NCAA Tournament Previews & Predictions: Midwest Region

The NCAA Tournament is finally here. We get you started here at 3MW with previews of every first round game in every region. Here's a look at the Midwest region matchups:

(6) Seton Hall vs. (11) Gonzaga

Initial Thoughts: Last season Seton Hall started off the year 12-2 with wins over George Washington, a good Illinois State team on a neutral floor, St. John’s, and Villanova. Everyone, including me, was shocked by the over-achieving Pirates, a team led by three freshmen and a transfer from Texas. Then the wheels fell off. Hall proceeded to win just 4 of their next 17 contests, finishing the year at a paltry 16-15. So this season when the Pirates started 12-2 again with wins over Wichita State, Ole Miss on a neutral, and Georgia, subsequently following up that hot start with two straight losses, I knew what was coming and didn’t get my hopes up. However, Hall proved me wrong, finishing the season at 25-8 and winning the Big East conference tournament. I witnessed the Pirates’ triumph over top-seeded Villanova on Saturday at a bar during St. Patrick’s Day festivities. As I yelled in agony every time Isaiah Whitehead made impossible shot after impossible shot (I had Nova), it occurred to me – this team is for real.

Gonzaga on the other hand comes into the Dance after a disappointing regular season, one in which they failed to win the WCC regular season title for the first time since 2012. But these are the Zags. This is THE Cinderella program. Mark Few has catapulted Gonzaga’s status from an obscure trivia question involving John Stockton to a basketball power. They have to be considered the toughest 11-seed in the tournament (alongside the Shockers).

This will be a fun matchup between two schools eager to prove their worth this season. Let’s look at the factors to the game.

Seton Hall on Offense: Seton Hall’s offense relies on getting the ball to the rim, whether that comes from hard drives to the basket initiated by the guard tandem of Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington, and Desi Rodriguez, or by ways of an Angel Delgado post-up. The offensive catalyst is Whitehead, who’s favorite means of scoring comes through isolation plays where he is able to break his man down off the bounce and either pull-up for a smooth 15-footer or take it to the rack and draw a foul. Whitehead is outstanding in isolation; per Synergy his 0.932 PPP (points per possession) on isolation plays ranks in the 78th percentile in the nation. But Whitehead is far from a selfish player (49th best assist rate in the country) and is great at kicking out to open shooters off iso drives. Hall scores most of its buckets off spot-ups, where Carrington and guard Derrick Gordon do most of the damage. When shots aren’t falling for the Pirates, it’s not necessarily the end of world; Delgado and fellow front-man Ismael Sanogo are two of the best offensive rebounders in the nation and Hall as a team ranked 33rd in OR% this season. 8.4% of Hall’s buckets come off put-backs, a high number. The Pirates don’t push the tempo too much, but when they do get out in transition, they get to the cup and they finish. Same story for beyond-the-arc shooting; the Pirates shoot a solid 35.3% from deep, but take the 299th most threes in the country. Against the Zags’ defense, the Pirates won’t find too many opportunities for clean outside looks. Gonzaga is an excellent half-court defensive team and is great at taking away the spot-up jumper (something Hall relies on). Josh Perkins and Eric McClellan are each stout defenders and they will give Whitehead and Carrington all they can handle in the backcourt. What’s ironic is that the Zags, the 8th tallest team in the country, are a pretty average at defending the post. This is where Hall can exploit the Zags by getting Delgado in post-up position and getting Domantas Sabonis in foul trouble. The Zags are a very good defensive rebounding team, however, Kyle Wiltjer is not a good defender or a strong rebounder and Sanogo/Delgado could eat his lunch on the glass. Sabonis is a different story.

Gonzaga on Offense: Gonzaga boasts the 24th most efficient offense in the country due to their 55.3% effective field goal percentage (14th). All-American Kyle Wiltjer is of course the center of the offense; this year the senior forward shot 42.6% from deep, 53.5% from 2, and 86.4% from the line while averaging 20.7 point per contest. Like Hall, the Zags do most of their damage in the half-court off spot-ups, post-ups, and pick & rolls. Wiltjer is deadly spotting up from three as his percentages suggest; his 1.114 PPP off spot-ups is in the 85th percentile nationally. Similarly, Sabonis is uber-efficient down low, scoring 1.157 PPP (96th percentile) off post-ups. Pick and roll duties usually fall to Perkins and McClellan who are excellent at attacking the basket or dishing off to Wiltjer on the wing. To stop Gonzaga, Hall has to defend the three and the post, both of which they do very well. Whitehead and Carrington are good defenders but still just a notch below Perkins and McClellan on the defensive end. Delgado is a man inside and Sanogo is a great shot blocker, but at 6’9’’ and 6’8’’, respectively, they may find it difficult stopping the 6’11’’ Sabonis. James Farr of Xavier and Ben Bentil of Providence were able to get pretty much whatever they wanted inside against the Pirates in their latest meetings – but Hall came out the victor in both those matches.

