Archive for the ‘NCAA’ Category

National Championship Game Pick

Posted: 04/03/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

After two close, weird games that were eventually won by the better teams, we have the National Championship Game we were hoping for. Upsets are nice, but at the end of the day you want the two best teams in the country playing for the title. I can’t say for certain that Gonzaga and North Carolina are the two best teams (and they certainly haven’t been playing great basketball in the tournament), but they’re definitely two of the four or five best (I’d throw Kansas in the mix for sure). It’s also a fascinating matchup.

Usually, college basketball is dominated by guards who take advantage of lackluster perimeter defending and draw lots of fouls. But while Gonzaga has a heck of a point guard in Nigel Williams-Goss, both of these teams are oriented around big men. The Zags start Polish menace Przemek Karnowski down low and often pair him with fellow seven footer and likely lottery pick Zach Collins, who had the best game of his short college career on Saturday. They also start Johnathan Williams, a 6’9″ forward who is a matchup nightmare. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels are the best offensive rebounding team in the country (as we all know after they grabbed two crucial rebounds after missed free throws down the stretch against Oregon) because they start Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks and bring Tony Bradley and Luke Maye off the bench. North Carolina generally wins games by wearing down opponents inside. It’s one thing to put a body on Meeks and Hicks in the opening minutes of the game. It’s another to then have to guard Bradley and Maye in the post before being greeted by an onslaught of Meeks and Hicks down the stretch. But if anyone can slow the red-hot Meeks down, it’s Gonzaga. Karnowski and Collins make for a heck of a rim protecting and rebounding duo when they’re on the floor together, and Williams-Goss is one of the best rebounding guards in the country (5.9 per contest). They won’t be able to shut down the offensive rebounding and interior scoring, but they should put a dent in UNC’s efficiency.

The matchup that could swing this game in Gonzaga’s favor is Joel Berry vs. Williams-Goss. I don’t think Berry will be tasked with guarding Williams-Goss (it’ll likely be Theo Pinson or Justin Jackson), but I do think that Williams-Goss is going to eat Berry alive on the defensive end. And as we’ve seen over the course of this tournament, North Carolina’s offense is nowhere near the same when Berry is off, because the Tar Heels just don’t have much in the way of perimeter scoring outside of Jackson. Gonzaga, on the other hand, has Jordan Mathews, Josh Perkins, and Silas Melson, all of whom shoot 39%+ from three point range. If the interior game is played to a draw, as I think it may be, and the Zags find a way to guard Justin Jackson, which I think they’ll do relatively well, then the difference could be three point shooting, and I just trust the Zags’ gunners more than I do the Heels’. Give me Gonzaga 82-77.

Advertisements

Final Four Predictions

Posted: 04/01/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

It’s a quirky Final Four. There’s North Carolina, but then there’s Gonzaga and South Carolina, neither of whom had ever made the Final Four, and Oregon, who hasn’t made it since 1939, when they won the first ever NCAA championship. Oregon’s a really fun team, with two go-to scorers in Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks along with a shot-blocking menace in Jordan Bell. South Carolina has a swarming defense and Sindarius Thornwell, and they’re a Cinderella seventh seed. Gonzaga has a lovable 300+ pound Pole (Przemek Karnowski), a bunch of fun transfers (Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, Johnathan Williams) who are also their best players, and the chip of playing in the WCC on their shoulder. For a neutral fan, the only bad result is a North Carolina championship. Unfortunately, the Tar Heels are probably the favorites to win it all after they fell juuust short last year against Villanova. We should get a nice contrast of games tonight. Gonzaga-South Carolina will be gritty and low-scoring, with both teams struggling to score. I envision it being similar to Gonzaga-West Virginia, which the Zags won 61-58 after trailing late. By Kenpom’s numbers, Gonzaga and South Carolina are THE two best defensive teams in the country. North Carolina-Oregon will have more easy scores, although Oregon probably doesn’t want it to become a total track meet. Both Gonzaga and North Carolina are meaningful (6.5 and 4.5 points) favorites, but neither a USC nor an Oregon upset would shock me. It should be fun.

Gonzaga 68, South Carolina 64: I don’t think this’ll be like the Gonzaga-Xavier game, which the Zags won easily after the Musketeers stayed close for most of the first half. South Carolina is just too tough and too talented on the defensive end. They thrive at forcing turnovers and have been doing it all tournament long. Their defense sort of reminds of West Virginia’s half court defense (the Gamecocks don’t press). They scramble around a lot, but that’s by design. There are a lot of hands in passing lanes, quick double teams, and run outs on the fastbreak. The Zags should be used to it; they turned the ball over 16 times against West Virginia. But Gonzaga should also have some matchup advantages. Chief among them will come low, where Karnowski and Zach Collins could feast against undersized Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar. Karnoswki is a terrific passer, so it’s tough to double-team him. He hasn’t had a huge impact of late, but I see that changing tonight. And their guard play should also be good enough to keep Gonzaga from falling apart against the South Carolina defense. A lot of USC’s offense comes on easy transition points, so I’d expect Gonzaga to value handling the ball over everything else. Some missed shots won’t kill them, because South Carolina’s going to have all kinds of trouble scoring the ball. Thornwell has been unbelievable in the tournament, but he’s going to be swarmed by defenders in this one. You can expect the other Gamecocks to get some open looks, but can they hit those looks? Neither P.J. Dozier nor Duane Notice, the team’s main secondary scoring options, shoots the ball particularly well. I think it’s going to take a big performance from one of those two to send South Carolina to the National Championship Game. I like this South Carolina team a lot. I think they’re tough, and they have a little of that upstart Connecticut team (with Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier) in them. Thornwell is a future NBA player, a go-to scorer who can make up for a lot of other deficiencies. That’s been enough to get them to the Final Four. I don’t think it’ll carry them past one of the best teams in the country.

