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The Year of the Wildcats

March 19, 2015

No, I’m not referencing Chinese Astrology, currently in the Year of the Goat (or Sheep, or Ram, whatever you prefer). Technically, it’s not the Year of the Tiger either, that was last in 2010 and won’t be back until 2022, but I digress. Of course, I’m referring to college basketball teams with the nickname “Wildcats”, as three protected (Nos. 1 or 2) seeds in this year’s NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship travel by that moniker, and those Wildcats (with apologies to the plucky No. 10 seeded Davidson Wildcats) have in my estimation the best shot of cutting down the nets the first Monday of April (in the month of the Dragon, but again, I digress).

The Question remains: Which Wildcats?

First, there are Villanova’s Wildcats, 32-2, the No. 1 seed in the East, an experienced squad that has won their last 15 on the trot, capturing both the Big East regular season and conference tournament championships in barnstorming fashion. Jay Wright has his best team since his 2009 Final Four squad, balanced, versatile, and eager to atone for last year’s premature exit to the eventual National Champion Connecticut in the Round of 32.

Next is Arizona’s Wildcats, 31-3, the No. 2 seed in the West, winning 17 of their last 18 while pulling off the Pac-12 Double (regular season & tourney) with quite possibly the best starting five in the country. Certainly they don’t lack for swagger. Arizona came an eyelash away from the Final Four last season in a 1-point Elite Eight overtime loss to Wisconsin, a game they might have a chance to avenge with a potential West Region Elite Eight rematch against the No. 1 seeded Badgers.

Then, there is Kentucky. No. 1 Seed in the Midwest. Undefeated at 34-0. SEC Champs. Last Year’s NCAA Runner-up. Nine McDonald’s All-Americans. Ranked No. 1 all year long in almost every possible metric and poll. The overwhelming favorite, even money (+100) in Las Vegas to win it all. History just six games away. Will anyone truly get in their way to the trophy? I am at the very least convinced, that only Kentucky, or a team that can and would have to beat Kentucky, can win the title this season.

Without further ado, I present my macro-level, last minute,“TL:DR” look at the NCAA Tournament field. Here is my bracket, a printout of which will surely be crumpled up in the wastebasket by Saturday night.

Championship’s Peter Tiernan had developed three Championship Tests based on the common characteristics of every National Champion since at least 2003; Seeing how last season’s National Champion Connecticut blew out half of the criteria last year, maybe Tiernan’s sabbatical this season from his bracketology “hobby” was well-timed. Last year, I selected five (5) potential champions based largely on these tests, only one (1) of which even made the Final Four – Florida, who lost in the National Semifinals to Connecticut. I still think these tests can be instructive with some fine tuning. Allow me to provide a quick but data intensive refresher on his three tests and suggest some tweaks (if not, skip the next three paragraphs, I won’t be offended):

  1. Tiernan’s Eight Criteria TestEvery Champion since 2000 (until last year):
    1. Was a Top 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament;
    2. Was a Member of a “power conference” (the high-majors);
    3. Had an experienced tournament coach (at least 5 NCAA and 1 Elite Eight appearance);
    4. Either had an All-American player or played in the prior year’s NCAA Tournament;
    5. Scored more than 73 points per game (ppg);
    6. Allowed opponents to score less than 73 ppg;
    7. Had an average scoring margin greater than 7.0 ppg;
    8. Had a Top 75 Strength of Schedule.
  2. Tiernan’s Pomeroy Efficiency Rankings Test Utilizing Ken Pomeroy’s (“Pomeroy”) historical data on offensive and defensive efficiency (expressed in points per 100 possessions) since 2003, based on a team’s comparative rankings of both offense (Champions have an AdjO ranking of ≤ 18th) and defense (AdjD ≤ 49th).
  3. Tiernan’s Pomeroy Raw Data Test Same Pomeroy efficiency data, using instead the raw numerical outputs of both points scored (Champions score ≥ 112.4 points per 100 possessions) and allowed (≤ 95.4).

