East Region Preview: 2019 NCAA Tournament

-Jim Root

(1) Duke vs. (16) TBD

Initial Thoughts: I’ll turn this section over to NC Central head coach Levelle Moton, who had a priceless reaction when asked about the potential of facing Zion Williamson and Duke in a 1/16 matchup (courtesy of @SportsChannel8 on Twitter):

“Some coaches will say ‘we'll take on anyone! We'll be ready!’ But I don't want ANY part of playing Duke. Us playing against Zion would be like my 6-year-old son playing against me.”

Moton’s brutally honest summary paints this matchup in the proper light: Duke will be toying with either NDSU or NCCU, regardless of who advances.

One more mini note: You’ll be STUNNED to know that Duke was given the featured Friday night time slot, with CBS’s A-team announcing crew (Nantz/Raftery/Hill//Wolfson), despite that this game is certain to be a laugher. The power of Zion rules the almighty marketing dollar.

Duke on Offense: This is going to be an uphill battle for whichever squad wins on Wednesday, as both are tremendously vulnerable on the interior. Both Dave Richman (NDSU’s coach) and Moton take away the three-point line in their base defenses, but your best hope to avoid an avalanche of dunks is to pack it in the paint and hope RJ Barrett/Jack White/Tre Jones are building a house of bricks. Richman and Moton are certainly smart enough to realize this, but understanding that notion and putting it into action are two entirely different things. Zion simply defies the laws of traditional defense, as his size and leaping ability allow him to score at the rim against whatever and whoever you throw at him.

Quite honestly, Coach K should use this game as a chance to build the confidence of his role players: let White, Alex O’Connell, and Jordan Goldwire (and Joey Baker?!) fire away in this one, giving them a chance to earn K’s trust in the tournament setting (hell, Goldwire probably already has it after the spark he provided in the ACCT).

NDSU or NCCU on Offense: My colleague Matt has been adamant about the value of Marques Bolden to the Devil defense. He’s far superior to Javin DeLaurier in his rim protection and general mental approach to this end of the court, and UNC’s success in the lane in the ACC semifinals supports that theory. That doesn’t mean Duke is going to be soft at the rim without him – Zion is still on the court – but it does open up more chances to score inside.

NC Central will likely gamble that it can snag a few offensive rebounds (good luck with that), while NDSU is going to focus far more on getting back and stopping the Devils in transition. Raasean Davis (Kent St. transfer) and Jibri Blount (Cleveland St. transfer) both have a higher pedigree than the MEAC, meaning they won’t be quite as overmatched as you might expect, but still – the athleticism gap may ruin any chance the Eagles have at earning second chance points.

Key Factor(s): To hang around with Duke, you have to make perimeter shots, and the Bison have a far better shot at pulling that off. NC Central shot just 31.2% from deep, with only one player (Randy Miller) posing any sort of consistent threat. NDSU, on the other hand, has an array of bombers, and they took the 10th-highest share of three-pointers in the country. 6’10 center Rocky Kreuser and his 35% shooting from deep will likely be a thorn in Coach K’s side, as I expect Kreuser to hit a couple early open threes while DeLaurier wanders around the paint for some unknown reason.

Still, though, Duke has consistently crushed bad teams by insane margins this year, even in their formative stages early in the year. Here’s the Devils’ ATS results against small conference foes from early this season:

One of the non-covers was against Coach K’s alma mater (Army), and an incredibly sleepy Devils team still nearly covered the mid-week Hartford game against a team with five senior starters. If you do take the dog, just know that there’s a possibility Duke wins by 60 points (just ask Stetson).  

Final Predictions: 5dimes has actually released a line for this game (Duke -35), regardless of opponent, so I’ll go off that (that number will almost certainly change depending who actually wins). I’m fairly confident Duke will get outside of that number for a period of time, particularly against NC Central, but I definitely have some backdoor concerns if Coach K decides to give Zion et al a smaller workload ahead of a round 2 rock fight against UCF or VCU. Fresh off a sprained MCL, Williamson played 111 of 120 possible minutes in the ACCT, including all 40 minutes in the title game Saturday night. While he should be plenty rested, it would make sense to let Jordan Goldwire, Antonio Vrankovic, and Justin Robinson clean up the final five or six minutes of this one.

SU Pick: Duke
ATS Pick: 
NDSU/NCCU +35 – hopefully it’s NDSU
O/U Pick: 
TBD (not posted yet)

(8) VCU vs. (9) UCF

Initial Thoughts: The second game revealed during the Selection Show (and the first complete matchup) has the potential to be the ugliest round one game, as both VCU and UCF can put opposing offenses in a vice. They do it in different ways, but the result is likely the same: a massive struggle for points.

