Midwest Region Preview: 2017-18 NCAA Tournament

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(1) Kansas vs. (16) Penn

- Ky McKeon

Initial Thoughts: Let the speculation surrounding the notion of a 16-seed finally beating a 1-seed begin! If ever there were a year for this unprecedented event to occur, 2018 would be it. The 16-seeds are a crop of solid squads, each with potential to scare its juggernaut of an opening round opponent. Penn, despite sharing the Ivy league title and ranking fairly high in KenPom’s adjusted ratings, was given a 16-seed by the Committee, a move juxtaposed to bracketmatrix.com’s near unanimous decision that the Quakers should have been on the 15-line. Hence the relatively low opening line to this contest of (14) – Penn is a good team!

The Quakers will get Kansas, a perennial force in college basketball fresh off its 14th straight Big 12 regular season title. The Jayhawks are clearly the more talented team in this game, but in March anything can happen.

Kansas on Offense: KU is, quite simply, elite on the offensive end. The Jayhawks rank 6th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom fueled by an 11th-ranked 3PFG% (40.3%) and 13th-ranked 2PFG% (56.5%). Bill Self’s squad can beat you in a myriad of ways, but the preferred method is via the pick-n-roll where All-American point guard Devonte’ Graham is given free rein to dismantle hopeless defenders.

Graham thrives in the pick-n-roll, ranking in the 85th percentile in points per possession (PPP) per Synergy. The guard uses an often mastodon-sized pick courtesy of Udoka Azubuike to kick start an attack on the defense. More important than just Graham’s individual ability to score off the PnR is Kansas’s elite efficiency in situations where the defense commits on the ball handler, forcing him to kick to an opponent. In these situations, Kansas scores 1.092ppp (per Synergy), which is top five in the country. The Jayhawks are shooting an unconscious 64.6% aFG% (adjusted field goal %) in these scenarios due in large part to a pair of deadeye wing snipers in Svi Mykhailiuk (45.3%) and Malik Newman (40.9%).

Interestingly enough, while Penn is not the best at stopping the ball handler in the pick-n-roll from scoring, the Quakers are the BEST team in the country in defending that specific play type laid out above. Penn is allowing only 0.672ppp in these situations, holding its opponents to a mere 39.3 aFG%. This stems from the fact that Penn is one of the best teams in the nation at taking away the three-point line. Per KenPom, the Quakers allow the 2nd-least amount of three-point attempts in the country, closing out hard on shooters from deep and funneling them into the paint where shot blocker extraordinaire A.J. Brodeur patiently sits.

Something big to watch leading up to this game is the health of KU center Udoka Azubuike. Kansas is 6th in the country in post-up PPP thanks to the girth and power of Azubuike, a one-man wrecking machine capable of crushing the hopes and dreams of any opposing big man in his path. Without Azubuike, Kansas will need to rely heavily on freshman Silvio De Sousa, who has admittedly looked fantastic as of late. Penn’s Brodeur and fellow big man Max Rothschild can hold their own in the paint, but De Sousa, and especially Azubuike, have more meat than your average Ivy League postman. 

Penn on Offense: Space is the name of the game for Penn on offense, an attack that features three wings (and sometimes Brodeur) revolving around one man in the middle (often Rothschild or Brodeur). The offense especially hums when Brodeur is the lone big man surrounded by four guards; per Hooplens, Penn scores 0.09ppp more when Brodeur plays the five. Penn plays through Brodeur on offense, working the ball inside-out to find either an open look from outside the arc or an exploitable one-on-one situation on the block. Both Brodeur and Rothschild are excellent passers, ranking 13th and 2nd, respectively, in assist rate in the Ivy, so Kansas defenders must have their heads on a swivel in order to avoid giving up easy looks.

While Kansas is overall a good defensive team, it can definitely be exposed from the outside. The Jayhawks are just an average team defending spot-ups, and guys like LaGerald Vick, who gives up a very poor 1.208ppp on spot-ups, can often lose their man when the ball goes inside. Shooters like Ryan Betley and Caleb Wood will rain threes upon the heads of Kansas if they are left open to shoot, and crafty guards Darnell Foreman and Antonio Woods are capable of blowing by sloppy close-outs. Also, KU will need to play solid half-court defense and avoid gambling for steals, as the Penn guards are some of the nation’s best at securing the basketball.

Penn will not beat Kansas off dribble penetration, not will they crash the offensive glass, rather the Quakers will rely on ball movement via the pass, post play, and shooting to get the job done. Azubuike’s health is crucial on the defensive end for Kansas, as well – De Sousa has been routinely WORKED on the block in his early stages and a guy like Brodeur will tear him up if given the opportunity.

