Thursday, March 24, 2011

March Madness--Sweet 16 Preview

(Reading this after the fact? Check out a recap of night one's action here

Week two of March Madness begins tonight, with 16 teams left standing to hold up the NCAA championship trophy a week from Sunday. The Sweet 16 is often cited as an important mark to make for a few reasons--it's the first round where even 1-seeds are no longer massive favorites over their usually much-weaker 8-seed foes. A team that gets lucky in the first round and pulls a huge upset is usually negated by the team they play in the second round--one win can be a fluke, but two wins on  the most pressure-filled courts in America can create legends. Any win over a team in the Sweet 16 is going to be a quality win, and the air up past this round can be very thin, indeed. But how we do fin out which teams are going to move on?

One of our many mottoes (that we enjoy making up on the spot from time-to-time) says "statistics can tell us a lot about the past, but that doesn't mean they can also predict the future." Just because Kevin Durant hits his first 10 shots of the day doesn't mean he's going to hit his 11th. The longer back we can track stats, the more meaningful they become, but they're still just a look at the past, not a look into future probability. It's impossible to know which team is going to come out this weekend on fire, and which one will suddenly go cold when it matters most. At this point in the tournament, we are left with 16 rather talented squads, and while a few might have an advantage (Duke, Ohio State, Kansas), that doesn't mean the others aren't capable of pulling the upset. If we take a look at the data from last weekend, at least we can give ourselves an idea of how the matchups look...

Thursday, March 24th
Walker is averaging 23.5 ppg and 4.3 apg for the Huskies
#2 San Diego State vs. #3 Connecticut--This edition of the Kemba Walker show could spell the end of the season for the San Diego State Aztecs. Against an undermanned Temple squad, it took SDSU two overtimes to finish them off, with star Kawhi Leonard shot only 5-14 from the floor--though he had a key steal and dunk near the end of the game. Neither team comes into this game shooting the ball incredibly well, with UConn at a 46.4% clip and San Diego shooting only around 42.0%, both under the average of all Sweet-16 squads. Both teams, however, have been great from the line, shooting 84% and 82% for UConn and SDSU, respectively--both well over the tournament average of 73%. Because neither team has proven better at stopping opposing shooters, with both teams having a DFG% of 36.2%, I would expect UConn to have a slightly better day shooting the ball. Combining that with a higher assist rate and offensive-rebound percentage, as well as fewer turnovers, the pick is the Connecticut Huskies.

#2 Florida vs. #3 BYU--Despite losing their top frontcourt player a few weeks back to premarital sex, BYU and The Jimmer have advanced to their first Sweet 16 since an Elite 8 apperance back in 1981. Here, they run into a Florida team that might have been overseeded despite being SEC regular-season champions, coming off an 8-point victory over UCLA in the round of 32. Unfortunately for BYU, I think this is where their lack of depth in the frontcourt could be their downfall. Throughout the first two rounds of the tournament, the Cougars were only rebounding 18.5% of their misses, which is a problem when you're only shooting 45% from the field. Florida, meanwhile, has been shooting  52.3% from the field, and grabbing 31.4% of their offensive rebounds. Assuming each team has 50 possessions resulting in a shot, that results in two more offensive boards for Florida per game--and that's already with them shooting nearly 8% better from the field, resulting in an additional four baskets made. Brigham Young does shoot better from the FT line, but considering they've out-fouled Florida thus far in the tournament, I think the Gators take this one and end Jimmer's fantastic collegiate career.

Irving will help the Blue Devils on both ends of the court
#1 Duke vs. #5 Arizona--Just a few weeks ago it seemed like Kyrie Irving's career as a Duke Blue Devil might have been over with naught but a few games that showed how great he could be. Unfortunately for the Arizona Wildcats, Kyrie returned for the first weekend of the tournament, and is expected to play major minutes for Duke. In the few games he did play, though notably against out-of-conference foes, Irving posted an offensive efficiency of 127.6 according to Ken Pomeroy, which would have been 3rd in the nation for players who use more than 24% of their team's possessions. Duke already shoots the ball at a higher percentage (52% to 45%), collects more offensive rebounds (34.6% to 29.8%), and holds their opponents to a much lower shooting percentage (42.6% to 47.2%), than Arizona, so this is the easiest pick of the night. Arizona had a good season under Sean Miller, but this is the fully-loaded Duke team everybody expected to steamroll through the earlier rounds of March Madness straight to a national championship.

#4 Wisconsin vs. #8 Butler--Can The Butler really do it again? After Pitt started the second half of their 2nd-round game on a big run to take the lead, it seemed like the Bulldog magic might finally have run out--but that was before one of the more memorable endings in recent tournament history. They now find themselves going against the slow-it-down Wisconsin Badgers, whose 90 shots taken are the fewest of any remaining Sweet 16 team (North Carolina has the most, with 133). This is another matchup of teams that shoot the ball well from the free throw stripe, with both teams just over 80%. Wisconsin, however, shoots the ball much better from deep, going 50% (21-42) thus far in the tournament. As amazing as Sheldon Mack was for Butler against Pitt, the Bulldogs still are only shooting 35.2% from deep, and despite taking 12 additional 3s this tournament, they have still made two fewer than the Badgers. In addition, the percentage at which Butler lets their opponents shoot the ball (they ranked 204th in the country in 2-point defense this season) should give Wisconsin a big advantage, and Butler just doesn't have the athletes they need to get past the molasses-paced Badgers. Jordan Taylor will cover Mack, and with Jon Leuer on Matt Howard, the Badgers advance to the Elite 8.

