2016-17 NCAA Tournament Previews: First Four

(16) Mount St. Mary's vs. (16) New Orleans

-Ky McKeon

Initial Thoughts: The inaugural 2017 NCAA Tournament game kicks off Tuesday with a fine 16-seed matchup between two squads that each won their respective conferences during the regular season. This is the 5th tourney appearance for the Mount, having last made the Dance back in 2014. The Privateers also notched their 5th Big Dance ticket, but have been absent from the greatest event on Earth since 1996. This will not be a razzle dazzle, run-n-gun affair, but should be a competitive contest between two solid mid-major schools, and a worthy opening tournament game.

Mount St. Mary's on Offense: The Mountaineers are one of the shortest teams in the country, but are laser-focused on getting the ball to the rim. The Mount ranked 21st in the country of percentage of shots attempted at the rim mostly thanks to sophomore point guard Elijah Long. Nearly every offensive possession revolves around Long, usually starting with a ball screen from either big man (Chris Wray or Mawdo Sallah). Long’s quickness allows him to knife through defenders rather effortlessly on the way to the basket, where he finishes at a 52.5% clip. 5’5” dynamo Junior Robinson also enjoys getting involved in the pick n’ roll game, though he is significantly less effective attacking the rim. Long is a good player, but this offense is painfully one-dimensional, and if you can stop him, you have an excellent chance at winning the game. Wray and Sallah are both solid post finishers, but both are skinny and shoot bricks from the foul line (31.5% and 48.8%, respectively). The Mountaineers are liable to heat up from downtown though, especially Long who shoots 40.2% from deep. Most of these threes are isolation pull-ups making that percentage even more impressive. Wings Greg Alexander and Miles Wilson can also shoot the trey ball.

The Privateers are a good defensive basketball team (best in the Southland), particularly due to their ability to force turnovers. Mt. St. Mary’s has had issues all season turning the rock over, particularly Long. New Orleans’ best defender is forward Travin Thibodeaux, a bulky 6’9” junior that should have little issue stopping Wray and Sallah in the post. Tevin Broyles or Erik Thomas, the Southland Player of the Year, will likely guard Long. Thomas is the better defender overall, but both players’ length (6’4” and 6’5”) would be problematic to the smaller Long. Thomas is amongst the best in the country in guarding the pick n’ roll and shutting down opponents in isolation, but Broyles tends to struggle in both metrics. If Long is able to handle Thomas or Broyles, he shouldn’t have too much issue scoring at the rim – the Privateers allow teams to shoot 61% at the rim, 226th in the country.

New Orleans on Offense: If Mt. St. Mary’s is laser-focused on getting the ball to the rim, New Orleans is double secret laser-focused (does that Animal House reference even work here?) at getting the ball to the rim. The Privateers rank 2nd in the country in percentage of shots taken at the rim, and 348th in percentage of shots taken outside the arc (both stats from hoopmath.com). That is a dichotomy folks! Given these metrics, it may not come as a shock that New Orleans’ offense revolves around the post. On any given possession, the Privateers usually have two players posting on either block. Occasionally this action begins with both bigs coming to the elbow, followed by screen actions for the wings / point and a dive to the block. One of Coach Slessinger’s favorite methods of scoring is to throw it to Thomas in the post and allow him to dominate smaller guards. The Privateers’ relentless rim attacking results in a plethora of free throw opportunities (16th highest free throw rate nationally), and they crash the boards as well as any team in the country (#17 in offensive rebounding percentage). Only 5’8” guard Christavious Gill will shoot the three-ball, and he only hits 30.5% of those attempts.

Everything in the paragraph above is horrible news for Mount St. Mary’s. The ‘Neers are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country, give up the 2nd most attempts at the rim, and have nobody on the roster than can matchup with Thomas physically. Given the Mount plays almost exclusively man-to-man, they will struggle stopping the Privateers from scoring. The one silver lining is the Mount’s ability to create havoc and turn teams over. They aren’t quite as good as New Orleans in this regard, but the Privateer backcourt is one of the worst in the country in protecting the rock. Each team could easily have 20 turnovers in this one.

Key Factor(s): It will be interesting to see how set in his ways Jamion Christian is. New Orleans is a team you need to zone, but the Mount just doesn’t usually do that. The key for both teams will be ball protection; this game could very well be decided by the turnover battle. The Mount will have to rebound and shoot well on the other end to not let this one get ugly.

Final Predictions: The size and physicality of New Orleans should overwhelm Mount St. Mary’s. I think this one stays close for a while, but unless the Mountaineers get hot from outside (which they definitely could), the Privateers should wear them down and pull away late.

