Games of Saturday, March 22
All games on CBS
Verizon Center (Washington, D.C.)
Matchup: #7 Seed West Virginia (25-10, 11-7 Big East) vs. #2 Duke (28-5, 13-3 Atlantic Coast), 2:10 P.M. EST
Rankings: West Virginia, #19 in Pomeroy Ratings (4th of 16 in Big East); Duke, #8 (2nd of 12 in ACC)
Pomeroy Prediction: Duke, 75-71 in 71 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 37%
Prospectus: The Blue Devils were all but dead on Thursday night, down by one point to Belmont and needing a stop with 40 seconds left, but sophomore Gerald Henderson bailed them out by taking the ball the length of the court for a layup after a Bruins missed shot, and Duke held on in the final 20 seconds for the 71-70 win. West Virginia had a much easier time against Arizona, shooting 11-of-19 from three-point range to cruise to a 75-65 victory. Guards Alex Ruoff and Darris Nichols combined to hit 9-of-14 three pointers, surprising considering that West Virginia, unlike in the past several years under head coach John Beilein, is not a three-point shooting team. Bob Huggins' Mountaineers will be hard pressed to continue their success from beyond the arc against Duke, which allows only a quarter of opponent field goals to come from three-point range, the third lowest ratio in the nation, and has held opponents to 32.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Duke will also challenge West Virginia's core strength on offense, a low turnover rate, as the Blue Devils defense has forced turnovers on 24.6 percent of opponent possessions.
The Mountaineers' go-to player on offense is junior forward Joe Alexander, who tops the team by a wide margin in both percentage of possessions used and shots taken, and who has shot 190-of-384 on two-point attempts. Alexander played superbly in the five games from March 1 to March 13, scoring an average of 30 points on 54 eFG% shooting, before cooling off in the last two. Alexander could get going again against Duke, which is undersized as compared to West Virginia in the post, as it is against most teams, and could therefore have trouble handling the 6'8 Alexander down low.
Duke doesn't have a player like Alexander who gets the lion's share of offensive touches. On Thursday night it was Henderson who took over in the second half, scoring 17 of his 21 points, and the team went to him extensively down the stretch because he was the only Blue Devil able to get anything going on offense, but on the season Duke has five players who use between 21 and 23.9 percent of possessions while on the court. That balance has helped lead to the 12th best adjusted offensive efficiency in Division I, 1.19 points per possession.
Matchup: #6 Seed Purdue (25-8, 15-3 Big Ten) vs. #3 Xavier (28-6, 14-2 Atlantic 10), 4:40
Rankings: Purdue, #24 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 11 in Big Ten); Xavier, #18 (1st of 14 in A-10)
Pomeroy Prediction: Xavier, 67-66 in 66 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 45%
Prospectus: Baylor didn't play enough defense to handle Purdue, used to facing the stiff resistances found in the Big Ten, and the Boilermakers raced to a big lead early and maintained a double-digit advantage for the whole second half in Thursday's 90-79 win. Xavier opened off the NCAA tournament in a noon game against Georgia, came out very rusty, and trailed by as many as 11 early in the second half before turning things around, mostly through utilization of the free-throw line, and eventually emerge with a 73-61 win. The matchup to watch in this second rounder will be Xavier's offense--fourth in the country in raw efficiency, at 1.15 points per possession, and 20th in adjusted--versus Purdue's defense, which ranks 13th in adjusted efficiency, having allowed just 0.88 points per possession. The Boilermakers force turnovers on nearly 26 percent of opponent possessions, ranking them seventh in Division I in that category, and that is a concern for Xavier, as the weakest area of the Musketeers' strong offense is turnover rate (giveaways on 19.7 percent of possessions, 90th in the country).
The bigger concern, however, is for Purdue with regard to Xavier's excellent ability to get to the free throw line. As outlined in Thursday's preview, Purdue's defense has come completely unglued when opponents get to the line frequently, and Xavier thus far this season has shot 32 free throws for every 100 field goals attempted, which is the 16th best free throw rate in Division I. The Musketeers also convert at a very healthy 75.3 percent clip while at the stripe. More so than in most games, therefore, this one could be decided by how tightly or loosely the officials decide to call it. The refs put their whistles away in the first half of the Purdue-Baylor game, calling just five fouls total, which resulted in a meagre four foul shots. Fouls were abundant, however, in the second half of Xavier's win, as the Musketeers advanced their comeback by pounding the ball inside to forward Josh Duncan and letting him get to the free throw line.
