Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Complete West Region Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

This region is, top to bottom, probably the best region. There are no weak teams on any seed line. Every team here is reasonable.

This is also almost a complete replay of last year's West region, interestingly enough. Last year it was Arizona on the 1 line and Wisconsin on the 2 line, but they met in a classic Elite 8 game. Last year's 6 seed in the West is back as the 3 seed: Baylor. The 9 seed? Oklahoma State again. BYU as one of the last bubble teams in the West? That's the same as last year. And Wisconsin/Oregon in this year's Round of 32 could be a rematch of the classic Round of 32 game in the West region last year.

I honestly can't remember a Region having deja vu like this in the 64/65/68 team era.

Anyway, the fact that this region is strong means that it's probably more likely to go chalk than other regions. There aren't any obvious upsets in the Round of 64 or Round of 32 that are really going to shake things up. But of course, anything is possible.

First/Second Round:

My Picks:
11. BYU over 11. Mississippi

1. Wisconsin over 16. Coastal Carolina
8. Oregon over 9. Oklahoma State
4. North Carolina over 13. Harvard
5. Arkansas over 12. Wofford
3. Baylor over 14. Georgia State
11. BYU over 6. Xavier
10. Ohio State over 7. VCU
2. Arizona over 15. Texas Southern

BYU/Ole Miss is a battle between two teams that don't play a whole lot of defense. Both are elite offenses, but neither is even particularly close to being Top 100 in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency. That said, Ole Miss was 208th in the nation in eFG% (48.2%), and did most of their scoring on rebounds and foul shots (they were 3rd in the nation at 77.8% at the line). BYU, in contrast, shoots the ball pretty well (a 53.0 eFG%). That said, BYU has two injuries to keep an eye on. Anson Winder missed their last two games with an injury, and Skyler Halford was knocked out of the WCC title game with an injury. If they can both play, and at this point that seems a reasonable belief, then I'd like them against an Ole Miss team that has faded badly since a strong run in late January and early February. If those two are out, though, I'd flip my pick over to Ole Miss.

Don't over-think Wisconsin/Coastal Carolina. That said, while you should pick Arizona to beat Texas Southern, that match-up is no joke. Texas Southern is not your typical SWAC team. Their computer numbers faded in SWAC play because they struggled to blow out crap teams game after game, but they were dangerous in non-conference play. They won at Michigan State and Kansas State while playing close, competitive games on the road at SMU, Tennessee and New Mexico State. I'd argue that the 23 point spread in Vegas is too large.

Georgia State is a tough test for Baylor. They were an underachieving team in non-conference play, only collecting a home victory over Green Bay. With RJ Hunter, Ryan Harrow and Kevin Ware, this team was expected to maybe even contend for an at-large bid if they failed to win their conference title, yet that was all but over in December. Still, they've been playing much better basketball down the stretch. Over the last seven weeks or so their Pomeroy rating has slid up from 110th to 71st. They also might thrive in the NCAA Tournament where they are the underdog. Anybody who watched the Sun Belt tournament watched the way that teams packed the paint and did everything they could to get back in transition and stop easy baskets by Georgia State. Baylor will play them much more straight up. The reason Georgia State probably won't actually win the game is because they're small and finished just 10th in the Sun Belt in DR%. Also, those drives into the lane and free throw attempts they were used to getting against Sun Belt teams won't come against a Baylor team with a ton of front court length and that was 3rd in the Big 12 in defensive FTRate. So this wouldn't be the biggest upset of all-time, but I'd go with the safe bet and take Baylor.

This Harvard team was one of the bigger underachievers this season, in my opinion. They should have been better than last year's team, but instead they were worse. And the reason was that their offense lost all of its flow and became very disjointed. They scored just 1.05 PPP in Ivy League play (compared to 1.12 PPP last season), and managed to crack 1 PPP just once in five games against the Pomeroy Top 100 (1.04 PPP in their Ivy League Playoff win over Yale). They played eight games against Pomeroy Top 100 defenses and averaged 0.87 PPP. Even if you take out the debacle against Virginia, they still averaged just 0.93 PPP against Pomeroy Top 100 defenses. North Carolina? They're the best defense Harvard has faced other than Virginia. So unless North Carolina can't hit a jump shot, they should have no trouble outscoring the Crimson.

