The national title is Kentucky's to lose in this year's tournament. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
The Power Rankings' Sweet 16 edition re-ranks the field in order of teams' likelihood of winning the national title:
It would be a minor miracle if Indiana were able to get Wildcats center Anthony Davis in foul trouble. Not only does he commit an absurdly low 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes while engaging in a quarter of opponents' possessions, he's been getting better at avoiding whistles as the season goes on. Hoosiers center Cody Zeller isn't exactly a foul-happy freshman, either -- he averages 3.8 per 40 -- but he's far more liable to be forced to the bench than Davis is.
The graphic below shows running five-game averages of Davis' and Zeller's fouls per 66.4 possessions, which is the projected number of possessions they'd play if they remained on the court for all 40 minutes on Friday:
Sweet 16: vs. No. 4 Indiana, Friday in Atlanta
2. Michigan State
I dare you to find another team in the tournament that runs a POWER FORWARD/CENTER pick-and-roll, like Michigan State's Draymond Green and Derrick Nix executed to perfection in the first half against St. Louis on Sunday:
[wpvideo 1hEYs9LA w=590]
The combined poundage on that P&R play is 500, if you believe the Spartans' roster page. (It's probably 505 on an actual scale.) Compare that to Louisville's most common P&R combo of point guard Peyton Siva and center Gorgui Dieng:
Sweet 16: vs. No. 4 Louisville, Thursday in Phoenix
3. Ohio State
It wouldn't be a Power Rankings without an Aaron Craft Turnometer™ appearance! (The Turnometer, for the I-just-show-up-at-tourney-time readers, measures the percentage of opponents' possessions on which America's preeminent pest forces a turnover. I compile it by reviewing film of every turnover forced by the Buckeyes this season.)
A few splits: In Ohio State's two NCAA tournament wins, over Loyola (Md.) and Gonzaga, Craft forced turnovers on 6.22 percent of possessions. In OSU's 21 Big Ten games, he forced turnovers on 6.75 percent of possessions.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 6 Cincinnati, Thursday in Boston
In the closely contested tournament games we're likely to see this weekend, the ATO (after-timeout) war will be huge. Coaches with a track record of drawing up point-producing sets -- and the personnel to execute them -- have the advantage in endgame scenarios. The following chart ranks the Sweet 16 teams by their raw ATO efficiency, according to Synergy Sports Technology's logs:
The Jayhawks rank fourth here, but their final ATO play against Purdue on Sunday was unsuccessful. It consisted of Elijah Johnson bringing up the ball, Tyshawn Taylor starting in the bottom left corner, running off a Thomas Robinson screen and a Travis Releford brush screen, and then iso-ing on Lewis Jackson from the left wing. Robinson, rather than trying to post up his man, got behind him to establish early rebounding position in anticipation of a Taylor shot. Taylor settled for a quick pull-up three, and Robinson pulled down the offensive board:
[wpvideo iGYYk2OD w=590]
Sweet 16: vs. No. 11 NC State, Friday in St. Louis
5. North Carolina
It's mandatory that Kendall Marshall's broken right wrist be discussed in this space. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said he's preparing to face Ohio without the country's best pass-first point guard, even if one Raleigh News & Observer reader thinks the whole thing is a hoax to steal attention away from N.C. State.
If you're trying to think positive about a Marshall-less UNC, the thing to focus on is defense. Marshall was not a major contributor on D, mostly playing a conservative, non-aggressive style that kept him out of foul trouble, because he needed to stay on the floor to run the offense. The Tar Heels rank 11th in defensive efficiency on kenpom.com, and should be able to guard just as well as they did before Marshall's injury. UNC's offense is 14th in efficiency, and if a neutered version of it dropped 60 spots in the rankings, but the defense stayed the same, that would give the team an efficiency profile almost equal to Florida State's. So rather than saying, "Carolina is doomed," you could say, "Carolina might turn into Florida State," which means that it still has an outside shot at reaching the national title game.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 13 Ohio, Friday in St. Louis
It's funny how everyone calls the Badgers a "system" team, while their point guard runs isolation plays more frequently than any elite player left in the tournament. Jordan Taylor uses 25.0 percent of UW's possessions, and a whopping third of those are on isos, according to Synergy. He's reasonably efficient at it, too, ranking seventh in points per possession among remaining NCAA players*. This is the top 10:
* Minimum of 50 iso possessions on season to qualify.
