Sunday, March 27, 2016

Elite 8 Day 2 Picking The Lines

It's interesting that in a year defined so much by parity that we've mostly seen the top teams go through. In my Final Four preview I suggested six teams that were potentially the best in the country, and if the two heavy favorites win today then all four of the Final Four teams will come from that group of six. Normally, one would expect that a year with a few great teams (like last year) would end up in a chalk-ish Final Four while one with more parity would end up with chaos... but not always.

One of the analytical concepts I try to stress a lot is probability. Every game is a probability. The media often lampoons computer ratings after a computer rating darling loses to an underdog, but of course, they should lose sometimes. Take the North Carolina/Notre Dame game, which the Pomeroy ratings have as a huge blowout at a 9 point spread. The ratings still have Notre Dame with a 21% chance to win the game. In other words, if they play five times, Notre Dame should win once. And hey, what do you know, Notre Dame did beat North Carolina this season. If North Carolina played Notre Dame 20 times and never lost, then that would be stronger evidence of the computer ratings being wrong than Notre Dame winning once.

And so if we played this NCAA Tournament a whole bunch of times, I'd bet that most of the time we end up with chaos. But we only play it once, and weird things can happen when you play it once. Notre Dame and Syracuse being in the Elite 8 qualify as "weird" things, of course. But so is us likely having such a chalk-ish Final Four.

On the plus side, that means that we are likely heading into some fantastic games next week. And it's hard to complain about that.

Yesterday ATS: 2-0-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 33-28-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Notre Dame (+10) over North Carolina: North Carolina beat Notre Dame by 31 points in the ACC tournament, so this line was always going to be on the high side. Of course, the Irish beat North Carolina in South Bend back in February, and so I'm not sure why that game isn't getting talked about at all. We can look at those two games as somewhat instructive. Obviously that 31 point win for North Carolina involved some fluky bad shooting by Notre Dame, but the Irish were also annihilated on the glass. North Carolina was the best offensive rebounding team in the ACC and Notre Dame is a mediocre defensive rebounding team, so it's not a surprise to see the Tar Heels do well there, but in their win over the Tar Heels, Notre Dame got after the offensive glass themselves, and kept rebounding basically even. And to me, that will be the difference in this game. Notre Dame will slow the pace down and force the Tar Heels to score in the half court. If they can keep the rebounding reasonably close, they'll have a chance to win.

Syracuse (+8) over Virginia: Virginia's offense is playing incredibly well right now. They have scored 1.10 PPP or more in 10 of their last 11 games, with 5 of those 11 games coming against Top 5 ACC defenses. Of course, Syracuse is a Top 5 ACC defense as well, and their zone is a difficult match-up for Virginia. The Cavaliers shoot the three-pointer well (40.3%), but they don't like to shoot a high volume of them. They're going to have to hit a lot of them against Syracuse. In contrast, Syracuse loves to chuck up a ton of three-pointers (they led the ACC in 3PA/FGA), which is the type of shot that they'll get all day against the pack-line. Virginia is the better team, of course, but they don't ever really get after the offensive glass, which is Syracuse's biggest problem. This game will very likely come down to outside jump shooting, and 8 points are a lot of points to give.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Elite 8 Day 1 Picking The Lines

Every year before the NCAA Tournament I preach that you cannot judge teams, coaches, or programs based on what happens in a one-and-done tournament, and every year I end up spending one of these "Picking The Lines" posts talking down a narrative. And here we are.

This year the narrative is that the ACC is the best conference, since they have a full half of the Elite 8. Certainly, North Carolina and Virginia have been dominant, but we knew that they were elite teams coming in. Teams like Duke and Miami got wiped out in blowouts, while mediocre ACC teams like Syracuse and Notre Dame have gotten lucky in close games. The reality is that ACC teams combined to play close to 300 games this season. Justifying an entire league because Kyle Wiltjer missed a crucial shot, or because the refs looked the other way as Nigel Hayes got hacked in the backcourt, is pretty dumb and irrational. Yeah, Syracuse stunned Gonzaga yesterday, but they also lost to St. John's by 12 points. You don't get to pick one game by one team and have it define an entire conference.

We can debate how we define "the best conference", but by any kind of average computer rating it was the Big 12 by quite a bit this season, and a handful of games in the NCAA Tournament don't change that. A few fluky wins doesn't change the fact that Boston College and Wake Forest were in the ACC, too. It all has to matter.

Anyway, let's get to today's games:

Yesterday ATS: 2-2-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 31-28-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Villanova (+2) over Kansas: I took Kansas in my bracket, but I think that there's something to be said for how utterly dominant Villanova has been so far. #Momentum is not a thing that exists, but teams do get better or worse as seasons go along, and Villanova is currently playing their best basketball of the season. In large part, this game is going to come down to which team hits their outside shots at a higher rate. I do worry about the Kansas ball handling against Villanova's pressure defense. If Villanova's outside shots aren't falling, however, the Kansas interior defense is dominant.

Oklahoma (+1) over Oregon: This Vegas line is fair, but I do think that it would be a mistake to overreact too much to that blowout of Duke. Oregon was great, but it was still just one game. My biggest concern in this game is an Oregon defense that has a great shot blocker in Chris Boucher, but which has struggled to defend the three-point line. Oklahoma led the Big 12 in the fraction of offense from three-pointers, and they were dead last in the fraction of offense gotten from two-pointers. They're happy to chuck up threes. Offensively, Oregon will pose difficulty for an Oklahoma front line that isn't particularly deep, but Oklahoma has proven to be a solid defensive rebounding team and they protect the paint reasonably well, if not at the same level as Oregon. The Ducks looked great on Thursday, but I'd bet on regression here.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Sweet 16 Day 2 Picking The Lines

It was a day for chalk yesterday, which isn't so bad. It means that we're set up for some absolutely epic Elite 8 games on Saturday. A game like Kansas vs Villanova would be better than quite a few National Title games in recent seasons.

Oregon's rout of Duke puts into perspective again the importance of bracketing. Arizona outplayed Oregon during Pac-12 play, but got stuck with an incredibly difficult Round of 64 game against Wichita State. Give them Oregon's draw (or a fellow 6 seed like Notre Dame) and they might still be alive. But that's why it's bracketing that is more important than seeding.

To give another example, Syracuse earned a 10 seed, which meant that they ended up playing a weak 7 seed and a 15 seed to make the Sweet 16 - a far, far easier draw than they would have had as, for example, the 8 seed drawn against Cincinnati. In the end, there's not much that can be done to balance that out, even with a good Selection Committee. Who could have foreseen Middle Tennessee knocking off Michigan State? But it's just another reminder of why NCAA Tournament success, in any given season, is so luck-dependent.

Anyway, let's get to today's games:

Yesterday ATS: 3-1-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 29-26-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Virginia (-5) over Iowa State: There aren't any clear match-up advantages here, other than that Iowa State's offense likes to attack the paint both with the dribble and pass. They are 4th in the nation in 2P%, and were 2nd in the Big 12 in the fraction of points scored on two-pointers. The pack-line defense tends to push teams out and to force them to hit outside jump shots, where Iowa State is strong, but not as strong as they are inside. Considering how efficient Virginia's offense is, and how ugly Iowa State's defense has been at times this season, Iowa State will have to be nearly perfect offensively to pull this upset off.

Wisconsin (+1) over Notre Dame: This Vegas line is confusing to me. Pomeroy has Wisconsin as a 1 point favorite. Sagarin has Notre Dame a very slight (less than 1 point) favorite, but Wisconsin has typically gotten a little benefit of the doubt from Vegas the past few weeks since they've clearly improved significantly as the season has gone along. Notre Dame, in contrast, has basically squeaked past a couple of not-quite-elite teams in the NCAA Tournament thus far. In terms of match-ups, I do think Notre Dame matches up pretty well in that they take care of the ball and do not commit fouls. Wisconsin has proven the ability to get after the offensive glass, though, and to draw fouls in the paint. Notre Dame is always at a huge disadvantage if Zach Auguste gets into foul trouble. In other words, I don't see enough of a mismatch in this game to overcome the fact that Wisconsin has been playing better basketball than Notre Dame the past two months.

Gonzaga (-4) over Syracuse: You want to pass the ball well, and you want to shoot the ball well from outside, if you're going to take on the Syracuse zone. The Zags can do both of those, and they can also get after the glass against a Syracuse team that struggles with defensive rebounds even more than Jim Boeheim teams usually do. The concern with picking Gonzaga here is that Syracuse loves to chuck threes (they led the ACC in 3PA/FGA). The Orange don't hit threes at a great rate (36% for the season), but they have the ability to get hot, and most of their best performances this season involved hot outside shooting. If they can get hot against Gonzaga, they have the capability to take them out. But I wouldn't bet on it.