Wofford over Arkansas will be a popular 12/5 upset, but I think Wofford is a bit overrated this season. They are 28-6 and have won 15 of 16, which is why they're popular, but they were also 11-2 in games decided by six points or fewer. In fact, while Maryland's luck in close games has been the point of debate between traditional media and analytics-based media this season, Pomeroy's Luck metric only has Maryland the second luckiest team this season, behind Wofford. That's why Arkansas, despite being a relatively weak 5 seed, is still a 7.5 point favorite in Vegas at the moment.What about the match-up? Well, Arkansas under Mike Anderson always depends a lot on forcing turnovers and scoring in transition. Wofford led the SoCon in offensive turnover rate in conference play, but for the season they were just 66th in the nation, struggling against better opponents like Stanford. West Virginia turned them over on 32% of possessions when they played. Offensive turnovers are a stat that often doesn't hold over against athletic Power 5 defenses. Throw in the fact that Wofford isn't a particularly efficient offense, and I think Arkansas has the edge here.

Xavier is a team that snuck up on a lot of people. Bad luck in close games early in the year had me joking for a while that they were going to be this year's "Best team left out of the NCAA Tournament", but the luck turned around late in the season and they slid up to a deserved 6 seed. That said, they're going to have a pair of tough 11 seeds. If BYU is healthy and gets past Ole Miss, they are going to test a Xavier defense that isn't great. Xavier in particular was bad at defending the three-point line (dead last in the Big East in defensive 3PA/FGA). Xavier will have an advantage over BYU in the paint with Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds. BYU has a lot of bodies that they can throw at those guys, but they're all foul prone, so Xavier could win this game with an incessant march to the free throw line. But Xavier is foul prone themselves, and BYU is 5th in the nation with a 77.0 FT%. So if BYU is healthy, I think they win this game. Ole Miss is probably a softer opponent for Xavier because they're not quite as explosive offensively and they were 11th in the SEC in defensive FTRate (Xavier hits them at a 72.5% clip). So I think Xavier is rooting for BYU to lose to Mississippi.

VCU/Ohio State will be one of the most high profile Round of 64 games, and rightly so. VCU is always a fun, dangerous team, while Ohio State is one of the best "sleepers" in the Tournament. They are a 10 seed because they played a crap non-conference schedule and had some bad luck in close games, but Pomeroy had them the 21st best team in the nation and Sagarin actually has them 11th. That's quite a 10 seed. As for VCU, I wrote on Sunday about why the media narrative that they fell apart and are suddenly coming on strong is mostly nonsense. Their three game losing streak featured a crazy 2OT game and a game against Dayton that came down to the final possession - hardly proof that they were falling apart. At the same time, these last two wins in the Atlantic Ten tournament are hardly proof that they're back to Final Four form. Their turnovers forced are still down significantly since they lost Briante Weber. They shot the lights out in the first half against Davidson, and almost blew their big lead when their shooting returned to normal in the second half. Meanwhile, Dayton shot 2-for-12 on threes in the A-10 title game.

Without jump shooting going in their favor, VCU needs turnovers to win games. This year they are 24-3 when forcing turnovers on 20% or more of possessions and 2-6 when under 20%, with those two wins happening to be their last two games with the jump shooting in their favor. Ohio State was just 5th in the Big Ten with turnovers on 16.8% of possessions in conference play, but they do have one of the best point guards in the country in D'Angelo Russell. And if Ohio State can limit those turnovers, VCU's halfcourt defense is very weak. Anytime a lower-seeded team is favored in the computer ratings, you need a good reason to pick against them, and I don't think there's a good enough reason to take VCU here.

Oregon/Oklahoma State is a test of how much you believe in recent form. Because a month ago, Oklahoma State looked like safe for something like a 6-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they lost six of seven to finish the season and were considered a bubble team on Selection Sunday before being awarded a 9 seed.  Oregon, in contrast, looked like a certain NIT team a month ago, but they knocked off Utah twice and also won on the road at Stanford as part of a seven game winning streak before finally falling to Arizona in the Pac-12 title game, shooting all the way up to an 8 seed. Oklahoma State, as has generally been the case under Travis Ford, is undersized and poor at rebounding the ball, though Oregon doesn't really have the personnel to take advantage of that. Oklahoma State likes to shoot a lot of threes, and Oregon isn't particularly good at defending those (8th in the Pac-12 in defensive 3PA/FGA), though Oklahoma State only hit them at a 34.6% rate during the season, so it's not like they're bombard you like Gonzaga or Indiana can. Oregon scores relatively efficiency and they do it mostly through their perimeter players getting into the lane for short jumpers and layups, led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Joseph Young. Anthony Hickey is an excellent defender, but I don't think he can stop Oregon's attack by himself. I think the fact that Oregon has played far better basketball over the last month is the tiebreaker in a close match-up.

