West Region Preview: 2017-18 NCAA Tournament

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-Jim Root

(1) Xavier vs. (16) TBD

Initial Thoughts: It's a pretty widely-held belief that Xavier is the most "vulnerable" of this year's 1-seeds (it's true! I'm sorry, Xavier fans!), but they'll be playing the winner of (debatably) the two worst teams in the field in the Round of 64. Were the Muskies playing Penn, I might have visions of a "down to the wire, set Twitter ablaze" type of game, but I don't think NCC or Texas Southern can play with the X. The Musketeers get a year as the "hunted" after wildly succeeding as the "hunter" last year, and while both of their potential opponents appeared in the tournament last year, neither returns much from those senior-laden rosters (TSU is 333rd in minutes continuity, while NCC is even lower at 347th). 

Xavier on Offense: The X-Men rely heavily on their two senior stars, All-American Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura. Bluiett has one of the quickest releases from deep in the country, and his feathery touch allowed him to finish in the 93rd percentile nationally in points per possession on spot ups. Both TSU and NCC lack a lengthy wing player to bother Bluiett, meaning he stands to have a prolific shooting night regardless of which opponent advances. Macura is far more of a slasher, and both NCC and TSU give up a ton of shots at the rim. 

The emergence of Kerem Kanter as a legitimate offensive threat at the five, both inside and out, has given Chris Mack yet another toy to play with offensively, and Kanter is effective in both spot up and post up situations. Both play-in squads have some size to battle inside, but neither can compete with the mobility and size combo that Kanter brings. Plus, Kaiser Gates's shooting stroke will create even more space for Macura, Kanter, and Sean O'Mara to work with inside the arc. Finally, Quentin Goodin has quietly become a threat as both a driver and a shooter (he shot 40% from deep in Big East play!), and X becomes a different offensive monster entirely when he's firing on all cylinders with the dynamic senior duo. The Musketeers should score at will against either team. 

TBD on Offense: See our First Four preview for a deeper dive on NC Central and Texas Southern's offenses, but summarized in brief: North Carolina Central wants to use their skilled bigs (Raasean Davis and Pablo Rivas) to attack in the paint, and freshman PG Jordan Perkins is a clever driver and passer when he gets into the lane. Unfortunately for the Eagles, Xavier's modified pack line defense is designed to encourage jump shots and wall off the paint, which will be a nightmare for the MEAC champs. The size and length of the Musketeers simply dwarfs anything the Eagles saw in conference play. NCC should aim to slow the game to a crawl and hope the low possession count will help them keep it close, but they would struggle mightily to score in the halfcourt. 

Texas Southern, on the other hand, would likely run with the Muskies, as their surprisingly talented backcourt is dangerous in transition, particularly Donte Clark and the electric Trae Jefferson. Xavier allowed an extremely high amount of initial transition opportunities to opponents (23.9% of shots, per hoop-math - 284th in the country), so the Tigers might actually find some success against a defense that got crushed in this regard. Per Synergy, Xavier gave up 1.117 points per transition possession, a hideous figure that placed them in just the 8th percentile nationally. They were, however, very stout against isolation, another common mode of attack for TSU, so X needs to get back on defense and force them into longer possessions. 

As a general point, it's worth noting that X's defense ranks 20th out of the 32 at-larges, according to KenPom. That iffy end of the floor contributes to the "Xavier might get upset" narrative, but again - neither of these two teams has the goods to get it done. 

Key Factor(s): It's a cop out answer, but to me, this comes down to who wins Wednesday night's game. If Texas Southern wins, they can score on Xavier in transition and try to deny the three-point line, a chief tenet of Mike Davis defenses. Clark and Derrick Bruce are legitimate gunners, another area where X can be given fits due to the modified pack line scheme. Of course, Bluiett and Co. might score 100 points on the Tigers, regardless.

On the other hand, if NCC wins, I don't really see how they score on Xavier's packed-in style, and X should light up the Eagles' soft defense. It would be a slower game, but to me, the efficiency gap would be wide enough for a 30-point Xavier win. 