We often tease Johnny Dawkins about his affinity for the NIT, and for good reason: this is only his second NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years as a head coach. On the other hand, Mike Rhoades has the Rams dancing in his second year at the helm, which brought about this impressive stat:

Pretty dang impressive for a school that’s been in the CAA and A-10 through all five of those tenures.

VCU on Offense: There are two very divergent paths here: half court and transition. If VCU is forced to play in the half court against a set UCF defense, this is going to be ugly. Dawkins alternates between man and a morphing matchup zone that allows 7’6 Tacko Fall to camp under the rim and wreak havoc:

The presence of Fall (and/or Chad Brown) in the paint makes scoring inside a near impossibility, so you have to hit jump shots, and that…is not VCU’s forte. The Rams hit just 30.7% of their threes this year (330th in the country), and while that did rise to 32.0% in A-10 play, it’s not going to be a winning approach over the long term. That means easy points via transition or free throws are an absolute necessity; more on that below in Key Factors.

The Rams are also one of the worst offenses in the country in late shot clock situations, and UCF frequently puts teams in that uncomfortable position. Evans is an excellent creator, but without much shooting around him, there’s very little room to operate, and that will be exacerbated by UCF’s length across the board. Except quite a few heaves with the shot clock winding down, surely everyone’s favorite play to watch.

One other potential route to offense for VCU is via second chance points. Despite being absolutely massive, UCF isn’t particularly effective at cleaning the glass, a symptom of the matchup zone and playing lineups with Aubrey Dawkins at the four, and the Rams’ center duo will both attack the glass with abandon. In a low-scoring game, a couple putbacks or open kick-out threes could be pivotal.

UCF on Offense: This is the best offensive team Johnny Dawkins has had at UCF (damning with faint praise). There’s basically two different systems here: the one with Tacko on the floor (let him sit in the lane and post up and snatch offensive boards) and the one without him (more of an open, pick-and-roll-based system that lets BJ Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins create).

Getting Aubrey healthy and eligible has made a world of difference, and the Hoop Lens on/off numbers paint a colorful picture of how much he means:

Rhoades has approximately 37 different 6’4-6’6 wings he can use to harass Dawkins, but the Michigan transfer is talented enough to find ways to score regardless. A healthy year of Taylor at point guard has helped as well, as he’s a whirling dervish going to the lane and a solid facilitator for the rest of the roster.

VCU pressures a ton defensively (full court press nearly 30% of the time), using its highly switchable stable of wings to harass guards and funnel them into the Rams’ elite rim protection. VCU opponents are shooting just 51.1% at the rim, per hoop-math, thanks to the efforts of Corey Douglas and Marcos Santos-Silva. All of that pressure leads to far too many fouls, though, and UCF is going to live at the line in this one. If Taylor and Dawkins are the ones taking those freebies, that’s a win for UCF; if it’s Fall and UCF’s other bigs, it’s less of an issue. Ultimately, UCF probably struggles to score against the second-best half court defense.

Key Factor(s): I briefly touched on it in the “VCU on Offense” section: this really comes down to whether VCU can find easy buckets via their defense and in transition. The Knights’ defense is most vulnerable when it isn’t yet set, opening the paint for driving lanes and cutters. VCU has one of the widest gaps between average possession length on offense vs. defense, indicating the Rams’ propensity to selectively push in transition when the opportunities present themselves. If Evans and VCU’s wings can beat the UCF defense down the court, they’ll steal some easy baskets that could be crucial.

Also - Evans’s health is CRUCIAL. For whatever success VCU has on offense, he’s often a huge part of it, and he went down in a heap in the A-10 quarterfinal loss to Rhode Island. Most seem to think he’ll be fine for this one (he’s “expected to play”), but it’s something to keep an eye as opening tip approaches.

One other item worth noting: if you bet on UCF, that means you’re signing up to cheer for a 4/15 performance from the free throw line by Tacko Fall (36% on the year). UCF’s other bigs aren’t much better, either (Brown shoots 56%, Collin Smith 63%), and there’s nothing worse than watching free points slip away at the line in a tight, low-scoring game. That’s nightmare fuel, folks.

Final Predictions: Perhaps the best part of this game is that it’s in the late Friday night window, mercifully allowing everyone to focus on something – anything – else. I myself will order another beverage from the fine folks at Beer Park and focus on Iowa State or SLU, because unless you’re a UCF or VCU fan, I do not recommend capping off the first round with this grindfest. At the end of the day, I believe in Mike Rhoades more than I believe in Johnny Dawkins, and I think the Rams can get enough easy points in transition to survive, 61-56.

