(1) Kansas (28-4)
I wasn’t particularly impressed with Kansas even before they lost to TCU in their opening Big 12 Tournament game. The Jayhawks have been overrated all season (12-18 ATS), and they weren’t particularly great against other really good teams. Kansas did beat Duke by 2 points early in the season, split two games with Iowa State (+3 points total margin), split two games with West Virginia (-12 points total margin), beat Kentucky by 6 and beat Baylor twice by a total of just 7 points. Those are solid wins but the Jayhawks certainly aren’t dominating and they rank 7th in my ratings.
Kansas is a good offensive team (7th in my efficiency ratings) but they’re not an elite defensive team (25th) and they haven’t defended the 3-point are well (35.7% allowed, although that is likely to go down given the level of their overall defense). Kansas certainly can beat any team but their poor free throw shooting (66.6% ranks 286th in the nation) could become an issue if they need to secure a victory with late free throws. There is nothing else really wrong with Kansas, but I just don’t like them and I think their sub-par 3-point defense is going to be their downfall if they face a good shooting team that has a hot night from long range. That could be Michigan State in round 2, as the Spartans tend to play better in the NCAA Tournament than their seeding and are a good 3-point shooting team. It would be a risk to pick Kansas to get beaten so early in the tournament but it’s not a bad value play. More likely would be a loss to #4 seed Purdue, who is strong defensively and ranks #4 in the nation in 3-point shooting at 40.6%.
Even if I liked Kansas I probably wouldn’t have the Jayhawks in my Final Four, as there is likely going to be no value in doing so since the public is likely to include them at a higher percentage than their chance of getting there. For more on that, you can read the ‘How to win your NCAA Tournament Pool’ article.
(2) Louisville (24-8)
Louisville ranks 5th in overall compensated efficiency numbers but the Cardinals are a bit lower in my ratings because they have not been as good against better teams, which has been a trait of Rick Pitino teams recently. Louisville is just 5-7 against my top-25 rated teams, which is not a strong endorsement for a long run in this tournament. However, I think the Cardinals match up pretty well with most of the teams on their side of the bracket.
Louisville’s issue is an offense that depends on offensive rebounding (15th in the nation) to clean up their missed shots, as they aren’t a good enough shooting team (#132 in effective FG%) to make a good percentage of shots against a good defensive team. If Louisville runs across a team with a good FG% defense that does a good job on the defensive boards then the Cardinals tourney run could be over.
Virginia is a good example of the type of team that can beat Louisville, as the Cavaliers don’t allow many good shots and ranks 9th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. It’s not surprising that Louisville lost twice to the Cavaliers by a total of 24 points and the Cardinals also lost their only meeting with North Carolina by 11 points (UNC is a very good rebounding team). However, the Cardinals did beat Wichita State by 11 points and Purdue by 7 points and those teams fit the bill of a good defensive team that doesn’t give up many offensive rebounds.
Thankfully for the Cardinals, the other good teams on their side of the regional bracket (Oklahoma State, Michigan, and Oregon) are worse than average defensive rebounding teams, as are Kansas and Iowa State in the top half of the bracket. The only good team in the region that seemingly matches up well with Louisville is Purdue, who ranks 10th overall in compensated defensive efficiency and 16th in defensive rebounding. However, Louisville beat the Boilermakers by 7 points at home in late-November by making a surprising 48.3% of their shots in that game. However, should they meet again in the regional final I’d probably side with Purdue. but that matchup is not that likely to occur. I can certainly envision a long run by Louisville in this tournament and the Cardinal should be motivated after their self-imposed NCAA ban last year.
(3) Oregon (29-5)
Oregon suffered a blow to their defense with a season-ending injury to shot blocker Chris Boucher, who averaged 2.5 blocks per game. Boucher missed two games earlier in the season (UNLV and Fresno State) and he missed the 3 point loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game and the compensated defensive efficiency in those 3 games was significantly worse than their season rating (0.07 points per possession worse). That’s only a 3 game sample and I don’t think Oregon is going to be more than 1 to 1 ½ points worse without Boucher, but that’s enough to make their journey through this tournament tougher than it would have been. The Ducks should be able to get at least to the Sweet 16 but they could be in trouble if they face Louisville in the regional semifinal, as they’d certainly miss Boucher’s shot-blocking in that game.
