Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Complete Final Four Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

The Final Four match-ups that I have projected are Kentucky vs Louisville, and Ohio State vs Kansas. Obviously there are a million other permutations here, and I don't have time to go through all of them. But in each region I do think that there are other reasonable choices, and I'll try to break some of them down.

Of the four regions, the South has the clearest favorite. It's hard to see picking against Kentucky there. Duke and Baylor are good teams, but either would be a big underdog against the Wildcats. Meanwhile, the most wide-open of the regions in the West, in my opinion. I think you can feel confident putting four different teams into the Final Four: Louisville, Marquette, Michigan State and Missouri. Louisville is my pick, but all four of those teams have pretty even chances of getting through to New Orleans.

I'll try to get through as many of these permutations as I can.

My Picks:

Final Four:
1. Kentucky over 4. Louisville
2. Ohio State over 2. Kansas

Kentucky/Louisville would obviously be a fascinating rivalry game. Louisville would try to turn up the tempo on a Kentucky team that has young ball handlers that can be turned over. These two teams played during the regular season at Kentucky and Louisville hung in until the end, losing only by 7. They kept the game close by forcing 20 turnovers. That said, Kentucky's young players have matured a bit since then, and they've gotten pretty good at not being sped up. Despite the media cliche, Kentucky actually likes to play at a deliberate pace. They averaged only 66.1 possessions/40 minutes this season, which is precisely the national average. The biggest concern for Louisville in a re-match will be scoring. Russ Smith went off in that game, scoring 30 points. He hasn't played that well in any other game this season. So even Louisville at their best, forcing turnovers and getting a career-best performance from Russ Smith, couldn't take down Kentucky before. I wouldn't bet on them doing it again.

Of the other three top teams in the West region, I think Kentucky would be least concerned with a Marquette team that lacks interior size and that is terrible on the defensive glass. Anthony Davis will have a field day. Michigan State is probably the team in the West best prepared to handle Kentucky because they're extremely physical and experienced. They won't be fazed by Kentucky's talent and athleticism, and they'll be able to match Kentucky on the glass. Kentucky's offense has been great this season (ranked second best in the nation by Pomeroy), but a big part of that is the rebounding. They actually don't have a lot of great shooters. I wouldn't pick Michigan State over Kentucky, but if I was going to pick one team to beat Kentucky before the National Title game it would definitely be Michigan State.

Missouri has a great season, but I'm not sure they're built for the Final Four. One thing we've learned the past few years in Final Four games is that by playing them in football domes, each player's shooting eye gets messed up. It's just different not being in a basketball gym/arena. We've seen year after year that shooting stinks in the Final Four, and that's a bad sign for a Missouri team that is so dependent on shooting. They have incredible shooters, so if anybody can overcome the Superdome then it would be them, but I wouldn't bet on it. Besides, Missouri would have to get past (potentially) Marquette, Michigan State and Kentucky? That's a big ask. Kentucky would be my pick.

If you have Kentucky going down before the Final Four, it would probably be to Duke or Baylor. Duke would be the much more formidable match-up for Louisville. Duke is perfectly happy running at a fast pace, and they have an array of talented guards that are all good ball handlers. Duke is also strong at transition defense, so Louisville is not going to get a lot of free points. Duke's offense is really good this season, and it's their defense that holds them back. But Louisville struggles to score against even mediocre defenses if they're not getting free baskets. So I'd probably take Duke over Louisville. Baylor, on the other hand, would be a delightful snack for Louisville. They are bad at handling the ball (they finished 7th in the Big 12 with turnovers on 20.2% of offensive possessions), and will not feel comfortable getting sped up by Louisville. Baylor has the interior defenders to help stop Peyton Siva and Russ Smith in a half court offense, but Louisville will try to minimize the amount of half court offense that they have to play. I'd take Louisville over Baylor, if you have that match-up in your bracket.

On the other side of the bracket, I have Ohio State playing Kansas. And that would be a game between two teams that are strong on both sides of the ball. Both teams can handle a variety of styles of play, and can change their lineups to match the opposing personnel. And neither team is great at three-point shooting, meaning that this game will be won in the paint. And that's why the key advantage for either team in this game, I think, is Ohio State's rebounding. The Buckeyes are better at getting after the boards, on both sides of the court. The biggest concern for Ohio State would be the fact that they'd struggle guarding Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey at the same time. No matter how Ohio State chooses to match up Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas against those two, they're going to be smaller and will be at risk of foul trouble. Though that said, Ohio State proved this year to be very resilient this year with Sullinger on the bench. They even, if you recall, nearly beat Kansas in Lawrence back in December when Sullinger was hurt and didn't play. Kansas, on the other hand, really struggles without Robinson in the game. If Sullinger can get Robinson in foul trouble instead of the other way around, Kansas would be in trouble. Meanwhile, I simply don't feel comfortable trusting Tyshawn Taylor to take care of the ball against Aaron Craft, and I'd say that Ohio State has a decisive advantage in personnel on the wing. So too much has to go right for Kansas to win. Ohio State is my pick.