Key Factor(s): One is obviously the health of Udoka Azubuike. His presence could be the difference between a 20-point stomp and an under-10 heart-stopper. Stylistically, Kansas will need to show it has the ability to exploit Penn’s aggressive shading of the three-point line via ball penetration. This means Graham and Newman will see plenty of chances to score off the bounce; if they can finish routinely, this won’t be close. For Penn, it comes down to shooting, an obvious statement in any game, yes, but one that especially rings true for an underdog looking to land a knockout punch.

Final Predictions: Penn has the discipline, experience, and ball security to stay close in this game. Throw in the fact that the Quakers are, at least in my mind, under-seeded and the fact that Azubuike will not be 100% even if he does play, and you have the potential for an historical first round upset. Will it happen? Probably not. But, I’m saying there’s a chance.

SU Pick: Kansas
ATS Pick: Penn +14
O/U Pick: Under 147

(8) Seton Hall vs. (9) NC State

Initial Thoughts: The 8/9 matchups are usually knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out affairs that feature two evenly matched squads. This one will be no different. Seton Hall comes in fresh off a first round Big East Tourney collapse against Butler in which the Pirates’ usual stout defense was scorched to the tune of 1.15ppp. NC State enters the Dance after losing its first round conference match to usual ACC bottom feeder Boston College in convincing fashion.

Despite the early exits, both squads should be considered armed and very dangerous. Each has a bounty of athleticism and talent capable of propelling them to the second weekend. For Kevin Willard, it’ll be an effort to avoid a third straight Round of 64 loss. For Kevin Keatts, it’s a chance to show off to the nation his coaching chops after revitalizing a lost NC State program following a successful stint at UNC Wilmington.

Seton Hall on Offense: Seton Hall runs an interior-focused offensive attack, one that centers on Angel Delgado, a senior beast and a walking double-double. The Pirates are in the upper third of the country in percentage of points scored inside the arc, which is bad news for a Wolf Pack team that allows the 6th most points inside the arc and is a gaping hole at the rim. Per Hoop-Math, NC State is 346th in preventing shots at the cup and 297th in FG% allowed from that distance. A lot of this is on Omer Yurtseven, who is allowing 1.00ppp on post-ups this season, one of the worst marks in the country. To make matters worse, Seton Hall is an elite offensive rebounding team behind Delgado and fellow forwards Ismael Sanogo and Michael Nzei; the Pack rank 307th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage.

Delgado’s impact isn’t limited to the paint; he’s actually quite mobile on offense, head hunting on-ball defenders to pick them off with screens and then diving to the rack after his teammate uses his “collision” (as my high school coach liked to call it). Delgado’s versatility is a major reason why Hall’s offense is so balanced – the Pirates feature a balanced diet of dribble drive, post-up, and pick-n-roll, and while they certainly can shoot the three, they normally eschew it in favor of an attempt closer to the basket.

Khadeen Carrington is the Yin to Delgado’s Yang, a maestro of a point guard that feasts off ball screens and excels at finding open teammates for high percentage chances. The sure-handed, 6’6” point man, along with running mate Myles Powell, pace the Pirates in transition, an area in which Hall has found success scoring this season.

NC State has the requisite wing size and athleticism to defend out on the perimeter and will likely show a full-court press for much of the game. The Pack press at the 14th highest rate in the country and rank 53rd in points per possession allowed while pressing. This press is key in fueling an offensive approach that likes to convert turnovers into easy buckets on the other end. While Seton Hall has only been an average team breaking presses this season, Carrington and Powell had two of the better turnover rates in the Big East this year.

NC State on Offense: Keatts brought over his style of play from UNCW, a “4-out, 1-in” style of offense that features four guards revolving around a central big man. Like Keatts’s UNCW teams, NC State plays quick and looks to get opportunities in transition off turnovers. Unlike Keatts’s UNCW squads, this NC State team doesn’t depend on the three-pointer to score. Instead, the Wolf Pack rely on their big wings like Al Freeman and Torin Dorn to get into the teeth of the defense and either take the ball to the tin or hit a fellow wing cutter with a dish in the paint. A fair amount of offense also goes through Omer Yurtseven, the man in the middle, who turned in an impressive 121.3 o-rating this season, the 15th best in the ACC.

While Keatts has been successful for the most part with his 4-guard lineup, he may need to consider playing two bigs at the same time against the physical Pirates. Per Hoop Lens, that would actually be a favorable decision. The Pack are +0.07ppp better on offense and +0.09ppp better on defense when both Yursteven and Lennard Freeman share the floor. Comparatively, when Yurtseven is the lone big, NC State’s defense suffers (-0.10ppp), and when Freeman is the lone big, its offense suffers (-0.05ppp). Both Yurtseven and Freeman are capable post scorers, but their real value comes in the form of offensive rebounding, a key factor in keeping possessions alive for NC State on the offensive end. With Seton Hall’s Delgado manning the paint, scoring back-to-the-basket will be a tall task, and good luck out-rebounding the 18th best D-boarder in the country by rate. The real key to the offensive glass attack will be Torin Dorn, a 6’6” guard that rebounds extremely well from the perimeter as he bolts into the middle on a shot attempt.

