(1) Kansas vs. (16) Play-in (NC Central/UC Davis)
Initial Thoughts: The Kansas Jayhawks find themselves in a familiar position as the top-seed in the Midwest region, where they will play their first two games close to home in Tulsa. After continuing their regular season dominance of the Big-12, the Jayhawks have hit some minor bumps in the road, both on and off the hardwood...
Kansas was stunned by TCU in the opening round of the Big-12 conference tournament, abruptly sending the Beakers back to Lawrence giving them plenty of time to reflect about what went wrong and where corrections need to be made before the real tournament begins this Friday. The Jayhawks looked rather beatable in that 85-82 loss to the Horned Frogs, but were without their most talented and best two-way player, Josh Jackson, who was suspended for beating the crap out of a car with his foot in December. As the headline in that aforementioned article alludes to, Jackson is not the first KU player to have a run-in with the law this season - not even close actually.
While Devonte Graham's failure to appear in court (arrested to an expired tag) and Carlton Bragg's charge for possession of drug paraphernalia are both common "teenager" incidents, five members of the team are currently listed as witnesses in a rape case (which occurred at the dorm where the players live) and recent news revealed Lagerald Vick was found guilty of hitting a female student two years ago by a university-sponsored investigation, but was never charged with a crime. While many of these incidents may just be a simple case of the KU players being in the wrong place at the wrong time, many abide by the saying "where there's smoke; there's fire" - and right now, a giant cloud of smog is hovering over the Kansas basketball program. However, the good news for Jayhawk fans, at least in the near-term, is that Bill Self confirmed Jackson will be back in action for the tournament and Bragg is beginning to work his way back into the interior rotation after serving his 3-game suspension in late January.
Kansas on Offense: It's no secret that Self has adapted his offensive approach to fit a guard-heavy lineup and has built the identity of this year's Jayhawk team on small ball. As one of the more versatile defenders in the country, Jackson is capable of guarding all five positions (he typically plays the 4), making big Landen Lucas the only true post presence down low. This quicker and more athletic lineup has made the Jayhawks even more dangerous in transition, especially with player of the year frontrunner Frank Mason leading the break. But despite the clear talent disparity between KU and whoever prevails in the play-in game, both NC Central (under LeVelle Moton) and UC Davis (under Jim Les) are exceptionally well coached basketball teams and should be well prepared to limit some of KU's transition game.
Play-in Winner on Offense: Both of the potential opponents for the Jayhawks are undeniably defensive-minded teams, but NC Central has the best shot of scoring at a relatively efficient clip. Led by two slashing guards in Dajuan Graf and Patrick Cole (MEAC Player of the Year), the Eagles have two potent playmakers that may be able to do some damage in the half-court. However, when Mason and Graham are locked in there may not be a better pair of perimeter defenders in the nation. Another concern is that the Eagles rely heavily on getting to the charity stripe in order to put points on the board consistently, which is problematic going up against a Self coached team that emphasizes defending without fouling.
Key Factor(s): The only thing that will prevent Kansas from advancing easily to the 2nd round is the Jayhawks themselves. They will be coming off an 8-day layover, which could be a recipe for a slow-start and lackluster effort on both ends of the floor. But even in this worst case scenario, it's hard to see KU sleepwalking for 40 minutes - expect them to march on to the Round of 32 without any real scare.
Final Predictions: The intriguing storyline that will emerge if UC Davis is able to get by NC Central is the history between Jim Les and the Jayhawks from his days back at Bradley. Kansas fans don't need to be reminded of names like Patrick O'Bryant and Marcellus Sommerville, who were responsible for sending the Jayhawks home far too early in the 2005-06 tournament. The difference for Les now is that he has nowhere near the level of talent that Bradley team had over a decade ago, which should spell doom in this potential opening round date with KU.
SU Pick: Kansas
ATS Pick: [Pending First Four Winner]
O/U Pick: [Pending First Four Winner]
(8) Miami FL vs. (9) Michigan State
Initial Thoughts: Michigan State is always an intriguing case study come tournament time, mostly because of the respect Izzo has earned by routinely exceeding expectations in March (with the obvious exception of last year's debacle against Middle Tennessee St.). And while the Big Ten woke up Monday morning still bitter about the overall lack of respect the committee gave them, the Spartans ought to feel pretty good about where they're seeded, especially after losing 14 games this season - one shy of the all-time record set by Vanderbilt this year. So while the Izzo factor normally would carry a lot of weight in a typical 7/10 or 8/9 toss-up, the man standing opposite Izzo will be Jim Larranaga, who's no slouch in the month of March either. This is truly a test of two teams with excellent coaches that have somewhat underachieved this year and dealt with their fair share of injuries along the way.