SU Pick: VCU
ATS Pick: 
VCU +1.5
O/U Pick: 
Under 125.5

(5) Mississippi St. vs. (12) Liberty

Initial Thoughts: The first 5/12 matchup to be revealed immediately stirred the Cinderella fans in the audience, giving us the classic formula of a somewhat lukewarm Power 6 school against a 28-6 mid-major (one that has already won at UCLA, no less). This is Ben Howland’s first NCAA appearance in Starkville, but you need only rewind to his final year at UCLA to recall why this Bulldogs team might be considered vulnerable, when his sixth-seeded Bruins laid a total egg against 11-seed Minnesota, eventually losing by 20 points. Minnesota obviously wasn’t a mid-major power like Liberty, but the concern remains: can Howland rediscover the postseason magic that led to back-to-back-to-back Final Four appearances from 2006-2008?

Some fuss has been made about how Liberty shouldn’t be an NCAA Tournament darling due to its President’s political views, but I won’t litigate that here. I’ll refer you to Joseph Nardone’s story at CBB Today if that’s something you’re interested in; I’ll focus on hoops mostly because I don’t trust my ability to give you an informed take in that realm.

Mississippi St. on Offense: Despite the indefinite suspension of Nick Weatherspoon, the Bulldog offense is predicated on the perimeter talents of a skilled trio of guards: Nick’s brother Quinndary, lightning-quick PG Lamar Peters, and Tyson Carter. Carter and Peters prefer to launch from deep, while Weatherspoon is more of a power guard who can score at all three levels. Each presents a unique challenge for Liberty’s defense, but some scheme shifts in 2018-19 should help what might have otherwise been a nightmare matchup.

Ritchie McKay has relaxed some of the pack line principles he brought over from his days as a Tony Bennett assistant, but the Flames are still extremely fundamentally sound with their rotations. McKay has extended the defense this year out past the three-point arc with the hope of forcing more turnovers and not getting lit up from deep, an approach that should help against the prolific perimeter scoring the Bulldogs bring to the table.

As is often the case when a power conference team with a massive frontline faces off against a mid-major, the battle on the boards will be huge. Mississippi State’s first shot offense is effective, but the Bulldogs become a true nightmare to defend when they’re eating on the offensive glass. Howland will play two true bigs at all times, starting 6’10/6’11 with Reggie Perry and Abdul Ado and bringing 6’7/6’10 off the bench with Robert Woodard and Aric Holman. The Flames play more of a small-ball alignment around a lone big, so they’ll need to rebound by committee.

Liberty on Offense: On a raw points per possession basis, Liberty had one of the best offenses in the country this year, a devastatingly efficient machine that thrives on patience and shot selection. Similar to the defensive end, Coach McKay has ventured away from his mentor’s approach, as the Flame offense shows very little mover-blocker.

Instead, the offense will run through big man Scottie James as both a scorer and passer in the post. Per Synergy, 15.2% of Liberty possessions involve a post-up from James or Myo Baxter-Bell, the 33rd-highest rate in the country. James, like the Flame offense as a whole, is an efficiency monster here, ranking in the 95th percentile nationally. The Bulldogs have three 6’10-6’11 bodies to throw on him, and Ado in particular was a ferocious individual paint defender. If Mississippi State’s bigs can frustrate James one-on-one, that limits a crucial source of Liberty’s offense, because the Flames’ collection of 40+% three-point shooters rely on open kick-out opportunities.  

If post-ups aren’t an option, Liberty will still look to attack via a four-out alignment that spaces the floor and allows all of Flames’ perimeter players to attack gaps off the dribble. As the inverse to how MSU’s two-big lineups will help them on the glass, the Dogs may struggle to contain big wing Caleb Homesley, Liberty’s nominal four man, off the bounce. Again, Mississippi State’s ability to defend without over-helping is crucial, because Liberty’s passing and shooting will shred a scrambling defense.

Key Factor(s): How much does the athleticism edge come into play? Liberty didn’t really play anyone of this caliber in the nonconference (Alabama? UCLA?), so we’re largely in uncharted territory there. This factor permeates throughout the game – rebounding, defending James inside, both teams scoring off the dribble – so if the Flames prove the gap is minimal-to-none, then the Bulldogs are in for a fight until the final horn.