As mentioned above, the Pack like to run off opponent turnovers but oftentimes can play too fast for their own good. Case in point, Al Freeman uses 30% of NC State’s transition possessions but is one of the most inefficient playmakers in the open floor per Synergy, finishing at a dismal rate. This bricklaying tendency can also extend to Freeman’s slashing game where he can sometimes fall into a habit of forcing poor shots. With Hall’s aforementioned ball handling ability, NC State won’t have too many running opportunities, but Freeman should be able to find success penetrating through the Pirate D if he can rein in his shot selection – Hall is a poor pick-and-roll and isolation defense, two areas NC State can definitely exploit.

Last little nugget – Seton Hall may show some zone against the Pack, something Keatts and Co. should not be afraid of. NC State has performed well against zones it has faced this season and even defeated the Kings of the Zone (Syracuse) at the Carrier Dome earlier this year.

Key Factor(s): For NC State, this game is going to boil down to keeping Seton Hall off the glass. The Pack beat both Duke and UNC this season, the two best offensive rebounding teams in the country, so there is precedent for NC State succeeding against superior rebounding squads. Now, both Duke and UNC shot 20% from three those games, and UNC shot 55% from the FT line, but a win is a win and Kevin Keatts’ adjustments played into those victories.

For Hall, the key will be ball protection against the Wolf Pack press. If Carrington and Powell can consistently break the pressure, the Pirates should have enough advantages in other areas to advance.

Final Predictions: This will be a close game throughout and I can honestly see either team winning. My lean is with Seton Hall, however, given the severe interior advantage and the experience of the four Hall seniors.

SU Pick: Seton Hall
ATS Pick: Seton Hall -2.5
O/U Pick: Over 156

(5) Clemson vs. (12) New Mexico State

Initial Thoughts: With the Clemson Tigers’ 2017-18 season, Brad Brownell grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher and promptly obliterated the kindling starting to burn underneath his seat. The Tigers shocked the World by going 11-7 in a brutal ACC and clinching a 5-seed despite minimal preseason expectations.

Their reward? A date with one of the best mid-major programs in the country – the New Mexico State Aggies out of the wacky WAC. Unlike some mid-majors in a big tournament setting, NMSU is unlikely to be fazed by the big-school name on the jerseys lining up next to them on Friday night. After all, the Aggies already have wins this season against Miami, Davidson, and Illinois on neutral floors, and nearly upended Tourney snub USC.

Clemson on Offense: Clemson took a major hit against Notre Dame on January 20th when its star player, Donte Grantham, went down with a season-ending injury. With Grantham, the Tigers were an impressive 16-3 with a slew of high quality wins. Without Grantham, Clemson has managed a mere 7-6 record, though the strength of schedule was ratcheted up in their latter of half of ACC play.

Even without Grantham, the Tigers have plenty of weapons with which to score the basketball. Four players outside of Grantham average in double figures and scoring comes from everywhere on the floor from the point, to the wing, all the way down into the post. Clemson is at its best when running offense through its dual point guards, Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed, especially via the pick-n-roll where the Tigers are among the best in the country at converting buckets. Those two guards plus backcourt cohort Gabe DeVoe form a formidable offensive trio, one that is capable of heating up from behind the arc in a hurry. Perhaps the toughest part about the Tiger guards is their ability to shoot from deep off the bounce – per Hoop Lens, Clemson ranks 258th in percentage of threes from assists, meaning pull ups are seen early and often in Tiger games.

Though Brownell had a fantastic year by any statistical measure, I’m not entirely convinced he has the wherewithal from an X’s and O’s standpoint to beat the hostile defense of the Aggies. Brownell often likes to implement the “roll the balls out and play” strategy, a function of having an experienced group of guards that can each create their own offense. This will not work against New Mexico State. The Aggies rank 14th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom and make life a living Hell for opposing ball handlers. I recently re-watched the Miami / NMSU game, jaw on the floor in disbelief at how smothering the Aggies defense was against the Canes. NMSU can switch nearly every position on the perimeter, they play some of the best help defense I’ve seen out of any team this season, and they dig down effectively in the post, meaning a semi-turnover prone guy like Elijah Thomas could have issues.

New Mexico State on Offense: The Aggies are going to make Clemson’s offensive end of the floor an ugly affair, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the Tigers will do exactly the same thing on the other end. New Mexico State isn’t a great offensive team to begin with, and Clemson ranks 8th in country in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.