Miami on Offense: Per a typical Larranaga team, Miami loves to slow down the pace and limit total possessions, which is a tad bit surprising given all the athletes on this roster. However, those athletes are unleashed every time the Hurricanes put up a shot, as guys like Kamari Murphy, Dewan Huell and Ebuka Izundu love to hit the offensive glass. A unique stylistic trait about this Miami team is that they rank top-50 nationally in offensive rebounding rate, but 223rd in percentage of quick points from offensive rebounds, a metric from haslametrics.com. While that last metric is hard to digest at first glance, the story here is that the Canes grab a ton of offensive rebounds, but whenever they secure a missed shot, they will typically pull it out and reset the offense, instead of immediately trying to go right back up for a quick put back. This again supports a bedrock of Larranaga's coaching philosophy, which centers around precise half-court execution in order to get the best possible shot on each and every possession. However, relying on 2nd shot opportunities to score efficiently will be a challenge against the 2nd best defensive rebounding team in the Big Ten, led by the glass cleaning abilities of Nick Ward and Miles Bridges.
Michigan State on Offense: Even though Eron Harris was having a tough year offensively before going down with a season ending knee injury, his loss cannot be understated enough. From watching the Spartans play a few times in person during Big Ten play, they desperately need an athletic, dynamic creator and Harris was far and away the best option to fill that role. As a result, this team has rallied around an extremely unselfish culture of sharing the basketball, as indicated by the fact that 66% of Michigan State's buckets this year have been assisted - the most of any team in the tournament field. Miami will need to be smart in their rotations defensively and close out hard on a number of capable long-range shooters, including Bridges, who has proven to be a reliable 3-point shooter as a freshman (shooting 39% from 3 on 135 attempts). It seems likely that Kamari Murphy is the best bet to draw the Bridges assignment - he is a versatile defender and excellent rim-protector, despite being a tad undersized at 6'8. This means the two freshman bigs, Dewan Huell and Nick Ward will likely bang bodies down low, which means Huell needs to use his superior length and athleticism to bother the stronger and bigger Ward.
Key Factor(s): There is no question the key to this game will be how well Michigan St. defends Miami's flurry of ball-screens, especially with Ja'Quan Newton finally back healthy and playing big time minutes. It's worth noting that Newton has been somewhat inconsistent this year as the go-to offensive option (see his sub-100 O-Rating), and many have pointed out that Miami actually got back on the right side of the bubble over the 4-game stretch that Newton didn't play in (the Canes racked up wins against Virginia and Duke). With that said, there is no denying Newton is absolutely a talented scorer and terrific slasher, much of which is generated out of pick-n-roll situations.
In fact, only 14 teams in the country rely more heavily on the pick-n-roll than the Canes (Miami's possessions end on a pick-n-roll situations 33% of the time). Newton himself ranks 22nd in the nation in PnR usage and has posted a mediocre 0.92 points per possessions in these scenarios. On the defensive side of the ball, the data says Michigan St. is roughly average at guarding the pick-n-roll, but a multiple game eye test leaves me skeptic that the Spartans can consistently stop Newton - along with Davon Reed and Bruce Brown - in ball screen action.
The clip below captures my concerns with Sparty's PnR defense. The screener's defender - in this case Nick Ward - simply flattens out when the dribbler comes off the screen and gets caught in "no man's land", allowing Minnesota's Reggie Lynch to get an easy roll to the bucket.
The Miami bigs are exceptionally long and athletic, which will challenge the slower Ward to recover back in time to his man in similar situations. If I were Izzo, I would sag back even further than normal and dare the Miami guards to beat them with jump shots off the dribble and focus on shoring up the defensive boards.
Final Predictions: This one should be a painfully slow-paced affair, with both teams clawing and scratching for every bucket. It's almost blasphemy to go against Tommy Izzo in the tournament, but I give the Canes a slight edge in this one in what should be a close game the whole way through.
