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March 16, 2010
65 Teams, 65 Thoughts
Part One

by Joe Sheehan

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Half today, plus one, with the remainder Wednesday. These are running in reverse order of the S-curve I published Sunday, with the two teams I missed slotted appropriately.

Arkansas-Pine Bluff: The Golden Lions aren’t going to be fazed playing Winthrop in the opening round. They opened the season with 11 consecutive road games, eight against BCS-league schools, plus a game at Texas-El Paso. They got hammered in all but one, losing by three at Akron. The stretch gave them the third-toughest nonconference slate in Division I, and appeared to prepare them well, as they went 14-4 in the SWAC then won the conference tournament, helped by 17-1 Jackson State’s untimely exit. UAPB can’t shoot, and lives by getting to the line (26.6% of their points from there, fifth in D-1, thanks to the tenth-best FT rate) and keeping their opponents off the board (45th in eFG% defense). Outside the SWAC, however, they held just three opponents under 50% eFG. The SWAC has never won an Opening Round game (0-4).

Winthrop: One of the few teams that shoots worse than Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the Eagles are sixth from the bottom nationally in eFG%, ahead of five teams that won a total of 21 games against D-I competition. Winthrop stayed competitive in the Big South thanks to stifling perimeter defense (29.7% 3Pt%, 13th in DI) and ballhawking (tenth in forcing steals, 55th on the defensive glass). In three games against BCS-level teams, they lost by 36, 17 and 16, so Duke is probably safe, but remember the names Reggie Middleton and Robbie Dreher; the freshman and sophomore lead a team that has just two seniors and will probably be back a few times, on higher seed lines, over the next two years.

East Tennessee State: Against a different #1 seed, ETSU’s mighty-mite attack might have had a better chance of success, but facing off against a strong backcourt in Kentucky wasn’t a good draw for them. They’ve played tournament teams tough, losing by just 13 at Louisville, by 12 at Tennessee and by four to Murray State at home. They benefited from the broken bracket in the Atlantic Sun, dodging top seed Lipscomb when Kennesaw State knocked them out, then getting to play a mediocre Mercer team in the final. The Buccaneers can’t shoot and their one offensive strength, crashing the glass, is highly unlikely to help them against DeMarcus Cousins and company.

Lehigh: Freshman C.J. McCollum dominated the Patriot League, winning Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year, and he’s the fulcrum of the Engineers offense. While they were the best team in the Patriot League, they didn’t play up well: 1-5 against the RPI top 200, the win coming over Quinnipiac at home, and no loss closer than 12 points. They can throw some size at the Jayhawks in the form of 6’9" frosh Gabe Knutson and 6’7" senior Zahir Carrington. Lehigh was ninth in the country in making threes, but it’s a small part of their offense—247th in threes taken, and only McCollum and Marquis Hall took even 100. This one could get ugly very early.

Robert Morris: A stronger Colonials team was getting some buzz as an upset pick a year ago, but was never in the game against Michigan State. This year’s team doesn’t have much in common with last year’s—senior Mezie Mgiwe is the primary link, and he’s fifth in possessions used—winning games by getting to the line on offense and creating turnovers on defense. A 40-point loss to Syracuse in their season opener may have been the best thing that could have happened to them; on merit, they should be a 16 and Vermont a 15, and the reversal of those seeds seems to be a direct result of needing to avoid that rematch. Robert Morris lost two games to Big East teams by 40 and 24 points, respectively. They don’t have much chance to beat Villanova, but it’s a slightly better one than they would have had to beat Syracuse.

North Texas: The Mean Green won their last 11 games, three in the Sun Belt tournament, to get the league’s automatic bid. The Sun Belt hasn’t had their champ seeded this low since…North Texas, back in 2007. That team played Memphis tough, losing 73-58. This one plays tough, too, leading the country in free-throw rate and converting at a good percentage. If you’re looking for a reason to believe, consider that Kansas State puts its opponents on the line more often than all but two teams (Villanova and UAPB) in the field. This is a strong #15 seed playing the weakest #2 seed, the most likely of the 2/15s to provide an upset. This will be a closer game than expected.

Morgan State: Todd Bozeman’s squad could have threatened some of the other 15s, but the matchup with West Virginia is just a devastating one. The physical Bears, who won at Arkansas and played Louisville tough at Freedom Hall, like to crash the boards and get to the line, which is the only place from which they shoot well. Going up against the Mountaineers, with their athletic front line and their own greediness about missed shots, is a strength/strength matchup that won’t bode well for the MEAC champs. Their best chance is to make the game a slog, keeping it close and trying to win it at the line. The Bears caught bad seeding last year as well, getting the top #2 in Oklahoma, with Blake Griffin. They needed to catch a smaller team, and it just didn’t happen.