North Carolina (-5.5) over Indiana: The amazing part of Indiana's performance against Kentucky wasn't that they won, but that they won despite poor outside shooting. Indiana's defense has been transformed this season with the additions of Thomas Bryant and Max Biefeldt, and they have the ability to win even when they're not shooting well (something they couldn't do against quality teams last season). That said, Kentucky's offensive execution was approximately "tire fire", and the Tar Heels will pose a much stiffer test. North Carolina is rolling into form, as arguably only Villanova has played better than them in the NCAA Tournament thus far. They can score in so many different ways, and they can attack the glass against a Hoosiers team that has been inconsistent there all season long. The key match-up will be Marcus Paige vs Yogi Ferrell. For Indiana to win, Yogi will need to significantly outplay his counterpart.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sweet 16 Day 1 Picking The Lines

The talk of parity this year was more than a little bit overdone, something I've talked about before. And while NCAA Tournament results don't prove anything either way, it is worth noting that we're reasonably chalk-ish as we head into the Sweet 16. All four 1 seeds are still around, something which only happens about half of the time. We also don't have any really unqualified teams. The lowest seed remaining is Syracuse, and they got here by getting a 15 seed in the Round of 32, but even they are more than capable of a big upset.

The result of this is that we have eight really awesome games lined up for today and tomorrow. Games like North Carolina/Indiana and Kansas/Maryland are just a small piece of the fun. The NCAA Tournament has been fantastic so far, and there's no reason to think that's going to change tonight.

Let's get to the first half of the Sweet 16 games:

Sunday Yesterday ATS: 3-5-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 26-25-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Villanova (-4) over Miami (FL): These two teams match up reasonably well. They're both good at what the other team does well. I certainly don't see any obvious match-up advantages, other than that Miami's poor outside shooting (32.6% on threes in ACC play) will give them difficulties against a Villanova defense which is fantastic at defending the paint. The difference to me in this game is simply that Villanova is a better basketball team, and has been playing some of its best basketball down the stretch. With a spread as small as 4.5 points, if one team is clearly better, I'd rather just take them. There's always a risk of a team not covering a small spread, and that's happened to me an unfortunately large amount the past couple of tourney days (including Notre Dame somehow winning without covering 1.5 points), but I'm not going to overreact to that. Take the better team, and the team playing better basketball right now, and that's Villanova.

Texas A&M (+2.5) over Oklahoma: Ever so quietly, Oklahoma's performance the past few weeks has been a little bit down from where they were in January. The turnovers are still a concern offensively, and their defensive effort has dropped off a bit as well. At the same time, Texas A&M is surging, getting past that early February lull and playing their best basketball of the season down the stretch. Their offense in particular will cause troubles with their physicality and aggressiveness inside, against an Oklahoma defense that is strongest on the perimeter and which has struggled with defensive rebounding. Throw in the penchant for the Aggies to force turnovers, and this really is a toss-up game at this point. I'll take the points.

Kansas (-6.5) over Maryland: It's hard to know exactly what to make of that Maryland/Hawaii game. Maryland appeared to be on the ropes when Hawaii just basically fell apart over the final ten minutes. I don't think that performance will really assuage the concerns of Maryland's slide in play the past few weeks. The Hawaii game broke a streak of seven consecutive games against Pomeroy Top 100 opponents where Maryland had allowed at least 1 PPP, and Kansas's offense will again pose a test with their ability to hit outside shots and to hit the offensive glass when they need to. If Maryland does pull this game out, their one match-up advantage appears to be the inside duo of Robert Carter and Diamond Stone. I'm not sure that Perry Ellis is a good defensive match-up against either of them, and I wonder if Bill Self will be forced to go deeper into his front court bench than he usually likes to. But I just see no evidence based on performance the past few weeks that Maryland can beat Kansas unless there's a fluky shooting performance.

Oregon (-3) over Duke: Amazingly, the public seems to have turned on Duke. I can't find a respected computer rating which has Oregon as this large of a favorite. But there's a reason folks have soured on Duke, which is the loss of Amile Jefferson and their decline in play since mid-February. Duke has been weakest on the defensive glass, which is somewhere that Oregon can attack. The saving grace for Duke when they've played well has been outside shooting, and Oregon's three-point defense is not great. If Duke wins this game, it will be because they hit outside shots at a high rate.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Day 6 Picking The Lines

The driving media narrative about the NCAA Tournament so far is that the Pac-12 stinks and was overrated... which is both true and false. The Pac-12 was overrated, and we knew that they were over-seeded. The bracket was built by the RPI this year, and the Pac-12 easily had the most inflated conference RPI of any of the multi-bid leagues. But drawing conclusions from five or six games is also a bit silly.

Remember, of the six Pac-12 teams to lose thus far, five were Vegas underdogs at tip-off, and the one that wasn't (California) was badly undermanned due to injuries. So even though Oregon State as a 7 seed losing to a 10 seed is being called a "double-digit seed upset", they were a 4.5 point underdog in Vegas. They didn't really "underperform"... we knew they weren't as good as VCU.

On Selection Sunday, there were three teams that were outside the Top 40 of the Massey, Pomeroy, and Sagarin ratings but still earned single digit seeds. All three were in the Pac-12 (Oregon State, Colorado, and USC), and all three lost their opening games as Vegas underdogs.

The thing is that Pac-12 teams could have gotten lucky and pulled some upsets. Arizona could have made the Sweet 16, or Utah, or Oregon State, and then the narrative would have been how the Pac-12 was under-rated. But you can't draw narratives about conferences from a sample size of five or six games. The Pac-12 was over-seeded, and that would have been true even if the conference's teams had all played well the past three days.

As for today's games, this is an awfully difficult batch to pick against the spread. A remarkable six of the eight games have consensus Vegas spreads between 6 or 7 points. All have clear favorites, but how many of those underdogs will cover? It's a tough call.

Anyway, let's get to those games:

Yesterday ATS: 6-2-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 23-20-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Villanova (-7) over Iowa: This is a difficult spread to pick because of how dependent both of these teams are on outside jump shooting. If one of these teams hits outside shots at a significantly higher rate than the other, they're almost certain to win. There are two reasons to like Villanova here. First, they're simply a better passing team. Iowa has a tendency to get clogged up and force bad hero ball when aggressive defenses disrupt their offense. And Villanova is one of the best teams in the country at keeping opponents out of the paint.

Notre Dame (-1.5) over Stephen F Austin: Considering how horrifically ugly that Stephen F Austin/West Virginia game was, I'm not sure what we really learned about this Stephen F Austin team. What I like about Notre Dame is two things. First, they led the ACC in offensive turnover rate, so I doubt they'll allowing the Lumberjacks the easy baskets they enjoyed against West Virginia. Second, they led the ACC with 77% FT shooting in conference play, which will come in handy against a Lumberjacks team that tends to commit a lot of fouls. The Irish simply have a lot of high basketball IQ players who will avoid the dumb mistakes and make the right passes far, far more than West Virginia did on Friday. 

VCU (+6.5) over Oklahoma: Oklahoma has struggled this season against teams that can force turnovers and get after the offensive glass. The Sooners defense is fantastic in the half court, but if you can grab a bunch of easy baskets it puts a lot of pressure on Buddy Hield to have a big game. Offensively, Oklahoma likes to chuck up threes, where they were second in the nation with 43% three-point shooting, but VCU has made a big improvement this past season at preventing threes, leading the Atlantic Ten in defensive 3PA/FGA. You can make a good case that Oklahoma should fear this game more than any potential Sweet 16 opponent.

Syracuse (-6.5) over Middle Tennessee: Middle Tennessee shout out of their minds against Michigan State, hitting 11-for-19 behind the arc. They shot the ball well during the regular season (39% on threes), but expecting that type of explosion again is unrealistic. And considering that they are not known as a good passing team, and have never seen a zone like Syracuse runs, the only hope Middle Tennessee has in this game is to shoot 40%+ on threes again. It's usually wise to bet on regression.

Hawaii (+7) over Maryland: Maryland's inconsistency and late season slide has been a little bit hard to understand. But the complete list of teams that they have beaten away from home since January 9th is: Nebraska, Ohio State, and South Dakota State... and they nearly blew that South Dakota State game on Friday. Just on pure quality of play the last month or two, that spread is too high. I do like that Maryland does a good job of not committing fouls against a Hawaii team that likes to play physical in the paint, but that's not enough of a match-up advantage for me to want to take the Terps here.

Texas A&M (-6.5) over Northern Iowa: It's hard to feel strongly about this line, which is very fair. My biggest concern for Northern Iowa is how they'll deal with the athletic, physical front line that the Aggies possess. I had the same concern about the Texas game, and the Longhorns had a significant advantage in both rebounding and paint points. Northern Iowa won that game at the line (and with their miracle buzzer beater, of course), but the Aggies led the SEC in defensive FTRate, so I doubt we'll see that again.

Xavier (-4.5) over Wisconsin: I wouldn't have too many concerns about Wisconsin despite that 47 point performance. They scored 0.87 PPP despite some awful jump shooting. Their offense hasn't been great, but it's been fairly good over the last month or two. My concern for Wisconsin is that they no longer are elite at defensive rebounding and avoiding fouls. Xavier led the Big East in FTRate and was second in offensive rebounding rate. Wisconsin is either going to need to draw a ton of fouls themselves, or shoot the ball really well, to pull off this upset.

