Monday, March 3, 2008

My Pre-Bracket Bracket Picks

Everyone loves the NCAA tournament, but I love championship week. I love that Digger has 100 teams in his field. I love that I know exactly what Joe Lunardi means when he says this is the weakest bubble in recent memory. I love that I can attend Georgetown vs Louisville for the Big East title on Saturday and then decide whether to watch the MVC Arch Madness final on TV or drive down to Richmond to watch the CAA semis in person on Sunday. This blog was launched in honor of championship week, and the daily posting will start later in the week.

Part of the fun of championship week is discussing who is in the field, but this is a lot different from discussing who are the best teams. (The committee focuses more on what you’ve accomplished than trying to project what you will do.) But before I throw my predictive hat away, I decided to post my faux NCAA tournament picks, as if the brackets were announced today.

Sweet Sixteen

Kent St.: There always has to be one Sweet Sixteen Cinderella and Kent St. has the ideal profile. They play in a good, but not great league. They have some fine victories, including Illinois St., George Mason, and St. Mary’s, but no BCS wins to cause them to be overrated. They have obvious strengths (causing turnovers) and weaknesses (defensive rebounding), but their PPP margin is so weak that you’d have a hard time wagering hard cash on them. There is basically no good reason to pick them (especially after Saturday’s loss to Bowling Green), and that’s exactly why I like them.

Gonzaga: I’m really tempted to pick New Mexico because the three point shooting has been outstanding and they have Giddens, but there’s too high a chance they miss the tournament to make that pick right now. Instead, I’m going with Gonzaga. Can you remember a season where the Zags have received less national attention than this year? They aren’t being discussed as a high seed by anyone, (2-5 vs RPI top 50), but all they’ve done is win the WCC again and win games by a comfortable margin. Other than Memphis, no non-BCS team has a higher Pomeroy rating than the Bulldogs.

Stanford: If you look closely, you’ll notice that I settled on only three Pac10 teams in the Sweet Sixteen. And I’m leaving Washington St. out based on the Rex Grossman theory. When someone looks good early, but fails under pressure, you shouldn’t re-sign them. Washington St. had a great regular season team last year, but faded in the tournament, and all they’ve done is bring everyone back. I’m not betting on a different result even if the PPP margin says I should. If you don’t like this excuse for leaving Washington St. out, how about these:

-They don’t have quite the same defense as the other elite Pac10 teams.
-How could a legit team lost three straight home games at one point in the Pac10 season?
-If Tony Bennett’s name is being tossed around for the Indiana job, will this distract his team?

But I’m leaving them out based on the Rex Grossman theory. One caveat of the Rex Grossman theory is that you could forgive Grossman when he was young. Maybe he still had some upside. But a team that is all seniors and juniors, eh, they just don’t do it for me.

But what about the 2005 Illini team? Weren’t they mostly juniors and seniors? Yes, but they weren’t 4-6 against the RPI top 100 like Washington St. (Man, this is a lot of discussion about Washington St. You can see I’m regretting leaving them out.)

But let’s move on to Stanford. They look like a team that could be facing the Rex Grossman theory, especially after they got roasted by Louisville last year. Aha, but they were young. They weren’t a dominant regular season team that collapsed in the second round, they were a borderline tournament team, that lived up to seed. Stanford will do the same this year.

Stanford has three junior perimeter players, Lawrence Hill, Anthony Goods, and Mitch Johnson who have played good but not great basketball. I think one of them makes some threes in the tournament, Brook Lopez does his thing, the twin towers defend the post, and Stanford rolls through Anaheim.

Connecticut: Think about all the good things that have happened since Dyson’s suspension:
1) Dyson, a highly inefficient shooter, stopped wasting possessions with jump shots.
2) AJ Price has become a more complete player and the clear leader of the team.
3) Craig Austrie gained a boatload of confidence.
4) The team has suddenly discovered that they should try to involve Hasheem Thabeet on the offensive end. (And how many times does a Big Man break out in the post-season when teams start playing him one-on-one instead of using zones or double teams.)

Note that Connecticut is among the bottom 10 teams in the country in percentage of three pointers taken. Taking this few three pointers should lower UConn’s game-to-game variance, and should make this a fairly easy team to predict. They’ll beat the inferior teams in the early rounds, and struggle to beat the elite teams when they reach the Sweet Sixteen.

One obvious word of caution about UConn: UConn’s defense is the best in the country at stopping 2’s but mediocre at stopping 3’s. Their only Big East losses came when teams with good perimeter shooters took advantage from beyond the arc, (see Villanova, Providence, Georgetown, and Notre Dame.) An early match-up with a team like Vanderbilt could be a nightmare for this team.

USC: Along those same lines, USC has a dominant defense and takes very few three pointers. If that isn’t a recipe for consistency, I don’t know what is. And when you take a consistent team that has been playing in the deepest conference in the country, well I’m not picking against them early in the tournament.

