Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Complete East Region Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

There have been questions about Kentucky all season long, about how young they are and how they haven't really been tested in the SEC. They haven't had to play a lot of close games against good teams. But there's no question that they'll be tested in the East region here, with a wide range of opponents. If they get to the Final Four then they'll have earned it. The East region is nowhere near as difficult as the insane Midwest, but it's definitely tough. Certainly a lot tougher than the West or South.

First Round:

My Picks:
1. Kentucky over 16. East Tennessee State
8. Texas over 9. Wake Forest
5. Temple over 12. Cornell
4. Wisconsin over 13. Wofford
11. Washington over 6. Marquette
3. New Mexico over 14. Montana
10. Missouri over 7. Clemson
2. West Virginia over 15. Morgan State

I could see Montana making things difficult for New Mexico, and even the 15 and 16 seeds are strong here, but once again you should feel very confident throwing the 1, 2 and 3 seeds into the second round. I also would warn against picking against the 4 and 5 seeds in this bracket. Wofford is getting some upset hype, but Wisconsin rarely ever loses to big underdogs in the NCAA Tournament, unless there is a shooter who gets very hot, but Wofford doesn't have that type of spurt-ability (to steal one of those stupid made up television words). And I'm even more wary of that Cornell upset because of the amazing amount of hype they're getting right now. The only explanation for it is the general love the public has for the idea of a bunch of slow, white Ivy League kids back-dooring an athletically superior team (even though Cornell doesn't run the Princeton offense), as well as the fact that Cornell nearly beat Kansas. But I watched that Kansas game, and it was just one fluke after another. Kansas was dominating that game, and the score was utterly inexplicable to anybody watching. Cornell has consistently kept things close against good teams because they can shoot the three well, but when things get close late in games they struggle handling the ball against superior athletic teams that press. I can see Cornell having a late lead over Temple, but blowing it to a series of late turnovers when Temple turns up the pressure. Don't get me wrong: Cornell would be a perfectly find upset pick. It's just not the slam dunk that everybody on ESPN is making it out to be. And Jay Bilas putting Cornell into the Elite 8 is one of the dumbest things I've ever seen from an analyst who usually is one of the smartest on ESPN.

Texas vs Wake Forest is an interesting match-up of two teams with a ton of talent that have underperformed all season. But Texas is just the much better team in my opinion: their Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 19th and their PREDICTOR is 10th, and their Pomeroy rating is 17th. Meanwhile, Wake Forest has an ELO_CHESS of 39th and a PREDICTOR of 47th, and a Pomeroy rating of 50th. Texas has just been much better this year. They have struggled without Dogus Balbay, and the argument can be made that Ishmael Smith will torch the Texas backcourt (since Balbay was by far the best Texas perimeter defender), but I don't think it's enough. Texas has lost a lot of games down the stretch, but it was against a brutal schedule, and they also lost a lot of very close games, some of which were a bit unlucky. So I'm leaning pretty strongly toward Texas.

Marquette has played very well lately, but I think Washington is a bad match-up for them. Marquette's strength is their backcourt, which is very quick, tenacious and good at shooting the three. But Washington has a really good backcourt also, and they handled California's backcourt very well this season, and it would be hard to find a team in the country more similar to Marquette than California. The reason Washington beat California was because they could handle the backcourt, but also have a couple of good interior players. Marquette is very small as is, and they really struggle when Lazar Hayward gets into foul trouble, and Washington is very good at drawing fouls. Venoy Overton and Isaiah Thomas are particularly good at drawing fouls (both draw more than 6 fouls every 40 minutes). If they can knock Hayward out then Marquette is in a lot of trouble. Also, Washington's perimeter defense is much better than their post defense, which is good for handling Marquette's stellar three point shooting. Also, both Sagarin and Pomeroy view these two teams as basically identical in terms of ability, and if you know nothing about the teams and their computer ratings are identical, you always want to pick the worse seed.

Finally, the Missouri/Clemson game is actually pretty difficult to call. Missouri has tailed off down the stretch since Justin Safford got hurt, but they're a team that is much more about the system than any of the players. In addition, both teams have Sagarin PREDICTOR ratings far better than their ELO_CHESS ratings, which means that these are both teams you're supposed to pick for upsets. But I'm giving the edge to Missouri because of the fact that their system is hard enough to deal with when you see it twice a year, but they're particularly rough on teams that haven't seen it before. Finally, while Missouri has been bad away from home, Clemson has been particularly awful with only two road/neutral wins against the RPI Top 90. I called for Missouri to make a good run last year, and I'm calling for them to over-perform their seed yet again. But this is close to a 50/50 game, so you can't go too wrong with Clemson here.

