Saturday, March 30, 2013

Elite 8 Open Thread + Picking The Lines

Man, I came awfully close to going 8-0 against the spread in the Sweet 16. My two losses (Ohio State and Oregon) were by a half-point each. Regardless, my bracket was blown up by Indiana's atrocious performance against Syracuse. That loss assures that I won't be getting all four Final 4 teams again. Oh well.

We can talk about those Indiana and Miami atrocious performance briefly. I was in person for those games in Washington DC, so I saw just how stunned those fans were up close. Both Syracuse and Marquette came into those games loose and without pressure, while Miami and Indiana played terrible in different ways. As I noted on twitter, I didn't think Miami really played that badly. They just couldn't hit a shot to save their lives. If Miami hit outside jumpers anywhere near their normal clip then they would have dispatched Marquette pretty easily. The same could not be said for Indiana, who were truly poor on both sides of the ball. They had no idea what to do against the zone, where they could never get Cody Zeller the ball at the top of the key, and where their guards were not good enough ball handlers to attack the zone themselves. Christian Watford turned into their most effective offensive weapon, which is never a good sign. And defensively? They just were not very good. Maybe it was their offensive struggle that was causing them to be overly aggressive on defense, but their help defense was constantly out of position and useless.

Looking forward to the Elite 8, we can all thank the Selection Committee for putting two of the three best teams in the country in the same region. Louisville and Duke did both  manage to navigate the Region of Death (though Louisville got a huge break when Oregon knocked off St. Louis). Now, those two teams will play for a de facto National Title game. The winner will be the clear favorite in the Final Four. The only team that I think is a significant threat is Florida. Any other team knocking off the Louisville/Duke winner would be a pretty big stunner.

Anyway, let's get to the Elite 8 games

Sweet 16 ATS: 6-2-0
Total through Saturday: 32-27-1
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Syracuse (-4.5) over Marquette: Yes, Marquette won the head-to-head match-up by three points this year. But they were at home and took full advantage, earning 35 free throws to only 7 for Syracuse, and then hitting those FTs at an 83% clip. Syracuse is obviously the much better team on paper. That spread is large enough that you can take Marquette if those think they have enough of a match-up advantage to make this game something of a toss-up, but I don't. Marquette's ability to get after the offensive glass and to the free throw line is an advantage here, but they are a terrible shooting team (28.7% on threes in Big East play) and very sloppy (11th in the BE in offensive TO%). So the only way they can win this game is by rebounding a ton of their bricked threes or by having another march to the free throw line. Having been at the Sweet 16 games, Indiana had by far the most fans of any team there (so there might be a lot of open seats tonight), but Syracuse was clearly second. The Marquette/Miami game was a morgue. So if any team gets the hometown calls, I'd expect it to be Syracuse. And so Marquette should not expect a 28 free throw attempt advantage, and will probably lose.
Wichita State (+4.5) over Ohio State: Let's be honest, Wichita State has played better than Ohio State so far in this Tournament. And overall, the gap between these two teams is just not that large. Wichita State is, according to Sagarin and Pomeroy, better than Marquette, which is why they really shouldn't totally be lumped in with the "Cinderella" teams if they steal a trip to the Final Four. They would have to pull three upsets to make the Final Four (and avoided having to pull a fourth because Wisconsin got knocked out... though they'd likely have been favored over Kansas State), but they're no La Salle or Florida Gulf Coast. As for this game, I'm worried about Ohio State's ability to score if Wichita State's front line can shut down DeShaun Thomas. We've seen far too much this Tournament of Aaron Craft trying to do everything himself, which in the long run is a recipe for the disaster. And the Ohio State defense? It really hasn't been that great so far in the NCAA Tournament (both opponents have broken 1.1 PPP). I wouldn't be surprised to see Wichita State getting some easy baskets, particularly off of offensive rebounds. This is something of a toss-up game, so I'll take the points.

Florida (-2.5) over Michigan: Unfortunately, this game is going to get used as a proof by many people one way or the other on advanced metrics. As we know, it's idiotic to judge anything on a single game. Crazy stuff happens in 40 minutes, and it wouldn't be shocking if either team won this game. That said, I do still believe that Florida is the favorite here. While Trey Burke was the hero last night, the reality is that he wouldn't have had a chance to be the hero if Mitch McGary hadn't played the best game of his young career (and I call that his best game despite the fact that I appear to be super-high on McGary compared to most people - I think he could be the best big man in the Big Ten next season). Burke was a no-show in the first half, and Tim Hardaway was basically a no-show the entire game. And Florida's perimeter defense is awfully aggressive and is really going to get after those two. Michigan's outside shooting has not been great lately, and I would expect Florida to win the battle of the boards. If Burke plays an entire game at the level he finished the Kansas game, and if McGary has a repeat as well, then Michigan can definitely win this game. But the edge has to go to Florida.

Duke (+3.5) over Louisville: I agree with Ken Pomeroy in being unable to understand why Russ Smith has been blackballed from Player of the Year conversation. When I said I thought he and Otto Porter were pretty even for Big East POY, I got pounded on twitter by people saying I was nuts. But let's be honest here - Smith is by far the best player on arguably the best team. He is the best defensive player on the best defensive team in the nation. And offensively, he takes 32.5% of his team's shots (with a 47.3 eFG%) and assists 22.3% of their made baskets while on the floor - he is clearly the team's best offensive player. Last night, Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg (who tend to vary between saying trite things and saying false things about college basketball), kept talking about Russ Smith and Kevin Ware "stepping up" for Peyton Siva (who was in foul trouble), as if Smith was not the best player on the team. I just don't get it. Is this really just about a couple of bad "clutch" shots by Russ in the 5OT Notre Dame game? You can't judge a whole season on a few minutes in one bizarre game. Otto Porter and Victor Oladipo had bad games also. Everybody has a bad game in a 30+ game season.

Anyway, that all said, I picked Duke in my bracket so I have to stick with them here. I just think Duke is being undervalued by Vegas because the computers don't realize that Ryan Kelly was out for most of the ACC season. And Duke's defense is just so, so much better with Kelly in there. We saw it yet again last night as he locked down the paint for Duke with Mason Plumlee in foul trouble. He's such a smart player, and he's more athletic than he gets credit for. It's Kelly, not Plumlee, who is Duke's best defensive player. Louisville is a team that tends to give up a lot of open three-pointers if they don't turn you over, so Duke just has to avoid a 15+ turnover game and they should win. And that puts the pressure on Quinn Cook, who at times has looked overwhelmed by elite perimeter defenses. If he can play at his best and keep Louisville from transition offense then Duke will likely win. If Cook starts looking like the young player that he is, and the pressure falls on Seth Curry to generate offense by himself, then Louisville will likely win. That's the match-up that will decide this game.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sweet 16 Open Thread + Picking The Lines

The nature of a one-and-done tournament is that there is always going to be major media overreaction to everything. You'd think the lesson every year would be not to overreact to one or two games, but it seems like it actually gets worse each season. Georgetown and Pitt lose early? It's proof that they "can't win" in the NCAA Tournament. The Mountain West has a bad NCAA Tournament? They go from "underrated" to "way overrated disaster" in about 48 hours.

I have to say, though, I haven't seen anything like this Florida Gulf Coast freak out. And look, everybody (but Georgetown and San Diego State fans) is loving the Florida Gulf Coast thing. A team out of nowhere going to the Sweet 16 with an aggressive, no-worries styles of play. That one-handed alley oop late against Georgetown was incredibly stupid to attempt, but it worked so it was awesome.

But instead of enjoying FGCU's run for the fluke that it is, there's been an incredible amount of moralizing from the typical corners of the Internet. People who believe that college basketball is now "boring" and that offenses suck (despite the fact that the statistics don't back that belief up) suddenly think FGCU is revolutionizing college basketball. I have heard/read half a dozen leading college basketball "analysts" compare them to the Hank Gathers Loyola-Marymount teams. Yeah. No. First of all, FGCU was 4th in the Atlantic Sun in tempo and 2nd in offensive efficiency. You're getting much more tempo and offense from a team like Iona, if that's what you want. Second, these last two games in no way represent what FGCU is as a team normally. They did steal an early season game from a short-handed Miami team, but their other three games against BCS conference teams were all double digit losses, and they got rocked by VCU. This run came out of nowhere, and to pretend that it would happen again if we started the NCAA Tournament from scratch again is inanity.

My favorite spin-off of this topic, which I joked about on twitter, is the growing sentiment that FGCU is going to knock off Florida while Miami is really screwed without Reggie Johnson (i.e. "They can't get to the Final Four without Reggie Johnson"). If you don't realize that Miami sans Reggie Johnson is significantly better than FGCU, you're just wrong. You can't throw out FGCU's sweep to Lipscomb any more than you can throw out their two NCAA Tournament wins. They are what their entire season is.

I love watching FGCU's run, but I love it because it's such a fluke. This couldn't happen in any other sport. In college football, FGCU would never get to even play against the big boys, and in the NBA they'd never have a chance against Georgetown or San Diego State in a best-of-5 or best-of-7 series. But in one game? Anything can happen. That's what makes college basketball unique. Two weeks before the start of the NCAA Tournament, more than 300 teams still have a chance to win the NCAA Tournament. And if you get super hot at the right time? You become Florida Gulf Coast.

Anyway, let's get to the Sweet 16 games.

Sunday ATS: 3-5-0
Total through Saturday: 26-25-1
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Marquette (+5.5) over Miami (Fl): I do think that Miami is going to win this game. Marquette is very dependent upon getting after the offensive glass, while Miami is very strong on the defensive glass (they led the ACC in DR%). The loss of Reggie Johnson is very overrated. Johnson missed a bunch of time this year, and the team wasn't significantly worse without him. He regressed this year, and most of his production can be replaced by Julian Gamble. That all said, Marquette seems to keep getting themselves in close games, and they've been remarkably lucky in these close games. Five of their last seven games have been decided by six points or less, and they have won every single one of them. Four of those wins came down to the final possession of the game. So I'll take the points here just to be safe.
Ohio State (-3.5) over Arizona: As I said on twitter, Aaron Craft Marshall Henderson'd the final seven minutes of their game against Iowa State. He made several dumb mistakes, and then in the final couple of minutes fell into take-every-shot mode. He did this same thing in their overtime loss to Michigan, when DeShaun Thomas didn't get a shot in the final seven minutes of the game. Here, the epitome of that stupidity was in the final two possessions. First, unaware that speeding up would allow a 2-for-1, Craft dribbled in place for 20 seconds before going one-on-one and taking a terrible shot. Somehow the Buckeyes got the ball back, and Craft used his final possession to dribble in place until the buzzer and then launch a three-pointer without attempting any offense, despite the fact that he was only a 29% three-point shooter this season. Of course, like Marshall Henderson, he got all the glory. My twitter account was besieged with "What balls he showed to take the big shot after all his struggles!" No, if you lose on 100 lottery tickets in a row and then hit big on the 101st, it doesn't change the fact that investing in the lottery is dumb. Ohio State would have won much more easily if Craft had played smart and worked the offense the way he did the rest of the game.

