It's that time again. It's time to champion the cause of a 13-seed you've never heard of before. It's time to laugh at Duke for choking, again. And it's time for American business to lose around a billion dollars in productivity. [Cue CBS bumper music.]
As much fun as it has been all season to write these previews solo, the 63 games of the NCAA Tournament require more analysis than one man can possibly provide. Plus, it's way more fun to have someone to talk trash to when your super stealth 14-seed comes through in double overtime. (Read on, we have one.) Luckily, I knew just the man for the job, so much props and all the free drinks his liver can handle to my fellow Michigan man Nick Reder for his help in predicting the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan Nick says: This is one of the more likely upsets in the first round. Utah's main asset is 7'2" center Luke Nevill. Arizona is one of the few teams that can match up with a player of that size, as they have their own monster in the paint, Jordan Hill. The Utes don't force a lot of turnovers (fourth-to-last in turnover percentage), nor do they defend the 3 very well (215th out of 344 teams). Instead, Utah mostly relies on Nevill to block shots around the basket and grab a lot of rebounds. This is a great matchup for the Wildcats. Hill is agile and skilled enough to be effective against Nevill, while the rest of the team can nail bombs from three-point land at a 39.8 percent clip (15th). It's hard to be overly optimistic about a team that grabbed the last at-large bid to the dance, but this game is an underdog-lover's dream.
Daniel says: Oh Nick, it's obvious you haven't been subjected to a full year of the 2008-09 Pac-10. You, earlier today: "Gee, it's crazy how underseeded the Pac-10 is this year." Me: "Let's see if you're still saying that Friday." Not that Arizona is actually a bad pick here, the line is a pick'em after all, but if you know which Arizona team is going to show up this weekend, you're downright psychic. The Arizona that won seven straight in Pac-10 play, or the Arizona that lost four straight beforehand, and three straight afterwards? The Arizona that beat Stanford by 14, or the Arizona that lost to the Card by 16? The Cats who beat UCLA by 12, or earlier lost to UCLA by 23? Utah, meanwhile, beat Gonzaga, beat SEC-champ LSU by 30, and, unlike the Wildcats, aren't just happy to be in the field. I'm going with the Utes.
Michigan Nick says: Don't be fooled by Boston College. Everyone remembers their win over then-No.1 UNC, but what happened the next game? They lost to Harvard, of all teams. Talk about regression to the mean. For all the attention on Tyrese Rice and Rakim Sanders, it's actually the Eagles' ability to hit the offensive boards (seventh) that has earned them a seven seed. The extra shot opportunities allow the Eagles to compensate for their mediocre defense (131st in defensive efficiency).
On the other hand, USC knows how to play some D (19th in efficiency). The Trojans are good across the board on defense, preventing opponents from hitting the offensive glass while holding them to a relatively low 46.5 percent effective field goal percentage. The Trojans should be able to score on the Eagles, although their low free throw percentage (66.6 percent) is somewhat worrisome, especially given that they get to the line so frequently. If you like upsets, this one might be worth the gamble.
Daniel says: I agree Boston College is garbage (my, do I wish Michigan had them instead of Clemson), and so, as much as I never thought I'd write these four words in my life, I must: I like the Trojans. USC does have ugly losses to Seton Hall and Oregon State (really, Oregon State? Who does that?), but, again, those losses pale in comparison to losing to the fighting Jeremy Lins. USC is also a team that's going to create matchup problems with its athletic bigs. Maybe I'm biased as a fan of a squad whose major weakness last year was dealing with any sort of quickness, and major weakness this year is dealing with any sort of size, but USC always seems to play better than they should when their butts are on the line. (Exhibit A: this year's Pac-10 Tournament). The Trojans have won five straight, and I see them making it six in the first round. Go Lil' Romeos.
Michigan Nick says: Washington should not have very much trouble in this semi-home game in Portland. Mississippi State has Jarvis Varnado, shotblocker extraordinaire, and not much else. Varnado is a joy to watch, as his arms are ridiculously long and his timing is equally unbelievable. Unfortunately, there is more to the game than highlight-reel blocks. Washington should be able to light it up from outside and let Jon Brockman battle inside for some rebounds and hopefully put Varnado in foul trouble. Shoudn't be any surprises in this one.
Daniel says: Okay, I checked, Lawrence Roberts and Winsome Frazier have used up all their eligibility at Mississippi State. (For the newer Stanford fans among us, be glad you weren't here for this: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/boxscore?gameId=254000033 ) I guess it's okay for me to be picking against the Bulldogs then. Plus, Mississippi State lost to Texas Tech and Washington State earlier this season, the SEC is garbage this year and the whole "win the SEC Tournament and win a free trip to the NCAAs" schtick didn't work out too well for Georgia last year. And, it's hard to scheme around size, and Jon Brockman's just too big and too strong for Mississippi State. Give Brockman his double-double and advance the Huskies into the next round.
Michigan Nick says: Yet another good matchup for the Pac-10. California is the best three-point shooting team in the nation by a mile, shooting 43.4% from outside. That is an incredibly high percentage, the next best team is at 41.8 percent. Cal hits their free throws too (75.6 percent) and they protect the rock (32nd in turnover percentage). Combine those skills and you have the 11th most efficient offense in the nation. Maryland is mediocre on offense and defense, with their biggest weakness being on the defensive glass (307th). Giving one of the most efficient offenses in the country extra opportunities is probably a bad idea, and Maryland will probably regret doing so.
