The top 16 teams in the field, including my final four and national champion.
Purdue: It may have been an exaggeration to say that Robbie Hummel "is dead," but the point is that evaluating Purdue based on any information prior to February is pointless. Without Hummel, the team got hammered by the two good teams it played, and beat, unimpressively, Penn State and Northwestern, only looking good against Indiana. Go back to the game in which he was injured, and Minnesota outscored the Boilermakers 44-33 after Hummel left the floor. The committee did the best it could in seeding Purdue, guessing to some extent, but it's an open question whether the Boilers are even a tournament team without their best player, best shooter and best rebounder. They might beat Siena, which hasn't beaten a good team since taking out Ohio State last year, but they won't get out of the weekend.
New Mexico: It's just strange that after years of underseeding Mountain West teams--and doing so again this year with at least two of them--the selection committee would take a stand by overseeding the Lobos. New Mexico won a whole mess of close games, and their tempo-free stats make it clear that this team is good, but far from great, and unlikely to play up to its seed. The Lobos are a poor defensive team by the standards of the tournament, allowing nearly half of their opponents' shots to fall and fouling a lot. Their strong defensive rebounding is the work of one man, junior Darington Hobson, who snares nearly one in four opponent misses. Offensively, they hit threes, protect the basketball and get to the line-but shoot free throws poorly. These things all make them a minor upset candidate in the first round-a 14 gets a 3 every few years-but give me either Marquette or Washington, with their strong offenses, in the second round.
Texas A&M: Sometimes, a statistical profile doesn't make much sense. The Aggies are 37th in offensive efficiency, but all they do very well is get to the line (sixth nationally). They don't even hit their free throws, converting about two-thirds, a below-average rate. They value the ball, but shooting isn't their thing (49.8% eFG%) and they're nothing special on the boards. No team in the field gets more of their shots blocked. On defense, they're not in the top 60 in anything, but they defend twos and grab the misses. It adds up to a great rating (Pomeroy 22), but it's hard to believe in the number. Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis are a terrific 1-2 to watch, and Davis' fierceness inside could be the difference in a coin-flip opener. Win, and they'll be favored to get to the Sweet 16 with a chance at Duke.
As I do these, I gain a greater appreciation for the complaints about the South bracket.
Tennessee: This is the first time under Bruce Pearl that the Volunteers have been a stronger defensive team than offensive one, and is in fact the worst offensive and best defensive team he's had in Knoxville. Playing more in the half court, Tennessee's rangy athletes get out on three-point shooters and play the passing lanes strongly, although their aggression leads to fouls. The tradeoff? This is a poor shooting team, terrible from distance and at the line. They need to get transition baskets, need to turn their opponents over, need layups. They catch a great draw in the first round against a San Diego State team that is loose with the ball and awful at the foul line. They should win a low-scoring game. Georgetown's Greg Monroe will probably take them out over the weekend, however; they have no good answer for his size. The Vols lost twice to Kentucky and DeMarcus Cousins, twice to Vandy and A.J. Ogilvy, once to Purdue and Robbie Hummel. I'm not sure if that's a pattern, but it's enough to make me think skilled big men beat them.
Temple: I've been adamant that Temple was underseeded as a five, but the closer you look, the more you wonder if they're Florida State with better ball control. They cannot shoot; Temple is at or below the national average from everywhere, they never get to the line and they're nothing special on the offensive glass. Individuals have skills--Juan Fernandez is their outside game, LaVoy Allen their inside--and they play fantastic defense in Fran Dunphy's system. I'm just not sure they can win if an opponent--say the best three-point shooting team alive--knocks down 12 threes on them. All five of their losses had a common thread: brutal shooting. The next time that happens, they go home, and it probably happens by Sunday night.