Final Predictions: Based on my "key factor" answer, I'm going to be lame and make "contingent" picks - see below. The total will likely swing quite a few points based on opponent, but 5dimes is offering the same spread regardless of who wins right now. 

SU Pick: Xavier
ATS Pick: If TSU wins Wednesday, TSU +23; if NCC wins, Xavier -23
O/U Pick: [TBD] - pending result of Wednesday night's game

(8) Missouri vs. (9) Florida St.

Initial Thoughts: My first thought upon seeing this matchup was something like “wow, two coaches who don’t really have any idea how to coach offense! That’s fun!” Cuonzo Martin and Leonard Hamilton have both shown the ability to build a program and maintain success, but neither is renowned for their free-flowing, aesthetically-pleasing offensive systems. In a high-stakes neutral site game where nerves can affect decision-making and shot selection, this one has the makings for an ugly affair where both squads struggle to find buckets.

Missouri on Offense: Jordan Barnett's horrendously idiotic DWI Saturday night/Sunday morning robs Missouri of an elite catch-and-shoot threat, which is essential for a team that desperately needs the spacing it creates. The positive is that the Tigers can plug in recently-returned NBA lottery talent Michael Porter Jr., a skilled shooter in his own right who at least has had a game to knock the rust off (Mizzou can't survive another 5/17 outing from him). There's some concern around MPJ's lack of vertical explosion, but on a team with absolutely no backcourt depth, he's going to get all the minutes he can handle in the Big Dance. 

Throughout the year, Mizzou's best offense has come from two sources:

  1. Post-ups for Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon, two tremendously skilled freshman big men - Porter is the better passer of the two, able to pick out shooters and cutters dotting the perimeter, while Tilmon is more of a bully on the block. His footwork is tremendous for a freshman, and he's getting better at letting the play develop and splitting soft double-teams. 
  2. Pick-and-pops (or PnR and the other big replaces) with either Porter as the screener - both Porter brothers can stroke the three from the top of the key of the opposing big helps too far on the driver, and Jontay especially has gained a ton of confidence in his shot of late, shooting without hesitation when the window is there.  Both guys can also attack a closeout if the defense overcommits to running them off the three-point line.

Option two will likely be more useful in this matchup, as Florida State's collection of gigantic centers (Ike Obiagu, Christ Koumadje) will somewhat negate Tilmon's traditional advantage in the post. Mizzou will need a lot of this Friday night - watch as Tilmon draws all the attention rolling down the lane, allowing Jontay Porter to "replace" at the top and bury a three:

Missouri also needs to find a way to get Kassius Robertson more involved, as he basically disappeared against Georgia in MPJ's return to the lineup. His shooting becomes even more crucial against a Florida State defense that is highly vulnerable to the deep ball (DAMMIT, Barnett). 

The last mandatory item to point out is Missouri's propensity to fart the ball away (310th nationally in turnover rate). FSU isn't going to terrorize them defensively, but their length and the ball-hawking of Forrest, CJ Walker, and Angola could cause the Tigers' turnover woes to surface at a bad time. 

Florida St. on Offense: The ‘Noles will want this game played in transition, as Hamilton’s stable of athletes is much more comfortable in a game of that ilk (that would also take advantage of Mizzou's total lack of depth). Although they don’t have a “true” point guard either, Trent Forrest has filled the role admirably this year, and FSU has a glut of secondary ball-handlers (Terance Mann, CJ Walker, MJ Walker, Braian Angola, PJ Savoy) to attack in waves. If they can't get a transition bucket, the 'Noles want to attack via drive-and-dish to create spot up opportunities and driving lanes for the aforementioned wings. 

That means Mizzou's lack of guard depth is going to be heavily tested. Jordan Geist and Robertson (and Brett Rau - Brett Rau is going to play real minutes in an NCAA Tournament game!!) are going to be extremely busy all game, and Kevin Puryear may even find himself guarding Mann or MJ Walker at times. This is alarming, because we don't yet know if MPJ can play a ton of minutes (and do so totally effectively), and if Rau is trying to guard any of FSU's athletes for an extended period of time, then it's time to smash the panic button.  