Oregon (-6.5) over Saint Joseph's: In all, six of the eight games today have spreads between 6 and 7 points, most of which are difficult to make calls on. The favored team is favored for a reason. In this case, both Oregon and Saint Joseph's were teams that were overrated for their seeds. Saint Joseph's has been on a really nice four game stretch, primarily due to an offense that has really been clicking. But their offense has been strong because they don't make mistakes, not because they have a great individual scorer. Oregon has a unique defensive weapon in Chris Boucher, who I think should disrupt a lot of those easy baskets in the lane. Certainly it wouldn't be the biggest upset in the world if Oregon lost, and this is probably a "stay away" game, but if I have to pick a team I'll take Oregon.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Day 5 Picking The Lines

Yesterday was one of the craziest days of the NCAA Tournament that I can ever remember. It busted a lot of brackets, and also led to my worst day against the spread in the seven years that I've picked all of the games.

One of the things that I preach about every year, but which is constantly forgotten, is just how tiny a 40 minute sample size is. Crazy things can happen, and trying to draw narratives about players, teams, coaches, or programs over single NCAA Tournament games is irrational and dumb.

So for example, when Middle Tennessee beats Michigan State, nobody suddenly thinks that this proves that Middle Tennessee was better than Michigan State this past season. Nobody thinks that it means Tom Izzo can't coach in the NCAA Tournament either, because neither of those are narratives that we're interested in. Yet we do it with other teams and coaches. Purdue lost? Fire Matt Painter! Arizona lost? Sean Miller just can't take this team to the next level! Baylor lost? LOL Scott Drew sucks. But why? Why is Purdue's loss or Arizona's loss or Baylor's loss any more meaningful than Michigan State's loss? Why have we mentally decided that one game is a fluke, while another means something? Particularly when so many games yesterday were decided right at the buzzer.

As a side note, I think West Virginia's putrid performance needs a special mention. Since we're all obsessed with scores, I saw that the "college basketball quality of play sucks" crowd in the media was fixated on the low Wisconsin/Pittsburgh score, but that game was low scoring more because of the crazy slow tempo (54 possessions) than the scoring. Pitt scored 0.80 PPP in the loss, which was identical to what West Virginia scored against Stephen F Austin. And I watched a significant chunk of Wisconsin/Pitt, and both teams were getting decent shots, but they were just not shooting well. In contrast, a full 80% of the points West Virginia scored were at the free throw line, in transition, or as second chance points. When West Virginia was in a halfcourt offense, it was just completely hopeless. Of all the college basketball I have watched in my life, I have literally never seen a more hopeless offense than West Virginia yesterday. And I say that as somebody who has watched about twenty different West Virginia games over the last two seasons - I'm familiar with how ugly "Press Virginia" looks even when it's going well. But West Virginia simply picked the worst time of the year to put on their ever worst performance.

Anyway, let's get to today's games, which surely can't live up to yesterday, but which hopefully will have fewer surprises against the spread.

Yesterday ATS: 5-11-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 17-18-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Wichita St (-2) over Miami: Wichita State is really good, as we already know before they dominated what is probably the best team in the Pac-12. So this line, while surprising to some, is fair. Wichita State's defense has been great all season, and it was great against Arizona as well. They are particularly good at keeping scorers out of the lane and forcing jump shots, which is not what Miami wants to do. Offensively, Wichita State is not a good jump shooting team, but they hit jump shots poorly against Arizona and it didn't matter.

Duke (-6) over Yale: Defensive rebounding will obviously be the concern for Duke here. Yale is an excellent rebounding team, but it's worth noting that they were outrebounded by a Baylor team that is pretty bad at defensive rebounding themselves (though not as bad as Duke). But with a spread this small, you only want to take Yale if you really think that this is a toss-up game, and I just don't see that. Duke's offense is so athletic and talented.

Kentucky (-3.5) over Indiana: As much as Indiana's defense has improved this season, they are still heavily dependent on their offense, and specifically on outside shooting to carry them. They shot the lights out against Chattanooga (10-for-16 on threes), and so they won in a rout. But with a poor shooting night, they easily could have lost. As much as Kentucky's defense has dropped off this season in the paint, John Calipari teams are always good at preventing three-pointers. Kentucky was 17th in the nation, and 1st in the SEC, in defense 3PA/FGA. It's hard to fathom Indiana winning this game in the paint.

Iowa State (-6.5) over UALR: Yesterday, while I was on twitter bemoaning what a toxic waste dump the West Virginia offense was, one person suggested to me that Iowa State today would cleanse my palette. I hope they're right. Iowa State is also the luckiest team playing today. Purdue was an absolutely nightmare match-up for them with their size and depth. By knocking them out in the craziest game of the Round of 64, UALR poses a far, far easier challenge. Also, as a team that doesn't go after offensive rebounds and doesn't draw a lot of fouls, they can't take advantage of Iowa State's two weaknesses. I like the Cyclones in a rout here.

Virginia (-7.5) over Butler: This is probably the toughest game of the day to pick against the spread. It's a very fair line. Butler's offense against Virginia's defense will be something of the unstoppable force vs the immovable object, though Virginia's defense has been particularly "immovable" over the past six weeks or so (after some relatively ugly defensive performances early in the season). But the part of Virginia that the media never mentions (due to pacism) is how incredibly efficient the Virginia offense is. Butler might really struggle to stop them, and that's why I'd be stunned if they actually pull the upset.

Kansas (-8) over UConn: Both of these teams are fantastic defensively. The difference to me is how well Kansas shoots the ball. The Jayhawks hit 42.1% of their three-pointer this season, which was third best in the nation. Daniel Hamilton is an excellent player, but UConn just does not have the overall firepower offensively to keep up with the Jayhawks. This game is hardly a mismatch, and UConn has the ability to win this game if the Jayhawks go cold, but Kansas is clearly the significantly better team.

Gonzaga (PK) over Utah: This spread is not a surprise at all. Not only is Gonzaga a strong 11 seed, but Utah is easily the weakest of the 3 seeds. Utah deserved their seed, but they got there by going 10-2 in games decided by six points or fewer. The Domantas Sabonis/Jakob Poeltl match-up will be worth the price of admission alone, but Utah is not likely to test Gonzaga's lack of depth, particularly in the backcourt. One significant advantage that Utah has is that they led the nation in defensive FTRate, something which will come in handy against a Gonzaga team that hit at a 76% clip during the season. But I think Gonzaga is truly the stronger team, and anytime a stronger team has a significantly lower seed, I think that's a great bet.

North Carolina (-10) over Providence: This seems like a big spread, but it's really not. North Carolina is favored by 11 in Pomeroy and by 12 in Sagarin. Providence was lucky in close games this season, and was not nearly as strong as their resume. North Carolina also has waves and waves of athletic, long big men who can both defend Ben Bentil and also get after the glass, where Providence struggled. The Tar Heels are not at all dependent on jump shooting, so the only way Providence can pull this game out will be if all of their key players have big nights at the same time. I'd bet against that.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Day 4 Picking The Lines

It was nice to see the mid-majors perform well, for the most part, yesterday. All the media people laughing at Wichita State's high Pomeroy ratings, or who scoffed at Yale as a bunch of slow white guys, were awfully quiet.

One of the old trends that continued was that teams outscored in conference play (Texas Tech, Colorado, and USC) all lost. Oregon State also was outscored in conference play, so that's worth keeping an eye on.

If there's one performance that really stands out from yesterday it's Kentucky's utter domination of Stony Brook. It's not purely reasonable to think this way, but North Carolina fans had to be nervous watching that while they spent a half struggling with Florida Gulf Coast.

Yesterday ATS: 9-6-1
2016 Tournament ATS: 12-7-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Syracuse (+1.5) over Dayton: Syracuse should not have gotten into the NCAA Tournament, but they're a Tournament quality team. In contrast, Dayton was very lucky in close games (13-3 in games decided by six points or fewer) and is not nearly as strong as their resume. I'm also very concerned by what Dayton's inefficient offense will do against the Syracuse zone, which flummoxes even efficient offenses that aren't used to seeing it.

Villanova (-17.5) over UNC Asheville: It's impossible to have a strong opinion on this line, and it's a hard line to predict because it's basically going to come down to whether or not Villanova is hitting their threes. The only chance Asheville has to keep this game close is for Villanova to go cold... which of course has happened plenty of times this season.

Oregon State (+4) over VCU: There are two ways to think about this game. First of all, Oregon State is clearly a team with a very inflated RPI, and the Vegas line reflects that. You generally want to bet against teams like that. On the other hand, VCU is still a team that relies heavily on forcing turnovers defensively (there's not quite as much #havoc, but the team still looks pretty similar to Shaka Smart's teams), and Oregon State led the Pac-12 in offensive turnover rate. I took VCU in my bracket, and give them the narrow edge to win the game, but that Vegas spread has gotten just a little bit too high. This should be an awfully even game, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it come down to the final minute.

