Saturday, March 31, 2012

Title Game Open Thread + Picking The Lines

There's perhaps nothing about mainstream sports commentary I get more amusement from than the broad-brush media narratives that get created by random luck. It's hard to think of a game with more randomness than the Kansas/Ohio State game. We can go throughout the game and pick out moments, such as the fact that if Aaron Craft had waited an extra 0.1 seconds before starting that last drive of the first half, Kansas probably doesn't get that bucket at the buzzer. Or just in the final 30 seconds of the game we had Jeff Withey accidentally shuffling his feet for a travel, then DeShaun Thomas taking two stupid contested threes, that incomprehensible Tyshawn Taylor turnover, Aaron Craft's lane violation, and then Kansas somehow inbounding the ball without television or Ohio State noticing. Which of those events is proof of Bill Self's coaching genius? I'm not sure. But we're going to be flooded with "Bill Self is the best coach in basketball" stories for the next two days.

Yet remember five years ago? Bill Self was the coach who always had the highly rated team that fell early in the Tournament. Self was the classic "regular season coach" who failed in the NCAA Tournament. As I always say about every coach: "They can't win in the NCAA Tournament... until they do". It's the nature of the one-and-done setting. If Bill Self goes down in the Round of 32 to Northern Iowa again next season, it doesn't mean that he suddenly forgot how to coach. It means the bounces went the wrong way. Bill Self is an excellent coach, but winning or losing tonight's game against Ohio State had nothing to do with that assessment.

Final Four ATS: 1-1-0
Total through Final Four ATS: 30-34-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Kansas (+6.5) over Kentucky: Kentucky should certainly be excited that Kansas won. The Wildcats would have been at most 3 point favorites over Ohio State, and that would have been on media reputation only. Sagarin and Pomeroy would have projected a 1 point game. Kansas is clearly the softer opponent. Now, the advantage for Kentucky in this game is their offensive firepower. They're the better offensive team and they have more offensive weapons. They're one of the few teams that Kansas has faced this season that is longer than they are, and they will test the Kansas depth. The advantage for Kansas is that they will be a much stronger defensive team around the rim than any team Kentucky has faced so far this season. Also, Kentucky plays a very passive defense, and they are not going to be able to exploit the Jayhawks' penchant for turnovers the way other teams have.

Can Kansas win this game? They can, but it's going to require both Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey playing 30+ minutes and staying out of foul trouble. They need to guard the rim or else Kentucky is going to have a layup line. Kansas is also going to need to match Kentucky's outside shooting. Kentucky has a better three-point offense and a better three-point defense than Kansas. Kansas will need to find a way to eliminate that gap.

Kentucky is obviously the favorite to win this game, but they depend very much on scoring around the rim. I'd have to go back through the boxscore, but I can honestly remember only one shot (the clutch Darius Miller three) that Kentucky hit from beyond five feet in the second half against Louisville. Kansas has the best interior defense in the nation, leading the nation in 2P% defense and featuring the player leading the nation in block percentage (the stats haven't been updated yet for today's games, but heading into today Withey led the nation by blocking 15.1% of opponents' two-point shots while on the floor - Anthony Davis was third at 13.9%). Ohio State spent most of today's game shooting jump shots, which is why things started to slip away when those shots aren't falling.

And so for that reason I do think that Kansas, while not nearly as good overall as Ohio State, is a tough match-up for Kentucky. I think it's going to be a very close national title game, and I'll take the 6.5 points.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Final Four Open Thread + Picking The Lines

It feels like a long time since the Elite 8, doesn't it? Maybe it's just me.

Anyway, since I got the Final Four correct this year, I previewed and picked these games more than two weeks ago. You can read them here. Below I will try to add a little bit more beyond those previews, particularly since we're picking against the spread here. Saying that Kentucky is the favorite isn't enough... are you willing to give 9 points to get Kentucky?

Anyway, let's get to Sunday's games:

Sunday ATS: 1-1-0
Total through Elite Eight ATS: 29-33-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Louisville (+9) over Kentucky: As I said earlier, I'm not sure exactly how much the early season meeting tells us about these two teams. Yes, Louisville kept the game very close in Lexington, but they did it against a Kentucky team with much less experience than it has now, and they also did it with Russ Smith playing the game of his life. That said, Kentucky has played a little bit better than they really are so far this NCAA Tournament. The media is overreacting and treating Kentucky like one of the all-time greats, when the reality is that both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate Ohio State of nearly identical quality (Sagarin has Ohio State the very narrow #1, Pomeroy has Kentucky the very narrow #1).

Of course, this Kentucky team is one of the two best teams in the country, so even if they come back down to reality here they are still the clear favorites to win the game. They're a better team than Louisville, no question. But one thing I noticed against both Baylor and Iowa State was that those two teams did a horrific job of getting back in transition. Kentucky had layup lines going in both games. Indiana and Western Kentucky (yes, Western Kentucky!) both did a better job of forcing Kentucky to score in the half court, where they're not nearly as effective. If Louisville tries to press often then Kentucky will get some fast breaks by attacking it, but I still think that the longer lay-off and the additional practice can only help the Cardinals. I expect Louisville to keep this game close. While I still expect them to lose the game, I'll take the points.

Ohio State (-2.5) over Kansas: Tyshawn Taylor, meet Aaron Craft. In the North Carolina game we saw both "Good" Tyshawn Taylor and "Bad" Tyshawn Taylor on display. No player in college basketball has a weirder combination of WOW! plays and boneheaded plays. But Ohio State's perimeter players are so incredibly aggressive, and if Taylor starts to struggle there really is no alternative for the Jayhawks. Elijah Johnson is the closest thing Kansas has to a second ball handler. In my view, the one place Kansas can have an advantage is in the paint. If Thomas Robinson can outplay Jared Sullinger, particularly if he can get Sullinger in early foul trouble, this game can shift. One of the biggest advantages Ohio State has in this game is rebounding, but if Sullinger is put on the bench then that completely shifts.

That said, I don't think Kansas can win this game unless Thomas Robinson clearly outplays Sullinger and Tyshawn Taylor holds himself to 5 or fewer turnovers. And as I have said many times (though very few people have been listening), Ohio State has a lot of depth. Thad Matta chooses to play effectively a 6-7 man rotation because he can - the college basketball season isn't as draining as the NBA season, and so why not give as many minutes as possible to your best players? But most national writers have interpreted that as Ohio State's bench players not being very good, and that's just not true. And much of the media was shocked (while I wasn't) when players like Amir Williams and Sam Thompson gave the Buckeyes a bunch of quality minutes against Syracuse when Sullinger was on the bench. So if the refs get foul happy again, I definitely trust Ohio State's bench more than the Kansas bench. So Ohio State is my pick to win, and I'm not going to sweat the 2.5 points.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

2012-13 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part III

Big West Conference

Long Beach State survived an impossibly difficult schedule to have a very successful season. They ended up playing Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville, San Diego State, Creighton, Kansas State, Xavier and Pittsburgh. And if Larry Anderson hadn't gotten hurt late in the season, they really might have been able to knock off New Mexico in the NCAA Tournament. Casper Ware (17.4 ppg, 3.4 apg, 1.4 spg) had a tremendous career, but he will graduate and move on to the next stage of his career. Four starters in all will graduate, including Larry Anderson (the Big West Defensive Player of the Year) and TJ Robinson (13.7 ppg, 10.2 rpg). Long Beach State is going to take a huge step back next year. So who will their future be built around? In my opinion, it's clearly Mike Caffey (5.9 ppg, 53.8 eFG%, 2.2 apg as a true freshman). Their top 2012 recruit is hilariously-named 6'7" Deng Deng. Long Beach State also adds a pair of solid transfers: Tony Freeland (9.6 ppg for DePaul in 2010-11) and 6'9" Dan Jennings from West Virginia.

The top contender to Long Beach State during the regular season, and their opponent in the Big West title game, was UC-Santa Barbara. But they lose three starters, including star Orlando Johnson (19.7 ppg, 42.7 3P%, 5.8 rpg, 2.9 apg). Considering how poor they looked throughout the season whenever Johnson was on the bench, they will surely take a step back without him. Cal State Fullerton, the team that tied UCSB for second place, also loses three of their top six minute earners. They lose star Omondi Amoke (10.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg) and sharpshooter Orane Chin (10.2 ppg, 43.7 3P%, 62.9 eFG%). That said, their two leading scorers (DJ Seeley and Kwame Vaughn - a combined 32.9 ppg) will be back as seniors next season. They also have a very good young player in Isiah Umipig (13.5 ppg, 39.4 3P%). Their biggest skill last season was outside shooting (they led the Big West with 43.1% three-point shooting in conference play), and they return their top three players in three-pointers made.

The newcomer to the Big West is Hawaii, a team that struggled to compete in the WAC. Sometimes it's just really hard to recruit to a team that is always near the basement of a conference, and so maybe a drop to an inferior conference will help. Only time will tell, though they do have a nice 2012 recruit in 6'10" Caleb Dressler. They lose two starters to graduation, including Zane Johnson (14.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.8 apg). That said, they return star Vander Joaquim (14.3 ppg, 56.0 FG%, 9.5 rpg, 1.8 bpg) and have a good prospect in 7-footer Davis Rozitis. Their biggest need is at the point, where they were dead last in the WAC in offensive turnover rate in conference play. Senior point guard Jeremiah Ostrowski was a very sloppy ball handler (3.6 turnovers per 40 minutes played), so they will look to improved play from rising-sophomore Shaquille Stokes (8.4 ppg, 2.2 apg).

A sleeper team in the Big West is UC Irvine. Buoyed by a young core, UC Irvine will head into next season returning every single player from their roster. They will also get back starter Aaron Wright, who was their top 2011 recruit but who missed most of the season with an injury. This is a very balanced team, with seven players that scored between 6.9 and 11.5 points per game. They also add 6'11" Connor Clifford in their 2012 recruiting class, along with 6'10" transfer John Ryan from Fresno State.

