. He also managed to earn 8.0 free throw attempts per game, which was almost as many as the rest of his teammates combined. They also lose their two other top scorers, but will still have a strong backcourt led by Drae Murray (4.6 apg, 1.2 spg) and Antuan Bootle (57% shooting, 6.1 rpg). The concern for Sam Houston State is where their young depth is coming from. They had signed two really good recruits in their 2010 class (Kumaine Osborne and Randy Collins), but Osborne left to go to a Juco team instead, and Collins quit the team. They don't appear to have much of a recruiting class coming in, so they might be very thin next year.

Stephen F Austin is a team that is always competitive in the Southland, and it's typically because of their tough perimeter defense. They had four different players averaging over a steal per game, although three do graduate. They do return their leading scorer (Jereal Scott - 13.3 per game) but will need some of those younger perimeter players to step up. One player I expect to star is Darius Gardner, who had 2.7 apg in only 21.4 mpg as a freshman. Another freshman who was efficient in short minutes this past season was Amos Olatayo, who scored 4.3 points in only 8.6 minutes per game. Gardner and Olatayo can potentially anchor this team for the next three years. With Scott still able to lead the scoring next year, and with another strong defensive season, Stephen F Austin will again be a serious contender for the Southland title.

Texas-Arlington is an intriguing team because they return every player from their regular rotation. A key player for them is Brandon Edwards, who shot 55% from the field as a freshman and led the team in rebounding despite only playing 20.8 minutes per game. A big key for them will be ball handling. They have a couple of good young guards that can create (Cameron Catlett and Shaquille White-Miller both averaged more than 2.5 apg), but they're very sloppy and the team was 341st in the nation in offensive turnover percentage. As those players mature they should tighten that up, and the team does have good shooters, has height, and can play defense. They should be a serious contender next year.

I think that the loss of Kumaine Osborne and Randy Collins will keep Sam Houston State from reloading, and they will need a couple of years to rebuild. Texas-San Antonio made the NCAA Tournament and could be even better next year, but that's not saying a whole lot. Stephen F Austin is always a serious contender in the Southland, but I expect Texas-Arlington to actually be their top competitor. I'm giving the edge to Stephen F Austin simply because UT-Arlington has zero history winning in the Southland (they haven't finished better than 9-7 in the conference since the 2003-04 season), but look for UT-Arlington to be a threat going forward for the next few years.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

This is where I put in my yearly plea where I'm hoping somebody will explain to me why the SWAC is so awful each year. The conference was actually significantly outplayed by the Great West Conference this year, a conference made up mostly of teams brand new to Division I, has zero history, and does not have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Neither Sagarin or Pomeroy rated a single team from this conference inside the Top 275. Awful.

The team viewed as "best" by the computers was Jackson State, but only narrowly, and five of the eight players that earned double-digit minutes per game for them this past year were seniors. Texas Southern won the regular season title by a full four games, but when you go 3-10 in non-conference play you can't brag too much. One thing I will say for them is that they have a decent defense - the best in the SWAC - so if they can take care of the ball enough on offense to score some points they can be decent next year. One key returner will be Aaron Clayborn, who had 7.3 ppg and 4.6 rpg early on before getting injured and missing the rest of the season. I believe he'll actually get a medical redshirt, so he should have three years of eligibility left. If Texas Southern can get some kind of decent ball handler they should be improved.

Alabama State was the team that actually represented the SWAC in the NCAA Tournament. They started out the season an embarrassing 6-16, but won 11 of their last 12, including three fairly dominant wins in the SWAC tournament (average margin of victory of 14.7 per game). The key for them was defense. Among their final 13 games of the season, the only two games where they allowed over 1 point per possession were the two games they lost. They play a gigantic rotation (13 players averaged at least 10 minutes per game), so the fact that four players from that rotation will graduate shouldn't hurt them too much. The concern for them will be on offense, where they were an embarrassingly bad shooting team. When you finish first in a conference in defensive turnover percentage, 2P% defense, offensive block percentage and offensive rebounding percentage (i.e. a lot of easy layups), it's unbelievable that you could finish dead last in effective field goal percentage. For the season they shot 44% on twos and 29% on threes. If they can get absolutely any shooting at all they'll be the best team in the conference.

If there's a sleeper team it might be Alcorn State, just because they return every player from their regular rotation and had a decent perimeter defense. They, too, will be a threat if they can figure out how to shoot (last in the entire nation in effective field goal percentage). But just the fact that I'm mentioning a team that went 4-24 against a schedule rated 331st in the nation by Sagarin as a potential contender is proof enough that the SWAC should have their automatic bid taken away. The conference favorite is Alabama State. If they develop their young talent they could actually win a "first round" NCAA Tournament game over another 16 seed. I think Texas Southern is the most likely team to knock them off.