Anyway, getting back to this actual game, Craft is usually a really good player. I'd be concerned about his play late in games, but I don't think this game will be so close. The Buckeyes have an aggressive defense that should give a lot of troubles to Arizona's turnover-prone backcourt. They also limit offensive rebounds and free throws, which are the two things the Wildcats really depend on offensively. So I don't think this game will get close enough that Craft's late game selfishness can harm the Buckeyes.

Syracuse (+5.5) over Indiana: This is a dangerous game for Indiana. Indiana has a tendency against quality defenses to become too perimeter-oriented, and to stop working the ball into their best offensive weapon (Cody Zeller). Against the Syracuse zone, there's a really good chance that Zeller goes invisible and the Hoosiers try to win by just hitting threes. Indiana hit 40.8% of their threes this season, of course, so shooting threes could lead them to a big victory. But if those shots don't fall then they'll lose. On top of all that, Yogi Ferrell and the Indiana backcourt does occasionally turn the ball over and they lack another true big man aside from Zeller. The Hoosiers were 11th and 10th in the Big Ten in offensive turnover rate and DR%. Syracuse feeds off of turnovers and easy second chances. To me, Syracuse is a bigger test than whoever Indiana might play in the Elite 8.

Wichita State (-4) over La Salle: I have to admit: this is not a match-up I broke down in my Tournament previews. I did not think we'd be seeing this one. There are a few things to remember in this game, though. First of all, while Wichita State keeps getting lumped in with "Cinderella" teams like La Salle and Florida Gulf Coast, that's really an unfair comparison. Wichita State is a very strong 9 seed. They're currently sitting 21st in Pomeroy. For comparison, 3 seed Marquette is 28th and La Salle is 47th (with their two lucky final possession wins, Marquette's Pomeroy rating has actually dropped from 25th to 28th during the NCAA Tournament, which makes sense when you understand tempo-free analysis). In addition, La Salle has gotten lucky with opponents a bit. They are a very poor rebounding team, but haven't really played a team that gets after the offensive glass. They were outrebounded in every game, but good outside shooting (or poor outside shooting from their opponent) was enough for them to escape with wins. Wichita State will get after the offensive glass much more aggressively than the other teams La Salle has played so far. This is La Salle's toughest game so far in the NCAA Tournament, and I think their run ends here.

Oregon (+10) over Louisville: Oregon's fluke run isn't quite at the level of Florida Gulf Coast's, but it's closer than you think. Oregon beat two significantly better teams by wide margins. By any metric, their two best performances of the entire season have been their two NCAA Tournament games. Great timing. So can they keep it up? Maybe. I guess. VCU did this two seasons ago (although as mediocre as Oregon was for most of this season, they were still better than 2010-11 VCU was in their regular season), and they kept it going for another week. Honestly, this game could be chaos. Both teams have quick guards, both force a ton of turnovers, but both can be sloppy with the ball as well. This would be an even more shocking upset than what they did to St. Louis, but 10 points are a lot with how Oregon is playing right now. I'll take them.

Michigan (+2) over Kansas: I took Michigan in my bracket, so I'll stick with them here. As blown up as my bracket is, I still have 7 of 8 Elite 8 teams and all of my Final Four teams left, so I still have a chance for a decent year. Michigan over Kansas was one of my big picks. I think Michigan has a massive backcourt advantage here, and that's why I like them here. They can shoot the ball pretty well from outside, and I think Mitch McGary is exactly what they need against Jeff Withey. McGary doesn't generate a lot of offense in the post, so it's not like Withey is going to have the opportunity to shut down an important Michigan option, but McGary has the defensive ability and physicality to hang in there on rebounds and to limit what Withey can do offensively. With did a ton of damage on the offensive glass against North Carolina, and it will be up to McGary to prevent a repeat performance. It will be fascinating to see Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway attacking the paint with Withey looming. If they can generate a decent amount of offense that way, they should win. Michigan is just playing better basketball than Kansas right now.

Duke (-2) over Michigan State: A 2 point spread is too small to worry about. Pick the team you think is going to win, and for me that's Duke. With Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee at full strength, I do think Duke has enough post defense to limit the damage from Michigan State's front line enough to make up for their big backcourt advantage. Michigan State (8th in the Big Ten in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio) is not great at stopping threes, which are a big part of Duke's offense. And I just think Michigan State as a team doesn't have a great ceiling this year - they don't have a great offensive scorer, they don't have a true lock down defender, and they're not great at any one aspect of the game. They're strong across the board, but the only arguments for Michigan State going far this year are "Izzo is a wizard", which is an argument I find unconvincing. Besides, no coach in the history of the modern 64/65/68 NCAA Tournament has a better track record than Coach K, so that intangible doesn't work in Sparty's favor anyway. Duke is the better team, so they are my pick.

Florida (-12.5) over Florida Gulf Coast: I've seen this line anywhere between 11.5 and 13.5 - it's all over the place. Nobody really knows what to make of this Florida Gulf Coast situation. That said, even with the way their computer rating has shot up with these two huge NCAA Tournament performances, they're still 19 point underdogs in Pomeroy and 17 in Sagarin. This isn't a situation like Oregon, or even VCU two years ago, where an at-large quality team got super hot at the right time... Florida Gulf Coast is not at that level at all. FGCU was a strong 15 seed - I said so multiple times before the NCAA Tournament tipped off - but they'd have been a pretty average 14 seed. And when you think of it that way, against a Florida Gators team that is good enough to be a 1 seed, those 12.5 points suddenly don't look that big. And maybe FGCU will make me look silly like they did against San Diego State (though to be fair, I did take them against the spread when they played Georgetown and warned that they could seriously scare the Hoyas), but I'll take my chances. FGCU is a great, fun story that we're going to remember for decades. But there's just no way that a 15 seed can keep this up much longer... right?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Day 6 Open Thread + Picking The Lines

No, the West Region doesn't make any sense. Nor does Marquette continuing to have really good luck in close games. Nor does a mediocre outside shooting Wichita State team (33.0% behind the arc for the season) hitting 14-for-28 on threes.

But the story to me is Oregon. The Ducks have been completely mediocre all season long. For all the talk about Dominic Artis, he's an overrated player, and it's not like Oregon was playing well pre-Tournament in games with Artis back in the lineup. But they have been outstanding in two dominant wins over significantly superior opponents. Is it too soon to compare them to 2010-11 VCU? That VCU team also was extremely mediocre during the regular season, but suddenly started shooting the lights out and executing at a high level all throughout the Tournament. As good as Louisville has been playing, they can absolutely lose to an Oregon team that plays like they have in their first two NCAA Tournament games.

But we'll get to that later this week, when we're closer to the Sweet 16 games. Let's talk about the final day of the first week of the NCAA Tournament. The game of the day is Kansas/North Carolina of course, but there should be some other really good action. I'm particularly curious to see if Ohio State can keep their mental focus with the way the West Region has laid out the red carpet for their trip to the Final Four.

Anyway, let's get to the full slate of Saturday's games.

Saturday ATS: 3-4-1
Total through Saturday: 23-20-1
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Ohio State (-7) over Iowa State: This is a fair line. Ohio State has had trouble defending the three-point line at times this season, and Iowa State does have a bunch of good outside shooters. If they get hot then they can win this game outright. At the same time, the Iowa State defense is not at all good and Ohio State should be able to score a lot of points in the paint. The key match-up for Iowa State will be Korie Lucious vs Aaron Craft. If Lucious can limit turnovers and minimize dumb mistakes, Ohio State will struggle to cover this spread.
Indiana (-11.5) over Temple: This may seem like a big spread, but Indiana should put up points in bunches. Temple struggles to defend the perimeter, which is where Indiana is strongest. Also, Indiana is built with Victor Oladipo to shut down individual star scorers on opposing teams, and that is what Temple has with Khalif Wyatt. They will need a big game by Wyatt to keep this game close, and I don't think they'll get it.

North Carolina (+6) over Kansas: Don't be shocked if North Carolina wins this game outright. North Carolina is playing their best basketball of the season right now, and they match up well with Kansas. As a perimeter-oriented offense, they will not try to test Jeff Withey much. More importantly, Kansas has struggled with turnovers against aggressive defenses this season, which means that the Tar Heels could get going out in transition.

Florida (-8.5) over Minnesota: With the region totally opened up for Florida, the Gators shouldn't have much trouble with the Gophers here. Minnesota is underrated, but so are the Gators, and Florida matches up really well. The Gophers perimeter defense is poor, which is going to open up a lot of open jumpers for the Gators. Minnesota also has significant ball control problems, which will lead to Florida transition opportunities. And while Florida only has one real paint player (Patric Young), Minnesota only has one big that they need to be concerned about there (Trevor Mbakwe). Young should at least be able to fight to a draw, which should allow the Gators to cover the spread.

San Diego State (-7) over Florida Gulf Coast: Florida Gulf Coast earned the upset of the Tournament, but I think their run will end here. Historically, 14 and 15 seeds that win in the NCAA Tournament tend to struggle in their next game as they return to reality. They spend their last 48 hours in a media whirlwind, while San Diego State spent their time preparing to win a game. The Aztecs are the better team, and they should dominate the paint and win pretty easily.

