2016-17 NCAA Tournament Preview: South Region

- Ky McKeon

(1) North Carolina vs. (16) Texas Southern

Initial Thoughts:
To address the elephant in the room, “get out”. Now, to address the question about whether this is the game we see a 16-seed finally upset a 1-seed, “No”. I’ll get to the reasons why below, but to put it shortly, this may be the best UNC Tar Heel team since the 2012 Final Four squad that featured five future NBA players. UNC won the ACC this season, perhaps the toughest conference of all-time, by 2 full games. Texas Southern hails from the SWAC, which is consistently ranked dead last amongst the conference power rankings, this year not being an exception. It would truly be a miracle to see the Tigers steal one from the Heels, but that possibility is what makes March so grand.

North Carolina on Offense: 
Those that are familiar with the Heel offense know this team puts premiums on scoring in transition, scoring inside the arc, and crashing the offensive glass (#1 offensive rebounding team in the country). When the Heels know they have an inside advantage, they hammer it. Against Duke in the ACC Tournament, the first five Heel possessions ended in Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks post-ups. Both big men have excellent footwork and shooting touch, able to score in a multitude of ways on the block or up the lane. When they don’t feel like working the post, which UNC occasionally goes away from, their offense hums via the silky, steady hand of Joel Berry. Berry is an elite distributor and dangerous transition player, and is at his best attacking a retreating defense following an opponent miss. UNC excels at this aspect due to their superior rebounding – nearly every miss is controlled easily by one of the many great rebounders and outlet passed quickly to a streaking Berry.

Then of course, there’s ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, who made one of the most impressive leaps in production out of anyone in the country this season. Jackson moved from an off-ball contributor to a focal point of the UNC offense, blowing away his career three-point average of 30% (shot 37.4% this year) and improving his offensive rating despite using more possessions. Jackson is nearly automatic spotting up from behind the arc, and, like Berry, is very good in transition. It’s nearly impossible to stop the Tar Heel offense with so many weapons at their disposal.

This is a nightmare matchup for Texas Southern, a team I thought deserved to be on the 15-line. The Tigers are the shortest team in the country (despite having 7-footer Marvin Jones), allow teams to score inside the paint at a high rate, and struggle stopping teams in transition. Oh, they’re also ranked 337th in the country in defensive rebounding (per KenPom.com). To put it simply: UNC can exploit Texas Southern easily in about five different ways on offense.

Texas Southern on Offense:
The Tigers rely heavily on getting to the foul line to produce offense, whether via Jones post up or a Zach Lofton or Demontrae Jefferson drive. Jones is a great finisher around the bucket – especially since he just dunks the ball most of the time – but he’s facing opposition in Meeks, Hicks, and Tony Bradley that hasn’t seen in the SWAC before. The Tigers’ best bet is to score off turnovers and rain hot fire from three-point land. There are two problems with that: 1) UNC doesn’t turn the ball over often, and 2) Texas Southern shoots 29.6% from deep. To make matters worse, UNC does an excellent job of defending without fouling and they have an arsenal of bigs to throw at the Tigers in the unlikely case of foul trouble.

The one area you can beat the Heels is from behind the arc. Well, that seems like a slim possibility given the above stat, but hey Norfolk State did it against Mizzou back in 2012. Carolina defends the cup extremely well and grabs defensive boards at the 27th best rate in the nation. Futility may be the word of the day for Texas Southern.

Key Factor(s):
TSU needs to have an uncharacteristic night and shoot the living shit out of the ball. On the other side, they need to pray for UNC to be ice cold, and perhaps even a flu outbreak that causes Heel players to miss the game.

Final Predictions:
UNC is a brutal matchup for Texas Southern – there is literally no advantage the Tigers have over UNC, and the Heels can take exploit TSU in a multitude of ways. It’s like UNC is a rock Pokemon and Texas Southern is an electric Pokemon – TSU doesn’t stand a chance.

SU Pick:  North Carolina
ATS Pick:  North Carolina -26.5
O/U Pick: Under 154.5

(8) Arkansas vs. (9) Seton Hall

Initial Thoughts:
8 vs. 9 matchups always provide us with top-notch entertainment, and this one should not be any different. Both Arkansas and Seton Hall come in playing their best basketball of the season. The Razorbacks finished 8-2 over their last 10 with losses only to Florida and Kentucky. The Pirates come in 7-3 over their last 10 with two of their three losses coming at the hands of those pesky Villanova Wildcats. These are two physical teams that hit the glass hard and work inside-out. Should be a fun one.

