Monday, March 17, 2014

Complete West Region Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

I believe that the Region Of Life is the East, rather than the West, but I do think that Arizona probably has an easier path to the Final Four of any 1 seed... if they can get past that 8/9 game (though every 1 seed has a tough 8/9 opponent this season). The West region has some good teams, but for the most part they're on the bottom half of the bracket. Obviously once Arizona gets past that 1/16 game, every game is losable, but the reality is that they got put against the softest 4/5 seed pair.

The one thing to be wary about with Arizona is the 8/9 game. This is a good Gonzaga team, but this Oklahoma State squad is the best team in the entire Tournament relative to seed. What I mean is: bracket seeds are based on resumes, not team quality. Oklahoma State's resume dictates an 8 or 9 seed, but if you look at any computer rating they're a Top 20 team, and in general they're Top 15. That's even a larger disparity than Louisville, the team getting the most media attention.

More than anything in the West, I think we have a lot of interesting personnel match-ups. There are a lot of teams with distinctive skills and styles that match up well or poorly against other teams. It's an interesting one to break down where you can really go a lot of different directions.

First/Second Round:

My Picks:
1. Arizona over 16. Weber State
9. Oklahoma State over 8. Gonzaga
4. San Diego State over 13. New Mexico State
5. Oklahoma over 12. North Dakota State
3. Creighton over 14. Louisiana-Lafayette
6. Baylor over 11. Nebraska
7. Oregon over 10. BYU
2. Wisconsin over 15. American University

Don't worry about the 1/16 game. American University is a team that could potentially give Wisconsin just a little bit of trouble in that 2/15 game, because they have a very good defense that prevents threes (they led the Patriot League in defense, 2P% defense and 3PA/FGA defense). But of course, they aren't used to seeing a team that can score with the brutal efficiency of Wisconsin, so let's be real, take Wisconsin here. American University is actually rather higher than Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sagarin ratings (though Pomeroy has it reversed). Either way, Louisiana-Lafayette has a very mediocre defense, so Dougie McBuckets should have a field day.

The first real chance for an upset in this region is the 4/13 game. New Mexico State had a few slip-ups in WAC play, but they were impressive in non-conference play, splitting with New Mexico and sweeping UTEP. They are again the tallest team in the nation, led by 7'5" Sim Bhullar, 6'10" DK Eldridge and 6'10" Tshilidzi Nephawe, and they are physically imposing on both ends of the court. And this is a problem for a San Diego State team that doesn't shoot the ball well (their 30.7 3P% was the worst in Mountain West play). Now, why is San Diego State still the favorite? Two reasons. First, New Mexico State is a poor defensive rebounding team despite their size (only 6th best in the WAC), and they have a poor backcourt. San Diego State will certainly be focused on forcing turnovers and getting into fastbreaks (including secondary breaks) to get easy buckets. New Mexico State can definitely win this game, but San Diego State is the favorite.

Every year you want to pick a 12/5 upset or two, because they always happen. This year, the best shot is probably whoever ends up playing Saint Louis. But your second best shot, in my opinion, is North Dakota State over Oklahoma. Why? Well, first of all, the teams aren't that different in quality. Pomeroy has the line at 4 and Sagarin has it at 5. The second reason is that Oklahoma is very dependent on outside shooting. North Dakota State is not a good perimeter defense, but any team on any given day can go cold behind the arc.

So why do I still have Oklahoma over North Dakota State? First, like I said above, North Dakota State is a poor perimeter defense. Oklahoma could go cold, but they're going to get a lot of open threes, and more often than not they're going to shoot well. Also, North Dakota State is not a team that shoots well, and instead relies heavily on second chance points. But Oklahoma actually was the best defensive rebounding team in Big 12 play. So Oklahoma has the personnel advantage.