California (-5) over Hawaii: The line moved about three points here after it was announced that Tyrone Wallace was injured and would miss the game. That's reasonable movement, but it's worth remembering that Cal lost Wallace for five games in the middle of Pac-12 play, and didn't suffer too much of a decline. The injury matters, but it's hardly crippling to California. The biggest concern I have for Hawaii is that they are foul prone, and Cal led the Pac-12 in offensive FTRate. Hawaii's offense is not good, and if Cal is on a steady moving walkway to the free throw line, Cal should win this game even if they don't shoot the ball well.

Middle Tennessee (+18) over Michigan State: Conference USA was down this season, but as far as 15 seeds go, Middle Tennessee is a fairly strong one. They also match up well with Michigan State in that they led Conference USA in defensive turnover and rebounding rate. Michigan State's backcourt is vulnerable to turning the ball over, and their offense relies in large part on offensive rebounds (they led the Big Ten in offensive rebounding rate). That said, Middle Tennessee will struggle otherwise to stop the awfully efficient Michigan State offense, so an actual upset seems really unlikely.

Iowa (-7) over Temple: The Vegas line is in line with the computers. Temple is just not a very good team, and might be the weakest at-large team in over a decade. They had a soft at-large resume to begin with, and achieved it with very good luck in close games. Like Fran Dunphy teams always are, Temple is solid defensively and they don't make a lot of mistakes, but offensively they just have absolutely nothing going on. There isn't a single scorer who you are worried about. Iowa has several different guys who can go off, and if they're hitting their jump shots then this will quickly turn into a rout.

Oklahoma (-14.5) over Cal St Bakersfield: If you're taking Cal State Bakersfield here, you're believing that their strong performance in WAC play is legit, because their non-conference performance was fairly ugly. They turned things around in conference play, in large part due to an aggressive defense that turned teams over. Oklahoma has certainly proved vulnerable to aggressive defenses that can turn them over, but it's always good to be skeptical of teams that force a lot of turnovers in small leagues. That often doesn't translate against a bigger, faster, more athletic opponent like Oklahoma. It's not a huge sample size, but in three non-conference games against higher quality opponents (Saint Mary's, Arizona State, and Fresno State), those turnovers disappeared, and Bakersfield got routed. I'll ride with Oklahoma here.

Maryland (-9.5) over South Dakota State: Maryland has struggled a bit down the stretch. Offensively, they're very difficult to keep away from the basket, but they're also sloppy and turnover-prone. That said, South Dakota State doesn't have the type of defense that is really going to challenge them. I'm also concerned about how effective star freshman Mike Daum will be against an awfully athletic Maryland front line.

Wisconsin (-2) over Pittsburgh: This Vegas line is right where the computers have it, but it's worth noting that early season play is factored significantly into that. Wisconsin has played significantly better in the second half of the season than the first half, while Pitt faded a bit down the stretch. So considering the last month or six weeks of play, Wisconsin has been more than two points better than Pitt. Is there a match-up advantage for Pitt to make up for that? Perhaps, in that they are an aggressive offensive rebounding team against a Wisconsin team that has struggled on the defensive glass. But Pitt also struggles with ball handling, while Wisconsin led the Big Ten in defensive turnover rate.

West Virginia (-8) over Stephen F. Austin: Stephen F. Austin has great computer numbers, but you have to be skeptical of numbers that came against a schedule that soft. They led the entire nation in defensive turnover rate, but did it by turning over weak opponents like crazy. That often doesn't translate against upper level opponents, as it didn't when they were demolished by Baylor earlier this season. On top of that, West Virginia relies more than any team in the nation in forcing steals and getting offensive rebounds, and Stephen F Austin is both a poor rebounding team and a poor ball handling team. I expect this to be a rout.

Green Bay (+13.5) over Texas A&M: This game has the potential to be ugly, as both teams do a good job of forcing turnovers. "Tempo" is the single most over-used narrative in basketball, but it could be a factor here. Green Bay likes to drive the pace as quickly as then can and get easy transition buckets, but they struggle in a half court offense. Texas A&M likes to grind out defensive possessions. If Green Bay can up the pace and have the advantage in fastbreak points, they could win this game outright.

Holy Cross (+23) over Oregon: It's hard to have a strong opinion on a 1/16 game, and obviously it would be an absolutely stunning upset if Holy Cross actually won. And I don't think they're winning this game either. But Holy Cross plays a deliberate style where they make few mistakes - they take care of the ball, protect the defensive glass, and limit fouls. They force other teams to beat them. Oregon is much better, so they'll be able to beat Holy Cross, but the Ducks rely significantly on second chance and transition points. I don't think Holy Cross is good fodder for that type of rout.

Xavier (-13) over Weber State: This is a fair line, but I don't think Weber State is the type of small conference team likely to pull a stunning upset. They tended to grind out wins in the Big Sky, controlling the paint and earning a large free throw advantage. Xavier is not going to be pushed around in the paint by Weber State. I love Joel Bolomboy, but I don't think he's any better than James Farr.

Michigan (+3) over Notre Dame: Notre Dame was the slightly better team this season, so that line is fair, but I think Michigan has two match-up advantages. First, Michigan led the nation in defensive FTRate, which matters against a Notre Dame team that led the Big East by hitting 77% of free throws in conference play. Also, Michigan's biggest defensive weakness is dominant big men, and Notre Dame really only has one effective post scorer (Zach Auguste). And while Auguste has cut down on the fouls he's committed this season, he is still vulnerable to foul trouble.

Texas (-4.5) over Northern Iowa: There is always a lot of #havoc talk when Shaka Smart is involved, but the reality is that Texas runs nothing of the sort. Shaka Smart is no dummy, and he knew that the personnel he inherited could not play that type of game. The Longhorns play similar to how they did last season. And thus the fact that Northern Iowa is excellent at preventing turnovers doesn't really matter too much here. The match-up that sticks out to me is that Texas led the Big 12 in defensive 3PA/FGA, while Northern Iowa's offense relies heavily on the outside shot. Take the outside shot away and UNI's offense becomes fairly impotent.

Cincinnati (-2.5) over St. Joseph's: Cincinnati has had some awful luck in close games, and they're clearly better than their resume, so that Vegas line is fair. Cincinnati is the same team that they always are: physical and dominant both defensively and on the glass. If St. Joe's wins this game, it's because they are able to limit Cincinnati's second chance points. But offensively, I'm just not sure how St. Joe's scores. To have any hope against Cincinnati's defense you need to be able to hit outside jumpers to open things up. Isaiah Miles is the only decent outside shooter that the Hawks have.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Day 3 Picking The Lines

We had to suffer through some ugly basketball in the First Four games (aside from, unsurprisingly, Wichita State/Vanderbilt). But the green veggies are over and it's time for the steak. The real NCAA Tournament is here. Let's do this.

Remember that if you still haven't finished filling out your bracket, I picked the full thing here.

Yesterday ATS: 1-1-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 3-1-0
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

UNC Wilmington (+10.5) over Duke: This line is just a wee bit ridiculous. I know, I know... you're shocked to see Duke with a very "public" line in an NCAA Tournament game. Me, too. We'll get through this together.

On a serious note, the Colonial was the most underrated conference in the nation this season, and UNC-Wilmington's 14-4 record was impressive. People see the name "UNC Wilmington" and assume they are from some tiny conference, when in fact they won a regular season title in a conference stronger than the Mountain West. They are also a team that will run Duke's outside shooters off the three-point line (11th in the nation in defensive 3PA/FGA). I'm not saying that UNC-Wilmington will win this game, particularly since I'd worry about a big game from Grayson Allen, but they should keep this close.

Butler (-4.5) over Texas Tech: Using nothing but computer metrics, Butler is the obvious pick here. Texas Tech, as I've written about extensively, got its high seed because they did a beautiful job of gaming the RPI with their schedule. Throw in some luck in late season close games, and both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate Butler the better team. In terms of personnel, I don't like how bad Texas Tech's three-point defense is considering Butler's 39% season-long three-point shooting. If the Red Raiders pull the upset, it'll be because they got Butler's (relatively thin) front line in foul trouble.

UConn (-3.5) over Colorado: Everybody and their sister is picking UConn to win this game. In large part that's because of UConn's two recent miraculous tourney runs, which personally say nothing to me about how they'll do this year. But UConn is simply the better team. Colorado is another team that (like Texas Tech) had an inflated RPI. Colorado also had some good luck in close games (they're only 55th in Pomeroy), and was particularly bad on the road. In road/neutral games, Colorado was 0-10 vs the Pomeroy Top 100, while UConn went 7-7. Colorado would need a significant match-up advantage for me to pick them here, and I don't see one.

Iowa State (-8) over Iona: This is a fair line, and it's hard to feel too strongly one way or other other. My biggest concern with taking the points here is how high scoring this game will be, with the winner having a good chance to finish with 90+ points. If Iowa State gets an early lead, they could blow this game open awfully quickly. Iona has certainly been a better team in conference play with AJ English, but I'm not sure how they can ever get a defensive stop against this Iowa State starting lineup. And Iona doesn't have the players to take advantage of Iowa State's biggest problem: rebounding.

Yale (+5) over Baylor: If there's going to be a 12/5 upset, this is the one I think is most likely. For Yale to win, however, they're going to need to prove that their excellent rebounding efficiencies are true skill, and will not disappear against a Baylor front line that is far more athletic than what Yale faced in the Ivy League. The Justin Sears/Rico Gathers match-up will be worth the price of admission alone.