The Big West will be one of the most wide open conferences next season. All of the top teams suffer heavy losses to graduation. Despite losing their top four players, Long Beach State still has to be considered a serious contender. They still have talented young players to build around if Dan Monson can bring all of the pieces together. But in my opinion, Cal State Fullerton returns more of their top players than any other contender. I could easily see UCSB or even UC Irvine winning the conference, so this is one of the conferences where I could change my mind early in the 2012-13 season, but for the time being I'm going with Cal State Fullerton.

Ivy League

From top to bottom, this was a very strong season for the Ivy League. Just witness a team like Columbia finishing in the Top 200 in Sagarin and Pomeroy while going only 4-10 in Ivy League play. That said, depth throughout didn't mean depth at the top. Harvard was the only Ivy League team anywhere near the bubble. And Harvard, as good as they looked early in the season, faded a bit (in my opinion) down the stretch. They had that great win over Florida State, but in retrospect that looks more like a lucky win than anything else. Florida State scored 0.67 PPP, giving them the most offensively futile performance any team had against Harvard all season long. FSU's offense isn't great, but even Seattle, Cornell and Columbia broke 1.00 PPP against Harvard this season.

I don't intend to be that down on Harvard. They were a good team, after all. But they were not a deserved Top 25 team, and they went out in fairly meek fashion to Vanderbilt in the NCAA Tournament. Can they be better next season? Maybe. They lose two starters, including Keith Wright (10.6 ppg, 58.6 FG%, 8.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg). On the other hand, they return the inside-outside combo of Brandyn Curry (7.9 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.6 spg) and Kyle Casey (11.4 ppg, 54.9 eFG%, 5.5 rpg). The third returning starter is sharpshooter Laurent Rivard (10.1 ppg, 41.0 3P%, 60.6 eFG%). They also had three freshmen that played well and should excel in expanded minutes - sharpshooter Corbin Miller and interior players Steve Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis. A fourth productive freshman was shooting guard Wesley Saunders. And in fact, their highest rated 2011 recruit was 6'7" Kenyatta Smith, who played only sparingly, but who has the potential to develop into a very good player. And Tommy Amaker has filled up his 2012 recruiting class with a whole bunch of other highly touted recruits, led by power forward Zena Edosomwan (Scout: 15 PF, Rivals: 128) and 6'10" Mike Hall (Scout: 30C, Rivals: 134). In my view, Harvard has two main needs. First, they need a second interior scorer to go alongside Kyle Casey. Second, they need to improve their perimeter defense, which is fine against Ivy League opponents but has struggled with more athletic opponents out-of-conference. With all of that young talent they could be even better next season than they were this past season, but those flaws will hold them back until they get fixed.

Pennsylvania actually controlled their own destiny heading into the final game of the year. With a win over Princeton they would have forced a one-game playoff with Harvard on a neutral floor to decide the Ivy League's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But they lost to Princeton, and were sent to the CBI, where they fell to Butler in the quarterfinals. But as well as they played late in the season, they are gutted by graduations. They lose three starters, including Zach Rosen (18.2 ppg, 39.9 3P%, 5.2 apg) and Tyler Bernardini (12.2 ppg, 41.3 3P%, 4.5 rpg). But while next season is necessarily going to be a rebuilding season, Jerome Allen has a nice set of young players to build around. A very deep 2011 recruiting class played well this past season, led by Henry Brooks (4.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg). Their 2012 recruiting class is led by point guard Patrick Lucas-Perry.

According to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the second best team in the Ivy League this past season was Princeton. They lose a pair of starters, including star Douglas Davis (13.8 ppg, 41.9 3P%). They do still have one more season of Ian Hummer (16.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.2 apg), but they are going to be awfully thin next season. Yale is another Ivy League team that is going to struggle replicating its success with a pair of graduating seniors, including star Greg Mangano (18.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 2.2 bpg). Their top prospect is 6'7" Justin Sears.

With the three top challengers to Harvard likely taking a step back next season, it's hard to see Harvard being seriously tested atop the conference. If there's a dark horse team to finish high in the Ivy standings, I think it's Columbia. They were a very unlucky 2-7 in Ivy League games decided by five points or less or in overtime, and they return all five starters, led by Mark Cisco (10.0 ppg, 59.0 FG%, 7.2 rpg) and Brian Barbour (15.5 ppg, 4.4 apg). At the end of the season, though, these other Ivy League teams are just playing for second. Harvard should win the conference easily.

Mid-American Conference

For seemingly the 15th year in a row, the MAC was wide open at the top league, with a whole slew of teams contending for a single bid into the NCAA Tournament. But the only MAC program to win an NCAA Tournament game since 2003? Ohio. Two years ago they shocked Georgetown. This past season they took out Michigan and South Florida, and then took North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16.

As a conference, the MAC has not earned an at-large bid since the 1998-99 season. But if there's a team that will be good enough to earn an at-large bid next season, it'll probably be Ohio. The Bobcats not only return every player from their rotation, but they also add a couple of nice pieces. The team is led by DJ Cooper (14.7 ppg, 5.7 apg, 2.3 spg) and Walter Offutt (12.4 ppg, 53.0 eFG%). Nick Kellogg (9.0 ppg, 42.7 3P%, 62.9 eFG%) is a sharpshooter, and they got nice interior play from Reggie Keely (9.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Ivo Baltic (8.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg). They also have a nice young wing prospect in Jon Smith. In addition to that, they add shooting guard Caris Levert as a 2012 recruit, and will also add Missouri transfer Kadeem Green (3.3 points in 11.5 minutes per game playing for Mizzou) midseason. The only way things can get messed up? If head coach John Groce takes a job at a bigger school.

The regular season MAC champion was Akron, and they won't be going anywhere either. They lose only one starter (Nikola Cvetinovic - 9.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) as well as one rotation player (Brett McClanahan), but return everybody else. They have a steady point guard in Alex Abreu (9.6 ppg, 56.5 eFG%, 4.8 apg), a nice perimeter scorer Brian Walsh (8.3 ppg, 43.4 3P%) and a good defender in Quincy Diggs (8.5 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.2 spg). 7-footer Zeke Marshall has also improved his play (10.4 ppg, 54.2 FG%, 5.4 rpg). They have a nice prospect in 6'7" Nick Harney on the wing, as well as shooting guard Blake Justice (who redshirted this past season and still has four years of eligibility remaining). They also add a very athletic recruit in 6'6" Reggie McAdams. I don't see Akron overcoming Ohio next season, but they should be good in their own right, and a legitimate contender for the MAC auto bid.

Buffalo finished second in the MAC this past season, but they lose three starters to graduation, including MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Watt (16.3 ppg, 57.0 eFG%, 7.5 rpg, 2.3 apg, 2.2 bpg). They do have a nice future star in Javon McCrea (14.7 ppg, 57.2 FG%, 6.9 rpg), and Buffalo isn't going to fall off a cliff next season, but it's hard to see how they don't take at least a little step back next season. Kent State is another team that had a good season but lose three seniors and is probably due to take a step back.

A team that should be better next season is Toledo. The Rockets have been in a rebuilding mode under former Wisconsin-Green Bay head coach Tod Kowalczyk. They finished 9-7 in MAC play and earned a bid to the CIT, and did it with a roster that had zero seniors on it. In fact, their two best players were arguably a freshman (Julius Brown - 11.9 ppg, 4.9 apg) and a sophomore Rian Pearson (16.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg). Their biggest need without question is rebounding, where they were probably worst in the conference. They could look to improved play from 6'10" rising-junior Richard Wonnell (6.4 rebounds per 40 minutes played), as well as 2012 recruit Nathan Boothe (who is listed at 6'9", 255 pounds).

Miami-Ohio is a team that was very much underrated this past season, but it's hard to know how things are going to change with longtime coach Charlie Coles retiring. They also lose leading-scorer Julian Mavunga. A real dark horse might be Eastern Michigan. At first glance they don't seem like a good team to pick after a lucky 9-7 record (they were outscored by 0.03 PPP in conference play) and with their two leading scorers graduating (Darrell Lampley's 13.3 per game and Antonio Green's 7.2 per game). But that said, both Lampley and Green were more volume scorers than anything (a 42.2 and 43.4 eFG%, respectively). They will have three good seniors next season in Jamell Harris, Matt Balkema and Derek Thompson. More importantly, they have several really nice additions. They add a really nice point guard recruit in Ray Lee (Scout: 20 PG, Rivals: 142), as well as three big time transfers. They add 7-footer DaShonte Riley from Syracuse, swing forward Glenn Bryant from Arkansas, and forward Daylen Harrison from Wyoming. That's a lot of talent, which could combine to make Eastern Michigan a pretty good team if they can get the chemistry to work right away.

If John Groce stays as Ohio head coach, the Bobcats will be the overwhelming favorite in the MAC. If he leaves, there will be several other quality opponents. Toledo is going to be a pretty good team, and Akron has the potential to be a borderline at-large team. That said, even if Groce goes, the program will still have that core of players in place. I doubt that players like DJ Cooper, Walter Offutt or Ivo Baltic are going to leave school with just one year of eligibility left. So even if Groce leaves, I still think I would lean toward Ohio as the MAC favorite.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Norfolk State ended up being one of the stories of the NCAA Tournament with their remarkable upset of Missouri. They were a deserved 21 point underdog. And in fact, that could have been worse. Those point spreads are always derived from computer ratings like Sagarin and Pomeroy, yet those ratings don't take into account games against non-Division I opponents. Norfolk State lost to one of those, falling to Elizabeth City State by 12. If they'd played Missouri 25 times they'd probably only have won once, but that's the magic of a one-and-done situation. Norfolk State had a mind-blowing 62.7 eFG% and 1.34 PPP. To put that offensive performance in perspective, it was their best offensive efficiency in a game in more than a decade. And with all of the bad teams they've played over that decade-plus, this performance came against Missouri in the NCAA Tournament. Remarkable.

