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Balance Remains Key To Winning In March

While the underdogs are the story of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the favorites take the stage in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. The cutdown from 64 to 16 isn’t nearly as brutal as the one from 16 to 4. A team might sneak through the first weekend due to a favorable draw, but the quality of play ratchets up quickly the further you go. The talent gap shrinks as the field narrows and any weakness a team has will eventually be exposed.

That was the story on Thursday night, which featured two of the best games of the Tourney - Florida 79, UCLA 68 and Arizona 70, San Diego State 64.

After playing the America East champs in the first round and a middling ACC team in the second, Florida faced the second best team in the Pac-12 in the third.

Arizona, after rolling through the champions of two mid-major conferences in the first two rounds, faced a steep challenge from the Mountain West champs in the third.

The games between the 1 and 4 seeds in the South and West brackets were heavyweight matchups. Florida was the No. 1 overall seed and had won 28 straight games; UCLA had as much talent as any team in the country and was coming off winning the Pac-12 conference tournament. Arizona had a 31-4 record and was ranked in the Top 5 for most of the season; San Diego State had a 31-5 record and had not slipped out of the Top 15. All four teams had multiple NBA prospects.

The Florida game came down to rebounds - the Gators had a +10 margin on the glass, including 10 offensive rebounds. UCLA went into a zone early, hoping to exploit Florida’s inconsistent perimeter shooting. However, one of the problems with zones is that it’s harder to rebound out of them, since none of the defenders have a box-out assignment. So while Billy Donovan’s team missed plenty of shots, going 8-21 from three, they rebounded enough misses to make up for it.

The Bruins had a ton of perimeter talent, but they didn’t have the size and athleticism upfront to match-up with Patric Young (6’9 260), Will Yeguete (6’8 230), Dorian Finney-Smith (6’8 215) and Chris Walker (6’11 220). UCLA started two jump-shooting big men in the Wear Twins, who combined for only 8 rebounds. Tony Parker, their biggest player at 6’9 255, was still a year away - he picked up three personal fouls in only 10 minutes of action on Thursday.

Their weakness on the glass meant the Bruins were playing uphill for most of the night. The 1-on-1 talent of Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine fueled runs throughout the game, but they could never close the gap and get a lead. Florida always had an answer, either on the first shot or the second shot or the third. UCLA couldn’t turn them over consistently either, so they were never able to make up the possessions they lost on the defensive glass.

The Bruins were an offensive-minded team that played just enough defense to survive. Against lower-seeded teams like Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin, their overwhelming edge in talent made up for their inability to impose their will on defense. However, against an elite team, it doesn’t matter how many points you can score if you can’t protect your defensive glass. Florida exposed UCLA’s weaknesses in a way their opponents in the first two rounds couldn’t.

San Diego State was the polar opposite of UCLA - an elite defensive team that played just enough offense to survive. When the Aztecs were at their best, they were using their athletic advantage to turn teams over and get out in transition, getting points going from defense to offense. In the half-court, their lack of post play and perimeter shooting made them limited offensively, especially against teams with the size and athleticism to protect their defensive glass.

Arizona, like SDSU, played elite defense and could play an NBA-caliber athlete at every position on the floor. The difference was they had better shooters and more skilled players in the frontcourt, allowing them to run much better half-court offense. They turned the tables on Steve Fisher’s team - turning them over and scoring points in transition, before the Aztecs could set their defense. San Diego State had four assists on 10 turnovers; Arizona had 14 assists on 7 turnovers.

As long as Sean Miller’s team took care of the ball, they could force San Diego State to stay in the halfcourt and beat them from the perimeter. And with their season on the line, the Aztecs couldn’t make enough shots when it counted - shooting 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from three. All those misses allowed them to grab 18 offensive rebounds and keep the game close, but the Wildcats pulled away late, forcing a few huge turnovers and getting easy points on run-outs.