Key Factors: The key factors really come down to the performance of three players: Isaiah Whitehead, Domantas Sabonis, and Kyle Wiltjer. Whitehead has potential to go full on “F-you” mode ala the Nova game in which he scored 26 points, and he has the strength to push off the smaller McClellan and Perkins. Sabonis could go for 15 and 15 with his size advantage, but the big man does have an issue at times staying out of foul trouble. The Hall guards are great at drawing fouls and Delgado isn’t too bad himself, so Sabonis must maintain good position to give his team a chance. No one on Hall is going to be able to stop Wiltjer (6’10”) from shooting over the top from deep; if he’s on, this could be a 10-point Zags win, if not, it could be 10 the other way. One more interesting factor is the disparity in experience. Gonzaga starts three seniors and Sabonis has an Elite Eight appearance. Hall on the other hand starts five sophomores and only Derrick Gordon has NCAA Tournament experience (UMass and Western Kentucky). Even the coaches are mismatched in the regard. This is Kevin Willard of Hall’s first NCAA Tournament game, while Coach Mark Few of Gonzaga has NEVER missed a tournament in his 16 year coaching career.

Final Predictions: While I love Seton Hall and their tenacity I think this one comes down to experience and composure. The Zags have the tenure and Hall has never been here before. In addition, Hall just isn’t going to have an answer for Sabonis or Wiltjer when the Zags have the ball. Seton Hall can win this game by out-working and out-toughing the Zags, but the combination of coaching, experience, size, and shooting makes me lean towards Gonzaga in this one.

Straight-up Pick: Gonzaga
ATS Pick: Gonzaga -1.5
Over/Under Pick: Over 142.5

(5) Purdue vs. (12) Arkansas-Little Rock

Initial Thoughts: Purdue was one of my favorite teams to watch this season due to the fact they have two real-life giants, an outstanding freshman, and one of the most underrated swingmen in college basketball. Once you get past the novelty of Purdue’s freakish size fronted by 7’2’’ Isaac Haas, who reminds of Roald Dahl’s “The BFG”, and start to really look their roster up and down, you realize this is a championship caliber squad. The Boilermakers are under-seeded in my humble opinion; they should be on the 4-line (the committee screwed the Big Ten, but I won’t gripe too much about that).

The committee also did the Boilermakers no favors by matching them up with one of the best mid-majors in the country in Arkansas-Little Rock. The Trojans were oft ignored due to the Monmouth hype, but this is a team who defeated Tulsa and San Diego State on the road early in the season and finished the year at a surly 29-4. Let’s see how the two teams stack up.

Purdue on Offense: Purdue usually has a size advantage against its opponents, but in this game the Boilers REALLY have a size advantage. Purdue starts 7’0’’, 6’9’’, 6’8’’, 6’6’’, and brings 7’2’’ off the bench compared to a Little Rock team whose only size is 6’11’’ 210 pound center Lis Shoshi. Little Rock plays a pack-line defensive style meaning they clog the lane on D and focus on preventing anything and everything at the rim. Purdue gets most of its buckets off post-ups to A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas, and Caleb Swanigan, so the narrative of unstoppable force vs. immovable object is going to be really interesting to watch. The Boilermakers however aren’t a one-trick pony, which is what makes them such a dangerous team. Purdue shoots 36.8% from downtown and are led by sharp-shooters Vince Edwards (40.6%), P.J. Thompson (42.9%), Ryan Cline (39.3%), and Dakota Mathias (38.7%). Kendall Stephens, perhaps the Boilers’ best three-point shooter us also back from injury. So if Little Rock takes away the paint, they could still get scorched from deep – of course the goal of the pack-line defense is to make the opponents beat you from deep. Another advantage Purdue will have on offense is rebounding. While Little Rock doesn’t allow teams to shoot a good percentage from anywhere on the floor, they aren’t the best defensive rebounding team and are certainly susceptible to offensive put-backs (Purdue is 30th nationally in offensive rebounding). Little Rock however is great at causing turnovers (20th nationally) and Purdue, particularly Swanigan and back-up point guard Johnny Hill, struggle sometimes with ball protection. If Purdue maintains its composure on offense and strokes a few threes, they shouldn’t have a problem winning this game; but, if UALR can get under their skin and bother them with their pressure and swarming post double-teams, Purdue could be in for a knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out fist fight.

Arkansas-Little Rock on Offense: Little Rock isn’t as bad as an offensive team as they may be perceived by the public. The Trojans rarely turn the ball over, they play very slow and methodical (7th slowest tempo in the country) and rely heavily on outside shooting for offensive production (38.7% from deep as a team). The Trojans’ two main sources of three-point shooting are guards Josh Hagins (39.2%) and Marcus Johnson (43.4%). Hagins and Johnson lit teams up this year, they are both upper-classmen that possess poise in pressure situations, and they rarely cough up the rock. Little Rock doesn’t post up at all as it is and they certainly won’t be getting anything near the rim off a post-up in the half court against Purdue, who allows the 16th lowest 2P% in the country and has one of the best shot blockers in the nation in Hammons. Purdue is also a great perimeter defensive team led by Edwards, Hill, and Raphael Davis. They hold opponents to 31.3% from three, but they do allow their competition a healthy amount of looks from outside. Little Rock may have to experiment a bit with getting out in transition to create another avenue in which they can score. The Trojans are super effective in transition, but don’t usually rely on the method for a bulk of their scoring; Purdue however can sometimes be vulnerable to transition buckets off turnovers. With Purdue’s size and perimeter length though, I really don’t see how Little Rock scores more than 50 points this game.

