(1) Duke (29-5)
Duke is certainly deserving of the #1 overall seed, as they are 24-1 when they have all of their starters healthy, with their only loss by 2 points to Gonzaga (due to negative 3-point variance) and quality wins over high seeded teams Kentucky, Auburn, Texas Tech, Florida State twice, Virginia twice and North Carolina. Both losses to UNC were games without Zion Williamson (aside from about 40 seconds) and overall the Blue Devils were 3-3 in the 6 games without their superstar while also losing to Syracuse in OT without two starters (Cam Reddish was out and Tre Jones was injured after 6 minutes).
Duke’s only weaknesses are their outside shooting (just 30.2% on 3-pointers) and defensive rebounding (242nd in the nation), which is a byproduct of wanting to start their fast break before securing the ball. A team strong offensive rebounding team that can also run to keep Duke out of their very good half-court defense is the type of team that would give the Blue Devils trouble. That would be a team like North Carolina, who beat Duke twice when Zion was out and also lost by just 1 point with Williamson playing his very best. UNC actually only lost that ACC tournament semifinal game by 1 point despite making a randomly low 4 of 26 3-point shots. If you’re looking pick someone other than Duke to win the tournament, which is likely a good idea based on game-theory principals, then taking North Carolina as the team to take them out would be a sound choice. The other possible upset could come against Michigan State (read below) in the Elite 8.
(2) Michigan State (28-6)
Michigan State is the best of the #2 seeds and the Spartans got a raw deal being put in the same region as #1 overall seed Duke. Michigan State leads the nation in assist rate and runs the fast break as well as any team in the nation. Good passing teams are more likely to find holes in good half court defenses and using the fast break a lot keeps good half-court defensive teams from setting up their defense. Thus, it’s not surprising that the Spartans’ compensated offensive efficiency (points per possession) was relatively better against better defensive teams. In fact, MSU beat Michigan, the #1 ranked defensive team in the nation, in all 3 meetings and they also beat Wisconsin twice (#5 in compensated defensive efficiency).
Likely Elite 8 opponent Duke ranks 3rd in compensated defensive efficiency and Michigan State’s ability to grab offensive rebounds (#24 in ORB%) can keep the Blue Devils’ fast-break in check (Duke ranks 242nd in defensive rebounding).
Michigan State is without Joshua Langford, who missed all of the Big 10 season, but at the time of the injury I thought the Spartans would be better without him and that has been the case. MSU also didn’t miss Nick Ward when he was out and Tom Izzo was smart enough to keep the more versatile (and much better defender) Xavier Tillman in the starting lineup when Ward returned to health last week. The Spartans have the best chance to keep Duke out of the Final Four.
(3) LSU (26-6)
LSU won the SEC regular season championship but the Tigers lost their opening conference tournament game to Florida and are without their head coach Will Wade, who is under investigation for recruiting violations. LSU is a good team but the Tigers are certainly the worst of the #3 seeds and I’d have made them a #5 seed based on my ratings. Then again, the Tigers were 3-0 against the other 3 elite teams in the SEC, beating Auburn by 5, Kentucky by 2 and Tennessee by 2 points in overtime. LSU is not an easy team to figure out, as they’ve proven that they can beat other elite teams but may not be as good without their head coach on the bench. LSU was not expected to be nearly as good as they’ve been this season and teams that significantly outplay their preseason expectations tend to play relatively worse in the NCAA Tournament.
(4) Virginia Tech (24-8)
Virginia Tech ranks 8th in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage and the Hokies can beat any team when they’re hitting their 3-point shots at a high rate. Getting top assist man Justin Robinson back for the tournament after a 12 game absence will certainly help (Robinson is also a 41% 3-point shooter), although they didn’t fall off that much without him.
