If you are a college basketball fan that wants to know as much as possible about every team heading into the tournament, a person that joins 30 different bracket pools and wants to know which little guys to pick or a hardcore gambler that would like to lose money by following my advice, here is my 14,000 word breakdown of all the mid-majors in this year’s tournaments, mid-majors being schools from the conferences outside of the Big 7 (Big 10, Big East, Mountain West, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12, SEC).
If you don’t care to read all of them (and who can blame you?), just click your favorite or desired team’s logo below and you will skip right to their capsule.
Unless otherwise stated, rankings in parenthesis are national based on KenPom.com’s irreplaceable efficiency, tempo and rate statistics. Points per possession data comes from Synergy Sports Technology, an equally indispensable source.
America East Champions: Albany Great Danes
Summary: This Albany team came along way in the span of a couple of months. On January 5th, they dropped their first conference road game to Vermont by a score of 70-45. This Saturday, they took on that same Vermont team in the same building (the America East does not a have a neutral site tournament) and took them down 53-49 to earn a ticket to the Big Dance.
One has to wonder if Gerardo Suero’s departure from the Albany program ended up being a good thing for the Great Danes this season. Suero, a junior college transfer, was seventh in the nation in scoring last season, but he used up an astonishing 37.7% of Albany’s possessions last season (2nd), despite an effective field goal percentage of 49%. He did get to the line a lot, but it seems as if distribution of Suero’s possessions to more efficient offensive players has done the team good, even if their overall offensive efficiency is worse this year.
Senior point guards Mike Black and Jacob Iati have taken over as the leaders of the team; Black played a significant role on last year’s team, but Iati was just a role player, albeit an incredibly effective one. Black is the offensive initiator this season while Iati is much more of a spot-up shooter. This dichotomy works well because both players can play the others role in a pinch. Per Synergy, Black is shooting 39.5% as the pick-and-roll ball handler and 42% as a spot-up shooter, and Iati is shooting 43% as a spot-up shooter and 45% out of the pick-and-roll.
The Danes defend well despite having two smaller point guards playing together because they do a good job cleaning up on the defensive boards, they don’t put their opponents on the free throw line often and they don’t allow good ball movement.
Sam Rowley, a 6’6″ sophomore forward from Australia, is one of the best rebounders in the country for his height. He was the third best rebounder in the American East conference, pulling up 21.3% of available defensive rebounds and 9.4% of available offensive rebounds. Big men John Puk and Blake Metcalf are solid rebounders in their own right, so will Rowley crashing the glass from the wing, Albany is able to hold their opponents to a 28.3% offensive rebound rate (53rd lowest in the country; 1st in the conference).
The fact that opponents shot just 65.3% from the free throw line – the 17th lowest mark in the country – does not tell us much about the Great Danes, but the fact that their opponents had a paltry 27.4% free throw rate is very telling. Albany was able to defend without fouling this season, producing the 19th lowest opponent free throw rate in the NCAA. And though they are among the countries worse teams at forcing turnovers, Albany’s opponents only got assists on 46% of their field goals. Only 20 teams in the country have allowed a lower assist rate this season.
Matchup: As a #15 seed, the Great Danes will be taking on the Duke Blue Devils in the second round.
Duke’s three best perimeter threats – Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly – all shoot above 42% from three and Mason Plumlee anchors the team downlow by getting to the line consistently (6.3 fouls draw per 40 minutes, 44th best in the country). Plumlee also cleans up the glass and will have a massive advantage in the middle over Albany’s Puk. And with the Great Danes’ starting two forwards at 6’6″, Kelly will have a big time height advantage throughout most of the game, and his ability to stretch the floor will leave Puk on an island against Plumlee in the post. If Albany decides to help from anywhere on the floor, Duke can make them pay with the longball.
In stark contrast to last season when the Blue Devils ranked 70th in the country in defensive efficiency and made crucial mistakes with the ball, Duke has the 25th best defensive efficiency in the nation this season, they never turn the ball over (third lowest opponent steal percentage in the nation) and they no longer have renowned choke artist and inefficient chucker Austin Rivers. Even though Albany shot well from three this season, it is extremely unlikely that Albany will be able to generate good looks from deep consistently to keep up with a Duke team that has torched the nets this season.
If you look at Duke’s three losses since that route at Miami, the consistent were putrid three-point shooting (6-of-19 against Maryland in February, 8-of-25 against Virginia and 4-of-25 against Maryland in the ACC tournament) and a ton of free throws for the opponent (34 against Maryland in February, 29 against Virginia and 25 against Maryland). While Duke could theoretically have an off shooting night against the Great Danes, I just don’t see a player that can attack the Blue Devils for 40 minutes like C.J. McCollum did in Lehigh’s upset over Duke last year on Albany’s roster. I can see Black causing Curry some problems with his aggressive style, but otherwise I think it will be hard for Albany to find offense and to stop Duke consistently.
Perhaps they’d be better off with Suero after all.
Pick: Duke, 80-54.
Atlanta 10 Conference Champions: St. Louis Billikens
Summary: St. Louis is the best team in the country that you have never heard of. Jim Crews has done a tremendous job replacing coaching legend Rick Majerus, who died earlier this year of a heart attack, though he hasn’t so much replaced him as he has helped carry on his legacy and teachings. St. Louis didn’t undergo any kind of a transformation when Crews was named head coach; they are still the scrappy, fundamentally sound team that upset Memphis in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament (and lost to Michigan State by just three).
Though the Billikens lost Brian Conklin, the team’s biggest contributor last season, to graduation, the maturation of Dwayne Evans and Cody Ellis has kept the Billikens in contention for the best mid-major program in the country.
Evans is a 6’5″ guard that plays the game of a seven foot center; he’s taken just 47 jumpshots this season compared to 193 field goal attempts around the rim. He scores by posting up, crashing the offensive boards, running the break and making smart off ball cuts when the defense breaks down. Evans is also a solid defensive player that defends perimeter players well on the ball. He’s also one of the very best rebounders in the country. Here are Evans’ defensive rebounding rates over his first three seasons in college: 24% (51st in the country), 25.2% (25th) and 22.2% (94th). He has also posted double-digit offensive rebound rates in each of those seasons.
Per Synergy, Evans ranked third in the country this season in points per possession produced on post-ups (at least 100 possessions). He’s scored 1.194 PPP on the block this season and converted 58% of his looks from the post. Evans worked equally well on either side of the floor, shooting just a tad better when he was posted up on the left block. Evans is very good when turning over his left shoulder with a dribble, which he uses to create room for a hook shot.
Evans gets free throws out of 21.7% of his post-ups, one of the 50 best marks in the country. Free throws have been the big difference for Evans this season with his increase in touches. He now draws six fouls per 40 minutes (70th) and has a 63.8% free throw rate (55th). Last year he was a 67% free throw shooter but he has improved his percentage by double digits, getting up to 77% for this season. When you have the ability to score on the block consistently and knockdown a solid portion of your free throws, it’s no wonder that Evans has a 115 offensive rating this year after putting up a 101.7 offensive rating last year.
On the outside, St. Louis relies on guards Jordair Jett and Mike McCall and big man Cody Ellis to make and finish plays.
Jett and McCall are the primary initiators out of St. Louis’ pick-and-roll game, they both run the floor well and they both shoot the ball at a decent clip from the outside. Jett shot 40% on jumpers this season per Synergy, while McCall stretches the floor a bit more and has hit 42% of his three-point attempts. Jett is also a very good isolation player that got to the basket at will when defenses switched screen-and-rolls against him. He shot 65% on 45 isolation possessions this year, the most efficient mark in the league for players with similar workloads. McCall is not quite the self-creator that Jett is off the dribble, but he’s a superior catch-and-shooter player that has made a ridiculous 59% of his unguarded spot-up shots this season.
Ellis is St. Louis’ versatile big man that plays away from the basket in order to stretch the defense. While Rob Loe is also a stretch big at 6’11”, he’s less effective as a shooter and has attempted the majority of his baskets inside the arc. I absolutely love it when St. Louis runs side pick-and-rolls with McCall or Jett handling and Ellis setting the screen. If one of the guards is able to draw the help, Ellis will slide ever so gently to the corner for an open three-pointer. The Billikens will kill you with patience, too, and force you to guard multiple screen-and-roll actions on one possession; the first time you show too hard on the guard, Ellis will be ready to fire.
According to Synergy, Ellis made 40% of his unguarded catch-and-shoot shots this season, and he shot 40% on pick-and-pop spot-up jumpshots. Loe will also step-out for some pick-and-ops and spot-up shots, but he also posts-up a decent amount. The downside with the Ellis/Loe duo is that neither of them rebounds well for the two tallest players in the rotation. But this is where the vaue of Evans shines through even more. His ability to play bigger than his size and position makes him an invaluable asset to the Billikens that allows their team to operate. If Evans wasn’t such a solid rebounder and defensive presence, the Billikens would not be able to play stretch bigs as often as they do. The third rotation big for the Billikens is senior Cory Remekun, a 6’8″ big that rebounds at a poor rate but owns a 7% block rate (100th).