Although FSU does have a lot of size, their bigs don't really score one-on-one, which will hopefully help Tilmon and Jontay Porter stay out of foul trouble. They still could be vulnerable to fouls when guards attack them from the perimeter, but if Cuonzo is able to emphasize simply challenging with high arms, there's a chance they can actually stay on the floor here. Plus, due to FSU's lack of offensive threats on the interior, Reed Nikko may actually be able to give some useful minutes on the defensive end as a helping big man. 

Key Factor(s): This one is obvious - it's MPJ. If he's more comfortable on the court and is hitting a few more of his shots, he's immediately the best player in this game and will help Mizzou negate the loss of Barnett. If he's still limited (and he said he was post-game on Thursday, at least athletically), then FSU's stable of wings could overcome the Tigers' thin guard rotation through sheer volume. 

Final Predictions: Mizzou needs this one to be played in the halfcourt, and in a tournament setting, games often end up grinding to a halt if one team really forces that tempo. Florida State pressed on 25% of its possessions this year (Mizzou fans just barfed in their mouths a little bit), but it's mostly a token man pressure to disrupt the offense's rhythm, not to force turnovers. Even Geist and Robertson should be able to handle that (famous last words, I know) - we'll see if Leonard Hamilton realizes he should crank up the heat. Tigers, 72-68, MPJ goes for 20+. 

SU Pick: Mizzou
ATS Pick: Mizzou +1
O/U Pick: Under 147.5

(5) Ohio State vs. (12) South Dakota State

Initial Thoughts: I won't lie, I got extremely nervous when I saw this matchup announced. I've been a fairly vocal questioner of Ohio State's legitimacy this year (especially early on), and I absolutely 100% ride for Mike Daum and the Jackbunnies. So that makes this an obvious 12 over 5 pick for me, right? I needed to dive into the matchups to validate that take...

Ohio State on Offense: Play. Through. KBD. Keita Bates-Diop is going to be a matchup nightmare in this game, as SDSU doesn't have the lengthy athletes to compete with him. KBD's face-up game in the post should be devastating in this one, whether it be hitting jumpers over shorter defenders (Sky Flatten?) or going around slower-footed ones (Reed Tellinghuisen?). I'm just not sure SDSU has an answer to this, despite how simple it is:

KBD pull up.gif

When on the floor, Kaleb Wesson should be able to get buckets as well. SDSU will likely have to play Daum against him, and he's too important to SDSU to guard the brutish freshman physically and risk picking up early fouls. However, I'm not sure Wesson can play much on defense in this game (see next section), so Chris Holtmann will need to attack in a few different ways.

South Dakota State played man-to-man 99.9% of the time his year (it really was 99.9%, per Synergy), so I think we can safely expect that to be TJ Otzelberger's primary defense. In that case, I'd expect to see a lot of slash-and-kick action from the Buckeyes, with CJ Jackson, Kam Williams, human bowling ball JaeSean Tate, KBD, and Andrew Dakich (everyone's favorite former walk-on) consistently probing the defense for gaps. The Buckeyes run very little PnR (just 268th in the country), instead looking to get the defense moving through dribble weaves and subsequent ball movement, something that might actually be advantageous for SDSU. Daum isn't a very good PnR defender, and the Jacks struggled to deal with that scheme when opponents made it a point of emphasis. Holtmann may want to consider putting Daum in this action, at the very least to wear him down on this end. 

South Dakota State on Offense: Here’s where it gets fun. South Dakota State has perhaps the best mid-major big man in the entire country in Daum, and his ability to score inside and out makes him a matchup nightmare, even for a team like Ohio State. Of course, Bates-Diop is a terrific defender (and his versatility/size combo makes him a worthy candidate to check Daum), but the Buckeyes would then face the conundrum of having Kaleb Wesson chasing around a shooter. If the Jackrabbits are hitting threes (and oh boy, can they get hot), they might play the bigger Wesson off the floor. Wesson's struggles guarding Michigan's Moe Wagner don't portend a good day guarding Daum should Holtmann opt for that matchup, either. Ohio State almost certainly won't go zone, so I expect to see a lot of Andre Wesson and even Micah Potter to rotate different defenders on Daum. Plus, if KBD has to guard him, that leaves the Buckeyes' star exposed to possible foul trouble. 