Arkansas on Offense: 
Mike Anderson’s squad runs one of the most fluid offenses in the country with its constant away / back screen action, cut-throughs, and inside-outside motion. All five players on the on the floor are constantly moving, making defending the Razorbacks a tiring chore. Workhorse forward Moses Kingsley owns the paint with a series of back-to-the-basket and face-up moves, and gives the ‘Backs ample second chance opportunities with his rebounding prowess. Dusty Hannahs, a career 40% three-point shooter, is one of the most deadly outside shooters in the nation, but he’s really expanded his game this season, utilizing more ball screens and finding pockets inside the arc from which to do damage. However, Jaylen Barford, a JUCO transfer, is really what makes this offense tick. Barford excels in pushing and scoring in transition, an area upon which the Razorbacks rely heavily to produce points. Arkansas ranks 15th in the country in initial FGA% in transition and 13th in total FGA% in transition (per hoopmath.com). The Razorbacks look to run every opportunity they get, be it off a turnover, a defensive rebound, or an opponent miss. Their versatility (ability to score on the run, in the post, and from outside the arc) make them a tough team to defend.

In order to beat the Razorbacks, you have to be able to slow down the tempo. Case in point – Arkansas rattled off a 16-4 record in games with over 70 possessions; comparatively, the Hogs were just 9-5 in games under 70 possessions, and six of those wins came against non-tournament teams. The best example of this comes from the Vanderbilt game on February 7th. The Commodores held the game to just 60 possessions and won by 13 points. Arkansas’s offense never fell in rhythm, leading to an easy Vandy victory. Seton Hall has the ability to slow this game down and control the tempo. While not an elite transition defensive unit, the Pirates are one of the best rebounding teams around, which can severely hamper transition opportunities. Hall has exceptional length out on the perimeter with Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, and even Ismael Sanogo when he guards the three-spot. Angel Delgado anchors the middle, and while he doesn’t block a ton of shots, his ability to change shots and play good straight-up defense is elite – Delgado allows 0.596ppp on post-ups this season, which ranks in the 86 percentile nationally (per Synergy).

Seton Hall on Offense: 
Hall’s offense isn’t nearly at the level of Arkansas’s. Primary ball handler Madison Jones has struggled mightily with taking care of the rock this season, and only two players, Carrington and Rodriguez, shoot better than 35% from deep. Delgado is a focal point in the Hall offense, often initiating plays by catching at the top of key, reversing to the off-guard, and setting a ball screen. When Carrington isn’t looking for his shot off a screen or off the bounce, the Pirates work to get Delgado touches in the post. The big man also provides the Pirates with offensive rebounding, which Hall counts on each game to put points on the board. Delgado ranks 8th in the country in offensive rebounding rate, and fellow frontcourt mates Sanogo and Michael Nzei excel in the area as well. While certainly not a pretty offense, Hall can be effective on that end due to their sheer physicality and athleticism. It requires a high level of effort to shut down the Pirates’ attack.

The Razorbacks should be up for the physical challenge. Barford is as physically tough as anyone in the country, and he forms an intimidating perimeter shell with fellow guards Daryl Macon, Anton Beard, and Manuale Watkins. All four backcourt members posted a steal rate of over 2.5%, propelling the Razorbacks to a 37th national ranking in pilfers. This is going to cause issues for Hall and likely forces Kevin Willard to move Jones away from the ball more than he’d like. This may lead to more handling duties for leading scorer Carrington, which could mean more isolation situations and limit ball movement. Inside, Kingsley ranked 20th in the country in block rate (5th in the SEC), and his length will be a worthy challenge to Delgado.

Key Factor(s):
The old cliché of “who wants it more” applies to this game. Both teams are accustomed to being a bit more physical than their opponent, so it should be fun to see what happens when the two bruisers clash. The keys for Seton Hall are 1) controlling the tempo and 2) taking care of the basketball; do those things and this game could go the Pirates’ way. If Arkansas starts getting easy buckets off sloppy ball control, the Hogs could take this one by double digits. Kinglsey vs. Delgado should be a fun octagon match.

Final Predictions:
This will be a good one, but ultimately I think Arkansas pulls away with their shooting ability and heavy pressure. The under is appealing here due to Hall’s ability to guard the three-point line and the high level of energy that should be spent during the contest – players are going to be very tired, which could lead to jumpers falling short.

SU Pick: Arkansas
ATS Pick: Arkansas -1
O/U Pick: Under 146.5

(5) Minnesota vs. (12) Middle Tennessee

Initial Thoughts:
This is going to be the sexiest upset pick of the entire first round. After last year’s spectacular Michigan State upset, Middle Tennessee is now a well-known, public entity and many, including me, thought they deserved to be seeded higher than a 12 (aside: I called MTSU the best 15-seed of all-time last year before the tournament – please allow me to shamelessly toot my own horn). On the other hand, despite all their success this season, I’d wager a hefty amount that most average basketball fans don’t 1) know anything about Minnesota and 2) think they are over-seeded on the 5-line. That last part may be true (I had them at a 6), but rest assured the Gophers are not a team to take lightly.