Daniel says: Nick, as a Stanford Econ major, I appreciate the KenPom stats, and your logic is impeccable. Our longtime readers know I'm a numbers guy – heck, I built a model today to help me pick the tournament that included not one, but two computer rankings, win probabilities for each team in each round, and, my favorite, a polynomial regression I made in Excel that converts Vegas point spreads and futures odds into implicit win probabilities. However, and call it stubborn if you must, but I will not pick Cal and USC in the same article as a matter of pride. Plus, more to the point, if I see the Pac-10 going under .500 in this tournament (which I most definitely do), the losses have to come from somewhere. Maryland's nothing special, but neither was another also-ran ACC No. 10 seed who faced the Bears in the Tournament three years ago: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/boxscore?gameId=264000057.
I know, add Mike Montgomery, and subtract Ben Braun and you most definitely
have a better basketball team, but, hey, Monty's one weakness was in the
postseason and Leon Powe's doing alright for himself in the NBA now. Oh, and
Nick, how can you mention the Bears' numbers without mentioning that Cal is
absolutely pathetic defensively? (Must be that Michigan education Jim Harbaugh
spoke so glowingly about.) So I'm running with my heart and against logic here,
but how about a repeat of this year's football beatdown? Let's go
No. 6 UCLA vs. No. 11 VCU
Michigan Nick says: UCLA might have gotten shafted with a six seed, but at least the tournament committee decided to give them a good matchup. What is one of UCLA's best assets? Their defensive backcourt. And who do they play? A team that is basically the Eric Maynor Experience, with everyone else along for the ride. Darren Collison and Jrue Holliday should be able to contain Maynor, and UCLA's third-ranked offense should be able torch the Rams' D. VCU is only 4 hours away from Philly, so the Rams should have a lot of fans make the trip. And Eric Maynor could pull a Stephen Curry/Bryce Drew and play spoiler. Nonetheless, the Bruins look like they will have a pretty comfortable W.
Daniel says: If computer rankings seeded the NCAA Tournament, the Bruins, ranked ninth in Sagarin and KenPom alike, would be the nation's best three seed, while VCU would be lucky to be in the field. Heck, by computer rankings, UCLA is the third most underseeded team in the Tournament, behind Wisconsin and West Virginia. (Of course, four of the eight most underseeded teams in the Tournament according to the computer ratings are in the Pac-10, so who do you believe: the numbers or your lying eyeballs?) The 7.5-point line implies that UCLA has a 75 percent chance of winning the game, and after messing with the mathematical mojo to go against Cal, I'm not tempting fate twice here. Insert cliché about a great coach in Ben Howland, a senior leader in Darren Collison, solid defensive fundamentals and postseason experience – this Bruin team is a darkhorse Final Four contender in my eyes.
Michigan Nick says: ASU is another six seed that has a right to be upset, and Temple will not be a pushover for them. Although the Owls had some bad losses, they also had some decent wins against Tennessee and Xavier. They are above-average across the board, with their main deficiencies getting to the line and creating turnovers. Nonetheless, ASU need not worry, because they bring the fifth-most efficient offense to South Beach. It's not like the Sun Devils don't play D either, as they have the 37th-ranked defense in efficiency. Additionally, James Harden will not let his team lose in the first round. It's just not going to happen against Temple.
Daniel says: ASU plays great defense but is a one-man show offensively. I don't know how their offensive numbers are so good: I know the computers adjust for tempo, but, c'mon, the Fighting Hardens have cracked 80 just once in its last 20 games. Still, as Nick mentions, Temple has lost to the following teams this season: Buffalo, Miami Ohio, Long Beach State, Massachusetts and LaSalle. I think they cover, making this game, in the words of Lee Corso, closer than the experts think, but ASU (who the computers also see as a three seed), lives to fight another round.
Michigan Nick: Every single six seed. The committee clearly confused the five seeds with the sixes. How can Purdue, Illinois, Utah, and Florida State be fives while UCLA, ASU, Marquette, and West Virginia get sixes? Whoever made this mistake will take it to his grave, along with the ref who mistakenly told Chris Webber he had a timeout.
Daniel: Arizona. I know they had a disappointing season, but they're much better than a 12-seed in the NIT. Wait, they're in the NCAA? Oh, never mind… (For the record, my model spits out Wisconsin, West Virginia, UCLA, BYU and USC as the five teams most underseeded based on their computer ratings.)
Michigan Nick: Michigan State. should be thanking the committee for a two seed. Teams that lost to Northwestern and Penn St. at home do not deserve two seeds.
Daniel: Siena, Boston College, Florida State and Texas A&M are the single-digit seeds with the biggest discrepancy between their actual seed and their computer ratings. There really appears to be a dropoff after those six seeds Nick wrote about, because none of the teams seeded seventh or below appear to be all that great. I wouldn't be shocked if we had no double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16 this year. [Famous last words, I know.]
Michigan Nick: Not a bad year for the committee. Maybe Dayton? They have a 146th-ranked SOS and a few bad losses, but even they can make a legitimate case for being in the tourney.
Daniel: Arizona, Arizona, Arizona.
Michigan Nick: None really. The closest thing to a snub may have been Saint Mary's, but only if it turns out that Patrick Mills would have been healthy by Thursday.
Daniel: Mid-majors. I can't list which of the nearly 300 mid-major teams were bid-worthy, but there are only four at-large teams from non-BCS conferences in the field. The joy of the tournament is watching the Valparaisos, the Davidsons, the Western Kentuckys of the world pull off seemingly impossible upsets of name opponents, and the committee has drastically decreased the chances of such mayhem occurring this postseason. Guess I have to put all my chips on the table for my one super-sleeper upset pick of the year: North Dakota State over Kansas. If it comes to be, you heard it here first, and if it doesn't, Ray, that's what that edit button is for!
Enjoy the Tournament folks, and stay tuned to The Bootleg as we provide all
the latest analysis of Stanford and the Pac-10's postseason journeys.
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