That covers the Billikens’ defense, but the real story here is how nasty they are defensively. The Billikens have the eighth best defensive efficiency in the country, their opponents have a 23.5% turnover rate (22nd) and they don’t allow three-point shots or free throws at a high rate. This is one of the oldest teams in the country (average experience of 2.25 years, 32 oldest in the nation) and they only allow .78 points per possession to their opponents according to Synergy. St. Louis has the experience and the defensive pedigree to be one of the sleepers in this tournament, and I’m confident enough in this team’s work on both sides of the ball to predict them as the Midwest’s Final Four representative.
Matchup: The Billikens were rewarded handsomely for their great season with a four seed. They’ll be taking on the New Mexico State Aggies in the first round.
The story with this matchup – as it is with every game that involves New Mexico State – is how St. Louis handles the Aggies’ 7’5″, 355 pound freshman center Sim Bhullar. No, that is not a typo.
Predictably, Bhullar has a high field goal percentage (62%) because all of his attempts are at the rim, but his true shooting percentage is bad because he can’t shoot free throws (47% for the season). He does have a great block percentage (10.3%, 27th in the country) and a solid offensive rebound rate (12.7%, 84th), but he’s a plodding player that can be neutralized offensively by putting him on the line, and St. Louis’ stretch bigs will put him in an awkward position defensively; Bhullar rarely has more than one foot out of the paint, and often just zones the backline by himself, a strategy that St. Louis can pick apart by putting shooters on the baseline and forcing him to either close out or concede the jumper.
I don’t think that the Billikens will have much trouble stopping the Aggies on the other end. In addition to their heavy minute bigs (Ellis and Loe), they have Remekum and Grandy Glaze to throw in the game to give a few fouls on Bhullar to disrupt any rhythm he may get into. Given that post-ups make up for the plurality of New Mexico State’s half-court offense – and that Bhullar makes up 45% of their post-up offense – disrupting his rhythm would cripple the Aggies’ attack. They aren’t a great shooting team (32.6% from three, 235th in the nation) and they don’t shoot free throws well as a team. And there’s a good chance that the Billikens’ active and hectic defense don’t even allow Bhullar to catch the ball in good post position most of the time.
This is a weird matchup for St. Louis because it would be for any team. Bhullar is a unique player that can be effective in certain circumstances. But I just don’t see him, or his team, making an impact against this tremendous Billikens’ team.
Pick: St. Louis, 74-60.
Atlantic Sun Conference Champions: Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Summary: It may have been a different Miami team at the time, but the Eagles have already won their national championship this season when they beat the Miami Hurricanes by 12 in their second game of the season.
The Eagles are led by one of the nation’s top distributors: 6’3″ point guard Brett Comer.
Comer ranks fifth in the country with an assist rate of 43.2%, which means that he gets nearly two assists for every made shot. Comer is excellent at hitting the roll man off screen-and-roll action, usually by prolonging his dribble and forcing defenses to leave the big man to help out on his drives, and he was pretty good at tossing up lobs to his bigs this season.
The problem is that Comer can’t score at all – he shot 44% on twos and 27% on threes – and though he is aggressive enough with the dribble to make defenses worry about the idea that he may try to shoot the ball, he only shot 44.5% around the basket according to Synergy. Comer also has a turnover rate of 30.5%, a very high mark, and he is not going to fare well against more athletic competition.
Aside from having Comer distribute, the Eagles get an inordinately large percentage of their offense from basket cuts. The Eagles finished 281 possessions off cuts this season per Synergy, which was 34th highest total in D-1 this season out of nearly 300 teams. Big men Eric McKnight and Chase Fielder were the primary recipients of passes on cuts. Comer is very good at finding his teammates that work the baseline and they love to catch opponents napping on the backline.
Fielder is the best all-around offensive player on the team. 6’8″ junior forward had a 62.3 effective field goal percentage (22nd) and a 64.4% true shooting percentage (23rd) this season and a stellar 122.6 offensive rating (45th). Fielder is an effective scorer because the majority of his looks come on those aforementioned basket cuts, which produce high percentage looks, transition chances and spot-up opportunities. Fielder is a stretch big that shoots 39% from three, which boosts his efficiency.
Matchup: As a #15 seed, the Eagles will be taking on the mighty Georgetown Hoyas.
As a team that got smashed by VCU by 23 and by Duke by 21, there is little hope that the Eagles will be able to stun Otto Porter and the Hoyas. They are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country (33.1%), they turn it over a lot and they give a ton of offensive rebounds. What that translates to is Georgetown, one of the nation’s best transition teams, scoring a ton of fast break points and grabbing a lot of offensive rebounds due to their huge athleticism and size advantages. Meanwhile, the Eagles brick away from beyond the arc because the three-point shot is the great equalizer and they know that raining in threes is their only hope – and that won’t happen.
Other than that, Georgetown’s Markel Starks will lock down Comer and force him into a lot of turnovers while Porter feasts on FGCU’s undersized frontline. It other words: this will be one of the largest mismatches of the tournament.
Pick: Georgetown 91- 56
Big Sky Conference Champions: Montana Grizzlies
Summary: The Grizzlies have what it takes to be a Cinderella team this March. They had one of the best effective field goal percentages in the country this season (54%, 18th) because they hit three’s (37.8%, 31st), made shots inside the arc (52.5%, 22nd) and their free throws (76.7%, 7th). When you have a team that can shoot, anything can happen. While they did get blown out by BYU early in the year, they hung tough with Colorado State and Davidson (93-87 OT loss in a bracket buster game at Davidson), though they didn’t win either game.
Of the 351 teams in Synergy’s database that had at least 2000 offensive possessions this season, Montana had the 8th best offense, producing .988 points per possession and shooting 47% from the field. The Grizzlies have an interchangeable roster of shooters that make for a dangerous offensive team. Every one of their heavy minute players attempted at least 50 threes this season (though only one took over 100), with the only players that didn’t hoist a single triple this year being two sparsely used bigs.
Of teams with at least 500 spot-up possessions this season, Montana ranked fifth in points per possession behind Creighton, Iona, Indiana and Lehigh. Jordan Gregory, Michael Weisner, and Kareem Jamar are the heavy lifters here. Gregory and Weisner lead the way by knocking down 47% of their spot-up looks, and Jamar (39%) is also effective.
Jamar is much better as a one-on-one player, though, and his ability to score in isolation situations is a major lifeline for this team. Jamar is fantastic at driving to the basket and he’s equally adept at kicking the ball to the open man as he is at finishing at the rim. Jamar has a good free throw rate (46.8%), a solid assist rate (26.2%), a great true shooting percentage for a guard (59.4%) and he’s a decent enough three-point shooter (36%).
With their guards – Jamar and point guard Will Cherry – creating spot-up looks for their teammates via the drive and pick-and-roll action, the Grizzlies have a pair of athletic players that should be able to have some success against tougher competition. Montana is also one of the deepest teams in the country and should be able to handle the more talented teams for 40 minutes a night.
The bad news for Montana is that senior forward Mathias Ward is out for the season after having foot surgery earlier this month.
Matchup: The #13 seeded Grizzlies will take on the Syracuse Orange in the second round.
The Grizzlies have shot 43% against zone defenses this season, but Syracuse’s zone is a bit different than most because they have the tallest team in the country and a ton of athleticism on the perimeter. That said, it would not surprise me if Montana manufactured good looks from beyond the arc and started the drain threes because it is March, and that is what happens. Ultimately, I don’t think the Grizzlies defend well enough to stop C.J. Fair and James Southerland consistently. If Syracuse has one of those off shooting nights, maybe a miracle is possible, but I think the Grizzlies will ultimately fall short of the upset.
Pick: Syracuse, 75-66.
Big South Conference Champions: Liberty Flames
Summary: Liberty is probably the worst team in the tournament. They started the season on an eight game losing streak – and it’s not like they scheduled a bunch of tough money games; their opponents were Richmond, William & Mary, Georgetown, UC Irvine, Sam Houston State, Southern Miss, Morgan State and Georgia State – but proved how awesome conference tournaments can be if just get hot for a week. They won four straight games against teams they finished 1-4 against in the regular season to capture the Big South title.
The 15-20 Flames can shoot the three ball, which just about the only redeeming quality this team has; they shoot 36.7% from three, the 55th best mark in the country.
Diminutive point guard Davon Marshall is the best player on the team. Marshall has a true shooting percentage of 63.3% (38th), which is tremendous for a guard, and he shot an excellent 43% from three this season despite hoisting 233 shots from deep. Marshall is the kind of player that can ignite a team for stretches, which is exactly what he did in the Big South Title game (he was 6-of-7 from three).
Liberty’s glaring hole, and the reason they were so bad during the regular season, is that their defense is laughably bad. They can’t guard the pick-and-roll, they don’t rebound well and they are the fifth worst team in the entire country at forcing turnovers.
Matchup: Liberty will be fighting for the right to be the #16 seed that takes on Louisville in the Midwest region. They will take on the North Carolina A&T Aggies.
This matchup is the ultimate contrast of weaknesses. The Flames can score but can’t guard anybody and the Aggies can guard but they can’t score. I tend to side with the defenses in these matchups, but I could also see Marshall going off. This is one of the harder games in the tournament to predict because both teams are so bad in opposite aspects, but I’ll go with team that can defend.
Pick: North Carolina A&T, 58-51.
