First Four Preview - 2017-18 NCAA Tournament

(16) LIU Brooklyn vs. (16) Radford

-Matt Cox

Initial Thoughts: The Blackbirds and Highlanders receive the almighty honor of kicking off the 2018 NCAA tournament tomorrow evening in Dayton. While the offensive juggernaut Villanova Wildcats awaits the winner of this duel, there's still plenty at stake for a pair of head coaches at vastly different stages in their respective coaching careers . On one hand, Mike Jones (WHO?!) badly needed to build some momentum this season after walking on the proverbial treadmill of mediocrity for the past two years in Radford. After finishing 9-9 and 8-10 in the Big South in 2016 and 2017, respectively, the Highlanders final broke through in 2018 for Jones' 3rd 20-win season and their first since 2015. After a rather surprising 12-6 showing in Big South play, the only thing missing from Jones' mantle was an NCAA tournament auto-bid, which was delivered in dramatic fashion courtesy of freshman Carlik Jones' ballsy buzzer-beating pull-up last week against Liberty:

On the other hand, Derek Kellogg is hitting the reset button at his new home in Brooklyn after patrolling the sidelines in Amherst, MA for almost a decade. Known for his relentless 90-foot defensive pressure, Kellogg's up-tempo style of play was a rather seamless transition for the returning Blackbirds who were used to playing at a track meet pace under former leading man Jack Perri. And after a commanding 10-point win at Wagner to clinch the NEC's auto-bid, Kellogg now has LIU-Brooklyn back in the dance for the first time since 2013. 

LIU-Brooklyn on Offense: A quick first glance at LIU-B's team page would lead you to believe that they may in be trouble against the Highlander's full-court pressure - the Blackbirds rank 252nd nationally in offensive turnover rate and coughed up the rock at the 4th highest clip in the NEC this year. But diving deeper into the situational metrics reveals that Kellogg's squad should be well-equipped to handle the Highlanders' baseline-to-baseline defensive coverage. Per synergy, LIU-B ranks in the 89th percentile in offensive efficiency against pressing defenses, much of which is due to the three-headed perimeter core of Julian Batts, Jashaun Agosto and Joel Hernandez. The sure handed ball-handlers shouldn't be rattled by the pressure, but once they do bypass the 1st wave of defenders, points in the half-court will likely come at a premium. LIU-B had success in the NEC championship game against an undersized Wagner team which plays a true 4-out, 1-in lineup with four guards along the perimeter. 6'6 guard/wing Raiquan Clark typically exposes undersized guards in the NEC, but he'll likely draw one of the Big South's most versatile defensive weapons in Ed Polite who possesses the length and lateral quickness needed to keep Clark in check.

Radford on Offense: There's an old adage amongst basketball coaches that pressing a pressing team is typically an effective strategy - I'm not one who buys-in to this theory, but that's precisely what we'll get to witness tomorrow in Dayton. Derek Kellogg has stayed true to his roots since coming over from UMASS and will surely attempt to speed up the Highlanders slow, methodical offense with his patented full-court press. If the young Radford backcourt can get the Highlanders into their half-court offense, you'll see a heavy dose of motion sets that feature constant off-ball movement and an array of screening actions. This manifests itself into a rather balanced offensive attack for Radford, but Ed Polite - the 6'5 200 pound junior forward - is the Highlanders' meal ticket when they need a bucket in crunch time. While he's relatively undersized for his true offensive position at the 4, Polite generates a ton of mismatch situations against mid and low-major opponents with his ability to step away from the lane and slash against more plodding bigs. While Kellogg did inherit a handful of versatile weapons at the forward spot (Clark, Jamall Robinson, Zach Coleman and Julius van Sauers, all of whom range from 6'6 - 6'8), the Blackbirds have not seen an athletic force like Polite all season long. The Highlanders will likely attempt to isolate both Polite and big Randy Phillips on the block against the leaner LIU-B frontcourt.

Key Factor(s): While both teams will showcase plenty of extended defensive pressure, the classic struggle to control the tempo rings especially true here - both teams have been exceptional this season at dictating the pace of play to their terms, but something will have to give tomorrow night. The interesting thing here is that while I'd bet Radford likely forces the hand of LIU-B to play more in the half-court, the Blackbirds displayed impressive offensive execution against Wagner in the NEC title game when the tempo slowed substantially.