The magical Norfolk State run is over, though. They lose four starters to graduation, including star Kyle O'Quinn (15.9 ppg, 58.1 eFG%, 10.3 rpg, 2.7 bpg). The other three graduating starters are Chris McEachin, Marcos Tamares and Rodney McCauley. Their top returning player is Pendarvis Williams (11.9 ppg, 54.8 eFG%, 3.8 rpg, 2.5 apg). Obviously Norfolk State won't be repeating their magic next season. The question is how many recruits are they able to land because of their performance. That will determine whether they are back at the top of the MEAC in another couple of seasons or not.

One thing that was interesting with Norfolk State, and which put in perspective how mediocre they were over the course of the season, was that they were only third in the MEAC in PPP differential. Both Delaware State and Savannah State played better in conference play. Savannah State won the conference regular season title outright, earning their first ever trip to a postseason tournament since joining Division I (they played in the NIT and got wiped out by Tennessee in the first round). They had success with a very good defense. They led the MEAC in eFG% against, defensive turnover rate, defensive rebounding percentage, defensive 3PA/FGA ratio and defensive 3P%. They held opponents to a suffocating 0.82 PPP in conference play. And with zero graduating players, they should only be better next season. In fact, next season's team will likely feature five senior starters, with two of them fifth-year seniors. Their star is Rashad Hassan (13.0 ppg, 58.1 eFG%, 5.3 rpg), and their best interior player is Arnold Louis (9.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg). They depend heavily on point guard Preston Blackman (his 5.0 assists per game include assists on 41.4% of his team's baskets when he's been on the floor). And on the interior they feature a good up-and-coming player in Jyles Smith (3.9 blocks per 40 minutes played). As the team rated best in the MEAC by the computers, and with everybody back for one more season, it's really hard to see how any other MEAC team will be able to contend with them over the entirety of next season.

The other MEAC team that played better in conference play than Norfolk State was Delaware State. They had four freshmen that earned at least 16 minutes per game, including leading scorer Tahj Tate (16.1 ppg, 2.7 apg). They lose one starter to graduation, but everybody else will be back. Their biggest need is on the interior, where they finished dead last in the entire nation in defensive rebounding percentage (59.0% over the course of the season) and also finished third-to-last in the MEAC in offensive rebounding percentage in conference play (31.4%). Marques Oliver led the team with 7.2 rebounds per game during the season. It will help to have a healthy Kendall Gray (4.8 rpg), who missed the last few weeks of the season with an injury. But with Savannah State featuring multiple quality rebounders, Delaware State is going to have to find another player or two that can rebound well or they won't win the conference.

Honestly, there aren't any real dark horses in the MEAC. Maybe a North Carolina Central team that outscored opponents by 0.07 PPP in conference play and was unlucky to only finish 10-6. But they do lose two senior starters, including leading-scorer (and Kansas State transfer) Dominique Sutton (16.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg). The reality is that Savannah State dominated the MEAC during the regular season (+0.20 PPP) and was rated the best team in the conference by Sagarin and Pomeroy. They return everybody, and could start five seniors next season. So I don't see any way to pick against Savannah State here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

2012-13 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part II

Northeast Conference

The NEC has, historically, been one of the worst conferences in the nation. In fact, it's arguably been the weakest of the automatic qualifying conferences not named the SWAC. But this past season was the strongest the conference has been in more than a decade. LIU, Wagner, Robert Morris and Quinnipiac all had good seasons and would have all been tough NCAA Tournament opponents. The representative ended up being LIU, who unfortunately got stuck with a 16 seed.

LIU will look to get above that 16 seed line next season, with all but one player from their rotation back. They lose starter Michael Culpo (9.4 ppg, 38.0 3P%, 3.2 rpg), but among their returning rotation players are five rising-seniors. They return NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd (17.4 ppg, 58.5 eFG%, 9.3 rpg), star defender Jamal Olasewere (16.9 ppg, 59.1 eFG%, 7.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 1.1 spg), and point guard Jason Brickman (9.6 ppg, 40.6 3P%, 7.3 apg). The biggest need for LIU next season is defense. While teams that play at fast tempos are generally underrated defensively, LIU is truly a mediocre defensive team (1.00 PPP allowed in conference play).

The team rated best in the conference by the computers was Wagner, led by second-year coach Dan Hurley. They lose one starter (Tyler Murray and his 49% three-point shooting) and their sixth man (Chris Martin) to graduation, but with everybody else back this team could have been even better next season. But Hurley has taken the open head coach job at Rhode Island, and he's been replaced by Bashir Mason, who at 28 years old is the youngest coach in Division I. There has been an increasing number of these hires - these very young hot shot assistants getting head coaching jobs. Some have paid off, some haven't. It's impossible to know from a distance right now which one Mason will be. The immediate concern is hanging onto a deep recruiting class that Hurley had put in place. There's also the issue of holding the roster together. If he can keep all of the players in place then the team should be pretty good next season, with young players like Latif Rivers (14.6 ppg, 2.2 apg) and Neofall Folahan (4.3 ppg, 60.4 FG%, 3.7 rpg, 1.7 bpg) to build around for the future.

The team that finished third this past season was Robert Morris. The Colonials won 10 of their final 13 regular season games, then ran all the way to the NEC tournament title game, and then to the quarterfinals of the CIT. And they had this success despite some bad luck - second-to-last in the conference in FT% defense and dead last in 3P% defense. They lose only one player from their roster to graduation (Lawrence Bridges - 3.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg). Their do-everything player is rising-senior Velton Jones (16.0 ppg, 4.5 apg, 1.8 spg), though he would probably be better off if he didn't actually take so much of the load (when on the floor this past season, Jones took 30.7% of his team's shots and assisted on 36.2% of made baskets). He actually has some very efficient young players around him who are developing. He had five teammates that earned 20 or more minutes per game - three were sophomores and one was a freshman. The best prospect is probably Coron Williams (10.8 ppg, 41.0 3P%). I don't think there's any question that Robert Morris should be better with another year of seasoning.

Quinnipiac only went 10-8 in NEC play, but they finished 142nd in Pomeroy and earned a bid to the CBI (a sign of how good the NEC was this past season). The Bobcats lose leading scorer James Johnson (16.5 ppg, 3.5 apg), but return everybody else from their rotation. They have an awfully good player in rising-junior Ike Azotam (15.8 ppg, 55.6 FG%, 9.5 rpg). They have another excellent rebounder in Ousmane Drame (6.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in only 19.5 minutes per game). What they need more than anything is offense, particularly in the paint. Azotam was the only player on the team with an eFG% above 51%. They also need to improve their perimeter defense to seriously contend for the NEC title.

St. Francis (NY) is a team that needs to be mentioned at least briefly because they went 12-6 in conference play and only lose one starter to graduation - Stefan Perunicic (11.6 ppg, 42.4 3P%). A player to really look forward to is Jalen Cannon (8.0 ppg, 55.6 FG%, 8.8 rpg as a true freshman). Their biggest need is improved point guard play from Brent Jones (7.9 ppg, 3.9 apg, 3.3 turnovers per game).

While Central Connecticut State registers as having a very young team in the Pomeroy Experience rating, that's due to two freshman starters. Of their five top minutes earners, three were seniors. So this is a program with a good future, but they're probably another year or two away from contending for a conference title. A better dark horse team is actually Sacred Heart. The Pioneers were unlucky to only finish 8-10 in NEC play (they outscored conference opponents by 0.02 PPP), and they return their top six minutes earners. I don't think they have a serious shot at winning the conference next season, but don't be surprised if they went 11 or 12 conference games next season.

While Wagner would be one of the top contenders for the NEC with Dan Hurley, there's just too much uncertainty around the program until we see what happens to the roster and their 2012 recruits. And the new coach is a total unknown, as opposed to a coach from the well-known Hurley family. In my view, the two top contenders for next season have to be LIU and Robert Morris. And in my opinion, LIU's defensive woes are the difference. Robert Morris was playing their best ball at the end of this past season, and they return almost every key player, with a bunch of young weapons that should only get better with another year of experience. Robert Morris is my pick.

Ohio Valley Conference

I'm fascinated by the most under-reported conference shift in the nation - Belmont moving to the Ohio Valley Conference. Belmont has been one of the premier low-major programs over the past decade, and now they're moving into a conference that has had its own quality programs the past few years (Murray State, Austin Peay, Morehead State, and others). This could go two different ways. The addition of another quality program could push the Ohio Valley to the level of a conference like the Horizon or MAAC that occasionally can earn multiple Tournament bids. It would have been awesome if this past season's Murray State and Belmont teams got to play each other twice. But this conference shift could end up hurting all of these teams, by simply giving them more competition for a single automatic bid each season.

Of course, neither Murray State or Belmont is going to be as good in 2012-13 as they were in 2011-12. Murray State will lose three starters to graduation, though they should get back star Isaiah Canaan for one more season. They also return their leading rebounder, Edward Daniel (6.8 ppg, 58.6 eFG%, 5.5 rpg). They also have a really nice point guard prospect in Zay Jackson (4.9 ppg, 2.3 apg as a true freshman). Latreze Mushatt (4.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is a big who will be expected to fill much of the role of the graduating Ivan Aska. Steve Prohm has also cashed in on his team's recent success with a really solid and deep 2012 recruiting class, led by point guard CJ Ford, forward Eric McCree and shooting guard Jeffrey Moss. They also shooting guard Dexter Fields, a transfer from UAB with a nice scoring touch from the perimeter. With so much young talent and one more season of Isaiah Canaan, Murray State isn't going to fall off a cliff. They should be a pretty good team. But they won't be as strong overall, and that will be particularly true if another program can poach Steve Pohm (though at the time I'm writing this, Pohm insists he'll be back for at least one more season).