Key Factors: For Purdue it’s simple – take away the three-point line on defense, hit shots on offense, and dominate the glass. If Hammons and Haas play like they normally play and if Stephens/Edwards/Mathis/Cline/Thompson produce from outside like they normally do, Purdue should be fine in the game. Raphael Davis guarding Josh Hagins will be the key matchup to watch. For Little Rock it’s about hitting threes, slowing the game down as much as possible (they will succeed in this aspect), and hoping Purdue has a cold night.

Final Predictions: Purdue pulls away late after a close first half. Little Rock is one of the best mid majors but drew the worst possible first round matchup in Purdue. The 9-point spread comes off a bit high at first especially considering KenPom has this as a 5-point game, but Purdue matches up so well with UALR that things could get ugly in the second half.

Straight-up Pick: Purdue
ATS Pick: Purdue -9
Over/Under Pick: Under 130

(4) Iowa State vs. (13) Iona

Initial Thoughts: Iowa State is a super fun team to root for with stud point guard Monte Morris, All-American Georges Niang, and predator Jameel McKay, which makes the loss of senior wing Naz Long to injury early this season all the more devastating. The Clones could have earned as a high as a 2 or 3 seed with Long in tow, but with a short bench and an inexperienced coach (though I do like Steve Prohm), ISU appears to be in danger of exiting the Dance early.

Iona comes in as one of the hottest teams in the nation fresh off an emotional win over rival Monmouth in the MAAC championship. The Gaels have won 8 straight and are led by super senior A.J. English who has potential NCAA Tournament Darling written all over him. The Gaels have a tough matchup with Iowa State but it’s actually a fortunate one for Iona as the Clones aren’t a team that’s going to beat you with overwhelming size – something that would certainly hurt the Gaels.

Iowa State on Offense: As stated above, Iowa State does not beat teams with size, rather, the Clones use outside shooting and transition buckets to rack up the points. ISU boasted the nation’s 3rd best offense this season and much of that had to do with outstanding shooting both from inside and outside the arc. Georges Niang is nearly unstoppable and at 6’8’’ 230, he’s going to get his against the Gaels. Niang shot 61% from 2 this year, 38% from deep and 80% from the line. His 1 PPP on isolation plays ranks in the 87th percentile in the nation. In addition, Niang, Abdel Nader, and Morris are all deadly in transition, in which Iowa State scores 21% of its baskets. The Clones shoot quick averaging only 15 seconds per possession (16th quickest in the nation) and that’s primarily a result of how quickly they get the ball out the basket on an opponent make and rush down to the other end before the defense has time to set-up. Iowa State also hits threes. Aside from Niang, Morris (36%), Matt Thomas (43%), and even Deonte Burton (47%) can be en fuego at times – of course Thomas has never met a shot he hasn’t liked. On defense, Iona is susceptible to three-point shooting as the Gaels are allowing opponents to hit on 35% of their attempts. The Gaels play a lot zone which is a partial reason for the three-point susceptibility; I suspect Iona starts in man, but given that nobody can guard Niang (Isaiah Williams will try), a Cluess zone for several possessions should be expected. Three susceptibility = good news for Iowa State. Bad news for Iowa State = Iona is a fantastic transition defense team. The Gaels rank in the 90th percentile as a team limiting transition buckets, which is huge going into a matchup with the Clones. One area Iowa State can exploit Iona is through the pick and roll, a concept at which Iowa State excels at and Iona seems simply clueless on how to defend. A McKay/Morris P&R focus could spell trouble for the Gaels.

Iona on Offense: Like the Clones, Iona loves to play fast, shoot threes, and get buckets in transition. Iona shoots the 20th highest percentage of its totals shots in transition in the country and converts attempts at a high rate. The Gaels force a high amount of turnovers and steals, but against Morris, who has an absurdly low TO rate, they likely will have to rely on quickly getting the ball back out of the bucket off opponent makes similar to the Clones to start their preferred offense. The X-factor will be A.J. English who is the Niang of Iona. English shot 37.4% from deep this year, 50.6% from two, and 84.4% from the stripe while using the 32nd highest percentage of his team’s possessions in the country. English’s three-point shooting and playmaking (32nd in assist rate) will be the keys to the Gael attack. If English is able to penetrate and cause perimeter defenders to help off their men, Much (45%) and Williams (35.9%) will make the Clones pay. The Gaels very much so live by the three and die by the three; Iona scores 37.7% of its points from the perimeter – the 18th highest rate in the country; if they’re on, they could pull off the upset. The Clones are pretty good perimeter defending team but they still allow their opponents to shoot a healthy amount of threes. Niang and Thomas are both excellent on close-outs and contesting perimeter jumpers, but Burton and especially Nader have been consistently burned this year. I look for Thomas to start the game on English. Thomas guarded Hield for majority of State’s contest against OU, and Buddy lit up the Clones for 36 points – but that is Buddy Hield. The Clones are not a great transition defense team, which is where Iona can strike and gain momentum off fast break threes. It doesn’t take much to get a top-seed scared in the Tourney.