Of course, Daum isn't the Jackrabbits' only weapon. Freshman David Jenkins emerged into a legit second banana on the perimeter, a pure shooter and a shockingly elite PnR player (97th percentile in the country in PnR, per Synergy).  The floor is constantly spread with shooters - even Daum's backup, Ian Theisen, can knock in a trey or two - and the spacing that provides opens up gaps all over the floor for Jenkins, Tevin King, and Brandon Key to drive into. 

Key Factor(s): I'm slightly concerned about foul trouble for both teams in this one. If Wesson or Bates-Diop can draw a couple quick ones on Daum (who, to his credit, has done a great job of NOT fouling this year), the SDSU offense becomes far too perimeter-reliant to hang with the Buckeyes. On the other hand, if Daum works his magic and draws a couple on KBD somehow, the Buckeyes' defense could fall off a cliff without their best and most versatile defender. Basically, I'm hoping the refs let the game play out here, because it could be an awesome duel between two relatively underrated stars. 

Final Predictions: After digging through the individual matchups and the numbers, I feel comfortable enough with my opening take to back it up with a bet. I will be taking the Jackbunnies against the spread, along with sprinkling a little love on the moneyline (currently +325!). SDSU cashed for 3MW last year in a "First to 15" bet against Gonzaga, and we're hoping to ride the Boys from Brookings to even more profit in 2018 - 79-76, Jacks. 

SU Pick: South Dakota State
ATS Pick: South Dakota State +8
O/U Pick: Over 146.5

(4) Gonzaga vs. (13) UNC Greensboro

Initial Thoughts: If Gonzaga goes on a run through the NCAA Tournament once again thisyear, it could see plenty of familiar opponents – they played Ohio State in Portland this year, while South Dakota State, Xavier, and UNC would evoke plenty of memories from their run to the 2017 title game. In the first round, though, they’ll face a new foe in Boise – the Spartans of UNC Greensboro, champions of the formidable Southern Conference, who enter the Big Dance for the first time since 2001.

Gonzaga on Offense: Gonzaga's wealth of offensive weapons is absurd given how heavy their losses were from last year's elite team. Six players average between 9.5 and 13.5 points per game, which means Gonzaga has about a million ways to skin a cat offensively. If you're vulnerable inside, they'll pound it to any of their three skilled post up players (Johnathan Williams III, Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie). If your guards struggle to contain penetration, expect a steady diet of Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, and Silas Melson attacking downhill. If you're vulnerable from the three-point arc, you're going to get lit up - Perkins, Melson, Norvell, and Cory Kispert can all shoot from the guard spots, and Tillie recently dipped his right hand in a vat of kerosene and lit it with a blowtorch - he's made 22/26 from three over his last 7 games (that's 85 freaking percent - um, what?). Don't believe me? Look at Gonzaga's raw efficiency numbers and "Rating" on their seven most commonly used play types, per Synergy:

Gonna go ahead and say their offense is "excellent."

Needless to say, the Spartans have their work cut out for them defensively. The thing is...that's a strength-on-strength matchup, as UNC-G has the SoCon's best defense and a top 30 outfit nationally, per KenPom. They have the best transition defense in the entire country on a raw points per possession basis, according to Synergy, and they won't get beat on the offensive glass with James Dickey, Marvin Smith, and Kyrin Galloway anchoring the paint.

The biggest key on this end, and mark this in bright, glowing letters: UNC-G's 1-2-2 fullcourt pressure, which they employ 40.3% of the time - second-most in the country (and a full 5% more than West Virginia). On the surface, Gonzaga was elite at taking care of the ball, but I still remember watching them cough it up 24 times against Texas at PK80 when the Longhorns cranked the pressure. Josh Perkins has been great, but I'm still not 100% sold on him and Silas Melson as primary ball-handlers against the likes of Isaiah Miller and Demetrius Troy (maybe I will be after this game, though!). UNC-G doesn't always press to force turnovers (instead tryingto slow the offense down), but there could be an opportunity to get a few steals here. 

