Coach Rick Byrd (center) has built Belmont into the nation's scariest 13-seed. (AP)
The traditional SI.com Power Rankings concluded last week, with Ohio State at No. 1, but this year's Tourney Blog is launching with a surprise, extra edition, ranking --and more importantly, analyzing! -- the 14 automatic bid recipients to date. Enjoy.
1. BELMONT (Atlantic Sun Conference)
30-4 (19-1), 20th in efficiency
Last week I declared that the Bruins will be by far the best pick to pull off an upset in the 4/13 games, especially if their opponent is an over-seeded team like St. John's. Now it's time to look a bit deeper at how Belmont actually plays:
• Coach Rick Byrd employs a trapping, man-to-man press after made baskets that results in an uptempo game -- and requires him to go deep into his bench. He gives 44.5 percent of minutes to reserves, the fourth-highest total in the nation and by far the highest of any NCAA tournament team. The closest team is Gonzaga, at 39.4 percent.
• The anatomy of a steal off the press: (1) The Bruins leave the inbounder unguarded but work hard at denying the inbounds pass -- or at the very least, an inbounds pass to the middle of the floor. (2) Once it's passed to the wing, the extra defender converges for the trap, and (3) fleeces the ballhandler before he can rotate the ball to the middle.
• That press -- and the overall aggressiveness of their man-to-man -- helped them to rank No. 2 nationally in defensive turnover percentage, earning takeaways on 27.6% of possessions. Sophomore guard Kerron Johnson should be considered D-I's Man of Steal, as he leads the country in steal percentage at 6.32 percent. He has such quick hands that he gets away with reaching in incessantly as a help defender and dislodging the ball from drivers. I was going to call his reflexes Rajon Rondo-like, but then I realized Rondo only led the nation with a steal percentage of 5.44 in his last year at Kentucky. So maybe Rondo is actually Kerron-like?
2. GONZAGA (West Coast Conference)
24-9 (11-3), 31st in efficiency
David Stockton, redshirt freshman point guard, son of Zags legend John, has made amazing progress. Early in the season the only mention he garnered on SI.com was an induction in the Style Archive, for performing the forbidden Sam Cassell Balls Dance on the sideline. In the backstretch, he's provided the Zags with ultra-valuable minutes at the point guard position, stepping up in relief of Demetri Goodson, who has struggled mightily on offense.
It's not entirely revealing to compare the two point guards' full-season statistics head-to-head, since Stockton wasn't thrust into a big role until the first meeting with St. Mary's, a loss in Spokane on Jan. 27, and played a good deal of garbage minutes prior to that. But in the Jan. 27 game and the 12 that followed -- 11 of which were victories, including two over the Gaels -- this is how Stockton and Goodson stack up:
Pt. Guard Min/G Ast/TO Pts/G FG%
Stockton 23.5 41/19 6.2 48.1
Goodson 17.2 19/21 4.3 45.8
One point guard has a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. The other has a sub-1 ratio. Which would you play?
3. BUTLER (Horizon League)
23-9 (13-5), 54th in efficiency
There was an "Old Butler" vibe to its Horizon tourney final win over Milwaukee, in that it was highlighted by clutch late-game play and stingy overall defense. But the Bulldogs haven't been doing that all year -- particularly the defense part. They rank 75th overall in adjusted defensive efficiency after finishing last season fifth. They allowed more than one point per possession in 10 of 20 Horizon games, compared to just three of 20 during the title-runner-up season, as the following graph shows:
That kind of regression is hard to ignore, and unless they cut down on fouling (there's been a 4.9 percent rise in their free-throw rate since last year) and create a few more turnovers, it's hard to envision them winning multiple NCAA tournament games.
4. OLD DOMINION (Colonial Athletic Association)
27-6 (14-4), 48th in efficiency
In explaining his team's late-season surge -- it won 13 of its final 14 games -- ODU coach Blaine Taylor said, "There's not a whole bunch we did differently, we just did everything better and we saw success. But we never wavered -- it starts with our defense and ends with our offense, and in between we board the ball not with the best of them. We are the best."