NMSU’s offense is heavy on the pick-n-roll and focuses on feeding the post to get the ball as close to the basket as humanly possible. The Aggie offense is like a hammer relentlessly pounding a giant nail through a small hole – it isn’t pretty, but with enough persistence, the job gets done. As cliché as it sounds, NMSU wins a lot of ball games because they simply work harder than the opposing team; guys like Jemerrio Jones and Eli Chuha are monsters on the glass and can bang with bigger post-men like Thomas. Jones is perhaps the best rebounder in the entire country and he’ll have to be extra active to clean up the misses of his not-so-accurate teammates.

This end of the floor is going to be a struggle for NMSU. Clemson guards the pick-n-roll and the post very well, which are the primary avenues Jans’s squad uses to score; additionally, Clemson usually holds its own on the defensive glass.

Key Factor(s): This game is going to be ugly as sin. Neither team is going to be able to score on each other in an easy fashion. In games like these, we here at 3MW like to divert to the coaching matchup. I trust Chris Jans, a branch off the Gregg Marshall coaching tree, a little more than Brad Brownell.

Factor 2 – which team will set the physicality tone? We know both squads can bang and defend with the best in the country, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when two locomotives collide.

Final Predictions: The 12/5 matchup is a magical affair in March Madness with upsets seemingly a regular occurrence. I think this game stays ugly enough for NMSU to stick around and upend the favorited Tigers.

SU Pick: New Mexico State
ATS Pick: New Mexico State +5
O/U Pick: Under 133.5

(4) Auburn vs. (13) Charleston

Initial Thoughts: Two teams enter the Big Dance on different paths. Auburn comes in having lost five of their last nine; Charleston enters after winning 14 of their last 15.

Bruce Pearl, despite all of his shortcomings, turned in one of the more impressive coaching performances of the year, leading his Tigers to a share of the SEC Tournament after being picked to miss the Tourney in the preseason. An injury to center Anfernee McLemore likely capped what was unlimited potential.

Charleston was thought by many to be one of the top mid-majors heading into the season, but a rough start led many to jump off the bandwagon. Earl Grant’s squad appears to have hit its stride at the right time and is starting to vindicate those that believed at the onset of the year.

Auburn on Offense: Transition, triples, and trips to the line, these are the three T’s of the Auburn offense. Per KenPom, Auburn ranks 21st in the country in tempo and look to push the ball up the floor at every opportunity. When in the half court, Pearl’s squad looks pull quickly from deep or attack the rim in hopes of drawing a foul. In fact, it could be said that Auburn lives and dies by three – in its seven losses this season, the Tigers shot under 30% from deep four times and never shot over 35%. Guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown take a very high percentage of pull-up three-pointers, which can often result in large inconsistencies from beyond the arc game-to-game.

Free throws are an oft-ignored part of the game of basketball, but teams at the top of the standings are usually adept at converting their free opportunities from the stripe. Auburn has the unique and enviable combination of being extremely good at getting to the foul line and extremely good at converting from the foul line. Per KenPom, the Tigers rank 38th in the country in free throw rate and 9th in FT%. That combination comes in handy when building leads throughout a game and at the end when toeing the spread.

Charleston is going to try to slow the Tiger machine down to a crawl. The Cougars forced teams to play at the 7th slowest tempo in the country this season with their extended ball pressure that makes it difficult to find clean passing and shooting lanes. Weirdly, this was the worst Earl Grant defensive squad in the past three years. Previously, C of C was one of the premier defensive units in the country, but shifted towards slightly below average in 2017-18. One of the biggest reasons for the slide was three-point defense – Cougar opponents shot better from behind the arc than ever before under Grant, a bad sign against the sweet-stroking Tigers.

While Charleston fell to an average half court defensive squad this season, they were arguably the best transition defense in the country. No team allowed less transition opportunities this season than the Cougars, which could make this game extremely interesting.

Charleston on Offense: Earl Grant returned everyone from a squad that dominated the CAA back in 2016-17. That continuity may have sparked the offensive emergence in Charleston, as the Cougars are sporting perhaps the best offense in school history.

Dynamic guard tandem Grant Riller and Joe Chealey pace the Cougar attack, one that is heavily reliant on the pick-n-roll. Only eight teams in the country run the PnR more than Charleston and both Chealey and Riller excel at using the screen to score points in bunches. Chealey has a more powerful style, using his frame to barrel into the paint and earn trips to the line, while Riller uses his speed to blow past slower defenders. The pair will have their work cut out for them when they face Auburn, who allows only 0.695ppp in pick-n-roll situations, the 53rd best mark in the country.

Auburn may succeed in bottling up the pick-n-roll, but the Tigers may struggle preventing Charleston from getting to the foul line. Auburn ranks 282nd in foul rate, much of which can be blamed on junior big Horace Spencer, who averages 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes. If he’s in foul trouble, Auburn suddenly becomes mighty thin at the forward spot.