SU Pick: New Orleans
ATS Pick: New Orleans -1.5
O/U Pick: Under 131.5

(11) Kansas State vs. (11) Wake Forest

-Ky McKeon

Initial Thoughts: It’s the most wonderful time of the year again – March is back! Appropriately, we have a fantastic 11-seed play-in game set to tip on Tuesday night. Wake Forest and Kansas State both played their way into the Tourney over the final couple weeks. The Deacons finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak, toppling Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The Wildcats won their final two regular season contests and then notched an enormous win over Baylor in the Big 12 Tourney, which more likely than not saved their Big Dance chances. This promises to be a highly competitive contest, with both teams ranking within one spot of each other in KenPom’s rankings (KSU is #29; Wake is #30).

Kansas State on Offense: Kansas State brings a balanced attack on offense, able to score via penetration, outside spot-ups, and the charity stripe. The last bit is especially important to the Cat offense, as the team ranks 51st in the country (1st in the Big 12) in free throw rate (unfortunately, they only finish a paltry 69% of their attempts from the line). The Cats play at a controlled tempo, methodically moving the rock around the floor to find a quality shot. Taking good shots is a major focus for Bruce Weber’s squad; K State shoots a significantly higher percentage of shots at the rim and from beyond the arc versus from the mid-range area. While running isn’t necessarily the MO of the Cats, they do score a healthy amount of buckets off turnovers, ranking 20th in the country in initial FGA% within 0-10 seconds following a steal (per hoopmath.com). Everyone on the floor is a willing and effective passer, particularly guards Wesley Iwundu and Kamau Stokes. Their unselfishness propelled the Cats to a #21 national ranking in assist rate. The offense is ball screen heavy, resulting in many pick-n-roll opportunities with shooters spotting up behind the arc. A hallmark of the Cats’ offense is their ability to make the extra pass to an open shooter off an initial pick-n-roll kick out – Dean Wade (40.9% from 3) particularly feasts off this action. One weakness for KSU is their rather short bench. Weber’s squad rank 318th in bench minutes, playing a 7-man rotation which occasionally stretches to 8 with backup forward Isaiah Maurice.

Despite their ability to run an effective motion offense, the Cats have a significant weakness when it comes to ball protection, ranking 231st in the nation in turnover rate. Stokes and backup point guard Carlbe Ervin have had plenty of issues this season taking care of the rock. Fortunately for them, Wake Forest won’t be able to take advantage of this turnover futility. The Deacons do not pressure opposing units at all and rarely force turnovers (312th in defensive turnover rate). In addition, Wake is poor at limiting foul shot opportunities. K State may be able to get big man John Collins in foul trouble with constant rim attacking, which would go a long way in surviving the First Four. Wake is vulnerable on the defensive end with their lack of pressure and is surprisingly poor at protecting the rim outside of Collins. K State should be able to score with little resistance.

Wake Forest on Offense: The strength of Wake’s squad this season was their elite offense, which ranked 8th in the country per KenPom.com. The Deacons have a stable of steady ball handlers led by Bryant Crawford and Mitchell Wilbekin, strong outside shooters in Austin Arians, Keyshawn Woods, and Brandon Childress, and a dominant post presence in ACC All-Leaguer John Collins. Like Kansas State, Wake gets to the line at a high rate, particularly Collins who ranked 11th in the country in drawing fouls this year. Wake plays at a higher tempo than the Wildcats, primarily due to their tendency to take quick shots on offense, but they aren’t necessarily transition-reliant. They have a strong inside/outside balance, but Wake guards tend to play a more selfish style than K State’s crew, choosing to play hero-ball and take ill-advised isolation jumpers versus working the ball around. Overall, the Deacs are a ball-screen oriented offense and look to work the ball inside to Collins to dominate. Collins rarely kicks it back outside to shooters because he rarely has to; the man is an absolute force from the block all the way up to the elbow. His versatility, highlighted by his combination of driving ability, post footwork, and fade-away arsenal makes him nearly impossible to guard.

Kansas State has a great defense this year, but Collins is still going to be a problem. D.J. Johnson is a very good post defender and could keep Collins at bay, but the Cats will likely need to send double teams, which could lead to spot ups if Collins keeps his head up. The Cats are excellent at forcing turnovers, especially via steal which leads to transition opportunities, but Wake guards should be able to fend off the pressure. One personal worry point comes from watching the Wake – Northwestern game earlier this season. Northwestern was able to force 19 turnovers against the Deacs, something K State is more than capable of doing. Wake should be able to dominate the glass, though, as the Cats are a very poor rebounding team. Further, Johnson tends to flirt with foul trouble often, meaning Collins will have a prime opportunity to take him out of the game early. If Collins forces him into early fouls, he will dominate Wade and Maurice. One other point of exploitation could come at the three-point line. K State does not do well at defending the arc, and Wake can heat up in a hurry.