Key Factors: The key factors are the same for both squads – shooting, transition buckets, and star play. Niang and English will be the catalysts for their teams all game, as they go so do the Clones and Gaels. Neither squad is a particularly good rebounding team, but McKay and Iona’s Jordan Washington are two of the best boarders in the country – seeing them go at it could be fun. Ultimately it comes down to who plays harder, who gets more loose balls, who wants it more.

Final Predictions: This is going to be a fast-paced razzle-dazzle game full of long shots and finesse. Neither team gets to the free throw line and neither team fouls a whole lot; it could be first to 90 points wins. I’ll be honest, before doing this preview I thought I’d pick the Gaels to win this game for sure and pull the upset. But three things are making me change my mind and go with the Clones, 1) the senior leadership of Georges Niang and poise of Monte Morris, 2) the early round exit to UAB last season has to be fresh on the Clones’ minds – they have a chip on their shoulder, and 3) Iona basically wants to do what Iowa State does, they just don’t do it quite as well. I think the Clones win, but I think it’s close, and I think the Gaels cover.

Straight-up Pick: Iowa State
ATS Pick: Iona +7.5
Over/Under Pick: Over 167

(7) Dayton vs. (10) Syracuse

Initial Thoughts: To be frank I’m surprised Syracuse is even in the tournament field let alone a 10-seed. It’s not that the Orange aren’t a good team, it’s that their resume just wasn’t that great compared to other bubble teams they beat out. They’re RPI was 68, they played a non-con SOS ranked 120th in the country, went 19-13 and lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The committee basically admitted on Sunday they chose Cuse due to the their five wins over the RPI Top 50, which I agree is a good number – they beat Duke at Cameron, Texas A&M, and Notre Dame, all impressive wins. But they lost nine games against the Top 50. Ample opportunity was given to the Orange to pad their resume and really they just did okay. This of course led me to leaving them out of my final bracket predictions which hurt my score – but hey, at least I did better than Joe Lunardi.

Dayton started off the year on fire racking up 21 wins in their first 24 games including victories over Iowa and Monmouth on neutral courts and a win at Vanderbilt. Though they went just 4-4 over their last eight games, the Flyers are a dangerous team due to their defense and athleticism. Let’s see how they stack up in this one against an ACC power. 

Dayton on Offense: The Flyers rely heavily on dribble penetration to score, particularly by point guard Scoochie Smith and off-guard Charles Cooke. This team is also very adept at getting the ball out of the basket quickly and setting up their half-court early in an attempt to catch their defenders off-balance. Obviously Syracuse is going to play their patented 2-3 zone against Dayton and at first glance that spells disaster for a Dayton team that does not shoot the trey ball very well as a team (34.7%). But, Dayton does have capable outside shooters in Cooke (41%) and Smith (37.8%), and the Flyers have actually faired pretty well against what little zone they’ve seen this year, scoring .95 PPP, good for about 90th among teams nationally. Really Dayton’s ability to score – and win – is going to come down to them knocking down outside shots. In their seven losses this season, the Flyers shot only 27.7% from three – abysmal. And despite giving up a lot of three-point attempts, the Orange are masters of closing out on shooters and actually allow opponents to shoot only 30.4% from deep (12th best mark in the country). Dayton also can’t really exploit Cuse’s poor defensive rebounding out of the zone as the Flyers themselves are not a good O-boarding squad, especially against the zone. Syracuse plays at an extremely slow pace which is aided by their constant zone, and while Dayton’s style is not necessarily up-tempo, they may be able to catch Cuse out of position in transition or off made buckets. Otherwise, the Flyers better hit shots.