Just like on the other end of the floor, this side of the court will be a juxtaposed battle of speeds. Auburn forces teams to play fast – 11th fastest in the country per KenPom – while the Cougars are looking to milk every second of the clock of offense. In order to speed up the Cougars, Auburn will ramp up the pressure in an attempt to turn Charleston over. Lucky for Cougar fans, Charleston ranks 11th nationally in turnover rate.

Key Factor(s): Whose style will win out? We see two teams here that are trying to do the exact opposite on both ends of the floor. Auburn wants to play fast and shoot threes. Charleston wants to slow it down and attack off the bounce.

Final Predictions: I’ve been wrestling with this spread for a while. On one hand, Auburn is completely capable of blowing this one wide open with the way it shoots and runs. On the other, Charleston is an experienced team with a great coach that limits running at all costs. We’ve routinely seen teams light the Cougars up from deep, often to the tune of double digit three-pointers made. Auburn is an injured squad, but one that can cover a spread with late game free throws. I look at other squads Auburn has struggled against – UAB, South Carolina, Temple, Alabama – and see similarities from a physical standpoint to Charleston.

SU Pick: Auburn
ATS Pick: Charleston +10
O/U Pick: Over 148.5

(6) TCU vs. (11) Arizona State / Syracuse

Initial Thoughts: TCU will get the winner of the play-in game between Arizona State and Syracuse. The Horny Frogs burned through their non-conference schedule and entered Big 12 play with a sparkling 12-0 mark. Despite losing star point guard Jaylen Fisher mid-way through Big 12 play, TCU scrapped to a 9-9 league record and earned its first bid to the Dance in forever.

TCU played well enough without Fisher, going 8-7 against a very tough schedule. But, his absence is going to be a factor in this Tournament.

TCU on Offense: The best part about TCU is its offense, the 8th best unit in the country per KenPom. Jamie Dixon runs an attack that is constantly in motion; when the ball is passed, the passer either cuts or screens away. So much action allows TCU to sneak in back-cuts or easy post passes past the defense, making the Frogs incredibly difficult to defend even without fisher.

Dixon’s motion is successful due to his personnel, which usually consists of Brodziansky in the center and four players out on the perimeter. One of those four players out on the perimeter, however, is Kenrich Williams, meaning this offense isn’t your typical 4-guard “4-out, 1-in” look. Williams is a versatile four that shoots over 40% from deep and rebounds on both ends at some of the best rates in the country. His presence on the floor forces opposing teams to play a second big, a player Williams can often exploit out on the perimeter.

Like Michigan State, TCU’s offense is predicated on beating defenses with the pass and not the dribble. The Frogs rank 7th in the country in assist rate thanks in large part to the vision and unselfishness of Alex Robinson, who has filled in brilliantly in Fisher’s stead as the lone point guard. Unselfishness is a common theme among all TCU players; per KenPom, nobody on the team uses more than 23% of the team’s possessions when they are on the court, a clear indication of good old-fashioned team basketball.

I think TCU’s offense has the capability to shred either one of Syracuse’s or Arizona State’s defenses. The ball movement will have ASU guards scrambling and gambling, and the shooting is capable of destroying the ‘Cuse zone. That being said, there’s reasons to believe the Frogs could struggle. The Sun Devils look to force turnovers with its ramped up pressure; TCU is normally a sure-handed squad, but Robinson has been known to get into trouble. Syracuse, despite playing zone, is super lengthy and will challenge TCU shooters.

Arizona State / Syracuse on Offense: TCU’s superb offense does not always carry over to the defensive side of the ball. The Frogs mix in a little zone, but primarily play a man-to-man defense doesn’t not look to force turnovers. Dixon’s squad has struggled all year with allowing open looks from the outside, which is awful news against a team like Arizona State. Their sagging defense does make the Frogs a good defensive rebounding team, so the Orange probably won’t be able to exploit them on the glass.

What worries me most against either ASU or ‘Cuse is TCU’s inability to stop penetration, either via isolation or pick-n-roll. Both the Sun Devils and the Orange rely immensely on dribble attacks to the rim, something TCU is not going to be able to prevent on a consistent basis. While the Frogs do a good job at playing without fouling, they allow far too much near the basket and aren’t good enough on-ball defenders to be successful against the playmaking guards of ASU/’Cuse.

Key Factor(s): TCU’s best chance at advancing to the second round is to outscore its opponent. A game with a lot of possessions will favor the Frogs due to their innate ability to score the basketball. Like I said in the ASU/Syracuse preview, the Orange are very good at dictating the tempo in the games in which they play; TCU is just 3-6 in games under 70 possession this season.

Final Predictions: I’ve loved this TCU team all year, but the absence of Fisher and the porous perimeter defense caps their potential just enough to not like their chances in the first round. The winner of Syracuse / ASU will beat TCU.