Big West Conference Champions: Pacific Tigers
Summary: The Tigers are a good three-point shooting team sparked by senior point guard Lorenzo McCloud. McCloud is a solid scorer that makes 40% of his threes and gets to the line at a great rate (58.8%, 99th), but he’s also a very good passer that gets the Tigers efficient looks off of dribble penetration. McCloud has a 30.2% assist rate (100th) and his teammates shoot 52.4% off his passes in the pick-and-roll game.
I love the feel for the game that McCloud has. He strings out plays to allow the defense to make a mistake and then makes them pay anytime they give up an inch of space to either himself or a teammate. As a solid scoring guard, McCloud could also decide to take a lot more than eight shots a game, but he instead chooses to take his shots in the floor and gets his teammates involved. He’s a small guard that can be bullied a bit by bigger guards on defense, but he plays a smart game and is an effective offensive player.
Senior guards Colin Beatty and Rodrigo De Souza and senior forward Travis Fulton provide the elite outside shooting on the wings that help provide the Tigers with great spacing on offense. Soza is the back-up point guard that runs the offense pretty well and can shift off the ball in a pinch, Beatty is strictly a spot-up shooter but he’s good at hitting those shots (48% from three this season) and Fulton hits spot-up shots well and has made 52% of his pick-and-pop shots this season.
Though they are one of the smaller teams in the country, the Tigers have stretch bigs that provide value by stretching the floor, and as a team they clean up the glass fairly well. Pacific is not a good defensive team, but they aren’t atrocious either, a positive given their lack of size. The Tigers are also going to motivated to play for head coach Bob Thomason, who announced before the season that he would retire after this season.
Matchup: The Tigers wound up with a #15 seed on selection Sunday and will take on the Hurricanes.
Interestingly enough, after watching the way the Tigers use their bigs in the pick-and-roll game, it reminded me of the way that Comer and Fielder worked against the Hurricanes for FGCU in their huge early season upset. The Tigers also have a lot better cast of shooters than the Eagles do, so they have a shot at an upset. Unfortunately for the Tigers, that shot is one in a million, because Miami has matured into one of the best teams in the countries since the early part of the season, and Shane Larkin and Trey McKinney Jones are going to really challenge McCloud on both ends of the floor in this one.
Pick: Miami, 81-68.
Colonial Athletic Association: James Madison Dukes
Summary: From top-to-bottom, the Dukes don’t have a ton of experience, but they do start four seniors. Their tallest starter is 6’6″, so they play an undersized group, and that tends to hurt their ability to score efficiently on the offensive end. The Dukes aren’t a great defensive club, but they do make up for their poor offense on that end of the floor.
James Madison’s experience shines through in their miniscule turnover rate (17.2%, 33rd), but they shoot poorly from deep (33.3%) and inside the arc (46.1%). Taking control of the ball, while important, is not going to win games against great teams if you aren’t able to put it in the basket at a high rate.
The one advantage of their universally small starting line-up is that is that everybody on the team can space to the three-point line. Now, that doesn’t mean that they all shoot it well from outside, but everybody that played big minutes for this team this season took a decent amount of long-range shots, which commands some amount of respect from the opposition.
Senior center Rayshawn Goins is the team’s offensive focal point. He’s a huge body that the Dukes put on the block and run offense around. He’s not a great post player – he made just 39% of his shots from the block this season – but he’s a good offensive rebounder (and a great defensive rebounder) and his girth alone often puts his opponents in rough positions.
I love senior forward A.J. Davis’ ability to drive to the basket and finish. He is a master at making defenses pay for preventing his dribble handoffs to the Dukes’ guards; if the defense overplays to extend that handoff, Davis will just turn the corner and drive to the rim for a dunk.
Matchup: James Madison will take on LIU-Brooklyn in a play-in game to be the #16 seed that plays Indiana in the East region.
Long Island is a dangerous offensive team that is very experienced in their own right. Jamal Olasewere vs Goins will be a matchup to watch for downlow, as both undersized bigs love to play physical games. I like the Dukes’ defense, but I think the Blackbirds’ fast tempo and their ability to hit threes at a great rate make them the winners in this one.
Pick: LIU-Brooklyn, 87-79.
Conference USA Champions: Memphis Tigers
Summary: The Tigers are like a poor man’s Kentucky. They get a ton of really good recruits like the Wildcats, but they never seem to play the organized basketball that John Calipari can get his hyped youngsters to play. I’m not sure that means that Josh Pastner is a bad coach, but it does make them a whirlwind of a team on a night-to-night basis.
They went 30-4 this season, with three of their losses coming to fellow NCAA Tourney teams: VCU, Minnesota and Louisville. All of those games were fairly close, which bids well for the Tigers’ competitiveness if they can get deep into the tourney.
If the Tigers do go far in this tournament, it will be because they have the biggest spread of contributors in the country. According to KenPom, the Tigers have five different players that use up more than 20% of the team’s possessions when they are on the floor, and another at 18.9%. While this does lead to some inconsistent performances from individual players, it does give them a number of players to rely on if a player or two have off nights.
Memphis plays at a very quick tempo (69.7 possessions per game, 28th fastest in the country) and shoot the ball extremely well (37.9% from deep, 29th in the country; 51.8% from inside the arc, 33rd). If the Tigers are sent home early in this tournament, it will be because they have extremely bad fundamentals; they turn the ball over on 20.8% of their possessions and shoot just 66% from the free throw line (junior big man Tarik Black shoots 47% from the line and freshman big Shaq Goodwin shoots just slightly better from the stripe than his namesake at 63%).
I love point guard Joe Jackson’s ability to get his teammates involved (27.3% assist rate) and score at incredibly efficient rate (62.4% true shooting percentage and 46% shooting from three) and Chris Crawford has emerged as a very good offensive threat that can hit threes at a great clip off the catch (41% on the season). I like Adonis Thomas, too, but I think he is too out of control most of the time to be a net positive for the team.
With all of these athletic players that can switch in and out of the line-up without the team losing much of anything, the Tigers are one of the best defensive teams in the country, and if they bring a consistent effort on that end of the floor, they have a chance to make some noise this year.
Matchup: Memphis is a #6 seed that will play the winner of the Middle Tennessee/St. Mary’s play in game.
The Gaels seem exactly like the kind of team that can eliminate Memphis early in this tournament. They don’t turn the ball over, which will prevent the Tigers from getting out on the break), they play at a slower tempo and force you to work for 35 seconds before popping a three, which they make at an extremely high rate, and they will compete defensively. While I respect Middle Tennessee for the great season they’ve had, I think the Tigers would much rather see their elite defense than St. Mary’s good defense and elite offense.
Pick: Memphis over Middle Tennessee or St. Mary’s over Memphis.
Horizon League Champions: Valparaiso Crusaders
Summary: The 26-7 Crusaders are a senior laden team (they are the most experienced team in the country according to KenPom) anchored by 6’8″ senior center Kevin Van Wijk. Van Wijk is an excellent post player that made a ridiculous 60% of his shots from the block this season per Synergy. He works for deep post position on every possession, and the Crusaders are very patient, swinging the ball from side-to-side and forcing the defense to shift around. Van Wijk is also a good passer out of the post and the attention he draws can create good opportunities for his teammates.
6’7″ power forward Ryan Broekhoff is the best of his running mates. Broekhoff can run the pick-and-roll in a pinch, but he spends most of his time working around the floor to find good spot-up chances, a large amount of which come on off screen action. Broekhoff is shooting 43% from deep this season, has a 63% true-shooting (42nd) and cleans up the boards really well (23.2% defensive rebound rate, 69th). Having a stretch four like Broekhoff is a great compliment to Van Wijk and gives Valpo a great inside-out combination.
Senior guarsd Erik Buggs and Will Bogan and senior forward Matt Kenney carry the team on the perimeter. Bogan is a spot-up shooter that hits 41% of his threes, Buggs is tremendous at attacking the rim and getting his teammates involved and Kenney blends the two roles by shooting the ball well from deep (39%) and making plays for others (24.4% assist rate).
The Crusaders have the third highest two-point percentage in the country and shoot a very good 37.5% from three (37th). They have an interesting offensive dichotomy that makes them a tough team to stop, and they are a solid defensive team ta boot.
Matchup: The Crusaders got tabbed as a #14 seed and will take on Sparty in the second round.
This is not a great matchup for the Crusaders. The Spartans have a lot of size and play tremendous defense. The Spartans have the eighth best defensive efficiency in the country and hold their opponents to the 27th lowest three-point percentage in the nation (30.2%). Michigan State has a few big bodies to throw at Van Wijk and their perimeter defense doesn’t give up good looks from deep.
Pick: Michigan State, 74-58.
Ivy League Champions: Harvard Crimson
Summary: I guess it shouldn’t surprise that the Crimson are a smart offensive team that works to get good looks and takes the most efficient shots on the floor. Harvard shot 40.1% from three this season, the eighth highest mark in the country, 52.5% of their two-pointers (21st) and 72% of their free throws. And though they had middling defensive numbers, they play at a very slow pace and held the Memphis Tigers to just 60 points during their matchup during the regular season (it was a 60-50 loss).
