NCAA First Weekend Roundup and Regional Semifinals / Finals Preview

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 18: A Duke Blue Devils cheerleader performs during a break in the game against the Hampton Pirates during the second round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 18, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The madness has finally arrived. Five of the Sweet 16 teams are seeded 8 or higher, so you have quite a pick of Cinderellas this year. There's everyone's favorite Cinderella from last year - the Butler Bulldogs who are back busting everyone's brackets again. This year they are a No. 8 seed. Then, there is a pair of No. 11 seeds - Marquette and VCU. Marquette is from the Big East, are very inconsistent, but athletic and capable of hanging with anyone. VCU has won three straight games against some pretty decent teams (USC, Georgetown, Purdue) and have done it in style every time, winning in blowout fashion. Then there's No. 12 Richmond, who has made it to the Sweet 16 before actually as a No. 13 seed. They have a team with a lot of experience and are from an oft-underrated conference: the Atlantic 10. Finally, there's No. 10 seed Florida State who just plays sick defense period.

Most Likely Cinderellas To Advance
Team Elite 8 Odds Final 4 Odds KenPom Rank
Florida State 61.9% 16.0% 39
VCU 38.1% 7.3% 68
Butler 34.3% 12.7% 48
Marquette 29.6% 4.6% 27
Richmond 14.8% 7.2% 37

We are definitely going to see at least one Cinderella advance to the Elite Eight, which should make for a nice story. However, you'll also notice that Butler and Marquette both stand a decent chance of advancing as well, and Butler actually has respectable odds to reach the Final Four. Richmond gets a tough draw immediately with Kansas, so they are the Cinderella with the toughest shot to advance. The weekend's games have also adjusted the title odds, with Ohio State jumping into the lead, and Kansas also passing Duke.

New Championship Odds
Team Champ Odds Final 4 Odds KenPom Rank
Ohio State 28.2% 63.7% 1
Kansas 22.5% 69.5% 3
Duke 21.8% 52.6% 2
SDSU 4.9% 31.2% 8
Wisconsin 4.6% 33.8% 5

After the jump, we'll break down each region and take a look at who the favorites are to reach Houston. Another reminder that I'll be using this odds page again from the New York Times in the rest of the article.

Southeast Region - New Orleans

The Pittsburgh Panthers had an early exit from the Big East Tournament, losing to Connecticut in their first game, and followed that up with an early exit from the NCAA Tournament. This was at the hands of the No. 8 seed Butler Bulldogs who pulled off arguably one of the biggest upsets in the tournament thus far. KenPom stats estimates that Butler had only about a 23.2% chance of victory entering the game. 

There's something about this Butler team, though. All but three guys on the roster were on the team that made a run to the championship last year. They've now won 11 straight games dating back to February 5th. Juniors Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored, as well as Senior Matt Howard provide leadership. Shelvin Mack has scored 45 points this tournament on 30 shots (50% FG%) in an incredibly efficient offensive performance. He's also dished out 8 assists and shot 45% from beyond the arc. Add in some great coaching and play design by Brad Stevens, and this is a pretty dangerous team capable of just about anything as long as they're hitting their threes.

With Pitt falling out, the odds have certainly evened for which team will win this region. In fact, Florida and Wisconsin stand equal with 33.8% chances of winning the region. BYU comes in with 19.7% odds and Butler retains a respectable 12.7% shot for a No. 8 seed.

Florida is a team that not a lot of people know about, but they have posted pretty efficient offensive (1.21 points per possession, PPP) and defensive (0.92 PPP) performances thus far in the tournament. This offense is right about on par with their season average, which made them the 15th most efficient offense in the country. They've got 4 upperclassmen in their starting lineup and while they might not have many flashy stars, they work well as a unit.

They'll be playing a team that does have a flashy star in Jimmer Fredette. BYU has arguably the best player in college basketball, but they don't have a ton of depth either, so foul trouble would cause them some serious problems. Expect an offensive duel in that regional semifinal game with BYU boasting the nation's 8th most efficient offense. Jimmer Fredette uses 36.1% of his team's possessions, so they rely on him heavily to produce. If you can cause him problems, then you'll probably shut down BYU. That's something that nobody has been able to do in the tournament thus far, and really all season. He posted 1.38 PPP offensive efficiency against Gonzaga in the Third Round, scoring 34 points on 23 shots, and going 7-12 beyond the arc.