(4) Purdue (25-7)
Purdue is very capable of staying alive in this tournament and could be used as a Final Four pick to add value and induce some variance if you like one of the other favorites to win it all (see our ‘How to win your NCAA Tournament Pool’ article). The Boilermakers are good offensively (23rd in my ratings) and defensively (10th) and they can beat a team inside (leading scorer Caleb Swanigan is 56% on 2-point shots) and outside (40.6% 3-pointers ranks 4th in the nation) while defending the entire court well while not fouling (#2 in lowest free-throw attempt rate) and not giving their opponents 2nd chances (#16 in defensive rebounding). Purdue lost by just 3 points to #1 seed Villanova and by 7 points at #2 seed Louisville, who I think they can beat if they meet again in the regional final, and they had a good record against other quality teams (9-5 overall against my top-50 teams). Purdue is good enough to beat Kansas and Louisville and I’ll probably use the Boilermakers to reach the Final Four in one of my brackets even though they are not mathematically likely to do so (they’ll probably supply good value though).
(5) Iowa State (23-10)
Iowa State won the Big 12 Tournament with wins over Oklahoma State, TCU, and West Virginia and the streaking Cyclones enter the tournament having won 9 of their previous 10 games. Iowa State is a team that doesn’t beat themselves, as they rank #3 in offensive turnover percentage and #10 in the nation at not sending their opponent to the free-throw line. Aside from not fouling, though, the Cyclones are not a particularly strong defensive team, as their defensive effective FG% ranks 104th in the nation and they rank 288th in defensive rebounding.
Iowa State is a very good offensive team, however, as the Cyclones can also shoot the ball (11th in 3-point percentage at 40.2%) in addition to not turning it over. However, if the shots don’t fall a good offensive team can beat them, which is why ISU lost 10 games this season. Overall, Iowa State played relatively better against better teams, as is often the case for a good shooting team that doesn’t turn the ball over much. The Cyclones are 13-7 against NCAA Tournament caliber teams and they played pretty well against top-15 teams Gonzaga (lost by only 2 points), Kansas (1-1 and outscored by only 1 point total), West Virginia (1-2) and Baylor (1-1 and +1 point in total margin).
I like this Iowa State team, but I also like #4 seeded Purdue. The winner of that game is more than capable of making it to the regional final and beyond, and the Cyclones have already proven they can play with #1 seed Kansas.
(6) Creighton (25-9)
Creighton would be deserving of a #6 seed based on their entire season of work but the Blue Jays are not as good without PG Maurice Watson Jr., who averaged an incredible 8.5 assists per game. Creighton started the season 18-1 with their only loss to #1 seed Villanova, but the Blue Jays are just 7-8 without Watson, including 2-7 against NCAA Tournament teams (3-7 if you include the game Watson got hurt against Xavier, which was tied 22-22 when he was injured and ended with a 72-67 victory). Creighton still played at a level worthy of a NCAA Tournament invitation without Watson, just not at a level that merits a #6 seed, as the offensive efficiency has been about 2 points per game worse than their season rating without him (defense about the same). Creighton is pretty much a toss-up to get past #11 Rhode Island in their first game and I wouldn’t pick them to get past Oregon.
(7) Michigan (24-11)
Michigan had an incredible week last week, as the Wolverines survived a plane crash, got into Washington, D.C. early the day of their opening round game and then won 4 games in 4 days to win the Big 10 title while knocking off Purdue, Minnesota, and Wisconsin along the way. That run boosted Michigan’s rating to #20 overall but the question is if that run of adrenaline will carry over to this tournament. Michigan is the #5 most efficient team offensively, as they can beat you inside (56.7% 2-pointers is #7 in the nation), beat you outside (38.1% 3-point shooting), and won’t beat themselves (#5 in turnover percentage).
