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Cream Rising To Top, But Are There Spoilers?

March 21, 2019

Embarking upon the 8th Edition of my macro-level, view-from-10,000-feet preview of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship™, I found it tough to escape the pervasive notion that there are a group of teams that have separated themselves from the field. That, while typical March Madness may prevail in the earlier rounds of the tournament (13 seeds over 4s!  Double-digit seeds making the Sweet 16!), order gets restored by the Elite Eight, where most if not all of the #1 & #2 seeds vie for spots in Minneapolis, the site of this year’s Final Four.

Unlike last year, when the tournament seemed wide open, only for a familiar face like Villanova to emerge and lap the field again, this season appears to have reverted to a familiar separation of teams at the top, with the parity coming right after that. Looking at every Top 12 seed to see how many could either win it all or get to the Final Four, I often kept coming back to those same eight (8) teams that most pundits also had advancing. Chalk dust everywhere.

Be that as it may (imagine the record needle scratching to a stop), I believe there are a couple of potential spoilers that could barge their way into the VIP section of this party, and in the process shred a lot of brackets.

As always, the goal of this preview isn’t to seek the perfect bracket – although some of this could be useful in that pursuit, if you’re reading this in the last few minutes before games start – as much as it is compartmentalizing the field to frame expectations for every team entering the Madness. This is my bracket, as a matter of disclosure, the printed copy of which will likely be composting in my garden by Sunday afternoon.

Contenders – Since 2014, I have utilized three “Championship Tests” to determine legitimate contenders to the crown. Created by basketball hobbyist Peter Tiernan of long defunct, these tests identified common characteristics and minimum statistical thresholds of every National Champion since 2003. If you don’t remember each test, refer to my 2015 NCAA Tournament Preview, otherwise they’ll be incorporated herein by reference.

With the exception of Connecticut in 2014 (leading to my “UConn Standard” that allows for a lesser Offensive Efficiency), these tests have held up to the extent that the eventual champions (like 2015 Duke and 2018 Villanova) work their way into all the thresholds. ESPN’s John Gasaway is is 3-for-3 so far with his efforts to determine the same thing in a data-intensive fashion; I am 6-for-7 in placing the eventual Champ in my “Contenders” column, so, that’s a feather I can stick in my hat and call macaroni. Which is nice.

Analyzing the 2019 field, 17 teams meet the KenPom Raw Data test (only 11 did last year), while  21 satisfy at least the UConn Standard for the KenPom Rankings test  (whereas 16 did so last year).  While only five (5) teams met Tiernan’s Criteria, four (4) of those pass all three tests: Michigan State, Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky. Tennessee barely misses the Defensive Efficiency baseline, yet could easily meet it during the tourney.

Four (4) more teams, however, are one criterion away from passing all of Tiernan’s Criteria; Virginia and Michigan don’t quite score 73 points per game, otherwise they would pass all three tests, while (surprise!) Purdue and Virginia Tech meet both efficiency tests and are closer in quality to the elite, Top 2-seeded teams than the rest of the field. Lastly, Gonzaga will never meet the Tiernan Criteria as long as they are not in a “Power Conference”, as despite their best efforts – Fun Fact No. 1, Gonzaga is 1-2 this season against teams seeded #1 or #2, beating Duke but losing to North Carolina and Tennessee – struggle to attain the requisite strength of schedule, yet for the third year running easily pass both KenPom tests. Collectively, these Ten Contenders have a 85.1% chance of winning the National Championship according to FiveThirtyEight, which is about 23% more than 2018’s nine (9) Contenders.

As poor bracketing would have it, my Top 4 Contenders, Michigan State and Duke, as well as Kentucky and North Carolina, are scheduled to meet in the Elite 8 instead of being spread across different regions. Last year Michigan State and Duke were seeded to meet in the Sweet 16, which I guess is an improvement. Per the seeding Virginia Tech awaits Duke in the Sweet 16 as well, while Purdue could knock Tennessee and Virginia out in succession; Either result upends bracket contests across the country. In order of likelihood, I am certain one of these 10 teams will cut down the nets on April 8th:

  • Duke
  • Michigan State
  • North Carolina
  • Kentucky
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia
  • Michigan
  • Gonzaga
  • Purdue
  • Virginia Tech

Darkhorses – Usually the separation between Contenders and the teams herein is wafer-thin. This season the gap has widened a bit. While all of these six (6) teams that passed at least one of the Championship Tests and miss the Tiernan Criteria by one factor, these teams are either acutely one-dimensional (favoring offense or defense by a wide margin over the other) or lack the strength of schedule as a proof of concept against elite teams (but otherwise have an elite scoring margin, in these instances greater than +14.0 ppg) to be considered actual Contenders. That said, these teams have what I would call “Final Four Upside”, given they survive early matchups in the first weekend when actual Darkhorses reveal themselves by Sunday evening. In order of likelihood of deep advancement:

  • Auburn
  • Florida State
  • Texas Tech
  • Houston
  • Nevada
  • Buffalo

Feast or Famine – I did away with this category one year as the teams I wanted to put here were upon further analysis either qualitative Darkhorses (see above) or quantifiably Stepsisters (see below) in disguise. Nevertheless, there are several Power Conference teams seeded in the upper-half of the field that fit a “high ceiling/low floor” designation with an exceedingly thin margin for error in this field (more than usual), falling short in key areas of both production (rebounding, turnovers, perimeter shooting, free throw percentage) and personnel (over-reliance on underclassmen, a lack of depth, or roster imbalance due to attrition), all of which increases the degree of difficulty in stringing together the requisite wins for legitimate Title contention. In short, these teams just aren’t as good as the Darkhorses, regardless of their tournament seeding, and although it’s hard to say they’ve underachieved (like Stepsisters), they also defy traditional Cinderella potential. I can’t really see any of them stringing together four wins to get to Minneapolis, but could I see one or two of these teams in the Elite Eight under the right circumstances? Oh You betcha! In order of that deep run likelihood:

  • Kansas
  • Louisville
  • Maryland
  • Marquette
  • Iowa State
  • Mississippi State
  • Villanova
  • Wisconsin
  • Kansas State
  • Cincinnati

Cinderellas –  As the very notion of “Cinderellas”, what used to be seen as mid-major or lesser teams who reached the Sweet 16 or further, has become more about the seeding and less about conference affiliation, college basketball still relies on the supposition that the proverbial glass slipper might fit anyone. It bears noting that everyone listed below either won a share of their conference’s regular season title or their conference tournament, which is as good an outline of what it could mean to be a Cinderella going forward.  May the odds be ever in your favor:

  • Utah State
  • Wofford
  • Belmont
  • St. Mary’s
  • Virginia Commonwealth

Stepsisters – These are the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, the underseeded or underachieving teams capable of a deep run, the high-major conference corollary to the modern mid-major “Cinderellas”. LSU reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession as a double-digit seed in 1986 (#10) and 1987 (#11), and the fairytale symmetry is fitting. Like those LSU squads, all of these “Stepsisters” a.) Come from a high-major conference, b.) Are seeded #7 or worse, c.) Have double-digit losses, d.) Have beaten or pushed multiple highly ranked teams to the limit this season, and e.) Despite lacking cohesion or suffering curious losing stretches or streaks, are very talented with difference-makers that can heat up and win games.

One of these teams typically lingers at the Dance until the second weekend as the rest hurry to catch their pumpkin buses outside, and nailing the right one will boost your bracket as all of these Stepsisters will likely have to beat a Top 4 seed in the Second Round. My eye is on Oregon, the preseason Pac-12 favorite before injuries wreaked havoc with their continuity, until they found a groove with the holdouts and won their last eight (8) games including the Pac-12 Tournament. Florida is also intriguing, with 11 of their 15 losses against teams in the NCAAs, while the Baylor-Syracuse survivor plays a type of zone defense that can confound even the best of teams. In order of my preference:

  • Oregon
  • Florida
  • Baylor
  • Syracuse
  • Ole Miss
  • Ohio State
  • Minnesota
  • Seton Hall
  • Arizona State

Free Fallin’ –  Iowa fits the prototype of these “Tom Petty Memorial” teams, trending downward due to inconsistency or notable downward shifts in performance from earlier in the season. The Hawkeyes have lost six (6) of their last eight (8) games, making them the proverbial “Feast or Famine” team stuck in a “Famine.”  LSU, however, goes against type. Currently without their head coach Will Wade, indefinitely suspended amid allegations of improper conduct stemming from the ongoing federal investigation into college basketball, LSU has gone 1-1 in his absence, losing in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, yet prior to the SEC Tourney had actually trended upward, winning nine (9) of their prior 10 games. It might be more appropriate to place them in the next category, having “No Idea” what they will do, as they otherwise would be a Darkhorse with coaching stability. However, Yale is tricky and smart with a guard in Miye Oni that is rocketing up NBA Draft boards, and an opponent that under the best conditions would pose a serious threat. It may just be that LSU’s freefall is a short one.

  • LSU
  • Iowa

“No Idea” – As in, I have no freaking idea about these teams despite repeated viewings, resulting in serious confusion and a feeling of ennui, wanting more from these teams despite being unable to identify what exactly that “more” would be. I can’t help but think these teams have some latent upset potential should they survive their first games, just not enough to take seriously as a possibility to reach the second week. Coincidentally, all three (3) of the teams below are #9 seeds, involved in a veritable coin flip; Fun Fact No. 2, since the expansion of the NCAA Tournament Field to 64 teams in 1985, #8 seeds are 68-68 against the #9 seed opponents.

