2016-17 NCAA Tournament Preview: East Region

-Jim Root

(1) Villanova vs. (16) Mount St. Mary's

Initial Thoughts: The tournament’s MARQUEE MATCHUP hits in the first round, as fans all over the eastern United States have been clamoring for this battle for years…alright, maybe that’s not entirely true. But we do get the number one overall seed and reigning national champion facing off against a team that’s tied for the best record in the 2017 NCAA Tournament (yes, the Mount is 1-0)!

Villanova on Offense: With a complete lack of back-to-the-basket scorers (you’re missed, Daniel Ochefu), Villanova’s offense is extremely reliant on its wealth of perimeter talent. When the talent is as good as Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart are, that’s a very good thing, and the combination of their playmaking and the plethora of shooting that the ‘Cats can put on the floor make guarding them nearly impossible. They run quite a bit of pick-and-roll, and they’re 14th in the country in points per possession on those plays, per Synergy; Mount St. Mary’s doesn’t really play any plodders, though, so they can at least attempt to rotate with the freewheeling Nova offense.

The Mounts will at least do everything possible to run shooters off the three-point line, an absolute necessity against the likes of Hart, Brunson, Kris Jenkins, and Mikal Bridges. That means Villanova will do a whole lot of slashing, and the Mounts allow a TON of shots at the rim (nearly 50% of opponents’ shots). The ‘Cats shoot a pristine 72% at the hoop, good for 4th in the country per hoop-math, and that’s against Big East competition…major mismatch there. I expect Jay Wright’s squad to be able to get to the rim (and thus, score) nearly at will in this one.

Mount St. Mary’s on Offense: First off – Mount St. Mary’s should shoot less than 15 free throws in this game; they don’t get to the line, and Villanova NEVER fouls. That takes away an easy source of points for underdogs, so the NEC champs are already fighting an uphill battle. They run ball screens even more frequently than Villanova does, allowing their undersized-but-talented duo of 5’5 Junior Robinson and 6’0 Elijah Long to make plays and distribute to a surprisingly effective group of shooters. Miles Wilson and Greg Alexander can both gun at a high volume (along with Long and Robinson), and Villanova does tend to help a lot off shooters to keep the ball out of the paint, so it the Mountaineers are shooting it like they did Tuesday night (10/21 against New Orleans), they can hang around in this one.

The Mounts are horrendous rebounders on both ends of the floor, though, and that’s probably the weakest point of Villanova’s defense. Only three players 6’8 or taller will really see the floor in this game (Darryl Reynolds for Villanova, Chris Wray and Mawdo Sallah for Mount St. Mary’s), so the strong guard rebounding of Hart and Bridges should be enough for the ‘Cats. Not being able to take advantage of that potential weak point, as my cohort Ky so astutely mentioned on our podcast, is a knock against the underdog in this one.

Key Factor(s): Villanova is going to run away with this one, but it comes down to whether Mount St. Mary’s can hit enough perimeter shots to stay inside a pretty large number. They should be relatively confident coming off the win against New Orleans, so I think getting to 8-10 made treys isn’t a crazy proposition.

Final Predictions: Villanova is usually a great bet to blow teams out because Wright does a great job of always having his teams engaged from the opening tip; that’s probably why this line is 5 points higher than KenPom’s 22-point projected margin. I doubt Jay wants to lay it on too much (he just seems too nice!), and I think the Mountaineers hit enough shots to stay inside the number late. Villanova’s lay-up line helps the game get over the total, as well – 80-60 final.

SU Pick: Villanova
ATS Pick: Mount St. Mary’s +27
O/U Pick: Over 132.5

(8) Wisconsin vs. (9) Virginia Tech

Initial Thoughts: In one of the most baffling seeding decisions in recent memory, Wisconsin resides in the 8/9 game (a full ONE person of the 174 in the Bracket Matrix had Wisconsin at an 8). The Badgers played a garbage non-conference schedule and didn’t rack up elite wins, but one would think that 14-9 against the committee’s beloved top 100 in the RPI would have had them in the 6-7 range. Alas! Virginia Tech bears the brunt of that error, and the Badgers will look extremely familiar to VT’s coach, Buzz Williams, who battled them in the in-state Marquette/Wisconsin rivalry in the past. Buzz had some success there with his 4- or 5-out offense spreading out Bo Ryan’s defense (and Greg Gard plays a similar style), so re-sparking that old feud should be entertaining.

