(1) Virginia (29-3)
Virginia enters the tournament with the best compensated net efficiency in the nation, although they’d be second to Duke when excluding the Blue Devils’ games without Zion Williamson. Speaking of Duke, two of Virginia’s three losses were to Duke by a combined 12 points, but 3-point variance had a lot to do with those decisions, as the Cavaliers (a 41% 3-point shooting team) were outshot from 3-point range 32% to 43% by a Duke team that has made just 30% of their 3-point shots this season. Virginia also has the best 3-point defense in the nation so Duke was lucky to have that much of an advantage over Virginia in those games and the Cavaliers probably would have won both games if not for that variance.
Virginia’s other loss was to Florida State in the ACC semifinals, but that’s a quality loss and the byproduct of 3-point variance as well (21% to 38% for FSU) and I don’t see this year’s team losing to a clearly worse team, as they did in last year’s first round.
Virginia is known for its defense, which ranks 4th best in compensated points per possession, but the Cavaliers also have the 2nd best compensated offensive efficiency in the nation and they’ll only lose if they get outshot from 3-point range, which will be difficult for an opponent to accomplish given that they rank 4th in the nation in 3-point percentage on offense and #1 in 3-point defense. If the Cavaliers don’t make the Final Four with this team then they’ll never make it under Tony Bennett and there actually could be some value in taking the Cavs to win it all, as public perception is likely against them.
(2) Tennessee (29-5)
Tennessee is a very consistent team because they don’t depend on 3-point shots on offense (only 25% of their points come from 3-pointers, which ranks 323rd in the nation) and they play good defense, ranking 16th in 2-point shooting defense. The Vols can be vulnerable defensively beyond the arc (34.4% allowed is the national average) but so far they haven’t been the victim of any real upsets, as all 5 of their losses were to good teams (Kansas in OT, at Kentucky, at LSU in OT, at Auburn and to Auburn in the SEC Championship game). That last loss was ugly (lost by 20) but it could serve as a wake-up call and propel the Volunteers to play even better this first week.
Tennessee’s only real weakness, aside from mediocre 3-point defense, is their defensive rebounding (266th in the nation) and that could hurt them against possible second-round opponent Cincinnati, who ranks 4th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. That game is also being played in Cincy’s home state of Ohio, which is a scheduling advantage for the Bearcats. Tennessee is certainly a better team than Cincinnati, but an upset loss there would not surprise me. If you don’t think Tennessee can make a run to the Final Four then you might consider picking that upset to add some variance to your bracket, but I do rate the Vols as the 8th best team in the nation heading into the tournament and they haven’t lost to a team seeded #6 or worse all season.
(3) Purdue (23-9)
Purdue improved when big man Trevion Williams joined the rotation in early January after playing very little in the early part of the season. However, while the Boilermakers are a very good team they did tend to play relatively worse against better teams. That’s not to say that Purdue can’t beat good teams, as they’ve split two games with Michigan State and won at Wisconsin with their current rotation and have won 17 of their last 21 games overall. I actually rate Purdue as the 2nd best team in this region and the Boilermakers have one of the best teams in the nation in Carsen Edwards. I will probably have the Boilermakers advancing to at least the Elite 8.
(4) Kansas State (25-8)
Kansas State’s fortunes are tied to star Dean Wade’s injured foot. The Wildcats are a very good team with Wade (20-5 straight up) but they’re just 5-3 without their star, who is listed as questionable as of Tuesday morning. If Wade is healthy enough to play then a trip to the Sweet 16 could be in their future but they could also fall to UC Irvine in their opener if Wade doesn’t play (although I’d still favor them to win).
(5) Wisconsin (23-10)
Wisconsin is a popular pick to be upset in round 1 and the Badgers can struggle to score at times, but their defense is really good (#4 in compensated defensive efficiency) and they don’t beat themselves (8th in lower offensive turnover percentage). Wisky’s path to the Sweet 16 is pretty favorable, as I give them the edge over Oregon and #4 seed Kansas State may be without star Dean Wade. However, should the Badgers get that far they’d likely lose to a Virginia team that is just as good defensively but much better on the offensive side of the floor.
(6) Villanova (25-9)
Villanova lives and dies by the 3-point shot, as 53.5% of their offensive points come from shots beyond the arc. That formula worked last season when the Wildcats had multiple 3-point shooters but this year’s team is mediocre in 3-point percentage (35.3%) and they lost to the two teams they faced that rank in the top-15 in 3-point defense, scoring just 46 points in a 27 point loss to Michigan and losing to a mediocre Penn team. First-round opponent St. Mary’s ranks 9th in 3-point defense (31.4% allowed) and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wildcats lost that game. However, I also wouldn’t be surprised if Nova made it to the Sweet 16, as most likely second-round opponent Purdue doesn’t defend the 3-point arc well.
(7) Cincinnati (28-6)
Cincinnati upset Houston to win the American Athletic Conference tournament and the Bearcats are certainly capable of getting to the Sweet 16 if their offense is decent. Cincy’s defense is very good (30th in compensated points per possession) and there is room for improvement given that their 3-point defense is worse than average (most likely random given how good their defense is overall). Offensively is where the Bearcats can struggle, as they rank 256th in the nation in effective field-goal percentage. Thankfully, Cincinnati rebounds a lot of their misses (4th in offensive rebound percentage) and doesn’t turn the ball over much (#29 in offensive turnover percentage) so they tend to take more shots than their opponents. First-round opponent Iowa is a worse than average rebounding team and ranks 209th in effective FG% defense, so the Bearcats should be able to score enough points to win that game and they could upset Tennessee in round 2 thanks to extra chances from offensive rebounds (Tennessee ranks 266th in defensive rebounding). I’m not saying that Cincy is likely to beat Tennessee but playing in nearby Columbus is an advantage and picking the Bearcats to make the Sweet 16 is not too much of a stretch if you’re looking for some upsets in your bracket.
