Monday, March 17, 2014

Complete South Region Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

The South is, in a lot of ways, the forgotten region. There isn't much controversy on any of the seeds, there are no big controversial story lines, and everybody just took a quick glance at the bracket and say "Eh, Florida will play Kansas in the Elite 8" and moved on to the other regions.

But in my opinion, there is some interesting stuff here to talk about. First of all, any region that has the chance of watching VCU with their band and their crowd is worth the price of admission on that alone. We have yet another potentially dangerous Round of 32 game for a 1 seed, with a really underrated Pitt team. Jamie Dixon gets the "can't win in the NCAA Tournament" tag, but that's garbage. I've talked on this site before about the fact that these narratives about coaches are typically based on two or three games over a dozen seasons, and there's just no evidence that any coach is particularly good or bad in the NCAA Tournament relative to the regular season. Plenty of great coaches "can't win in the NCAA Tournament" until they do. Remember when Jim Boeheim and Bill Self were "regular season coaches" who would always get great seeds and always falter? You don't, because that narrative changed once they won a title.

We have dangerous teams lurking in Syracuse and Ohio State that were once considered 1 seed material (Syracuse obviously a lot more recently than Ohio State, but we forget just how ridiculously good Ohio State looked entering Big Ten play in December - they actually reached #1 in the Pomeroy ratings in the first week of January). So that Syracuse/Ohio State game is one of the best Round of 32 match-ups I've ever seen, and is definitely must-watch tv.

And by the way, while everybody on tv is moaning about Louisville and Kentucky's seed, the reality (if you understand how seeding has actually always been done historically) is that the most under-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament is New Mexico as a 7. They should have been a 4 or 5 seed. So the bottom half of this region is actually really tough.

First/Second Round:

My Picks:
16. Albany over 16. Mt. St. Mary's

1. Florida over 16. Albany
9. Pittsburgh over 8. Colorado
4. UCLA over 13. Tulsa
5. VCU over 12. Stephen F. Austin
3. Syracuse over 14. Western Michigan
6. Ohio State over 11. Dayton
7. New Mexico over 10. Stanford
2. Kansas over 15. Eastern Kentucky

I'm sure your bracket competition doesn't expect you to pick the 16/16 game, but I also know that a higher than average percentage of my blog readers are degenerate gamblers who actually want to bet on that 16/16 game, so I'll pick it. I'll take Albany. Why? Overall these two teams are fairly even on paper, but Mt. St. Mary's depends heavily on making three-pointers and doesn't do anything else well, and Albany is a significantly bigger team that should control the glass. I think Albany is the more complete team, as opposed to a Mt. St. Mary's team that simply got hot shooting the ball in the NEC tournament.

I wouldn't stress about the Florida, Kansas or Syracuse Round of 64 games. Obviously the 16/16 winner will get run off the floor by Florida. Eastern Kentucky could maybe make things interesting for 20 minutes if they get hot behind the arc, but come on, are you really picking them to beat Kansas? Western Michigan over Syracuse is getting a lot of buzz on television, for some reason. Yes, Western Michigan went 14-4 in the MAC and won the MAC tourney, but they did it while going 7-2 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime. Western Michigan's +0.06 PPP was tied for fourth best in the MAC. And Western Michigan is a poor outside shooting team (33% on three-pointers) and a poor passing team (7th in the MAC in assist ratio), which are the two things you need to beat a zone. And Syracuse's "decline" down the stretch is overstated, though I'll talk about that more in future rounds. Seriously, Western Michigan over Syracuse is the dumbest hip upset in the entire Tournament. Syracuse is going to win in a rout.

Tulsa/UCLA is worth talking about, but I'm not sure I see the path to a Tulsa upset. This Tulsa team is a bit overrated. A big reason that they won the Conference USA tournament was because they got a gift of a draw (something I talked about in my CUSA tournament preview). Tulsa went 1-5 against teams in the Pomeroy Top 60, with the one win being their Conference USA title game upset of Louisiana Tech. Tulsa is a solid, steady team, but they're not spectacular in any one area. They are a defense that forces a lot of jump shots, but they don't have any great shot blockers and they're vulnerable to good outside shooting. And offensively they are a poor shooting team and don't rebound particularly well. UCLA shoots the ball far better and also has an aggressive perimeter defense that could give Tulsa trouble. I just don't see a reason to take Tulsa here.