UNC Greensboro on Offense: Wes Miller's squad doesn't quite have the offensive options that Gonzaga does, but they boast a few formidable scoring threats, most notably Francis Alonso. Alonso is one of the country's better high-volume shooters (he hit 41% of his 250 attempts), and the Spartans will run a variety of actions to get him coming off screens or spotting up on the weakside. He's so prolific from deep that he commands attention from all five defenders on the floor - they need to be ready to switch out to him at a moment's notice if the primary defender gets caught on  screen.  

Gonzaga can be slightly prone to over-helping or over-rotating, leaving shooters open, and that could be deadly against UNC-G. The Spartans bomb away from deep at the nation's 24th-highest rate, and Alonso, Smith, Troy, and Dutch big man Jordy Kuiper can all get hot in a hurry. Gonzaga showed an extended 2-3 at times this year, but I'm not sure they should break it out against a team with the shooting capability of UNC-G. The battle on the glass will also be crucial on this end, as Greensboro was the best offensive rebounding team in the SoCon. Of course, Gonzaga was 13th in the entire country in defensive rebound rate, which likely negates the Spartans' strength on the glass. Be wary of long rebounds from the bevy of threes they'll take, though. 

Key Factor(s): Will UNC-G's press, token as it might be at times, cause Gonzaga any issues? The 1-2-2 often shortens the shot clock on teams, and while the Bulldogs have the offensive weapons to score up against the clock, they could get into trouble if they have to force things more than they'd like. I don't know if Wes Miller will try to force more turnovers with the press and get into Josh Perkins's head, but he might want to check out the Zags' meltdown against Texas's press and see if he can glean anything from it. 

Final Predictions: Gonzaga has several options to throw on Alonso (Melson will almost certainly start on him), and if he can't get any open looks, UNC-G's offense could struggle. I have minor questions about Gonzaga scoring in the short shot clock against the Spartans' defense, but ultimately, they're playing so well of late that they'll surely find avenues to points. As long as they don't come out complacent and get bodied on the boards by a surprisingly elite rebounding team, they should be fine - 76-61, Fighting Mark Fews. 

SU Pick: Gonzaga
ATS Pick: Gonzaga -12.5
O/U Pick: Over 136, BARELY

(6) Houston vs. (11) San Diego State

Initial Thoughts: I’m excited about this game, despite its potential to be a battle of two stout defenses. Both coaches ratcheted up the pace this year – Houston went from 300th to 174th in tempo, per KenPom, while San Diego State went from 309th to 147th after the change to Brian Dutcher – and the amount of athletes dotting the floor gives plenty of potential for some highlight reel plays. Plus, this could be the final college game for Malik Pope after his illustrious 9-year college career.

Houston on Offense: Houston’s offense revolves around the superb penetration abilities of star guard Rob Gray, but they’re not one-dimensional – Devin Davis is a capable post-up threat, and the trio of Corey Davis, Armoni Brooks, and Wes VanBeck can light it up from deep (although a hand injury may prevent VanBeck from playing). Most of Kelvin Sampson’s action focuses on getting the ball in the paint, something that is easier to do against this year’s SDSU team than in years past, when Steve Fisher seemingly always had a nationally elite shot-blocker and more athletes than you can count.

Houston will also run quite a bit of pick-and-roll with Gray as the ball-handler, hoping to get him going downhill against a backpedaling big man, a situation in which Gray excels at finishing through contact. He’ll stop and pop at times if you go under the screen, but he’s far more dangerous on the move, probing the lane and finding shooters if he catches help defenders leaning too far his way.

Gray & Co. will face off against a rangy San Diego State defense that mixed in more zone this year (about 12% of the time, never more than 3% of the time in the past 5 years), a strategy that might make sense in this game given Houston’s reliance on Gray’s driving. Houston scored very efficiently against zones this year (83rd percentile in the country, per Synergy), so that strategy is not without risk, however.  If they do decide to stay largely man-to-man, Trey Kell is an excellent defender to throw at the smaller Gray, a bigger guard that can use his length to bother his Houston counterpart.