La Salle (+4) over Ole Miss: Nothing in the West Region makes sense right now. I do think that La Salle's ability to eliminate the three (they led the A-10 in 3P% and 3PA/FGA defense in conference play) should help them against Marshall Henderson and the Ole Miss attack. That same argument was used for Wisconsin, but if Wisconsin shot even close to their season average from the field they'd have crushed Ole Miss on Friday. I think the same logic still applies. Against the soft Ole Miss perimeter defense, another big game for Ramon Galloway can deliver a win.

Miami (-7.5) over Illinois: This is a little bit of a bigger spread than the computers project, but I think Miami matches up really well with Illinois. The Illini offense tends to get incredibly disjointed against quality defenses, which is what Miami has. Illinois is a poor shooting team, so they're not going to be able to attack the Hurricanes over the top. Defensively, Illinois led the Big Ten in defensive turnover rate, but were only 10th in eFG% defense. So if you can take care of the ball against Illinois, you will score a lot of points. Miami's experienced backcourt should be a key weapon there.

Duke (-5) over Creighton: You all know the story with Creighton now. If they hit shots then they win, if they miss shots then they lose. Duke's ability to take away the three should be key here. With Ryan Kelly back at full strength, Duke should be able to hold their own in the paint. Duke's rebounding is a problem, but Creighton is not a team that will take advantage of that. Creighton has to out-shoot their opponents to win, and I don't think they're going to out-shoot Duke.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Day 5 Open Thread + Picking The Lines

Well, Friday was definitely quite a bit crazier than Thursday. The biggest story, of course, was Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown. FGCU somehow had the 7th best offensive efficiency (1.04) that Georgetown had allowed this season. This wasn't of the Norfolk State/Missouri variety, though. We knew coming in that FGCU was a strong 15 seed that had already knocked off Miami this season. And with Georgetown's Tournament troubles in recent years, you could sense the dread in Hoyas fans even before this game tipped.

The Ole Miss win over Wisconsin wasn't quite as surprising, but statistically it might have been more bizarre. Wisconsin had not had an eFG% below 31.4% (their rate today) in more than 7 years. And this came against only the 8th best defense (and 11th best eFG% defense) in the SEC. Incredible, and a tough loss for a Wisconsin team that had a great Final Four shot with their draw.

While the result isn't a shock, the margin of the Iowa State/Notre Dame is another incredible result. The Irish have been playing their best basketball over the last month, seemingly peaking at the right time. They've been far better than Iowa State the past few weeks. Yet they just got smoked. It wasn't just shooting - they managed to commit 11 more turnovers than the Cyclones.

The big winners on Friday? Ohio State, Gonzaga and Florida. All three had their brackets swing wide open. Poor Louisville is still stuck with the Region of Death. We'll get to see the Cardinals in action on Saturday, by the way.

A lot of fun games are coming up on Saturday. Michigan/VCU is probably the most fascinating contrast in styles. Butler/Marquette is obviously a key game. Don't sleep on Wichita State/Gonzaga - the Shockers match up well against the Zags.

Anyway, let's get to the full slate of Saturday's games.

Friday ATS: 11-5-0
Total through Friday: 20-16-0
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Michigan (-3) over VCU: VCU could not have had a better Round of 64 match-up. The Rams blowing out Akron was the safest bet of the entire round. But VCU could not have a worse Round of 32 match-up than Michigan. VCU #havoc relies on forcing a ton of turnovers. They were 2nd-to-last in the Atlantic Ten in eFG% against and don't shoot the ball well, so without those turnovers they get handled pretty easily. St. Louis did it to them twice. And Michigan leads the entire nation in offensive turnover rate, and features a backcourt with two guys that could be playing regular minutes in the NBA right now if they wanted. The Wolverines should win.
Michigan State (-5.5) over Memphis: In terms of match-ups, I can see why Memphis might be a sexy upset pick here. Their quick guards are going to really give the Michigan State backcourt trouble defensively. Memphis also might be able to speed up Michigan State's offense, which never works out for the Spartans. At the same time, this Memphis team just is so sloppy and undisciplined. St. Mary's couldn't hit a shot to save their lives, and still had a final shot from Dellavadeova to win. Unless Memphis plays significantly better against the Spartans, they're going to get run off the floor.

Colorado State (+11) over Louisville: This is a pretty fair line, I think. Colorado State is a good team. Their back court is really going to struggle to handle the Louisville pressure defense, but at the same time Louisville is a poor defensive rebounding team (11th in the Big East in DR%), and nobody rebounds better than Colorado State. I could see the Rams playing a lot of volleyball near the rim and hanging in this game. I'll take the points.

Harvard (+10) over Arizona: Arizona might be surprised to find out how quick Harvard's guards are. The Wildcats have struggled to stop dribble penetration this season, and Harvard shoots 73% at the line this season. At the same time, Harvard's defense is good at taking away three-pointers, which are where Arizona gets a lot of their offense from. So Arizona is definitely the favorite here, but there's no reason that Harvard can't pull a Cornell and make the Sweet 16.

St. Louis (-4) over Oregon: A 4 point spread is small enough that you have to really believe the underdog has a good chance to win to take them, and I don't. Oregon had a perfect game against Oklahoma State (or to put it another way: Oklahoma State had a nightmare game), but it's a big mistake to overreact to a single NCAA Tournament game. Oregon's 34 game sample size of being a bubble quality team means more than the 1 game sample against Oklahoma State. St. Louis is a significantly better team, and they should have no problem diffusing the defensive pressure that Oregon relies on (the Ducks led the Pac-12 in defensive turnover rate).

Butler (+2) over Marquette: I took Butler to win this game in my bracket, so I need to take the points here. I think Butler matches up well against Marquette. Marquette is not a team that can take advantage of Butler's poor ball handling, and Butler should be able take advantage of Marquette's poor defensive rebounding to get easy second chance points.

Wichita State (+6.5) over Gonzaga: With Pittsburgh and Wisconsin going down (and to a lesser extent, Kansas State), the top half of the West Region has completely opened up for Gonzaga. They have an open road to the Elite 8. Wichita State is their toughest remaining test. But this Wichita State team is a really tough match-up for them. Carl Hall vs Kelly Olynyk should be a lot of fun. I expect Wichita State to actually be the more physical team in the paint and to win the battle of the boards. And recall that this Gonzaga team really only has two good outside shooters (Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell), so if those outside shots aren't falling then they can definitely lose this game.

Syracuse (-8) over California: This is a big line, but a fair one. And recall that the formula to beat Syracuse is always to be able to shoot threes and to be able to crash the offensive glass - the two weaknesses of a zone. Cal can't really do either. Meanwhile, Syracuse should be able to crash the glass on the 9th best DR% team in the Pac-12, and should always be able to force some transition opportunities. Cal's half court interior defense is very strong, but Syracuse is not a team that scores much in traditional half court offense anyway. I think Syracuse should win this game relatively easily.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Day 4 Open Thread + Picking The Lines

The big story coming out of the first day of games was the horrific performance by the Mountain West. New Mexico and UNLV both flamed out in a big way, and overall the conference went only 1-3. Since I've been getting a lot of grief from New Mexico fans as a "hater" of the conference, you'd think I would be gleeful. But if you follow me on twitter you know that I was actually defending the league last night.

Yes, the Mountain West was overrated. Being #1 in the RPI ratings had to do with manipulating schedules to get a better rating. Smarter computer ratings had the Mountain West around the 5th best league, which makes more sense. But that said, it's always a fallacy to try to draw conclusions from a sample size of four games. Crazy stuff happens in a one-and-done tournament.

If New Mexico had made the Final Four or won the Tournament, the media would have shoved it in the faces of "metrics guys" and the tempo-free community as proof that Pomeroy sucks. But "metrics guys" understand the fallacy of this argument. Norfolk State beating Missouri doesn't prove that any computer rating with  Missouri ahead of Norfolk State was flawed. It means that there is randomness in sports. And that's all that happened yesterday with the Mountain West.

Anyway, two other teams done in by randomness were Pittsburgh and St. Mary's. Both teams had arguably their worst shooting day of the entire year at the exact wrong time. Wichita State played really well, so I don't begrudge them their upset, but Memphis played like crap. Unless they significantly improve their game they are going to get destroyed by Michigan State in the Round of 32.

It was not a good day for my bracket, and I even lost a Sweet 16 team (New Mexico). I really try to focus, as you guys all know, in not losing my late round teams early on. If teams have really tough Round of 64 games then I try to avoid taking them later. But... Harvard over New Mexico. Not sure how we could have seen that coming.

Anyway, let's get to Friday's games. Remember that I did pick all of these games in my Tournament previews, so you can read my extended thoughts on these games there.

Yesterday ATS: 7-9-0
Total through Thursday ATS: 9-11-0
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Duke (-18) over Albany: Again, I would never actually bet a game like this. Duke is obviously going to win, but will they cover 18? They could easily come up short. I do think that Duke will come out playing well, though, after last year's debacle (against a Lehigh team far better than this Albany team, by the way). And if Duke plays well, they should cover

Wisconsin (-6) over Ole Miss: This is a popular upset pick, but I really don't think Wisconsin is the type of team Ole Miss wants to play. The Rebels play a lot of one-on-one offense and can be undisciplined at times. And Marshall Henderson can forget about having a big game behind the arc. I'd be shocked if Wisconsin lost this game, so I'm willing to give 6 points.

Temple (+4.5) over NC State: I hate lines like this. I picked NC State to win in my bracket, but certainly don't think this game is a gimme. The reason I picked NC State to win, essentially, was because I thought they could slow Khalif Wyatt enough to keep him from making up for their offensive rebounding advantage. But this is likely a game to go down to the final minute, so I'll choose to take the points.

Pacific (+13) over Miami (Fl): Miami should win, but Pacific is a really underrated team and a tough draw for any 2 seed. Miami is really being hyped up by the media as a sleeper, and I saw somewhere that they're the third or fourth most popular NCAA title pick in brackets this season. That's insane. Miami is arguably the softest 2 seed, and the only reason I have them getting to the Elite 8 in my bracket is because the East Region is so ridiculously weak. Pacific could definitely give them trouble.

Creighton (-3.5) over Cincinnati: Cincinnati is an underrated team, but they haven't been playing well the past few weeks, and Creighton is so incredibly explosive offensively. If the best shooting team in the nation gets hot and hit 4 or 5 three-pointers in a row, it will take Cincinnati two weeks to catch back up. They just cannot put up points in bunches unless Sean Kilpatrick goes for 30+.