Syracuse on Offense: Offensively, Syracuse loves shooting the three-ball. 37.4% of their shots come by way of the three which is a top 30 rate nationally. Cuse’s 36% three-point shooting percentage isn’t outstanding, but it’s good enough, and guys like Michael Gbinije (40%) and Tyler Lydon (41.7%) have to be guarded closely on the perimeter. While senior guard Tyler Cooney has historically been one of Cuse’s best shooters, this year he’s only converting on 34% of his deep balls and overall he’s been incredibly inefficient on the offensive end. Inside the paint, the Orange don’t really do much, shooting only 47.6% from two-point range, and drawing a paltry amount of fouls per contest. The Orange really don’t have a post presence inside, though 6’8’’ Tyler Roberson and reserve DaJuan Coleman each are fantastic offensive rebounders – they just don’t really finish well when they do secure a carom. I don’t see either of Roberson or Coleman grabbing too many o-boards against Dayton, however. The Flyers boast the nation’s 14th best defense and are 4th in the country in limiting second chances off the glass. Dayton’s biggest weakness on D is their post defense (not a factor vs. Cuse), but the Flyers are also known for giving up a lot of three-point looks (which is definitely a factor vs. Cuse). While Dayton does an okay job at closing out on shooters, teams are still hitting nearly 35% of their threes against the Flyers D. Dayton was lit up by top three-point shooting teams like St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island in A-10 losses and Syracuse could very much repeat those efforts in the Big Dance.

Key Factors: This one is going to come down to outside shooting. Dayton needs to hit shots over the Syracuse zone to stay competitive and limit Orange threes on the other end.

Final Predictions: Indications from the regular season say this is Syracuse’s game to lose. They match up very well against the Flyers due to their superior outside shooting and Dayton’s lack of shooting ability on the other end. As mentioned above Dayton lost to the Bonnies and Rhodey this season and barely escaped with victories in the other two contests against the inter-conference rivals – those teams are #1 and #2 in the A-10 in three-point shooting percentage. Syracuse hasn’t lost in the opening round of the Tournament since 2006 and they will surely be searching for revenge against a Dayton school that knocked them out in the second round in 2014.

Straight-up Pick: Syracuse
ATS Pick: Syracuse +1
Over/Under Pick: Under 131

(8) Texas Tech vs. (9) Butler

Initial Thoughts: Color me shocked to see the Texas Tech Raiders sitting here in the NCAA Tournament – and at an 8-seed no less! College basketball outlets, coaches, and I unanimously predicted this year to be on of hardship for Tubby’s squad, but instead it was on of success as the Raiders finished 9-9 in the toughest conference in basketball and earned tough W’s over the likes of Iowa State, Baylor, and Oklahoma in the process. Tubby turned the 2015 Raiders’ 224th ranked offense into the 28th ranked offense this season with essentially the same roster – mind-boggling. I’ll admit I still have skepticism over how good this Tech team is and if they even stand a chance against a steady Butler squad who historically has performed well in the postseason. But I’ll give them their fair due in this analysis.

Butler looked legit at the start of the year rattling off 11 wins in their first 12 contests including big victories over Temple (neutral), Cincinnati (away), and Purdue (neutral) but once they got into Big East play, the Dogs struggled to win games. Butler only lost two games in the regular season by more than 10 points (Xavier both times), so it’s not as if the Dogs fell completely off the face of the Earth. They seemed to right the ship at the end of the year with three straight wins over tough conference opponents, which is a good sign if you’re a Butler fan heading into the Dance. 

Texas Tech on Offense: The best part of the Raiders’ offense is getting to the foul line and converting. Tech shoots the 33rd most free throws in the country and converts at the 31st highest rate (74.6% as a team). Really, Tech doesn’t do that much else on offense that would be considered outstanding. The Raiders don’t shoot a lot of threes, and make only an average amount of threes they take; they don’t finish particularly well around the basket; and, they don’t really get out in transition. Tech isn’t bad at anything of these areas, but they aren’t good either. The way Tubby’s team wins games is by controlling the pace (attempting to keep the game below 70 possessions) and getting to the foul line. Tech’s guards Devaugntah Williams and Keenan Evans each get to the a ton off drives to the cup and big men Aaron Ross and Zach Smith are also adept at getting to the line off post-ups. The one guy that Butler has to be concerned about on the perimeter is Toddrick Gotcher, who hits 40% of his threes. Gotcher lives off spot-ups and can hurt the Dogs if their defense starts to sag. Butler is pretty average defensively, especially when defending a spot-up shooter, but Tyler Wideman inside is a great post-up defender; they key for him though is staying out of foul trouble which could be difficult given the Raiders’ knack for drawing contact. The Raiders probably can’t exploit the average perimeter D of Butler, but they may be able to get a couple garbage buckets off misses as the Dogs (outside of Kelan Martin) aren’t always great at grabbing boards on the defensive side of the ball.

