NCAA Tournament Previews & Predictions: East Region First Round

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(1) North Carolina vs. (16) FGCU

Initial Thoughts: Damn, that was impressive. Florida Gulf Coast completely rolled Fairleigh Dickinson in Dayton, getting up double-digits immediately and never looking back. As predicted, they thoroughly dominated the middle (Norelia, Simmons, and Morant combined to go 17/21 from the field), but I clearly didn’t see that kind of offensive outburst coming.

North Carolina now looms in the first round, and I’m a little worried about the matchup for FGCU. They’re basically playing a bigger, better version of themselves – a team geared to dominate the lane and the glass.

North Carolina on Offense: UNC’s shooters have been abysmal this year. Marcus Paige’s broken hand in the preseason derailed him to the tune of a 32% campaign from deep; Justin Jackson never took the full leap a lot of people expected (including me) and hit a paltry 26% of his threes, and Theo Pinson and Nate Britt aren’t scaring anyone at all (29% and 35% on low volume). Only Joel Berry has been respectable, hitting 39% of 151 attempts, but that’s not going to force FGCU to come out on him. The Eagles will pack it in, leading to a war on the glass – a war that I think FGCU can compete in, but not win. Johnson, Meeks, Hicks and Joel James are just too big, even for the high-major transfers Morant and Simmons.

FGCU on Offense: It’s going to be extremely similar to when UNC is on offense, honestly. Get the ball inside through their flex offense and through drives, attack the glass relentlessly. One concern is that even though both teams attack the glass hard, UNC’s transition defense is considerably better (they get their guards back and really limit transition opportunities from even happening). FGCU got a ton of easy points against FDU’s horrid press tonight, and those buckets simply aren’t going to be there against the Heels.

Key Factor(s): The rebounding battle, specifically on FGCU’s offensive end. If the Eagles can’t get some of their misses, they’re going to pay dearly in transition, as Jackson/Paige/Berry are good in the open court with the ball in their hands and Johnson can really glide up and down the court from rim to rim. I’d say FGCU should focus a little more on transition defense, but offensive boards are too important as a source of points.

Do I Trust the Coaches?: I actually think I like Joe Dooley! He has really capitalized on his team’s strengths, pounding the ball inside with post-ups and flex cuts, and he played his dynamic freshmen (Reid and Tucker) in the First Four game in a big moment. Big Roy is fine, I don’t really love him or hate him - I sometimes disagree strongly with the Heels' shot selection, but it's mostly by design to let the bigs play volleyball on the glass. 

Predictions: Styles make fights, but this one pits the same style against itself. UNC is more talented and thus should be better at it, but I think their lack of shooting prevents them from completely blowing the doors off the Eagles, who competed at Texas A&M in early December (lost by 10 in College Station).

SU Pick: UNC (duh)
ATS Pick: Florida Gulf Coast +22
O/U Pick: Under 148

(8) USC vs. (9) Providence

Initial Thoughts: The East’s 8/9 matchup should be a lot of fun – an East coast team that loves to run, Providence (46th in the country for % of possessions in transition, per Synergy), against a West coast team that loves to run, USC (50th in % of transition possessions). Both are looking to push immediately off of opponents’ misses, and both have great facilitators to key these attacks. Providence features Kris Dunn, maybe the country’s best point guard, a lanky gazelle with fantastic court vision, while USC attacks with a two-headed point guard monster in Julian Jacobs and Jordan McLaughlin.

Both teams are incredibly young (USC 303rd is in experience per kenpom, Providence is 322nd), and I can already guarantee that seniors will register zero minutes in this game. This youth seemed to catch up to both teams in the conference season, as both experienced major downswings from the heights of the nonconference portion of the year. On January 2nd, the two were a combined 26-3 (3-0 in conference), before crashing back down to reality as they faced stiffened competition in league play.  Both knocked off a conference rival in their respective conference tournaments for a third time (Butler for Providence, UCLA for USC) to regain a little momentum, and a win here in the NCAA tournament’s first round would represent “over-achieving” on preseason expectations for either school.

USC on Offense: A big part of USC’s offensive identity resides with Jacobs and McLaughlin. Having two skilled ball-handlers makes it incredibly easy to get out on the break and find the right shooter or cutter, and both can shoot or drive well enough to be a threat themselves. The Trojans often flow nicely from pushing the ball into a top or side ball screen for one of their two ball-handlers, almost using a drive, kick, and replace approach along with wing Elijah Stewart. Between Dunn and Junior Lomomba, though, Providence has two long, athletic perimeter defenders to stick on these two guys, which could be disruptive to the Trojan offensive flow.

