FFifteen glorious games remain in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, beginning tonight at 7:15pm ET/6:15pm CT on CBS. The 2015 Sweet Sixteen offers a number of fun teams, fascinating match-ups, and potential for the strongest Final Four, by seeding and KenPom rank, that we’ve seen since 2012. Before looking ahead too far, though, let’s consider some high level trends from the first week of March Madness.
The 36-game first week provides the largest sample size of tournament games and the best opportunity to study and debate trends for the rest of this tournament and for next season. Here are three things we learned from a memorable week of basketball:
Arizona and Gonzaga benefitted the most from the tournament’s first week. Arizona expected to face a long, quick Baylor team in this third round before a much-anticipated showdown with Wisconsin. Once Georgia State magically completed its comeback against Baylor, Arizona’s path cleared. Xavier, the Wildcat’s Sweet 16 opponent, won games all year with height and strength inside. Arizona should be able to keep the Musketeers away from the basket, out-duel them on the glass, and score at will on offense. With two dominating performances and a relatively easy Sweet 16 game, Arizona’s KenPom log5 chances of winning the tournament jumped from 13.9% to 19.7%.
Gonzaga’s tournament run to this point mirrors Arizona’s almost exactly. The Bulldogs easily beat North Dakota State in the first round before manhandling Iowa on Sunday evening. The Zags’ 87 points on 67 possessions against the Hawkeyes was the strongest offensive showing of the first weekend, relative to competition, and Kyle Wiltjer’s 24 points on 10-12 shooting showed why many consider him among the best players in college basketball. While the Bulldogs ripped through their competition, the much heralded 3-seed in their region, Iowa State, lost inexplicably to UAB. Now, Gonzaga needs a win over UCLA, a team the Zags beat on the road by 13 points in December, to make their first Elite 8 since 1999. The Bulldogs’ log5 chances of winning it all improved from 5.4% to 8.4%, and KemPon will favor them over either Duke or Utah in a potential Elite 8 game.
I wrote in my Bracket Breakdown that slow-paced teams scare me in single elimination tournaments. The first week of the tournament offered more evidence that 62.5 possessions per game might be a sort of “magic number” for tournament success. In 2013, every team that averaged fewer than 62.5 possessions lost in round one. More damning: every single one of those five teams entered the game as the higher seed and favorite. Last season, five teams entered the tournament under the magic number, and only one played to its seed (Michigan made the Elite 8 as a two seed). Pace slowed significantly this year, and a whopping thirteen teams entered the tournament averaging fewer than 62.5 possessions. Only two, Wisconsin and Utah, survived the first week of play.
To be clear, “slow” does not equate with “bad” or “bad offense” as Charles Barkley might have you believe. Virginia and Northern Iowa, the two slowest teams in the field, both ranked top 25 in offensive efficiency this season, and both hovered right around 1.0 point per possession in their tournament losses. More to the point, a slow pace means fewer opportunities to build or cut into big leads. In single elimination tournaments against the other best teams in the country, this just seems to haunt teams. Ultra-efficient Wisconsin may be different this year, but it will take heroic shooting efforts to beat Arizona and Kentucky in back-to-back games.
Three-Point Attempt Saturation
The always phenomenal Luke Winn surfaced the following statistic over the weekend:
Seven NCAAT teams took 40+% of season FGAs as 3s. All seven are out: Belmont, Davidson, E. Wash, N. Florida, Boise St., Wyoming … and Nova.
— Luke Winn (@lukewinn) March 22, 2015
An analysis of recent history actually supports a 3-point attempt percentage of 40% as an indicator of tournament success. 2014 Michigan is the only team to shoot more than 40% of its shots from behind the arc and escape the first weekend over the past three tournaments. As with pace, we shouldn’t consider three-point attempt percentage a be-all-end-all statistic. Four of the seven teams Luke Winn lists here lost as lower seeds. North Florida and Boise State both lost play-in games – Boise lost what equated to a road game at Dayton against the Flyers. It jars me to see Villanova grouped with these teams because less talented teams typically shoot threes at a ridiculously high volume to mask other flaws. Nova had the talent and the size to score at the rim. They proved that in their loss to NC State by shooting 50% on their 2-point field goal attempts. But they connected on only three triples on nine attempts. Teams’ over-reliance on the three ball will be an interesting trend to track through the next few tournaments.
The Sweet Sixteen
If these emerging patterns continue through the weekend, Wisconsin’s season will end. The Badgers average fewer possessions per game than any team left in the tournament. They face a fast and efficient North Carolina team tonight before a hellish set against Arizona and Kentucky, potentially. Wisconsin should neutralize some of UNC’s strengths with their size and ball control, but Roy Williams and his team will apply pressure all game long.
Kentucky returns as a heavy favorite in the Midwest. West Virginia did eliminate the John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins Wildcats back in 2010, and Wichita State lost to UK on a buzzer beater in the second round last season. Both opponents can push Kentucky, but neither can match the Wildcats’ talent. It should be noted here that Kentucky unofficially suffered its first loss of the season when the Basketball Writers Association awarded Virginia’s Tony Bennett their National Coach of the Year honor.
Duke and Gonzaga appear to be on a collision course in the South region, but Utah may well spoil the party. The Utes played very well against Stephen F. Austin and overcame an early deficit to fend off Georgetown in round two. Duke, of course, roared past a San Diego State team that can’t score, but they Utes should give them pause. I picked Gonzaga to represent this region in the Final Four, and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind to this point.
The East Region features Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino, the two best tournament coaches in the modern era. Izzo’s Spartans and Pitino’s Cardinals rank 17 and 18 according to kenpom and have basically equal log5 changes to win the region. What Louisville has done this March is remarkable considering they dismissed starting point guard Chris Jones more than halfway through conference play. The dark horse here is Oklahoma. Lon Kruger never won a title, but he has the most talented team left in the region. While Louisville and Michigan State get all the attention, the Sooners might sneak past them both and into the Final Four.
This is my favorite type of tournament. We saw a few upsets and so many close games, but the strongest teams have emerged to play for a championship. With Kentucky reaching 36-0, the stakes are higher than normal. It’s been a fantastic season to this point, and the best is yet to come.