Monday, March 13, 2017

6 Double-Digit Seeds Who Will (Probably) Pull Off Upsets

March Madness 2017 is officially upon us, and the quest to achieve the 1-in-9.2 quintillion dream of a perfect bracket is renewed in millions of office pools and online tournament challenges.  One of the critical components to every bracket filled out is the decision on which upsets to pick.

The Cinderella double-digit seed victory is by now an American sporting tradition.  Since the NCAA first expanded the field to 64 teams in 1985, a total of 285 wins have been notched by teams seeded 10 or above (excluding the first round/play-in games in Dayton where a 10+ seed winning is automatic).  This averages out to just about 9 wins per tournament from that year's group of potential spoilers.  Including in the wins these teams will have in the round of 32 or beyond, it means a typical tournament will have about a half-dozen double-digit wins in the round of 64.

Figuring out where these wins will come from will always be an inexact science in the field of bracketology, but a careful look at each team's resume, key data, and a mix of tournament history with some axiomatic basketball truth points me to this group of six teams I expect to pull off the bracket-busting upsets you'll wish you had picked too.

10s vs. 7s: Wichita State over Dayton, Marquette over South Carolina

Wichita State will likely rank among the highest frequency double-digit picks in the history of NCAA tournament bracket pools.  The reason is simple: this is an almost-criminally underseeded team.  They are a data guru's dream: ranked in the top-40 in scoring offense (20th), scoring defense (14th), rebound margin (5th), turnover margin (28th), assist-to-turnover ratio (10th), shooting % (40th), defensive shooting % (5th), and 3-point shooting % (4th): all rankings higher than Dayton's expect in turnover ration where Dayton is 25th nationally.  They are 8th in the KenPom rankings with top-20 offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency ratings.  They have depth, with 10 players averaging at least 4.2 points per game. They're balanced, with no one player averaging more than 9 field goal attempts per game.  As the various rankings above help show, they're versatile enough to beat you in any style of game. And they're experienced, with 2 wins in each of the previous two NCAA tournaments.

No disrespect to a solid Dayton team, but the Flyers are facing a team that could've very well been a low-4 or high-5 seed from a selection committee with different priorities.  The bigger question here is can the Shockers knock off Kentucky in the round of 32: I'm not picking them to do that, but it would not be surprising to see this team do it.

The other 10 over 7 upset is the quite frequent kind of game we see each year between two middle-of-the-road power conference teams.  South Carolina comes in clearly slumping: 4-6 in their last 10 games, including two losses to Alabama and one to Ole Miss when neither made this field.  Their last win against a team in the bracket was at home on January 18th vs Florida.

Marquette, while from a power conference, also possesses one of the key features I look for in mid-major bracket busters: high level 3-point shooting.  Marquette leads the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at 43.0%, and is 5th in the nation with 10.5 threes made per game.  They're also 7th in free throw shooting percentage (versus 216th for the Gamecocks), and 15th in overall shooting percentage while South Carolina checks in at an abysmal 306th.  Yes the Gamecocks have the better defense, but in the SEC only Kentucky with its pure talent had a team capable of scoring on the level they will face against the Golden Eagles.

11s vs. 6s: Rhode Island over Creighton, Xavier over Maryland

The 11 line has six teams including the two pairs of teams playing in Dayton Tuesday/Wednesday, and none in this crop count as true mid-majors.  The closest comes from the Atlantic-10 champion Rhode Island, but while the A-10 is not on the level of established power as the traditional six basketball conferences we think of they're a league continually placing several teams into tournament fields.

Rhode Island was a preseason top-25 team that underwhelmed for much of the year, to the point that they were a very iffy bubble team just a few days ago.  But in the Atlantic-10 tournament, this team found its form and raced to a conference title that salvaged their tournament dreams.  They capped it off on Sunday with a convincing victory over fellow tournament team VCU.  But this upset pick has more to do with the team on the other bench.

On January 16th, Creighton was a clear Final Four contender.  Playing at Xavier, they were on their way to moving to 18-1 on the year when their season was derailed.  Maurice Watson, leading the nation in assists and a clear Wooden Award contender, went down with a severe knee injury.  Since that day, the Bluejays are a pedestrian 7-8 overall.  Their trip to the finals of the Big East tournament offers a spot of hope for Creighton fans, but this was aided by Xavier's upset victory over Butler in their half of the bracket that eliminated the 2nd seed in the conference.

