I understand that a lot of Missouri fans are upset about not getting a 1 seed. Obviously the Selection Committee focused heavily on non-conference strength of schedule, which was a big advantage for Michigan State. But the reality is that in a lot of ways, fans are too obsessed with seed. What matters is your draw. And the reality is that Missouri, as the 2 seed in this bracket, has an easier route to the Final Four than Michigan State does. It's a break for Missouri to end up as the 2 seed. Michigan State was given a brutal draw.
The match-up that stands out in this region, more than any other, is the Memphis/St. Louis game. For a couple of months now I've been hammering home how unbelievably underrated Memphis and St. Louis are. Both teams are rated among the 15 best in the nation by Pomeroy. Sagarin has Memphis in the Top 15, though he has St. Louis back in 18th. But both teams were improving down the stretch, and both were clear Final Four contenders with the right draw. It was understood, of course, that because Selection is based on resume and not team quality that neither team would be getting a 3 or 4 seed. I thought Memphis could get a 5 or 6. To shove both of these teams to the 8/9 line is bad enough, but to make them play each other?
For those that follow baseball sabermetrics, you know that the classic debate has long been Derek Jeter's defense. Jeter has long been rated as one of the worst defenders in baseball by the computers, but the media loves him because he's so charming and because he has the Joe DiMaggio skill of making plays look nice when he makes them. It's really hard to tell how small his fielding range is until you do the statistical analysis. A couple of years ago, after even most announcers had acknowledged that Jeter's defense had declined, Jeter was given yet another Gold Glove. I know I wasn't the only one who felt that the award was a big middle finger to the young/statistical community. One last dying gasp of the dinosaurs.
I'm not alleging that kind of conspiracy here from the Selection Committee. I understand that the process is so hurried and hectic that coincidences are basically always coincidences. Even something like Kentucky and Duke being the 1 and 2 in the same bracket on the 20 year anniversary of the Laettner shot was probably not intentional. It's just frustrating to see the two teams most loved by stat-heads stuck playing each other in the Round of 64. One of them will have to go down there, and the other will have an extremely difficult Round of 32 battle against Michigan State. A Final Four run is very unlikely for either team.
My Picks:14. Iona over 14. BYU
1. Michigan State over 16. LIU
9. St. Louis over 8. Memphis
4. Louisville over 13. Davidson
5. New Mexico over 12. Long Beach State
11. Colorado State over 6. Murray State
3. Marquette over 14. Iona
7. Florida over 10. Virginia
2. Missouri over 15. Norfolk State
Thoughts:The West region begins with a unique match-up: BYU playing Iona in a play-in game to be a 14 seed. Never before have we had an at-large team as a 14 seed. I understand that there are geographic/date issues here (BYU can't play on Sunday, so they had to be at a Thursday/Saturday site), but still it seems ridiculous to make them be a 14. It's unfair for Marquette to earn a 3 seed, only to have to open up against a dangerous at-large team like BYU or Iona.
While you're probably not picking the play-in game for your bracket, I'll just say a few words on the game anyway. This will be a high-tempo, high-scoring game. Iona has a really great scoring trio of Scott Machado, Mike Glover and MoMo Jones. BYU likes to run as well - they were 9th in the nation with 72.5 possessions/40 minutes this season. Iona can score on anybody, though their defense is mediocre. The key match-up will be Mike Glover against Brandon Davies. If Glover can slow Davies down then BYU will be reduced to a three-point shooting team. But if Davies can shut down Glover then Iona might start pressing and turning the ball over. It's tough to separate the two teams, and in that situation I give the edge to the team that is going to be more focused and motivated. Iona is the team with no respect that everybody is saying shouldn't be in the Tournament. Historically, teams like that play well. so Iona gets the tiebreak.