Second Round:

My Picks:
1. Kentucky over 8. Texas
4. Wisconsin over 5. Temple
3. New Mexico over 11. Washington
2. West Virginia over 10. Missouri

I know that this is kind of boring, taking the top four seeds to the Sweet 16, but these are actually all very tight games and I could see upsets in all of them. Texas is a dangerous team for Kentucky to play because while Texas in general has looked awful over the last month or two, they have occasionally shown flashes of the team they were in the first half of the year. And Texas at its best can easily take down Kentucky. Texas is such an inconsistent, unpredictable team that you don't want to bet on them to go far in your bracke, but on any given night they can ruin everybody else's bracket by knocking off anybody. I feel like Missouri is also a dangerous opponent for West Virginia because of their intense press. West Virginia did handle Syracuse fairly well, and Syracuse is the team with the second most steals per game out of a BCS conference (Missouri having the most, of course), but Syracuse plays a completely different style of defense from Missouri, and so gets its steals in different ways. Missouri is a sloppy offensive team, meaning that West Virginia should get their share of turnovers. And Missouri is a horrendous defensive rebounding team, which will make them vulnerable against a West Viginia team rated second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. And do you really want to bet on Missouri hitting more clutch shots in the final minute than Da'Sean Butler?

The New Mexico/Washington game is a good clash of styles, with the methodical and efficient New Mexico Lobos going up against the frenetic, aggressive Washington squad. The computer actually like Washington over New Mexico, but a couple of things are holding me back. For one, Washington is a very bad shooting team, and relies on a lot of offensive rebounds and turnovers, but New Mexico is very safe with the ball (15th in the nation in offensive turnover percentage) and outstanding on the defensive boards. Washington is horrid shooting the three (32.5%) and New Mexico's perimeter defense is better than their post defense, so Washington is not going to be able to use the three to get back into a game that they're losing. And the fact is that I've been waiting for Washington to show me that they were an elite team all season long, and they've constantly disappointed me. I'm fine with picking them to win a game, but I just do not feel comfortable counting on them to make the Sweet 16.

The second round game in the 4/5/12/13 pod will be an interesting one because both Temple and Cornell would pose issues for Wisconsin. Both Temple and Cornell are dangerous, well-coached teams that will be able to attack Wisconsin in different ways. Cornell is tough because they shoot the ball very well, and were first in the nation in three point shooting (43.8% as a team). That said, you have to figure that stat is inflated by the competition they were playing. They did not shoot nearly as well against elite opponents this season. And let's recall that if they're playing Wisconsin that the Badgers will not only have a good system of their own, but will also have substantially better athletes. I know that Wisconsin has the reputation of having a bunch of slow, white kids who just play a system, but they're actually very athletic this season. They have two (in my opinion) future NBA Draft picks in Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor, and you'd be hard pressed to find five players you'd rather be depending on to get to the basket in a big situation than Trevon Hughes. The idea that Wisconsin doesn't have elite level athletes this season is absurd. If we're looking at the match-up with Temple then it could be a real grind of a game. Both teams are outside the Top 330 in the nation in tempo, and both play absolutely suffocating defense. We could honestly see a 48-42 final score. That said, while both teams play similar styles, and both are fabulously coached, I give Wisconsin the edge because of their Tournament experience and the fact that they've been sharpening their skills against elite Big Ten teams all season, while Temple hasn't had any team near the ability of Purdue, Ohio State or Michigan State in their conference. Besides, Wisconsin has a far better Sagarin PREDICTOR than ELO_CHESS, while Temple is the opposite. And when you have a battle of teams like that, you always want to pick the team that has the dramatically better PREDICTOR than the other.

Sweet 16:

My Picks:
4. Wisconsin over 1. Kentucky
2. West Virginia over 3. New Mexico

I'm going to start with the West Virginia game just because it's easier to call. I just think West Virginia is the far superior team. Neither Sagarin or Pomeroy rates New Mexico as one of the 40 best teams in the nation, and I'd have picked them to get upset before the Sweet 16 if they'd had a tougher draw. I could easily see Marquette or Washington knocking them off. By no means is New Mexico even 50% likely to make the Sweet 16, but they're just the most likely in my opinion. Meanwhile West Virginia is just a very good team that has gotten even better down the stretch. They have a lot of NCAA Tournament experience, both on the floor and in their head coach. And their athletes are just not the type of players New Mexico has seen in the Mountain West, as good as that conference was. I don't see Marquette or Washington having much of a shot in this game either, by the way. I think that the only team that possibly has an easier path to the Elite 8 than West Virginia is Syracuse.