A lineup I’d like to see USC use against Providence is their floor-spreading group – McLaughlin, Stewart, Reinhardt, and Boatwright, with one of Jovanovic/Metu/Darion Clark in the middle. Though it removes the two-point guard look, all four of those guys can shoot the three, forcing Providence to loosen up their defense and thus opening up chances inside. Bentil, for all of his greatness, isn’t an awesome rim protector, and the Friars absolutely cannot have him get in foul trouble. McLaughlin bearing down on him or the bigger Jovanovic posting him up makes me nervous for Providence, and McLaughlin will usually make the right pass if the Friars sink too far.

Providence on Offense: Dunn and Bentil use half of the Friars’ possessions on their own, often working together in the 2-man game to force opponents to actively guard their best 2 players on the same play. Dunn will attack the lane relentlessly off the dribble, and USC’s normal ball-screen defense will allow this – as seen below, the Trojans opt to sag off on screens, taking away the roll man while allowing the ball-handler to come off the screen unhindered and gather a head of steam towards the rim or pull up for an elbow jumper (both of which Dunn loves) - see below:

Dunn is so good coming off ball screens with space that it may force USC to consider changing their approach, but that could open up Bentil going to the hoop on the roll, where he’s an absolute animal. I’d expect the Trojans to help aggressively off of the other 3 players to force Dunn to kick it out.

Against Providence’s dynamic duo, you have to pack the lane and force the other guys to shoot over you, and USC can do that. They surprisingly showed a 2-3 zone against Utah in the Pac 12 tournament (USC only zones on 11% of possessions, per Synergy), and while that might have been partially due to playing a second game in as many nights, it might serve them well to try to muck up the lane against Dunn and Bentil. The Friars’ role players (Bullock, Cartwright, Lindsey, Lomomba) are all below average shooters, and they really struggle to score against teams who make them shoot from the perimeter (see Seton Hall losses, where the Friars managed 0.91ppp and 0.75ppp and went 9-49 combined from distance). Providence gets a ton of spot up jumpers from Dunn’s creativity, but they’re horribly inefficient as a team on these opportunities due to who’s taking the shots. Freshman Ryan Fazekas’s playing time has been dwindling, but his shooting might help space the floor if/when USC packs it in.

Key Factor(s): No brainer for me in this one – transition defense. Both teams will look for quick shots whenever possible, and whichever team does a better job of getting back and taking away these opportunities will go a long way towards getting a crack at the Tar Heels in round 2 (where transition defense will once again be crucial). Statistically, Providence is worse, giving up 1.03ppp in transition compared to USC at 0.94, but both teams strike me as vulnerable. I think both teams will struggle a little to score in a halfcourt setting, so transition points will be huge. 

Do I Trust The Coaches?: I’m not sure, honestly! I’ve always felt like Providence is relatively undisciplined with their shot selection, leading me to question Ed Cooley’s squad, but I’ve realized it’s more that he’s just had bad shooters. He’s done well with some undermanned teams (the Bryce Cotton-led squad that nearly beat UNC in the first round two years ago comes to mind), and the Friars have played great defense this year while having two stars carry them offensively. Let’s go with “for the most part” on Cooley. For Enfield, all signs point to him being a good coach – the Dunk City team at FGCU was well-coached in addition to being all kinds of fun, and he’s done an incredible job building USC up to this level in just 3 years (and with nary a senior in this year’s rotation). The coaching matchup here is mostly a wash, though maybe I trust Enfield a hair more.

Predictions: I like the dual-point guard, deeper Trojans in this one. With time to prepare, Enfield will figure out a way to make someone other than Dunn/Bentil beat them, and I just don't trust anyone else on Providence to hit shots/make plays consistently. 

SU Pick: USC
ATS Pick: USC +1.5
O/U Pick: Under 150.5


(5) Indiana vs. (12) Chattanooga

Initial Thoughts: I had finally come around on the Hoosiers after doubting them for most of conference play, thinking their back-loaded slate would catch up with them (quite the opposite), but then they got upset in the first round of the conference tournament. Granted, it was against a desperate Michigan team, but I’m prrrrretty sure teams will play desperate all the time in the NCAA Tournament, too.

Meanwhile, I love Chattanooga’s roster – it is not reflective of a mid-major, with a good amount of size, versatility, and athleticism across the board, led by SoCon DPOY Justin Tuoyo in the middle (formerly of VCU) and lanky wing Tre’ McLean. Aside from freakish Troy Williams, Chattanooga can match IU in the athlete department, and even then, they have some options to throw at Williams.

This was one of the games I was most clueless about before previewing, so taking a dive into each side of the ball was extremely helpful to form an opinion on this one.

