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Yet Another College Basketball Column (Post-Selection Edition)

Coming Tuesday:  The correct way to measure which teams are hot heading into the NCAA tournament.

The Last Four In

Trying to predict how a group of people will vote is not a scientific process. This is why I no longer make an official bracket prediction myself. But I think a few things factored into the committees final decision.

1) Every year the committee likes to single out a team and punish that team for a poor non-conference strength of schedule, and Colorado had a non-conference strength of schedule ranked 300+ this year. That is exactly what happened in 2007 when Syracuse was left out (for not scheduling enough quality road games), and I am convinced that is what happened with Colorado this year. For a long time we thought Cincinnati would be singled out this year, but they won enough games late to avoid the bubble discussion, and the punishment fell to Colorado.

Is it right to leave a team out for a poor NCSOS? On the one hand, if the short-term goal is to pick the 37 best at large teams, then clearly that is the wrong criteria. But part of the NCAA committee’s goal is a long-term goal. They want to encourage teams to schedule quality opponents so that the process of evaluating and comparing teams is easier. Perhaps leaving Colorado out makes the field “worse” today, but in the long-run, we get a better product when teams schedule quality opponents.

We also saw a record number of teams in the field with 14 losses this year, proving that the committee continues to put more emphasis on quality of opponents rather than quantity of wins.

2) RPI top 50 wins are not everything. UAB won just one game against the RPI top 50, but the committee put a lot of weight on wins against teams ranked 51-100.

Wins against the RPI 1-100:
UAB = 10
VCU = 8
Colorado = 8
Virginia Tech = 8
Boston College = 7
Alabama = 5
St. Mary’s = 3
Harvard = 3

This does not mean I think the committee made the right decision. But if you go back historically, it is not unprecedented. In 2005, UAB had zero wins against the RPI top 50, lost in the second round of the CUSA tournament, and still qualified for the NCAA tournament field. This has happened before.

3) Richmond was not a lock. Various bracket projections are going to count Richmond as a correct pick, but if Richmond loses to Dayton on Sunday, I think the committee swaps Richmond out and puts Dayton on the 12 seed line. I don’t know this for sure, but I think the committee tries to minimize changes to the bracket on the last day, and I think this was their easy choice. The committee chair said on CBS that the ACC tournament final was irrelevant to the decision to give Duke a No. 1 seed, which confirms for me that they would have made the easiest possible last minute decision.

4) The biggest snub of all on Sunday probably had nothing to do with the NCAA. Maryland was not invited to the NIT despite having the 36th best margin-of-victory numbers in the nation.

Look Back

I know the tendency is to see the bracket and look ahead. But I think it is important to salute all the teams that won championships or earned NCAA bids with their fine play in the last week. For the UConn Huskies to win five games in five days is nothing short of miraculous. The log5 odds said they had just a 2% chance of winning the Big East tournament title when the tournament opened. In fact, their current odds of making it to the Final Four are a much healthier 7.2%. In other words, what Connecticut did was more rare than making the Final Four, and much more special. And as Kemba Walker’s mom, who had been shown on camera all week, hugged Kemba after the title game, you certainly did not have to tell her to celebrate the moment.

Similarly for a team like Penn St. that upset Wisconsin and Michigan St., perhaps the first week of the NCAA tournament will bring more joy. But for the four Penn St. senior starters who came so close to the NCAA tournament two years ago, just making the NCAA field is a tremendous accomplishment.

For Washington’s Isaiah Thomas and his buzzer-beater to beat Arizona, and for Princeton’s Douglas Davis and his buzzer-beater to beat Harvard, these are the moments to be overcome with joy. Only four teams will make it to the Final Four in three weeks. Only one team will win a NCAA title. But along the way, there are numerous champions.

5 Games in 5 Days

How was Connecticut able to win five games in five days? They were relentless at taking the ball to the basket. Take a look at Connecticut’s free throw rate this year. (Free throw rate measures the percentage of free throw attempts per field goal attempt.)

November and December: 42.0
January to end of regular season: 27.7
Big East Tournament: 47.1

This was not simply Connecticut having big leads and their opponents fouling late in the game. Connecticut was extremely aggressive at driving the ball inside in the Big East tournament. Will they keep it going and reach the Final Four? My gut tells me they will not. And it is not just because they are 17th in the Pomeroy Rankings. Butler was similarly situated and made a deep run last year.

But I think it will be very hard for Connecticut not to have an emotional letdown after a tournament like this. I think the fatigue will be more mental than physical. UConn is going to go back home and hear how fantastic they played, and I think it will be very hard to focus on preparing for a first and second round opponent. And that lack of mental focus could be costly. But if Kemba Walker keeps getting into the lane at will, Jeremy Lamb keeps making killer floaters, and Alex Oriakhi hustles for rebounds like he did in New York, anything can happen.

