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Weaknesses of Title Contenders

Inconsistency can be a good thing. Illinois is a borderline NCAA tournament team this year. But thanks to the peaks of their inconsistency, the Fighting Illini won the Maui invitational, won at Butler, and beat the top ranked Hoosiers. Sure, the Illini were blown out by 20 at home by Northwestern, but the season wouldn’t have nearly been as fun if the Northwestern and Indiana victories were flipped.

On the flip side, if your team is a national title contender, inconsistency is a bad thing. If you want to win six games in the NCAA tournament, you cannot afford to have lapses every few games. In the next table, I attempt to determine which teams are most likely to have those lapses.

I take the teams in the Top 16 of the Pomeroy Rankings and figure out how often they look beatable on the basketball court. Determining a cut-off for beatable is somewhat hard, but I decided to count any game where the team’s game-specific Pythagorean Rating would be less than 0.9000. (Pythagorean Rating adjusts for opponent and venue as on kenpom.com.) 

This cut-off is quite different from counting losses. A team doesn’t have to lose to have a bad game. Miami’s two-point win at Clemson and one-point win at Boston College were bad games even though the Hurricanes ultimately prevailed. Those games showed Miami was beatable, even when at full strength. Similarly, Michigan St.’s three-point home win against Louisiana-Lafayette was one of the worst performances of the season by an elite team, even if the Spartans were victorious.

On the flip side, by using the 0.9000 cutoff, a few losses will not be counted as bad performances. Michigan lost by three at Ohio St. and in overtime at Wisconsin, but neither of those count as bad games. Florida lost by one point at Arizona and Georgetown lost in OT to Indiana, but those do not count as bad games either.

One thing I noticed is that a lot of games against teams ranked 300+ in the rankings looked like bad performances. Even if you beat a team ranked 300+ by 20 points, that doesn’t look like a dominant game because everyone beats those teams by 20 points. But I don’t think a 20-point win should ever count against a team, so I’m throwing those games out. The table only includes games against teams ranked 1-300 in the Pomeroy Rankings.

Surprisingly, this metric paints a different picture than the Pomeroy rankings. While Indiana and Louisville have had disappointing moments this season, the truth is that both teams rarely look beatable. Indiana and Louisville have only played poorly about 15 percent of the time this year. Conversely, Kansas has looked beatable 43 percent of the time. And while Michigan St. has played better in-conference, the Spartans were simply pedestrian throughout the non-conference schedule. 

Team

Bad Performances

Games (Excluding 301+)

Percentage of Bad Games

Indiana

4

26

15%

Louisville

4

26

15%

Michigan

4

24

17%

Florida

5

25

20%

Duke

6

27

22%

Syracuse

7

26

27%

Pittsburgh

7

26

27%

Arizona

8

25

32%

Gonzaga

9

28

32%

Ohio St.

9

25

36%

Georgetown

10

24

42%

Miami FL

11

26

42%

Kansas

12

28

43%

Oklahoma St.

11

25

44%

Michigan St.

12

27

44%

Wisconsin

14

25

56%

Next, I wanted to look for the common-denominator in these bad performances.  This can be different from an overall weakness. For example, Florida’s overall weakness is getting to the free throw line. But that does not explain what happens when the Gators play poorly. When the Gators play poorly the problem is that the defense isn’t playing at an elite level. In the five games listed above, the Gator’s opponents have an eFG% of 52 percent compared to 41 percent during the rest of the season. 

When Teams Play Poorly 

Indiana: The Hoosiers struggle most in slow-paced games where their opponents avoid turnovers. Presumably, the Hoosiers do not want to see a team like Notre Dame running the burn offense in their bracket. The Hoosiers have been nearly identical on offense in their good and bad games. But forcing turnovers is key to their defensive success, and when they don’t force turnovers, the Hoosiers are beatable.