Rhode Island comes in having won their last eight with momentum at their back, against a Creighton team still unsure of its identity.  Comparing season statistics and resumes here simply doesn't work, because the Bluejay team that played the first 19 games of the season doesn't exist anymore.  Play the momentum here, and expect a Rams win that's really only an upset in the strictest of seeding perspectives.

The Xavier-Maryland matchup may be the most evenly balanced of any the selection committee put together.  Consider the following:

  • Maryland has an adjusted efficiency margin of 14.85, with a 40th ranked offense and 64th ranked defense.  Xavier's is 15.39, offensive rank 33rd, defensive rank 72nd.  
  • Maryland's adjusted scoring margin is +7.4, offensive quotient +3.5 and defensive quotient +3.9.  Xavier's ASM is +7.2, +3.7 on offense and +3.5 on defense.
  • Maryland's RPI rank is 32, Xavier's is 36.
  • Maryland averaged 74.2 ppg on 45.1% FG shooting.  Xavier scored 74.6 ppg, shooting 45.4%
  • Both teams have negative turnover margins (MD -.4, Xav. -.6), assist-to-turnover ratios in the 1.1s, and both have 4 top-50 RPI wins.
This is a true pick'em game where each team has one distinguishing characteristic.  Maryland has a superior defensive shooting % against than Xavier, while the Musketeers are a top-20 rebounding team playing a team ranked 167th in rebound margin.  Those extra chances Xavier's superior interior game will provide them in a game that otherwise looks likely to be extremely tight will be the difference in this second 11-6 upset.

12s vs. 5s: UNC-Wilmington over Virginia, Middle Tennessee State over Minnesota

12-5 is the classic March Madness upset, happening in nearly every tournament of the past 32 years.  It makes perfect sense too when you consider what kinds of matchups these often are: one of the very best non-power conference champions against a group of power conference teams on the 5-line that quite often consist of teams that were a little underwhelming or came in with sputtering momentum.

Virginia fits both of these categories for a power conference team.  A top-10 team for large portions of the year that faded late.  Virginia's just 5-5 over its last 10 games, slumping from a team that probably had thoughts of a 2 or 3 seed down to a 5.  Still an elite defensive team, but with the same inability to score enough to put teams away that has plagued them the last couple years.  When their defense is at its best, they can be suffocating: 18-1 on the year when they hold teams under 60 points.  But the Cavaliers are just 4-9 this year when opponents hit the 60 point mark.

That's where the Seahawks of UNCW come in.  They're averaged 85.2 points per game this year, 10th in the nation.  Their lowest scoring game all year was 63 against fellow-12 seed Middle Tennessee back just after Thanksgiving.  They have four players averaging over 12 points, with two more options both at 8 points per game.  The Seahawks spread opponents out by making 9.6 three-pointers a game and then can dump it in low to Devontae Cacok, who's shooting a video game-level 79.9 percent from the field on the year.

Most higher level power conference teams would likely be able to be content slowing down this attack a little, and exploiting Wilmington's questionable defense to gain a competitive win (as Duke did in their highly competitive game in last year's tournament).  But Virginia isn't equipped for the kind of 93-85 win the Blue Devils escaped with last year.  For them to win, Virginia probably has to find a way to shut down nearly all of UNC-Wilmington's weapons and get this game as close to a 60 or less game as they can.  Asking any team, even one with the Cavaliers' defense, to hold a team 25+ points under their season average is a Herculean task, and not one I have confidence Virginia can pull off.

UNCW is my overall Cinderella pick of the tournament, picking them to defeat a Florida squad that in many ways mirrors Virginia in the round of 32 as well to take on Villanova in what would be a highly entertaining Sweet 16 matchup.

The other is another pick that is quickly becoming the trendiest of the 12-5 options: 30-4 Middle Tennessee State.

