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Monday Musings and Mumblings Before The Final Night of Madness

April 3, 2023

So, here we are a few minutes away from the 2023 NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship Game between Connecticut and San Diego State (CBS, 9:20 EST tip-off), the matchup we all predicted, right?  No?

Me neither, although the teams in the Final shouldn’t be complete surprises to have made it this far. While Ivan Maisel summed up the collective bracketing foibles of this edition of March Madness in saying “Any of us would have done better with a blindfold and four darts”, I suspect this Championship Game in particular will make more sense to most as time marches on.

Favored tonight by around 7-7.5 points at most sports books, Connecticut is now #1 in the Ken Pom ratings, up from #4 entering the NCAAs, and improving their AdjEM by 3.9 pp100p, with those gains coming largely on the defensive end (moving up from #18 in AdjD pre-tournament to #8). As they did before the NCAAs started, the Huskies pass all the Championship test thresholds, and to me was criminally underseeded, as they should have been the last #2 seed instead of Arizona or Marquette and should have been sent somewhere closer to home than the West Regional (although they did benefit from playing in Albany, NY the first two rounds). I had them fourth on my list of Contenders, and while I didn’t pick them to make the Final Four in my bracket, I had them in the Elite Eight, they still haven’t lost to anyone outside of their Big East Conference, and their quality was clear before this dominating run.

Meanwhile, should San Diego State win tonight, the Championship tests would require a major reconsideration. I clearly erred in labeling them a Pretender, although by my definition they became a Darkhorse by making the Sweet 16, and I pretty much nailed their scout in my Tournament Preview:

“… (A)cutely one-dimensional, prioritizing offense over defense (Miami, Kentucky) or vice-versa (San Diego State… )… San Diego State is sort of an outlier here, as they meet the Overall Ratings Test, have good depth across the board and can match athleticism with most teams, yet their offense too often experiences drought conditions.”

That said, while most teams improve their metrics as they keep winning NCAA games, San Diego State’s  overall profile on Ken Pom hasn’t really budged; Before they were ranked #14 overall, and today they are ranked #14, with minor gains defensively, but still below the Test thresholds on offense (dropping from #63 pre-tournament to #68, 111.1 AdjO now, 1.3 pp100p from meeting the AdjO Data test). I will say having watched every game in their run, San Diego State is relentless, and when they have fallen behind in the 2nd half, as they did their last three games against Alabama (9 points), Creighton (7) and Florida Atlantic (14), they up their defensive intensity a few more notches, and break you down offensively one-on-one with a squad of athletic, grown men that rolls nine (9) deep (7 seniors and 2 juniors).

Tonight, I expect the trends from both teams to continue. I just don’t think San Diego State’s offense is good enough for 40 minutes, if they fall behind again by multiple possessions in the 2nd half, I don’t expect San Diego State to come all the way back against a really talented, deep and poised team. Connecticut has run roughshod over their five (5) NCAA opponents by 20.6 ppg, are the better rebounding and free throw shooting team – Which lessens the potential for San Diego State to muck things up, turn this game into a rock fight and keep the game close late, their best strategy for victory tonight (even if, I think Connecticut can win a rock fight) – and look every bit the part of a National Champion. When I see people discuss San Diego State as a potential champion, more than once comparisons to the 1983 North Carolina State Alley-Oop (was it a shot or a pass?) Valvano-running-around-looking-for-someone-to-hug miracle NCAA Champions have been made. Ignore the fact that San Diego State may be the biggest Title Game underdog since the 1999 Duke-Connecticut Final; That as a frame of reference should tell you something.


From → Basketball, Sports

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