(1) Kansas vs. (16) Austin Peay
Initial Thoughts: While Holy Cross's run in the Patriot league tournament was one of the more absurd sequences we may ever see in college basketball, what Austin Peay did in Nashville two weeks ago was ALMOST as improbable. The Governors had just one win all year against teams in the kenpom top-200, but then casually rattled off 4-straight wins against the Ohio Valley's best squads, including the OVC regular season champ, Belmont. Despite playing a road game in Nashville, and allowing Belmont to shoot 79% from inside the arc, Peay still took down the mighty Bruins in overtime. The Governors hopped on the shoulders of their interior meal ticket, Chris Horton, who made the Belmont frontline look like a bunch of preschoolers. Horton finished the game with 30 points, 16 rebounds and 4 assists, including a 14-16 performance from the free-throw line.
The very next night, Peay would complete their magical tournament run, all thanks to their two young guards, Josh Robinson and Jared Savage, who set the city of Nashville on fire with their barrage of 3s. In his first ever collegiate postseason tournament, the freshman Savage saved his grand finale for the biggest stage, where his 8 threes helped bury Tennessee Martin, securing the Governors ticket to the Big Dance.
Austin Peay on Offense: While the shooting heroics of Austin Peay's perimeter drew most of the sexy highlights on ESPN, the reason the Governors ran through the Ohio Valley over that 4-day stretch, and the reason they won't get embarrassed on Thursday against Kansas, is because of Chris Horton. The 6'9 senior is a nightmare to keep off the offensive glass, and routinely terrorized smaller opponents in the Ohio Valley over the course of the year. He finished the season ranked 8th and 65th nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates, proving just how dominant he is on the boards. While he relies a ton on offensive putbacks for his point production, he is also a competent scorer in the low-block, and especially effective at drawing fouls when operating in the post.
The interesting thing about this matchup with Kansas is that the Beakers are actually not an great rebounding team on either end of the floor, ranking, respectively, 92nd and 127th in the country. Self is clearly aware of this dynamic, and manages it by shuffling back and forth between an offensive-focused lineup, with Ellis at the 5, and a defensive-focused lineup, with Lucas or Traylor at the 5. While Ellis's scoring ability is undeniable, he is by no means an elite remember. Horton is an inch taller and better athlete than Ellis, so he should have no problem getting his hands on any misses while Ellis is matched up with him. Self may have to play a lot more of the better rebounding duo in Lucas and Traylor in this game, which will significantly reduce the Jayhawks firepower on the offensive end.
The other area where KU is vulnerable, which also may be connected to Ellis, is post defense. Per this SynergySports screenshot below, it's obvious just how good the Jayhawks are defensively across the board...
Except for one particular area where they aren't as dominant: "Post-Up"s
I really want to DM this screenshot (and the rest of the analysis) to Chris Horton's Twitter, to get him fired up for what may actually be a decent matchup for him against one of the nation's elite teams.
While Horton will no doubt be the focal point on the inside, the Governors must continue to get white-hot shooting from Robinson and Savage on the outside, if they have any chance to compete with Kansas for 40 minutes.
Kansas on Offense: The Beakers continue to operate like a well oiled machine on the offensive end and have fully embraced their two point guard system, with Devonte Graham and Frank Mason both sharing ball-handling duties. The surprising improvement for Kansas this year was in their 3-point shooting, which is currently ranked 3rd best in the nation (42% as a team). Mason, Graham and Wayne Selden are all having their best shooting years of their careers, each shooting 40% or better from deep. While they are an efficient outside shooting team, the Jayhawks don't actually take a ton of 3s, ranking 228th in the country in 3-point attempts. They just don't force many tough contested 3s, either off the dribble or in transition.
It's important to highlight the Beakers shooting prowess, because they will have to be locked-in from distance to effectively bust the Austin Peay zone. Despite the offensive tear the Governors went on in the Ohio Valley tourney, they definitely benefitted from some ice cold shooting from their opponents. However, with Horton patrolling the paint area in that zone, 2nd-chance opportunities won't be as plentiful as they typically are with zone defenses.
Key Factor(s): I want to see how engaged Kansas is in the first 10 minutes of this game. I can see Kansas coming out a little flat to start, which may give Austin Peay the daylight of confidence they need to avoid an early blowout.