Minnesota on Offense: 
The Gophers are a very talented young team, but offense isn’t really their strong suit. Minnesota mostly runs a dribble hand-off offense at the top of the key that usually results in one of the guards (Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, or Amir Coffey) attacking the basket from the wings. When this motion is working, it can be beautiful to watch, with wing slashers able to take the ball to the rack or dump to a post-man when his man steps up to help. However, this offense can also lead to inefficiencies. Michigan was able to shut down the Gopher weave attack, forcing the Minny guards to drive east and west rather than the preferred north and south. This lateral-to-the-bucket movement can lead to turnovers and poor shot selection. Minnesota ranks 23rd in the country in two-point jumper attempts, and while most of these jumpers are within 15 feet, it’s not the most ideal form of offense. The Gophers are a below-average shooting team from both inside and behind the arc. The frontcourt tandem of Jordan Murphy, Eric Curry, and Reggie Lynch helps make up for this futility with offensive boards, but strong rebounding squads can thwart this second-chance reliance. There are positives to the Gopher attack, however – Nate Mason is one of the best point guards in the country and possesses one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the nation (5.0apg; 1.8tpg). His vision sets up easy flushes and open looks that are all too valuable for this team. Coffey, a fantastic freshman, Murphy, a rising Big Ten star, and McBrayer, a much-improved sophomore, all get to the line at a high rate, which often bails out the mediocre jump-shooting approach.

Middle Tennessee is going to be able to compete with the Gophers on their defensive end. The Blue Raiders are the 12th best defensive rebounding team in the country behind Arkansas transfer Jacorey Williams and 2016 Tournament hero Reggie Upshaw. The pair combined to average over 14 boards per contest this season, and should be able to fend off the bigger Lynch / Murphy / Curry combo. This first point should be troubling to Gopher fans – the next two should be uplifting. MTSU can be scored on via the Gophers’ preferred method. MTSU is vulnerable in and around the paint area, allowing a high percentage of 10-15 foot shot attempts and they are a bottom-60 squad when it comes to not sending opponents to the free throw line. With a thin frontcourt, foul trouble to Williams or Upshaw could spell trouble for MTSU.

Middle Tennessee on Offense: 
The Blue Raider offense is a three-pronged attack led by Williams, Upshaw, and the superlative Giddy Potts. Williams and Upshaw are both versatile forwards able to post up their defenders or take them off the dribble. This last bit works especially well against slower bigs that don’t like to get out and defend on the perimeter. A guy like Reggie Lynch could be exploited here – Jordan Murphy can probably hold his own. Potts is within his shooting range as soon as he steps into the gym. The junior guard shot a stupid 50% from three last season, but “only” 39% this year. He is MTSU’s only consistent three-point threat. Like the Gophers, the Raiders have a tendency to settle for “inefficient” jumpers, particularly Williams who often likes to pull up from about 18 feet instead of taking his man to the rack. Despite sometimes making “inefficient” shot choices, Williams shot an impressive 55.2% from the field this season, and the Raiders as a team ranked 28th in 2PFG% and 82nd in 3PFG%. Coach Kermit Davis, a trendy pick for a major coaching hire next season, prefers to play at a slowed-down tempo – MTSU will milk the shot clock down until about 10 seconds before settling for a shot. This style favors a mid-major upset bid as it limits possessions and, therefore, opponent scoring.

As implied in the section above, the Gophers didn’t earn a 5-seed because of their offense – they earned one because of their defense, which ranked 18th in the country per KenPom.com. Minnesota doesn’t pressure and force turnovers, nor do they necessarily dominate the defensive glass; they just make it very, very difficult to get off a clean shot. The Gophers’ defense ranked 11th in 3PFG%, 23rd in 2PFG%, 3rd in BLK%, and 38th in foul rate. These metrics indicate the Gophers are experts at defending without fouling and contesting jump shooters. As a team, Minnesota ranks 6th in the country in post-up points per possession allowed and 33rd in spot-up points per possession allowed – worrisome for a MTSU squad that likes to work through the post and shoot mid-range jumpers.

Key Factor(s):
Which offense will be able to crack the other’s defense? This matchup features two squads that can defend the other, particularly the Gophers when they guard the Raiders. MTSU will need to defend without fouling in order to limit easy free-throw points and keep their most valuable players on the floor. On the other side, Minnesota will need another shooter to step up. With Akeem Springs lost for the rest of the season, Mason becomes the only volume three-point shooter on the floor. McBrayer has the potential to be this guy, as he converted a team-high 41.7% of his attempts this year. Pitino’s crew should also look to work the drives and Lynch post-ups in hopes of taking Williams out of the game early. Tempo will also be a factor in this one with MTSU preferring the slow-down and the Gophers looking to push the pace.

Final Predictions:
I feel like taking Minnesota is actually taking the “underdog” in this one – and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. When 75% of people in your bracket pool miss this game because of the perceived awesomeness of MTSU (I actually do really like this team) and the “12 vs. 5” matchup lore, you’ll be sitting pretty with Minnesota in your second round.