What was in the water in the ACC tournament?

If you have never looked at Ken Pomeroy’s win probability charts, look at what happened in the top half of the ACC tournament bracket:

Miami vs Virginia

North Carolina vs Miami

These were two tremendous comebacks. (The win probability chart for North Carolina vs Clemson was equally crazy, but that chart is not up yet.) Note: You may need to use Mozilla-Firefox to view these charts.

Similarly, we all thought Alabama’s comeback win against Georgia might put them ahead of the Bulldogs, but that was not the case. But the win probability chart still looks crazy on paper: Alabama vs Georgia

The same thing could be said for the Michigan comeback against Illinois: Michigan vs Illinois. It seemed significant at the time, but ultimately, both teams ended up in an 8-9 game in the NCAA tournament. I think the key to the Michigan comeback was that Michigan forward Jordan Morgan got in foul trouble and had to leave the game. Morgan is not a threat to shoot the three, so with Morgan in the game, Illinois forward Mike Tisdale was sagging into the paint and double-teaming whatever Michigan players tried to take the ball inside. But with Morgan out, Michigan put five shooters on the floor, and Tisdale had to step out to defend the three point line. That allowed Michigan to use penetration and cuts to more effectively get the ball to the basket.

TNT and TBS

Poor Charles Barkley. Kenny Smith and Barkley are phenomenal when providing post-game commentary at midnight. But I don’t think Charles was quite ready to be in studio at noon on a Sunday.

I also think you can see the huge difference between the commentators who have followed college basketball all year (Seth Davis and Greg Anthony) and the guys who are checking in for the first time (in Barkley and Smith.) Here was Kenny Smith’s analysis of the Penn St. vs Ohio St. game. “I think that Penn St. is going to use their great guards to pull Ohio St.’s big men away from the basket.”

This might make sense for Michigan or Northwestern. This might make sense for Illinois with Mike Tisdale or Purdue with JaJuan Johnson. But Penn St., despite being a guard-led team, is not a great three-point shooting team. Tim Frazier is a terrible shooter. His contribution to the offense is to drive into the lane and create offense for his teammates. That is great guard play, but it has nothing to do with spreading the floor. I also have to disagree with the notion that Ohio St. would have to adjust to this. Virtually every team in college basketball has at least three perimeter players on the floor. You can probably count on two hands, the number of elite teams that run a traditional three forward set. Kenny Smith’s comment was the type of thing you say when you do not have any idea how the various teams play.

The right thing to say about Penn St. is this. “They slow down the tempo and shorten the game because they have a senior led team that executes phenomenally well in pressure situations. They hope to keep it close late and make more key plays down the stretch.”

Expectations 

In the NCAA tournament we often talk about PASE (performance against seed expectations). Through 26 years of 64+ team fields, here is how the seeds have fared:

Seed

Expected Wins

1

3.42

2

2.43

3

1.84

4

1.46

5

1.18

6

1.22

7

0.83

8

0.65

9

0.59

10

0.65

11

0.49

12

0.52

13

0.25

14

0.17

15

0.04

16

0.00

But what if instead of looking at seed expectations, we look at team expectations. I.e., take each team’s odds of advancing to each round (using the Pomeroy probabilities) and see how many wins he expects for each team. Interestingly, his probabilities paint a tournament that is much more wide open than past NCAA tournament history would indicate.

Two notes: First, Pomeroy used an exponent of 11 instead of 11.5 in his conference predictions, so I follow that standard here. In other words, these odds will differ slightly from the ones he includes on kenpom.com. 

Second, I don’t want the Round 1 participants to jump up on this list, so I am not counting a win in “the First Four” in these expectations. Winning that game just provides an opportunity to win on Thursday or Friday. I think this approach is less confusing. USC and VCU individually have a lower chance of winning a Friday game than the other 11-seeds. But combined their expectations should be similar to other 11-seeds.

Here are the team-by-team expectations:

Team

Seed

Region

Expected Wins

Ohio St.

1

East

3.44

Duke

1

West

3.18

Kansas

1

Southwest

2.93

Pittsburgh

1

Southeast

2.75

San Diego St.