  • Washington
  • Oklahoma
  • Central Florida

Likely Upsets – “Upset” has become a misnomer in the parlance of March Madness, used cheaply to describe any result where a lower seed beats a higher seed. I support a line of demarcation on what an “upset” actually is, involving #12 seeds or lower. In the last nine (9) NCAA Tournaments, #11 seeds are 20-16 vs. their #6 seed counterparts (2-2 last year, including eventual Final Four participant Loyola of Chicago, shout out to Sister Jean!), while #12 seeds are 3-12 over the last four (4) tournaments against #5 seeds (surprisingly 0-4 last year). The prime prospects for these upsets are mid-majors who have managed to assemble deep, upperclassmen-laden rosters. No coincidence that these teams below have Darkhorses or Feast or Famine teams as opponents, and not Contenders. New Mexico State and UC-Irvine tickle my fancy based on their well-developed habit of winning games, both with 30 wins and five (5) or less losses on the season. Murray State has Ja Morant, a Top 3 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, while Yale strikes me for the reasons explained above. Liberty and Vermont get the nod here due to both teams being in the Top 10 percentile in free throw percentage and Top 20 percentile in avoiding turnovers.

  • New Mexico State
  • Murray State
  • Liberty
  • UC-Irvine
  • Vermont
  • Yale

Unlikely Upsets – Here are the lower-seeded teams with unfavorable matchups that should play to their seed (i.e., lose). The University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers made history last year by becoming the first No #16 seed to beat a #1 seed in the Men’s Tournament since it expanded to 64 in 1985. I don’t see that repeating though, so I’m ignoring the remaining four (4) #16 seeds. Just like the last four years, I am not buying any of the #15 seeds either, although I would be slightly tempted by Montana if they weren’t playing the #2 most efficient defense in the country in Michigan. Of the rest, the teams I am most likely to be wrong about are Northeastern, who has faces a depleted Kansas, and Old Dominion, who is a really good defensive team that will test Purdue before succumbing to their size and athleticism. Georgia State is well-coached and spunky, but Houston is a blitzkrieg. Saint Louis and Northern Kentucky have opponents that simply will not underestimate them.

  • Northeastern
  • Saint Louis
  • Old Dominion
  • Georgia State
  • Northern Kentucky
  • Montana
  • Bradley
  • Colgate
  • Abilene Christian

And Now … Five Fearless Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” and Make The Final Four … History favors one of Belmont or Arizona State winning another game – Since 2011, one of the First Four teams has gone on to win multiple games in every tournament – and both teams will pose trouble for their opponents. Belmont is a good matchup for a talented but inconsistent Maryland team that has played .500 basketball the last two months, while Arizona State Head Coach Bobby Hurley was the head coach of their opponent Buffalo before taking that job, and Buffalo’s current coach Nate Oats was Hurley’s top assistant at Buffalo, so scouting will be a little easier than normal. I don’t think either team will make the Final Four, but I can see both teams winning their next one.  I’ll give the edge to Belmont on account of them being the #2 scoring and #4 shooting team in the country.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … Kansas. I feel this is a running joke at this point, as last year I had Kansas here as well, and they merely said “Joke’s on You, Pal!” on their way to the Final Four. But this Kansas team has lost two (2) of their best four (4) players in Udoka Azubuike (injury) and Lagerald Vick (personal issues) over the course of the season, and have only gone 5-3 in the last month, those losses by double digits.  I think they have enough to get past Northeastern, but then a game against a deeper opponent looms, either a frenetic Top 8 offense in Auburn, or a New Mexico State squad that they only beat by three (3) last December, in a virtual home game in Kansas City, and with a contributing Vick. I just don’t like their chances of seeing the next weekend.

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Michigan.  At one time I thought Michigan was one of the Top Three teams I had seen play this season, decimating defending National Champion Villanova in a title game rematch and North Carolina back in November, on the way to opening  the season 17-0. Lately, they’ve had a pesky time getting past their intrastate rival Michigan State, losing thrice in the last month. Yet aside from a weird loss to Penn State, all their losses were against NCAA Tournament teams.  They have that aforementioned #2 Defensive Efficiency (AdjD) in the country, along with a #18 offense that can get hot in an instant, and that takes care of the ball better than all but one team (Virginia). Purdue fits this idea as well, a #3 seed flying under the radar in many respects, but Michigan has the bona fides as last season’s National Finalist, and about as good a chance of taking home the title as the other Contenders.

Could Some Middle-Seeded Team Pull a 2014 Connecticut on The Field? Possibly Auburn or Nevada, as both have the requisite star talent and depth to make a deep run against highly rated opposition. Cincinnati intrigues me, as they are more offensively capable than in years past under Mick Cronin while still retaining a nasty defense. But probably not.

My Final Four and Champion … Last year I went 2/4, Villanova and Michigan, but had neither in the Title game. This year, I’m rolling with the team responsible for the most impressive win I saw this season; While everyone around the college basketball world was in the grips of “Zion Mania”, Gonzaga was having none of that in the Maui Invitational Final, punching Duke in the mouth and leaving the Lahaina Civic Center as Maui Champions. I think these two meet again in one semifinal, with the same result as last time.  I like a Kentucky over that spoiler Purdue, Head Coach Matt Painter finally knocking that Final Four door down before bowing out. Zags prevail over Kentucky in the Final, Mark Few and his “International Men of Mystery” frontline Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie cutting down the nets in the Twin Cities, doing what they could not two seasons ago. Groovy baby, yeah!



From → Basketball, Sports

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