Certainly, I have crazy visions of OJ Mayo taking 40 shots and his team losing in the second round, but I don’t see Tim Floyd letting that happen. What I do see is Frank Martin not knowing what strings to pull for a talented Kansas St. team. Yes Beasley will get his 30 points and 15 rebounds, and yes I see that Kansas St. has terrific PPP numbers, but I’m not buying K-State right now. An almost 40 point win over Missouri doesn’t tell me nearly as much as a team that lets Bill Walker get to 0-14 without making any adjustments.

Indiana: During Sunday’s game, my wife uttered the following. “Hey Indiana, I’m asking you to consider, just consider, playing defense.” I was a little confused earlier this year about Indiana’s defensive problems. After all, I thought Kelvin Sampson was one of the best teachers of defense in the country. But now after a handful of games with Dan Dakich at the helm, it has finally become clear to me. This team’s natural level of defense is horrible, and the fact that Kelvin Sampson got them to play even average defense, was quite an accomplishment.

So why am I picking them for the Sweet Sixteen? Look, there’s no sensible reason to pick this team over say Wisconsin. Wisconsin has better PPP numbers and has the right kind of defense to win NCAA tournament games. But I just don’t see this crazy Indiana season ending on the first weekend. While Wisconsin players have maximized their potential, the Hoosiers haven’t played anywhere near their potential yet. If they could just eliminate the sloppy turnovers and pay attention to the defensive game plan, they have the offensive talent to beat anyone. And Sunday at Michigan St., the Hoosiers got a big wake up call that if they don’t bother to play defense, they might as well cancel the rest of the season.

As for Tom Izzo’s great post-season reputation and Wisconsin’s great PPP numbers, I’m going to callously point out that the Big Ten was horrible in the non-conference this year, and there is no reason for me to pick multiple Big Ten teams in the Sweet Sixteen. I feel worse about leaving Purdue out of the Sweet Sixteen, because I honestly think Purdue is the best team in the conference. But while Purdue’s unique mix of combo wing players might be a hard match-up in the Big Ten, it might be an ideal match-up for a mid-major in the first round. So I’m giving one half-hearted vote for Indiana in what is clearly a down year for the Big Ten.

Xavier: What Xavier is doing in a deep Atlantic 10 this year is nothing short of phenomenal. And I’ve been in the Drew Lavender fan-club for as long as I remember. But Lavender is still only 5’7”. To quote Charles Barkley, “Its like shooting over a chair.” Any BCS team with multiple competent three point shooters can exploit this. And while I’d love to pick this team to go further than the Sweet Sixteen, I just can’t.

Tennessee: The RPI numbers say the Volunteers have more quality wins than just about anyone in the country and they deserve a 1 seed. The Pomeroy Ratings also say they have been one of the luckiest teams in the country and they could easily go down early. Every year a 1 seed goes down before the Elite Eight. And Tennessee is a likely suspect.

Elite Eight

Notre Dame or Vanderbilt: Let’s say you open up the newspaper and see that your favorite team is projected to face Notre Dame in the second round. You immediately smile. Notre Dame’s defense is much better than in the past, but they often play a passive zone that doesn’t force any turnovers. And that’s not acceptable. If you play zone, you have to force turnovers and force teams out of their comfort zone.

So now you smile. “My team can beat them. This is a great match-up.” Then the game starts. Out of nowhere, Ryan Ayers makes 6 three pointers. You scream at the TV. “I thought we were supposed to guard Kyle McAlarney! Noooo!!!!!” Then your guards start stepping out further and suddenly Notre Dame punishes you in the paint. And just like that you go home.

Because Notre Dame shoots 40% as a team from three point range, they can beat anybody in the country on a given night. Or they can lose in the first round. The threes don’t fall. Some crazy 6’7” kid from a mid-major handles Luke Harangody better than anyone in the Big East, and the passive defense gives up the game.

The exact same thing describes Vanderbilt. Simply substitute Shan Foster and Alex Gordon for Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers. One of these two teams is making a deep run, I just don’t know which one.

Texas: They beat UCLA, Kansas, and Tennessee. I could easily see DJ Augustin willing this team to the Final Four, but at some point the defense is going to fail them. It really is that simple with this team.

Kansas: So why hasn’t Bill Self been able to take Kansas to the Final Four? Luck? Maybe. But I’m starting to believe that style-of-play may matter because all the tournament losses seem to have the same blueprint. Bill Self’s High-Low system is heavily dependent upon feeding a big man in the post, and when a game gets called close, his better big men get in foul trouble and the offense shuts down. The game at Oklahoma St. was a perfect example. Darrell Arthur got in foul trouble and eventually fouled out and the offense had one of its worst performances of the season.