The Wolverines’ problem is defense, which is sub-par for a NCAA Tournament team and makes them pretty easy to beat when their outside shots aren’t falling. Being so dependent on outside shooting is what makes last week’s Big 12 tournament victory so unlikely, as the Wolverines had not won more than 4 games in a row all season up to that point (they’ve now won 5 straight). Michigan is 8-8 against fellow NCAA Tournament teams (excluding Mount St. Mary’s), which is a good record for a #7 seed, but it’s hard to imagine Michigan’s defense not costing them a game and that could be as early as their opener against the nation’s most efficient offensive team (Oklahoma State). If they get past that game, as they are favored to do, I don’t give the Wolverines a good chance to beating Louisville.
(8) Miami-Florida (21-11)
Miami has had a disappointing season, as their offense was not up to the level of their defense, which ranks 21st in my compensated efficiency ratings. The Hurricanes are capable of staying in games against better teams with that defense, but the offense really struggled to score against better defensive teams, which led to a record of 4-10 against other NCAA Tournament teams. However, Miami does have wins against North Carolina, Virginia, and Duke, so they are capable of beating a really good team if their offense plays at a decent level. A win over Michigan State is a reasonable pick but they aren’t good enough offensively to have a good shot at upsetting Kansas in round 2 and they are pretty much 50/50 to even get to that game. Miami is a small favorite against Michigan State but the Spartans tend to outplay their seed in the NCAA tournament so I’ll probably end up using Michigan State in most of my pools.
(9) Michigan State (19-14)
Michigan State lost in the first round as a #2 seed and 17 point favorite to Middle Tennessee State last year but the Spartans generally exceed expectations in this tournament. MSU is 46-18 straight up and 37-25-2 ATS in NCAA Tournament games under coach Tom Izzo, including 33-18-1 ATS if not facing a #1 seed. Izzo is 17-6 straight up and 17-6 ATS in NCAA tourney games when not favored by more than 4 points (favorite of 4 or less, pick or dog) against #2 seeds or worse, including 9-3 SU and ATS as the lower seed and 8-3 SU and ATS as an underdog or pick.
This year’s Michigan State team is capable of not only upsetting Miami in the first round but they can give Kansas a competitive game if they stop turning the ball over so much. The Spartans rank #310 in the nation in offensive turnovers but they’re very good offensively otherwise. Defensively, MSU ranks 14th in 2-point defense but they have not defended the 3-point arc well (34.7% allowed) and don’t force turnovers (#313 in defensive turnover percentage). Teams that can make 3-pointers should be able to beat Michigan State, which would make beating Kansas a challenge in round 2 (Jayhawks make 40.5% of their 3-point shots). I’ll probably pick MSU in most of my pools to get past Miami and I wouldn’t be surprised if they beat Kansas – although their chances of getting to the Sweet 16 are slim mathematically (since they’re only about 50% to get past their first game).
(10) Oklahoma State (20-12)
Oklahoma State has the best offense in the nation, as the Cowboys not only make shots (40.3% 3-pointers and 46th in effective FG%) but they rebound a high percentage of their misses (38.0% offensive rebound percentage is #6 in the nation). Oklahoma State’s problem is on the other end of the floor, as the Cowboys rank 275th in the nation in defensive effective FG% and they also foul a lot (#334 in sending opponents to the line).
Oklahoma State is relatively better against really good defensive teams because their offense is so good but the Cowboys are just 4-11 against other NCAA tournament teams (excluding New Orleans). Choosing OSU to beat Michigan is reasonable but their most likely 2nd round opponent, Louisville, is relatively better against weaker defensive teams and the Cardinals are nearly impossible to beat if they are scoring the ball on the offensive end, which they’re likely to do against the Cowboys.
