West Region Preview: 2018-19 NCAA Tournament

- Ky McKeon

(1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Prairie View A&M / Fairleigh Dickinson

Initial Thoughts: Wild conspiracy theory: Mark Few purposely lost the WCC title game to ensure another squad earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament! Prove me wrong!

Aside from that surprising result against Saint Mary’s in the WCC final, the Zags put on an absolute clinic in their MID-MAJOR conference. Gonzaga played a grand total of ZERO WCC games within double digits this year (loss to Saint Mary’s was by 13) and beat league opponents by an average of nearly 30 points before running into the Gaels on March 12th. Mark Few has weapons at every single position and now has his preseason All-American candidate Kilian Tillie back from injury.

The winner of PVAMU / FDU has no shot in this game. Gonzaga obliterates lesser competition and beat similar level foes by staggering amounts:

This spread will be around 30 and I’ll likely be taking the Zags no matter who they play.

Gonzaga on Offense: Gonzaga currently has the 3rd best offense in the KenPom era, dating back to 2002. Their success derives from their shot selection, which almost always results in open, high percentage looks. No team in the country can tough Gonzaga’s 62.3 FG% inside the arc, led by Rui Hachimura’s 62.1% clip and Brandon Clarke’s 71.2%.

Take a look at this shot chart:

The Zags take a whopping 81% of their two-point attempts from inside that circle.

Gonzaga is so difficult to stop because they do not have any weaknesses on the offensive end. They can run with the best of teams in transition, led by a stud sophomore guard in Zach Norvell and senior PG Josh Perkins; they can feed the post to Clarke, Tillie, or Hachimura; they can work the PnR with any of the bigs previously listed and Perkins / Norvell; and they can shoot the three-ball, led by Norvell’s 37.7% and Cody Kispert’s 37.2%. On top of all this, Gonzaga turns it over at the 10th lowest rate in the nation.

Some of the Zags’ offensive prowess this season may be skewed due to it playing in the WCC (which, by the way, is a solid league), but even against Power 6 competition, Gonzaga has poured in 1.15 PPP, an elite rate.

Neither PVAMU nor FDU will be able to stop the offensive juggernaut that is the Zags. PVAMU forces turnovers at the 2nd highest rate in the country, but Perkins and his fellow backcourt won’t be bothered. The Panthers are one of the smallest teams in DI and rank 340th in defensive rebounding and 350th in opponent FT rate – the Zags will destroy the offensive glass and live at the foul line. FDU has a little more muscle inside, but the Knights aren’t much better on the defensive glass, ranking just 334th in DR%. Gonzaga’s guards will make mincemeat of the FDU backcourt and force plodding big man Mike Holloway to defend Clarke / Tillie / Hachimura on the perimeter.

Prairie View A&M / Fairleigh Dickinson on Offense: PVAMU looks to attack the rim whenever possible. The Panthers are putrid outside shooting team and they rely on FT shooting to score majority of their buckets. FDU is a little more balanced, combining sharp outside shooting with a paint bruiser in Holloway. I’ll refer you my buddy Matt’s write-up for more details on them.

So, can Gonzaga stop ball penetration if they play PVAMU? Emphatically, yes. Perkins and Norvell are both high-level perimeter defenders and Clarke may be the best overall defender in the entire country. If the Panthers are able to slide past the perimeter, Clarke will be waiting to erase any and all shot attempts – his 11.0% block rate is the 17th best in the nation. Gonzaga also ranks 13th in defensive FT rate, which means they do a great job of defending without fouling – bad news for a PVAMU team that needs to get to the line to score.

Can Gonzaga stymy the sharpshooting Knights? Again, the answer is yes. Gonzaga ranks in the top 50 in allowing three-point looks and 27th in 3P% defense. Perkins, Norvell, and Kispert are all big guards that make it difficult to shoot over; Hachimura and Clarke can both defend on the perimeter. Holloway won’t pose much of a problem on the block against Gonzaga’s frontcourt.

Key Factor(s): Really this is a key factor for the remainder of the Tournament: Can Gonzaga successfully reintegrate Killian Tillie? After sitting out most of the year, there’s pros and cons to bringing the big man back for the Dance. On one hand, Gonzaga’s bench is relatively thin – Few plays 8 guys and keeps his starters in for most of the game. Additionally, Tillie is an outstanding player – many thought he was even better than Rui coming into the season and was seen as a potential #1 option on this squad. So why not play him? Chemistry can be an issue. I don’t mean other players hate Tillie, but Gonzaga has played and won a majority of its games without Tillie’s services, so integrating him into the rotation changes lineup cadences, decreases time for guys like Clark and Hachimura, and introduces the question of role allocation. I have faith in Few figuring it out, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on for the Tourney.

For the 16-seeds, their only prayer is to slow this game to a crawl. PVAMU plays fast and has little interest in doing otherwise, and they cannot shoot past 15 feet. They will get blown out in this game if they get past FDU. The Knights have the ability to play a slower pace and try to drag this game to a crawl, but they’ll still have to hit double-digit threes and pray for a cold shooting night from Gonzaga to stay within the number.

Final Predictions: I’m taking the Zags to cover in both scenarios. I like the bet against FDU, I LOVE the bet against PVAMU.

SU Pick: Gonzaga
ATS Pick: Gonzaga -28.5
O/U Pick: No Play

(8) Syracuse vs. (9) Baylor

Initial Thoughts: 2018-19 was an insane year for the Baylor Bears. Scott Drew’s squad started the season on the wrong foot with a loss in Waco to SWAC powerhouse Texas Southern and then followed that up by losing to Stephen F. Austin at home later in the non-conference. Baylor began the year ranked 39th in KenPom’s preseason standings; after the December 18th loss to SFA, the Bears stood at 6-4, were ranked 71st, and were essentially written out of any and all NCAA Tournament talks. Holy revival. Baylor tore through the month of January with a fully healthy Mario Kegler and Makai Mason and ended the year with the Big 12’s best offense and a 10-8 conference record despite a three-game losing skid to finish conference season.