La Salle (+6) over Kansas State: I think Kansas State will probably win this game, but La Salle is definitely a tough match-up for the Wildcats. Kansas State definitely matched up better with Boise State. Kansas State is a perimeter oriented team that runs little of its offense through their bigs, while La Salle led the A-10 in both 3PA/FGA ratio and 3P% defense. Kansas State will have an advantage on the offensive glass, which is where they have to exploit to cover the spread.

James Madison (+21.5) over Indiana: Just lay off this game. Indiana is going to win easily, but this is the type of game where they could get backdoor-covered. I don't think they're going to run a 16 seed out of the building like Louisville did.

Illinois (-1) over Colorado: I took Illinois to win this game in my bracket, so the 1 point spread isn't going to dissuade me. I think Colorado is going to struggle with the aggressive Illinois perimeter defense. Both teams struggle to score at times, but the Illini should get more easy baskets.

Florida Gulf Coast (+13.5) over Georgetown: Georgetown fans are definitely nervous about this game. Florida Gulf Coast is a strong 15 seed, and they have proven this season that they can hang in (and even beat) quality BCS teams. So don't be surprised if this game ends up close, particularly with the low-scoring Georgetown offense.

Ohio State (-14) over Iona: My concern about Iona here is just how aggressive and quick they are on offense. Even if this game is relatively close, Ohio State could end up pulling away late and winning by a score like 85-65. Considering the likely number of possessions, I don't think that spread is particularly large.

North Carolina (-4) over Villanova: I argued in my previews that North Carolina should win this game in a romp. UNC is a lot better than their seed and Villanova is a lot worse than theirs, and I think that Nova's turnover problems will allow the Tar Heels to get out and score a lot in transition.

Northwestern State (+20.5) over Florida: I've talked a lot about Northwestern State on this blog lately. They're a tough team to play because they attack so aggressively on the defensive end. Even Florida should expect to get turned over quite a few times. The Gators are going to win this game, but that's a 1/16-type spread. Florida is 1 seed quality, but Northwestern State is no 16 seed.

San Diego State (-3) over Oklahoma: The Mountain West needs to get a decent win or two to salvage something from this NCAA Tournament. And I'm relying on San Diego State just being the better team here, because in terms of personnel neither team has a significant advantage over the other.

Notre Dame (-1) over Iowa State: A 1 point spread means just pick the team you have winning. The Irish have been playing really good basketball the past few weeks, and are just a better team right now. The one place Iowa State has an advantage is in the paint, if they can get Jack Cooley in foul trouble. But that's not enough of a reason to go against the team playing clearly better basketball right now.

Western Kentucky (+20.5) over Kansas: Have I mentioned how much I hate picking the lines on 1/16 games? So, yeah. Thankfully this will be the last one this season. Western Kentucky is going to have no chance to score in the paint, which is okay because they love to chuck threes. If they get hot then they can actually keep this game reasonably close.

Minnesota (-3) over UCLA: This is an obvious pick to me. Minnesota has been the better team all season long. UCLA was much luckier, which is why they had a better record, but on net UCLA was +0.04 PPP in the Pac-12 while Minnesota was +0.00 PPP in the Big Ten... the latter is way more impressive. So that's why Minnesota is favored by 3 with the computers. But that Jordan Adams injury is just crushing. They got handled easily by Oregon in the one game they have played without him, and they basically have a six man rotation to go against the Gophers. I expect Minnesota to win pretty easily.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Day 3 Open Thread + Picking The Lines

Enough of that First Four stuff. The real NCAA Tournament is here. The best sports weekend of the year. Let's dothis.

Join me in the comments below to chat with me all day during the games, and you can also get me on twitter.

At the bottom of this post are my picks of Thursday's lines. Remember that I did pick all of these games in my Tournament previews, so you can read my extended thoughts on these games there.

Total through First Four ATS: 2-2-0
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Valparaiso (+10.5) over Michigan State: This is definitely a bigger spread than I thought it would be. I didn't take Valparaiso to win this game outright, but they do have a real chance. I think Michigan State might be looking past this game a little bit too much. Valpo is a tough, experienced team that can score all over the floor. Their defense is their weakness, but Michigan State is not the most offensively explosive team out there.

Butler (-3.5) over Bucknell: This should be a very competitive game, and this line comes down to what you feel about 3.5 point lines. In general, I feel like with a line that small you should pick the team you think will win unless you really believe it's basically a toss-up game. With free throws and everything else, the odds of Butler winning by exactly 1, 2 or 3 points are pretty low. Butler is probably more capable of handling Mike Muscala than any other team Bucknell has played so far this season, so I do think they're the favorite.

Pittsburgh (-4) over Wichita State: On paper, Pittsburgh is the far better team. I think you need a really glaring match-up advantage for Wichita State, and I don't see it. Pitt's perimeter oriented offense will mostly bypass Carl Hall, and Pitt's physicality and toughness should keep Hall from doing too much damage on the other end of the floor. If you know that one team is clearly better and the line is only 4, just take your chances.

New Mexico State (+9.5) over Saint Louis: I love St. Louis as much as anybody, but this is a really huge line. New Mexico State is a decent team that is not known simply because the WAC was nationally irrelevant this season. They are not a team that relies on forcing turnovers or outside shooting (teams that rely on either of those two teams are the types that particularly struggle with this St. Louis squad). Sim Bhullar is a unique challenge, and I think a lot of people are going to be surprised to see just how big this New Mexico State front line is - even aside from Bhullar. Considering the fact that the St. Louis offense is not the most high-scoring in the world and asking them to win by double digits is a lot.

St. Mary's (PK) over Memphis: Pick'em game, so take whoever you want to win. I think St. Mary's is a tough match-up for Memphis. Memphis relies on using their perimeter speed and athleticism to get easy baskets off the dribble and off the offensive glass. St. Mary's is a fundamentally sound team that can stop dribble penetration and that was 4th in the nation in DR%. Memphis is an overrated team that is very fundamentally unsound, which is the exact type of team you want to pick against in the NCAA Tournament.

Marquette (-3.5) over Davidson: This is a really tough line to pick. It feels just about right to me. Marquette is the favorite, but they're overrated and this is a game that they definitely can lose. So, you probably want to lay off this line. Since I have to pick every game, though, I do think that there's a chance Marquette just out-athletes Davidson. Davidson's offense relies on getting in the paint and getting to the line, but that will be a lot tougher than usual against Marquette's aggressive perimeter defense. So while Davidson could definitely win this game, I give the narrow edge on the line to Marquette.

Southern (+22) over Gonzaga: I hate betting on these 1/16 games. Sometimes the 1 seed will get a 30 points lead early in the second half and then bring in their bench to win by only 20. When I first put this post together I picked Gonzaga here because I think they are getting a lot of media criticism for their 1 seed and will have something to prove. But I do think that this is the most competitive 1/16 game, and Southern is the best team out of the SWAC in a decade or more. This game really might be kind of close.

Oklahoma State (-2) over Oregon: With a 2 point spread, just pick the team you think will win. And to me, that's Oklahoma State. Oregon is going to be very offensively limited against Oklahoma State, and they are going to require a lot of turnovers and easy transition baskets to win. They did lead the Pac-12 in defensive turnover rate, but Oklahoma State's backcourt is very strong and has a whole lot of guys who take care of the ball well. Even freshmen like Marcus Smart and Phil Forte can be trusted against Oregon's defense. So the Cowboys are the pick.

Louisville (-26) over North Carolina A&T: Did I mention how much I hate picking 1/16 games? This game is going to be a romp, but can North Carolina A&T get a backdoor cover? Maybe. I guess. Louisville has tended to show no mercy against unqualified opponents this year, though, so they're my pick.

South Dakota State (+11) over Michigan: It's fascinating how far off conventional wisdom is from the computers on a game like this. Because the media talk all week has been how this is a hot upset pick, and how Michigan really could lose this game, and I had to take Michigan's side and say that I really don't think they're going to lose to South Dakota State. Nate Wolters is awesome, but Trey Burke is going to really harass him, and the Michigan D is not going to collapse like a lot of Summit defenses did against him. But an 11 point spread? That's what the computers say (Pomeroy actually has it at 13), but wow. I think the computers miss the fact that South Dakota State was not at full strength early in the season. Wolters missed some time and it took him a while after he got back to get into a groove. They are playing their best basketball of the season now, and this could be a really competitive game. I'll take the points.

Belmont (+4.5) over Arizona: Well, I picked Belmont to win this game outright, so I obviously have to take them with the points. My argument for Bemont is here.

California (+3) over UNLV: Once again, this is an upset that I picked in my bracket. My argument for why I think California will beat UNLV is here. I have to say, I'm surprised Cal didn't get any credit in Vegas for this being a quasi-home game.

Colorado State (+3) over Missouri: This was the game that really surprised me. Missouri is definitely the better team (the Vegas line is correct, on paper), and I was sure I'd take them to win. But when I broke down the match-ups in my preview, I just thought all of the personnel match-ups favored Colorado State (that preview is here). So they are my pick to win.

VCU (-8) over Akron: I told you guys that this is the lock of the Round of 64. I'll be shocked if VCU wins by less than 20.

New Mexico (-11) over Harvard: This is a really tough one to pick, because this line does seem correct to me. Harvard could potentially make this game competitive, but New Mexico is the clearly better team and they could really push Harvard with their defensive length and athleticism. And it's the athlete mismatch that is going to make me take New Mexico. Harvard just is not as good as they were last year or they will be next year. They were lucky just to get past Princeton.

Syracuse (-12.5) over Montana: It looks like this line has dropped by 1-2 points in the last day because of the allegations about NCAA violations at Syracuse. Why? The players aren't going to lose their focus, and it's not like Jim Boeheim is going to have a different gameplan that he's had the last 1000 or so games he's coached. Syracuse does the same thing every game every year. Montana is short-handed and is going to get destroyed on the glass.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Day 2 Open Thread + Picking The Lines

Well, the NCAA Tournament is underway... sort of. Starting off with Charles Barkley breaking down Liberty vs North Carolina A&T, and then watching those two teams stumble their way through a game, does not exactly bring echoes of classic NCAA Tournament moments of the pass. But so it goes.