Vermont: They’re an underseeded 16, not ridiculously so like Niagara a few years ago, just enough so that they have to a play a team they probably can’t beat. Syracuse’s zone drives good-shooting teams bonkers; Vermont shoots just 32% on threes, less than 50% on twos, and was worse than that in two games against Big East teams (they did beat Rutgers in Piscataway). Big man Marqus Blakely is the focal point on both ends of the court, but Syracuse’s front line should be able to limit his effectiveness even in the absence of Arinze Onuaku. Five years ago, the Catamounts beat ‘Cuse by forcing a million turnovers in a slow-paced, low-scoring game. They don’t have the personnel for that this time around.

UC Santa Barbara: Winner, Prettiest Campus in the Field. That’s about as far as it will go for the Gauchos, who were nearly hounded out of the Big West tournament by the pressure of Long Beach State. They will not be able to handle the quick, physical Ohio State guards, who will force a turnover-prone team into a lot of empty possessions. Any chance of winning comes down to James Nunnally (46.5%) and Orlando Johnson (39.6%) going nuts from long distance, and keeping the game out of the 70s. Santa Barbara played just two games against BCS-league teams and lost both by at least 20.

Montana: As great as Anthony Johnson’s sick second-half against Weber State was, the Grizzlies’ win was bad for the league. Montana, no pushover, is less likely to spring an attention-getting upset. Montana does have that rarest of things, a mid-major seven-footer, in sophomore center Derek Selvig. He doesn’t contribute much on the offensive end, but is a key element of a halfcourt defense that is small everywhere else. Montana is a great shooting team (11th in 3P%, 33rd in 2P%, 16th in eFG%), which gives them a puncher’s chance against New Mexico, which was wildly overseeded relative to its possession-based performance and has to be considered vulnerable. The Grizzlies did not play up much, but they beat Oregon and Fresno State, and played both Washington and Colorado State tough.

Ohio: References to Ohio as the MAC’s "#9 seed" are misleading, as the conference has an East/West split that makes the SEC’s yawning divide look like a crack in the ceiling. The Bobcats were no worse than the third-best team in the conference, and feature a Big 11 escapee in Armon Bassett. The former Hoosier isn’t a shooter, but he is a scorer, getting to the line frequently. This isn’t your Miami of Ohio-style MAC team; Ohio was 65th in the country in pace and doesn’t mind taking the transition baskets when they’re available. In the MAC championship game against Akron they were at their best when playing fastest. They don’t shoot very well in the halfcourt (227th in the country on twos), so they need to get layups and transition threes. It’s not at all clear that their foul-prone frontcourt can handle Georgetown’s size and strength inside, so while Ohio is no easy out, the matchup here is not at all a good one for them and could well produce a blowout.

Sam Houston State: The Bearkats take threes and make threes, in the top 40 nationally in rate, success and points on threes. They played Kentucky tough—a 10-point loss—by shooting reasonably well and beat Auburn by shooting the lights out. If the traditional model of an upset candidate is an undersized team that goes a bit crazy from behind the arc, Sam Houston is the 2010 version of the model. The downside is that they don’t defend well, giving up a lot of twos and fouling when they don’t. They’re basically Baylor without Baylor’s size, likely to hang in the game but eventually be worn down on the inside. The Bearkats and Bears might play the highest-scoring game of the first round.

Houston: It was less surprising that the Cougars won the Conference USA tournament and more surprising that they played so very poorly all year long. The key stretch of the Conference USA championship game came when UTEP turned over the ball on consecutive possessions, which was critical, because Houston had no answer for the Miners when they got the ball inside and took shots. That’s been Houston’s problem all year, an inability to keep teams from scoring, giving up 51.5% on twos--so good that teams all but eschew the three against them, taking fewer than three in ten shots from outside the arc. Houston can score, but they can’t stop a good team. Maryland will pound the ball into Landon Milbourne and Jordan Williams until both are bored with the layups. Houston needs to shoot the lights out, do their usual great job protecting the ball (best turnover rate in the country) against Maryland’s pressure, and hope to win 95-92.