He's right about that this season: The Monarchs lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing 45.2 percent of their misses, of which there are many, because they rank 189th in effective field goal percentage. And Taylor's team actually has the chance to something history, or at least historic among the geekery: post the highest offensive rebounding percentage of any team in the nine-year kenpom.com database. If ODU can merely avoid a 1.7 percent dip in its percentage during its NCAA tournament games, it'll remain ahead of '04-05 Pittsburgh, which posted a 43.5 percent rate thanks to the work of Chevy Troutman and Chris Taft.
This is how the No. 1 OR% teams of the past nine seasons stack up (and note that ODU is the only team to appear twice):
No. 1 Team Season OR%
Old Dominion 2010-11 45.2
Pittsburgh 2004-05 43.5
Rhode Island 2003-04 42.9
Wake Forest 2002-03 42.8
Vermont 2006-07 42.8
Oklahoma 2005-06 42.8
North Carolina 2007-08 42.4
Old Dominion 2009-10 42.1
Kansas State 2008-09 42.1
5. OAKLAND (Summit League)
25-9 (17-1), 69th in efficiency
Thanks mostly* to 6-11 NBA prospect Keith Benson, who's responsible for 80.7 percent of the Golden Grizzlies' post possessions according to Synergy, they rank fifth nationally in post-offense efficiency. Among teams with 100-plus logged post possessions in Synergy's database, this is the top five:
Rk. Team Post Eff. (PPP)
1. Colorado St. 1.196
2. Kansas 1.169
3. Lipscomb 1.154
4. St. Bona. 1.139
5. Oakland 1.135
* Senior forward Will Hudson, who only takes 14.8 percent of the Grizz' shots compared to Benson's 24.5, is actually more efficient than Benson in the post. While he averages 1.05 PPP, Hudson averages 1.29 PPP. But Hudson is undoubtedly benefitting from the defensive attention on Oakland's clear interior star.
6. MOREHEAD STATE (Ohio Valley Conference)
24-9 (13-5), 94th in efficiency
The last time Kenneth Faried appeared in the NCAA tournament, in 2009, he did serious damage, setting the single-game record for rebounds (21) in a victory in the play-in round, then recording a double-double (14 points, 11 boards) in a loss to a Louisville team that had Terrence Williams, Earl Clark and Samardo Samuels in its frontcourt. In the meantime, Faried has led the NCAA in per-game rebounding average twice, passed Tim Duncan to become D-I's all-time leading rebounder, and finished this regular season ranked No. 1 in Player Efficiency Rating. His two senior-year meetings with high-profile frontcourts -- over a three-day span in November -- also went quite well:
Nov. 21 vs. Florida (a 61-55 loss):
Player Pts FG/FGA OR DR TR
Faried 20 10/17 7 11 18
Macklin (UF) 6 3/6 3 4 7
Tyus (UF) 5 2/7 2 2 4
Nov. 23 vs. Ohio State (a 64-45 loss):
Player Pts FG/A OR DR TR
Faried 15 5/7 5 7 12
Sullinger (OSU) 8 4/8 1 7 8
Thomas (OSU) 16 7/10 2 5 7
All of which suggests ... he will not go out of this NCAA tournament without a monster game. For his team to actually win as a No. 13 or 14 seed will require them to be a lot more protective with the ball, as they currently rank 320th in turnover rate, at 23.3 percent.
7. WOFFORD (Southern Conference)
21-12 (14-4), 87th in efficiency
The Terriers are not a running team. According to Synergy, 89.4 percent of their possessions are of the half-court variety, but they're extremely efficient in that setting, ranking behind only eight teams:
Rk. Team %Halfct PPP
1. Wisconsin 94.2 1.017
2. Notre Dame 86.6 1.014
3. St. Mary's 90.2 1.007
4. Ohio State 86.0 0.995
5. S. Dakota St. 88.1 0.992
6. Kansas 84.8 0.986
7. Arizona 89.6 0.978
8. Northwestern 90.4 0.967
9. Wofford 89.4 0.964
Star forward Noah Dahlman, who shoots 61.3 percent from the field and 76.4 percent from the foul line, is largely responsible for this. An ESPN.com feature on him from February included the line, "He has never dunked in a college game, never hit a 3-pointer and [Wofford coach Mike] Young swears that [Dahlman] has only scored on three jump shots in his entire career." The scouting data bears this out: Synergy has only logged eight Dahlman jumpers all season, with one make. The kid knows what he's good at -- close-range, post offense -- and he sticks to it.