Syracuse was unsurprisingly over-seeded by the Committee, leaning heavily on that Duke win on January 14th and a sterling NCSOS that seemingly offset its 3-9 record against Q1 and two bad losses. Like Baylor, the Orange come limping into the Tourney having beaten nobody not named “Wake Forest” or “Pittsburgh” in almost a month.

Syracuse on Offense: Much like last season, the Orange struggled often on the offensive end, ranking just 9th in the ACC in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings and 61st overall. Make no mistake about it – Syracuse scores because they are a bunch of very talented players, not because they run good offense. The Orange are prone to standing and offensive possessions can stagnate, oftentimes resulting in tough one-on-one takes and contested shots. Most of Syracuse’s buckets this season come from two-point and three-point jumpers, the majority of which are unassisted. Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett are the kings of taking tough shots. Battle has the ability to carry Syracuse on the offensive end, but he can also shoot his team out of games. Brissett on the other hand needs to admit he is not an outside shooter – despite shooting just 26.4% from deep this season, the 6’8” sophomore settled for 106 three-point attempts.

Battle and Brissett are at their best when they attack the rim, drawing fouls with their superior size and athleticism. Because the pair (and the rest of the team) struggle as a whole shooting from the perimeter and thrive when driving to the cup, expect Baylor to employ its morphing 1-3-1 zone, a Scott Drew specialty over the years:

Zoning Syracuse is smart for a few reasons: 1) the Orange are the biggest team in the country and few can match their size across all five positions, 2) the Orange cannot shoot from the outside besides Buddy Boeheim and an occasional hot Elijah Hughes, and 3) the Orange have sucked this year against zones, scoring a putrid 0.832 PPP, one of the worst marks in the country. If Baylor zones, they should be able to limit Syracuse scoring, but they’ll also be susceptible to getting beat on the glass. The Bears are the 213th “best” defensive rebounding team in the country, while Cuse ranks 106th in offensive rebounding rate.

Baylor on Offense: The Bears had the Big 12’s best offense this season and ranked 28th overall in the country, per KenPom. Baylor runs a balanced attack on offense, but mostly sets up as a jump shooting offense. The Bears rely heavily on the offensive glass for offensive production, particularly second chance points involving kickouts to open shooter. Per KenPom, Baylor is the 2nd best offensive rebounding team in the nation, trouble for a Cuse squad that struggles tremendously to rebound out of its patented 2-3 zone (335th in defensive rebounding rate).

Against zones this season, Baylor is scoring a solid 0.979 PPP, albeit on a relatively low sample size. However, Syracuse’s zone is not like other zones – this defense defines the Orange and it’s something Jim Boeheim has been teaching for 100 years (or however long he’s been there). Syracuse’s ridiculous length and size at all five positions makes it nearly impossible to get the ball past the three-point arc on offense, and it’s a primary reason why Boeheim tends to do well in the NCAA Tournament – zones are hard to prepare for on short notice, they slow down games, and the Orange run it better than any team in the country.

Makai Mason, the former Yale front-man, is a wizard at the point and he has the requisite vision to slice and dice a zone with his passing. However, his diminutive size (6’1” 185 lbs.) could be an issues against a perimeter shell that goes 6’5”, 6’6”, 6’6”. To beat the Cuse zone, Baylor is going to have to shoot the ball well from deep. Mason is an excellent outside shooter, as is freshman Jared Butler, senior King McClure, and junior Devonte Bandoo, who has been a revelation late in the year. Mark Vital serves as a solid zone buster at the high post with his thickness, and freshman big man Freddie Gillespie has filled in nicely for the injured Tristan Clark. The Bears have the shooting weapons to beat the zone, but size is a major concern. If Baylor goes 7/24 from deep like they did against the OK State zone back on March 6th, the Orange will be waltzing to the Second Round.

Key Factor(s): Tyus Battle missed Syracuse’s last game against Duke with a hip injury. All reports point to him playing in this one, but his health is something to monitor. If he’s not at 100%, Syracuse’s shaky offense goes from mediocre to downright terrible. Without Battle on the floor this season, the Orange are scoring just 0.94 PPP.

Baylor’s shooting is going to be the other key. If the Bears fail to make outside shots, they cannot win this ball game. Despite the rebounding advantage on their offensive end, Cuse will make it impossible to score consistently inside the arc and they do a decent job of defending without fouling.

Final Predictions: This game is going to be extremely ugly and ultimately comes down to strength versus strength: Baylor’s elite offense vs. Syracuse’s elite defense. Recently, Baylor has not been elite on the offensive end, scoring over 1.00 PPP just once in their last four games. I trust Syracuse more in a Tourney setting; while offenses can be hot and cold on a nightly basis, defense stays relatively consistent. Cuse to cover and win.

SU Pick: Syracuse
ATS Pick: Syracuse -2
O/U Pick: Under 133.5

(5) Marquette vs. (12) Murray State

Initial Thoughts: Ah, the famous 5/12 matchup. It’s no secret these seed lines have been ripe for upset picks over the years, and with the 12-seed having a player that garners national media attention in Ja Morant, you can bet all the talking heads will be taking the Racers in this one. Marquette comes limping into the Tournament, losing five of its last six games down the stretch. The Eagles draw Murray State, the Ohio Valley champion that disposed of Belmont in the title game much to the delight of college basketball nation (2 bid OVC!!!). This game should be a high octane, offensive funfest with Morant going toe to toe with All-American hopeful Markus Howard. 

