March Madness has arrived. Except this tournament does not have quite the level of madness of last year's so far. In the 2010 version, ten lower seeded teams won in the opening round, and seven of those were double digit seeds. A 14-seed (Ohio) beat a 3-seed (Georgetown) by 14 points. Northern Iowa, Cornell, and Saint Mary's were in the Sweet 16. A team from the Horizon League was inches away from winning a championship. That was madness.
This year, seven lower seeded teams won, with five of those being double-digit seeds (Marquette, Richmond, Morehead State, Gonzaga, and VCU). Additionally, Marquette (53%) and Gonzaga (55.8%) were projected to win on the KenPom site, and Richmond (46.2%) had pretty good odds. Only Morehead State (win odds at only 16.7%) and VCU (26%) were significant underdogs. VCU also gets the obscure honor of being the first play-in game team to win a Round-of-64 game.
Of course, there is an awful lot of time left in the tournament, so madness could certainly still develop. Plus, there have been a lot of other close calls for the higher seeds. In eight other games in the Round of 64, the higher seed won by 5 points or less. You could call it "the tournament that was almost madness".
Before I jump into the region-by-region analysis, I'd like to point out a website that I'll be using for scenario odds. Nate Silver at the New York Times has a frequently refreshed odds page here that plays out different scenarios and is updated for the latest tournament results. His methodology is explained here. I'll just be using it as a quick way to judge the favorites from here onward.
|Championship Favorites After Round of 64|
|San Diego St.||5.0%||6|
Recall that the KenPom #1 or #2 team has won every year that the ratings are available for, except 2003 (when #7 Syracuse beat #1 Kansas). That is quite a success streak, and it adds credibility to the odds posted above. My favorite back in January was Ohio State, which you can read about here.
Straight chalk. Every single higher seeded team won, and most did it in rather dominating fashion. Duke, Michigan, Cincinnati, Connecticut, and San Diego State won by an average of 26.8 points. The Blue Devils rolled Hampton by 42 points, which is significant as the aforementioned Nate Silver noted in a tweet:
Since 1985, No. 1 seeds winning their first game by 35+ points make the Final Four 62% of the time. Those which don't, just 37%.
Duke was the only 1 seed to win by such a margin. They got a boost from Kyrie Irving who returned from injury and had 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals in an efficient 20 minutes. The Blue Devils should be well rested as nobody logged more than 24 minutes.
More surprising was the rout of Tennessee at the hands of Michigan. They held the Volunteers to just 15 made shots, including only 6 for the entire second half. Michigan was highly efficient at 1.19 points per possession (PPP), while the Vols were abysmal at just 0.71 PPP. If they weren't playing Duke next round, I might be more excited about their chances to make the Sweet 16.
Texas and Arizona will match up on Sunday as two teams who barely made it past their underdog opponents. Oakland gave Texas a run for their money, but it bears mentioning that Oakland is one of the more prolific offensive teams in the country, and Texas actually held them below their scoring average.
Best Round-of-32 Matchup: Connecticut vs. Cincinnati. [UCONN is 63.8% to win]. Connecticut beat Cincinnati 67-59 at Cincy on February 27th in Big East play, and they'll likely be the favorite here. Connecticut had the better scoreline in the last round, but against a much worse opponent. However, don't sleep on the Bearcats. They quietly put together one of the most efficient performances in the first round (1.26 PPP) and were completely unfazed by the pressuring attack of Mizzou. They have the athletes to run with Connecticut.
There were some entertaining first round games from this region. Michigan State-UCLA and Old Dominion-Butler were one possession games as the buzzer sounded. Utah State kept it close with Kansas State most of the game, and Wofford actually gave BYU a little trouble.
If you were watching the Michigan State game, the Spartans played terribly in the first half and dug themselves a huge hole. The game appeared to be over with 8:35 left in the 2nd half when UCLA was up 64-41. According to the StatSheet formula, the Bruins' lead was 73.8% safe, meaning they would have to really choke to give up the lead. And choke, they did - almost. Michigan State wound up with the ball with 0:04 left on the clock and down only 2 points. However, they were called for traveling around mid-court with around 1.5 seconds left, and the game ended.
In the end, the only upset was 11 seed Gonzaga taking out 6 seed St. John's. I have to say, I was very impressed with the Bulldogs who have a history of lackluster tournament performances. If you're looking for a sleeper (5-or-lower seed) to make it to the regional final, this might be it. Gonzaga is a very athletic team with some length. They scored at an efficiency of 1.27 PPP, doubled up on rebounds on St. John's, and had an effective FG% over 62%.
The top two seeds had solid games and were never truly in trouble. Pittsburgh and Florida looked like legitimate favorites to reach the regional final. Utah State and Belmont were popular upset picks, but Kansas State and Wisconsin held on for victory respectively, and the Badgers especially looked impressive doing it. If Wisconsin can hit their perimeter jumpers, they are a dangerous team capable of reaching the Final Four. BYU will be similarly dangerous as long as Jimmer Fredette is healthy and out of foul trouble. He was around the basket whenever he wanted to be against Wofford, and had 32 points on 25 shots, in addition to 7 assists and 4 rebounds.
