NCAA Tournament Previews & Predictions: First Four

Florida Gulf Coast vs. Fairleigh Dickinson


Initial Thoughts:  What a lovely way to kick off the tournament - a play-in game between two teams who finished tied for second in the Atlantic Sun and second in the Northeast, respectively!

Actually, though, this game is pretty good for a 16-seed play-in – I especially don’t mind getting to relive Dunk City with the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast. While no significant contributors remain from that team, this squad has a nice mix of guards and bigs who can attack the hoop in coach Joe Dooley’s modified flex offense. Fairleigh Dickinson, on the contrary, is a far more perimeter-based squad, with four shooters/drivers in the main lineup to space the floor. FDU is the fourth-youngest team in the country – they played 4 sophomores and 4 freshmen (that’s it) in the conference tournament championship, so youth could be a factor (though FGCU isn’t a ton more experienced themselves).

Fairleigh Dickinson on Offense: A bit of a stylistic clash here, as FDU wants to spread out on the perimeter around their four drivers in Darian Anderson/Stephan Jiggets/Marques Townes/Earl Potts (who can also shoot, but that’s option #2), while FGCU looks to take everything away inside with bigs Marc-Eddy Norelia, Antravious Simmons (formerly of VCU), and shot-blocker Demetris Morant (formerly of UNLV). FGCU will need Norelia to move his feet on defense, as he’ll be stuck guarding Potts or Townes outside. A huge factor will be FDU finishing against size – can the guards draw fouls or find Mike Holloway for a couple drop off passes if/when they beat their guy on the perimeter? FDU is pretty much never going to post up, which nullifies FGCU’s great post defense inside. FDU’s early shooting will be key, because they need to loosen up the FGCU perimeter defense to open up driving lanes later.

Florida Gulf Coast on Offense: The Eagles are all about the paint. The aforementioned modified flex offense focuses on getting paint touches in the post and curls in the lane; the Eagles barely take any threes at all (349th in the country in rate of three-pointers attempted). They don’t really have any shooters, so this approach makes sense. The key member of the flex is versatile forward Norelia, a tough, skilled big who is a force on the block and on the glass. I’m not sure how FDU will match up with him – freshman center Mike Holloway is the only real big the Knights play, and he’ll be needed to keep FGCU centers Antravious Simmons and Demetris Morant off the glass. I suspect Norelia will get a chance to bully the smaller Earl Potts inside when FDU goes man-to-man. For his part, Potts will need to avoid foul trouble, something he struggled with at times this year – he had a 12-game streak during conference play where he had 4 fouls in every game.  FGCU will also attack outside-in with guards Zach Johnson, Christian Terrell, and Julian DeBose, although DeBose has settled for way too many bad 2-point jumpers this year. Johnson is the most dynamic of the bunch, while Terrell is more of a steady, crafty penetrator and the team’s main occasional shooter. Freshman Rayjon Tucker, the most likely candidate to resurrect Dunk City hysteria, could cause issues with his athleticism as well, if he finds the court.

Because they’re small at the 3 and 4, Fairleigh Dickinson plays a good amount of zone (32% of possessions per Synergy), and that should work nicely against the Eagles on first shot defense. With basically no shooting on the floor for FGCU, the Knights can pack the lane around would-be post-ups and wall off against potential drives. Rebounding, though…that’s going to be an issue. FGCU should dominate the glass between Norelia, Simmons, and Morant, and I would expect the Eagles to rack up second-chance points regardless of what defense FDU chooses.

Key Factor(s): FDU’s early shooting. If they can’t get the floor spaced out a little bit, they’re going to struggle to score all night.

Do I Trust the Coaches?: I’ll be fully transparent and say I don’t know much about Joe Dooley or Greg Herenda. Herenda far exceeded expectations this year with an absurdly young team, while Dooley has kept the good vibes flowing since Andy Enfield’s Sweet 16 run in 2013.

