2016-17 NCAA Tournament Preview: West Region

-Jim Root  - Lines accurate to 5dimes as of 10am central, 3/15

(1)  Gonzaga vs. (16) South Dakota State

Initial Thoughts: Well, this is a bummer. My favorite 15/16-seed insane upset candidate, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, got placed against Gonzaga, who I’m also very high on this year as a legit Final Four contender. I was convinced the Jacks would get a 15-seed, and had the committee dug into things a little more, they would have realized this is an outstanding 16-seed. They bottomed out at 259th in KenPom early in the conference season, but due to a few strategic tweaks (keep reading to find out what!) and having a bona fide star, they’ve been on the rise for two months now. Gonzaga, on the other hand, has resided comfortably atop KenPom’s rankings since mid-January, but their offense has almost fallen out of the top 10 lately with a few sluggish WCC performances. Will this combination of factors be enough for the Jackrabbits to keep it close?

Gonzaga on Offense: The Zags attack is so tough to stop due to its incredible array of options. They often set the tone early with Przemek Karnowski post-ups, allowing his overwhelming size and impressive lefty touch to force opponents to choose between letting him score inside or doubling and allowing him to distribute from the block (he's a deft passer). Mike Daum and Ian Theisen are normal-sized bigs at 6’9, 250ish each, but neither is a match for the 7’1, 300-pound Mount Poland.

As the game progresses, though, the offense falls more and more into the hands of WCC Player of the Year Nigel Williams-Goss, particularly in pick-and-rolls. A superb penetrator and creator, Williams-Goss offers a major challenge to the Jackrabbits. The emergence of junior college transfer Chris Howell over the course of the Summit season is a major reason why South Dakota State is better than its numbers say, and he and Tevin King at least have the athleticism to try and hang with NWG, but that's easier said than done.

SDSU’s biggest flaw this season was its absolutely hideous perimeter defense, playing an awful 1-3-1 zone for a lot of the year that was constantly losing shooters in a conference full of deadly ones. The tide turned when they switched to more man-to-man, but they don’t have the athletes up and down the roster to go toe to toe with the Zags. I’d guess we’ll see some of the 1-3-1 if the Josh Perkins- and Jonathan Williams-type players start dominating, but that could just lead to a hellstorm of threes from Perkins, Williams-Goss, Jordan Matthews, and Silas Melson.

South Dakota State on Offense:  It pretty much starts and ends with Mr. Dauminator himself, Mike Daum. The player of the year in the Summit, Daum averaged 28ppg in league play while using one of the highest shares of possessions in the country. He’s a matchup nightmare for numerous reasons, but the most iconic part of his game to me is similar to that of Frank Kaminsky – his three-point shooting plus his devastating perimeter pump fake. You have to respect him from deep (42% on a high volume), and he uses that respect to get defenders off balance and drive around them. His size and touch allow him to finish in the lane or draw fouls, and even Gonzaga’s stable of big men will likely struggle with him somewhat (particularly Karnowski trying to cover him outside). The Zags’ secret weapon here is Zach Collins, a first-round NBA talent, with the strength and quickness to possibly match up with Daum. Reed Tellinghuisen spaces the floor as a four man, which helps create room for Daum’s heroics and means Karnowski won't have a viable matchup on this end.

The Zags have dabbled in using a 2-3 zone to mix things up, but the possibility of losing Daum & company on the perimeter would seem to negate that as a useful option in this game. They’re better off sticking with their man-to-man strategy of running shooters off the three-point line and daring them to finish at the rim against their colossal frontcourt, which is no easy feat – opponents are shooting 45.8% at the rim against the Zags, per hoop-math.com, dead last in the entire country.

Key Factor(s):  To me, it’s going to come down to South Dakota State’s supporting cast. Despite the possibility that Gonzaga has a good match for Daum, he’s simply too good to completely shut down. He’ll need help, though. Can AJ Hess (maybe not fully healthy still?), Skyler Flatten, and Lane Severyn hit a few shots? Can Mike Orris create scoring opportunities for others while being guarded by a lockdown perimeter defender (Melson)? And Can Howell continue to create baskets with his hustle and athleticism against a nationally-elite defense?

Final Predictions: A minor interesting note – as a 22-point favorite,  Gonzaga becoming the first 1-seed to lose to a 16 would be a gigantic shocker, but only slightly more shocking than the Zags losing at home to BYU as 21-point favorites. I think Mark Few and the boys bring it, though, and they’ll overwhelm the Summit champs over the course of the game despite an early flurry from Daum/Tellinghuisen. The Zags’ ability to take away the three while not getting exposed inside is probably the single biggest decider for me. 92-65 for the final tally. 