Virginia (-24) over Hampton: It's impossible to have strong feelings about 1/16 games. Virginia could dominate this game and Hampton could backdoor cover. That said, if I have to pick one side here, I don't like that Hampton is a team that wants to run and get easy second-chance points. Virginia will not allow any of that.

Austin Peay (+26) over Kansas: Once again, it's hard to have strong feelings here. Realistically, Austin Peay has no chance to seriously compete in this game, but Kansas is a jump shot heavy team, so they're going to need to shoot well to cover.

Purdue (-9) over UALR: This is a fair line, but as one of the shortest teams in the country I can't fathom how UALR defends the massive Purdue front line. Smaller teams can cause Purdue trouble when they press defensively and force turnovers against Purdue's underwhelming backcourt, but UALR doesn't do that either. Little Rock was 21st in the nation in 3P%, but Matt Painter teams are almost always good at getting shooters off the three-point line. I like Purdue to win fairly easily here.

Buffalo (+14.5) over Miami: This game will likely come down to how it is reffed. Buffalo is a physical team that gets after the glass, controls the paint, and gets to the free throw line. Miami can be susceptible to teams like that, particularly if Tonye Jekiri gets in foul trouble. That said, Miami was 2nd best in the ACC in defensive FTRate, so in general they were pretty good at not having foul trouble. Buffalo will want the refs to call this one tight. Miami has been an inconsistent team this season, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if they run Buffalo off the court, but they also could lose this game outright.

Chattanooga (+12) over Indiana: Indiana is always a tough team to pick against the spread because they are so dependent on outside shooting. If those threes are dropping at a high clip, they'll win in a rout. But if they struggle to hit shots, Chattanooga is good enough to win this game outright. The big difference for Indiana this year relative to last year has been interior defense, primarily in the form of Thomas Bryant (Max Biefeldt). The match-up to watch, for sure, will be how Justin Tuoyo handles the Indiana front line.

Florida Gulf Coast (+22) over North Carolina: This is a fair line, so it's hard to have a strong opinion on this game. I do think that this Florida Gulf Coast front line is athletic and talented, and should be able to keep North Carolina off the offensive glass. The Tar Heels offense has a tendency to get bogged down when they're not getting easy second chance points. They will still win, but I'm betting that it won't be a total rout.

Fresno State (+9) over Utah: Utah has been very lucky in close games this season (10-2 in games decided by six points or fewer), so the computers are not fans of them. They will very plausibly be Vegas underdogs against 11 seed Gonzaga, if those two teams get there. But they have to get there, and Utah has a tough test as well. Fresno State has an aggressive perimeter defense which led the Mountain West in defensive steal rate, and which will cause problems for a Utah backcourt that is underwhelming. If Utah covers, it will likely be because Jakob Poeltl had a monster game.

Arizona (-2) over Wichita State: I took Arizona in my bracket, and I'm going to stick with them here, but this is obviously an unfair Round of 64 match-up. These are two teams that would have been great Final Four sleepers if not for this terrible draw. In the end, I think Arizona is a deeper, bigger roster, and think that they dominate the paint and rebounding battles. As good as Wichita State has been, the lack of competition in conference play puts a little bit of doubt on their efficiency numbers. Arizona, in contrast, has been absolutely fantastic in Pac-12 play ever since they got fully healthy. Even with the early injuries, they still finished as the most efficient team in Pac-12 play (+0.14 PPP, compared to +0.10 PPP for Oregon).

Stony Brook (+14.5) over Kentucky: Unless you were a fan of an America East rival, you were very happy to see Stony Brook finally break through with this core of players. And it will be fascinating to watch what Jameel Warney can do against a Kentucky front line that has been far from intimidating defensively (particularly compared to the incredible paint defenses John Calipari has rolled out for the most part the past five seasons). But this is a very "public" line, as Pomeroy has it at 10 points and Sagarin at 12. The test for Stony Brook will be holding their own on the defensive glass. If they can, they should cover the spread.

Providence (-2) over USC: With a spread this small you just want to pick the team you think is going to win, and I took Providence in my bracket. Providence was probably the slightly better team this season, and Ben Bentil will be a mismatch for a USC front line that has struggled with paint defense and defensive rebounding. Kris Dunn also will be able to lock up Jordan McLaughlin defensively. 

Gonzaga (-1.5) over Seton Hall: I took Gonzaga in my bracket. Seton Hall is getting a ton of hype because of that magical Big East tournament run, but for the rest of the season prior to two weeks ago they were a bubble quality team. It's generally smart to bet on "regression" in a situation like that. On top of that, Seton Hall has struggled against strong offensive rebounding teams, particularly if Angel Delgado gets in foul trouble. Domantas Sabonis could have a monster game.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Day 2 Picking The Lines

Last night we didn't exactly kick off with the two most exciting games in the history of the sport, though the Wichita State/Vanderbilt game was (unsurprisingly) high quality. It was a shame that a team as good as Vanderbilt was forced to play a buzzsaw like Wichita State in a play-in game, rather than a more First Four-quality team.

Remember, my full NCAA Tournament previews game by game are all posted here. Use that to guide your bracket picking.

Let's get to the games:

Yesterday ATS: 2-0-0
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Holy Cross (+2) over Southern: Once again, I beg you not to gamble actually American currency on a 16/16 play-in game. That said, I picked Holy Cross in my bracket. They have played significantly better over the past few weeks, and certainly have the coaching advantage. I also think that Holy Cross is a team that doesn't beat themselves with turnovers or fouls or lazy rebounding. They'll force a mediocre Southern team to go out and out-execute them, and I don't think that they will.

Tulsa (+4) over Michigan: I took Tulsa to win this game in my bracket. With no Caris LeVert, Michigan has faded pretty badly down the stretch. They take a ton of threes because they can't get to the basket, but don't hit them at a high rate. And defensively they struggle with dribble drivers who can get into the lane, which Tulsa has.

Just remember that no matter how many games Tulsa wins in the NCAA Tournament, even if they win the national title, it will not in any way change the fact that they should be playing in the NIT. Their resume was way too soft to get in.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Day 1 Picking The Lines

This is Day 1 of my daily "Picking The Lines" posts. Remember, I am not pretending to guarantee success, and I pick each game simply as a blogging gimmick to discuss each game. Betting a few dollars on a game to add interest is fun, but betting a large sum of money is probably a bad idea. Don't gamble, kids.

As always, the Vegas lines used will be the VegasInsider consensus line at the time the post goes live on the blog.

Anyway, it's time to get this tournament started. Join in the comments section on these posts daily to talk about the games as they happen, or tweet at me.

Let's get to the games:

2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)

Florida Gulf Coast (-6) over Fairleigh Dickinson: Because I'm picking every game, I have to pick the 16/16 games, but come on guys. Don't bet real money on a 16/16 play-in game. Don't be that kind of degenerate. Anyway... FGCU is by any metric you choose the better team, and the 6 point spread is basically in line with the computer ratings. They're not just better, but more athletic, and they have the chance to run Fairleigh Dickinson off the court.

Wichita State (-3.5) over Vanderbilt: Wichita State's great computer numbers are due in large part to destroying the competition in the Missouri Valley. Their non-conference computer numbers were basically identical to Vanderbilt. That said, destroying a conference has value, even if the Missouri Valley was not particularly strong this year. And second of all, Wichita State was badly shorthanded in non-conference play, and did not look at all like themselves until mid-December. They don't really have anybody who can defend Vanderbilt's 7-footers, but the reality is that this Commodores team doesn't do a lot of their scoring in the paint. They have a perimeter-focused offense, which is where Wichita State's defense is strongest. One final concern is that Vanderbilt went just 5-11 in road/neutral games, including just 1-10 in road/neutral games against the Pomeroy Top 100.

It's completely unfair that two teams this good have to play in a play-in game, but since we're stuck here, give Wichita State the edge.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Complete Final Four Analysis

My Picks:

1. Kansas over 2. Oklahoma
1. North Carolina over 2. Michigan State

1. North Carolina over 1. Kansas

We have a lot of parity... like usual: Last year's situation, with four or five teams clearly better than everybody else, was atypical. We don't have a clear best team this season... but that's normal! Statistically, the level of parity between the top and mid-level teams in the bracket is, despite what you may have heard, not really larger this season than the average college hoops season. But the average college hoops season is crazy. It's the nature of the sport.

Who is the best team?: Each of the four teams I have in my Final Four was, at one point this season, considered the best team in the nation. Until they lost the ACC title game, Virginia was the #1 team in Pomeroy. And if you want to argue that Villanova is the best team (they were #1 in Pomeroy for most of January and February) I won't disagree with that either. There are a lot of different ways you can go. That said...

Don't get weird with your title picks: Look, if you are in a 1000 person bracket contest and only the winner makes money, then by all means pick a team like Iowa or UConn and hope to hit the jackpot. But if you're trying for a solid finish in your bracket pool, you want to avoid teams that could go down early. Don't let your bracket get busted the first weekend. Teams like North Carolina and Kansas are, simply put, the most likely to still be around in a week or two.