Marquette on Offense: Marquette’s offense is defined by its shooting ability. The Eagles are first and foremost a jump shooting team; they rank just 306thin %FGA near the rim (Hoop-Math) and 67thin percentage of points scored from downtown (KenPom). They shoot it often and they shoot it well, cashing 39.3% of their three-point attempts this year, the 9thbest rate in the country. Four players on the Eagle roster – all starters – shoot over 40% from three: Howard (40.8%), Sam Hauser (40.1%), Joey Hauser (43.3%), and Sacar Anim (40.9%). When their offense is clicking, the ball movement is gorgeous to watch, pinging into the high post and out to open spot-up shooters. Howard is the catalyst to the attack, but the Hauser brothers are also capable creators in the half-court. Most offense is run through Howard via the pick-n-roll; Howard uses ball screens to knife into the lane or stop and pop from anywhere behind the three-point arc. On pick-n-roll possessions this season, Howard is scoring 0.95 PPP, 85thpercentile in the country, and in isolation sets, Howard pours in a scorching 1.105 PPP, 92ndpercentile in the country (both per Synergy). 

When not bombing from deep, Marquette looks to score via transition and via basket attack. Both Howard and Joey Hauser make it a habit to get to the free throw line, where the team connects at a 22ndbest 75.9%. Big men Theo John and Ed Morrow are solid rebounders, but they are rarely looked upon to put the ball through the basket.

The key for Murray State in this one will be to take away open three-point looks. In its nine losses this seasons, Marquette is shooting just 33.9% from downtown, and if you take out the Kansas game outlier (14/31), the Eagles are just 32.2%. Marquette is able to get to the foul line, especially Howard off the bounce, but it absolutely needs to shoot well from deep to win ball games. Take that production source away and you have an excellent shot at upending the Eagles. Very few teams in the country deny the three-point line better than the Racers. Murray State ranks 4thin the country in three-point percentage defense, holding opponents to just 28.5% from deep, and allows the 65thleast amount of 3PA in the country. Matt McMahon’s perimeter guard trio of Morant, Shaq Buchanan (OVC Defensive Player of the Year), and Tevin Brown make life miserable for opposing shooters. They will 100% bother the 5’11” Howard with their length and quickness. Murray’s extended high pressure past the arc may not force the Eagles into a ton of turnovers, but it will make it extremely difficult to find clean looks.

Murray State on Offense: Transition is the name of the game on Murray State’s offensive end of the floor. The Racers live up to their name with a focus on pushing the issue in the open floor and rank 6th in the country in eFG% in transition and 38th in FGA%. Morant is masterful pushing the ball downhill. All the hype that surrounds the 6’3” sophomore is completely justified – this guy is absolutely incredible:

His creativity from a passing perspective and the way he’s able to fit into every crevice of the defense is simply awe-inspiring. He ranks 3rdin the country in usage this season and is by far the national leader in assist rate. When not running, the Racers run their offense through Morant, who acts as the chief ball handler and playmaker. His decision-making is next level – he’s extremely unselfish and yet he takes the lion’s share of Murray’s shots in every game. He picks his spots on when to pass or shoot, and he’s almost always correct.

Marquette’s defense is MUCH improved this season from historical Steve Wojciechowski teams, ranking 2ndin adjusted defensive efficiency in the Big East and 35thin the country (KenPom). The Eagles are stout defensively thanks to their anchor in the paint, Theo John. His shot-blocking prowess acts as a safety blanket for Eagle guards and wings, allowing them to shade the three-point line a little more aggressively knowing the big man has their back in the middle. 

The Morant matchup is obviously the focus for Marquette on this end. Anim likely starts on Morant, using his 6’5” frame to his advantage in an effort to hinder the superstar enough to slow him down. Howard has been much improved this year on defense, but Morant likely torches him if the pair matchup. Role player Joseph Chartouny has played limited minutes recently, but the former Fordham Ram is arguably the best defender on the team, so Wojo may opt to use him a bit more in this one. Morant is unlike any player in the country, but taking a look at what star guards have done against the Eagles this season doesn’t inspire confidence in the 5-seed favorite:

Morant should be able to have his way with Marquette defenders out on the perimeter and will have plenty of opportunities to score on the run – the Eagles rank just 306thin the nation in limiting transition opportunities. 

Key Factor(s): As is the case in most Power 6 / Mid-Major matchups, size could prove to be a determining factor. Yes, Marquette is primarily a jump shooting team, but the Eagles aren’t robots – if Theo John is sitting on the block against an inferior defender, they will get him the rock. The offensive glass could be a bountiful source of production for the Eagles if Murray extends to far on shooters and leaves the sizable Eagles free to run to the rim. 

Second is shooting. If Murray can hold Marquette around 35% from deep, it has a great shot at pulling the upset.

Finally, it comes down to the game’s two superstars. March is the perfect stage for star guards to show out and carry their respective teams. Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard and top five NBA Draft pick Ja Morant should be a spectacle to behold. Will Howard’s wrist injury affect his play?

Final Predictions: The line is low, but this matchup favors the Racers. Murray State takes away what Marquette wants to do on offense, while the Eagles won’t necessarily be able to do the same on the other end. I like the Racers to cover and pull the upset in a high scoring affair. 

SU Pick: Murray State
ATS Pick:
Murray State +4.5
O/U Pick:
Over 149.5

(4) Florida State vs. (13) Vermont

Initial Thoughts: This is one of those tournament matchups that neither team can be very excited about. Florida State arguably should have been a 3-seed with their late season tear and gaudy quality win total, but instead they draw a well-coached Vermont squad that has a track record of Tourney competitiveness.

On the flip side, Vermont can hang with just about any team in the country, but high-level athleticism and size can be a problem. Not many teams in the country are as athletic or as big as Florida State. This should be an interesting Chess match of elite execution versus elite athleticism.

