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March 31, 2009, 11:06 AM ET
Four (Tempo-Free) Roads to Detroit

by John Gasaway

I’ll have a proper Final Four preview up later this week. For now let’s wax retrospective and take a look at how Michigan State, Connecticut, Villanova, and North Carolina got this far, leaving 61 other teams sprawled in the dust.

Each team has four wins under its belt, so we now have 160 minutes worth of tournament performance to consider. Moreover, with the brackets again holding form this year, there were no instances of a team arriving at the Final Four without having faced a high seed. Everyone here had to beat either a one-, two-, or three-seed to make it this far. Indeed Villanova in particular played a notably robust schedule: UCLA, Duke, and one-seed Pitt. (Not to mention the Wildcats had to mount a furious comeback after their terrible first half against American.)

Here is how these teams have performed over the course of their all-or-nothing four-game seasons.

Michigan State: So who needs (snicker) “good shooting”?
                              3PA/     TO     Oreb    FTA/ 
PPP     eFG    2FG    3FG     FGA     pct.    pct.    FGA
1.10    48.7   44.6   40.4    25.6    19.9    40.7    .37

During the regular season I fretted about the Spartans’ poor shooting from the field and, if I looked hard enough (I don’t want to), I could probably find a passage where I waggled my finger ominously at them and said they’ll never get to Detroit shooting like this. Well,  here they are in Detroit, still shooting poorly from the field. True, they’ve hit their threes, but they really don’t shoot many of those. Tom Izzo’s team is scoring 1.10 points per trip anyway by taking pretty good care of the ball (it’s true!), crashing the offensive glass, and getting to the line. They just get more bites at the apple.

Opp.    Opp.   Opp.   Opp.    Opp.    Dreb    Opp.     Opp. 
PPP     eFG    2FG    3FG   3PA/FGA   pct.   TO pct. FTA/FGA
0.95    44.7   46.0   27.3    25.2    69.0    18.7    .32

The Spartans have been solid on D, particularly on the perimeter. (This team was a really bad two-seed for Louisville to draw.)

Connecticut: Total domination…until Missouri
                              3PA/     TO     Oreb    FTA/ 
PPP     eFG    2FG    3FG     FGA     pct.    pct.    FGA
1.19    54.9   57.9   29.6    22.8    16.7    38.8    .54

These are glittering numbers, of course, compared to Michigan State’s. Part of that is the lingering residue of a 56-point victory against Chattanooga in the first round. Then again this team scored 1.38 points per trip against Texas A&M. Note especially UConn’s outrageously frequent free throws. Jim Calhoun’s gang has been shooting more that one freebie for every two field goal attempts. In addition they never turn the ball over (at least they didn’t until they ran up against Missouri) and make 58 percent of their twos. Do that and you’re going to score some points.

Opp.    Opp.   Opp.   Opp.    Opp.    Dreb    Opp.     Opp. 
PPP     eFG    2FG    3FG   3PA/FGA   pct.   TO pct. FTA/FGA
0.85    40.0   42.1   23.5    29.9    76.7    14.0    .18

Clearly Connecticut has continued their ridiculously extreme no-foul ways in the tournament. Even though opponents never turn the ball over, they never make shots, either. Nor do those opponents get any offensive boards.

Villanova: Not as perimeter-oriented as you think
                              3PA/     TO     Oreb    FTA/ 
PPP     eFG    2FG    3FG     FGA     pct.    pct.    FGA
1.14    50.2   53.2   29.6    34.2    18.2    38.8    .43

The intriguing thing about the Wildcats is that they’re an undersized team that has reached the Final Four without making their threes. They may look guard-oriented when you see them in action, but in the tournament they’ve gathered almost as many offensive boards as Michigan State while getting to the line more frequently than the Spartans.

Opp.    Opp.   Opp.   Opp.    Opp.    Dreb    Opp.     Opp. 
PPP     eFG    2FG    3FG   3PA/FGA   pct.   TO pct. FTA/FGA
0.93    46.4   48.8   29.0    45.2    77.3    18.9    .40

Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Plucky little undersized Villanova has been absolutely insane on the defensive glass, even better than Connecticut. And what the Wildcats did to Duke in particular should be reported to the UN. (In that game ‘Nova hauled down 82 percent of the Blue Devils’ misses.) Jay Wright’s team has also been notably successful at forcing opponents to shoot threes–a vital skill for a team that doesn’t do much shot-altering, much less shot-blocking. 

If there’s a source of worry here for Villanova fans it’s that opponents are going to the line almost as often as the ‘Cats are. In part that’s misleading: UCLA and Duke both shot more free throws than ‘Nova but they were never in serious contention. Still, there’s no doubt it’s something to watch. Pitt also shot more free throws than did the Wildcats and it almost made the difference.

North Carolina: Yet to break a sweat
                              3PA/     TO     Oreb    FTA/ 
PPP     eFG    2FG    3FG     FGA     pct.    pct.    FGA
1.20    55.5   52.0   45.0    22.9    14.6    34.5    .32

As I noted yesterday, Carolina is the only Final Four team that has yet to be challenged. They’ve played 295 possessions in the tournament and outscored their opponents by 90 points.

Opp.    Opp.   Opp.   Opp.    Opp.    Dreb    Opp.     Opp. 
PPP     eFG    2FG    3FG   3PA/FGA   pct.   TO pct. FTA/FGA
0.90    44.3   45.1   28.4    31.6    68.3    20.7    .23

UNC’s defense has been fine, particularly on the perimeter, but of course these are numbers compiled against opponents trying to catch up with a team that just keeps scoring. It may be impolitic to say (high school coaches, cover your players’ eyes), but when your offense veers north of 1.20 points per trip, defense simply becomes a little less salient. Florida proved this point most memorably in the 2007 tournament.

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