Stephen F. Austin is another upset pick that is popular this year. They've won 28 games in a row, so a whole lot of people who never saw them play a single minute this season will tell you how underrated they are and how they're going to spring an upset. Yet here's the thing. First of all, Stephen F. Austin hasn't played anybody during this streak. The highest ranked team in Pomeroy that they beat all season long was #128 Towson, at home. And they are 7-0 this season in games decided by seven points or less, so they're not as good as their resume. Pomeroy rates them 59th, but Sagarin has them back at 91st, so jump on their bandwagon at your own peril. Also, Stephen F. Austin was only third in the Southland in offensive turnover rate, and only fourth in steal rate. VCU's press could eat them alive. Pass on this upset.

Dayton is a team that has really come on strong late in the season. They've won 10 of their last 12 games, and rescued themselves from a 1-5 start to Atlantic Ten play to earn an at-large bid. They now have an offense that is quietly very efficient, though the defense still needs work (9th best in Atlantic Ten play, though that ranking is higher than it was a few weeks ago). Ohio State, on the other hand, is a team that has faded somewhat. They were playing like one of the five best teams in the country prior to Big Ten play and reached as high as 1st overall in Pomeroy early in conference play, but they finished only fifth in efficiency margin in conference play, behind Iowa. Their offense has been a struggle, as they just don't have anybody who can take things into their own hands and get a bucket when they need it. That said, I'm skeptical that Dayton's offense is going to roll so smoothly against Ohio State. The only defenses in the A-10 comparable to Ohio State are Saint Louis and VCU, and Dayton failed to hit 1.1 PPP in any of their games against those teams. So this game is going to be a low-scoring slog, but I do think Ohio State has found themselves a little bit these last few weeks. Their offensive stats, while still mediocre, were a lot better in late February and early March than back in late January. They have to be the favorite.

New Mexico/Stanford is quietly a very strong 7/10 game. It's been shocking how well Stanford has played over the last month considering that the Aaron Bright injury has left them basically just playing five guys. The bench barely sees the floor unless somebody is in foul trouble. New Mexico, meanwhile, is incredibly talented, particularly in the front court. Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow are perhaps the most skilled "twin towers" attack in the nation. I'm not sure Stanford has the bodies to match up against them. Stanford has struggled a bit defensively against teams that pass the ball well, and New Mexico's bigs certainly do that. Also, because of those twin towers, New Mexico is most vulnerable defensively on the perimeter, but Stanford just doesn't shoot much out there (they were only 7th in the Pac-12 in 3PA/FGA ratio and 3P%). You can make a case for Stanford, but New Mexico is the favorite.

Don't be surprised by the big Vegas line on Pittsburgh/Colorado. Last I checked it was at 5.5 points. The reality is Pitt is better than their record (they were playing like a Top 10/15 team before getting bogged down late in ACC play) and Colorado is a really soft 8 seed (9-2 in games decided by six points or less). That's a fair Vegas line. Does Colorado have any match-up advantages? Not really. Their offense is terrible (10th best in the Pac-12) and their defense is okay, but not good at forcing turnovers (Pitt is vulnerable against teams that can press their ball handlers, as we've learned several times in the last few weeks). Pitt has to be the heavy favorite here.

Third Round:

My Picks:
1. Florida over 9. Pittsburgh
4. UCLA over 5. VCU
3. Syracuse over 6. Ohio State
2. Kansas over 7. New Mexico

Every 1 seed is primed for a tough game in the Round of 32. Florida wouldn't be concerned about Colorado, but Pitt is a borderline Top 20 team with an All-American quality player in Lamar Patterson. Pitt hasn't beaten a Pomeroy Top 25 team, but they certainly "can". They lost to Syracuse on a buzzer-beater, and their losses to Virginia, Cincinnati and North Carolina also came down to the final 30 seconds. But Florida is playing at another level, and I'm not exactly sure where Pitt's advantage is supposed to be in this game. Florida has the better offense, the better defense, the better shooters, the better rebounders... Pitt is a really good team, but Florida is just a little bit better at everything. Florida has to be the favorite.

Over the last couple of years, VCU has been extremely dependent on forcing turnovers. They've been the best team in the nation at forcing turnovers for three consecutive years, but in years past they would get very stuck whenever they'd play a team that could hang onto the ball. Last year, a team like Michigan was their absolute kryptonite. Their defensive efficiency on possessions that didn't end in a turnover was terrible, and their offense suffered without the easy transition buckets. Certainly it's a problem this year if they don't get turnovers, but they're much more able to deal with it. They have proven able to beat a team like Saint Louis, and to win when their turnover rate is lower than usual. And that's good news here, because UCLA led the Pac-12 and was 16th in the nation in offensive turnover rate.