Final Predictions: I am a big believer in this Kansas team as a real national title contender, but I think they may get a mini wake-up call in their opening round date with Austin Peay. The Governors are surging with confidence heading into the dance, and I don't think Kansas will show a ton of guard pressure in this game, until they have to. If Mason, Graham and Selden come out a little sleepy on the defensive end, I think the Austin Peay guards will get free for some open looks on the perimeter. If a few start to go down, you may get another patented Bill Self halftime interview rant, and Austin Peay may find themselves neck-and-neck with the blue bloods heading into the 2nd half.
SU Pick: Kansas
ATS Pick: Austin Peay +26
O/U Pick: Over 152
(8) Colorado vs. (9) Connecticut
Initial Thoughts: Colorado finished the year with a solid 10-8 record in Pac-12 play, including wins against Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, and Arizona. However, all 4 of these wins came on their home court in the altitude, where the Buffs are historically incredibly tough to beat. In fact, if you were to just remove all of Colorado's home games from their resume, the Buffs start to look like a very mediocre basketball team (and even that may be friendly). They played only four games away from home in the non-conference schedule, two of which were actually true road games. The Buffs did manage to slip by Auburn and Penn State in close games, but fell to Iowa St. and SMU on neutral sites. While both of these were against top-25 teams, their road woes became more much apparently once Pac-12 play began. While they did hold serve at home, Colorado went just 2-9 on the road in conference play, including a one point win at Stanford, and a 5-point win at Washington State, who finished 1-17 in the league.
The bottom line is that the Buffaloes are a completely different team when they leave the Rockies, and that does not bode well against a red-hot UCONN team, who has proven they can beat quality teams away from home.
Colorado on Offense: This is now the third year in a row we have got to witness the perplexing Colorado offense, which involves completely ignoring their low-post scoring weapon Josh Scott for large stretches of games. While Askia Booker was a cancer to this roster last year, and the primary reason for Scott not getting the touches he should, the Buffs STILL do not look to throw the ball inside enough. While George King and Josh Fortune are both talented perimeter scorers, neither should have a higher usage rate than Scott, who has proven yet again to be an efficiency machine on the inside (121 O-Rating this season). Scott is an exceptionally skilled post-player, who rarely turns it over and has great touch extending out to 18-feet. But perhaps my favorite thing about Scott is his efficiency from the free-throw line, where he hit 75% of his 175 attempts this year.
However, Scott will have a major challenge trying to score inside against UCONN's 7'0 shot-blocking specialist Amida Brimah. Brimah dealt with injury issues for much of the year, but now appears to be fully healthy, playing close to 20 minutes a game over his last 5 contests. The impressive thing about Brimah is that he is effective at defending without fouling, with this being his 2nd year in a row having a foul rate under 5 per 40 minutes. And even when Briman is not on the floor, Kevin Ollie has two other 6'10 rim protectors in Phillip Nolan and Kentan Facey that he can throw at Scott.
While I'm clearly confident that UCONN can limit Scott from scoring, I'm more concerned with the Wesley Gordon and Shonn Miller matchup. While Miller is an exceptionally skilled and versatile big on the offensive end, he leaves a lot to be desired defensively, particularly on glass. This will be problematic if he gets matched up with the 6'9 Gordon, who generates a ton of his production on the offensive boards. From a matchup perspective, this is the only noticeably weakness I see in what is an overall outstanding defensive UCONN team.
Colorado will surely have to rely on outside shooting to score in this one, but they are more than capable of getting hot from deep. The interesting thing will be if the Buffs settle for long 2s or if they take more 3s. The Buffs are 17th in the country in 3-point %, but 336th in 2-point %. They are clearly unaware of this split, given 243 teams in the country attempt more 3s than Colorado. Expect a ton of midrange jump shots, which have not been kind to George King, Josh Fortune, Dominique Collier and Wesley Gordon all year long.
Connecticut on Offense: While the Huskies have a strong interior defensive presence, Colorado's is just as good. Scott and Gordon are excellent post-defenders, and even better at cleaning up on the boards. The Buffs are ranked 11th nationally in defensive rebounding, due in large part to the work of these two. This should greatly inhibit Shonn Miller's ability to be effective in the paint area, so much like Scott, he may have to settle for mid range jumpers to get any decent looks in this game.
The maddening thing about UCONN is their complete misalignment with how well they shoot free-throws, vs. how much they actually get to the line. As a team, the Huskies are the best free throw shooting team in the nation at 79%, but are among the nation's bottom 25 teams in free-throws attempts per game. I suspect they won't have an epiphany about this imbalance over the next few days, so similar to the Buffs on offense, I think we'll see a ton of jump shots for UCONN as well. Colorado has really emphasized limiting opponents 3-point attempts, so I think there's an opportunity for the UCONN perimeter dudes to find some space in the midrange area, with the Buffs closing out hard on shooters.