Final Predictions: This is a tricky matchup to predict how the game will play out, but Radford's frontline gives them a slight edge over the Blackbirds - If Jones is smart, he will prioritize working the ball inside-out from Polite and Phillips on the block and force Kellogg to consider bringing his guards down from the perimeter to double the post.

SU Pick: Radford
ATS Pick: Radford -4
O/U Pick: TBD


(11) St. Bonaventure vs. (11) UCLA

-Matt Cox

Initial Thoughts: If you subscribe to the belief that guards win in March then you oughta give a good, hard look at taking the winner of the Bonnies / Bruins to the 2nd weekend of your bracket. Aaron Holiday vs. Jaylen Adams is a prolific matchup on its own, but throw in Matt Mobley, Jaylen Hands and Prince Ali to the mix and you have yourself a juicy, guard-centric battle which should produce one of the more entertaining games of the opening round slate.

St. Bonaventure on Offense: Adams and Mobley are both born scorers capable of filling it up from all three level on the floor - and while their long-range shooting precision is exceptional, their highly efficient offensive games stem from an innate ability to live at the charity stripe. Adams, Mobley, along with ultra-versatile 6'6 wings Courtney Stockard (status still TBD for the tournament) and LaDarien Griffin, each ranked inside the top-20 percentile nationally in FT rate, a strong indicator of their effectiveness in slashing and drawing contact. Unfortunately, when the Bonnies don't get a friendly whistle the offense can become a bit of an eye-sore. Oddly enough, the Bonnies converted just 48% of their 2-point field goals this season - the lowest clip in the A-10 - despite shooting a league leading 40% from behind the arc. So while Mark Schmidt has branded an offensive style that is highly leveraged on 3s and free throws, much of their efficiency rest in the looseness of the referee's whistle - and against a UCLA team that notoriously defends without fouling, the Bonnies will need to finish their close range attempts to feel good about their chances tomorrow night.

UCLA on Offense: The rise of Aaron Holiday as one of the nation's elite lead guards cannot be understated - the Pac-12's highest usage player was also its 11th most efficient thanks to an unconsciously hot hand from downtown. Holiday rained in a blistering hot 51% of his trey balls in league play to supplement his already deadly dribble-drive game that so often generates wide open looks for his teammates. The explosive backcourt tandem of Holiday, Prince Ali and Jaylen Hands should be a tough cover for the Bonnies backcourt, even with Schmidt beginning to shift his focus to a perimeter-oriented lineup that frequently slots Griffin as a small-ball 5. Keep in mind that UCLA boasts one of the longest frontlines in the country with some combination of Thomas Welsh, Gyorgy Goloman and Alex Olesinksi always on the floor at the 4 and 5 positions, next to Kris Wilkes at the 3. The Bonnies doubled Peyton Aldridge in the post on almost every touch in the A-10 championship game, so it will be interesting to see how he deals with the trees of UCLA if Alford opts to play through his bigs out of the post. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Schmidt throw out some zone, but UCLA's shooting precision and unselfishness should shred that defensive scheme.

Key Factor(s): Transition defense will be pivotal in this matchup given how much both teams want to push the pace. According to, the Bonnies are a much more disciplined defensive transition team than the Bruins, so look for Adams and Mobley to force the action out on the break and exploit transition opportunities off live ball rebounds.

Final Predictions: On paper, the Bruins got a real favorable matchup in this opening round showdown with the Bonnies. Not only do I worry about the Bonnies being able to stay in-front of Holiday and the other Bruin guards, but the packline-esque nature of Schmidt's man-to-man defense will likely surrender plenty of open looks to UCLA's 3-point marksmen. 

ATS Pick: UCLA -3.5
O/U Pick: [TBD]



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

-Jim Root

Initial Thoughts: Two no-brainer play-in candidates, the representatives of the nation’s two worst conferences will do battle as your loyal 3MW writers are 30,000 feet up on Wednesday night. The heavy preseason SWAC favorite, Texas Southern surprised many by stumbling to 6 league losses (after a hellish non-conference schedule saw them start 0-13), but they recovered to run through the conference tournament and (as usual) sport a couple high-major transfers headlining their attack. LeVelle Moton’s second straight NCAA Tournament squad returns almost no one from last year (Pablo Rivas played 26 minutes in the First Four loss to UC Davis, CJ Wiggins played 1 minute), so a new cast of characters (including a dual-freshman backcourt) will hope for a better result this time around.