SU Pick: Gonzaga
ATS Pick: Gonzaga -22
O/U Pick: Over 153

 (8) Northwestern vs. (9) Vanderbilt

Initial Thoughts: Not sure why I’m writing a preview for an NIT game, seems odd…what’s that? Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament? WHAT PLANET IS THIS?! It’s still Earth folks, but Chicago’s Big Ten Team has finally qualified for college basketball’s ultimate event, an incredible accomplishment for Chris Collins and the program. They won’t have to wait long, either, as they play in the second time slot on Thursday afternoon. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is a “first of its kind” as well – they’re the only 15-loss team to ever earn an at-large bid, which is pretty absurd in itself. Having a 15-loss team sitting at #33 on the seed list feels insane, but the Commodores’ three-game sweep of Florida and #1 overall schedule strength helped offset the pile of defeats (including one to my Mizzou Tigers by 20!).

Northwestern on Offense: Northwestern has found some added success this year by taking more transition opportunities, when available, though they still don’t play what anyone would call “fast.” Their centerpiece in the half-court is maestro Bryant McIntosh, a brilliant passer and crafty driver who excels at finishing strangely-angled shots around the rim. He runs a ton of pick-and-roll out of the “horns” set (two big men up around the elbows) where he has his choice of side to attack. This gets the defense rotating, allowing him to find a rolling big man or wings Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey for open shots. The offense is incredibly reliant on McIntosh’s vision and creation, though, so if they play a team with an awesome on-ball defender and/or superb pick-and-roll defensive execution, they can bog down for long stretches. McIntosh’s shot has also abandoned him this year, as he’s hitting only 30% compared to 37% and 36% his first two seasons (essentially the same volume each year). Another relevant note: Lindsey has been mired in a major slump since returning from a bout with mononucleosis, hitting only 10/43 (23%) from deep over that eight-game stretch. Hopefully, he finds his stroke in Salt Lake City.

Defensively, Vandy has mixed it up a lot more than I expected this year under new coach Bryce Drew.  They showed an extended, matchup 2-3ish zone against Arkansas (the Razorbacks ripped it apart), though that may have been a symptom of playing a third game in three days and needing to rest a bit on that end. Synergy has them as a very good man team (0.83ppp) and an average zone one (0.92ppp), plus Northwestern moves the ball and shoots it too well, so I wouldn’t expect to see the zone much. Riley LaChance is the natural matchup for McIntosh (they’re both white!), but his creation is so important that throwing Joe Toye or Jeff Roberson on him for stretches may be worthwhile to disrupt NW’s offense.

Vanderbilt on Offense:  The ‘Dores biggest strength offensively is their plethora of shooting. Everyone in their top seven will shoot an open three if given one, and LaChance in particular is hitting a sizzling 49% of his chances. Synergy Lineup-wise, Bryce Drew had the stroke of genius midseason to move Matthew Fisher-Davis to an off-the-bench scorer role, a change that coincided almost directly with Vandy’s stunning run from a 12-13 afterthought to a comfortably-in at-large. They’re a particularly tough matchup for Northwestern because the ‘Cats prefer to funnel would-be scorers into shot-blockers Dererk Pardon, Barrett Benson, and Gavin Skelly, but the shooting threat of Vandy’s bigs (Luke Kornet and Roberson) mean they’ll have to come away from the rim. Northwestern plays exclusively man-to-man, so solving that matchup issue will be crucial.

Northwestern is fortunate, though, that Vandy won’t take advantage of their defense’s biggest weakness, which is controlling the defensive glass. The ‘Dores mostly eschew the offensive glass, and they don’t really have the bangers to pound the boards even if they wanted to, so the Cats’ 242nd-ranked defensive rebounding rate likely will not be a factor.

Key Factor(s): While I don’t think there’s a wide gap in coaching ability between Bryce Drew and Chris Collins (and both have done an excellent job this season), I do think Drew will figure out a way to guard Northwestern’s fairly limited offense with almost four days to prepare.  Lindsey’s mono-related slump is also a major concern in that area. One final key factor to me is both teams’ 3/4 ‘tweeners and how much they impact the game. NW’s Sanjay Lumpkin has repeatedly impressed the 3MW men with his excellent defense of basically every position along with his penchant for timely rebounds and hustle plays, while Roberson brings a similar versatility in a higher-usage package for Vandy.