But even with the high turnover rate, VCU was still only the 7th best offense in the Atlantic Ten this season. Without a ton of turnovers against UCLA, how will they score? I'm not sure. They were 10th in the Atlantic Ten in eFG%, while they led the league in offensive rebounding rate. But UCLA has a tall front court that, while not physically imposing, is solid at protecting the glass. I think this UCLA team is underrated, and they're primed to finally break out. And don't believe the "Steve Alford can't win in the NCAA Tournament" hype. Read what I said at the top of this post about Jamie Dixon.

Syracuse/Ohio State is a fantastic Round of 32 game. Back in December and early January you'd have pegged this for a Final Four game. Syracuse has faded a little bit down the stretch, but not as much as you think. When they were 25-0 they were extraordinarily lucky in close games (nine of the wins were by 7 points or less). Since then, their luck in close games has turned (1-4 in games decided by six points or less). Remember when Tyler Ennis was the clutchiest player in basketball history? The last few games he's been awful in the clutch. As always, don't overreact to small sample size "clutch" statistics. That said, the level of play from Syracuse has tailed off a little bit, particularly on the offensive end. They've broken 1.04 PPP just once in their last eight games, which is a problem against a really good Ohio State defense.

But I don't see how this Ohio State team is built to attack the zone. The way to beat the zone is either by having good outside shooters or by having good passers who can attack the zone or set up at the top of the key, draw defenders, and hit the open man. Ohio State shot a brutal 31.6% on three-pointers in Big Ten play, and they were 6th in the Big Ten (and 214th in the nation) in assist rate. Aaron Craft too often tries to do too much on offense, and he'll get eaten alive by the Syracuse zone doing that. Ohio State is a really good, underrated team, but Syracuse is better. They're the favorite.

Kansas is a team that I think we all understand pretty well. Even without Joel Embiid, they are incredibly talented with multiple surefire NBA players. They are a very explosive team, and they have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. As for weaknesses, I think even the most casual fan knows the Kansas achilles heel is point guard play. If you can shut down Naadir Tharpe then the Kansas offense gets dramatically worse. He has generally been pretty awful during the Kansas losses. During the last three Kansas losses (every loss they've had over the last month), Tharpe has averaged 27 minutes per game, with 3.7 points, 4.7 assists and 3.0 turnovers. That's pretty ugly. In calendar year 2014, Kansas is 6-0 when Tharpe scores at least 15 points, while only 8-5 when he fails to crack double digits. In addition, Kansas tends to foul a lot. But the thing is, neither New Mexico or Stanford is in a position to take advantage of that. Kendall Williams is a good perimeter defender, but New Mexico's perimeter defense as a whole is pretty poor. Stanford doesn't have anybody who can shut down Tharpe. And neither team draws a lot of fouls. Kansas has a pretty easy path to the Sweet 16.

Sweet 16:

My Picks:
1. Florida over 4. UCLA
3. Syracuse over 2. Kansas

Other than free throw shooting, Florida is a really good team across the board. They don't have weaknesses. And you've got to get into a close game late for the free throw shooting to matter anyway. So to beat Florida, you have to be really good at something - you need an edge somewhere. I think VCU actually is a scarier opponent for Florida than UCLA for this reason. If you look at Florida's two tough games in the SEC tournament, their ball handling showed some weaknesses, and their turnover rate was over 20% in both games. For comparison, in their two relatively easy regular season wins over Kentucky their turnover rates were 9% and 14%, respectively. Obviously nobody is better at forcing turnovers than VCU, so they'll be a menace if they get to play Florida. But that said, VCU's offense aside from transition is not good. Their eFG% on non-transition possessions this season was 46.6%, and Florida's elite defense will shut them down. So Florida would be favored, but at least VCU would have a shot.

UCLA, on the other hand, doesn't really have a path to knock off Florida. They led the Pac-12 in defensive turnover rate, but not with remotely similar stats to what VCU's #HAVOC can do. Kyle Anderson can be a unique match-up challenge, but Florida has multiple long, athletic bigs that can take a shot at him. Florida has to be the favorite.

This Syracuse/Kansas game is a tough one to figure so far out because there's a chance Joel Embiid will be back for it. But frankly, I'd say the odds are against it. History says that issues like this tend to linger, and when teams say "Oh, he might be back next week" they really mean "We doubt he'll be back anytime soon". And even if Embiid plays, we're back to the issue I talked about above about the Jayhawks point guard play. Quality point guard play is so important against the Syracuse zone. Kansas hasn't proven to be a good passing team, and they lack the outside shooters to stretch the zone (Tharpe, at 38% on threes, is the only Kansas regular over 35%). The concern for Syracuse, of course, is scoring.