Florida State on Offense: Florida State plays offense like it’s on a 45 degree downward sloping plane – everything is a downhill sprint towards the basket. Leonard Hamilton teams have historically played at one of the higher tempos in the country, but this season was his “slowest” squad since 2014. Despite the slow-down, FSU still excels in the open floor led by dynamic ball handlers Terance Mann, Trent Forrest, and MJ Walker. When not running off turnovers or pushing off the defensive glass, the trio are attacking the rim via dribble drive looking for high percentage shots in the lane or trips to the foul line.

Supporting Hamilton’s primary goal of getting the ball near the rim are capable post players in Mfiondu Kabengele and Christ Koumadje, each of whom can back their men down on the block and score. Kabengele is FSU’s highest used player despite coming off the pine in all 34 games this season. He might be one of the most underrated players in college basketball – he shoots a ton of shots (like, if he touches the ball, it’s going up), but it’s hard to argue with 52.8% from 2PFG and 36.7% from 3PFG.

Then there are support pieces on the wing in senior Phil Cofer, who coming into the year was thought as perhaps FSU’s most valuable player, PJ Savoy, and sharpshooter Devin Vassell. Each adds a different element on the floor for one of Hamilton’s best-ever offensive teams.

To beat FSU, you need to: 1) be able to rebound, 2) slow down the transition game, and 3) be able to hang with the massive size across all five positions. Hamilton plays only one guy shorter than 6’4” and starts a group that goes 6’4”, 6’5”, 6’7”, 6’8”, and 7’4”. On paper, Vermont should be able to accomplish the first two items. The Catamounts rank 2nd in the country in defensive rebounding rate, led by America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb, a do-everything 6’6” forward. What Lamb lacks in height he more than makes up for in toughness and Vermont has been able to hang on the glass with bigger teams such as Louisville and Kansas. From a transition standpoint, the Catamounts rank 53rd in limiting running opportunities due in large part to their unwillingness to crash the offensive glass. John Becker will send his guys back on defense rather than sellout for an offensive board against a bigger squad. The third part, sheer size, will be a tougher challenge for the Catamounts primarily on the other end of the floor…

Vermont on Offense: FSU ranks 9th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency due in large part to their immense size and length.  Vermont starts four guys that weigh less than 200 pounds (ok, Dingba is 205 – sue me) and Lamb is their de facto center at 6’6” – even the most well-coached, technically efficient squads will be bothered by that size difference. To counter FSU’s size and explosiveness on offense, expect Becker to slow this game down to a crawl. Vermont already ranks 296th in offensive possession length in the nation and you can bet they’ll use about 20 seconds of the shot clock against FSU nearly every time down the floor.

Everything goes through Lamb on offense, whether it be a touch on the block, at the top of the key, or cutting through the middle / high post. Against giants like Koumadje and Kabengele, who eat basketballs like Cronus eats babies (Greek mythology, check it out), Lamb will likely do less posting and more perimeter work where his 37% three-point clip will force the lumbering bigs to pick up out past their comfort zone.

Aside from Lamb, Vermont needs to take care of the basketball against an FSU squad that is capable of forcing turnovers in a hurry with their long limbs. Point guard Stef Smith has done a decent job of protecting the rock and setting the table this year for the Catamounts, but guys like Ben Shungu have struggled. Smith’s only job this game will be to hang on to the ball, feed Lamb, and spot up when able. Lamb has the passing prowess and surehandedness to run the pseudo-point on offense in the half-court. With shooters spread all around Lamb in Ernie Duncan (42.5% from 3), Everett Duncan (36.3%), and Smith (35.8%), Vermont can take advantage of the Noles if they decide to send a double to slow down the mid-major maestro. Also, if there’s any question as to Lamb’s ability to score against Power 6 competition, I point you to the Kansas and Louisville games where he averaged 24.5 PPG / 4.0 RPG / 2.0 APG:

That’s some delicious Lamb

Key Factor(s): The pace battle will be a major key in this one. Florida State, the superior athletic squad, is going to try to speed up the Catamounts with a token full court press and extended on-ball pressure in the half-court. If Vermont can win the tempo struggle, there’s no reason they can’t keep this game within double digits. If FSU wins the pace battle, the Noles could win by 20.

For FSU, it will be stopping Anthony Lamb and playing up to their talent level. Vermont is an excellent team, but they simply cannot hang with the Noles physically if FSU is firing on all cylinders. Expect Hamilton to send doubles against Lamb on defense, banking on his perimeter unit’s length and quickness to recover to open shooters.

Final Predictions: From an X’s and O’s perspective, you have to love John Becker going against Leonard Hamilton. To boot, I’m one of the biggest Anthony Lamb supporters out there and have been for years. But, I think the size and physicality will ultimately prove to be too much for the Catamounts to overcome. Expect Vermont to hang inside the number for most of the game and lose the cover near the end as FSU, a good FT shooting team, extends late.

SU Pick: Florida State
ATS Pick: Florida State -10.5
O/U Pick: Under 134

 (6) Buffalo vs. (11) St. John’s / Arizona State

Initial Thoughts: Buffalo announced its intention to be taken seriously early in November when it went into Morgantown and defeated a then-top 20 West Virginia squad. As an encore to that game, the Bulls rattled off nine more victories in a row including a destruction of Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on December 18th. The Committee rewarded Buffalo’s dominant 31-3 (16-2) performance with a 6-seed, a reasonable spot for a squad that did what it could with an average non-con schedule and a solid MAC slate. The Committee also “rewarded” the Bulls with the chance to play one of two highly athletic Power 6 squads in St. John’s and Arizona State. Buffalo will be favored in either of those matchups, but not by much.

Both St. John’s and Arizona State thrive against teams they can overpower with athleticism, but Buffalo is not one of those teams. The Bulls are one of the few mid-majors in the country that can go toe-to-toe from a talent and physicality standpoint with Power 6 schools.

There’s a little extra narrative built into this one, as ASU’s Bobby Hurley has a shot to go against his former squad, but as I wrote in my First Four preview, I expect to see the Johnnies here on Friday.