SU Pick: Minnesota
ATS Pick: Minnesota +1
O/U Pick: Under 136

(4) Butler vs. (13) Winthrop

Initial Thoughts:
Those that have followed along to my bracket discussions on the site know how much I loved Butler’s tournament resume this year. The Dogs had 10 wins against the RPI Top 50, tied with North Carolina for 4th most in the country, and swept the Villanova Wildcats – something that hasn’t been done in about 1,000 years. In a different year (and a different conference), Butler would have fought for a 3-seed or even a 2-seed with this resume. All love aside though, the Dogs face a challenging first round game in Milwaukee on Thursday – Winthrop is well-coached, experienced, and led by an electric point guard in Keon Johnson. This one could get interesting.

Butler on Offense: 
To put it simply: Butler is a jump shooting team. The Dogs’ success is heavily reliant on how their jumpers are falling on a given night due to their shortcomings in relative size and rebounding ability. Most of the time, Butler has no issue out-shooting their opponent (33rd in effective FG% in the country), just see the latest Villanova game where the Dogs shot 60% from 2, 40% from 3, and 83% from the free-throw line. But when a cold wind blows in the gym, Butler is vulnerable to lesser competition. Now, Butler is a much better offensive squad than the oversimplified sentences above suggest – the Dogs play a smart brand of basketball, handle the rock at a top-ten rate, and are keen to take advantage of mismatches. If Butler sees big men Tyler Wideman or Andrew Chrabascz have a size advantage on the block, you can bet they will be targeting a post-up nearly every time down the floor. Once the ball goes inside, Butler’s bigs possess great awareness of the situation which factors into their ultimate “shoot” or “kick out” decision. Chrabascz is particularly great at passing out of the post; he averaged 3.2apg this season, good for 8th in the Big East conference – only one other forward ranked in the conference top 25 in assists per game. This inside-outside action leads to golden opportunities for Butler’s vast array of shooters to take advantage of – four Bulldogs shot over 35% from deep this season, and Tyler Lewis (aka Travelocity Garden Gnome) and Avery Woodson both shot over 40%. One of Coach Holtmann’s favorite actions is thus:

1. Point enters to wing
2. Big sets a back screen for point, point tails out into ball-side corner
3. Big sets a ball screen for wing
4. Wing dribbles to other side of the floor where he has a 2-on-2 scenario with the opposite posting big

Butler is beatable if you force them to take tough jumpers. The Dogs aren’t going to consistently hurt you at the rim, nor will they relentlessly pound the offensive glass. Winthrop is capable of making things tough on Butler. The Eagles rank 30th in the country in effective FG% defense, and are particularly adequate at defending two-point and three-point jumpers (opponents score just 0.875ppp on spot-up jumpers against Winthrop per Synergy). Though small, Winthrop is actually pretty decent at holding their own inside. The Eagles are an elite shot blocking team thanks to skinny, but athletic forward Xavier Cooks, and rank in the top 100 in FG% allowed at the rim. Butler will have to move the ball very well to score consistently on the Eagles – Pat Kelsey squads make opposing units work to get shots, and most of them come very late in the shot clock.

Winthrop on Offense: 
The phrase “run and gun” applies nicely to Winthrop’s offense. The Eagles try to beat opposing units down the floor (especially off defensive rebounds) to set up quick, open threes or easy lanes to the cup where they can finish or get to the line. 5’7” dynamo Keon Johnson (baby Marcus Keene) shoots out like a ball from a cannon after receiving outlet passes, racing down the floor at breakneck pace. Johnson’s ability to push the tempo should allow him to create easy looks for his teammates against the Butler backcourt, whom outside of Kamar Baldwin, aren’t the quickest or most athletic group. When the Eagles aren’t scoring in transition, they are raining threes from the perimeter. Johnson is somehow able to create enough space to consistently bury threes off the dribble (mainly step-backs), but the other three deadeye shooters (Roderick Perkins and the Brothers Broman (Anders and Bjorn)) do their damage off catch-and-shoot. Most catch-and-shoot opportunities are created via Johnson or Cooks drives; the star combo are both so good at attacking the basket and drawing fouls, that opposing defenders have no choice but to leave their man for a few seconds to offer help, leading to open looks.

Overall, Butler is a good transition defensive team due to their lack of interest in crashing the offensive glass, but I still think Johnson will be able to pick his spots. While the Dogs allow teams to only shoot a 33.4% clip from deep, they allow opponents to get shots off, ranking only 224th in allowing three-point attempts (per KenPom). This is huge against a team that is very interested in jacking threes almost every time down the floor (Creighton hit 16 threes against the Dogs back on January 31st). Another area of concern for Butler will be sending the Eagles to the foul line. The Dogs consistently allowed their opponents to shoot a high number of free throws in nearly every loss this season, and the Eagles get to the line at the 76th best rate in the nation.

Key Factor(s):
Shooting is the key factor for both squads in this one as each team lives and dies by how well their jumpers are falling. Neither squad has a distinct rebounding or defending advantage, but both can shoot the living shit out of the ball. Another thing to watch is pace of play. Winthrop plays at the 45th fastest tempo in the country, while Butler ranks 295th in that area. As is often the case, he who controls the tempo controls the game. I think Butler will find more success in slowing Winthrop down than the Eagles will speeding up the Dogs, but WU’s shooting ability offsets this tempo factor a bit.