Want a sleeper?: Look for teams that are balanced on both sides of the ball, and teams that are playing their best ball late in the season. My two favorite national title sleepers are Purdue and Arizona, and for those two reasons.

Why North Carolina?: There are several reasons why North Carolina is my title pick. First of all, they are balanced. They are very strong offensively and defensively, they have elite talent in the backcourt and front court, they tend to win turnover battles, they tend to win rebounding battles, and they never have foul trouble. North Carolina is also not a team at all reliant on jump shooting or outside shooting, which are always red flags for teams that need to win six straight games. In addition, North Carolina's bracket is relatively soft. There's hype about Kentucky as the 4 seed, but that's overdone because of the Kentucky brand. They have a soft 8/9 match-up and probably the softest 2 seed. All in all, North Carolina is the team least likely (in my opinion) to go down early and bust your bracket. And you can make a good case that the Tar Heels are the best team in the nation and would be a deserved Final Four favorite.

Anything can happen in a single elimination tournament, but I think that if you played the tourney 10,000 times, the Tar Heels would be the most common winner.

Complete West Region Analysis

My Picks:
16. Holy Cross over 16. Southern

1. Oregon over 16. Holy Cross
9. Cincinnati over 8. St. Joseph's
5. Baylor over 12. Yale
4. Duke over 13. UNC-Wilmington
6. Texas over 11. Northern Iowa
3. Texas A&M over 14. Green Bay
10. VCU over 7. Oregon State
2. Oklahoma over 15. Cal State Bakersfield

1. Oregon over 9. Cincinnati
5. Baylor over 4. Duke
6. Texas over 3. Texas A&M
2. Oklahoma over 7. VCU

1. Oregon over 5. Baylor
2. Oklahoma over 6. Texas

2. Oklahoma over 1. Oregon

The West is the "Region Of Life": From top to bottom, this is the weakest region. Oregon is obviously the weakest 1 seed, and there isn't another seed line that is particularly strong, other than perhaps Cincinnati as a strong 9 seed. Duke will be a popular pick, but that's on reputation rather than performance. Without Amile Jefferson they are very thin, particularly in the front court, and they have scuffled quite a bit down the stretch. If we have a region where a 9+ seed goes to an Elite 8, this would be the region. In the end, I'm going with the best team, which I believe is Oklahoma. They also have the best player, and probably a slightly easier draw to the Elite 8 than Oregon or any other team faces. But don't be surprised to see this region blow up your bracket.

VCU will give Oklahoma problems... if they get there: We have seen all season that Oklahoma can be turnover prone, and it's hurt them badly in their losses. That said, VCU is no sure thing to get past Oregon State despite how over-seeded the Beavers are (VCU is currently a 4.5 point favorite in Vegas). Oregon State led the Pac-12 in both offensive and defensive turnover rate, and VCU doesn't win too often when they lose the turnover battle.

Yale has a real shot: If you are in a bracket competition where you get extra value for picking upsets, I'd think very hard about taking Yale over Baylor in a classic 12/5 upset. Justin Sears is a true stud (his absence led to their one disastrous performance of the season against Albany), and the computers rate Yale as nearly as good as Baylor. My one concern, and the reason why I think Baylor still has the slight edge, is that Yale depends heavily on offensive rebounds and drawing fouls, which are two skills that often do not translate well when small conference teams against more athletic opponents.

Yeah, Northern Iowa beat North Carolina and Iowa State, but...: Northern Iowa had two very narrow wins over elite teams, yes, but they were one or two plays from losing both games, so don't draw too many "giant killer" narratives. More importantly, Northern Iowa relies heavily on hitting threes (they led the Missouri Valley in 3PA/FGA and hit them at a 37% clip) while Texas is excellent at stopping three-point shooting. Texas is the deserved favorite.

Complete South Region Analysis

My Picks:
11. Wichita State over 11. Vanderbilt

1. Kansas over 16. Austin Peay
9. UConn over 8. Colorado
5. Maryland over 12. South Dakota State
4. California over 13. Hawaii
6. Arizona over 11. Wichita State
3. Miami over 14. Buffalo
7. Iowa over 10. Temple
2. Villanova over 15. UNC-Asheville

1. Kansas over 9. UConn
4. California over 5. Maryland
6. Arizona over 3. Miami
2. Villanova over 7. Iowa

1. Kansas over 4. California
6. Arizona over 2. Villanova

1. Kansas over 6. Arizona


The Arizona/Wichita State/Vanderbilt game is stupid: It seems every year that the Selection Committee puts together one Round of 64 game just to piss off analytics folks. Iowa/Tennessee in a play-in game in 2014 and Memphis playing Saint Louis in an 8/9 game in 2012 are two classic examples. Arizona and Wichita State are both Top 16 in the Pomeroy ratings despite both suffering significant injuries to two different key players this season. And Vanderbilt? They're the slouch here at just 27th in Pomeroy. In the end, Arizona is (in my opinion) the best of the three, and they have more ways to beat you, but it's frustrating that three different teams that I wanted to pick as a sleeper are all stuck against each other in the Round of 64. This all means that...

Picking the bottom half of this region is awfully hard: Both Arizona and Wichita State will give Villanova a really hard fight. But which one will it be? That's the hard part. And don't sleep on an Iowa team that looked like the best team in the Big Ten for a while this season and has one of the best players in the nation in Jarrod Uthoff. Throw in the fact that teams which are jump shot dependent are always dicey in a one-or-done tournament where a single off night ends your season, and I'd lay off Villanova making the Final Four.

UConn will give Kansas a battle: Forget the narratives about previous UConn tourney runs, which are meaningless this season, but UConn is an awfully strong 9 seed. That said, I think the difference in their game against Kansas is that the Jayhawks can shoot the ball well over the top (3rd in the nation with 42.3% three-point shooting) while UConn's defense relies on protecting the paint and is vulnerable to three-point shooters.
Villanova/Iowa is a test of three-point defense: Iowa was 1st in the Big Ten in defensive 3P% and 12th in defensive 3PA/FGA. Past analysis says that the latter stat is much more meaningful, while defensive 3P% is mostly luck. Considering that Villanova lives and dies by the three-pointer more than any other team in the NCAA Tournament, analytics says that Villanova has the edge there.

Complete Midwest Region Analysis

My Picks:
1. Virginia over 16. Hampton
9. Butler over 8. Texas Tech
5. Purdue over 12. UALR
4. Iowa State over 13. Iona
11. Gonzaga over 6. Seton Hall
3. Utah over 14. Fresno State
10. Syracuse over 7. Dayton
2. Michigan State over 15. Middle Tennessee

1. Virginia over 9. Butler
5. Purdue over 4. Iowa State
11. Gonzaga over 3. Utah
2. Michigan State over 10. Syracuse

1. Virginia over 5. Purdue
2. Michigan State over 11. Gonzaga

2. Michigan State over 1. Virginia


Purdue is a great Final Four sleeper: History says that you want to pick teams that are balanced to go far. Top 20 teams in Pomeroy offense and defense are a great place to start. With a rough Big Ten title game against Michigan State, the Boilers slipped out of that category by falling to 21st in Pomeroy offense (they're still 18th defensively), but they're still one of the most balanced elite teams in the nation. Iowa State is also a perfect second round opponent in that the Cyclones have absolutely zero front court size or depth. On top of all of that, Purdue has only really struggled with teams that press their guards defensively, and despite their reputation Iowa State was dead last in the Big 12 in defensive turnover rate. Purdue failing to make the Sweet, at the very least, would be surprising.

Want a Virginia/Michigan State tiebreaker? The Draw: Remember when considering Elite 8 match-ups that the teams have to get there first. Virginia will likely face Purdue or Iowa State in the Sweet 16, while Michigan State doesn't have a Pomeroy Top 25 team on their schedule until the Elite 8. So if you think Virginia and Michigan State are an even match-up, I'd recommend putting Michigan State in the Final Four because of the easier draw.

Gonzaga has a lovely draw: Not only will Gonzaga likely be favored in Las Vegas over Seton Hall when that game tips, but they might be favored against Utah also. The Utes have had good luck in close games this season (10-2 in games decided by six points or fewer), and are not nearly as good as their resume.

Fade Seton Hall: Personally, I'm always a fan of fading teams that just had great conference tournament runs because they tend to pick up a bunch of seed lines and become overrated. The Selection Committee did less of that this year than usual (many previous Selection Committees would have slid Seton Hall up to a 4 seed), but they're still not any better than Gonzaga in the computers. Throw in the fact that Seton Hall struggles with big teams that can get after the offensive glass, and I think Gonzaga is deservedly favored there.

Take the "over" on Iowa State/Iona: Two high tempo teams that don't play a lot of defense? This game is going to have a zillion points. Iowa State is the better team, though, so don't get too cute there.