SU Pick: Miami
ATS Pick: Miami -2
O/U Pick: Under 126
(5) Iowa State vs. (12) Nevada
Initial Thoughts: Much like the opening round matchup of Gonzaga and South Dakota State in the West region, this game [unfortunately] features two of 3MW's favorite squads, meaning either the Clones or the Pack will be headed home much too early. Iowa St. enters the Dance red hot, having won 9 of their last 10 contests including an ultra impressive run through the Big 12 tournament where they knocked off Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia. However, Eric Mussleman and his Wolfpack are hardly impressed, given they haven't lost since February 12th, albeit they certainly benefitted from a watered down Mountain West schedule.
Iowa State on Offense: Nevada is actually built to defend this tricky Iowa St. offense which normally give opposing defenses nightmares trying to cover the versatile Deonte Burton with a traditional 4 or 5. The Wolfpack have two excellent forwards in Jordan Caroline and Cameron Oliver, both of whom are decent 1-on-1 defenders and possess the combination of size and quickness needed to check Burton. Given that Steve Prohm has been playing their only true big in 6'8 freshman Solomon Young a ton over the past month, it makes sense that the more athletic and more effective shot-blocker in Oliver will likely matchup with Young, which will also allow Oliver to stay closer to the rim and provide helpside rim protection. If Musselman does in-fact decide to go with this assignment, it means the winner of the Burton v. Caroline matchup will determine just how efficient the Cyclones are in their half-court offense - I give the edge to Burton.
However, Prohm may think about going with a true small ball lineup by playing Burton at the 5 in order to spread out the Wolfpack's man-to-man defense as much as possible. This will force Oliver, Nevada's only true rim-protector, to step away from the rim, which should open up a ton of easy driving and cutting opportunities for the Clones to get high percentage looks around the basket. On the defensive end, Oliver is not a traditional back to the basket, low-post player, which means even against this small Cyclone lineup, the Wolfpack won't be able to counter by simply throwing it down on the block to get easy buckets in the paint.
Nevada on Offense: Similar to Iowa State themselves, the Pack will typically feature a lineup with 5 quality shooters on the floor at all times. Coming from the NBA, Musselman clearly understands what an efficient offense looks like as he's built a lineup that relies on 3-point shooting and getting to the foul line to generate consistent scoring. However, the Clones are about as good as anyone in the country in defending without fouling and have versatile bigs that can step away and defend the 3-point line, especially when Prohm goes with that aforementioned small ball lineup with Young on the bench. This should allow the Clones to matchup with a potent Nevada offense that has shown it can put up points in a hurry. One more note to clarify is that, much like the Wolfpack, Iowa State will play almost exclusively man-to-man defensively, which makes winning the individual 1v1 matchups even more critical to success.
Key Factor(s): Prohm has kept the run-and-gun style of his predecessor Fred Hoiberg in-tact since taking over at the helm back in 2015, which can absolutely bury a poor defensive transition team out on the break. Both the data and the eye-test confirm that this Wolfpack team is not the most disciplined when it comes to getting back on defense and limiting easy opportunities in transition. Per hoop-math.com, Nevada currently ranks 288th nationally in initial FGs allowed within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, implying that they surrender a relatively large chunk of early shot clock opportunities. This is precisely what Monte Morris and the Iowa State sharpshooters (see Nazareth-Mitrou Long and Matt Thomas) will feast on if the Pack don't prioritize retreating back on defense.
Final Predictions: Nevada has the makeup of an extremely dangerous 12-seed in this bracket, especially with a talented group of guards and future pro in Cameron Oliver. However, the on-paper matchup appears to be less than ideal for the Wolfpack as they should have major issues slowing down Iowa State's offensive attack, both in the half-court and in transition. Points should be easy to come by for both sides in this one, but I'm placing a premium on the veteran Clones backcourt, who's made it to the sweet-16 in two of the past four seasons.
SU Pick: Iowa State
ATS Pick: Iowa State -6
O/U Pick: Over 154.5
(4) Purdue vs. (13) Vermont
Initial Thoughts: The Boilermakers are the highest seeded Big Ten team in the dance, representing one of the few hopes for the conference to prove that it wasn't as poor of a league as most people think. They face a Vermont team that is adored by the analytics and is sporting the nation's longest winning streak at 21 games after running through the America East conference regular season with ease. The obvious knock on Vermont is that they haven't proven they can legitimately compete with the big boys for a full 40 minutes (see double digit losses to Providence, South Carolina and Butler in the non-conference).