Summit League

This was a deja vu year for the Summit. Oakland plays a ridiculously brutal non-conference schedule that prepares them to dominate the conference with a 17-1 record - far ahead of top contenders Oral Roberts and IUPUI, but then falls in their first NCAA Tournament game against a very tough major conference opponent. That previous sentence describes both of the past two Summit seasons. The top concern coming into the season was probably replacing the 6.4 assists per game that Johnathon Jones gave them in 2009-10, but their offense actually improved. Reggie Hamilton produced 5.3 assists per game this past season and will be back next year, and they've got an encouraging point guard of the future in Ryan Bass. But their big concern for next year will be replacing Keith Benson and Will Hudson, who dominated the paint in all aspects of the game. Benson had 17.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. Hudson shot 65% from the field and had 12.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. They will have a 7-foot senior next year in Ilija Milutinovic, but he only played 8.9 minutes per game as a junior. More likely, Oakland is going to be leaning on Corey Petros and Kyle Sikora, who were both members of the 2010 recruiting class and redshirt because they weren't going to play much behind Benson and Hudson. Sikora is another 7-footer, but Petros is considered the superior prospect. Oakland has a couple of quality recruits coming in also, in 6'6" swingman Dante Williams, and Matt Poches, a 6'4" shooting guard who is highly regarded by the scouting sites and should be an immediate contributor. There's no question that Oakland will have the best backcourt in the Summit next year. If one or two of those bigs pan out then Oakland should be a Top 100 team again.

IUPUI has consistently been a top contender in the Summit, and I don't expect them to fall off too much next year. They do lose two starters to graduation, with the key loss being Leroy Nobles (18.3 ppg and 37% 3P shooting), but they return a lot of scoring. Leading scorer Alex Young (19.7 per game) will be back, as will Christian Siakam, who shot 63% from the field and led the team with 6.8 rpg (including 3.3 per game on the offensive end) and 1.3 blocks per 40 minutes played. Their biggest concern will actually be defensively, where they were quite poor in 2010-11.

The team that finished second to Oakland in the standings this past season was Oral Roberts, and they did it with zero seniors in their regular rotation. Their star is Dominique Morrison, who led the team with 19.5 points per game. Damen Bell-Holter and Steven Roundtree were both double-digit scorers and also both averaged more than 2.5 offensive rebounds per game, powering a front line that led the Summit in offensive rebounding percentage. If Oakland can't come close to replacing Keith Benson and Will Hudson, Oral Roberts will look for their bigs to dominate inside against Oakland, since the Golden Grizzlies will still have the superior backcourt and could still be better defensively.

A sleeper team absolutely has to be South Dakota State. They only finished fifth in the Summit at 10-8, but both Sagarin and Pomeroy actually rated them as the second best team in the conference. They were 0-3 in conference play in games decided by five points or less, and 0-7 in conference games decided by ten points or less. So they were unlucky. They do lose two starters to graduation, including their second-leading scorer (Clint Sargent), but their best player (Nate Wolters) still has two years of eligibility left. Wolters led the team in points (19.5), assists (6.1) and steals (1.3) per game, and also shot 41% behind the arc. Two other key returners are Jordan Dykstra (11.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 52% three-point shooting) and Griffan Callahan (8.8 ppg, 43% three-point shooting, 93% free throw shooting). Chad White also hit 42% of his threes in limited time as a freshman. South Dakota State is going to again be a big time three-point shooting team, and will simply be looking for more post scoring to balance things out and provide stability. Dykstra looks like a big time prospect (he was actually an Iowa State recruit in 2010 before decommitting when that situation fell apart), and they will look at Marcus Heemstra (another 2010 recruit) to provide some depth. Chad White, at 6'6", might also be able to provide some rebounding. That front court depth will be something that, if they can solve, will make South Dakota State a Top 100 team in 2011-12.

If there's a dark horse team in the Summit it's North Dakota State. They only finished 8-10 in the Summit and lose two starters to graduation, but they're also a team that was rated in the Top 175 by both Sagarin and Pomeroy with a really nice crop of rising-sophomores and incoming freshmen. Marshall Bjorklund, Taylor Braun and TrayVonn Wright are all 6'7" or taller and all were excellent as freshmen. Mike Felt, another freshman, hit 47% on threes. They have two more quality recruits coming in, with 6'8" Chris Kading and point guard Joel Lindberg. I'd be surprised if NDSU wins the Summit in 2011-12, but they have a core that will have them contending for the title for the next few years.

It's really hard to bet against Oakland in the Summit with the way they've dominated the conference lately, and they should have the best backcourt. But frontcourt depth is an issue, and I expect the gap between them and the rest of the conference to close. I think Oral Roberts and South Dakota State will both be Top 100 teams and serious contenders, but I still give the narrow edge to Oakland. But with five teams entering the season as potential Top 100 teams, the Summit is definitely a conference on the rise. Have to give credit to whoever thought of re-naming the Mid-Continent Conference, because the talent level of recruits has definitely gone up since that name change.

Sun Belt Conference

In my opinion, this was a disappointing season for the Sun Belt. I talked up this conference preseason (see here for an example), but almost every team under-performed. Florida Atlantic was the only top team that played close to expectations. Western Kentucky in particular was way below what I expected with the talent they have in their starting lineup. And while I didn't buy Isiah Thomas's big expectations when he took the FIU job, I'm still very surprised by how little that team has progressed.