Friday, March 25th
Marshall's play has helped UNC win 11 of 12
#2 North Carolina vs. #11 Marquette--The last team to qualify for the NCAAs out of the Big East conference looks to keep their magic run going after dispatching conference foe Syracuse by 4...although they did beat the Orange by 6 back in January, so familiarity might have had something to do with that. That, or Syracuse sending the Golden Eagles to the free throw line 23 times, of which they made 19, to cancel out the Orange's 55.3 shooting percentage. Unfortunately for Marquette, they haven't done such a good job taking care of the ball lately: despite an above-average tournament assist rate of 62.2%, they still have an assist-to-turnover ratio below of 0.97, second-worst of all remaining teams. Despite a much higher volume of possessions (UNC has taken nearly 40 shots more than Marquette through their first two games), the Tar Heels have actually turned the ball over two fewer times overall. Marquette and Buzz Williams deserve props for getting to the Sweet 16, but that might have been good luck with matchups, something they don't have in this game. Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder will both need to have big games if Marquette wants to win, but the odds say the pick goes with the solid play of point guard Kendall Marshall (9.1 ppg, 8.6 assists since Larry Drew II left the team February 4th) and the rest of the North Carolina Tar Heels.

#1 Kansas vs.  #12 Richmond--The city of Richmond, Virginia put two teams in the Sweet 16, and it's the Spiders who drew the much tougher match-up. While I don't mean to put down Richmond, or the Atlantic-10 Conference, both of which are very solid this year, the Spiders were fortunate in that they got a 2nd-round game against 13-seed Morehead State, who pulled off a huge upset over Louisville. Although the Spiders managed to dispatch Morehead by 17 points, it's not nearly the same as playing one of the tournament favorites, coming off a double-digit victory of their own. A huge red flag for Richmond is their free throw shooting--they come into tomorrow's game shooting only 56% for the tournament, coming off a season in which they ranked 192nd in the country in shooting from the charity stripe. Both teams hit the offensive glass at around a 30% rate, so that won't create a disparity in possessions, but what Richmond has done is a fantastic job of limiting turnovers--only 7 thus far, for a 4.57 assist-to-turnover ratio, best in the tournament. They haven't played against the likes of the Morris twins, however, and it's the brothers from Philly that will punish Richmond's front court as the Kansas Jayhawks roll into the Elite 8.

Diebler (50% from 3) could be the key for OSU to advance
#1 Ohio State vs. #4 Kentucky--A battle of elite youngsters, OSU's Jared Sullinger and UK's Brandin Knight's talents will be on full display in what could be the most entertaining of all the Sweet 16 games (Duke/Arizona might have something to say about that, as could BYU/Florida). Both Knight and Sullinger, as well as UK freshman Terrence Jones, are projected to go in the top-12 picks of this year's NBA draft, and offensive skills are definitely not lacking in this bunch. Ohio State had a dominant second-round game, destroying a not-this-bad George Mason team by 32, shooting 61% from the floor and still pulling down 43% of their misses while forcing 17 GMU turnovers. Jones is going to have his hands full down low with Sullinger, but the Buckeyes are more than capable of going inside-outside, shooting a ridiculous 56% from beyond the arc through their first two games, a continuation of their #1 ranking from the regular season where they shot 42.4% from three. The difference in this game might come down to experience--Ohio State has seniors Jon Diebler (whose offensive rating of 140.7 would lead the nation if not for his usage %) and David Lighty, while Kentucky relies heavy on freshmen Knight, Jones, and Doron Lamb. I think Ohio State is on a mission, but there is always the threat of a letdown game after what they did to George Mason. I just don't see that happening with the senior leadership the Buckeyes have--the nearly perfect combination of athleticism, experience, leadership, and talent--at least not for this game.

#10 Florida State vs. #11 Virginia Commonwealth--Part of the same crazy regional that saw #12 Richmond beat #13 Morehead State in the last round, this Sweet 16 matchup is a pair of teams that not many people expected to be at this stage. Florida State managed to cool down an incredibly hot Notre Dame team, while VCU had to win its game in the First Four just to get into the tournament, not to mention beat a Georgetown team finally getting its senior leader Chris Wright as well as a shocking 18-point victory over #3 seed Purdue. Now, one of these teams will move on to face (most likely) #1 Kansas, though an upset in that game would lead to a crazy bid for a Final Four slot between two double-digit seeds. VCU has an advantage in field goal percentage (51%-46%) up to this point in the tournament, but what they don't have is shot-alterer-extraordinaire Chris Singleton. The rangy junior has led FSU to the #1 ranking in opponent FG perentage for the season, as well as a tournament-low 31% in opposing shots made. VCU doesn't do a great job of grabbing offensive boards, either, with only 22.6% of their shots coming back for second chances. Virginia Commonwealth does like to shoot the three, however (20-46, 43.5% in the tournament), and so a good night of shooting could mean lights out for Florida State, no matter how well Singleton patrols the paint. This is the interesting thing about two double-digit seeds: while both teams have an obvious strength, what's not so obvious is the likelihood that strength impacts the game. I like the way VCU handled Purdue, and I think they'll take that confidence and beat Florida State in a low-scoring game with some timely shooting and a little bit of luck to become this year's biggest Cinderella story.


  1. well it appears your, "easiest pick of the night" just blew up in your face.

    you know nothing of college basketball my friend.

  2. Right, because I got two games wrong I clearly know nothing about basketball. Some people picked the upsets, I didn't see them coming. That's why the numbers are fun...they give you clues but sometimes they blow up in your face. How could I have known that Wisconsin was going to shoot only 30.4% from the floor? Or that Nolan Smith would turn the ball over 6 times and go 3-14 from the floor while Derrick Williams dominated EVERYBODY on the Duke front line? I'm sure your bracket looks perfect at this point in the tournament too.