Butler on Offense: Butler’s lackluster defensive performance is offset against their terrific offense (19th best in the land). The Dogs are great shooters both inside and outside the arc, and though they do not take a ton of threes as a team, Kellan Dunham does, and is one of the very best marksmen in the country (42.8%). It’s the limiting of turnovers that allows Butler’s offense to be so efficient; guards Tyler Lewis, Dunham, and Roosevelt Jones all have small TO rates and you rarely see Andrew Chrabascz or Martin coughing up the rock. Protecting the rock so well means Butler is shooting at the basket nearly every time down the floor, and of course you can’t score if you don’t shoot. Tech’s defense doesn’t really turn other teams over, so it’s reasonable to assume the Dogs will have no problem protecting the ball in this game. Butler is great at catching and shooting off kick-outs and drive-and-kicks and also have a high efficiency rate shooting J’s off the dribble. On top of that, Chrabascz is one of the most efficient post-up bigs in the country in terms of PPP giving the Dogs a bit more versatility to their offensive scheme. Butler can also get out in transition – particularly Jones, Martin, and Dunham, each of which has coast-to-coast scoring capability. One major factor will be offensive rebounding. Butler is a good o-boarding team while Tech is one of the worst defensive rebounding units in the country. Wideman, Jones, and Martin should be able to exploit the Raiders in this area. Tech is going to have issues stopping the Bulldogs as teams tend to shoot very well from the perimeter against them and the Raiders are a below average transition defense squad (275th in PPP allowed). Butler just has too many ways to score against the Red Raiders. 

Key Factors: Not fouling is a huge factor for Butler. If Butler doesn’t foul, Texas Tech can’t win, plain and simple. The Raiders rely too much on getting to the line to facilitate their offense. Shutting down Toddrick Gotcher will be another key factor as he represents the Raiders’ only three-point threat. For Tech it’s going to be keeping Butler shooters from getting into a rhythm, limiting Butler transition opportunities, and battling down low with the bigs for boards on the defensive end.

Final Predictions: Butler’s versatility will allow them to exploit Tech’s defense in more ways than one. They just have too many weapons for Tech to shut down and while, on the other side of the ball, Butler isn’t a great defensive team, I don’t think the Raiders have the fire-power to outscore the Dogs.

Straight-up Pick: Butler
ATS Pick: Butler -4
Over/Under Pick: Over 147

(2) Michigan State vs. (15) Middle Tennessee

Initial Thoughts: There was a bit of an outcry when it was announced that Sparty would not be receiving a #1 seed like most college bball pundits thought, and even though I too had Michigan State slotted on the 1-line, they really didn’t deserve it. Oregon and Virginia’s overall resumes surpassed Michigan State’s in nearly every measure. That’s not to say Sparty isn’t a great team and a legitimate title contender – because they are, and in fact they may be the favorite. Denzel Valentine may be the player in the country and Tom Izzo may be the best coach in the country (and for the matter the best coach in March). It’ll take a colossal meltdown from the Spartans and the game of their lives for the Blue Raiders for Sparty not to reach the Round of 32.

Let me start off by saying, I love the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. This has to be one of the best 15-seeds in tournament history (no one fact check me!!!). The Blue Raiders finished second in an admittedly weak Conference USA, but I think they were shafted by being seeded behind UW-Green Bay. MTSU played VCU tight early in the season, but other than that the Raiders haven’t squared off with elite talent. They better strap in because it doesn’t get any more elite than Michigan State.

Michigan State on Offense: The Spartans come into this game boasting the nation’s 2nd best offense led by POY candidate Valentine, complemented by sharpshooting guards Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris, and anchored by big men Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis. Nobody in the country shoots a better percentage from three than Sparty, due to the insane 48.4% of Forbes and 42.7% of Harris; hell even Valentine is hitting 44.7% of his long balls. Those three shoot about 95% of the team’s threes hence the #1 national ranking. Michigan State is also an elite offensive rebounding squad – Costello ranks 11th in the nation in OR% and Davis is in the top 50 himself. Second chance opportunities will kill any team, but it’s especially deadly against Sparty due to their elite spot up shooters licking their chops on the outskirts of the arc ready to hoist up a shot off a recently rebounded ball. MSU excels everywhere on the offensive end and with Valentine handling the ball most of the time; the green dudes are among the best teams in the country at sharing the pill. In almost all of Sparty’s losses the main cause appeared to be 1) simply cold shooting – especially from inside the arc (though they did shoot 4/21 from three against Iowa), and 2) limited second chance opportunities off misses. Middle Tennessee’s defense does one thing really well – rebound. Reggie Upshaw is a beast on the boards; as is (surprisingly) point guard Giddy Potts. So MTSU can definitely limit Sparty second chances but can they defend the three? Well no not really, they struggle. The Raiders play zone about a third of the time and as a result can be susceptible to allowing open shots on the perimeter. They do have good one-on-one defenders in Upshaw, Jaqawn Raymond, and Perrin Buford, so they may be able to at least contain Valentine penetration; the question will be whether help defenders get caught sagging towards Valentine allowing Denzel to fling pin-point passes to open shooters. MTSU is scrappy so they’re going to make Sparty work to score, but ultimately I think the Spartans get what they want.