Connecticut barely met the Pomeroy Raw Data Test by the time least year’s NCAAs were finished; AdjO of 112.2 was at the borderline, ranked 39th (well outside the Rankings Test) but AdjD was 91.8, ranking 10th. They also failed half of Tiernan’s Eight Criteria; a No. 7 seed, Kevin Ollie no NCAA Tournament head coaching experience (although he was an assistant on the 2011 National Champion Connecticut), was from a non-power conference (the newly formed American Athletic Conference, or AAC) and only scored 71.8 ppg. With historically significant programs like Connecticut, Memphis, Temple, Houston and Cincinnati, I would include the AAC among the high major conferences now. However, Strength of Schedule better captures how competitive a team is than merely their conference affiliation, as teams have 11-15 games to schedule tougher competition out of conference, so I would consider scrapping the “power conference” measure in the future.

I like the Raw Data test most as a filter for the tournament field, a “first” Championship test to measure and compare performance across all seasons, while the Rankings test provides confirmation of a team’s efficiencies relative to the other teams in that particular season. Applying an alternate Rankings test that conforms with Connecticut’s AdjO ranking of 39th instead of 18th might be useful in a relative era of offensive decline. After these efficiency-based filters, the rest of Tiernan’s Eight Criteria could further separate the field, maybe de-emphasizing the tournament head coaching experience factor if there is noteworthy tournament experience as an assistant or player, or the scoring production measure as long average scoring margin is greater than 7.0 ppg. I’m also unsure how important being a Top 3 seed is, but the sample size isn’t large enough to conclude whether last year was significant or more of an outlier, so I would keep it for now understanding that the NCAA Tournament Committee has flexibility to move teams up or down 1-2 seed lines to comply with other scheduling requirements.

Running this year’s field through the tests detailed above, 12 teams meet the Raw Data test, nine (9) of those meet the Rankings Test (with eight others conforming with the “Connecticut Standard” for 17 in total), and four (4) that passed Tiernan’s Criteria. Only three teams however meet all three tests: The Wildcats. Yes, Kentucky, Arizona and Villanova, all Top 12 in Adj O and AdjD and real commonality with the last 15 National Champions. Three other teams merit consideration from these tests. Wisconsin falls 1.1 ppg scoring of passing all three tests, and that didn’t seem to impede Connecticut last year. Duke is the only other team to pass the Tiernan criteria, has the 3rd most efficient offense, and misses the Raw Data AdjD by less than 1.0 point per possession (96.1). North Carolina meets all criteria save for being a No. 4 seed, which considering the NCAA Committee’s seedline flexibility as well as North Carolina’s relative high efficiency, is a negligible miss. These six are the only teams I think can win the title – Kentucky, and five teams with the most realistic chance of beating them based not only on the analytics, but on coaching, talent, and size to match:

  • Kentucky
  • Arizona
  • Villanova
  • Wisconsin
  • Duke
  • North Carolina

Darkhorses – Usually a serious deficiency separates Darkhorses from the Championship Contenders, whether it’s mediocre team defense, a lack of scoring, or playing a weaker schedule in and/or out of conference. They also reliably perform in one or two areas at an elite level, allowing them to compete with anyone. This year’s 10 shaded equine has high level guard play, is highly efficient offensively or defensively (if not both), but fails to perform consistently in one key are that hold it back, whether it’s rebounding, valuing and sharing the ball, causing turnovers, blocking shots, shooting or defending the 3-pointer, or hitting free throws. Four teams below listed meet both Pomeroy tests (Gonzaga, Baylor, Northern Iowa, Utah), three more (Wichita State, Virginia, Kansas) are as relatively efficient as Connecticut was, one has the same issue as Wisconsin meeting Tiernan’s Criteria (Oklahoma) and the other two (Michigan State, Maryland) could play themselves into meeting the championship tests like Connecticut did last year. Only Gonzaga has a path clear of Contenders or Darkhorses before the Elite Eight; We’ll know who has emerged from this pack by Sunday:

  • Gonzaga
  • Baylor
  • Virginia
  • Oklahoma
  • Northern Iowa
  • Utah
  • Wichita State
  • Kansas
  • Michigan State
  • Maryland

Potential Sweet 16/Elite 8 Cinderellas –  I wish I was creative enough to find another term for these teams, as the idea of a mid-major/low-major team that sneaks up on the rest of the field and surprises the watching public has virtually lost its meaning in the current mediascape amid heightened TV exposure. Even casual college basketball fans know that Butler, Wichita State and Virginia Commonwealth are not only genuinely good teams, but legitimate programs. Nevertheless, here are six (6) mid-major-ish teams ever-so-slightly flying below the radar, with coaches (I think everyone knows SMU’s HOF coach Larry Brown, but could you identify who coaches Davidson or Butler in a lineup? Me neither) or players you may not be familiar with (such as Wyoming’s Larry Nance Jr., Xavier’s Trevon Blueitt, and VCU’s Treveon Graham), but will be before this weekend ends:

  • SMU
  • Butler
  • Xavier
  • VCU
  • Davidson
  • Wyoming

Underachieving or Underseeded “Stepsisters” Capable of a Deep Run – Last year’s National Championship game was contended by a Darkhorse (Connecticut) and a Stepsister (Kentucky), so while most of these teams will become afterthoughts, chances are one team will be sticking around the second weekend, the trick being to figure out which one. Another name for this category is the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, harkening to Dale Brown’s double-digit seeded 1986 (#11) and 1987 (#10) Tigers that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession. Like those Bayou Bengals of yore, these eight (8) teams all a.) come from a high-major conference (like Cinderella’s Stepsisters), b.) have double digit losses c.) are seeded No. 8 or worse (except for No. 6 seed Providence), d.) are proven capable of beating or pushing highly ranked teams to the limit, and e.) despite lacking cohesion or suffering curious losing stretches or streaks, are very talented and have difference-makers that can heat up and win games. Maybe LSU reprises the role they created this year, but I like Texas and Providence to have the best opportunity to persist, as well as an Ohio State team that meets all of Tiernan’s Eight Criteria except Seed (No. 10), but would have to get past Arizona in the Round of 32 to make the second week:

  • Texas
  • Providence
  • Ohio State
  • North Carolina State
  • Purdue
  • Oklahoma State
  • LSU
  • Ole Miss

Feast or Famine – Typically a high ceiling and low floor, these teams correspondingly end up in the Nos.3-8 seed range because they are either “jack of all trades / master of none” teams (Iowa, Georgetown, West Virginia) or are acutely one-dimensional, prioritizing offense over defense (Iowa State, Notre Dame, Arkansas, Oregon) or vice versa (San Diego State). This could be due to several factors, such as an overreliance on underclassmen, a lack of depth or roster balance due to injury or attrition, and/or coaching, all increasing the difficulty of stringing together tournament wins compared to Darkhorses or Stepsisters. Four (4) of these eight (8) teams are in the South Regional, as chaos looms before reaching Houston. Five (5) teams also played in their respective conference tournament finals, with Iowa State (Big 12) and Notre Dame (ACC) winning, both earning No. 3 seeds and avoiding more dangerous opponents in their first games unlike the other six. A win and these teams could work into Darkhorse status, but a premature exit could also be in the cards:

  • Iowa State
  • Notre Dame
  • Georgetown
  • Arkansas
  • West Virginia
  • Iowa
  • San Diego State
  • Oregon

Tom Petty Teams (“Freeee …) – Normally, these Free Fallin’ teams are trending downward due to inconsistency or notable downward shifts in performance from earlier in the season, (Utah, losing 4 of their last 7), injury, player suspension (St. John’s suspended starting center Chris Obekpa for two weeks), or dismissal (Louisville, more on them later). In better days they share much in common with the Stepsisters or the Feast or Famine teams, except now they’re in a famine:

  • Louisville
  • Utah
  • St. John’s

“I Have No Idea What to Make of This Team” Teams – Every year there’s a few teams I truly don’t “get”, despite attempts to watch and analyze them. This year is especially vexing, in that I do understand what these teams are trying to accomplish, but don’t appreciate why they pursue these approaches or strategies. Cincinnati has an interim coach since Mick Cronin left the team for health reasons, so I understand that obstacle to consistency, but I still can’t make heads or tails of their overall approach. Indiana and Georgia are teams of talented athletes overcoached by control freaks, which results in never knowing what they will do from game to game given the fragile egos of 18-22 year olds. Living west of the Rockies I’ve seen UCLA play several times, and I can’t fathom why they are so guard dominant when they have a future lottery pick in forward Kevon Looney and a serviceable big man rotation in Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh (I have my theories, let’s just say nepotism is alive and well in college basketball):

  • Cincinnati
  • Indiana
  • Georgia
  • UCLA

Upset Picks That Actually Could Happen – Just as the meaning of “Cinderella” has lost currency in this era of parity, so has the meaning of “Upset”. I no longer consider a No. 10 beating a No. 7 to be a real “upset”, nor a No. 11 seed beating a No. 6, as I believe this is where parity settles in as major programs with high roster turnover and inconsistent results run into other programs major and middle who manage to assemble upperclassmen-laden rosters. Furthermore, everyone by now knows about the 5/12 games, hears that No. 12 seeds are 8-4 in those games over the last three tournaments, and sees how trendy those “upsets” are in pick pools. So the easy advice is to pick at least one No. 12 seed to win as the percentages favor that result; I like Buffalo the best of the four, Stephen F. Austin the least due to their matchup with a highly efficient Utah squad (hence their inclusion in the next category). More difficult is to assess deeper seeds for opening game upset potential – if you want double digit seeds that could win more than one game, see “Cinderellas” and “Stepsisters” above. Last year was the first in seven years that a No. 13 did not beat a No. 4, but this year’s group is especially feisty with more forgiving matchups than usual. Georgia State has two high-major transfers (Ryan Harrow, North Carolina State via Kentucky, and the irrepressible Kevin Ware, an inspirational figure in Louisville’s 2013 National Championship run), as well as the coach’s son R.J. Hunter, who projects as an NBA-level shooting guard (Stay off that foot coach!). UC Irvine has the tallest player in college basketball, Mamadou Ndiaye at 7’6”, but the Big West Champs are no freak show (Top 40 Nationally in 3P%, Defensive Rebounding, Blocked Shots, and FG% Defense). Wofford is the “Luckiest” team in the country according to Pomeroy (“Luck” meaning the contrast between actual results and expectations based on the team’s actual efficiencies). Eastern Washington beat No. 10 seed Indiana in Bloomington. No. 15 seed New Mexico State is ranked 89th overall in Pomeroy, ahead of 16 other teams in the dance, and has an opponent (Kansas) with an notable penchant for early losses, and has the frontcourt size to match them (five players between 6’8”-7’3”). I’ll be advancing at least four of these teams to the next round:

  • Buffalo
  • Valparaiso
  • UC Irvine
  • Georgia State
  • Wofford
  • Eastern Washington
  • New Mexico State

Upset Picks That Probably Won’t Happen – A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985, despite coming close a couple of times, so I’ll include the No. 16 seeds here only by reference and otherwise dismiss them out of hand. Cutting to the chase, these double-digit seeds have unfavorable matchups and should play to their seed (i.e., lose). Nate Silver agrees with this sentiment, projecting that all the teams below have an 18% or less win probability for their first game. While picking the correct low-seeded and otherwise undervalued upstarts is key to winning tourney pools, remember: Just because a team could beat higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean they actually will.