2

West

2.45

Purdue

3

Southwest

2.40

Notre Dame

2

Southwest

2.24

Texas

4

West

2.23

Syracuse

3

East

2.08

Brigham Young

3

Southeast

2.04

Kentucky

4

East

1.97

Louisville

4

Southwest

1.96

Florida

2

Southeast

1.93

North Carolina

2

East

1.86

Connecticut

3

West

1.64

Wisconsin

4

Southeast

1.41

Purdue looks like a real solid No. 3 seed in these projections. Some people are going to be scared away because Purdue looked bad in late season losses to Iowa and Michigan St. But their numbers on the season have been phenomenal, and if they face Georgetown in the second round, point guard Chris Wright may not be 100%.

Florida is by far the weakest No. 2 seed in the field. Not only were they blown out by Kentucky in the SEC tournament, this is a team that lost to Central Florida and Jacksonville this year. And this is a Florida team that simply did not win its SEC games by a huge margin. The only thing that saves Florida is that the Southeast region is one of the weakest regions across the board.

North Carolina’s odds of advancing are actually worse than Florida’s because North Carolina got a brutal draw. Not only is North Carolina in the same region as Ohio St. and Syracuse, even the Tar Heels potential second round opponent, Washington, has posted dominant efficiency numbers this year. And Washington enters the tournament on a roll after winning the Pac-10 tournament.

The matchups should be tough, but from an entertainment perspective, the Tar Heels games should be some of the best to watch. Their first round opponent Long Island has the fastest tempo in the field, and their potential second round opponent Washington has the 4th fastest tempo. North Carolina has the 5th fastest tempo in the field.

Speaking of tempo, let’s take a minute to talk about Wisconsin. I could not help but watch Friday Night’s Wisconsin vs Penn St. game and not feel embarrassed for the state of basketball. John Gasaway said it best. This was the slowest game you may ever see. And given that these are two of the slowest paced teams in the nation, they deserved what they got on Friday in a pathetic 36-33 exhibition of basketball. (I felt sorry that Gus Johnson had to call that game.) Wisconsin usually avoids these embarrassing games despite their slow pace, because the Wisconsin offense has been incredible this year. But that does not lessen the ridiculousness of this game.

At halftime, Bo Ryan was interviewed and asked if he was pleased that Talor Battle and Jeff Brooks were held to three points in the first half. Ryan responded by saying, “I’d rather they didn’t score anything. I’d rather see a zero up on the scoreboard.” Of course he did not mean his own team too, but it was still a ridiculous comment.

But here is why pace matters. When you play a slow pace, anything can happen. Wisconsin might be one of the best teams in the nation again this year. But by shortening the game, Wisconsin will give every opponent it faces in the NCAA tournament, a chance to get hot and pull the upset.

And their first round opponent is not just any opponent. On a per possession basis, Belmont was easily the best small conference team in the nation this year. True, they have a limited sample of games against elite opponents, but Belmont was already going to be a popular upset pick. And I think Wisconsin’s pace will leave the door wide open for that outcome.

Team

Seed

Region

Expected Wins

Washington

7

East

1.40

Arizona

5

West

1.10

Utah St.

12

Southeast

1.09

Cincinnati

6

West

1.02

Georgetown

6

Southwest

0.93

Gonzaga

11

Southeast

0.92

Michigan St.

10

Southeast

0.90

West Virginia

5

East

0.89

Vanderbilt

5

Southwest

0.85

Marquette

11

East

0.82

St. John's

6

Southeast

0.78

Illinois

9

Southwest

0.78

Belmont

13

Southeast

0.75

Florida St.

10

Southwest

0.74

Temple

7

West

0.73

Xavier

6

East

0.72

Missouri

11

West

0.72

Texas A&M

7

Southwest

0.71

Nevada Las Vegas

8

Southwest

0.71

Michigan

8

West

0.70

Penn St.

10

West

0.70

UCLA

7

Southeast

0.69

Old Dominion

9

Southeast

0.68

Butler

8

Southeast

0.64

Richmond

12

Southwest

0.64

George Mason

8

East

0.64

Villanova

9

East

0.62

Kansas St.

5

Southeast

0.62

Tennessee

9

West

0.51

Clemson

FR12

East

0.46

Southern California

FR11

Southwest

0.44

Georgia

10

East

0.39

Memphis

12

West

0.27

Memphis freshman point guard Joe Jackson was in a serious swoon down the stretch, scoring in double digits just once in the last nine regular season games. But he took his game to another level in the C-USA tournament, averaging 18.7 points per game, and relentlessly getting to the free throw line. And somehow Memphis is a ridiculous 13-1 in games decided by five points or less. That probably means they are a little over-rated and due to get blown out by Arizona. But in a close games, no one has performed better this season.

Team

Seed

Region

Expected Wins

Bucknell

14

West

0.21

Wofford

14

Southeast

0.19

Oakland

13

West

0.19

Morehead St.

