One year ago today Kentucky was preparing to play UNLV in the first round of the NIT. Jodie Meeks was the heart and soul of the offense. Billy Gillispie was evading questions about his future in Lexington. And the Wildcats' incoming recruiting class consisted of Daniel Orton and Jon Hood.
Things have changed just a little over the ensuing 365 days. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it. So how come the numbers don't seem to show it?
Seed Rd2 Sweet16 Elite8 Final4 Final Champ
4 Wisconsin 89.9 64.5 38.5 25.0 12.4 6.1
1 Kentucky 94.5 64.2 34.8 21.5 9.9 4.6
2 West Virginia 94.4 57.6 39.9 20.0 8.7 3.8
5 Temple 74.5 28.2 12.0 5.8 2.0 0.7
7 Clemson 52.2 22.4 13.5 5.5 1.9 0.7
8 Texas 66.9 26.6 11.0 5.4 1.9 0.6
10 Missouri 47.8 19.5 11.4 4.4 1.4 0.5
6 Marquette 50.9 33.3 13.1 4.6 1.4 0.4
11 Washington 49.1 31.7 12.2 4.2 1.3 0.4
3 New Mexico 76.6 30.9 9.3 2.5 0.6 0.1
9 Wake Forest 33.1 8.5 2.3 0.7 0.2 0.03
12 Cornell 25.5 4.8 1.0 0.3 0.04 0.006
13 Wofford 10.1 2.4 0.4 0.07 0.01 0.0009
14 Montana 23.4 4.0 0.5 0.05 0.004 0.0004
16 E. Tenn. St. 5.5 0.7 0.05 0.005 0.0003 0.00001
15 Morgan St. 5.6 0.5 0.06 0.004 0.0002 0.000009
This is a log5 table, courtesy of Ken Pomeroy. It's explained here.
Behold one vehemently stacked region. The Midwest has garnered all of the headlines over the past 36 hours in terms of being tough, and not without reason. But Kentucky is a good deal younger than the Jayhawks, and opponents like Wisconsin, West Virginia and Temple won't go quietly. Barring the kind of total bracket collapse we haven't seen in years, I for one will be impressed and persuaded if John Calipari's team runs this gauntlet and makes it to Indy.
Now, you might be asking what in the world Wisconsin's doing at the top of that table. Well, welcome to the per-possession analysis party. (And no, those last two words do not constitute an oxymoron. It's how we roll, baby!) The Badgers operate at an extremely slow speed, which leads to the usual misunderstandings. Don't let it: Bo Ryan's team was excellent on both sides of the ball this year, particularly when Jon Leuer was healthy. Or rather they were excellent, until that hideously ugly first 38 minutes against Illinois last Friday. In any event, Wisconsin's proverbial body of work is such that they are the favorites--barely. A theoretical Sweet 16 match-up with UK would be close to a coin toss. Then again the same might be said of a potential regional final between those same Wildcats and West Virginia. On paper these are three very evenly matched teams.
(16) E. Tennessee St. vs. (1) Kentucky (New Orleans: Thursday, 7:15)
How can Kentucky have "only a 95 percent chance" (ha) of beating an opponent that just 13 short days ago was a five-seed in the A-Sun tournament?
Speaking in terms of recent history, the Buccaneers are more or less the A-Sun equals of the 2008 Belmont team that scared the living floor-slap out of eight-seed Duke in the first round before falling 71-70. The fact that Murry Bartow's team lost a lot of close games this year, however, gave them the 20-14 record that landed them on the 16 line. Which explains why they have a 1-in-20 chance of making stop-the-world history instead of the more customary 1-in-50 or so.
(9) Wake Forest vs. (8) Texas (New Orleans: Thursday, 9:35)
Is it possible that the post-December evaluative recoil against Texas has swung just a little too far? After all, the Longhorns aren't that bad. They still outscored the Big 12 by the same amount that Texas A&M did, and everyone's all lovey-dovey about the oh-so-dark-horse Aggies. Maybe we need to see this team in terms of what they do instead of based on what we expected. Anyway, that's what the numbers above seem to suggest. In a match-up of two talented and athletic teams that play good D, crash the offensive glass, and struggle mightily to get the ball in the basket, go with the one that at least minimizes turnovers. That would be Damion James and the Longhorns.
(12) Cornell vs. (5) Temple (Jacksonville: Friday, 12:30)
Call this the collision between two teams whose most-watched games were against Kansas. Anyway I'd hazard to guess that's true of Temple and the 84-52 drubbing they suffered at the hands of the Jayhawks in Philly on January 2. How else to explain a mere five-seed for an A-10 team that's lost three games since December 1?
