An All-Out Bracket Attack
The blog's all-out attack of the bracket on Selection Sunday, in four stages:
I. Regional Impressions
Breaking down each region, in order from strongest (West) to weakest (Southeast), with efficiency profiles of the top four seed lines:
1. WEST (Anaheim)
Sd. Team AdjO (Rk) AdjD (Rk) EffRk.
1 Duke 119.8 (5) 87.1 (3) 2
2 San Diego St. 114.2 (24) 87.2 (4) 6
3 UConn 115.1 (21) 92.2 (31) 17
4 Texas 115.1 (19) 86.5 (1) 4
- AVERAGE 116.1 (12) 88.3 (7) 7.3
• Duke was the recipient of a judgment-call No. 1 seed from the committee for the second straight year; but this time, the Blue Devils got placed into the most difficult region, not the easiest. Texas is the toughest No. 4 in the field -- its efficiency profile is that of a No. 1 -- and second-seeded San Diego State will have a fan advantage in Anaheim. (Duke could, of course, erase any crowd factors by unleashing a fully healthy Kyrie Irving and morphing back into a super-team ... but the odds of that happening are still very slim.)
• The committee must've docked style points from the Longhorns for their Big 12 title game loss to Kansas; how else to explain them getting a 4-seed (and being paired with a scary Oakland club!) when they were deserving of a three? Despite their uncomfortable position, though, I'm hesitant to pick the 'Horns to lose in the first round; they're a rare team that has the frontline (in Tristan Thompson, Gary Johnosn, Matt Hill and Alexis Wangmene) to deal with 6-11 Golden Grizzlies star Keith Benson. He's done battle with West Virginia, Purdue and Ohio State already, but he has yet to see an interior D the caliber of Texas'.
• As vulnerable as UConn is after being assigned to a Thursday-Saturday site -- meaning it'll have to play just five days following its five-game run through the Big East tournament -- it received a few favorable matchups. Bucknell is unlikely to replicate what it did against Kansas in 2005, and in the 6/11 game opposite, Cincinnati lost at home to the Huskies two weeks ago, and Missouri hasn't won a meaningful game outside of Columbia since December. Kemba & Co will be in Anaheim.
2. EAST (Newark)
Sd. Team AdjO (Rk) AdjD (Rk) EffRk.
1 Ohio St. 124.6 (1) 88.8 (10) 1
2 North Carolina 111.8 (37) 88.3 (7) 14
3 Syracuse 115.3 (17) 90.0 (16) 11
4 Kentucky 118.8 (7) 91.0 (22) 7
- AVERAGE 117.6 (9) 89.5 (13) 8.3
• Is it not strange that the Buckeyes -- the No. 1 overall seed, the best team in the country, the oddsmakers' favorite to win it all -- received the second-most difficult 2-3-4 combo after Duke, with the possibility of having to play a regional final against Syracuse in front of an Orange-dominated crowd in Newark? That doesn't seem like much of an advantage ... at all.
• Could No. 8 seed George Mason be this year's Northern Iowa? The Patriots are arguably the third-strongest mid-major in the Field of 68, after Belmont and Utah State, and they were jammed into an 8/9 game with Villanova, with Ohio State waiting in the second round. Everyone's penciling in an Ohio State-Kentucky matchup for Newark, but the Buckeyes best be on alert against Mason, lest they suffer the same fate as tourney favorite Kansas did last season. Mason has won 16 of its past 17 games, its efficiency level is nearly the same as it was when it reached the Final Four (2006), and it knows how to score in transition: According to Synergy Sports Technology, among teams with 300-plus transition possessions this season, Mason is the No. 1 most efficient on the break, at 1.283 PPP. (Coming in second is Duke, at 1.260 PPP.)
• No. 2 North Carolina and No. 7 Washington are almost even-strength teams when you strip away their seeds, sitting at Nos. 14 and 15 in kenpom.com's rankings, respectively, so the Huskies are a reasonable Sweet 16 pick among the lower seeds. (Another reasonable bet: That the UNC-LIU game in the first round, as well as the UNC-UW meeting in the second, feature insane amounts of scoring. All three teams are in the top 21 nationally in tempo.)
3. SOUTHWEST (San Antonio)
Sd. Team AdjO (Rk) AdjD (Rk) EffRk.