I've said that I wouldn't take any team other than North Carolina or Kansas out of the Midwest region, so North Carolina is the only other team I'll talk about with respect to going against Ohio State. I do think that Ohio State is one of the few teams able to take on the North Carolina front line. They are excellent at defensive rebounding, and have scored in paint against just about everybody this season. It's not that they have individual players (other than Sullinger) who will back opponents down and score in the paint, it's that they have tremendous interior passing. If North Carolina's bigs over-pursue going for a block, Ohio State will make the necessary pass to get a layup or a dunk. North Carolina, if they're not getting turnovers, does struggle to score. Thad Matta is an underrated game schemer, and he'll know to have his defenders lay off Kendall Marshall to dare him to shoot. They'll sag down on the North Carolina bigs and dare outside shooters to beat them. That's the right strategy, and I'd take Ohio State here.

If you don't have Ohio State making the Final Four then either Syracuse, Florida State or Wisconsin are all reasonable picks, in my opinion. The news today that Fab Melo will be ineligible is a big concern for Syracuse, though. That zone isn't nearly as imposing with Melo out of the middle, and Syracuse wasn't the same team earlier this season when Melo missed a couple of games. With Melo, Syracuse actually would have given Kansas a lot of trouble. Tyshawn Taylor will struggle against the Syracuse zone, and Kansas has a tendency to turn the ball over against teams with strong and quick perimeter defenders. Kansas also isn't a great offensive rebounding team, which limits their ability to take advantage of the poor Syracuse defensive rebounding. Syracuse wouldn't be nearly as successful against North Carolina. They'd get destroyed on the boards. And particularly with Melo out, they'd have trouble defending Henson, Zeller and Barnes.

With Syracuse losing Fab Melo, I'd think much more seriously about Wisconsin as a potential Final Four team. Wisconsin will have a nearly 50-50 shot of taking down Syracuse in the Sweet 16, and Wisconsin has already proven this season that they can beat Ohio State away from the Kohl Center. Wisconsin hasn't played Kansas yet this season, but they did play North Carolina in Chapel Hill in what was a very tight game (they lost by 3 points). Jared Berggren had a great game on both ends of the floor to help neutralize the North Carolina bigs, and Wisconsin did a good job of sagging off of Kendall Marshall. The concern for Wisconsin will be outside shooting. Even if Berggren has the game of his life, he's still the only Wisconsin front court player with a chance to score in the paint against North Carolina. Wisconsin three-point shooting has been too streaky to chance here. I'd take North Carolina.

Wisconsin would match up well with Kansas. The Jayhawks like to score in the paint (they only hit 35.8% of threes this season), but Wisconsin plays a suffocating interior defense (41.3 2P% against this season). Wisconsin has the defenders at all five positions to keep Kansas from getting open shots. Without offensive rebounds or turnovers (Wisconsin finished second in the nation with turnovers on only 15.2% of offensive possessions), that means that Wisconsin won't actually need to shoot that well to beat Kansas.

Should you have Florida State in the Final Four, then obviously they'll be hoping to face North Carolina. They've already beaten the Tar Heels twice this season. Their formula has been clear. Their interior defenders are almost impossible to score on, which forces North Carolina to become a jump shooting team. North Carolina isn't good at shooting the ball from distance. And because North Carolina doesn't turn opponents over, they're going to need Florida State to have a cold shooting night to win. For North Carolina to win, they're going to have to crash the glass, hoping to get as many extra possessions as possible, and they'll need a good shooting night from Harrison Barnes - the one Tar Heels player I'd trust taking a 20 footer with the game on the line.

Kansas is another team that Florida State would give trouble. Florida State's defense, of course, is excellent, but their offense would be able to put up points against Kansas. The soft spot for the Jayhawks defense is on the perimeter, and that's the only place that Florida State gets offense. They never run offense through the post, so the tremendous defensive abilities of Jeff Withey would be wasted. So while I wouldn't have Florida State in the Final Four, they'd actually be a very strong opponent against either Kansas or North Carolina should they get so far.

Championship Game:
2. Ohio State over 1. Kentucky

I don't think there's any question that the team most likely to appear in everybody's brackets in the title game is Kentucky. They are the #1 ranked team in the country and they have an easier path than any other team. My pick to face them is Ohio State. This game would pit Kentucky's tremendously efficient offense against the Ohio State defense, rated the best in the country by Pomeroy. Ohio State is a great defensive rebounding team, meaning that Kentucky will not just be able to depend on put-backs by Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones. Ohio State also has the NBA length and athleticism on the wings to slow down and contain Kentucky's perimeter players. And Marquis Teague, as a true freshman, has not seen anybody this season like Aaron Craft.

While Kentucky has to worry about the Ohio State defense, Ohio State has to worry about the Kentucky defense. Ohio State derives so much of their offense inside the paint, and Kentucky has so many strong shot blockers. I don't see how Jared Sullinger is going to have much success against Anthony Davis, and without the types of shooters they had last season I don't see how they can shoot over the top of the Kentucky defense.