Indiana on Offense:  Indiana thrives on spacing offensively, surrounding maestro Yogi Ferrell with a great finisher inside (Thomas Bryant) and a plethora of shooters – Zeisloft, Johnson, Hartman, even Bielfeldt has proven to be real deep threat. That’s all along with Yogi’s own potency from deep (he has one of the best pull-up transition threes in the country), making him a tough cover as he can get into gaps without worrying too much about help defenders. Williams is also an elite rim attacker, using his outrageous athleticism to terrorize defenses. He’s especially potent in transition (as are the Hoosiers in general). Finally, Bryant has given IU a back-to-the basket threat, someone they can give the ball to when they need a bucket and just say, “go get one, big fella.”

Therein lies the key matchup on this end of the court – Bryant against Tuoyo. Tuoyo has mostly shaken off some foul issues from early in the year, and the Mocs have taken advantage of that by pressing up onto opposing shooters, knowing they have a great rim protector waiting behind them. That adjustment is obviously huge against Indiana’s ridiculously deadly perimeter shooters. As I mentioned above, I think Chattanooga matches up to IU pretty well man-to-man (throw a mix of McLean/Oldham/Ester/Ethridge at Williams); the big key there is point guard Greg Pryor staying in front of Yogi. I expect Bryant to get some easy buckets from Ferrell drive-and-dishes once Tuoyo helps.

The transition/full-court game will be massive as well – Coach Matt McCall is from the Billy Donovan tree, and he use a matchup press pretty frequently. With the athletes that Chattanooga can throw out and having an eraser on the back line in Tuoyo, it’s pretty effective, and IU has struggled with dumb turnovers all year (there’s that Crean influence).

Chattanooga on Offense: Chattanooga wants to attack the rim offensively, both through Tuoyo post-ups and drives from Pryor, McLean, Oldham, and backup guard Jordan Burroughs-Cook. The flipside to that is the Mocs only have one real volume shooter in Eric Robertson (and that’s all he does), so they struggle to space the floor at times. Crean’s defense is focused around taking away the three point line, but that will just open up the driving lanes that Nooga wants.

My biggest question on this end is if Crean will pressure at all. It’s not in his nature, but having watched the Mocs be so sloppy in three consecutive late game situations, I wouldn’t mind seeing Indiana try to speed up Pryor and company. Like Tuoyo, Bryant needs to avoid foul trouble in the back of the defense either way – against drivers or if they pressure.

Key Factor(s): The turnover battle will be huge. Both teams are prone to them, but Chattanooga is more likely to generate some with their defense. If Yogi and Johnson take care of the ball, IU can rack up points, but that's a big if. McCall will mix it up, too, rather than pressing every time down the floor. 

Do I Trust the Coaches?: Not really. Tom Crean would be a resounding “no” in most cases, but he actually did a great job with the Hoosiers this year (good thing my colleague Matt doesn’t read what I write, or he’d never let me live that down), figuring out a way to play acceptable defense while continuing to be a supernova offensively. He did just choke as a favorite in another tournament, though. As for Matt McCall, he took over a loaded SoCon team from now-VCU coach Will Wade and has done marvelously (despite losing possible conference POY Casey Jones early in the year). As mentioned above, though, I didn’t like the way ‘Nooga closed games in the league tournament, and I credit some of that sloppiness to the coach.

Predictions: I’m going to ride with the rookie coach, the SoCon Coach of the Year, Matt McCall. I think he’ll identify ways to force turnovers, and the combination of Tuoyo and a bunch of lengthy defenders will give IU some problems. IU’s offensive firepower will probably overrun the Mocs eventually, but I think they hang around.

SU Pick: Indiana
ATS Pick: Chattanooga +12, sliiiightly tempted by the +600 ML as a flyer
O/U Pick: Over 145


(4) Kentucky vs. (13) Stony Brook

Initial Thoughts: Another fantastic first round matchup in Des Moines, as Stony Brook brings a heartwarming story with an elite big man to face off against an angry, under-seeded Kentucky team.

Stony Brook really is an excellent story. Probably the best senior class in school history (granted, I didn’t research that claim much), the Seawolves have fallen just short of the school's first tourney bid the last 3 years, but they were finally able to get over the hump thanks to Jameel Warney’s ludicrous 43-point outing in the America East final. Watching a player who has given his heart and soul to the program – and in that time, evolved into one of college’s best big men (in any conference) – finally achieve what he had so long worked for was truly inspiring. He was gracious and humble the next morning while live in the CBS studio with his team, and if you aren’t cheering for that guy, you’re either part of Big Blue Nation or just a little bit heartless.

Kentucky, on the other hand, needs no heartwarming inspirational story. They’re a national powerhouse led by the country’s best recruiter/used car salesman, a team stocked with high-level talent that seems to be peaking at the right time behind its three-headed backcourt monster of Ulis, Murray, and Briscoe. Skal-in-the-headlights has played better of late, but he again disappeared in the SEC title game, and I doubt even John Calipari knows what his big man rotation will be against Warney.