Key Factor(s): As you have clearly digested, I think this game will be defined by way too many jump shots, with not enough of them being from outside the 3-point line. I give the slight edge to UCONN's guards to be more comfortable scoring in the mid-range area, specifically Daniel Hamilton, who was outstanding from 10-12 feet out in the 4OT thriller against Cincy.
Final Predictions: The emergence (or re-emergence) of Daniel Hamilton late in the year, coupled with the fact I have barely seen Colorado win outsides of the mountains, gives me no choice but to roll with the Huskies. Per my prior points about this turning into a jump-shooting contest, I think the under is a safe play in this one as well, as I don't think either team will look to run a whole lot.
SU Pick: UCONN
ATS Pick: UCONN -3
O/U Pick: Under 133
(5) Maryland vs. (12) South Dakota State
Initial Thoughts: Given Maryland's recent skid, I finally feel substantiated for being vocally skeptical about this team for the past two years. The Terps have now lost 5 of their last 8 games, including AT Minnesota, the big 10's worst team.
With that said, I might actually be slightly bullish on the Terps, relative to their current value in the marketplace. While the advanced metrics reveal some under-the-surface weaknesses with this team (rebounding & turnovers), there is no denying they have as much talent as anyone in the bracket.
Maryland on Offense: Looking at the probable player-by-player matchups for both teams, there isn't one place where I see an advantage for South Dakota State. You would think head coach Scott Nagy would consider playing a little bit of zone look against the Terps elite size, but out of over 2,000 defensive possessions this year, the Jackrabbits have played zone exactly 13 times. Thus, it seems safe to assume that we will see pre-dominantly man from South Dakota State, which will be problematic against Maryland's superior athletes.
Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon should have no difficulty penetrating and creating in the half-court, whether it be off ball-screen or in ISO situations. Both have excellent vision, but they have also shown signs of being turnover prone, especially over the last month. Given I don't think the closing speed of South Dakota State's helpside will bother Melo and Sheed when they drive, I expect both to pick apart the Jackbunnies man-to-man de, and find big Robert Carter and Diamond Stone for easy dumpoff buckets. South Dakota State also places a premium on limiting the 3-ball, giving me more confidence the two Terp guards will be able to penetrate at will, and not settle for outside jumpers.
South Dakota State on Offense: The 2016 Jackrabbits got a godsend with 6'9 freshman stud Mike Daum, who is efficient from pretty much anywhere inside half-court (83/58/45 from FT/2pt/3pt). He is especially good at drawing fouls and getting to the line, and is far and away South Dakota State's best rebounder on both ends. Despite his Summit League dominance, I don't think he'll be able to put any foul pressure on the Terps, who are top 20 in the nation at defending without fouling.
I looked specifically at the Purdue matchups for the Terps, just to get a sense for how much foul trouble the Terps bigs were in against the twin-towers of Haas and Hammons. In both matchups, Carter, Stone & Dodd all kept their foul tally to 3 or less, although both Haas and Hammons were both productive scoring-wise. Given that Daum is a good 4-inches shorter than those two aliens, I don't envision him giving the Terps much of an issue inside.
Outside of Daum, who actually only plays about 20-25 minutes a game, South Dakota State is an extremely balanced team, with Deondre Parks, George Marshall and Reed Tellinghuisen all being competent outside shooters. Parks prefers to penetrate more than his other two backcourt mates, but will have a tough task trying to get by Melo and Sheed, who are both solid on-ball defenders.
Key Factor(s): One thing to watch in this game is how much South Dakota State tries to push the tempo on offense. The Bunnies are ranked close to the top 100 in pace offensively, but the advanced numbers reveal they actually more efficient in the half-court. If they can commit to keeping this pace slow, Maryland will struggle to extend any sort of lead. Just look back to Maryland's round 1 matchup in last year's tournament, when they were especially frustrated with Valpo's ability to grind it out at a snail's pace
Final Predictions: Maryland has shown many times to get complacent against inferior competition, especially on the defensive end. I think traveling cross-country to Spokane will also be a challenge for the Terps, which makes me worry about Maryland coming out slow in the first half. Because the Terps don't force a lot of turnovers, I think the Jackrabbits will get enough clean looks from the outside to give themselves a chance to compete. I also don't think the Terps will murder SDSU on the offensive glass, but I do think Melo and Sheed will have their way creating in the half-court.
