Sunday, March 16, 2014

Complete East Region Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

I think there's pretty universal consensus that the Midwest region is the "Region Of Death". There are some who argue that the "Region Of Life" is the East and some that argue it's the West. In my opinion, it's the East. The East has one of the two weaker 1 seeds, the weakest 2 seed and the weakest 3 seed.

It's not all peach and cream, though. For one thing, Michigan State as a 4 seed is one of the odder seeds in the entire Tournament, and they're obviously a real national title contender. And we have some other teams that are dangerous relative to their seed (North Carolina and UConn stand out).

This is actually a fairly tough region to pick for those reasons. You can make a really good case that the best team is the 4 seed, and a potential 2/3 game would be awfully even as well. And with most of the region being soft, this is the region to go wild and take the 6 or 7 seed to the Final Four. Not saying you should.... but let's just say that if you're going to take a 6 or 7 seed to the Final Four you want to do in this region rather than the Midwest.

First/Second Round:

1. Virginia over 16. Coastal Carolina
9. George Washington over 8. Memphis
4. Michigan State over 13. Delaware
5. Cincinnati over 12. Harvard
3. Iowa State over 14. NC Central
6. North Carolina over 11. Providence
7. UConn over 10. Saint Joseph's
2. Villanova over 15. Milwaukee

Don't worry about the 1/16 game, of course. Some day we'll have a 16 seed over a 1, but it won't be Coastal Carolina over Virginia. The 2/15 game requires little more thought, as Milwaukee didn't even make it to .500 in Horizon League play. They're going to have a nightmare trying to score against the Villanova defense.

It's worth putting at least a little bit of thought into a 3/14 game that will not have a huge Vegas spread. The MEAC was horrible this year (only the SWAC was worse), but the one gem in that slop that this NC Central team. NC Central won on the road at NC State and had close, competitive losses against Wichita State, Cincinnati and Maryland. And they annihilated their bad league, coming into the NCAA Tournament on a 20 game winning streak. Now what's the problem? NC Central is best at forcing turnovers and drawing fouls, two things that even Big 12 opponents struggled to do against Iowa State. So take the Cyclones to win this game, but don't be surprised if Iowa State has to sweat this one out in the final five minutes.

Delaware is a decent 13 seed, but they're not a team that does any one thing great. They're just pretty decent across the board, and that's not going to cut it against a really tough 4 seed in Michigan State. I just don't see a possible area for an edge. Take Michigan State here without much concern.

This 5/12 game is a very good one. I projected Harvard as a 12 seed because the Selection Committee loves to punish teams for bad non-conference strengths of schedule, and that's what happened, but the fact that Harvard did a terrible job making their schedule doesn't have anything to do with how good they are. Sagarin rated their resume 21st best in the nation, and they're 33rd in the Pomeroy ratings (compared to Cincinnati at 24th). The real test for this undersized Harvard squad is keeping Cincinnati off the glass. Aside for Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati doesn't do a lot offensively. They rely on getting baskets in transition and off offensive rebounds. With Cincy's long front line, Harvard is going to be heavily reliant on hitting jump shots. The Crimson do shoot the ball well, but how much faith do you want to put on them having an above-average shooting day? So consider this upset, but in my opinion Cincinnati is the favorite.

Providence and North Carolina are both teams that like to go aggressively after the offensive glass, so expect a volleyball game to break out in this one. A concern for North Carolina is definitely that Providence is a really good free throw shooting team (78.1%) and the Tar Heels tend to commit a lot of fouls. But while Providence will be able to score, their defense is fairly poor. The test will be, are they able to turn North Carolina into a jump shooting team. They have some shot blockers (led by Carson Desosiers), and if they can limit Marcus Paige then they absolutely can win this game. UNC is the better team, but Providence matches up well in terms of personnel.

St. Joseph's had the best eFG% in the Atlantic Ten, so they're a team that can definitely win a game with shooting, but they're going to have to beat UConn with shooting. UConn has an imposing front line that is going to push the Hawks away from the basket, and St. Joe's is a team that tends to turn over the ball a lot and was last in the A-10 in FT%. So if they're going to score, it's going to be jump shooting. UConn isn't a great offensive team, but I fail to see who on St. Joe's is going to be able to defend Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatright. The Huskies should dominate the game in points in the paint, and for that reason, they have to be the favorite to win.

Memphis/George Washington is a relatively soft 8/9 game. It was perplexing why Memphis was ranked all season long despite not being particularly close to the Top 25 in terms of best teams or best resumes. The only answer I had was "inertia". Meanwhile, George Washington had (like most of the top A-10 teams) an inflated RPI. It's good to see Maurice Creek have a successful finish to his career, but this isn't exactly the type of team that is going to scare Virginia. What about Memphis? Well, George Washington should be able to score. They led the A-10 in FTRate, and Memphis is horrible at defending dribble penetration. The task for George Washington is going to be trying to stay in front of a very quick Memphis front line. The Colonials don't have a big front line that can protect the paint, but they did lead the A-10 in DR%, so they should limit second chance opportunities. So I like George Washington to take this one.