Buffalo on Offense: Buffalo is a senior-laden, experienced squad that starts five excellent athletes and brings arguably its best player, Nick Perkins, off the bench. The Bulls look to sprint down the court on every possession, looking to take advantage of their superior speed and athleticism against retreating defenses. Nate Oats teams have always played fast, but this year has been cranked to another level (just like Crank 2: High Voltage). Buffalo ranks 9th in country in tempo and 3rd in quickest average offensive possession length. They do their most damage off opponent misses, ranking 3rd nationally in percentage of initial FGA 0-10 seconds following a rebound – only Houston and North Carolina try to catch opposing teams napping following a miss more often than the Bulls.:

Perkins rips down the rebound and the Bulls catch the Falcons snoozing

Buffalo also looks to take advantage of showboating opponents following a make, ranking 28th in percentage of initial FGA 0-10 seconds following an opponent score.

Most of Buffalo’s offense comes from transition opportunities, but the Bulls are also capable of running good offense. With CJ Massinburg and Davonta Jordan handling the rock most of the time, the Bulls rank 19th in the nation in turnover rate and look to set up their five >35% three-point shooters for open looks. Further evidencing the fact Buffalo is well coached: the Bulls shoot the 13th highest percentage of shots near the rim and 351st highest percentage of two-point jumpers.

Neither St. John’s nor Arizona State do an effective job at limiting transition opportunities. The Sun Devils are the better of the two, ranking 7th in eFG% defense, but still allow a bottom-100 amount of chances on the run, due in large part to their tendency to crash the offensive glass. The Red Storm are also more susceptible to being beaten inside and at the rim. Marvin Clark is a good defensive player, but Nick Perkins should have no trouble scoring from the outside or on the block and will likely get the St. John’s big man in foul trouble if the pair meet in the First Round.

ASU poses the overall tougher matchup from a defensive standpoint with their big wings and burly big man Romello White, but just like Ponds should run over Remy Martin, Massinburg should have no issue putting up points.

St. John’s / Arizona State on Offense: I’ll start with Buffalo’s defense since we know the Bulls will be playing on Friday. Buffalo uses its high-level perimeter athletes to pressure opposing ball handlers in the half-court in an effort to disrupt the offense’s rhythm and force turnovers. While the Bulls run the nation’s 3rd quickest offense, they rank 276th in the country in defensive possession length, meaning they make opposing units work hard to find a good look. The Red Storm’s Shamorie Ponds won’t be fazed by this pressure from a turnover perspective, but you can bet Buffalo will make finding a shot a living hell. ASU is less sure-handed than the Johnnies and are susceptible to coughing up the rock against the Bulls pressure.

Another strength of the Bulls’ defense is their ability to take away three-point looks and hinder shot attempts. Buffalo takes away three-point attempts at a top 100 rate in the country and allows the 14th lowest FG% from deep (29.8%). This aspect will hurt the Johnnies more than it hurts the Devils, as the Red Storm’s 5-out spread attack looks to shoot the three more than ASU’s PnR dribble drive. Buffalo’s PnR defense hasn’t been super stout this season, so if guys like Luguentz Dort and Remy Martin can squeeze past Buffalo’s perimeter shell, they could find pay-dirt in the key.

Buffalo is also going to be able to neutralize Marvin Clark’s effectiveness if the Storm rally past ASU. While Clark has a huge advantage against Arizona State’s White, he’ll have a difficult time exploiting Nick Perkins on the perimeter and in the post. Perkins and fellow big Montel McRae will be more susceptible to De’Quon Lake and Romello White post-ups, as neither has been a world beater preventing block scores and Buffalo defensive rebounds at only the 112th best rate in the country.

Finally, Buffalo shuts down transition opportunities, something that will affect both St. John’s and ASU’s high-octane offenses. Running with the Bulls this season has only resulted in pain.

Key Factor(s): From a coaching perspective, Buffalo’s Nate Oats should run circles around either Bobby Hurley or Chris Mullin.

If you need more than “this coach is better than that coach,” it depends on the team:

Against ASU, Buffalo needs to limit penetration by possibly scaling back its pressure and focus on protecting the glass against the ASU bigs. Offensively, Perkins is going to be able to exploit White from the perimeter much in the same way Clark will.

Against St. John’s, the Bulls need to prevent Shamorie Ponds from going bonkers, because honestly that is the only way I can see the Red Storm upend the Bulls on Friday. Buffalo is simply too good a matchup across the board for St. John’s to overcome.

Final Predictions: Would take Buffalo to cover almost any spread against St. John’s. Sun Devils beat St. John’s - I will take them versus the spread.

SU Pick: Buffalo
ATS Pick: Arizona State +5
O/U Pick: Over 157

(3) Texas Tech vs. (14) Northern Kentucky

Initial Thoughts: Texas Tech comes into the Big Dance fresh off a shocking defeat at the hands of West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament after sharing the conference title with Kansas State. The Raiders are one of the most complete teams in the country and are one of the few programs that can truly dominate one side of the ball. Chris Beard has himself a top five defense for the second straight season in Lubbock.

Northern Kentucky feels somewhat like an afterthought this season after sharing the title in the blah Horizon League. The Norse make their second Tourney appearance after hanging tough with Kentucky as a 15-seed back in 2016-17. Texas Tech is clearly the superior team in this matchup, but NKU is well-coached and runs an efficient style of offense that just might be good enough to stay within the 14-point spread.

Texas Tech on Offense: Texas Tech’s six losses this season have largely come as a result of stagnant offense. The Raiders have turned in some truly puke-worthy efforts including 0.71 PPP against Duke, 0.74 PPP against Kansas State, and 0.86 PPP against Kansas. Because of these performances, Tech may have a reputation as not being a “good” offensive team. But make no mistake about it, this group can be as efficient as anyone in the half-court (where they do most of their damage), as their 36th adjusted offensive efficiency ranking per KenPom suggests.

