Kentucky, without question, could not have asked for an easier bracket. Even the Kentucky fans I've heard from on twitter all tell me that they all love their bracket. Fans love to whine about other elite teams getting easy brackets (*cough* Duke *cough*), but it's rare that fans say of their own team "Yeah, we got lucky". This region features easily the weakest 2 seed and 4 seed, and a greatly flawed 3 seed. And while there were some dangerous teams that potentially could have ended up in Kentucky's 8/9 game, none of them ended up there. If you look at Ken Pomeroy's Log5 analysis, he has Kentucky at 68% to make the Final Four, which is the highest I've ever seen. Anything over 50% is flat out absurd.
That said, while this is the Region of Life for Kentucky, it's close to a Region of Death for Kansas. They were done no favors with their draw, and they've got an uphill battle just to survive to the Elite 8.
The scariest team in this region (aside from Kentucky) is Wichita State. The fact is that you can argue with a straight face that this Wichita State team is actually better than the one that earned a 1 seed last season. They outscored the Missouri Valley by 0.26 PPP compared to 0.24 PPP a year ago, despite the fact that the league was probably better this season. The difference was that last year they survived every close game while this year they went 3-3 in games decided by six points or fewer. This year's team is also more balanced, in that they are less dependent on Cleanthony Early to do everything, and instead have a three-headed scoring monster in Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Darius Carter. So while last year they were a very soft 1 seed (a deserving 1 seed by resume, but a soft 1 seed), this year they are an absolutely absurdly strong 7 seed, and nightmare fuel for Kansas fans.
My Picks:16. Manhattan over 16. Hampton
1. Kentucky over 16. Manhattan
9. Purdue over 8. Cincinnati
4. Maryland over 13. Valparaiso
5. West Virginia over 12. Buffalo
3. Notre Dame over 14. Northeastern
6. Butler over 11. Texas
7. Wichita State over 10. Indiana
2. Kansas over 15. New Mexico State
Thoughts:Manhattan is a 7 point Vegas favorite over Hampton and I see no obvious reason to disagree with that. But at the same time, they're going to be close to a 30 point underdog against Kentucky. If they won, it would be probably the biggest upset in the history of college basketball. Notre Dame over Northeastern is also an easy pick, as Northeastern defense (rated 171st in the nation by Pomeroy) is going to get shredded by Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson.
I talked above about the nightmare potential Round of 32 game for Kansas against Wichita State, but their brutal bracket starts even earlier. New Mexico State is, in my opinion, the best 15 seed the Tournament has ever had. New Mexico State is 88th in Pomeroy and 98th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR (not significantly behind Kansas State), but even that understates how good they are, because Daniel Mullings and Tshilidzi Nephawe both missed 12 games apiece. That 14 game stretch (10 games where both players were gone and four games where one of them was gone) say New Mexico State go 7-7. The rest of the season they went 16-3, including a home win over UTEP and competitive road losses at Wichita State and Baylor. They are riding a 13-0 record since getting their full roster back. They sport a massive front line, and are facing a Kansas team that likely will still be without Cliff Alexander. So I'm not saying New Mexico State is going to pull this upset, but they absolutely could. The Vegas spread is currently 12 points, and I think that's significantly too high.
Maryland/Valparaiso is another game where you need to think seriously about the upset. The Vegas spread is only at 5 points, and it's there for a reason. In fact, Pomeroy has the spread at only 3. Maryland went 11-1 in games decided by six points or fewer, and they are decidedly weaker than their resume. Valparaiso, meanwhile, is good enough that they could have contended for an at-large bid if they had a better schedule and a little bit more luck in close games. The test for Valparaiso is going to be scoring points against this defense, though. Alec Peters was a dominant power scorer in the Horizon League, but Maryland's front line is much bigger and more physical than anything in the Horizon League. And I'm not sure Valparaiso has the ability to shut down Dez Wells and Melo Trimble. Maryland was only 10th in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency, but they should be able to score enough points with Wells and Trimble that Valparaiso is not going to be able to win this game with 55 points (it's been more than a month since Valparaiso scored more than 63 points in a game, and their last four wins have all come with 60 points or fewer). So I think Maryland does escape here, though it would be a little bit of karma if they lose on the final play of a game after so much luck in close games all season long.
