Saturday, March 22, 2014

Day 5 Open Thread + Picking The Lines

Well, I hope you didn't pin your child's college on my bets yesterday. A 7-9 day, my first bad day of the tourney thus far.

Of all the bad losses, I think the worst is Stephen F. Austin over VCU. Stephen F. Austin is the team that everybody in your pool who didn't watch a college basketball game all season told you was "really underrated" and picked - the secretary who picks teams by their mascots is going to be gloating on Monday. And even with VCU's late collapse, they still would have won without the phantom foul on the Desmond Haymon three-pointer. Oh well. As I pointed out on twitter, VCU still has some tourney karma to pay back after their crazy Final Four run, so this is going toward evening back out that account.

One thing that really stood out to me from yesterday is Duke losing... again. In recent memory they've gone down to three big double-digit seed underdogs (VCU, Lehigh and Mercer). Over the last ten seasons, they've won 18 NCAA Tournament games, when their seeds projected around 26. What's interesting about this is that this is a substantially larger sample size of Tournament failure than we have for other coaches who are known as "Can't win in March" guys (Jamie Dixon, John Thompson III, Steve Alford, Bo Ryan, etc).

Yet Coach K used to be the most dominant NCAA Tournament coach since John Wooden. He has won four national titles, and his streak of 17 Sweet Sixteens in 21 seasons (from 1986 through 2006) is the most impressive streak of tourney success in the modern era. Did Coach K forget something? He doesn't know how to coach in March anymore? His style has dramatically changed from a "win in March" style to a "losing in March" style?

No. This goes back to what I wrote preseason about the myth of Steve Alford being a tourney failure. Our narratives about tourney success are often based on the results of two or three close games over a decade. It's just a puny, insignificant sample size. We now have a much larger sample size of failure by Coach K, but we know that he has won in the past. Let's apply this logic to other coaches. The idea that certain coaches "always win in March" or "can't win in March" is, in general, nonsense. And even if it did exist, we don't have a large enough sample size even on a guy like John Thompson III to come to that kind of conclusion. So don't fall for the hype. Judge coaches on the full sample size of games. Don't believe that they become possessed by magical "winning"/"losing" powers in March.

Please join me in the comments below for a discussion or catch me on twitter. Below are my picks against the spread:

Yesterday ATS: 7-9-0
2014 Tournament ATS: 21-13-2
2013 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

Florida (-5.5) over Pittsburgh: There are going to be a lot of people tempted to pick Pittsburgh here after they destroyed Colorado while Florida struggled with Albany. But don't overreact to a single game like that. Obviously Pitt is a very strong 8 seed, but Colorado was the second worst at-large team in the NCAA Tournament by the computers (only NC State was worse), and this is still the same Florida team that went 21-0 against SEC opponents this season. My concern with Pitt is that this is likely going to turn into a jump shooting game, and Florida has much better shooters. The one area Florida has to potentially worry about is rebounding, particularly if Patric Young gets in foul trouble. But most likely he won't, and Florida should win.

Louisville (-9) over Saint Louis: Saint Louis managed to get here through an epic, disastrous collapse by the weakest at-large team in the Field of 68. I don't think there's any team in the Round of 32 that should feel worse about how they got here. The Jordair Jett/Russ Smith  match-up should be a fascinating one, but also a worrying one for Saint Louis. In important, tight games, Jett has been the do-everything playmaker for Saint Louis, but Russ Smith might be the best perimeter defender in the nation. Smith is the better player, and he should outplay Jett head-to-head. Saint Louis tends not to win games if Jett doesn't outplay his man.

Michigan (-5) over Texas: Both of these teams have distinct match-up advantages over the other. Texas is a dominant rebounding team, and offensive putbacks are a big source of their scoring. Michigan, particularly since the loss of Mitch McGary, has not been a strong rebounding team. That said, the Texas perimeter defense is mediocre (9th in the Big 12 in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio), and Michigan's offense should light them up. The one thing that stands out to me is that down the stretch Texas has not had the rebounding gaps that they had back in January and early February. They were actually out-rebounded by Baylor and Arizona State in their last two games, leading to the big loss to Baylor and nearly losing to an inferior Arizona State team. I think teams have been adjusting to Texas, and I think Jordan Morgan is the star for the Wolverines as they make the Sweet 16.

San Diego State (-3) over North Dakota State: North Dakota State is a good team, and the upset of Oklahoma certainly was no shocker, but they're facing another level of defense here. North Dakota State struggled at times with Oklahoma's athleticism, but they won by shooting significantly better (a 58.8 eFG% vs a 41.1 eFG% for the Sooners). San Diego State's defense should clamp down much better on North Dakota State's shooters, and they should be able to take the victory here.

Syracuse (-7) over Dayton: When breaking down Syracuse games, you always want to see how the opponent matches up with a zone. Can they shoot over the top? Do they pass the ball well or have a player who is built to break down the zone? Dayton does have some good shooters, but they're not point guards - they rely on a drive-and-kick. I'm not sure that they have the playmakers to generate those chances, though. They lack a really good ball handler, and they were just 10th in the Atlantic Ten in assist rate. Dayton is certainly playing good basketball right now, but I'll be pretty surprised if they take out Syracuse.

Oregon (+5) over Wisconsin: If Oregon wins this game, we'll know why. Wisconsin has struggled defensively against quick perimeter players, and Oregon has a slew of them. Compared to the slow, slogging American University Princeton offense, Wisconsin is facing the polar opposite type of team here. That said, Wisconsin is the better team, and should be able to take advantage of Oregon's mediocre defense and penchant to commit a lot of fouls. Wisconsin is the favorite and deservedly so, but I'll take the points.

Michigan State (-7.5) over Harvard: This game pick basically comes down to what you think of Michigan State. If you go by their performance during the season, this spread is too high. Pomeroy has the spread at 3 points and Sagarin has it at 5. But if you believe that Michigan State is hitting its stride, and that they're now fully healthy and playing their best basketball of the season, then you think the computers underrate them. I picked Michigan State to the Final Four for this reason, so I have to stick with my logic.

UConn (+4) over Villanova: It's tough to pick a winner in this game. Villanova is a team very dependent on hitting threes, and if they go cold they can lose to anybody, but if they get hot they're practically unbeatable (they're 18-1 when shooting better than 34.5% on threes, with the one loss coming in Creighton's record-setting shooting night). And against a UConn team with a substantially better paint defense than perimeter defense, Villanova is going to be even more dependent on outside shooting. Basically, this game will come down to whether Villanova shoots threes well or not. And in a situation like that, the safer pick is to take the points.

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