North Carolina 78, Oregon 75: I really wanted to pick Oregon to win this game, because I’ve been so impressed by their tournament run. But I think their eventual downfall will be similar to Kentucky’s: North Carolina can guard their best players better than they can guard North Carolina’s best players. I thought Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox would go off on UNC like they did the first time the teams played. I was wrong. Putting Justin Jackson on Monk sacrificed some of Jackson’s offense, but it also rendered Monk basically useless. Jackson will have a similar height advantage over Tyler Dorsey, who he’s likely to guard tonight. Dorsey’s one of the hottest players in the country, but I have a hard time imagining that he’ll have as much success when shooting over Jackson, a lengthy wing who’s also a future first round pick. And while Jordan Bell nearly single-handedly shut down Kansas’s vaunted offense by swatting eight shots and influencing many more, the Jayhawks were a good matchup for him. They were more eager to drive to the hoop and put up floaters than they were to pound the ball inside with Landen Lucas. North Carolina is a different beast. Kennedy Meeks had a huge game against Kentucky, with 17 rebounds and four blocks. Isaiah Hicks had three rejections of his own. Bell’s not going to have the same impact in this game. Assuming Jackson’s primarily guarding Dorsey and Meeks is on Bell, I’m interested in seeing who Hicks will guard when he’s on the floor. He’s a good athlete, but can he really guard Dillon Brooks? Of course, the same is true on the other end of the court. Brooks is big and athletic, but he can really bang in the paint with Isaish Hicks? North Carolina had 13 offensive rebounds against Kentucky. They could have another great day on the boards against Oregon. If UNC hits its threes, it could be a very long night for Oregon. But they haven’t been hitting their threes, so if recent history is any indication, this game is going to go down to the wire.

Who Wins Tonight’s Battle of Bluebloods?

Posted: 03/26/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

On December 17th, then-sixth ranked Kentucky played #7 North Carolina in Las Vegas. Kentucky was a one point favorite, so the game was expected to be close. It didn’t disappoint. Kentucky held a slim lead for most of the game, stretching it out to double digits for a short period in the first half. Then, the Heels took a lead on a Justin Jackson three with 1:35 left, Malik Monk instantly responded with a three of his own, and Jackson and Monk then traded a two for a three. Isaiah Hicks missed a jumper with six seconds left, and Kentucky won 103-100. Monk scored 47, De’Aaron Fox added 24 and 10 assists, and Jackson scored 34. Of course, a repeat of that classic is far from guaranteed. Friday’s UCLA-Kentucky game showed that, as it was nowhere near as exciting or close as the first matchup between the two. But the ingredients are in place for another nail-biter.

Given these two teams’ respective strengths, it’s hard to imagine either team stringing together enough consecutive stops to build a big lead. The Wildcats have two future top-10 picks in their backcourt, and they’re both playing great basketball. Fox is coming off of a 39 point performance against UCLA, and his role on the team has clearly changed since December. Fox’s 10 assists against North Carolina served as his fourth double-digit assist total of the season; he hasn’t had more than seven assists in a game since and has been under five in nine straight games. Instead of looking first to get his teammates involved, Fox is using his incredible athleticism to finish improbably at the rim and get to the line. He’s averaging 7.8 free throw attempts over the last 10 games and is putting up 19.9 points per game in that time. Add that to his defensive ability (he held Lonzo Ball to 10 points on 4-10 shooting), and Fox is probably playing better than any other college point guard.

Then there’s Monk, who is a terror when he’s hot but almost non-existent when he’s not. Case in point: against UCLA, Monk was 1-4 from the field for two points with three minutes to go in the first half. Seven minutes of game time later, he was 7-11 from the field for 17 points. When he’s on, his three point stroke is the best in college basketball, which is why he’ll be a successful NBA player. Of course, Monk can’t be much better than he was the first time the Wildcats played the Tar Heels. But how is UNC going to match up against Fox and Monk? It’ll be tough. One concern heading into the weekend was Joel Berry’s ankle, but that seems like much less of an issue after UNC’s star guard scored 26 points on 13 shots and looked very healthy against Butler. Still, guard defense is not North Carolina’s biggest strength. They lost to Kentucky and twice to Duke largely because they couldn’t slow down talented guards. The same thing happened against Miami, when the Hurricanes’ three best players (all guards) combined for 62 points in a 77-62 game. Georgia Tech’s freshman guard Josh Okogie scored 26 points in a win over UNC. The answer to “who can slow down Monk and Fox?” is probably “Monk and Fox.” Monk, particularly, seems to be almost as good when nobody’s guarding him as he is when there’s tight defense. Theo Pinson was out for the first game between these two teams and is probably UNC’s best athlete, so he’s the guy to look out for on the defensive side. But if North Carolina expects to win this game by shutting down Fox and Monk, they’ll be disappointed.