Wisconsin on Offense: Well, it could be entertaining, unless Wisconsin sucks the life out of the game like they did to Pitt in last year’s 47-43 first round victory/survival/bloodbath. The Badgers are 345th in the country in adjusted tempo, mainly due to their snail’s pace offense that bleeds the shot clock and looks to score late via Ethan Happ post-ups or Bronson Koenig threes. Sometimes it ends up with Nigel Hayes shooting a perimeter jumper, though, and that atrocity is not appropriate for children, so be wary around young kids. Wisconsin runs the Swing offense, which is beloved to me since I grew up playing in it, but hated by many other basketball fans who despise its deliberate style. To be fair, it doesn’t have to be played like this – if you have a bunch of shooters and more dynamic-with-the-ball guards, it can pump out good shots, but Hayes and Vitto Brown’s misery from deep along with the lack of any sort of dribble penetration threats means 25-second possessions are the norm.

Where the Badgers do have an advantage in this one, though, is with the aforementioned Happ post-ups (and Hayes, if he decides not to dilly-dally on the perimeter). The Hokies are tiny on the frontline, which explains why they’re 263rd in points allowed per possession on post-ups (Wisconsin is 19th offensively), and no one will be able to guard either Badger post player one-on-one . That means they’ll likely double-team the post to force kick-outs (as they did against John Collins of Wake, limiting the high-usage star to 14 combined shots in two games despite their size deficiencies), and the onus will transfer to the Badger shooters to make them pay. I’m…less than optimistic about that working out. Koenig and freshman D’Mitrik Trice are the only two scary shooters (though Zak Showalter has been cooking over the last six games), so if VT can nail their rotations, they’ll take away a lot of what Wisconsin wants to do offensively.

Virginia Tech on Offense:  Virginia Tech presents a major challenge for Wisconsin’s constant man-to-man defense on this end. The Hokies have three or four major threats to slash and shoot on the floor at all times, and that versatility helps make up for the interior deficiencies on the defensive end. Seth Allen is the most dangerous of these threats, as he can pull up off the dribble, find a weakside shooter, or get all the way to the rim and finish. Brown probably won’t have much of a place in this game; I’d expect two of Trice, Brevin Pritzl, and Khalil Iverson to play a ton alongside Koenig, Hayes, and Happ to make defending the Hokies’ spread attack more plausible.

Buzz Williams must be an analytics fan, because the Hokies are very much a rim-, free throw-, and three-pointer-dependent offense. This is definitely a strength vs. strength matchup, though, because the Badgers are 13th in the country at forcing opponents to take two-point jumpers, compared to VT's 9th-best percentage from three-point range in the country (led by Allen, Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, Justin Robinson, and human fireball Ty Outlaw). Whoever is able to have more of a say in dictating VT’s shot selection will heavily influence how efficiently they’re able to score. A similar immovable object vs. unstoppable force dynamic exists in the pick-and-roll, something VT runs a ton of: they’re 2nd in the country in points scored per possession of PnR, per Synergy, while Wisconsin’s defense is 17th defending the same play.

Key Factor(s):  Tempo baby, tempo. If Wisconsin makes VT grind it out in the halfcourt on both ends, the Badgers’ size and discipline will likely win out. Conversely, even though VT isn’t exactly looking to sprint up and down, an open game favors them far more, as they’ll be able to get open shots in transition (something Wisconsin’s D has been unusually suspect at limiting this year, they’re usually elite). This feels like a coaching stalemate as well, as Gard has been pretty sharp in his short career, while Williams excels at getting the most out of his teams, both in terms of performance and effort.

Final Predictions: Trying to remove personal bias from this one (and if anything, I’m lower on Wisconsin than most): my gut says Virginia Tech keeps this one tight the whole way, but Wisconsin’s tournament experience serves them well down the stretch (just wait, it’ll be mentioned about 500 times). As talented as VT is, they’re still a bunch of first-time dancers, and I trust Big Shot Bronson just a wee bit more than Seth Allen. Also of note – I don’t see the Badgers pulling away late due to their horrendous free throw shooting...64-61, Badge.

