(1) Kansas (27-7)
Kansas is a vulnerable #1 seed. The Jayhawks are not an elite defensive team (26th in compensated defensive efficiency) and they’re a poor rebounding team for a team of their level (+0.06 rebound margin per game), so they will have to make their shots in every game they play against other really good teams, which is tough do. The Jayhawks are a great shooting team (#6 in effective FG% despite a tough schedule) but all it takes is one sub-par shooting game against another good team and the Jayhawks will be on their way home. Their side of the region is pretty manageable thanks to the weakest #4-#5 seed combination (Clemson and Auburn) but the Jayhawks would get dominated on the glass by both Duke or Michigan State in the Elite-8 and both of those teams are also rated higher than Kansas in my ratings.
(2) Duke (26-7)
Duke is obviously a title contender with arguably the most talented team overall. The Blue Devils’ only weakness that could hurt them down the road is their sub-par defensive rebounding (204th in the nation). However, Duke is still ranked 7th in compensated defensive efficiency and they are the nation’s best offensive rebounding team (they rebound 39.1% of their missed shots), so they are still likely to win the important battle of the boards in later rounds when every possession matters. Duke is a very well-balanced team, as they can score inside and outside (22nd in 2-point percentage and 49th in 3-point %) while also defending well inside and outside of the 3-point arc (13th in 2-point defense and 24th in 3-point defense).
Duke is 3-4 against other elite teams with a win over Michigan State, a home loss to Virginia and a 1-2 record in a trio of games against North Carolina. How far I pick Duke in the pool depends a lot on how much value there is in picking them at each stage. I’ll have more on that concept when I send out my bracket analysis to subscribers on Wednesday.
(3) Michigan State (29-4)
Michigan State ranks in the top-10 in both compensated offensive and compensated defensive efficiency and the Spartans are a legitimate national championship contender. The 4 teams that beat MSU are all really good teams (Duke, Ohio State and Michigan twice) that combined for 40% 3-point shooting in those games and making jump shots is the only way to beat the Spartans, who rank 1st in the nation in 2-point defense at 38.4% allowed. Teams that have a chance of beating Michigan State must also keep the Spartans from getting second chances on offense, which is not easy to do. Michigan State not only makes a high percentage of shots (9th in effective FG%) but they rank 5th in offensive rebounding percentage.
The Spartans’ first road block is likely to be a Sweet 16 rematch with a talented Duke team that beat them early in the season 88-81. However, Michigan State outshot the Blue Devils 50.8% to 39.5% in that game and only lost because of a -8 in turnover margin and allowing 25 offensive rebounds to the Blue Devils. Those things can be fixed and the field goal percentages – particularly the 2-point percentages (61% to 40%) – are more indicative of the better team and it’s highly unlikely that MSU would be -8 in turnovers or allow 52% offensive rebounding again. The Spartans are on my short list of possible Championship teams (so is Duke, FYI).
(4) Auburn (25-7)
Auburn lost 4 of their previous 6 games and the Tigers are not as good defensively without shot-blocker Anfernee McLemore, who ranks 2nd in the nation in block percentage. Auburn is vulnerable, as they depend too much on getting to the free throw line (14th in the nation in percentage of points from the charity stripe), which is relatively negative since fewer touch fouls are called in the NCAA Tournament historically. The Tigers are not particularly good shooting the ball (141st in effective FG%) and their defense isn’t as good without McLemore. Auburn should still get past Charleston and Clemson is a pretty good draw as their likely second round opponent, as they are also down a key player, but picking the Tigers to advance to the Sweet 16 is a risk.
(5) Clemson (23-9)
Clemson didn’t drop off much in overall level of play after the season-ending injury to Donte Grantham and the Tigers are correctly seeded. Clemson does have a couple of red flags though, as they are vulnerable to a good 3-point shooting team (rank 205th in 3-point defense) and don’t get many second chances offensively (219th in offensive rebound percentage), which could hurt them against a good defensive team. The Tigers will likely be tested in their opening game against a very good defensive team in New Mexico State, who ranks 6th in the nation in effective field-goal defense and 14th in defensive rebound percentage. Clemson is not a great offensive team and they should have trouble scoring points against the Aggies. However, the Tigers’ defense matches up well against a New Mexico State team that doesn’t shoot the ball well enough from the outside (223rd in 3-point percentage) to exploit Clemson’s defensive weakness. I wouldn’t argue too hard with someone that is calling for a first round upset loss, but the Tigers are likely to win that tough game against the Aggies and they’re certainly good enough to beat Auburn in round 2.