SU Pick: Syracuse / Arizona State
ATS Pick: Syracuse / Arizona State +XX
O/U Pick: Over XX

(3) Michigan State vs. (14) Bucknell

Initial Thoughts: There used to be an unwritten rule when filling out a bracket – never bet against Tom Izzo in March. However, Sparty has struggled in their past two Tourney appearances, falling to a 15-seeded Middle Tennessee squad back in 2016 and getting dubbed by a good Kansas team last season. This year, Izzo has perhaps his most talented roster ever assembled and Michigan State cruised to a 29-4 record. Poor non-conference scheduling and a down Big Ten prevented Sparty from earning a 1-seed, but this team is every bit a threat to crash the Final Four party.

Bucknell had preseason aspirations to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid after returning nearly everyone from a 26-9 (15-3) squad a year ago. The Bison fell short in seven tough non-conference road games and ended up needing to win the Patriot tournament to secure a berth, a feat they accomplished in blow-out fashion.

Michigan State on Offense: Sparty has one of the most balanced rosters in the country, with its electric point guard, Cassius Winston, superstar wing, Miles Bridges, and young stud forwards, Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward. This balance combined with Izzo’s patented motion offense creates poetry on the scoring end of the floor.

MSU ranked 9th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency this year (per KenPom), a consequence of sharpshooting (4th best 3P% nationally) and exquisite ball movement. For the second time in three seasons, Sparty ranked 1st in the country is assist rate – Michigan State doesn’t beat teams off the dribble, rather it breaks down its opponents with the pass. Cassius Winston, who had the 15th best o-rating in the country this season, ranked 2nd nationally in assist rate; he is the catalyst to a patient offense that looks to create opportunities by working inside-out.

A lot of times, Izzo will focus on running offense through a particular player such as Nick Ward on the block. Ward and his counterpart Jaren Jackson each were just about unstoppable in post-up situations this season and proved adept about passing out of the post when defenses sent a double. The gravitational pull guys like Ward and Jackson create leaves plenty of space for Sparty’s snipers (Winston, Josh Langford, Matt McQuaid) to wreak havoc on delayed close-outs. Bridges is the jack of all trades that’s able to beat his opponent in a myriad of ways and serves as a bail-out option when the offense stagnates (which isn’t very often).

Like all supermen, Sparty has one Kryptonite: turnovers. Winston and back-up PG Tum Tum Nairn have documented issues taking care of the basketball in certain situations, and even the big men can be susceptible to coughing up the rock. Forcing turnovers may be the only conceivable route to beating Sparty outside of praying for a cold night, and Bucknell is not a turnover-forcing machine.

The Bison’s main strategy on defense is to take away the three-point line in an effort to send opposing ball handlers to the depths of the paint where Nana Foulland lurks. While this strategy may work in a league like the Patriot, Sparty is unlikely to be fazed by this approach given their immense size and versatility at every position. Foulland may be able to hold his own in the post against either Ward or Jackson, but his counterpart is liable to be worked in the paint. 6’7” senior Zach Thomas is a good defender, but he’s undersized to guard the Sparty bigs and 6’8” sophomore Bruce Moore may not play due to suspension. Don’t expect Nathan Davis to zone either – Bucknell played exclusively man-to-man during the season.

Bucknell on Offense: Bucknell, like Sparty, runs an unselfish motion offense that depends on crisp ball movement to score. However, where Michigan State does a little bit of everything on offense, the Bison tend to lean towards transition and post-ups to fuel their attack. Transition-wise, Bucknell is best and most deadly when running following an opponent score; the Bison get the ball out of the net quickly in hopes to catch the opposing team off guard on the other end.

In the half-court, offense primarily runs through Foulland (or Thomas) on the block. Only Oral Roberts spent more time posting up than Bucknell this season, and the Bison rank 34th in the country in points per possession scored on the block (0.967ppp). On a PPP-basis, Sparty is average defending the post; however, outliers like letting Isaac Haas do whatever he wants in the Purdue game skew this stat a bit. The more damning stat for Bucknell is Michigan State’s field goal % allowed near the bucket (Exhibit A: North Carolina game in the PK80). Per KenPom, Sparty ranked #1 in the country in 2PFG% defense (38.4%) and 1st in block rate (18.8%). Per Hoop-Math, Sparty ranked 2nd in FG% allowed at the rim. This projects terribly for a Bucknell team reliant on scoring through the post and from the foul line (via post-ups and drives) to score.

Given the size of Michigan State, I’d expect Nathan Davis to shift is offensive focus to a more perimeter-based attack. Despite running primarily through the post, the Bison can and will shoot the basketball. Thomas shot 37% from deep this year and guards Stephen Brown and Kimbal MacKenzie are capable of heating up in a hurry.