Third Round:

My Picks:
1. Wisconsin over 8. Oregon
4. North Carolina 5. Arkansas
3. Baylor over 11. BYU
2. Arizona over 10. Ohio State

Wisconsin/Oregon would be a rematch of maybe the best game from last year's NCAA Tournament. Though this time around, Oregon isn't quite as good and Wisconsin is probably a little bit better. Oregon's defense has not been good this year and they don't have any regulars over 6'7", so they're going to have to use constant double and triple teams on Frank Kaminsky, opening things up for Wisconsin's other scorers. Offensively, Oregon has a 76.7 FT%, but Wisconsin led the nation in defensive FTRate. I could see the speedy Joseph Young proving difficult for Wisconsin's perimeter defense, particularly if they haven't got a healthy Traevon Jackson back, but unless Wisconsin isn't hitting their jump shots it won't matter.

Ohio State will be a really tough test for Arizona. Like I said above, the computers have them somewhere around the 10-20th best team in the country. Arizona's better, but the Vegas line will be small (somewhere in the 4-6 point range). The problem that I see for Ohio State is that their offense depends so much on D'Angelo Russell just making things happen, and I don't think any team in the nation has three individual perimeter defenders as good as TJ McConnell, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Ohio State doesn't have a lot of good jump shooters (Marc Loving is the only other reliable outside shooter, and as a team they hit just 34% of their threes in Big Ten play), so they rely on scoring easy baskets around the rim. Even if Russell can get in the lane, he'll have to score over the hulking Kaleb Tarczewski. That said, Arizona doesn't shoot the ball much either (336th in the nation in 3PA/FGA), so they could have trouble scoring as well. So I make the Arizona the favorite here, but if you're in a bracket contest that rewards upsets this is definitely one to think about.

I think Arizona would have an easier time with VCU, as it's hard to think of a point guard better built to handle #havoc than TJ McConnell, and as a team Arizona was second in the Pac-12 in offensive turnover rate. I don't think you can pick VCU to the Sweet 16 here.

Baylor/BYU would be a game between two team significantly better offensively than defensively. Baylor has a reputation as a team that just pounds the offensive glass (and they did lead the Big 12 in OR% again), but they can also shoot. They led the Big 12 with a 40.3 3P% in conference play. BYU can shoot also, of course, but they are not a great rebounding team and might struggle with the athleticism and physicality of a player like Rico Gathers. Baylor was also third in the Big 12 in defensive FTRate, which takes away from a BYU squad that led the WCC in both FTRate and FT% (77.7%). BYU can score on anybody, but I think they're going to struggle to stop Baylor from getting easy paint points.

Xavier would probably be the tougher match-up for Baylor, since they have a couple of very big bodies in Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds, and they were 2nd in the Big East in DR%. But they don't have any obvious advantages to make up for the fact that they have a significantly more difficult Round of 64 opponent.

North Carolina/Arkansas would feature two teams that are good match-ups for each other. Arkansas relies heavily on forcing turnovers, and North Carolina was just 10th in the ACC in offensive turnover rate. At the same time, North Carolina is at their best when they are dominating the offensive glass (they led the ACC in OR%) and Arkansas is more than accommodating (dead last in the SEC in DR%). I think my biggest concern with Arkansas is that they are a team that has a history of struggling away from home against quality opponents. They win by swamping over-matched opponents with their athleticism and aggressiveness. North Carolina has one of the best point guards in the nation in Marcus Paige, and they are also a team that is much more comfortable playing in transition than in traditional half court offense anyway. They'll be happy to beat the Arkansas press and have a layup line en route to a 93-83 win. I think they've got the be the favorite.

