- Among the teams to reach the Sweet 16, Kansas is the most likely to win the national title, provided that Frank Mason III can maintain his brilliance.
Power Ranking the Sweet 16 teams in order of most to least likely to win the national title:
Putting Kansas here is about continuing to follow my gut over analytic models, as most efficiency-based metrics prefer Gonzaga or North Carolina. Taking the Jayhawks is also a bet that Frank Mason III's ironman season won't catch up to him over the next two weeks—but that doesn't mean I'm not concerned about it.
Mason hit a wall in the second weekend of the 2016 tourney, and thus wasn't in #BIFM mode in the Jayhawks' Elite Eight loss to Villanova, going 1 for 6 from deep and committing four turnovers. His senior-year playing time is up to a career-high 36.1 minutes per game, and he had a seven-game stretch from Feb. 13 to March 9 in which he averaged 39.3 minutes, an unprecedented amount of PT for him:
I have to keep reassuring myself that senior-year Mason is always in #BIFM mode and incapable of tiring. His late-game scoring will be essential to the Jayhawks' title run, and his drive-and-kick game is a central part of their success as a more three-point oriented team. Mason has assisted on 85 threes this season, according to hoop-math.com, while his next-closest teammate, Devonte' Graham, has assisted on just 43:
The difference in the nature of Graham and Mason's assists is that Graham is more of a drive-and-dropoff guy, while Mason can regularly pull three defenders into his orbit while driving off a high ballscreen and then kick to the helper's man. Here's an example from Kansas’s second-round win over Michigan State:
Odds-wise, the Zags went from having the easiest second-round matchup (vs. Northwestern) of any of the No. 1 seeds, to the most difficult Sweet 16 opponent (vs. West Virginia) of the remaining No. 1s. Every team that plays the Mountaineers has never faced more pressure than they do against the Mountaineers, who press a nation-high 38.5% of the time*, force turnovers on a nation-high 27.7% of possessions** and turn large sections of games into total chaos.
When Gonzaga has its three-guard lineup on the floor, which is nearly all of the time, its typical press-breaking strategy is to use the secondary point guard (Josh Perkins or reserve Silas Melson) as the inbounder. Melson could be a key to this game for the Zags, as his turnover rate of 1.3 per 40 minutes is less than half of Perkins' 2.8. Melson is a confident ballhandler who can bring it up the floor if the Mountaineers trap primary point guard Nigel Williams-Goss or two-guard Jordan Mathews.
Having a four-man who can act as a pressure release is a huge asset against West Virginia. While Johnathan Williams III is by no means a point forward, he's shown the ability (against lesser presses) to get the ball safely over half-court without melting down:
(* data from Synergy Sports Technology; ** data from kenpom.com)
Parts of the Tar Heels' offense seem designed to get senior center Kennedy Meeks rim-rolling for offensive-rebound opportunities, as opposed to rim-rolling to catch passes. This handoff action with Justin Jackson from the Arkansas game is a good example; the help Jackson attracts clears a lane for Meeks to rumble rimward, get an angle on his recovering defender (Moses Kingsley) and bury him under the rim:
Meeks is such an immovable force that he generates 5.3 putback possessions per 40 minutes, the most of any player in the 68-team bracket:
… and the value of Meeks’s putback possessions (1.22 PPP, according to Synergy) greatly exceeds the value of his post-ups (0.84 PPP), so it makes sense for him to be taking UNC's second or third shots, and not its first.
For my Bracket Math column at the outset of the tournament, I referenced a home-brewed metric that's a composite of six ratings systems (KenPom, BPI, Sagarin, Massey, Matchup Zone, Dolphin), plus SI's preseason projections as a talent-and-coaching hedge against in-season noise. This is a log5 analysis of title odds for the Sweet 16 using that metric:
Gonzaga has the highest Final Four odds, at 42.1%, and the highest championship odds, at 16.4%—a result that disagrees with Vegas's perception of the title chase. What's also interesting here is that Kansas and Kentucky are on a nearly even plane, suggesting that the Wildcats might have a better shot at the title than Vegas or the punditry is giving them.
This could be the last dance for the Lonzo Ball Assist Distribution chart, which I've been tracking all season—a run that now includes 266 assists and 18.1 assist points produced per game:
Barring a late rally by Isaac Hamilton, freshman forward T.J. Leaf (with 64 assists) will have the honor of being the most-assisted-by-Lonzo Bruin during Ball's one year in college. Center Thomas Welsh, however, will own the quirkiest Lonzo-assisted profile: 36 of Ball's 41 assists to Welsh (87.8%) are for mid-range jumpers.
The Bears don't have strong national-title odds … but according to that composite metric I introduced in the Kentucky blurb, they have the second-highest Elite Eight odds, thanks to their surprise Sweet 16 meeting with South Carolina:
With that in mind, plus the fact that Baylor matches up well against both Wisconsin and Florida in a potential Elite Eight game at Madison Square Garden, it might be time to acclimate yourself to the idea of the Bears making it to Phoenix. That would change the narrative on a season that, a few weeks ago, seemed like it might have peaked in January.