(6) TCU (21-11)
TCU is a really good offensive team that makes a high percentage of their shots (13th in effective FG%) and rebounds a high percentage of the shots they happen to miss (21st in offensive rebound percentage). That is pretty impressive. However, the Horned Frogs are lazy defensively and give up a lot of open shots, which explains their #268 ranking in defensive effective field-goal percentage. TCU will play the winner of the Syracuse-Arizona State play-in game and they are better off facing Syracuse, whose poor shooting makes the Orange less likely to take advantage of the open shots that the Frogs tend to allow. However, likely second round opponent Michigan State is a huge obstacle that I don’t think TCU can get over.
(7) Rhode Island (25-7)
Rhode Island is not as good as their 25-7 record suggests and the Rams’ 3-6 record against top-75 teams is certainly a red flag. URI takes care of the ball (20th in offensive turnover rate), forces turnovers (5th in defensive TO%) and defends the 3-point arc well but are mediocre otherwise. The Rams’ tendency to extend their defense to not allow 3-point shots (11th in lowest 3-point attempts percentage) matches up well with Oklahoma’s long range shooter Trae Young, so a first round win could be in the cards, but I don’t see them beating Duke.
(8) Seton Hall (21-11)
Seton Hall is a typical mid-seed that is capable of competing with really good teams (OT against Villanova) but can also lose to an inferior team (Georgetown, Rutgers). The Pirates are certainly worthy of being in this tournament but they do nothing particularly well or particularly poorly. They are just a solid team on both sides of the court and they can certainly beat NC State and possibly even Kansas if the Jayhawks are off their game – it’s just not very likely.
(9) NC State (21-11)
NC State has beaten some really good teams (Duke and North Carolina), lost to some not so good teams (Northern Iowa, home against NC Greensboro, and Georgia Tech) and were knocked out by Boston College in their first ACC Tournament game, which actually didn’t surprise me as I had BC as a Best Bet in that game. The Wolfpack are like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get. NC State is a good offensive team but their interior defense is an issue, as the Wolfpack rank 297th in the nation in 2-point defense. Teams that do most of their offensive damage inside the arc could be a problem for the Wolfpack and first round opponent Seton Hall fits the bill. If NC State gets past the Pirates they could give Kansas a good game, as the Jayhawks can get a bit 3-point happy at times and NC State defends the arc well (14th in the nation in 3-point defense).
(10) Oklahoma (18-13)
Apparently, recent performance means absolutely nothing, as Oklahoma made it into the field with room to spare despite losing 11 of their last 15 games. I really don’t have a big issue with the Sooners making it if the entire body of work is actually adhered to, as the Sooners are 43rd overall in my ratings for the season. The question is if they will play to their season rating or not. I think super freshman Trae Young caught teams off guard early in the season, as they surely didn’t know how deadly Young would be as a long range shooter. Opponents adjusted to Young and he started to struggle, which led to the team struggling. Young is talented enough to take his team on a long ride if he gets hot again but I think it’s more likely that the Sooners play below their season rating – although not as bad as they’ve been the last 15 games, which is 4.7 points lower than their season rating. Oklahoma is a tough team to handicap since they can beat anyone if Young is at his best – and can lose to anyone if he continues to struggle.
(11) Arizona State (20-11)
The fact that Arizona State, 8-10 in a weak Pac-12 conference, made the tournament over the conference’s #2 team USC is a joke. Yes, ASU was impressive early in the season with wins over Xavier and Kansas State and at Kansas, but there was a lot of luck in those wins in the form of 3-point variance (the Sun Devils made 36 of 73 3-point shots in those 3 wins). The Devils’ 5-10 record against Pac-12 teams other than bottom-feeders Cal and Washington State is more indicative of who they are entering the tournament. ASU is still a good offensive team but the Sun Devils give up too many open shots. The good news for them in their play-in game against Syracuse is that the Orange miss a lot of open shots (Syracuse is 321st in the nation in effective FG%). If Arizona State plays better defensively then they have room for improvement and they’ve already proven that they can beat superior teams if the knock down 50% of their 3-point shots. However, that’s very unlikely.
(11) Syracuse (20-13)
Syracuse somehow made it into this tournament despite a 3-9 record against other at-large or major conference tournament champions and 4 other losses to teams that didn’t make this tournament. I’ll use this space to deride the NCAA Tournament committee, which is getting worse and worse at their job of picking the best teams but instead continues to weigh arbitrary metrics like RPI, which favors major conference teams and can be manipulated by careful scheduling. Syracuse is not better than St. Mary’s or USC, two teams that absolutely deserve to be in this tournament instead of a team that went 8-10 in their conference. St. Mary’s won at Gonzaga and went 28-5 and most importantly would be favored by 1 ½ or 2 points over Syracuse. The committee made fools of themselves this year.