And then of course, there's Wisconsin, a team that is maddeningly hard to figure out. They laid an egg in the Big Ten Tournament losing to Penn State 36-33. Yes, they scored 33 points in an entire basketball game. However, they've looked good so far in the tournament - soundly beating a fiesty Belmont team and then holding on against a phenomenal performance by Jacob Pullen for Kansas State. How do you beat the Badgers? You have to extend out on their three point shooters, of which there are many. They've gotten 36% of their points this season on 3-point shots, which is the 18th most in the country. Despite that, they get about 1.25 PPP, which makes them the most efficient offense in the country. Not only do they have guys that can drill jumpers, but they also have the lowest turnover rate in the country, and are the 9th best team nationally at limiting offensive rebounds for their opponents.

Dimes' Thoughts On This Region: 3-point shooting and turnover margin were the two things that turned the game for Butler against Pittsburgh. However, these are two areas they are not likely to have a distinct advantage over the Badgers who are well-coached and fundamentally sound. Expect a half-court, grind-it-out game that the Badgers ultimately win. The other game should be the exact opposite, an end-to-end offensive slugfest that should be entertaining to watch. Both games should be excellent. I think the BYU-Florida game will go to the Cougars who have the best player in the tournament and who excel at not turning the ball over (3rd best nationally). Overall, I think the Badgers have the toughness, discipline, and clutch shooters to reach Houston and play in a Final Four.


 

West Region - Anaheim

Something to remember here is that the San Diego State Aztecs will be playing about 100 miles from their campus, so expect them to have a large contingent at their game(s) in Anaheim. A similarly raucous crowd almost certainly helped the Aztecs pull out a close one against Temple in the Third Round in Tuscon, Arizona.

San Diego State has both length and experience with the 23rd tallest "effective height" in the NCAA and the 61st most experienced roster. Their length and athleticism makes them particularly tough on defense where they rank 3rd best nationally in defensive efficiency, and 8th best in effective FG% allowed. This has continued into the tournament - they have allowed 0.863 PPP which is actually slightly better than their season average. They also have an experienced coach in Steve Fisher who is credited for the 1989 championship at Michigan. He also took Michigan to 2 other championships, seven tournaments total, and even an NIT championship. Simply put, he knows how to win in March.

San Diego State will play No. 3 seed Connecticut who has the other player who is arguably the best in the country - Kemba Walker. It's been a remarkable turnaround for UCONN who had lost 7 of their last 11 games leading into the Big East Tournament. However, they turned it around and won 5 straight in the Big East Tournament (winning the tourney) and then another 2 in the NCAA Tournament. They actually have the height and length to match up with San Diego State, but they have far less experience. Beyond Kemba Walker, this is a pretty green team. 


Kemba Walker has ups.

In the other half of the bracket, Arizona pulled off a couple of razor thin wins over Memphis and Texas to advance to the Sweet 16. You have to credit a remarkable job by Sean Miller bringing that program back to respectability. Last year Arizona was only 16-15, but this year they are 28-7 with 14 Pac 10 victories. They certainly didn't have the easiest road to the Fourth Round, and so they definitely deserve some respect. Derrick Williams is a rising star. He's a 6'8" 240 pound power forward who is 4th in the nation in effective FG% and 9th nationally in the rate at which he shoots free throws. He can attack the basket and draw fouls, and when he gets shots off he's very effective. Williams is a sophomore, and most of the guys who get regular playing time are sophomores and juniors. The juniors would have had limited roles or sat on the bench the last time the Wildcats made the tournament in 2009, so there isn't a ton of tournament experience here.

Generally the opposite is true of the Duke Blue Devils who are the defending national champions and have tremendous senior leadership with Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Duke is unquestionably one of the elite teams, as they've only lost 4 times all season. If they do have a weakness, it would probably be against teams who have a strong inside post presence. They give up the second highest percentage of allowed points inside the arc - 60.5% of their opponents points come inside the 3-point line. Additionally, they give up a fair number of offensive rebounds. This is a bit confusing as they have 3 players who are 6'10", but stats are stats. For whatever reason, they usually enjoy a huge advantage in free throw percentage over their opponents - perhaps ACC teams are just not good at the charity stripe. However, if they come up against a team that can both get to the line frequently, and make their shots, I think they could be vulnerable.

Dimes' Thoughts On This Region: This looks like it will be basically played out on San Diego State's home court. For that reason, I like the Aztecs to cut down the nets and advance to Houston. I also like their defensive efficiency, their length and experience, their savvy coach, and relatively balanced scoring. They could get tripped up by UCONN. Their two losses this year were at the hands of BYU, and that can largely be attributed to Jimmer Fredette. I get the feeling that they have problems with players who can put up phenomenal individual offensive performances. Their defense is more geared towards traditional teams. I think Arizona will give Duke a pretty good fight, but I don't think they have the experience to get past the juggernaut that is Duke. Duke had a really good game against Hampton, but that was...well...Hampton. Michigan proved they were vulnerable. 