Moving onto the "Second Round" (and I'm still not used to calling the Round of 64 the "Second Round"), I wouldn't worry about the Michigan State/LIU game. The talent mismatch is overwhelming. Norfolk State is no joke of a 15 seed. They beat Drexel and only lost to Marquette by two points. And they did this with a defense that can be pretty suffocating. But no defense is going to completely contain Missouri. There are just too weapons. And Norfolk State's offense is just not good.
It's unfortunate for Marquette that they got this match-up. You'd assume that as a 3 seed, you'd never find a 14 seed that could defend something as large and athletic as Jae Crowder. But in fact, both Iona (Mike Glover) and BYU (Brandon Davies) do. That said, as good as Iona and BYU are, both are going to struggle against the Marquette perimeter defense. The only real flaw Marquette has is on the boards, but neither Iona or BYU has the front court depth or rebounding prowess to take too much advantage of that. Marquette will definitely be challenged, and if you were ever going to pick a 3 seed to lose it would be here, but I wouldn't do it. As I said here, though, this type of game is something to remember going forward. Don't forget when picking later on in the bracket that Marquette has a very realistic chance of losing in the Round 64.
Davidson is a quality 13 seed. They already beat Kansas and can score points on anybody. And the fact that they take care of the ball, are good at defensive rebounding and hit 77% of their free throws, is a great combination for a Tournament team. But even Kansas isn't as good defensively at Louisville, and they certainly don't have a full court press like Louisville. The Cardinals have cranked up the full court press the past few weeks with great success. Davidson led the SoCon in offensive turnover rate, but are you willing to bet that it will hold up against Louisville? I'm not.
New Mexico is a team that spent most of the season underrated, but with a strong finish and the Mountain West tournament title, I'd say that a 5 seed is proper. Long Beach State is a tough 12 seed for them, though. Long Beach State put together a brutal non-conference schedule to prepare them for this. They only beat Xavier and Pitt, but they played tight games against North Carolina, Kansas, Creighton and San Diego State, and also played Kansas State and Louisville. Long Beach State, of course, is all about their star guard, Casper Ware. He's surrounded by some athletic wing players that can score in the space he creates, and they play solid defense. That said, I'm not sure who on Long Beach State can guard Drew Gordon. New Mexico has an array of choices to defend Ware, including Jamal Fenton, who is a player I like. I don't think Long Beach State has a clear match-up advantage, and overall New Mexico is the better team. So they're my pick.
I've talked about Murray State many times in recent weeks. They're going to be in the Top Ten in the human polls, but are all the way back at a 6 seed. You'll hear people talking them up as a Final Four sleeper team. Nonsense. Murray State isn't any better than Iona or Long Beach State or any other of those elite small conference teams (I'd also throw in Middle Tennessee, Oral Roberts and South Dakota State). They've just been lucky (6-1 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime). If they'd have average luck they'd be a 13 seed, and that's how we need to think of them. If Murray State was a 12 or 13 seed that could sneak up on teams, and I'd love them as an upset pick. But now they are the target. My one concern about Colorado State is that they've been lucky as well (5-2 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime). Any game that Colorado State plays in will be high scoring. They are very efficient offensively, and poor defensively. Does Murray State have offensive weapons other than Isaiah Canaan that can make an impact here? I'm not sure that they do. Colorado State is also the better rebounding team and they shoot 77% at the line as a team. Colorado State is my pick.
Virginia/Florida is an interesting battle between two struggling teams. Florida has lost four of five coming in here, including a bad loss to Georgia and a double-digit home loss on Senior Night to Kentucky. Virginia, meanwhile, beat two NCAA Tournament teams all season long. They beat NC State in January, and beat Michigan back in November. Virginia's defense is among the best in the nation, and they have (in my opinion) the best player in the ACC in Mike Scott, but the rest of their offense is absolutely toothless. The cupboard was bare when Tony Bennett took over, and he just doesn't have a lot of talent on offense right now. In Patric Young and Erik Murphy, Florida has two key players that will be able to defend Mike Scott. It's always a risk picking Florida to win games because of how dependent they are on three-pointers. If they go cold from the field then they can lose to anybody. But Virginia is so limited offensively that everything has to go right for them to beat a team as good as Florida. I wouldn't bet on it.