San Diego State on Offense: In the previous three seasons (Steve Fisher’s last in San Diego), the Aztecs ranked 162nd, 171st, and 183rd in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, per KenPom (compared to 5th, 4th, and 28th on defense). That imbalance has corrected itself some under Brian Dutcher, as SDSU – while still a defense-oriented squad – has risen to a very nice ranking of 69th this year. Dutcher is playing a lot of dual-PG lineups with Trey Kell and Devin Watson, and having multiple creators has amped up the Aztecs’ ball movement and generated better shots. However, Houston isn’t going to allow anything easy; they’re one of the best 2-point percentage defenses in the country. As improved as the SDSU offense is, they still aren’t flush with shooting, hitting a bricky 34.3% of their treys this year.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of Houston’s defense is the Cougars’ propensity to foul. Nura Zanna, Braeon Brady, and Fabian White are in foul trouble when they get out of bed in the morning, and the athletic size of SDSU will likely force those bigs to defend in space. Both Jalen McDaniels and Pope can handle the ball, so if they’re being guarded by a slow-footed big, don’t be surprised if the whistles start raining down.

Key Factor(s): Two solid (if not elite) coaches do battle here, so not a ton to glean from the matchup on the sidelines. I’ll say the battle on the glass is the key, then; both teams fancy themselves as tough, physical squads, and both typically dominate the glass – Houston is 14th nationally in rebounding margin, while San Diego State is 39th. The Aztecs are taller in the frontcourt with Jalen McDaniels, Pope, and Kameron Rooks, but Houston has a girth advantage with Davis, Brady, and Zanna. If one team is able to control the backboards, they’ll likely move onto the Round of 32.

Final Predictions: Both teams are playing well right now, but San Diego State is truly firing on all cylinders, as evidenced by the Aztecs’ complete demolition of Nevada in the Mountain West Tournament.  San Diego State can match Houston’s athleticism and physicality (although not their shooting), making this game awfully close to a coin flip for me. In that situation, I’ll take the extra points - 76-74, Houston. 

SU Pick: Houston
ATS Pick: San Diego State +4
O/U Pick: Over 142.5

(3) Michigan vs. (14) Montana

Initial Thoughts: After ripping through their final nine games, Michigan skyrocketed to a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite a relatively soft nonconference schedule. As every analyst in the country is tripping over themselves to tell you, the Wolverines won’t have played for 11 days, while Montana is coming off a tournament title this past Saturday.

Michigan on Offense: I’ve long admired John Beilein’s offenses, and this year’s team is no different. The combination of having shooting at all five positions (except when Jon Teske plays) and a team full of players willing passers makes the Wolverines extremely easy to watch (although they’re prone to droughts when they are cold from deep). Montana plays man-to-man almost exclusively, which means either Jamar Akoh or Fabijan Krslovic is going to have to guard the versatile Moe Wagner. Both Griz big men are far more comfortable in the paint, and given Wagner’s ability to shoot and put the ball on the floor from the perimeter, that stands out as a major matchup issue. Travis DeCuire’s defense prides itself on taking away the three, though, so Wagner and the Duncan Robinson/Isaiah Livers four-man platoon will need to make plays off the dribble.

Beilein runs a ton of 2-guard ball screen action with Zavier Simpson and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman (and both have been excellent of late), but Montana has two extremely strong perimeter defenders in Michael Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie with which to combat that. If they can stay in front of Michigan’s drivers without needing a ton of help, then Michigan may not get the typically open jumpers they usually do.

Quick X-factor mention – Jordan Poole was terrible in the B1G Tournament (0/9 from deep), but he plays with a ton of swagger, and if he gets hot, he gives the Wolverines yet another weapon for DeCuire to worry about.

Montana on Offense: This is the far more concerning end of the matchup for the Grizzlies, where Billy Donlon started to construct a defensive monster last season in Ann Arbor, and it has only gotten better this season despite his depature to Northwestern. DeCuire’s offense focuses on getting the ball to the rim via drives by Rorie and Oguine plus post-ups from Akoh, but that’s not going to fly against Michigan’s shell-type defense that takes away the rim completely and forces two-point jump shots (Michigan opponents take 45% of their shots from the midrange, by far the highest rate in the country). The Griz need to hit some shots early to loosen up the defense, or it could be an ugly, low-scoring affair for Montana as Beilein’s boys grind the game to a halt.