We've got one more night of the First Four before the the real NCAA Tournament gets underway. Please join me in the comments below for a discussion or catch me on twitter. Below are my picks against the spread:

2013 Tournament ATS: 1-1-0
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

James Madison (+2) over LIU: Once again, you have to be a pretty degenerate gambler to touch these 16/16 games. Last night's 16/16 game was pretty terrible basketball. It was exciting because it was close, but good grief was execution terrible down the stretch. But hey, it's on tv and it's (kind of) the NCAA Tournament, so let's talk about it. Once again, I previewed this game here, so you can read my argument in more detail there. I thought that the only way LIU wins this game is if they march to the free throw line all night, and these First Four games tend to be more cautious and sloppy. I think James Madison is just the better team.

Boise State (-2) over La Salle: As I argued here, I think Boise State is the favorite to win this game. I just haven't seen proof that La Salle is a good team. Boise State has had much more success against high level opponents, and their team quality is much more in line with their seed than a La Salle team that got lucky in close games this season. Don't worry about a two point spread - just pick the team you think is going to win.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Day 1 Open Thread + Picking The Lines

Alright guys, we're here. My full NCAA Tournament previews are here. I will also be breaking down the Vegas lines each day. And this is the first day of the NCAA Tournament... kind of. We have two "first round" games.

Anyway, all throughout the NCAA Tournament I'll have these open threads set up. Feel free to chat in the comments section below, or else join me on twitter.

Let's get to the games:

2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Liberty (+3) over North Carolina A&T: I picked Liberty to win this game here. Certainly both of these teams are pretty terrible. I gave the edge to Liberty because I think that their outside shooting should be the difference against North Carolina A&T's mediocre perimeter defense. Certainly I didn't want to waste time breaking down Liberty's defense vs North Carolina A&T's offense - both of which were terrible.

Middle Tennessee (+2.5) over Saint Mary's: Once again, I talked about this game here.I don't want to repeat myself, so you can read it there. In short, I think these are two pretty even teams, neither of which has a big match-up advantage on the other. I gave the edge to Middle Tennessee for two "intangibles" reasons. The first is that St. Mary's had a really brutal cross-country trip on short notice. The second is that the last and most-criticized team in the Field of 68 always seems highly motivated and always seems to play well. It's not a good argument, but so what. Let's be honest, the Tournament doesn't really emotionally start until Thursday. These are just quick tasters. Enjoy the games, and I'll join you back here after all develop a (cough, cough) cold on Thursday morning.

Complete Final Four Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

The Final Four match-ups that I have projected are Duke vs Ohio State and Indiana vs Florida. There are obviously a lot of other teams that you can have here. Popular teams to have instead of those four will include Louisville, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Kansas and Miami. I'll try to get through as many of those as is reasonable and practical.

Of the four teams in the Final Four, the safest pick by far is Indiana. Their path is a cakewalk. You can make a good case that Louisville is the better team, and they earned the "#1 overall seed", but their path is brutal. And be careful picking any of the teams out of the Midwest to win Final Four games, because all of them have a low probability of actually making the Final Four.

Anyway, let's get to the actual match-ups:

My Picks:

Final Four:
2. Duke over 2. Ohio State
1. Indiana vs 3. Florida

The first match-up I want to talk about is Duke vs Ohio State. The Duke/Louisville Elite 8 game is actually going to have a ton of implications here. I don't think Ohio State is quite at the same level of either of those two teams, and you can make a good case that Louisville and Duke are the two best teams in the country right now. Whichever team gets to the Final Four will be, for a lot of people, the title favorite. So that game really is going to end up deciding a lot of bracket contests.

I have Duke playing in this game, of course. And what they will bring to the table here more than anything is outside shooting. Duke has a lot of good perimeter scorers, and they hit 41% of their three-pointers this season. Ohio State is, in general, a pretty mediocre three-point shooting team. They finished dead last in the Big Ten in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio and 7th in 3P% against. Duke is also 4th in the nation in offensive turnover rate, so they should be able to withstand the aggressive defense of Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott. So the question is how Ohio State will be able to respond when they are on offense. And I don't think they have any great mismatches here. Overall, the Buckeyes do not have great shooters or an explosive offense. They have one premier scorer in DeShaun Thomas, but I think Ryan Kelly is going to give him a really tough time. Thomas prefers to take jump shots, and Kelly's length is going to be a significant hindrance. Duke's path to the Final Four is more difficult than Ohio State's but it's not a gigantic gap. And I do think that head-to-head, Duke would have the clear advantage. They are the favorite.

Two other teams I'll talk about realistically playing Duke are Wisconsin and Gonzaga. Wisconsin would actually be a really tough match-up for Duke for a couple of reasons. First, Wisconsin is the best team in the nation at denying three-pointers, which would take away a large chunk of the Duke offense. Also, Wisconsin is actually a pretty good rebounding team this season, so they could exploit Duke's poor defensive rebounding. The concern for Wisconsin would be finding a way to score in the paint, where the Duke defense is much weaker than on the perimeter. They would need massive games from their big men to prevail. But I do think Wisconsin would be a stiffer test for Duke than Ohio State.

If Duke played Gonzaga, they would have a clear perimeter advantage while Gonzaga would have a clear paint advantage. I'm not quite sure how Duke would handle Kelly Olynyk, and Elias Harris would be a tough match-up on the wing as well. At the same time, Duke would be able to go nuts against a Gonzaga team pretty poor at preventing three-point attempts (314th in the nation in 3PA/FGA defense). What might tip things the way of Gonzaga is that they were 24th in the nation in OR%, which means that they could exploit Duke's rebounding troubles. And if the Zags spend all game in the paint, they can create foul trouble for Mason Plumlee or Ryan Kelly, which would be a significant problem. Yet even if you think Gonzaga has a slight advantage over Duke, I think that Gonzaga's schedule is more difficult. Getting past potentially Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Duke is a really big ask for Gonzaga. I would not at all feel comfortable putting them in the National Title game.

If Ohio State played Louisville, I think offense would be a concern for them. They finished the season 5th in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency in conference play, but that was partially by really ringing up a lot of points against the lesser half of the conference. They often struggled against elite opponents, and Louisville's pressure perimeter defense could really muck things up for them. The Buckeyes do not run offense through the paint (when they turn through DeShaun Thomas, it's usually off in the wing or on the perimeter, where he can work on his man one-on-one). So I do think Louisville would be the clear favorite over Ohio State. You would have to judge for yourself, however, whether you think Louisville's tougher schedule gives the tiebreak to Ohio State here.

Ohio State/Michigan State would be the fourth game this year between those two teams. Each held serve at home during the regular season, and the Buckeyes beat them by three points in the Big Ten tournament. The Spartans really struggle to score against Ohio State's defense. Keith Appling has been completely outplayed by Aaron Craft, and the Spartans have failed to reach 1 PPP in all three match-ups this season. I would give Ohio State a slight edge in a fourth match-up.

In the other National Semifinal, I have Indiana playing Florida. On offense, Indiana's array of strong outside shooters would give them a mismatch against a good-but-not-great Florida three-point defense. The Gators led the SEC in 3P% defense but were only 8th in 3PA/FGA defense, which is the better metric. Indiana can also exploit Florida's defensive rebounding, which is not great. At the same time, Indiana struggles with ball handling at times (11th in the Big Ten in offensive turnover rate), and that means that Florida will be able to pressure them on the perimeter to generate transition offense.

Offensively, Florida's jump shooting will give Indiana problem. But if Florida really wants to win the game then they're going to have to work more of their offense near the basket. Erik Murphy and Patric Young will be match-up problems, and Indiana is in serious trouble if Cody Zeller gets into foul trouble. Another concern for Indiana is that Victor Oladipo won't really have any obvious person to shut down. The Gators offense is incredibly balanced, and so there's no star for Indiana's one premier perimeter defender to take. To me, the tiebreak in this game is strength of schedule. I think Florida, despite having a relatively easy draw for a 3 seed, still has a significantly harder draw than Indiana. Indiana has such an easy route to the Final Four that you need to have Florida as a significant favorite to be willing to pick them to the National Title game. And this game is a toss-up at best. So Indiana is the favorite.

If Indiana played Kansas then we'd have a fascinating Cody Zeller/Jeff Withey match-up. But it would be a game where Indiana's reluctance to give Zeller the ball enough might actually work out okay. The Kansas defense is much more vulnerable on the perimeter than in the paint, and Indiana would be best served launching threes over the top with all of their strong outside shooters. Also, when Indiana does get in the lane they are good at drawing fouls (7th in the nation in FTRate), which is a problem for Kansas players not named Withey (only 6th best in the Big 12 in defensive FTRate). I think Kansas would struggle to score against an Indiana defense that is strong in all facets. Their one weakness is on the defensive glass, but Kansas is not a great offensive rebounding team. So I think Indiana would be the favorite here.

I'll talk only briefly about Florida/Miami since Florida is just the significantly better team. Miami has a lot of size, but their perimeter defense leaves a lot to be desired, and they were only 9th in the ACC in 3PA/FGA ratio. Florida loves to launch jump shots, and Miami will give them a lot of open opportunities. Miami's defense was best in the ACC, but it was best because they locked down the paint and because they didn't allow offensive rebounds. Florida won't challenge the paint often and doesn't crash the boards, so those skills won't help Miami much. And offensively, Miami just is not that explosive. They don't have a lot of great shooters, and will be unable to keep up if Florida is shooting well beyond the arc.

Championship Game:
2. Duke over 1. Indiana

Indiana vs Duke would be a battle between two teams with an array of perimeter shooters. Both teams shot 41% behind the arc this season, which made them both top four in the nation. The difference is three-point defense, where Duke is much better at denying opportunities. Where's the advantage for Indiana? In the paint, where Cody Zeller is a premier scorer and Duke was only 10th in the ACC in 2P% defense. But I think that's a bit deceptive for a couple reasons. First, Indiana has a tendency to not get Zeller the ball enough, and it's certainly true that Duke's interior defense is far better with Ryan Kelly in the lineup. The rebounding gap is a bigger issue. Indiana was 6th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, while Duke was 11th in the ACC in defensive rebounding percentage. So if Indiana can keep up with Duke's outside shooting, it's going to be in the paint rather than by matching them three-pointer for three-pointer.