Middle Tennessee on Offense: Hey guess what? MTSU can shoot the ball from the outside too! At 38.9% as a team, the Blue Raiders convert at the 19th highest rate from three in the nation, and they shoot a lot of threes too. Potts, the 6’2’’ 200 lb. bowling ball of a point guard is the best shooter from deep percentage-wise in the nation (50%) and Darnell Harris connects on 40% of his deep looks. Upshaw is the Blue Raiders’ main scorer on offense. Think of Reggie as a homeless man’s Valentine – they’re about the same build, they both distribute the ball well for their size, and they both can score a variety of ways. As mentioned earlier, Upshaw can also clean the glass. The Raiders finish well in transition, but they rarely are looking to get a substantial amount of buckets through this medium (304th in the country in time spent in transition). MTSU’s offense can get stale at times, especially if they aren’t connecting from outside, but the Raiders are good at not turning the ball over (not that Sparty is turning anyone over anyways). The Michigan State defense is almost as stifling as their offense. They are among the best in the country at taking away looks from three and altering opponents’ shot trajectory. In addition, they rebound incredibly well on defense (8th in the country) so Upshaw may have a difficult time being a factor on the glass against a team so capable of taking o-board opportunities away. Upshaw could expose Valentine a bit on offense however, as Denzel is really only an average defender, and I really don’t know who Izzo will throw on Potts. Potts is far girthier than either Tum-Tum Nairns or Eron Harris, and though Bryn Forbes is Sparty’s best overall defender, he is poor in isolation situations (and he’s also a rail) making me think he doesn’t match up with Potts. MTSU may have success off the bounce against Sparty, but once the guards get past the front line, Costello and Davis await, and each is a more-than-capable shot blocker.

Key Factors: MTSU needs to 1) not allow open perimeter jump shots and 2) box Costello and Davis off the offensive glass. Sparty needs to just play their game.

Final Predictions: I have a lot of respect for both these coaches (Izzo and Kermit Davis); I think both have done an excellent job at their respective programs and I think each will come out prepared for the other team. The Spartans though just have too much talent and too much size for the Blue Raiders to stay competitive over 40 minutes. This one could be close at halftime but I think Sparty extends the lead real quick in the second half. The line is high right now in my opinion so I’ll take MTSU ATS,

Straight-up Pick: Michigan State
ATS Pick: Middle Tennessee +17.5
Over/Under Pick: Under 143.5

(1) Virginia vs. (16) Hampton

Initial Thoughts: Virginia has been consistently one of the country’s best teams all season long. Led by All-American Malcolm Brodgon and one of my favorite big men in CBB, Anthony Gill, the Cavaliers have proven they can beat anybody and contend for a national title. Of course, we thought similar things about the 2014 and 2015 versions of the Hoos, but consecutive early exits at the hands of Izzo’s Sparty teams has given Virginia a bit of a “Villanova-esque” reputation in the Big Dance. Thankfully for Tony Bennett and company, UVA’s chances of going down in round 1 this year are about 0% given that no 16-seeds have ever toppled a #1 and Hampton isn’t the type of team that’s going to beat Virginia.

Hampton’s first round win over 2-seeded Iowa State back in 2001 is one of my first vivid tournament memories. The Jamaal Tinsley led Cyclones seemed like juggernauts compared to the Pirates from the MEAC conference. But Hampton prevailed by playing tenacious defense and somehow “causing” the Clones to go 6/16 from the line. This year’s Hampton squad probably isn’t nearly as good as the ’01 team, but these Pirates have their bright spots. Led by Reginald Johnson and Quinton Chievous (how the hell did he not go to Mizzou?), the Pirates are talented and will be out to prove to the country that they can compete with power conference opponents.

Virginia on Offense: This is Tony Bennett’s best offensive team since he took over as head coach of the Hoos back in 2010. The Cavs play at the nation’s slowest pace but hit basically every shot they attempt. Virginia is 10th in the nation in three-point percentage (40%), though they don’t shoot many, 20th in free throw percentage and 57th in two-point percentage. UVA’s offense is fluid and methodical; London Perrantes is a fantastic table-setter at the point and shoots 48.1% from deep, Brogdon can score in just about any way imaginable but prefers isolations and coming off screens, and Gill is an absolute manimal in the post. In Virginia’s ACC Tourney game vs. Georgia Tech, Georges-Hunt tried to hack Gill on a fast break lay-up – as he made contact, Georges-Hunt when flying backwards, smacking the ground with frightening force, while Gill moved about 4 inches. Hampton is small; they will not have an answer for Anthony Gill. Defensively, Hampton does a nice job (mostly against MEAC opponents) taking away the three and limiting second chance opportunities, but Brogdon and Gill are too strong, and Perrantes too talented to be affected by the Pirate D.

Hampton on Offense: Hampton relies on garbage buckets off misses and transition to score the basketball. The Pirates are an abysmal shooting team, but are good in transition – they spend the 16th most time in transition in the country. Unfortunately for Hampton, the Hoos are excellent at taking away transition opportunities and their pack-line style defense limits basically everything inside. If Hampton cannot hit shots from outside, they cannot beat Virginia.

Key Factors: Hampton needs to have a Norfolk State vs. Missouri 2012 renaissance game in order to even compete with Virginia. This matchup is so lopsided towards the Hoos that Virginia could come out with their “D+ game” and still win by 15.