But let's start this preview with Florida Atlantic, since they won the regular season title relatively easily and were probably the best overall team. And they did that with only one senior on the roster (Brett Royster). They return their two star play makers, Raymond Taylor (11.6 ppg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg) and Alex Tucker (7.4 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.1 spg), as well as their top scorer (Greg Gantt - 14.0 per game) and their best shooter (Kore White - 39% behind the arc). Their biggest flaws are defensive rebounding and three-point shooting. One possible answer to the latter problem is Pablo Bertone, who shot 49% from the field (including 7-for-15 behind the arc) in limited minutes. I don't think there's any question that FAU will be better next year than they were this year, but they still have major flaws that need to be fixed for them to get to the NCAA Tournament and with a seed that they can actually win a game from.

Louisiana-Lafayette finished in a tie for the Sun Belt Conference West title, but did it mostly with smoke and mirrors (8-2 in conference games decided by five points or less or in overtime) and they lose three starters to graduation, so I see no way they contend next year. Arkansas State was the other team atop the Sun Belt West, and they lose two starters to graduation, but they do return their most important player - Martavious Adams. Adams led the team in points (11.1) and rebounds (7.2) per game. A key for them will be shooting - they were only eighth in the Sun Belt in eFG% in 2010-11, but have two young players that have shown nice touch (Edward Townsel and Trey Finn) that could open up the offense. With Adams inside and with a decent defense (third best in the conference, according to Pomeroy), some outside shooting will make them a contender to repeat as Sun Belt West champion.

North Texas was viewed by the computers as the best team in the Sun Belt West, but their six top minute earners were all seniors, so they will take a huge step back next year. I should also mention Arkansas-Little Rock out of the Sun Belt West, since they actually won the Sun Belt tournament, but that was more of a magical run than any statement on their quality throughout the season. They lose their three top scorers to graduation, and so should be even weaker next season.

In reality, the best teams in the Sun Belt are in the East. Middle Tennessee State was the second best team in that division. They do lose three starters from their regular rotation, including their leading scorer (James Washington). But they return a good scorer in Jason Jones (13.1 ppg, 47.6 FG%) and a very good rebounder in JT Sutton (8.5 per 40 minutes played). They also have two good transfers that will be eligible - LaRon Dendy, a 6'9" power forward who was a key young player on Iowa State but transferred out when the head coach changed, and Torin Walker, a 6'11" center who couldn't get playing time at Oklahoma State. With those two and Sutton they should be a very good rebounding team again. If James Gallman (7.5 ppg, 36% 3P shooting, 1.0 apg) or Jimmy Oden (2.0 ppg, 1.5 apg, 1.4 spg) can take command of the point guard position and they can find some outside shooting (Gallman is the only returner to hit more than 15 three-pointers in 2010-11) then they will contend for a Sun Belt title.

I had expected big things from Western Kentucky because of that front line of Juan Pattillo, Steffphon Pettigrew and Sergio Kerusch, but it turned out that their backcourt was awful. As a team they finished dead last in the Sun Belt in 3P%, 6th in offensive turnover rate, 11th in defensive turnover rate, and 7th in defensive 3P%. With those three stars all graduating, it's rebuilding time for Western Kentucky. Ken McDonald did put together a nice 2010 recruiting class, and he's got a really nice 2011 recruiting class - he actually out-recruited Isiah Thomas to put together the best and deepest class in the Sun Belt. It's possible that Western Kentucky's starting five will be all freshmen and sophomores next year. So the future is still bright, but it's hard to see them contending for a Sun Belt title before 2013.

A sleeper team in the Sun Belt is Denver. They finished 9-7 in the Sun Belt East and were rated the fifth best team in the conference by Pomeroy, and they did it with only one senior in the rotation. They return their seven top scorers, and have a good combination of defensive pressure (2nd in the Sun Belt in defensive turnover percentage, 1st in block percentage, and 2nd in overall defense by Pomeroy) and outside shooting (7th in the nation with 40.1% three point shooting). They return five regular players that shot at least 40% behind the arc on the year. The biggest thing standing between them and a Sun Belt title is ball handling. They were poor this past season, and their one graduation from the regular rotation is the player (Kyle Lewis) that led the team in assist-to-turnover ratio. They haven't recruited a quality point guard in several years, so this is a glaring weakness that has to be filled with a Juco transfer or I can't see them actually winning the Sun Belt.

Certainly Florida Atlantic will be formidable next year. They were the best team in the Sun Belt this past season and should be even better. Middle Tennessee State, Arkansas State and Denver should all be serious contenders, and Western Kentucky could become dangerous by the time March rolls around (as that young team begins to mature), but I don't see how I can pick against Florida Atlantic to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, when they were still in the Atlantic Sun.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Night Open Thread

Please join me in the comments to this post to discuss the games tonight. We should have some great games tonight, so let's enjoy them together.