SU Pick: Wisconsin
ATS Pick: Virginia Tech +5.5
O/U Pick: Under 136.5

(5) Virginia vs. (12) UNC Wilmington

Initial Thoughts: Well…this is awkward. As someone who has loudly stated both Wilmington’s danger as an underdog and Virginia’s susceptibility to getting upset, this should be a home run matchup for me…and yet somehow, I’m still hesitant. Virginia is just so well-coached, it’s hard to imagine this team getting beaten by a mid-major - but this is no ordinary mid-major. The Seahawks are experienced, deep, well-coached, and extremely talented, and if they can avoid getting too frustrated by Virginia’s grinding, physical style, they definitely have a chance to pull off an upset here.

Virginia on Offense: Luckily, I wrote extensively about Virginia’s offense recently, so I feel relatively informed on this matter. The Cavs run an extremely deliberate, mover/blocker offense, stressing the system and shot selection over individual talent and isolation. Of course, like any system, it works better with more talented players, and this team is far better offensively with Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome joining London Perrantes as the “movers” (aka the cutters/facilitators/shooters). Guarding this offense is challenging for two reasons: 1) most of the player movement is “read”-based, meaning they simply cut in response to how you defend them, so it’s not always predictable, and 2) they make you defend for 25 seconds every time down the floor, which causes some teams to become impatient. This is where Keatts’s discipline will need to show as a coach; the Seahawks must not get lazy late in the shot clock as teams sometimes do against UVA.

Unfortunately for the Cavs, their refusal to push the pace will prevent them from taking advantage of the Seahawks’ porous transition defense. UNCW gives up the 15th-most transition opportunities in the country, but UVA pushes on the 7th-fewest. That means they’ll have to score in the half-court, where their deliberate offense doesn’t always get good shots (they take a lot of two-point jumpers). Against the Seahawks, though, they shouldn’t settle – UNCW gives up a ton of shots at the rim, and due to their lack of size inside, they get gashed on such shots.

UNC-Wilmington on Offense:  Wilmington’s array of guards could well be a nightmare for the Cavs defense. This isn’t a perfect comparison, but their ability to stretch out Tony Bennett’s pack line defense with four perimeter players + shooting + driving is reminiscent of a Duke or a VT in the ACC, both of whom experienced some success against the Cavs this season. The Pack Line is highly effective at defending the post (see Bennett’s dominance of Louisville), but if you can shoot over it, spread it out, and create gaps to drive into, you can find some success. That’s essentially what the Seahawks are trying to do, and although they’re not an elite shooting team, they do have 3 or 4 shooters on the floor almost at all times, which should force Virginia’s defense to open up a bit.

Wilmington runs an insanely high amount of pick-and-roll (37% of their possessions, #3 nationally per Synergy), but they’ll face an extremely stout Cavalier defense in that regard: they’re 24th in points per possession allowed. Few teams have a roll man like Devontae Cacok, though, who is shooting a bonkers 87% as the roll man (shout out to Luke Winn of SI.com) and 79% overall from the floor. His diving to the rim tore up an otherwise-excellent half-court defense for College of Charleston, and Virginia’s weak-side defense (always a strength) will need to be at the top of its game. Can Wilmington hit open threes that will result from skip passes to counter this?

Key Factor(s):  Virginia is 349th in the country in free throw rate, which basically tells you they never draw fouls and get to the line. That’s huge on the interior for UNCW, as there’s a large drop-off from Cacok to his backups and he can sometimes find himself in foul trouble. If he’s able to play 25-30 minutes and not be limited by fouls, that’s a major plus for Keatts, who himself is on a path to stardom in the coaching world.

Final Predictions: I’ll stand by my season-long opinions on these two squads. Virginia is ripe for an upset due to their lack of firepower on offense (just guard Kyle Guy please!), while Wilmington has the combination of versatility and excellent coaching that could make them a March darling. One note on the over/under, as well: Virginia has played just five games this season that have gone over that total, and two of them involved overtime periods. Wilmington will likely need to play at UVA’s pace at times, but I think they’re capable.

SU Pick: UNC Wilmington
ATS Pick: UNC Wilmington +7
O/U Pick: Under 134.5

(4) Florida vs. (13) East Tennessee State

Initial Thoughts: How pumped is Florida that they aren’t playing Vanderbilt? In 2017, they’re 0-3 against the Commodores, but 14-2 against everyone else (road losses at Kentucky and South Carolina). East Tennessee State is decidedly NOT Vandy, so the Gators should feel fairly confident heading into this one, though ETSU is no slouch. The Bucs were part of a three-way tie for first in the SoCon after a stong non-conference showing: they battled UNC-Wilmington and Dayton on the road, and they actually won at Mississippi State by two – Florida won in Starkville by five, so if you’re a transitive property fanatic, the Gators will win this game by three and you can skip the rest of the preview. I, however, despise the transitive property of sports, so let’s dive in to the actual matchup.

