Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Complete Final Four Analysis

Opening Thoughts:

Let's talk about Kentucky, because it's been a very long time since we've had a team this clear-cut to make the Final Four. We've had other years where we had a clear best team in the nation (2009 North Carolina is probably the best recent example), but that team had difficult tests before the Final Four. And Kentucky could have been given tough tests. They could have gotten a team like Wichita State or Ohio State in their 8/9 game. They could have gotten a team like Utah in their Sweet 16 game. Maybe Wisconsin or Virginia as their Elite 8 game. But they got none of that. According to Pomeroy's Log5 numbers, Kentucky has a staggering 68% chance of making the Final Four.

So this all creates a conundrum. On one hand, Kentucky has to be the favorite to win the title. You need a really, really good reason to pick another team to beat them when they have a significantly lower chance of even being in the game. So if you want your best chance to win a bracket competition among a few of your friends, or to score reasonably high in the ESPN/CBS/Yahoo/etc online competitions, you have to pick Kentucky. But if you're in a bracket competition with 50 or 100 friends, well, you know that almost all of them are taking Kentucky also, and you're probably going to fail to win because some crazy person picked the 12 seed that made the Elite 8, or nailed the 10 seed that made the Final Four, or whatever other nutty thing happens. So if you want to win that competition, you need to pick another team from the field. And the fact is, as much as a favorite as Kentucky is, they're still at well under 50% to win the NCAA Tournament. If the choice is Field vs Kentucky, Field is the obvious favorite. So who is it going to be? Take a shot with a team like Wisconsin or Virginia or Arizona (I'd avoid Duke because most people have Duke in the title game also). Maybe go longer odds with Gonzaga or Iowa State or Utah or something. You have to increase your variance to win a competition like that.

My Picks:

Final Four:
1. Kentucky over 1. Wisconsin
2. Virginia over 2. Gonzaga

So like I said above, Kentucky has to be your pick here if you're just picking who the favorite is. Even if you think Wisconsin would win a game more than 50% of the time against Kentucky, the fact is that Wisconsin will be significantly more tested before they get to the Final Four, and could easily fail to get to this game.

That said, Wisconsin is probably Kentucky's biggest nightmare. They're the precise type of team the Wildcats want to avoid. Kentucky doesn't shoot the ball particularly well (35% on threes, and 13th out of 14 SEC teams in 3PA/FGA), and they rely on offensive rebounds (5th in the nation in OR%) and getting to the line, where they are much better than typical Calipari teams (a 72.7 FT%). And defensively, they like to force a lot of turnovers. Wisconsin won't foul them, give them second chances or turn the ball over. That said, the problem for Wisconsin is going to be that other than Frank Kaminsky they're going to really struggle with Kentucky's length in the paint, and they're likely going to turn into a jump shooting team. When Wisconsin has lost this season it's been when they settled for jumpers and didn't make them. So even though Wisconsin is probably Kentucky's toughest opponent, I still don't think they could beat the Wildcats more than they'd lose to them.

Arizona might not be as tough of a test for Kentucky as Wisconsin, but they'd be a significantly bigger test than anything they experienced in the Midwest region. Arizona is one of the only teams in the nation with the size, length and athleticism to physically match Kentucky. They led the nation in DR% and were 12th in the nation in 2P% defense, so they will force Kentucky to hit shots, which they aren't good at doing. I wouldn't take Arizona to win the game but, like I said above, if you're in a bracket competition with 50 other people and are looking for somewhere to take a chance, consider Arizona over Kentucky.

On the other side of the bracket, Virginia/Gonzaga would be a test of perhaps the best defense in the nation against perhaps the best shooting team in the nation. These are also two teams that can beat their opponents in so many different ways. Both can control the paint, both pass the ball well, and both can hit outside shots. In the end I think Virginia is the favorite for two reasons. First, assuming Justin Anderson can come back, Virginia is elite both offensively and defensively, and has proven it against top flight competition. There's a chance that Gonzaga's defensive efficiency will wilt against foes as big and athletic as they are. Second, despite the fact that they shoot the ball so well, Gonzaga likes to work their offense inside-out, and they are constantly feeding the post and generating much of their offense in the paint (they were only 233rd in the nation in 3PA/FGA). Virginia's defense will pack it in and make things very difficult for Przemek Karnowski. If Gonzaga starts settling for threes and they don't have a good shooting day, they're going to struggle to score. So, Virginia is my pick here.