(8) Mississippi (20-12)
Mississippi is a respectable 4-7 against other NCAA Tournament teams with two wins over Auburn and they’d have an even better record if not for some bad luck in 3-point defense. The Rebels have allowed 37.2% from beyond the arc, which is much worse than it should be given their overall level of defense (#73 out of 353 teams in 2-point defense). I haven’t decided on my pick in the Rebels’ first-round game against Oklahoma but I certainly wouldn’t pick this team to beat Virginia in the next round.
(9) Oklahoma (19-13)
Oklahoma has been relatively worse against better teams this season and the Sooners are just 3-10 against fellow NCAA Tournament teams. The Sooners are close to a coin flip to beat Ole’ Miss but they have no chance against Virginia in round 2.
(10) Iowa (22-11)
Iowa started the season 20-5 but the Hawkeyes have lost 6 of their last 8 games. Iowa isn’t really any worse than they’ve been all season but most of this season the Hawkeyes were extremely lucky in their 3-point defense and lately that percentage has regressed to the mediocre level it should be. Iowa has allowed 44.9% shooting overall this season to teams that combine to make just 43.8% of their shots but they’ve been significantly better than average in 3-point defense (32.6%), which is likely just random.
Through their first 23 games, the Hawkeyes allowed just 31% 3-point shooting, which was simply good luck given the overall level of their defense. In the last 10 games, Iowa’s opponents have made 36% of their 3-pointers, which is actually a bit higher than it should be – although certainly more indicative of their defense than the 32.6% 3-pointers they’ve allowed overall this season. Iowa isn’t as good as their overall season rating would suggest.
(11) St. Mary’s (22-11)
St. Mary’s has had better teams than this be left out of this tournament and I was happy that the Gaels took matters into their own hands with a win over #1 Gonzaga in the WCC championship game. While that win was impressive it was only the second really good win for St. Mary’s this season, with a 15 point win at New Mexico State being the other. The Gaels also lost to Utah State, Mississippi State, and LSU – although two of those losses were by just 4 points.
The Gaels’ first-round match-up with Villanova is interesting given that St. Mary’s allows the 11th fewest percentage of points against them from 3-point range in the nation (just 25.1% of their points allowed are from 3-pointers) while the Wildcats rank 3rd in the nation in percentage of points scored via the 3-point shot on offense (53.5%). Hmmm.
(12) Oregon (23-12)
Prior to the Pac-12 Tournament Oregon was not projected to be in the NCAA Tournament field and now the Ducks are a popular pick to beat a #5 seed. Talk about an overreaction to recent results. Oregon has played better during their 8-game win streak but having opponents make just 23% of their 3-point shots during that streak is also lucky. Oregon does have a good perimeter defense but allowing just 29.4% is partially positive variance, especially given the Ducks fairly mediocre 2-point defense (49.0% ranks 126th in the nation), which is more strongly correlated to future 3-point defense than actual 3-point defense is.
Oregon’s offense ranks just 94th in compensated points per possession and I feel compelled to warn you against overreacting to recent results. The Pac-12 was a terrible conference all season and Oregon has just one win this season against a team ranked in my top-45 (Syracuse) against 3 losses (Iowa, Houston, and Baylor). The Ducks do look improved but I’d still be wary of picking them.
(13) UC Irvine (30-5)
UC-Irvine has ranked in the top-6 in 2-point defense in 5 of the last 6 seasons and they enter this tournament ranked #1 in that category. The Anteaters have the best offense they’ve had in coach Russell Turner’s 9 seasons (#130 in my ratings), but they’ll likely struggle to score in their opening game against Kansas State. However, the Wildcats may be without star Dean Wade (questionable as of Tuesday morning) and the chance of an upset win would certainly increase if Wade doesn’t play.
(14) Old Dominion (26-8)
Old Dominion won the CUSA tournament but the Monarchs only won those games by an average of 3 points despite their opponents making just 27.5% of their 3-point shots and 54% of their free-throws. Old Dominion has been worse defensively (although still good) without Marquise Godwin and they still struggle to score, ranking 211th in compensated points per possession on offense and 302nd in effective FG%. I don’t see the Monarchs as a possible upset winner.
(15) Colgate (24-10)
Colgate is a very good 3-point shooting team (39.1% is 13th best in the nation) and first-round opponent Tennessee’s defensive weakness is defending the arc (178th in 3-point defense). However, it would take about 60% 3-point shooting for the Raiders to win that match-up (given all other facets of the game are as projected).
(16) Gardner-Webb (23-11)
Gardner-Webb is an average Division 1 team that lost to the 3 good teams they faced this season (VCU, Virginia Tech, and Furman) by an average of 14 points, which is not so bad given that all 3 games were on the road. However, #1 seeded Virginia will not be taking this game lightly after being the first team in history to lose to a #16 seed in last year’s tournament.
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