Remember, my previews for these games are here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thursday Night Open Thread

Only about an hour until the Sweet 16 tips off. I plan on being here all night to chat with you guys in the comments. Join me there! I've had fun chatting with you guys thus far, so let's keep it up.

Please note that I previewed these games here.

Finally, if you are here before the games start, feel free to pass along pre-game idiocy. I just turned on ESPN and caught a great one. The ESPN Bottom Line says as a lead story: "(8) Butler hopes to overcome (4) Wisconsin's stingy defense". In raw per-possession numbers, Wisconsin is #2 in offense and #174 in defense. Even if we take Pomeroy's stats, which take into account schedule strength, Wisconsin is still #2 in offense and #59 in defense. Wisconsin's offense is great and will be great tonight - if they lose it's going to be because their defense fails again, particularly behind the arc, where they've been awful this year.

The day television analysts understand the concept of tempo-free stats is the day I can declare victory and quit doing this blog...

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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Defending The Big East

I know that there are some people who view me as the biggest Big East hater out there. I spend a lot of time talking about how and why the Big East is so overrated in college basketball every year. Here is an example of one of my rants, but you can find many others by going through my archives. And I talked all season long about how the Big East was again overrated. I had several people tell me that this was the dumbest thing I said all year, that "everybody knows the Big East is by far the best conference".

And now the Big East has gone out and had a debacle of historic proportions in the NCAA Tournament. Louisville losing to Morehead State, Pitt to Butler, Notre Dame to Florida State... they need two more wins to avoid having the single worst performance ever by any conference relative to seed expectation (PASE) since the Tournament expanded in 1985.

So with those last two paragraphs in mind I'm going to defend the Big East. Of course. But first...

Don't try to defend Big East play like Digger Phelps:
Before I defend the Big East, I want to differentiate myself from the "homer" argument, best exemplified by Digger Phelps, the single most useless college basketball analyst on television. He constantly argues that the year-after-year failure of the Big East in the NCAA Tournament is proof of its strength, because the teams play tough non-conference opponents and then "beat up on each other" for 18 games. This is beyond stupid. First of all, the Big Ten also plays 18 games, and all of the top Big Ten teams also play tough non-conference opponents, and the Big Ten has (since 1985) been the top performing conference (relative to seed expectation) in the NCAA Tournament. And if one team should be "beat up" it's UConn (having played five straight Big East tournament games), and they're doing the best of any Big East team. The Big East schedule isn't any more physical or demanding than the Big Ten, Big 12 or ACC. So enough of that.

Moving to my defense:

The NCAA Tournament is not a judge of team quality or conference quality:
If we wanted the best teams to win in the NCAA Tournament we'd have a best-of-five series between the top teams, and we wouldn't invite any of the teams from smaller conferences. The larger the sample size the more likely the best team is to win. In a one-and-done situation, anybody can beat anybody. Does somebody honestly think Morehead State could beat Louisville in a best-of-five series? Of course not. And even individual results are often impacted more by luck and randomness than anything else. If Gilbert Brown (a 79% free throw shooter for the season) hits that last free throw against Butler then Pitt wins and Nasir Robinson doesn't even get the chance to commit that foul.

The Big East is who I thought they were:
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR (the two best computer measures of team quality) had the Big Ten narrowly ahead of the Big East, and then a long way back to the third place Big 12 Conference. I thought that the gap between the Big Ten and Big East was really bigger because the Big Ten had been improving through the conference season and the Big East had been regressing, and it's impossible for the computers to measure that when the conferences aren't playing each other. Michigan, Penn State, Indiana and Iowa had all shown major improvement since non-conference play, with only Michigan State regressing in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Villanova and Georgetown had really regressed, with only St. John's improving since non-conference play. With the NCAA Tournament results in the books, the gap between the Big Ten and Big East has grown. We still have the Big Ten first, Big East second and Big 12 third in the computers, but now the Big East is actually a little closer to the Big 12 than Big Ten. And I think that's about right. Even if Pitt had beaten Butler by one, or Louisville had beaten Morehead State by two, those would still be unimpressive performances, and the computers would have punished them.

Final thoughts:
I've talked extensively about rating conferences, and you can read my best post on the subject here. It's always important to remember that a single game between two teams is not the be-all and end-all. There is a lot of randomness in sports, particularly in basketball. But, of course, that's why we love the Tournament. If the 1 seeds all had a free pass to the Final Four (like they do in women's college basketball most years), nobody cares to watch the early rounds. In Pomeroy's preview of the Sweet 16, he sees Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and Wisconsin as all heavy favorites to win their region, but if you do the math he only gives an 11% chance of all four making it in. And that's good. Because it means we'll watch every game, knowing that all 16 teams have a legitimate chance to get to Houston.

The Big East is over-hyped by the media every year, with ESPN driving that message more than anybody. And as long as it continues we can expect the Big East to, on average, under-perform their seed expectation in the Tournament. But the conference is still very good, and is still the second best conference in the land this season, and a few bad results this past week don't erase how good that conference was all year long.