8. BUCKNELL (Patriot League)
25-8 (13-1), 93rd in efficiency
The Bison, who beat Lafayette* in the Patriot League final on Friday, are projected to be a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament, which means they'll inevitably draw comparisons to the 14th-seeded Bucknell team that upset Kansas in 2005. The '10-11 squad has a few things that the '04-05 squad did not, namely D-I's only player from Nova Scotia (sophomore gunner Bryson Johnson, who ranks 15th nationally in three-point percentage) and a leading scorer named "Moose" (6-11 sophomore Mike Muscala). But how does it stack up in terms of efficiency?
Team Seed EffRk. AdjOEff (NR) AdjDEff (NR)
2010-11 14? 93 103.1 (136) 95.9 (66)
2004-05 14 106 100.1 (178) 93.3 (49)
The current team -- coached Dave Paulsen instead of Pat Flannery -- is slightly more efficient overall than the Jayhawk-slayers. You can interpret that as a positive for Bucknell's upset cause in this tournament ... or a reminder of how improbable that win over Kansas really was. When the top-seeded Jayhawks were knocked out of the dance by Northern Iowa in the second round last season, that loss was far more respectable: the Panthers ranked 29th in efficiency, not 106th.
* The AP story from the Lafayette game called a student carrying an EVEN SHEEN PICKS BUCKNELL sign "creative". Not the best choice of adjective. No one making Sheen signs this far after the flameout is creative.
9. LONG ISLAND (Northeast Conference)
27-5 (16-2), 117th in efficiency
The Brooklyn-based Blackbirds are easy to describe -- they play super-fast-paced basketball (ranking fourth nationally in tempo), attack the rim like mad (ranking second in free-throw rate) and don't foul on D (ranking fourth in defensive free-throw rate). What doesn't make sense, at first glance, is the geographical makeup of their roster. Despite his campus being well-located to lure in some of the New York area's massive talent base, this is where coach Jim Ferry assembled his current team* from:
* One player isn't flagged on the map. His name is Milos Nikolic, and he's from ... Lugano, Switzerland. I just didn't want to have to zoom out that wide.
Ferry's Texas connection has paid off the most, in that star forward Julian Boyd and starting freshman point guard Jason Brickman both hail from San Antonio. Ferry explained his recruiting process to the New York Daily News back in February: "When I took over [in 2002-03] the program was so down no one wanted to come here," Ferry said. "We were at the bottom tier of basketball in the city and no high school kid in New York wanted to come to LIU. I'm a New York guy, I'd love to have New York kids on my team. But when you have so many teams in the city, St. John's, Manhattan, Iona, Fordham, Hofstra and on, everyone is trying to work for the city kids. So we had to find our niche somewhere else."
