With the first weekend of the NCAA tournament ending up as a relative dud, here’s to making a really great Sweet 16s. The limited number of early upsets has left us with a lean group of blue-bloods and some really awesome matchups:
4. Florida State v. 1. Gonzaga (-7.5):
Of course, everyone should remember that this Florida State team beat Gonzaga down in last year’s Sweet 16, dominating 75-60 in a game where the Zags were just completely overmatched athletically. While this Florida State team has come back reloaded and still has that overwhelming “walk off the bus lookin’ dangerous” size/athleticism, this Gonzaga team is a lot better than the one who came up short a year ago.
According to Bart Torvik’s site (which I highly recommend for all college basketball fans looking for a statistical resource), Gonzaga has the most efficient offense in America. KenPom agrees. As such, Gonzaga has been sort of the trendy pick this year amongst college basketball guys who are looking for a basket other than Duke’s in which to put their eggs. With elite talent up and down the roster and NBA draft buzz surrounding both Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, the echo chambers of twitter and talking heads would have you believe that this Gonzaga team is somehow different than the one that was not ready to handle ACC athleticism a year ago.
How will Gonzaga handle Florida State’s length and defensive energy this time around? I’ll be looking at how comfortable they are running their offense. This Gonzaga team is 56th nationally in assist rate, nothing special, but they really struggle to score the basketball when they get away from moving it around in the first place. They also don’t turn it over much, sitting at 8th in America in Turnover Rate. But, if you look at their loss against St. Mary’s a couple weeks ago, they got too bogged down in isolation and were flung out of character with just 6 assists and 12 turnovers. The same issue was what killed them last year against the Noles length, a loss in which they had just 7 assists and 13 turnovers. The Zags need to prepare themselves to run offense around and through Florida State’s defense, and not to settle and play out of character.
Florida State has beaten Virginia and Virginia Tech in the last month by slowing the game down and beating teams in marathons, not track meets. That is where their depth, energy, and ability to create extra possessions can wear down on an opponent who prefers to play in space. That is, coincidentally, where Gonzaga can be beaten. The loss against St. Mary’s was just one of those “weird games” where the lack of possessions has you blinking twice and then finding yourself in a close game late in the 2nd half. I just don’t get what’s so great about this year’s Gonzaga team, besides the fact that they ran train on the WCC. They are 4-3 against tournament teams this year (2-1 against St. Mary’s included), and are not going to scare this Florida State team at all. If anything, the fear factor goes the other way. Florida State will be playing inspired basketball following the death of Phil Cofer’s father and Leonard Hamilton is great as a dog in the NCAA Tournament.
I’ll take the Noles +7.5 here. It’s just too many points for a team that’s playing as well as anyone in America. I’d also lean to the under (146.5), as I see some correlation there given the Zags propensity to struggle when things get really bogged down. Have to think Florida State is seeing that game plan as well.
3. Purdue v. 2. Tennessee (-1)
I’m scared how much I love Tennessee here. I just don’t think and have never thought this Purdue team was any good… a great shooting performance against a Villanova team that is a product of a down Big East has given us a line that I see as a massive overreaction. While Tennessee certainly struggled in the first two rounds, they also showed us that they have the highest ceiling of almost anyone in the tournament. The first half against Iowa was one of the tourney’s scariest performances; that team was locked the fuck in, everywhere defensively and just dominant on the offensive end. Of course, their second half collapses in both games are inexcusable, and I’m not even going to qualify that with a “, but”. Purdue, meanwhile, dominated Old Dominion and embarrassed Villanova. That’s how you end up with a 1-point line between a team that most (including me) thought was nowhere near as good as their seed-line/regular season suggests and a team that was #1 in America for a lot of the season.
Purdue runs great offense and has a lot of guys playing winning roles on a winning team. The fact of the matter remains that Carsen Edwards, their mercurial do-it-all point, will shoot them in or out of this game. He shot them to a blow out against Villanova… he’s also shot ridiculously poorly all year. How Edwards handles being picked up full-court by Turner or Bone will be a huge factor for a Purdue team that likes to get into its motion offense and run stuff. Tennessee would prefer their ball pressure speed up this Purdue team, forcing them into turnovers and dumb shots. Purdue would an overaggressive Tennessee team causes mistakes defensively while going through the ringer of Matt Painter’s offense. Tennessee looked flat-out lost defensively in the second half against Iowa, and that caused their offense to stagnate as well. This Tennessee team mentally checks in and out of games, and playing well defensively goes a long way in keeping their energy level up. When they’re getting out in transition, having fun, and banging some 3’s, this just might be the best team in America.
Best Bet: Tennessee -1
3. Texas Tech v. 2. Michigan (-1.5):
What a matchup. The two best defenses in America will square off in a flat-out war that is much welcomed by the few college basketball fans who don’t give a s*** about Zion Williamson. We have a great coaching battle between two NCAA tournament ATS legends in young Bobby Knight protege Chris Beard and future Hall-of-Famer John Beilein. These are two programs who don’t give you a second to relax on either end of the floor.
Michigan has gone through frustrating offensive stretches all year, struggling to score against many Big 10 opponents and relying mostly on their KenPom #2 defense to get them to this point. Texas Tech, quite similarly, has scored less than a point per possession in all 5 of their losses this year and is always a cold-shooting night away from a loss or, at least, a dogfight. In many ways, this matchup is strength against strength, which should leave us with a slow-paced, every possession counts game that I am very confident will come down to which team is executing offensively during the final 7-9 minutes.