It's hard to know exactly how to feel about where Duke is relative to the other elite teams in the nation.Duke puts up points on everybody, but their defense really struggled at times when Ryan Kelly was out of the lineup. I think the Pomeroy ratings are instructive here. When Kelly went down with an injury, Duke was the #2 ranked team in Pomeroy. By the time he came back, they had slid all the way to 7th. Since he came back they've moved up one spot to 6th (and they were 5th before that bad ACC tournament loss to Maryland, where Duke hit 4-for-25 behind the arc - something that's not really Ryan Kelly's fault). I think Duke is the most well-rounded team in the country. They are very good on both ends of the floor, and they have an extremely explosive offense. Rebounding is their one flaw, but they should be decent on the glass in the NCAA Tournament. They certainly won't be awful. As I said, a lot of people are going to pick the winner of the Duke/Louisville Elite 8 game to win the NCAA Tournament, and I'm going to join that bandwagon. That game will determine whether my bracket is good or if it gets busted. I'm going to go with Duke.

Indiana would probably be happier facing an Ohio State team that they split with during the regular season. Ohio State's offense doesn't have the ceiling that Indiana does, and if the Hoosiers get hot beyond the arc then the Buckyes won't be able to keep up. Recall that the Buckeyes were dead last in the Big Ten in 3PA/FGA defense. The concern for Indiana would be protecting the ball against an aggressive Ohio State perimeter defense. If Indiana can score more points in transition than Ohio State, they'll win the game.

Louisville would be a big problem for Indiana, again because of that pressure perimeter defense. Indiana would really struggle to get the ball in to Cody Zeller. If the Hoosiers can take care of the ball then they will have an opportunity to get a lot of open threes against Louisville, but I don't think they will. Like I said, the winner of Duke/Louisville is probably the favorite in the National Title game. I have Duke here, but if you have Louisville then you probably want to take them also.

The one other potential National Title game worth discussing is Ohio State vs Florida, a rematch of the 2007 National Title game. I think the concern for Ohio State here is outside shooting. As I've said many times, they were dead last in the Big Ten in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio. Florida loves to take jump shots, so Ohio State's defense will play right into that. I also think that Ohio State's aggressiveness on defense can work against them. If the Florida backcourt can handle the pressure without turning the ball over, they'll have plenty of open shots. Offensively, I'm not sure where Ohio State has an edge on Florida. To me, the Gators would be the favorite to win another title at Ohio State's expense.

[Edit] It's been pointed out by a few different people that I forgot to get to a potential Florida/Duke game. I certainly think that in that game that Duke's defense would have the advantage over Florida's offense. Duke's defense is much better on the perimeter than in the paint, and they will struggle against teams that pound the ball inside and attack the glass. Florida does none of those things - they want to shoot jump shots, which plays into what Duke wants to do. On the other side of the ball, Florida was only 7th in the SEC in 3PA/FGA ratio, and Duke should be able to get plenty of open shots. The Gators have the athletes to keep Duke under control, but I think the Blue Devils would have a much higher point-scoring ceiling. So I'd give a narrow edge to Duke.

Complete Midwest Region Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

As we were all sitting around in the half hour or so between the end of the Big Ten title game and the Selection Show on CBS, there were really two hot conversations happening in social media. The first how mindbogglingly clueless the CBS analysts were. Charles Barkley is highly entertaining, but he clearly hasn't watched a college basketball game in 20 years. Seth Davis and Doug Gottlieb watch a lot of college basketball, but they are entirely on the wrong side of every modern advance in sports analysis, so almost every "fact" they give is wrong. So we all had fun making fun of that on twitter (here, here, here and here).

The second debate was whether Indiana or Louisville would get the overall #1 seed and pseudo-homecourt advantage in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 in Indianapolis. When we found out that Louisville got it, that seemed like a huge break for them. But over the next hour we learned how wrong we were. Indiana got an absolute cakewalk in the East region. I've seen some computer metrics putting them at over a 50% chance to make the Final Four, which is awfully high for any team in any year. Meanwhile, Louisville is stuck in the unquestioned Region Of Death.

Louisville is one of the three strongest teams in the country, but they are stuck with the strongest 2 seed (Duke might just be the best team in the country right now), the second-strongest 3 seed (if Michigan State was in the South as a 3 seed they might be my Final Four pick), and a ridiculously strong 4 seed (St. Louis has been incredible the past two months - seriously, look at their schedule). On top of that, Oklahoma State is a 5 seed that would be a sleeper team in any other region, Creighton is a 7 seed that is the best shooting team in the nation with one of the two best pure scorers in the country, and oh yeah, we have a Pomeroy top 20 team (Missouri) as a nine seed. And I didn't even mention the best rebounding team in the nation (Colorado State) or Matthews Dellavedova.

What you have to remember not just in this region but also when picking the Final Four games is just now nasty this region is. Whoever you have coming out of this region, note that they will be playing a team in the Final Four (my pick is Ohio State) that has a way easier path. So unless you think the winner of the Midwest is an overwhelming favorite, you need to protect your bracket by picking them to lose in the Final Four. But we'll get to that in my Final Four preview. Let's break down this region first.

First/Second Round:

My Picks:
11. Middle Tennessee over 11. St. Mary's
16. Liberty over 16. North Carolina A&T

1. Louisville over 16. Liberty
8. Colorado State over 9. Missouri
4. St. Louis over 13. New Mexico State
5. Oklahoma State over 12. Oregon
3. Michigan State over 14. Valparaiso
11. Middle Tennessee over 6. Memphis
7. Creighton over 10. Cincinnati
2. Duke over 15. Albany

I spent a lot of time talking about how ridiculously undeserving Middle Tennessee was to get an at-large bid. It was a cross between tossing a bone to a small conference school and being blinded by RPI. Middle Tennessee's resume is probably the weakest to ever earn an at-large bid. But that said, the fact that their resume stunk has to do with them playing bad teams in conference all season. They are actually a really good team - 32nd in Pomeroy and 44th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. I do think it was a real cop-out for the Selection Committee to put them up against St. Mary's, though. If you're going to put in two mid-majors that didn't really beat anybody all season (St. Mary's did get a win over Creighton, but otherwise their resume is very similar to Middle Tennessee's), at least put them up against major conference teams or mid-major teams that had a lot of quality wins (like Boise State) as a point of contrast.

Anyway, I do think that Middle Tennessee matches up well with the St. Mary's offense. The Gaels want to get the ball in the paint and run almost everything through Matthew Dellavedova, but Middle Tennessee has an array of strong perimeter defenders. Middle Tennessee can be beaten with size in the post, but St. Mary's doesn't usually take advantage of mismatches in the paint. Brad Waldow could have a big game if that's the way that Randy Bennett chooses to go, but I'd expect to see the Matthew Dellavedova Show. Middle Tennessee's offense is predicated on working hard for open shots - they work the ball around the court aggressively. They are vulnerable against teams that play pressure defenses and can turn them over (Middle Tennessee was 204th in the nation in offensive turnover rate despite the soft schedule), but the Gaels are not a team that will achieve that. Throw in the fact that the Gaels are going to have to go cross-country to play a game on basically 48 hours notice, while Middle Tennessee can drive the 300 or so miles to Dayton if they wish, and I think Middle Tennessee has the advantage here.

Meanwhile, North Carolina A&T vs Liberty is the battle of the resistible force against the moveable object. Pomeroy ranks North Carolina A&T's offense 317th in the nation, and Liberty's defense 303rd. I don't want to waste a lot of time breaking down a game between teams that will lose by 30+ to Louisville in their next game, and which nobody has to pick in their brackets, so I will give the edge to Liberty. Why? North Carolina A&T's halfway decent defense is weakest on the perimeter. Liberty is a three-point oriented offense that hit 37% of their three-pointers during the season. That's as much as I'm getting into that game.

As I said, Louisville is going to stroll into the Round of 32. Don't sweat the Duke game either. But Valparaiso over Michigan State is a popular upset pick, so I want to talk about that game. On first glance, I get the appeal. Valparaiso's offense relies on scoring a lot of points in and around the paint with duel big men Kevin Van Wijk and Ryan Broekhoff, while Michigan State was only 9th in the Big Ten in 2P% defense. But you can't exactly compare Horizon League 2P% stats to the Big Ten. There are a lot of really premier interior defenders (and scorers) in the Big Ten, and Michigan State still has several really athletic bigs that will be able to get very physical with Van Wijk and Broekhoff, neither of whom is huge by Big Ten standards. For example, Van Wijk physically dominated most of the Horizon League in the paint, but he will be giving up 30 pounds to Derrick Nix.

At the same time, Valparaiso's defense will struggle with Michigan State. Valpo's defense is very perimeter oriented - they had the best 3P% and 3PA/FGA ratio defense in Horizon League play, but their paint defense wasn't nearly as good and they got killed on the defensive glass at times. Michigan State is not an outside shooting team - they were 11th in the Big Ten in offensive 3PA/FGA ratio, and are going to really get after second chance opportunities in the paint. Valparaiso is playing their best basketball of the season now and they absolutely have a real chance to beat Michigan State, but the Spartans are the favorites.

St. Louis is one of the strongest 4 seeds in recent memory while New Mexico State is a weak 13 seed. So right off the bat, do not pick the upset there. In addition, New Mexico State doesn't exactly have an explosive offense - they scored just 1.04 PPP in a down WAC and did not achieve 1.1 PPP or more against a Pomeroy Top 100 opponent all season. And they haven't seen anything like the aggressive perimeter defense that St. Louis is going to throw at them. You'll certainly want to pop this game on for a few minutes if you haven't seen Sim Bhullar play before, but only because this will be your only chance until next season. The Billikens should win easily.

No team has gone from overrated to underrated faster than Oregon. All season they were ranked way too high by the human polls - they spent a couple of weeks around the Top Ten despite sitting near 40th in the computers. It got absurd how much it took for the pollsters to drop them. But they did go 12-6 in the Pac-12 and won the Pac-12 tournament. I assumed that they'd end up a 7 or 8 seed, and a soft one at that, and I'd be able to dispatch them without problem. But as a 12 seed, surely angry at the position the Selection Committee put them into, they're suddenly a dangerous underdog. Oklahoma State vs Oregon will be a fairly even battle between two teams that sport excellent defenses but sometimes struggle to score.