Kentucky on Offense: The perimeter matchup overall is actually really intriguing in this one, as both teams essentially play three point guards on the perimeter. Stony will answer UK’s threesome with Carson “Tre” Puriefoy, Lucas Woodhouse, and the exceedingly athletic Ahmad Walker. Walker is the best defender of the group, and I’d expect him to be shadowing Murray most of the game. Without a post threat this year (wherefore art thou, KAT or Boogie?), Kentucky is much more reliant on the dribble drive, especially out of the pick-and-roll. It helps to have three guys who can handle it effectively, but Ulis is the primary playmaker, running about 60% of the team’s pick-and-rolls. Stony Brook plays fantastic man-to-man defense at all 5 positions, though, and physically, the Seawolves can guard this UK team. Rayshaun McGrew will be okay against Alex Poythress, and I’m not worried about Warney against Lee or Skal.

One concern I have is with Kentucky’s x-factor – Derek Willis’s shooting. He has the capability to stretch out the tough Stony half-court man-to-man, which will in turn open driving lanes for Ulis, Briscoe, and Murray. Warney has been outstanding at staying out of foul trouble this year, but this is a different class of athlete he’s playing against, and he will need to be smart about his shot-blocking gambles.

Part of what makes Stony Brook’s defense so good is that it takes away transition opportunities, which Kentucky loves. A lot of that will depend on the shots the Seawolves end up getting – bad shots usually equal transition chances.

Stony Brook on Offense: Everything starts with the man in the middle. Warney is an absolute manchild, a true lane warden, and he can score consistently or get to the line against most single coverage. He commands double teams, and has gotten better and better throughout his career at making the right pass out of the post when necessary.

A big concern I have on this end is Stony Brook’s shooting – Woodhouse and Puriefoy shoot a good percentage, but they don’t have anyone even resembling a third shooter after those guys (6’6 shooter Byran Sekunda tore his ACL in late February), and Kentucky will likely be well-coached to rotate hard to those two and run them off the line. Woodhouse is a good distributor if he can get into gaps, but the athleticism of UK’s defense could be a problem for the former Longwood PG.

Stony hasn’t run a ton of pick-and-roll this year, but they actually went to it a bunch against Vermont in the A East finals, hitting several pocket passes and slip-screens that turned into easy Warney lay-ups. I think it would be worth trying that – Kentucky’s bigs are mobile, but Warney will draw a ton of attention barreling down the lane, which should give the other players a chance to make some plays in space.

Key Factor(s): Will Stony Brook be able to take advantage of Kentucky double-teams on Warney? This is a constant question for the Seawolves, but I think it applies even here against a big conference foe, as I expect Warney to bull his way to the hoop any time he sees single coverage. UK will have to double some, and when they do, Puriefoy and Woodhouse need to hit threes, and Walker and Puriefoy need to take advantage of rotating defenses to get in the lane and finish. Puriefoy in particular has a nice floater that will come in handy against the long UK bigs. 

Do I Trust the Coaches?: Do I trust John Calipari to put together a great roster and coach a basketball team? Yes, I do. Do I trust him to give me a fair interest rate on a car loan? Absolutely not. As much as I dislike the guy as a human being, he’s a very good basketball coach with a pretty proven March track record. For Stony Brook, Steve Pikiell (a former Jim Calhoun player and a disciple of that coaching tree) is a pretty sharp guy, and I love the hard-nosed man-to-man defense he has instilled in his squad. Coaching in his first tournament game against the mighty Big Blue is completely different animal, though.

Predictions: I think Warney puts on another show to keep this one close, with Puriefoy & co. doing just enough around him to prevent massive UK runs. Unfortunately, Kentucky is just better, Tyler Ulis is one of the best point guards in the country and a true floor general, and the Wildcats tighten the screws up on defense late to win without a ton of anxiety. I’ll guess 72-61.  

SU Pick: Kentucky
ATS Pick: Stony Brook +14.5
O/U Pick: Under 143.5


(6) Notre Dame vs. (11) Michigan/Tulsa

Initial Thoughts: I’ve always found this to be a tough situation for the 5- or 6-seed that has to face the play-in winner – no matter what, the opposing team comes in confident, fresh off a win in the First Four and accustomed to the tournament atmosphere. Conversely, I don’t think playing a second game in three days is a disadvantage at all, so it sort of screws over the better team.

Notre Dame brings a well-oiled offense to the table, and Michigan/Tulsa won’t have a ton of time to prep for it. IU is a vaguely similar offense to Notre Dame, whom Michigan just beat in the Big Ten Tournament, so that may help them prepare if they get past the Golden Hurricanes like I expect.