Third Round:

My Picks:
1. Virginia over 9. George Washington
4. Michigan State over 5. Cincinnati
3. Iowa State over 6. North Carolina
2. Villanova over 7. UConn

As I said above, Memphis/George Washington represent a soft 8/9 game, and Virginia has a relative cakewalk to the Sweet 16. Neither George Washington or Memphis are going to know what to do with the ferocious Tony Bennett defense. And the misconception about Virginia (due to their slow tempo) is their offense. This Virginia team was the second best offense in the ACC this past season. They hit 39.5% of their threes in ACC play and don't turn the ball over - they don't look spectacular, but they score efficiently. I just don't see any argument for taking Virginia to lose before the Sweet 16.

If Cincinnati beats Michigan State, it's going to have to be a low scoring game.  The Bearcats struggle to score against quality defenses. They are reliant on forcing turnovers and getting offensive rebounds. They might be able to give the Michigan State backcourt trouble, though a fully healthy Keith Appling and Gary Harris should allay that a bit. Michigan State won't get crushed on the glass by anybody. What about Michigan State's ability to score? They're going to score in the paint, but they're not a team that relies on scoring in the paint too much. Even Adreian Payne is comfortable stepping outside and hitting a three-pointer (42% this season). So if Michigan State goes cold on jump shots and this turns into a street fight in the paint for loose balls and offensive putbacks, Cincinnati can very well win. But if Michigan State is shooting reasonably well, I just don't see how the Bearcats can keep up. By the way, if you have Harvard beating Cincinnati, do yourself a favor and have them lose to Michigan State here. They match up horribly with Michigan State, and with significantly lower odds of even getting to the Round of 32, just do the smart thing and move Michigan State forward a line.

Don't be surprised if North Carolina is favored in Vegas over Iowa State. Iowa State was the 6th best offense and 6th best defense in the Big 12 (they're not nearly as good as their resume) while North Carolina is definitely a strong 6 seed. Certainly the Vegas line will be a small number either way. What about the individual match-ups? I do think that the key is DeAndre Kane. We know that North Carolina is so dependent on Marcus Paige having a good game, and Kane is a guy who can outplay him on both ends of the floor. I know Melvin Ejim won Big 12 Player of the Year, but that award was basically given to him for his high points per game. DeAndre Kane is the best player on Iowa State, and he absolutely can win this game by outplaying Paige. North Carolina will aggressively get after the glass, but Iowa State has a tough front court that can limit those opportunities. On the other end of the court, Iowa State's offense actually isn't particularly good (they put up a lot of points per game because they play such a high tempo). But if Paige is limited, Iowa State should be able to get enough offense in transition to win this one.

If you have Providence taking out North Carolina, don't have them beating Iowa State. Providence's defense will get run off the floor by the high Iowa State tempo. And Providence depends on hitting free throws, while Iowa State led the Big 12 in defensive FTRate.

UConn vs Villanova will be a fun rematch from the old Big East. If you look at the computers, of course,  Villanova was better this season. They have better efficiency stats. The concern for them is that they didn't really have an opponent in the new Big East with the physical athleticism that this UConn team has. It's not a vintage Jim Calhoun squad, but Kevin Ollie's team has some big bodies that can block shots and a spectacular starting backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Can Villanova limit dribble penetration on defense? On offense, Villanova is already fairly dependent on hitting threes, and against the UConn bigs that's going to be even more true. Now why did I pick Villanova above? Because the problem with this whole plan is that Villanova can shoot the ball really well. They were second in the Big East with 39% three-point shooting in conference play. And if Villanova gets going, UConn is not a particularly explosive offense. So this is a really tough match-up, but I give the very narrow edge to Villanova.

Sweet 16:

My Picks:
4. Michigan State over 1. Virginia
2. Villanova over 3. Iowa State

At the top of this post I told you how wide open this bracket is. And it is... yet I have the 1, 2, 3 and 4 seeds getting to the Sweet 16. Well, don't pick upsets for the sake of upsets. If you are in a bracket contest where you get bonus points for picking upsets, then by all means take North Carolina and UConn in the Sweet 16. But if not, I do think that Iowa State and Villanova have to get the slight edge (particularly considering the softer Round of 64 opponents).

But in the end, there will be upsets, and I think those will start here. Certainly I'm not going on a limb taking Michigan State here - they might actually end up the Vegas favorite. The thing with this Michigan State team is that they're a very explosive offensive team, much more than they're given credit for. Michigan State's defensive metrics are not great (they were only 4th in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency and just 2nd in 2P% defense), but it needs to be remembered that both Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson (their two best interior defenders) missed significant time in Big Ten play. A fully healthy Michigan State squad is pretty good defensively, as we saw in the Big Ten tournament.

Basically, picking Virginia vs Michigan State comes down to what you believe about Michigan State. We've been saying all season that Michigan State might be the best team in the nation if they could ever get healthy. And they finally got healthy... and romped their way through the Big Ten tournament. That seems to suggest that maybe we were right all along. Virginia had a fantastic season, but I think it ends here.