1 Kansas 121.2 (4) 89.3 (12) 3
2 Notre Dame 123.0 (3) 95.6 (62) 10
3 Purdue 115.3 (18) 88.4 (8) 12
4 Louisville 112.0 (36) 87.6 (5) 12
- AVERAGE 117.9 (9) 90.3 (18) 9.3
• Georgetown's Chris Wright is the bracket's biggest wild card. The senior point guard has been "cleared to play" after breaking his left hand in a Feb. 23 loss to Cincinnati; but until we see him in workouts later this week, we can't be sure if he's fully functional. With Wright, the Hoyas have beaten (among others) Old Dominion, Utah State, St. John's, Villanova, Louisville and Syracuse; without Wright, they've gone 0-3 and looked abysmal. With him, they might just be able to knock off a cold Purdue team and reach the Sweet 16 -- but are you willing to take that risk on a poolsheet that's due Tuesday?
• Vandy is in trouble again. First-round losers to Siena (in 2008) and Murray State (2010), the Commodores were paired in a 5/12 game with a red-hot Richmond team that's won seven straight, has a stellar senior point guard (Kevin Anderson) and the country's best under-the-radar big man, Justin Harper. The 6-foot-10 junior has put up huge numbers in the A-10, averaging 17.9 points per game with an offensive rating of 121.8. He's shooting 46.5 percent from long range and 78.6 percent from the line.
• A Notre Dame-Kansas final in San Antonio would be my dream offensive matchup -- the country's best high-low post team (KU) against the country's best perimeter team. It's unlikely that the Irish have anyone to stop the Morris twins, and it's unlikely that Ben Hansbrough will go out of his final NCAA tournament with a whimper. It all has the makings of the best Elite Eight game in the bracket.
4. SOUTHEAST (New Orleans)
Sd. Team AdjO (Rk) AdjD (Rk) EffRk.
1 Pitt 119.6 (6) 90.9 (21) 5
2 Florida 115.5 (16) 93.2 (40) 19
3 BYU 118.2 (8) 93.0 (37) 13
4 Wisconsin 123.6 (3) 95.6 (63) 9
- AVERAGE 119.2 (7) 93.2 (40) 11.5
• Even if you're willing to take BYU's efficiency profile at face value -- which you shouldn't, because it was amassed mostly with Brandon Davies -- this is the weakest region. And that's a nice gift to Pittsburgh after the Panthers bowed out of the Big East tournament without winning a game, and lost three of their final six contests. Wisconsin is a strong four-seed, statistically, but the Badgers are coming into the dance fresh off a 28-point loss to Ohio State and that 36-33 debacle against Penn State in the Big Ten tourney. Not exactly confidence-inspiring.
• The Badgers can't be happy with the selection committee. Not only did they get shipped to Tucson, the farthest possible site from Madison, but they were paired with Belmont, by far the best 13 seed in the bracket. The 30-4 Bruins are dangerous because they happen to be Wisconsin's exact opposite. The Badgers rank dead-slowest (345th) in D-I in tempo, at 57.6 possessions per game, while the Bruins rank 57th, at 69.1 possessions per game. The Badgers don't gamble at all on defense, and rank 343rd in steal percentage, at 6.0; the Bruins press and gamble all the time on defense, ranking second nationally in steal percentage, at 13.9. UW point guard Jordan Taylor never turns the ball over, ranking No. 1 nationally among point guards in turnover rate (8.2 percent); all Bruins sophomore Kerron Johnson does is turn people over, ranking No. 1 nationally in steal percentage (at 6.3 percent). Can you tell I love this matchup? It's going to be a battle of wills between coaches Bo Ryan and Rick Byrd.
• Conversely, a meeting of mirror-image teams could happen in Washington on Saturday, if No. 9 Old Dominion and No. 1 Pitt clear the first round. The Monarchs and Panthers are 1-2 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, both relying on workhorse big men (Frank Hassell for ODU, Gary McGhee for Pitt) to control the boards. What the Monarchs don't have, though, is an Ashton Gibbs-type who can rain down jumpers; they rank 243rd in three-point percentage and 187th in effective field-goal percentage. People love to say, erroneously, that Pitt struggles to score, but ODU actually does struggle to score -- and that's what'll keep it from reaching the Sweet 16.
II. Top Seed Primers
Consider this your refresher course on the elite teams we've been covering in the Power Rankings all season long:
OHIO STATE (East)
• The Buckeyes dominate the free-throw war -- they've attempted 695 to their opponents' 370 -- because they're foul-phobic by design. As we wrote in January, Ohio State coach Thad Matta uses only a seven-man rotation and teaches that fouling is a "weakness." He brings refs into practice in the preseason to acclimate his players to whistles, and during the season, forces them to review all of their fouls on film. The result? Ohio State leads the nation in defensive free-throw rate (the ratio of free-throw attempts to 100 field-goal attempts) at 21.0, and none of its top five players averages more than 3.8 fouls per 40 minutes.