Final Predictions: I expected to take Liberty outright when I started writing this preview, but I’m worried enough about how effective James will be against the Bulldogs’ size that I can’t quite get there. I went back and forth repeatedly on this one, but the spread dropping down below -7 finally convinced me to roll with the favorite. Predicted final score: 75-64, Bulldogs.

SU Pick: Mississippi St.
ATS Pick: 
Mississippi St. -6.5
O/U Pick: 
Over 136.5

(4) Virginia Tech vs. (13) St. Louis

Initial Thoughts:  A wild “4 wins in 4 days” run through the Atlantic 10 Tournament put St. Louis in the Big Dance, a stunning result as Billikens took care of 3-seed Dayton and 2-seed Davidson with relative ease. The championship against St. Bonaventure was a barnburner, but the Bills made just enough plays to earn their first bid since 2014.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech lost an equally bonkers overtime thriller to Florida State after the ‘Noles hit a few absurd shots (most notably Terance Mann’s game-winning runner), and the Hokies must now regroup for a first round grind. The big news is the return of all-conference point guard Justin Robinson from a foot injury, and how quickly/smoothly he reincorporates into the attack will be a crucial storyline in this one.

Virginia Tech on Offense: The Hokies run an aesthetically pleasing four-out offense, with a lot of spread pick-and-roll and dribble hand-offs to get penetrators moving downhill. Their primary lineup features four lights-out shooters, too, which makes it impossible to help off of corner shooters. Typical sets have snipers like Ty Outlaw (46%), Isaiah Wilkins (43%), and Ahmed Hill (38%) working on the weak side, opening up space for Nickeil Alexander-Walker or Robinson to manipulate the defense, with Blackshear or PJ Horne serving as the roll man:

Miami over-helps on the dive here, and NAW throws a gorgeous lefty pass to Wilkins in the opposite corner for an open three. The Hokies run a bunch of clever action to dress up these PnRs (for example, a lot of horns sets with Outlaw popping to the top of the key while Blackshear dives), constantly forcing defenders to choose between two evils.

To make matters worse for defenses, VT also has one of the best individual post players in the country, as Kerry Blackshear emerged into a superstar following Robinson’s injury. Per Synergy, Blackshear scored 1.08ppp on post-ups this year (92nd percentile nationally), using a variety of moves and impressive touch for a big fella to score over and through all kinds of defenders. The bevy of knockdown gunners around him also means he’s rarely facing double-teams, and SLU is going to have to try and guard him one-on-one to avoid giving up too many open jumpers. Blackshear is a willing passer, so he’s plenty capable of punishing teams who over-help inside. Hasahn French has the requisite strength and athletic ability to push Blackshear off his spots, but expect to see a steady dose of DJ Foreman as well, who offers a little more height.

St. Louis on Offense: The Billikens face a critical schematic challenge on this end of the court, given their own personnel and Virginia Tech’s defensive scheme. SLU largely ignores the three-point line offensively, taking only 32.6% of its shots from deep (320th in the country), and justifiably so: Billiken shooters connect on just 30.8% of their threes (327th). Instead, they attack the rim with abandon, hoping to draw fouls or play volleyball on the glass until French, Foreman, or Jordan Goodwin can get a put-back.

Unfortunately, Virginia Tech’s modified pack line is designed almost entirely to give up threes. Hokie opponents lead the nation in most points scored from beyond the arc, taking over 50% of their shots from bonus land. Buzz Williams knows he doesn’t have much depth or rim protection, so he can’t risk exposing Blackshear and his wings to drivers barreling down the lane, instead willing to gamble that his hyper-efficient offense can out-shoot yours. The Billikens should find some success on the offensive glass, but the shooting is going to be a major issue. A big game from Tramaine Isabell, Javon Bess, and/or Dion Wiley is a borderline necessity for SLU to win.

Key Factor(s): Justin Robinson’s return from a “foot injury” (details were never revealed) introduces a major wild card into this one. He’s terrific with the ball in his hands, skillfully creating scoring chances for himself and others, and his presence enables Alexander-Walker to move into a more natural complementary creation role. It’s likely that he’s rusty to start off, though, having not played in a game since January 30th. As talented as he is, Buzz needs to be smart about not disrupting the offensive flow VT has established without him.

Final Predictions: This will be a slugfest, no question about it. Virginia Tech plays at one of the country’s slowest tempos, and three of SLU’s four A-10 Tournament games were under 60 possessions (the fourth had 62). If Virginia Tech’s offense is hitting from deep, they could overwhelm the Billikens, whose offense is likely to struggle in this matchup. Given the likely low possession count, I’m taking the double-digit dog and praying that SLU’s abysmal free throw shooting (59.8%, 352nd nationally) doesn’t spell doom. 61-54, Va Tech.