Murray State: It took less than a day for Murray State to move from "upset pick" to having so many people picking them that it can’t even be called an upset if they win. Their personnel is a bit more like that of a bigger school, with some size inside in Tony Easley and Ivan Aska, and a reliance on crashing the boards and getting to the line. I don’t mean to dismiss Murray State, but they literally didn’t beat anyone. They lost to Cal in their opener, 75-70, lost to Louisiana Tech, lost to a meh Western Kentucky team…it wasn’t a schedule that gives us any information about them. They might be good, or they just might be that much better than the Ohio Valley Conference. I appreciate that Vanderbilt is a vulnerable #4, but the rush to declare the Racers a Cinderella is a bit much given that they didn’t beat a team anywhere near Vandy all year long.

Oakland: Oakland played eight games against the RPI top 100. Three were against conference mate IUPUI. The other five were lost by 40, 32, 16, 31 and 31. In the same way that we evaluate candidates for the tournament based on how they performed against the top 50, I think it’s illustrative to evaluate teams in the field that way, and Oakland doesn’t seem to be able to compete in this group. The Golden Grizzlies don’t shoot threes, instead working the ball in to 6’11" Keith Benson or having 5"11" guard Johnathon Jones drive the lane. They don’t defend well, and will likely give up too many open looks to a patient Pittsburgh team to stay in the game.

Wofford: Is it OK if I get Wofford and Winthrop confused? Wofford is the better one this year; they beat Georgia and South Carolina while playing Illinois and Michigan State tough. They’ll be perfectly happy to play as slowly as Wisconsin cares to, and given the talent gap between the two—which will be most evident in the frontcourt—Wofford would probably take as few possessions as they can get. Big man Noah Dahlman had room to move in the SoCon, but he’s about to play against taller, stronger competition, and may end up out of the offense. This game will be the lowest scoring one of the first round. As with many of the higher seeds, Wofford had the potential to pull a first-round upset but drew a team whose style is a bit too close to its own, and whose personnel can dominate theirs.

: It’s not at all clear to me how New Mexico State and Utah State end up on the same seed line. In any case, the WAC tournament champs got here on the strength of their offense; only Lehigh, ranked 242nd, posted a worse defensive efficiency mark than the Aggies’ 104.1 (222nd). New Mexico State shoots the ball well and plays at a pace designed to get them opportunities to do so. Their championship game win over Utah State was just the second time all season they won a game scoring less than 70 points—both times against their fellow Aggies. It’s hard to gauge their chances against Michigan State; a team that can’t defend or rebound should be in trouble against a Tom Izzo squad, but the absence of Chris Allen leaves Michigan State with just one outside threat, which may allow New Mexico State to pack the lane, and Michigan State’s turnover-prone ways are likely to be exploited. Brand aside, the Spartans are the weakest #5. New Mexico State is the first team in the bracket I actually favor to pull off an upset.

Minnesota: They may have just squeaked in, but Ken Pomeroy’s possession-based stats love the Golden Gophers, ranking them 25th in the country. The gap is in the close games: Minnesota lost one-point contests to Texas A&M, Michigan State and Purdue, as well as two overtime games. A win-loss record sees those games differently than possession-based figures do, for better or worse. In any case, Minnesota comes in as the eighth-tallest team in the field, an advantage they leverage to keep their shots from being blocked (31st) and block the other guy’s shots (10th). Against a Xavier team that takes a lot of twos, Ralph Sampson, Damian Johnson and Colton Iverson will be key contributors. Tubby Smith’s team shoots 40% from three, eighth in the country, by having just the guys who can shoot from outside—Lawrence Westbrook, Devoe Joseph and Blake Hoffarber—do so. Despite their stumbles in Anaheim, their midseason funk in league and a legitimate dispute over whether they belong in the field, the Gophers are a dangerous team that could not only beat Xavier in the first round, but be a nightmare for Pittsburgh in the second round. I suspect that they’ll win zero or two games, and I’m just not sure which it is. There’s a 2009 Arizona feel here.

Florida: It’s not so much that I have a problem with Florida being in the field, it’s just that I have no idea what this team does. I don’t think Billy Donovan does, either. It has very little identity, doesn’t have the usual characteristics of Donovan’s teams, and seems to be underachieving relative to the talent on hand. I know that Erving Walker and Alex Tyus are good basketball players, I just don’t see where that fact has come through on the court. Like Minnesota or Wake Forest or Louisville or all the marginal BCS-league teams that ever make the tournament wearing solid colors, the Gators are dangerous because of their talent level, but that doesn’t mean I or anyone else knows what they are. BYU should be able to beat them handily.