And here's where Embiid comes in. Embiid is a monster defensive rebounder, and Syracuse relies heavily on offensive putbacks (they were 13th in the ACC in eFG% but 2nd in OR%). If Embiid is there, Syracuse can only really win if Tyler Ennis or Trevor Cooney gets hot from behind the arc. But without Embiid, Syracuse can attack the glass and get enough easy points to go with their transition offense that they won't need a lot of traditional half court scoring. To me, this game comes down to whether Embiid is back or not. If Embiid plays, Kansas probably wins, if he doesn't, they probably lose.

I know what you're thinking: "Wiggins can carry Kansas on their back!", but the stats say otherwise. Wiggins has gone for more than 25 points five times in his collegiate career, and Kansas is only 3-2 in those games (including the recent loss to West Virginia where he scored a career-high 41). Wiggins is a great player, but he can't win games by himself. Kansas will need a team effort to go far in the Tournament, and that means limited turnovers and solid defensive rebounding. Back when I was the only bracketologist on the internet not giving Syracuse a 1 seed, there were multiple threads on Syracuse message boards decrying how much of a known Syracuse hater I was. I had angry Syracuse commenters calling me names all season long. But here you go, Syracuse fans: If Embiid doesn't play, and I don't think he will, Syracuse has the edge.

Just to talk briefly about Ohio State vs Kansas: I don't think Kansas needs Embiid to the same level against the Buckeyes. Ohio State was near the bottom in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding. Ohio State's perimeter defense is a big issue, though. They have two really special perimeter defenders (you can make a good case that Shannon Scott is actually a better defender than Aaron Craft), and if they eat the Kansas point guards alive then they can win this game. But Kansas is so explosive offensively that if Ohio State doesn't force 20 turnovers they're likely going to lose. I'd take Kansas.

Elite 8:

My Pick:
1. Florida over 3. Syracuse

I certainly don't think this Florida team is ideally suited to deal with the zone. They have solid backcourt play, but they can be turned over (as I talked about above) and they are good-but-not-great shooting the ball from deep. They have a tendency to turn into a jump shooting team, though they do have a lot of very good jump shooters. But I think there are two main problems with taking Syracuse over Florida. First of all, other than turnovers, how are they going to score? Florida's defense is awfully good, and Syracuse's offense is pretty mediocre in the half court. Florida takes a lot of jump shots, but so does Syracuse. Florida isn't the world's best defensive rebounding team, but they're physical and decent at it, so Syracuse is not going to get a lot of easy putbacks off of bricked shots. The second problem with taking Syracuse here is that their path is so much more difficult. Florida will be a pretty significant favorite through to the Elite 8, while Syracuse has to get through (likely) Ohio State and Kansas. So even if you think Syracuse might have the slight edge on Florida head-to-head, by strength of schedule you need to take Florida.

Certainly Kansas and Ohio State have the same issue as Syracuse in terms of strength of schedule. You need to believe one of those teams has a significant head-to-head advantage over Florida to take them to the Final Four. And I'm not sure I really see one. Honestly, while Kansas is better than Ohio State on paper, Ohio State matches up better against Florida. They can get that Florida turnover rate above that dangerous 20% level. Seven different teams in the Pomeroy Top 100 have forced turnovers on more than 20% of Florida's possessions, and while only one of those teams won, the other six teams all held Florida within single digits. Even teams like Alabama and Arkansas (and even Auburn, if we want to go outside the Top 100) played Florida close by forcing turnovers. Ohio State can do that.

Of course, if Kansas gets a fully healthy Joel Embiid back, they are the second best team in the region, and they could absolutely beat anybody. If Tharpe and Embiid play well, then that Wiggins 30 point explosion can be the March Moment that pushes Kansas into the Final Four. But I don't think Embiid will be back, and I don't trust Tharpe to play well against three straight quality opponents. In my opinion, Florida is the favorite.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your outlook on VCU/SFA. ESPN noted last night that SF-A turns the ball under 11 times per game and VCU needs to turn it over 13 times to win - therefore VCU would lose. Thought to myself, SF-A's turnover average is tremendously overrated/too low. They face no legitimate press all season, making it a really misleading stat.

Anonymous said...

Who wins the hypothetical matchup of Syracuse and New Mexico if it were to occur?

Jeff said...

Well, if you think New Mexico and Syracuse have the same odds of getting to that game, I'd think New Mexico's personnel fits a zone defense pretty well. You can put Bairstow at the top of the key and run the offense through him, and Syracuse will really struggle with that. You should think seriously about taking UNM in that situation.

Unknown said...

Interesting to see you're not giving UCLA much of a shot vs. Florida. I see some parallels to last year, when Michigan ran over VCU and then Florida. UCLA's offense is good too - they could do the same thing this year.