Luckily for UNC, they’ll have plenty of success on the offensive side of the ball, because their strength — interior scoring — also happens to be a weakness for Kentucky. I would argue that it’s actually pretty impressive that North Carolina managed to lose by only three in a game in which Monk hit eight threes and scored 47 points. Just as impressive? The fact that they stayed close despite serious foul trouble for Kennedy Meeks (20 minutes) and Isaiah Hicks (15). Meeks and (especially) Hicks are dominant interior threats when they’re on the court, and they combined for 22 points and 10 rebounds in their 35 minutes against Kentucky. But Carolina kept things close because they were able to turn to Tony Bradley and Luke Maye off the bench. Bradley’s the best NBA draft prospect on the team, and he averages 7.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in 14.8 minutes. Maye’s a sophomore who always gives UNC a solid 14 minutes per game and is coming off a 16 point and 12 rebound performance against Butler. The Tar Heels are going to cycle their big men a lot, and they’re going to try to get Bam Adebayo frustrated, tired, and in foul trouble. Outside of Adebayo, Kentucky’s big men are better outside than they are inside, both on offense and defense. Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel are the two other big men in the rotation, and 55% of their shots come from beyond the arc. They’re both average rebounders and have their moments defensively, but they’ll be outmuscled and outclassed defensively against Hicks, Meeks, and Bradley.

Then there’s Jackson, the guy who went off for 34 against Kentucky and is the ACC Player of the Year. Jackson has a great floater, never seems to miss an open jumper, and often looks downright unstoppable. And Kentucky has absolutely nobody who can guard him. Isaiah Briscoe is probably the team’s best wing defender, but he’s 6’3″. Jackson is 6’8″. Monk and Fox are also 6’3″, and there’s no rotation player shorter than Willis and taller than Mychal Mulder (6’4″). This is a huge, easily exploitable flaw in the construction of Kentucky’s roster. Jackson went off against Kentucky in December, but he only took 17 shots. If he’s scoring easily again, you can bet that he’ll be more aggressive in the Elite Eight than he was early in the season.

Kentucky has two guards who may well be the best players on the court today. Usually, that’s an impossible disadvantage to overcome. But North Carolina is in a perfect position to overcome it, because they should dominate the interior and get big plays out of guards like Berry (quiet 15 points per game) and Pinson, and because they have a go-to scorer of their own. Kentucky’s defense has been vastly improved of late, to the point that they held UCLA to 75 points. But UCLA was a much better matchup for their defense than North Carolina is, and Fox, Monk, and Adebayo are going to need to make shot after shot and play after play to keep up with the well-rounded Carolina. They’re perfectly capable of doing just that, but I think North Carolina will eventually wear them down and win a close game. North Carolina wins 88-86.

Sweet 16 Picks — Friday’s Games

Posted: 03/23/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

Tonight’s games haven’t disappointed — what they may be lacking in style they’ve made up for in closeness and excitement. We should be in for more of the same tomorrow night, although there’s certain to be a lot more flair in one game in particular. Tomorrow’s also MSG regional night, also known as “this year’s crazy region” night. Villanova and Duke are out, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get excited for the two East regional games. South Carolina’s in its first Sweet 16, Wisconsin’s seniors are fighting to make their third Final Four, Baylor coach Scott Drew is fighting to finally gain respect, and Florida coach Mike White is trying to make a Final Four in his first trip to the NCAA tournament. We’re guaranteed a coaching newcomer to the Final Four from the East (and one from the West, now that West Virginia is out). So while there isn’t going to be a Nova-Duke MSG game (which would have been pretty cool), there’s still plenty to be excited about in the region. That pales, of course, in comparison to the South region, which features a rematch of one of the best games of the season (UCLA beat Kentucky 97-92 at Rupp Arena early in the season) and another potential incredible rematch (Kentucky beat North Carolina 103-100, with Malik Monk scoring 47 points). Oh, and there’s also Butler, one of the most under-appreciated teams all season long. How great would it be for Butler to win a region with UNC, Kentucky, and UCLA? Anyway, we have all of this to look forward tomorrow and this weekend and more.

North Carolina 78, Butler 74: The Tar Heels are very, very lucky to have gotten past Arkansas on Sunday. They trailed by five points with three minutes left and then benefitted from a few very questionable calls down the stretch. But they played really poorly, and if they play like that again they’re going to lose to Butler. I think they’ll play a much better and cleaner game tomorrow, assuming Joel Berry is close to full strength after struggling with an ankle injury. UNC has a size advantage against every team they play, but that’ll be especially true against a Butler team that doesn’t have anyone who averages even six rebounds per game. Of the seven players who play 20+ minutes per game for the Bulldogs, Tyler Wideman is the tallest at 6’8″. That’ll be a problem tomorrow. Kennedy Meeks is 6’10” and 260 pounds. Isaiah Hicks is 6’9″ but plays like he’s 7’0″. Tony Bradley, UNC’s best pro prospect, is 6’10” and 240 pounds. Leading scorer Justin Jackson, a wing, is 6’8″. There’s a reason the Tar Heels are the top rebounding team in the country. I expect them to get a lot of easy buckets inside. Butler isn’t going to go away easily, of course. They’re a really tough team to defend. Kelan Martin’s a good scorer, Andrew Chrabascz has an unorthodox game and often seems impossible to guard, and they’re surrounded by good slashers and shooters. I expect Butler to play a heck of a game, but Carolina’s size and talent will be too much for the Bulldogs, just as it was eventually for the Razorbacks.