Baylor is a tough team to figure out. In general, you don't want to overreact to hot and cold streaks of a few games, but it's certainly clear that Baylor has been playing their best basketball of the season over the last month. They've won 10 of 12, and their computer numbers are all soaring. They're a simple team to understand: they use their length and athleticism to control the paint and then have a couple of guys who can hit threes from outside. Their one flaw in the paint, as it always has been under Scott Drew, is defensive rebounding. But Nebraska was 11th in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding percentage, so they're not a team that can take advantage of that. Nebraska had a great season, but they're not a great team. They play really tough defense, but they're vulnerable over the top to three-point shooting, and you can absolutely turn them over and get out in transition (this latter problem was what doomed them against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament). So no matter what you think about Baylor's hot streak, they have to be the favorite here.

I've talked about Oregon's "streaks" before this blog. They started 13-0, then lost 8 of 10, and then won 8 in a row. The media has developed this incredible narrative to explain these huge changes in quality of play. The only problem with that narrative is that Oregon's quality of play has basically been the same all season long - all that's changed in their luck in games. Their Pomeroy rating when they were 13-0 was 22nd, after the 2-8 streak was 32nd, and is now 30th. They've basically been sitting in the high-20s, low-30s all season long.

This match-up with BYU should be relatively high scoring, as both of these teams are far better offenses than defenses, and both play at relatively quick tempos. Also, both of these defenses are bad match-ups for the other. Oregon is a team that can get hot behind the arc (39.1% for the season), and BYU was below-average in the WCC at defending threes. At the same time, BYU led the WCC in OR% and FTRate, and Oregon is a poor defensive rebounding team that fouls a lot (they were dead last in the Pac-12 in defensive FTRate). I can see this game going either way, but in my opinion the tiebreaker is the Kyle Collinsworth injury. BYU's second best offensive creator is out for the season with a torn ACL, and so it's hard to see BYU getting much bench production at all. So I give the slight edge to Oregon.

Every year it seems like the Selection Committee puts two teams in an 8/9 game that are way too good to be in an 8/9 game, and it makes that pod in your bracket really difficult to figure out. This year, that 8/9 game is clearly Gonzaga/Oklahoma State, two teams ranked in the Top 25 in basically every computer rating. The Sagarin PREDICTOR even has Oklahoma State tenth. Now what makes this Gonzaga team different from your father's Gonzaga team is that they're actually built around defense. They do a very good job making their opponent jump shooting teams, and that's why they have the 13th best eFG% against in the nation. Oklahoma State derives their success from an aggressive defense that forces a lot of turnovers and creates a lot of easy scoring opportunities. They actually are not great an eFG% offense or defense - they rely on turnovers and quick scores. Gonzaga was 8th in the WCC in turnover rate, so that's good news for Oklahoma State. Also, the Cowboys are (like always under Travis Ford) vulnerable against teams that can get after the offensive glass. But the Zags don't do that. So in my opinion, Oklahoma State is the favorite. But poor Gonzaga, because with a better draw they easily could have been a Sweet 16 team.

Third Round:

My Picks:
9. Oklahoma State over 1. Arizona
4. San Diego State over 5. Oklahoma
3. Creighton over 6. Baylor
2. Wisconsin over 7. Oregon

There are going to be two very intriguing Round of 32 games involving 1 seeds, and Arizona will be in one of them. Either Gonzaga or Oklahoma State will be a tough opponent for Arizona, with Oklahoma State particularly so. Like I said above, Oklahoma State is rated by the computers somewhere between the 10th and 20th best team in the country, and they were actually a better offense and defense in Big 12 play than 3-seed Iowa State (despite missing Marcus Smart for three games!). Arizona/Oklahoma State is an Elite 8 game that will be played in the Round of 32.