Florida on Offense: The biggest thing that jumps off the page for me here is Florida’s ability to get to the free throw line vs. East Tennessee State’s penchant for fouling. The Bucs foul mostly because they’re trying to speed you up and force turnovers, employing a high-pressure half-court man-to-man scheme, relying on the quickness of TJ Cromer, AJ Merriweather, and Desonta Bradford (plus on-ball maniac Jermaine Long off the bench) to bother opponents. As a team, Florida is very strong with the ball, but their main weakness in that regard is one of their primary point guards, the eternally inefficient Kasey Hill. He averaged 3.1 turnovers per game, and he’ll need to erase the sloppiness (and get help from Chris Chiozza) for the Gators to be at their most efficient offensively. When they do take care of it, ETSU’s gambling and reaching should get UF in the bonus pretty early, and Florida is an excellent FT shooting team now that the injured John Egbunu isn’t bricking half of his attempts.

Florida has a reputation as a rim-attacking team (or maybe that’s just me?), but they actually have a nice stable of shooters with which to stretch the floor. KeVaughn Allen developed into a sniper, Justin Leon and Devin Robinson are both legitimate stretch-fours, and leaving a member of the Barry family open (Canyon Barry) is never a good idea.

East Tennessee State on Offense:  The Buccaneers rely heavily on their guards on this end as well, allowing Cromer, Merriweather, and Bradford a lot of freedom to create and slash. They all can get to the rim effectively, so you need to have three willing perimeter defenders or they’ll isolate the worst matchup. They do have a tendency to play some your-turn, my-turn ball if they’re forced to play too much in the half-court, though, and Florida really forces teams to work defensively (317th-longest average possession in the country).

That’s not great for the Bucs. ETSU is 26th in the country in percentage of shots taken in transition, and the speed of the guards was a problem for many SoCon teams to defend.  Big men Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Tevin Glass are more of supporting characters in their offensive story, opting to crash the glass and set screens as the guards drive and dish. Both are excellent finishers as well when given the opportunity. No Egbunu hurts the Gators’ rim protection somewhat, but Kevarrius Hayes is extremely effective in his own right at deterring would-be finishers; he’ll need to stay out of foul trouble against the aggressive ETSU offense.  

Key Factor(s):  Turnovers are going to be absolutely pivotal. Hill may be prone to a few too many, but when you contrast that with the entire ETSU team being questionable with the ball coupled with Florida’s defensive pressure, this should be advantage: Swamp Nation. Coaching side-note: Steve Forbes is getting chatter as a rising star, but Mike White has already proven how good he is, and the sometimes-shaky ETSU shot selection and looseness with the ball has me questioning Forbes a tad. I’ll ride with the proven commodity.

Final Predictions: Gimme the Gators. ETSU is a hot upset pick among both the pundits and the populace, but as low as I’ve been on UF this year, I think they matchup just fine here. The tempo of the game should be fast enough to hit the over, but I think something like 82-69 sounds right.

SU Pick: Florida
ATS Pick: Florida -10
O/U Pick: Over 147.5

-Matt Cox

(6) SMU vs. (11) Play-in (Providence/USC)

Initial Thoughts: For some reason, whether it was the departure of Larry Brown or their do-it-all point guard Nic Moore, the Mustangs were somewhat written off as a legitimate top-10 team back when the season began.  And after a rocky start to the non-conference slate, which included a tough loss vs. Michigan and two more road defeats at the hands of USC and Boise St., SMU seemed to fade into college basketball oblivion, a major reason why they offered such good value in the betting markets all year long.  So while one can debate how well the AAC prepared SMU for a deep tournament run, much like Gonzaga, they have routinely taken care of business against inferior competition and done so with sheer dominance.  

SMU on Offense:  Both potential opponents for the Mustangs in the opening round should present favorable matchups, particularly USC, who plays a traditional 2-3 zone that can be beat with crisp passing and long range shooting.  There isn't another team in the country that can pass and shoot like this SMU bunch, as they are currently ranked 5th in the nation in 3-point FG% and 10th in % of field goals assisted on.  Semi Ojeleye headlines a group of long guards/wing "tweeners", each of whom is in the midst of a breakout season offensively - just refer to the combined efficiencies of Sterling Brown, Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster.