SU Pick: Virginia Tech
ATS Pick: 
St. Louis +10.5
O/U Pick: 
Under 126

(6) Maryland vs. (11) TBD

Initial Thoughts: It’s midnight central in Chicago, IL, and I’m finally getting to write this preview after Belmont dispatched Temple earlier tonight (while we were recording a marathon preview podcast – go check that out!). So I doubt this one will be very long, but I’ll try and hit some key points…

Of major note: Belmont center Nick Muszynski was able to log 27 effective minutes against Temple tonight, and although I’m guessing his ankle will be quite sore, I’m going to act as though he’ll be good to go for this one.

Maryland on Offense: The biggest factor on this end will be the offensive glass, without a doubt. The Terrapins thrive on second chance opportunities, and the Two Towers frontline of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith is big and athletic enough to dominate this game. Muszynski and Seth Adelsperger can at least contend with one of that duo, but they never play together, meaning Dylan Windler will be tasked with checking Smith. Windler is actually a phenomenal defensive rebounder (25th in the entire country in D-Reb rate), but facing “Sticks,” as Smith is affectionately known around College Park, is like getting to a boss level in a video game. Fernando is the primary post threat, but Turgeon will at least have to try isolating Sticks in the post against Windler if Belmont repeatedly rolls with that matchup.

The other key to stopping Maryland is guarding Anthony Cowan pick-and-rolls. Cowan isn’t quite Melo Trimble in his PnR savvy (yet), but he’s a dynamic scorer and passer who can shoot from behind a screen if the defender lazily goes under. The Belmont defense has fared relatively well against PnR this year, although Ja Morant did just light them up for 36 points in the OVC title game. Cowan isn’t quite Morant, though, and as long as Kevin McClain or Grayson Murphy can bother him at times (hopefully they’ll go over screens), the rest of the defensive rotations are sound enough to not get gashed in this action.

Belmont on Offense: On the other end of the court, the Windler/Smith matchup is once again highly intriguing. Windler is a pure shooter (42% from deep this year), and if Smith isn’t attentive while Windler is floating around the perimeter, he could torch the nets. As I mentioned in my First Four preview, Windler has struggled against athletic wings (and Temple held him to just five points on Tuesday night), but Smith is much more of a true big. Turgeon could attempt to “hide” Smith on guards like Nick Hopkins or Michael Benkert, who are more of the catch-and-shoot variety, and put Daryl Morsell or Aaron Wiggins on Windler, but Smith will still have to stay attentive to a perimeter shooter’s whereabouts.

Belmont’s transition drag screens are fairly difficult to prepare for on a short turnaround, and Turgeon will no doubt be drilling his young squad over and over in practice on Wednesday. It helps that Fernando can likely handle Muszynski one-on-one on most possessions, which allows the other defenders to stick closer to shooters and not get caught in rotations. Belmont also loves to play through Muszynski as a passer:

The Bruins are highly adept at cutting off of him when their defenders peek too far into the paint, and a young Terrapin team must stay extremely disciplined or risk getting sliced and diced by the combination of shooting and cutters.

Key Factor(s): The rebounding battle will be crucial – Maryland has terrorized bigger teams than Belmont in the past, but the Bruins are so fundamentally sound with their box-outs that they stand a chance here. If Belmont can survive inside and on the glass with Windler at the four, the Terrapins are going to have one hell of a time guarding Belmont’s offense. Among other teams, Wisconsin was able to take advantage of Maryland’s two-big lineups via pick-and-pops, and few teams boast a deadlier “four man” than Windler in that situation.

Final Predictions: I just trust this Belmont team more, plain and simple. Rick Byrd finally has the “zero NCAA Tournament wins” monkey off his back, and it is time for the Bruins to become a national darling thanks to their picturesque offense and overall smart approach to the game. I think Byrd finds more ways than Turgeon to make the Windler/Smith matchup work in his favor, and the Bruins put up a superb offensive performance while not getting totally routed on the defensive glass.

SU Pick: Belmont
ATS Pick: 
Belmont +3.5
O/U Pick: 
Over 147

(3) LSU vs. (14) Yale

Initial Thoughts: It’s impossible to talk about this matchup without addressing the elephant in the arena: Will Wade’s status on the LSU sideline. He’s currently suspended by the school for his failure to meet with the administration regarding his role in the pay-for-play scandal, preferring instead to let the investigation run its course. Without him, the Tigers dropped their opener in the SEC Tournament to a desperate Florida team, and stand-in boss Tony Benford got hit with a crucial technical late in the game.