Complete East Region Analysis

My Picks:
16. Florida Gulf Coast over 16. Fairleigh Dickinson
11. Tulsa over 11. Michigan

1. North Carolina over 16. FGCU
9. Providence over 8. USC
5. Indiana over 12. Chattanooga
4. Kentucky over 13. Stony Brook
11. Tulsa over 6. Notre Dame
3. West Virginia over 14. Stephen F. Austin
7. Wisconsin over 10. Pittsburgh
2. Xavier over 15. Weber State

1. North Carolina over 9. Providence
4. Kentucky over 5. Indiana
3. West Virginia over 11. Tulsa
2. Xavier over 7. Wisconsin

1. North Carolina over 4. Kentucky
3. West Virginia over 2. Xavier

1. North Carolina over 3. West Virginia


Avoid the urge to pick Kentucky: Everybody and their sister loves Kentucky to go far in the NCAA Tournament. But there are two big red flags. First of all, you want to pick teams that are balanced offensively and defensively. Teams that are Top 20 in both Pomeroy offense and defense have a great record in the NCAA Tournament compared to teams elite at one end vs the other. Kentucky is #1 in Pomeroy offense but only 70th defensively. The defense has improved later in the season, but Kentucky still has major problems on the defensive glass, and the Tar Heels are fantastic at crashing the glass and getting second chance points. That said...

Kentucky is a tough match-up for Indiana: John Calipari teams are always excellent at running three-point shooters off the three-point line. Kentucky's defense took a big step back this season in the paint, but they still led the SEC in defensive 3PA/FGA. Indiana relies heavily on hitting three-pointers, and Kentucky simply will not let those shots get off.

West Virginia loves their draw: We all know what "Press Virginia" does: They are Top Two in the nation in defensive turnover rate and offensive rebounding rate, while they are a terrible shooting team. Prevent turnovers and keep them off the glass and you'll beat them. Stephen F. Austin does neither of those two things well. Both Notre Dame and Tulsa can protect the ball, but neither can rebound well. There simply is not a "West Virginia kryptonite" team in this region. Even North Carolina and Xavier have trouble in those two areas.
Xavier picked the right year to play Wisconsin: Xavier relies heavily on offensive rebounds and drawing fouls, two things that Bo Ryan Wisconsin teams always excelled at preventing. This year? Not so much. Wisconsin will play that game close, but at this point I have to give the narrow edge to Xavier.

Tulsa advancing doesn't justify their inclusion: That said, Tulsa is playing their best basketball of the season the past few weeks, and they have a very generous draw against a weak/reeling Michigan team and a Notre Dame team that has stopped shooting the ball well (and which is once again poor defensively). They will have a great shot to make a Sweet 16, leading to a false narrative that they proved they belonged in (just like UCLA last season).

Complete 2016 NCAA Tournament Analysis

As I've written on the blog recently, my new job prevents me from blogging as much as I used to, but I wanted to give you all as much of an NCAA Tournament preview as I could muster. So I will still pick a full bracket, with at least a little bit of breakdown why. In addition, I will again pick all 67 games against the spread. As always, I will post my picks against the VegasInsider consensus line.

Look for the picks against the spread each day on the blog. The full bracket preview will be linked to region by region below:

How Well Did The Computers Predict The Field?

This is my annual post where I break down the RPI/Sagarin/Pomeroy numbers of the bubble teams. Below I listed the ten lowest-rated at-large teams and the ten highest-rated non-NCAA Tournament teams. Keep in mind that I am only considering at-large eligible teams, and am not listing automatic bid winners (or postseason ineligible teams).

Note that all of these numbers are as of Monday morning (i.e. they include all of the results up through Selection Sunday but do not include any post-Selection Sunday tournaments). Also note that I have added the Massey ratings this year, to include a more true measure of a team's resume.


Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):

30. St. Bonaventure (1)
34. Akron (6)
38. Saint Mary's (2)
39. Princeton (6)
41. San Diego State (2)
49. Valparaiso (1)
52. Monmouth (1)
54. Hofstra (5)
55. Florida (2)
62. Georgia (3)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
72. Syracuse (10)
63. Vanderbilt (11)
59. Temple (10)
58. Tulsa (11)
57. Michigan (11)
56. Butler (9)
53. Pittsburgh (10)
51. USC (9)
48. Cincinnati (9)
47. Wichita State (11)


Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):

35. Saint Mary's (2)
44. South Carolina (1)
45. Georgia Tech (4)
52. Florida (2)
54. Virginia Tech (3)
55. San Diego State (2)
56. Georgia (3)
59. Ohio State (3)
61. Valparaiso (1)
62. Kansas State (-)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
75. Tulsa (11)
60. Vanderbilt (11)
58. Syracuse (10)
53. Temple (10)
48. Oregon State (7)
47. VCU (10)
46. USC (9)
43. Wichita State (11)
42. Texas Tech (8)
41. Colorado (8)


Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):

31. Saint Mary's (2)
40. BYU (2)
43. Creighton (4)
44. Valparaiso (1)
45. Florida State (4)
47. Kansas State (-)
50. South Carolina (1)
52. San Diego State (2)
53. Clemson (-)
57. Georgia Tech (4)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
98. Temple (10)
66. Tulsa (11)
59. Oregon State (7)
54. Providence (9)
51. Colorado (8)
48. Texas Tech (8)
46. Dayton (7)
42. USC (9)
41. Syracuse (10)
39. Wisconsin (7)


Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):

34. Saint Mary's (2)
36. Valparaiso (1)
43. San Diego State (2)
44. Florida (2)
48. Creighton (4)
50. Kansas State (-)
51. South Carolina (1)
52. Florida State (4)
53. Clemson (-)
57. Houston (5)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
86. Temple (10)
60. Oregon State (7)
58. Tulsa (11)
56. Michigan (11)
55. Colorado (8)
54. Dayton (7)
49. USC (9)
46. Providence (9)
45. Pittsburgh (10)
42. Texas Tech (8)


Worst Teams In? Worst Snubs?
The total dominance of the RPI this season might not totally be obvious from the list above. After all, St. Bonaventure was 30th in RPI, and the Selection Committee saw through the fact that it was a gamed RPI and left them out. Their Massey rating was just 67th. Akron's RPI was also far too high, and they were left out. Even the worst team in the field, Temple (the worst at-large team I've ever tracked in Pomeroy or Sagarin in all the years I've been blogging), had a resume that wasn't really too far off of a reasonable at-large bid. They were super lucky in close games, so despite being a very mediocre team, they had a bubbly resume.

The Selection Committee wasn't perfect at seeing through gamed RPIs, though. If you look at the ten weakest Massey ratings to get in, the most glaring teams besides Tulsa are Texas Tech (I wrote about their gamed schedule here), and three Pac-12 teams (the entire Pac-12 was overrated in the RPI). So, no surprise there.

But the RPI ratings themselves weren't the problem last night. It was the RPI-related metrics:

"RPI Top 50" Uber Alles
Anytime there was a confusing seeding last night, Record vs the RPI Top 50 or Record vs the RPI Top 100 was why. Why was Texas A&M seeded ahead of Kentucky? Why was Oregon State so high? Why was St. Bonaventure left out? Why did Syracuse get in? Why were small conference teams left out? Why was Purdue behind Iowa State? The answer to every single one of those questions is: Record vs the RPI Top 50/100.

And this is a problem for two reasons. First of all, it's arbitrary, as this prescient tweet about Cincinnati points out:

Second, and more importantly...

Small conference teams are ineligible now?
When "Record vs RPI Top 50" dominates, it effectively makes small conference teams ineligible. They simply cannot get RPI Top 50 opponents on their home court. They also tend to play a much larger fraction of their games on the road, which leads to a problem when the Selection Committee doesn't take into account how much tougher those games are. For example, Syracuse got credit for a home "RPI Top 50" win over St. Bonaventure while Monmouth was killed for their three horrible "RPI 200+ losses". Unfortunately:

Monmouth was basically the poster child this year for a team that was screwed by a system that doesn't take home/road into account. Monmouth led the nation with 13 road wins, meaning that their schedule was significantly more difficult than their RPI numbers would suggest. Ken Pomeroy's numbers take this into account by using "Tier A" and "Tier B", where "Tier A" is a game equivalent to playing a Top 50 team at home, and "Tier B" is equivalent to playing a Top 100 team at home. How different do the stats get when you take home/road into account?

There's a reason why Wichita State was the only team from a small/mid level conference to earn an at-large bid, and even they did it with a comically low seed (an 11 seed when they were 12th in Pomeroy and probably had an 8 or 9 seed worthy resume). Teams like Monmouth, Valparaiso, Saint Mary's, and San Diego State? Shit out of luck in the system we had this season. And that's just not good for our sport.

Reliance on RPI records kills small conference teams on the back end, too
Every member of the Selection Committee who has been interviewed since yesterday has brought up RPI 200+ losses as impacting teams significantly. The problem is, this is yet another significant bias against small conference teams. As I pointed out above with the Canisius/St. Bonaventure tweet, winning on the road against RPI 200+ teams is far from a sure thing. Sure, you should win most of the time if you're good, but major conference teams only need to face RPI 200+ teams at most once a season on the road (and likely never), while small conference teams have to do it repeatedly. This year, Monmouth has to play 11 true road games vs RPI 200+ opponents. Eleven! Temple only had to do it 5 times, and they lost 1. Dayton did it three times, and they lost 1. Go get any major conference team to play 11 true road games vs RPI 200+ opponents and they're going to lose a couple of times also. Luckily for them, they never will have to.