An individual matchup to keep an eye on is the battle between Xavier's 6'3 senior guard Stanley Burrell and whomever he is guarding. Burrell is the team's designated defensive stopper; by all accounts, he transformed himself into the best defensive player in the Atlantic 10 this season, a designation supported by his winning the A-10 defensive player of the year award. Burrell always gets the assignment of the opposing squad's top offensive guard. In Purdue's case, that is 6'3 freshman E'Twaun Moore, who has a 109.9 offensive rating, 53.8 eFG%, and takes about one quarter of the Boilermakers' shots while on the court, the highest percentage on the team. For their part, the Musketeers will have to be wary of 6'3 sophomore Chris Kramer, who ranks 21st in the country in steal percentage.
Honda Center (Anaheim, CA)
Matchup: #9 Seed Texas A&M (25-10, 8-8 Big 12) vs. #1 UCLA (32-3, 16-2 Pacific 10), 9:15
Rankings: Texas A&M, #16 in Pomeroy Ratings (4th of 12 in Big 12); UCLA, #2 (1st of 10 in Pac 10)
Pomeroy Prediction: UCLA, 65-58 in 62 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 23%
Prospectus: The Bruins destroyed Mississippi Valley St. 70-29 on Thursday, while Texas A&M got by BYU 67-62 to set up this intriguing second-round matchup. Both teams play outstanding defense--UCLA is third in the nation in adjusted efficiency, allowing 0.83 points per possession, and the Aggies are 15th, with 0.88 allowed. Texas A&M was sixth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency last year, when the team had Acie Law and Antanas Kavaliauskas, but this year that efficiency rank has fallen to 33rd overall, thanks partly to a substantial decline in three-point shooting percentage from 42.2 to 36.2. Much of that loss in long range efficiency is due to the departure of Kavaliauskas, who was the team's leader last year in shooting from downtown by both percentage and volume, and Law has been missed in the turnover percentage and free throw rate departments, in both of which the Aggies have gotten worse in the absence of their star point guard, who is now with the Atlanta Hawks. As Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway revealed through his Winehouse Factor, this year's Aggies attack has been the most up-and-down unit of the past three college basketball seasons, but the last two games give Texas A&M fans hope that the Aggies offense can put points on the board against the Bruins: in its loss in the Big 12 tourney to Kansas, the nation's fourth best defensive team, Texas A&M scored 1.18 points per possession, and in Thursday's win over BYU, the Aggies put up 1.14 against a defense that ranks 19th nationally.
The Bruins rank sixth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, thanks to the 11th best offensive rebounding percentage and a low turnover percentage. The Aggies have a shot at shutting down 6'10 freshman Kevin Love--who is seventh in the country in offensive rebounding percentage--and the rest of the Bruins' offensive boarding game, because Texas A&M, one of the tallest teams in the nation, ranks 11th in defensive rebounding percentage. Seven foot center DeAndre Jordan and 6'9 forwards Joseph Jones and Bryan Davis make up the Aggies' ferocious frontline, a unit that besides its rebounding abilities also holds opponents to 42.2 percent shooting on two-pointers. The 6'10 Love has connected on 60 percent of his 279 two-point attempts on the season, so it should be a vicious fight in the trenches. UCLA will also benefit from the return of junior starter Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a 6'7 forward and strong offensive rebounder who missed the last two games with a sprained ankle.