Play in on Offense: Please refer to the First Four deep-dive that details what both USC and Providence like to do on the offensive side of the ball.  Regardless of who wins in Dayton, USC or Providence will square off against a solid and well structured SMU defense that likes to mix in an extended 2-3 zone look with traditional man-to-man.  The length of the Stangs at every position is what makes them so tough to score on and allows them to effectively contest 3-point jumpers even when they play zone.  The only way to beat this team is to make shots, which is easier said than done over a lineup that rolls out 6'6, 6'6, 6'6, 6'7 and 6'8 across all 5 spots on the floor.

Key Factor(s):  Building off the previous point about how making shots is the best chance of beating SMU, a few teams have been able to compete with the Ponies by maximizing possessions on the offensive boards, particularly when the Stangs go zone.  Because head coach Tim Jankovich prefers to play at a slower tempo, SMU can get sucked into a close game with fewer possessions, especially if they aren't scoring efficiently and opponent's are generating additional scoring chances by grabbing their offensive misses.  This is exactly what happened in the 2nd half of the opening round AAC tournament game when East Carolina stormed back and almost shocked SMU.  While a big reason for this run was a late barrage of 3s by a typically poor shooting ECU squad, they compounded their success by snagging 13 offensive rebounds, which equates to 13 extra possessions in an already slow-paced, low possession game.  However, beating up SMU on the offensive boards is a rare occurrence, so tread lightly if this is your rationale for fading the Stangs - they are usually solid at corralling missed shots, evidenced by their 56th nationally ranked defensive rebounding rate, per kenpom.com.

Final Predictions: It's tough to say until the USC/Providence game is played, but I'd lean SMU heavily to win straight-up and will likely still lay the points in either scenario, regardless of who emerges from the First Four matchup.

SU Pick: SMU
ATS Pick: [Pending First Four winner]
O/U Pick: [Pending First Four winner]

(3) Baylor vs. (14) New Mexico State

Initial Thoughts:  Over the non-conference portion of the season up and up until the halfway point of Big-12 action, Baylor constructed an almost bulletproof tournament resume (20-1 record with wins against Oregon, VCU, Michigan St. , Louisville, Xavier and Iowa St.)  that seemed to have Scott Drew in the driver's seat for the always coveted number 1 seed.  As many predicted, the Bears proceeded to come back down to Earth soon after thanks to murderers' row of Big-12 opponents, dropping the Bears down to the middle of the West region as a 3 seed. Baylor presents a unique challenge when trying to assess where they rank among the nation's elite teams, but most would argue they don't quite belong in the conversation with the likes of Gonzaga, Villanova, North Carolina and Kentucky, even though their laundry list of top-tier wins would indicate otherwise.  

Regardless on what side of the fence you stand on for this conversation, there's no debating that this team possesses the balance on both sides of the ball needed to go deep into March.  Baylor currently ranks 22nd overall in adjusted offensive efficiency and 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, making them one of 10 teams that rank in the top-25 of both departments.  Much like the SMU squad they could run into in the 2nd round, the Bears can be characterized by two standout traits:  The first is their defensive tendency, which features a healthy amount of a unique 1-1-3 zone (50% of all defensive possessions to be exact) and the 2nd is their balanced scoring attack, which is a byproduct of having multiple wings and forwards who are all willing distributors.

Baylor on Offense:  The Bears will square off against New Mexico State's straight up, man-to-man defensive look that will typically pick up the ball a few steps beyond the perimeter.  Due to the extended nature of the Aggie defense, Manu Lecomte and the other Baylor guards will have opportunities to penetrate and dump off to the Baylor bigs for high percentage looks around the bucket.  However, the primary focus for Lecomte in this matchup, along with Jake LindseyKing McClure, Ish Wainwright and Al Freeman, should be taking care of the basketball.  The Bears' ballhandling has not been tight this season, but they face a New Mexico St. team that really only has one or two guards that will be opportunistic in getting steals.  I know it sounds simplistic, but if Baylor can just minimize their turnovers, this will directly increase their total number of field goal attempts, which in turn will maximize the opportunities for the athletic bigs up-front clean up the offensive glass.