6’5″ shooting guard Wesley Saunders is the Crimson’s best player. He’s a versatile off guard that Harvard will isolate on the perimeter, put in pick-and-rolls, allow him to spot-up and even post him up to get him different looks over the course of a game. Saunders has a 60.2% true shooting percentage, a 64.5% free throw rate (51st) and a solid assist rate (22.3%).
Siyani Chambers is the team’s point guard and he’s good at his job. He has a 33% assist rate this season, the 62nd best mark in the country, he has a true shooting percentage of 59% and hits threes at a great clip (44%) and he even gets to the line (51.8% free throw rate). On the wing Harvard has Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster to act as pure spot-up shooters; Rivard has hit 40% of his threes this year and posted a 62.7% true shooting percentage (4th), and Webster is shooting 37% from three.
Normally I wouldn’t like the fact that Harvard has been off so long – the Ivy League does not have a conference tournament, so the regular season champion is awarded the automatic bid – but because Saunders and Chambers both ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA in minutes played this season, I think Harvard’s guard duo will be fresh and ready to attack.
Matchup: The Crimson will have a tough go of things in their first round matchup; as a #14 seed, Harvard will take on the very good New Mexico Lobos.
Had Harvard drawn a different #3 seed – I’m thinking Marquette – I think they could have pulled off an upset, but I have New Mexico going to the Final Four this year and I don’t think that Harvard will be able to match the athletic Lobos and I don’t think the Crimson have any chance of stopping Kendall Williams.
Pick: New Mexico, 71-55.
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Champions: Iona Gaels
Summary: The Gaels are one of the best offensive teams in the country, and they need to be with the kind of defensive unit they have. Iona scored 113.1 points per 100 possessions this season (22nd), shot 37.3% from three (43rd), 50.5% from inside the arc (52nd) and 77.8% from the line (4th). They also never turn the ball over (16.9% turnover rate, 21st lowest). On the other side of the spectrum, Iona allowed 105.5 points per 100 possessions and 37.3% shooting from three and never forced any turnovers.
Iona’s fast paced attack – they have the 17th fasted tempo in the nation – is led by Momo Jones. You may remember Lamont from Arizona’s deep tournament run two seasons ago when Derrick Williams led the Wildcats over an upset of Duke. Momo decided to transfer to Iona to complete his career and he’ll do so with another NCAA tournament appearance.
The senior has taken on a huge uptick in responsibility this season. After using up 22% of his team’s possessions in his first three years in college, he now has a 30.3% usage rate, the 38th highest in the nation. Jones isn’t much of a distributor, but he has an attack mindset and can pick apart defenses that break down when he gets into the paint. He draws 6 fouls per 40 minutes, which is the 67th highest mark in the country, which helps put teams in the bonus, a key for this tremendous free throw shooting team.
Playing alongside Jones is equally impressive junior guard Sean Armand. Armand is a knockdown shooter that has made 41% of his 262 three-point attempts this season. Of players with at least 125 spot-up possessions this season, Armand ranks first in the nation with his 1.377 points per possession mark, according to Synergy.
Iona is a very small team that plays four guards most of the time, but 6’8″ center David Laury does as good of a job as possible. Laury rebounds 26.2% of available defensive rebounds, the 11th highest percentage in the nation, and he also has a big impact on the offensive boards (11.7%, 137th). Even still, Iona is prone to get killed on the boards because Laury is the only above average rebounder on the roster.
Matchup: The Gaels are a #15 seed this year and will play the Ohio State Buckeyes.
It will be fun to see a team that likes to run go up against a plodding Big 10 team. The Gaels should be able to push the pace a good amount because of their quick guards, but Ohio State is one of the bigger teams in the nation and will likely feast on Iona on the glass. Momo Jones is going to have a tough time getting things going on offense as well with Aaron Craft guarding him.
Pick: Ohio State, 81-67.
Mid-American Conference Champions: Akron Zips
Summary: Despite losing junior point guard Alex Abreu to suspension on March 8th, the Zips rallied around seniors Zeke Marshall and Chauncey Gilliam in the MAC tournament, defeating a senior laden Ohio Bobcat team that was projected to win the conference. Abreu was arrested on drug trafficking charges and has been in and out of court over the past few weeks, which took a toll on the team emotionally, but head coach Keith Dambrot pulled out every stop to help his team; Dambrot brought in a sports psychologist, had other coaches (like Shaka Smart) send in messages of support and gave the seniors a larger leadership responsibility.
Abreu is the engine of the team and his loss hurts them offensively, but as we saw in the MAC tourney, the Zips are a team that wins with their defense. They held the Bobcats, the MAC’s second best offensive team, to 46 points in the conference title game, and they only allowed 70 or more points four times in regulation this season. Akron held it’s opponents to just 42.2% shooting on two-pointers this season (13th) and cleaned up the boards at a slightly above average rate.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, Akron was the best team in the country at guarding pick-and-roll ball-handlers (at least 200 possessions), holding them to a pathetic .542 points per possession and 26% shooting. While Abreu was a big part of the Akron’s pick-and-roll defense, Brian Walsh (a 6’5″ off guard), Carmelo Betancourt (the new starting point guard) and Demetrius Treadwell (a 6’7″ tweener forward) are all solid defensive players on the perimeter, and senior center Zeke Marshall is always there on the backline to provide support.
Marshall is the fulcrum of Akron’s defense, which ranks 32 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. The seven footer ranked fifth in the country in block percentage, and Akron’s guards often funnel their man into the middle to allow Marshall to make his impact felt.
The big man is also the focal point of the Zips’ offense. Marshall had the sixth best effective field goal percentage in the country this season (65.8%) as well as the 10th best true shooting percentage (66.3), all while using 20.2% of Akron’s possessions when he is on the floor. Marshall drew six fouls per 40 minutes this season, the third best mark in the MAC and a top 100 rate in the nation, showing his ability to get to the line consistently (he’s a 64% free throw shooter).
Marshall doesn’t score away from the hoop, but his ability score on the block consistently makes him a tough player to guard. Per Synergy, Marshall ranked first in the country in points per possession produced on post-ups this season with a 1.213 mark. Marshall shot 60% from the post, operating mostly on the left block. His go-to move is the hook shot over his left shoulder, a shot he hits at a 65% clip. This quick flip shot is money anytime Marshall gets decent enough post position, which is exactly what Akron will be working to get him in the NCAA tournament.
Akron relies heavily on Marshall to get good looks from the post, which creates opportunities for his teammates when the help starts to come. They are not a great shooting team, especially without Abreu (he was shooting a team high 39% from deep). Their spacing can sometimes be cramped because defenses will concede somewhat open looks to Akron’s middling shooters in order to stop Marshall from getting the ball, but Walsh and Gilliam have both shown the ability to hit shots before, and freshman Reggie McAdams hit 37% of his threes this year.
If their shots are off, expect Akron to create extra possessions for themselves by attacking the offensive glass; the Zips rebounded 37.9% of their own misses this season (20th), thanks in large part to the size and athleticism of Marshall and Treadwell.
Matchup: Akron is a #12 seed this year and has a tough matchup against the VCU Rams.
You could not pick a worse matchup for a team that has lost their starting point guard and is now relying on a freshman point guard that was barely apart of the rotation for the majority of this season. VCU’s aggressive and effective full-court press is going to eat Carmelo Betancourt alive, and the country’s most proficient defense at forcing turnovers for the second straight season is going to run the Zips out of the building.
Pick: VCU, 82-71.
MEAC Champions: North Carolina A&T Aggies
Summary: While the tide has started to turn of late, North Carolina State is one of the very worst offensive teams in the country, and their path to the NCAA Tournament is the one that required the most luck (the four top seeds in the MEAC were eliminated). Cy Alexander is in his first season as the coach of the Aggies (he coached at Tennessee State from 2004-09), and he has turned this team into a stellar defensive unit, which is the complete opposite of how his teams at Tennessee State played (offensive minded).
Alexander has accomplished his goal of this team a tough match defensively; they only allow 95.3 points per 100 possessions (81st), a 44.5% effective field goal percentage (33rd lowest) and just 31.8% shooting from deep. This is the ninth oldest team in the country according to KenPom, with just one underclassman in their rotation and four seniors playing big minutes, and Alexander has those veterans buying into to playing a really tough style of defensive basketball without getting discouraged if their shots aren’t falling (which is often the case).
6’8″ senior Austin Witter anchors the defensive unit. The athletic center blocks 11.8% of his opponent’s two point shots, the 16th biggest mark in the country. Witter also rebounds 20.8% of available defensive rebounds, an above average mark. Offensively Witter is best around the basket, but he has taken 101 threes on the season despite making just 26% of them.
As a team full of mediocre to bad shooters, the Aggies rely on an unusually high percentage of free throws to win. 23.9% of their points come from the charity stripe, the 23rd highest percentage in the nation. Junior guard Lamont Middleton is the catalyst for the offense. He draws 6.0 fouls per 40 minutes (69th in the country) and has a 66.3% free throw rate (45th). It’d be nice if Middleton hit a larger portion of his free throws (he’s at 70%), but you can’t fault his aggression and the Aggies are at their best when he is attacking.
Matchup: North Carolina A&T will play Liberty in a play-in game for the #16 seed slated to play Louisville.
