One of my personal complaints the past couple of years has been the way the Selection Committee has dealt with the "overall #1 seed" concept. The way they have treated it has been to set up the brackets so that the top 1 seed will be lined up against the fourth 1 seed in the Final Four. This is silly for multiple reasons.
First of all, the fourth 1 seed isn't generally the weakest of the 1 seeds - there's a difference between the four best resumes and the four best teams. This year, for example, both Sagarin and Pomeroy view Syracuse as the weakest 1 seed, but they had the second best resume. Second of all, the odds of all four 1 seeds making the Final Four are slim - it's only happened once in the last 30 years - so it's not a contingency worth worrying too much about.
If the point of having a #1 seed is to reward them with an easier path, then the focus should be on giving them an easier path to the Final Four. The past two seasons, the overall #1 seed has actually had the hardest path (by far) to the Final Four of the 1 seeds. This year? Kentucky got taken care of. Kentucky has the easiest path to the Final Four of the top seeds, which is how it should be.
That's not to say that Kentucky has a "cakewalk", as some analysts have put it. After the Round of 64, they're going to have to beat three quality teams to reach the Final Four. I wouldn't put their odds of reaching the Final Four above 50%, but they're clearly the heavy favorites in this region.
My Picks:16. Western Kentucky over 16. Mississippi Valley State
1. Kentucky over 16. Western Kentucky
9. UConn over 8. Iowa State
4. Indiana over 13. New Mexico State
5. Wichita State over 12. VCU
6. UNLV over 11. Colorado
3. Baylor over 14. South Dakota State
10. Xavier over 7. Notre Dame
2. Duke over 15. Lehigh
Thoughts:Just a few brief thoughts on the 16/16 play-in game. If we include conference tournament games, Mississippi Valley State went 20-1 this season against SWAC opponents. They went 1-11 against non-conference opponents, with the one win coming in double-overtime over Tennessee State. Just goes to show you how awful the SWAC is. Western Kentucky only went 7-9 in the Sun Belt, but the Sun Belt is a far better conference. Western Kentucky is a better team and has more experience playing teams of half-decent quality. They're my pick.
I wouldn't concern myself with either of those two teams against Kentucky. The 2/15 game does deserve a little bit of thought because Duke is a soft 2 seed and Lehigh is a strong 15 seed. That said, the flaw for Duke is their defense. They are bad at keeping defenders out of paint, leading them to finish 9th in the ACC in 2P% defense and 8th in ACC in defensive FTA/FGA ratio. But Lehigh's strength isn't attacking the rim. They don't have the type of athletes that will concern Duke. Meanwhile, Duke's offense is spectacular - they'll score easily against Lehigh. So don't pick Duke to lose this game, but keep in mind later that their Round of 64 game isn't a total walkover.
The 3/14 game in this bracket will be a popular upset pick, and for good reason. Baylor is a soft 3 seed while South Dakota State is a very strong 14 seed. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy project only a 7 point victory for Baylor. South Dakota State led the Summit in defensive rebounding percentage, but I'm not sure how much that had to do with the size (or lack thereof) in the Summit. Their tallest regular is 6'8" and their second biggest regular is 6'7", 215 pounds. It's hard to see players that small keeping Baylor off the offensive glass. They did struggle with defensive rebounding when they played Washington, Georgia and Nebraska. Meanwhile, South Dakota State doesn't have the personnel to take care of Baylor two biggest flaws: defensive rebounding and offensive ball handling. South Dakota State finished 6th in the Summit in both offensive rebounding percentage and defensive turnover percentage. There is always a chance that South Dakota State can get hot behind the arc - they shot a tremendous 39.3% on threes this season. But they'll have to do better than that - they'll probably have to shoot over 50% to be able to overcome Baylor's overwhelming raw talent advantage. So as strong as South Dakota State is, I just don't think Baylor is a great match-up for them. I think Baylor is the firm favorite here.