Those teams listed above (Duke, K-State, KU) all have ELITE defenses this season, so cherry picking those particular contests as a reason to doubt Tech’s offensive prowess may seem unfair. They get a Northern Kentucky team on Friday that ranks 144th in defense per KenPom, one that likely won’t be able to stop the Raiders’ attack.

Jarrett Culver is college basketball’s superstar that no one seems to be talking about. The sophomore future Lottery pick is putting up a stat line of 18.6 PPG / 6.3 RPG / 3.6 APG / 1.3 SPG / 0.4 BPG while sporting a 109.4 O-rating while leading the Big 12 in usage. Culver can be flat out unstoppable at times on the offensive end – case in point against West Virginia in the Big 12 tourney, he nearly single-handedly won the game for his Raiders after trailing by 15 late.

Jarrett Culver: Takeover Mode Engaged

Culver controls the rock for the better part of the majority of Tech’s possessions and Beard ensures to run him off constant screens, whether or not he has the ball in his hands. When not in control, Matt Mooney, a South Dakota grad transfer, usually runs the offense. Mooney is as steady a lead guard as they come in college basketball and doubles as a knockdown outside shooter. He and Culver use their driving ability to open up shots for the likes of Davide Moretti, a sophomore out of Italy that is hitting 47.8% of his threes this season (10th in the country) and is pouring in a ridiculous 1.423 PPP on spot-up attempts (99th percentile in the country per Synergy).

The Raiders have run into trouble when their studs start missing a few shots in a row and start falling in love with tough twos. Culver and Mooney are both guilty of this, and without a competent post threat to bring a shift in style to the offensive attack, Tech can stagnate on this end. Turnovers have also led to struggles turning in efficient offensive games.

NKU isn’t a terrible defensive team, but its strength doesn’t lie in stopping ball penetration, something Tech is looking to do every time down the floor. Sophomore wing Jalen Tate was an All-Defensive Team member in the Horizon this season and is excellent guarding the pick-n-roll, but he is going to have his hands full with Culver despite his 6’6” frame. The Norse will also throw in a press every now and then, having pressed 17% of their possessions this season. John Brannen’s full-court pressure has been good at getting stops, allowing just 0.696 PPP (93rd percentile), but the Raiders tend to handle pressure well and have scored 0.982 PPP (87th percentile) against full-court presses this year.

Northern Kentucky on Offense: NKU runs beautiful offense. Brannen’s group is constantly moving on the offensive end, perpetually passing, cutting, and screening in order to find an open, high percentage look. The Norse rank 5th in the country in assist rate and 317th in 2P jumpers attempted, a testament to their unselfishness and focus on finding the best available shot. The offense is led by Drew McDonald, a 6’8” senior whose 19.1 PPG / 9.5 RPG and .482 / .409 / .801 stat line paces the 23rd best eFG% team in the country. Jalen Tate handles the ball often on offense, excelling in the pick-n-roll with McDonald serving as the perfect roll man. And, the Norse also like to get up and down a bit, thriving in transition this season behind the efforts of guard Tyler Sharpe.

Unfortunately for NKU and their beautiful offense, they are going up against literally the best defensive team in the country and 12th best in the KenPom era (2002) in Texas Tech. Chris Beard employs the “pack line” style of defense, made famous by Tony Bennett at Virginia. The Raiders don’t allow anything within the arc – opponents shoot just 41.3% from 2P range against TTU, the 2nd best mark in the country. Shot blocking extraordinaires Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase own the paint and often play side-by-side, forming an impregnable wall in the lane. To make matters more difficult, Mooney and Culver are each tenacious defenders in their own right. NKU likes to play through McDonald on the block, but he will have an extremely hard time scoring against either Owens or Odiase in the post. Both big men are foul prone, though, so there is an opportunity for McDonald to wreak havoc with his 250 pound frame.   

To beat the pack line, NKU will have to shoot the ball well from deep, which it is more than capable of doing. McDonald can pull one of the twin towers away from the hoop and Tate, Sharpe, and Zaynah Robinson all shoot around 40% from downtown. Turnovers shouldn’t be a huge concern with the way NKU passes and handles the ball, but Tech does force the 11th most in the country.

Key Factor(s): For Texas Tech, it’s maintaining movement on offense and not getting sucked in by the dreaded “stand and watch” tendency that can come when sharing the floor with a superstar. NKU is no pushover, so Beard’s team will need to respond if they get punched in the mouth early.

For Northern Kentucky, it comes down to shooting and McDonald’s ability to be effective on offense, either by way of getting the bigs in foul trouble or pulling them away from the hoop. Earlier this season, McDonald was bottled up by a similarly great defensive team in Cincinnati, scoring only 8 points on 3/15 shooting.

Final Predictions: NKU is much better than the 14-seeded Wright State squad that came out of the Horizon last season and was promptly obliterated by Tennessee. But, this game feels like a classic “crockpot” game where Texas Tech cooks the Norse slowly over the course of 40 minutes, ultimately covering the spread.

SU Pick: Texas Tech
ATS Pick: Texas Tech -14
O/U Pick: Over 137.5

(7) Nevada vs. (10) Florida

Initial Thoughts: It’s weird to think of a 29-4 (15-3) season as disappointing, but that’s exactly what we should be labeling Nevada’s 2018-19. The Wolf Pack came into the year as a unanimous top ten team (some places higher), sporting a squad of talented seniors and high major transfers. Though the Pack finished the non-conference slate undefeated, the lack of meaningful competition left much to be desired. Following three MWC losses, an early exit in the conference tournament, and a KenPom ranking that fell from 7th to 25th, it’s fair to ask if this team really can live up to the preseason hype.