Louisville: The 0.9000 cutoff is a little generous for Louisville. Both the Syracuse and Georgetown losses do not count as bad games. If we raised the cutoff to 0.9100, Louisville would actually have two more bad games on their ledger. Still, I think Louisville’s bad performances are illuminating. In the team’s four worst performances on the season (the loss to Villanova, a home squeaker against Kentucky, a home squeaker against Illinois St., and the loss to Notre Dame), Russ Smith has struggled to make good decisions with the basketball. Louisville needs Russ Smith to play well to win. Louisville also plays poorly when a lot of fouls are called in the game and they cannot force clean turnovers.

Michigan: If Russ Smith is an indicator of whether Louisville will win or lose, Tim Hardaway Jr. is equally important for Michigan. Hardaway had an ORtg of 19 in the team’s loss at Michigan St., an ORtg of 68 at Bradley, and an ORtg of 73 vs Penn St. The other issue for the Wolverines is offensive rebounds. Michigan is not a great offensive rebounding team, but in the Wolverines worst offensive games, they’ve seen their offensive rebounding percentage plummet from 34% to 26%. Finally, Michigan’s biggest strength is avoiding fouls, but against a team like Wisconsin, that doesn’t need to get to the free throw line to score, that asset was less valuable. Mid-majors like Creighton or South Dakota St. could be a nightmare for Michigan, because both teams can score without needing to get to the free throw line, and both teams do a solid job on the defensive glass.

Florida: When the Gators play poorly, it is usually about shooting. They shoot worse and their opponents shoot better. That’s a little hard to predict, but one thing to keep in mind, Florida does seem to do better when the pace is in the 50s. Missouri and Arkansas had success against Florida by upping the tempo. But this isn’t all about turnovers. Florida played poorly against Kansas St. in a game where they didn’t turn the ball over much at all. I think a team like Memphis that can push the ball up and down and attack before the Florida defense gets set, might be the true kryptonite for the Gators.

Duke: Duke’s five worst performances have come since Ryan Kelly went down. But before we get too excited about his return, remember that not all players return from injury and dominate. Mike Moser is still getting back into shape for UNLV, and we cannot guarantee that Ryan Kelly will return Duke to early season form. For Duke, throwing off the pace also seems like a big deal. They struggled in a very slow game at Boston College, and in very high-paced games at Maryland and Miami FL. With Kelly out and Seth Curry playing through an injury, I don’t think Duke wants to play high possession games quite like in past seasons.

Syracuse: Syracuse’s weaknesses are the typical ones with a zone defense. If a team has a forward who can dominate from the high post (see Davante Gardner), that team can carve up Syracuse. And as is typical with the zone, when Syracuse doesn’t grab defensive rebounds, the Orange do not play well. Syracuse struggled with defensive rebounding in narrow wins over Cincinnati and Detroit and losses to Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Villanova, and Temple. A strong offensive rebounding team like Colorado St. or Minnesota is presumably Syracuse’s worst nightmare. This year, without depth on the perimeter, Brandon Triche is also a concern. Triche isn’t a perfect predictor of Syracuse’s poor play (he did play well against Temple and Villanova), but when Triche is struggling, Syracuse also typically struggles. Finally, Syracuse struggles in slow-paced games this year. Because they are not a great half-court team, Syracuse needs transition opportunities to play well.

Pittsburgh: When Pittsburgh plays poorly, it is usually about the offense not working. Their adjusted offense is 123.1 in their good games and 104.9 in their bad games. Teams that have perimeter depth and can keep Tray Woodall, James Robinson, and Lamar Patterson out of the lane are Pittsburgh’s biggest problem. Guard-oriented teams from Rutgers to Cincinnati to Marquette to Michigan have been able to do that.

Arizona: The Wildcats might win the Pac-12, but seven of Arizona’s eight bad performances have come in conference play, so I am worried that this team is not peaking. Arizona is a team that really relies on getting to the free throw line, and teams that avoid fouls can be Arizona’s kryptonite. In the tournament, Arizona does not want to see a team that can defend well without fouling. Whether it would be a team with size (like Maryland) or just good fundamentals (like Wisconsin), there are a lot of teams that fit this profile.