This should be an entertaining game, in which both teams should score it at a high rate. I'm sticking with the talent to prevail in this one, and I think Maryland pulls away late to cover the ATS number, which has already moved from 8 to 9.5 in the past 24 hours.
SU Pick: Maryland
ATS Pick: Maryland -9.5
O/U Pick: Over 143
(4) California vs. (13) Hawaii
Initial Thoughts: While Cal is trending as high as any team in the tournament, they drew a horrific stylistic matchup with the mighty Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii. Similar to their Pac-12 brethren Colorado, the Cal Bears have massive resume imbalance, in terms of what they did at home vs. what they did on the road. It wasn't until February 18th, 2016 that Cuonzo Martin's ridiculously talented bunch picked up their first win outside of their home building. Prior to that game, the Bears were a mind-boggling 1-8 in neutral/road games, with their only win coming in OT at Wyoming. They did have a respectable showing against Virginia, but they pulled off an epic collapse in that one, blowing a 6-point lead three minutes into overtime.
Cal on Offense: While the talent all over the floor for Cal will be impressive, it's their cohesive efficiency that leaves a lot to be desired. While Jaylen Brown is currently a consensus top-5 pick on most mock draft boards, he has not been efficient at all on the offensive end. He has a top-25 usage rate in the country, a lot of which is a result of his high 20% turnover rate. He simply tries to do too much in the half-court, where Cal would be better served looking for other 1 v 1 mismatch opportunities, given the plethora of individual scorers they have at their disposal.
While Brown headlines the freshman talent for the Bears, Tyrone Wallace is the senior leader on this team, and technically assumes the point-guard role. In late game situations, Wallace seems to be Cuonzo Martin's go-to choice to take the last shot, or at least operate as the primary playmaking option.
The issue with both Wallace and Brown is that neither takes particularly good care of the ball, which is problematic when they have the rock in their hands so much of the time. And these problems may only be magnified when playing a team like Hawaii, who is exceptional at forcing turnovers. While their 32nd nationally ranked steal rate is obviously outstanding, it's actually a regression from their top-10 ranked steal rate a year ago.
The Rainbow Warriors pressure defense is spearheaded by point-guard Roderick Bobbitt, who has a top 50 individual steal rate in the country, but is actually 2nd on his own team, behind fellow senior Quincy Smith. If I were wagering on a prop bet for O/U 15 turnovers for the Golden Bears, I'd put my mortgage on the over.
And while you may think Cal's other lottery pick Ivan Rabb gives them a clear inside advantage, his size and athleticism is actually a little deceiving. While I absolutely adore Rabb's relentless effort on the offensive and defensive glass, he is extremely limited as a true post scorer. In-fact, Cal ranked in the bottom-100 of all teams in the country in points per possessions on post up situations. Rabb needs to get putbacks for him to have an impact on the offensive end, and I just don't see that happening against a Hawaii group that ranked just outside the top-50 in defensive rebounding.
Hawaii on Offense: This side of the ball is almost impossible to predict what will happen. The Rainbow Warriors bring a balanced scoring attack with 3 perimeter guards, all of whom are excellent penetrators (Bobbitt, Valdes and Smith). While I think they will struggle against an athletic and stout Cal perimeter de, the true mismatch lies with 6'11 Stefan Jankovic. Jankovic turned himself from an inefficient gunner, to the Big West player of the year, in just over a year's time. While he intelligently shifted focus to getting more easy looks around the rim with his size, he is beyond capable of stepping out behind the 3-point line and knocking down open jumpers (he hit 38% of his 75 attempts this year). This will make Ivan Rabb, Cal's only true rim protector, come away from the basket many times during Hawaii's half-court offensive possessions, giving the slashers of Bobbitt and Valdes more freedom to finish at the rim.
Key Factor(s): The key factor may actually be the whistle, specifically when Hawaii has the ball on offense. Given how much Valdes and Bobbitt like to penetrate, Cal must be disciplined in keeping their hands off and defending without fouling. With major foul concerns looming, and with Rabb roaming away from the basket to guard Jankovic, I just don't see the Bears elite defense being put on display in this matchup.
Final Predictions: I fully expect the Rainbow Warriors to make this an ugly and sloppy game, and I definitely don't trust Cal to be disciplined enough to stay away from this trap. Whenever an up-tempo, mid-major team can get a bigger, more talented power-6 team to play at their pace, it never bodes well for the big guy. Give me the pacific islanders in a high-scoring game that should be oozing with chaos. The total has already moved up 2-points from 141 to 143 in the past day.