Foul-avoidance doesn't create an elite defense by itself, though; the Buckeyes rank 10th in defensive efficiency because they have the rare combination of a low free-throw rate and a high forced-turnover rate, ranking 26th nationally in turnover percentage. To grasp just how unusual it is for a low-fouling team to create so many takeaways, look at the national top 10 in free-throw rate and their corresponding turnover percentages:
Rk. Team FTR TO% TO%Rk.
1. Ohio State 21.0 23.6 26
2. North Carolina 24.8 19.8 191
3. Long Island 25.0 19.9 182
4. Notre Dame 25.5 15.9 337
5. Harvard 25.7 20.0 178
6. Florida 25.7 19.6 207
7. Creighton 25.9 15.0 344
8. Coastal Carolina 26.6 18.6 262
9. Boston College 26.7 16.4 330
10. N. Carolina A&T 27.3 19.3 223
The Buckeyes, as you can see, are the only team in that chart that even falls in the top half of Division I in turnover percentage rank.
• Their offense revolves around freshman Jared Sullinger, and one player -- by far -- does the best job of feeding the big rookie in the post. On Feb. 2, I studied film of all successful post feeds to Sullinger up to that date, and this
• The Diebler-to-Sullinger connection is so common because Ohio State loves to isolate the two of them on the left side of the floor. Since Diebler is a 49.7 percent three-point shooter, defenders can't help off of him, which leaves Sullinger in one-on-one situations in the post. Here's a typical set that makes this happen (from the Buckeyes Jan. 29 win at Northwestern):
• More film study revealed that Diebler is insanely effective -- at a 75 percent clip -- when he shoots threes from that left corner. Helping off of him, even if it means leaving Sullinger alone, is not wise. The chart below includes 101 of the 105 threes (four weren't available on shot charts) he attempted in the Big Ten regular season, up through the March 6 win over Wisconsin:
• Marcus Morris is the best hybrid forward in college hoops, and in Sunday's romp over Texas in the Big 12 tourney final, he scored 17 points in five different ways: A three, a drive-into-fadeaway jumper move in the lane, a jumper over his right shoulder on the right block, basket cuts for an alley-oop and a dunk, and on two putbacks of offensive rebounds. Morris' full shot chart looked like this:
• Do you care about ominous losses? After the Jayhawks suffered a 16-point, Valentine's Day defeat at Kansas State, we examined the worst February-or-March losses by the previous eight national title teams ... and came to the conclusion that KU's loss looked pretty bad. This was the chart, with "OppRk" = opponent's rank in kenpom.com's efficiency standings, "PtMgn" = the point margin in the loss, and "EffMgn/100P" = the efficiency margin, over 100 possessions, in the loss:
Yr. Champ Worst Late Loss OppRk PtMgn EffMgn/100P
10-11 Kansas? 2/14 @ Kansas St. 37 -16 -22.7
09-10 Duke 3/3 @ Maryland 11 -7 -10.3
08-09 UNC 3/14 vs. FSU 36 -3 -4.7
07-08 Kansas 2/11 @ Texas 9 -3 -4.8
06-07 Florida 2/17 @ Vanderbilt 35 -13 -18.8
05-06 Florida 2/26 @ Alabama 43 -5 -7.5
04-05 UNC 3/12 vs. Ga. Tech 19 -3 -4.3
03-04 UConn 3/7 @ Syracuse 28 -11 -18.9
02-03 Syracuse 2/10 @ UConn 21 -14 -20.1
The champion with the closest defeat (in terms of efficiency margin) to KU's was the 2003 Syracuse team, which was beaten soundly by UConn in early February. And while the last Kansas team to win the national title (the '07-08 squad) did lose twice in February (to Texas and Oklahoma State), it only did so by small efficiency margins.
• Now, for some data that supports the Jayhawks' title case: On March 1, John Ezekowitz ran Bill Jamesian Similarity Scores on elite teams, trying to find their best comparisons from a database that included every team's four factors since 2004. These were the closest two matches for each of the No. 1 seeds:
Kansas: 2008 Kansas (national champ) and 2007 Florida (national champ)
Ohio State: 2007 UCLA (Final Four) and 2010 Ohio State (Sweet 16)
Pittsburgh: 2006 Pittsburgh (second round) and 2009 Pittsburgh (Elite Eight)
Notre Dame: 2008 Texas A&M (second round) and 2010 Xavier (Sweet 16)
The Jayhawks were the only team to be matched with one national champ, much less two.