13

Southwest

0.16

UC Santa Barbara

15

Southeast

0.15

UAB

FR12

East

0.15

Princeton

13

East

0.14

Indiana St.

14

East

0.12

Long Island

15

East

0.12

Akron

15

Southwest

0.11

St. Peter's

14

Southwest

0.10

Virginia Commonwealth

FR11

Southwest

0.09

Northern Colorado

15

West

0.09

NC Asheville

FR16

Southeast

0.05

Boston University

16

Southwest

0.03

Hampton

16

West

0.02

Texas San Antonio

FR16

East

0.01

Arkansas Little Rock

FR16

Southeast

0.01

Alabama St.

FR16

East

0.00

One consequence of adding another play-in game for the automatic qualifiers is that the top seeds start to play better teams. UC Santa Barbara is not a push-over by any means, and they have a legitimate shot to upset Florida. Those expectations actually represent a 12.2% chance of advancing to the second round, and a 2.6% chance of making it to the Sweet Sixteen.

By Conference

Whether you have a team in the field or not, chances are you have a favorite conference. Thus heading into the tournament, here are the expected number of wins for each conference, based on the historical performance of the various seeds:

Expected Wins after First Four

Teams

Conf

Expected Wins

11

Big East

16.91

7

Big Ten

9.27

5

Big 12

7.38

4

ACC

6.77

5

SEC

6.32

3

MWC

4.92

4

Pac10

3.08

3

A10

2.57

3

CAA

1.49

2

CUSA

0.78

 

Other

3.51

As above, I am not counting “the First Four” as wins, only as an opportunity to get a shot at a win on Thursday or Friday.  The 12 seeds are expected to win 0.52 games in the NCAA tournament, so for 12 seeds in the play-in game, I credit them with 0.26 expected wins each.

And here are the conference expectations using the Pomeroy-style odds:

Teams

Conf

Expected Wins

11

Big East

15.73

7

Big Ten

10.33

5

Big 12

7.21

4

ACC

6.24

5

SEC

5.65

3

MWC

5.20

4

Pac10

3.63

3

A10

2.09

3

CAA

1.41

2

CUSA

0.42

 

Other

5.1

 Who will win it all?

Based on the margin-of-victory numbers, I think the national champion comes out of this group: Ohio St., Kansas, Duke, or Pittsburgh.

You will notice these are all 1-seeds. This may seem exceptionally boring, but we are talking probabilities here. If you want to win your pool you should take a small number of bets that go against the odds. But otherwise you should pick chalk. If you like Wisconsin to make the Final Four, that is not a bad pick by any stretch of the imagination. But if you make that pick, you can pretty much pick chalk the rest of the way, and still have a chance to win your pool.

There is a reason the ESPN experts are going to pick a lot of one seeds. The one seeds are the best in the nation. But let’s take a closer look at the contenders:

Kansas

Watching a game earlier this year, they put up a graphic on the strengths of the various national title contenders. For Kansas, they listed “depth”. And as my injury splits have shown, that is absolutely true. Kansas has had several players miss games this year due to injuries or other issues, and the Jayhawks have not missed a beat. The replacements have stepped in and maintained the high level of play.

But how important is depth to a deep NCAA tournament run? I believe you need some depth in the front court, because there is going to be at least one game in the tournament where the officials call the game extremely close, and your big men will get in foul trouble. But depth in the backcourt is highly over-rated. Last year Duke had the perfect formula. They played three guards, John Scheyer, Nolan Smith, and Kyle Singler virtually the entire game, but they had solid depth in the front-court if they needed it.

This year’s Kansas squad is a little more puzzling. Examining RealGM.com’s last five depth charts, Kansas continues to rotate a lot of player at the guard positions. Moving guards in and out of the lineup can throw off their rhythm in an NCAA tournament setting. More importantly, it is really not very clear what the best lineup for Kansas looks like at this point. When the game is on the line, who should be out on the floor? Last year we knew Sherron Collins was going to take the big shot. But who is that player this year? Bill Self would probably have a different spin and say that versatility is an advantage at this point. And after the big win over Texas in the Big 12 title game, he talked about his team’s “balance”.  But that balance still makes me nervous about picking the Jayhawks.

On another topic, some people like to pick their NCAA champions based on NBA talent, and there is not a lot of talk about the Jayhawks this year. Josh Selby was a top 10 recruit, but he was ineligible and then injured, and has yet to show his full potential. And Marcus Morris is one of the best interior players in the country, but most people seem to think he is a little under-sized for an NBA forward.