Final Predictions: I think Norelia finds a way to get paint touches against FDU’s miserable interior defense, be it through post ups or offensive rebounds, and FGCU dominates the interior in general on both ends. Fairleigh Dickinson has a bright future behind its fearsome foursome of sophomore perimeter players, but I just don’t love the matchup for them here.

SU Pick: Florida Gulf Coast
ATS Pick: Fairleigh Dickinson +5.5
O/U Pick: Under 152.5



Wichita State vs. Vanderbilt


Initial Thoughts:  Wichita State and Vanderbilt may have been the two most difficult teams to slot in this year’s tournament.  While the advanced metrics advocates will immediately point to both of their gaudy Kenpom ranks (Wichita 12 & Vanderbilt 27), traditional bracketologists would counter by referencing a lack of any real good road wins for either one.   Most of Wichita State’s opportunities to prove themselves against elite competition came way back in November, when Fred VanVleet was sidelined with a hamstring injury.  Vanderbilt also suffered from a mini-injury bug, with their skilled 7-footer Luke Kornet missing a month of action with an MCL tear. 

However, Vandy’s season-long roller coaster did not seem to correlate much with Kornet missing time, as they finished SEC play 9-7, all of those games coming with Kornet in the lineup.  When healthy, Big Luke provided the interior rim-protection and rebounding most thought he would this year, but he struggled to find the shooting touch he displayed last year, particularly from behind the arc.  He connected on 41% of his 3-point attempts a year ago, which allowed Vandy to thrive in a deadly 4-out, 1-in offensive scheme.  However, Kornet simply hasn’t been able to find his stroke in 2016, as he's currently shooting just 29% from deep (25/88) coming into this weekend.   Riley LaChance also struggled to repeat his efficiency from 2015, with both his 2-point and 3-point percentages significantly down from last year.  LaChance is also turning it over at a higher rate this year, which is super uncharacteristic for a guy that has played off the ball more than he did a year ago.

Vanderbilt on Offense:  Despite two key players seeing significant regression in their outside shooting, Vandy still wound up with the 21st best 3-point shooting team in the country.  This was mostly thanks to Wade Baldwin (41%), Matthew Fischer-Davis (46%) and the emergence of Jeff Roberson (46%), who replaced LaChance in the starting lineup during SEC play.  With any combination of those guards and Kornet playing together, Vandy consistently has 4 competent shooters on the floor at all times.   

The ‘Dores are noticeably more effective when they slow the game down and operate in the half-court.  When they get consistent movement from all five guys, it opens the floor up significantly and creates drive-and-kick opportunities for Baldwin, Fischer-Davis, LaChance and Roberson to get spot-up 3s when their defender helps off.  This spacing and constant  motion also makes it harder to double big Damian Jones on the block, when off-ball defenders are chasing the guards all over the perimeter. 

So the question is, can the Shock matchup with the Commodore’s spacing and size? Wichita’s extended half-court defense, particularly with their guards, should reduce time and space for the Vandy guards to get good looks from 3.  However, in the Shockers most recent loss to UNI in the Missouri Valley tournament, Wichita allowed a ton of pick-n-pop 3s to Northern Iowa screeners, especially to whoever the the Shocker's 2nd big was guarding.  I fully expect Marshall to concern himself more with paint and rim protection, which should give Kornet, and Roberson at times, plenty of looks from the outside.  Outside of that specific matchup, with Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker anchoring the perimeter of the country's best defensive team (per, I doubt Vandy will get many other open looks from the outside.

Specifically on the interior, Damian Jones will have a 3-inch size advantage on the Wichita State bigs, but I doubt that will be a major issue for the Shock.  Gregg Marshall will throw an array of tough, athletic and smart post defenders to go up against Jones, the  best of them being Cleveland State transfer Anton Grady, who is starting to play more minutes after his frightening injury a few months back.  I do have some pause knowing that freshman Markis McDuffie may see some time on Jones in the post, who will struggle with his lanky frame to keep Jones from getting deep post position.  Marshall may have to play a lot more of Shaquille Morris, who, at 260 pounds, is a much better bet to move Jones off the block.  Marshall has also used a little bit of 6’10 Rauno Nurger and 6’11 Tom "Bush" Wamukota in his interior rotation this year.  Wakumota is the most intriguing of these two, as he has played in some meaningful minutes over the past 3 years at Wichita, but he has battled with back problems for much of this year.  If I could trust him to get 10-12 solid minutes of post de on Vandy, I’d feel a lot more confident on this side of the ball for the Shockers.