The key for Oklahoma State is going to be ball handling. Oregon plays an aggressive defense that led the Pac-12 in defensive turnover rate and likes to get a lot of offense in transition, but other than that is downright awful offensively. They were dead last in the Pac-12 in offensive turnover rate, 2nd to last in 3P% and 3rd to last in eFG%. There's no way that they'll achieve 1 PPP unless they get a ton of fast break layups, and don't think that Marcus Smart won't force a bunch of turnovers himself. Oklahoma State has three good offensive weapons, and should be able to get Markel Brown going. There's a lot of talk about Dominic Artis being back, but he's really one of the most overrated players in the Pac-12. The team hasn't played any better with him (yes, they won the Pac-12 tournament, but it came against a lucky/soft draw and right on the heels of embarrassing losses to Colorado (by 23) and Utah. When Artis returned to the lineup Oregon was 39th in the Pomeroy ratings. They currently sit 43rd. So go with Oklahoma State - Oregon will just be way too limited offensively.

Memphis is a really soft 6 seed. They deserved the seed because their resume was strong (they are 30-4 and went 16-0 in Conference USA play), but they weren't nearly as good as their record suggested. They went 8-1 in games decided by 7 points or less or in overtime, which is why they are only 39th in Pomeroy and 33rd in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. In fact, Pomeroy rates both Middle Tennessee and St. Mary's better than Memphis (Sagarin agrees on St. Mary's, but has Memphis a bit better than Middle Tennessee). In other words: Upset Alert.

How do the match-ups look? Well, the Memphis offense is predicated on one-on-one attacks from the perimeter. Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford are all really good at beating their man off the dribble. When the defense has to come over and help, they're all good at dumping the ball to an open teammate for an easy shot. That's how they led Conference USA in assist ratio despite the fact that they don't actually pass the ball that well. This is a bit of a problem for Middle Tennessee. They do have a good, quick perimeter defense, but their help defense is poor. If a Memphis perimeter player beats their man off the dribble, the Tigers will likely score or get fouled. That said, Memphis is sloppy with the ball. As I said, they don't pass the ball well, despite that assist rate. They were 9th in Conference USA in offensive turnover rate, and Middle Tennessee will be able to exploit that.

Offensive, Middle Tennessee is also going to look to attack the Memphis perimeter defense to get to the basket, and this is where Memphis has problem. Like Middle Tennessee, they have poor help defense and will give up a lot of easy layups. Middle Tennessee also can strike from the outside, hitting 39% of their threes this season. And so in the end, we're looking at two teams that mirror each other pretty well. Memphis is the more talented team, but Middle Tennessee is better coached. Memphis is an atrocious team at the fundamentals of basketball, and that's usually a problem in the NCAA Tournament. Throw in the fact that (and I know this is an unmeasurable intangible, but....) it seems like the last team in the Field of 68 that gets derided by the press all week tends to show up and play really well, so I give the slight edge to Middle Tennessee.

St. Mary's would be another tough match-up for Memphis. The Gaels defense isn't great, but they do a good job of stopping dribble penetration and they defend the glass well (5th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage). They're going to limit the easy opportunities for Memphis, which often causes the sloppy Tigers to rush bad shots. And I think Memphis would have a heck of a time dealing with Matthew Dellavedova. He's not just a great scorer but also a really nice passer, and unless the Memphis defensive rotations are sharp (which they never are), Dellavedova will have plenty of assists off of his own penetration.

Creighton/Cincinnati is a really interesting contrast in styles. Cincinnati plays a strong defense (Pomeroy rates them 15th best in the nation), but their offense is pretty terrible. Sean Kilpatrick can occasionally carry the team with a 25-35 point game, but the rest of their offense is atrocious. They haven't scored 1.1 PPP in a game since the calendar year 2012. Meanwhile, Creighton is the best shooting team in the nation but doesn't play a lick of defense. Here are the updated numbers for the stat I've been giving all year: Creighton is 2-6 when finishing a game with an eFG% under 52%, but 25-1 when finishing with an eFG% of 52% or better. And they've had some incredible shooting games - they've had an eFG% over 70% five times this season, including an absurd 81.9 eFG% in their regular season finale against Wichita State, the second best shooting performance by any Division I team in any game all season (if you're wondering, Southeast Missouri  had an 83.3 eFG% against Austin Peay).

So what budges in that game? I think it's Cincinnati's defense. First of all, their defense isn't quite as overwhelming as you think it is when you drill down into the data a little bit. They're good at not fouling and also led the Big East in defensive rebounding percentage, but they were actually only 9th in the Big East in defensive eFG% in conference play (46.5%). The defensive rebounding and lack of fouling won't really help them against a jump shooting offense that won't miss a lot of shots and doesn't care about getting to the free throw line. And as limited as the Creighton offense is, Cincinnati just hasn't scored on anybody. They have terrible shooters, and have been held below 0.86 PPP in 6 of their last 11 games. They have faded down the stretch, and if Creighton gets hot shooting the ball at all, the Bearcats simply do not have the firepower to match them. Unless Sean Kilpatrick scores 30+, Creighton will move on.

Meanwhile, this is a really unfair draw for Colorado State. They were a sleeper team coming into the Tournament. They were arguably the best team in the Mountain West (their efficiency margin of +0.11 PPP was very narrowly the best in conference play), and I always like teams that are really great at something (Colorado State is the best rebounding team in the nation, finished 1st in DR% and 2nd in OR%). But this draw is brutal. An 8 seed is pretty unfair (how they got seeded below San Diego State is a mystery to everybody), and they got stuck playing a really, really good 9 seed. Missouri is rated among the 20 best teams in the nation by both Pomeroy and Sagarin. And should they somehow win that game they'll be facing Louisville, arguably the best team in the country.

When you play Colorado State, rebounding is always going to be an issue. Missouri held their own this year, though. They finished 7th in the nation in OR% and led the SEC in DR%. Colorado State should win the rebounding battle, but it shouldn't be an annihilation. Both of these teams are relatively poor on the perimeter. Neither team shoots the ball that well or defends the perimeter particularly well. And in a sense, this game will probably be decided early on. Missouri is a team that really struggles when they're behind. Phil Pressey tends to try to bring his team back himself, and becomes a shooter rather than a distributor. But if Missouri gets into the lead then Pressey does a great job involving his teammates, and Missouri led the SEC with 76% free throw shooting in conference play. I think Missouri is the better team, but I think there are a lot of red flags here. The fact that they went 2-8 in road games this season with the two wins coming against Pomeroy 200+ opponents (South Carolina and Mississippi State) is a real problem. And I think Colorado State's physicality and aggressiveness in the paint  is a problem for a Missouri team that really struggles when in foul trouble (there's a massive drop off in talent from the starters to the bench). So for those reasons I'm giving the slight edge to Colorado State.

Third Round:

My Picks:

1. Louisville over 8. Colorado State
4. St. Louis over 5. Oklahoma State
3. Michigan State over 11. Middle Tennessee
2. Duke over 7. Creighton

While Louisville will have a cakewalk in their Round of 64 game, the Region of Death really gets going in the Round of 32. Colorado State would be a really interesting contrast of styles. Colorado State does not have a great backcourt (although Dorian Green is a quality player), and it's easy to see Louisville forcing a bunch of turnovers and getting a lot of transition baskets. At the same time, Louisville's defensive rebounding is poor (11th in the Big East in defensive rebounding percentage), which means that Colorado State is going to get a ton of second chance opportunities and easy baskets for themselves.

Offensively, I think Louisville will have an advantage scoring in the paint. Neither of these teams has a lot of outside shooters, but Louisville tends to get a lot of shots around the rim, and Colorado State's interior defense is really not that great. They don't have any elite shot blockers like Louisville has in Gorgui Dieng, who will be key in preventing any Colorado State second opportunities from becoming easy baskets. In addition, the Cardinals have done a great job late in the year of getting a shooting spark off the bench from Luke Hancock, which should open up the Colorado State defense a bit. Louisville will be able to pack the paint against Colorado State, making it more difficult for the Rams to get easy shots. Throw in the fact that Colorado State has nobody who can guard either Russ Smith or Peyton Siva (and Siva has really been coming on in the latter part of the season) and I think Louisville has the advantage here. But not by much.

If Missouri gets past Colorado State, I think they're an easier match-up for Louisville. They cannot exploit Louisville's poor defensive rebounding to the same extent, and Phil Pressey is going to be really unhappy with what Russ Smith does to him. The Cardinals could end up getting a whole lot of offense in transition. Missouri's defense is aggressive, but not great in rotations, and Louisville has the personnel to exploit that. So Louisville would be the favorite over Missouri as well.

A game between St. Louis and Oklahoma State is a tough one to pick between two potential sleepers. Both teams are strong for their seed line, and both are playing their best basketball of the season now, though SLU's progression through the season has been starker. The Billikens have lost precisely one game in regulation since November, and it was a road game at Temple. These teams match up well against each other as well. Both are excellent defensively but with holes offensively. Offensively, Oklahoma State has an advantage in that they do not depend on outside shooting, which St. Louis is superb at taking away. OSU will attack the paint, where Saint Louis is definitely a lot weaker defensively. The Billikens finished 13th in the A-10 in defensive FTRate, which is a problem against the second best offensive FTRate team in the Big 12. A lot is going to come down to which Marcus Smart shows up in this game. He's had some great games this season, and he's also had games where he smartly let Markel Brown (a more efficient offensive player) shoulder most of the offensive load. But he's also had games where he takes too many shots and tries to do too much himself, and if that happens then the Saint Louis perimeter defense will eat him alive.

Offensively, St. Louis mostly gets by just by being sound. They don't shoot the ball well at all and are a terrible offensive rebounding team. They want to get the ball near the rim to get easy shots and to get fouled. Oklahoma State does struggle at times with keeping opponents off the free throw line, but otherwise they should be in pretty good shape. And that is why picking this game is really difficult. In terms of match-ups, I actually think Oklahoma State is the better option here. They match up really well with what St. Louis does well and does not do well. But I can't pick against St. Louis for two reasons. First, the way they've played the past couple of months is just extremely impressive. They're such a smart and well-coached team. Additionally, SLU has the easier Round of 64 game. It's not that improbable that Oklahoma State could go down to Oregon. So I'm going to give the very slight edge to SLU, but I don't feel good about it.