Purdue on Offense: There's no secret sauce to what Purdue wants to do on the offensive end - pound it inside to their twin towers in Caleb 'Biggy' Swanigan and Isaac Haas. No team in America featured more possessions with post-up action than the Boilers, as 27% of their possessions ended with a post-up on the low-block, per hoop-math.com. And not surprisingly, they've been extremely effective whenever they throw the ball inside, currently ranking as the 17th most efficient team in the country on post-up situations. This efficiency is generated not just from Swanigan and Haas scoring themselves, but from inside-out kick-outs to open shooters when the inevitable double team comes at them. Purdue surrounds their two beasts inside with a collection of precise long-range bombers, including Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias, PJ Thompson and Ryan Cline, all of whom converted 40% or higher from the land of plenty this year. The Catamounts will need big defensive efforts from their lone three post players - junior Petyon Henson, senior Darren Payne and star freshman Anthony Lamb. While the lean 6'8 215 pound Henson may have some issues slowing down the Purdue bigs on the block, Lamb and Payne's strength and physicality should give the Catamounts a formidable matchup for Swanigan down low.
Vermont on Offense: While Vermont cruised through inferior competition over the past few months by scoring at will in the lane, don't think they are a one trick pony offensively. With a dynamic playmaker in America East player of the year Trae Bell-Haynes, the Catamounts have a dimension that has given the Boilers some trouble this year, specifically in stopping dribble penetration. Over the last 3 seasons under Matt Painter, Purdue has emphasized extending their man-to-man defense to run shooters off the 3-point line, ranking in the top-100 nationally in fewest 3-point field goal attempts allowed. This tends to open up driving lanes for quicker guards who can get pass the first line of defense and score efficiently in the midrange or at the rim, which is precisely what Bell-Haynes will need to exploit if Vermont wants to compete in this game. This date with Purdue actually resembles a prior matchup this season for the Catamounts when they squared off with Butler back in December. Bell-Haynes finished with 14 points on just 8 shots, despite playing only 23 minutes because of foul trouble. Much like Butler, Purdue does not have elite athleticism at the 1 and 2 positions, which should allow Bell-Hayens to carve his way into the teeth of the defense.
Side note: One interesting thing about the two monsters up front for Purdue is that neither is a particularly good rim-protector, evidenced by their 312nd nationally ranked team block rate this season. The primary reason is that Painter preaches the bigs to go straight-up and avoid overcommitting to swatting every shot possible, but this still has allowed some playmaking guards to have success scoring inside.
Key Factor(s): The challenge for Matt Painter all year, which he has done a masterful job at managing, has been balancing the minutes and lineups with and without Haas on the floor. There will certainly be a chess match going on between both coaches, much of which will revolve around how to exploit the 4 & 5 positions on both offense and defense. Haas should have no trouble dominating the undersized and weaker Henson up-front, but he may be a liability if Henson is able stretch him away from the rim and knock down some shots from the outside.
Final Predictions: The Catamounts are just a rock solid basketball team that won't beat themselves and always seems to execute with precision in the half-court. They should dictate a snail's pace in this one, which should limit the number of possessions and keep this game competitive for a lot longer than the Boilers would prefer. Purdue should ultimately prevail, but 8.5 points presents good value here for the Catamounts.
SU Pick: Purdue
ATS Pick: Vermont +8.5
O/U Pick: Under 134.5
(6) Creighton vs. (11) Rhode Island
Initial Thoughts: After an inexcusable home loss to Fordham back on February 15th, Rhode Island's tournament outlook looked as bleak as ever, even in one of the softest bubble years in recent memory. But the Rams rallied over the final month of the season, winning their last five A-10 games before rattling off three more victories en route to a conference tournament title last weekend. This is finally beginning to look like the team many experts had slotted in the top-25 before the year began, especially with the 1-2 punch of EC Matthews and Hassan Martin playing their best ball of the season.