Final Predictions:
March is mad, and despite my love for the Butler Bulldogs, I think we see an upset here in Milwaukee. Too many times in Tournament history has a jump-shot reliant favorite fallen to an underdog that shoots the lights out. Winthrop should be able to find open looks on the perimeter, and I love the prospects of Keon Johnson becoming a household name after he goes for 30. Kamar Baldwin gets steals, but he’s sneakily not a great defender numbers-wise; he has the tendency to occasionally lose his man on the perimeter, which is problematic against Johnson and Company. Combine this with the fact that Butler will not dominate Winthrop with size or athleticism, and you have the makings of an upset special.

SU Pick:  Winthrop
ATS Pick:  Winthrop +11.5
O/U Pick: Over 144.5

(6) Cincinnati vs. (11) Kansas State

Initial Thoughts:
The Purple Cats succeeded in the play-in round against a tough Wake Forest squad, making my First Four preview look good and setting up an intriguing First Round matchup with the Bearkittens. Cincy has had a reputation for as long as I can remember as being one of the most physical and physically intimidating teams in the country, and this year is no exception. Kansas State is no pushover either; expect the Wildcats to come out and mix it up with Cincy right out the gate. This should be a fun, brutal matchup between two teams playing great basketball at the moment.

Cincinnati on Offense: 
While the Bearcats (surprisingly) don’t attempt many shots at the rim, their offense is focused on getting the ball into the lane. Cronin deploys a sort of hybrid 4-out, 1-in style that places four big guards/wings around Kyle Washington. I say hybrid because there is a lot action within this offense that’s atypical from true 4-out, 1-ins. For example, Cincy often sends a second big (usually Gary Clark) or wing down to the opposite block to act as a “blocker” for moving shooters to work off. In addition, the Bearcats commonly start offenses with the Villanova dual ball screen at the top of the key, giving Troy Caupain the keys to work off either pick to enter the sequence. Cincy’s offense ranked 35th in the country this season, but that was primarily due to the Bearcats’ excellent offensive rebounding ability. Cincy has a tendency to settle for low efficiency shots, especially Washington who attempted 64.1% of his total shots from the mid-range area. Clark and Washington are both terrific in the post when they actually do stay on the block – both big men rank in the 90th percentile of points per possession on post-ups this season (per Synergy). The Bearcats are a decent outside shooting team overall – Jacob Evans is a sniper at 41.8%, but Caupain has struggled this season to the tune of 31.2% from deep. Cincy is a very unselfish team, most of their shot attempts come off drive-and-kicks and post kicks – rarely do you see a Cincy player go into isolation mode on offense.

One of the hallmarks of K State’s defense is their ability to force turnovers. The Wildcats are simply not going to be able to do that against this Cincy team. The Bearcats ranked 10th in the country in turnover rate and 1st in steal rate this season thanks to the always-composed Caupain running the point. K State will be able to stall Cincy’s preferred method of scoring, that of mid-range jumpers in and around the paint area, but they may get absolutely slaughtered on the boards. The Wildcats rank 296th in defensive rebounding, while the Bearcats boast the 19th best offensive rebounding rate in the country. D.J. Johnson, Dean Wade, and Wesley Iwundu will have to ramp up their physicality on the D-glass if they’re going to stop Washington and Clark converting easy second chance points all day.

Kansas State on Offense: 
As we saw in the Wake game, K State scores a significant chunk of their points at the foul line – the Wildcats were 27/36 from the stripe against Wake on Tuesday. In addition, Weber’s squad does an excellent job at working to find high percentage, high efficiency shots. The Cats shot 80.6% inside the arc against Wake mainly due to the fact they found so many opportunities for easy buckets at the rim – this is not a mid-range jump shooting team. We will see plenty of pick-n-rolls from Cat guards, especially with Wade setting the screen and flaring out for an open three-point look; the Cats excel at working the ball around the perimeter and making the extra pass to find open teammates. As alluded to above, K State forces a lot of turnovers and uses this ability to spark transition opportunities. This is a vital part of their overall offensive attack that may be cut off due to Cincy’s ability to handle the rock.

The Bearcats match up well defensively against K State. They are incredibly difficult to score against at the rim, allowing opponents to convert only 48% of their chances, the 4th best mark in the country. To make matters worse for K State, Cincy is excellent at not fouling, an area the Wildcats depend on heavily to create offense. Johnson post ups, and Iwundu / Kamau Stokes drives could very easily be neutralized in this contest. But wait there’s more! Cincy forces one of the highest rate of turnovers in the nation thanks to the athleticism and quickness of guards Evans, Jarron Cumberland, Kevin Johnson, and Caupain. Each backcourt member is a fantastic on-ball defender, making isolations and dribble drives a tough avenue for clean looks. If the Bearcat D has a weakness, it’s their average ability to limit the three-pointer. This will be K State’s only hope of creating consistent offense due to their relative lack of ball handing ability and the size and strength of the Cincy bigs down low.