I think Arizona/Oklahoma State is going to come down to Arizona limiting turnovers. Arizona has arguably the best defense in the nation, and Oklahoma State is a mediocre half court offense. They have talented players, but they don't move the ball well, and way too often those possessions end up with Marcus Smart chucking a 25 footer. Oklahoma State is going to need to get out in transition or they're not going to score. Now while Arizona is not a great shooting team themselves, they do have a very experienced, very capable backcourt in Nick Johnson and TJ McConnell. I don't see those two melting down.

The biggest problem I see for Arizona in foul trouble, which has been a concern ever since the Brandon Ashley injury has left them very thin on the bench. Oklahoma State led the Big 12 in FTRate, and they have three guys in Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash who were ranked 16th or higher in the Big 12 in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. If they can get into that Arizona bench, they can start collecting turnovers and getting those easy baskets that they so desperately need. I'm giving the very narrow edge to Oklahoma State.

San Diego State and Oklahoma is a match-up between one of the best defenses in the nation and one of the nation's best offenses. Or, if you prefer, one of the worst offenses in the NCAA Tournament against one of the worst defenses. Oklahoma, as good as their offense has been, does rely heavily on outside shooting. They led the Big 12 in 3PA/FGA and 3P%, and they were dead last in the Big 12 in the percentage of their offense that they generated from making two-pointers. San Diego State's defense, however, is perimeter oriented, and was probably the best three-point defense in the Mountain West. The concern for San Diego State on the other side of the court is that their offense is generated mostly off of offensive rebounds and foul shots. They shot a brutal 30.7% on three-pointers in conference play and were 9th in the Mountain West in eFG%. Oklahoma led the Big 12 in defensive rebounding and is good at preventing easy scores in the paint and off free throws.

If there's one stat that stands out to me, though, it relates to Oklahoma's transition defense. A full 24.4% of initial shots on Oklahoma on defensive possessions this season were in transition, and opponents had an eFG% of 59.7% on those shots (compared to 46.7% on non-transition shots). That eFG% in transition is the worst in the Big 12. San Diego State is a team that likes to get out in transition, not just off turnovers (they led the Mountain West in steals and forced turnovers per game) but also off of defensive rebounds. I think San Diego State will get enough easy baskets to have the edge on an Oklahoma team that is going to struggle to score consistently.

Creighton shouldn't have any trouble scoring against a Baylor team that doesn't play sound defensively. Creighton doesn't crash the boards, so they won't be able to take advantage of Baylor's deficiencies there, but teams have been able to light up Baylor behind the arc, and nobody shoots threes better than Creighton (a nation-leading 42.2% behind the arc this season). Creighton's defense has been very spotty, particularly down the stretch, but the one thing they do well is box out and get defensive rebounds, which is a problem for a Baylor offense heavily reliant on playing volleyball on missed shots. Brady Heslip is a great weapon, but are you really going to bet on Baylor hitting more threes than Creighton? Of course not. Take Creighton here.

If you have Nebraska beating Baylor, you will want to take Creighton here. Creighton easily handled Nebraska by 15 points earlier this season, and they did that despite shooting below their season average on threes (37.9%). Nebraska was well below average in the Big Ten in defending threes, and Creighton was able to launch more threes (29) than twos (26) in that game. Unless Creighton went awfully cold on jump shots, they should easily handle Nebraska.

Wisconsin/Oregon is an interesting match-up that is going to be a popular upset pick. Why? It's simple: Oregon has quick guards, and Wisconsin has struggled defensively this season against quick guards that can penetrate. Now, the idea that this is the first time Wisconsin has been great on offense and mediocre on defense is silly - in fact, Wisconsin has historically most often been better on offense than defense. The fact that Wisconsin usually plays at such a slow tempo means that their defense is usually overrated while their offense is usually underrated. Pomeroy rates Wisconsin the 5th best offense and the 59th best defense, but you only have to go back three seasons to see nearly identical numbers (the 3rd best offense and 53rd best defense). But that team played at a snail's pace relative to this year's team, and so Wisconsin didn't have the same media perception that they have this year (as a side note, Jordan Taylor was also screwed out of serious consideration for National Player of the Year that season, as he had one of the most efficient seasons of any player in recent memory, but his team's slow tempo meant that his "counting stats" were too low to be considered).

