(1) Villanova (31-3)
Before winning the Championship last season, Villanova had a pattern of underperforming as a high seed in this tournament. In 2015 the #1 seeded Wildcats lost in the 2nd round. In 2014, as a #2 seed, the Cats also lost in the 2nd round, as was the case in 2010. Before last season the Wildcats hadn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2009, so there are reasons to have some concern in backing this team to make a deep run.
This year’s Villanova team is just as great offensively as they were last season but this season’s Wildcats aren’t as good defending around the basket, as they’ve allowed 48.9% on 2-point shots, which ranks 156th in the nation, after ranking 24th in the nation at 44.1% 2-pointers allowed last season. Two of Villanova’s three losses this season were against Butler, which makes sense after looking at Nova’s regression equations.
Villanova’s defense was relatively worse against less efficient offensive teams while their already great offense was even better, relatively, when facing good defensive teams. Based on that, a team that isn’t particularly strong defensively but is really good offensively (like Butler) would be a tough matchup for Villanova. The Wildcats’ other loss was to Marquette, who ranks 233rd in defensive effective FG% and 6th in offensive EFG%. Basically, Villanova can score on even the best defensive teams but they’re vulnerable to really good offensive teams that can make jump shots. Thus, the Wildcats could be upset by a team whose strength is on the offensive end. That could spell trouble if they happen to face Virginia Tech in the 2nd round, as the Hokies rank 7th in offensive EFG% and 192nd in defensive EFG%. But, if Nova can survive the first week they will likely match up against a defensively strong team like Virginia or Florida, which is a matchup that suits them better since scoring on good defensive teams is not an issue for the Wildcats. Looking further down the road, a regional final matchup with Duke, a team that is much better offensively than defensively could be Villanova’s downfall if they don’t get tripped up before then – although Duke has an issue defending teams with a high 2-point FG%.
(2) Duke (27-8)
Duke is a streaky team, as the Blue Devils lost 3 of their final 4 regular season games and then won 4 straight in the ACC tournament. The Blue Devils also had a mid-season stretch of 4 losses in 7 games after winning 10 games in a row. Duke had some good fortune in winning the ACC Tournament, as their final 3 wins over strong teams Louisville, North Carolina, and Notre Dame were all aided by significant 3-point shooting variance, as the Blue Devils made 44% of their 3-pointers in those games while their opponents made a randomly low 22% from beyond the arc. Without the variance, they certainly would have lost to Louisville and North Carolina and their 6 point win over Notre Dame would have gone down to the wire – so don’t overreact to the Blue Devils winning that tournament.
I do believe that Duke is a better team than their season rating, however, as they had some adversity in the middle of the season with an injury to Amile Jefferson, a suspension of Grayson Allen, whose jerkiness is making people forget about Christian Laettner, and a 7 game leave of absence for health reasons by coach K. Duke lost both games without Jefferson and they lost both ACC games without Allen (they beat Maine in the other game that Allen missed). Duke also lost to NC State without coach K on the bench. In 26 games with Jefferson and Allen and with Mike Krzyzewski coaching the Blue Devils are 23-3, including 11-2 in ACC games. That’s very impressive.
Duke’s weakness is their 2-point defense, which ranks 149th in the nation at 48.8%, and the Blue Devils lost 3 of their 4 games against teams that rank in the top 50 in 2-point FG% – losing to Kansas (41st in 2-point offense), losing to Virginia Tech (18th), and splitting two games with Florida State (25th). Duke is always very good defending the 3-point arc (4th in the nation this season and they allow the 4th fewest 3-point shots per FG attempt) but a team that doesn’t depend on 3-pointers too much and can score in the paint is likely to give Duke some problems. The Blue Devils don’t really run across a team like that until possibly the regional final against Villanova, but Nova also has trouble with offensively strong teams.
Duke is relatively better offensively against better defensive teams, so the other good teams on their side of the East bracket appear to be good matchups for the Blue Devils, as South Carolina, Baylor and SMU are all better defensively than offensively. A possible 2nd round matchup with Marquette seems to work also, as the Eagles depend heavily on their 3-point shooting, which Duke takes away better than nearly any team in the nation (only 21.5% of their opponent’s points come from 3-point shots, which is 3rd lowest in the nation). I see a pretty clear path for Duke to the Elite 8, with SMU the team most likely to give them trouble along the way.