Baylor: Is there any room left on this bandwagon? Baylor has six losses since Thanksgiving; five came to teams wearing white in this tournament. They shoot from everywhere and Ekpe Udoh eats the occasional misses (32nd in offensive rebounding). Some sloppiness with the ball hurts their efficiency, but the top four guys are pretty careful with the ball, so the stats are exaggerated. They're not quite as good defensively, rarely forcing turnovers, but they make up for it by rejecting a sixth of opponents' twos. The perimeter guys play aggressively and force opposing guards into the lane, where Udoh, Qunicy Acy and Josh Lomers loom. The Bears should waltz through the first weekend, and only a matchup with Villanova on the other side of the bracket is worrisome-that could become a shootout between two teams who can fill it up. The Bears' front line, which has both size and skill, is why I see them beating Duke to reach the Final Four. Baylor has had just two games with less than a point per possession since November. That streak will continue for a while.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers are all about ball movement, working the ball around to get short jumpers, layups and trips to the line. More than 2/3 of their made shots come off of a pass, and when they get out of that approach is when they have trouble. They don't shoot well for a tournament team, getting by on second chances and foul shots. Defensively, they play as if to beat their own offense: protect the glass, don't foul, stay in position. Strangely, five of their eight losses came against teams that missed the dance. Oakland doesn't present a problem; Xavier does in a second-round matchup that will play like a Sweet 16 game and be decided in the last minute.
Villanova: Villanova lost four of their last ten because their defense just got lit up. Five of the losses were to teams in the top half of the bracket however, including some of the most efficient offenses in the nation. You can exploit the Wildcats' lack of size, as Connecticut, Syracuse and West Virginia did down the stretch, by beating them on the offensive glass, drawing fouls and shooting over their short backcourt. None of this is going to help Robert Morris, but whoever emerges from the Richmond/Saint Mary's game is a real threat to 'Nova, and will be my pick to make the Sweet 16.
Georgetown: The Hoyas got waxed by Notre Dame and West Virginia because they have no plan for playing without Austin Freeman, or for that matter any starter. Just three teams get fewer minutes from their bench. You might recall that the Hoyas played four games in four days last week, while managing Freeman's diabetes. They have no margin for error, and while Ohio won't threaten them and they can get by Tennessee with some difficulty, Evan Turner presents a matchup problem in the Sweet 16 that they won't solve.
Ohio State: One of the three teams that leans on its starters more than the Hoyas? The Buckeyes, who are beaten out only by Nevada in the category. How critical is your bench? Well, three of the bottom four teams in bench minutes are top-six seeds in the tournament, and six tournament teams rank in the bottom 15 of the category. Meanwhile, there are just three NCAA teams in the top 42 in bench minutes. As much as we'll sweat depth, it doesn't seem to relate to team success. The Buckeyes are 24-4 with Turner, three of the losses coming to tournament teams, the other to the North Carolina team that was kidnapped in January and rescued in time for Tuesday night's NIT game. Turner gets good shots for himself (shooting 56% inside the arc) and great ones for his teammates (fourth-best assist rate in the nation). Everyone who shoots threes makes them at a 37% clip or better, making defensive decisions a nightmare. Don't be fooled by their mediocre FT rate; that's Dallas Lauderdale at 43% dragging them down. I know they'll get to play Kansas, and I think that's where the lack of depth gets them in trouble, and ends their season.
Kansas State: Get comfortable. The Wildcats go to the line more than all but two teams, and they foul more than all but two teams in the field. Throw in a bunch of turnovers on both sides, and they play some very long games. Kansas State is not a strong shooting team, getting a quarter of their points from the line even though they're not very good (254th nationally) from it. Defensively, they're reliant on smallish big men Curtis Kelly and Jamar Samuels blocking shots. A second-round matchup with BYU is a bad one for them; the Cougars are happy to go up and down the floor, they protect the ball and they shoot exceptionally well. The Wildcats won't get out of the weekend.
Syracuse: The Syracuse defense gets most of the attention paid to this team, but they're second in eFG% and the best two-point-shooting team in the country. They move the ball very well, with Scoop Jardine an incredibly underrated contributor and distributor. All those assists come with turnovers, which gets them back on defense, where shockingly they allow 46.2 eFG%, which isn't special in this crowd, 62nd nationally. Their defensive strengths are forcing turnovers, defending the three and blocking shots without fouling, but you can find shots inside the zone. The Orange should root hard for Florida State, because while the Seminoles can defend, they might not pick up 50 points against Syracuse. Gonzaga, on the other hand, presents a size and skill challenge, especially with Arinze Onuaku out. Facing UTEP in the Sweet 16 is no bargain either, and the same can be said for BYU in what I expect will be a shattered bracket. Officially, I have Syracuse losing to BYU in the Elite Eight, but losses to Gonzaga, UTEP or Butler would not surprise me.