Anyway, the problem I have with the logic in the previous paragraph (about this game... not my rant about the 2010-11 Wisconsin basketball team) is that Oregon is not a team that tends to score a lot in the paint. In fact, Oregon was 10th in the Pac-12 in percentage of their offense derived on two-point shots. They actually rely a lot more heavily on hitting threes and free throws (they don't draw a lot of fouls, but their 76.8% FT shooting was 8th best in the nation), and this Wisconsin team excels at preventing those two things. Wisconsin led the Big Ten in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio, and they were tied for the national lead with Michigan for fewest fouls committed per game (14.9). So Oregon can give Wisconsin trouble if they really focus on trying to beat Wisconsin off the dribble to score in the paint, but this season that hasn't been a typical strategy. Meanwhile, Oregon's defense is pretty mediocre across the board, and they were worst in the Pac-12 in defensive FTA/FGA ratio. Expect Wisconsin to have a big advantage in FT attempts and three-pointers, and that's the reason Wisconsin has to be favored.

BYU actually might be the tougher match-up for Wisconsin. They led the WCC in OR% and FTRate. Wisconsin struggles to rebound, and while they don't commit a lot of fouls they are very thin in the front court, so even a little bit of foul trouble is a problem for them. But with the Kyle Collinsworth injury, I definitely would not feel comfortable picking BYU to pull a pair of upsets. Be safe and take Wisconsin.

Sweet 16:

My Picks:
4. San Diego State over 9. Oklahoma State
2. Wisconsin over 3. Creighton

Interestingly, Oklahoma State will likely be favored in Vegas over either San Diego State or Oklahoma. Oklahoma State just had brutal luck in close games (1-8 in Big 12 games decided by five points or less or in overtime). As I said earlier, Oklahoma State had a better offense and defense in Big 12 play than 3-seeded Iowa State despite the fact that they were without Marcus Smart for three of the games and had a noticeable decline in play. Ignore the "9" next to their name - they're a 3 seed in terms of team quality.

How does Oklahoma State match up against Oklahoma or San Diego State. Even though I have them playing San Diego State here, I'm going to start with Oklahoma since they were in the same conference and thus we have a lot of information. In Big 12 play, the teams had basically identical efficiency margins, with Oklahoma scoring a bit more and Oklahoma State having the slightly better defense. Oklahoma swept the season series, but take that with a big grain of salt. The game in Stillwater happened during the Smart suspension. Christien Sager played 14 minutes in that game, and you probably won't see him at all in a competitive NCAA Tournament game. Oklahoma won by 12 in Norman, but they also shot unseasonably well behind the arc (47%) and had a 20 FT attempt advantage. So the data says these are two very evenly matched teams.

Considering how much Oklahoma likes to shoot threes, and the fact that Oklahoma State's not the greatest at stopping threes, the match-up probably comes down to Oklahoma shooting well. They shot well in the game in Norman, but are you willing to bet on that happening again? Oklahoma State is also very dependent on getting to the free throw line (they were 7th in the nation in FTs made per game, easily leading the Big 12), but Oklahoma is a team that doesn't foul (look what I said above about the match-up in Norman). So this is a hard game to call. I might give the narrow edge to Oklahoma, honestly.

If Oklahoma State and San Diego State match up, I think Oklahoma State's depth might be tested. San Diego State is not going to attempt threes unless you force them to - they're going to attack the paint relentlessly, to try to get easy baskets and to draw fouls. Oklahoma State is also going to struggle to keep them off the boards, as they tend to struggle against big, deep front lines. Throw in a difficult San Diego State defense and Oklahoma State is going to struggle to keep up offensively. I like San Diego State here.