SU Pick: Hawaii
ATS Pick: Hawaii +7
O/U Pick: Over 143
(6) Arizona vs. (11) Wichita State
Initial Thoughts: After an extremely pedestrian offensive first half against Vandy Tuesday night, Wichita State was able to slowly pull-away for most of the 2nd half, which was capped off by a few huge threes from Conner Frankamp late in the game. Over the final 20 minutes of action, the Shockers took advantage of a completely lost Vanderbilt team on the defensive end, who opened the half in a cushy-soft 2-3 zone. On back to back possessions during this stretch, Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker stared right through a sagging Matthew Fischer-Daviss at the top of the key and pulled a three right in his eyehole. A few possessions later, after a simple point to high-post pass against the zone parted the Red Sea of Vandy defenders, VanVleet got it right back from Shaquille Morris just off the top of the key and buried another wide-open trey. This mini-run built a quick 10-point lead for the Shockers, and they never looked back. Even when Vandy’s role players would knock down a few jumpers and chip in to Wichita’slead, the Shockers responded with timely buckets from guys like Frankamp, Anton Grady and freshman Marcus McDuffie, who each provided a much needed scoring boost for the Shockers.
Despite these encouraging contributions from Wichita State’s “Other Guys”, I still have concerns about their offensive upside against a much tougher and disciplined defensive Arizona team.
Wichita State on Offense: As I alluded to in the first four preview, the key for Wichita to make any sort of run in this tournament will depend on “The Other Guys” ability to just simply knock down open jumpers, which are usually put on a platter for them by VanVleet. It took the Shock 20 minutes to find the ocean last night, but fortunately their number 1 defense and Damian Jones sleepwalking (0 points, 1 rebound in the first half lol) kept it competitive early. VanVleet would repeatedly find guys like Kelly, Morris and Wessel on the wing for open looks, and they simply couldn’t knock anything down. While the late shooting surge was a major factor in the Shockers ultimately moving on, what actually helped them maintain this lead were some additional easy baskets in transition, generated from turnovers on the other end.
It was interesting to see VanVleet looking to push the ball up the floor more, either off of a steal or off of Vandy miss, considering he usually prefers to work at his pace. Over the last few years with VanVleet running the show, the Shockers have been in the bottom-250 in pace, showing just how in control Fred likes to be with the ball in his hands.
The issue I see is that because his supporting cast is much less talented than some other weapons they’ve had in recent years (i.e Cleanthony Early, Darius Carter, Tekele Cotton), he needs to actively look to push the pace more, to get easier buckets in transitions, ESPECIALLY off of long rebounds. The one thing the Shock frontline players do well is run the floor, and are fearless attacking the glass in the open-court. Thus, if Freddy would try more often to get all the way to the tin, even in traffic he’s bound to have any misses finished by the trailing athletic bigs (Grady, Morris, McDuffie, Brown). I’m officially done providing compliments to a Vandy team that drove me nuts all year, but Baldwin is excellent at this, challenging defenders back-pedaling to stop the ball.
The reason I bring this up is because I really see the Shock struggling to score in the half-court Thursday against the Cats. Even though Sean Miller’s defense is down from the elite top-3 defense they had a year ago, its 41st ranked defense now is still quite effective. In fact, the only reason why the Cats aren’t ranked in the top-15, or even higher, is because they just don’t force a ton of turnovers (288th in the country). Outside of that, Arizona protects the rim, (top-50 in block rate and 2-point % defense) cleans up the defensive glass (top-15 in defensive rebounding rate), and defends without fouling (top-40 in defensive foul rate). One thing that Sean Miller emphasizes, which I am a large fan of, is limiting opponent's 3-point attempts. In the past 4-years, the Cats have ranked in the nation’s top-100 in limiting opposing threes, which makes them less vulnerable to being burned by a hot shooting night. All this means is that Fred and Ron won’t have the endless space to get open looks on the perimeter, which I’m sure they enjoyed against Vandy.
Arizona on Offense: Despite being gutted of a significant talent pool from last year’s roster, Sean Miller and the Wildcats have somehow managed to be more efficient this year on the offensive end. While newcomers Kadeem Allen, and blue-chip freshman Allonzo Trier, have done a nice job replacing the perimeter scoring void left by Stanley Johnson, Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson and 7-footer Dusan Ristic have had the biggest impact in the paint.
