NCAA Tournament First Weekend Observations

1. Talent prevails.
For all the madness in the first round of the tournament, there are few surprises in the Sweet 16. Of the remaining 16 teams, 12 were ranked in the preseason, and as I wrote last week, the preseason poll is one of the best indicators of talent. Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Gonzaga might seem like surprises, but they were all ranked inside the top 20 before the year. The only teams in the Sweet 16 that weren’t ranked before the year are Oregon, Texas A&M, Miami, and Syracuse – of which, only Syracuse failed to garner any votes for preseason poll.

2. The ACC has 6 teams in the Sweet 16, but only one truly impressive win.
Everyone wants to crown the ACC but look at the draws its teams faced. North Carolina and Virginia were one seeds, so getting to the Sweet 16 for them meant merely meeting their seed expectation. Syracuse, a 10 seed, faced arguably the field’s weakest 7 seed Dayton, before playing the biggest shock of the tournament, 15th seeded Middle Tennessee State. Duke, Maryland, and Notre Dame were all able to reach the Sweet 16 without playing a single digit seed because Yale, Hawaii, and Stephen F. Austin pulled upsets respectively. And for Notre Dame, it took a miracle buzzer-beating tip-in, as well as two dubious calls in the final minute or so, to scrape by Stephen F. Austin.  That leaves us with Miami, who also didn’t have to play a single digit seed, yet was the slight underdog against Wichita State. Miami’s win over Wichita State was the ACC’s only win that was truly impressive. We will see just how dominant the ACC is in the Sweet 16.

3. This might be the year Gonzaga finally makes the Final 4.
For over a decade, people have been waiting for Gonzaga to make a run all the way to the Final 4, from when they had Adam Morrison to when they had Kelly Olynyk. But Mark Few might have his best player ever in Domantas Sabonis, who somehow stayed under the radar all season long, before dominating future top 10 NBA pick Jacob Poeltl of Utah in the 2nd round of the tournament. If the Zags were ever going to make the Final 4, this is the type of year it would happen. There are few stars in this year’s tournament and there is a case to be made that Sabonis is the best big man left in the entire tournament. Kevin Willard called Sabonis the toughest matchup Seton Hall faced all year. Syracuse is as generous a Sweet 16 draw as the Zags could hope for, and neither Virginia nor Iowa State would be as tough as it was facing eventual champ Duke in last year’s Elite 8.

4. Offense, not defense, wins in the NCAA Tournament.
Offense wins games; defense wins championships. At least that’s how the saying goes. But of the remaining Sweet 16 teams, the average offensive efficiency is 14th and the average defensive efficiency is 40th, going by the KenPom numbers. Duke and Notre Dame have sub-100 defenses, and Iowa State’s defense is not much better at 94th in the country. But they have all top 10 offenses to make up for their defensive woes. None of this is to say defense is unimportant or that an elite offense will always carry a poor defense. After all, Michigan State and Kentucky bowed out early, despite being ranked 1st and 3rd respectively in offensive efficiency. However, those are the only two teams with top 10 offenses that are not still playing. Whoever wins it all will probably have a blend of strong offense and defense, but if I had to pick or the other, I’m going with offense.

5. I’m not sold on any of the one seeds.
Every one seed advanced to the Sweet 16, but can anyone remember another time when the top seeds were so deprived of NBA talent? Going by Chad Ford’s top 100 prospects, there might be two future NBA first round picks on this year’s crop of one seeds. He has UNC’s Brice Johnson ranked 29th and UVA’s Malcolm Brogdon 30th. Taking a look back on recent years, that is a very low number. Below is a list of the one seeds by year and what future 1st round picks they had.

2015
Kentucky: Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein
Wisconsin: Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker
Duke: Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones
Villanova: None

2014
Arizona: Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Florida: None
Virginia: Justin Anderson
Wichita State: None

2013
Louisville: Gorgui Dieng
Indiana, Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo
Gonzaga: Kelly Olynyk
Kansas: Ben McLemore

2012
Kentucky: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrance Jones, Marquis Teague
Michigan State: Draymond Green
Syracuse: Dion Waiters, Fab Melo (yes, he was a 1st rounder!)
North Carolina: Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, P.J. Hairston, Kendall Marshall

2011
Ohio State: Jared Sullinger
Kansas: Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Thomas Robinson
Pittsburgh: None
Duke: Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith, Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee

Glancing at the past five seasons, 2014 comes closest in terms of the lack of NBA players on the top seeds. And remember: that year, the championship game was a 7 seed versus an 8 seed. Just because you aren’t loaded with future 1st round picks doesn’t mean you can’t be a very good college team, but in every Sweet 16 matchup featuring a top seed this weekend, you could make the argument that the one seeds are facing more talented teams.