What if you have Cincinnati knocking off Michigan State in the previous round? Well, remember what I said about Cincinnati wanting a rock fight in the paint and how they wouldn't be able to win a high scoring game? Well that's even more true against Virginia, the team rated by Pomeroy as the best defense in the nation. Considering the slow tempo that both teams play at, you'd have to be pretty confident of Cincy failing to break 55 points. Virginia should win that game simply because they, unlike Cincinnati, have the ability to score points in bunches from the perimeter.

The bottom half of this region is a tough one to pick. Because the 2/7 and 3/6 games are so even, there are four teams that you can reasonably have escape from here. I have Iowa State playing Villanova, so let's talk about that match-up first. The problem for Iowa State in that match-up is that they're not good at defending the perimeter. They were near the bottom of the Big 12 in 3PA/FGA and 3P% defense, while Villanova led the Big East in 3PA/FGA and was 2nd in 3P% offense. So Villanova is going to chuck up threes all game long, and likely hit enough of them to win. Of course, if Villanova goes cold, Iowa State should be able to score plenty from 5-to-15 feet. But Villanova is the better team, and should be considered the favorite.

What if you have UConn knocking off Villanova? Obviously that will make things easier on Iowa State. UConn also loves to chuck up threes (they led the AAC in 3PA/FGA), but they shoot at a significant worse clip (34.7% in conference play, compared to 39.0% for Villanova). UConn also led the AAC in the fraction of their offense that they get from free throws, while Iowa State led the Big 12 in defensive FTRate. So Iowa State would be the favorite.

What if you have UNC playing Villanova here? Well, we'd have a high scoring game. UNC would be pushing tempo while Villanova would be chucking up a whole lot jump shots. The concern for North Carolina in this match-up is the fact that Villanova is pretty steady at defending the paint. They led the Big East in 2P% defense and are a solid defensive rebounding team. North Carolina is a lot of things, but a good jump shooting team is not one of them. Villanova would be the favorite.

Elite 8:

My Pick:
4. Michigan State over 2. Villanova

Let's talk first about the match-up that I have here, and then I'll touch briefly on some of the other possible Elite 8 match-ups. And this sounds repetitive, but we're back to wondering just how much to discount Michigan State's performances when they weren't fully healthy. Their defense was choppy at times, and they finished only 39th in Pomeroy's defensive ratings. They were well below average in Big Ten play in three-point defense. If this remains the case, Villanova should have the opportunity to get hot behind the arc again. But Michigan State's defensive stats have gotten a lot better down the stretch as they've gotten healthy. They've held four straight opponents to an eFG% of 51% or worse (for comparison, at one point in Big Ten play three straight opponents had an eFG% of 56% or better against the Spartans).

The issue with taking Villanova to the Final Four is that they're primarily a jump shooting team. History says that teams will tend to have an off night shooting the ball. And while Villanova only lost four games all season long, three came when they had an eFG% below 50%. They were 19-1 when their eFG% was over 50%. Considering the likelihood of three very tough opponents between them and the Final Four, I simply wouldn't feel comfortable taking Villanova all the way.

That same reasoning is why I'd take Virginia over Villanova. Remember that stat about Villanova finishing with an eFG% over 50%? Well, just 3 of Virginia's last 16 opponents have had an eFG% over 50%. You're not going to shoot your way past Virginia. I'd like the Hoos over Villanova also.

What about if you don't even have Villanova getting this far? Michigan State/Iowa State would certainly be a fun up-tempo game, and Tom Izzo squads have a history of getting in trouble trying to speed up too much against athletic opponents. But the difference in quality level is just too large. Even with all of the injured players, Michigan State still comes into the Tournament rated the clearly better team (10th vs 23rd in Pomeroy, 8th vs 15th in Sagarin). If we assume that as a fully healthy squad Michigan State is even better, Iowa State will need a clear advantage in some match-up to win. What would that be? I don't know. I'd take Michigan State.

Of North Carolina or UConn, who would scare Michigan State more? I think UConn would, honestly, Michigan State has a tendency to commit a lot of fouls, and UConn hit 77% at the line while leading the AAC in the percentage of offense generated from FTs. They might be able to topple Michigan State one point at a time. But this requires you picking UConn to win three straight games where they'll likely be a Vegas underdog. Are you really that confident?


Unknown said...

I think the key with Michigan State is Payne staying out of foul trouble. He's a hack that tends to swing his elbows a lot and rarely ever sets legal screens, he seems to get away with it in the big 10, but I'm not sure that'll be the case with non-big 10 refs in the tournament.

It's obvious MSU's defense is much different with a fully healthy squad..Dawson makes a big difference...they closed out and extended their defense very well against Wisconsin and Michigan and made their 3pt looks difficult.

Virginia matches up well with MSU and wont be out-toughed, and I think that game is pretty much a toss up. Whoever wins that game should have a pretty good shot of making it to final 4 (not a believer in Nova, their kenpom #'s don't match the eye test and they were 8-1 in games decided by 5 or less & OT games).

Jeff said...

Yes, I agree with you for the most part. Villanova was definitely lucky in close games and not quite as good as their resume.