One additional tidbit in the half-court that will be interesting to watch will be Wade Baldwin in pick-n-roll situations.  I personally think the ‘Dores have over-relied on Baldwin this year to generate offense in ball-screen action, particularly late in the shot-clock.  In fact, as a team, Vandy’s efficiency (points per possession) in both pick-n-roll and late-shot clock situations ranked in the bottom-150 nationally.   Unfortunately for the ‘Dores, this may be the only place the Shockers are even remotely vulnerable on the defensive end, as they are slightly above average from a PPP basis, ranking 100th nationally.

Wichita State on Offense:  Despite the fact that the Shock’s offensive efficiency has steadily declined throughout the latter part of conference play (currently ranked 81st nationally), they may have actually stumbled on a sneaky good matchup here with Vandy.  While I alluded to Vandy’s offensive struggles in pick-n-roll action, the complete opposite is true for the Shockers.  This should not surprise you, as VanVleet and Baker are both exceptional in the PnR.  This will be problematic for the Commodores, who will be putting Damian Jones in this position more often than not on Tuesday.  While Jones is a great post-up defender with his size and length, he is far worse when he has to extend out to the 3-point line.  Vanderbilt as a team ranked 135th in points per possession defending pick-n-roll situations this year, and Tyler Ulis is the only other point guard they’ve played that rivals VanVleet's skill set.  I also fully expect VanVleet to drive hard into the body on Jones in the early going on those ball screens, to try and get a quick foul or two.

When the Shockers have been beat this year, the box score is generally characterized by awful outside shooting nights for both VanVleet and Baker.  Both are not elite outside shooters, but it’s rare that they are both are off from the outside in the same game.  It’s certainly not those two I worry about for the Shock, but rather whether their supporting cast can knock down open jumpers.  Conner Frankamp is surely a better shooter than the 34% clip he posted from behind the arc this year, and Evan Wessel is capable of making more than 27% of his threes.  I see a lot of upside here for Wichita State's supporting cast to heat up a bit from the outside, with these two being the most likely candidates.

Key Factor(s):  An interesting question I have is how much Gregg Marshall will press in this game.  He threw a decent amount of full-court pressure in conference play, but that was many times against relatively inferior ball-handling.  Vanderbilt actually struggled mightily this year taking care of the ball in full-court situations, turning it over almost a quarter of all possessions in which they were pressed.  This could be problematic against the Shockers pressure, who are 5th in the nation in forcing turnovers.

Final Predictions: This game should be low-scoring, and close the whole way through.  Ultimately, I just trust Wich’s guards to make more plays and execute down the stretch in crunch-time.  While Baldwin has had some heroic moments this year, his big-game pedigree doesn’t hold a candle to the Shocker backcourt.  Baldwin is surely talented enough to play like the best player on the floor Tuesday, but I foresee him getting frustrated with the non-stop screening action he'll have to defend on the perimeter, particularly if he matches up with VanVleet.  Kevin Stallings would be smart to actually try the bigger Roberson on VanVleet, but I doubt he’ll be that experimental in this game.

SU Pick: Wichita State
ATS Pick: Wichita State -3.5
O/U Pick: Under 134.5



Holy Cross vs. Southern


Initial Thoughts:  Holy run! The Crusaders absolutely trolled the Patriot league over the past two months.  They purposely lost their last 5 games of the year to finish 5-13 in the conference, two of which were to league’s best teams Lehigh and Bucknell.  It wasn’t until the conference tournament when Holy Cross started trying, winning 4 straight road games, including AT Lehigh and AT Bucknell.  Entering the tourney, the Crusaders were a “perfect” 0-9 on the road in league play.