Final Predictions: It feels sacrilegious to do this, but I’m going against the hometown Purple Kitties. Vanderbilt is playing extremely well of late (they’ve won 7 of 9, and one loss was a near-win at Kentucky), and their shooting combined with my hunch that Drew figures out a solid defensive plan for the constant pick-and-rolls lead me down this path. I’m sorry, Northwestern fans – my heart is with you, but my head isn’t. I'll go with the 'Dores, 67-62. 

SU Pick: Vanderbilt
ATS Pick: Vanderbilt -1
O/U Pick: Under 130, ever so slightly

(5) Notre Dame vs. (12) Princeton

Initial Thoughts: Bring your umbrellas to this one folks, because it is going to be RAINING threes! The deep ball is a massive part of both teams’ strategies, and there will be extended stretches of this game where all ten players on the court can sink an open shot. About the teams: Notre Dame exceeded external expectations in the ACC, using a very efficient offense to finish tied for second in a brutal ACC. Princeton dealt with serious injury issues in the non-conference season, losing two starters before mid-December, and as a result, they whiffed on all their significant win opportunities. They’ve since adapted, though, and this version of the Tigers is hot (won 19 in a row) and dangerous as they enter the tourney.

Notre Dame on Offense: Remember those “Joga Bonito” Nike commercials that were basically about how beautifully soccer could be played? To me, Notre Dame epitomizes a basketball version of “joga bonito” on the offensive end, and they have for multiple years. Their attack starts with having an excellent point guard, and Matt Farrell has certainly held up the tradition established by Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson recently. Farrell spearheads a spread pick-and-roll attack (first-team All-ACC Bonzie Colson is the roll man), complemented by a group of shooters that space the floor. Princeton has actually defended the pick-and-roll well this year, so that should will be a nice matchup of strength vs. strength.

Princeton is extremely stout defensively, putting up an absurd 89.9ppp defensive efficiency in Ivy League play (the best by almost 10 points). They have a lot of perimeter length, with four guys 6’4-6’5 who can really get out and guard, including conference DPOY Myles Stephens. They finish possessions (though ND won’t really chase the offensive glass) and completely take away transition opportunities, and if you are able to get to the rim on them, they have real size to challenge would-be finishers (two 6’10+ centers, plus Stephens is a pest). They are somewhat vulnerable from deep, though, and the Irish will look to stretch out the Tigers’ well-schooled defense early. Semi-related: the Irish are also a wonderful ball movement team, always making the extra pass around the perimeter, which is often how they get open threes. Princeton’s perimeter length will disrupt this somewhat, as will their disciplined rotations, but Notre Dame should find opportunities from the land of plenty.

Princeton on Offense:  Princeton runs an extremely funky motion offense designed to get their outstanding shooters open for spot-up threes. There’s a lot of cutting and screening through the free throw line, hoping to suck in help defenders off the wing enough to provide space for a three-point attempt. With Stephens and Steven Cook manning the forward spots most of the time, the Tigers have two 6’5 guys that can both drive and hit 42% of their threes, a matchup nightmare for most teams. Notre Dame’s base lineup with Steve Vasturia and VJ Beachem at forward should provide a decent defense against this, as both are far more comfortable on the perimeter, but the real threat for Princeton comes more from the unconventional movement within their scheme. Without playing them more often, it’s hard to get a gauge for when they’re going to screen vs. pop out vs. cut, a delicate dance which the seasoned Tigers coordinate beautifully. They’ll likely open shots, it just comes down to how many they can hit.

Notre Dame actually threw out some zone looks this season, but I have a hard time seeing those working against Princeton’s gunners. It just becomes too hard to constantly be aware of where the shooters are (especially when it’s all five guys), and since Princeton doesn’t have the interior offensive threats to attack Colson and the forwards, I’d guess we see little to no zone from Brey.  Semi-related – Princeton won’t attack the Irish’s weakness on the defensive glass, either, meaning Colson should be able to clean up most possessions without issue.

Key Factor(s):  Neither team is really looking to get out in transition, particularly Princeton, who is mostly allergic to pushing the tempo. That shortens the game, which almost always favors the underdog (gives the talent gap a smaller sample size over which to bear out). Guarding Princeton’s funky offense takes some trial-and-error (it’s just too difficult for a scout team to pick up and run well in practice), so Princeton may jump out to an early lead in this one. The ultimate decider, though, will be which set of 19-22 year-olds are able to knock down shots, forever the most elusive and impossible-t-predict factor.

