In college basketball, when we talk about which conference is best, in the media and with casual fans this always becomes a contest for which conference has the best teams at the top. When comparing whether the Big East or ACC is better, nobody is asking whether DePaul is better than Virginia Tech, even though they should. It should still matter if those road games in conference play include dangerous teams like Kansas State and TCU rather than floor mats like Virginia Tech and Boston College. But since we don't care, we create a bias toward conferences with a lot of teams, as well as conferences that are top heavy. If your league has ten teams where almost all of them are good (like the Big East or Big 12), you will necessarily be underrated, while if your league has 15 teams and is extremely top heavy (like the ACC), you are necessarily going to be overrated.
Remember, I say every year that you cannot judge coaches, teams or programs by results in the NCAA Tournament. They are single game samples, and weird things happen. If "the better team" won every game then the tourney would be extremely boring. All you'd need to do is figure out which were the best teams and you'd know the result of every game in advance.
Now, we understand that previous paragraph when we want to. In years when Michigan State goes down early, we say "Gosh, you don't often see Tom Izzo teams upset early", and forget about it. When Georgetown goes down early we say "LOL, you can set your watch by JTIII teams going down early, amirite?"
Similarly, when UAB knocked off Iowa State, nobody used that as evidence that Iowa State didn't deserve their 3 seed, that UAB was better than Iowa State, or that Conference USA was better than the Big 12. We knew that would be stupid. But then when North Carolina State upset Villanova, we got this sentiment all across the media:
Villanova was the best team in the Big East. NC State was one of many quality teams in the ACC. Leagues on different levels nationally.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 22, 2015
Is NC State better than Villanova? No. Not even close. Villanova just happened to have a nightmare game at a terrible time (though despite their second worst shooting performance of the season they still had a shot to win in the final 30 seconds). Villanova outscored the Big East by 0.21 PPP while NC State outscored the ACC by 0.04 PPP. You can argue that the ACC was better than the Big East, but you can argue just as well that the Big East was stronger than the ACC. And hell, we'd have had to rewrite that whole narrative if Butler had knocked off the ACC tourney champ about an hour later. And did we forget that the team which finished 6th in the 10 team Big East league is still alive in the Sweet 16? All of those latter points would have come up if the media wanted to promote a "Big East > ACC narrative". But the media was driving the ACC bandwagon all season long, so they're going to find the pieces to fit into that.
Is the ACC the best conference this year? No, it's certainly not. The Big 12 was the best, by a landslide. Is the ACC the second best conference? You can make the case, though Sagarin and Pomeroy still both have the Big East second, with the Big Ten and ACC ever so slightly behind. It's close enough that you can make the case for the ACC being second. But please, if you want to argue that the ACC is better than the Big East, don't use NCAA Tournament W/L record. That's an asinine way to judge a bunch of teams that each played over 30 different games.
So enjoy the games today, and enjoy them specifically because the worse team from the worse conference can win over a 40 minute sample size of basketball. If the best team always won, the sport would be so boring that none of you would be bothering to read a blog post about it right now.
As always, feel free to shoot me a comment to this blog post, or tweet at me. I'll do my best to respond to everybody.
Let's get to the games:
Yesterday ATS: 6-2-0
2015 Tournament ATS: 26-18-0
2014 Tournament ATS: 40-23-4
2013 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3
Virginia (-4.5) over Michigan State: This is a fair line. Both of these teams match up well against each other, and there are no obvious mismatches. I give Virginia the edge, though, because Justin Anderson was a different player against Belmont than he was in the ACC tournament. He finally looks close to 100%, and a full strength Virginia team is probably the second best team in the nation. Michigan State is going to need all of their outside shooters to shoot well to pull this upset.
San Diego State (+9.5) over Duke: This is a very "public" line. San Diego State's offense is not good, but their defense is built to stop Duke. They have the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in 6'10" Skylar Spencer, and they were second in the Mountain West in defensive 3PA/FGA. In other words, they can leave Spencer on Jahlil Okafor and lock down on Duke's perimeter scorers. If Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones get hot from deep then the Aztecs won't be able to keep up, but I think there's a pretty good chance of San Diego State keeping this a low-scoring slog.
Wichita State (+1.5) over Kansas: I picked this upset in my bracket, for reasons described here.
Oklahoma (-4.5) over Dayton: If you think this is going to be a pseudo-home game for Dayton in Columbus, you might want to ride them here, but I'm concerned about a very undersized and thin Dayton team against a tough, physical Oklahoma defense. You might remember that I said the same thing about Providence's size, but I also said that if Dayton won the game it would be because they used their superior speed to cause problems for a foul-prone Providence team. And they had a 30-to-7 advantage in free throw attempts. Oklahoma isn't foul prone, though. They are much more quick defensively, and were 21st in the nation in defensive FTRate. Dayton's going to have to hit outside shots to win here.
Gonzaga (-6.5) over Iowa: Iowa completely dominated the paint against a totally undersized Davidson team. Gonzaga, however, is one of the few teams in the country that is actually taller and bigger than Iowa. The test for Gonzaga will be keeping a quick, aggressive Iowa front line off the glass. But if they can, they're the more efficient offensive team. Iowa tends to settle against two-point jump shots, while Gonzaga runs all of their offense through the paint. The 6.5 point spread is fair, but I don't think you can take the points unless you really think this game is even, and I don't.
Oregon (+12) over Wisconsin: These two teams played a classic in the Round of 32 last season, perhaps the best game in the NCAA Tournament. This year, Wisconsin is better and Oregon is worse, so I wouldn't expect this one to come down to the final possession again. But Joseph Young will pose a test for a Wisconsin defense that is vulnerable to speedy, penetrating guards, particularly if Frank Kaminsky gets in foul trouble. And even if Wisconsin wins this one easily, they could allow a late backdoor cover, as they did in the Round of 64 against Coastal Carolina. So I like the 12 points.
West Virginia (+1) over Maryland: With this line, just pick who you think is going to win the game. I took West Virginia in my bracket, for reasons explained here.
Northern Iowa (-2.5) over Louisville: I picked Northern Iowa to win this game for reasons detailed here, and unless a game is a total toss-up I wouldn't worry about a spread as small as 2.5 points.