10. INDIANA STATE (Missouri Valley Conference)
20-13 (12-6), 111th in efficiency
This isn't the best year to have high hopes for the Valley. In its breakthrough NCAA tournament season of 2006, when Bradley and Wichita State made the Sweet 16, the league had six teams in kenpom.com's top 60 and ranked seventh overall in conference efficiency. This season? The Valley has zero top-60 kenpom teams and is only the 14th-most efficient league, haven fallen behind (among others) the WAC, Horizon, West Coast, and CAA. The quality of play has dropped off somewhat at Arch Madness. But who knows? The Sycamores once went deep in the dance with the Indiana kid on the left ... maybe they can work some magic with the Indiana kid on the right? (Credits: AP/AP)
The point-guard-in-color is redshirt freshman Jake Odum of Terre Haute, who became their surprise leader down the stretch. In the Valley tournament, he hit a game-winner against Evansville in the quarterfinals, and averaged 12.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists, and earned 26 free-throw attempts over the three rounds. If you're curious as to what he looked like in high-school, when he was even skinnier, then this YouTube of sweet layups/assists set to electronic beats is your go-to source:
11. NORTHERN COLORADO (Big Sky Conference)
21-10 (13-3), 121st in efficiency
The Bears are a decent, long-shot upset pick if only because they're a great shooting team, ranking 28th nationally in three-point percentage and sixth in free-throw percentage. Senior star Devon Beitzel -- the guy whose dagger three and subsequent free-throws sealed UNC's first-ever trip to the dance -- can cope with heavy defensive attention, too: In Synergy Sports Technology's scouting database, he ranks sixth in efficiency in guarded (as opposed to uncontested) catch-and-shoot situations, averaging 1.451 points per attempt. The only three NCAA tournament players ahead of him? Kansas State's Rodney McGruder, Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough and Villanova's Corey Stokes.
Meanwhile, the Bears' overall jump-shot efficiency as a team is excellent, at 1.097 points per attempt. Only four teams rank ahead of UNC in that category:
Rk. Team %Jumpers PPS
1. Denver 35.7 1.133
2. Notre Dame 34.6 1.127
3. St. Mary's 33.4 1.108
4. Ohio State 32.0 1.102
5. Northern Colo. 30.0 1.097
12. ST. PETER'S (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference)
20-13 (11-7), 113th in efficiency
The MAAC had a landmark year in terms of defensive efficiency, with two teams ranked in kenpom.com's adjusted top 25 -- Fairfield, the league's top seed, at 19, and St. Peter's at 21. Guarding like bulldogs is what got St. Peter's into the NCAA tournament despite having the nation's 273rd-ranked offense and allowing a player with a 87.4 Offensive Rating -- a good five points below the Larry Drew Line! -- to eat up 28.9 percent of their possessions. That guy is senior forward Jeron Belin, a juco transfer who's excellent at attacking the rim off the dribble. But he'd be wise to give more shots to fellow seniors Ryan Bacon (he of the 104.7 offensive rating, but only 20.7 percent of possessions used) and Wesley Jenkins (102.1 O-rating, 20.9% possessions).
13. UNC-ASHEVILLE (Big South)
19-13 (11-7), 142nd in efficiency
Regrettably, I have little faith that Asheville can become the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1. The great equalizer is the three-pointer, and an upset like that doesn't occur without some unconscious long-range shooting from David. The problem for the Bulldogs is that they shoot threes at a 32.9 percent clip, which ranks them 240th nationally, and they only score 20.3 percent of their points on threes, which ranks 324th. They don't have a single 40-percent long-range shooter on their roster; the closest to that mark is junior guard Matt Dickey, at 37.4 percent. But even he went 1-of-6 on treys in the Big South title game against Coastal Carolina, and Asheville as a whole was 2-of-11 from beyond the arc. Unless the Bulldogs hit one crazy, crazy, crazy stroke of luck, they'll suffer the same fate as every other 16 seed in history. And there's no shame in that.
14. ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK (Sun Belt Conference)
19-6 (11-9), 210th in efficiency
The Trojans are the worst team to have qualified for the NCAAs thus far, and the most improbable -- Basketball Prospectus'log5 projections for the Sun Belt tourney gave them just a 3.8 percent chance of earning the automatic bid. If UALR is going to pull off something even more improbable in the NCAAs, senior guard Solomon Bozeman is likely to be behind it; he's the guy who drilled this killer, step-back three to put them in the dance:
Bozeman, who was born in Little Rock, was supposed to end up at Ole Miss, where his father was an assistant under Rod Barnes. But after once Barnes was fired, Bozeman switched his commitment to South Florida, where coach Stan Heath still had Arkansas connections from his days running the Razorbacks. Bozeman transferred back home after his sophomore season, and his landed a gig as the head coach at Southern Arkansas, a D-II team with one of my favorite nicknames ever: the Muleriders. For some reason I imagine Billy Gillispie being envious of that nickname, even though he surely has his sights set on bigger gigs.