6. How a team does in its conference tournament has no bearing on how it will fare in the NCAA Tournament.
There is a longstanding belief that the conference tournaments are important for teams to build momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament. Think of the 2011 Kemba Walker UConn team. Conversely, we have seen teams in the past who seem to wear themselves out by winning their conference tournament, like the 2006 Gerry McNamara Syracuse team.

Seton Hall entered the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country with a player in Isaiah Whitehead, who was playing as well as anyone. Yet, Seton Hall got waxed by Gonzaga and Whitehead had the worst performance of any player in the first round. Meanwhile, Indiana and Wisconsin lost in the first round of the Big 10 Tournament and have a chance to advance to the Elite 8 this weekend.

NCAA Tournament Thoughts

Where’s all the chaos?
It’s cliché to say the bracket feels harder to pick every year, but can anyone remember a year that seemed so wide open? Last year there were four or five dominant teams, one of which was a historically good team in Kentucky that entered the tournament undefeated. This year it seems like fifteen different teams could go all the way because no team has separated itself from the pack. And yet, almost everybody is picking Michigan State or Kansas. Why, after such a chaotic season, is everyone so bullish on those two teams?

Michigan State is understandable. There is no one better to bet on in March than Tom Izzo. Michigan State almost always outperforms its seed expectation. Either the selection committee habitually underseeds the Spartans – if anything, you would expect the opposite – or Tom Izzo is a March magician. And this year, Izzo has the country’s best player, do-it-all swingman Denzel Valentine, as well as Bryn Forbes who is one of the best shooters in the country. Michigan State is the most popular pick and for good reason.

But Kansas, despite its 30-4 record, is not invincible by any means. We’ve seen Bill Self teams with way more talent breeze through regular season only to stumble early in the tournament. Remember Ali Farokhmanesh? He was the guy from Northern Iowa raining 3s against Kansas in 2010 when they were the top overall seed. That Kansas team was 32-2 entering the tournament and had four future NBA players. No one considered the possibility of that 2010 Kansas team bowing out early. People are treating this year’s Kansas team the same way. Is the rest of the field that weak? Bill Self has had some immensely talented teams but this is not one of them. Their best player Perry Ellis probably will never play in the NBA. They lost by 19 earlier in the year to an Oklahoma State team that finished 12-20.

Beware of the overachievers
When filling out your bracket, there’s a tendency to overemphasize what just happened in the conference tournaments. It’s what is known as recency bias – we assume that what just happened will continue to happen. It’s actually a better idea to take a look at the first poll of the season, not the last. The preseason poll? Yep, that’s the one. It may seem counterintuitive to take more stock in the poll from right after Halloween than the one from a week ago, but the preseason poll is a strong indication of raw talent. It has its flaws, but at its core, it’s the coaches selecting who they think are the 25 most talented teams in the country. Throughout the season, things happen. Players get hurt, teams go through funks, and the poll changes. But that initial marker of talent at the start of the year is still helpful.

What you’ll often see is a team that was ranked highly in the preseason and then struggling in the regular season, only to make what is considered a surprising run in the tournament. Remember Kentucky a few years back? They were ranked first preseason and only earned an 8 seed, but then upset top-seeded undefeated Wichita State on their way to the championship game that they lost to UConn. It’s the case of a massively talented team that underachieved over the course of the year and figured things out right in time for the tournament.

The reverse is just as useful when looking for teams to stay away from. If a team is unranked before the season starts and climbs all the way to a high seed in the tournament, proceed with caution. On the surface it doesn’t make sense because we’re saying: This team won more games than people expected it to during the regular season, so will probably win fewer games than people expect it to in the tournament. The numbers bear this out: Since 2002, only four teams made the Final 4 after entering the season unranked.

This season, several highly seeded teams came out of nowhere. Top seeded Oregon, two seed Xavier, and three seeds West Virginia and Texas A&M all entered the season outside the top 25.