Typically, I try to avoid teams like Middle Tennessee as upset picks out of the mid-majors.  A normal team from these conferences that builds the majority of its game around post play as Middle Tennessee does are not equipped to pull upsets the way teams built at the 3-point line are.  It makes sense if one thinks about it: while jump shooting teams can be more inconsistent, there are also fewer obstacles to a smaller conference team executing on this game plan.  Ultimately it comes down to setting screens or developing plays to get your shooters open, then those players hitting.  It's the great equalizer for the mid-major.  By contrast, post play is based largely upon the overall size, strength and depth of a team's front court.  Often, the power forwards and centers who reign over their conference find themselves simply outmatched by a power conference school which has a monopoly on the elites of the paint.

But Middle Tennessee's post play this season is anchored by Arkansas-transfer Jacorey Williams.  Williams provides a level of post play not frequently found in Cinderella hopefuls, capable of physically holding his own against the Minnesota bigs.  This is added to a program already well prepared for the task of pulling a tourney upset, their shocking win over Michigan State last year more than sufficient experience to alleviate the nerves teams might otherwise have.

Statistically, Middle Tennessee is an efficient, ball control offense averaging 49 percent shooting from the field (12th nationally), a respectable 3-point shooting percentage of 36.8 (91st nationally) even as they attempt fewer than most, plus comparable adjusted efficiency and adjusted scoring margins as Minnesota.

Minnesota is a solid 5, and this pick has more to do with the Blue Raiders than any glaring deficiencies on the part of the Golden Gophers.  However, their 7-6 record in road and neutral site games does highlight a team that still lacks deep experience after the two previous seasons were disappointments for Richard Pitino's squads.

And now, odds and ends for the single digit squads:

Watch out for conference champs.  After their near-tragic plane incident leading up to the Big Ten tournament, Michigan took their play up to another level in D.C.  Underseeded as a 7 and with both momentum and some inspiration, I look for Michigan to upset Louisville this weekend and eventually end up in the Elite 8 in the Midwest, losing there to Kansas.  They're a perimeter team finding their jump shot at the right time, a lethal combination to many better seeded opponents facing it over the years,

By contrast, SMU has been consistently strong all year.  30-4 and champions of the American, the Mustangs are another undervalued team sitting as a 6 seed in the East.  With a 3 seed in Baylor that slumped its way into the tournament the last few weeks, SMU is well positioned for at least a Sweet 16 run.  They would likely face Duke that round, but if the Blue Devils have cooled off even a little between now and then SMU is a team with the talent to take advantage of any dip in play and continue their run.

Underwhelmingly successful: Every year I try to find what I consider the most underwhelming statistical team to make the tournament, that team not particularly good at anything but somehow patching together a year worthy of the tournament.  This year, Seton Hall runs away with this.  Among the worst in the nation at the foul line, in the 230s from the 3-point line, poor turnover and assist margins...their only key statistical performance better than 118th nationally is a strong 6.7 rebounds per game advantage on opponents (19th in Division-I).  Nothing about them says they'd be 21-11 out of a power conference and solidly in the field at a 9-seed, yet they've managed to grind out a solid year.

Heart vs. head. Anyone who knows me knows I'm not only a huge Kansas basketball fan, but that they've been my national title pick for over a decade now (hey, 1 out of 10 ain't bad).  As long as they're a plausible champion the Jayhawks will always top my bracket picks, and they're more than a viable option as a 1-seed yet again this year.

However, if you're looking for an analytical assessment of what team is best positioned to cut down the nets April 3rd, North Carolina is the team best equipped for the task.  As much as it pains me to say anything positive about the Roy Williams regime in Chapel Hill, their frontcourt has been the single most consistent weapon in college basketball this year.  UNC's strength is most evident in their rebound margin over the course of the year.  They've out rebounded opponents by an average of 12.7 rebounds each game, more than three rebounds ahead of any other program.  In Meeks, Hicks, Bradley, Jackson and Maye, the Tar Heels have five elite post players to rotate in at any time that no one team in the bracket can match.  While they're vulnerable to a team capable of spreading them out on the perimeter and forcing them to go to a smaller lineup, the ability to control game tempo on the interior will be a formidable obstacle to overcome.  On paper, UNCs the favorite in this year's tournament.

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