Notre Dame on Offense: The essence of the Irish offense is the spread pick and roll, with the ball in the hands of an elite distributing point guard, a high-level rim attacker as the roller, and shooters spaced all around that action. They actually play 2 bigs this year with Colson, although he’s pretty comfortable driving from the perimeter if the defense comes at him with shoddy closeouts (he's not going to shoot from there).  

As much as Zach Auguste can be frustrating, he is a massive threat running to the rim after setting a high ball screen, and Demetrius Jackson is a multi-threat PG who constantly makes the right pass. All of that pick and roll action leads to a ton of spot up chances for gunners Steve Vasturia and VJ Beachem, deadly bigger wings can light it up from deep (Vasturia is solid with the ball in his hands, too). Due to Colson’s presence in place of the awesome Pat Connaughton, the Irish actually don’t take a TON of threes, but the threat of them from both wings opens up the floor for drives and the potent offensive board combo of Colson/Auguste. Michigan doesn’t have the athletes inside to measure up to those two, but they compete hard and are extremely sound with their fundamental box outs.

Tulsa/Michigan on Offense: These teams bring completely different approaches, as Michigan wants to fire threes from four spots, whereas Tulsa is 2 drivers/2 shooters with a far greater interest in getting to the rim. Neither play-in team brings a post threat to the table, instead relying on their fantastic guards to make plays. For as good as Notre Dame is on the offensive glass, they don’t finish possessions defensively like they should, but Michigan and Tulsa aren’t going to punish them there. Michigan will fly back to prevent transition chances, and Tulsa just doesn’t have the bodies on the floor to challenge.

Notre Dame has a serious lack of depth, but they play slowly, limiting possessions where fouls could occur or the outstanding starting lineup can get tired. While Michigan is just fine with this, Tulsa wants to push a bit more, and I highly recommend they push at every chance if they make it this far.

Defense in general is Notre Dame’s Achilles heel, ranking a paltry 172nd in the country in adjusted efficiency (compared to 10th offensively), but at least they do a decent job of taking away the three – where Michigan excels. Tulsa is actually probably a bigger challenge, as they can break you down of penetration, something Notre Dame struggles to stop.

Key Factor(s): How much can Notre Dame ratchet up the defense? I think they’ll put up points against either defense, but guarding the perimeter – either drives (Tulsa) or spread shooting (Michigan) – will make or break them on Friday.

Predictions: I obviously want to see the lines, but I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and take ND in either matchup. I love Demetrius Jackson, and Auguste will be the best big on the floor regardless of who wins. Brey should have them ready for either squad, although I don’t like betting money against John Beilein.

Do I Trust the Coaches?: See my Beilein (YES) and Haith (NO WAY) answers in our First Four preview. As for Brey, I’ve really come around on him. He’s an offensive guru, and his teams generally don’t drive me nuts with dumb plays (other than Auguste).

SU Pick: Notre Dame, either way
ATS Pick: Notre Dame, pending the line, I’m expecting about -3 in either scenario
O/U Pick: Probably over, but I want to see the number. I don’t think ND or Mich/Tulsa’s defenses can stop the other’s offense - ND/Michigan would be slower than ND/Tulsa, though.



(3) West Virginia vs. (14) Stephen F. Austin

Initial Thoughts: I know the committee doesn’t pick out specific matchups and set them up purposely, but it’s pretty awesome to get the #1 and #2 teams in the entire country in forced turnover rate against each other in the first round. Both teams want to speed you up and and force you to take quick shots, while both teams actually are incredibly patient on their own offensive end.

West Virginia on Offense:  West Virginia is absolutely relentless attacking the rim in all facets of the game, ranking 7th in FT Rate and 1st in offensive rebounding rate in the nation. They go 9-10 deep and can wear down opponents by hurling waves of athletes at them. A full 11% of their possessions end in offensive rebound put-backs, also #1 in the country, led by Jonathan Holton and Devin Williams, two of the country’s top 25 rebounders.

While offensive rebounding is a gigantic concern for SFA, first shot defense could prove difficult as well. They have no one who can match up with Devin Williams inside, and it’s paramount that they limit his touches (like they did last year against Jakob Poeltl, who was perfect from the field last year against SFA but only took 7 shots). The lack of size is compensated for by a ton of quickness, and the Jacks will play 8-9 good athletes who can sag off and deny entry passes to Williams. The ‘Eers barely take any threes (getting only 22.9% of their points from beyond the arc, 323rd in the country), choosing instead to pound the ball inside and let their size and physicality provide ample offensive rebounding opportunities. As mentioned, they get to the line a ton, and SFA needs Thomas Walkup (Southland back-to-back kPOY) to stay out of foul trouble. I expect the Lumberjacks to battle inside, but I’m not sure they can withstand WV’s onslaught for a full 40 minutes.

