Friday, April 1, 2011

Final Four Preview

Shaka Smart guided the Rams to their first Final Four
If you picked the Final Four correctly, it means one of three things: a) you pick your bracket based on flipping a coin, b) you know absolutely nothing about college basketball and made your picks at random, or c) you are a crazy fan of either Butler or Virginia Commonwealth. Beyond that, no college basketball "expert" should have any more than one of these four teams remaining, much less the three or four we all hope for. A week ago, even after the loss of Pittsburgh in the round of 32, most of the tournament favorites were alive and playing well--now, with just three games remaining, we're left with a 1-or-2-seed for the first time in tournament history. Duke, Ohio State, Kansas, Florida, North Carolina...all went down before the Final Four, something that seemed a ridiculous notion just a few days ago. Kind of makes you wonder what would happen if college football teams were allowed to have a playoff...but that's a different article entirely. So, it's left to Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, Connecticut, and Kentucky to battle it out for the national championship. How did these four get here, and how do their chances look? To see what the numbers say, hit the jump!

(Listed by seeding)
Virginia Commonwealth Rams
How they got here: Defeated #11 USC 59-46 (First Four); #6 Georgetown 74-56; #3 Purdue 94-76; #10 Florida State 72-71 (OT); #1 Kansas 71-61
What they've done right: Shoot the three--at a 45.4% clip for the tournament, that's easily the best of the other three remaining teams. The Rams were a pretty good shooting team this season, hitting 37% of their long-distance shots, good for 56th in the country. In addition, the Rams have assists on 68% of their buckets, which tells us something good about the Rams' shooting in the tournament--it's not a product of lucky shooting as much as it could be, instead there's definitely good ball movement swinging the ball around the perimeter to get that open shot. In addition, the ability of the Rams to go inside and then kick it out has led to numerous good shots, and helped both statistics.
What they haven't: Offensive rebounds have been a problem for VCU this tournament, as they've gotten only 21.9% of their offensive boards--far worse than the next-worst team, Kentucky, who's grabbed 28% of their misses in their four games so far. VCU was 217th in the country in offensive rebounding this season, so it's clear that Shaka Smart's strategy of going small to shoot the ball well can really hurt them in getting second opportunities. If VCU wants to win, they're going to have to shoot well and hope a few bounces go their way--just how they've beaten the teams before them.

Butler Bulldogs
How they got here: Defeated #9 Old Dominion, 60-58; #1 Pittsburgh, 71-70; #4 Wisconsin, 61-54; #2 Florida, 74-71 (OT)
What they've done right: Aside from having more than their fair share of buzzer-beaters and wild finishes, the Bulldogs really haven't done anything in the stat sheet that makes them look any better on paper than the teams they're playing against. They have by far the worst shooting percentage of any Final Four team (41.6%), a number that would have put them 15th out of all Sweet 16 teams--only Wisconsin would have shot worse. The Bulldogs have shot well when they needed to (i.e., Pittsburgh) and poorly when it didn't matter (40% against Florida, including only 27% from three). The only thing that Butler has done better than their Final Four brethren is offensive rebounding--they're the only team grabbing more than 30% of their misses, and they're doing it at a 35% clip.
What they haven't: Like I said above, it's been a case of squeaking by game after game for Butler, taking advantage (or, causing?) terrible shooting performances by both Florida and Wisconsin to move on, even after surviving a 55% shooting barrage from the Pittsburgh Panthers. They're only hitting 31% of their threes, allowing opponents to shoot at a 41.2% pace from the floor, the worst of the four remaining teams. Their assist-to-turnover ratio of .95 is the only sub-1.00 left, far behind 3rd-best Kentucky's 1.28, while VCU and UConn are both above 1.7-to-1 ratios. Butler's one of those teams that, on paper at least, seems to be at a huge disadvantage going into the final weekend of the tournament.

