By Chad Horner
Over the next two nights, I’ll be posting my picks for each game in the first round of the tournament. For most of the matchups involving 4 seeds or higher, I felt that an explanation wasn’t necessarily needed.
Also, if you have a bracket already filled out, then join the Princeton Sports Analytics group on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge! See how you do against some of our other writers and readers.
Now, on to the picks. Games appear in the order in which they will be played.
Butler is incredibly overrated. Yes, they are one of only two teams in the field who has defeated 2 of the #1 seeds – Illinois being the other (they each beat both Indiana and Gonzaga) – but the metrics don’t back up their lofty seeding. They are an above average team, offensively and defensively, but they don’t do anything incredibly well – there isn’t one statistic, or player, that makes you say “Wow”. Bucknell, on the other hand, is fourth in the nation in effective field goal defense, and second in defensive rebound rate. They also have Mike Muscala. If you haven’t heard of Muscala, he’s almost definitely the best player you’ve never heard of. He is first in the country in defensive rebound rate, and also ranks in the top 100 in Kenpom’s Offensive Rating, turnover rate, block rate, and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. He does everything well, and it will be up to him to lead Bucknell to victory. They’re bigger than Butler, and come Thursday, I expect the Bison to be better than them too.
The Panthers play at a deliberate pace – 339th in the country in adjusted tempo. If they are able to control the tempo, the Shockers will be in trouble – they are 4-4 in games with 60 or less possessions (Pittsburgh’s season average). Wichita State is a strong team, but Pitt, regardless of their seed, is one of the best in the country – 7th in Kenpom, 10th in Sagarin, 15th in BPI. The Panthers should advance.
Memphis isn’t sure yet who they’ll be playing, although they’ll know by the end of tonight, but I think they’re ripe to be upset either way. The Tigers’ main weakness is that they are incredibly turnover prone – 224th in the country in turnover rate. If they face the Blue Raiders, that will likely become an issue, as they are 19th in the country in forcing turnovers. The Gaels don’t match up quite as well with the Tigers, but they are simply the better team. While they failed in three attempts to beat Gonzaga, they do at least have one strong win on their resume – they defeated Creighton. Memphis has only defeated one tournament team, and that was Harvard. Saint Mary’s beat them too. I don’t need to wait to see who wins tonight’s First Four game; whoever it is, I’m taking them to beat Memphis.
Although by seed this appears to be quite the upset, it isn’t as unlikely as it may seem. First off, Marquette is not one of the 12 best teams in the country, as their seed would lead you to believe. They’re 25th in Kenpom’s ratings, 23rd in Sagarin’s, and 20th in ESPN’s BPI. Second, the Golden Eagles have only played 5 teams this year with an offense ranked better than Davidson’s, as per Kenpom’s efficiency ratings, and they are 3-3 against those teams. Now, those teams are all better than Davidson on the defensive end, but the Wildcats are peaking at the right time – their Kenpom ranking has been on an upward trend since the end of January. If we’re looking for the high seed who is most likely to go down early, I think it has to be Marquette.
Both of these are defensive-minded teams, but only one of them has proven they can go up against another strong defense and win. The best defense Oregon has played all season is that of the Cincinnati Bearcats, who defeated them 77-66 on a neutral court. The next-best defense in the Pac 12 is Colorado, who beat the Ducks twice this year. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, has beaten a Kansas team ranked 5th in the country in defensive efficiency, and took them to double overtime in their other matchup. Marcus Smart and the Cowboys are the pick here.
I’d love to pick a team with a great offensive talent like Nate Wolters to knock off the Wolverines, but unfortunate the Jackrabbits defense is sub-200 level. Michigan’s offense is ranked 2nd. They’re going to score a lot of points.
For the past two years, the Belmont Bruins have come into the tournament as a popular upset pick, and for the past two years, they’ve been soundly defeated. But this is Belmont’s best chance yet. Arizona boasts the country’s 274th-ranked 3-pt defense, and the Bruins are 33rd in the country in 3-pt shooting. The Wildcats have only faced on team all year who is better than Belmont at shooting the 3: Florida. Yes, they defeated Florida, but the Gators controlled the entire game – well, the first 39 minutes – and they were 10/18 from behind the 3-point line. I like Belmont to knock off the Wildcats.
I see these two teams as quite evenly matched – both are strong on defense and not as strong on offense. Neither team has a defensive weakness that the other offense looks like it will be able to exploit. So I’m going with Cal because the game is in San Jose – an hour or two from their campus. I don’t know why UNLV got screwed in the draw like this, but in a game that looks to be close, the “home” team is the safer bet.
These teams are incredibly evenly matched, and thus it comes down to who is playing better right now. A month ago, that would have been Colorado State, but right now it’s Missouri. The Rams are 5-4 since beating San Diego State, with the 5 wins coming against the teams at the bottom of the Mountain West, and the 4 losses coming against UNLV (twice), New Mexico, and Boise State. The Tigers beat Florida, and of their 3 losses since, one was in overtime, and the other were by 2 points. Neither of these teams is good on the road, so both of them will be playing out of their comfort zones factor here. I’m going with Missouri, but this game isn’t that important, because Louisville is going to win in the Round of 32 anyway.
Akron’s statistical profile is remarkably similar to that of the Memphis Tigers, whom the Rams defeated earlier this season on a neutral court. Their main similarity is their susceptibility to turnovers – Memphis turned it over on over 30% of their possessions against VCU, and Akron’s turnover rate is ranked 202nd in the country. VCU relies on forcing turnovers with their Havoc defense in order to win, and it is only when they can’t force them that they struggle: all of the teams that have defeated the Rams this year have had a turnover rate ranked in the top 160. As we said, Akron’s rate is 202nd. Expect VCU to wreak havoc in this one.
Check back this time tomorrow for picks for Friday’s games!