Belmont has completed a strange two year period. Those that understand and follow the advanced stats know that Belmont has been awfully good the past two seasons. They finished both seasons inside the Pomeroy Top 30. But in both seasons they couldn't pull off that big win that would have gotten them into the national media discussion, and were punished with poor seeds in the NCAA Tournament. And they played competitive games in the Round of 64 both seasons, but just couldn't get the win. And now they lose three players from their seven man main rotation: Mitch Hedgepath (9.6 ppg, 53.2 FG%, 5.6 rpg), Drew Hanlen (10.8 ppg, 48.2 3P%, 3.9 apg) and Scott Saunders (10.2 ppg, 54.7 FG%, 5.0 rpg). That said, they do return leading scorer Kerron Johnson (13.8 ppg, 5.2 apg) and a good shooter in Ian Clark (12.7 ppg, 58.8 eFG%, 40.5 3P%). JJ Mann is a good swing player, and they have a strong recruiting class led by two shooting guards: Craig Bradshaw and Jeff Laidig. Rick Byrd is going to keep running his system, and he's going to keep winning, but I don't see how Belmont can lose Hedgepath, Hanlen and Saunders without taking a fairly big step backwards for at least one season.

The team that finished second in the OVC this past season was Tennessee State. They started the season slow but finished strong. In their final 12 games before Selection Sunday they lost only twice, and both losses came to Murray State. And in that stretch came their own victory over Murray State - the only game the Racers lost before the NCAA Tournament. And Tennessee State isn't going anywhere, losing only one starter to graduation - Wil Peters (7.4 ppg, 3.5 apg). They also lose swing forward Kenny Moore from their rotation. They have one more year with star Robert Covington (17.8 ppg, 60.7 eFG%, 44.8 3P%, 7.9 rpg, 1.5 spg). Jordan Cyphers (36.4 3P%) is another good shooter, and on the inside they got big production from Illinois State transfer Kellen Thornton (9.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg). Patrick Miller (10.8 ppg, 3.6 apg) is another key returner. Another spark was freshman MJ Rhett (3.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg). Tennessee State doesn't have any big newcomers from 2012-13 yet, so they're probably going with this same group of players. But with the way they improved late in the season, and without serious losses to graduation, it's not unreasonable to think that the Tigers will continue to improve and could be a pretty good team next season.

The defending OVC tournament champion was Morehead State. They lost three starters a season ago, including superstar Kenneth Faried, so they were always going to take a step back. All in all, a 10-6 season was pretty good, particularly with leading scorer Terrance Hill going down with a season-ending knee injury halfway through the season. Besides Hill, they lose starters Ty Proffitt (9.9 ppg, 52.2 eFG%) and Lamont Austin (4.4 ppg, 3.2 apg, 1.4 spg). But even with those losses, the aggressive defensive Morehead State style is going to stay. They have several young players who are going to be fairly dangerous defenders within a year or two, including 2011-12 freshmen Angelo Warner and Will Bailey. They also add a solid recruit in shooting guard Roderick Lewis. What the team needs more than anything is a ball handler to keep the team settled on the offensive end (they finished dead last in the OVC in offensive turnover rate and offensive steal rate in conference play). I don't see any obvious point guard prospects (the best they had was Lamont Austin, and he's graduating), so that's a concern that they will potentially try to fix during the late signing period. As good as their defense is, they'll need some semblance of steady offense to contend with Murray State.

I like Tennessee Tech's incoming recruiting class, but they lose three of their top four minute earners from a team that only went 9-7 this past season. If there's a dark horse team, I actually think it's Jacksonville State, a program that has had precisely zero success in the OVC in the past decade. But they went 8-3 in their final 11 regular season games, led by a really strong interior defense. Tarvin Gaines and Nick Cook combined for 4.1 blocks per 40 minutes played, and the team blocked 12.4% of opponent two-point attempts in conference play (the highest block rate in the OVC). And they not only return all five starters, but the only senior on the entire roster was Stephen Hall, who was dismissed from the team halfway through the season and wasn't a part of that strong late season play. Their biggest need is shooting - they finished dead last in the nation with a 26.4 3P% this past season. But with everybody back, this program that has finished above .500 only twice in the past 15 years could be a borderline Top 100 team.

It will be interesting to see how this new combination of teams in the OVC plays out. There are at least five teams that will enter next season as potential Top 100 squads. So for the next year or two, the OVC will be one of the better small conferences. How good will the conference be five years from now? We'll have to wait to find out. For now, I think one last season of Isaiah Canaan means one more season of Murray State as Ohio Valley champ.

Patriot League

Bucknell won the Patriot League regular season title, but any discussion of the conference has to start with Lehigh. I was mystified by the media (including game announcer Jim Nantz) naming the Lehigh upset over Duke as one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament. Don't get me wrong - it was an upset. But Lehigh was only a 12 point underdog for a reason. Besides the fact that Duke was a soft 2 seed, Lehigh was an awfully strong 15 seed. Both Bucknell and Lehigh had really strong seasons. Lehigh entered the NCAA Tournament rated 86th in the Pomeroy ratings (after beating Duke and losing to Xavier they moved to 81st). The Norfolk State win over Missouri was a much more shocking upset. Lehigh, over the course of the season, was far superior to Norfolk State.

What's odd for Lehigh this offseason is that there's actually a risk of losing a player to the draft. CJ McCollum was already considered a potential future NBA player, and with his performance in the NCAA Tournament he has shot up draft boards. He has just announced that he is declaring for the draft, but without hiring an agent, which means that he could still come back to school. And if he goes pro then Lehigh will obviously take a step back. If he doesn't, though, Lehigh will lose just one starter - Jordan Hamilton (6.5 ppg, 50.0 eFG%, 80.9 FT%). They also lose two bench players - John Adams and Justin Maneri. They will return their point guard - Mackey McKnight (8.8 ppg, 3.6 apg) - and key interior player Gabe Knutson (12.2 ppg, 52.5 eFG%, 80.4 FT%, 5.6 rpg). Their biggest need is outside shooting, and a good potential prospect is BJ Bailey (48.0 3P% in only 11.8 minutes per game). They also have a solid shooting guard recruit in Devon Carter. But in the end, everything comes back to McCollum. If he comes back then the team could again be a Top 100 squad. If not, they probably won't.

Bucknell was actually the best team during conference play, outscoring Patriot League opponents by 0.18 PPP (compared to 0.15 PPP for Lehigh). Their overall computer ratings are not as strong as Lehigh because they didn't play as well in non-conference play, but there's no question that they were at their best late in the season. In the NIT they went out and won at Arizona before falling to Nevada in the second round. They had the best defense in the conference, and the only senior in their regular rotation was Bryan Cohen (6.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.5 apg). Though while not a big scorer, Cohen was the three-time Patriot League defensive player of the year, so his loss will be felt. The core of Mike Muscala, Joe Willman and Bryson Johnson (a combined 37 points per game) will all be seniors next year. While Muscala (17.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg) is the team's star, the second best player by the end of next season could be rising-junior Cameron Ayers (11.1 ppg, 46.8 3P%, 82.7 FT%). Their biggest need, in addition to another perimeter defender, is another big body in the paint. They're hoping to get that out of their top 2012 recruit, 6'7" Dominic Hoffman.

There was a pretty big drop-off after the top two teams in the conference. The third best team was American, though they'll have to replace their top two scorers: Charles Hinkle (18.4 ppg, 41.9 3P%, 83.8 FT%) and Troy Brewer (11.9 ppg, 52.0 eFG%). They also lose two of their rotation players off the bench. Those two combined to take 10.6 three-pointers per game, which drove a team that succeeded because of a 45.2 3P% in conference play. The only strong outside shooter who is returning is Daniel Munoz (8.0 ppg, 43.9 3P%). A key for their future success will be the continued development of 6'10" Tony Wroblicky (6.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.6 bpg). Their top recruit is 6'5" Jesse Reed, who is another good shooter and who could end up playing shooting guard.

If I had to pick one team to break up Lehigh and Bucknell atop the conference, I think I'd take Holy Cross. They lose leading scorer Devin Brown (14.6 ppg, 52.7 eFG%), and they also lose Mike Cavataio (5.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg), who was a big contributor after missing the first half of the season with an injury. The best player on Holy Cross this past season was arguably sophomore Dave Dudzinski (9.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.1 bpg), and they also have a nice point guard for the future in Justin Burrell (7.4 ppg and 3.7 apg as a true freshman). Their biggest need is probably another big man to play alongside Dudzinski. Their top 2012 recruit is 6'8" Isaiah Baker.

But in the end, I do think that we'll again be seeing Lehigh and Bucknell dueling it out atop the Patriot League. Even if CJ McCollum doesn't go pro, there are a lot of reasons to think that Bucknell should be favored. They were arguably the better team during conference play this past season, and have a wider array of talent. Lehigh also has spent time celebrating their great win over Duke, while Bucknell will be spending the offseason stewing about what might have been if they hadn't blown a home game against Lehigh with a spot to the NCAA Tournament on the line. When you throw in the fact that there's a real chance that McCollum will leave early to go to the NBA, I think that Bucknell has to be considered the initial favorite to win the Patriot League in 2012-13.

Southern Conference

Davidson was one of the most underrated teams in the nation this past season. They weren't a bubble team or anything, but in terms of team quality they deserved to be mentioned with squads like Oral Roberts, Iona, Drexel and others. They destroyed the SoCon, leading in both offensive efficiency (1.14 PPP) and defensive efficiency (0.92 PPP) in conference play. In non-conference play they beat Kansas and Richmond, with their only bad loss coming at the hands of Charlotte. And in the NCAA Tournament, there's no shame in losing by seven points to a team that made the Final Four. What made it particularly amazing was that this team had zero seniors in the regular rotation. They return their top eight scorers, including five that averaged double-digit scoring per game. Their star is De'Mon Brooks (15.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), and they also have a really nice inside player in 6'10" Jake Cohen (14.3 ppg, 87.6 FT%, 6.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg). The media selected Jake Cohen as the 2011-12 SoCon Player of the Year, while the coaches selected De'Mon Brooks. While there are a lot of things impressive with how Bob McKillop has coached this team, what impresses me most is that the team has such a low turnover rate (they led the conference with turnovers on only 16.5% of offensive possessions) without a true point guard. Everybody on the team can handle the ball. Next year's Davidson squad might not be as good as the Stephen Curry Elite Eight team, but they should be Top 50 and could potentially challenge for an at-large bid.

