(1) North Carolina (27-7)
There was some discussion as to whether Duke should have received this #1 seed instead of North Carolina because the Blue Devils beat the Tarheels twice, including in the ACC Tournament. But, Duke was lucky to win both games in the form of 52% 3-point shooting to 26% 3-point shooting for UNC. Duke is a 37.6% 3-point shooting team for the season so it’s random that they shot so well in those two games and the fact that Duke only won those games by a total of 18 points with 36 points of positive variance (including Duke’s 87% to 52% free-throw shooting edge in those games) settles the argument about which team deserves the #1 seed and the committee got it right.
Aside from two fluke losses to Duke the Tarheels also lost by 3 points to Kentucky in an epic 103-100 battle, at Indiana, at Georgia Tech, at Miami, and at Virginia. All of those teams aside from Indiana are better defensively than they are offensively and a team that can limit North Carolina’s good shots and keeps the Tarheels from rebounding their misses at a high rate (UNC is #1 in offensive rebound percentage at 42.0%) has a chance to upset UNC. There aren’t any teams like that on Carolina’s side of the bracket but they could run into Kentucky again in the regional final. However, it’s unlikely that Kentucky, a 35% 3-point shooting team, will make 56% of their long-range shots as they did in that first meeting with the Heels. But, the Wildcats did win the rebounding battle against North Carolina, which could be an issue for the Tarheels if they do meeting again.
The real key to beating North Carolina is 3-point luck. North Carolina was outshot from 3-point range in all 7 of their losses and the combined 3-point percentages in those games were 29.0% for UNC and 44.2% for their opponents. It’s tough for any team to win 6 games in a row because in any given game negative 3-point variance can strike, but I think the only way that North Carolina loses a game before the Final Four is if they get badly outshot from 3-point range. Once at the Final Four, a team like Gonzaga would be the team I think would have the best chance to beat North Carolina, as the Zags are well-balanced and efficient offensively, are my #2 rated defensive team (behind Virginia), and are a good defensive rebounding team. It’s usually not wise to pick a #1 seed to win it all, because there is no value in doing so, but you can do so if you inject some variance (with value) in other parts of your bracket (see our ‘How to win your NCAA Tournament Pool’ article) and consult my bracket analysis when it is released.
(2) Kentucky (29-5)
Kentucky didn’t get tested too often in a conference with only one other really good team (Florida) and the Wildcats weren’t particularly impressive against other elite teams. Kentucky beat North Carolina 103-100 but the Wildcats are just 2-4 against teams in my top-20, losing games at home to UCLA, at Louisville, at home to Kansas, and at Florida by 22 points (they got their revenge with a 10 point home win over the Gators). I think Kentucky is a really good team, as I have the Wildcats ranked 7th in my ratings, but they have a tough draw with vastly under-seeded Wichita State as a likely 2nd round opponent and a potential rematch with UCLA awaiting them in the Sweet 16. That’s a lot of land mines to avoid, so picking the Wildcats to make the Final Four is a huge risk even if you think they can beat North Carolina again.
(3) UCLA (29-4)
UCLA is the best shooting team in the nation, ranking #6 in 3-point percentage (40.5%), #3 in 2-point percentage (58.8%) and #1 in effective FG%. Like most elite offensive teams with good shooters, the strength of the opposing defense is not that much of a factor. Thus, the Bruins tend to play relatively better offensively against strong defensive teams. In fact, UCLA made 50.2% of their shots in their 4 games against teams ranked in the top-20 of my defensive ratings (Kentucky, Cal, and two games with Oregon). With that being the case, they should be able to handle a 2nd round game with defensively strong Cincinnati (#11 in my defensive ratings) and could beat Kentucky (again) or Wichita State (#14 in defense) if they meet one of those teams in the Sweet 16. The only team that outplayed UCLA this season was Arizona, who beat the Bruins in two of three meetings. There is nothing particular about Arizona that would give insight into what it takes to beat UCLA, as those losses were simply a case of 3-point variance (25% for UCLA to 48% for Arizona). UCLA made 57% of their 2-point shots in those two losses to the Wildcats so they weren’t really outplayed – they were just unlucky.