(3) Baylor (25-7)
Baylor was upset in the first round of this tournament in each of the last two years, losing as a #3 seed to Georgia State in 2015 and losing to Yale as a #5 seed last year. This year’s Bears have the same flaws that other recent Baylor teams have had. Baylor has ranked in the top 4 in the nation in offensive rebounding and near the bottom in defensive assist percentage in each of the last 4 seasons. Those are the characteristics of an athletically gifted team that can be burned by being overly aggressive defensively (which allows for a high assist rate). Last year they ran across a disciplined Yale team that was among the best rebounding teams in the nation and the Bulldogs kept Baylor from dominating the offensive glass while making the right passes for easy buckets (64% 2-point shooting). A good rebounding team that passes well could spell trouble for Baylor again.
However, the Bears have played relatively better against other good teams this season and they beat highly ranked teams Oregon (without Dillon Brooks), Louisville, and West Virginia (also lost to WVU) while losing to #1 seeded Kansas by an average of only 3.5 points. I think Baylor is less likely to be upset in the first round this year, and they’re good enough to beat elite teams, but a 2nd round game against a good passing SMU team will be a challenge and I’ll probably side with the Mustangs in that game as a value play if a majority of people are taking Baylor in their brackets (more on that possibility in my bracket analysis).
(4) Florida (24-8)
Florida ranks 10th in the compensated efficiency metric and they’re good on both offense (#29 in efficiency ratings) and defense (#10). However, the Gators have been relatively worse against good teams, which makes me question their ability to make a run in this tournament. Florida is just 3-8 against the top 7 teams they faced in the regular season and their only win over an elite team was at home against Kentucky (they lost the rematch on the road). All of the Gators other wins were against teams I rank as #30 or worse and they lost 3 times to an 18-15 Vanderbilt team that wouldn’t have made this tournament had they lost one of those games. I just don’t trust this Florida team and the Gators have a potentially tough matchup with Virginia in the 2nd round and don’t match up well with Villanova. I’ll probably pick Florida to lose to Virginia since I rate the Cavaliers higher and my guess is that the public will be on the Gators (which would result in value on Virginia).
(5) Virginia (22-10)
Like Florida, Virginia is not as good as their compensated efficiency numbers suggest (#4 overall), as the Cavaliers have also been relatively worse against better teams. The Cavs are just 4-7 straight up against my top-30 rated teams, although they do have two wins over Louisville and a win over North Carolina (1-1 versus UNC) to their credit. Virginia is a fundamentally sound team and plays suffocating defense (#1 in compensated defensive efficiency) by not allowing good shots (#22 in effective FG% defense) and rebounding their opponent’s misses at a high rate (9th in defensive rebound percentage). Virginia’s main flaw is offensive inconsistency, as they are not a particularly strong interior team offensively and need their shooters to make outside shots to beat other good teams. Teams that depend on making 3-pointers (39.3% ranks 19th) are subject to more variance but that can work both ways and could result in a deep run in this tournament given how consistently the Cavaliers defend.
Virginia is not a team that is likely to be upset and they’ve proven that they can beat elite teams and can compete with #1 seed Villanova (lost by just 2 points at Nova), who they could face in the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers are capable of making a long run in this tournament if they can knock down a decent percentage of their 3-point shots, which is more likely now that freshman sharpshooter Kyle Guy (50.5% 3-point shooting) is getting more minutes. Virginia might be a good value option to make the Final Four or win the tournament in larger pools that require making more calculated value picks.
(6) SMU (30-4)
SMU is better than their #6 seed, as the Mustangs are 19th in my compensated efficiency ratings and tend to play relatively better against good teams. SMU lost a few games early in the season (Michigan, USC, and Boise State) but the Mustangs’ improved when 6-10 C Harry Froling was injured in mid-December. Froling’s injury resulted in head coach Tim Jankovich playing a rotation of his top 6 players (aside from a few minutes per game), who are all versatile scorers and defenders. SMU is 23-1 run with their current rotation, with their only loss to Cincinnati, who they also beat twice.