Virginia Tech really improved defensively this season (24th in compensated defensive points per possession), so they can still compete during stretches when their shots aren’t falling, and they can beat an elite team that doesn’t make their 3-point shots. The Hokies will allow teams to shoot 3-pointers, as they rank 3rd in the nation in highest percentage of shots taken from beyond the 3-point arc (50.1%), so facing a team that doesn’t knock down their 3-pointers at a better than average clip is an advantage Virginia Tech. The Hokies beat Duke, a 30% 3-point shooting team, at home by 5 points, although the Blue Devils were without Zion Williamson in that game, and their ability to control tempo and force bad shooting teams to take 3-point shots could spell trouble for Duke should they meet again in the Sweet 16, which is likely. However, it would still be risky to take the Hokies to beat Duke and I’d only suggest doing so if you’re going to pick the Hokies to get to the Final Four.
(5) Mississippi State (23-10)
Mississippi State is a very good offensive team and their defense has improved with the suspension of Nick Weatherspoon, who has the worst defensive rating among the core group of players (based on points per possession allowed with each player in the game). The Bulldogs can make tough shots (their shooting percentage is much higher than their shot quality index would predict), and they’ve been relatively better offensively against better defensive teams, but they’ve also been relatively worse defensively against better offensive teams. The ideal match-up for the Bulldogs would be against a team that is much better defensively than offensively but I don’t see any such teams in their path. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mississippi State made the Sweet 16 but I also wouldn’t pick them over Virginia Tech to get there.
(6) Maryland (22-10)
Maryland is solid on both sides of the court, ranking 25th in compensated offensive efficiency and 26th in compensated defensive efficiency and the Terrapins have played pretty well against other good teams this season. However, there is nothing particularly interesting about their statistical profile, other than ranking 2nd to last in the nation in forcing turnovers.
Maryland has a decent shot at reaching the Sweet 16, as their potential second-round opponent, LSU, is not as good as a typical #3 seed and the Tigers are without their head coach.
(7) Louisville (20-13)
Louisville limps into the tournament with just 4 wins in their last 12 games but a number of those were close losses to good teams. The Cardinals lost in OT to Florida State, lost by just 2 points to a healthy Duke team and recently hung close on the road against #1 seed Virginia (lost by 5). The late-season struggles hurt the Cardinals’ seeding, as they’re actually more like a #5 seed based on their season rating.
Louisville is likely to win their opening game against Minnesota and they beat likely second-round opponent Michigan State in overtime on their home floor back in late-November – so a trip to the Sweet 16 or beyond is certainly not out of the question.
(8) VCU (25-7)
VCU is an offensively challenged team that depends on creating turnovers (#9 in defensive turnover percentage) to create easy buckets in transition. The Rams will struggle against a team that can handle their pressure, although they’re still good defensively even when their opponent is not turning it over (#3 in the nation in effective field-goal defense). The 27.6% 3-pointers that opponents made against VCU is partially positive variance, which may have them a bit overrated, and the best team that the Rams have beaten this season (Texas) didn’t even make this tournament.
VCU doesn’t seem to match up well with their opening opponent UCF, as the Knights have proven that they can handle pressure (see below) and they have a 7-6 rim protector in Tacko Fall (2.5 blocks per game) and only allow 44.6% on 2-point shots (#14 in the nation). VCU can’t shoot from the outside (30.7% on 3-pointers) and scoring at the rim will be a challenge against UCF in half-court situations. If the Rams don’t force a good amount of turnovers they’ll most likely lose that game.
(9) UCF (23-8)
UCF has an experienced point guard in senior B.J. Taylor and the Knights averaged just 11 turnovers in 3 games against teams that rank in the top 25 in defensive turnover percentage – so VCU’s pressure may not bother them in their opening game. Also, VCU is on the small side, with no starter taller than 6-8, and the Knights’ 7-6 center Tacko Fall, who leads the nation in field goal percentage (75.4%), should be able to do his thing with little resistance. UCF has beaten Houston and Cincinnati this month but they’d have no shot to beat Duke in round 2.