UCLA’s issue is a defense that gives up too many open perimeter shots but I feel it’s easier for a great offensive team to improve a mediocre defense by simply giving more effort on that end of the floor. Extra effort doesn’t help mediocre or bad offensive teams get better and extra effort doesn’t help elite defensive teams like Virginia get any better since they already give 100% effort on defense on every possession. But, a team like UCLA has room for improvement by simply trying harder on the defensive side of the floor, which they are likely to do against other good teams. It’s not like UCLA can’t play defense, as they actually rank 25th in the nation in 2-point defense, and being 251st in 3-point defense is something that they are likely to improve. UCLA is a very good team that plays relatively better offensively against good defensive teams and has the room to improve defensively with more effort.
This Bruins squad reminds me of the Notre Dame team from 2 years ago that nearly beat undefeated Kentucky in the regional final (lost 66-68). That Irish team entered the tournament as the nation’s best offensive team and ranked 111th in defense but started to give more effort defensively late in the season and won 8 consecutive games (they won the ACC tournament with upsets of Duke and UNC) before barely losing to Kentucky. Consider UCLA as a possible Final Four team.
(4) Butler (23-8)
Butler is #24 in my efficiency ratings but I rate the Bulldogs higher, as did the selection committee, because the Bulldogs play better against good teams. Butler is 4-0 against top-25 rated teams, as the Bulldogs beat Arizona and Cincinnati in addition to beating #1 overall seed Villanova twice. Overall, Butler is 12-5 against NCAA Tournament teams (excluding Bucknell) and not surprisingly, their regression equation that predicts their game rating as a function of schedule difficulty (opponent rating and site) is significantly positive to the point that it’s not likely that playing better against better teams is random.
Butler is a good offensive team (#17 in my ratings) and their glaring weakness is their interior defense, as the Bulldogs have allowed opponents to make 51.0% of their 2-point shots, which ranks 236th in the nation). Butler ranks 9th in defensive assist percentage, which means that their trouble defending 2-points is a function of being beaten off the dribble. They could beat Villanova because the Wildcats like to drive and dish the ball out to open 3-point shooters rather than driving the ball to get to the rim. Butler is likely to have trouble against a team that doesn’t settle for 3-point shots and has guards that can penetrate and finish at the rim. First round opponent Winthrop ranks 29th in 3-point attempts percentage, so the Eagles are not likely to take advantage of Butler’s defensive weakness, but 2nd round opponents Minnesota (318th in 3-point attempts percentage) or Middle Tennessee State (306th in 3-point attempts percentage) can. I’m not sure yet who I might take to make the Sweet 16 yet out of that pod but I’ll certainly consider the matchup. If Butler does make past their first two games they have proven that they are capable of beating superior teams.
(5) Minnesota (24-9)
Minnesota is a very good defensive team that ranks 3rd in blocked shots, 23rd in the nation in 2-point defense, and 11th in 3-point defense. If the Gophers can make some shots, which is a challenge for them (249th in effective FG% offense) they can beat anyone. Minnesota’s marquee win was at Purdue and the Gophers are a solid 7-7 against other NCAA Tournament teams (excluding Mount St. Mary’s). The Gophers have been playing their best basketball of late (9-2 in their previous 11 games) and they can certainly beat #4 seeded Butler to get to the Sweet 16. However, Minnesota might have trouble getting past Middle Tennessee State, who pulled off last year’s biggest first round upset as a #15 seed knocking off #2 Michigan State. Minnesota’s shot-blockers (#3 in the nation) might find it frustrating facing a Middle Tennessee team that likes to take shots close to the basket (#46 in 2-point FG attempts percentage) but doesn’t have many of them blocked (#5 in the nation at avoiding blocked shots). If you’re looking for a #12 versus #5 upset picking Minnesota to lose would be your best choice. But, I can also easily envision the Gophers getting to the Sweet 16 before losing to North Carolina.