Missouri: Bears repeating: the Tigers have one quality win since the end of January, and two in the last nine weeks. The metrics love them, but they’re undersized for a BCS team, so they get killed on the glass (323rd on defensive boards), they don’t shoot all that well (183rd on twos) and few teams in the field get to the line less than they do. Their matchup with Clemson is one of those that inspired the rant the other day, because these are the guys that teams like Cornell, Northern Iowa and Richmond have to be just aching to play. They can probably get Clemson to turn the ball over plenty to win the sloppiest first-round game, and a second-round matchup with West Virginia would be an interesting contrast in styles.

Cornell: The Big Red has seniors, shooters and size, and would have been not just a great upset pick against 30 or so teams, but favored against some and a reasonable dark horse to make the second weekend. Catching Temple, ridiculously underseeded at five and the wrong kind of matchup, is just a bad break. Temple takes away the three better than any team in the country except St. Louis, they play even slower than Cornell does and they don’t care how well you shoot from the line because they never foul. Short of one of the #1 seeds—and hell, Cornell led Kansas with a minute to go at Phog Allen—they could not have drawn a worse matchup. If they can somehow beat the Owls, however, a trip to the Sweet 16 isn’t at all unlikely.

Siena: I made this point with Oakland, so I should make it here: Siena played four top-50 opponents, went 0-4, and wasn’t really competitive in any of the games. They also lost to St. John’s. Their best nonconference win was over Northeastern. All of this is to say that the evidence that the can beat a #4 seed is limited. Fortunately, they drew a six-seed in What’s Left of Purdue, and they have a fighting chance. Siena never fouls, yet manages to pick up steals on 12.5% of possessions (23rd) and defends shooters reasonably well (127th in defensive eFG%).

Louisville: It is impossible to know what Louisville will do against California. They could show up, crash the boards, make shots, avoid turnovers and win by 12. They could also sleepwalk through the game, not defend the perimeter, go 2-16 from three and lose by 18. Even from one half to the next it’s hard to know what to expect, as anyone watching the most recent Georgetown or Cincinnati games will attest. The matchup doesn’t work for them, as Cal is an efficient offensive team and Louisville’s troubles have largely come at the defensive end.

Utah State: One reason for the Aggies’ success in the WAC is the contrast they provide, playing a slow, halfcourt game, with a beefy—if not necessarily tall—front line and taking defense seriously. Four WAC teams are in the top 100 in offensive efficiency; just one, this one, is in the top 100 in defensive efficiency. Their accuracy on threes and from the line, as well as the way they protect the ball, makes them a devastating offensive force, which is why they can play a game with more possessions and come out ahead. Despite being a generally popular upset pick, the Aggies have won just one tournament game in their last 13 trips dating to 1971. They can beat Texas A&M by continuing to play defense without fouling against their taller front line, which would take away those Aggies’ top weapon on offense: free throws. The winner of this game will win its second-round game. This is a very evenly matched 5/12 game.

Saint Mary’s: Their 10 seed is an indication that they might have been in even had they not beaten Gonzaga in the West Coast title game, although there’s a chicken-and-egg element to that argument. They would have been 6-5 against the top 100 without that win, with more than half their wins against teams 200+ in the RPI. The thing is, they played good teams and won, and their Pomeroy rating of 43 puts them inside the line for at-large bids. The Gaels can shoot (seventh in eFGT), with four players making at least 40 threes at 37% or better, and while they don’t get to the line much, they’re deadly when they do. Defensively, they’re vulnerable to quickness; they take away the three, but opposing guards can beat Matthew Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell for twos. Richmond’s Kevin Anderson could have a big day. If the Gaels can get out of the first round, a second-round matchup with Villanova could be a real treat, two of the best offensive teams in the country, loaded with shooters, playing a high-scoring game.

Washington: The Huskies’ push into the bracket has come thanks to a much improved defense. Since losing five of seven in January, Washington has allowed just two teams to shoot better than 50% eFG and just four to score more than point per possession. They remain extremely foul-prone, particularly in the frontcourt, but against a small Marquette team that wants to slow the game down, that may not be a problem. The guard matchup in this game will be fantastic, with Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton trading breakdowns with Maurice Acker. There will be a focus on which team controls the pace, but the real issue will be the boards, where UW has a big advantage. Marquette has to make first shots and find a way to clean the glass on the defensive end to win. This is a good matchup for UW, which should be able to advance, and be a threat in its second-round matchup with New Mexico.