Key Factor(s): This game could come down to frontcourt foul trouble. Johnson and Collins are both adept at drawing fouls in the post, and are vulnerable to picking up cheap ones on the other end. Wake will need to limit turnovers and defend without fouling, while K State will need to put an emphasis on blocking out and limiting Collins.

Final Predictions: This game is going to be a back-and-forth affair, with both teams able to exploit the other in more than one way. K State’s depth behind Johnson is a concern, but Wake’s vulnerability on defense combined with their propensity for fouling tips the scale in favor of the Wildcats.

SU Pick: Kansas State
ATS Pick: Kansas State +1
O/U Pick: Over 152.5

(16) North Carolina Central vs. (16) UC Davis

-Jim Root

Initial Thoughts:  I may not be able to watch a whole lot of this one as I’ll be 30,000 feet up, but the champs of two of this season’s worst four conferences go head-to-head on Wednesday night for the right to beat Kansas and make history (I hope). NC Central was far and away the best team in the MEAC, finishing a baffling 146 spots higher in KenPom than the second-best team (and the gap would have been even wider had NCC not slept through their final two league games after already clinching the 1-seed). It’s fair to say NCC’s reputation is dragged down by their conference affiliation. UC Davis, on the other hand, surprisingly won the Big West, which plummeted from 13th in Pom’s rankings the last two years to 29th this year.  Fun note: they’re coached by Jim Les, who is familiar with upsetting Kansas in Round 1 (used to be Bradley’s head coach).

NC Central on Offense: The Eagles score almost exclusively through the creation of their fantastic duo of ironman guards, Dajuan Graf and Patrick Cole (MEAC Player of the Year). Both are elite penetrators who can get into the lane at will and create for others – they combined to shoot 327 free throws, and both posted an assist rate north of 28% (roughly top 100 in the country). Neither guy comes off the court, either. Big man Delvin Dickerson is a highly-efficient finisher, but he’s not going to create on the block – 87% of his baskets at the rim are assisted or off put-backs. To shut down the NCC offense, you need two or three excellent perimeter defenders (something my Mizzou Tigers found out the hard way when they lost to the Eagles at home).

UC Davis has a plethora of guards they can try on the Eagles’ dynamic perimeter duo, but none (except maybe Lawrence White) is really a true shut-down defender. Cole is just bigger, faster, and/or stronger than anyone the Aggies can throw at him, and I expect him to approach or exceed his season averages of 19.5ppg, 7.0rpg, and 5.7apg.

UC Davis on Offense: The Aggies really thrive in one particular area offensively: getting to the free throw line. Junior college transfer Chima Moneke is an undersized ox inside, cleaning the glass and drawing fouls at the 22nd-highest rate in the country. He can score one-on-one in the post if you don’t have height to throw at him and bother him, and NC Central only has 6’7 Kyle Benton and 6’8 Will Ransom as counters. Wing Brynton Lemar is the other primary source of offense/free throws, a do-it-all threat who is the team’s late-shot clock option.

The problem, though, is that NC Central never fouls. Coach Levelle Moton’s defense is a very solid, disciplined style (mostly man-to-man), choosing to make opponents work to manufacture points from the field rather than gamble. If Lemar and Moneke can’t get to the line for easy points, UC Davis could really struggle to score. The other route to scoring: threes. With Lemar and fellow guards Siler Schneider (an excellent ginger) and Darius Graham, they have shooters who can get hot, especially if Moneke starts to command a double-team, but I wouldn’t bet on that scenario (hint!).

Key Factor(s): NC Central has two interesting intangible factors to them. One, a point for: they’re the most experienced team in the country, per KenPom. Seven of their eight rotation players are seniors (the eighth is a junior), and six of them are transfers from other D1 schools, so they should be relatively composed. On the other hand, though, due to the abysmal nature of their league, they played the 350th-toughest schedule in the country. The last time they played someone ranked as highly as 218th-ranked UC Davis was on December 13th (that’s three freaking months!), so they may exhibit a slow start against actual competition. The coaching matchup isn't a huge advantage one way or the other in this one, though I'd give a slight edge to Moton of NCC.

Final Predictions: I’m just not sure how UC Davis scores. Their over-reliance on getting to the charity stripe is bad news against NCC’s defensive scheme, and outside of Moneke and occasionally forward JT Adenrele, they won’t take advantage of NCC’s poor defensive rebounding. On the other end, despite the Aggies having a few 6’3-6’4 wings they can rotate on Cole, he and Graf will be too good off the dribble for UC Davis’s guards to keep up with. My gut says something like 60-50, NC Central, as Twitter heroes whine about the quality of play (they're play-in 16-seeds, be quiet).