(6) Cincinnati (29-5)
Cincinnati is a very good defensive team (#11 in compensated defensive efficiency) that can struggle in their half-court offense when facing a good interior defense. Four of Cincy’s five losses this season were against teams that are very good defending the paint. The Bearcats lost twice to SMU (#12 in 2-point defense), they lost to UCF (#1 in 2-point defense), and they lost to Rhode Island (#2 in blocked shots and #36 in 2-point defense). The other loss was to Butler, which was a case of 23% 3-point shooting rather than not being able to score inside the arc (51% on 2-pointers in that loss). Cincinnati is playing the winner of the Wake Forest – Kansas State play-in game and the Bearcats should be hoping for Wake Forest to win that one, as they don’t match up well with a Kansas State team whose defensive weakness is defending the 3-point arc (38.3% allowed ranks 324th) but is very good in 2-point defense (25th). Kansas State is the sort of team that Cincy doesn’t match up well with, as the Bearcats are not likely to take full advantage of the soft perimeter defense and would have trouble scoring inside the arc. Wake Forest is a bad defensive team (249th in 2-point defense) that relies on their good offense to win games, which is something that Cincinnati could combat with their good defense. It’s hard to know what to do with Cincinnati until you know their first round opponent but likely 2nd round opponent UCLA is a team that can score even against the best defensive teams and I don’t see the Bearcats winning that game.
(7) Dayton (24-7)
Dayton has a serious gripe with the NCAA selection committee, as the Flyers are the team that has to suffer because the committee seeded Wichita State so incredibly wrong. Wichita may not be as good as their compensated efficiency rating of 11th (I rank them 20th) but they are certainly better than a #10 seed. Dayton is a 6 point underdog in that game against the Shockers and that is the best argument of how much the Flyers got screwed by the committee’s incompetence in not knowing how to seed really good mid-major teams.
Dayton is a veteran team that is equally good on offense (#49) and defense (#45) and the Flyers are certainly capable of beating Wichita, who actually hasn’t beaten a team as good as Dayton this season. But, it’s still a shitty draw and they’d have to face a good Kentucky team if they manage to ‘upset’ Wichita State.
(8) Arkansas (25-9)
Arkansas is not as good as their 25-9 record, as the Hogs were lucky to win all their close games (6-0 in games decided by 4 points or fewer) and they are just 3-7 against other NCAA Tournament teams while losing all 5 games to my top-25 rated teams (twice to Florida by 22 points, twice to Kentucky by 43 points, and a loss at Oklahoma State by 28 points). The Hogs are a toss-up to beat Seton Hall but picking them to win more than one game is foolish exuberance (they’d face North Carolina if they get past Seton Hall).
(9) Seton Hall (21-11)
Like Arkansas, their first round opponent, Seton Hall doesn’t have any wins against really good teams (lost to Florida and to Villanova 3 times) but the Pirates are a decent 7-9 against other teams that made the NCAA Tournament field and also beat Cal on a neutral court (the Bears are just as good as Arkansas). Seton Hall has proven more capable of beating other good teams than Arkansas has and I’d lean with the Pirates in that toss-up game. But, like Arkansas, I don’t think Seton Hall has a chance to beat UNC in the next round.
(10) Wichita State (30-4)
Wichita State ranks 16th in the compensated offensive efficiency ratings and 14th in the compensated defensive ratings (and 11th overall), but the Shockers lost all 3 games to NCAA Tournament caliber teams (lost to Louisville, Michigan State, and Oklahoma State by an average 11.7 points) and they lost of one of the three meetings with Illinois State, who I rank 62nd.
Wichita built up their efficiency rating by beating up on lesser teams and the Shockers were relatively worse when facing better teams, as is easy to surmise when you look at who they beat and who they lost to. However, I still rank Wichita State at #20 in my NCAA Tournament ratings, which weigh games against better teams more heavily, and the Shockers are rightfully favored over Dayton (by 6 points in Vegas). Taking a look at Wichita’s 3 losses to good teams reveals a significant amount of negative 3-point variance, as the Shockers, #3 in the nation with 40.7% 3-point shooting, made just 14 of 61 (22.9%) long range shots in those 3 games while their opponents combined for 41.5% 3-point shooting (32 of 77), which is random as well given how well the Shockers defended the 3-poin arc overall this season (30.9% allowed is 18th in the nation).
Wichita State is not nearly as bad against good teams as the scores of those 3 games indicate given the average of 12 points of negative variance. The Shockers aren’t as good as their overall rating but they are still a very good team.
It would not be surprising to me if Wichita lost their opening game to Dayton and I also wouldn’t be surprised if they beat Kentucky in the 2nd round. If you’re looking for a reason to scratch Kentucky early in your bracket then Wichita State is a worthy candidate.