While UCLA could only beat you with offense and San Diego State could only beat you with defense, Arizona and Florida could beat you with both. An elite team can beat you in multiple ways. Some nights the shots aren’t falling, so you have to be able to dig in on defense. Some nights the other team can’t miss, so you have to be able to keep up. Just as important, a balanced team can exploit any weakness in the other team’s roster. They don’t leave points on the board.

In a one-and-done tournament, you never know who you are going to play or what type of team you will have to face. Match-ups can be a tricky thing - the Midwest was supposed to be the region of death, but the No. 3 seed lost to the 14 in the first round and the first seed lost to the eight in the second. A favorable draw will only take you so far; eventually you are going to run into a team with the pieces to expose any hole on your roster. That’s why the best teams have the fewest holes.

One of the age-old debates in basketball is whether offense or defense wins championships. The answer is neither - you need both. A team that plays good offense and good defense is going to have the edge over a team that plays great defense and average offense or great offense and average defense. That’s why balance is the key to winning in March. Arizona and Florida were more balanced than San Diego State and UCLA and that’s why they are moving on.

March Madness Through The NBA Lens (Round Of 64)

While the NCAA Tournament has cachet all its own, one way of looking at the Tournament is through the lens of the NBA. While the lottery guys get plenty of buzz leading into the Tourney, I like to spend more time on the players on more middling teams for the first few days since it is less likely that their teams survive long enough to evaluate them further.

On that note, here is the day-by-day:

Thursday

Headline games:

Pittsburgh vs. Wichita State (1:40 PM Eastern)- This game makes the list primarily because of Steven Adams. The big man from New Zealand has not produced as much as many of us hoped during the season but has the chance to show his potential this weekend. The Shockers rebound well enough to challenge him and I am intrigued by Carl Hall.

Memphis vs. St. Mary’s (2:45 PM Eastern)- While Memphis has a slew of intriguing athletic question marks (Adonis Thomas, Joe Johnson and DJ Stephens are just three of them), St. Mary’s has Matthew Dellavedova. Matthew stands out as an unusual draft prospect because of his age (22) and subpar athleticism for his position but has the shooting stroke and basketball IQ to stick in the league longer than expected. We will learn a ton about everyone in this game. 

Other games to watch:

Syracuse vs. Montana (9:57 PM Eastern)- Michael Carter-Williams vs. Will Cherry. My bet is that one of them will massively help his draft stock in this game.

Oklahoma State vs. Oregon (4:40 PM Eastern)- Marcus Smart will have his hands full with future prospect Dominic Artis. We’ll see how Le’Bryan Nash handles the spotlight as well.

Michigan vs. South Dakota State (7:15 PM Eastern)- Senior sensation Nate Wolters gets the chance to show his value against a Michigan team full of potential NBA players (Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III, and Tim Hardaway Jr among them).

UNLV vs. Cal (7:27 PM Eastern)- Anthony Bennett and Allen Crabbe will be the headliners but I am focused on how UNLV matches up on defense.

Friday

Headline game:

UCLA vs. Minnesota (9:57 PM Eastern)- After the injury to Jordan Adams, this could be our only chance to see lottery pick Shabazz Muhammad in the Tourney. Kyle Anderson, Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are three other likely pros worth keeping an eye on.

Other games to watch:

Wisconsin vs. Ole Miss (12:40 PM Eastern)- Marshall Henderson. That is all.

North Carolina vs. Villanova (7:20 PM Eastern)- Despite deeply disappointing this season, UNC has plenty of NBA talent in the form of James Michael McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and PJ Hariston. Each of those guys needs to make an impression over the next few weeks in order to rehabilitate their stock.

Creighton vs. Cincinnati (2:45 PM Eastern)- One of the best potential tests for Doug McDermott makes this one particularly fascinating.

San Diego State vs. Oklahoma (9:20 PM Eastern)- Jamaal Franklin has been underappreciated by the national college hoops media but has a chance to make his own statement on the opening weekend. If the Aztecs can get past Oklahoma, a potentially star-making meeting with Georgetown looms.

Does Luck Carry Over?