Final Predictions: I like Princeton ATS here; I think they cover unless they’re cold and the Irish are scalding. When teams have similar goals and styles, give me the dog plus the points.  The Tigers’ late game execution was pretty shaky vs. Penn in the Ivy semifinals, though, so I think Brey, Farrell, and Vasturia are the differences in squeaking out a win late, thwarting the Ivy’s attempt at a second straight NCAA first-round win. Taking the under feels risky with the possibility that this game could have 20-25 made threes, but I think the tempo will be slow enough to keep the total on the low end. Call it 67-63. 

SU Pick: Notre Dame
ATS Pick: Princeton +6.5
O/U Pick: Under 134

(4) West Virginia vs. (13) Bucknell

Initial Thoughts: As the resident Press Virginia killjoy at 3MW, I was really hoping they’d get a horrible matchup from the group of potential 12/13 squads (Princeton, for instance!). But as much as I love Bucknell, I’m not sure this one really fits the bill at first glance. I’ll dive into more about that as we go, but about the teams…West Va put some new parts into the same old places and continued its ultra-defined style, ranking #1 in forcing turnovers and #7 in offensive rebounding (but hey, they fouled a little bit less!). The Bison went a total of 18-3 against the Patriot League (including the tournament), with two of their losses coming to matchup nightmare Lehigh. What makes them so bad of a matchup? One crucial thing you need to be able to do against Bucknell is…

West Virginia on Offense:  …pull big man Nana Foulland away from the basket. He’s a beast in the paint, every bit of a high-major talent who owned the interior in the Patriot League. This presents an interesting choice for Huggy Bear – of the ‘Eer bigs, Nathan Adrian is best equipped to do this, but they almost exclusively play him at the four alongside an inside-dwelling five (Sagaba Konate, Elijah Macon). Those two are offensive rebounding machines, crucial for their attack, but a lineup of Adrian + Esa Ahmad at the four + three of their hyperactive guards would likely give the Bison major problems without losing too much on the glass. One other way to pull Foulland out is via pick-and-roll, but West Virginia rarely runs those (only 12.6% of the time per Synergy, 331st in the nation).

Against Patriot competition, the Bison chose to funnel teams to the basket and dare them to finish over Foulland, something they were rarely able to do. Opponents took the 46th-most shots at the rim, per hoop-math, but converted only 54.5% once there, 303rd nationally. The heightened athleticism of the Mountaineer guards and bigs will challenge that, though. Another factor – Foulland has done a solid job of staying out of foul trouble, which will be crucial as well, as the Bison’s defensive strategy is significantly less effective without his rim protection.  

The final note here is on West Virginia’s unyielding offensive rebounding onslaught (yes I had to look up a synonym for relentless because I feel like I use it too much with WV). Between Foulland and fellow all-league forward Zach Thomas, the Bison can compete down low, but lineups with Ahmad at the three will present a major challenge. None of Bucknell’s guards really get after the defensive glass.

Bucknell on Offense:  Any West Virginia game is dictated by one main thing: can you handle their relentless pressure? Because of the constant nature (they press the most of any team in the country by a wide margin, per Synergy) and varied looks that Bob Huggins throws out, it’s very difficult for opponents to control tempo and style of the game – the Mountaineers essentially force you to play frenetically (opponents have the second-shortest average possession length in the country). I’m pretty concerned for the ‘Nellies here. They have multiple ball-handlers (Thomas, point guard Stephen Brown, Kimbal McKenzie) on the floor, but the team collectively turns the ball over 19% of the time, which is 200th in the country. The Mountaineers have terrorized far more sure-handed offenses before, so Bucknell will need to really step up in that department to have a chance, and they simply haven’t seen a pressing defense like this in the Patriot League.

West Virginia plays a similar scheme to Bucknell in the sense that they don’t think you can finish against their size inside. The guards constantly gamble, content with the trade-off of getting a few steals vs. getting beat off the dribble, knowing that they have a stable of monsters in the paint (opponents are 339th in FG% at the rim, and WV swats shots in the paint at the country’s 8th-highest rate).