Assuming Wade doesn’t earn a reprieve, Benford will be tasked with preparing LSU for an incredibly well-coached Yale team down in Jacksonville. These Bulldogs include three senior starters who were a part of the 2016 squad that knocked off Baylor. Of those three, Blake Reynolds and Trey Phills got on the court for both tournament games, matching the ever-so-slight NCAA experience that LSU has (Kavell Bigby-Williams got bench minutes for Oregon in 2017).

LSU on Offense: Both teams rely far more on their offense than their defense, and LSU’s 10th-ranked attack (per KenPom.com) exemplifies that dichotomy. The Tiger offense is at its best when assaulting the rim and dominating the offensive glass, as the massive and active frontline of Naz Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams, Emmitt Williams, and Darius Days lives to gobble up second chance opportunities. The Tigers are fifth in the entire country in offensive rebounding rate, as even SEC frontlines struggled to keep the Tigers off the boards. Yale coach James Jones stresses the defensive glass, though, and Yale was 24th nationally in defensive rebounding rate, giving the Dogs a chance to hold their own against such an onslaught. Jordan Bruner, Paul Atkinson, and Blake Reynolds form a frontcourt capable of competing with the big boys, much like Jones’s 2016 team that had Justin Sears, Brandon Sherrod and Sam Downey.

Outside of the glass, LSU’s offense revolves around the wizardry of its mini master, Tremont Waters. The 5’11 point guard is a deft distributor, and his vision in transition (plus the Tigers’ stable of athletes) has made LSU incredibly potent in the open floor. Yale isn’t going to clamp down on tempo, but the Dogs’ D has been highly effective in transition on a points per possession basis.

Ordinarily, an Ivy team that plays almost exclusively man-to-man would be worrisome when stepping up a class in competition, but I don’t think this Yale roster will have serious issues. More on that below as we switch sides of the ball…

Yale on Offense: That’s right, folks, this isn’t your typical Ivy League team. Yale has size, speed, and athleticism all over the court, with NBA prospect Miye Oni asserting himself on the wing and bigs like the bouncy Bruner and the 6’10, 220-pound Atkinson debunking many of the Ivy stereotypes. Of course, the cerebal Bulldogs are also tremendous passers and shooters, which helps explain why they have the 44th-ranked offense per KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency.

Also unlike many Ivy squads, Yale isn’t going to try to grind the game out with long possessions. Point guard Alex Copeland will frequently push in transition to probe for early scoring opportunities, and he put his deadly mid-range pull-up game on full display in the Ivy title game, torching the Crimson for 25 points (plus seven assists and zero turnovers). Waters will need to disrupt Copeland’s rhythm to derail the Yale attack, something he is plenty capable of doing when locked in defensively. Still, though, Yale has plenty of weapons, as Oni is a pure three-level scorer, Azar Swain is a human microwave off the bench, and Reynolds is a decent post-up option. That’s part of what makes Yale so dangerous: take away Oni and Copeland, and you’ll be exposed to the Bulldogs’ cadre of role players, all of whom can score if given too much space.

Key Factor(s): I’m very curious to see just how much LSU’s size bothers the Bulldogs, not just on the Tigers’ offensive glass, but in Yale’s ability to finish inside. Due to their crisp offensive and astute passing, the Bulldogs shot 66.6% at the rim this year, 27th-best in the country per hoop-math; Bigby-Williams and Reid could affect that number with their superior length.  

Additionally, will Yale be able to take care of the ball against LSU’s ultra-pesky backcourt? Between Waters, Skylar Mays, and Javonte Smart, the Tigers have three quick perimeter defenders with a penchant for swiping the rock. Copeland, Trey Phills, Swain, and Oni will need to be strong with the ball at all times, or LSU will get too many easy buckets off steals.

Final Predictions: This will be a track meet, as both teams are content to see the opponent take quick shots so that they can get the ball back. With a savvy coach like Jones and some athletes of their own to match LSU, I think this one comes down to the wire, and eight is simply high a spread. Give me Yale and the points, and even though I’m picking LSU to win, I’ll likely throw a sprinkle on the moneyline as well. LSU 85-81.

SU Pick: LSU
ATS Pick: 
Yale +8
O/U Pick: 
Over 161

(7) Louisville vs. (10) Minnesota

Initial Thoughts: What an opportunity for Richard Pitino! Little Richard gets a Round 1 game against his father’s old institution to show what kind of son he is: is he Michael Corleone or Fredo? Will Big Rick be forced to give his son the Kiss of Death? Am I brutally mangling this Godfather metaphor? Let’s just move on before I find a horse head in my bed.