** I had no idea Hulls was this good at isos, either. Most of what he does is shake his defender with a few dribbles, then stick a three in his face.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 1 Syracuse, Thursday in Boston
The turnover battle is likely to decide Thursday's Syracuse-Wisconsin game. Wisconsin only commits turnovers on 15.1 percent of its possessions, ranking second in the nation, while Syracuse forces turnovers on 25.0 percent of opponents' possessions, ranking seventh. The Badgers' turnover percentage has a direct correlation to their success: During Big Ten play, they broke the 17 percent mark eight times, and lost six of those games. Of the 12 games that UW stayed under 17 percent, it won 10 of them. Since the Orange no longer have turnover-creator Fab Melo in the middle, the onus will be on top-line defender Dion Waiters to harass Taylor, Josh Gasser and Ben Brust into a few too many giveaways.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 4 Wisconsin, Thursday in Boston
A nugget that I'd like to revisit from Saturday night's story on the Hoosiers making the Sweet 16: When coach Tom Crean called for "55" -- all-switching -- defense on VCU's final possession, knowing full well that Cody Zeller might get switched onto Rams point guard Darius Theus off of a high ball screen, Crean figured that Zeller had the athleticism and the smarts to handle it. The reason Zeller played it so well, he said, was that he'd watched his brother Tyler get stuck in the exact same situation at the end of the first UNC-Duke game. Tyler hung back, and Austin Rivers drilled that three in his face. Cody didn't want the same nightmare.
This week I went back and synced up video of the two plays, and it's amazing how identical they are, and how Cody pushing out on Theus made a difference. It forced him to drive and kick to Rob Brandenberg, a 29.3 percent three-point shooter, on the left wing:
[wpvideo NDykcIqg w=590]
Sweet 16: vs. No. 1 Kentucky, Friday in Atlanta
Only tempo-free stats can give us the full picture of how good the Golden Eagles' defense was in the Round of 32:
• It held Murray State to 0.738 points per possession, when the Racers' previous low on the season had been 0.936. Their season efficiency was 1.057 PPP.
• Murray State had been able to score against major(-ish) conference teams: It put up 1.220 PPP against Dayton on Dec. 4, 1.057 PPP at Memphis on Dec. 11, and 0.938 PPP against Colorado State in the Round of 64.
• According to Cracked Sidewalks' John Pudner, it was Marquette's third most-efficient defensive performance against a quality opponent this decade (and by far its best in an NCAA tournament game).
On Thursday, the Golden Eagles will be facing a team that's ranked 89 spots higher in offensive efficiency than Murray State. If they can hold Florida under one point per possession, we'll know their defense is for real.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 7 Florida, Thursday in Phoenix
Reprising the Whistle War concept from the Kentucky section, let's take a look at Cardinals center Gorgui Dieng against his Sweet 16 matchup, Michigan State's Adreian Payne:
Dieng's foul rate is more than twice that of Anthony Davis, and the Cardinals' big man is very likely to be on the verge of fouling out if he plays extended minutes. Payne was even more foul-prone for most of the season, but it seems that over his past 7-10 games, he's been making a conscious effort to draw fewer whistles.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 1 Michigan State, Thursday in Phoenix
I thought the Bears' best chance of making the Final Four was if VCU had reached the Sweet 16. Its pressure might have flustered Kentucky point guard Marquis Teague into a meltdown and resulted in the tournament's biggest upset, paving the way for the Bears to face two double-digit seeds on the way to New Orleans. The Rams were giving off a we-can-beat-anyone vibe ... until they took a nine-point lead on Indiana with 12:20 left in the second half on Saturday.
What happened after that baffled me, from a game-theory standpoint. VCU went into clock-milking mode on offense -- a move that while it lessened the number of possessions left in the game, seemed to play right into Indiana's hands. Consider the following:
• VCU's end-of-shot-clock (under four seconds) offense this season ranked in the 25th percentile nationally, according to Synergy, and yielded just 0.586 PPP. This is a very low, inefficient figure.