Wake Forest: Wake lost five of its last six games, three to non-NCAA teams. Their inability to shoot (47.4% eFG) caught up with them at the end of the year, and on a very basic level, if you can’t shoot—and you like to play a lot of possessions—you can’t win. Only the two play-in teams shoot worse than Wake does. They’re here because they went 4-0 in overtime games and pulled out a squeaker against Gonzaga. It is hard to see how they can beat a Texas team that will be perfectly happy to play a 75-possession game and doesn’t allow teams to shoot well. These are two of the worst FT shooting teams in the field, so no late lead is safe.

Texas-El Paso: One of the many cases where a non-BCS team was criminally underseeded, UTEP is one of the best teams in the country on both sides of the ball thanks to their size. We saw that in action over the weekend, when Derrick Caracter beat up Houston inside on the offensive end, and 6’6" Julyan Stone made Aubrey Coleman’s life miserable defensively. The Miners’ size and athleticism presents a real problem for Butler, which isn’t big and is prone to fouling. Matt Howard already has two fouls, in fact. Stone can take 6"3" Shelvin Mack right out of the game, which would gum up the works for a Butler team that doesn’t shoot as well as earlier editions. UTEP can get to the second weekend.

Old Dominion: The Monarchs don’t play pretty basketball, but it’s effective, working the ball inside to one of their bigs, putting the ball somewhere in the vicinity of the basket, and going after it again and again until it goes in or the other team gets it. ODU has three players who snag at least 9% of their team’s missed shots, and that doesn’t include star Gerald Lee, who gets to just 7.4%, in part because he takes most of the shots. ODU doesn’t shoot threes, doesn’t get to the line much for a team that crashes the boards, doesn’t protect the ball and doesn’t make foul shots. They just crash. They also use that size on defense, holding teams to 30% from the arc and 45.4% inside it, while protecting the defensive glass. Their matchup with Notre Dame will be a slog, likely a one-possession game that comes down to the last minute. ODU is a one-win team, max.

Georgia Tech: The having good players/being a good team conundrum is encapsulated in the Yellow Jackets, who feature a one-and-done in Derrick Favors and another big man in Gani Lawal, yet never seem to know what they’re doing. Their ACC quarterfinal win over Maryland is their only win over a tournament team since January, and their only quality win away from home. Composure is a huge problem, as they’ll start throwing the ball away with just a little bit of applied pressure. Oklahoma State doesn’t force turnovers as a matter of course (202nd in steal rate), but at times all you have to do is yell "Boo!" to get Tech to hand it over. Tech’s big front line will keep them in the game at the defensive end, and they can beat State if Brian Oliver and Iman Shumpert knock down some threes. They can’t win two games.

Nevada-Las Vegas: One star, Tre’von Willis, and a lot of role players who play aggressive defense, sometimes too aggressive. Willis is tough to guard, but can be a self-check at times because of his tendency to shoot threes, something he does very poorly. The Rebels are best when he’s getting into the lane and making decisions from there, and he creates layups and dunks for teammates with his penetration. With Willis chewing up so many possessions, the team goes as he does. Jordan Egleseder could be a tough matchup for a team with no rotation guy over 6’8".

San Diego State: They answered big questions about whether they could win in a tournament setting by taking out New Mexico on a neutral floor, then choking UNLV on its home court to win the Mountain West tournament. That UNLV game included holding the Rebels to two points over nine minutes in the second half. The Aztecs play a bit like Old Dominion, getting the ball down low and up on the glass and then crashing the boards. The style worked in the MWC, but it may fail against Tennessee’s physical frontcourt of J.P. Prince and Wayne Chism. San Diego State’s problems defending the three shouldn’t hurt them against a Tennessee team that can’t shoot from outside.

California: An extremely underrated and dangerous team heading into the tournament, Cal features three players who shoot the lights out in Jerome Randle, Jamal Boykin and Theo Robertson. Randle in particular is capable of winning games by himself with in-the-gym range and tremendous ball skills that enable him to find other shooters as well. A lack of size is their biggest problem on the defensive end, something Washington exploited in the Pac-10 final, but they catch the right matchup in Louisville, not a big team itself. Cal is underseeded at eight and should run over Louisville, then create nightmares for Duke in the second round with their quickness and shooting. Three of the #8 seeds are threats to beat the #1s in the second round; Cal is the best bet to pull it off.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Joe by clicking here or click here to see Joe's other articles.

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