 

East Region - Newark

The Buckeyes are rolling. That is the main story in the East Region heading into the Sweet 16. Ohio State appeared to be on cruise control in their second round victory over Texas San-Antonio, and they still managed to win 75-46. They followed this up by absolutely throttling George Mason - a game that was never in doubt - by a score of 98-66. They are looking every bit like the team that I picked to win it all back in January, and it's hard to find another team in the country that is playing as well as the Buckeyes right now.

Their KenPom team page is splattered with green (a good thing). They have the 2nd most efficient offense and the 7th most efficient defense. Teams struggle to get to the line against them as much as against any team in the country. They are a savvy, veteran group who doesn't crack under pressure and who doesn't make many mistakes. Their group of seniors includes David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale. These guys have won 109 games together, were part of a team that won the NIT, and have been to two other NCAA tournaments including one Sweet 16. William Buford is a junior. And they have freshman sensations Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft to round out the bulk of their rotation. All of these guys can score and create offense, with perhaps the exception of Lauderdale who is more of a steady reserve player. If Lighty is having an off night, Diebler and Buford will pick him up. If they are having an off night, Craft and Sullinger could hook up on an inside-outside game. I'll spare you more, but suffice it to say that Ohio State is the definition of a juggernaut.

The team that gets the honor of facing Ohio State is John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats. They are an interesting team, winners of eight straight games including the likes of West Virginia, Florida (twice), Vanderbilt, and Tennessee - all tournament teams. Perhaps this team is coming together at the right time. They have an experienced coach who knows the X's and O's. While the flashy wing players and guards are all freshmen (Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb), they do have some experience on the front line. Josh Harrellson is the 6'10" senior center who Louisville coach Rick Pitino called probably the most underrated player in the country. Harrellson was a big reason why Kentucky beat West Virginia. DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller are both 6'7" juniors who provide some additional experience. They have a very efficient offense that can score with Ohio State (7th nationally), but the question is whether or not they can crack the Buckeye defense.


What effort looks like, something Marquette rarely lacks.

Marquette pulled off a pretty big upset in the other half of the bracket, knocking off Syracuse. I was never too excited about Syracuse, and I guess I found out why after they struggled to put away Indiana State and then choked in critical moments against the Golden Eagles. Marquette is a tough team to figure out, and they are kind of inconsistent. If you exclude a stretch of four wins at the beginning of the season against weak opponents, Marquette has not rattled off more than three wins in a row at any point this season, which certainly decreases their odds of advancing in Newark. Buzz Williams, who some of you have heard of, keeps his teams incredibly well conditioned so you usually see Marquette push it quickly up the floor after missed opponents' shots. They have a pretty good offense (1.15 PPP on the season), but tend to allow opponents to shoot a high percentage. The games get evened out with forced turnovers and other mistakes.

North Carolina also likes to push the tempo, so look for a fairly high number of possessions and a more end-to-end game when they take on Marquette. Unlike Marquette, North Carolina does not allow its opponents to shoot a very high percentage, and only yields 0.88 PPP on average. They do struggle a bit more shooting the ball on offense, especially from range (243rd in NCAA from 3 point range). They also give up a fair number of steals, but overall their turnover rate isn't terrible. Freshman Harrison Barnes has really improved through the season and gives them a little bit more of an offensive boost. 7-foot center Tyler Zeller is an important player to the Tar Heels as well. He can draw fouls down low and shoots about 74% from the free throw line. He is an efficient offensive player getting about 1.17 points per possession that he uses, and has a variety of post moves. They are on a roll lately and have won 16 of their last 18. 

Dimes' Thoughts On This Region:  This is a region with a lot of hot teams advancing to the Sweet 16. The one exception would be Marquette, but the other three teams have been playing well towards the end of the year. This means there should be some great games set up in Newark. I like North Carolina to knock off Marquette. The Golden Eagles are too inconsistent, and don't have many options to deal with the UNC post players. I think Ohio State will knock off both Kentucky and North Carolina. The Buckeyes have so many weapons, they play well as a unit, they have a ton of experience and leadership, and they have a coach that's been to Final Fours before. If Ohio State keeps playing as well as they have already in this tournament, then the rest of the teams in Newark are in trouble. Ohio State is now the clear favorite to win the title at 29.2% odds, and better than a coin flip to head to Houston at 63.7%.


 

Southwest Region - San Antonio

Call it the "Region of Upsets". An unbelievable number of upsets have happened in the Southwest Region, such that the only single-digit seed remaining is No. 1 seed Kansas. Let's run through it shall we?