Due to the berserk nature of its defense, West Virginia fouls a ton (and they won’t have the benefit of a homecourt whistle), so you need to be able to take your free points when given the chance. Bucknell is a dismal 259th in the country in free throw percentage, a hair under 68%, and that won’t get it done here.

Key Factor(s): Can it really be anything but the turnover battle? West Virginia’s offense relies on its defense for easy baskets, and getting a bunch of easy points off steals could offset Bucknell’s ability to compete inside and on the glass. Thomas would normally be a major asset with his ability to handle it at the four spot, but Adrian makes lives miserable for those kinds of players.

Obligatory coaching mention: Huggins is a Hall of Famer, while Bucknell’s Nathan Davis is only in his second year as a head coach. He’s a bright young mind, no doubt, but I don’t think he’s on the Brad Underwood level to take down Huggy in the first round two years in a row.

Final Predictions: The Mountaineers win an up-and-down affair, scoring enough off of turnovers and the offensive glass to cover the spread as well. Score prediction: 86-65.

SU Pick: West Virginia
ATS Pick: West Virginia -14
O/U Pick: Over 148

(6) Maryland vs. (11) Xavier

Initial Thoughts: Yeesh. These two teams enter the tournament on similar downward trajectories, having lost a combined 13 of their last 20 games. Xavier has some injury excuses, as they dealt with Edmond Sumner’s ACL tear and Trevon Blueitt’s right ankle sprain, while Maryland will probably point to their youth and some (far less impactful) injuries of their own (Michal Cekovsky being out for the year) as the reason for their slide. Only one can right the ship down in Orlando, though.

Maryland on Offense: Maryland’s offense revolves around its junior leader, Melo Trimble. He’s the team’s best scorer and best creator, and while his efficiency has suffered slightly this year in a very high-usage role, he’s still a threat to score 30 on any night due to his finishing at the rim and ability to get hot from downtown. He runs a ton of pick-and-roll, and he’s gotten better and better at hitting the roll man at the right time, which has turned the Terps into one of the country’s most dangerous teams out of that set. His supporting cast is primarily freshmen: Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter, and Justin Jackson are the next three best players, and each has been outstanding in a major role this year. All three can shoot it, along with Jaylen Brantley, and that’s a concern for a Musketeer defense that has given up a large share of treys this season. 

Xavier has played zone less than in past years (only 18.5% of the time, per Synergy), but mixing it up against an inexperienced team seems like a good strategy. Chris Mack will often stick JP Macura and his full-body-suit of performance athletic gear at the top of a 1-3-1, forcing the ball to a side and testing an opponent’s ability to beat them with ball movement. Maryland moves the ball with its two point guards (Cowand and Trimble), so using it just as a change of pace may work best.

Xavier on Offense:  The Musketeers want to attack the rim, whether it’s via drives, post-ups, or offensive rebounds. They’re 31st in the country in percentage of shots taken at the rim, per hoop-math, and that relentless mindset also earns them a fair share of free throw attempts. They miss Sumner’s excellent slashing ability, but between Macura, Blueitt, and freshman Quentin Goodin, they still have the weapons to put pressure on Maryland’s back line. Maryland, on the other hand, will try to force the Muskies into stopping short and taking two-point jumpers, and that push-and-pull will be pivotal.

The Musketeers should crush the Terps on the glass, particularly on this end of the floor. Xavier’s 26th-ranked offensive rebound rate matches up extremely well with Maryland’s 292nd-ranked defensive rebounding, and the three-headed center trio of RaShid Gaston, Sean O’Mara, and Tyrique Jones will be extremely tough to handle. Put-backs will be key, of course, but this can also get Blueitt and Macura some open three attempts, something Maryland ordinarily does a good job of limiting in traditional half-court settings. Xavier hasn’t shot the ball all that well from deep this season, but make no mistake about it, those two can light it up on any given night.

Key Factor(s): This is a “coaching edge” game for me. Despite some team struggles this year, Chris Mack is still an excellent coach, and he should have his team ready to play after a strong Big East Tournament showing. Mark Turgeon, on the other hand, has done a better job this year relative to the talent he has, but I just don’t trust him in the same way (see his ultra-talented team last year only earning a 4-seed). As mentioned, Maryland is also super young (317th in KenPom’s experience stat), so playing on this stage against a well-coached team could be a challenge. The Mack factor, plus the Terps’ youth, along with X’s offensive rebounding, stand out as the largest differentiators in this one.