VCU Wins The Weekend

I want to have a few posts recapping the weekend if I can find the time to put them up. One post has to be about VCU. Let me give you three angles on VCU:

1) Of all of the teams pre-Tournament, VCU is by far the most improbable Sweet 16 team that actually made it. Pomeroy's pre-Tournament projections gave VCU a 1.2% chance of making the Sweet 16. To put that in perspective, the second least probable team to make it was Butler - a team given a 10.9% chance. Even Richmond, the lowest seed still alive (a 12) was given a 14.9% chance. After VCU was given a bid, I did my annual post on the computer ratings of the final few at-large teams and the best teams left out. VCU was by far the worst team given an at-large bid. For the season as a whole they were approximately as good as Rutgers, Iowa and Colorado State. They lost four of their final five regular season games, including losses to James Madison (at home!) and Drexel. They also lost games earlier in the season to Northeastern, Georgia State and South Florida. They had only one Pomeroy Top 50 win outside of conference play (Wichita State). They had to pull a relatively big upset to take out USC, then beat a strong 6 seed in Georgetown, and then beat the strongest 3 seed in the field (Purdue). And not a single game was even close.

2) That Purdue performance in particular stands out. While it was the biggest single upset in the Tournament so far, it's certainly not an all-time improbable upset. Ohio over Georgetown last year was bigger. And it's not even in the same realm as something like Coppin State over South Carolina. But in terms of performance versus expected performance, VCU's offense in that game was one of the most remarkable I've ever seen. Purdue scored 1.16 PPP and still got destroyed. Entering the NCAA Tournament, VCU had played 13 games against the Pomeroy Top 100, and in 7 of the 13 had failed to break 1 point per possession (PPP) on offense. Their biggest offensive explosion of the season was a 1.28 PPP performance in a home destruction of Northeastern in mid-January. Against Purdue they put up 1.43 PPP. And Purdue? They were only the best defense in the Big Ten, allowing 0.99 PPP in Big Ten games, and only 0.94 overall. The biggest offensive performance they had allowed all season was 1.23 PPP, on the road at Ohio State, the best offense in the entire nation. So that 1.43 PPP is just extraordinary statistically.

3) VCU's band will get some more attention from me because I did some youtubing today. I talked about how blown away I was by them in person on Friday. With the miracle of the Intertubes, somebody on youtube has already posted a clip of them from yesterday:

Somebody on youtube had already posted a highlight reel of VCU band director Ryan Kopacsi, which is also worth a watch to see how insane he is:

Anybody who has ever been to the NCAA Tournament knows how interminable those tv timeouts are, which makes a band like that so great. If you have tickets to see VCU this coming week, don't miss the chance.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Day 6 Open Thread

It's the last day of the first week, so sit back and enjoy the action with another open thread. I've previewed today's games already here.

I just wanted to add some thoughts on yesterday's games:

1) Pitt had the easiest route to the Final Four, and seemed like the safest Final Four team, but it just goes to show you that other than the 14-16 seeds, just about everybody can beat everybody. But that was a truly amazing ending. I have seen many times a player commit a dumb foul 50+ feet from the basket in the final two seconds to blow a game. Oklahoma State's Roger Dowell committed a similar gaffe this year, and the closest example from the past few years was Jemelle Horne three years ago. But to happen to both teams, back-to-back? I've never seen that. And both were correct foul calls - particularly the final foul that put Matt Howard on the line for the win. I support refs not calling ticky tack fouls in the final few seconds, but Howard has arm grabbed and pulled... you've got to call that. The biggest over-looked thing from this game? That Andrew Smith should have been the hero for hitting the game winning shot with 2 seconds left, but now he's an after-thought.

2) BYU is a soft 3 seed, but they're still a team nobody wants to face because of the way Jimmer Fredette can go wild. And he's got teammates that can shoot threes when you put too much defensive pressure on him. Fredette was 7-for-12 behind the arc, and his team as a whole hit 14-for-28 against Gonzaga. But that said, Gonzaga's defense has been soft for much of the season because of poor effort. They had been playing good defense the past few weeks, but they regressed against BYU. BYU vs Florida will be an interesting game to preview.

3) UConn is definitely playing very well. There has been no post-Big East title swoon, which is rare.They're handling success well. I will do a preview for their game against SDSU later this week, so stay turned for that.

4) The story that Wisconsin is all Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer was obviously proved wrong last night. Leuer played well, but not great, and Taylor couldn't hit a shot to save his life, and all while K-State's star Jacob Pullen couldn't miss a shot. Instead it was Wisconsin role players that stepped up and hit the big shots, got the big rebounds, and made most of the big defensive plays. Coming into the Tournament I thought Wisconsin was the second best team in the Southeast and would be the toughest match-up for Pittsburgh. With Pittsburgh going down, and the fact that Wisconsin has an easier Sweet 16 opponent (as opposed to Florida and BYU, who have to play themselves), Wisconsin has to be the favorite to win the Southeast region now. I think Butler matches up well with them, though, so that could be another great game. But like I said, I'll have previews coming for these games later.