Key Factor(s):
If Cincy defends without fouling like they have done all season, the Bearcats should cruise to a Second Round appearance. On offense, Cincy will need to dominate the offensive glass and take care of the rock in order to limit K State fast break opportunities. For the Wildcats, they’ll need to hit shots from behind the arc to compete and put a premium on the defensive boards.

Final Predictions:
This matchup favors Cincinnati in nearly every facet. I expect the Bearcats to roll in this one, setting up an intriguing Second Round game vs. UCLA.

SU Pick:  Cincinnati
ATS Pick:  Cincinnati -3.5
O/U Pick: Under 130

(3) UCLA vs. (14) Kent State

Initial Thoughts:
UCLA enters the Dance as a trendy pick to crash the Final Four as a 3-seed. With their fast paced, razzle-dazzle offense, and electric playmaking point guard Lonzo Ball, the Bruins put on a show nearly every time they run out onto the floor. This is a team that features a strong balance between youth and experience, talent and savviness. Kent State on the other hand is a relative unknown outside of the MAC faithful. The Golden Flashes are white hot right now, winning nine of their last ten contests, and play a distinctly different style than the Harlem Globe-Bruins. Is this a blowout waiting to happen or does the underdog sneak in a lucky knockout punch?

UCLA on Offense: 
LaVar Ball’s ridiculously dumb antics aside (seriously, he’s ruining the Bruins for me), this UCLA squad on offense is the best television out there. Countless times during Bruin games I catch myself saying, “OOOHHHMMMYGOD”! Transition is really where UCLA’s brilliant unselfish play shines – the Bruins rank 9th in the country in percentage of initial field goal attempts taken in transition (per hoopmath.com). Lonzo Ball’s vision and passing ability is unmatched by anybody playing college basketball today, which is high praise (Nick Cage voice). Ball is so good at reading the defense and deciding whether to attack the rim on the break or kick to an open teammate streaking down the floor:

The passing gene isn’t limited to Ball – the Bruins are unselfish across the board with T.J. Leaf, Aaron Holiday, Isaac Hamilton, and Bryce Alford all capable and willing passers. When not streaking down the floor, the Bruins are usually looking for open shots from outside the arc or pockets within the arc. Open shots come easy in the half-court thanks to a fluid motion offense that runs shooters like Alford and Hamilton off block screens, or frees Ball to attack or kick off the pick-n-roll. Help defenders are forced to make an impossible choice on every UCLA drive – stay home and let Ball knife through the lane, or leave their man for an open three opportunity. The Bruins are 6th in the country in 3PFG%, shooting a stupid 40% from downtown, and rank 3rd in 2PFG% thanks to easy mid-range looks (looking at you Thomas Welsh) and layups. Lonzo shot 71.7% from inside the arc this year guys (yes, most of his shots inside the arc some at the rim). There really is little opposing units can do to stop the Bruin machine, an offense that has scored over 75 points in every contest this season.

Can Kent State even hope to contain the offensive juggernaut that is UCLA? Well, for starters, the Flashes don’t exactly limit transition opportunities, allowing a relatively high percentage of opponents’ total shots in transition. However, KSU does do well sprinting back and making transition shots difficult – they rank 23rd in transition FG% defense. The first stat about allowing transition opportunities isn’t surprising considering how much focus Coach Senderoff’s team places on offensive rebounding, which can lead to leak outs of opposing guards that can be devastating if the opponent can hold their own on the defensive glass (UCLA can). Overall, Kent State has a strong defense numbers-wise, but they may be overwhelmed by size against the Bruins. Kent State guards hover around the 6’2” mark, and only 6’8” stud senior Jimmy Hall represents anything of a post presence.

Kent State on Offense: 
KSU is a bad shooting team, ranking in the bottom 30 in three-point percentage, and converting shots inside the arc at below a 50% clip. This team lives and breathes by the offensive glass – successful offensive possessions usually end with a missed 15-18 footer and a Jimmy Hall put-back. The Flashes rank 5th in the country in offensive rebounding, an impressive stat but one that is likely inflated a bit considering the makeup of most MAC opponents. A good indication of KSU’s ceiling is their performance against Texas earlier this season in which they outrebounded the Horns 53-34 and grabbed nearly 50% of their misses on offense. This type of dominance will be their only chance against UCLA, but with Welsh and Leaf (baby Kevin Love), offensive rebounds aren’t going to come easy. I love Jimmy Hall, but it’s hard seeing how he finds success against the towering Bruin frontline.

Key Factor(s):
UCLA will have to be cold from outside in this one for Kent State to have a chance. On the other end, the Flashes will need to hope that Alford’s crew has one of their patented apathy bouts on defense. If the Bruins “bear” down on defense this postseason, they could definitely capture the title with their offensive ability. All the Bruins need to do in this one is play their normal style of ball, and put a body on Jimmy Hall on defense.