In the "Second Round", the following happened:

  • No. 16 seed Boston University played Kansas to a 4 point halftime deficit before fading down the stretch.
  • No. 10 seed Florida State knocked off No. 7 seed Texas A&M by 7 points. This game was basically a toss up, but Florida State was the lower seed and had been a little more inconsistent.
  • No. 11 seed VCU soundly beat No. 6 Georgetown 59-46. This was the first time a play-in team advanced.
  • No. 12 seed Richmond beat No. 5 seed Vanderbilt, who like Georgetown, usually disappoints.
  • No. 13 seed Morehead State notched a stunning upset of No. 4 Louisville - a team that a fair number of people had put into the Final Four in their brackets.

In the "Third Round", the following happened:

  • No. 12 seed Richmond didn't necessarily notch an upset, but they did advance to the Sweet 16.
  • No. 11 seed VCU destroyed No. 3 seed Purdue 94-76. The result wasn't really in doubt by the second half, and the Rams looked about as impressive as a team from the Colonial Athletic Association can.
  • No. 10 seed Florida State soundly beat No. 2 seed Notre Dame by playing some superb defense.

The result is that Kansas is joined in the Sweet 16 in San Antonio by three double-digit seeds. As far as I can tell, since the 64-plus team era began in the tournament, no region has ever had a Sweet 16 comprised of three double digit seeds. We have history! This also means that we are guaranteed to have a double-digit seed in the Elite Eight. 

VCU and Florida State had an awful lot to cheer about after dominating upsets.

Kansas is one of the better teams in the country. They've only lost twice all season, and have now won ten times in a row. Although, I will point out that they have only played three games against Top-4 seeds and Sweet 16 teams this season: Texas twice (1 win, 1 loss), and Arizona (1 win). Kansas hasn't faced elite competition this season. Of course, they won't really have to do that now at least until the Final Four, and possibly the Championship Game.

The big question now is whether or not the Cinderella stories can continue. The first shot will be from the Richmond Spiders. As I mentioned in my last NCAA Tournament article, I think that Richmond is going to have a shot against Kansas, but as with any of the teams remaining in the Southwest region, they'll probably have to play a near perfect game in order to beat the Jayhawks. Richmond is rather high on the KenPom rankings (#37), and have beat Purdue, VCU, Seton Hall, Temple, and Vanderbilt this season. They have a roster loaded with seniors and juniors - 10 to be exact. Darrius Garrett is a 6'9" forward who is an exceptional shot blocker, a talent that he's already put on display in the NCAA Tournament. His block percentage is 12.7%. He hasn't registered enough minutes to be on the national leader list, but he would rank amongst the Top 10. If he stays out of foul trouble, he can patrol the middle for Richmond and force teams to take more jump shots. The guy who really makes things go is senior guard Kevin Anderson who ranks 47th nationally in made shots and 56th nationally in points scored. The Spiders average a +9.6 point margin when he's on the floor, the 69th best +/- mark in the country. His tournament line so far is 19.5 ppg, 4 apg, 2.5 rpg, 36.3% 3P, and 40% FG.

Florida State plays some good defense, and they've put that on display so far against Texas A&M and Notre Dame. The Seminoles boast the nation's most efficient defense, allowing only 0.86 PPP. They held Texas A&M to just 0.847 PPP, and held Notre Dame (the nation's 3rd most efficient offense) to just 57 points on 32% shooting. Simply put, Florida State will make you work for everything that you get, and most of the time you'll have a tough time getting the shot you want against them. Other than a horrible loss to Auburn (#216 KenPom) they haven't lost to anyone below #50 in the Pomeroy ratings. Against the top-50 they are 4-9 this season, which might not sound great but it includes their recent win against Notre Dame, as well as a win against Duke.

VCU, if you weren't paying attention, was the team that everyone was complaining about getting into the tournament instead of teams like Colorado. Well it looks like they've taken the hate and turned it into positive play because they've rattled off three tournament wins. It's a little surprising because they finished the season going 5-6 including the CAA tournament. The KenPom predictor gave them only a 9% chance of beating the 4th most efficient team - Purdue. They are like the Little Engine That Could. They aren't an exceptional statistical team, they have just found ways to win, and they appear to be well coached. It's difficult to predict how far a team like that will go. They have four seniors and two juniors that get a decent amount of playing time, so like a lot of other Cinderellas they seem to be a veteran group who has a good chemistry. 

Dimes' Thoughts On This Region:  It's hard to pick anyone other than Kansas to emerge from this region. They really suddenly got a lucky draw. And actually, I would argue that the committee did them a favor by seeding in a bunch of perennially disappointing teams as higher seeds in their region: Vanderbilt, Louisville, Georgetown, Purdue, Notre Dame. In retrospect, it makes complete sense that this was the most bizarre region yet. So, I'll take the Jayhawks to reach the Final Four here. In the VCU-Florida State matchup, it's really hard to tell. I'll take the VCU Rams, because it's hard to bet against them and they just shredded a defense that was almost as good as Florida State's (Purdue).

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