(1) Villanova (30-4)
Villanova is certainly a deserving #1 seed and will be tough to beat. The Wildcats’ 4 losses were all due to 3-point variance, as they lost to Butler, St. John’s, Providence and Creighton by an average of only 5.8 points despite a combined 27.6% to 45.1% 3-point shooting discrepancy, which is highly random given the Wildcats have outshot opponents 39.8% to 32.8% from long range for the season. Those were extremely random losses and it will likely take some extreme 3-point variance to keep the Wildcats out of the Final Four. Nova plays relatively better against better teams as the Wildcats are 4-0 against teams seeded #4 or better, beating Tennessee, Gonzaga, and Xavier twice by an average margin of 16.3 points.
Villanova is obviously on my list of teams that can win it all but where I pick them to finish depends on how my probabilities compare with how the nation is picking them. After all, winning a pool is as much about finding value as it is about picking the winner and if too many people are picking Villanova to win it all then your expected return on investment may be better picking a less popular contender to win the championship. The bigger your pool the more likely you may need to avoid picking Villanova as your champion if the public is backing them too heavily. Then again, I think the Wildcats are best suited to beat Virginia because their offense is patient enough to wait for a good shot and they have good enough shooters to make those shots against the nation’s #1 defense.
(2) Purdue (28-6)
Purdue is an elite offensive team (#3 in my ratings) and a good defensive team (#11 in compensated defensive efficiency) but the Boilermakers tend to play relatively worse against better teams while building up their rating by destroying bad teams. That doesn’t mean that the Boilermakers aren’t capable of beating other good teams, as they are 3-4 against teams seeded #4 or better with 3 of those losses being by 3 points, 1 point, and overtime. Beating Purdue requires good perimeter defense and a big man that can guard 7-2 Isaac Haas man-to-man. Teams that double-team Haas are vulnerable to the Boilermakers array of 3-point shooters (42.0% 3-pointers is #2 in the nation). The team that beats Purdue also must be patient offensively, as they make you work to find an open shot (4th longest defensive possession length in the nation). Possible regional final opponent Villanova is the most efficient offensive team in the nation but the Wildcats have nobody that can match up with Haas. That would be an interesting match-up and I’ll wait until I see what the public is taking to see where the value is before I decide on who I have going to the Final Four.
(3) Texas Tech (24-9)
Texas Tech is deserving of their #3 seed but the Red Raiders aren’t likely to get any better since they already play incredibly hard defensively on every possession. Tech can easily lose to a capable offensive team that can break their press and the Red Raiders are relatively weak offensively for their seeding, as they rank 99th in effective FG%. I don’t see Texas Tech losing to S.F. Austin but Florida isn’t likely to succumb to their pressure (Gators are #6 in lowest offensive turnover percentage) and could pose a problem. If the Raiders get to the Sweet 16 then they’ll likely face a major roadblock in Purdue, who also takes care of the ball (#15 in turnover %), makes shots and plays good defense.
(4) Wichita State (25-7)
Wichita State is a good team with room to improve, as the 36.3% allowed on 3-point shots this season is randomly high for an otherwise very good defensive team that ranks 31st in 2-point defense and 20th in defensive assist rate – the two components that best predict 3-point defense. Wichita has allowed an average of just 32.6% 3-pointers the previous 8 seasons so the 36.3% they’ve allowed so far is just bad luck as far as I’m concerned and the Shockers figure to be a bit better than their #18 rating. Wichita is a very efficient offensive team and an elite rebounding team and the Shockers should be competitive against any team they face. Wichita will likely face West Virginia in the second round if they win their opener and the Mountaineers are the best of the #5 seeds. Then Villanova, the #2 team in the nation would be next. That’s not an easy draw so it looks like the Sweet 16 is as far as the Wichita is likely to go, although they certainly are capable of ‘Shocking’ Villanova if the Wildcats aren’t making their outside shots.
(5) West Virginia (24-10)
West Virginia is the best of the #5 seeds, as the Mountaineers are good enough to have earned a #3 seed. The Mountaineers are one of just two teams to knock off #1 Virginia but they also lost 3 times to #1 seed Kansas. Overall, the Mounties are a pretty good 14-9 against top-50 rated teams and they have some characteristics of a team that can pull off some upsets if they advance far enough to face higher seeded teams. West Virginia ranks 2nd in the nation in defensive turnover percentage and teams that get a lot of offensive rebounds also tend to outplay expectations in the NCAA Tournament.
On the flip side, however, is the fact that West Virginia is just 9-9 in their last 18 games and first round opponent Murray State has proven that they can handle pressure with low turnover totals against high-pressure teams Austin Peay and Tennessee State. West Virginia should still be able to get past Murray State even if they don’t turn them over much and I’d favor the Mountaineers over #4 seed Wichita State. However, the Sweet 16 is likely their ceiling, as I don’t see them getting past fundamentally sound Villanova, who ranks 8th in fewer offensive turnovers and is likely to make West Virginia pay for pressing them by attacking the basket after breaking the press.