Rhodey draws an interesting matchup in Creighton, who many thought would see a major regression after their star point guard Mo Watson tore his ACL against Xavier back in mid-January. However, the Jays have managed to keep the ship somewhat on course since Watson went down, posting just enough quality wins to prevent any major free fall in their seeding. Despite a rocky end to the end of Big East regular season action, the Jays looked much sharper at the Garden this weekend, knocking off a red hot Providence team and then edging by Xavier before ultimately falling to Villanova in the championship game.
Creighton on Offense: Over the last two seasons, there has been somewhat of a stylistic shift in Greg McDermott's offense, which has quietly become one of the more fast-break reliant attacks in the country (the Jays are currently playing at the 9th fastest pace in the country, per kenpom.com). Another noticeable change has been where those points are coming from, which now features a much more balanced scoring attack both inside and outside the 3-point line. The point is that if you have not gotten a chance to watch this Creighton team this year, do not expect a methodical, slow-paced offense that relies on jacking it from deep to score. Thanks to an influx of athleticism on the perimeter (see Marcus Foster and Kyhri Thomas), this is a Jays team that is more than capable of breaking down opposing guards off-the-dribble and creating easy dump offs for dunks or kick outs for 3s.
This implication for Rhode Island is that their perimeter defense will need to be tight if they plan on slowing down an efficient and balanced Creighton offense. Even without Watson's penetration, both Foster and Thomas are excellent slashers and terrific finishers at the rim and both are willing distributors when the helpside defense is forced to step over. This is precisely where the Rams are built to defend the Jays with an uber-athletic backcourt - most notably Matthews and Jared Terrell - that's supported by excellent shot-blockers in Martin and Kuran Iverson waiting behind them.
Rhode Island on Offense: The Rams are loaded with athletes at all 5 positions, but they aren't going to blow you away with elite skill or shot-making. Rhodey currently holds a pedestrian 171st ranked effective FG% in the nation, but does rank inside the top-70 in not turning the ball over (offensive TO rate), getting to the foul line (free throw rate) and grabbing their own misses (offensive rebounding rate) . It's that last component - crashing the glass - that the Rams must emphasize in this matchup. The Jays have only one true post player that can match the athleticism of Rhode Island's frontline, Justin Patton, who is quietly skyrocketing up draft boards after posting one of the most efficient freshman campaigns in the entire country. However, Patton has not gone toe-to-toe with an interior unit as athletic and as strong as what he'll see in Iverson, Martin and Stanford Robinson. If the Jays don't give Patton some support on the glass, the Rams could have a field day at the rim.
Key Factor(s): The only real concern I see for Rhode Island is their team defensive structure against Creighton in the half-court. Creighton routinely gets easy layups by exploiting constant off-ball and screener movement, a major reason why the Jays have the nation's 6th best 2-point FG% and are converting 67% on shots around the rim. The data says Rhode Island is a stout defensive team against pick-n-roll action, but Creighton's half-court offense is much more involved than just a bunch of ball screens. And even though the Jays absolutely love to score early in the shot-clock if given the opportunity, they have no problem whatsoever running their sets in the half-court. In fact, the Jays were the 13th most efficient team this season in non-transition possessions, making it all the more critical for the Rams to be smart defensively.
Final Predictions: As aforementioned, the Rams have the individual pieces to cover the Jays on a personnel basis, but it's the team defense and off-ball rotations where Dan Hurley will need to have his boys prepared. Assuming there aren't a significant number of mental breakdowns defensively, the Rams should be able to guard the Jays effectively and make it an ugly, physical game. This matchup is a complete toss-up, but I'm rolling with a hot Rhode Island team in a close one.
SU Pick: Rhode Island
ATS Pick: Rhode Island +1
O/U Pick: Under 142.5
(3) Oregon vs. (14) Iona
Initial Thoughts: The loss of Chris Boucher is a major blow for the Ducks' Final Four aspirations after coming up just short against a red hot Oklahoma team in last year's Elite 8. However, this Oregon team is in no way starved for rim-protection thanks to Jordan Bell's imposing presence in the paint. Bell promptly quieted any Oregon naysayers who had concerns about what the loss of Boucher would mean to this team's interior defense and defensive rebounding in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament. Going up against a stout Cal frontline, Bell simply owned the paint area, snagging 15 rebounds and rejecting 5 shots to help the Ducks advance to the title game.
