(1) Gonzaga (30-3)
Gonzaga has been the 3rd best team in the nation this season in my compensated ratings behind Duke (games with Zion only) and Virginia and the Zags are the only team to beat Duke when the Blue Devils had all of their stars playing. However, the Bulldogs also lost their other two games against elite teams – dropping a 3-point decision on a neutral court to Tennessee and losing by 13 at North Carolina – and they were relatively worse against better teams overall while enhancing their compensated rating by beating up on bad teams. My NCAA Tournament ratings give more weight to games against better teams and dampen the effect of blowout wins against weaker teams and those ratings have Gonzaga even with Michigan as the 5th/6th best team in the nation.
(2) Michigan (28-6)
Michigan is capable of making it back to the Championship Game as long as they don’t have to face Michigan State. The Spartans match up well with Michigan (MSU won all 3 meetings) but the Wolverines are 28-3 against everyone else and in general, they were relatively better against better teams, which is a characteristic you want in a team you’re picking to go far in this tournament.
Michigan is basically tied with Texas Tech in my defensive ratings and the Wolverines’ other key strength is their ability to take care of the ball, as they have the lowest offensive steal percentage in the nation and rank #3 in lowest offensive turnover percentage. Michigan is relatively better against teams that tend to force more turnovers because those opponents are not going to get the steals that they depend on. A good team like Michigan State or Wisconsin, who they also lost to, that doesn’t try to force turnovers (MSU is ranked #344 in defensive TO% while Wisky is #262 in that category) has a relative advantage against Michigan since the Wolverines’ ability to take care of the ball is less important against teams that aren’t trying to force turnovers. If you’re looking to pick a team other than Gonzaga to get out of this region then Michigan is your team (and will probably be my pick) – although Florida State deserves a look too (see below).
(3) Texas Tech (26-6)
Texas Tech is an elite defensive team (neck and neck with Michigan for the #1 rating) but teams that are that good defensively don’t have any room for improvement by giving more effort on that side of the court and the Red Raiders’ can struggle to score at times, which makes them more vulnerable to being upset than other high-seeded teams. However, Texas Tech did improve offensively over the latter part of the season and won 9 consecutive games, mostly against good teams, before losing to lowly West Virginia in their Big 12 Tournament opener.
Texas Tech is a tough team to figure out but a second round match-up against Buffalo could prove troublesome given the Bulls’ propensity to be relatively better offensively against better defensive teams (see below). But, Jarrett Culver is the type of all-around player that can carry a team deep into the tournament.
(4) Florida State (27-7)
Florida State has won 14 of their last 16 games with those losses coming against #1 seeds North Carolina and Duke. During that run, the Seminoles beat another #1 seed in Virginia and beat a very good Virginia Tech team twice. FSU’s calling card is their rugged defense, which ranks 10th in my compensated ratings, and while the ‘Noles aren’t great on the offensive side of the floor they do tend to play relatively better against better defensive teams. Their defense is also relatively better against good offensive teams, and their tendency to beat at their best against other good teams makes Florida State a threat to make a deep run in this tournament. If you’re looking for an uncommon Final Four pick then you should consider the Seminoles.
(5) Marquette (24-9)
Marquette has one of the nation’s top scorers in Markus Howard (25.0 ppg) and the Eagles have plenty of good shooters (their top 4 scorers all made 40% or more of their 3-point shots) but they seem over-seeded to me and enter this tournament having lost 5 of their last 6 games. Marquette can certainly pull off an upset if they’re outside shots are falling at a high rate but they can also lose to an inferior team.
Losing to Murray State, who actually would have the best player on the court in Ja Morant (24.6 ppg and 10.0 assists), would not be much of an upset. Because of that tougher first-round match up the Golden Eagles are not likely to make the Sweet 16 even if you think they can beat Florida State in round 2.
(6) Buffalo (31-3)
Buffalo has multiple star players and rates well on both offense (23rd) and defense (36th) in compensated points per possession. However, the Bulls’ ability to beat good teams is undetermined given they’ve faced just two such squads and splits those games (beat Syracuse by 12 but lost to Marquette by 18 points). Buffalo did beat the MAC’s second-best team Toledo twice by a combined 36 points and the same cast of characters upset Arizona in last year’s tournament before losing to Kentucky.
Buffalo should be able to beat either Arizona State or St. John’s and I can see this team upsetting Texas Tech to get to the Sweet 16 given that their compensated offensive rating is relatively better against better defensive teams. In fact, the slope to predict Buffalo’s compensated offensive rating as a function of their opponent’s defensive rating is -0.70, which basically means that the opponent’s defense doesn’t have much influence on the Bulls’ ability to score. Texas Tech’s success if strictly due to their top-rated defense, which is likely to be less influential against Buffalo than it would be against other teams.
(7) Nevada (29-4)
Nevada only lost 4 games and the Wolf Pack have impressive compensated offensive and defensive ratings but they remain a bit unproven given their lack of quality opposition. The best team that Nevada has faced this season is Utah State and they split two games with the Aggies. I’ll give the Wolf Pack the benefit of the doubt given their success in last year’s tournament (two wins before a 1-point loss to eventual Final Four team Loyola-Chicago) but their statistical profile paints the picture of a team that is likely to underperform.
(8) Syracuse (20-13)
Syracuse is always a tough team to figure out because a lot depends on how non-conference opponents adapt to their unique match-up zone defense. The Orange are the longest team in the nation and that leads to a lot of blocked shots (#2 in the nation) and long arms getting in the way of passing lanes (#9 in steals percentage). First-round opponent Baylor can be turnover prone and doesn’t shoot particularly well but the Syracuse gives up a lot of offensive rebounds while going for blocks (#335 in defensive rebound percentage) and the Bears are very active on the offensive glass (#2 in offensive rebounding). That game is pretty much a toss-up and I haven’t decided yet which team I’ll pick – although Syracuse is just 7-11 against teams that rank in the top 125 in offensive rebounding percentage.