For their part, of course, Cornell came within five points of KU in Lawrence on January 6. I can understand the sentiment that says a 12 has to be too low for the best Ivy team in memory. But it's also true that 13's like Murray State and Siena are, at least on paper, every bit the equal of the Big Red. Meantime, Steve Donahue's team has weightier matters on its mind. Like finding a way for Ryan Wittman, Louis Dale, and Jeff Foote to score against what could be the best defense in this field of 65 teams. Temple's A-10 opponents made a ridiculously low 42 percent of their twos against this D. The Owls' Lavoy Allen is a rare big man, one who clears the defensive glass while logging guard-like minutes (34 minutes a game) and staying away from foul trouble. Allen is one reason why the probabilities say Temple wins this game three out of every four times.
(13) Wofford vs. (4) Wisconsin (Jacksonville: Friday, 2:50)
No four-seed in the entire field is as heavily favored in its first-round game, according to our probabilities, as Wisconsin is against Wofford. Not that you shouldn't tune in, mind you. The Terriers' Tim Johnson achieves unheard of dominance on the defensive glass at a listed height of just 6-6. But at the end of the day, the match-up between a fair to middling Wofford offense and an outstanding Badger defense does not figure to favor the 13-seed.
(11) Washington vs. (6) Marquette (San Jose: Thursday, 7:20)
My personal choice as the game to watch in the East region first round. For one thing it's a virtual toss-up, with Buzz Williams' team being such a slight favorite as not to concern us unduly. And you can watch a lot of first round games in this tournament before you come across two senior standouts like Quincy Pondexter and Lazar Hayward. Pondexter is wrapping up a criminally overlooked year of relentless yet highly efficient paint attacks. And Hayward entered the season knowing he would have to carry this team. (Though make no mistake, 47 percent three-point shooting from emerging sophomore Darius Johnson-Odom has certainly come in handy as well.)
The clash in styles should be no less interesting. Marquette's a perimeter-oriented team that sinks their threes and goes slow. (Williams has more players shooting over 45 percent on their threes than some entire conferences.) The Huskies figure to control the glass on both ends and are single-handedly resisting the Pac-10's otherwise unanimous shift toward a Big Ten pace. Neither team commits many turnovers. I want to see this game.
(14) Montana vs. (3) New Mexico (San Jose: Thursday, 9:40)
Montana's Anthony Johnson had Twitter ablaze last Wednesday night, as he scored 42 points in the Grizzlies' 66-65 win over Weber State in the Big Sky tournament championship game. (Yes, you're reading that correctly. He nearly doubled up his teammates.) Johnson will need to summon all of that heroism and then some against a New Mexico team that is apt to score a few points against this D.
(10) Missouri vs. (7) Clemson (Buffalo: Friday, 2:35)
This pairing almost makes me think the committee does look at stats after all (and not just wins and losses). How else do you explain this meeting of stylistic Tiger soulmates? Both of these defenses are excellent at creating turnovers, but the probabilities give a very slight edge here to the Tigers from Clemson. I can see that. Oliver Purnell does have Trevor Booker and, anyway, Missouri's lost three of four since Justin Safford tore his ACL on February 24. (That includes a 15-point loss to Nebraska at the Big 12 tournament. The lone win came in OT at Iowa State. Full disclosure.) Then again, Clemson's been known to turn it over a time or two themselves--not a good trait for a team about to face Mike Anderson's group.
(15) Morgan State vs. (2) West Virginia (Buffalo: Friday, 12:15)
Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman has seen Reggie Holmes score an almost Anthony Johnson-like 30 or more points six times this season. That will be the bare minimum required to keep the Bears in the game against West Virginia, which in the past has scored lots of points against defenses stronger than this one.
Looking Toward the Second Round
Much attention was paid to West Virginia on Selection Sunday, as the Mountaineers were thought to be in contention for the final one-seed. Instead, they're here in the East as a two. Is this a travesty? Not really. As my colleague Kevin Pelton showed yesterday, being the two here gives Bob Huggins' team a virtually identical shot at reaching the Final Four as they'd have as the final one-seed. The only catch is a potential second-round game against an unusually strong seven-seed, Clemson.
Elsewhere in a hypothetical East second round that may not arrive as planned, Temple and Wisconsin could clash in a show-down between two scary-good defenses and, some might add, two teams much too strong to be seeing each other the first weekend. The dominance displayed by New Mexico in close games this year (until the Mountain West semifinals) figures to be put to the test by either Marquette or Washington. And if Wake should fall to Texas, am I wrong to want to see Dexter Pittman banging with DeMarcus Cousins? I should say not.
The analysis party is always rocking out on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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