Anderson wasted no time asserting himself as the alpha scorer for Sean Miller this year, and has been a monster on both the offensive and defensive boards. I was hoping to get a closer look last night at Wichita State’s post defense against some bigger size than they usually see in the Missouri Valley, but with Damian Jones in la-la land for 40 minutes, I was unable to get an accurate read. However, the few times Jones did touch the ball, he was able to make a quick move and get fouled easily going to the rim. He also got a few SUPER easy lobs over the top, that the undersized Wichita frontline had no chance of defending.
This is precisely where I think Zona can exploit the Shockers. Anderson and Ristic are excellent low-post scorers, who are both physical and relentless getting to the rim. I see 15-20 free throws attempts coming from Anderson and Ristic combined in this one.
Key Factor(s): Whoever Sean Miller decides to put on VanVleet and Baker, and how effective Zona is at limiting the duo’s scoring and playmaking, will determine just how much the Cats slow down the Shockers. With Allen now playing more and more over the tiny Jackson-Cartwright at point guard, this gives the Cats a significantly better perimeter defensive look then they saw earlier in the year. Allen is widely known to be an elite defender, and I suspect Miller will have him shadow VanVleet for most of the game, given he dominates the ball for what seems like 25 seconds a possession. What’s more uncertain is the matchup Miller will throw at Baker, but I’d wager it will end up being the freshman Trier. How smart and engaged Zo is on the defensive end will be huge, because he clearly has the size and quickness to check Baker straight-up.
Final Predictions: This should end up being one of the more physical games in round 1. While the Shock toughness outdueled the size of Vandy, that shouldn’t happen against a much more physical, and overall bigger Zona frontline. I think Gabe York and Marc Tollefson, who have both been extremely efficient shooting the ball this year, will also knock down enough outside shots to take some pressure of the bigs inside. The 6’9 Tollefson should be able to get a lot of the same pick-n-pop looks Luke Kornet got for Vandy on Tuesday, but Kornet was unable to knock enough down (finished 1/5 from 3) to cause any disruption. If he can pull the Shocker bigs away from the rim, it should give Anderson and Ristic all the more room to operate in the post. As much as it pains me to go against one of my all-time favorite backcourts in college basketball, I think we will watch Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker wear a Shocker uniform for the very last time Thursday. To help alleviate the pain, I will be going back to the well for the Shockers under since this number feels about 10 points to high to me.
SU Pick: Arizona
ATS Pick: Arizona -1.5
O/U Pick: Under 136.5
(3) Miami FL vs. (14) Buffalo
Initial Thoughts: I'm sure most folks who rush through their brackets will immediately pencil in Miami to win here. The cliche, but relevant, dynamic in this game is the difference in tempo between both squads. After Bobby Hurley bolted for better weather in Arizona, first-year head coach Nate Oats continued to emphasize the same lightning-paced Hurley embedded in Buffalo's DNA for the two years he was there.
Miami on Offense: It's hard to nitpick a team that has the nation's 12th most efficient offense like Miami does. Sheldan McClellan and Angel Rodriguez have each taken major leaps in their individual efficiency on the offensive end. The Canes have also gotten a nice scoring influx from sophomore Ja'Quan Newton and junior Davon Reed, who round out a super talented perimeter core.
The only way I could see Miami having offensive issues in this game would be if these 4 don't protect the ball against Buffalo's pressure. Angel Rod is the only turnover-prone member of the backcourt, but most of these tend come in half-court settings, either on a tight-window ball-screen pass, or other situations when he's trying to create for others. The Canes were 43rd in the nation at not turning it over, so I don't envision Angel, or the other guards, having real issues with the pressure the Bulls will throw at them. If anything, I think the extended defense may open up the court for gaping driving lanes, which could spell doom for the Bulls.
One other minor concern (similar to my aforementioned points on Wichita State), Miami has really only struggled on the offensive end this year when both McClellan and Rodriguez go cold from the outside, as they did in their late season loss to Va Tech (2/12 from 3 combined). This may have been due to a slight letdown, after the Canes rattled off 3-straight wins against Virginia, Louisville and Notre Dame preceding their visit to Blacksburg. Whatever the reason was, A-Rod and McClellan can't afford to settle for outside shots in this game, which will produce long rebounds and easy fast-break opportunities for the Bulls if they aren't falling.
Buffalo on Offense: Buffalo certainly doesn't seem to mind turning the ball over (236th in TO rate), but that's slightly excusable when you play at the pace that they do. However, I don't envision the Canes feasting off of the Bulls careless decision-making, as they rank a measly 218th in forcing turnovers in the country. Looking at other matchups in which Buffalo struggled, they particularly had issues beating teams that were similar stylistically to themselves. Refer to the VCU matchup, when the Rams routed the Bulls by 20 and forced 31 BUFFALO TURNOVERS (!!!).