Enjoy the games today, guys! I'll see you in the comments section.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Picking The Lines: Day 6

Lines are up for Sunday's games, so here we go:

Day 4 against the spread: 8-8-0
Total through Day 4 ATS: 22-13-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Washington (+5) over North Carolina: I picked North Carolina to win this game, and still think they're going to win, but that spread is too large. Washington is a team that likes to run, which is what North Carolina is going to try to do anyway. Washington will also press if they're behind, which could cause problems for a North Carolina team that still occasionally has ball handling problems. Washington is also a much better three-point shooting team. So I'll take the points here.

Michigan (+11.5) over Duke: This spread is a little bit too big. I think Michigan can win this game. They take care of the ball and don't rely on forcing turnovers, which is ideal against Duke, and Michigan can also shoot the ball and has experience playing elite teams close this season. Michigan's youth could finally catch up to them here, but I'll still take the points.

Ohio State (-10.5) over George Mason: That seems like a big spread, but if you think about it, to take less than 11 or 12 points means that you think the underdog at least has a chance to win. I don't think George Mason has a chance to win. They are weak in paint, both scoring the ball and rebounding, so they're going to be chucking threes and hoping to hit at a high rate (they did average a good 39.4% on the season). But if the threes don't fall this will be a blowout.

Arizona (+5.5) over Texas: I picked Arizona to win this game, for reasons described here.

VCU (+9) over Purdue: If VCU plays like they have the past few days, they will give Purdue problems and will cover this spread. They play at a more frenetic pace than Purdue is used to. They also are shooting out of their minds behind the arc. And as somebody who attended Friday's games in Chicago, I can tell you that while this game is in Purdue's backyard, they will have a minor homecourt advantage if any. VCU's fan contingent is fairly large and they're loud. So forget any homecourt advantage for Purdue.

Syracuse (-5) over Marquette: I talked through the scenarios on this game here. I think Syracuse is a heavy favorite, so I'll give the points.

Kansas (-9) over Illinois: That spread is larger than I expected. Pomeroy only projects a five point win for Kansas. But I think Illinois matches up poorly. To beat Kansas you've got to turn them over (I talked about this extensively in this post) and Illinois was dead last in the Big Ten in defensive turnover percentage. And besides, all year long Illinois has been inconsistent. They played great against UNLV, but the idea that they're going to play two straight great games seems far-fetched given their performance thus far.

Notre Dame (-5) over Florida State: FSU's interior players are huge. I was right up in front to watch FSU live, and Bernard James is a specimen. Texas A&M couldn't take a shot within 15 feet that wasn't automatically blocked. But that's why the ideal team to beat FSU is a team that doesn't require any post offense at all. Notre Dame can throw out a lineup with five outside shooters. How is FSU going to guard Notre Dame if Tim Abromaitis, Carleton Scott and Scott Martin are the frontcourt on the floor? Either they're going to have to take their bigs out of the game, or their 7-footers are going to have to chase around smaller players on the perimeter. Either way, I like Notre Dame's chances.

Day 5 Open Thread

I wanted to set up another open thread for people to discuss games, and this one will be for Saturday's games.

First, some quick notes from Friday's games. The winner of Friday was definitely VCU's band. I'd never seen them live before, but I was at all four games in Chicago on Friday and that VCU band was ridiculous. The band director was constantly jumping around, including one song where he tore his shirt off and threw it into the crowd. During one tv timeout they had a cheerleader walk on her hands from one end of the court, to midcourt, and all the way back. I joked that it was like a traveling circus. But highly entertaining. I was sad every time it was time for Georgetown's band to play, because it meant three minutes without either basketball or VCU's band director in my life. If any of you get a chance to watch VCU play a game, either on a neutral court or at their home gym (so they'll have their band), go do it.

As for the actual basketball, VCU is continuing to play out of their minds on the court as well. They couldn't miss a shot behind the arc against Georgetown. In person, watching the heads of Chris Wright and Austin Freeman slump after every made three was painful. There was a stretch in the second half when VCU missed four out of five at the free throw line, and it was almost like VCU needed to be six feet further back with a Georgetown player's hand in their face to hit shots. But Georgetown's loss wasn't just about VCU's shooting. They also played very, very sloppy. The one highlight was Hollis Thompson, who was Georgetown's best player today, and looks primed to be their next star.

In other games, the biggest disappointment was Tennessee - they just gave up on that game. I know that Michigan can hit threes, and I would have expected Tennessee to be the team committing more turnovers, but to get worked on the boards like that? The Vols quit on this season.

UNLV fans will be disappointed by the way they got throttled, but I actually got a chance to watch a bunch of that one, and it was just Illinois playing really well. The Illini have a very talented team, and they've simply been under-performing for the vast majority of the season. If they can play like this again on Sunday, they could give Kansas a scare.

Only a few lines are up for Sunday's games are up as I type this, so I'm not going to do those previews yet. I'll do those later this afternoon or in the early evening. So just enjoy today's games, and I'll be back to preview Sunday later.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Day 4 Open Thread + Picking The Lines: Day 5

I encourage all of you to use the comments section in this post to discuss the games today, like we did yesterday. I actually won't be around, because I'm going to the games in Chicago and likely won't have access to this website the entire time I'm in the arena. So... behave yourselves, boys. I'll get online late tonight, at the very least, to respond to any messages left for me.