Kentucky only lost two games this season, while Ohio State lost seven. But that big differential was mostly about strength of schedule differences and the fact that Ohio State was unlucky in close games this season (while Kentucky was lucky). Overall, these teams are actually remarkably similar in talent. Pomeroy rates Kentucky the narrow #1 over Ohio State, while Sagarin rates Ohio State the narrow best team over Kentucky. Both of these teams match up well with each other, and you can't go too wrong with your pick here. I do, however, think that Thad Matta is the coach I'd trust more to win the coaching battle here, and I like Ohio State's experience and toughness more against this very young and inexperienced Kentucky team. Ohio State is my pick.

Of the other teams that Ohio State could face, I think their biggest concern would actually be Michigan State. The Spartans won two of three games this season against the Buckeyes, and they did it primarily by out-toughing Ohio State. The thing is, NCAA Tournament refs are different from Big Ten refs. Michigan State was allowed to maul Ohio State this season, particularly in the Big Ten title game. I wouldn't trust that to be allowed in the National Title game, where refs have historically had quick whistles. I'd pick Ohio State there.

I don't think Ohio State would be too concerned with Louisville because they are very strong with the ball. Louisville's offense isn't great to begin with. If they have to go against the best defense in the nation without a steady stream of fast break layups? They're going to struggle to score 50 points.

While Ohio State's options in the National Title game are fairly limited (let's be honest, you probably have Kentucky there), Kentucky has a whole variety of teams they could be facing. I wouldn't be too shocked to see one of half a dozen teams in the National Title game on the other side of the bracket. Kansas/Kentucky would be a battle between two of the greatest historical programs. It would also be a battle between two formidable front lines, though I'd be concerned with the inconsistent Kansas defensive rebounding. If Kentucky starts feasting on the offensive glass then this game will be over. I also wonder if Kentucky's athletic and talent advantage on the wings will be too much, even if Thomas Robinson outplays Anthony Davis. Kentucky would be my pick.

As good as the Kansas front line in, North Carolina's is better. And that North Carolina/Kentucky game from early December, while it's been long forgotten by the media, was a tremendous game. Kentucky won by only one point, despite being at home. North Carolina was able to crank up the tempo and got a whole bunch of easy transition baskets. And since North Carolina led the ACC in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, they'll be able to match up with Kentucky's bigs. If North Carolina can continue getting out in transition, I'd be concerned about Kentucky's ability to score enough against North Carolina. Neither of these teams is particularly good shooting the ball, so I don't think that would be a difference. I'd think very seriously about taking North Carolina over Kentucky, if you have that match-up.

I'd be wary of taking Syracuse all the way to the National Title game without Fab Melo. On the other hand, as I said earlier, Florida State actually would have very good match-ups against either North Carolina or Kansas in the Final Four. In a title game against Kentucky, though? Not a good match-up at all. Florida State is an undisciplined defensive rebounding team, and you can't get away with that against Kentucky. Kentucky is also decent at limiting perimeter scoring opportunities, and there's no way that Florida State's bigs (who rarely see the ball on offense anyway) are going to threaten Kentucky's interior defenders. Florida State will have to get hot behind the arc to have a chance.

Wisconsin, should they get to play Kentucky in the National Title game, would obviously be at a gigantic athleticism disadvantage. That said, I'm not sure how much that would matter here. Kentucky doesn't like to run, and Wisconsin doesn't let teams run against them anyway. The worry for Wisconsin would be who else could handle the paint besides Jared Berggren. If he got in foul trouble? They'd be toast. Wisconsin is a great defensive team, and they would be very good at keeping Kentucky off the offensive glass, but they'd have to get very hot from behind the arc to overcome the fact that they would not score in the paint. I really think that North Carolina and Ohio State are the only two teams on the other side of the bracket that I'd pick head-to-head against Kentucky in the National Title game.


Anonymous said...

Great analysis as always.

A couple things:

1) I'm not a big college guy but you keep saying that interior defense is negated by teams that play on the perimeter but in the NBA, it is the opposite---> interior defense = very hard for perimeter scorers to score other than shooting.

2)Shouldn't you pick Kentucky because they have a better chance to make it than Ohio despite the head to head differences?

Jeff said...

Well, by "playing on the perimeter" I meant teams that shoot a lot of threes and hit a high percentage of them. They can shoot over the top of the defense. You'll notice a whole bunch of times I talk about teams with strong perimeter players that like to get into the paint being negated by an opposing team's strong interior defense and shot blocking.

And yes, the path to the final game is a consideration. But honestly, the difference in path strength isn't too different by that point. Even Kentucky, as heavy of a favorite as they are, probably only has a 25-30% chance of making the title game. And once you get past the Sweet 16, nearly every opponent is an elite opponent. So I just went with the team I think is best.

Besides, Ohio State's path to the Final Four just got a whole lot easier with Fab Melo going down anyway.