SMU has 4 starters that make more than 42% of their 3-point shots and Ben Moore is an efficient scorer inside the arc (56.3% FG), so the Mustangs can score from all 5 positions, which is tough for even the best defensive teams to defend (remember Kentucky’s unbeaten and defensively dominating team in 2015 struggling with Notre Dame’s ability to score from all 5 positions with high efficiency?). SMU is capable of beating any team in the nation and beating Baylor in the 2nd round would not be an upset. A potential Sweet 16 matchup with Duke would be a challenge since Duke defends the 3-point arc so well and is relatively better offensively against good defensive teams, but SMU might be a smart choice to advance through your bracket in bigger pools that require more variance with value to raise your expected return on investment.
(7) South Carolina (22-10)
South Carolina is an elite defensive team (#3 in compensated defensive efficiency) but the Gamecocks really struggle offensively against good defensive teams. South Carolina is 19-6 with their top two players playing, as they were 3-3 (2-3 against Division 1 teams) without star Sindarius Thornwell and 0-1 without PG P.J. Dozier. That record was 16-0 with their two stars playing before the Gamecocks lost 6 of their most recent 9 games and it’s unlikely that the Gamecocks can make a long run in this tournament because of their offensive inconsistency. However, South Carolina is capable of beating Marquette if the Golden Eagles’ #1 3-point shooting falters against South Carolina’s #5 ranked 3-point defense. And, I actually wouldn’t be too surprised if they made it to the Sweet 16, as they match up relatively well with Duke, whose weakness is 2-point defense (South Carolina takes a lot of 2-point shots). South Carolina’s spectrum of possible results is pretty wide, as they very easily could lose to Marquette in their first game (they are barely favored) or make it to the Sweet 16 or beyond.
(8) Wisconsin (25-9)
Wisconsin has proven capable of beating other good teams but has had trouble against elite teams. The Badgers are just 1-4 against the best three teams that they’ve faced so far this season, losing to North Carolina by 16 points, losing to Purdue by 11 points, and dropping two of three games to Michigan. However, the Badgers were 9-2 in games against teams that I rank between 25th and 50th, which is where first round opponent Virginia Tech falls. If Wisconsin gets past the Hokies I don’t give them much of a chance to beat Villanova given that Wisconsin is relatively better against teams that are better defensively than they are offensively – and Nova is just the opposite.
(9) Virginia Tech (22-10)
Virginia Tech has beaten some good teams this season, as the Hokies have a non-conference victory at Michigan and have ACC wins over Duke, Virginia, Miami, and Wake Forest. They also have a good number of losses to good teams and a #9 seed seems fair to me. Virginia Tech is without defensive star Chris Clarke, who has missed the last 8 games, but the Hokies replaced Clarke with offensively efficient Ty Outlaw (48% 3-point shooter) and the added offense has made up for the loss of Clarke’s defense. Virginia Tech is capable of beating Villanova if they upset Wisconsin first, as Nova tends to play relatively worse against teams that are offensively focused. If you don’t like Villanova to make it to the Final Four then you should consider using Virginia Tech to reach the Sweet 16 as a way to add value to your bracket.
(10) Marquette (19-12)
Marquette is a dangerous team when they’re knocking down their 3-point shots at a 45% rate or higher, which is not too much above their amazing 43.0% season average. However, the Golden Eagles don’t play defense very well (233rd in defensive effective FG%) and they aren’t likely to get as many open looks from long range in their first 1st round game against a South Carolina team that ranks #5 in the nation in 3-point defense (29.6% allowed). However, the Gamecocks’ horrible offense may not be able to take advantage of a soft Marquette defense in that 1st round game.
Marquette would also face a strong 3-point defense in round 2 against Duke but good 3-point shooting teams have a relative advantage against good 3-point defensive teams (there is more regression to the mean in defensive 3-point percentage) and Marquette made 46% of their 3-point shots (23 for 50) in two games against Villanova, who has the highest ranking 3-point defense (25th) of any team the Eagles have faced this season. Marquette is capable of a couple of upset wins if their outside shots are falling at better than their average clip but the Eagles are not too likely to win more than a couple of games given how much variance there is in 3-point shooting. In fact, Marquette hasn’t won 3 games in a row since December. You’re rolling the dice if you pick Marquette to win more than one game but it’s not out of the question.