Key Factor(s): I normally don't trust power schools to blowout lower seeded opponents in the tournament when the big boys don't have a stand-out strength... Miami fits right into this mold. As I mentioned before, we've seen smaller schools have success against bigger and more talented teams when they are able dictate the tempo to their liking. Jim Larranaga is dead-set on playing at a snail's pace, while the Bulls will be looking to get up-and-down non-stop. It'll be interesting to see if Miami sends multiple guys to the glass, or if Larranaga focuses on getting back in numbers to keep the Bulls out of their fast-break comfort-zone. If he decides to emphasize transition defense, this will limit the size advantage on the O-glass for a team that already isn't a great rebounding team.
Final Predictions: Looking closely at Buffalo's run in the MAC tournament, winning the turnover battle was basically a non-factor in why they were able to rattle off 3 straight wins against better MAC teams. The Bulls simply got kerosene-hot from the outside, cashing in 35 of their 80 threes over that span (44%) . The one thing Miami does do especially well on the defensive end is limit 3-point attempts, which will reduce the possibility of another Bulls 3-point barrage. Assuming the Canes take care of the ball and don't settle for outside jumpers, I don't see them having much trouble in this one. I think Miami holds a comfortable lead for most of the game, and eeks out a 15-point win for the cover. Lean Miami.
SU Pick: Miami
ATS Pick: Miami -13.5
O/U Pick: Under 149
(7) Iowa vs. (10) Temple
And I'm Freeeeeeeeeeeeee... Freee Faaaaaallllinnnnnnnnnnnn!
Fran McCaffery and his Iowa Hawkeyes recently performed a cover of Tom Petty's classic on a one-month tour during the final stretch of Big Ten play. After climbing all the way to #2 in kenpom.com overall ranks over a month ago, the Hawkeyes dropped 4-straight games Big 10 play, and then laid one more egg in the first round of the Big Ten tournament against Illinois.
Even after this epic collapse, Iowa will still find themselves as a comfortable favorite against Temple. The Owls played an impressive non-conference schedule, filled with tough neutral site matchups, but didn't produce any real quality wins during this stretch. They did a ton more damage during AAC play, including road wins at Cincinnati, at Connecticut and a home win against SMU.
Iowa on Offense: Iowa's 3-point shooting was a major reason they surged into the top 5 of the AP Poll over a month ago. The emergence of Jarrod Uthoff has been widely publicized at this point, but Peter Jok has really been the X-factor for the Hawkeyes this year. Jok has drained 41% of his 182 3-ball attempts and is shooting an elite 86% from the free-throw line. 3-year starter Mike Gessell has also seen a mini-lightbulb flicker this year shooting wise, hitting 38% of his attempts from beyond the arc, the best clip of his career. For a 6-2, 185 white point-guard, you would think he'd take more outside shots, but he much prefers the midrange pullup, which he has yet to realize is the less efficient option. These three will HAVE to hit open jumpers for the Hawkeyes to move on to round 2 because I doubt they will get many opportunities to score in-transition.
De-composing Iowa's offensive efficiency shows that their points per possession figures are skewed heavily by their fast-break production. Close to 30% of the Hawkeyes shot attempts occur within the first ten seconds of the shot-clock, which is where they get easy layups and open transition 3s. Gessell is adamant about pushing the ball up the floor, and will always get 2 to 3 other teammates to rim-run with him. Temple must get back defensively to lower the offensive firepower Iowa can generate when they run.
One additional factor is that Temple does a fantastic job of defending the 3-point line. The Owls are 60th in the country in 3-point attempts allowed and 31st in the country in 3-point % defense. This will be huge in this game, given that Iowa relies heavily on their outside shooting, in addition to their fast-break offense.
Temple on Offense: McCaffery likes to show a number of defensive looks at his opponents, and is very comfortable moving back and forth between zone and man, even within games. If Fran is savvy, he will primary play zone against a Temple team that is complacent to shoot it from the outside, despite being a relatively poor outside shooting team (206th in the country in 3-point %). In fact, there isn't really a whole lot Temple does well on the offensive end, except protect the ball. The Owls are 2nd in the country in not turning it over, but 293rd in effective FG %, 198th in offensive rebounding and 346th in drawing fouls. Unfortunately for Temple, Iowa's transition effectiveness does not rely on forcing turnovers, and they can still generate effective fast-break opportunities off a defensive rebound.