While Davidson is the overwhelming favorite in the SoCon for next season, I wouldn't start carving names into trophies quite yet. It's worth looking at some of the other teams. I think we need to start with Wofford, the team that had swept the SoCon's regular season and tournament titles in both 2010 and 2011. The loss of longtime stars Noah Dahlman, Cameron Rundles and Jamar Diggs meant that the 2011-12 season was always going to be a rebuilding year, which it was. Their defense tightened up as the year went along, and they actually won 10 of their final 15 games to earn a bid to the CBI. And getting into the CBI is no joke - as each year passes, it appears to be gaining in stature. This year, a full half of the bracket consisted of teams from BCS conferences, the Mountain West, Missouri Valley, WCC and Butler. That said, I do think that Wofford's rebuilding is going to take another year or two. They lose three more starters to graduation, The rest of the rotation? All freshmen and sophomores. They also add a couple of new recruits, along with Indiana Faithfull, arguably their top 2011 recruit (he redshirted the 2011-12 season). Mike Young is one of the better small conference coaches, and I think he's got a nice core in place to make a run at the SoCon title in a year or two, though it's hard to see how they can contend with Davidson next season.

Wofford was tied for second place in the SoCon standings with Georgia Southern. Charlton Young has done a good job of mining the Georgia/Florida area for talent, and he has athletes that had success this past season with a fairly aggressive defense. Their best player, Eric Ferguson (15.4 ppg, 58.1 eFG%, 7.2 rpg), might be the most talented athlete in the conference. Their front court will be fine for the future, with young prospects like Marvin Baynham, Tyrone Brown and Kameron Dunnigan. The bigger concern is at the point, where they struggled with turnovers (a 21.4% turnover rate) and where lose their starter (Willie Powers). Their other graduation from the starting lineup is also in the backcourt (Ben Drayton). Jelani Hewitt (10.5 ppg, 39.6 3P%) is the one established backcourt player returning. 2011 recruit Jessie Pernell is a potential point guard starter for next season, or they could pick up another recruit out of what's still available in the 2012 recruiting class. They've already added a shooting guard to that class: Cleon Roberts.

If I was going to pick a dark horse it would be College of Charleston, though everything with that program is up in the air now that Bobby Cremins is retiring. It's always possible that a school can see an exodus of players when a coach like Cremins leaves, so I'll have to keep an eye on that, but if everybody stays then the team should be pretty good. This Charleston team actually beat Tennessee, Clemson and UMass early in the season, but started scuffling in mid-January and then lost Cremins to a medical leave-of-absence, and never really got the ship righted. The lose one starter to graduation - Antwaine Wiggins (15.9 ppg, 51.4 eFG%, 6.5 rpg). Everybody else will be back, including some really good interior defenders. Adjehi Baru was a big time 2011 recruit, and as a true freshman he led the team in offensive rebounds per game (2.6) and had a steady walk to the free throw line (though he'll have to improve on his 50.9 FT%). Trent Wiedeman (12.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg) is another very good interior player. Their biggest need is shooting - they were dead last in the SoCon with a 46.8 eFG% in conference play. Anthony Stitt and Nori Johnson are two young backcourt players with a lot of potential. Stitt (a 37.1 3P%) is an important piece for the future. His injury (he got hurt in mid-January and missed 12 games) was a big part of Charleston's slide. But the biggest key for Charleston is getting a good coach, and a coach who can keep all of the talent in place.

If there's a dark horse team, I think it's actually Elon. What I like about Elon's future is that they have a core of four sophomores that all played at least 25 minutes per game. They lose one of the starters to graduation - Drew Spradlin (9.1 ppg, 40.0 3P%). Elon does one thing well - they shoot the ball. They hit 37.2% of threes taken during conference play. Spradlin is a lost, but they return four other players that hit 35% or better behind the arc. And their 2012 recruiting class adds another shooter in Tanner Samson. They're not going to be a better team than Davidson next season, but they're definitely the type of team that could go 13-5 and surprise a lot of people.

In the end, all of these other teams are playing for second place in the standings, and to have the best chance to pull an upset in the SoCon tournament. Because let's be honest, Davidson is going to be awfully good next season. They're the heavy favorite.

Monday, March 26, 2012

2012-13 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part I

Southland Conference

The conference shifts between the larger conferences are continuing to have ripple effects in the smaller conferences. The Southland Conference is one of several conferences that has seen major changes. The WAC has had a bunch of their teams poached the past few years, and they are trying to re-fill the coffers. Among the teams they are adding are three Southland squads: UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio and Texas State. In response, the Southland has added Oral Roberts. And for the 2013-14 season, they'll be adding Houston Baptist. Overall, it doesn't really change the conference's footprint, so I don't think it will change the strength of the conference in the long run.

Of the programs making up next year's Southland Conference, the team that performed best in 2011-12 was newcomer Oral Roberts. Oral Roberts was such a good team that they were seriously considered by the Selection Committee on Selection Sunday. They had of a 27-6 record with wins over Xavier, Missouri State, South Dakota State and Akron, and only two bad losses (Texas-San Antonio and Oklahoma). That said, Oral Roberts loses three starters to graduation, including Dominique Morrison (19.8 ppg, 55.0 eFG%) and Michael Craion (10.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.6 spg, 0.9 bpg). Morrison was the team's one perimeter threat, which is going to put more pressure on the interior scorers and rebounders. With Craion graduating, that leaves Steven Roundtree and Damen Bell-Holter. They add 6'7" Shawn Glover, a transfer who played 24 minutes per game at Utah in 2010-11, and they also add 6'11" Jorden Kaufman as a 2012 recruit. The biggest offensive need for Oral Roberts is at the point, where they lose their starter (Roderick Pearson), who wasn't that steady anyway. DJ Jackson was a point guard in their 2011 class, but he was declared academically ineligible and could not play this past season. If he can get eligible and if Scott Sutton hangs around, then Oral Roberts will still be a pretty good team. But if they lose their coach and/or don't have a point guard then I think that they will suffer a fairly serious drop-off.

While regular season Southland champion Texas-Arlington is gone to the WAC, the Southland's NCAA Tournament representative was Lamar. The big story with Lamar, of course, was Pat Knight eviscerating his seniors in the press conference after their loss to Stephen F Austin, followed by six straight wins and the conference tournament title. Let me be in the small minority of people who don't really see a connection there. Mainstream sportswriters love narratives, so they love to connect "players only meetings" or critical media coverage or anything else to performance. It's all confirmation bias. Nobody hears about players only meetings if the team then goes out and gets stomped. Players get criticized all the time - sometimes they play better the next day and sometimes they don't. Besides, Lamar got the benefit of having Texas-Arlington taken out by McNeese State in the Southland tournament. Lamar did close the season with six straight wins, but they were favored in all six games. And it's not exactly abnormal for a senior-heavy team to play their best ball at the end of the season, when they can start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And this was a team that started five seniors. They lose their five top scorers, their four top assist men and their three top rebounders, as well as the only four players that shot over 30% behind the arc. So, it's a rebuilding effort coming up for Pat Knight. There are no obvious big time recruits coming in, so I wouldn't expect Lamar to contend for another Southland title for at least a couple of seasons.

The team Lamar took out in the Southland Conference title game was McNeese State, a team that in one stretch from late January into February won eight straight games. They do lose three starters to graduation, including leading scorer Patrick Richard (17.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.3 apg) and their top interior defender, Daniel Richard (7.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per 40 minutes played). The leading scorer next season will probably be Dontae Cannon (11.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.8 apg), though their best prospect going forward is probably Desharick Guidry (6.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg as a true freshman). It's hard to see the team being quite as good as they were this past season, but if they can find a shooter or two and tighten up their defense then they could be a Southland contender again.

The team that finished second in the regular season standings behind Texas-Arlington was Stephen F Austin. The Lumberjacks were a team that improved drastically throughout the season, winning 10 of 12 before falling in the Southland tournament to Lamar. They lose leading scorer Jereal Scott (12.4 per game) to graduation, though he was a bit of a volume scorer (he took 31.5% of his team's shots while he was on the floor). Their top two returners will both be seniors next season: Jonathan King (6.4 ppg, 51.9 eFG%, 4.8 rpg) and Taylor Smith (9.2 ppg, 70.1 eFG%, 6.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg). Smith also anchors the interior defense that was the heart of the Stephen F Austin success. Their two biggest needs are ball handling and outside shooting. Either Hal Bateman, Antonio Bostic and Darius Gardner will have to improve their point guard skills. As for outside shooting, if they can't find a player that can shoot well, they need to at least get players like Desmond Haymon (3.8 3PAs per game at a 26.4% clip) to shoot less. But they were an atrocious outside shooting team this past season (27.9% behind the arc as a team) and still went 12-4 in the Southland and played at their best late in the season. I don't think there's any question that they'll be a contender for a Southland title.