Final Predictions: Virginia rolls. I like what Hampton has done this season, but UVA is the worst matchup imaginable for the Pirates.

Straight-up Pick: Virginia
ATS Pick: Virginia -23.5
Over/Under Pick: Under 133.5

(3) Utah vs. (14) Fresno State

Initial Thoughts: The committee was kind to the Pac-12 this Tournament and with good reason. Despite a significant lack of coverage, the Pac-12 was the third best conference behind the Big 12 and ACC numbers-wise. Utah, led by 7-foot All-American Jakob Poeltl, was one of the best teams in the league this season and earned every bit of its 3-seed. On the one or two occasions I was fortunate to watch the Utes in action this year, I was particularly impressed by the play of JUCO transfer Lorenzo Bonam (and of course that of Poeltl). The Utes, in addition to Bonam and Poeltl, have a strong core of seniors in Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge, and Dakarai Tucker. This is a squad ready for March and one that will be a tough out this Dance.

Fresno comes in winners of 9 straight including a thrilling victory over perennial Mountain West power San Diego State. Unseating the Aztecs as MWC champs was not an easy task and certainly says a lot about the potential of the Bulldogs. Fresno’s non-con SOS was a paltry 233, but they did play Oregon close in Eugene. As with any good potential Cinderella, the Dogs have a bona-fide senior star in 6’4’’ guard Marvelle Harris, who plays 90% of the team’s minutes (23rd in the nation). Harris has the ability to take over games as proven by his 18-point performance in the MWC ship. Defeating Utah though is a tall order.

Utah on Offense: Utah is one of the most efficient offenses at scoring within the arc, mostly off post-ups from Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma. Poeltl shot 65% this year from the field, good for 26th in the nation and his ability to draw fouls and convert at a decent rate (69.7%) makes him even more dangerous, especially against a team like Fresno that has a tendency to hack at limbs. The Utes also shoot the three-ball well, especially Loveridge and Tucker who are both converting at a 40% clip. Their buckets rely on ball movement and spot-ups; Bonam and Taylor both have excellent assist rates and Poeltl has a high rate for a big proving his elite capability to pass out of a double-team. The Utes don’t score one-on-one much off isos, but Bonam has the ability to take his man off the dribble at any time. This squad is a patient one under the watchful eye of veteran coach Larry Krystowiak, playing at nearly a bottom-50 pace in the country. Fresno wants to force their opponent to play fast; the Dogs turn teams over at the 37th best rate in the country and have the 13th highest steal rate. In particular, Harris, Cullen Russo, and Julien Lewis are all hounds on D. The Dogs allow a lot of three-pointers and their opponents hit a fair amount of their attempts which mostly comes as a result of overplaying a steal and getting out of position on defense, something Utah can exploit with its passing ability. However, the Utes have been prone to turnovers this season, which is troublesome against the swarming Fresno pressure. Inside, Russo and Torren Jones may be just good enough to give the Dogs a chance against Poeltl, but they give up about three inches a piece.

Fresno State on Offense: Fresno’s offense filters through Harris, either through the pick and roll or pushing ahead out in transition. The Dogs are superb at protecting the ball, especially Harris who has an absurd 11.6 TO rate despite his 29.2% usage rate. Though they don’t rely much on the three, the Dogs do have weapons in Harris and Cezar Guerrero. Guerrero in particular constantly benefits off Harris drive and kicks. The Utes on D are solid at taking away the three (doesn’t matter with Fresno), don’t foul at all (again not too important for Fresno’s offense), and are excellent defending in transition (uh-oh). Considering this is one of the very few ways the Dogs plan on scoring against the Utes, Utah’s strong transition D is a key metric. Fresno can exploit Utah in the pick and roll where the Utes are simply terrible at defending – this is good news for the Dogs who happen to have Harris, one of the best P&R ball handlers in the country. For Fresno it’s really going to come down to 1) how many points Harris can score and 2) how many “hustle points” they get. Bonam and Loveridge are both just okay defenders, but Tucker is actually pretty decent. I believe Harris can exploit any of Utah’s defenders, but with Poeltl protecting the rim he’ll have to be hitting on pull-ups and hope his spot-up shooters (Guerrero and Lewis) are hitting their shots. Karachi Edo is one of the best offensive rebounders in the nation, but at 6’6’’ he may have trouble against Poeltl and Kuzma; effort-wise though, I think the Dogs can win the battle in the trenches.

Key Factors: Key factors for Utah include ball protection, the play of Poeltl, and stopping Marvelle Harris on D. For Fresno, it’s all about the play of Marvelle, Guerrero connecting on 3 or 4 threes, and forcing Ute turnovers.

Final Predictions: Utah has the size and this game could turn into a blowout if the Utes come to play. However, I think Fresno’s toughness and Harris’s takeover ability can and will pull a major upset. If nothing else, the Dogs can cover 9. Don’t make liars out of me Fresno…

Straight-up Pick: Fresno State
ATS Pick: Fresno State +9
Over/Under Pick: Over 143