Stephen F. Austin on Offense: What a matchup! SFA just spent 2.5 months completely obliterating Southland defenses with their spread-and-slash system that features 3 or 4 ball-handlers on the floor most of the time, but they face a completely different beast here in Press Virginia. WV has waaay more length and quickness than any measly Southland squad, and that will probably require an adjustment period for the Lumberjacks. However, once they’re acclimated to the size and athleticism that WV possesses, I actually think they match up fairly well. Due to the plethora of ball-handlers they have (Walkup, Floyd, Pinkney, Charles, Cameron), the Jacks should be able to handle and even exploit the press when an opportunity presents itself. I initially thought finishing against the size WV has on the back-end of the press would be an issue, but Williams and Holton are actually not intimidating rim protectors at all (0.9% and 1.9% block rates, respectively). Like WV, SFA is patient and deliberate offensively, despite the chaos they create defensively, and being accustomed to facing the mayhem in practice should help the Jacks in not getting sped up too much.

Walkup in particular will be essential. He’s a strong, hyper-efficient (#4 in the country in O-rating) 6’4 ball-handler, big enough to not be bullied by the Paige/Miles/Phillip/Carter wolf pack, and I would expect it to be him breaking the press most often. He needs to be aggressive but smart, taking open lanes to the hoop when they’re available without forcing. In his third NCAA tournament, I trust him in that role.

Key Factor(s): Obviously the turnovers are big for both teams, but the crucial factor for me will be the rebounding battle. No one in their right mind expects SFA to win that stat, but they need to compete. That’s easier said than done for a team that’s 341st in the nation in average height; rebounding by committee will be massive.  

Do I Trust The Coaches?: Of course I trust Bob Huggins. He’s a Hall of Famer with one of his best teams ever (almost certainly his deepest team ever), and he has proven before he can win in March. SFA’s Brad Underwood has built a complete juggernaut in Nacogdoches, and I would be shocked if he is not scooped up by TCU or some other needy big conference school this offseason (please don't let it be TCU). The Jacks knocked off VCU in OT in 2014, barely lost to Utah last year, and are back for a third time – they’re now 59-1 (!!!!!!) against the Southland in the last 3 years. So yeah, I trust Underwood.

Predictions: I adore Stephen F. Austin’s squad and system; see this tweet from @jorcubsdan (maybe the best college bball follow on Twitter) for why:

Unfortunately for the Jacks, they got matched up with the big school version of themselves, a fast, deep, and athletic beast that makes you uncomfortable all night. The Mountaineers basically practice against an amped up version of the Jacks every day, and you simply aren’t going to beat West Virginia at its own game. I also worry about a big WV run to start the game – SFA hasn’t played someone this good since November, and despite their experience in the tournament, WV could blitz them early.

SU Pick: West Virginia
ATS Pick: West Virginia -7.5
O/U Pick: Over 146.5

I’m not confident in either of these, though.


(7) Wisconsin vs. (10) Pittsburgh

Initial Thoughts: I am going to do my best to dismiss all Wisconsin bias from this section and focus solely on the matchup, but it’s going to be tough to not acknowledge that I’m all about Roll Badge. Pitt was also a team I had beef with as an overrated at-large candidate, but I can put that aside – they’re actually a fun team offensively. Maybe the thing I’m looking forward to most here is watching a Badger game without Dan Effing Dakich announcing – that negative Nancy somehow announces every Big Ten game, even when there are two happening simultaneously (OK, maybe not quite that).

Wisconsin on Offense: Under Greg Gard, the Badgers have settled back into the early Bo Ryan days offensively – the days of Swing, the days before Bo was getting a little too friendly with his assistant. The system fits them well with its inversion of player alignment, as they have multiple people who can post up, multiple bigs who can shoot, and no one who can consistently break you down off the dribble (apologies to the Bronson Koenig stepback 3).

As it has been doing for years, Wisconsin basically ignores transition opportunities unless it’s off a steal. This negates one of Pitt’s big strengths defensively, which is limiting transition opportunities. Instead, Wisconsin is going to eat the clock on offensive possessions, often finishing late clock situations with Hayes or Koenig isos or Hayes or Happ post-ups. Wisconsin gets a lot of points from the FT line (almost exclusively from Hayes and Happ), but Pitt is decent about not fouling and has plenty of depth up front.