Key Factor(s): Bucknell will need to have a good shooting night to defeat, or even stay close with, the Spartans. The Bison aren’t likely to produce enough pressure to turn Izzo’s team over, and scoring through the post consistently seems like an insurmountable task. On defense, Bucknell will need to work to keep the 5th best offensive rebounding team in the country off the glass.

Final Predictions: On paper, Michigan State should have no trouble winning this game and covering the spread. Bucknell isn’t a push over by any stretch of the imagination, and it certainly has the talent to compete with power 6 squads, but MSU takes away so well what the Bison try to accomplish on offense.

SU Pick: Michigan State
ATS Pick: Michigan State -14.5
O/U Pick: Under 148.5


(7) Rhode Island vs. (10) Oklahoma

Initial Thoughts: I kind of feel bad for Trae Young. Here’s a guy that was absolutely SENSATIONAL during the first half of the season, so much so that he was all the media *cough ESPN cough* would talk about. This caused college basketball fans to grow weary of Young, and when he dropped from SENSATIONAL to just REALLY GOOD in the second half of the season, people started nitpicking every part of his game. Given, OU went on a colossal downslide after January 30th, losing 8 of their last 10 games leading many to question their credentials as an NCAA Tournament team. That’s a fair beef, but let’s leave Mr. Young alone gang, yeah? No? Ok, you don’t have to.

Rhode Island comes in on a bit of a downbeat itself. The Rams are just 4-4 since rattling off a 16 game winning streak and opening A-10 play 13-0. The most bizarre of those losses came at the hands of St. Joe’s on senior night when Rhody lost by a stunning 30 points.

Rhode Island on Offense: Overall, Rhody had a strong offensive team during the season, but it was susceptible to some pretty awful performances throughout the campaign. In four of URI’s seven losses, the Rams scored less than 0.90ppp – for context, the 6th worst offensive team in the country this season scored 0.903ppp. URI is vulnerable to these type of nights due to the type of style it plays on the offensive end.

Dan Hurley essentially plays four wings around a big man in the middle (usually Andre Berry or Cyril Langevine), and his squad runs a ball screen to start just about every possession. Pick-n-rolls are a great tool because they can create so many options for an offense – a dump to a rolling big, a pull-up jumper by the ball handler, a drive to the hoop, or a kick to an open teammate on the perimeter. In Rhode Island’s case, these ball screens skew primarily to two options – 1) hit the roll man, or 2) drive hard off the screen and look to score. Guys like Jeff Dowtin and Jared Terrell are excellent scoring off the PnR, but the action leads to potential stagnation on the offensive end as off-ball wings can fall into the tendency of staring at the 2-man game being played in the middle of the floor (the most recent Davidson game is a prime example of this).

It’s due to this dribble-heavy, isolation style of play that Rhode Island can sometimes put up ghastly offensive numbers. Luckily for Hurley, he has two great individual creators on his roster in Terrell and E.C. Matthews that can each bail the offense out from time to time with a tough drive to the hoop or a deep three.

Outside of Young, Oklahoma’s roster is chock full of athletic, long wings that should be capable of bodying up to Matthews and Terrell, but none of them have shown the ability to get consistent stops in isolation or the pick-n-roll. It also should be worrisome for OU that Trae Young gives up 0.872ppp when guarding the ball handler in a pick-n-roll situation, which ranked in the 28th percentile of the country. Dowtin should have a field day attacking Young off Berry and Langevine screens.  

Oklahoma on Offense: Oklahoma’s offense can be described in two words: Trae Young. It should come as no surprise to anyone that has been even remotely following college basketball this season to learn that Young leads the country in usage (which is a stat used to show how often a player is responsible for ending a possession, either via a shot or committing a turnover). Young also leads the country in assist rate, so calling him a selfish player wouldn’t be entirely fair, but it’s obvious his decision-making (such as launching a 30-footer five seconds into the shot clock) can take his team out of rhythm on the offensive end.

Against Rhode Island, Young may be forced to rely on his teammates more than he’s been used to. URI is a very long, physical defense that is bound to ramp up the pressure on Young (and perhaps even send double-teams) in order to get the ball out of his hands. Dowtin is a superb on-ball defender, and he likely draws the matchup at the opening tip.

To avoid playing too much in the half-court against one of the best half-court defenses in the country, expect Oklahoma to run like crazy in transition. The Sooners rank 4th in the country in adjusted tempo (KenPom) and 5th in most shots attempted in transition (Hoop-Math). Rhody can be beaten in transition and would prefer to keep this game closer to the 70 possession mark. Due to this fact, it would surprise me to see Hurley use a ton of full-court pressure; the Rams are a good pressing team and force turnovers at the 5th best rate in the nation, but OU ranks 30th in PPP against the press (Synergy) and this will serve in speeding the Sooners up instead of slowing them down.