Buffalo/West Virginia is a trendy upset pick, but I don't get it. Buffalo is a pretty good team, but they also finished only 8th in the MAC in DR%. West Virginia's plan is simple: They press and force turnovers and get offensive rebounds. If they're not getting those two things then they are a poor shooting team and struggle to score. But they've destroyed teams like Oklahoma State that couldn't keep them off the glass, and it was also how they beat Kansas. The counter for Buffalo is that they were 3rd in the MAC in offensive turnover rate, but that's not the most impressive backcourt West Virginia will have seen, and it's always good to be a little wary of low turnover rates by teams in lesser conferences. The only teams in the Pomeroy Top 80 that they faced all year were Wisconsin and Kentucky. Wisconsin never tries to force turnovers defensively, but Kentucky does, and they forced them on 25.6% of Buffalo possessions. So West Virginia seems the easy pick for me.
Butler/Texas is an incredibly good 6/11 game. Butler is a strong 6 seed, and I've talked about them all season long as a dark horse Final Four team with the right draw. But at the same time, Texas had awful bad luck in close games this season (2-6 in Big 12 games decided by seven points or fewer), and are rated by both Sagarin and Pomeroy as one of the 20 best teams in the nation. That's why Texas is actually favored by 1.5 points in Vegas right now. In addition, their size is going to cause significant problems for a Butler team that doesn't take a lot of outside shots. That said, Texas is not a team that gets a lot of easy offense, and they are a poor jump shooting team that was just 7th in the Big 12 in offensive efficiency. I think this game is destined to be low scoring and close in the final minute. That means that you can't feel too confident with any pick here, but I'm going to give the edge to Butler. They are an elite defensive rebounding team (7th in the nation in DR%), and have a late game lineup that works well together. I hate watching Texas and seeing a guy like Myles Turner buried on the bench late in games. Throw in the fact that Texas has faded down the stretch, and Butler gets the very narrow edge from me.
I don't think anybody but Hoosiers fans is going to pick an Indiana upset over Wichita State. Wichita State is an elite team for the reasons I mentioned above, and they've been playing their best basketball at the end of the season (until that stunning upset by Illinois State during Arch Madness. Indiana, on the other hand, has been in a massive slide since upsetting Maryland. They've lost 9 of 14 games to end the season, including four of the last five. Indiana is a team that relies heavily on their threes because they don't have a paint scorer and their defense is awful (they're rated the 216th best defense in the nation by Pomeroy, which makes them the worst defensive Big Ten team since the 2007-08 Northwestern team that went 8-22). This season, against Pomeroy Top 200 opponents, Indiana is 7-3 when shooting over 40% behind the arc but just 4-10 when shooting 40% or worse. Wichita State led the Missouri Valley in 3PA/FGA, and if you believe in 3P% defense (I don't really, but it's not entirely luck) they led the Valley in that also. I just don't see Indiana's path to winning this game unless they shoot out of their minds.
Cincinnati/Purdue is not a game that is going to draw a lot of attention in the Round of 64. It's two teams that nobody thought were going to go far even before they got drawn against Kentucky in the Round of 32. Cincinnati is rated as the better team in Pomeroy but Sagarin gives the edge to Purdue, and Purdue has played better down the stretch, which is why Vegas has Purdue as a 2 point favorite right now. Purdue has been a different team since an awful non-conference performance, winning 10 of their last 14 games, a stretch during which their Pomeroy rating rose from 79th to 49th. And they've played well away from home lately, winning at Indiana, losing only in the final 30 seconds at both Ohio State and Michigan State, and playing Wisconsin really tough for at least the first half in the Big Ten tournament. In terms of match-ups, these are both excellent defensive teams that can struggle offensively. Purdue has the size advantage, which will cause troubles for a Cincinnati offense that gets a lot of its offense from second-chance points and in the paint. Purdue is foul prone, so if Cincinnati wins it's probably because they got to the line a lot more and put some key Purdue players to the bench. But short of that, I think they're really going to struggle to score. I give the narrow edge to the team playing better over the last month: Purdue.
My Picks:1. Kentucky over 9. Purdue
5. West Virginia over 4. Maryland
3. Notre Dame over 6. Butler
7. Wichita State over 2. Kansas
Thoughts:Can I think of a reason to pick Purdue or Cincinnati over Kentucky? I suppose it wouldn't be the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament. But the Vegas spread will be at least 15 points, I would guess. Stay away.