As I mentioned in the Liberty capsule, I’ll take the stellar defensive team over the stellar offensive team.
Pick: North Carolina A&T, 58-51.
Missouri Valley Conference Champions: Creighton Bluejays
Summary: Creighton is one of the most exciting teams in the country – and one of the best. This team smashed Akron by 16, dropped 84 points in a win against Wisconsin (you know, the best defensive team in the nation) and took out Cal this season, giving them a solid non-conference resume for a mid-major.
Even when you factor in the quality of opponent, you could still make the argument that the Bluejays are the best offensive team in the country. They score 118.3 points per 100 possessions (6th best in the country), make 42.1% of their threes (best in the country) and 56.4% of their twos (2nd best). According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Bluejays score the most points per possession in the country overall, on spot-up shots, on post-ups and on basket cuts.
The Greg McDermott/Doug McDermott father/son coaching/player combo is probably the most successful of all-time. Doug is the most efficient player in the country and one with no offensive weaknesses. Not only does McDermott shot 50% from three, he also shoots 50% on post-ups. The versatility of this kid makes him extremely tough to guard in the college game.
McDermottt also draws a ton of fouls and gets to the line a lot; he’s draws 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes (54th) and shoots 86% from the line. Because he’s so good from the line and so good from deep and so good from inside the arc, he has a ridiculous 67.9% true shooting percentage, the 4th best mark in the country.
Gregory Echenique is 6’9″ center for this team and he’s not just a big body. Echenique is a tremendous offensive and defensive rebounder, he blocks a ton of shots at the rim and he also shoots 55% on post-ups. The Bluejays can go 4-out, 1-in with McDermott spotting up to allow Echenique to go to work or play a traditional offense with two posts and Echenique crashing the glass. Creighton has done both of those things extremely well this season. On the outside Creighton has Austin Chapman and Grant Gibbs. Both players are good passers and knockdown outside shooters that help keep Creighton’s spacing at an optimal level at all times.
Though they are not similar players, the way McDermott plays – being able to flow seamlessly from the block to the three-point line – reminds me of the way Arizona played with Derrick Williams a couple of years ago. And I expect this Blue Jay team to make at just as far, if not farther, than those Wildcats.
Matchup: Creighton is a #7 seed in the Midwest region and will play Cincinnati in the second round.
Cincy is a tough matchup for the Bluejays because they play great defense (they allow just 88.4 points per 100 possessions, 15th best) and don’t allow a high three-point percentage (30%, 23rd lowest). The Bearcats can throw 6’10” shotblocking monster Cheikh Mdobj (he has 8th highest block rate in the country) at McDermott, as well as 6’8″ junior forward Justin Jackson. I don’t think that most people have caught on to how tough of a game this is going to be for Creighton. I still have them pulling it out, but it will be close.
Pick: Creighton, 65-61.
Northeast Conference Champions: LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds
Summary: The Blackbirds rely on getting out on the break with their athletic guards in order to win. They have to outscore their opponents, because their defense will give up a ton of points. They do a good job of pushing the pace as they ranked 29th in the country in adjusted tempo, and their guards did a ton of attacking, making for the sixth best free throw rate in the nation. Long Island shot 38.5% from three this year (16th) and 53.4% from inside the arc, which would have been more impressive had their defense not allowed similar percentages.
Big man Jamal Olasewere is the fulcrum of the offense for the Blackbirds, using up 30.7% of their possessions (29th) while drawing 7.9 fouls per 40 minutes (3rd). Olasewere also rebounded the ball at a tremendous clip although the rest of the team didn’t provide much support in that department. Guards C.J. Garner and Jason Brickman are the catalysts offensively; Brickman has the 16th best assist rate in the nation and shoots 46% from three while Garner also shoots 46% from three and get
Matchup: LIU Brooklyn will take on James Madison in the play-in game for the right to take on Indiana.
Like I said in the Dukes’ capsule, I think LIU’s fast tempo offense will win out over James Madison’s solid defense.
Pick: LIU-Brooklyn, 87-79.
Ohio Valley Conference Champions: Belmont Bruins
Summary: The Bruins
Senior Ian Clark is one of the best guards in the nation at getting to the basket off of pick-and-roll action. In addition to hitting a ridiculous 50% of his spot-up shots, Clark shoots 48% out of pick-and-rolls, and he’s equally good at pulling up for a jumper or getting to the rim off of high screen-and-roll action.
Clark ranks second in the country in true shooting percentage at 68.8% because he shot 60% at the rim, 61% on shot jumpers, 46% from three and 84% from the line. If you are looking for a player capable of going nuts for a game and leading to an upset in this tournament, look no further than Clark. This is a kid that scored 24 points on 10-of-10 shooting against VCU earlier this season and dropped 29 on 9-of-11 shooting from three against Northeastern. Though he was shut down by Kansas, I expect Clark to have a huge tournament for the Bruins.
Complimenting Clark, Belmont has fellow senior guard Kerron Johnson, an aggressive point guard that loves to attack the rim and lives at the free throw line. Johnson draws 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes (15th) and has a 73.2% free throw rate (24th). J.J. Mann, a 6’6″ forward is the lifeblood of Belmont’s underrated defense (they ranked 59th in defensive efficiency) and turnover happy; the athletic wing has one of the highest steal rates in the country despite only committing 1.7 fouls per 40 minutes (61st lowest mark in the country).
Trevor Noack and Blake Jenkins are Belmont’s bigs, and though neither player rebounds all that well, they both provide offensive value. Noack shoots 42% from three and 52% inside while Jenkins shoots 67% on two point shots and has an offensive rating of 121.3 (58th).
Matchup: Belmont will have one of the more interesting second round games this year. As a #11 seed they will take on the Arizona Wildcats.
I think this will be an upset for Belmont. While their glaring lack of size will not fare well against the Wildcats (one of the biggest teams in the country and a great offensive rebounding team), I think the extremely experienced Bruins – they start three seniors and two juniors and bring two more seniors off the bench, and all of those guys have now been to three straight NCAA tournaments – will take down the Wildcats by taking advantage of their horrible three-point defense (they allow 36% shooting from deep) and forcing them into turnovers.
Pick: Belmont, 74-68.
Patriot League Champions: Bucknell Bison
Summary: The 28-5 Bison have an incredibly impressive resume that features wins over Purdue, Kent State and La Salle in addition to a three point loss at Penn State and a two point loss at Missouri. The Patriot League champs play a very fundamentally sound style of basketball, which head coach Dave Paulsen deserves a lot of credit for. Bucknell only turns the ball over on 15.1% of their possessions, the second lowest rate in the country, and they shoot the ball extremely well from deep and at the free throw line.
Unusually for a mid-major, Bucknell is one of the biggest teams in the country, with all five of their major minute players being taller than 6’2″ (only one player on their roster is shorter than that). The biggest player on the roster is also their best: 7’0″ center Mike Muscala.
Muscala, who will be in the NBA by this time next year, uses the 14th most possessions in the country, which is a good thing for the Bison because he is so tremendously efficient (119 offensive rating, 99th). Muscala shoots 50% on post-ups, draws 6.6 fouls per 40 minutes (and makes 79% of his free throws) and never turns the ball over despite touching it so often. On top of that, Muscala blocks 8.1% of his opponents two point shots (68th) and has the very best defensive rebounding percentage in the country (28.9%).
Joe Willman is Bucknell’s power forward, and he helps provide some athleticism on the frontline as well as a bit of spacing in the pick-and-roll game (he shoots 52% on mid-range jumpers). On the outside, Bucknell has senior Bryson Johnson and junior Cameron Ayers split the distributing duty, though the best passer on the team is Muscala, who can make plays out of the post.
Ayers shoots 48% on pick-and-rolls this season and 45% on jumpers altogether. Ayers shoots 39% from deep while Johnson shoots 40% from long-range, and Hill chips in offensively by moving the ball well, though he is primary a defensive player. Both guys can knockdown spot-up shots when the opponent doubles down on Muscala and they are also good at creating with the ball in their hands.
Defensively, Bucknell allows the second fewest offensive rebound percentage in the country and the fourth lowest effective field goal percentage. They also never put their opponent on the line and defend the paint and three-point line really well. This is an extremely well put together team that will shock some folks this March.
Matchup: In a battle of mid-major favorites and alliteration champs, the Bucknell Bison (an #11 seed) will take on the Butler Bulldogs in the second round.
I think this will be one of the best games of the tournament and I am really split on the winner here. I really want to go with Bucknell here because I think they have a better team this season, but what I keep coming back to is Butler’s wins over Gonzaga and Indiana; even if those two wins came by a combined three points, they held Kelly Olynyk to 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting and just five rebounds and Cody Zeller to 4-of-9 shooting and just three rebounds. And the teams that Butler lost in were usually not teams with dominating interior players, they were teams with athletic and tough perimeter players like Illinois, La Salle, St. Louis and VCU.
All that said, I am going to pick against the resumes a bit and go with Muscala having a big day against the Bulldogs. I know it has been a few years since Brad Stevens put this Butler team on the map, but it still feels weird to predict Butler to get upset after seeing them as the underdog for the past few years.
Pick: Bucknell, 63-61.