What about Duke/Virginia? Well, we had that game, and Virginia outplayed Duke until the Blue Devils hit six of eight three-pointers down the stretch. They made it very difficult for Jahlil Okafor to do anything, holding him to just 10 points and 5 turnovers, as you'd expect. Duke had to hit a bunch of threes to beat them, and they did last time, but that's no guarantee of future success. The worry with taking Virginia is if Justin Anderson does not get fully healthy then their offense isn't anywhere near what it was earlier in the season. But Anderson played in the ACC tournament, and the Final Four will be another three weeks beyond that, so one would think that he'd be close to 100% by then. I would also like Virginia against an Iowa State team that likes to run and get easy baskets. Virginia is too disciplined to allow a bunch of layups on run-outs. They will force Iowa State to score in their halfcourt offense, where they are significantly less effective. Iowa State isn't a good enough shooting team to do to Virginia what Duke did.

If you have Villanova here instead of Virginia, I think they'd prefer to play Duke than Gonzaga. Both Duke and Gonzaga have strong shooters, but so does Villanova. The difference is that Gonzaga has a ton of size that can pose a threat in the paint, while Duke just has Jahlil Okafor. If Daniel Ochefu is put into foul trouble, Villanova's interior defense takes a big drop-off. I don't think a guy like JayVaughn Pinkston could handle Przemek Karnowski. He's just not big enough. Duke has Jahlil Okafor, of course, but if he can be put into foul trouble or neutralized with double teams then Duke would be forced into making their threes. Villanova will be very happy to get into a three-point shooting contest with Duke.

Championship Game:
1. Kentucky over 2. Virginia

Other than Wisconsin, Virginia is probably the team that Kentucky wants to see least. If there's one team that can handle the size of Gonzaga or a player like Jahlil Okafor, it's Kentucky. Even if Karl Towns or Willie Cauley-Stein gets in foul trouble, Kentucky can throw Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Trey Lyles at the problem. Heck, even a guy like Derek Willis would be getting regular minutes for just about any other team in the nation. Kentucky has effectively unlimited big man depth. Virginia, however, is very well built to stop Kentucky's offense. They turn basically every team they play into a jump shooting team by collapsing their defense and switching off of picks very easily and with strong communication between players. And when Kentucky turns into a jump shooting team, they need to crash the offensive glass to be effective, yet Virginia was 5th in the nation in DR%. Now, the fact that Kentucky has a significantly easier path to this title game means that even if you think Virginia would beat Kentucky 50%+ of the time, Kentucky is the favorite. But if you are in a bracket pool with a lot of people and are looking for a non-Kentucky national champion? I think Virginia is your best bet.

Other than Virginia, I think I would put Duke as Kentucky's best challenge on the other side of the bracket. And that's simply because Duke has the ability to shoot the lights out of the arena, and if they do then Kentucky is going to have to completely dominate the boards to win the game. Duke was 6th in the nation in defensive FTRate, so Kentucky is not going to be able to win the game at the free throw line.

If Kentucky somehow failed to reach the title game, the only other teams worth really considering on that side of the bracket are Wisconsin and Arizona. Duke beat Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, but it took the best shooting day by a road team in the history of the Kohl Center, so I'm not sure how instructive that is. Virginia/Wisconsin would be a really fascinating title game between two teams with very similar coaching styles. I think the Badgers would be more concerned with Virginia because of what I said earlier, which is that Wisconsin tends to be in their most trouble when they turn into a jump shooting team. Virginia will do a better job than any other team at forcing the ball out of the hands of Frank Kaminsky and forcing Wisconsin to hit outside shots, where they are not great.

Arizona matches up pretty favorably against Duke, I think. They have a big man in Tarczewksi who can handle Okafor one-on-one, and they have the type of length and athleticism on the perimeter that will keep Duke from getting open three-pointers. Justise Winslow will be very much tested by Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Arizona would probably be less comfortable with Gonzaga or Virginia. Virginia, in particular, because Arizona is not a comfortable jump shooting team. They were just 336th in the nation in 3PA/FGA. If it's Gonzaga/Arizona, the Karnowski/Tarczewski wrestling match would be worth the price of admission alone. I'd worry about Gonzaga's perimeter scorers handling Arizona's defense and getting open shots.

But to sum this all up, you basically have to judge your bracket by the type of competition you are in. The most likely champion, without question, is Kentucky. But if you want to win a bracket competition at your office, you probably have better odds if you go with an upset champ like Virginia or Wisconsin or Arizona. There will be very few (if any) of your friends picking that bracket. If it happens, you'll be golden. If Kentucky wins, all of your friends picked Kentucky also, so it won't help you anyway.

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