Final Predictions: I’m going with the upset here (sure it’s only a 2-point spread though). Trimble will be the best player in this game, but Macura and Blueitt are not far behind, and some concerns linger about Maryland being a “lucky” team – KenPom has them 36th nationally in his luck statistic. Both offenses should be able to score in this one, so I’ll guess something like 77-74, with the Musketeers squeaking by.

SU Pick: Xavier
ATS Pick: Xavier +1.5
O/U Pick: Over 142.5

(3) Florida State vs. (14) Florida Gulf Coast

Initial Thoughts: I will always love a big brother/little brother matchup between two in-state rivals, so I’m all for this one. Especially because I’d rather go to school here than spend four years in Tallahassee…but I guess that’s not relevant for this game! Florida State had blistering start to the year, sitting at 18-2 with wins over Florida, Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, and Louisville, but they came back down to Earth the rest of the way, finishing 7-6 with losses to three non-NCAA Tournament teams. The Eagles of Gulf Coast, on the other hand, are essentially the same team that lost (but covered!) against eventual national runner-up North Carolina in the first round last season, with one major difference: UCF transfer Brandon Goodwin at point guard.

Florida State on Offense: Florida State is one of the best transition offenses in the country, both in frequency and efficiency. Point guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes has been superb his junior year, and the team sports two NBA-level wings in lottery prospect Jonathan Isaac and scorer Dwayne Bacon. This is major cause of concern for FGCU, who struggles to limit fast-break opportunities. FSU will definitely try to dictate the tempo and push the pace in this one, and if it becomes a track meet, the Seminoles’ talent and athleticism could overwhelm the Eagles (even though they have a lot of it for a mid-major).

FSU wants to get to the rim, whether it’s in transition or the half-court. They’ll employ a lot of slash-and-kick with some ball screens mixed in, giving freedom to attack gaps to the triumvirate mentioned above as well as Terance Mann and Trent Forrest. FGCU’s Demetris Morant (formerly of UNLV) is a solid rim protector, but he’s not accustomed to this level of athlete flying at him constantly. The Eagles will need to play a lot of Rayjon Tucker to give them hope of matching up on the wing athletically and keeping the Seminoles’ slashers in front of them.

FGCU on Offense:  The comparison we always make at 3MW for FGCU’s offense is to a mini North Carolina (credit to @jorcubsdan, an excellent college hoop follow). That means the Eagles are going to pound the rock inside to their bigs via post-ups and look to drive whenever possible, all while crashing the offensive glass with reckless abandon (not too dissimilar to FSU above). Per hoop-math, FGCU is 14th nationally in percentage of shots taken at the rim and 30th in field goal percentage when they get there (67%), so it’s a massive part of their offense. Last year’s stud, Marc-Eddy Norelia, has finally started to round into form after injuries limited him most of the year, and the duo of him and Goodwin can play with anyone. I have some serious concerns about FGCU’s plan of attack against the ‘Noles size, though: they’re #2 nationally in average height and opponents shoot only 53% at the rim against them, good for 312th in the country. They’re just massive, whether it’s 7’1, 304-pound behemoth Michael Ojo, 7’4 Christ Koumadje, or even draft darling Isaac, and FGCU may struggle to maintain their elite finishing against a large-even-for-the-ACC frontcourt. Goodwin is a big part of that, as his ability to get in the lane and create easy shots for his teammates will be in high-demand.

Due the Seminoles’ aforementioned penchant for getting out in transition, the offensive glass should actually be an option here. The frontcourt rotation of Antravious Simmons, Morant, Norelia, and Kevin Mickle are all excellent in this regard, and despite their size, FSU’s centers don’t clean the defensive glass all that well (Isaac basically carries them).

Key Factor(s):  The seesaw between FGCU’s offensive rebounds and FSU’s transition points is crucial. They’re the strongest parts of each team’s offensive attack, and if it tilts too far one way or the other, it may decide the spread result (and potentially the game). I like FGCU’s Joe Dooley a lot as a coach, despite him looking like a total greaseball, while Leonard Hamilton always seems to under-achieve with the talent he brings on campus (not this year, although the cracks started to show late in the season).

Final Predictions: This is not a very confident pick either way. My best guess is that FSU leads by 12-15 most of the game as XRM, Bacon, and Isaac get a lot of the shots they want, but they never truly put the game away and the Eagles find a way to sneak in the back door late for a dramatic cover – I’ll say 81-70.