Southern Conference Champions: Davidson Wildcats
Summary: This experienced Davidson had some early season losses, but they’ve won 17 straight games since January 17th and they are riding a hot streak into the tournament. On top of that, they played the Blue Devils extremely tough at Cameron indoor and only lost to the stellar New Mexico Lobos by five in New Mexico.
Davidson is a great offensive team that gets to the line at a good rate and has the highest free throw percentage in the country (80.1%). The Wildcats also rank 57th in three-point percentage (36.6%), 26th in two-point percentage (52.2%) and 23rd in turnover rate (17.0%). The Wildcats also defend well, holding their opponents to just 32% shooting from deep and 45% shooting inside the arc while also posting the 42nd best defensive rebound rate in the country.
It’s hard to believe that the Wildcats may have the best shooter in school history on the roster right now with Steph Curry being in Golden State and all, but senior Nik Cochran has made a run at that title this season. After being a good but not great three-point shooter over his first three seasons (around 37%), Cohen has made 49% of his 101 three-point attempts this season and an incredible 94% of his free throws. Those two figures combine to give Cochran the number one true shooting percentage in the country (71.4%) and make him one of the most efficient players in the nation (125.5 offensive rating, 21st). This is the kind of player that, like Curry a few years back, those higher seeded teams cringe at having to face.
Senior big man Jake Cohen uses up the majority of offensive possessions ofr the Wildcats and clogs up the middle of the paint for the opposition. Cohen can score downlow and go out to the three-point line to stretch the floor (he’s shooting 39% from three). Cohen also draws 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes (82nd) and knocks down 83% of his free throws. Power forward De’Mon Brooks is the scrappier big of the two, and his ability to crash the glass and draw fouls himself make him a valuable complimentary player for Cohen.
Matchup: The Wildcats received a #14 seed and will play Marquette.
The Golden Eagles’ fatal offensive flaw is their inability to shoot threes, and in March, against a team like Davidson that shoots the ball extremely well from deep and has one player that can go off at any moment (Cochran), I think that puts you at risk of an upset. And because the Wildcats also defend well and have the size in the middle with Cohen and Brooks to throw at Davante Gardner (who is a foul drawing and offensive rebounding machine), I think Davidson will be able to pull this one out.
Pick: Davidson, 71-65.
Southland Conference Champions: Northwestern State Demons
Summary: After starting off the season 27-3, Stephen F. Austin fell in the conference title game to Northwestern State, giving the Demons an unexpected birth in the NCAA Tournament. Their official nickname may be the Demons, but we might as well call them the Speed Demons, because they play the fastest tempo game in all of the country (72.9 possessions per game).
Though they play at a fast pace, the Speed Demons aren’t necessarily a great offensive team. Predictably, the plurality of their offense (24.6%) comes from transition plays, but they don’t shoot well in any other offensive category. Guards Shamir, Jalan West and Brison White love to fly around the court and take three’s. Davis is really good at getting to the line (35th in FD/40 and 58th in free throw rate) and West is their top distributor (35% assist rate, 39th)
Junior bigman DeQuan Hicks sop up 31.5% of Northwestern State’s possessions , the 15th largest chuck in the league. He does so primarily on post-ups and basket cuts. Hicks runs the floor well as a big and shoots a high percentage from the block and he’s a very good rebounder. Even still, with the rest of the team being small, the Speed Demons are the worst defensive rebound team in the country.
Matchup: As a #14 seed, the Demon will take on the Florida Gators.
It will be fun to see how the Speed Demons approach this game. The Gators like to slow the game down and play through the post, but does Northwestern State really want to put Florida’s more athletic players into a track meet with them? I am more than sure that Kenny Boynton wouldn’t have any problem playing quickly, and I tend to subscribe to the theory that more possessions means more opportunities for the better team to assert their talent advantage on the game.
This should be an easy win for the Gators no matter how fast the game turns out to be. They are much bigger, more skilled and execute extremely well on both ends of the floor. While the Speed Demons were able to race their way through their conference tournament, that strategy is not going to work against the Gators.
Pick: Florida, 85-62.
Southwestern Athletic Conference Champions: Southern Jaguars
Summary: Southern scheduled well out of conference this season, and though they ended up getting taken down by Iowa State, Nebraska, Wyoming and TCU, they got themselves so much needed big game experience, and they did beat Texas A&M on the road.
Roman Banks has instilled a defense first mindset with his program since taking over last season, and this year marks the second consecutive season in which the Jaguars ranked in the top 12 in opponent effective field goal percentage. The Jaguars are second in that category this season (41.6%) because they only allow 29.6% shooting from deep (15th lowest) and 40.4% shooting inside the arc (2nd lowest)
Wings Derick Beltran and Malcolm Miller spark the team on the perimeter while big men Javan Mitchell and Brandon Moore wall off the paint.
Beltran is a tremendous transition player that comes off screens and spot-ups at effective rates while Miller is more of a pure shooter. Miller shots 50% on spot-up chances and 59% on transition looks. Because he’s hit 46% of his threes and 58% of his twos, Miller has a 65% true shooting percentage (19th) and a 125.3 offensive rating (25). Miller is the player that the Jaguars will look to feature all game long.
Moore is a tremendous defensive player that contests spot-up shots well and can defend back-to-the-basket players. He also has a 6.4% block rate (122nd) and rebounds the ball at a slightly above average rate. Mitchell can also block shots and guard post players, but he tends to fare a little worse than Moore. Diminutive freshman point guard Christopher Hyder can also make a defensive impact in a pinch. He has a 4.3% steal rate, the 29th best mark in the nation, in addition to being a decent distributor for a back-up.
Matchup: Southern will have the inevitable task of playing Gonzaga.
I think Roman Banks has his program headed on the right track, but this is not a good matchup for them. While the Jags can shoot threes well and defend, they just don’t have the size or the athleticism on the perimeter to compete with this Bulldogs team.
Pick: Gonzaga, 79-59.
Summit League Champions: South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Summary: The Jacrabbits have an awesome logo, an awesome name, an awesome mascot, an awesome offense and an awesome point guard.
South Dakota State scored 110.4 points per 100 possessions this season (39th), shot 39.4% from three (10th) and turned it over on just 16.3% of their possessions (10th lowest). They rely heavily on the three ball, which is fine because they have three great three-point shooters and another pretty good one.
Senior point guard Nate Wolters is the best player on the team and the player that makes this club a very interesting March Madness sleeper. Wolters is a cross between Jimmer Fredette and Kendall Marshall; at 6’4″, he’s very good at distributing the ball to his teammates and equally good (and unafraid) of taking a ton of big time shots for the Jackrabbits.
The majority of Wolters’ offense comes on pick-and-rolls and isolation plays. Wolter shoots 46% on pick-and-rolls, often on pull-up jumpers. Overall, Wolters shoots 48% on jumpers off the dribble, the best mark in the country. And though he is not a great athlete, he can still beat his man off the dribble from the top of the key going either direction and get to the basket.
Wolters shoots 55% on twos and 39% on threes and he draws six fouls per 40 minutes, a great mark for such a great shooter, and he converts on 81% of his freebies. As one of the high usage players in the country, Wolters manages to be extremely efficient (124.8 offensive rating, 29th) because he makes great decisions and he can really shoot the ball. His 34.5% assist rate ranks 44th in the country, and what he does with the ball in his hands keys everything for the Jackrabbits.
Big man Jordan Dykstra provides a post-up threat for the Jackrabbits to give the defense different looks, and he’s also very good at making threes. Dykstra is shooting 43% from three this season and he can get those looks on traditional spot-up shots or on pick-and-pops.
Matchup: As a #13 seed, the Jackrabbits will take on their natural predator in the second round: the Wolverines.
And I’m taking the prey in this one. Even though South Dakota State can’t really defend, I think Wolters to rise to the occasion and win his battle with Trey Burke. This isn’t the most logical pick I will make, but I feel like Wolters and the Jackrabbits will be a Cinderella team.
Pick: South Dakota State, 79-71.
Sun Belt Conference Champions: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Summary: The Hilltoppers are the definition of a mediocre team. At 20-15 overall and 10-10 in conference, Western Kentucky didn’t really beat anybody out of conference, and they got smashed by VCU and Louisville. They score 100.1 points per 100 possessions and give up 101.8 points per 100 possessions. They have an effective field goal percentage of 49.1% and they allow an effective field goal percentage of 47.9%. Again: average.
The only thing that sticks out either way for this team is that they turn the ball over on nearly a quarter of their possessions, which is one of the worst marks in the country. A pair of senior guards – T.J. Price and Jamal Crook – leed this team on the offensive end. Forward George Fant helps out a lot because of his great free throw rate (60.1%, 89th), but still, this team doesn’t shoot well.
Matchup: The Hilltoppers will play the Jayhawks in #1 v #16 matchup in the South region.
Kansas will have easy go of things against the Hilltoppers, mostly because Western Kentucky doesn’t have an identity or something that clearly sets them apart as a good team in any context.
Pick: Kansas, 76-55.