What if you have Arizona here? Well, they already won at San Diego State this year, and they did it by shutting off the paint (San Diego State shot only 36% on two-pointers). You can make an argument for San Diego State along the lines of the argument I gave for Oklahoma State, which is that they can force turnovers and draw fouls, but they're not quite as good at either of those things as Oklahoma State. I think Arizona will be able to keep Kaleb Tarczewski on the floor. I'd give Arizona the slight edge. Oklahoma is a team that can upset Arizona, but you're taking a risk. Arizona is a poor three-point defense, and Oklahoma led the Big 12 in 3PA/FGA, 3P% and percentage of offense derived from threes. They can absolutely get hot and take down Arizona. So if you feel confident about Oklahoma over San Diego State, consider seriously Oklahoma over Arizona as well.

Wisconsin is an interesting match-up for Creighton in that I think the Blue Jays match up well. This Wisconsin team is (relative to typical years) not great at defending the three (they still led the Big Ten in 3PA/FGA defense, but their 3P% defense wasn't great if you believe in that, and their 3PA/FGA defense was a step down from last season). Now that said, there's a misconception about Creighton that they are just a bunch of white guys shooting threes, when in reality they were nearly at the bottom of the Big East in 3PA/FGA. They actually like to work inside-out, and only kick out for threes if an easier shot isn't available. I do think that the fact that Creighton's defense has declined significantly as the season has gone on is a problem against an explosive Wisconsin offense. I think the tiebreaker in this game is going to be how Creighton can defend Nigel Hayes and Frank Kaminsky in the paint. Gregory Echenique is no longer here, and other than Dougie McBuckets Creighton's biggest starter is Ethan Wragge, who is listed at 6'7", 215 pounds. Hayes is also 6'7", but 35 pounds heavier and a physical beast. Creighton is going to need to get a whole lot of quality minutes from 6'11" Will Artino off the bench. I don't like those odds. The edge goes to Wisconsin.

I definitely wouldn't take Baylor over Wisconsin here. The coaching/fundamentals gap would be massive, and Wisconsin has proven that while their defense is dicey, they have the ability to shut down a single opponent when they need to. If they can shut down Brady Heslip, how is Baylor going to score anywhere near enough to keep up with Wisconsin's shooters. Oregon vs Creighton would be a more interesting match-up because Oregon would have a clear advantage in speed and athleticism. In Mike Moser they have a guy who can go up and down the court with Doug McDermott, and allow their perimeter defenders to stay closer to the outside shooters. Creighton is at their best when McDermott is destroying his man inside, and he's very good at finding the open man on the perimeter when the double comes. I would still take Creighton here, but you have to at least consider taking Oregon.

Elite 8:

My Pick:
2. Wisconsin over 4. San Diego State

There are a lot of possible teams here. In addition to Wisconsin/San Diego State I'll also briefly touch on Oklahoma State, Arizona and Creighton. Anyway, I do think Wisconsin would be happy with a San Diego State match-up. San Diego State certainly is an elite defense, but their mediocre offense derives mostly from offensive rebounds and foul shots, and they're a terrible shooting team. Wisconsin's defensive rebounding isn't great, but they're never going to get totally destroyed on the glass - they know what they're doing, they just lack big bodies. And Wisconsin tied for the national lead in fewest fouls committed per game, so the free throws aren't going to happen either. San Diego State's defense is very good, but it's dependent on forcing turnovers. They led the Mountain West in steals and turnovers forced per game, but were only 4th in eFG% against. Wisconsin led the nation in fewest turnovers per game (8.1), so they should be able to withstand that pressure. Wisconsin is the favorite.

Interestingly, I think Wisconsin also will like the Arizona match-up if it comes to that. I talked above about how thin Arizona's front court has been since the Brandon Ashley injury. They tend to be good about not committing fouls, but Wisconsin's front court in particular is very good at getting opposing bigs in foul trouble. Arizona might have to play their bench far more than they want to. Arizona's defense is really good, so this would probably be a low scoring game, but I'd give the edge to Wisconsin.