We need to finish the discussion of the Round of 64 with that brutal match-up between Saint Louis and Memphis. Memphis is a team that has a whole bunch of very athletic perimeter players that like to attack the basket. St. Louis doesn't have formidable post defenders that can clean up mistakes, but they do play suffocating, sound perimeter defense. Pomeroy rates their defense tenth best in the entire nation. Offensively, St. Louis depends on jump shooting, and that's also what Memphis is vulnerable to. Memphis has players like Tarik Black that are excellent shot blockers (they blocked 15% of opponents' two-point shots this season), but St. Louis doesn't ever really score in the post. Memphis is arguably one of the ten best teams in the country right now, but they're not really much better than St. Louis and don't match-up well. So sadly, I'm picking Memphis to go down here.
My Picks:1. Michigan State over 9. St. Louis
4. Louisville over 5. New Mexico
3. Marquette over 11. Colorado State
2. Missouri over 7. Florida
Thoughts:Poor Michigan State will have to face either Memphis or St. Louis here. I would think that they would actually prefer to play Memphis here. First of all, Memphis is most successful offensively against defenses that over-pursue and don't help properly. Michigan State's defense is very sound. Also, the Spartans want to attack the offensive boards, and Memphis is not a good defensive rebounding team. St. Louis, on the other hand, is a good defensive rebound team (they brought down 70.7% of rebounds on the defensive end in Atlantic Ten play), and their defense will give every team troubles. The concern for St. Louis, however, is how they are going to score. Michigan State has managed to score at a solid clip against elite defenses like Ohio State and Wisconsin, so St. Louis can't expect to win a 48-43 game here. And I don't think St. Louis has the offensive weapons. Michigan State is my pick.
New Mexico has a very real concern about being matched up against Louisville. New Mexico's biggest flaw is ball handling - they don't really have a true quality point guard. The Lobos finished seventh out of eight Mountain West teams in offensive turnover rate in conference play (they turned the ball over on 20% of possessions). There's always a concern with Louisville about scoring points, but I do think that they have the physical interior defenders to contain Drew Gordon, and they should be able to get enough points off of turnovers to make up for any offensive deficiencies. They are my pick.
Marquette was given a very difficult 14 seed to play against, but they got a soft 6/11 match-up. Murray State is a very soft 6 seed, but Colorado State is a fairly soft 11 seed as well. And not only are the teams weak overall, but they match up poorly with Marquette. Both are poor offensive rebounding teams, and neither has a defense capable of containing the Marquette offense. Marquette has a variety of strong perimeter defenders who can be rotated onto Isaiah Canaan. Colorado State would probably be the tougher opponent because they have such an explosive offense that they can try to have a shoot-out with Marquette. But in my view, the Golden Eagles should be more concerned with their Round of 64 game than their Round of 32 game.
Florida is an interesting match-up against Missouri because of how explosive their perimeter players can be. If they are shooting three-pointers well then they can turn this into a wild game. We know Missouri is going to put up a ton of points on Florida. My concern, though, is that Florida doesn't have anybody that can score in the paint. While size is fairly useless against Missouri, it really helps to have a post scorer to loosen up the Missouri perimeter defense. Florida has a couple of good interior players, but none of them see much of the ball on offense. Missouri will clamp down, and should win without too much trouble.
4. Louisville over 1. Michigan State
3. Marquette over 2. Missouri
Louisville is a potential match-up nightmare for Michigan State. The Spartans do have some inconsistent ball handling, and they finished only 8th best in the Big Ten with a 19.6 offensive TO%. Keith Appling is incredibly quick attacking the basket, but he's also inconsistent. Also, Michigan State has had a bad habit under Tom Izzo (in my opinion) of too often trying to run with teams that like to run. Unlike Ohio State or Wisconsin, who enforce their style of play on every game, Michigan State can get caught up in an up-and-down game. They have great athletes, so they can often get away with this, but it means that a team like Louisville can start to cause the major problems. I also have a concern with Michigan State's defense in this match-up. Appling is a decent perimeter defender, but who else can they lean on to stay in front of Peyton Siva or Russ Smith or Chris Smith. Louisville has had their fits and starts this season, but their ceiling is really high, and I think that they match up really well with Michigan State.