Gonzaga: Gonzaga hasn’t been challenged much lately, so it is hard to find a stat that really does the job, but I’m going to focus on defensive rebounding. Since Gonzaga does not have a great eFG% defense, they cannot afford to give up second chance points. Teams like San Diego and Santa Clara hung with the Zags in conference play by crashing the glass. In most games Gonzaga grabs 72% of the defensive boards, but that percentage has dipped to 66% in their worst games. Gonzaga’s defensive rebounding also nearly cost them the game against Washington St. Gonzaga’s defense also has trouble containing great point-guards, but there are not enough of those in the WCC to really prove the point.

Ohio St.: Ohio St. has been Jekyll and Hyde defensively this year. In the 16 good games, the adjusted defensive efficiency has been 83.3. But in the team’s 9 worst performances on the year, the adjusted defense has only been 97.9. It seems like the Buckeyes have struggled more with perimeter-oriented-teams. Northwestern, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois have all made the Buckeye defense look porous this year by shooting lights out. But you have to blame the Ohio St. offense a little too. When the team falls behind, because the offense isn’t good enough to score points in bunches, they have to take more chances defensively. And those gambles have led to some ugly final margins. Really, I wish someone could explain why Ohio St.’s defense is so bad in some games, because I really believe defense is Ohio St.’s strength.

Georgetown: Georgetown’s worst games have come at a slow pace against mediocre teams. See Liberty, Towson, and South Florida. They also usually involved a horrible offensive performance by the team, but that has been changing. Only one of the Hoyas bad performances has come in February, the narrow win at Rutgers.

Miami: Miami should probably be a little higher on this list, because some of the worst performances (like the Florida Gulf Coast game) came with personnel missing. Still, I think it is revealing that four of Miami’s worst performances have come in February. Miami may only have one ACC loss, but that doesn’t mean they have been dominant every time out. Much like Georgetown, Miami has struggled against some bad teams (Boston College, Wake Forest).

Kansas: Kansas has looked like an average team remarkably often this season. When the offense isn’t working, turnovers are almost always to blame. Kansas has to feed Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey to score consistently, and teams that can take the ball away on entry passes are potentially a big problem for the Jayhawks. A team like Robert Morris could be a nightmare first round opponent, given the Colonials ability to create turnovers. This is especially true given that Kansas has struggled against mediocre teams this year from Chattanooga to TCU.

Oklahoma St.: Oklahoma St. is not a great shooting team, particularly from the perimeter. So they need offensive rebounds and free throws to compete. Baylor and Virginia Tech avoided fouls and beat the Cowboys. Kansas St. crashed the defensive glass and did the same thing.

Michigan St: While most of the Spartans mediocre performances came in the non-conference schedule, the Spartans have struggled to put away Penn St. and Nebraska in conference play too. The story for Michigan St. always seems to be about turnovers, good or bad. When the Spartans force them, they win. When the Spartans give the ball away, they look bad.

Wisconsin: Wisconsin has seven games where they were completely dominant. In the blowout wins over Ohio St., Northwestern, Illinois, Cornell, California, and Southeastern Louisiana, and the big time win at Indiana the Badgers had a Pythagorean winning percentage above 0.9900. But over the rest of the schedule the Badgers have been remarkably pedestrian. As the numbers listed above show, Wisconsin has looked beatable on 14 occasions. It usually comes down to shooting. In Wisconsin’s 11 best games of the year, they have an eFG% of 54%. In the 14 games where they were beatable, the Badgers eFG% has only been 44%. Even if Wisconsin has snuck back into the Top 10 of Sagarin’s Predictor and Pomeroy’s rankings, with that kind of offensive inconsistency, they do not look like a Final Four team.

 

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