Baylor 65, South Carolina 60: Boy, Duke’s defense made South Carolina look good on Sunday. The Gamecocks, who rank 121st in adjusted offensive efficiency, put up 65 points in the second half. A lot of those came on free throws down the stretch, but still. Unfortunately for South Carolina, Baylor’s defense is a lot stingier than Duke’s. They play a 1-3-1 zone and are long, quick, and tough to play against. Sindarius Thornwell is a tough guy to stop, but Baylor has wing defenders (like Ish Wainright) and a big time rim protector in Jo Lual-Acuil (2.5 blocks per game). I think we’ll likely seen a return to normal South Carolina basketball, which is to say low scoring and gritty. The Gamecocks will definitely cause Baylor some issues. They force a lot of turnovers with their press, and Baylor turns it over a ton. But the Bears should have the edge on the boards, giving them enough second chance points to outscore South Carolina in what could be an ugly game. If I were a South Carolina fan, I’d also be nervous about big men Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar getting into early trouble. They’ll have their hands full with Johnathan Motley.

Kentucky 84, UCLA 82: The Bruins are just a small favorite in this game, but it seems like everyone is taking them to beat the Wildcats. That’s because they’re the flashier team and the one that looks downright unstoppable more often. When Lonzo Ball starts rolling, UCLA is impossible to stop. They have a ridiculous number of scoring threats. There’s Ball, who’s shooting 56% from the field and 42% from three. There’s leading scorer T.J. Leaf, who’s shooting 62% from the field and 46% from three. Senior Bryce Alford is a high volume and efficiency three point shooter (113 makes, 43%). It seems like Thomas Welsh makes every single midrange shot he takes. Guards Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Hamilton don’t get talked about much, but they’re shooting a combined 38% from three and averaging 26.5 points per game. Put it all together and you get a team that’s shooting 52% from the field, 74% from the line, and 41% from three. It’s a very aesthetically pleasing team because they love sharing the ball (21.5 assists per game, easily the best in the country) and also have a lot of individual talent. If UCLA is at its best, they’ll likely win the game, just like the one the won at Kentucky early this season. The thing is that defense means a lot more now than it did then, and Kentucky’s a much better defensive team than the Bruins are. It isn’t even close to being close. The Wildcats rank seventh in defensive efficiency, while UCLA ranks 78th. When they’re locked in, Kentucky might be the best defensive team in the country. They showed that against Wichita State, when they made a few pivotal stops down the stretch. And they usually seem to find a way to win games, even if they look out of sorts at times and play from behind more than they would like. The first time these two teams played, Kentucky lost by just five despite being drastically out-shot from the field (53% vs. 41%) and from three (44% vs. 33%). The Bruins might still out-shoot the Wildcats, but Bam Adebayo and Co. will make up for it with offensive rebounds and by forcing turnovers against the glitzy LA school. Buckle up, because these are the two fastest paced teams left in the tournament.

Florida 62, Wisconsin 60: Why are so few people talking about the Florida Gators?? This team just beat Virginia 65-39. Now, I know the Cavaliers struggled a lot this season, but that was still an incredibly impressive performance. And if you can get out in transition against Virginia and speed Virginia up, you can do the same to any team in the country, right? Well, if there’s any other team that will try to slow you down as much as Virginia does, it’s the Wisconsin Badgers, who are coming off a win over Villanova. Wisconsin’s the slowest paced team left in the tournament, while Florida excels in fastbreak situations and otherwise often struggles to score points. I think it’ll be a struggle for both teams to score. Florida’s defense is suffocating, albeit maybe not quite as terrifying as it was before big man John Egbunu was injured. Wisconsin’s starting five is experienced and talented, but I’m not sure how much success Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ will have against this defense. This game is another true tossup, but picking the team that’s been better all year over the hot one (barely) worked for me in the Michigan-Oregon game, so I’m going to take the Gators.

Sweet 16 Picks — Thursday

Posted: 03/23/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

The first two rounds of the NCAA tournament were very chalky. Three #1 seeds, two #2 seeds, three #3 seeds, and all four #4 seeds remain. The biggest surprise members of the Sweet 16 are Xavier (a preseason top-15 team that had an easy route to the Sweet 16 with wins over overseeded Maryland and Florida State), Michigan (one of the hottest teams in basketball, the Big Ten champs), Wisconsin (a preseason top-10 team that was criminally underseeded), and South Carolina (ok, this one is actually a big surprise. I didn’t see their win over Duke coming). That made for a pretty disappointing first weekend, although Sunday featured a bunch of pretty exciting games. The good thing about not many upsets is that the games tonight and tomorrow are likely going to be really good. There aren’t many big mismatches with teams who are lucky to be here facing up against powerhouses. In fact, the largest spread of the Sweet 16 is 7.5 (tie between Arizona over Xavier and North Carolina over Butler). Most tournament games end up being close, and this slate of games shouldn’t be an exception.

Oregon 78, Michigan 75: I must say that I’m a bit surprised that the Wolverines have continued to play so well through the first two games in the tournament. I thought that Oklahoma State would be able to knock them off with their more consistent offense, and then I believed that Louisville would make them feel uncomfortable with their press. But two wins later, Michigan is in the Sweet 16 and favored to beat the higher-seeded Ducks. Here’s the thing: I still think people are overrating this Michigan squad. There’s no doubt that they’re red hot, but they beat Oklahoma State and Louisville by a combined five points. Now, they face an Oregon team that was lucky to beat Rhode Island but has the talent to knock off the Wolverines. There’s no question that the loss of Chris Boucher has hurt Oregon, but Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey may well be the two best guys on the court tonight. Furthermore, I expect Dana Altman’s Ducks to come out with a better gameplan than Rick Pitino’s Cardinals had. Pitino was clearly petrified of Michigan’s three point shooting, so he abandoned his signature press and played tight on Michigan’s guards. The problem was that that left the paint wide open, and Mo Wagner made them pay time after time. Oregon’s more likely to shut the paint down and take its chances with Michigan’s three point shooting. They won’t be as soft as the Cowboys were, but they’ll live with the long threes that Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. launch regularly. If those guys make a lot of those shots, the Wolverines will win. But I’ll go with the percentage play and the Ducks, who have been the better team all year. Michigan went 16-for-16 on uncontested shots against Louisville. That seems unsustainable.