  • Stephen F. Austin
  • Harvard
  • Northeastern
  • Albany
  • UAB
  • Belmont
  • North Dakota State
  • Texas Southern

And Now … Seven Staunch Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” … Dayton. I don’t want to say “Duh”, but Duh! For one, they played on their home court in the “First Four”, the UD Arena that has hosted the “First Four” since 2011 (and its predecessor “play-in” games since 2000). Second, many pundits had Dayton more comfortably in the field between their Atlantic-10 tourney runner-up finish and their various metrics (40th in Pomeroy, 32nd RPI), when by their placement they were firmly on the bubble the entire time. Third, they went to the Elite Eight last year, and returned two starters as well as the Flyers’ microwave, my main man Scoochie Smith; We all need a little more Scoochie in our lives. Fourth, Dayton comes from the same conference as the original “VCU” … err, Virginia Commonwealth, a true mid-major Cinderella, much like Dayton was last year. Now granted, Archie Miller can’t deploy anyone over 6’6”, and they lost half of their rotation from last year’s tournament darlings between graduation and the dismissal of their only two returning bigs for their involvement in some larcenous shenanigans. They still managed to win 25 games, finishing 2nd in an increasingly rugged Atlantic-10, and they still have Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert and his 16.5 ppg leading the way. Brigham Young could have been mentioned more prominently in this discussion had they not blown a 17-point lead to Ole Miss last night, and Boise State almost upset the apple cart last night. But I’m riding with Scoochie.

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Kansas. If this seems like a broken record, then it’s because Kansas was my pick for this last season. Once again, Kansas lost a talented freshman big, this time Cliff Alexander due to an NCAA inquiry into his amateur eligibility. Once again, they lost to Iowa State in the Big 12 Conference Tourney, this time losing the Final in excruciating fashion as they surrendered a 17 point lead in the second half. Once again they are one of the more talented teams in the country, but aside from leading scorer Perry Ellis, most of the remaining 10-man rotation are freshman and sophomore, which suggests Kansas might be a year away from truly contending for a National Championship. And, once again, they are slotted to reach the Elite Eight by their No. 2 seed in the Midwest. Curious altogether, when one realizes a.) Future Hall of Famer Bill Self still roams the sidelines, b.) Kansas camped out in the Top 10 of the polls, are 11th overall in Pomeroy, 9th in Sagarin, and 3rd in the RPI, all while playing the toughest schedule in the country according to these metrics; c.) They barely miss all three of the championship tests, and would pass them if they scored 2 ppg more, thereby raising their scoring average from 71.2 ppg and margin from 6.5 ppg, as well as an AdjO of 110.8 and rank of 37th (AdjD is 90.5, good for 7th), and d.) The Jayhawks have ample cover in the post for Alexander between Ellis, Landon Lucas, Jamari Traylor, and Hunter Mickelson. Now unlike last year, they don’t have a transcendent talent like 2014 NBA Draft #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, but they still have a number of future NBA players in Ellis, Kelly Oubre, Wayne Selden and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Thanks “copy-and-paste”!). The fact that they are the No. 2 seed in Kentucky’s region, a team they lost to by 32 in November, would rightly give everyone but the most ardent of Jayhawks fans pause, except that many predictions I’ve seen have them losing before that game would even happen, whether it be to Notre Dame in the Sweet 16, or possibly Wichita State in the Round of 32, or even No. 15 seed New Mexico State on Friday. Someone could try to argue for another team here, like Virginia losing 2 of their last 3 to drop from a potential No. 1 seed, but when Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight crunches the numbers and says Iowa State (No. 3 seed South), Utah (No. 5 South), North Carolina (No. 4 West) and Oklahoma (No. 3 East) all have a better shot than Kansas at reaching the Final Four, and The Power Rank has Kansas trailing the other No. 2 seeds Virginia, Gonzaga and Arizona in win probability for the National Championship by a range of 5.6-10.2%, I rest my case.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Although it’s really tempting to pick Texas here – there’s a good case to be made for them – I’m going to go with Louisville. “Shambles” is a relative term this year, as no one has really fallen backwards into the tournament like those Longhorns did five years ago. But Louisville comes close, comparatively in disarray having lost five (5) of their last 10 after starting the season 19-3, and dismissing their starting point guard Chris Jones from the team.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … For all I said above, it could still be Kansas – an eager Wichita State on the horizon finally getting to play their in-state non rival – but I will shine the spotlight on Virginia. Last year I suggested both Wichita State (No. 1 seed losing to Kentucky) and Villanova (No. 2 seed losing to Connecticut) due to troublesome and unfortunate potential matchups in the Round of 32 that came to fruition. Well say hello to No. 7 seed Michigan State, the team that sent Virginia packing last year in the Sweet 16, favored to have a rematch in Charlotte. Another popular pick is Davidson over Gonzaga should that game occur, while Arizona would face the Ohio State-VCU survivor in a tricky matchup (especially if it’s Sean Miller’s mentor Thad Matta and his Buckeyes). Texas could give Notre Dame all they can handle as well. But no Top 3 seed has a more obstinate Round of 32 opponent than Virginia, and even President Obama knows they will need a healthy and reintegrated Justin Anderson to go far.