One of the teams that seems to be a perennial contender in the Southland is Sam Houston State. They struggled badly this past season, going only 7-9 in Southland play, their worst won-loss record in conference play since the 1998-99 season. This past season broke a streak of seven consecutive seasons finishing with one of the three best records in Southland conference play. The problem? Offense. They scored only 0.91 PPP in conference play, struggling with ball handling, shooting and offensive rebounding (in other words, every major offensive factor). Their one graduating starter is Marcus James, who led the team with 7.1 rebounds per game, but their best prospect is 6'11 Michael Holyfield, who averaged 10.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per 40 minutes played, with 56% shooting. Holyfield was their top 2011 recruit, and he could play a major role next season. The team also adds 6'7" Erik Williams, who was fairly effective in limited minutes during two seasons at Marquette. I don't think there's any question that Sam Houston State will be much better next season. But good enough to win the whole league? That's going to be much more difficult.

If there's a dark horse for next season, it has to be Nicholls State. Not only do they return every player from last season, but they only had one player earn more than 50 minutes all season long who was a junior. Their leading scorer and rebounder was freshman Trevon Lewis (12.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 52.7 eFG%). That said, the Southland conference isn't the SWAC - without some big time recruits or transfers (neither of which Nicholls State has), a team isn't going to go from 330th in Pomeroy to the conference title in one season.

So that leaves us with Stephen F Austin, Oral Roberts and Sam Houston State as the chief contenders. I'm a bit nervous taking Oral Roberts because Scott Sutton is linked to so many jobs (as I type this, Tulsa seems to be the favorite in the clubhouse to secure Sutton as their new coach). San Houston State might be the team with the highest talent ceiling, but Stephen F Austin finished the season strong to get into the Pomeroy Top 150, and they should only be better next season. In my opinion, Stephen F Austin is the early Southland favorite.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

Once again, the SWAC spent the season determining which of its teams would play in a 16/16 play-in game. Mississippi Valley State dominated the conference, going 20-1 against SWAC teams, including conference tournament games. They went 1-12 against non-SWAC teams, with the one win coming in double-overtime over Tennessee State. Their loss in the 16/16 game in the NCAA Tournament was an embarrassing late game collapse against the 7th place Sun Belt team.

Mississippi Valley State finished with a nice RPI (144th) by SWAC standards, though Sagarin and Pomeroy had them closer to 250th. More importantly, they aren't going to be anything close to the same team next season. Five players from their eight man rotation will graduate. The one returner amongst the five top minute earners is Paul Crosby (13.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.6 spg). They do have a pretty good recruit coming in next year (by SWAC standards) in Ruston Hayward, but it will be a rebuilding season for the Delta Devils.

The team that finished in second place in the SWAC, and the only team other than Mississippi Valley State to finish above .500 overall, was Southern. They lose two starters to graduation, including star Quinton Doggett (12.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.9 bpg). He was the anchor of their interior defense, which was the key to their success (they led the SWAC in 2P% defense and eFG% defense in conference play). The other graduating starter, Fredrick Coleman, was the team leader in eFG% (57.7%). That means that a team that was fairly putrid on offense is losing its best scorer and best rebounder, without any plausible replacements. And the strength of their team, their interior defense, is gone. It's hard to see how they can contend for the SWAC title next year.

According to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the second best team in the conference was actually Texas Southern. They tied Mississippi Valley State for the best PPP margin in conference play (+0.14), and actually came within five points of knocking off Colorado, which would have been the best win by any SWAC team this season by far. In fact, to give you a sign of the futility of the SWAC, it would have been the first win by any SWAC team over an RPI Top 100 team in six seasons, since Alabama State knocked off South Alabama. Texas Southern had the top defense in the SWAC, holding opponents to 0.83 PPP in conference play. They lose a couple of senior starters, both both of them actually played limited minutes despite starting. The top five minutes earners will all return. Their leading scorer was Omar Strong (13.3 ppg, 53.6 eFG%, 38.9 3P%), and their best interior presence was Fred Sturdivant (9.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg). Both Strong and Sturdivant will be seniors next season.

The final top contender to talk about is Prairie View A&M, simply because they went 10-8 last season and return all five starters. What held them back was truly atrocious offense. They mustered only a 44.0 eFG% against SWAC defenses, and finished the season with an unbelievable 54.2 FT%, dead last in the nation. In fact, I was able to find stats going back through the 1997-98 season and couldn't find another Division I team with a FT% that bad. It seems almost incomprehensible for a team to be that awful at the line. Ronald Wright, one of their starters, finished 13-for-46 (28%) at the line. Goodness. Anyway, with a half-decent defense, all they need to do is spend some time in the gym taking shooting practice and they should contend near the top of the SWAC. Their best player is probably Demondre Chapman (8.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg).

A dark horse team is Grambling. Even in the SWAC, a team that went 4-24 this past season can only be a dark horse. But that said, they return every single player and also add a nice recruit in point guard Tivius Guthrie. Pomeroy rated their offense the absolute worst in the nation this past season, but Guthrie and another year of experience should help. And as bad as Grambling was, there just isn't a big enough gap between being at the basement of Division I and winning the SWAC. But I've got to pick one of these teams, and my pick for now is Texas Southern. They were rated the second best team in the conference and return their top five minutes earners. And it's always a good thing when your two best players are going to be seniors.

Summit League

The Summit League (or as it was previously known, the Mid-Continent Conference) has seemingly forever been a stepping stone league. Programs like Valparaiso, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Northern Iowa and Akron all built up their programs in the Summit and then moved on to bigger and better conferences. The latest in that long line is Oral Roberts - they are moving to the Southland. It's a seemingly parallel move, though the conference does make more sense geographically. They'll be able to spend less money on travel. Southern Utah is also leaving, to the Big Sky, though they haven't been a contender atop the conference in more than a decade. The conference adds Nebraska-Omaha, a program that has been transitioning from Division II to Division I. It's possible that a few years from now they'll be a strong program, but for the near future it's hard to see Oral Roberts+Southern Utah for Nebraska-Omaha as an even trade for the conference.

The revelation in the Summit League this past season was South Dakota State. They won their final five regular season games by double-digits, including a 21 point thumping of Buffalo as part of Bracketbusters, and then took advantage of quasi-homecourt advantage in the Summit tournament (as well as the shocking upset of Oral Roberts at the hands of Western Illinois) to earn their first NCAA Tournament bid. They acquitted themselves well, hanging in against Baylor to the very end of the game. And there's no reason to expect a drop-off with four starters back, including superstar Nate Wolters (21.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.7 spg). Their one loss is Griffin Callahan (10.4 ppg, 40.3 3P%), but they have an array of shooters (Chad White, Brayden Carlson, Jordan Dykstra) who will all be back to pick up the slack. The biggest need for South Dakota State to reach the next level is size and rebounding. Their best option is Marcus Heemstra, who was a highly rated 2010 recruit who has been pretty good in limited minutes (2.1 rpg in only 8.9 minutes per game). Assuming Wolters stays healthy all season, I think it's fair to expect South Dakota State to again be a borderline Top 50 team.

After Oral Roberts and South Dakota State, the best team in the Summit this past season was Oakland. I was fairly surprised by how poorly they finished - only 17-15 overall and with computer ratings near 150th. To be fair, they did have some luck working against them - teams shot a scorching 39.0% behind the arc and 72.8% at the line against them (while most people accept that free throw defense is all luck, it's also true that 3P% defense is almost entirely luck - the sign of a good three-point defense is limiting attempts, not a lower 3P%). Oakland loses two starters to graduation: star Reggie Hamilton (team-leading 26.2 ppg) and Laval Lucas-Perry, the transfer from Michigan. Lucas-Perry won't be tough to replace, but Hamilton will. He led the team not only in points, but also assists (5.0 per game), three-point percentage (42.2%) and steals (2.0 per game). Next season, I'd expect Oakland to be much stronger on the interior. Their best freshman was Corey Petros (8.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 55.7% shooting), and they have a 7-foot freshman named Kyle Sikora (7.5 rebounds per 40 minutes played, along with 63.3% shooting) who just needs time to develop. They will also try to bolster their backcourt with Providence transfer Duke Mondy, as well as 2011 recruit Matt Poches, who played sparingly as a true freshman. Reggie Hamilton will not be replaced in one season, but I do believe that Oakland still has a lot of offensive weapons. Their problem is defense, and if they can clean that up during the offseason then they can definitely pose a threat to South Dakota State next season.

Western Illinois and North Dakota State were the next two teams in the standings, with both finishing 9-9. Western Illinois is a team that came on late in the season with aggressive defense and nice outside shooters. They nearly took out South Dakota State in the Summit tournament title game, and came into that game having won four straight, with a win over Oral Roberts and a pair of wins over North Dakota State. They do lose two starters to graduation, including star Ceola Clark (13.3 ppg, 59.0 eFG%, 4.7 apg). The point guard spot will presumably be turned over to Jalen Packer, a talented player who was sloppy as a true freshman (4.1 turnovers per 40 minutes played). They have plenty of shooters, and the defense should still be solid, so if Packer can mature as a player then Western Illinois should be a decent team again. Their biggest weakness will be in the interior, where they were dead last in the Summit in 2P%, and second-to-last in offensive rebounding percentage. Terrell Parks (11.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 61.0 FG%) is good, but he was all that Western Illinois has last season. Their best prospect inside is 6'10" David Gebru.

North Dakota State, meanwhile, has been in very good hands with Saul Phillips. I really don't understand why Phillips doesn't get named as a potential hire for more top mid-majors. He has a really good pedigree, having played for four years under Bo Ryan and then coaching under Ryan for five years, and then coaching under Tim Miles at North Dakota State for several years before Miles took the Colorado State job. He's young, and after orchestrating that great 2008-09 season at North Dakota State he quickly re-stocked the cupboard. This past year's squad struggled at times, but they did it with an extremely young team. The five starters, and the top three minutes earners off the bench, were all freshmen and sophomores. Taylor Braun (15.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) was the leading scorer, though you can argue that Marshall Bjorkland (11.6 ppg, 67.1 FG%, 5.9 rpg) was an even better all-around player. Freshman Lawrence Alexander played the point fairly well, and you'd expect a nice improvement between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The biggest need for North Dakota State is size, particularly on the offensive glass, and Saul Phillips will attempt to address that with top 2012 recruit Chris Kading, a 6'8" power forward with more athleticism than is normally seen in the Summit. North Dakota State should be very much improved next season, and could be awfully scary in the 2013-14 season, when all of these sophomores will be seniors.