SU Pick: Florida State
ATS Pick: FGCU +12
O/U Pick: Over 146.5

(7) St. Mary’s vs. (10) VCU

 Initial Thoughts: As soon as I saw I was previewing this game, I knew I needed to swallow some bias. I’ve been irrationally down on VCU all year, mostly due to their glaring lack of big wins, while I’ve adored St. Mary’s and their surgical style on both ends. The thing is, St. Mary’s doesn’t have any major wins either; in fact, both teams hang their hat on a win over Dayton, though the Gaels did triumph on the road. So with that clear mind and neutral point of view, where should you invest your precious funds/who’s going to win this one? Let’s dive in…

St. Mary’s on Offense: The Gaels run a lovely four-out spread offense, anchored by the one-in of that equation, breakout big man Jock Landale. His mobility, footwork, and touch means St. Mary’s is elite nationally both on post-ups (23rd in points per possession, per Synergy) and in the pick-and-roll (21st). The Gaels play two primary ball-handlers nearly every minute of the game (Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar), meaning they can pick out a weaker perimeter defender and exploit him, while also spacing the floor with excellent shooters – Calvin Hermanson in particular is deadly, despite his seemingly-hitched lefty release. One major difference for Randy Bennett’s club this year, though, is that they play two true bigs quite a bit with Landale and Dane Pineau. This hurts their spacing slightly, but Landale’s emergence as a one-on-one threat and willing passer out of double-teams has helped allow that dynamic to work offensively. Both bigs wreck on the offensive glass, too, a new weapon for them in 2017.

How will the Rams answer such an attack? Well, for starters, they’re #27 in points allowed per possession on post-ups, as Mo Alie-Cox’s absurd strength allows him to push around much taller players. His matchup with Landale will be one to watch for sure; if he can handle the Aussie one-on-one, it really negates one of St. Mary’s biggest offensive advantages. VCU is far more vulnerable in the pick-and-roll (227th in ppp allowed), though, so expect the Gaels to attack via that more often. Landale is tireless in his sprinting back and forth between the block and the perimeter to set screens, and with Pineau on the floor as well, they can pinpoint VCU’s worst defenders and force them to defend (expect a PnR basically every possession that Ahmed Hamdy is on the floor). Justin Tillman is an elite defensive rebounder, but Alie-Cox is mysteriously terrible at it (seriously, second-worst in their rotation, what the hell?), so

One area of concern for Mary’s – they’ve been slightly less sure with the ball this year (Naar in particular has been really sloppy, both statistically and when I’ve watched), and you simply can’t be loose with the rock around Doug Brooks and JeQuan Lewis. It’s not a cause for major alarm, but it is something to watch.  

VCU on Offense:  VCU’s offensive attack is pretty varied – they don’t have an absolute go-to guy like Landale (Lewis mostly fills that role when needed), instead using a balanced motion attack to try and put each player in specific situations to score. Lewis is the linchpin, often using his quickness to get into the lane in isolation and find cutters or dump-offs to Tillman or Alie-Cox. They’re ordinarily pretty successful and getting the ball on the glass and letting those two bigs chase it down, but St. Mary’s is #1 in the entire country in defensive rebound rate (another benefit of the Landale+Pineau combo), so it’s hard to rely on that.

The Gaels want to run opponents off the three-point line, although that won’t bother VCU, as they mostly avoid the deep ball other than Lewis. Instead, the Rams want to force the ball to into the paint however possible (drives, rebounds, post-ups) – they rank 18th in the country in percentage of shots taken at the rim.  Rather than let opponents get all the way to the basket, though, Randy Bennett’s defense forces two point jumpers, and opponents have really struggled to finish against the Pineau/Landale combination even when they do get there, despite neither being an elite shot-blocker. VCU’s shot distribution will be a major indicator of who wins this one – will they be forced into inefficient jumpers, or can they get all the way to the goal?

Key Factor(s): The coaching battle here is pretty even (I’ve said that a lot in my previews, it feels like) – Randy Bennett has succeeded for years with a distinctive style, while Will Wade is a very promising up-and-comer who has built on the momentum started by Shaka Smart. To me, the difference is Landale – he’s been largely overlooked by the casual fan, and I think he has a national coming out party against a vaunted frontline in Tillman and Alie-Cox.  His skill and surprising agility can negate Alie-Cox’s strength, and if VCU has to double, the Gaels’ gunners will hit enough shots against an otherwise-swarming defense.