New Mexico State over Indiana is another popular upset pick. This appears to be more because people are down on Indiana than anything else. New Mexico State is not a particularly strong 13 seed. New Mexico State's biggest advantage is big bodies. Wendell McKines is an aggressive, athletic forward, and he's surrounded by multiple strong front court players: Hamidu Rahman and Tshilidzi Nephawe are the biggest. That's a potential concern for Indiana considering their lack of front court depth. New Mexico State will presumably go after Cody Zeller hoping to get him in foul trouble. Also, while the New Mexico State offense isn't great, neither is Indiana's defense. Indiana doesn't force a lot of turnovers, so if Zeller is out of the game then they're not going to get easy baskets and they're going to struggle to keep up with the scoring that their defense will allow. If you're in a bracket pool where you get bonus points for picking a 13 seed over a 4 seed then I'd think seriously about picking New Mexico State here, but if you're not then I give the slight edge to Indiana.
VCU over Wichita State is another popular upset pick, though this one doesn't make as much sense to me. I understand that VCU had an awesome, surprising run to the Final Four last year, but that doesn't make it any more likely that they'll do it again. They lost nearly every key player and don't have the same type of shooters they had last season, when three-point shooting keyed that Tournament run. Also, Wichita State is an awfully strong 5 seed, rated the 10th best team in the country by both Sagarin and Pomeroy. In fact, both of those rating systems put Wichita State ahead of Duke, the 2 seed. The argument for VCU is that their aggressive press is going to turn Wichita State over, since the Missouri Valley doesn't have teams that play that sort of uptempo pressing style. And that's a legitimate concern, but this year's VCU team has struggled to maintain that level of play for an entire game. And without those turnovers, VCU's offense is anemic. Wichita State's defense is very strong (they led the Missouri Valley in defensive efficiency, as well as in defensive eFG%). So the only chance VCU has in this game is to force 20+ turnovers, and to hope to hit a reasonable percentage of three-pointers. Drexel is the only team in the Pomeroy Top 65 that VCU beat this season. Wichita State is just too good, in my opinion.
Colorado as an 11 seed is kind of a joke. They wouldn't have even been close to earning an at-large bid if they'd fallen in the Pac-12 title game to Arizona, and at-large bids this year went out to 14 seeds. Yet by winning one game over Arizona, an NIT team, they move all the way up to an 11? The computers all rate the 12, 13 and 14 seeds in this region as better teams than the 11. I'm not even quite sure what Colorado is supposed to be good at. They only allowed 0.94 PPP in Pac-12 play, which was third best, but that's like being the third skinniest kid at fat camp. Colorado's run through the Pac-12 tournament was a great story, and I loved that they shipped 50 students down to cheer for the team, but UNLV is a far superior opponent.
Notre Dame vs Xavier is an interesting match-up. Xavier was a Top Ten team early in the season that was decimated by that Cincinnati brawl. Not only did they have bad losses while short-handed, but they played poorly even after they got everybody else back. But there's no question that they've started to turn the corner. This is Tu Holloway's last chance at an NCAA Tournament run, and he can be an assassin late in games. Meanwhile, Notre Dame was flat-out awful in non-conference play. Most of that was attributed to the Tim Abromaitis injury. But their young players developed ahead of schedule, and they played really well in Big East play (13-5) before struggling a little bit down the stretch (a 2-3 record in their final five games). My concern with Notre Dame is that they are a steady team, but without a high ceiling. They don't turn the ball over and don't foul, and can force a deliberate tempo, but they're not a great offensive or defensive team. Xavier plays tight perimeter defense, and is strong against the three, which will limit Notre Dame's ability to score. And if this is a close, dragged-out game, I'd definitely trust Tu Holloway over anybody Notre Dame has down the stretch. The fact that Notre Dame's two key playmakers (Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins) are both sophomores with very limited Tournament experience is also a concern. Xavier is the favorite.