In contrast, Wichita State will be a very popular upset pick over Kansas, and for good reason. I talked in the intro of this region preview why I think you can make a case that this Wichita State team is even better than the one that earned a 1 seed last season. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy would have Kansas as only a 1 or 2 point favorite. The argument against Wichita State here is that they're a fraud for running up huge numbers in a crap conference and that they didn't beat anyone in non-conference play this year. But first of all, statistically there is no evidence that teams in mid-major conference under-perform their computer numbers on average in the NCAA Tournament. We knew last year that Wichita State was a weak 1 seed and Kentucky was a crazy strong 8 seed. The Vegas spread was only 4.5 points there and the game came down to the final shot. I don't see how anybody can look at that result and claim that it proved Wichita State was a "fraud".
As for "not playing anybody" this year, they played a single at-large team in non-conference play and it was Utah, where they lost by a single point on the road in overtime, which is damn impressive. Utah's only home loss this year was by 6 points to Arizona, and they smoked the likes of Stanford and UCLA there (they beat UCLA by 32 points). And of course, Northern Iowa got a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament this year, and Wichita State played them three times, getting outscored by a combined five points over the three games. So I think there's no reason to think Wichita State is suddenly going to turn into a pumpkin when they see Kansas.
What about match-ups? Assuming Cliff Alexander is still gone, Kansas really only has one big guy who can score, but Perry Ellis is going to be a really difficult match-up for a Wichita State team that is undersized. If Darius Carter gets in foul trouble, things will get particularly dicey for the Shockers. Kansas led the Big 12 in defensive eFG%, but there probably isn't a team in that conference with a backcourt as strong as Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, and they are going to test the Kansas defense with their passing as well as their driving abilities. When Kansas has won games recently it's been when they have turned opponents over regularly, like they did against Baylor and West Virginia in recent weeks. Since the start of February they are only 5-5 when forcing turnovers on fewer than 20% of opponent possessions, while Wichita State is 8th in the nation with a 15.2% turnover rate. I think that's where the edge to Wichita State comes. Often I'd be wary of picking a 7 over a 2 because the 7 usually has a much more difficult path to the Round of 32, but that's not the case this year. Kansas could potentially be a 2/15 victim, and so you shouldn't be too afraid of picking the Wichita State/Kansas upset.
The fact that Butler/Texas is such a 50/50 game should make you wary of picking either of those teams to the Sweet 16 over a Notre Dame team that should have no problems against Northeastern. Where does Butler have an edge on Notre Dame? Well, the issue for Notre Dame is always that their defense is not any good (even after their ACC tournament run it's still only ranked 112th in the nation by Pomeroy). Picking teams with a defense that bad to go far usually doesn't work out. So, if Notre Dame's shots from outside don't fall, this is a game that they can lose. But if they shoot their season average, they should win. Throw in the easier path to this game, and I think Notre Dame has to be the favorite.
I think Notre Dame would rather play a Texas team that is built on interior defense. They'll just shoot over the top all day. The ability of Texas to get after the offensive glass will cause problems for an undersized Irish team, but that's not enough reason to pick them here.
One thing to always keep in mind when picking 4/5 games is how easy or difficult their previous game was. Are you picking a Sweet 16 team that has a good chance to go down in the opening two days? And this year, while Buffalo/West Virginia is probably the most popular 12/5 upset as far as I can tell, I explained above why I think West Virginia should easily handle them. In contrast, Valparaiso is justly getting a lot of buzz for a 13/4 upset. So in my opinion, if you think this game is a draw, the tiebreak goes to West Virginia. What about the match-ups? Well, West Virginia beats teams with turnovers and offensive rebounding, as they're a bad shooting team (275th in the nation with a 46.6 eFG%). But Maryland is convenient for that, finishing 12th in the Big Ten in offensive turnover rate and 6th in DR%. They're a big team, but they're vulnerable to teams that can attack the glass. So throw that in with the view that Maryland could go down in the previous round, and the fact that the Tournament history for teams that are seeded well above their KenPom/Sagarin position generally is pretty poor, and I think West Virginia is the obvious pick.
1. Kentucky over 5. West Virginia
7. Wichita State over 3. Notre Dame
Can I craft an argument for West Virginia over Kentucky? I can. And it's that Kentucky was just 206th in the nation in DR%, and West Virginia has their best performances against teams that can't defend the glass and that can't take care of the ball. That said, Kentucky's rebounding numbers are influenced by their schedule. They were the 4th best SEC team in DR% in conference play, so they're not awful on the glass. And they don't turn the ball over. The most under-noticed part of Kentucky's play late in the season was a reduction in turnovers. They turned the ball over on at least 15% of possessions in just 1 of their last 7 games after doing it in 11 of the previous 17. They're not going to be intimidated by West Virginia's press, and they'll do almost as much damage on their own offensive glass as West Virginia will do on theirs. So Kentucky is the pick. And Maryland over Kentucky? That could be a 16 or 17 point spread in Vegas, and for good reason.