It was a very exciting start to the day yesterday. I love the staggered starts, because I got to fully watch and appreciate those four consecutive close finishes in the afternoon. Overall on the day, the teams that played best were UCLA, Butler and Kansas State. Butler's front line particularly impressed me - Matt Howard was who I thought he'd be when he was a hyped freshman. And even Butler's big men off the bench played really well against ODU, which bodes well against Pitt.

The teams that disappointed me most were Michigan State and Utah State. Both came out with big time nerves despite having tons of experience, and both waited until way too late in the game to start playing with fire and to start making up ground.

As far as I'm concerned, I had one lucky win against the spread yesterday, and a tough beat. Temple's two point win burned me since it gave me a push, but Wofford gave me a backdoor cover to even it out. I did better than I usually do with 1/16 and 2/15 games, which was why it was a relatively strong Round of 64 day for me.

The Vegas lines are all still early for Day 5, so they might move a half point or point. But I want to get them up now. The previews will still apply:

Day 3 against the spread: 11-4-1
Total through Day 3 ATS: 14-5-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Kentucky (-3) over West Virginia: It's normal for freshmen to really struggle in their first career NCAA Tournament game. It was just more apparent with Kentucky since their best players are freshmen. Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones did almost nothing all game. But now that they've got a game under their belt they should play better against West Virginia. As always with West Virginia, if you keep them off the offensive boards they'll lose. I think Kentucky will.

Florida (-5) over UCLA: UCLA almost had an epic collapse against Michigan State, but I think Florida will be happy that they held on. I continue to believe that UCLA is not a good team and should not have been a 7 seed. Florida is a soft 2 seed, but their gift draw is why I picked them to the Elite 8. I don't think UCLA is going to stop them.

Butler (+8) over Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh is a great offensive rebounding team, but so is Old Dominion. And Butler did a tremendous job on the boards against them. Matt Howard was the best I've ever seen him, and I've certainly never seen him go without a foul as long as he did after getting his third. Pitt generates very little post offense, so Howard could actually be protected in that sense. I expect Pitt to win this game, but I think it will be close.

Cincinnati (+3) over Connecticut: I picked Cincinnati over UConn straight up, and I haven't changed my mind on that. My reasoning is here.

Morehead State (+3.5) over Richmond: Richmond is the better team, but what I worry about is that they're a poor rebounding team. They finished 12th in the Atlantic Ten in defensive rebounding percentage (and 13th on the offensive boards). Morehead State plays so physically on the boards (as Louisville learned) that they should dominate there. Conversely, Morehead State is poor at defending threes and Richmond is good at those, but I don't necessarily see why that should outweigh the rebounding. Historically in the NCAA Tournament, being able to rebound has been more important than being able to hit threes. I think this game is a toss-up, so I'm taking the points.

BYU (PK) over Gonzaga: Gonzaga dominated St. John's, but it's important to remember that St. John's isn't half as good as ESPN wants you to believe. The Johnnies are a bubble quality team that had several very close wins that inflated their resume. The Zags will test BYU's defense inside, but BYU's been playing a fairly effective zone, and Gonzaga doesn't have a lot of outside shooters. This is likely to be a very tight game, but I give the narrow edge to BYU.

San Diego State (-5.5) over Temple: San Diego State looked very solid against Northern Colorado - they are clearly comfortable with their role this year as a favorite. Temple, meanwhile, underwhelmed me a little bit. With Penn State losing Jeff Brooks mid-game, Temple shouldn't have needed to win on a buzzer-beater. Temple is not explosive offensively, and unless they completely shut down SDSU's offensive rebounding, I don't see how they keep up.

Wisconsin (-1) over Kansas State: Kansas State played better than I expected against Utah State, but a lot of it was playing outside character. KSU averages 65% at the free throw line, but hit 24-for-28 (86%) against Utah State. They also committed only ten turnovers and held Utah State to seven offensive rebounds, despite being 11th in the Big 12 in offensive turnover percentage, and sixth in defensive rebounding percentage. Jacob Pullen was feeling a little under the weather, but he did score 22 points on 6-for-13 shooting, and he won't do too much better against Jordan Taylor. I give the edge to Wisconsin.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Day 3 Open Thread + Picking The Lines: Day 4

We're up to the first full day of the NCAA Tournament. It's going to be a long time before I get used to calling this the "Second Round".

I invite all of you to hang in the comments section to this post to discuss the games. I'll be able to talk with you guys all day today. Hopefully we can get some good discussions going, because I won't be here as much the next three days. I'm actually going to the games in Chicago, and when I'm in the arena I'm not going to have access to this website. But I'll be here all day today, so stay and chat. Here are my previews for today's games.