Key Factor(s): For me, it’s the Wagner matchup for Montana on the defensive end. I think Montana will struggle to score simply due to the scheme disadvantage mentioned above; if Wagner is wreaking havoc on the other end, then Michigan could stretch this into a 15-20 point win. Vegas opened this game at Wolverines -12 (despite KenPom only tabbing it as a 7-point game), so it seems the bookmakers are bullish on Michigan’s chances.

Final Predictions: If the line was down around where KenPom has it, I’d be all over the Wolverines here. As it stands, though, DeCuire will aim to take away the three for Michigan’s gunners, and they’re good enough on the perimeter to not have to help too far off those shooters. I’m guessing this is a low-scoring game that floats right around the spread number late, and I’ll always ride with Beilein in any near-coin-flip scenario. I also think the line is so high to try to entice you to take Montana, but I won't fall for that...74-59, Michigan. 

SU Pick: Michigan
ATS Pick: Michigan -11
O/U Pick: Under 135

(7) Texas A&M vs. (10) Providence

Initial Thoughts:  Providence was probably shocked to see an opponent not named “USC” in the opposite team slot, as they’ve played the Trojans in their NCAA Tournament opener for two straight years (and a rubber match would have been fun!). The Friars enter on a streak of three straight overtime games in the Big East Tournament, and although they lost to Villanova in the final, many are pegging them as a possible dark horse team. Of course, they have to get by Texas A&M, which possesses one of the best frontlines in the entire country. 

Texas A&M on Offense: I'm always left a little cold from Texas A&M's underwhelming shot selection (and a lot of that has to do with playing an inefficient, high-usage freshman point guard). At times, though, that's Texas A&M's best offense - get something up on the rim and let Robert Williams, Tyler Davis, Tonny Trocha-Morelos, and Savion Flagg play volleyball on the glass and get a cheap putback. 

In case it's not clear from that description, the strength of the Aggies' roster is in the frontcourt. Admon Gilder is a steady wing and DJ Hogg has a pretty shooting stroke, but the best Texas A&M possessions flow through the post. Davis and Williams are both very good in these situations; they rank in the 74th and 78th percentiles, respectively, nationally in points per possession on post ups. They're both big and skilled enough to command a double team against most defenders (Providence will hope Kalif Young and/or Nate Watson can guard them one-on-one), and while neither is an elite passer, they both generally make good decisions when an extra defender comes. The Friars are not a good post defense team (25th percentile nationally, per Synergy), so Billy Kennedy might need to make TJ Starks write "I will pass the ball to my big men" 200 times on the whiteboard before the game. 

Providence on Offense: The Friars typically run the flex, a system of cross-screen/down-screen and ball reversal action that focuses on getting the ball into the paint and exploiting mismatches. This works especially well for a Providence team that has big wings (Alpha Diallo, Jalen Lindsey, Isaiah Jackson) that can punish smaller guards in the post and a versatile big man (Rodney Bullock) who can stretch the floor with shooting. The second part of that will be crucial against Texas A&M's gigantic frontcourt, hopefully pulling Davis and Williams away from the rim enough to open up the paint. 

As it stands, the Aggies' interior defense is too stout to be consistently scored on, so the shooting of Bullock, Lindsey, and veteran PG and team anchor Kyron Cartwright becomes crucial. They don't need to sink a ton - just enough to make the Aggies' closeouts a little more frenzied, allowing for drives to the rim and dishes to finishers/cutters. Cartwright is a master of this, one of the best passers in the country and a true maestro with the ball in his hands, and he owns the advantage at the PG spot by a significant margin here. 