(10) Minnesota (21-13)
Minnesota is an offensively challenged team (#284 in the nation in effective FG%) that isn’t good enough defensively (42nd in overall defensive rating) to beat a good team without some luck (like Purdue making just 25% of their 3-point shots in their 2-point win over the Boilermakers). I don’t see the Gophers getting past first-round opponent Louisville unless former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino gives his son (Richard Pitino is Minnesota’s head coach) enough useful knowledge about Louisville’s players to make a significant difference.
(11) Belmont (26-5)
I’m not sure Belmont deserved to get in the tournament based on their overall level of play (I rank them 54th) but I’m glad the Bruins will get the chance rather than some 8th or 9th place team from a major conference. Belmont is a very good shooting team and the Bruins run good offensive sets under veteran coach Rick Byrd, but they were relatively worse against better teams and are just 3-4 in 7 games against the best defensive teams that they faced.
I think Belmont is a better team than Temple with star big man Nick Muszynski playing (he missed the Murray State loss) but Maryland would be next and the Terrapins would be the best defensive team that the Bruins have faced this season.
(11) Temple (23-9)
Temple is the worst at-large team in the field, as the Owls rank just 65th in my ratings and are just 2-5 against top-50 rated teams. It was probably their early-January home win over Houston that got them in this tournament but their defense likely won’t be good enough to win their play-in game against Belmont and I certainly wouldn’t pick the Owls to beat Maryland.
(12) Liberty (28-6)
Liberty is a very efficient offensive team (12th in the nation in effective FG%) and the Flames were much better, relatively, when facing good defensive teams. First-round opponent Mississippi State is more of an offensive team than a defensive team and the Bulldogs should score pretty easily against a Liberty defense that ranks 119th in the nation in compensated points per possession allowed. Calling for the upset would be a risk, although it’s not out of the question.
(13) St. Louis (23-12)
St. Louis allowed an average of just 55 points on 37.6% shooting in their 4 conference tournament wins and it will take an especially good defensive effort to beat Virginia Tech in round 1. The Billikens, while good defensively, are among the worst shooting teams in the nation – ranking 327th in 3-point percentage, 285th in 2-point percentage, and 352nd (2nd to last) in free-throw percentage.
The Billikens’ best win of the season was at Seton Hall (a #10 seed) and they lost their 3 other games against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams. Virginia Tech is on the other side of the spectrum offensively, ranking 8th in compensated points per possession and the Hokies actually rank 27 spots ahead of St. Louis in compensated defensive PPP. St. Louis is not a good upset candidate.
(14) Yale (22-7)
Yale is a solid team on both sides of the court and the Bulldogs are particularly good offensively, ranking 11th in the nation in effective FG% and 66th in compensated offensive efficiency. However, Yale’s only good win was against Miami-Florida and they lost to similarly mediocre teams Memphis and Vermont while going just 1-2 against the Ivy League’s second-best team, Harvard. LSU doesn’t appear to be as good without their head coach on the bench with them (he’s been suspended) but it would still be very risky to pick the Bulldogs to win that game.
(15) Bradley (20-14)
Bradley started the season 8-10, including losses in their first 5 conference games. Since then the Braves are 12-4 and enter this tournament with a Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship. Part of that turnaround is due to a change in the rotation (Luuk van Bree starting and less of Hodgson and Brummett, who are terrible) and part of it is due to 3-point shooting variance (41% to 31% allowed in those last 16 games, compared to 37% to 33% for the season). Bradley is clearly improved, and MVC teams are an incredible 10-0 straight up in round 1 the last 7 years, but the MVC was really weak this season and the first round win streak for this conference will end this season.
(16) NC Central (18-15)
NC Central is the worst team in the tournament and they lost by 20 points (at Clemson) and by 22 points (at Cincy) against the only two NCAA tournament-caliber teams that they played this season.
(16) North Dakota State (18-15)
North Dakota State is good offensively and horrible defensively and their reward for beating NC Central is a date with Duke in which they’ll be an underdog of more than 30 points. The Bison lost by 60-102 to Gonzaga and Duke could also top 100 points against this team.
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