Back to Syracuse, who may beat a slumping Arizona State team in the play-in game but are unlikely to beat TCU, who is a really good passing team (7th in assist rate) that can knock down shots over the Orange zone defense (40.0% 3-point shooting). Good passing teams that can make outside shots usually perform well against zone defenses so I don’t expect Syracuse to get past the round of 64.
(12) New Mexico State (28-5)
New Mexico State is a very good defensive team, even after compensating for their weak schedule, as the Aggies rank 38th in my schedule adjusted defensive ratings. In addition to the strong defense the Aggies also are a very good offensive rebounding team (#27 in ORB%), which is a characteristic of teams that pull off NCAA Tournament upsets. New Mexico State split 4 games against NCAA Tournament caliber teams, beating Davidson and Miami-Florida and losing to St. Mary’s and USC (who both should be in the field). A first round upset over Clemson wouldn’t be too much of an upset but the Aggies will probably need to make their outside shots because the Tigers are really, really good defending the paint. The problem is the Aggies aren’t particularly good at making outside shots (34.0% ranks 223rd). A run to the Sweet 16 is certainly a possibility given that Clemson (without Donte Grantham) and likely second round opponent Auburn (without shot-blocker Anfernee McLemore) are not at full strength.
(13) Charleston (26-7)
College of Charleston is a pretty solid team but they just don’t have the talent or style of play to have a good shot at an upset win. The Cougars won’t beat themselves (#11 in offensive turnover rate) but they also won’t get many second chances on offense (#273 in offensive rebound percentage), which is a key ingredient of upsets along with creating turnovers (just #218 in defensive turnover percentage) and making a lot of 3-point shots (#104 in 3-point percentage is good, but not good enough). Auburn is not a bad match-up, however, as the Tigers lack height and take a lot of 3-point shots, which opens the door for some negative variance. A win over Auburn is unlikely but also would not shock me given that the Tigers are without one of their best players in Anfernee McLemore and have lost 4 of their last 6 games.
(14) Bucknell (25-9)
Bucknell is a capable team but their reliance on getting the ball inside and drawing fouls (13th in free-throw attempts rate) isn’t likely to translate as a big underdog in the NCAA Tournament. Teams that depend on free-throws as a big part of their offense tend to underperform in the NCAA Tourney, as do teams that don’t shoot a lot of 3-pointer and don’t make a good percentage from long range. Upsets are generally a function of positive variance and 3-point shooting and forcing turnovers are the best ways to create variance. Bucknell doesn’t take a lot of 3-pointers and they don’t make many (34.3%) and the Bison don’t force a lot of turnovers either (256th in defensive turnover percentage). Bucknell played pretty well at North Carolina (lost by 12) and at Maryland (lost by just 2) but was also destroyed by Arkansas (lost by 28). It is not likely that this team can create enough positive variance to beat Michigan State.
(15) Iona (20-13)
Iona doesn’t have the characteristics of a lower seed with upset potential, as the Gaels are a horrible offensive rebounding team (second chance points are important for underdogs), are mediocre in forcing turnovers and don’t have an elite player to carry them. Lower seeded teams that pull off an upset generally have a star player that is much better than the rest of the team and that is not the case with this well-balanced Iona team. Iona’s only chance for an upset is to make a lot of 3-point shots, and they do have good shooters (38.8% 3-point shooting as a team), but it’s going to take about 50% from long range for the Gaels to sniff an upset. Iona did play relatively better against the three good teams they faced this season, losing road games at Syracuse, St. John’s, and Rhode Island by an average of just 8.3 points. However, those teams made a randomly low 21% from 3-point range in those games, so the Gaels actually weren’t as competitive as it appears in those games and they’ll face a much tougher team in their first NCAA Tournament game.
(16) Penn (24-8)
Ivy League teams have done their conference proud in the NCAA Tournament in recent years, as Ivy representatives have won 5 NCAA Tourney games the last 8 years with 6 of the losses being by single-digit margins. Penn is not as good as other recent Ivy teams and they’ve been lucky in allowing just 29.6% 3-point shooting. The Quakers do not check any of the boxes that are usually indicative of an upset winner, as they don’t make a good percentage of 3-pointers (34.7%), don’t force turnovers (259th in defensive turnover rate), and are really bad at offensive rebounding (305th), which means they won’t get the second chances that are necessary to beat a superior team.
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