New Mexico St. on Offense:  The key to this game will be how comfortable the Aggies are attacking the confusing Baylor zone scheme.  Scott Drew's zone actually morphs back and forth between a 1-1-3 zone, which puts a guard smack in the middle of the high post area (usually a soft spot against traditional 2-3 zones) and a more common 1-3-1 zone, in which the bottom two outside forwards will step up toward the free throw line extended area.  In the clip below, watch how quickly the top two guards, Jake Lindsey and King McClure, retreat back to the middle of the floor when the ball goes to the opposite side:

The way to beat this is with constant guard relocation and movement around the perimeter, which puts added pressure on the Bears to track where shooters are, especially in the corners...

The challenge for New Mexico St. is that they are far and away most effective when they can score around the hoop, whether it be from dribble penetration, a low-block post-up or an offensive rebound.  Unfortunately, the first two avenues will be hard to come by against the long, rangy Baylor bigs who will be waiting in the paint to block or alter any shot inside 6-8 feet.   This means the only reliable way for the Aggies to score efficiently will be by relentlessly crashing the boards to get easy stick backs or by finding timely gaps in the zone and cashing in on short to midrange jumpers.  The Aggie frontline unit consisting of Eli Chuha, Jemerrio Jones and Jonathan Wilkins  will need to be savvy at finding open seams throughout the zone and then be precise in their interior and cross-court passing whenever they get a touch.

Key Factor(s): New Mexico State's Ian Baker is one of the forgotten accomplished veterans in college basketball, now in his 3rd year as a starter in an Aggie uniform.  Baker has regressed in each of the past two seasons in his outside shooting, which may be due to the other responsibilities he's had to fill as his role as gradually increased overtime.  This is a matchup where his team will Baker to show up in a big way, both in scoring and in orchestrating the half-court offense against the zone.

Final Predictions: While New Mexico State's talent level is more than qualified to hang around with the Bears, the matchup just doesn't present a great opportunity for the Aggies to get comfortable offensively.  I think the Bears slowly and surely wear down New Mexico State's frontline and prevent them from getting in any sort of offensive rhythm.

SU Pick: Baylor
ATS Pick: Baylor -12.5
O/U Pick: Under 135

(7) South Carolina vs. (10) Marquette

Initial Thoughts:  Coming down the stretch, Frank Martin and the Gamecock faithful must've been on pins and needles hoping this year would not be deja vu all over again. Thanks to a couple of huge wins late in the season against Tennessee and Mississippi St., which ended a 3-game losing streak, South Carolina avoided another late collapse to officially punch their ticket to the dance.  I sure hope Frank Martin and the athletic department have written multiple thank you notes to the selection committee, who not only rewarded the Gamecocks with a favorable 7-seed, but slotted them to play only 100 miles from home in Greenville, SC.  That means if SC is able to knock off Marquette, they may actually have a home court advantage against the 2nd seeded Duke.  

However, Steve Wojciechowski won't be bothered by the "not-so-neutral" venue, given he surely has his sight on a 2nd round date with his alma-mater, and also former boss, Duke and Coach K.  

South Carolina on Offense:  In a matchup that features two polar opposite teams, this side of the ball will surely be the less desirable half of the game.  Per kenpom.com, the Gamecocks enter the tournament with the 9th worst offense in the entire field on an adjusted points per possession basis, mostly due to their stone cold shooting from basically everywhere on the floor.  Outside of Chris Silva, who does most of his scoring work on the offensive glass, Sindarius Thornwell was the only efficient performer on the offensive side of the ball and was often overrelied upon to score, shoot and create for his teammates.  He was properly awarded with the SEC player of the year and had it not been for Thornwell's brilliance, the Gamecocks would likely be an NIT team - again.  South Carolina's fouling tendencies on both sides of the ball epitomized what was a major trend that swept through the SEC this year, in which a large chunk of games were essentially decided by a free-throw contest, making the league borderline unwatchable at times.

No one in the tournament relies more on the referee's whistle than South Carolina - 27% of their opponent's points came at the charity stripe (2nd highest in the nation), while 23% of the Gamecocks' scoring was also by way of the free-throw (27th highest in the country).  Living at the free-throw line may actually be a viable option against Marquette's aggressive man-to-man defense, which means the zebras - along with the Gamecock free-throw shooters - could play a massive role in determining the outcome of this matchup.