Is There a Potential “Butler” or “George Mason” This Year? …  YES! Northern Iowa. I waxed almost poetic about them in this very space two weeks ago

“Northern Iowa is legitimate in every sense of the word. If you don’t know about him already get acquainted with the Panthers’ All-American candidate Seth Tuttle, named yesterday as the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. A slightly-less-wealthy-man’s version of Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, he can score from anywhere in the half-court or in transition, and functions as their “point-center”, running the offense through him and surrounding him with perimeter shooters who can get hot at a moment’s notice …”

They meet both of the Pomeroy Tests, and as a No. 5 seed, they aren’t exactly coming out of nowhere. I see Northern Iowa winning their first two games and setting up a 40-minute war with Villanova in the Sweet 16, with a fighting chance to repeat the same feat of beating the No. 1 seed in their region as Butler did in 2010 or George Mason did in 2006. Come what may after that.

Could Some Middle-Seeded Team Pull a 2014 Connecticut on The Field? … Probably Not. Looking at the Nos 6-11 seeds, the only teams I see coming close to the talent and depth of last year’s surprise Champions are Wichita State, Ohio State and Texas. Wichita State has the same deadly law firm of Baker Cotton & VanVleet that went to a Final Four in 2013 and was a No. 1 seed last year losing to eventual Finalist Kentucky. Both Ohio State and Texas have future NBA lottery picks in D’Angelo Russell and Myles Turner respectively. Wichita State meets the Raw Data test, while Ohio State and Texas compare similarly to last year’s champs along the same criteria. All three have coaches that have been to a Final Four (unlike Kevin Ollie last year). Having said all of that, I’m convinced the gap between the Contenders and the remaining field is so large to overcome that I just don’t see anyone else getting past the bouncers into the VIP lounge.

My Final Four and Champion … After thousands of words, these picks may follow the chalk, but I think Kentucky’s Wildcats fulfills the prophecy of an undefeated National Championship and earns redemption for last year’s team that fell 40 minutes short from glory. Defense matters more earlier in the tournament, where scheme and effort can slay giants who don’t defend as they should, while the pendulum shifts later in the tourney as more offensively capable squads assert their talent under increasing pressure; Kentucky appears immune to the plagues of effort or pressure, with the depth and versatility to ride out a player or three not playing to their potential, and efficiency at both ends of the floor that has belied the mounting pressure of an undefeated season. I think Kentucky finds their most formidable threat in Arizona’s Wildcats, ultimately surviving a Final Four encounter then vanquishing the defiant Villanova Wildcats in the Final before a quasi-home crowd in Indianapolis. Filling out the foursome will be a Gonzaga Bulldogs team that finally breaks through Mark Few’s Sweet 16 glass ceiling, only to find a room filled with savage felines. A Dog and Cats, living together in Naptown, Mass hysteria in Big Blue Nation to follow.


From → Basketball, Sports

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