Qwest Center (Omaha, NE)
Matchup: #11 Seed Kansas St. (21-11, 10-6 Big 12) vs. #3 Wisconsin (30-4, 16-2 Big Ten), 4:20
Rankings: Kansas St., #13 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 12 in Big 12); Wisconsin, #4 (1st of 11 in Big Ten)
Pomeroy Prediction: Wisconsin, 67-63 in 67 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 31%
Prospectus: The Wildcats pulled things together at the right time, playing their best game in over a month in scoring 1.23 points per possession to dispatch No. 6 seed Southern California 80-67 in the first round on Thursday. While freshman forward Michael Beasley was his usual stellar self, leading all players with 11 rebounds and 23 points on 63 eFG%, his sidekick, fellow freshman forward Bill Walker, also chipped in, knocking down 3-of-4 from deep and scoring 22 points. While Beasley has scored at least 15 points in the team's 19 games played in the 2008 calendar year, Walker has been much more inconsistent, especially lately--he followed up a 31-point effort on February 23rd with an 0-of-14 shooting performance in the next game, and and after scoring 25 points on March 4 tallied a total of just 19 in the team's two Big 12 tournament games. Kansas St., like Walker, has been very inconsistent this season, so it remains to be seen whether it can put together back-to-back strong performances. The Wildcats offense also faces its stiffest test of the year in going up against Wisconsin, which enters this second round game as the top defensive team in the land by adjusted efficiency after beating Cal St. Fullerton 71-56 in the opening round. The Badgers have won 11 straight games, and have held their opponent under 0.9 points per possession in eight of their last nine games. Wisconsin has allowed opponents to shoot just 43 eFG% from the floor this season, the fifth lowest figure in the country, and also ranks in the top 15 nationally in keeping opponents off the line and in defensive rebounding percentage. The Badgers' supremacy in that last category will be tested by a Kansas St. team that is second in the country behind North Carolina in offensive rebounding percentage--the Wildcats grabbed over half of their own misses in the win over the Trojans Thursday, and have collected 42.3 percent of their caroms for the season. As John Gasaway mentioned in his first-day rundown, Kansas St. got a surprise offensive rebounding performance in Thursday's win from little-used freshman forward Ron Anderson, who grabbed six offensive boards and scored 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting off the bench. Anderson had totaled just 20 minutes, three points, and six rebounds in his previous three games.
Matchup: #8 Seed Nevada Las Vegas (27-7, 12-4 Mountain West) vs. #1 Kansas (32-3, 13-3 Big 12), 6:50
Rankings: Nevada Las Vegas, #48 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 9 in Mountain West); Kansas, #1 (1st of 12 in Big 12)
Pomeroy Prediction: Kansas, 78-61 in 67 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 6%
Prospectus: UNLV's defense prevailed over Kent St. 71-58 in the opening round, allowing the Golden Flashes to score just 0.80 points per possession, while Kansas easily beat Portland St. 85-61, scoring 1.31 per trip against the Vikings. UNLV's task in this game is daunting, as is Kansas' statistical profile: the Jayhawks rank first in both raw and adjusted offensive efficiency and fourth in defensive. UNLV will have to hope that its three-point defense, which has allowed opponents to hit on just 30 percent from downtown, can hold off Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, and the rest of Kansas' three-point shooters, who convert at a collective rate of 40 percent, the ninth best long-range mark in the country, and who hit on 12-of-25 triple attempts against Portland St. Of course, the Jayhawks' supremacy on offense is built from the inside out--over 70 percent of Kansas' field goal attempts are from inside the arc, and the Jayhawks hit on 55 percent of those shots, which is bad news for a short Runnin' Rebels squad not particularly adept at blocking shots or defending against two-pointers. Kansas' Achilles' heel on defense is its guarding of the perimeter, evidenced by 35.5 percent of the points scored against Kansas having come via the three-ball, the 18th highest percentage in the country. But unfortunately for the Runnin' Rebels, they rank just 232nd in the country in shooting percentage from long range (33.5). In order to have a chance at advancing past the tournament's Goliath, UNLV will have to fend off the Jayhawks' ball hawks--UNLV has the seventh lowest turnover rate in the country and has had it stolen at a lower rate than all but two other teams, figures that will be challenged by 6'1 Kansas guards Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson, who both rank in the top 50 in steal percentage. The Rebels are looking to earn their second straight berth in the Sweet 16 after they upset favored Wisconsin in the second round last season. Another upset here would send the bookies in the team's home city scrambling--or, you might even say, runnin'. As the team ranked first by the Pomeroy ratings system, all Kansas needs to do is follow the yellow brick road laid out before it to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 2003, when the team was coached by now-UNC head man Roy Williams. Kansas lost in the West Regional final to UCLA last season, 68-55.