Gonzaga 81, West Virginia 73: The Zags are short (three point) favorites in this game, which is unsurprising given the way that the Mountaineers played against Notre Dame on Saturday. West Virginia looked almost unbeatable in that game. They forced turnovers and made Notre Dame feel uncomfortable, but they also hit eight of their 14 three point attempts (led by stud guard Jevon Carter, who was 4-of-5). That type of shooting is no fluke: after years in which they shot 32% and 33% from beyond the arc, West Virginia is 37% this year. I truly believe that the Mountaineers are one of the scariest teams to play against in the country. I also believe that Gonzaga is the most well-rounded team in the country, with the ability to beat you in a number of ways. West Virginia will likely force 12+ turnovers, but Gonzaga will make up for that with stellar three point shooting and a point guard who hits 90% of his free throws. They also have a huge mismatch down low, where Przemek Karnowski and the insanely talented Zach Collins will regularly get the ball in the post against overmatched guys like Nathan Adrian (the scrappiest basketball player in the world and the pride of Morgantown). It won’t be easy, but the Zags will take a slim lead late and pull away at the free throw line.

Kansas 86, Purdue 84: This is the game I’m most excited for tonight. It’s Biggie Swanigan against Frank Mason in a game that might determine who the player of the year is. It’s strength against strength, with Swanigan and Ethan Haas, who are usually downright unstoppable down low, going up against Kansas’s scary four guard lineup with Mason, Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailuk, and Josh Jackson raining threes on helpless opponents. This game will hinge on a few things:

  1. Who guards Josh Jackson, and can anyone stop him? Recently, the answer to that second question has been a resounding no. He has 40 points on 28 shots in two tournament games. I don’t think Vince Edwards (or anyone else, for that matter) is going to be able to stop Jackson unless he starts to go cold from beyond the arc. That’s very possible, because Jackson’s shot doesn’t look great, but the guy’s shooting 39% from three.
  2. Can Landen Lucas stay out of foul trouble? No offense to Carlton Bragg, but Lucas is Kansas’s only good post defender. He’s a darn good one, but he also averages 3.4 fouls per game and always seems to be in foul trouble. If that happens tonight, the Jayhawks will be in trouble, because nobody else is going to be able to slow Swanigan, Edwards, and Haas down.
  3. How much does homecourt matter? The Jayhawks aren’t truly at home, but this game will be played in Kansas City, so it’s darn near the same as playing at Allen Fieldhouse. With that being said, Purdue fans generally travel well, and it won’t be a true road game for the Boilermakers. But Kansas is amazing at home, so if they feed on the KC crowd like they do their own, they’ll be tough to beat down the stretch in a close game.
  4. Can Kansas hit their free throws? For a team that shoots 41% from three, Kansas is surprisingly poor from the line (68%). But they’ve been a lot better recently. Exhibit A: Frank Mason, who gets to the line way more than anyone else on the team. Mason is shooting 85% from the line over the last 13 games and is getting to the stripe 8.5 times per game. Before that, he shot 75% from the line, getting there 5.7 times per contest. I expect Mason to continue to knock down free throws down the stretch, which is the main reason I’m picking Kansas to win by a couple of points.

While I’m taking Kansas to win, I really think this is a toss-up. Contrary to what most people think, Purdue’s not just a team full of big brutes. Their guards have talent, and they’re shooting 40% from three and 76% from the line (crucially, their big men hit free throws). In the end, I think Kansas wins this game because their guards are superior, but Purdue will put up a huge fight.

Arizona 78, Xavier 64: I find it hard to believe that Sean Miller will lose against his old team when his new one is much deeper and more talented. I think the Wildcats match up pretty well against Xavier. They have the size and shooting to exploit Xavier’s 1-3-1 zone (cough cough Lauri Markkanen cough cough), and they also have a terrific wing defender in Kadeem Allen who can at least slow Trevon Bluiett, one of the hottest players in the nation, down. Xavier drubbed Florida State on Saturday, putting up 91 points against the Seminoles. But it’s easy to forget that they had lost seven of 10 before the tournament started and are without standout point guard Edmond Sumner. No offense to Kaiser Gates, Sean O’Mara, or Quentin Gooden, but Xavier’s secondary players just aren’t as good as Arizona’s. It’ll show tonight.

Bubble Watch — Let’s Go Back to 64 Teams

Posted: 03/05/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

A week from now, we’ll know the identities of the 68 NCAA tournament teams. As I write this tonight, there are probably five or six spots up for grabs and about twice that many teams who have a shot at those spots. It’ll come down to how those teams perform in their conference tournaments. Of course, the bubble, which seems super soft (more on that later), could shrink if a team that wouldn’t otherwise make the tournament wins its conference tournament, taking the bid of another deserving team, who would then be left with an at-large bid, “stealing” the bid of a bubble team. This year, bid-stealers would include: bottom-feeders in the six major conferences (ACC, Big-12, Big-10, Pac-12, Big East, SEC); someone other than VCU and Dayton in the A-10; someone other than Cincinnati and SMU in the AAC; someone other than Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in the WCC (seems least likely); someone other than Middle Tennessee in CUSA.