The bottom half of the conference was quite a bit back from the top half of the conference, and all of those teams suffer multiple key losses to graduation, so I think that next year's champion will have to come from the four teams I've talked about above. And while the loss of Oral Roberts does hurt, those four teams should be strong enough to make the Summit a very competitive conference yet again. While North Dakota State might be the team with the highest ceiling, I think that South Dakota State has to be the favorite as long as Nate Wolters is healthy. They got a taste of the NCAA Tournament, and next year they'll be hoping for a better seed so that they'll have a real chance of winning a game or two. It will then be the following season, after Wolters graduates, that North Dakota State will likely wrest back control of the conference from their rivals.

Sun Belt Conference

The Sun Belt had a bit of a weird season. Teams that been among the best over the past decade (Western Kentucky, North Texas, etc) and the preseason favorite (Florida Atlantic) struggled. But at the same time, non-traditional Sun Belt powers like Middle Tennessee and Denver had really nice seasons. Middle Tennessee in particular was outstanding, beating teams like Belmont, UCLA, Ole Miss and Akron. You could actually make a decent at-large case for them (probably as good as you could make for Iona, honestly). If they had won the Sun Belt tournament they'd have been a dangerous NCAA Tournament. But instead they fell, and Western Kentucky somehow snuck through. No offense to a Western Kentucky team that has had a lot of success historically, but this was not a vintage WKU team. They needed a huge collapse by an atrocious SWAC team just to survive the 16/16 play-in game.

Middle Tennessee rated as a team with a ton of experience last season, but that doesn't mean that they'll be decimated by graduations. Star LaRon Dendy (14.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 54.8 eFG%) graduates, but (other than lightly used sub Jimmy Oden) he's the only graduation. This past year's team started four juniors that will all be back next season, led by Bruce Massey (6.1 ppg, 3.9 apg) at the point, Raymond Cintron (8.4 ppg, 43.2 3P%) as an outside shooter, and JT Sutton (10.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), with Marcos Knight (11.8 ppg) rounding out the returning starters. Kerry Hammonds (45.1 3P%) will be another scorer who will play a big role next year. The biggest concern (particularly with Dendy graduating) is rebounding, which was mediocre this past season. Shawn Jones (3.1 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes played) is the most likely to fill those shoes.

Western Kentucky, of course, was the Sun Belt's representative in the NCAA Tournament. They were a deserved 7-9 in conference play (they were outscored during regular season Sun Belt games), but their offense got hot at the right time and they stole the Sun Belt tournament title. They lose Kahlil McDonald (their fourth leading scorer - 8.3 per game) to graduate, but everybody else is back. Their leading scorer and rebounder was Derrick Gordon, a freshman. As Gordon gets more efficient with experience, he'll become a very good Sun Belt player. The biggest concern for Western Kentucky this past season was shooting - they were dead last in Sun Belt play in 3P% and eFG%. TJ Price (35.6 3P%), another freshman, was their best shooter. As he improves, it will open up the entire Western Kentucky offense. I don't think there's any question that this team will be improved next season, but they're still a long way from being a Top 100 team.

Arkansas-Little Rock won the Sun Belt West and had the second best conference record, which they achieved with good team defense as well as solid ball handling from Chuck Guy and D'Andre Williams. D'Andre Williams will graduate, as will Courtney Jackson, another starter. The biggest area of potential improvement for UALR is in the paint, where they have a pair of young 6'10" players in Will Neighbour (10.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Michael Javes (5.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.5 bpg). With those two locking down the paint, their defense should stay solid. A need is perimeter scoring, and top 2012 recruit Stetson Gillings will try to help provide that. UALR has a nice young core going forward, though I think they're still a year away from topping Middle Tennessee.

With Denver leaving the Sun Belt for the WAC, the second best returning Sun Belt team according to the computers is actually North Texas. The star for North Texas, of course, is Tony Mitchell (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.0 bpg), the former Missouri commit. And the big question is if he'll come back for another season or if he'll go pro. Roger Franklin, the Oklahoma State transfer, also brought a lot of athleticism. Their biggest problem this past season was ball handling, where freshman Chris Jones was very sloppy (5.0 turnover per 40 minutes played). You have to expect that another year of experience will do him good. With no key players graduating, North Texas will be improved... unless Mitchell leaves. Right now he's projected to be a borderline first round NBA Draft pick, though I think he'd probably drop to the early second round. It would probably do him some good to stick around for another season, and if he does then North Texas should be a Top 100 team.

I've been amazed at how things have come crashing down at Florida Atlantic. Mike Jarvis had built a really nice team around his super point, 5'6" Ray Taylor. This past season was supposed to be the year that they finally broke through and won the Sun Belt. But something in their internal chemistry just didn't work, and everything fell apart around them. And now, after a terrible season, Ray Taylor is leaving the program a year early to go play pro in Europe, Kore White (their leading rebounder and defensive post presence) is leaving via transfer, and leading scorer Greg Gantt went public in the media in trashing the team. The whole athletic department at FAU is in flux, and it'll be a while before they can get the basketball program straightened out again. Unless the personnel issues are intolerable, though, I'd keep Jarvis there. He's a good coach who will make FAU a strong program if given enough time.

If there's a dark horse team it's South Alabama. They return all five starters, including Augustin Rubit (15.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg), who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the Sun Belt. Mychal Ammons, a really good 2011 recruit, has made an immediate impact on the boards as well (2.4 offensive boards per game), and South Alabama actually finished second in the nation with a 42.2 offensive rebounding percentage. What South Alabama needs more than anything is a point guard that can take care of the ball, and I don't see an obvious candidate on the roster. That might be what holds them back from seriously contending for a conference title.

Any Sun Belt discussion has to start with Middle Tennessee. With four returning starters that will all be seniors next year, it's hard to see any significant drop-off. LaRon Dendy is a big loss, but Middle Tennessee still has an excellent chance of being a Top 50 team again. If Tony Mitchell comes back for another season then North Texas will probably be the top competition. If Mitchell goes pro then I think I'd probably give the edge for second place to Western Kentucky. But in the end, I do think that this group of Middle Tennessee seniors will break through and earn that NCAA Tournament bid that slipped away from them a few weeks ago.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Open Thread + Picking The Lines

It was nice to finally have a day where my projections against the spread worked out. Better late than never, I suppose.

I honestly don't think there's a whole lot to say about Saturday's games. Florida was who we thought they were - they live and die by the three. In the first half against Louisville they were 8-for-11 behind the arc and looking good. In the second half? 0-for-9 behind the arc.

It's always humorous to me how the media over-analyzes basketball games. Florida's performance comes down to hot three-point shooting in one half and cold three-point shooting in the other. That's it.

Anyway, let's get to Sunday's games:

Saturday ATS: 2-0-0
Total through Friday ATS: 28-32-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Baylor (+8) over Kentucky: There's no question that the Kentucky offense was awfully impressive against Iowa State and Indiana, but I do think that a bit of it was a statistical fluke. The 35-for-37 free throw shooting against Indiana in particular was a bit ridiculous. If Kentucky had shot their season average (72.9%) they might have lost the game. What I like about Baylor here is that they have the length and athleticism to hang with Kentucky. Baylor's biggest flaw during the course of the season was defensive rebounding, but they've actually done a really nice job on the defensive glass the past four games. Defensive rebounding is all about focus and effort, and the Tournament appears to be bringing that out of them. And on the offensive glass, they're as good as ever. It's driven a 1.14 PPP scoring average so far in their three NCAA Tournament games. I'm not saying that Baylor is going to win this game. I still think Kentucky is the better team and is going to win, but I'll take the 8 points.

Kansas (-2) over North Carolina: It's worth noting that the Kendall Marshall injury again isn't really taken into account in the Vegas line. Sagarin has the game as a toss-up and Pomeroy has Kansas as the slight 1-point favorite. And neither of those includes the fact that that this is a quasi-home game for Kansas in St. Louis. The report is that Kendall Marshall is going to try to warm up and play, and I do think he'll give it a shot, but at best he's going to be a shell of himself. He hasn't practice properly, and he's going to have some kind of a cast on his wrist. And Marshall's absence was painfully apparent in that Ohio game. They committed a season-high 24 turnovers, and finished with only 0.92 PPP against an Ohio defense that is decent... but not Kansas. North Carolina, particularly with a hobbled Kendall Marshall, depends on scoring in the paint. Even with a healthy Marshall, they scored 62% of their points in ACC play on two-point baskets, which led the conference. Kansas leads the nation in 2P% defense, and Jeff Withey leads the nation in block percentage (he personally has blocked 15.4% of opponents' two-point attempts while on the floor this season). I just think that unless Kendall Marshall miraculously plays the full game at close to 100%, Kansas is the clear favorite to win.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Elite 8 Thread + Picking The Lines

I'm consistently amazed at how many people seem to dislike defense. Throughout this year's NCAA Tournament, there has been a consistent harping from certain corners (particularly the older, establishment writers) that the charge is called way too much and should be called more like the NBA. Because, you know, if there's one thing we have too much in college basketball it's players putting their bodies on the line to make a defensive play. Much better to have NBA matador defense.

We saw the same attitude during the Indiana/Kentucky game tonight, with people oohing and ahhing about how it was the best game in the Tournament so far. It was a good game, but the high scoring had more to do with awful defense than anything else. Indiana has had poor defense all season long, so the bigger surprise was how poorly the normally stout Kentucky defense played. If it wasn't for some unconscious free throw shooting (35-for-37 for the game), Kentucky could well have lost the game.