(11) Providence (20-12)
Providence competed pretty well against other good teams but they failed in three tries to beat a top-20 rated team, losing twice to Villanova (by an average of 8.5 points) and losing by 9 points to Virginia on a neutral court. There is nothing particularly interesting to reveal about the Friars other than that they’ve been playing their best basketball of the season recently. Providence won their final 6 regular season games, including 4 wins against NCAA tournament teams, before losing to Creighton in the Big East tournament but that 6 game win streak followed a 4-9 run so it’s tough to know what to expect from the Friars. However, even at their best, I don’t think they’re good enough to beat SMU if they do get past USC in the play-in game.
(11) USC (24-9)
USC is not as good as their record and the Trojans ended the season 10-9 in their last 19 games after starting 14-0 against a pretty easy early season schedule (although they did beat SMU). The Trojans are just 2-8 against top-60 rated teams and I don’t see them beating SMU a second time (SMU is better now than they were when the Trojans beat time) if they get past Providence in the play-in game.
(12) NC-Wilmington (29-5)
Wilmington only lost 5 games but the Seahawks lost to the two best teams that they faced (Middle Tennessee State and Clemson) by an average of 9.5 points and their best wins have been a home win over #81 East Tennessee State and a road win against St. Bonaventure (my #89 ranked team). Wilmington is an efficient offensive team (25th in the nation in effective FG% and they rank #32 in my compensated efficiency rankings) but the Seahawks have a horrible interior defense (54.2% allowed on 2-point shots) and I don’t give them much chance of beating Virginia.
(13) East Tennessee State (27-7)
East Tennessee State lost all 3 of their games against teams ranked in my top-80 (#73 NC Wilmington, #41 Dayton, and #59 Tennessee) but the Buccaneers are capable of an upset win if they don’t hurt themselves with stupid turnovers. ETSU ranks #13 in the nation in effective field goal percentage and they play good defense (#65 in my rankings) but the Bucs rank 307th in offensive turnover percentage. First round opponent Florida ranks 32nd in forcing turnovers so I expect ETSU to make too many mistakes with the ball to pull off an upset.
(14) New Mexico State (28-5)
New Mexico State has a shiny win-loss record but the best team that Aggies have played all season is ranked #84 in my ratings (Colorado State) and they lost that game. First round opponent Baylor has a recent history of upset losses in this tournament but Baylor matches up well against New Mexico State. The Aggies’ offense is predicated on scoring near the rim and drawing fouls but Baylor ranks 21st in 2-point defense despite facing a tough schedule and the Bears don’t foul much. Baylor also depends on their 2-point offense and Bears’ low percentage of 3-point shots taken and high percentage on 2-point shots (52.5%) should work well against an Aggies’ defense that ranks 8th in the nation in 3-point defense (which doesn’t matter as much against a team that doesn’t shoot many 3-pointers) and has a worse than average compensated 2-point defense. I think it’s highly likely that Baylor ends their 2-year streak of being upset in the first round.
(15) Troy (22-14)
Troy is a pretty good offensive team (100th in my compensated offensive efficiency ratings) but the Trojans rank 242nd defensively and I don’t see how they can beat Duke.
(16) New Orleans (20-11)
New Orleans has faced 3 NCAA Tournament teams and lost those games by 45 points to Oklahoma State, by 34 points to USC, and by 34 points to Northwestern. If the Privateers win the play-in game they have no chance against Villanova.
(16) Mount St. Mary’s (19-15)
Mount St. Mary’s actually played a tough non-conference schedule that included games against West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan, and Arkansas. The Mountaineers lost those games by an average margin of 20 points, although they played relatively better than normal in those games.
Dr. Bob’s NCAA Tournament Best Bets are 56% over 28 years and have gotten better recently, going 122-93-3 (57%) the last 13 years and 47-31-1 (60%) the last 5 years. Designated ‘opinion’ games are 86-74-4 (54%) the last 5 years in the NCAA Tourney.
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