(6) Florida (20-12)
I’m a bit surprised that Florida was seeded so highly, but the committee obviously thinks the SEC is better than it actually is. The Gators, however, do have some really good wins, as they beat Gonzaga and Cincinnati on neutral courts early in the season and were 3-1 against the SEC’s other top teams Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky. However, the Gators are also ripe for an upset if they’re not making their outside shots and face a team that can shoot it from long range. Florida ranks 274th in the nation in 2-point shooting percentage on offense and the Gators have allowed 35.7% from beyond the arc on the defensive side of the floor (216th in the nation). Florida’s home loss to a good shooting Loyola-Chicago team was no fluke and the Gators’ reliance on 3-pointers on offense makes them vulnerable to being upset as well. The Gators have 5 losses to teams that didn’t make the tournament, which is a high number for a team seeded this highly. Florida will face the winner of the St. Bonaventure vs UCLA play-in game and I can see them losing to ether of those teams – particularly UCLA. I don’t trust the Gators as favorites but they might be good underdogs if they make it to the second weekend.
(7) Arkansas (23-11)
Arkansas is over-seeded as a #7, which is evident by their underdog status against #10 seed Butler in their first game. Arkansas takes care of the ball and shoots it well from beyond the arc (40.1% 3-point percentage) but their inability to keep opponents from rebounding their misses (295th in defensive rebounding percentage) may haunt them and the Razorbacks are not as likely to get as many easy transition baskets as they normally do given that such opportunities become more scarce in the NCAA Tournament. The Hogs can certainly beat Butler but I don’t see them making a run to the second weekend unless they get really hot from 3-point range.
(8) Virginia Tech (21-11)
Virginia Tech has a lot of good shooters but jump shooting teams tend to be inconsistent and Virginia Tech’s longest win-streak against NCAA Tournament caliber teams this season is just two games, which they did twice. One of those mini-streaks includes an overtime road win at #1 Virginia and the Hokies also have wins over Duke and North Carolina. So, while making a deep run is unlikely, Virginia Tech has proven that they can beat elite teams when they play their best. However, it’s just not wise to take 8 or 9 seeds to advance to the second weekend.
(9) Alabama (19-15)
I was surprised that Alabama, with a losing record in a not so great SEC, made the tournament and I was shocked when I saw the #9 seed. Kudos to the Crimson Tide for winning a couple of SEC Tournament games but they lost 5 straight prior to those two wins and then lost by 23 points to Kentucky. What the hell is the committee looking at? Bama is not a bad team, but they rate at 49th in my ratings and have no business being in this tournament. Yet, here they are. Bama is good enough defensively to beat a good team and they have a star in freshman Collin Sexton, who is capable of carrying them on his back for a win or two. However, the Tide can struggle offensively against teams that don’t allow penetration, as a big portion of Alabama’s offense comes from 2-pointers and the free-throw line. The problem with the heavy reliance on free-throws is that fewer touch fouls tend to be called in the NCAA tournament, which hurts teams that have a high free-throw attempt rate (Alabama is 20th in that metric). The Tide can beat first round opponent Virginia Tech if the Hokies aren’t making their jump shots but they will need Donta Hall to be healthy. Hall missed the Kentucky game with a concussion and you should check his status before deciding what to do with Alabama in your pool.
(10) Butler (20-13)
Butler is a good team that would be better if their opponents didn’t make 37.4% of their 3-point shots (296th in the nation) and 74.2% of their free-throws (315th) against them. Most of that is just bad luck, particularly the opponent free-throw percentage, and I don’t expect the Bulldogs to allow such a high 3-point percentage going forward. So, I think Butler is better than their rating and the Bulldogs can beat good teams that are relatively weak in 2-point defense and don’t take a lot of 3-point shots. Beating Arkansas would not be an upset but the Bulldogs already lost by 15 points on a neutral floor to likely round 2 opponent Purdue, who takes and makes a lot of 3-pointers (42.0% is 2nd best in the nation) and defends the interior very well (15th in 2-point defense). It looks like one win at most for Butler.
(11) UCLA (21-11)
UCLA rating isn’t that impressive but the Bruins have the talent to beat higher seeded teams, as they’ve proven with victories over Kentucky and Arizona (and an OT loss to Arizona) and an overtime game at Michigan. The Bruins’ offensive talent is undeniable, as Aaron Holiday is one of the best point-guards in the nation and 7-footer Thomas Welsh is an offensively efficient big man. UCLA can get very lazy defensively but they are capable of playing better defense with better effort so there is certainly room for them to outplay their overall rating and win a game or two if they get past St. Bonaventure in the play-in game.