Pepsi Center (Denver, CO)
Matchup: #5 Seed Notre Dame (25-7, 14-4 Big East) vs. #4 Washington St. (25-8, 11-7 Pacific 10), 6:40
Rankings: Notre Dame, #21 in Pomeroy Ratings (6th of 16 in Big East); Washington St., #9 (2nd of 10 in Pac 10)
Pomeroy Prediction: Washington St., 68-65 in 63 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 35%
Prospectus: The fifth seeded Big East stalwart Notre Dame meets the fourth seeded, and underrated, Washington St. in what should be a decidedly closer game than either team played on Thursday. Both squads trounced their last opponents through tight defensive play; the Irish allowed George Mason to score just 0.78 points per possession in their 68-50 win, while the Cougars let Winthrop total just a scant 11 points in the second half of their game, after the teams were tied at 29 going into the break, to end up with a 71-40 blowout victory. On Notre Dame's side, besides the luck of the Irish, is sophomore phenom forward Luke Harangody, the Big East Player of the Year, as well as the fourth best shooting percentage from beyond the arc and fourth best free throw rate defense. Washington St. has its zen play; a perfect balance of defensive and offensive efficiency (11th in the nation in both categories), as well as the experience of its senior-laden lineup (four juniors and three seniors among its top seven in minutes played), and its smooth control of the ball (ninth best turnover rate on offense). Unlike Siena today, Notre Dame's defense doesn't force turnovers, so there should be few breakaway opportunities for the Irish. That is especially the case considering that the Cougars, who play at the fourth slowest pace in the nation, at 59 possessions per 40 minutes, are expert at dragging opposing teams down to their slow pace: Washington St. has not played a single game with a possession count in the 70's this season, the range in which Notre Dame, which averages 71 possessions/40, prefers to play. Notre Dame, conversely, has played just one game that has had less than 60 possessions this season, as compared with 20 such games for Washington St. The Cougars, who are appearing in their sixth NCAA tournament overall, last went to the Sweet 16 in 1941. Today they will be looking to avenge their loss in the round of 32 last year, when they fell in double overtime as a No. 3 seed to Vanderbilt. The Fighting Irish, who were upset in the first round by Winthrop last season, went to the Sweet 16 last in 2003.
Honda Center (Anaheim, CA)
Matchup: #6 Seed Marquette (25-9, 11-7 Big East) vs. #3 Stanford (27-7, 13-5 Pacific 10), 6:45
Rankings: Marquette, #12 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 16 in Big East); Stanford, #11 (3rd of 10 in Pac 10)
Pomeroy Prediction: Stanford, 66-65 in 66 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 47%
Prospectus: Sixth seed Marquette, fresh off its 74-66 win over Kentucky, meets third seed Stanford, which trounced Cornell 77-53 in the first round on Thursday. Stanford has gotten credit for its strong defense all season, but Marquette is not far behind--at eighth in overall defensive efficiency (just shy of Stanford's ranking of sixth), the Golden Eagles know how to shut down their opponents, as well. Marquette arrives at its defensive efficiency in a different manner than the Cardinal does, which is understandable considering that the Golden Eagles are a much shorter squad than Stanford, and are driven by guard-play, rather than interior strength as the Cardinal is. While Marquette and Stanford each shut down the opposing three-point game--Marquette by forcing misses from deep, Stanford by keeping opponents from even shooting threes--the Golden Eagles augment that ability with the sixth best steal percentage in the nation, while Stanford ranks ninth from the bottom in that category. Instead of forcing turnovers, the Cardinal forces misses from two point range and prevents second shot opportunities, thanks primarily to Stanford's very own fir trees: seven foot twins Brook and Robin Lopez, who head up the tallest frontcourt in the country. Brook is the twin who has garnered the most attention--the one who dominates Stanford's offense, leads the team in defensive rebounding percentage, and is likely headed to the NBA after this season--but not to be forgotten is Robin, who is a very capable player in his own right, and the better offensive rebounder and shot blocker of the two. Robin took the spotlight in the Cardinal's crushing of Cornell, as he notched 14 points on 7-of-9 from the floor in 23 minutes while swatting away five Big Red shots. The Lopez brothers have little to worry about in terms of low post scoring threats on the Golden Eagles--6'10 senior Ousmane Barro is not an offensive threat--but will likely have their hands full trying to staunch the dribble penetration of Marquette junior guards Dominic James and Jerel McNeal, as the Golden Eagles definitely have the better of Stanford on the perimeter. James and McNeal, tops on the squad in minutes played, possessions used, and shots taken, combined for 35 of the team's 74 points against Kentucky.