Key Factor(s): As I mentioned above, this game will come down to McCaffery's defensive game plan, and Temples transition defense. I trust both Frans to manage both dynamics effectively, so expect to see a ton of zone from Iowa, and expect Temple get back in numbers defensively.
Final Predictions: I honestly don't love any one thing about this Temple team. They appear to be indistinguishable from about 5 other teams in the American Conference, who all benefited from a ton of parity throughout league play (see Tulsa). With that said, I certainly don't love much more about Iowa, especially given how they've played over the last month of the year. Both teams should limit what the other one does well on offense, which could make this one of the most boring games of the first round. Assuming Temple can limit Iowa's transition opportunities and open looks from 3, and Iowa can settle in their zone and make the Owls chuck it from deep, neither squad will score efficiently. Fran 2 (Fran Dunphy) is a seasoned coach with loads of tourney experience, who should know the importance of dictating a slower-paced tempo in this game. If the Owls can win the "Battle of the Pace", and make this a half-court affair, this game is almost surely going under. I guess I'll lean Temple with the points for my ATS pick, but I recommend hammering the under and watching anything else on your television during these 2-hours.
SU Pick: Iowa
ATS Pick: Temple +7.5
O/U Pick: Under 140
(2) Villanova vs. (15) UNC Asheville
Initial Thoughts: Big Jay Wright had his Villanova Wildcats in the driver's seat for a number 1 overall seed heading into February. Even after a tough road loss at Xavier on February 24th, the Wildcats seemed primed to take down the number 1 overall seed, assuming they took care in the Big East tourney. After rolling through Georgetown and Providence in the first 2 rounds, Nova ran into the buzzsaw that is Seton Hall, which solidified their place on the 2-seed line.
As for their opponent in round 1, I'll admit that I have an inherent bias against UNC Asheville. This is simply rooted in the fact that I was especially fond of the Winthrop team Ashville knocked off in the Big South conference championship. The Bulldogs, however, proved all year to be the best team in a relatively competitive Big South conference.
Villanova on Offense: Villanova's surgical offense is well-documented, so I don't need to overanalyze this one. The one misperception that sometimes arises around the Cats is their 3-point shooting ability. With their exceptional spacing and unselfishness, Nova is able to get open looks on the perimeter almost at will, especially when you have big 6'11 Daniel Ochefu on the block drawing constant double teams. Unlike last year, when they shot 39% as a team, the Cats have not shot it consistently from the outside this year, dropping from 21st to 184th in the country in 3-point%. Despite their shooting woes, Nova is still not afraid to chuck it from deep, as they currently rank in the top-25 in 3-point shot attempts. Whether or not Nova is on from 3 generally determines if they win by 8 or 28.
The interesting stat here is that Asheville is actually number 2 in the country in 3-point % defense, with their opponents shooting just 29% from beyond the arc. While they do allow a decent amount of 3-point attempts, a lot of their success is probably due to their extended man-to-man defense. The Bulldogs don't play anyone over 6'6 more than 5 minutes a game, so the interchangeable parts allow for trapping and ball-screen switching all over the perimeter.
UNC Asheville on Offense: This whole theme of pace and tempo is really starting to emerge, specifically with some of the smaller, lower-seeded schools. The same story is true here for Asheville, who will try to parlay any steals into quick buckets at the other end. Whether in a fast-break, or half-court setting, the Bulldogs try to get to the rim anyway they can. A young, and still inefficient offensive bunch, Asheville makes up for their lack of polished offensive skill by getting to the free-throw line a ton. Freshman Dylan Smith is the perfect example of this, who shot just 41% and 33% on 3s and 2s respectively, but shot 127 free-throws, where he knocked in a cool 83%. Villanova must defend the drive without fouling, but they typically do a decent job in this department, so no real concern here for the favorite.
Key Factor(s): This one will be determined by Villanova backcourt, and their ability to take care of the ball against the Asheville pressure. Arcidiacono should have no problem with this, as he carved up the full-court pressure Temple threw at them a month ago in Philly. The rest of the Nova guards are also taller, so they should be able to throw over the top of traps with relative ease.
Final Predictions: If Nova can attack the gaps in the pressure, and defend Asheville drivers without fouling, the Cats will cruise in this one. The current line is resting at 17.5, which is much higher than the numbers indicate it should be. I think if Nova can get out to an early lead and extend it into before halftime, the Bulldogs should lose some of their intensity on the defensive end, which is their only hope of keeping them in this game.