Best Round-of-32 Matchup: BYU vs. Gonzaga. [BYU is 55.9% to win]. I actually think that most of these games in this region will be pretty entertaining. However, this game has the star power of Jimmer Fredette with two very exciting athletic teams that like to play fast-paced, end-to-end games. I think Gonzaga stands a pretty good chance of winning, and a lot will probably be determined by whether or not they can hold a rebounding advantage like they did in their previous game, and if they have good shot selection.
The two biggest upsets were in the Southwest, which is where your bracket is probably suffering unless you are some sort of psychic. VCU and Morehead State were both heavy underdogs but managed to knock off perennially disappointing teams Georgetown and Louisville, respectively. If teams that usually disappoint will do so again this year, then Pittsburgh, Purdue, and Texas had better look out.
Lots of other weird stuff happened in this region too. Richmond beat the slightly favored Vanderbilt (also usually disappointing) and set up an always-entertaining 12 vs. 13 seed matchup for a chance to be slaughtered by a 1 seed in the Sweet 16. Although, if Richmond wins, they might give Kansas some trouble. They are very athletic and can shoot well, knocking down perimeter jumpers. Darrius Garrett is a 6-9 forward who can clean up mistakes around the rim. He had 5 blocks against Vanderbilt, and even more forced shot alters. Keep an eye on Richmond to cause some problems, although bear in mind that a 12 seed has never made the Elite Eight. Right now, Richmond has got 12.4% odds to be the first to do it.
Factoring into that, Kansas had a pretty disappointing first half against 16 seed Boston University. Going into the half they were only winning by 4, but they opened things up in the second half and cruised to victory. I had originally thought that Vanderbilt and Louisville going out would make things easier for the Jayhawks, but Illinois looked extremely dangerous in a blowout of UNLV, and Richmond is probably one of the better 12 seeds that you'll run across (42 in KenPom, RPI 39, and 3-3 record against RPI Top 50).
Best Round-of-32 Matchup: Richmond vs. Morehead State. [Richmond is 68.2% to win]. This kind of gets the "default choice" as I think most of the other matchups in this region will be lopsided. These are two teams with nothing to lose and who will be playing their hearts out. Expect some scrappy play and an entertaining game. Richmond has the pedigree being from the Atlantic 10 Conference, and the athletes, to play with the big boys. If they get on a roll and get some confidence, they could give Kansas a scare.
George Mason inexplicably continues to be a fun team to watch in the tournament. As you'll see in the final segment below, they had an entertaining finish with Villanova in the 8 vs. 9 seed matchup, and they'll advance to face Ohio State. Unfortunately for the Patriots, they are up against one of the most solid teams in the country, so they would need a flawless game and some lack of concentration from the Buckeyes to pull off the upset. Don't just pencil in Ohio State though, as George Mason is dangerous (kind of like Richmond). They are 27th in the KenPom ratings, 26 in the RPI, and have an 11.7 Adjusted Scoring Margin (22nd in the country).
West Virginia and Kentucky survived scares, like almost every other 4 and 5 seed outside of Wisconsin. The 12 and 13 seeds in this tournament have certainly been feisty. However, chalk prevailed in this bracket, and it sets up a matchup between the Mountaineers and Wildcats.
For the rest of the bracket, chalk also prevailed outside of an 6-11 upset when Marquette beat Xavier. This wasn't a huge upset though, as we already noted that Marquette was generally favored, or the game was viewed as a toss up. Indiana State gave Syracuse some trouble early, but faded down the stretch. Meanwhile, Washington and Georgia had an exciting finish but ultimately both teams missed some free throws so it was a wash and the Huskies won. Speaking of dangerous teams, if the Huskies can put it together they are one of them. They have the 9th most efficient offense in the country and a Top 10 ranking in Adjusted Scoring Margin (better than opponent UNC). Washington has quite a few upperclassmen and could pull off an upset in Charlotte. Nate Silver gives them about a 30.1% chance.
Best Round-of-32 Matchup: Kentucky vs. West Virginia. [Kentucky is 60.6% to win]. This should be a rather entertaining game as both teams have shown flashes of good stuff this year, but are also both inconsistent and can let teams back into games. Kentucky knocked off Florida twice this year and have won 7 straight, but they are also a young team. They do have the 7th most efficient offense in the country and have the 9th best turnover percentage when they are on offense. Meanwhile, West Virginia has won 5 of their last 7, including games against Louisville, Notre Dame, and Connecticut. They have a more veteran team and win more with balance and good perimeter defense.
Gus Johnson Watch
As the SBNation main page pointed out last year, Gus Johnson is clearly the best play-by-play announcer in the NCAA Tournament. Not only does he make the close games really exciting, but he can even make blowouts seem interesting. Well, this year Gus was sent to Cleveland for the first round of the tournament, where he saw Ohio State - UTSA, George Mason - Villanova, Xavier - Marquette, and Syracuse - Indiana State.
We were lucky enough to witness Gus calling a close game, and here was the result:
George Mason (8) Comes Back against Villanova (9) East Region 2nd Round 2011 (via justDCsports)
Unless something weird happens with TV scheduling, I would bet Gus will be calling the Ohio State-George Mason and Marquette-Syracuse games on Sunday.