West Coast Conference Champions: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Summary: The Zags have finally done it. After years of getting close, they finally captured a number one overall seed this season. Gonzaga has the most wins in the country with 31 and the fewest losses with 2, they have the third best offensive efficiency (119.8 points per 100 possessions) in the country and they also play stifling defense (88.4 points per 100 possessions allowed, 14th lowest). The Bulldogs also have two of the country’s top 10 player of the year candidates according to KenPom’s formula: Kelly Olynyk (5th) and Elias Harris (10th).
And yet, I still find myself doubting this team, mostly because they played a pretty weak non-conference schedule. They lost to two of he four best teams that they played (Illinois and Butler) and only beat Oklahoma State by one despite Le’Bryan Nash starting the game on the bench (while this seems like a miniscule asterisk, in a one-point game, every possession matters).
While I would argue that they are not one of the four best teams in the country, what can’t be argued is how well their offense performs. The Zags make their opponents work on every possession and they will still get a good look out of their offense even if you defend them well because of their two start post players.
Junior center Kelly Olynyk and senior power forward Elias Harris combine to make the nation’s best post duo.
Olynyk has a tremendous feel for the game which helps him drift to the right spots on the floor off the ball, and he’s a master at getting good post position. Olynyk has made a ridiculous 62% of his post-ups, the third highest percentage in the country. He’s most effective on the left block and loves to dribble over with his right shoulder going to the basket to get to the rim. Harris shoots a less efficient 42% on post-ups, but the big man draws defensive attention any time he goes to the block, and he’s really good at make smart off-ball cuts.
And if teams attempt to double team from the outside on either player, sophomore guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell will make them pay by hitting the three ball (Pangos shoots 42% from deep while Bell shoots 39% from beyond the arc. Pangos can also really shoot the ball of the pick-and-roll, too, which gives Gonzaga a last second offensive option to flow into if needed.
While I like Gonzaga, I tend to view them like I do the Notre Dame Fighting Irish; a good team that plays only a couple of good teams in the regular season that has a high seed because of their history. When they get matched up against Wisconsin in the third round, I think the Bulldogs will struggle mightily.
Matchup: Gonzaga is one of the four #1 seeds in the country and will play Southern University.
As I said in my Southern capsule, the Jaguars have a solid team and their program is headed in the right direction, but this is a mismatch in every sense of the word.
Pick: Gonzaga, 79-59.
Western Athletic Conference Champions: New Mexico State Aggies
Summary: The Aggies have a 7’5″, 355 pound player on their roster named Sim Bhullar (it would be awesome if his name was “Slim,” right?).
For more on them, refer to my matchup preview in the St. Louis capsule.
Matchup: The Aggies will take on the Billikens in the first round, and it will not go well for New Mexico State.
Pick: St. Louis, 74-60.
At-Large Bid: Butler Bulldogs (Atlantic 10)
Summary: The Bulldogs had a great non-conference run this season, defeating Indiana on a neutral court in overtime and being one of the two teams in the country to beat Gonzaga when Roosevelt Jones stole a poor inbounds pass and hit a floater the the buzzer to win it in their matchup in Hinkle Fieldhouse (and Butler was missing their best player in that game). Their conference run was less impressive; they lost to La Salle (albeit by one and on the road), got taken down on their home floor by Charlotte, got pounded by HAVOC in Richmond and lost all three of their matchups with St. Louis (one at home, one on the road and one on a nuetral floor) and also lost their sponsorship from zignature dog food reviews.
This is actually one of the worst teams that Brad Stevens has had at Butler. Of course, he has set the standard pretty freaking high, but the Bulldogs’ 93.5 defensive efficiency is actually the worst during his tenure at Buler (at least when compared to the rest of the country), and their 108.0 offensive efficiency ranks second worst during his tenure behind last year’s putrid season. This is still a very good team, but their are a few mid-majors that are better all-around teams that are lower seeds than Butler (Belmont, St. Mary’s, and Creighton to name a few).
Butler’s tournament hopes rest on the shoulders of senior guard Rotnei Clarke. Clark is a volume three-point shooter that has knocked down 41% of his looks from deep so far this season. If the Bulldogs make a run in this tournament, it will be because Clarke channels his inner Jimmer Freddette and starts pouring in threes.
Outside of Clarke, Butler’s perimeter players aren’t great shooters this season. Freshman forward Kellen Dunham makes 35% of his threes, but that is the second best rate on the team, which isn’t a great sign. Sophomore guard Roosevelt Jones can defend well and attacks the paint, but he’s not a player that can stretch the floor. Big men Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall give the Bulldogs some variance in their offense as solid post-up threats, and I think Butler will have to rely on those two to make Mike Muscala work on the defensive end in their first round matchup.
Matchup: Butler was labelled a #6 seed and will take on Bucknell in the alliteration bowl of the NCAA tournament.
As I mentioned in my Bucknell capsule, I think Mike Muscala will help lead the Bison to a first round upset of the Bulldogs.
Pick: Bucknell, 63-61.
At-Large Bid: La Salle Explorers (Atlantic 10)
Summary: The Explorers scheduled well out of conference, taking down Villanova and Iona at home while staying close at Bucknell in mid-December (La Salle also got smoked by the Hurricanes). Their best accomplishment in conference play,, aside from finishing a solid 11-5, was winning back to back games against Butler and VCU (on the road) to close out January. They did, however, lose at St. Louis by 24 in their final regular season game and to Butler by 11 in the first round of the A-10 tournament.
The Explorers defend and score well under long-time coach John Giannini, who has put together the best team he’s had during his nine year tenure at La Salle. They score 109.8 points per 100 possessions (43rd) and only allow 95.5 points per 100 possessions (83rd); they shoot 37.1% from three (46th) and hold their opponents to 29.9% shooting from three (20th); they only turn the ball over on 17.3% of their possessions (36th) and they force turnovers on 22% of their opponents’ possessions (64th).
The only place where this team is not well balanced is in their size. The Explorers start four guards, which is why opponents score 64.7% of their points on two-point shots, the largest percentage in the nation. The benefits of their four guard system are ball control, great three-point defense, good three-point shooting and forcing a lot of turnovers. Will that outweigh their lack of interior size, which makes it tough for them to defend the paint and rebound?
It will if senior guard Ramon Galloway can play to his potential. Galloway is shooting 40% from three, has a 24.6 assist rate (243rd) and a 3.6% steals percentage (110th). Junior guard Tyreek Duren is the second most important player for the Explorers; his ability to attack the rim off of pick-and-roll action and create for his teammates and allows for Galloway to get some off-ball plays. Center Jerrell Wright is a bit undersized, but he does make an impact on the offensive glass (14.2% offensive rebound rate, 41st).
Matchup: The Explorers will take on the Boise State Broncos in a the #13 seed play-in game that will give them the right to take on the Kansas State Wildcats in the West region.
The Broncos are a very similar to team to Explorers, with the exception being that they don’t defend the three-point line very well, and that could be the difference in such an even matchup. I’ll take La Salle in a last second thriller.
Pick: La Salle, 74-72.
At-Large Bid: Temple Owls (Atlantic 10)
Summary: Temple had a great season this year. They beat Syracuse on a neutral floor, smashed Kansas State, Buffalo and Villanova all on the road and lost by just seven to the Jayhawks in Kansas.
The Owls score 110.6 points per 100 possessions (35th) and don’t turn the ball over (16.2% turnover rate, 9th lowest). The problem is that they don’t shoot the three ball well and aren’t extremely good inside the arc, either. They are a decent shooting team but they don’t have post-up threats or a great pick-and-roll offense, so a lot of their shots have to be manufactured out of isolation sets.
Senior guard Khalif Wyatt is the team’s best player and the player that does the majority of the isolating, and he does a good job mixing things up between scoring and passing; he has a 27.2% assist rate (173rd), draws 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes (42nd) and shoots 49% inside the arc. Senior forward Scootie Randall is the Owls’ most frequented option on the wing while stretch big man Jake O’Brien is the team’s top spot-up threat (he hit 45% of his spot-up shots this season and 43% of his threes).
Sophomore center Anthony Lee is a crucial player for Temple because he is their best backline defender and a very good rebounder (26.2%, 10th). And when Temple beat Syracuse earlier this year, it was because Lee and Wyatt got to the line a ton. If Lee can be an aggressive force in the paint, things change for the Owls. That said, despite his ability to defend the paint, the Owls can really get abused out of the pick-and-roll, which is disconcerting heading into the tournament.
Matchup: Temple got a #9 seed and will play N.C. State.
This should be a fun matchup of two teams that can really score. At the end of the day, I think the better three-point shooting team, which is the Wolfpack (by a wide margin: 39.3% to 33.4%), will end up on top. I also don’t see how the Owls will keep Richard Howell, C.J. Leslie and T.J. Warren off the offensive glass. This will be a good game, but I’ll side with the favorite.
Pick: North Carolina State, 75-68.
At-Large Bid: VCU Rams (Atlantic 10)
Summary: To give you an idea of how VCU’s HAVOC defense can affect good teams, consider what the Rams did to Indiana last season.
The Hoosiers had the fourth best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country last season, the sixth highest effective field goal percentage and the second best three-point percentage. In the third round of the NCAA Tournament, VCU held Indiana to 63 points (22 in the second half), just barely losing by the score of 63-61. Days later that Indiana team lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion Kentucky by 12, but they scored 90 points against the Wildcats; to put that in perspective: Kentucky was the best defensive team in the country last season, and the Hoosiers still scored 27 more points against them than they did against VCU.