Texas Southern on Offense: The Tigers want to play through their perimeter studs as much as possible, namely Donte Clark (a UMass grad transfer), 5’7 dynamo Trae Jefferson, and Derrick Bruce (an Oregon State transfer). Texas Southern led the entire country in isolation possessions, primarily because those three players were often so far ahead of their defenders, talent-wise. NCC will primarily play two freshmen in the backcourt, so expect a steady diet of isolation for the lightning-quick Jefferson to test if the youngsters can keep up with him.

Of course, Moton isn’t going to just sit back and let TSU’s guards carve them up. He used a variety of zone defenses (some 1-3-1, some 2-3 that sort of looks like a 2-1-2) in league play to disrupt opponents’ rhythm, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him throw in that wrinkle, especially if the Eagles struggle to stop penetration early.

To combat that zone, Texas Southern will look to push the tempo at every opportunity. Each of the starting guards can push the ball off a defensive rebound, and if they can beat NCC down the court for some easy buckets, it might deter NCC from attacking the glass as intently (more on that below). Again, Jefferson is blinding in the open floor, and his decision-making improved demonstrably from last season.

NC Central on Offense:  In the MEAC, the Eagles’ big edge on offense was its skilled big man tandem of Raasean Davis (Kent State transfer) and Pablo Rivas. Both shot over 60% inside the arc this year, and Rivas even has range to the three-point line. Davis could use his wide frame to bully smaller opponents, often to great effect, but in this matchup, TSU’s 7’2 Auburn transfer Trayvon Reed likely curbs that advantage. Reed is (obviously) massive and very good shot-blocker, and if he can shut down Davis without much help, NCC’s offense could struggle to find points.

The other main avenue for NCC to score, then, is on the offensive glass. Because TSU wants to push in transition at all times (and they play some zone themselves), the Tiger guards are awful rebounders, meaning long rebounds and tap outs are viable options. This battle – between TSU grabbing boards and starting the break vs. NCC getting second chance points – could be the tipping point come Wednesday night.   

Key Factor(s): The coaching matchup of Moton vs. Mike Davis is an extremely high level one for a 16-seed play-in game. Both guys have turned their teams into a power in their respective leagues, finding players through any avenue possible (transfers, junior college, even a few talented freshmen), so there isn’t much differentiation in that regard. The key, then, will likely be the tempo. If it’s played at a fast pace where TSU can score in the open floor, the Tigers could run away with this one. But if Moton and the freshmen guards can somehow control the tempo and turn it into a slog of a halfcourt game, NCC will likely cover and have a chance to win.

Final Predictions: It feels weird to say this about a SWAC and MEAC matchup, but I actually think the talent gap is wide enough here to take TSU. Guards often rule in March, and Jefferson, Clark, and Bruce certainly should outplay the green tandem of Reggie Gardner and Jordan Perkins. I'll go with Texas Southern, 83-74. 

SU Pick: Texas Southern
ATS Pick: Texas Southern -4
O/U Pick: Over 147

(11) Syracuse vs. (11) Arizona State

-Ky McKeon

Initial Thoughts: For the second time in three years, Syracuse finds itself controversially in the NCAA Tournament. Though my esteemed colleague Jim Root had the Orange correctly in the Field of 68, most members of the Bracket Project over at had the Fighting Boeheims on the outside looking in. Alas, the past is the past and now we must look to the future. Syracuse is in the Big Dance and set to face off against Arizona State, a former top five team that had arguably the best non-conference performance out of any team in the country. It’s an intriguing battle between a surprising entrant and a squad that nearly choked away a bid.

Arizona State on Offense: Back when the Sun Devils were running train on everyone they faced, I wrote a deep dive on what made Bobby Hurley’s squad so deadly. To put it simply: it’s all about the guards. ASU ranked 17th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom thanks to stellar guard play from its senior backcourt tandem, Shannon Evans and Tra Holder. The pair pace the offense with a similar style of play that focuses on rim attack and spot-ups off penetration. Pick-n-roll and isolation were the preferred play types for the Devils; ASU ranked 24th in % plays ending via pick-n-roll and ranked 4th in the country in points scored per possession (PPP) in isolation (per Synergy). A key factor of their offensive success has been the emphasis on taking good shots; Hurley has stressed getting shots near the rim or behind the arc, so mid-range jump shots are a rarity.