(11) Rhode Island (24-9)
Rhode Island enters this tournament on an 8 game win streak with a pair of wins over VCU but the Rams have just one win all season against a team better than #51 rated VCU and that win was way back in November when they beat Cincinnati 76-71. Rhode Island is a very good defensive team that ranks 9th in the nation in defensive effective FG% while being #2 in 3-point defense (29.0%) and #2 in blocked shots percentage thanks to Hassan Martin (2.6 blocks per game) and Kuran Iverson (1.3 bpg). Generally, a 3-point defense that good is likely to regress towards the mean but that isn’t likely going to be the case with Rhode Island, who has ranked in the top 3 in the nation in 3-point defense in 3 of their last 4 years. Extending the defense to defend the 3-point line with two shot blockers protecting the rim is coach Dan Hurley’s game-plan and could spell trouble for a team that depends heavily on their 3-point shooting – like first round opponent Creighton. The question is if Rhode Island’s mediocre offense can score enough points. I think the Rams match-up pretty well with Creighton so they could win that game and a game with Oregon would be interesting – although I think the Ducks have too many weapons on offense to be bothered by Rhode Island’s strong defense (Oregon is relatively better offensively against better defensive teams).
(12) Nevada (28-6)
Nevada has a sparkling record but the Wolf Pack rank #63 in my efficiency ratings and their best win all season was at Boise State, my #93 rated team. The best team that Nevada beat was #83 San Diego State but that game was at home (and they lost the rematch on the road by 14 points) and their only game against a NCAA tourney caliber team was an 18 point loss at St. Mary’s. I know you’ve been schooled to look for those 12 vs 5 upsets but I wouldn’t recommend using Nevada to upset Iowa State.
(13) Vermont (29-5)
Vermont enters the tournament on a 21 game win streak and the Catamounts are a pretty good team on both ends of the floor, ranking #72 in my offensive efficiency rankings and #86 on defense. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to that long win streak, as Vermont’s best win was a road win at Albany, who rank at #152 in the nation. The Catamounts did face 4 good teams early in the season in Providence, Houston, South Carolina, and Butler and they lost those games by an average of 13.3 points with an average game rating that is 4.7 points worse than their overall rating. That doesn’t instill much confidence in their ability to beat Purdue.
(14) Iona (22-12)
Iona is a good shooting team (39.7% on 3-pointers) and they take care of the ball but Gaels are horrible defensively (#202 in my ratings) and I don’t envision them beating Oregon – although they are capable of keeping that game relatively close if they can knock down 40% of their 3-pointers. Oregon defends the 3-point arc well (31.1% ranks #21 in the nation) and the Gaels aren’t good enough inside the arc to take advantage of the Ducks being without one of their two shot blockers. In case you’re interested, Iona lost by 21 points to #3 seed Florida State, split two games with #12 seeded Nevada (-13 points total margin) and lost both games against Monmouth, the best team in their conference, by a total point of 24 points.
(15) Jacksonville State (20-14)
Jacksonville State has a pretty good interior defense, as the Gamecocks allowed just 44.7% on 2-point attempts (#26 in the nation), but they struggled to defend the 3-point arc (#315 in 3-point defense) and are bad defensively overall (#210 in my ratings). Louisville is not a good outside shooting team and being able to defend the interior relatively well could allow them to keep the sometimes offensively challenged Cardinals from scoring a ton of points. However, the Gamecocks’ offense will be completely dominated in that matchup if Louisville plays with any intensity. Jacksonville State’s only good win of the season was beating #104 Belmont by 6 points in the OVC tournament but the Gamecocks also lost twice to the Bruins by a combined 30 points and lost to TCU and Maryland by an average of 22.5 points.
(16) North Carolina Central (25-8)
NC Central is a better defensively than an average team, even after adjusting for their incredibly weak schedule, and the Eagles did lose by just 6 points at (#60) Ohio State while winning at (#164) Northern Kentucky and at (#116) Missouri. However, Kansas should have no problem beating the NC Central if the Eagles get past UC Davis in the play-in game.
(16) UC Davis (22-12)
Like NC Central, who they face in the play-in game, the Aggies are much better defensively than they are on offense. UC Davis ranks 150th (out of 351 teams) in compensated defensive efficiency but the Aggies are a horrible offensive team (#293) and their only game against a good team was a 25 point loss at Cal.
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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