Matt Bishoff's research assistance was invaluable in preparing these two pieces.
On to the top half…
Southern California : The Trojans locked down UCLA and Arizona State over consecutive nights to win the Pac-10 championship and get back to the dance. They'll have to continue shutting teams down to advance: they don't shoot the ball very well, and they don't get enough possessions to make up for that. Problems at the line (66.6%) and from deep (32.9%) will be exposed in any game where they have to score 70 to win-USC was 1-8 when their opponent got that high. They'e also barely five deep, which doesn't bode well for a second-round matchup with Tom Izzo's Spartan army.
Butler : There's not a senior in sight, and in fact just one junior makes more than a token contribution, so you could be seeing a preview of a legitimate Final Four contender in 2010 and 2011. For now, the Bulldogs play their game, a little faster than you remember, a little less effective from deep (35.3%), a little more physical inside.
LSU : I love it when a plan comes together. These S-curve twins kick off the tournament Thursday afternoon, a game that will probably come down to how well the Bulldogs keep the Tigers off the offensive glass. Tasmin Mitchell and Chris Johnson crash the glass to keep possessions alive, get to the line and get easy buckets. Johnson is a man inside, blocking 10.5% of opponent shots when on the floor, and the matchup between him and Matt Howard is a critical one in this game.
UCLA : Ben Howland took the wraps off his charges at midseason, so now the game's third-best offense gets extra chances to show it stuff. This is a much different team than last year's, which featured Kevin Love on the inside. The 2009 Bruins are more a drive-and-dish offense, with only Alfred Aboya a post presence. They never get to the line-312th in D-I in free-throw rate-which is a shame because they shoot foul shots well. They shoot everything well, actually, which is why they're fifth in the nation in eFG%. The defense is another story; the Bruins do not block many shots and they've at times allowed their opponents to shoot the lights out, and they're about to face two good shooting teams. Or maybe just one.
Texas : Despite the presence of A.J. Abrams, the Longhorns do not have a strong backcourt, and the lack of shooters to go with Abrams-the only Texas player to hit even one three-pointer a game-has hampered his game. Up front, they bring skilled bulk in Gary Johnson and Dexter Pittman, as well as centerpiece of the offense, Damion James. Other than Abrams, they're nothing special at the line, either, so close games are a problem. Minnesota is a good matchup for them. Duke, less so.
Oklahoma State : Travis Ford can take a bow, having brought the Cowboys back to the NCAA tournament in his first year by implementing his pressure defense, three-heavy offensive style and up-tempo pace. The personnel warrants it, as Oklahoma State often looks like four wing guys in search of a forward. They do not defend well, and have allowed a poor 49.9 eFG% this year while blocking nine shots all season. Well, a few more than that, but you get the picture. Their first-round game with Tennessee should be a barn-burner, with the Cowboys' ability to hit the three giving them the edge (and a puncher's chance against Pittsburgh in the second round).
Marquette : Remember when Marquette was 9-0 in the Big East? That was a fluke brought on by scheduling. Their 1-5 finish was much the same, as they lost to three one-seeds and two three-seeds in that stretch. It's hard to clearly know what they are given that they've played nothing but scary monsters and St. John's since losing Dominic James. Their porous defense (254th in eFG%) is going to be a problem against Utah State, which knows how to find and hit good shots, and protects the ball well. They also rarely foul, and keeping Marquette (72% from the line, 16th in FT rate) off the line is key to beating them. The Eagles are in line for a short week.
Tennessee : Good god, do they miss Chris Lofton. Tennessee slipped from 141st to 291st in 3Pt%, which was a big reason for their struggles in-season. The open looks that would end up as threes that sparked big runs weren't falling this season, as Scotty Hopson wasn't an effective replacement for Lofton. Pearl eventually adjusted and had the team shooting fewer threes, and they do shoot twos well, so that's progress. The problems shooting slowed the Vols down this year as well, although pace won't be an issue against Oklahoma State in their opener. To win, they'll have to force a ton of turnovers, scramble the game, and defend against the three, all of which they're capable of doing.