Bell's performance will be imperative to a deep Oregon run, especially since Dana Altman has chosen to go with a smaller 4-out, 1-in lineup with Bell as the lone presence inside, which will put an even bigger burden on the senior's shoulders throughout this tournament. And in this particular matchup with Iona, Bell should be the perfect cover for the Gaels only interior player, Jordan Washington.
Oregon on Offense: At first glance, it would appear that the high-powered Oregon offense will basically torch a soft Gaels defense, but head coach Tim Cluess will mix in some tricky schemes that the Ducks will have to adjust to. Iona will throw a variety of looks at their opponent, but whether or not Cluess decides to ramp up pressure, the Gaels will often drop back into a 2-3 matchup zone (see example possession below):
Matchup zones are typically tough to master, but can cause headaches for opposing offenses if executed effectively by the defense. I'd expect Cluess to play even more zone than normal against Oregon, who can carve up man-to-man defenses as well as anyone in the country with their highly skilled offensive attack that features elite slashers in Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey. Along with with the athletic duo of Brooks and Dorsey, Dylan Ennis, Peyton Pritchard and Casey Benson all excel in Altman's wide open offense that torments defenses with non-stop drive-and-kick action. The zone scheme will force the Ducks to be patient and think more about their decisions with the ball, as opposed to just playing within the natural flow of their typical offense. The data also points to the fact that the Ducks are significantly more comfortable attacking traditional man-to-man defenses as opposed to zones. Oregon's offensive efficiency, as defined by points per possession, when playing against man-to-man ranks 25th in the country, but drops to a pedestrian 145th against zone defenses.
Iona on Offense: The Gaels will have to solve both the 1-3-1 zone scheme and traditional man-to-man that Dana Altman will switch back and forth between defensively. The zone is where the Ducks generate a few more turnovers, which can lead to easy runouts on the other end, but the Gaels have steady and experienced ball handlers that should not be disturbed by the extended pressure. The problem for Iona is when they break this first wave and settle into their half-court offense, which is built around a typical small ball 4-out, 1-in lineup with Washington in the middle. The Ducks have the perfect lineup to defend the Gaels, with Brooks as an strong matchup for Iona's stretch-4 EJ Crawford and the rest of the perimeter matchups should fall nicely in place. That leaves big Jordan Washington down low, who is in for a rude awakening when has to try and score 1-on-1 against Bell, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.
Key Factor(s): Much like Oregon, the Gaels love to spread it out offensively, setting up penetrate and kick looks for 3-point shooters. The one personnel advantage the Gaels will have on the offensive side of the ball is whichever guard is matched up with either Pritchard or Benson. While both Pritchard and Benson are solid positional defenders, they aren't super quick laterally, which may present an opportunity for either Jon Severe, Rickey McGill or Shadrac Casimir to beat his man off the bounce and break down the Ducks perimeter defense when they fall back into man-to-man.
Final Predictions: Based on the sentiment I've heard and read about this matchup, I'm likely going against the grain, both from an ATS perspective and in my over/under wager. Don't be fooled by seeing two high octane offenses going head to head and just assume that buckets will be falling from the sky in this one. The current number is a lofty 152, which will require both teams to be either highly efficient offensively or play at a rapid pace for a full 40 minutes. I foresee this being a relatively slower paced game in which the Ducks will struggle to score in the beginning as they adjust to a defensive scheme that somewhat mitigates their exceptional slashing ability.
SU Pick: Oregon
ATS Pick: Iona +14.5
O/U Pick: Under 152
(7) Michigan vs. (10) Oklahoma State
Initial Thoughts: For the exception of maybe Dayton/Wichita St., this is the most intriguing opening round game of this year's bracket. Both teams enter the tournament with rich season-long storylines, none of which are bigger than what transpired with the Wolverines over a 72-hour span leading up to and throughout the Big Ten tournament. Michigan enters the Big Dance with as much confidence as anyone in the field after reeling off 4 straight wins in 4 days against the Big Ten's best, including Purdue, Minnesota and finally Wisconsin in the title game. The Cowboys on the other hand have dropped 3 in a row, but two of those came at the hands of a red-hot Iowa State team and the regular season finale loss was a 5-point barn-burner at home to Kansas. This game will feature two of the nation's most efficient offenses, but both put points on the board in drastically different ways. While head coach John Beilein is a offensive mastermind who prefers to carve up defenses with methodical, half-court execution, the Pokes' leading man Brad Underwood will let his horses run loose in the open floor, led by his superstar point guard Jawun Evans. This is a classic matchup of two vastly different tempos and the team that can dictate how fast, or how slow, this game is played will have a significant advantage.