Was the over-reliance on RPI the only thing wrong this year?
Amazingly, the answer to that question is "no". There were several other deviations from previous years. For one, they weighted late games significantly less than previous years. Normally, teams like Seton Hall and Saint Joseph's would have slid up another seed line or two for their conference tournament titles. Normally, they'd never allow Kentucky to beat Texas A&M head-to-head in a title game with an overall similar resume and still end up seeded behind them. Another deviation from previous years was the increased concern for "bad losses", as discussed above with regards to Monmouth.

If the Selection Committee wants to weight late games less, and wants to worry more about bad losses, there's no inherent reason why that's bad. But it's the inconsistency that is bad. Teams, players, coaches, and fans should know what to expect. To jerk the rationale around from year to year is just not good.

There is always a furor on Selection Sunday, and I generally try to avoid it. Usually the Selection Committee does a pretty good job, and usually I spend my "How well did the computers predict the field?" post defending most of their decisions. But this year was a tire fire in every possible way. And it has to get cleaned up, for the good of the sport, and for the sake of fairness.

What has to change?
The answer is not to "let Vegas seed the bracket" or to rank teams by Pomeroy. We should be ranking teams by resume strength, and not by how good they are. I want to care whether a buzzer beater goes in or not.

However, we have decent resume metrics. Use Massey, or use one of a variety of ELO ratings, or just average them all out. I don't care.

If the Selection Committee wants to continue to be subjective to take into account things like rewarding strength of schedule, or weighting big wins and bad losses over teams with neither, I'm totally fine with that. But ditch the RPI and give them location-adjusted numbers. That Syracuse win over St. Bonaventure? It doesn't count as a "Top 50" win anymore. That Monmouth win at UCLA? Suddenly that counts for much more.

It's an easy fix, and it wouldn't fundamentally change the way the brackets are made. Just give the Selection Committee the tools to allow them to properly weight small conference teams vs elite conference teams. Otherwise, let's cut the fiction and make small conference teams ineligible for at-large bids. Because this season, they were.

Sunday, March 13, 2016


This year's Selection Sunday is different from most year's in the past in where the uncertainty lies. In most years, the bubble has been down to just three or four spots, and there was general agreement of the small number of teams on that bubble. At the same time, we had quite a few teams whose resumes were well out of whack with how good they were, and we had the potential for a real "Region Of Death" (the most famous recent case being Wichita State 2014).

This year, we have fewer teams with resumes way out of whack with how good they are. The most glaring examples are Wichita State being much better than their resume and St. Bonaventure being much worse. So you want to hope not to get seeded against Wichita State (assuming that they get in, which is not a certainty). But in general, I doubt we'll see a true "Region Of Death" this year.

At the same time, we have a big, confusing bubble this year, made more confusing by the fact that the Selection Committee seemed to incorporate a little bit of the Pomeroy ratings into their selections last season. How much will advanced metrics (and how "good" a team actually is) play into selection this season? If they continue that trend, maybe a team like St. Bonaventure could actually drop out? In the end, we're all just basically guessing on a Selection criteria for those last few teams.

My philosophy on this, as I have stated all year, is that ratings like Pomeroy are going to be used as a "tiebreak", of sorts. RPI will still be used to group the teams, their wins, their losses, their schedule strengths, etc. But when two teams are close, and there's a debate in the room, the Pomeroy ratings will get mentioned, and they could cause a team to slide up or down a seed line. So Wichita State's #12 ranking in Pomeroy isn't earning them a 3 seed, or even a 6 seed. But their #12 ranking in Pomeroy could be the difference between getting in and getting left out.

Remember that bracketology is an inexact science, and we've had some inexplicable teams get in (UCLA last year, for example), but in my opinion the true bubble is ten teams for five spots. Those ten teams consist of the five teams I've got as 11 seeds, plus the five teams in the first category out.

In my opinion, Vanderbilt's resume is stronger than given credit for. They're strong across the board, regardless of what you're looking for, and the advanced metrics like them, too. My only significant concern for Vanderbilt is that 3-9 road record. If San Diego State gets in it's going to be because of their RPI NCSOS, because the rest of their resume just doesn't support it. A single big win does not a resume make. I'm also unexcited about Temple's resume, which boils down entirely to an AAC regular season title. History says that regular season conference titles don't buy you much on Selection Sunday.

Michigan is probably the toughest resume on the bubble. They have four big wins, but also have an ugly 4-12 record vs the RPI Top 100. They will be a good test of the Selection Committee's philosophy this season. Their closest comparison in terms of resume is probably Syracuse, though if you drill down I do think Michigan's resume is stronger. The only case for Syracuse over Michigan is that Syracuse won at Duke while Michigan went 0-6 on the road vs the RPI Top 100. Michigan also has the "last impression" edge with that win over Indiana this week, while Syracuse went down meekly in the ACC tournament. That's why I'm giving the edge to Michigan.

If I get a team wrong, my bet is on San Diego State getting in over Michigan. But trying to comp those two, with such disparate resumes, is why this year is so tough. It's just so hard to compare so many of these resumes head-to-head. My guess is that most of us get something like 66/68 teams right. Anybody who gets all 68 right was more "lucky" than "good."

1. KANSAS (BIG 12)
1. OREGON (PAC-12)

2. Villanova
2. Virginia
2. Oklahoma
2. West Virginia

3. Xavier
3. Miami-Florida
3. Utah

4. Indiana
4. Texas A&M
4. California

5. Purdue
5. Iowa State
5. Duke
5. Maryland

6. Texas
6. Baylor
6. Iowa

7. Arizona
7. Notre Dame
7. Wisconsin
7. Dayton

8. Texas Tech
8. Colorado
8. Providence

9. St. Bonaventure
9. USC
9. Oregon State
9. Butler

10. VCU
10. Wichita State
10. Cincinnati

11. Saint Mary's
11. Vanderbilt
11. Pittsburgh
11. Monmouth
11. Michigan






If I missed somebody on the bubble, these are the most likely teams:
Temple, Syracuse, San Diego State, Florida, South Carolina

Other more distant possibilities - that could possibly get a bid but probably shouldn't
George Washington, Tulsa, Ohio State, Valparaiso, Hofstra, Princeton, Akron, Alabama, Georgia

Saturday, March 12, 2016

D-1 BP68

Tomorrow is Selection Sunday. We are here. And that means, among other things, that it's time for "seed scrubbing" (at least it is for me). It's time to go team by team, in depth, to try to really delve into these resumes in the same way that the Selection Committee will. I will do much more of this later today and tomorrow, but it was time to start, and so several teams have slid up or down my projected bracket after increased scrutiny.

I feel like I say this every year, but Championship Week is more fun, and is more insane, than the first week of the NCAA Tournament. The general public will show up next week, but hoops junkies can't get enough of a crazy night like we just had.

The result of all of that action is a muddying of the bubble, but also a separating of the chaff. I don't have a lot of confidence of any of the five teams I currently have as 11 seeds getting in. For now, however, I slid Michigan and Monmouth in while dropping Tulsa and South Carolina out.

Meanwhile, three conferences had a change in projected champion: Middle Tennessee replaces UAB as the Conference USA favorite, Hampton replaces Norfolk State in the MEAC, and Southern replaces Texas Southern in the SWAC.

Speaking of separating the chaff, 8 more teams were eliminated from at-large contention since Wednesday: UC-Irvine, Creighton, Georgia Tech, Houston, Mississippi, Northwestern, Virginia Tech, and Washington. That leaves just 14 teams currently out of the projected bracket that still have a chance for an at-large bid.

Remember, this is a projection of what the bracket will look like on Selection Sunday, and not a measure of where teams would be if the season ended now. Teams capitalized are the projected auto-bid winners for their respective conferences.

For now, here's where I see things ending up on Selection Sunday:

1. KANSAS (BIG 12)
1. Virginia

2. Oklahoma
2. OREGON (PAC-12)
2. West Virginia

3. Xavier
3. Miami-Florida
3. Utah

4. Indiana
4. Iowa State
4. Texas A&M
4. California

5. Purdue
5. Duke
5. Maryland
5. Baylor

6. Arizona
6. Texas
6. Iowa
6. Notre Dame

7. Wisconsin
7. Seton Hall
7. Providence

8. Colorado
8. Texas Tech
8. Saint Joseph's

9. St. Bonaventure
9. Butler
9. Oregon State
9. USC

10. VCU
10. Saint Mary's
10. Wichita State

11. Cincinnati
11. Vanderbilt
11. Pittsburgh
11. Michigan
11. Monmouth






Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
Temple, Syracuse, Florida, South Carolina

Decent resumes, but not good enough:
Tulsa, Valparaiso

Long shots, but still in the at-large discussion:
George Washington, LSU

Still alive, but pretty much need a miracle:
Davidson, Ohio State, Hofstra, Princeton, Alabama, Georgia