(11) Saint Bonaventure (25-7)
St. Bonaventure is the worst of the at-large teams, as they have zero wins over a top-35 rated team (Maryland is the highest rated team they beat and the Terps didn’t make the tournament). You may ask, “what about Rhode Island”? Well, Rhode Island is actually the 51st best team in the nation in my compensated net efficiency ratings. The only top-35 team that the Bonnies faced resulted in a 10-point neutral court loss to TCU and they were modest 4-3 against teams rated between 35th and 55th (i.e. other Tournament caliber teams). St. Mary’s was left out of the tournament with a 27-4 record and a win at Gonzaga because they had two losses to teams ranked 100th or worse but St. Bonaventure has 3 such losses (Dayton, St. Joseph’s and home against a Niagara team that ranks 206th in compensated total efficiency). The Bonnies may be able to beat UCLA but take them to advance past that at your own risk.
(12) Murray State (26-5)
Murray State is a well-balanced team with a pair of play-making guards in Stark (21.8 ppg and 3.9 apg) and Morant (12.6 ppg and 6.4 apg) that can lead a team to outplay their seeding. Murray State has an efficient offense (#25 in effective FG%) and a good defense (#20 in defensive EFG%) and good guard play is imperative against first opponent West Virginia’s unrelenting pressure. The Racers only lost one game all season by more than 5 points and they lost by just 4 points to SEC regular season champ Auburn, so they can surely keep it close against the Mountaineers if they can break the press. There is certainly reason to believe that the pressure won’t be a problem, as the Racers beat Austin Peay (#14 in defense TO percentage) twice by an average of 15 points and beat Tennessee State (#3 in defensive TO%) by 19 points while averaging only 13 turnovers in those 3 games. Obviously, those opponents are not nearly as good as West Virginia but turning the ball over only 13 times on average in those games and playing better than their rating against high-pressure teams they’ve faced is an indication that they can play relatively well against the Mountaineers. Hmmmm….
(13) Marshall (24-10)
Marshall is a pretty interesting team, as the Thundering Herd have a pair of 20-point scorers in Elmore (22.8 ppg) and Burks (20.5 ppg) and a rim protector in Penava (3.9 blocks per game!!). Marshall was just 3-4 against the other top three teams in Conference USA, but they did beat top CUSA team Middle Tennessee State twice in two meetings and only lost by 4 points at #1 seed Xavier. The Herd’s up-tempo style of play (#3 in offensive possession length and #6 in adjusted pace) actually makes it tougher to beat a superior team because more possessions gives the better team more chances for their advantage to come to the surface but an upset by Marshall would certainly not surprise me.
(14) Stephen F. Austin (28-6)
The Lumberjacks made some noise in the NCAA Tournament two years ago by beating #3 seed West Virginia by 14 points and losing a nail-biter to Notre Dame 75-76. That team was much better than this team is but SFA could pull off an upset if they face a shaky ball-handling team and the refs swallow their whistle, which tends to be the case in the NCAA Tournament. SFA leads the nation in defensive turnover rate but they also foul more than any team in the nation. The ideal match up for SFA is a team that is careless with the ball and doesn’t shoot free throws particularly well.
The Lumberjacks played pretty well this season when stepping up in class, losing road games at Mississippi State and at Missouri by an average of just 3 points and winning by 1 point at LSU.
(15) Cal State Fullerton (20-11)
Fullerton played 3 good teams this season and the Titans were destroyed by an average margin of 22.7 points by USC, St. Mary’s and Georgia – 3 teams that did not even make the tournament (although USC and St. Mary’s should have). Fullerton leads the nation in free-throw attempt rate but teams that rely on free-throws and 2-point shots (Fullerton doesn’t shoot many 3-pointers) have very little chance of beating a superior team, which they proved in those 3 early season games against good teams.
(16) Radford (22-12)
Radford is a decent team whose very slow pace (346th in possessions per 40 minutes) gives them more chance of keeping a game close and the Higlanders have some characteristics of successful low seed – mostly notably forcing turnovers and offensive rebounding. However, it would still take a miracle for Radford to win a game and the Highlanders lost their 3 games (all on the road) to good teams Ohio State, Virginia Tech, and Nevada by an average of 17.3 points.
(16) LIU Brooklyn (18-16)
LIU Brooklyn was just 18-16 this season despite facing just one team all season that ranks in the top-half of the 351 Division-1 teams (Tulane, who is barely better than average). The Blackbirds don’t do much of anything that suggests they have a chance in a first round game, as they lack size, outside shooting (34.8% 3-pointers) and don’t force turnovers (291st in defensive TO rate).
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