Although Arizona's overall efficiency dropped off a bit following the return of sophomore shooting guard Allonzo Trier from a 19-game PED suspension, the evidence is pretty clear by now that he has a positive impact on their points per possession.
Since Trier joined the Wildcats' starting lineup for a Feb. 8 win over Stanford, they've been +0.18 PPP with him on the floor, an efficiency margin that beats that of their other three combo/wing guards:
The Mountaineers' defense has been in high gear during the NCAA tournament, pressuring Bucknell and Notre Dame en route to the Sweet 16. To give you a sense of where West Virginia forces its turnovers, I charted (off of film) the locations of Notre Dame's giveaways in the Round of 32 and split them by transition (i.e., against the press) or half-court:
West Virginia’s press forced two turnovers with its initial trap of the inbounds pass (see the bottom-left corner), two more at other spots in the backcourt and then three after the Fighting Irish got the ball over the midcourt line.
March is apparently the month for Peak Tyler Dorsey. The sophomore two-guard isn't just leading the Ducks in NCAA tournament scoring, at 25.5 points per game; he's also operating at season highs in efficiency and usage rate. Over his past five games, Dorsey has an offensive rating of 134.9 on 26.1% usage. If you do that over the course of a season on a major-conference team, you probably win the Naismith and Wooden awards.
Here's how Dorsey's running, five-game averages for efficiency and usage look over the course of 2016–17:
Vegas is more bullish on the Badgers' Final Four and national title odds than is my composite metric. Westgate Las Vegas—an actual sportsbook that accepts large bets, as opposed to a low-limit, offshore book with an aggressive PR strategy that leads to it being quoted widely in the media—sent SI its futures odds on Tuesday, and the Badgers are the favorite in the East:
This isn't entirely shocking—watch enough Purdue, and it's clear that Biggie Swanigan has become an excellent passer—but did you know he leads the Boilermakers in assists that go for layups or dunks? Here's hoop-math.com's breakdown of assist types for Purdue's starting five, showing that Swanigan has dished for 53 at-the-rim buckets as a sophomore:
Biggie's layup-and-dunk assists generally occur in two different ways. When the Boilermakers are using their jumbo lineup with him at the four and giant Isaac Haas at the five, they like to have Swanigan high-low pass from the elbows:
And when Purdue is in its smaller lineup, with Swanigan at the five, surrounded by shooters, he'll lift up to an elbow, freeing the lane for UCLA cuts like this one:
I have the Gators ranked lower than the metrics and Vegas do, mostly due to skepticism about their collective lack of NCAA tournament experience. But Florida has some good things going for it; it's the second-best defensive team (after Gonzaga) left in the bracket, and it can throw a pressing curveball at Wisconsin, which doesn't see much full-court heat in the Big Ten. After West Virginia, the Gators are the most frequent, full-court pressing team in the Sweet 16, according to Synergy:
Could North Carolina point guard Joel Berry II be in for a tough Sweet 16? The Bulldogs have been playing some high-level perimeter defense in the NCAA tournament. A combo of Kethan Savage and Kamar Baldwin held Middle Tennessee sharpshooter Giddy Potts to zero points in the Round of 32, and Baldwin keyed Butler's neutralization of Winthrop star Keon Johnson in the opening round. Johnson needed 19 shots to get 17 points and had one of his least efficient games of the season. Berry, who's already led the Tar Heels to one national title game, isn't easily flustered, but this game could get very interesting if he's held in check.
Derrick Walton is a far different point guard than Lonzo Ball, but the Wolverines' star has helped turn them into a team with an efficiency profile almost exactly the same as UCLA's. Michigan ranks third in adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom.com and 73rd on D, while the Bruins are second and 77th, respectively. Their collective inspiration for making even deeper NCAA tournament runs should be 2013 Michigan, which entered the tourney with offensive/defensive rankings of 2/66, and 2003 Marquette, which entered at 2/76. Over the past 15 tourneys, there aren't any other similar examples of elite offense/bad defense teams reaching the Final Four.
The Gamecocks became America's darlings for knocking out Duke in the second round, but they seem likely to experience offensive regression in the Sweet 16. Before exploding for 1.29 PPP against Marquette and 1.18 against Duke, South Carolina went nine straight games without even breaking 1.10, and it had the 11th-best offense in the SEC. As the Gamecocks run into stronger defenses—Baylor's, and then either Florida's or Wisconsin's—scoring is going to become difficult.
The fact that Xavier is in the Sweet 16 at all is remarkable. How many teams could lose their starting, NBA-prospect point guard to a season-ending knee injury at the end of January and not implode? The Musketeers bottomed out in February without Edmond Sumner but rallied to make the NCAAs, beat Maryland and Florida State, and meet Arizona in San Jose. I'm just not sure if Xavier can generate enough offense against a Wildcats D that, over the past two weeks, has managed to hold UCLA and Saint Mary's, two of the nation's elite offenses, under 1.00 PPP.