Key Factor(s): I haven't done this much in this region preview, but I'm invoking the "coaching mismatch" rule here. I just think Ed Cooley is a better coach than Billy Kennedy - to me, Providence is currently outperforming the talent on its roster, while Texas A&M is not playing to the level that their roster indicates is possible. In a win-or-go-home tournament where both coaches have several days to put together a gameplan, I'm siding with the coach I trust more. 

Final Predictions: This is a battle of two teams whose defenses far outstrip their offenses, so it could be a bit of a rock fight at times. Cooley will find clever ways to move Texas A&M's big men around the court, and no doubt he'll emphasize the need to rebound as a collective unit. I don't think it will be pretty, but I think the Friars pull out a victory, 68-65. 

SU Pick: Providence
ATS Pick: Providence +3.5
O/U Pick: Under 138

(2) North Carolina vs. (15) Lipscomb

Initial Thoughts: Allow me to direct you to the following link, which is required for reading this preview:

I promise this isn't a virus! 

Yes, that’s right, lace up the track shoes baby – this one is gonna be a sprint. Lipscomb plays at the country’s 5th-fastest tempo, a pace that will be just fine by Roy Williams and the Tar Heels’ downsized lineup. UNC ranks “only” 50th in tempo, but rest assured that with Joel Berry and Theo Pinson running the show, the Heels will be happy to run with the Bisons.

North Carolina on Offense: It’s been well documented how Roy Williams has allowed for a shift in his team’s style this year, shooting more threes and giving more creative freedom to Berry and Pinson. Despite this and how often they play four perimeter players, though, the Heels still assault the offensive glass in classic Roy fashion. They grab 38% of their misses, second in the entire country, thriving on second chance points, whether it be putbacks or kickouts for threes. Statistically, Lipscomb is built to combat this; they were the best defensive rebounding team in the Atlantic Sun and 22nd nationally by rate. We often refer to FGCU as “UNC Lite” given their propensity to attack the rim, so playing them three times in the A-Sun should be solid prep (at least schematically – UNC is a different beast).

Rob Marberry and Eli Pepper are relatively mobile big men, a necessity against the shooting of Cam Johnson and Luke Maye, but it’s hard to prepare for just how active Maye is at all times. He’s so good at “posting early” – sealing his man even before the ball has gotten all the way down the floor. UNC’s freshmen bigs aren’t quite as good as their past paint-eaters, but Garrison Brooks looked decent over the weekend in the ACC Tournament if Roy decides to play two bigs.

Lipscomb on Offense: Lipscomb wants to get out and go, getting the ball to PG Kenny Cooper and setting a variety of drag ball screens in transition to create confusion in the defense. This often opens up either the roll man (Marberry or Pepper) or shooters on the wing (Garrison Mathews, Matt Rose) due to communication issues or simple defensive breakdowns. Cooper’s decision-making can be questionable at times, but he was dazzling in the Bisons’ stretch run, posting 9 assists to just 1 turnover in the tourney finale against FGCU.

The entire goal of the transition drag screen system is to force the defense to rotate before it’s set, but Roy Williams has his UNC squad drilled well on that end. Theo Pinson is the defensive quarterback, and he’ll likely be tasked with taking away any and all airspace from Mathews, a true star wing scorer. Lipscomb relies on him a lot for its perimeter punch, so if Pinson negates him, another guard (or guards) will need to step up and fill the void.

Key Factor(s): The interior battle is incredibly intriguing to me here. Marberry and Pepper fared well in their matchups with FGCU, but I’m not sure they’re ready for Maye’s constant activity and clever movement. Lipscomb’s guards will need to help rebound as a team before leaking into transition (and they’ve done this well most of the year), because the offensive rebound + kickout threes are backbreakers.

Final Predictions: If the Tar Heels are cooking from the outside, they could hit triple digits in a game that will probably approach 75+ possessions (that’s a lot). Related stat – eight of UNC’s 13 non-conference games had 75 or more possessions, while only two of their ACC games hit that mark (and one was an overtime game). UNC is perfectly fine playing quickly against lesser competition, but I think Lipscomb can battle in the necessary areas to prevent this from being a complete boat race - 92-78. 

SU Pick: North Carolina
ATS Pick: Lipscomb +19.5
O/U Pick: Over 160