(11) Kansas State (20-13)
Kansas State is just 8-12 in their last 20 games but the Wildcats can win some games in this tournament. The calling card of the ‘Cats is defense, as Bruce Weber’s team ranks 27th in compensated defensive efficiency despite opponents making 38.3% of their 3-point shots. That number is randomly high, as there is no reason why the Wildcats should be expected to have opponents continue to make that high of a percentage from 3-point range given how good their defense is overall and given that Weber’s previous 4 teams at Kansas State had allowed a combined 31.8% from beyond the arc. So, Kansas State is even better defensively than their lofty rating and their offense (#46) is good enough to score on a Wake Forest defense that ranks 116th in the nation in compensated efficiency.
A win over Wake Forest would set up Kansas State to face #6 seed Cincinnati and I think the Wildcats match up well in that game (see Cincy’s profile). However, a 2nd round matchup with UCLA is not a particularly good matchup since the Bruins have proven that they can score against even the best defensive teams.
(11) Wake Forest (19-13)
Wake Forest is a very efficient offensive team (#9 in my offensive ratings) but the Demon Deacons really struggle on the defensive side of the court, ranking 244th in the nation in effective FG% defense and 116th in compensated defensive efficiency, which is the worst of any at-large team to make the tournament. Wake Forest is just 3-13 against my top-50 rated teams and if the Demon Deacons get past Kansas State in the play-in game I would pick them to lose to Cincinnati (see Cincy’s profile for details on that matchup).
(12) Middle Tennessee State (30-4)
Middle Tennessee State pulled off last year’s biggest upset with their win over Michigan State as a #15 seed and this year’s team is experienced and confident after rolling through the regular season with just 4 losses. The Blue Raiders played relatively better against other good teams, as they beat Vanderbilt by 23 points at home and only lost at VCU by 3 points. The Raiders also beat NC Wilmington (#74 in my ratings) by 5 points on a neutral court, won at Mississippi (#71) by 14 points, won at Belmont (#99) by 13 points, and beat the 2nd best team in their conference, Louisiana Tech (#96), by 10 points at home.
Middle Tennessee is better than their #64 efficiency rating, as my tournament ratings weigh games against better competition more heavily, and beating #5 seed Minnesota in the first round would not be an upset (the spread in pick and MTS is favored by 1 at some sportsbooks). If the Blue Raiders beat Minny they can also beat Butler since I think they match up well with the Bulldogs (see Butler’s analysis). Picking Middle Tennessee State to make the Sweet 16 would be a good way to induce some variance into your pool if you’re picking one of the favorites to win it all. But, I also have a feeling that a lot of people will be using MTS as their surprise team.
(13) Winthrop (26-6)
Winthrop is a solid team on both sides of the court, as they shoot the ball well on offense (38.0% 3-point shooting and 48th in the nation in effective FG%) and rank 30th in effective FG% defense. When adjusting for schedule strength, the Eagles rate at 149th in offensive efficiency and 140th on defense but I wouldn’t be surprised if they keep it close against Butler, who tends to play relatively worse against lesser teams.
(14) Kent State (22-13)
Kent State was a bit of a surprise winner of the MAC Tournament as the #6 seed but the Golden Flashes were actually 7-3 against the top 4 seeds in the MAC and beat top-seeded Akron in two of three meetings. Kent State also beat the best team that they faced this season – a 5 point road win at Texas. The Flashes played relatively better against better teams but I don’t give them much chance of beating UCLA.
(15) Northern Kentucky (24-10)
Northern Kentucky won the Horizon League Tournament but the Norse didn’t have to beat either of the top 2 teams in the league, Valparaiso and Oakland, along the way. Northern Kentucky lost 3 of 4 meetings with those top Horizon teams and also lost by 31 points at West Virginia and by 15 points at Illinois (my #69 rated team). Beating Kentucky is highly unlikely.
(16) Texas Southern (23-11)
Texas Southern may be 23-11 but the Tigers are a worse than average team on a national scale on both offense (#201) and on defense (#260). Texas Southern did face 5 good teams in their pre-conference schedule (road games against Arizona, Louisville, Cincinnati, TCU, and Baylor) and the Tigers lost those games by an average margin of 30.8 points with an average game rating that is 7 points worse than their overall average rating. That does not bode well for them against North Carolina.
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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