While the Patriot League is definitely superior to the SWAC, I do think Southern is actually the better team on paper in this matchup.  The Jaguars proved they could lose to just about anyone this year (see Prairie View A&M twice), but they did beat Mississippi St. in Starkville, beat Wyoming in Laramie (no one does this) and played Memphis within 5 at their place, too.  With that said, there are some noticeable stylistic concerns I have for Jaguars in Dayton.

Holy Cross on Offense:  It seems Crusaders head coach Bill Carmody has put together a poor man’s version of the rosters he had back at Northwestern.  Holy Cross is extremely balanced, with no true go-to scorer or primary ball-handler on the team.  And just like his days in Evanston, IL, Carmody religiously runs his motion offense, which incorporates a ton of back-screens, down-screens, and flex-screens. Without a true point guard on the roster, all 5 guys on offense share distributing and play-making duties equally within the constant offensive flow.  Junior Malachi Alexander is probably Carmody’s best player, and presents a tough matchup for smaller schools, with his long 6'7 frame and excellent outside shooting touch (46/106 from 3).   He and 6’6 swingman Robert Champion are comfortable scoring from anywhere on the floor, which will be tough to defend for an undersized Southern group.  Just for context, the Jaguars have no one taller than 6’4 getting significant minutes, outside of 6’9 center Jarred Sam and 6'9 backup center Tony Nunn. 

Southern on Offense:   This side of the ball is where I think Southern will especially struggle.  Carmody should play a ton of 1-3-1 zone as he normally does, which will put pressure on the Jaguars to hit outside shots.  While they aren’t an awful shooting bunch (35% as a team), they seem to particularly struggle playing against zone.  Southern was 270th in the country in points per possession against zone defenses, even worse than their 240th rank against traditional man defenses.

Therefore, Southern should do everything they can to make this game more of a track meet, and try to force turnovers to get easy runouts in transition.  20% of all Southerns' possessions this year came in fast-break settings, where they were significantly more efficient than in their half-court offense.  The Jaguars actually ranked in the nation's top 100 in points per possession in transition opportunities, so Holy Cross can't afford to jump start Southern's offense with turnovers on their end.

Key Factor(s):  The key to this game will be the matchups Carmody decides to hone-in on offensively.  He should look to route his half-court motion sets toward getting Alexander, Champion and 6'7 freshman Karl Charles the ball in good places to attack in 1 on 1 situations.  However, on the other end, these three are the only worthy candidates to guard 6’9 Jarred Sam on the block.  Whichever team can exploit the other in that matchup will have a big advantage in this game.

Final Predictions:  Ultimately, I think Carmody is too good of coach to allow Southern to get easy opportunities in transition.  Therefore, a TON of pressure will lie on the Jaguars ability to knock down outside shots against the zone.  It all comes down to me trusting the execution of Holy Cross more than the shot-making ability of Southern.  Therefore, I’m rolling with Crusaders to get Bill Carmody his first ever tournament win, something he never sniffed at Northwestern.

SU Pick: Holy Cross
ATS Pick: Holy Cross +2.5
O/U Pick: Under 131



Michigan vs. Tulsa


Initial Thoughts: Because the committee opted to go with middling teams from big conferences (over my preference of the Monmouth's and St. Mary’s of the world), this is a pretty unexciting matchup. I don’t think the ceiling for either of these teams is very high, and I’m not high on either one’s chances against Notre Dame in Round 1 (see East preview for more information on that).