SU Pick: North Carolina Central
ATS Pick: North Carolina Central -4
O/U Pick: Under 132.5

(11) Providence vs. (11) USC

-Matt Cox

Initial Thoughts:  Andy Enfield doesn't need to be reminded about what happened in the final seconds of last year's opening round matchup against these same Providence Friars.  With less than 2 tics on the clock on an out-of-bounds situation under their own basket, the Trojans focused their attention on two future NBA draft picks in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, only to forget about the young Rodney Bullock as he slipped to the basket for the game winning lay up, sending Providence on to the next round.  The Trojans now get a unique opportunity to avenge that mental breakdown Wednesday night in Dayton and march on to the official opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Providence on Offense: There isn't any one thing that this Providence team thrives at offensively, but what they do do well is exploit mismatches with an array of interchangeable forwards. The Friars' roster contains a plethora of athletic wings standing 6'7 to 6'8 tall - see Rodney Bullock, Emmitt HoltJalen Lindsey, Alpha Diallo and Isaiah Jackson.  On an overwhelming majority of their possessions, Providence will go 6'7, 6'7, 6'7 & 6'8 from positions 2-5, along with their dime dropping point guard, Kyron Cartwright, who ranked 4th in the entire country in assist rate, per kenpom.com.  For the exception of the sharpshooting Jalen Lindsey, the Friar forwards are either looking to penetrate and kick against slower, more traditional big guys or draw an undersized guard/wing down on the block and post up, depending upon the individual 1v1 matchups.  The problem here is that they draw a USC team with a pair of versatile forwards themselves - Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatright - both of whom are both long enough to bother the Providence forwards when they try to score on the low post, but quick enough to step away from the basket and defend the dribble drive.

The important thing to remember is that Andy Enfield will play a healthy amount of 2-3 zone, as the Trojans did on 32% of all defensive possessions so far this year.  There really isn't anything fancy about this scheme - the guards and wings do a nice job of extending their pressure a step or two beyond the arc but rarely commit silly fouls, which means you have to beat them with precision passing and timely shooting.  And while the Friars are an unselfish bunch with effective passers at all 5 spots on the floor and a respectable long range shooting team, they will have a tough time earning trips to the charity stripe, where is where a relatively large chunk of their scoring comes typically comes from.

USC on Offense: Providence's defensive identity is much less rooted in the 2-3 zone scheme that the Trojans so often feature, but Friar head coach Ed Cooley will show a tad bit of zone himself (Providence played zone on 17% of defensive possessions this season).  In the last regular season game of the year against St. John's, it seemed as if Cooley played his hybrid 2-3 matchup zone more than usual, which was actually quite effective at taking the Johnnies out of their offensive rhythm.  However, the key thing to note about Providence on the defensive end, regardless of whether they're in man-to-man or zone, is the glaring lack of size up-front, which has resulted below average rim protection this season.  

Per hoop-math.com, 41% of all field goal attempts against the Friars came at the rim (42nd highest in the country) where opponents converted at a relatively high clip of 59%.  The takeaway is that teams have had success getting to the rack off dribble penetration, which is exactly what the athletic guard tandem of Jordan McLaughlin, De'Anthony Melton, Elijah Stewart and Jonah Mathews are more than capable of doing.  And while the Friars 33rd ranked adjusted overall defensive efficiency is quite strong, a lot of this success is rooted in their ability to force turnovers, something that should not phase this sure handed Trojan backcourt, which committed the 19th fewest turnovers in the country on a per possession basis.  

Key Factor(s):  While this USC team may not be as flashy as Enfield's 'Dunk City' squad from the Florida Gulf Coast glory days, the Trojans still love to push the pace, which is typically spearheaded by the lightning-quick McLaughlin at point guard.  While the data says the Friars' transition defense has been respectable this year, they showed some significant lapses getting back on defense earlier in the non-conference slate.  From a pure X's and O's matchup perspective, Providence appears to already be facing an uphill battle as is, so they certainly can't afford to give up any 'freebie' buckets off of easy runouts.

Final Predictions: This is a matchup featuring two teams trending in very different directions.  The Friars had won 6 straight before falling to a tough Creighton team in the Big East tournament, after beating the Jays only three weeks before in Omaha.   The Trojans on the other hand have lost 5 of their last 8 and haven't beat a school not named Washington, Washington St. or Oregon St. since they knocked their arch rival UCLA Bruins at home way back on January 25th.  So if you believe the momentum variance between these two will carry some significant weight on Wednesday night, then roll with a young and rapidly improving Providence bunch.  But if you put a bigger premium on the matchups and coaching - which we here at 3MW almost always do - bet on Andy Enfield to recapture that March magic he put on display back in 2013 when 'Dunk City' took the tournament by storm en route to an improbable Sweet 16 run as a 15 seed.

SU Pick: USC
ATS Pick: USC -3
O/U Pick: Under 140