It seems like a lot of people view the NBA All-Star game as the ideal basketball game - tons of points, no defense. I disagree. But then again, it's like how casual baseball fans tend to prefer 10-9 games to complete game shutouts.

Anyway, I've had a weird dichotomy with my Tournament projections this season. I hit 7 of the 8 Elite Eight teams (the one I missed was Florida), and I still have my entire Final Four left. Yet I'm getting killed against the spread. Friday night was the perfect example - I correctly picked the winner of all four games, and all four came within 5 points of the Vegas line, and somehow I went 1-3 against the spread.

Oh well. Hopefully I've helped some people win their Tournament pools, even if I haven't helped you picking games at the betting window in Vegas.

Friday ATS: 1-3-0
Total through Friday ATS: 26-32-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Louisville (+1.5) over Florida: Florida is always a hard team to pick because they live and die by the three. Louisville is not a great three-point defense, and if Florida gets hot then they can run Louisville out of the building. The concern, of course, is that if they're not hitting their threes then they're in trouble. Louisville has been shutting down everybody lately, speeding up games and forcing turnovers. Florida prefers to play at a deliberate pace, but they will run if Louisville presses enough. I will say that I think Florida matches up very well with Louisville - Louisville is more vulnerable against perimeter-oriented offenses, and particularly against offenses that don't turn the ball over. But I simply think that Louisville is playing better basketball right now. I also like Louisville's superior depth with this being the second tough game for both teams in a three day span. Louisville has seven really good interchangeable players while Florida has a gigantic drop-off after their starting five. If Beal, Walker & Boynton can't all play heavy minutes against the Louisvlile press, they'll be in trouble.

Ohio State (-3) over Syracuse: The fact that Ohio State is favored by 3 points has nothing to do with the Fab Melo injury. Sagarin projects a three point win and Pomeroy projects a four point win. Ohio State has simply been a better team than Syracuse this season, as I've been saying for a while. Syracuse was a weak 1 seed even before the Fab Melo injury. In my view, Syracuse has been lucky so far. They got some gifts from the refs late in their game against UNC-Asheville, then they had Kansas State lose their heart and soul to suspension about a half hour before game tip, and then they faced a Wisconsin team that matches up really poorly against the Syracuse weaknesses. While the difference in team quality between Wisconsin and Ohio State is pretty small, OSU matches up much better against the Syracuse zone. They have two good interior weapons who will challenge Syracuse in the post like Wisconsin couldn't. They also led the Big Ten in offensive rebounding percentage, which will put a lot of pressure on a horrible defensive rebounding Syracuse team. The only way in which Ohio State is an inferior opponent for Syracuse than Wisconsin is with ball handling (Ohio State was only 6th in the Big Ten in offensive turnover percentage in conference play), and so there is a chance that Syracuse can force enough turnovers to get the large number of transition baskets that they'll need to win this game. But I'd bet against it. I think Ohio State is the clear pick.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Open Thread + Picking The Lines

Thursday night started good for my projections but ended poorly. I perfectly nailed the first two games, both the winners and against the spread. But then Ohio State went on a late run to beat the spread against Cincinnati, and then Marquette had a putrid, sloppy performance to blow the game against Florida. Not only did it drop me to 2-2 against the spread for the day, but it ruined my chance of nailing all 8 teams in the Elite 8.

Oh well. There's always next year. Let's get to Friday's games:

Thursday ATS: 2-2-0
Total through Thursday ATS: 25-29-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Baylor (-6) over Xavier: This isn't a match-up that I like for Xavier. The two big flaws that Baylor has are defensive rebounding and offensive turnovers, yet Xavier is awful at forcing turnovers and they were only 8th in the Atlantic Ten in OR%. And while Brady Heslip isn't going to hit nine three-pointers in a game again anytime soon, Xavier's perimeter defense is poor. Xavier showed a lot of resolve in pulling things together after that awful post-brawl stretch and getting themselves back to the Sweet 16, but it's hard to see any way they can continue on.

Ohio (+10.5) over North Carolina: Obviously this is a hard game to pick because we don't know the Kendall Marshall situation. Even if Marshall doesn't play, North Carolina should still win this game. They will destroy Ohio on the boards (Ohio finished 244th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage), and they're just too talented at every position not to score enough to win. Ohio finished dead last in the MAC on 3P% during the regular season (30.5%), and Clark Kellogg's son is the only player on the team hitting over 36%, so they're not likely to stay in this game with hot outside shooting. But if Marshall can't play, or is a minor factor, it's really important to remember just how much the fortunes of last year's North Carolina team changed when Roy Williams finally switched in Kendall Marshall for Larry Drew III. And if Kendall Marshall can't go? I can guarantee you that even Larry Drew would be a big upgrade over Stillman White or Justin Watts. If Marshall can play and he's at 100% then I'd take UNC against the spread here. But assuming that Marshall will be at best limited, Ohio is my pick.

Indiana (+9) over Kentucky: Kentucky played out of their minds against Iowa State. They couldn't miss a shot. But it's just irrational to expect that kind of shooting again. 9 points is an awfully large spread (in fact, some casinos have it at 9.5). Indiana's outside shooting is excellent, and I don't think that Kentucky is ideally suited to go at Cody Zeller and to take advantage of Indiana's lack of height. They don't run a lot of their offense through their bigs. It's hard to see Indiana winning this game - that win they had over Kentucky came at home and cam with everything clicking. But I expect this game to be a lot closer than the Iowa State game. Unless Indiana really struggles, they won't get blown out.

Kansas (-8) over NC State: This is another very difficult game to pick. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy project 9 point wins for Kansas over NC State, and that's before accounting for the fact that this will basically be a home game for the Jayhawks in St. Louis. But season long computer ratings don't take into account how much better NC State has been playing the past few weeks. They've won six of their last seven games, driven by excellent offensive efficiency (1.06 PPP or better in all six of those wins). That said, they haven't played a single team as strong defensively as Kansas, and the Jayhawks have the size and athleticism to keep NC State off the offensive boards. Kansas has struggled this year against teams that have turned Tyshawn Taylor over, and against teams that have been able to juse speed to create mismatches and to put Jeff Withey on the bench. NC State is unlikely to do either. So while I'd be much happier if the spread was 5 or 6, I still give the edge against the spread to Kansas.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sweet 16 Open Thread + Picking The Lines

Well, I hope nobody bet their life savings on my picks against the spread this year. It's been a brutal run of late, and it's going to take a big turnaround to finish the Tournament over .500.

That said, I do still have all 8 of my Elite Eight teams left in my bracket, with all but one of the teams I picked (Louisville) favored in Vegas. And when people at ESPN are making predictions like this, it makes me feel better that at least my down years aren't anything like that.

I am glad to have the NCAA Tournament back in my life. I've been in a bit of withdrawal lately. When the Sweet 16 tips off, please join me in the comments to this post and on twitter.

Sunday ATS: 2-6-0
Total through Friday ATS: 23-27-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Wisconsin (+4) over Syracuse: This is actually an awfully difficult game to pick. Both teams match up very well against the strength of the other team. The Syracuse offense is very dependent on transition baskets off of turnovers. They tend to struggle in their half court offense and are a bad rebounding team on both ends of the floor, but they might be the most dangerous team in the nation at transition offense. But Wisconsin? There's probably no team in the nation better at forcing a deliberate tempo, preventing turnovers and getting back on defense than the Badgers. At the same time, Wisconsin's offense tends to struggle against the zone. By having their big men patrolling the perimeter they were able to take Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli out of the paint, opening things up for their guards. That strategy won't work against the Syracuse zone, which is going to turn Wisconsin into a perimeter shooting team. And the Badgers are a team that tends to live and die by the three. This season they have been 17-0 when shooting 38% or better behind the arc, and 6-8 when shooting under 36%. If they can't hit their threes against Syracuse, it won't matter if Syracuse can't score, because Wisconsin is still going to lose. I do think that there's a good chance that this game comes down to the final possession, so I'll take the points.

Louisville (+5) over Michigan State: This is an upset that I picked in my original bracket breakdown here. Michigan State is a better team, but I think Louisville is a match-up nightmare for them. Michigan State is sloppy with the ball (8th in the Big Ten in offensive turnover rate), and they have a tendency to allow themselves to get sped up by teams that want to run. The Louisville press has been outstanding the past month, forcing turnovers on more than 20% of possessions in 7 of their last 9 games. Louisville's biggest flaw is defensive rebounding, but Michigan State hasn't been strong on the offensive glass since Branden Dawson (their best offensive rebounder) got hurt. Louisville is my pick to win this game outright.

Cincinnati (+7.5) over Ohio State: I certainly don't think Cincinnati is going to win this game, but this spread is awfully large. Both of these teams are very good defensive teams. Ohio State is rated the best defense in the nation by Pomeroy. While Cincinnati is only rated 22nd best, their defense has been at its best the past few weeks. They completely shut down Florida State in the Round of 32, which allowed them to overcome mediocre offense of their own. The biggest concern I have for Cincinnati is front court depth. They don't have the array of bigs that Gonzaga has. If Yancy Gates gets into early foul trouble, this game could get out of hand. But if he can stay in the game, I can see this being a real slog, so I'll take the points.

Marquette (-1.5) over Florida: Florida blew out its first two NCAA Tournament opponents, but their strength of schedule has been awfully weak. Virginia finished the season in a tail spin and had only beaten one NCAA Tournament team (NC State) since November. Meanwhile, Norfolk State was who we thought they were - the third best team in the MEAC that simply shot the lights out in one crazy, fluke game against Missouri. Florida's defense is shaky, and they haven't beaten a team as good as Marquette all season long. Florida doesn't turn the ball over a lot, but they will launch a ton of threes. If those aren't falling then Marquette will turn those long rebounds into transition opportunities. Heck, Marquette turns made baskets into transition opportunities. That will tax a Florida team that normally expects heavy minutes from its starting backcourt, and that prefers to play at a much slower pace. I just don't see the argument for Florida here.