Playing Hayes at the 3 has created some nice matchups from Wisconsin offensively, as teams basically have to guard him with a 4 or he’ll live on the block/at the FT line. This has opened up the offensive glass for Vitto Brown and even Happ (his guy has to help a lot). Indeed, Wisconsin’s offensive rebounding rate is the highest it’s been in 10 years – Pitt is more than happy to battle there, though.

For all its big guys, Pitt doesn’t really have a bona fide rim protector, and that’s huge for Wisconsin – they really struggled against Purdue inside as the Boilers’ size negated the Badgers’ interior options. Happ will be a tough cover for Pitt – he’s deceptively quick and has a surprisingly sophisticated series of moves and counter-moves, spins and step-throughs he can go to, depending on who’s guarding him. The Badgers have been getting better floor spacing lately as their shooting has improved, and of the rotation guys, only Happ and swingman Khalil Iverson won’t take an open 3 if it presents itself. Koenig is the only elite volume bomber, but Brown, Jordan Hill, and Showalter have proven they’re threats when doubled off. 

Pittsburgh on Offense: I was surprised by how consistently efficient Pitt’s offenses have been over the years – I was of the mind that this was Dixon’s best offensive squad, but they’re actually right about where they’ve been the past four years. A Jamie Dixon team is always going to get points via the offensive glass, and only Ethan Happ really cleans up on that end for Wisconsin. Pitt will throw Michael Young, Ryan Luther, Sheldon Jeter (who Wisconsin recruited hard), and even Rafael Maia at the glass in waves, and Vitto Brown/Nigel Hayes/Charlie Thomas need to help the relatively wiry Happ compete on that end.

The Badgers have long completely taken away the three-point line (part of Bo’s revolution, along with eliminating turnovers), but that’s okay with Pitt, who doesn’t rely on the arc to get points. Jamel Artis, Pitt’s best and most versatile offensive player, can shoot it from deep, but he’s just as comfortable in the midrange or attacking the basket. Young is a workhorse in the paint, a phenomenally efficient post scorer when he gets chances, and Ryan Luther has played a little better lately as an offensive complement inside.

Wisconsin is never, ever, ever going to play zone, and that’s led to one of their biggest struggles defensively – keeping dynamic ball-handlers out of the lane (see Nebraska repeatedly shredding them last game). As good as James Robinson is, though, he’s not a consistent break-you-down type guy in the half-court, instead flashing a lot of his passing in transition, where Pitt is deadly efficient. Transition is an area where Wisconsin has been surprisingly vulnerable this year, possibly as a direct result of the aforementioned better offensive rebounding.

Key Factor(s): Pitt’s offensive rebounding. That and transition are Pitt’s best hopes of scoring, and Wisconsin really needs to rally and board by committee against the more athletic Panthers. If Wisconsin keeps them off the glass, that takes a way a major source of Pitt’s scoring, and with Wisconsin’s complete indifference to fast-breaking, this should be an accomplishable task.

Do I Trust the Coaches?: I want to trust Greg Gard, I really do, but he’s still unproven in this setting (and his Big Ten tournament debut was a disaster). I like that he’s been with Bo forever, though, and he has gotten this Badgers team to play pretty smart (apart from Hayes’ sometimes-baffling shot selection). Jamie Dixon, on the other hand, has a long history of looking great throughout the regular season and then under-performing in the tournament.  Many (including my colleague DJ Dimes) would point to the porous non-conference schedule Pitt normally plays (and, traditionally, blows away) as the culprit for this. Gard is less experienced, but I’m giving the slightest edge to him here. 

Predictions: I think this is a tight one throughout. Neither team is going to speed up the game, nor are the offenses deadly enough, in my eyes, to go on a surgical 15-2 run over 4 minutes. I’m expecting a game with a lot of lead changes, where a 7-point lead will feel like a 15-point lead, and where the winner will have to hit big shots late. I like Wisconsin’s tournament experience with Hayes and Koenig in that situation (and maaaybe I’m a little biased too).

SU Pick: Wisconsin
ATS Pick: Wisconsin -1
O/U Pick: Barf, under 131 – I’m thinking 65-60


(2) Xavier vs. (15) Weber State

Initial Thoughts: I’m thrilled for Xavier for getting the 2-seed I thought they deserved – it seemed like popular opinion had started to swing against them, despite being 27-5 overall with a 14-4 record in the country’s 4th-best conference, along with nonconference wins over Michigan, Alabama, USC, Dayton, and Cincinnati (4 of them away from home). They lost 2 of 4 to end the year, both to Seton Hall, and I just think that’s a tough matchup for Xavier – Ismael Sanogo’s versatility defensively and on the glass negates Xavier’s four-out lineup (Sanogo can guard Blueitt) while also keeping a great rebounder on the floor.