When Texas Tech has the ball, it starts and ends with Jarrett Culver. He is one of the best players in America, if not one of the most important. Culver uses 31.3% of possessions while on the floor and shoots on 31.5% of them. Both are tops in the Big 12 and in the top 40 nationally. His improvement this season is largely a result of increased ability to handle the ball and run offense. He is more of a two or a three than a true point, but his 26.8% Assist Rate (assists per made field goal) is 133rd nationally (for comparison, Zavier Simpson has an Assist Rate of 37.1%). Culver has been showing out in this year’s tournament, too, putting up 29-8-7 and 16-10-5 in the first two rounds.
Michigan will almost certainly have Charles Matthews draw that assignment. Matthews defends the perimeter at a high level… he also does it with attitude. He’s your quintessential tough senior forward from the Big 10. That will be a very interesting matchup for Culver and one NBA scouts will be watching closely; Matthews has struggled offensively this year but projects very well to the next level as a wing defender.
Michigan has been really uplifted on both ends by Matthews’ return. He puts pressure on the rim offensively and seems to raise everyone’s level on defense. He is an excellent communicator and a defensive coach on the floor. He also plays free safety in the 3-man backline of the defense when the 1 (Simpson) and the 5 (Teske) are operating on the perimeter against a high ball-screen action. Matthews’ athleticism, quickness, and defensive IQ are on full display in this role, and at full health he can be seemingly everywhere on the floor at once. What is intriguing about this particular matchup is that Culver will actually be the ball-handler in a majority of Texas Tech’s ball-screens, taking Matthews out of help and placing him in the high ball-screen. That inverts Michigan’s defense — Matthews as the primary defender, operating with Teske as the big, and moving Simpson off the ball. The three are all upperclassmen and elite defenders, but it will be interesting to see if Michigan’s vaunted 3-point defense (5th in America) will be as staunch with Culver’s high usage naturally swapping roles for Matthews and Simpson. How much help defense Matthews requires will be a key in this game, as Texas Tech has shooters in Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney that can cash in a simple drive-and-kick.
For Michigan offensively, it starts and ends with the Zavier Simpson/Jon Teske pick-and-roll. While you’d think a Beilein-coached team would climb all the way up to #19 in KenPom offensive efficiency with the 5-out Pittsnoggle offense that got him the Michigan job in the first place, this team has evolved beyond any type of system. What was a team searching for a point guard in the beginning of last season became a program with a flat-out new identity after Beilein moved Simpson into the starting lineup in January 2018. The kid is special — not many guys epitomize the heartbeat of a program like Simpson does at Michigan. He is one of the best point guards in America and will have to act accordingly… Texas Tech plays mean ball-screen defense. With a handsy guard defender in Matt Mooney (4th in the Big 12 in Steal Rate) and elite rim protection from Tariq Owens (2nd in the Big 12 in Block Rate), they are able to both aggressively force turnovers and defend the basket. This sets up a fascinating battle with Simpson, who is somewhat of a maestro with the basketball in his hands. He is damn-near telepathic with Teske, and sets up basically every good 3-point look Michigan gets (pretty much every other one is a Jordan Poole “jab, jab, jab, up-fake, lefty dribble, step-back 3). Simpson was 3rd in the Big 10 in assist rate.
I am also intrigued to see how many minutes John Beilein gives to Isaiah Livers at the 5. Spot minutes at the position for Livers early in the year turned into practically life support at times. Livers has been both dependable and flexible all year, and his ability to play the 3, 4, or 5 was crucial for Michigan to survive the fact that it took 25 games to figure out its bench. Livers is shooting a scorching 44% from 3 this year, and is a key within’s Michigan’s offense. Isaiah Livers has had an offensive rating of less than 100 in just 5 games since January 25th. Michigan is 0-5 in those games, and has not lost otherwise. Meanwhile, his ability to play the 5 defensively gives Michigan their version of a “death lineup.” According to KenPom’s lineup Data, the Simpson-Poole-Brazdeikis-Matthews-Livers grouping is Michigan’s 2nd-most frequent lineup over the last 5 games. This group unquestionably gives Michigan it’s highest offensive ceiling, and Livers ability to knock down 3’s could be a potent counter for Texas Tech’s aggressive ball-screen defense. If Teske and/or Livers are hitting 3-balls in Pick-and-Pop, Michigan should feel pretty good.
All in all, I think Michigan is more battle-tested in these types of physical, defense-focused slugfests. Texas Tech is a great team and will be one of the best Michigan has faced all season. But, there is something to be said at this point for playing a 20-game schedule in the Big Ten. If you ask Izzo, Painter, or Beilein, I think they’d all agree that the absolute grind of the league schedule was worthwhile because you come out of it knowing exactly who you are. In a dogfight, I’m taking John Beilein and Zavier Simpson.
Best Bet: Michigan -1.5
12. Oregon v. 1. UVA (-7.5)
The last game of the night always tends to be the craziest, especially because half of America is asleep by halftime. Oregon, the highest seeded team remaining, brings a 10-game SU and ATS winning streak into this matchup with a Virginia group that is quietly the highest rated KenPom team since 2015 Kentucky. There is no denying what Oregon has done to get to this point. With early season struggles preventing them even dreaming of the right side of the bubble, Oregon has essentially played do-or-die basketball for the last month. They have nothing to lose in this matchup with Virginia, who carries the weight of last year’s upset on its shoulders. A quick start from Oregon could mean a lot in this game.
The Ducks have been incredible on the defensive end lately, with a lethal combination of perimeter defenders, rim protection, and a want-to attitude. The Ducks defend. Virginia, on the other hand, hasn’t shot the ball at an elite level yet in this tournament. I’d like to think they’re due for a big shooting night. Given that this game will be a defensive battle between two teams who play a slow pace, I expect it to come down to execution on the offensive end in the 2nd half. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome thrive in this type of scenario, and they will score enough buckets to get it done.
Best Bet: Virginia -7.5