Duke: It's strange to see a Duke team as a one-seed, #2 in the Pomeroy rankings, yet shooting 46.9% on twos, a lousy figure. Ken Pomeroy's research shows that this is about shot selection as much as anything else, specifically Kyle Singler's. That's a fair point, but this is also a team that is getting their twos blocked a high rate, nearly 10 percent of the time. The Blue Devils have height inside, but not necessarily speed or strength, which may be costing them points-they're not getting to line very much, either. The combination of a poor shooting percentage, great offensive rebounding and middling FT attempts is a conundrum. I think an underrated Cal team could give Duke fits in ths second round. They don't rely on the three, they shoot well and they battle on the boards. If Cal doesn't beat them, though, Baylor will, because Duke's size won't keep Baylor's size, speed and shooting off the board.
West Virginia: Everyone loves the Mountaineers off their Big East tournament win, so let's note that they beat an NIT team, a team that was an NIT team three weeks ago, and Georgetown in taking it down. Further, they don't shoot very well: 49.3% eFG%, with no safe haven--outside the top 30 in all three subcategories. Their offense consists of getting their own misses like only one other team. Defensively, they block shots, they're good on the boards, adequate at keeping the ball out of the basket. They were 8-2 in games decided by five points or less, winning three games in the BET by a total of seven points, all coming down to the final seconds. Upon further review, I have them too high, and the committee's decision to make them a two-seed looks better. They're very vulnerable to a team that can shoot. To their glee, the earliest they can see one is the Sweet 16, and the only team in their eight-team pod in the top 40 in eFG% is Montana, an unlikely opponent. I can't identify a single team in their path that is a good bet to beat them prior to Kentucky, but the collective chance that Missouri or Washington does (or Marquette) is pretty high.
Kentucky: Experience doesn't matter. Just six teams had less experience then the Wildcats, none of which made the field. No one within 30 spots of Kentucky, in fact, made the field. The 'Cats are riding three great frosh to a one-seed and, maybe, the Final Four. You can see the youth in the stats--they're sloppy with the ball and they're not great at the foul line, two significant reasons to worry about them in tournament games. They don't shoot threes well. With DeMarcus Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson, though, they can win games from five feet and in. The toughest challenge to those guys could come in the second round if they face Texas. Defensively, those two swat away shots and help the team to a 41.4% allowed on twos. It cannot be said enough: John Wall isn't the best freshman, or player, on his own team. It will be interesting to see how Wall and Bledsoe handle the pressure East Tennessee State puts on; an upset isn't in the making, but we'll get a sense of how the backcourt could handle matchups with Clemson or Missouri in the Elite Eight. Kentucky doesn't have pressure teams in its pod, which sets up very well for at least an Elite Eight run, and in fact, a trip to the Final Four. This has to be mentioned: Kentucky, despite scheduling many name teams and playing in the SEC East, did not play a single team in the top 30 in the Pomeroy Ratings. They haven't played a great team, even a Sweet 16-caliber team, yet. We have no idea how they'll do against that kind of comp. Projecting them into the national championship is part wishcasting, part respect for the frontline, part the weak region.
Kansas: All you can do is nitpick. Teams hit a third of their threes against them. They don't force a lot of turnovers, and they make more than an elite team should. That chant is, truth be told, a little eerie. They seemed to get a little bored late in the year, not playing 40-minute games and spending too much time in cruise control. Even with all of this, they're the best team in college basketball. That doesn't mean they can't lose, starting with the weekend against an underseeded Northern Iowa team that plays terrific defense, or a Maryland team that will scramble the game and put Greivis Vasquez up against Sherron Collins in the "senior on a mission" category, or an Ohio State team that will have the best player on the floor. When you think about every game the Jayhawks might play, though, the first one that feels scary is their national semi against, in my bracket, BYU, but possibly Syracuse, Gonzaga or Xavier. (They seem to have Kansas State handled.) Then, a final against Kentucky or Baylor. These teams have the shooting ability, defensive talent and size to give Kansas a challenge, to take a title from them. Even at that, though, Kansas, the overall #1 seed, the consensus best team, the frontrunner…looks like the team most likely to win its next six games.
I hate chalk, but I have a big blue piece in my hand and I'm filling out my bracket with it.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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