Kentucky Wildcats
How they got here: Defeated #13 Princeton, 59-57; #5 West Virginia 71-63; #1 Ohio State 62-60; #2 North Carolina 76-69
What they've done right: Shot the ball well? Check, at 48.3%, they've shot the ball better than any team remaining. Limit fouls? Also check, with just about 13.5 per game--a key element when playing with young players as coach John Calipari loves to do. The Wildcats feature what should be a number of one-and-dones, including early tournament hero Brandon Knight and fellow superfrosh Terrence Jones, and that's their main weapon. No other team remaining boasts the raw talent of Kentucky--it's a shame they didn't have Enes Kanter, because then this team would really be a force to reckon with. However, senior center Josh Harrellson has been something of a revelation this tournament, scoring in double-digits every game while putting up two double-doubles, grabbing 8 rebounds in each of his other two games.
What they haven't: Similar to Butler, but not as bad, the Wildcats have a lot of statistical categories that they've really just been mediocre in. Assists to turnovers, discussed above, are alright but leave room for improvement, as does their free throw shooting (69.2%, well behind their opponent UConn's 81%), offensive rebounding (28%), and DFG% (40.9%), all of which are third out of the four teams remaining. To put that DFG% in perspective, it would actually be average for all Sweet 16 teams, and it's not until you look at the entire 64-team field does Kentucky actually come out a few percentage points above average (the tournament average is 44%).

Connecticut Huskies
How they got here: Defeated #14 Bucknell,  81-52; #6 Cincinnati 69-58; #2 San Diego State 74-67; #5 Arizona 93-77
What they've done right: Keep giving the ball to Kemba Walker. Oh, that's not good enough? Fine, UConn's proven they're not entirely a one-man show. Jeremy Lamb has proven that, if he sticks around for another season in the Big East, he's going to be a force to reckon with as he continues to work on his all-around game. His defensive work on Derrick Williams is a major reason the Huskies are in the Final Four for the second time in three years. As just stated, the Huskies have been shooting 81% from the free-throw line, a very impressive number that continues their 16th-best FT% in the regular season of 76%--and free throw shooting could play a huge part in the last few games of the tournament. Apart from that, the Huskies have also held their opponents to just 38.7% from the floor, the best of any of the remaining teams.
What they haven't: The only team that didn't have to beat a #1 seed in their bracket, UConn had the easiest schedule coming into the final, so their numbers might not be as impressive as, say, VCU or Butler, who had to go through a much tough first two rounds to get this far. The San Diego State win was fairly impressive, even though SDSU had just been taken to double-OT by Temple, and beating Arizona by 16 was impressive as well, but UConn got lucky they didn't have to face Duke. UConn only assists on 50.5% of their buckets, so stopping Kemba Walker really could mean stopping the entire Husky team--and Kentucky has the athletes needed to really frustrate Kemba.

Final Four: Virginia Commonwealth over Butler; Kentucky over UConn
What happens when an unstoppable force hits an unmovable object? That's exactly what this Butler/VCU game feels like, with a Rams squad that can't stop putting the ball through the hoop against a Butler team that's found more ugly ways to win than anybody else. On paper, the stats say VCU should use their hot shooting and pressure defense to run away from Butler, but the way the Bulldogs have been winning games, how could you bet against them? The Bulldogs collect a lot of their misses, and if Shelvin Mack catches fire again, then the Bulldogs could give themselves an incredibly high PPP (points per possession) and force VCU to take rushed shots. That being said, I'm more partial to pick scenario one: Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez give the Bulldogs defensive fits, Butler can't keep up as Shelvin Mack gets streaky in the wrong direction, and VCU ends up in the national title game.

Meanwhile, Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight lead coach Cal back into the title game for the first time since the one he wasn't officially in, back in 2008. I really think the difference in this game, however, is Josh Harrellson, who could give Alex Oriakhi fits inside. If he hadn't developed the way he has, then UConn could use their inside game to power through Kentucky. But, because the Wildcats have done a good job limiting their fouls, they've been able to keep their best players on the court--and Kentucky's starting five is better than Connecticut's, Kemba Walker or not. DeAndre Liggins on Kemba should be able to limit the All-American guard to, if not the worst day of career, a poor enough night to really hurt UConn's overall offense--being 6'6" and guarding a guy 6'1" is quite the advantage for Kentucky. Kemba carried UConn to two tournament victories already, in Maui and New York, but I think his quest to go three-for-three falls short in Houston.

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