Chris Mack has Louisville back in the tournament in Year 1 of his regime, an impressive feat considering the lack of talent stocked in the cupboard when he arrived. Grad transfers Christian Cunningham (Samford) and Khwan Fore (Richmond) stepped into key roles immediately, Jordan Nwora blossomed into the versatile offensive star that optimists hoped he could be, and Mack (unsurprisingly) constructed a stout defense from this seemingly messy jumble of pieces.

I suppose I should mention the storyline of Minnesota backup big man Matz Stockman playing against his former team, but…nah, let’s not.

Louisville on Offense: Mack has smartly leaned into the strengths of his personnel, building an offense that attacks outside-in via a cadre of shooters who then open the floor for drives and post-ups. Nwora is the engine, a matchup nightmare for opposing bigs due to his silky stroke from the outside and burgeoning ability to attack off the dribble. Jordan Murphy has rarely had to chase around a true shooter while battling Big Ten competition, and he’ll be out of his comfort zone in this one, giving me major concerns about Minnesota frequently losing Nwora. If I take Minnesota, I can already envision being beside myself screaming “GUARD NWORA!!” as he drops in his fifth trey bomb of the first half.

Hell, even the Cardinals’ centers (Steven Enoch and Malik Williams) will fire from deep if left open. Daniel Oturu is a very promising freshman big, but he’s not comfortable away from the basket at this stage, and that presents another opportunity for the Cards. On a general level, Minnesota’s defense is designed to take away threes (28th in the country in defensive 3PA rate); the guards are long and extend out, knowing Oturu is behind them to challenge at the rim. However, I just worry that the shooting of Louisville’s bigs will corrupt that principle.

Minnesota on Offense: Here’s where the concern really rises for the underdog. The Gophers’ offense needs to score at the rim via Jordan Murphy post-ups, Amir Coffey drives, and Murphy/Oturu put-backs, but all of those are going to be extremely difficult to come by against Mack’s modified pack line defensive scheme. Minnesota is a poor perimeter shooting team, and to the Gophers’ credit, they almost never attempt threes for that reason. Louisville will take away the rim as much as possible, though, forcing the Gophers to hit jump shots. Only freshman Gabe Kalscheur is a true threat, and Mack will just glue his own shooter, Ryan McMahon, to Kalscheur’s hip.

Individually, Minnesota should repeatedly attack the Nwora-on-Murphy matchup inside. Murphy can bully the thinner Nwora with his physicality, and that presents the added possible bonus of getting Nwora into foul trouble. Mack will likely double the post to avoid this, though, trusting his team’s rotations and Minnesota’s faulty three-point shooting to offset any advantage gained via kickouts.

Louisville also has two strong defenders to throw at Amir Coffey, who has become Pitino’s de facto point guard. Dwayne Sutton and VJ King both have the requisite size and athleticism to bother Coffey, and Sutton’s strength in particular intrigues me. Coffey can beat both off the dribble at times, but again, Louisville’s help defense principles are so sound that it shouldn’t be a serious problem.

Key Factor(s): Can the notoriously bricky Gophers hit some perimeter shots to open things up inside the arc? Without that, Enoch and Williams will camp in the paint, ready to bother any would-be finishers that manage to get past the collapsing perimeter defenders.

This is also a serious coaching mismatch, in my estimation. Chris Mack’s brilliance manifested more fully against nonconference opponents that were less familiar with the Cardinals and their personnel; that magic wore off late in the ACC season as teams like UNC and even Boston College earned revenge in rematches. The talent gap here – minimal, if any – does not support a 5-point spread, but the Mack >>> Richard Pitino superiority is built into the number.

Final Predictions: The number is likely a tad too high for Louisville to have real mathematical value, but I can’t in good conscience take Fredo Pitino against Mack. The better bet may actually be the under, as both defenses can take away what the opposing offense wants/needs to do to get buckets. A low-scoring affair would tend to favor the dog, but again – it’s Chris Mack. 67-59, Louisville.

SU Pick: Louisville
ATS Pick: 
Louisville -5
O/U Pick: 
Under 136

(2) Michigan St. vs. (15) Bradley

Initial Thoughts: Michigan State’s placement as #6 on the true seed list was a spot of bother for many analysts, particularly Jay Bilas, who simply COULD NOT BELIEVE that the Spartans had to play in #1 overall seed Duke’s region (had they been #5, they would have been placed elsewhere by rule). Sparty had a strong enough resume, but to boil it down, you can’t get swept by a team that’s not even in the tournament (Indiana) and complain about “only” getting ranked sixth. There’s plenty of other factors, but that’s the simplest way to look at it.