Of course, Syracuse is going to zone Arizona State because Syracuse plays the most zone out of any team in the country. The Devils are no stranger to a zone, having faced off against the defensive set 30.4% of their possessions, the 10th highest rate in the country. Why do so many teams seem to zone Arizona State, a team that’s capable of lighting the nets afire from deep? The answer lies in how ASU likes to create offense. A zone is inherently difficult to score against via dribble penetration, which the Devils use almost exclusively to score points. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that ASU ranks just 120th in PPP (0.958) against zone defenses (per Synergy), and the Orange are damn good at playing it. Per KenPom, Syracuse ranks 11th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, a seeming consequence of their superior guard length and athleticism.

Aside from rim attack and drive-and-kick, Arizona State relies heavily on transition opportunities to score; the Devils rank 36th in tempo (per KenPom) and score in transition at the 15th best rate in the country. You can bet a key cog in Hurley’s strategy on Wednesday will be pushing off the defensive glass in an attempt to beat ‘Cuse down the floor before the Orange set up in their patented 2-3 look.

Syracuse on Offense: This end of the floor will be an interesting battle of mediocrity. Syracuse is not a good offensive team, scoring only 0.858 PPP (260th in the nation) and ranking 321st in eFG%. On the flip side, Arizona State’s defense can often be a sieve.

Lack of shooting prowess forces Syracuse to be very reliant on getting to the free throw line to score points; the Orange are 9th in % of points scored from the foul line which is propelled by guards Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett’s knack for getting the rack (similar to how the Devil guards like to attack). Isolation is the preferred method for scoring for Boeheim’s offense – ‘Cuse is 3rd in the country in % of possessions resulting from isolation and three of its guards rank among the top isolation usage individually. Second in importance to scoring via the free throw line is Syracuse’s ability to rebound off the offensive glass. With so many bricks being heaved from downtown and the mid-range area, the Orange bigs must be active in chasing down misses. Led by Pascal Chukwu, 4th-best offensive rebounder in the ACC by rate, Syracuse is a dynamite offensive rebounding team (12th in the country by rate), which is bad news for an Arizona State team that ranks 267th in defensive rebounding rate.

As stated above, ASU does not have a great defense, but it does force its fair share of turnovers thanks to the quick hands and feet of Evans and freshman Remy Martin. Syracuse has struggled mightily with turnovers this season, though its guards have been pretty solid. The Orange’s issues usually come from passing out of the post, passing out of traps, and big men catching passes in traffic. The Devils have proven to be pesky at digging in the post and forcing errant decisions out of the pick-n-roll – and their defense allows only 0.689 PPP in isolation (86th percentile in the country), per Synergy. 

Key Factor(s): Pace of play. Arizona State likes to play fast, get out in transition, and play a game in the 75-possession range or higher. Syracuse plays at a tortoise pace, ranking 342nd in the nation in tempo. Boeheim likes to milk the clock in order to limit opponents’ offensive opportunities and save the legs of his very short rotation – no team in the country plays its starters more than Syracuse.

The team that controls the tempo will win this basketball game. To wit, Arizona State is just 4-5 in games with 70 or less possessions, but is 16-6 in games with over 70 possessions. A slow game that forces the Devils to consistently beat Syracuse’s zone in a half-court setting will spell doom for the Devils in Dayton. ASU must rebound on the defensive glass and run like Hell in order to take down ‘Cuse. 

Final Predictions: I trust Syracuse more than Arizona State to control the tempo in this game. ‘Cuse has played only four (4!) games this season with over 70 possessions, proving it has quite the knack for dictating the pace of play. ASU’s poor offensive stats against zone defenses is troubling as well; the Devils need dribble penetration and the open floor in order to win ball games. The Orange’s offensive glass crashing could lead to run out opportunities, but the Devils just don’t have enough muscle to take care of business on the boards.

SU Pick: Syracuse
ATS Pick: Syracuse +1.5
O/U Pick: Under 143.5