None of the other elite teams is so dependent on its big men to keep the offense moving. Duke and Memphis could care less about feeding the post, Tennessee has the depth to avoid foul trouble, UCLA has enough quality defenders to protect Love, and Texas is so strong at the guards, that they can survive foul trouble too. Louisville would be hurt without Padgett, but they played so long without him, that they wouldn’t panic. Only North Carolina would really fear Tyler Hansbrough getting in foul trouble, but when is that going to happen? If a game is called close, Hansbrough will just back off defensively and take his 15 FTs on the offensive end.

Think back to Oden on his run to the championship last year. He usually sat for 10 minutes in the first half of games. The way the college game is called today, you have to assume your big men are going to get in foul trouble and you have to be able to win regardless. Kansas has the guards and the depth to win even without their better big men in the game, but the High-Low system doesn’t seem to maximize their guard’s talents. At some point Kansas gets in foul trouble and goes home.

Duke: I hate to take Coach K’s side on anything, but I can kind of understand his side in the injury debate from a few weeks ago. He took a younger, smaller Duke team into Chapel Hill and won a game, and all he heard was how it didn’t count because Ty Lawson didn’t play. (You mean we actually won at our archrival and you aren’t giving us any credit for it!) And that’s why he slipped up in the interview and bashed North Carolina for having too many injury excuses.

Personally, I thought Kyle Singler outplayed Tyler Hansbrough in the first Duke-UNC matchup. He just stayed aggressive without fouling which is practically impossible given that no one has drawn more FT attempts in the last three years than Hansbrough. Everyone has talked about size being an issue, but no one has beaten Duke this year by being too big to defend. Pittsburgh won with a 6’9” freshman center. Wake Forest won by out-quicking them. Coach K will have this team prepared to defend all the tall tournament teams. I’d be more concerned about a small mid-major that finds a comfort zone. But since they had their VCU moment last year, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’ll at least make it to the Elite Eight this year.

The Final Four

North Carolina: People say North Carolina’s defense isn’t that good, but they have the exact same offense/defense profile as the Georgetown team that went to the Final Four last year. (Of course, they do it at a much quicker pace.) Moreover, this team is undefeated on the road! (Yes this also implies that they’ve had some home meltdowns.) But the Boston College game where Tyrese Rice scored 34 in the first half said it all for me. Even when the defense is suspect, (and it definitely will be at times), the offense just keeps plugging away. Tyler Hansbrough has spent three seasons leading the world in FTRate, and I don’t see this freight train stopping before the Final Four.

Memphis: No team elicits stronger opinions from people. Some people like them to go all the way, some people think the weak CUSA schedule has made them soft. The truth is probably in the middle. On a side note, this is usually the time of year where I point out how Memphis really doesn’t deserve a 1 seed because they don’t have the quality wins of some of the other BCS schools. But that’s just not the case this year. Memphis has double digit top 100 wins, only one loss, and they deserve a top seed. I really hope Kansas and Memphis end up in the same bracket so we get the Final Four showdown. Bill Self has never made it to the Final Four; Memphis has been stuck on the Elite Eight two years in a row.

Louisville: While I’ve been critical of the Memphis DDM, I really love when Sports Illustrated has an article that discusses a new style of play. The funny thing is, you often don’t have to re-invent the wheel in order to be successful. One of the sweetest plays this year has been the Louisville pick-n-roll to David Padgett.

There’s still some fear that some team will play zone and Louisville will get a little three point happy, but the win last weekend at Pittsburgh convinced me that this team is going to the Final Four. Pittsburgh desperately wanted to win to end the losing streak, the Panthers never lose at home, and they turned the ball over only 4 times. Yet despite all that Louisville was so dominant that they never gave Pittsburgh an opportunity to win. Picking Louisville for the Final Four may seem like a surprise, but no serious college basketball fan is sleeping on this team anymore. To say Louisville is underrated gives more credibility to the polls than they deserve. They are just good.


UCLA: I picked them to win it all at the start of the year, and I’m still leaning that way. Just look at the top five, Kevin Love is a walking double-double, Darren Collison is about to continue the streak of UCLA junior guards that turn pro, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is the unselfish guy who does all the dirty work, Russell Westbrook is the star defender who absolutely shut down OJ Mayo, and Josh Shipp isn’t bad either. Really, if the Pac10 wasn’t insanely deep this year, everyone would be picking this team.

Missed the Cut

I made some nice illogical arguments against Kansas St., Washington St., and Wisconsin above. Let me just add that Georgetown has the ability, but perhaps not the hunger to make another Sweet Sixteen run. I can’t figure out whether to criticize the Hoyas for the turnovers and poor rebounding, or praise them for doing everything else so well that they still win. I also feel horrible about leaving Marquette out of the Sweet Sixteen, especially when I go back and look at their PPP numbers. But I just can’t jump on the bandwagon. There are times when I think Marquette looks like a top 10 team, but there are other times where they don’t even look like a tournament team to me. I also feel bad about leaving Butler out, but the PPP numbers just aren’t good enough for me to make the pick.