Tulsa is the drunk, uninvited guest at the NCAA party, stumbling in unexpectedly after downing a bottle of vodka in the parking lot (losing by 25 to Memphis in the first round of the AAC tournament). Seriously, even their own point guard didn’t think they’d get a bid:

At that same party, Michigan would be the quiet friend who, every once in a while, will completely take over as the life of the party, cracking jokes and dominating the beer games table (beating Texas, IU, Maryland, and Purdue); however, most of the time, he sits in the corner and leaves early without making any impression (4-12 vs the top 100 this year). There’s no middle ground in his performance. Which Michigan will show up in Dayton remains to be seen, but John Beilein tends to bring it in the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan on Offense: Spread and shoot, baby! With the loss of multi-talented wing Caris LeVert to injury, PG Derrick Walton and wing Zak Irvin have become this offense’s engines. They drive into the gaps created by floor-spacers Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman, where Walton is looking to kick out or drop off to a big man and Irvin prefers to finish when possible.

Michigan will have 4 three-point shooters on the floor at almost all times, the best of whom is Robinson, a NAIA transfer. He hit an outstanding 90/200 from deep this year, and at 6’8, he’s an extremely tough matchup – bigs don’t want to be on the perimeter closing out, and guards just aren’t big enough to bother his quick and high release. He has a gravitational pull for help defenders, which helps open up the aforementioned driving lanes, and even when he’s off, that makes a difference (he rarely is). The Wolverines, like all Beilein teams, take a ton of threes, and that’s not great for Tulsa, as they struggle to take away the three point line (I seem to remember a Haith-coached team giving up a deluge of threes to one Norfolk State team in the past). They flip-flop constantly between zone and man, which might work against a less well-coached team or a team that can’t shoot, but I expect a Beilein team to shred any zone looks thrown at them. Tulsa also wants to turn you over, something Michigan doesn’t do.

Tulsa on Offense: Shockingly to me for a Beilein team, Michigan played almost exclusively man this year (91% of the time, per Synergy). They match up well with Tulsa in that sense, as Tulsa doesn’t have the inside scoring to take advantage of Donnal/Doyle/Wagner at the 5 and Irvin playing an undersized 4. Tulsa wants to spread the floor with two ball-handlers (Shaq Harrison and either Rashad Ray or Marquel Curtis), two shooters (James Woodard and Pat Birt), and a garbage man at the 5 (Brandon Swannegan, Rashad Smith, or D’Andre Wright). Those guys stick almost exclusively to their roles; the drivers can’t shoot, and the shooters don’t want to drive (though Woodard can). Michigan doesn’t have much rim protection, but they can hide Robinson on Birt, and Walton/Irvin/Abdur-Rakhman should do okay against the drivers.

In the transition game, Tulsa is pretty good offensively, but Michigan completely eschews offensive rebounding in order to take away transition, so I don’t see that being the answer.  

Key Factor(s): If Michigan’s guards can keep Tulsa’s ball-handlers out of the lane, Tulsa will struggle to keep pace with Michigan on the scoreboard. Woodard and Birt rely on drive and kick for open looks, and Harrison and Curtis want to get to the free throw line whenever possible. Michigan won’t foul you, though, and that takes away a key component of Tulsa’s offense.

Do I Trust the Coaches?: Well, well, well. I didn’t expect to see you here, Frank Haith. My thoughts on Haith are pretty well-documented, but suffice it to say this: if he wins this game, it will be his first ever tournament win in 12 years of coaching, despite 10 of them being for a Power 5 school. Also, he’s a gigantic sleazebag. On the other hand, John Beilein is one of the country’s best coaches, a brilliant tactician who rose to notoriety by making the Elite 8 and Sweet 16 in back to back years with West Virginia in 2005 and 2006 and has had some nice runs at Michigan, including to the championship in 2013 and Elite 8 in 2014. I trust Beilein completely in a tournament setting.

Prediction(s): I cannot, with a clean conscience, take a Frank Haith team against a John Beilein team in a do-or-die postseason matchup. Despite Tulsa’s wealth of experience, their players have played exactly 0 minutes in the NCAA Tournament, whereas Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin got their feet wet in 2014’s run to the Elite 8. I also love the matchup of Michigan’s offense against Tulsa’s defense.

SU Pick: Michigan
ATS Pick: Michigan -4
O/U Pick: Over 143.5