Wichita State/Notre Dame is an interesting Sweet 16 match-up. Normally it's not the greatest idea to pick a low seed (like a 7) to make the Elite 8, since their path to getting there is so much more difficult. But in this case, I'm not totally sure Notre Dame's path to the Sweet 16 is so much easier than Wichita State's. I think Indiana will be dispatched with easily, and the gap between Butler and Kansas is smaller than you think. And the concern with Notre Dame going far, as I said higher up on this page, is that their defense is outside the Top 100 in the nation. Teams that are outside the Top 100 in either offensive or defensive efficiency rarely make it far in the NCAA Tournament. You want to be balanced, and Wichita State is balanced. Notre Dame's bad defense is going to absolutely struggle to stop them.
That said, no defense has been good enough to keep down Notre Dame for long. Wichita State is going to have to score a ton of points to win the game. But Wichita State led the Missouri Valley in 3PA/FGA and 3P% defense. I believe in the former stat much more than the latter, but that just means that they're very good at running shooters off the arc. Notre Dame's offense is at its worst when it's running through Zach Auguste in the paint, and is much more effective when it's running through Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson on the perimeter. Tekele Cotton has the ability to completely neutralize Grant. The emergence of Bonzie Colson late in the season might be what takes Notre Dame over the top, but even with him they're basically just playing a seven man rotation, and their poor defense and reliance on jump shooting makes them the type of team that doesn't tend to go for a long run in the NCAA Tournament. Wichita State is, narrowly, my pick.
If you have Notre Dame playing Kansas, I think I'd pick Notre Dame. Kansas is a strong defensive team, but their offense is spotty, particularly if we are assuming Cliff Alexander doesn't come back. And the history of teams that are worse than their resume burdened with difficult bracket paths is less than stellar. I'd be scared to death to pick Kansas to make the Elite 8.
If you have Butler playing Wichita State, I'd be nervous about the ability of Butler to drive against this very strong Wichita State perimeter defense. Butler doesn't have a traditional post scorer. Andrew Chrabascz plays on the perimeter and Kam Woods gets much of his offense off of rebounds. The concern I have with Butler, though, is that you're picking a team to the Elite 8 that has close to a 50/50 shot of being eliminated in the Round of 64. It's a risk I'd want to stay away from if possible.
1. Kentucky over 7. Wichita State
There's a pretty good chance that first time Kentucky is only a single-digit favorite in an NCAA Tournament game will be in the Final Four. Kansas, Notre Dame and Wichita State are the three teams in the region with a realistic chance to only be single-digit underdogs, but they could also all end up in the 10-13 point underdog range.
Now, can Wichita State knock them off to get revenge for last year? It's possible. They're good enough. But what scares me is their lack of size. They start one guy over 6'4" and don't have any regulars over 6'7". Against a Kentucky team that often plays a 6'6" point guard and a 6'10" small forward? How do they keep that team from scoring in the paint? As for Kansas, there's a reason that they got destroyed by Kentucky back in November, and it's that they don't have a lot of guys who can score over big shot blockers. They were just 7th in the Big 12 in offensive block rate, and just one Big 12 team (West Virginia) shot worse than Kansas's 55% at the rim. Perry Ellis is very good, but he's not better than Karl Towns. Unless Brannen Greene has another 5-for-5 day behind the arc, they're going to lose.
If I had to pick one team in this region to knock off Kentucky in a single game, Notre Dame is probably the best bet. They're going to get mauled in the paint and on the glass, of course. But the way to beat Kentucky's defense is to shoot over the top. With their length, it's not only difficult to score around the rim, but it's incredibly difficult to score in the 5-to-15 foot range as well. Opponents shot only 29% on mid-range jumpers against Kentucky this season, which was best in the nation. But if you can hit 50%+ of your threes in a game, there's not much that any opponent can do about that. So would I pick Notre Dame to win this region? No. But Notre Dame's ceiling has a better chance of knocking off Kentucky than any other team's ceiling in this region.