Let’s take a look at the teams who are on the bubble, including, for argument’s sake, Middle Tennessee, which would have a very interesting case if they were to lose in their conference tournament. First, here are the teams I’m assuming are probably in already:

Syracuse, because although their RPI (a stupid stat, by the way) is lacking, they have wins over Florida State, Duke, and Virginia, far more than most bubble teams can boast. They’re just 18-13, but again, it’s a soft bubble.
Michigan, because they have no terrible losses and have an important win over SMU on a neutral court to go along with home victories over Purdue and Wisconsin.
Seton Hall, because they have seven wins in their last nine games, just won at Butler, and are 5-7 against likely tournament teams.
Marquette, because they’re 8-6 against the RPI top-50, beat Villanova at home, and swept both Xavier and Creighton. They also have a resounding neutral court win over Vanderbilt, which is currently on the bubble.
Providence, because they’ve won six games in a row, swept Marquette, and beat Creighton in Omaha. Don’t mind their horrendous losses at DePaul and Boston College, because the bubble is soft.

 

Alright, onto the bubble teams:

Almost everyone has already penciled Michigan State into the tournament, but I just don’t get it. Yes, Tom Izzo is their coach, and he’s a darn good one at that. And yes, MSU swept Minnesota and beat Wichita State on a neutral court. But this is an 18-13 team whose biggest claim to fame is that they had a tough schedule. Sure, they played Duke, Arizona, Kentucky, and Baylor. That’s a murderous non-conference schedule. But guess what? They lost all four games! They’re 2-7 against the RPI top-25, and just 13-13 against the top-150. I just don’t see why this team — which ranks 50th in Kenpom, a reliable advanced stats site that measures efficiency — should make the tournament. Sorry, but “we played good teams” just shouldn’t cut it. They’re probably already in, but to convince me they need to at worst avoid a bad loss in the first round of the Big-10 tournament and at best get an upset win over one of the top teams in the (admittedly weak) tournament.

USC came out of nowhere to win all 13 of their non-conference games. Of course, that’s because their non-conference strength of schedule ranked 258th (per Kenpom). This is a thoroughly mediocre team. They have slim home wins over SMU and UCLA, but they were 0-5 in their other games against the Pac-12’s elite. Their third best win was a neutral court victory over BYU. But they’re still in a better spot than most bubble teams because they got that win over UCLA and only have one terrible loss (at Arizona State). They play Washington in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. If they lose, I think they miss out. If they win, they’re right on the bubble and would be subject to a shrinking bubble or a hot streak from a few other bubble teams. Beating UCLA again in round two would lock them up.

Xavier was supposed to be a top-15 team this year. They were coming off of a successful season and had a lot of talent returning. But they disappointed slightly for most of the year and then lost point guard Edmond Sumner and have subsequently fallen apart, losing six in a row. The committee will absolutely keep in mind that they struggled after losing Sumner, which probably means that they’re a bit worse off than they otherwise would be. Working in their favor is that they really have no bad losses. But they finished just 9-9 in the conference, and their two best wins are at Creighton and home against fellow bubble team Wake Forest. Not great. They should beat DePaul in the first round, but I think they may still miss out unless they beat Butler in the next round. So they’re in about the same position as USC.

Wake Forest was on the outside looking in for most of the year as they lost close game after close game. They lost to Duke twice by seven combined points, fell to UNC by six, and lost to Notre Dame by seven. That left them 16-12 heading into last week with a home win over Miami serving as their only top-50 win. Then, they beat Louisville at home and Virginia Tech on the road. That pushed them to 9-9 in the ACC and gave them their two best wins of the season. This is a good team, ranking 29th in Kenpom. I hope they make the tournament. I think they will, because they played a tough schedule (1oth in Kenpom) and have no bad losses. I’d put them a rung above Xavier and USC. If they beat Boston College and then play respectably against Virginia Tech, they should be safe.

Vanderbilt may just have gotten hot at the right time. They’ve won five of their last six, with the lone loss being a six point defeat at Kentucky. They now boast a sweep of Florida (the #5 RPI and #6 Kenpom team), a win over Iowa State that keeps looking better, and a victory at tourney-bound Arkansas. All is well, right? Well, they’re just 17-14, which is never a good thing. A 15-loss team has never won an at-large bid. In the end, it might just be too many losses to overcome. But again, it’s a soft bubble. As long as they beat Texas A&M, they’ll have a chance. A third win over Florida, of course, would put them in.

Illinois State was demolished by Wichita State today, ending their season without an automatic bid. They’re 26-5, but I’d be surprised if they made the tournament. They beat Wichita State once, but they also lost to the Shockers twice, and their second best win was a home victory over New Mexico. Not great. It may not be fair, but Illinois State didn’t have the chance to win games against, say, Louisville or Florida. If they were 29-2 with just the two losses against the Shockers, they’d likely be in, but those three other losses give the committee a darn good excuse to leave them out. It would probably take a collapse from a bunch of other bubble teams to put them in.

Middle Tennessee likely won’t need an at-large bid, since they’re 17-1 in Conference USA play and should cruise to the auto bid. But if they do lose a fifth game, they’ll have an interesting case. Remember, this is the team that beat #2 seed Michigan State in last year’s tournament. They still have a lot of talent, and they banked huge wins over Vanderbilt and CAA powerhouse UNC-Wilmington. They also lost by only three points at VCU and are 4-1 against the RPI top-100. That might not be enough to put them in over a 15-loss Vanderbilt team, but it would at least give them a better shot than Illinois State, especially if they make their conference championship game. I want to see them in the tournament, though, so hopefully they just win their conference tournament.