UConn is a team that is both overrated and underrated at the same time. They're "underrated" in the fact that they're not really significantly worse than last year's team. They have several very explosive offensive players, have one of the best interior defensive players in the nation in Andre Drummond, and have the athletic bigs that can get after the boards. But they're "overrated" in that last year's team was overrated. Last year's team was only rated the 26th best team in the nation by Pomeroy before starting their miracle run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Their biggest flaw this year is that they are dreadfully inconsistent on offense. Shabazz Napier tries to do too much, and Jeremy Lamb doesn't see enough of the ball. Lamb could be one of the premier scorers in the nation if he was used better. UConn is one of the teams that can handle Royce White, though, and I wonder how Iowa State has the front court depth to handle the Huskies. Iowa State might just be a little too happy to be in the NCAA Tournament. UConn is my pick.
My Picks:1. 1. Kentucky over 9. UConn
5. Wichita State over 4. Indiana
3. Baylor over 6. UNLV
2. Duke over 10. Xavier
Thoughts:I don't think that either Iowa State or UConn can pose too much of a threat to Kentucky. Iowa State, in particular, will get blown away in the paint by Kentucky. UConn is more intriguing because they are one of the few teams that can defend the Kentucky front line, and they do have explosive scorers that have the confidence and raw ability to go toe-to-toe with Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. If Jeremy Lamb and Ryan Boatright both go off at the same time, they can have a tremendous duel with Kentucky's future NBA players. That said, UConn has been extremely inconsistent this season. If Shabazz Napier decides that he's going to win this game by himself then he will fail. Kentucky has been so steady this year with their excellence that you know that they'll play well here. Willing to bet that everything is clicking perfectly for UConn? I'm not. Kentucky is my pick.
When picking the Wichita State/Indiana game, I think it is important to remember that (in my opinion, at least) Indiana has a significantly tougher Round of 64 opponent. So if you think that Indiana and Wichita State are even opponents, I'd recommend giving the tiebreak to Wichita State. And certainly these are two very evenly matched teams. If this game came to pass then I think Indiana would probably be a 1 point favorite in Vegas. Wichita State does have a guy in Garrett Stutz who can defend Cody Zeller one-on-one. Wichita State also runs their offense through the paint, opening things up for Joe Ragland (a 50% three-point shooter) outside. In Indiana's advantage, Victor Oladipo is the type of defender who can slow down Tour'e Murray, and Wichita State doesn't have a great three-point defense (Indiana hit 43.3% of three-pointers this season). That said, I'm always uncomfortable picking a team by depending on them to hit threes. Wichita State should should be able to score more in the paint. And as I said, they have the easier prior opponent. Wichita State is my pick.
UNLV/Baylor is a match-up I think is almost certain to happen. I don't think either team has much chance of going down in the Round of 64. The concern for UNLV is going to be defensive rebounding. They finished only 6th in the Mountain West in defensive rebounding percentage, and few teams (if any) have interior athletes like Baylor does. UNLV likes to run, but they're not great at forcing turnovers. Baylor should expect to have more possessions in this game, and UNLV will need to shoot better to win. Baylor can be vulnerable to teams that can shoot well behind the arc, but UNLV is streaky in that department. They do occasionally shoot the lights out, and if they do that here then they'll probably win. But that hasn't happened enough this season for me to feel confident, and Baylor has a player in Brady Heslip who can heat up behind the arc as well. I think Baylor will dominate the paint, and that will deliver them the win.
Xavier is a team that does match fairly up well against Duke. Their perimeter defense is very strong, which can potentially slow down Duke's offense. And Duke's defense doesn't really stop anybody, meaning that Tu Holloway has the potential to go off. The concern I have for Xavier is that they don't have great help defense in the paint. Having quick help defenders that can clamp down on Austin Rivers can cause him to start turning the ball over (since he too often dribbles with his head down, intent on shooting no matter what). I also have a concern with Kenny Frease dealing with a Duke front line that is quicker and more athletic than he is. Also, while Duke is a mediocre rebounding team, Xavier isn't really a team that can take advantage. Duke has the explosive scorers to match Holloway, and they are my pick. Notre Dame's strong perimeter defense would be a good match-up against Duke, and have quick interior defenders. But I don't think they have the offense to keep up with Duke. I'd pick Duke against either team.