Michigan on Offense: Underwood's coaching brilliance became apparent about half way through the Big-12 season when he made a conscious decision to pull-back the non-stop, 90-feet full-court press, which was surrendering a boatload of easy layups in transition. By tempering the frantic, in-your-face pressure, Oklahoma State suddenly became a much more disciplined defensive unit that now forces opponents to operate more in the half-court. This change in approach sparked a monumental season turnaround, in which the Pokes rattled off 9 of 10 wins in the uber-competitive Big-12 after getting off to an 0-6 start in league play.
Even with this adjustment, the bread and butter of the Pokes defense still revolves around generating consistent steals to jumpstart their lightning-paced transition attack. This will be a tall task against a rock solid Michigan backcourt that hardly ever coughs up the ball and scored at the 15th most efficient clip against the press this season on a per possession basis. I'd expect Underwood to have a quick trigger in calling off the dogs if the Wolverines have early success breaking the initial wave of pressure.
Assuming the Wolverines are able to settle into their half-court sets, they will need another big performance out of their senior point guard Derrick Walton, who has been the catalyst for Michigan's recent offensive surge. Walton, much like Bronson Koenig at Wisconsin, lifts his team's offensive ceiling with a unique ability to make tough, contested shots when the shot clock is winding down. This can absolutely demoralize opposing guards on long possessions, who many times find their defensive efforts wasted as Walton drills another dagger from the top of the key. His pull-up jumper in iso situations is as pure as any guard in America and has been a major reason why he has officially emerged as the go-to alpha for this Michigan offense.
Oklahoma State on Offense: Earlier this year, my colleague Ky McKeon wrote in-depth about the potent Oklahoma State offensive attack, which often starts and ends with the explosive Evans creating for himself or for others. A patented component of Underwood's offense is the transition drag screen, which essentially is a "hurry-up" ball-screen set by one of the Cowboy bigs (usually Mitchell Solomon) before the half-court defense can set up (see below).
This creates a tough situation for the screener's defender, who is typically a slower big that it out of position in the paint when the screen is quickly applied. It's this action that the Michigan bigs - DJ Wilson and Mortiz Wagner - need to be aware of everytime the Pokes initiate their half-court offense.
A major reason to be optimistic if you're a Wolverine fan is that Beilein's recent shift in defensive philosophy is ideal for this particular matchup. Unlike in recent years when Michigan has emphasized limiting dribble penetration and allowing opponents to beat them from the outside, this year's team funnels perimeter scorers off the 3-point line and forces them to score in the less efficient mid range area. This is critical against the Cowboys, who tend to rack most of their points from either downtown or around the rim. The key to making this a reality will be Wilson, who will likely play a large chunk of minutes as the only true big on the floor for the Wolverines, in order to match up with Oklahoma's state 4-out, 1-in offense. If he can provide adequate rim protection and do so without fouling - just as he's done all year long - the Wolverines should be able to take away a major component of one of the most efficient offenses in the entire country.
Key Factor(s): The conundrum for Beilein will be how to juggle the rotations at the 3, 4 & 5 positions. Throughout the Big-10 tournament, he's chosen to play a bigger lineup with both Wagner and Wilson on the floor at the same time, but that will be a challenging assignment with one of them having to check Jeffrey Carroll or Leyton Hammonds, two dynamic wing scorers that Underwood typically plays at the 4. As mentioned in the prior paragraph, expect to see Wagner's minutes slightly reduced in favor of the 6'8 sharpshooting Duncan Robinson, who is a better fit defensively for either Carroll or Hammonds.
Final Predictions: This is finally beginning to look like the Michigan team 3MW had slated as a top-25 team in our preseason previews way back in October. The emergence of DJ Wilson has given the Wolverines a dimension I'm not sure even Beilein knew he had at his disposal coming in to the year. He has a rare ability to defend legit 5s at 6'10, 240 pounds and is a smooth operator in ball screen action on the offensive end of the floor, a cornerstone of Michigan's offense. This matchup presents a juicy opportunity for Wilson to have a major impact on both ends of the floor, so he'll need to have a big game if the Wolverines want to keep their newfound mojo rolling.