(9) Baylor (19-13)
Baylor is a tough team to figure out, as the Bears actually got better after losing their best all-around player, Tristan Clark, to a season-ending injury after 14 games. Makai Mason (14.6 ppg) and #3 scorer Mario Kegler each missed 6 games and King McClure missed 5 games and it’s a testament to the players on this team that they continued to win despite all the key injuries. Everyone other than Clark is healthy now but the reality of not having their star may be finally setting in, as the Bears enter this tournament on a 4 game losing streak.
Baylor is not a particularly good shooting team (#165 in effective FG%) but the Bears get a lot of second changes thanks to ranking 2nd in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. Offensive rebounding is a key stat found in over-achieving tournament teams and first-round opponent Syracuse is one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the nation (#335). If Baylor can limit their turnovers against the aggressive Orange defense, which is a big if (they’re worse than average in offensive turnover percentage), then the Bears could advance thanks to their offensive rebounding but beating Gonzaga is not likely.
(10) Florida (19-15)
NC State and Clemson might have a beef with the selection committee over the Gators getting into the tournament given that the arguments against those two teams (a lack of quality wins) can also be applied to Florida. The Gators only really good wins were both against LSU and their only other win against a tournament-caliber team was against Ole’ Miss. Florida is just 3-11 against NCAA tourney teams and 19-15 overall and that second win against LSU is what got them invited to the Dance.
Florida is actually a tournament-worthy team based on their compensated points per possession differential, which ranks 27th, and beating Nevada wouldn’t be much of an upset, but there is nothing special about the Gators that makes me think they’re poised for a run in this tournament.
(11) Arizona State (22-10)
Arizona State’s overall rating isn’t particularly impressive (58th in compensated net points per possession) but the Sun Devils were relatively better against better teams and victories over Mississippi State, Utah State, Kansas, and Washington (in their only meeting) were enough to get them in this tournament.
Arizona State likes to attack the basket and they rank 6th in the nation in getting to the free-throw line, which they should do often in their play-in game against a defensively aggressive St. John’s defense that puts teams on the line at a high rate. If the Sun Devils get past St. John’s they’d be matched up against a very good Buffalo team and it would take a very good effort to knock off the Bulls. However, Arizona State has shown that they can rise to the challenge against good teams.
(11) St. John’s (21-12)
St. John’s inclusion in this tournament as an at-large team has me (and many others) scratching their head. The Johnnies just aren’t that good. Going 8-10 in a down year for the Big East shouldn’t get a team in this tournament – especially a team that lost to DePaul twice. St. John’s was actually relatively better against better teams and they have a great player in Shamorie Ponds that could actually lead them to a win or two, but picking the Red Storm to advance is a risk.
(12) Murray State (27-4)
Murray State has one of the best players in the nation in Ja Morant, who averages 24.6 points per game and still finds time to dish out 10 assists per contest. The Racers played pretty well in road games against SEC teams Alabama (lost by 6) and Auburn (lost by just 5) and they split two games with Belmont (the win came with Belmont’s best player out).
Murray State is rightfully the underdog to Marquette but they’ll have the best player on the court in Morant (apologies to Markus Howard) and that carries weight in this tournament and a win wouldn’t be much of an upset. However, Marquette has a good 2-point defense (19th in the nation) to combat Murray State’s strength (#2 in 2-point shooting percentage, although against relatively weak competition). The key to that game will likely be Marquette’s 3-point shooting. If the Eagles, a 39% 3-point shooting team, happen to have an off day from long range then Murray would probably advance. That’s a big IF though. Still, Murray State is a decent choice for the 12 vs 5 upset.
(13) Vermont (27-6)
Vermont has an impressive record but the best teams that Catamounts defeated this season are Yale and Northeastern, who wouldn’t be in the NCAA Tournament had they not won their conference tournaments. Vermont lost to Kansas by 16 points, to Louisville by 8 points and to Lipscomb by 25 points and beating Florida State would take a monumental effort from a team that isn’t particularly good on either side of the court (they rank #102 in compensated offensive efficiency and #100 in compensated defensive efficiency). The Catamounts are the #2 defensive rebounding team in the nation so Florida State may not get many second chances if their shots aren’t falling, which can be the case with the Seminoles, who rank just 169th in effective FG%.
(14) Northern Kentucky (26-8)
Northern Kentucky runs good sets offensively and the Norse rank 23rd in effective FG% and 5th in the nation in assist rate. However, finding passing lanes against Texas Tech is not easy (#2 in defensive EFG%) and the Norse aren’t good enough defensively to expose the Red Raiders’ occasionally troubled offense. Northern Kentucky faced just two NCAA Tournament-caliber teams and lost by 13 points on the road in both of those games at UCF and at Cincinnati. I don’t see a first-round upset unless Texas Tech is ice cold offensively.
(15) Montana (26-8)
Montana has very good offensive numbers (6th in the nation in effective FG%) but the Grizzlies’ offense is actually at #121 after adjusting for schedule strength and they’ll be up against my top-rated defensive team in the nation (Michigan) in their opening game. Montana was relatively worse against better teams this season and the Griz lost by an average of 18 points to the 3 best teams that they faced this season (Creighton, UC Irvine, and Arizona) and none of those teams are close to as good as the Wolverines are.
(16) Fairleigh Dickinson (21-13)
Fairleigh Dickson isn’t likely to stay within 25 points of Gonzaga.
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