Sweet 16:

My Picks:
1. Wisconsin over 4. North Carolina
2. Arizona over 3. Baylor

I think Wisconsin would definitely prefer playing Arkansas to North Carolina. If Arkansas is a team that relies on rattling their opponent with pressure and forcing turnovers, Wisconsin is their nightmare. A senior-laden team that led the nation in offensive turnover rate? Forget it. North Carolina would be more of a test because they've proven that they can win in enough different ways to beat a program like Wisconsin in Virginia. They took out the Cavaliers at the ACC tournament on Friday. That said, the Tar Heels (a 35% three-point shooting team) hit 50% of their threes there, and Justin Anderson was basically useless. Wisconsin has their own injured player working his way back in Traevon Jackson, but this will be the second week of the Tournament, which will give him more time to be ready to play and to play effectively. North Carolina is a team that likes to rush out in transition and also to crash the offensive glass, and Wisconsin is excellent at preventing both of those. So Wisconsin has got to be the favorite here.

Arizona would be a tough match-up for Baylor because they have the length, athleticism and size to handle Baylor's front line. Baylor led the Big 12 in OR%, but Arizona led the nation in DR%. Arizona also has one of the best paint defenses in the nation, meaning that Baylor will be forced to hit jump shots to beat them. Baylor can hit jump shots, of course, as they hit 40% of their threes in Big 12 play, but you're basically counting on them hitting jump shots above their season average in order to pick them here. I think Baylor would much prefer to play an Ohio State team that was 10th in the Big Ten in DR% and 9th in 2P% defense. Amir Williams is their only quality big man, and he's foul prone. I think the Buckeyes would have a lot of trouble beating Baylor.

Elite 8:

My Pick:
1. Wisconsin over 2. Arizona

Wisconsin/Arizona would be a rematch of a fabulous Elite 8 game from last season, with the seeds reversed. It's obviously impossible to draw narrative conclusions from a game that was decided by a single point in overtime, but it's interesting that Arizona actually had an advantage in free throw attempts and fought to a draw in fouls called, while also having an advantage in turnovers committed, neither of which happens much to Wisconsin this year (the foul differential, in particular, has gotten a lot better for Wisconsin this season). The Badgers last year kept the game even by scoring a little more efficiently in the paint and at the line. Arizona this season is significantly more dependent on getting to the free throw line (they led the Pac-12 in FTRate and hit them at a 73.4% clip in conference play), and that plays into Wisconsin's hands. Also, last season Arizonan could turn to another elite interior defender in Aaron Gordon if Kaleb Tarczewksi got into foul trouble, and I don't think Brandon Ashley is quite as good defensively in the post as Gordon was.

The path for Arizona is a clear one. First, keep Wisconsin off the free throw line (Arizona was 8th in the Pac-12 in defensive FTRate). Second, use an interior defense that is still excellent, and long athletic wing defenders like Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to turn Wisconsin into a jump shooting team from beyond the arc, where they only hit 35.7% of their attempts this season. It's absolutely a strategy that can work. But in my opinion, it's not enough of a mismatch to make up for the fact that Wisconsin has an easier path to the Elite 8. And that is why they are, in my opinion, the favorite.

If Baylor can get into this game, they'll want revenge for the shellacking they took at the hands of Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 last season. But once again I think they  match up poorly. They like to get offensive rebounds and shoot threes, yet Wisconsin led the Big Ten in both DR% and defensive 3PA/FGA. And defensively, Baylor plays zone, which works perfectly into Wisconsin's passing ability and spacing. I honestly think Ohio State would be the toughest challenge for Wisconsin in this region aside from Arizona, because they have a guy in D'Angelo Russell that Wisconsin will struggle to defend, and because they play the same efficient, low-turnover style offensively. Wisconsin blew out the Buckeyes a couple of weeks ago, but that was Wisconsin at their absolute best and Ohio State at their absolute worst. I don't think that result had anything to do with specific match-ups.

Arizona will be very happy to avoid Wisconsin and to get either Arkansas or North Carolina. Arkansas won't beat Arizona for the same reason they won't beat Wisconsin: Arizona isn't going to wilt under MIke Anderson's defensive pressure. North Carolina, I think, would play into Arizona's hands defensively. The Tar Heels love to take jump shots, particularly early in possessions, and Arizona's defensive length is going to make it difficult for North Carolina to penetrate. They'll settle in to launch jumpers while Arizona is able to get into the paint on their own offensive possessions. The Tar Heels can crash the glass, but Arizona led the nation in DR%. So I think if you have Wisconsin getting upset early, Arizona is the obvious Final Four pick for you.

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