SU Pick: Michigan
ATS Pick: Michigan -2.5
O/U Pick: Under 154.5
(2) Louisville vs. (15) Jacksonville State
Initial Thoughts: Don't be fooled by Jacksonville State's pedestrian 20-14 record and 9-7 record in the Ohio Valley Conference. The advanced analytics had this team slotted as the 2nd best team in the league on a points per possession basis all year long. Under head coach Ray Harper, Jax State stunned the college basketball world by knocking off perennial league power Belmont in the semis of the OVC tournament before ultimately cutting down the nets, clinching their 1st ever NCAA tournament berth. So while the party crashing Gamecocks are getting almost no respect in the national media conversation, they actually present a dangerous matchup against Louisville - that is, assuming they can take care of the basketball...
Louisville on Offense: The key for Louisville offensively, as it almost always is under Pitino, is how consistently they're able to knock down outside shots. When the shots are falling, which is typically means a combination of Donovan Mitchell and/or Quentin Snider are hot, Louisville may have the highest ceiling of any team in the country. And as my other colleague Jim Root broke down earlier this year, Louisville's effectiveness in transition has given this team another reliable avenue to put points on the board, as opposed to just playing volleyball around the rim. The Gamecocks, however, are relatively disciplined in getting back on defense and actually present some bonafide size down low to check the likes of Anas Mahmoud, Ray Spalding and Mangok Manthiang.
In fact, Jacksonville St. is allowing it's opponents to shoot just 51% at the rim this year (14th lowest in the country per hoop-math.com), much of which is due to the presence of Lithuanian 7'0 giant Norbetas Giga and his hyper-athletic interior complement Christian Cunningham. Ray Harper's squad will not gamble defensively and prefer to patrol the paint area by sagging into the lane, which is especially obvious in their pick-n-roll defense. The screener's defender won't hedge or double the ball whatsoever, leaving the dribbler wide open for a pull-up jumper. This is the shot Mitchell and Snider will get all day long and if they aren't able to knock it down consistently, the Cardinals will have to rely on 2nd shot basketball to score efficiently.
Jacksonville State on Offense: An insightful blog series by Jordan Brenner and Peter Keating reveals which type of mid-major vs. power-6 matchups are most favorable for the lower seed, in terms of pulling off a potential upset. And while I'm not saying the Cardinals are in serious danger of getting beat outright, there is historical precedent that indicates Jacksonville State could have success in this matchup - Cardinal fans remember what happened they drew 13-seeded Morehead St. back in 2013, who presents a very similar makeup as this Jacksonville State team.
To summarize their findings (based on tournament results dating back to 2007), slower-paced mid-majors that prioritize chasing down their missed shots on the offensive boards have actually caused fits for power programs who like to extend pressure and force turnovers because it tends to leave them vulnerable on the defensive glass. Both Jacksonville State and Louisville fit the mold of each of these two team DNAs, as the Gamecocks get a large portion of their points off 2nd chance opportunities and Louisville - despite the army of trees that anchor the paint - isn't an elite defensive rebounding team by any means (ranked 152nd nationally in defensive rebounding rate).
Key Factor(s): It's quite simply really: The Gamecocks MUST protect the basketball against the pesky Louisville pressure. Currently, Jax State is ranked an abysmal 308th nationally in TO rate, per kenpom.com, which could spell big trouble against the Cards. However, as the analysis by Brenner and Keating alludes to, because the Gamecocks slow down the pace and limit possessions, they inherently mitigate the damage that can be caused by turning it over simply by reducing the opportunities Louisville has to generate steals. But even playing at a snail's pace, point guards Malcolm Drumwright and Tyrik Edwards will both need to be as sure handed with the basketball as they've been all year, given they haven't seen anything close to the caliber of ball hawking defenders that Louisville brings to the table with Mitchell and Snider.
Final Predictions: While it's hard to imagine Jacksonville State having a real shot to give the Cards a run for their money in the opening round, the matchup favorability presents some value for the underdog Gamecocks catching 20 points, assuming they can turn this into an ugly game and slow down Louisville in transition.