Florida fits into the underachievement narrative as well. The Gators lost Chris Chiozza from 2017-18 but were still expected to compete for an SEC title. Some bad luck and a disappearing act by former All-Conference player Jalen Hudson led to the Gators barely sneaking into the NCAA Tournament on the heels of a 19-15 (9-9) regular season.

Nevada on Offense: Nevada drew a perfect matchup in Round 1 in Florida. The Gators have a nationally elite defense (14th per KenPom), but the areas in which they struggle relate to size, both on the block and the defensive glass. The Pack lacked a true center during their Sweet Sixteen run last season, but found one in Old Dominion’s Trey Porter, a 6’11” behemoth that gobbles up rebounds and finishes at a high clip. His addition completes a starting five that’s nearly unmatchable across the country from a size perspective. With Porter, Jordan Caroline, Caleb & Cody Martin, and Tre’Shawn Thurman, the Pack start 6’7”, 6’7”, 6’7”, 6’8”, 6’11”. That’s enough to give anyone trouble, but especially a Florida team that tends to get pounded in the paint.

Nevada’s offensive prowess doesn’t rely on size alone. The Pack are a nationally elite ball handling team (7th in turnover rate) and shoot the 45th best eFG% in the country. Talent oozes from every position and Musselman’s offensive attack is a balance of dribble drive and spot-up shooting. Nevada’s greatest strength on offense is its ability to get to the rim and draw fouls, something Caroline does as well as anybody in the country. Caroline missed Nevada’s last game of the MWC tourney with an Achilles injury but is supposed to be back to 100% for the matchup against Florida.

The Pack will also look to push the pace in transition; with essentially four point-forwards, the Pack have multiple weapons that can bring the ball up and threaten to score on the run. Florida ranks 3rd in the country in limiting transition opportunities and only six teams force opponents to play at a slower pace, so beating the Gators in transition consistently may prove to be a tall task.

Aside from the transition battle, Nevada has a clear advantage over Florida on the offensive end. The Gators’ elite turnover rate (16th nationally) won’t affect the surehanded Wolf Pack, taking away a major avenue by which the Gators win ball games. And, as alluded to earlier, Porter, Caroline, and the other big wings are going to have a field day punishing Florida inside the lane. In losses against Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Auburn this year, Florida was routinely beaten on the defensive glass and on the block. The Pack aren’t a top notch offensive rebounding team, but Caroline and Porter should be able to exploit the 302nd best defensive rebounding team in the country.

Florida on Offense: The Gators have been a nightmare offensively this year, shooting an eFG% of just 49.9%, the 222nd best mark in the nation. Hudson is a shell of his former self, knocking down 27.1% of his 140 three-point attempts after shooting 40.4% on 193 attempts in 2017-18. Fellow senior guard Kevaughn Allen as also yet to fully regain his former offensively gifted self, shooting just 32.8% from deep and 45.8% inside the arc. Just take a look at Florida’s shot chart this season…

Hey, wow! Shooting corner threes is good - who knew?!

Surprisingly, it’s been Mike White’s three talented freshmen that have carried the mantle when the offense has stalled. 6’5” wing Keyontae Johnson has been on a tear his last few games and White rarely takes him off the floor. Point guard Andrew Nembhard has lived up to his billing as a gifted passer and unselfish table setter, and Noah Locke is the team’s best shooter in light of Keith Stone’s season-ending injury.

Bad shooting is bad news for a team that spreads the floor on offense, plays four guards, and relies on the outside shot to score points. Kevarrius Hayes is a gifted shot blocker but he’s rarely looked to as a source of offense on the block. Perhaps it’s due to the various struggles of former star players, but the Gators seem to lack a true go-to scorer. Hudson tries to be that guy, but his inefficiency has done more harm than good and he tends to settle for poor shots. When uncertainty exists on offense, it makes facing a perimeter defense made up of daddy long legs all the more tricky.

Nevada appears to have buttoned up the odd defensive issues it suffered through last year, improving their defensive KenPom rank from 108th in 2017-18 to 33rd this season. The Martin twins’ length on the perimeter is going to wreak havoc on the inexperienced guards and force guys like Allen and Hudson into ill-advised, tough shots. The Pack were weak on the interior last season, but Porter has solved that issue, leading the Pack to the nation’s 30th best defensive rebounding rate and doubling as a solid shot blocker. The Gators aren’t looking to score near the cup, but it gives Nevada guards more confidence in extending pressure when they know guys like Porter await on the block.

Key Factor(s): Florida has to make outside shots if it wants a chance to win this game. Nevada is bigger and more talented, but three-point shooting has always been the great equalizer.

This may sound odd, but Nevada’s key is actually showing up and trying for a full 40 minutes. The Pack have a tendency to coast at times and this Florida Gator team, small as they may be, is a scrappy group that will hustle on every possession. In a sense, Nevada is like the Marvel character Gladiator – he’s ridiculously powerful but his abilities increase and decrease with his level of confidence. Nevada is ridiculously talented, but if they coast and take Florida lightly, they will get bounced in Round 1. Nevada is the better team and they need to act like it on Thursday.

Final Predictions: Nevada overwhelms the feisty Gators and cruises into a battle with 2-seed Michigan.

SU Pick: Nevada
ATS Pick: Nevada -2
O/U Pick: Over 133.5

(2) Michigan vs. (15) Montana

Initial Thoughts: NCAA Bracketing Principles and Procedures, Additional Considerations #3 states, “If possible, rematches from the previous two tournaments should be avoided in the first round.”

Presumably, the Committee took that sheet of paper out of the rule book, crumpled it into a ball, and proceeded to wipe their behinds with it. Michigan versus Montana should feel awfully familiar for those that follow the bracket year-to-year, because these two teams met in the First Round in 2017-18 when Michigan earned a 3-seed and Montana a 14. Would it have been super easy for the Committee to switch Montana and Bradley? Yes. Why didn’t they, Mr. Owl? The world may never know.