• While Indiana's defense was mediocre -- it ranked in the 61st percentile in transition and 68th percentile in halfcourt -- Synergy rated it "excellent" in end-of-shot-clock situations. The Hoosiers ranked in the 83rd percentile in short-shot-clock D.
• It would seem wise, then, that VCU not let itself get in those situations ... but the Rams did that six times in the second half. Those six possessions yielded a total of ZERO points. They only scored four points, total, in the final 12:20.
• By killing its offense, VCU essentially shut down its defense, because it applies its press after made shots. The Rams only had seven made field goals and one made free throw they could press off of in the second half. They pressed all eight of those times ... and on those possessions, Indiana scored a total of TWO points on 1-of-6 shooting, with two turnovers.
The only thing that broke VCU's press in the second half was VCU. I have a feeling that coach Shaka Smart will dwell on those final 12 minutes for a long time.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 10 Xavier, Friday in Atlanta
In only two Sweet 16 games is the lower-seeded team projected to win by kenpom.com:
• No. 4 Wisconsin (53%) over No. 1 Syracuse
• No. 7 Florida (52%) over No. 3 Marquette
Both games could be labeled with asterisks. The Badgers should be considered a heavier favorite over Syracuse, because kenpom's numbers are based on the Orange's full season with Fab Melo, who's suspended for the tournament. The Gators' odds seem inflated by their momentum, having just smothered two inferior offenses in Virginia (0.710 PPP) and Norfolk State (0.763). When they face quality opponents, the Gators haven't been so adept at getting stops. Florida's Sweet 16 fate is more likely to be decided by how hot its guards are from long-range, because Marquette is going to put up its share of points.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 3 Marquette, Thursday in Phoenix
13. NC State
New tournament rule: If you're a major conference team that reacts to receiving a tournament bid like I imagine a No. 16 seed would react to upsetting a No. 1 ... and the video of such reaction can be dubbed over with Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance With Somebody, you receive positive tourney karma. Enough to pull off upsets of No. 6 San Diego State and No. 3 Georgetown, neither of whom I recall going crazy when their bids were announced. Enough to knock out Kansas? I think karma has its limits:
New tournament rule No. 2: If you're a sophomore known for wildly inconsistent play -- sometimes phenomenal, sometimes cringe-worthy -- and you give your often-far-too-serious coach bunny ears during a TNT postgame interview, you best come out and play on the phenomenal side against Michigan State. If you're Russ Smith, you don't want bunny-ears and 4-for-15 shooting with five turnovers be Rick Pitino's last memory of you heading into a long offseason.
(Image from the amazing 30fps.)
Sweet 16: vs. No. 2 Kansas, Friday in St. Louis
From the ATO War chart in the Kansas section, there are two Sweet 16 games with a significant margin between the teams' ATO efficiency rates:
• Michigan State (+0.216) over Louisville
• Ohio State (+0.213) over Cincinnati
When the Buckeyes need late baskets, they find a way to get the ball to Jared Sullinger on the block, and expect him to either score or get fouled. Cincy doesn't have the same luxury with Yancy Gates, whose offensive arsenal is more limited, and the Bearcats don't have a killer, foul-drawing guard off the dribble, either. Remember this ATO stat if Thursday's game comes down to the final few possessions.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 2 Ohio State, Thursday in Boston
BBstate.com's unofficial usage stats for the NCAA tournament have only five players* using a higher percentage of their team's possessions than Xavier's Tu Holloway, who has lifted the Musketeers from left-for-dead status to the Sweet 16:
* Minimum two games played and 20 minutes per game.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 3 Baylor, Friday in Atlanta
The presence of pick-and-rolls in the Ohio-Carolina game should be pretty one-sided. While the Bobcats get 19.3 percent of their offense from P&R sets, according to Synergy, the Tar Heels get just 8.7 -- and who knows how far that figure will drop with Kendall Marshall out of the lineup. Bobcats point guard D.J. Cooper (In Coop We Trust!) makes 49.8 percent of his plays in transition, and is the fifth-most efficient pick-and-roll scorer* left in the tournament:
* Minimum 100 P&R scoring possessions to qualify.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 1 North Carolina, Friday in St. Louis