On the other hand, Bradley enters the tournament with some controversy of its own, infuriating journalists everywhere for attempting to block access to longtime Bradley reporter Dave Reynolds for, um, “not promoting the Bradley brand,” whatever that means? Not exactly in a journalist’s job description, but when Brian Wardle is grumpy, you apparently have to tell a local institution to buzz off! The backlash did its job, though, as Reynolds’s access was swiftly reinstated, and all was right with the world:

Michigan St. on Offense: To the basketball we go! I broke down Michigan State’s offense in detail back in January, but allow me to summarize that here. Everything revolves around Cassius Winston and his ability to create for himself and his teammates. He’s masterful in the pick-and-roll, using his eyes and crafty changes of pace to keep defenses off balance and bend them to his will. He’s almost like a quarterback in how he gets defenders to lean one way just before firing a pinpoint pass to a shooter for a wide open three. He’s also become a deadly pull-up shooter; per hoop-math, only 64% of his threes have been assisted this year, down from 84% last year. This has made it far more difficult to simply go under screens, as was often the default defensive approach last year. Bradley has a few options to throw at Winston – the quicker Darrell Brown, the physical Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye – but it probably doesn’t matter considering Winston just finished treating maybe the best PG defender in the country (Michigan’s Zavier Simpson) like a child’s plaything for three consecutive matchups.

Bradley will attempt to limit Winston as best it can, but the more likely option is to take out all of Winston’s passing options. Matt McQuaid has become a human fireball of late (particularly in the Big Ten title game), and the Braves will have to limit his catch-and-shoot opportunities. They’re also in for a war in the paint, as Michigan State’s front line of Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman, and Kenny Goins is among the country’s best offensive rebounding groups. The Braves have size: 6’11 center Koch Bar, 6’9 center Luuk van Bree, 6’7 forwards Elijah Childs and Ja’Shon Henry – but they’ll need constant physicality to compete in Des Moines.

Zoning could be a change of pace option (Bradley mixes in some 2-3), but Michigan State’s ball movement is so tremendous that they’ll shred a zone if shown the same look over and over again.

Bradley on Offense: The Braves were aggressively mediocre on offense this year, finishing 246th in KenPom’s adjOE rankings (6th in the anemic Valley). That doesn’t bode well against Sparty’s nationally elite defense, particularly inside the arc, where finishing against MSU’s physical frontline is a constant struggle (just ask Wisconsin).

However, I actually think Bradley can find some success from the perimeter via point guard Brown and wings Lautier-Ogunleye and Nate Kennell. All three are strong shooters, and Michigan State is much more worried about preventing easy baskets than denying every single open jumper. This hasn’t been the Braves’ MO – they only take 35.2% of their shots from deep, 266th in the country – but that’s a lot better than repeatedly driving into the teeth of the Ward/Tillman/Goins house of horrors.

Wardle needs to stress the importance of the three to his players; too often, Bradley has been content to take mid-range jumpers, a shot the Sparty defense will gladly entertain. This shot being a two and not a three is borderline criminal, even though it goes in:

Just move back 12 inches, it’s not that hard! If they fall into that trap, the Braves will struggle to break 50.

Key Factor(s): Bradley’s transition defense NEEDS to be on point in this one. Winston simply destroys teams in the open floor, and Michigan State’s bigs run the floor as well as any in the country. If the Braves can control the tempo for long stretches, they can make this one more of a grinding, Big Ten-style game (weird that the non-Big Ten team wants it to be a grind). Wardle’s style inherently favors getting back on D over crashing the glass, and that tenet will be key in helping Bradley hang around.

Final Predictions: I want to ride the wave of Sparty second half performances, I really do - they’ve been a juggernaut after halftime lately. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see this be something like 27-25 at halftime, but like Michigan State has frequently done of late, I’d expect some deft halftime adjustments from Mr. Izzo and a suffocating defensive stretch in the second half to allow the Spartans open up a wider margin. Even so, I think the game is played slowly enough to keep the Braves in it. This one opened at -20 in most places but has been creeping down from there, so I’ll jump in before it drops any more. Give me 73-57 to the favorite.

SU Pick: Michigan St.
ATS Pick: 
Bradley +18.5
O/U Pick: 
Under 133.5