Rhode Island is your run-of-the-mill Atlantic-10 bubble team. They’re 21-9 and 13-5 in conference play, with a 1-2 record against VCU and Dayton. They lost at home to both Fordham and La Salle, which really hurts. They’ve boosted their record with 10 wins against teams with RPIs of 180 or lower. This is a solid team, but they probably need to make the A-10 final to make the field. That would give them a second win over the class of the conference, which, when added to a nice neutral court win over Cincinnati, would give them three wins to stake their bid on and a much better record than power conference bubble teams.

Illinois’ resume lost a lot of luster when they lost to Rutgers yesterday. That brings their record to 17-13 and crucially gives them their first bad loss. Now, it seems a lot less likely that a team that went 8-10 in the Big-10 and 12-12 against the RPI top-150 will make the field. I think they need to beat Michigan and then Purdue to have a real chance.

Iowa is 18-13 and wasn’t in the mix for an at-large bid before they won at Maryland and Wisconsin in consecutive games. That helps, but it’s hard to get excited about a team that’s 8-13 (!) against the RPI top-150 and is ranked 71st in RPI and 65th in Kenpom. If they make the Big-10 final (which would require wins over Indiana, Wisconsin, and likely Maryland or Northwestern), they would probably get an at-large bid.

Kansas State is another mediocre power conference team. Their main argument is that they have a win at Baylor, which is one of the most impressive in the country. They also beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater and West Virginia at home. Those are three pretty impressive wins. But they also lost twice to rival Kansas, twice to Iowa State, and once each to the three teams they beat. And they were just 5-3 against the four lesser Big-12 teams, which is why they’re just 19-12. They’re likely in better shape than Illinois, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Illinois State. In fact, right now they’re probably smack dab on the bubble, because those three wins were very impressive. And to be fair, their two losses to Kansas were by a combined five points. But it’s hard to erase the memory of the 30-point drubbing doled out by Oklahoma. They play Baylor first, and the Bears have looked vulnerable of late. If K-State can win that game, they’ll likely be in the field. If they can follow it up with a win over West Virginia, they’ll be a tournament team.

California is all of 1-7 against the RPI top-50. They’ve lost five of six. Their best wins were at USC by a single point and over Princeton. They blew five chances to beat the class of the Pac-12, not to mention a home loss to Virginia and a neutral court loss against Seton Hall. They don’t belong in the tournament. And yet… they have a chance, because they’re 19-11 and because the bubble is soft. They’re certainly a long shot at this point, but if they beat Oregon State, Utah, and Oregon before losing in the finals… who knows? I’m not betting on it, though.

As of now, six of those 12 would make the tournament. And while it may end up only being four or five because of bid-stealers, it just as easily could be six out of 11 when Middle Tennessee wins its championship. Wouldn’t it be better if, say, the 11 (excluding Middle Tennessee for now) teams were fighting for two spots? That would be a novel idea: having 64 teams in the tournament. I’m kidding, of course. Until a few years ago, there were only 64 teams. But now there are 68, with the last four in playing in “First Four” games in Dayton and the two winners becoming part of the field of 64. I understand why the NCAA expanded to 68 — the same reason the NCAA does anything: money. But it really dilutes the quality of the bubble, to the point that a soon-to-be-15-loss Vanderbilt team looks more appealing as a bubble team than half the teams on the bubble. That’s not to say that the teams above are incapable of making noise in the postseason. On the contrary, I’ll probably pick one or two of them to upset or team or two, because that’s what happens in the NCAA tournament. But when that inevitably happens, it shouldn’t be taken as validation for the NCAA’s expansion to 68 teams. 64 teams makes way more sense bracket-wise, and it’s a better way to ensure improved quality in the tournament. Sorry, but I don’t care that Michigan State could possible make the Sweet 16. They’re a mediocre team with a mediocre resume, and they can make all the noise they want in the NIT. Adding four teams has made it feasible for teams like Cal, Iowa, Illinois… heck, maybe even teams like Clemson and Georgia Tech… to make the tournament despite playing thoroughly average basketball all season long. And if the NCAA insists on keeping it at 68 teams, why not let the four extra spots go to teams that have been consistently excellent all year, only to slip up once or twice? I’m talking about Monmouth, who was upset today in their conference tournament, and Illinois State, and the regular season conference champions who will inevitably lose in their conference tournaments this week. Michigan State and Kansas State have gotten all the chances in the world to play their way into the tournament. Why not give the smaller-conference teams that shot in the “First Four”?

National Championship Game Prediction

Posted: 04/04/2016 by levcohen in NCAA

On the surface, Saturday night’s Final Four games were disappointing and boring. Villanova eviscerated Oklahoma by 44 points (no, I still can’t believe that happened), shutting down Buddy Hield and the rest of OU’s team and hitting 71% of their shots in a game that wasn’t even their most efficient offensively in the tournament on a per-possession basis (they scored 1.5 points per possession against Oklahoma, which is pretty good… but they scored 1.55 PPP against Miami in the Sweet 16). Meanwhile, North Carolina took care of business in the later game, beating Syracuse by 17 in a game that was never in doubt. Despite losing their long-range touch, the Tar Heels were tremendous offensively, hitting 54% of their shots, grabbing more than half of their own misses (16 offensive rebounds), and getting good play from everyone in their starting lineup. So yeah, both games were pretty boring. In fact, most of the games each of these teams has played in the tournament have lacked intrigue. North Carolina has won their five tournament games by 14-19 point margins, putting together game-ending streaks in which their offense absolutely can’t be stopped. Meanwhile, Villanova has played a close game against Kansas and… that’s about it. Even including the five point win over the #1 overall seed, the Wildcats have beaten their opponents by an average of 24.2 points per game, a number that, if it holds, would be the best ever in a tournament.