Things are a little bit different for Shaka Smart’s squad this season. For one, Smart has ramped up the tempo for his ballclub tenfold, increasing the payoff of his HAVOC defensive strategy. Now the Rams are looking to run at every opportunity, whether they are stripping the ball from you in the backcourt or taking it out after a make.
HAVOC, by the way, is VCU’s full-court pressure defense, usually implemented in a diamond formation (a 1-2-1-1 zone press). The Rams have a litany of 6’2″-6’5″ perimeter players that are extremely athletic and terrorize opposing ball handlers on a normal basis. The only team that has shown the ability to consistently beat this strategy is St. Louis, and that’s the reason I have the Billikens taking down the Rams in the national title game.
Shaka rotates his guards in extremely well, assuring that their press is at full strength all game with no fatigue setting in. The Rams have the best turnover defense in the country, forcing an opponent mishap on an astounding 28.7% of possessions (Louisville is second at 27.6%), for the second straight season. As I mentioned before, the difference this year is that the Rams have a faster tempo; the Rams have an adjusted tempo of 68.4 possessions per game this season (63rd) compared to 66.2 possessions per game (159th) last season.
Senior guard Troy Daniels is the team’s best offensive player – he makes 41% of his threes and has an offensive rating of 121.4 for the season – while sophomore forward Treveon Graham is their most used offensive option. At 6’5″, Graham is an effective three-point shooter and a very good rim attacker that gets to the line consistently. He also never turns the ball over (12.5% turnover rate) and has a very high offensive rebound percentage (11.1%).
My favorite players on this team are senior guard Darius Theus and sophomore Briante Weber (pictured above 10,000 words above at the top of this post). Neither player is tremendous offensively, but they both pass the ball well (30.1% assist rate for Theus and 22% assist rate for Weber) and these two guys are the linchpin of HAVOC on the defensive end. Theus has a 5.4% steal rate, the sixth highest mark in the country, while Weber has a steal percentage of 7.6%, the very best mark in the country.
With only Daniels and Theus departing due to graduation, this VCU team seems like one that will be back next season, and perhaps with an even better seed. As you can tell, I have affinity for Shaka Smart.
Matchup: VCU will play Akron.
As I mentioned in the Akron capsule, this is a horrible matchup for the Zips and I think that Weber, Theus and the gang are going to make Akron’s new starting point guard (an unathletic freshman) feel like he is in hell.
Pick: VCU, 82-71.
At-Large Bid: Wichita State Shockers (Missouri Valley Conference)
Summary: After getting upset by VCU in the NCAA Tournament last year, Wichita State went to Richmond and won 53-51 over the Rams in their second game of the season. Wichita State would start conference play with a 11-1 record thanks to solid wins over Iowa, Air Force and Southern Mississippi (their only loss was at Tennessee). The Shockers did OK in conference play, but they lost their conference title game in a nail bitter against Creighton (they split with them in the regular season).
The Shockers are a stellar defensive team that has been consistently elite on that end of the floor over the last three seasons under Gregg Marshall. They only allow 91.3 points per 100 possessions (30th), they have the 6th best defensive rebound in the nation and they block a ton of shots. For a mid-major, the Shockers have some serious size; they start 7’0″ senior center Ehimen Orukpe alongside 6’8″ power forward Carl Hall and then bring two 6’8″ forwards off the bench with Cleanthony Early and Jake White.
Early is the team’s best player even though he comes off the bench. He is a very good post-up player – he’s made 58% of his shots from the block this season per Synergy – and Wichita State also has him spot-up to stretch the floor (this experiment has mixed results. Hall, a senior power forward, is a great offensive rebounder that can score on the block consistently and protects the backline of the defense well for an undersized guy with his shotblocking. Late in games, the Shockers will go with a Early/Hall combination downlow.
Senior guard Malcolm Armstead is Wichita State’s primary option on the perimeter. He’s a solid pick-and-roll player that is shooting 45% off screen-and-roll action this season, but he’s only made 35% of his jumpers. If puts his head down and stays aggressive by driving to the rim, Wichita State starts to score more effectively. When he shoots pull-up jumpers, they can get stagnant.
Matchup: The #9 seeded Shockers will take on Pittsburgh in the second round.
Pitt may not be one of the sexy teams coming out of the Big East this season, but they are definitely one of the best. Senior guard Tray Woodall is a tremendous point guard that gets his teammates involved and scores the ball tat a good clip. With a tremendous seven footer like freshman Steven Adams really maturing into a solid player – he ranks 21st in offensive rebound rate and 18th in block percentage – the Panthers are going to be in for a long tournament run. While I think the Shockers will put up a strong fight, I just don’t see them being able to score with Pitt for 40 minutes.
Pick: Pittsburgh, 68-61.
At-Large Bid: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (Sun Belt)
Summary: There is some controversy over how the Blue Raiders made the Big Dance. They scheduled tough opponents but got blown out in those games against Florida, Belmont and Akron, and they played in a bad conference. Their inclusion is essentially the selection committee telling the middle of the pack teams in power conferences to step up their out-of-conference scheduling, even if their strength of opponent is better on the whole because of their conference.
Regardless of the politics of their selection, the basketball related reason that the Blue Raiders are in the tournament is that they play great defense. They have an 89.1 defensive efficiency (20th), force turnovers on 23.9% of their opponents’ possessions and hold teams to 29.5% shooting from deep (14th). The Blue Raiders have shifted to a defensive minded team over the past few seasons. They started their climb from bad to good to now great back in 2011 when they posted the 81st best defensive efficiency in the country. They moved up to 51st in 2012 and they are in the top 20 this season despite their lack of size.
In addition to competing defensively, the Blue Raiders are the second oldest team in the country with a rotation made up entirely of seniors (6) and juniors (5). Senior guards Marcos Knight and Bruce Massey do the lionshare of creating for this team, as both players have assist rates above 20 (20.4% for Knight and 27% for Massey) while Knight also acts as the team’s leading scorer. Another senior guard, Raymond Clintron, comes off the bench and provides instant scoring for this team with his 44% shooting from deep.
Junior guard Tweety Knight helps keep up the pressure on the defensive end when he comes into the game and he has a great 4.7% steal rate this season (17th). And despite the lack of size all-around, Shawn Jones anchors the team with decent rebound numbers and a 7% block percentage.
Matchup: The Blue Raiders will play the Gaels of St. Mary’s in the #11 seed play-in game for the right to play Memphis in the Midwest Region.
It’s fitting that the two most questionable mid-major inclusions will play each other in a play-in game. As you will learn below, this matchup will be a classic battle of offense versus defense. Massey and Knight can really guard, and they are going to make life difficult for Dellavedova. I don’t think he has seen the kind of constant ball pressure that the Blue Raiders are going to be putting on him before and I think he is going to struggle. As long as the Blue Raiders don’t brick away from deep, I expect Middle Tennessee to come out on top.
Pick: Middle Tennessee, 67-61.
At-Large Bid: Saint Mary Gaels (West Coast)
Summary: Similar to the Blue Raiders, there is a lot of question as to why St. Mary’s made the tournament. Though they finished 27-6, the only thing that sticks out on their resume was beating Creighton at home in a bracket buster game. They did play Gonzaga close in Spokane, but they also got blown out by 17 by the Zags on their home floor and by 14 in the conference tournament (this after barely escaping San Diego in overtime).
Unlike Middle Tennessee, the Gaels are in this tournament because they score at an elite rate. They score 115.6 points per 100 possessions, shoot 37.3% from three (41st), 53.2% on twos (13%) and crash the boards extremely well (37.2%, 27th. St. Mary’s also does a pretty good job defensively, holding opponents to 94.6 points per 100 possessions (68th) and never allowing any offensive rebounds.
Senior hair stylist Matthew Dellavedova is the MVP of this team. He plays the 29th most minutes in the country, shoots a solid 37% from three given the volume of his attempts and he had a great 33.9% assist rate (50th). Dellavedova will get his shots out of the pock-and-roll, by spotting up, by isolating and occasionally by coming off screens. He’s at his best when he’s catching-and-shooting, but because the Gaels lack any other guards on the roster that can create, Dellavedova is often forced to create the majority of his shots off the dribble.
The good news for the Gaels is that their complimentary players can hit shots at a high rate, so when Dellavedova creates for them, he’s usually getting his team a really efficient look, especially forward Beau Levesque, who hits 47% of his threes. . Big men Brad Waldow and Mitchell Young, both 6’9″ in stature, even though they don’t get any plays called for them. Waldow is an elite offensive rebounder that pulls down 16.1% of the Gaels’ misses, the 10th highest percentage in the league, and he finds his way to the rim for easy shots on cuts and pick-and-rolls. Young cleans up the glass on the other end with a 25.2% defensive rebound rate, the 22nd highest in the country.
Matchup: The Gaels will play the team directly above: Middle Tennessee. With a loss, they’ll be struck from brackets for all eternity; with a win, they’ll be the #11 seed in the Midwest facing off against the Memphis Tigers.
As I mentioned above, I’m taking the defensive minded Blue Raiders.
Pick: Middle Tennessee, 67-61.