Marquette on Offense: Ahhh yes, and now we turn to a much more enjoyable offense.  Marquette's lethal marksmanship from downtown finally got major headlines when they took down Villanova in an improbable comeback at the Bradley Center.   The Golden Eagles are shooting a ridiculous 43% from the land of plenty this year, which is over two percentage points higher than the 2nd best 3-point shooting team in the tournament (Wichita St.).  To put that in perspective, the drop-off from the Shockers to the 3rd best 3-point shooting team is 0.1% - that's right; not 1%... 0.1% (see below)

Key Factor(s):  Frank Martin's extended man-to-man defense should be a be perfect stylistic counter to Marquettes's high-octane offense.  Looking at the Golden Eagles' matchups throughout the Big East, only Georgetown truly emphasizes chasing shooters off the 3-point line.  Interestingly enough, the 2nd to last place Hoyas actually had success against Marquette, specifically at home, where Georgetown took down the Eagles by double digits.  So while the Gamecocks won't have much control over how well Marquette shoots it from range, limiting their 3-point attempts will give them a significant edge.

Final Predictions: Even though South Carolina has proven to be offensively challenged for most of the season, I think they'll put up just enough points to sneak by the Golden Eagles in what should be a much slower-paced game than the total indicates.

SU Pick: South Carolina
ATS Pick: South Carolina -1.5
O/U Pick: Under 144

(2) Duke vs. (15) Troy

Initial Thoughts:  Duke enters the Big Dance fresh off what might be the most impressive 3-game run that any team has put together this season, taking down Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame on 3 consecutive nights in the ACC tournament.  This run catapulted the Blue Devils up to a 2-seed, placing them in a much stronger position to make the highly anticipate title run everyone expected in the preseason.   So while Coach K is likely looking ahead to a potential date with South Carolina or his former assistant Wojo in the 2nd round, they'll need to first take care of business against a talented and versatile Troy squad.

Duke on Offense:  A big component of Duke's resurgence has been the increased role of freshman Frank Jackson, who is beginning to assume some of the point guard responsibilities and has actually taken some of Grayson Allen's minutes, particularly when Coach K goes with a bigger lineup.  He's also been a much more efficient shooter from behind the arc, as Allen has quietly seen his 3-point percentage slide to 36% this year, a significant drop off from the 42% clip he posted last season. 

A big factor in this game will be how well Duke shoots it from distance as the Trojans don't do a great job at limiting 3-point attempts.  This means the Devils can't afford a cold shooting night from both Allen and Jayson Tatum, both of whom have been sneakily inconsistent from downtown this year.  Troy actually has a decent matchup for Tatum in Jordan Varnado, who is a versatile 6'6 athlete that's been the Trojans best shot-blocker this season.  However, that leaves Juan Davis as the only other big for Troy left to defend the paint, meaning a much more assertive Amile Jefferson should be able to go to work on the low-block if Duke features him early and often.

Troy on Offense: The Trojans should actually be able to put up some points here against an inconsistent Duke defense that's had some issues this season defending athletic slashers.  The key matchup on this end of the floor will, again, feature Varnado vs. Tatum.  Varnado is an efficient wing scorer who commands respect out to and beyond the 3-point line with a serviceable 3-point shooting touch.  If he does in-fact lure Tatum out to the perimeter, he should be able to have success driving it hard at the freshman phenom, who has had his fair share of defensive lapses this season.  However, Tatum is much longer and certainly athletic enough to check Varnado, so if Duke intends on shutting down Troy's most efficient scoring threat, Tatum's level of effort and engagement on the defensive end will be hugely important.  

Two other matchups to key in on for Duke will be the aforementioned stretch forward in Juan Davis, as well as the sharpshooting Wesley Person.  While the Matt Jones assignment on Person should be a foregone conclusion, the Davis matchup is much less certain.  Whoever Coach K has on the floor at the 5, whether it be Jefferson or Harry Giles, they will need to balance staying home to provide rim-protection, but also closing out hard to Davis on the perimeter.

Key Factor(s): Duke will need to make sure they are laser-focused offensively for a full 40 minutes in this game and avoid taking tough, challenged shots early in possessions.  Against a subpar Troy defensive unit, there should be no reason why the Devils should have settle for highly contested jumpers, which is something both Tatum and Allen have fallen prey to at times this season. 

Final Predictions: Coach K and his high-powered offense shouldn't have any major trouble advancing to the 2nd round in this opening round date with the Sun Belt tournament champs.  However, the Trojans have a few talented pieces that are fully capable of going off for big nights, which could mean this game ends up being an offensive explosion for both teams.

SU Pick: Duke
ATS Pick: Troy +19
O/U Pick: Over 153