The Wolverines come into this matchup after somehow improving upon a banner 2017-18. Despite losing Moe Wagner to the Draft, John Beilein and Co. started the year 17-0 and ended 15-5 in the cutthroat Big Ten. This marks Beilein’s 4th straight trip to the NCAA Tournament at Michigan and 9th overall at the helm of the program.

Montana once again beat up on the Big Sky, cruising to a 16-4 conference record and claiming its second straight league title. The Griz are one of the oldest and most experienced teams in the country, so overlooking them in this First Round contest is not advisable.

Michigan on Offense: John Beilein has been a wizard in March recently and always seems to have his Wolverines playing their best basketball around this time. Despite that and the fact the Wolverines rank 18th in the country in offense (KenPom), Michigan has earned a reputation as a team susceptible to the occasional scoring drought. These dry spells are likely due to the Wolverines being primarily a jump-shot reliant team, exacerbated by Beilein’s slow, half-court style that results in low possession games.  

Most Michigan possessions start with or involve a ball screen for superlative point guard Zavier Simpson. Simpson uses his screener to drive into the lane where he looks to finish with a patented sky hook, kick out to open shooters like Ignas Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole, or dump the ball to his rolling or fading big man (often Jon Teske).


A well-prepared team will focus heavily on the Wolverines’ pick-n-roll action, as they run the play at the 3rd highest rate in the country. A well-prepared team will also go under these ball screens and force Simpson, a 30.7% three-point shooter, to put the ball up away from basket. Travis DeCuire is a well-respected coach in the mid-major ranks, so we should expect him to have a plan for Michigan’s PnR game. Simpson is a cognizant player, though, and DeCuire won’t be the first mastermind to refrain from hedging the PG this season.

This is where Jon Teske comes into play, a 7’1” center that’s as good a roll man as any in the country and one that can also step out and hit the three. Montana has excellent backcourt defenders in Michael Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie, but the Griz have struggled to defend ball screens this year. The primary reason for this has been the lack of footspeed at the forward position, as de facto 5-man Bobby Moorehead has repeatedly been slow to contain ball handlers or recover to his big man assignment. Teske will be able to take advantage of this matchup. If Moorehead drops on the PnR, as he likely will considering Simpson’s ability to get to the hoop, Teske will fade out past the arc for either an open look or a quick swing to a better shooter on a frantic defensive shift. If DeCuire decides to hedge ball screens, Simpson will have a feast picking apart the defense with the dribble.

The Teske battle is where center Jamar Akoh’s absence will be felt the most in this game. Akoh is arguably Montana’s best player this year, but he’s been out with an injury the last 12 games. He impacts the game heavily on both ends of the floor, but is especially valuable on the defensive end where he can stand up to bigger post men on the block and contain guards off the bounce. Just look at Akoh’s on/off splits this year, courtesy of Hoop Lens:

Oguine and Rorie should be able to contest most Wolverine outside looks, and Montana as a squad has done well at limiting three-point opportunities, but Ignas Brazdeikis will be a tough individual cover for wing / 4-man Sayeed Pridgett, a solid post defender but a guy Iggy can beat off the bounce or create space against.

Montana on Offense: The Griz have held their own this season without Akoh thanks in large part to their excellent shooting ability. Montana ranks 6th in the country in eFG%, 13th in 2P%, and 26th in 3P%. DeCuire runs lineups that often have five guys that can step out and shoot the three; his players are versatile and his system leans heavily towards “positionless”. The Griz also like to run a bit in transition and are very successful when they do, but finding chances on the run against Michigan is a tall order and Montana would likely prefer a lower possession game anyway.

Just like Teske has a block, glass, and PnR advantage against Moorehead on offense, so too does the Griz senior have an edge over Teske on his offensive end of the floor. Look for Moorehead to continuously try to pull Teske away from the basket, opening space for his talented slashing teammates to go to work. Teske does fairly well in space, but he won’t be able to consistently step out and keep up with Moorehead and the Griz if Moorehead hangs around the perimeter. Likewise, Pridgett is an excellent post player and finisher despite his 6’5” frame, and Brazdeikis has been a sieve defending on the block this year. Moorehead and Pridgett are capable of running a hi-lo style of offense to isolate the latter in the post against Iggy. Any and all help on either Moorehead or Pridgett will lead to open looks for deadeye shooters like former Oregon State guard Kendal Manuel.

Ultimately, I think Montana will struggle in this game to consistently score points. Being a jump-shot reliant team against one of the best perimeter shells in college basketball doesn’t look good for a cover. Simpson, Poole, and Charles Matthews will be hounding Griz ball handlers all game long and will allow very few clean outside looks.

Key Factor(s): Matthews has been playing through an ankle injury the past few games and may not be fully 100% for this one despite being on the floor. Beilein plays the 4th least bench minutes in the country, maintaining a tight 7-man rotation, so depth could be a concern if Matthews is hobbled. Likewise, while Akoh hasn’t been officially ruled out for Montana it looks as though the big man won’t be able to play. Though Montana has gone 10-2 this season without their stud big, they’ve dropped from #112 to #137 in KenPom during that time. Akoh’s 15.5 PPG / 8.7 RPG will be sorely missed against an athletic and sizable Michigan squad.

The other factor will be the battle of the 5-men: Jon Teske vs. Bobby Moorehead. Neither player is his team’s best nor go-to guy on offense, but both have advantages over the other on either end. My money is on Teske winning this battle, as the 7’1” 260 lb. junior should have no problem overpowering the 6’7” 195 lb. Moorehead on the glass and in the post.

Final Predictions: Michigan should really have no trouble in this game. The Wolverines can defend what Montana wants to do on offense and they have a major size advantage with the Griz lacking their primary big man. For what it’s worth, Michigan won this matchup 61-47 last season, covering the 11-point spread.

SU Pick: Michigan
ATS Pick: Michigan -15.5
O/U Pick: Under 130.5