Both of these teams are looking to cleanse themselves of past poor performances in the NCAA tournament. Marquette lost in the first round last year as a No. 8 seed, and again the year before as a No. 7. The Cardinal, meanwhile, have made a habit of failing to meet postseason expectations since making it to the Final Four in 1998. Stanford lost as a No. 2 seed in the second round in 1999, as a No. 1 seed in the second round in 2000, as a No. 1 seed in the Elite Eight in 2001, and again in the second round as a No. 1 seed in 2004. Given that history, Cardinal fans were probably happy to see Stanford get a No. 3 seed this season, rather than anything higher than that, for it was as a No. 3 that the Cardinal advanced to the Final Four in 1998, where they lost by one point in the national semifinals, 86-85, to eventual-champion Kentucky.
Pepsi Center (Denver, CO)
Matchup: #5 Seed Michigan St. (26-8, 12-6 Big Ten) vs. #4 Pittsburgh (27-9, 10-8 Big East), 9:10
Rankings: Michigan St., #17 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 11 in Big Ten); Pittsburgh, #20 (5th of 16 in Big East)
Pomeroy Prediction: Michigan St., 68-67 in 64 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 46%
Prospectus: Michigan State versus Pittsburgh offers one of the closest matchups of the tournament to date: a Big 10 fifth seed against a Big East fourth seed, separated by just three spots in the Pomeroy Ratings. While the very slight edge goes to the Spartans, you can expect this one to be a tight offensive battle with lots of activity on the offensive glass on both ends of the court, because Michigan St. and Pittsburgh rank eighth and ninth, respectively, in offensive rebounding percentage. The Panthers are on fire of late; not only eliminating Oral Roberts, a strong No. 13 seed, by a healthy 19 point margin on Thursday, but winning their last six in a row, including the four wins that clinched their victory at the Big East tournament in New York. The Spartans in turn proved yet again in their 72-61 first-round victory over Temple that they have learned how to control the ball and avoid the turnovers that plagued their early season play. Michigan St. turned it over on 18.9 percent of possessions against the Owls, which marked the eighth time in the last nine games it has given it away on less than one in five trips; from January 5 to February 16, Michigan St. had a turnover ratio of 22.5 or higher in nine of 12 games. That improved ball-handling has helped the Spartans raise their adjusted offensive efficiency to 1.17 points per possession, the 20th best mark in the country; Pittsburgh's is even better, at 1.20, which ranks seventh. In the Panthers defeat of Oral Roberts, Levance Fields led all scorers with 23 points on 67 eFG% shooting, which marked the first time in 12 games since returning from a broken foot that Fields has shot 50 eFG% or better. Getting Fields back as a premium scoring threat would provide a tremendous boost to Pittsburgh's chances at a deep tournament run. The burly 5'10 point guard also posted seven assists against two turnovers on Thursday, which advanced his assist-turnover ratio in his 12 games back in action to 66/18, a very healthy 3.7/1. Fields' counterpart on the Spartans is 6'0 senior Drew Neitzel, who also sports an excellent assist/turnover ratio, with a team-leading 24.6 assist percentage against a turnover rate of just 12.3, the lowest of any player on either Michigan St. or Pittsburgh. The Panthers are looking to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season, while the Spartans last advanced past the second round during their Final Four run in 2005.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.