Last season, San Diego St. was 69th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, and 71st according to Sagarin’s Predictor. This year my model predicts they will jump up more than 25 spots in the rankings, improving significantly on both offense and defense. But with many people I respect tremendously picking the Aztecs to win the MWC this year, I am left scratching my head. Should my model be even more optimistic?

The next table shows the five luckiest teams in the NCAA tournament last year (excluding teams in the auto-bid range 13-16). I am using Ken Pomeroy’s definition of “luck” which indicates teams that won more games than their per-possession numbers would have predicted.

Lucky Teams

Year

Seed

Year

Ret Min

Ret Poss

Next Sd

Creighton

2012

8

2013

84%

81%

?

San Diego St.

2012

6

2013

76%

80%

?

Colorado St.

2012

11

2013

63%

70%

?

Colorado

2012

11

2013

55%

56%

?

Syracuse

2012

1

2013

48%

42%

?

In the pro sports, lucky teams are the low-hanging fruit of prediction models. Teams with poor point differentials are usually a good bet to fall back the following season. The NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs went 7-9 last year but were outscored by 126 points. Not surprisingly, the Chiefs are off to a 1-5 start this season. The NBA’s Portland Trailblazer’s earned the 6th seed in 2010-11, but the team had the 9th best point differential in their conference that year, and the Trailblazers were forced to throw in the towel mid-season last year.

Lately, a number of results are reminding us that the Pythagorean standings are not everything. First, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl after being outscored in the regular season. Then, the Baltimore Orioles made the MLB playoffs after being outscored for most of the season. But opponent adjusted margin-of-victory is still very powerful. Much like the existence of bad beats in Poker doesn’t obviate the fact that Poker is a game of skill, a few teams bucking the trend shouldn’t convince us to doubt the general wisdom of margin-of-victory.

There is plenty of evidence to support the use of margin-of-victory in college basketball. As just one example, if we take the luckiest at-large level NCAA tournament teams in the last 10 years, the trend is overwhelming. 80% of the lucky teams either missed the NCAA tournament the following season, or had a worse seed. The teams that bucked this trend are listed in the next table:

Lucky Teams with Better Seeds

Year

Seed

Year

Ret Min

Ret Poss

Next Sd

Syracuse

2004

5

2005

93%

95%

4

Memphis

2011

12

2012

86%

88%

8

North Carolina

2011

2

2012

78%

81%

1

Milwaukee

2005

12

2006

74%

73%

11

West Virginia

2005

7

2006

74%

72%

6

Boston College

2005

4

2006

69%

71%

4

Pacific

2004

12

2005

65%

68%

8

Oklahoma

2008

6

2009

69%

67%

2

Utah

2004

11

2005

64%

63%

6

Many of these teams were still disappointing in a relative sense. Syracuse was 6th nationally in the 2005 preseason poll, but earned only a 4-seed. Memphis was 11th nationally in the 2012 preseason poll, but earned only an eight seed. North Carolina was 1st nationally in the 2012 preseason poll, but never lived up to their preseason billing (even before the injuries hit.)

But one thing that helped these teams at least improve on the previous season was bringing back a lot of talent. In the last decade, the average D1 team returns only 60% of its minutes, and 59% of its possessions. And as the table shows, the teams that improved their NCAA seed a year after a “lucky” season, all had higher than typical returning minutes.

And that is why Creighton, Colorado St., and San Diego St. should still be smiling. With returning superstars like Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Colorado St.’s Pierce Hornung, and San Diego St.’s Chase Tapley, the top three teams in this column not only return major minutes, they return talented minutes. These teams also welcome exciting new players. Colorado St. adds transfers Colton Iverson and Daniel Bejarano from Minnesota and Arizona.  San Diego St. adds transfers James Johnson and Dwayne Polee from Virginia and St. John’s. And thus even if last year was a little bit of smoke and mirrors, this year still brings plenty of substance.

My only suggestion is to be cautious. On paper, San Diego St., Creighton and Colorado St. should all be better than last season. They should be a bigger threat to go deep in March. And yet they could have an equivalent or slightly worse win total than last season. These teams all deserve some hype, but perhaps not quite as much as they are getting.

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