The Wisconsin/Kentucky game might not happen, because both teams will face tough opponents in the second round, but if it does then it will be a fascinating clash of styles. As athletic and talented as Wisconsin is, they're nowhere in the same league as the crazy athleticism that has NBA scouts drooling at Kentucky games. But that all said, I think Wisconsin is the worst type of match-up for Kentucky, because they're an experienced team that executes well and never makes stupid mistakes. Kentucky depends a lot on turnovers, particularly toward the end of games when they're behind, but Wisconsin was first in the nation in fewest offensive turnovers per game. And Kentucky also depends a lot on offensive put-backs (as Mississippi State learned very recently), but Wisconsin is first in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. Kentucky also gets to the line a lot and gets its opponents in foul trouble, because John Wall is spectacular at throwing his body at people and getting fouls called, and Cousins is possibly even better (Cousins draws 8.6 fouls per every 40 minutes on the floor, which is the most for any player on any team in the RPI Top 150). But again, Wisconsin does an excellent job of never fouling. Throw in the fact that Sagarin projects Kentucky to only be a 0.03 point favorite over Wisconsin on a neutral floor, along with Pomeroy actually saying Wisconsin is slightly better, and Kentucky is primed for an upset here. Temple and Cornell both have the same ability to execute well that Wisconsin does, but they just don't have enough athletes to hang with Kentucky. Execution matters, but only to a point - at some point athleticism takes over. And the reason why Wisconsin is in better shape for a Final Four than I can ever remember them being is because they've finally got the athletes (particularly at the guard position) that while not as good as the athletes at a school like Kentucky, are close enough that their superior execution, in-game coaching and experience can carry the day.

Elite 8:

My Pick:
2. West Virginia over 4. Wisconsin

West Virginia has a cakewalk to the Elite 8, and should be here no matter what, but obviously they could easily be playing Kentucky instead of Wisconsin, so I'll talk about both match-ups. West Virginia has the same athletes that can jump out of a gym that Kentucky has, but they pose more of a threat to Wisconsin because they are more experienced and will better be able to handle a Wisconsin team that will slow the game down and execute well against any opponent. West Virginia is also efficient offensively, and so will be able to take care of the ball enough to avoid a big turnover disparity. And Wisconsin struggles most with teams that are long and athletic on the perimeter and are willing to play defense 30 feet from the basket, which West Virginia is. Wisconsin's weakness is on the boards, and West Virginia will attack those all day and will probably win the battle. Kentucky has the same type of rebounders as West Virginia, but they're not nearly as used to Wisconsin's style and are much more likely to get frustrated and to commit stupid fouls. So I think West Virginia is the tougher match-up for Wisconsin.

Should West Virginia and Kentucky play, I actually still like West Virginia for a couple of reasons. First of all, there's no question that West Virginia is more likely to be in the Elite 8 in Kentucky. So if you're filling out your bracket you need to be sure that Kentucky is the heavy favorite over West Virginia, because if it's a toss-up then the tiebreaker needs to be likelihood of even being in the game, which West Virginia wins. Second of all, this will perhaps be the first time all season that Kentucky has played a team as athletic as they are, and so they're not going to be able to out-athlete West Virginia down the stretch of games the way they have been able to do against mediocre SEC teams. And as much hype as John Wall gets for his clutch play, I've seen him play quite a bit and he's actually been pretty mediocre in the clutch - he seems to get very tight. He got called the hero of the game againts Mississippi State for hitting a 1-in-10 fluke shot, after missing wide open shot after wide open shot down the stretch of the game, a couple of them missed so badly that it was clear that he just panicked. If there are ten seconds left and I need a basket made, I'd rather have De'Sean Butler than John Wall. So if you've got West Virginia playing Kentucky in your Elite 8, I'd lean towards West Virginia still. In fact, while I would favor West Virginia against either Wisconsin or Kentucky, I give Wisconsin a better shot. And if you're in a bracket pool with a lot of other people and are looking for an upset Final four pick to try to steal the bracket win, Wisconsin is a decent bet since West Virginia is a very popular Final Four team and many people in your bracket pool will have them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a Lobo fan, I hate your argument, but it makes absolutely perfect sense. I didn't even pick New Mexico over WVU in my bracket, but I guess that's why they play the games, right? :-)