Michigan State would match up much better with New Mexico. New Mexico is used to pushing teams around, but Michigan State is bigger and more physical. Drew Gordon will struggle against Draymond Green and Derrick Nix, and I wonder how New Mexico will be able to get their offense going. Michigan State is the better team, and I don't see where New Mexico has a match-up advantage.
I think that a Sweet 16 match-up between Missouri and Marquette is quite likely. Both have very reasonable paths. And if it comes to pass then it will be a very interesting match-up between two teams that are very dependent on their guards. And in a situation like that, the key match-up often ends up being the interior star. If Jae Crowder can outplay Ricardo Ratliffe then Marquette will probably win. The concern for Missouri is always that their defense is so mediocre. It puts a lot of pressure on their offense, and if the shots aren't falling then they'll get in trouble, as has sometimes been the case away from home. Marquette probably won't be able to turn Missouri over, but their perimeter defense is good. And Marquette is good at drawing fouls (they led the Big East in FTA/FGA ratio), which is another key against a thin Missouri team. This will be a very tight game, but I give the very narrow edge to Marquette.
4. Louisville over 3. Marquette
If this match-up comes to pass then it will be the third between these two teams this year. Marquette beat Louisville at home back in January. Louisville then beat them fairly easily in the Big East tournament quarterfinals. Louisville is able to take advantage of Marquette's rebounding problems (they had a 50.0 offensive rebounding percentage against Marquette in the Big East tournament), and they should be able to force some turnovers. Marquette's advantage here will be forcing turnovers of their own. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith both have a bad habit of occasionally trying to do too much, and they are fairly turnover prone. Marquette will be able to take advantage to get out on the break, where they're deadly. But I think Marquette will struggle to score in the half court, and will become too dependent on outside shooting than is my liking. I give the narrow edge to Louisville here.
Should Michigan State get past Louisville, I'd like their chances against Marquette as well. They will destroy this under-sized Marquette team on the boards, and have been good all season about not giving up easy baskets in transition. Marquette would have to get white hot behind the arc to win that game. Should Missouri end up playing Louisville in this game, I would actually like Missouri's chances. They'd probably turn the ball over a few times, but they're pretty steady against pressure defenses, and they're going to score their points. I don't think Louisville has the offensive firepower to stay with the Missouri Tigers.
 A commenter alerted me that somehow in all of this I hadn't talked about a potential Michigan State/Missouri match-up. And that would certainly be a battle of titans between the Missouri offense and the Michigan State defense. My concern for Missouri is that they are so dependent on hitting a very high percentage of open jump shots, and I wonder what will happen against a team that won't give them any. Missouri only played four games this season against defenses ranked in the Pomeroy Top 20 - their two games against Kansas and their two games against Kansas State. In those four games they scored only 1.04 PPP and went 1-3 overall. Against the rest of the Big 12 they scored 1.17 PPP and went 13-1 (and if you throw in the Big 12 title game, where they didn't face Kansas or Kansas State, they went 3-0 with a ridiculous 1.31 PPP). Well, Michigan State has an even better defense than either Kansas or Kansas State, so I have serious doubts about the ability of Missouri to keep scoring at a high clip. Missouri's defense is flat-out mediocre this year, and they went only 2-3 this season (against all teams) when scoring under 1.05 PPP. The big concern for Michigan State is if the refs call the game tight and they're not allowed to be physical. That could allow Missouri to get into one of their scoring runs, and the Spartans might not have the offensive firepower to overcome it. But in my view, the odds would clearly favor Michigan State.