And now, my previews for Day 4:

Day 2 against the spread: 1-1
Total through Day 2 ATS: 3-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Texas (-10) over Oakland: Oakland is a solid team, but Texas is a brutal draw. Oakland's strength is in the paint and they are weak in the backcourt, which is a problem since their frontcourt still is inferior to the one Texas has. Texas will outplay them in every aspect of the game.

Tennessee (-2) over Michigan: I know some people are going to switch their picks to Michigan because of the news that broke yesterday that Bruce Pearl would be gone at the end of the season (a rumor that ended up being partially dispelled), but no team is more used to playing with distractions than Tennessee. They had to play a whole bunch of SEC games without Bruce Pearl this year and it didn't seem to affect them measurably. They'll be ready to play, and they're still my pick.

Notre Dame (-15) over Akron: I was leaning toward taking Akron here, because Notre Dame doesn't usually blow teams out away from home. But this really is basically a home game, taking place just up the road in Chicago. Akron's going to have to hit a lot of threes to stay in this game.

George Mason (+1) over Villanova: Villanova has been in an absolute collapse the past few weeks. There's no injury or excuse, they're just playing horribly. Last year they were in a late season collapse and went ahead and played terribly in the NCAA Tournament. I just won't bet on them magically turning it around here against George Mason.

Arizona (-5.5) over Memphis: I don't see this game being close. Arizona is underrated, and Memphis is way overrated (13-1 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime). I see no chance Memphis wins this game, so that spread is way too small to consider taking the points.

Duke (-25) over Hampton: It's always difficult to pick these 1/16 games. I think Hampton will struggle more with Duke than even a team like Kansas, just because Duke's excellent execution and fundamental play can really frustrate opponents that aren't used to it. I think Duke will get a mental boost if Kyrie Irving is there and plays, and they've got what is a virtual home game in Charlotte, and Duke always plays great in the state of North Carolina during the NCAA Tournament.

Florida State (+1.5) over Texas A&M: FSU is rated as the better team by Sagarin and Pomeroy, and they're actually better than their computer rating - they had to go through much of the year without Xavier Gibson and Chris Singleton. Of course, Singleton still hasn't played since he was hurt. He says he's going to play, and if he's not effective then FSU will lose, but if he's anywhere near 100% then FSU should win relatively easy. Texas A&M struggled all season with defenses that were big and athletic, and they were actually dead last in the Big 12 in getting their shot blocked. FSU's defense is extremely similar to the Texas defense, and Texas destroyed A&M both times they played this year.

Kansas (-22.5) over Boston University: Eight times this season Kansas played a non-conference opponent outside the Pomeroy Top 100, and won all of them by more than 23 points. They did win by only 12 at Oklahoma, a team outside the Top 100, but that was a true road game (and this Tournament game will be a semi-home game, in Tulsa), and Oklahoma's been playing like a Top 100 team the past few weeks anyway. So I expect a Kansas blowout.

North Carolina (-17.5) over LIU: This game is going to be a track meet. The final score could potentially be something like 105-80. But that is why I'm giving the points. It's easier to win by 18 or more points if you have so many more possessions to expand on your lead.

Purdue (-14.5) over St. Peter's: I was very indecisive about this one, so I would lay off it if I were you. This spread seems just about right. Purdue doesn't really blow teams out, but at the same time there's no chance St. Peter's wins this game. What are the odds that St. Peter's can keep the game within 10-12 points? At least I'd feel more comfortable having Purdue here, since even if the game's close you know that Purdue could pull away down the stretch, but if Purdue gets up by 20 points early then this one will be over. Keep in mind that in the MAAC tournament semis and finals, St. Peter's jumped out to big early leads and faded late when their opponent started to press and turn them over like crazy. If Purdue turns up the defensive pressure this game could turn into a layup line.

Marquette (+2.5) over Xavier: I picked Marquette to win straight up. Please read here to see my reasoning.

Illinois (+2.5) over UNLV: I took Illinois to win straight up. Please read here to see my reasoning.

Washington (-5.5) over Georgia: I don't think this game will even be close. Washington is a much better team. With a spread this small, don't take the points unless you think Georgia has at least a 25% chance of winning the game. And I don't.

Syracuse (-12.5) over Indiana State: Indiana State is an ideal opponent for Syracuse. Syracuse fears teams that can shoot threes over their zone, and teams that can hang onto the ball (since Syracuse is mediocre offensively in the half court and is dependent on forcing a lot of turnovers to get easy baskets). Indiana State is poor with the ball (7th in the Missouri Valley in offensive turnover percentage) and shot on 35.5% on threes on the season. So I like Syracuse here.

Edit [Posting this around 10pm eastern time]
The lines from the games involving the two teams that played in the first round are up, so let me add those two spreads here:

Georgetown (-5.5) over VCU: VCU is not a good team, despite the upset they pulled of a poorly-prepared USC team on Wednesday. Chris Wright will play, and I expect Georgetown to bounce back from their poor play during Wright's absence.

Ohio State (-23.5) over UT-San Antonio: I never feel good about picking the spread on these 1/16 games. Ohio State doesn't play inferior opponents close, though, and there's no way this game will be closer than 15 points. So giving the points seems like the safer bet.