Final Predictions:
I can’t see Kent State coming away with a win in this one. To beat UCLA, you have to have offensive firepower – see Oregon, Arizona, and USC. The Flashes are a scrappy team, but offense is not one of their strong suits. This one could get ugly if the Bruins bring their A game and don’t let up on the gas pedal when they’re up 20 in the second half.

ATS Pick:  UCLA -18
O/U Pick: Over 161.5

(7) Dayton vs. (10) Wichita State

Initial Thoughts:
This tilt has been tagged by many a media member as “the best game of the first round”. My theory is this is due to the talking heads attempting to sound intelligent and inclusive by catering to popular mid-majors, but still slightly unknown entities – but hey what do I know? I know this: Wichita State is comically under-seeded. Only 19% of the total brackets included in bracketmatrix.com had the Shockers pegged at a 10-seed or lower, and WSU is FAVORED BY 6 POINTS. If a 10-seed is favored by a touchdown against a 7-seed, the Committee screwed up. But instead of dwelling on seeding, we will discuss the matchup at hand (which, yes should actually be a great game).

Dayton on Offense: 
Dayton runs a spread out perimeter-oriented offense focused on slashing to the bucket through penetration, often set up via the pick-n-roll. Senior forward Kendall Pollard mans the middle, which adds a unique wrinkle to the Dayton attack that isn’t often seen around the country. Pollard’s versatility to step out to the perimeter and take his man off the dribble makes the Flyers a difficult team to guard, as plodding big men are not be able to stay in front. Due to their lack of size, Dayton scores points by getting to the line on the aforementioned slashing drives (Charles Cooke and Scoochie Smith are particularly good at this) and knocking down the trey ball. Only 28 teams shot the long ball better than the Flyers this season, and Head Guru Archie Miller has five guys on the court that can shoot nearly every second of the game. The Flyers also rely on running (as most shorter teams do); quickness is abundant on this roster, which leads to ample chances for three-point looks from shooters streaking down the sidelines.

Defensively, teams need to stay home against the Flyers in order to have success. Smith and Co. handle the ball as well as any team in the country, and are always looking to make the extra pass in order to exploit what the defense gives them. The Shockers can handle this offensive attack. Like Dayton, Wichita often plays five versatile athletes on the floor at once; Shaq Morris and Markis McDuffie are quick enough to match up toe-to-toe with Pollard on the perimeter, and Gregg Marshall’s squad guards transition spots and the pick-n-roll at an elite level. It’s difficult getting clean looks off against this squad, but if Dayton can deal with the length and perimeter pressure they can compete – in three of Wichita’s four losses this year, the opponent has hit 10 or more three-pointers. Wichita will occasionally pressure Dayton in the full court in an effort to force easy turnovers, but the Flyer guards should be up to the task.

Wichita State on Offense: 
Wichita’s offense is actually quite similar to Dayton’s; the caveat being Morris is less adept at stepping out on the perimeter (though he can do it sometimes). Marshall’s squad runs the same type of 4-out, 1-in motion offense, but emphasizes off-ball screens versus the more ball-screen heavy Dayton style. Somehow, the Shockers shoot a better three-point percentage than Dayton – they make an absurd 40.7% of their deep ball heaves, good for 3rd in the nation. Like Dayton, slashing and getting to the line is a major focus for the Shock, and steady ball handlers Landry Shamet, Daishon Smith, and even Connor Frankamp, can pick apart the defense with one or two hard dribbles towards the middle of the floor and passing out to an open teammate. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two squads is their ability and willingness to crash the offensive glass. Where Dayton tends to get back and half-heartedly go after offensive rebounds, Wichita will send both its “bigs” on the floor to the glass to create second chance opportunities. It’s this extra wrinkle that gives Wichita the edge offensively.

While Dayton doesn’t rebound well on the o-glass, they are a good defensive rebounding team (team being the key word). All five guys focus on blocking out once a shot goes up, a sign of a well-disciplined and well-coached team. Dayton pressures in the half-court, rarely extending the full length of the floor, which initiates their transition attack. The Flyers rank 5th in the country in FG% following a steal and 29th in the country in initial FGA% 0-10 seconds following a steal, though turning Wichita over is going to be a real challenge. Without the catalyst of easy turnovers, Dayton will have to rely on their half-court offense to score points. If shots aren’t falling, the Flyers may struggle to keep pace.

Key Factor(s):
Execution, execution, execution. These are two of the most well coached teams in the country running offenses that purr when firing on all cylinders. Whichever team is able to keep composure and not fall to the pressure of the opposing side will have the best shot at advancing. This is such a cliché take, but it’s so apt in this case. Shooting will also be a factor, as both teams rely heavily on the trey ball. For Dayton, controlling the defensive boards will be a must.

Final Predictions:
I think this game will be much closer than people think. Wichita is the better overall team and, as I said, severely under-seeded. Gregg Marshall also knows how to win a tournament game or two. I see this game being a hard-fought battle, a classic grind for 40 minutes. Ultimately the Shockers will prevail.