1. Kentucky over 5. Wichita State
3. Baylor over 2. Duke
Obviously Indiana already beat Kentucky this season, but actually I think that Wichita State would be the bigger NCAA Tournament concern for the Wildcats. Indiana was much better at home than away from home this season, particularly on defense. And everything went perfect for them in that Kentucky game - lightning won't strike twice. Indiana isn't a very good rebounding team to begin with, and if Cody Zeller gets in foul trouble then they're in big trouble. Wichita State is an excellent defensive rebounding team, on the other hand (6th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage), and they play a sound interior defense. If Wichita State can play strong transition defense then they will be able to limit Kentucky's ability to score. Kentucky relies heavily on layups/dunks and offensive rebounds, and Wichita State can definitely limit those. But I wonder how Wichita State will be able to score. They rely in interior scoring, and absolutely nobody scores in the paint against this Kentucky team. Would you feel comfortable taking Wichita State over Kentucky? I wouldn't.
If Baylor beats Duke, it'll be because Perry Jones went nuts. He has seemed to develop into his incredible potential late in the season, and he has the ability to destroy Duke on the interior. If he doesn't have a big game, the rest of the Baylor roster isn't explosive offensively, but they're steady. Duke doesn't really turn anybody over. That said, Baylor's defensive length and athleticism will cause trouble for any Duke perimeter players that try to attack the paint. In fact, I don't think Duke is going to win this game unless multiple players are hitting outside shots, which hasn't happened too often this season. Baylor, in my opinion, is the favorite. That said, I'd favor Duke over UNLV, should that game happen. UNLV's defense isn't good enough to keep up, and Duke's strong perimeter defense will keep them from scoring too many points on the perimeter. UNLV also finished last in the Mountain West with a 63.7 FT% in conference play and they're sloppy with the ball. That's not a good combination for an Elite 8 run.
1. Kentucky over 3. Baylor
A match-up between Kentucky and Baylor would be a fascinating battle between two teams with NBA-level athleticism, length and talent. That said, if there's one misconception about Kentucky it's that they're all about defense. In fact, they're a better offensive team than defensive team (Pomeroy rates their offense 2nd in the nation and their defense 6th). And that's my concern with Baylor, a team that really only has one elite scorer (Perry Jones) and only one strong outside shooter (Brady Heslip). Pierre Jackson is a good player, but he'll be of limited effectiveness against Kentucky. Also, Baylor's defensive rebounding is awful, and they'll get eaten alive by Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones on the glass.
I think Duke would be a stronger opponent for Kentucky than Baylor. Duke is a disciplined team that won't allow Kentucky's athleticism to rattle them, and they have the ability to score against anybody. The problem is that they are a mediocre rebounding team, and that's not a good thing to be against Kentucky. Also, Duke's interior defense is mediocre. Duke can take away threes, but Kentucky is not at all reliant on three-pointers to win games. Duke would be more of a threat than Baylor, but Kentucky would be a solid favorite against them as well.
If for some reason you have either Wichita State or Indiana getting past Kentucky, I think I'd take Duke against either of them. Neither Wichita State or Indiana can take advantage of Duke's rebounding. Indiana is overly reliant on outside shooting, which won't work against Duke's perimeter defense (Duke finished second in the country with a 23.9 3PA/FGA ratio against). Wichita State's Garrett Stutz can potentially give Duke trouble. But even if you think that Wichita State is slightly better than Duke head-to-head, I still wouldn't put them in the Final Four. They have such a harder path to the Elite 8 (particularly the game against Kentucky) that you have to give the tiebreaker to Duke.
But like I said, I don't think Wichita State will be there. I expect Kentucky to be there, and I think Kentucky is the heavy favorite to win the South.