Final Predictions: I’m actually surprised at how high the line is (Mary’s -4.5), but after all that talk about ridding myself of bias, I’m going to ride with the Gaels anyways. The slow tempo negates a lot of scoring, and neither offense will be ultra-efficient, so I'll say 60-51, Gaels. 

SU Pick: Saint Mary’s  
ATS Pick: Saint Mary’s -4.5
O/U Pick: Under 127

(2) Arizona vs. (15) North Dakota

Initial Thoughts: I was really hoping to avoid Arizona and Gonzaga being in the same region. They’re both squads I’ve been ultra-high on since the preseason (even took both to win the national title back in October), and both have the talent to get to Phoenix. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and Arizona’s road to potentially meet them in the Elite Eight starts with the Fighting Hawks of North Dakota. Winners of the Big Sky, the NoDaks (as they should be called)

Arizona on Offense: Arizona is an extremely athletic team that attacks the rim exceptionally well in a number of ways. Kadeem Allen, Allonzo Trier, and Rawle Alkins are all very good drivers, and Dusan Ristic and Chance Comanche are relatively effective big bodies in the post. The ‘Cats are also one of the tallest teams in the country – basically everyone is big for their position except Parker Jackson-Cartwright – and that advantage helps them get to the free throw line at a high rate. North Dakota’s only big that’s tall enough to compete inside is Carson Shanks, who commits almost 10 fouls per 40 minutes, which will play right into Arizona’s offensive strategy of getting to the line early and often. Kobi Simmons has mysteriously fallen out of the rotation, but he’s another driving and shooting weapon when he plays.

Of course, none of this mentions Sean Miller’s best weapon: Finnish 7-footer Lauri “The Markksman” Markkanen, a deadly shooter who can also put the ball on the floor and score going to the hoop. He’s a complete matchup nightmare, and North Dakota will have no choice but to guard him with someone 5-6 inches shorter. Markkanenloves to shoot over smaller defenders with a quick release, something that should be very available here, even as the Hawks like to run opponents off the three-point line.

Arizona will run a ton of pick-and-roll with all of their ball-handlers, and Markkanen’s shooting around this action (or as a pick-and-pop screener) make them extremely deadly at it (they’re 24th nationally in both frequency and efficiency, per Synergy). UND is respectable, not great, at defending this scheme, but they haven’t seen it run at this high of a level in the Big Sky, so expect the ‘Cats to have some success here. 

North Dakota on Offense:  North Dakota’s offense relies heavily on its two best guards, Quinton Hooker and Geno Crandall. They want to attack, attack, attack in transition, and if they can get to the rim, Arizona’s size isn’t actually that effective at defending the bucket. Like the Hawks’ PnR defense, Arizona is good-but-not-great in their transition defense, but they’ll need to be extra focused in this one, because that’s how UND scores most effectively.

They’ll also isolate Hooker and Crandall in the half-court at times, especially whichever one isn’t being guarded by Allen, an elite perimeter defender. This forces help, allowing Drick Bernstein to finish inside and Corey Baldwin to fire away from deep. Containing those two off the bounce is easier said than done, but between Allen and the other guards, it should be doable. Connor Avants is sneakily one of the country’s elite offensive rebounders, but Arizona is very strong on the defensive glass, so finding easy baskets off second-chance points may be a challenge.

Key Factor(s):  Like many games in this tournament, the tempo battle will be crucial. Oddly enough, it’s the underdog that will want to speed this one up, forcing the Cats’ twin towers to keep up with their driving guards. The problem there: I think Arizona can play in transition just fine, even if they don’t necessarily want to: just look at the UCLA wins, where they put up 96 points in a 73-possession game at Pauley and 86 on 75 possessions in the Pac-12 Tournament. Another factor: both teams are great three-point shooting squads (top 35 in percentage), but neither takes many (bottom 50 in attempt rate). If either has a super efficient day from deep, that could be the swinging factor.

Final Predictions: I think Arizona allows this game to get sped up a little bit, but in doing so, they open up the offense and put up something like 1.1-1.2ppp against a soft North Dakota defense. Whether the NoDaks can score with them enough to keep it close becomes the question, and I think they can, just barely. The ‘Cats have played some baaaad teams in the Pac-12, but they haven’t won a game by 20+ since January 1st (which has in turn suppressed their ranking in many analytics sites). Not a super confident pick, but a final of 84-71 sounds about right to me.

SU Pick: Arizona
ATS Pick: North Dakota +16.5
O/U Pick: Over 148