Basically, I think Wisconsin's toughest opponent in this region is Creighton. Creighton is the team that matches up best with them. If you have Wisconsin getting to the Elite 8, I think they're the favorite against anybody. Even Oklahoma State would be an underdog for the same reason San Diego State is: reliance on forcing turnovers and getting to the foul line.

Now what if you take that advice to heart and put Creighton here? Well, San Diego State's defense is very good, but they're not going to hold Creighton to 50 points. They're going to need to score, and I don't see where that comes from. Creighton's defense is mediocre, but they're steady and cautious. So they won't ever force turnovers or block shots, but they're pretty decent about forcing jump shots and preventing easy transition or second chance opportunities. San Diego State relies on transition, offensive rebounding and foul shots to score, and Creighton won't give them a lot of that. If this is a half court game, there's no way San Diego State can shoot as well as Creighton. Creighton would be favored.

I think Arizona would give Creighton more trouble than Oklahoma State would. Creighton isn't going to put Arizona in serious foul trouble, and the Wildcats play a big, physical front line that is going to cause Creighton's undersized front line trouble. If Will Artino gets in foul trouble, who is dealing with Tarczewski? McDermott? I wouldn't like that match-up one bit. And Arizona is not a team that relies on transition offense, but they will attack the paint, and are not a bad half court team. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, has that similar profile to San Diego State. They're going to be reliant on easy buckets off transition and free throws, and Creighton will not give those up. Oklahoma State has a tendency against defenses that don't play aggressive to settle in and take long, open jump shots, and that would play perfectly into Creighton's hands.


Anonymous said...

The potential Wisconsin vs Creighton match-up is intriguing.

I think Wisconsin would have to settle for McDermott getting his, but limit the rest of the team from getting open 3 looks. In Wisconsin's starting lineup, they have nobody that can even remotely slow down McDermott, Dekker would be matched up with him and he would get destroyed down low. Hayes is the better match-up, and if Bo makes the switch early (for Dekker or 1 of the guards) it should help slow down McDermott. Also, a lineup of Gasser (shooter), Brust (shooter), Dekker (slasher), Hayes (6-7, 250lb athletic foul-drawing beast), and Kaminski(7 foot shooter that can also post-up and underrated passer) would be pretty much unguardable for Creighton. That's the power/big offense Wisconsin doesn't play enough.

If they don't reach the final four, it'll likely be because their pg Tray Jackson is very inconsistent and can have long stretches of careless/terrible play.

Jeff said...

Yeah, I agree that I can't really see Dekker trying to guard McDermott. McDermott will use his butt to push Dekker around in the paint and he won't have a chance. If Creighton doesn't have Artino in, though, Kaminsky can try to defend him.

I agree with you that, physically, Hayes is probably the best guy to try to slow down McDermott.

Anonymous said...

Been following this for years now, will be sending something your way if I win this year for sure, refreshing to read some actual analysis rather than the drivel and generic talking points which ESPN hashes out each year, keep up the good work my man

Jeff said...


Brian said...

Not that I'm expecting an elite eight game between SDSU and Creighton, but those two teams already played this year and the Aztecs won. It was a neutral court game about five minutes from where the regional will be played in Anaheim. Something to keep in mind considering it would be essentially a home game for SDSU.

Tommy said...

Man, my first instict was that this is Wisconsin's bracket to lose but I feel like I've been saying that for about 7 years now. I do think they finally have the abundance of scoring options to not go totally dry shooting the ball for long periods of time like in past tournament games.

Anonymous said...

I have to like Baylor over Creighton.

Baylor's length (and zone) I feel gives Creighton a lot of trouble.

Could Creighton be hot from 3? Sure. But I think you've seen with Creighton the supporting cast outside of McDermott leaves a lot to be desired.