I don't think there's any question that Middle Tennessee would have a lot of trouble scoring against Michigan State. Their offense relies on easy baskets off of turnovers and offensive rebounds, but Michigan State is not going to give a lot of those up. The Spartans were only 8th best in the Big Ten in offensive turnover rate, but they're not playing Aaron Craft here, and their transition defense is strong. And the Middle Tennessee front line, while big by Sun Belt standards, is small compared to a typical Big Ten team. It's hard to see the Spartans getting out-rebounded here. Middle Tennessee plays strong perimeter defense, but they are softer in the paint. They were also 301st in the nation in defensive FTRate, which is going to be a problem against a powerful Michigan State front line that is going to be very aggressive near the basket.

If you have Memphis getting to this round, I do think that they'd give Michigan State some difficulties. The Spartans perimeter defense is not as quick as it's been in the past, and they will struggle with the speed and athleticism of the Memphis ball handlers. I would expect to see Michigan State force a lot of turnovers with their active hands near the paint (they led the Big Ten in defensive steals rate), which will be useful against a Memphis team that is loose with the ball. Defensively, I think Memphis would struggle with Michigan State's size. Memphis has a few big bodies they can turn to (Tarik Black, Shaq Goodwin and Adonis Thomas), but all typify the sloppy, undisciplined play for Memphis. Going with a big lineup would slow down the Memphis offense. The tiebreaker in this game is that Michigan State has the easier Round of 64 opponent, so you would want to go with the Spartans, but Memphis does have a realistic path to the Sweet 16 here.

Duke vs Creighton would be a very high scoring game, and an interesting contrast in styles, but I think it's a terrible match-up for Creighton. The Bluejays depend really heavily on outside shooting, but Coach K has specialized for years in preventing three-point opportunities for opponents. Duke led the ACC in both 3PA/FGA and 3P% defense. The best way to score on Duke - by far - is pounding them in the paint. Even with Ryan Kelly back their interior defense still leaves something to be desired and they are a poor defensive rebounding team (11th in the ACC in DR%). Doug McDermott is certainly a strong scorer in the post, but that's about it. Gregory Echenique is a physical monster who can score in the paint, but Creighton doesn't run a lot of offense through him. And Creighton is a very mediocre terrible offensive rebounding team (253rd in the nation in OR%). Throw in the fact that this Duke offense puts up points on everybody and the fact that Creighton's defense is very mediocre, and the only way Creighton can win this game is if they have one of those hot shooting days behind the arc. Coach K is going to be prepared to stop that, and I think he will. Duke should win fairly easily.

I don't think Cincinnati is really much of a concern for Duke, either. Their offense is poor, and perimeter oriented. Throw in the fact that they're not a good offensive rebounding team, and Duke should be able to keep their scoring to a minimum. Cincinnati's defense is good, but they struggle to keep opponents out of the paint at times, and Duke's offense scores on everybody. Even with Ryan Kelly injured they were the best offense in the ACC. So Cincinnati is going to have to find a way to score at least 1 PPP against Duke here to win, and I'd bet against that.

Sweet 16:

My Picks:
1. Louisville over 4. St. Louis
2. Duke over 3. Michigan State
St. Louis is a popular upset pick over Louisville. And certainly it wouldn't be an earth-shattering upset. As good as Louisville is, they'll only be a 6 or 7 point favorite in Vegas, and St. Louis has been playing as well as almost any team in the nation the past few weeks. Prior to the bracket being announced, St. Louis was one of my sleeper Final Four picks. And in addition, their steady, disciplined approach that served them so well twice against VCU this season will serve them well against Louisville's very aggressive defense. But that said, there are several problems with taking St. Louis here.

First of all, the fact that St. Louis shoots poorly (33% on threes in A-10 play) is a big problem against a Louisville defense that is so strong in the paint. Louisville's one defensive liability is outside shooting, and the Billikens cannot exploit it. This means that St. Louis is going to have to win a slow, low-scoring game. If Russ Smith gets going, forget it. Louisville's only other big flaw is defensive rebounding, and again this is something that St. Louis cannot exploit (287th in the nation in OR%). In addition, all of the tiebreakers go to Louisville here. Louisville doesn't have a cakewalk against Colorado State, but it's still an easier path to the Sweet 16 than what St. Louis has to go through. I'd put the Billikens' odds at making the Sweet 16 below 50%. Also, this is a pseudo-home game for Louisville in Indianapolis. So despite being such a good team this season, a brutal draw for St. Louis is forcing me to project their run ending in the Sweet 16.

I don't think Oklahoma State would be as big of a test for Louisville as St. Louis. The Cowboys had specific match-up advantages over St. Louis that they don't have here. Louisville will be able to guard all three of Oklahoma State's quality backcourt scorers simultaneously, and is better than St. Louis at defending the paint and preventing free throws. Oklahoma State is also unable to exploit Louisville's poor defensive rebounding. Louisville is just a better all-around team, and they would be the clear favorites over Oklahoma State.

Duke vs Michigan State would not just be a really fun Sweet 16 game, but it's also a really likely Sweet 16 game. The Midwest is really strong, but partially because Duke and Michigan State are in it, and also much more in the top half than the bottom half. Louisville, St. Louis, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Colorado State and Oregon are all strong for their seeds, and picking which team is going to make the Elite 8 out of that mass of teams is a tough one. Duke and Michigan State have clearly softer routes to the Sweet 16.

To break down the actual game, I do think that Michigan State is going to have a hard time stopping the Duke offense. The Blue Devils have shooters all over the floor, and the Spartans were only 8th in the Big Ten in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio. Michigan State's defense is overall very good, but they lack great individual perimeter defenders. Either Seth Curry or Quinn Cook is likely to have a big game here. That said, Michigan State can exploit Duke's weaknesses. Duke's perimeter defense is great, but they have flaws on the interior. Duke actually only finished 10th in the ACC in defensive 2P%, though I think that's skewed in a big way by the absence of Ryan Kelly. Kelly's return has dramatically improved Duke's post defense. But Michigan State's size in the paint will be a problem for the Blue Devils, particularly if Mason Plumlee or Ryan Kelly gets in foul trouble.

I do think that Duke has the higher ceiling here. Michigan State will be able to have success in the paint, but they lack explosive scorers. Duke can put up tons of points, and against a soft Michigan State perimeter defense I expect them to. So Duke is the favorite.

Duke shouldn't be at all concerned about any of the other teams they could play in the Sweet 16. Memphis vs Duke would be a glaring mismatch between well-coached/fundamentals Duke and poorly-coached/incoherent Memphis. Middle Tennessee? Come on. The mismatch on the perimeter, on both sides of the floor, would be vast. And Duke has the defenders to keep Matthew Dellavedova in check. So really, the only team you should be putting in over Duke is Michigan State.

If you have Creighton knocking off Duke, they'd actually have a decent shot against Michigan State. The Spartans don't have a great paint defense and don't prevent threes either (8th in the Big Ten in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio). Creighton would have a chance to really put up a lot of points here. And that would then come back to the fact that Michigan State's offense is built for grinding games out and is not particularly explosive. The problem is, Michigan State has a much easier path to the Sweet 16 than Creighton does. So unless you think Creighton would be an overwhelming favorite over Michigan State, you should take the Spartans. And I don't think they'd be an overwhelming favorite.

Elite 8:

My Pick:
2. Duke over 1. Louisville

At first glance of the draw, this region appears to have four truly elite teams that all would have an excellent chance at the Final Four if given the right draw. And I think that those four teams (Louisville, Duke, Michigan State and St. Louis) are the only four teams you should seriously consider to make the Final Four out of the Midwest. I'll run through all three match-up combinations.

First, Duke vs Louisville, which is the Elite 8 match-up I'm projecting. The big advantage for Duke is on offense. As good as Louisville's perimeter defense is, it had a gigantic flaw: three-point shooting. Louisville was only 8th in defensive 3PA/FGA and 9th in defensive 3P% in Big East play. Duke loves to shoot threes, and finished fourth in the nation with a 40.6 3P%. Duke also finished fourth in the nation in offensive turnover rate, as they have the backcourt personnel to deal with Louisville's pressure defense.

The problem for Louisville is that offensively, their only mismatch is on the glass. They shoot the ball poorly, and don't run a lot of offense through their big men. Russ Smith and Peyton Siva will be initiating most of the offense, and that is something which Duke is so good at preventing. And while this game will be a pseudo-home game for Louisville, Duke has another tiebreaker in their favor: an easier schedule. Duke has a really tough game with Michigan State, but that's basically it. They shouldn't have much trouble making the Sweet 16. Louisville has two very difficult games to get through, and could very easily drop in either the Round of 32 or the Sweet 16. So this again gets back to the fact that Louisville's "reward" as the overall #1 seed wasn't much of a reward. They will be near home, but their schedule is brutal. Unless you think Louisville is the clear favorite over Duke, you need to take Duke. And not only do I not think Louisville is the clear favorite, but I'd actually give Duke the slight edge even if this game came to pass. So Duke is my pick to the Final Four.

Duke vs St. Louis would definitely be a competitive game. The fact that St. Louis generates most of its offense near the basket and does not depend at all on outside shooting neutralizes Duke's biggest defensive advantage. And Duke loves to shoot threes, which St. Louis is really good at preventing. So while I wouldn't necessarily make the case for St. Louis over Duke, it can be made. But again if we look at schedule strength, St. Louis has at best a 25% chance to be in this game, while I'd put Duke's chances at close to 50%. So unless you see an overwhelming advantage for St. Louis, the tiebreak has to go to Duke.

If Michigan State and Louisville play each other, Michigan State's mediocre ball handling and the inconsistency of Keith Appling would become a real issue. The Spartans were 8th in the Big Ten in offensive turnover rate, and Louisville could turn that into a ton of transition offense. Also, the Spartans would have an awfully tough time defending both Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. Offensively, Michigan State does not have outside shooters capable of exploiting Louisville's problems defending the arc. Also, the Spartans will allow themselves to get sped up by teams that want to run, which is a problem, because Michigan State will play much better in this game if it's a half court battle. So even though Michigan State has an easier path here than Louisville, I think Louisville would be the overwhelming head-to-head favorite.