The final aspect to watch when OU has the ball, is how well Rhody can shade the three-point line. Only ten teams in the country allowed less three-point attempts this season than the Rams, but no other team in the country has a guy that consistently makes 35-foot pull-ups.

Key Factor(s): Oklahoma has looked like an entirely different team since the start of February and I’m concerned they’re role players won’t step up to the challenge when URI is harassing Young up and down the floor. On the other end, I’m not too worried about Rhode Island being stymied by the Sooner defense given OU is just average at defending the one area that URI really hammers.  

Final Predictions: Trae Young certainly has the potential to say “F the haters” and go for 40 in this game and then carry the Sooners to the Final Four. But, I’ll take my chances with a Rams team that’s as physical as they come and that will be laser-focused on stopping the best scorer in nation.

SU Pick: Rhode Island
ATS Pick: Rhode Island -2
O/U Pick: Over 158


(2) Duke vs. (15) Iona

Initial Thoughts: Entering the year, Duke looked like the clear team to beat in a competitive national landscape – much like it did back in 2016-17. Though the Devils turned in an overall solid season, head scratchers like losses to Boston College and St. John’s stood out on an otherwise pristine resume. With everyone healthy (including Coach K), Duke looks to overwhelm the Midwest region with its embarrassment of talent.

Like Duke, Iona was expected to run through its competition this season, just on a slightly smaller scale. A unanimous pick to win the MAAC in the preseason, Iona finished in 4th place in the mid-major conference due primarily to an inconsistent defense. The Gaels will need to play the best defense of their collective careers to compete in this one.

Duke on Offense: The Dukies run a spread out attack on offense that allows their plethora of weapons to pick apart helpless defenders in space. Offensively, Coach K has no shortage of catalysts as Duke often plays through any one of Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen, Trevon Duval, or Wendell Carter. Expect Duke to ride their freshman big men early and often in this game; Iona is one of the smallest teams in the country and has the tendency to play interior defense with about the same effectiveness as a gaping hole.

Because of the size discrepancy, Tim Cluess is going to throw several different defenses at the Devils. Expect the Gaels to show full-court pressure, various zones, and man-to-man in an attempt to keep the superior Devils off balance on offense. On the surface, zoning Duke is probably the obvious decision for most of the game as the Devils really only have two efficient high-volume outside shooters in Allen and Gary Trent. Literally every Duke player on the floor (with the exception of Duval and the reserve bigs) is capable of knocking down a trey, but forcing the Devils to become one dimensional on offense is Cluess’s best chance at an upset. The issue with zoning Duke is the high probability of getting murdered on the glass; the Devils are the best offensive rebounding team in the country and Iona is one of the worst.

Will Iona’s press work against Duke? It might! The Gaels press at the 23rd highest rate in the country in an attempt to force turnovers to fuel their transition offense, and Duke hasn’t seen a ton of press this season. The Devils are only 283rd in the country in PPP against the press and Duval is liable to have occasional turnover spells. When Duke does break the press, however, there’s literally no offensive player on the floor that does not have an advantage over their defensive counterpart.

Iona on Offense: Iona’s offense relies on transition opportunities and the long-ball to score buckets. Cluess features a 4-guard lineup in an attempt to space the floor and out-run opponents; the Gaels are 33rd in the nation in 3P% (KenPom) and rank 17th in initial FGA% in transition (Hoop-Math).

Given Duke’s recent love affair with zone defense, it’ll be interesting to see if Coach K sticks with this defensive philosophy against Iona, a team that isn’t trying to beat anybody inside, at the rim, or on the offensive glass. The Devil zone has been lock-down this season, but I’d assume Coach K strays away from it for much of the game given the Gaels’ high propensity to shoot three-pointers and tendency to make said three-pointers. Also, Iona crushes zone defenses; the Gaels rank 17th in the country in PPP vs. zone defense (Synergy), so it may be smarter for the Dukies to man up on this end.

As far as transition goes, Duke is an above average team at preventing teams from getting out and running, and it will clearly be a point of emphasis in K’s game plan heading into Thursday.

Key Factor(s): Duke needs to avoid beating itself. For stretches of games this season, the Devils chemistry hasn’t been all the way there – with so much star power sharing the court at one time, excessive passiveness or excessive “my turn, your turn” style of play can hinder them offensively. I don’t foresee this being a major issue against Iona.

The Gaels will need to shoot well from behind the arc and put a body on Duke every Devil shot attempt. On paper, Duke should massacre this team on the glass on both ends of the floor.

Final Predictions: Both teams like to play an uptempo style of basketball which could lead to high scores and high score differentials. I think Duke cruises to an easy victory in this one, possibly by 30.

SU Pick: Duke
ATS Pick: Duke -19.5
O/U Pick: Over 157