Of course, that number won’t hold, because ‘Nova isn’t going to win this one in a blowout. The real beauty of seeing all of the blowouts is the knowledge that we’re really going to see the two best teams in college basketball clash tonight. The Wildcats, disrespected from the get-go, have proven that by coasting through a slate of games that has been about as difficult as possible. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, have had an easy schedule, but is there any doubt that they are the best team on the right side of the bracket? Could Kentucky, Xavier, West Virginia, Virginia, or Michigan State have beaten them? I don’t think so. So what we’re left with is a clash of titans. Both of these teams have been ranked #1 overall at some point this season. UNC opened #1 and won both their regular season and conference tournaments, while Villanova won the Big East and leads the nation with 34 wins. These are also the two best teams in Kenpom, with Villanova ranking first and Carolina second. Are Pomeroy’s numbers correct? Should the Wildcats really be favored to win this game?

Las Vegas disagrees, as the Tar Heels are entering the game as two point favorites. From a Villanova standpoint, there are certainly a number of reasons to be worried. The Wildcats are great, but they don’t have a lot of big men. Daniel Ochefu is as reliable as it gets, but he’s been hobbled multiple times this tournament and has cracked 30 minutes just three times all season. Meanwhile, North Carolina is huge and they’re beasts on the offensive boards. Brice Johnson is the headliner, but Carolina has the depth to dominate even when Johnson is in foul trouble. Kennedy Meeks destroyed Syracuse, Isaiah Hicks is a future pro, and even Joel James provided key minutes against ‘Cuse. I expect Ochefu (and Darryl Reynolds when he’s out) to stay on whichever of Meeks/Hicks/James is on the court, leaving Kris Jenkins, brother of UNC guard Nate Britt, on the bigger Johnson. Now, most people aren’t giving Jenkins much of a chance to stop Johnson, but I’m more optimistic than most. Jenkins is a really tough player, and he’ll get plenty of help from guards who will be quick to double-team Johnson. Villanova’s going to encourage guys like Justin Jackson (28%), Britt (33%), and Theo Pinson (29%), to shoot semi-open threes while trying to limit Johnson’s touches inside and opportunities for both Paige and Joel Berry. There’s a reason that North Carolina has the best offense in the country according to Kenpom; they’re versatile, talented, deep, and scary. Villanova has to avoid foul trouble, and they can’t let Paige hit a bunch of open threes. They’ve been playing great defense all year, and I think their scrappiness will really help against a more talented team, but I don’t think they’ll have the success stopping UNC that they had against Kansas and Oklahoma… which means that the Wildcats’ offense, ranked #2 in the country by Kenpom, is going to have to stay hot.

Does Villanova need to shoot 70% from the field? Of course not. They’ve had a few amazing offensive showings this tournament, but I don’t expect that to happen again. But they can’t have prolonged droughts against the most dangerous offense in the country. North Carolina’s defense is beatable. Just as Jenkins is going to be the key defensively, he’s going to be the co-key (with Josh Hart) offensively. Look for the Wildcats to try to get Jenkins on Meeks/Hicks/James in isolation on the perimeter, allowing for easy trips to the basket and/or getting UNC’s bigs into foul trouble. The offense works best when easy inside baskets opens up the game for open threes. I don’t think Ochefu is going to have the easy post-up opportunities he had against the undersized Sooners, which means that Villanova is going to have to penetrate from the outside, collapsing the defense and opening the game up. Their best driver and finisher in traffic? You guessed it: Hart. The junior guard has tremendous body control and is able to finish in a number of jaw-dropping ways. He also shot 83.3% against Oklahoma after shooting just 35.3% against Kansas. Which Hart will we see tonight? Senior Ryan Arcidiacono is obviously vital to Villanova’s chances, but this might also be a game in which freshman Jalen Brunson, who has been quiet in the tournament (8.4 ppg), takes a step forward. The North Carolina players know that Arcidiacono is shooting 66% from the field in the tournament, but they don’t necessarily know that Brunson can also change the game if he can get out in transition or hit a few threes. Mikal Bridges, Villanova’s best athlete, will also obviously be important in a game against a far more athletic team. Bridges is a 6’7″ guard who can harass an opponent, as he did when he got five steals against Kansas in the Elite Eight. Another performance like that would be huge for the Wildcats. North Carolina must contest Villanova’s three point attempts, because the difference between wide-open shots and contested shots is huge when it comes to this team. And while they love crashing the offensive boards, they also have to be sure that they aren’t beaten back up the court after missed shots, because guys like Hart, Brunson, Bridges, and Arcidiacono can take advantage of an over-aggressive or snoozing defense.

There’s no question in my mind that Villanova’s the team that plays harder over the course of two halves of basketball. There’s also no question in my mind that North Carolina’s the team that is more talented, bigger, and more explosive. Which side wins out tonight? Honestly, I think it’s a coin flip. I just hope this is the type of game that we all remember. I’ll take Villanova 77-73.