Weber State hails from the Big Sky, a conference I did not follow nearly well enough, so it was fun to throw on some film of them and watch of the tournament’s few double-champions (regular season and tournament) take care of business. They’re surprisingly long for a small-conference squad, led by Big Sky POY Joel Bolomboy in the paint.

Xavier on Offense: Mack moved his offense to a more 4-out, 1-in system this year, going away from having 2 bigs on the floor and instead playing Trevon Blueitt large minutes at the 4 and giving 20 minutes each to post monsters James Farr and Jalen Reynolds in the middle. This hasn’t necessarily led to a spike in threes, but it has helped the Musketeers maintain their elite ball movement and opened up driving lanes. Redshirt freshman Edmond Sumner has been fantastic as the lead ball-handler, allowing Myles Davis to play off the ball quite a bit (though he still handles it at times). Sumner gets into the lane and to the line almost at will, and Weber State’s mandate to run opponents off the three-point line (7th lowest 3PA/FGA rate in the country) feeds right into Sumner’s blow-by ability. At the rim, Bolomboy isn’t a great rim protector, and he’ll need to stay out of foul trouble when Sumner, Abell, etc. get past the aggressive perimeter closeouts (something he does a good job of already). Weber as a team does a good job of keeping opponents off the FT line. The Wildcats like to play dual bigs, and that’s going to open up major opportunities for Blueitt – he’s just too versatile to be guarded by a big and not cause damage, whether it’s with shooting, slashing, or passing.   

The rebounding battle is going to be awesome to watch. Farr and Reynolds might be the best offensive rebounding tag team outside of West Virginia, but Bolomboy is 5th in the entire country in defensive rebound rate. That will be a war all night, and Xavier’s frontcourt depth (O’Mara, Gates) will come in handy to try and wear big Joel down. Weber actually has two other bigs that can help on the glass (Hill and Braxton), but it will largely come down to the one-and-one battles with Bolomboy and Farr/Reynolds.

Weber State on Offense: Weber’s offense, like it’s anti-three-ball defense, is in line with today’s analytics – the Wildcats get only 45% of their points from 2 point range (305th in the country), instead preferring to launch threes and get to the free throw line. Junior Jeremy Senglin is one of the highest-volume shooters in the country, and he hit 101 of them while shooting 44% from deep – he’s as deadly as they come. The rest of the perimeter guys will shoot, too, but none are quite as scary as Senglin. Weber loves to work inside-out on offense, getting a post touch for one of their bigs and letting him attack single coverage or kick out to a waiting shooter if doubled. Consequently, Xavier is all about playing behind the ball defensively, and they’ll often double those post-ups:

That will leave shooters open if Weber can move the ball well enough, and the complementary guys (Richardson, Cannon, Dusty Baker – haha, that's actually his name!) need to be toeing the line, ready to shoot (unlike Whitehead in the above snip). Xavier will also mix it up with the 1-3-1, usually with the lanky Macura up top, but that will leave shooters open in the corners as well. Weber is going to get spot up opportunities in this one – they need the role players to step up and hit shots.

As mentioned, Xavier gets a ton of offensive rebounds, but because it’s mostly their bigs getting them, X still does a great job of taking away transition opportunities. Weber doesn’t play fast, but going along with Rahe’s acknowledgement of analytics, they’ll take transition chances off missed shots when they can. Expect those chances to be limited against Mack’s disciplined squad.

Key Factor(s): To me, it’s going to be rebounding. Xavier is accustomed to beasting their opponents on the glass, but they face one of the country’s ultimate rebounding gurus in this one. Weber doesn’t attack their own offensive glass (preferring to play good transition defense instead), but if they can hold their own on their defensive backboard, I think they can keep this one close for a while.

Do I Trust the Coaches?: Hell yeah I trust Chris Mack. He’s been fantastic at Xavier since taking over for Sean Miller in 2009-2010, and this is by far his best team. Mack has made 5 tournaments before this year, and the Musketeers have outperformed their seed in 3 of the 5 years (and only lost to a lower-seeded team once). He’s also consistently covered spreads in the tournament (good coaches win, great coaches cover!).  They’re the hunted rather than the hunter this year, though. Randy Rahe has been at Weber State for 10 years now, and I love how he’s embraced the value of the three/taking it away defensively. Both guys seem like sharp dudes, though Mack is more proven in this setting.

Predictions: I actually think this one stays close for most of the game. Xavier is obviously the better team, but Weber State can take advantage of the open perimeter looks that Mack’s defense allows, and Bolomboy should negate a lot of X’s advantage on the glass. In the end, Xavier has too many weapons that can drive, shoot, and score, but I’m not expecting a blowout here at all.

SU Pick: Xavier
ATS Pick: Weber State +13.5
O/U Pick: Over 147.5 – barely, on FTs late