SU Pick:  Wichita State
ATS Pick:  Dayton +6
O/U Pick: Under 145.5

(2) Kentucky vs. (15) Northern Kentucky

Initial Thoughts:
Kudos to the Northern Kentucky Norse (a top ten CBB nickname) for punching their first ticket to the Dance in their very first year of eligibility. NKU survived the banged up Horizon League Tourney to nab a 15-seed and now have the distinct honor of playing the Kentucky Wildcats (an in-state rival, if you will). Kentucky, a blue-blood college basketball program and Evil Empire, enters the Dance for the fourth straight year under Calipari, and once again features a stable of freshman talent. This is the quintessential David vs. Goliath matchup.

Kentucky on Offense: 
The Wildcats are similar to UCLA in the sense that they rely heavily on transition opportunities to score points. UK plays at the 16th fastest tempo in the country and does most of their transition damage off opponent misses. Like Ball for UCLA, De’Aaron Fox is a wizard in the open floor, receiving outlet passes and sprinting down the floor for easy lay-ins or hitting cutting opponents on their way to highlight-reel dunks. When not in transition, the Cats use the plethora of weapons at their disposal to work the ball into the teeth of the defense. Kentucky is not a great outside shooting team save for Malik Monk and Derek Willis, so their initial goal is to create an off-balanced situation for their opponents via quick drives from the wing, ball screens, and high-post entries. UK is unique in that they have several different players on offense that can hurt the defense. Bam Adebayo has been brilliant in the post all season, scoring 0.949ppp on those opportunities this year. Bam, Isaiah Briscoe, and Fox are all masters at getting their defenders into poor position and drawing fouls at the bucket. These three make up the “bash it into the lane” style of Kentucky. Monk and Willis represent the “finesse style”. Monk is going to be the x-factor all Tournament long due to his ability to create his own shot and catch fire in a hurry. When Kentucky’s offense stagnates, Monk is often able to bail them out – he’s like Moe from the Simpsons when he flies into the boxing ring to save Homer from a beat down at the hands of boxing champ Drederick Tatum (mental high-fives if you got that reference).

Very few teams in the country have the ability to stop the UK offense. NKU is not one of those teams. The Norse are a poor transition defensive squad, ranking in the bottom 100 in both allowing transition chances and effective FG% (per hoopmath.com). The Wildcats should have no issue cutting them up and scoring easy layups on the break. NKU rebounds well defensively as a team, but they offer little resistance in post-up situations. 6’7” Drew McDonald and 6'5" Carson Williams are liable to get worked inside by Bam. John Brannen’s squad has showed some zone looks this season, which could be their only hope of stalling the Kentucky machine. NKU plays a sort of morphing 3-2 / 2-3 matchup zone – a very unconventional look that could stymy Kentucky at the start of the game. If NKU falls back into a zone, they rebound well enough to not allow easy second chances – but they have to hope and pray that Monk is cold.

Northern Kentucky on Offense: 
The Norse deploy a three-point attack on the offensive end bolstered by the excellent shooting of McDonald (38.7%), Lavone Holland (38.0%), and Cole Murray (41.6%). It’s very much a 4-out, 1-in style of offense with the “one” often being 6’5” post player Carson Williams. NKU starts by prodding the defense via post entry or dribble-drive, then looks for kick-out and spot-up opportunities when teams help. Typical with a lot of these type of offenses, the post will set several ball screens during the possession in hopes that when he dives to the basket on the roll, the wing defender will be forced to help leaving an open corner jumper opportunity. This type of action works well in the Horizon, however it could get shut down by the Cats.

Kentucky won’t have to provide much off-ball help against the Norse, as Adebayo should be able to handle Williams just fine in the post, and Fox, Monk, and Briscoe are more than capable of staying in front of driving guards. The Cats are very good guarding the pick-n-roll, particularly Briscoe who should split time with Fox guarding Holland, the Norse’s best penetrator. Too much of NKU’s offense relies on Williams in the post scoring inside or creating open looks on the perimeter, which makes me think UK is capable of shutting them down. The one x-factor, as it always is, is shooting. If NKU is ungodly hot, they could stay within the spread for 40 minutes – it will be a tough task though against a Cat team that allows the 14th lowest 3PFG% (30.7%) in the nation.

Key Factor(s):
Kentucky needs to stay present and not overlook the Norse. A lot of times with young teams, we see a lack of focus that facilitates lesser squads hanging around and making the game a little too close for comfort. UK will get plenty of chances to exploit NKU on the offensive end. The Norse need to be on fire from outside in order to have a chance at winning. On defense, they’ll have to hope their unconventional zone confuses the young Wildcats and causes enough chaos to make it interesting.

Final Predictions:
Kentucky rolls to a second round berth. On a personal note, I would love the see the Norse knock off the Cats, it just doesn’t seem likely at all.

SU Pick:  Kentucky
ATS Pick:  Kentucky -20
O/U Pick: Over 152.5