All of these secondary factors make me hesitant to pick the Jayhawks. But this is sort of like finding the perfect house, but complaining because the closets are not painted. Kansas is one of the best teams in the nation offensively and defensively, and there is no reason (other than a fluke performance) to expect anything other than a deep NCAA run.

Ohio St.

Ohio St. is definitely the opposite of Kansas. They play a very shallow rotation of only seven players. And while they have adequate front-court depth (in Dallas Lauderdale and Deshaun Thomas), there is no question which players make up the best lineup.

Ohio St. has two players in David Lighty and William Buford who are great three-point shooters, but can also break down a defense with dribble penetration. They have the Big Ten’s all-time three point scoring champ in Jon Diebler. And because of all that great outside shooting, no one can double the post against the Big Ten freshman-of-the-year, Jared Sullinger. Sullinger was a top-5 recruit nationally, and is one of the few dominant big men in college basketball.

So that only leaves one question mark in the rotation, freshman point-guard Aaron Craft. Craft is a quiet scorer. And truth be told, because of Lighty and Buford’s ball-handling, and Diebler’s ability to feed the post, Ohio St. does not even need Craft to play like a traditional point guard. As a team, Ohio St. gave up the fewest steals in the nation, which really speaks to the overall offense, not to Craft’s personal ball-handling.

But what Craft brings to the table is some of the best lateral quickness in the Big Ten. He can consistently match up against the opposing team’s point guard and keep that player out of the lane. And thus even if he is not a scoring phenom, Craft is a vital part of the Ohio St. rotation.

Really, I would have had no trouble picking this team to win it all, until I saw the East region. Like Kansas last year, somehow Ohio St. seemed to get all of the most dangerous teams. Kentucky is far too good for a 4th seed, and it feels like the only reason they got such a low seed is because the committee was too lazy to incorporate the SEC final in its decision making.

Duke

Overall this is just your typical Duke team. They can beat you multiple ways offensively. On the defensive end, they do everything in their power to stop you from taking threes. Their guards (Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler) have a ton of big game experience, but they also have several emerging players as well (Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee). I do not believe this team needs Kyrie Irving to come back to repeat as national champ. They have all the pieces they need and if you watched this team in the tournament last year, you know what they do well.

Pittsburgh

A lot of people are going to jump off the Pittsburgh bandwagon for three late season losses, but I think it really speaks to the depth of the Big East more than the problems with Pittsburgh. Their last three losses were by one point to St. John’s, in OT to Louisville, and by two points to Connecticut on a Kemba Walker jumper in the Big East tournament. These are all elite opponents, and all the games were close.

Watching Kansas win by one point against Oklahoma St. in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, one of the announcers made this comment. “Oklahoma St. does not have Kemba Walker.” Pittsburgh has faced a ton of elite teams in the Big East this year, and it is no surprise that occasionally a Kemba Walker buzzer-beater caused them to lose.

Other people are going to jump off the Pittsburgh bandwagon because Jamie Dixon has never been to the Final Four. I am not quite sure whether that is a reasonable basis or not. On the one hand, some coaches (See Tom Izzo, John Beilein), have consistently outperformed their seeding in the NCAA tournament. So perhaps past tournament performance is indicative of something. But, I really believe Pittsburgh is ready for a deep tournament run.

Everyone wants to try to put a label on this Pittsburgh team (too much this, too much that), but this is just a well-rounded team. They have one of the deepest frontcourts in the nation, one of the best three point shooters in the country (in Ashton Gibbs), and a point guard (Brad Wanamaker) who has a killer ability to get into the lane.

All of the other teams with a high probability of making it to the Final Four have a major flaw that will probably prevent them from winning it all.

- The Texas offense fails far too often, and the defense has struggled late in the year. 

- The Notre Dame defense is just not the caliber of an NCAA champion. They never force turnovers and give up far too many open threes.

- San Diego St. has failed in its biggest games this year.

- BYU is missing one of its better forwards.

- Kentucky is young and far too inconsistent. While I think they match up with Ohio St. better than anyone, I think that in six NCAA tournament games, they will have at least one bad outcome.

- North Carolina has been better since Larry Drew left, but they still are not playing like a Final Four caliber team. Late in the season they only beat Florida St. by two, Miami by two, and Clemson in OT. That’s just not the mark of a team that can be expected to win six games.

I have actually warmed up to Purdue if not for their performance in two late season losses, or perhaps one of the plethora of Big East teams. But while all those teams are decent Final Four picks, I think the national champ will likely be a one seed, yet again. In other news, the sky is blue.

Coming Tuesday: Teams I would be afraid to pick in my bracket.

 

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