• The image of Panthers center Gary McGhee that's burned in our minds is from the Big East quarterfinals, when his ankles were destroyed by Kemba Walker:
But that wasn't entirely Gary's fault; he got stuck on Walker after switching a ball screen in the final seconds, and none of his teammates came to his aid during the mismatch. A more appropriate image of McGhee would be that of him offensive rebounding, because he's the centerpiece of the frontcourt that was second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (at 42.7).
By barely ever looking for shots in the normal flow of Pitt's offense -- McGhee takes just 15.7 percent of their attempts when he's on the floor -- he's free to hunt for offensive boards, and he does this as well as anyone in the country. As you can see from the four screengrabs below, taken just before four of his offensive boards against West Virginia on Feb. 7, McGhee gets in rebounding position extremely early -- sometimes before a shot is even released.
• If you put stock in quality of play on the road, you should be bullish on Pitt. From the complete Big East regular season, these are the home/road efficiency splits of the four teams that appeared on the top three lines of the bracket:
The Panthers had the highest home and road efficiency of any team in the Big East. Meanwhile, Notre Dame dropped all the way into the negative when it left South Bend. That should be cause for alarm.
• The Blue Devils' shooters are not all created equal. Here are the Synergy Sports Technology Splits on their efficiency in guarded and unguarded catch-and-shoot situations:
Player Guarded Unguarded Overall
Seth Curry 0.857 1.481 1.184
Nolan Smith 0.769 1.411 1.147
Andre Dawkins 0.980 1.265 1.120
Ryan Kelly 1.214 1.019 1.060
Kyle Singler 0.716 1.128 0.938
Sophomore Seth Curry, a killer on unguarded threes, has emerged in the second half as their best catch-and-shoot option, and has taken over most of the minutes played by Andre Dawkins in the early portion of the season. Ryan Kelly -- the tallest of Duke's shooting crew at 6-11 -- has been the best guarded shooter. When we first charted these numbers on Jan. 13, the Kelly had too small of a sample to register, and the pecking order was completely different:
Player Guarded Unguarded Overall
Andre Dawkins 1.185 1.381 1.271
Kyle Singler 0.800 1.341 1.074
Nolan Smith 0.647 1.346 1.070
Seth Curry 0.286 1.652 1.000
Ryan Kelly N/A N/A N/A
Dawkins has lost his way since then (and fallen to the back end of Coach K's rotation), while Curry has made serious gains on guarded shots. Up to Jan. 13 he was averaging just 0.286 PPP in those situations.
• Kyle Singler's three-point shooting, which used to be a significant part of his game, has sputtered since January, and almost flatlined post-Valentine's Day. Overall since January, Singler is 31-of-115 (26.6 percent) from long range, and in games after Feb. 14, he's shooting just 3-of-31 (9.7 percent). The graph below shows his progression since ACC play opened against Miami on Jan. 2:
III. The First Four, And We Don't Mean Dayton
As an interlude to the analysis -- and an attempt to revive your brains -- we'll unveil the First Four tracks on our Tourney Playlist, a collaboration between SI and Dallas-based music bloggers Gorilla vs. Bear that will run all month in this space. They were kind enough to create a phenomenal, custom cover (with Black-and-White Bruesewitz!), and each of their links takes you to a hand-selected, free-and-legal mp3:
IV. The Picks
Three first-round upsets, three surprises to reach the Sweet 16, and the picks to reach Houston and win it all ...
FIRST-ROUND UPSET 1: No. 13 Belmont over No. 4 Wisconsin (Tucson)
FIRST-ROUND UPSET 2: No. 12 Richmond over No. 5 Vanderbilt (Denver)
FIRST-ROUND UPSET 3: No. 11 Gonzaga over No. 6 St. John's (Denver)
SECOND-ROUND UPSET 1: No. 7 Washington over No. 2 North Carolina (Charlotte)
SECOND-ROUND UPSET 2: No. 13 Belmont over No. 5 Kansas State (Tucson)
SECOND-ROUND UPSET 3: No. 10 Michigan State over No. 2 Florida (Tampa)
A Louisville upset of Kansas in the Sweet 16 opens the door for the following, final weekend:
FINAL FOUR: Ohio State vs. Duke, Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh
TITLE GAME: Ohio State vs. Pittsburgh
CHAMP: Ohio State
The Buckeyes are the most complete, least-vulnerable team in the Field, and I can't see them tripping up against Kentucky, Syracuse or even Duke. Their depth is not an issue because they don't foul, and they've surrounded Jared Sullinger with so many weapons, from William Buford to Jon Diebler to David Lighty, that they'll always find a ways to score. The big advantage they hold over Pitt in the turnover battle -- by frequently forcing them, and rarely giving the ball away -- will be the difference in Houston.