Arizona State : The Washingtons swept them. The Sun Devils went 24-5 against everyone else. The latter sentence is more indicative of what they can do. They run Herb Sendek's offense beautifully, getting threes for Rihards Kuksiks (44.3% 3FG), dunks for Jeff Pendergraph (66.8% 2FG) and everything for James Harden (56.8 eFG). They won't turn you over, which is by design, but they will shut you down (56th in eFG% defense). Temple won't know what hit them. Their second-round matchup with Syracuse is arguably an Elite Eight game, and the winner will get to at least that level, maybe a step further.
Illinois : It's rare for a tournament team to be last in something. Illinois is last in free-throw rate, getting to the line less often than any team in Division I. Their game is to move the ball around and end the possession with a midrange jumper, usually along the baseline, from any of five or six guys. They have a very balanced offense, triggered by distributor Demetri McCamey. Their defensive stats are fantastic: fourth in three-point defense, eighth in eFG% defense, fourth in efficiency. They try to take away the three, which makes their first-round game with Western Kentucky strength against strength. The Illini's occasional extended disappearances on offense mean they'll be leaving this weekend, and there's every chance it will be this evening.
West Virginia : Statheads everywhere are advancing the Mountaineers in their brackets, for despite the 23-11 record, West Virginia had a phenomenal year and is underseeded. Their ability to force turnovers with pressure and defend the three-point line gives them a top-ten defense. Crashing the boards and protecting the ball makes their offense work. The combination creates the eighth-best team in hoops according to the Pomeroy Ratings. West Virginia will stop you. The question most nights is whether they won't stop themselves as well with poor shooting. A Sweet 16 appearance is the minimum expectation.
Xavier : Maybe they got bored, but a 5-5 finish to the season that included losses to Charlotte and Richmond took much of the shine off their 20-2 start. They get a big chunk of their offense at the line, 38th in the nation in percentage of points scored on free throws, and their ability to get to the line could be the difference against the much smaller Vikings, who tend to avoid fouling. Xavier will take away everything inside and force their opponents to beat them from deep, which is what Portland State is looking to do, anyway. Xavier may actually have a tougher first-round game than a second-round one; there's an excellent chance they won't get to compare the two experiences.
Utah : They have the profile of a tough half-court team: they don't turn you over (341st) or crash the offensive glass (315th), they make their shots (13th eFG%) and they clean up your misses (first in defensive rebounding). They're not terribly athletic in the backcourt, which shows up in their foul rate and the success opponents have from the arc. Playing Arizona is a brutal matchup for them, and as good as they are at the offensive end, they are going to struggle to keep the Wildcats off the board. This could be a short trip for the Utes.
Gonzaga : One of the tallest teams in the country, the Zags use that height to score (tenth in eFG%, sixth in offensive efficiency) and defend on the interior (first in opposing 2Pt%) without fouling (25th in defensive FT rate). All five of their losses came to teams in the field. They have exceptional offensive balance, with four players using between 20% and 25% of possessions. A fairly easy first weekend sends them into a matchup with North Carolina, but it's one that they can win.
Clemson : The Tigers were 16-0 when Wake came to visit on January 17. They are 8-8 since, and are another ACC team that can do anything on any day. Outside of beating Duke, they had an unimpressive slate of wins in conference and finished the year losing four of five. They want to force turnovers and get easy baskets, including open threes (37.9%). The Tigers can be beat on the glass and from the arc, and like Duke, they try and take the latter option away from you. Their draw is a mixed bag; Michigan shoots the three well and protects the ball, but doesn't have the speed they do. Oklahoma is the weakest of the two-seeds, but Clemson will have no way to protect the rim against the Griffins. They will win zero or two games; I'm leaning towards the latter.
Ohio State : Their eight-seed was a bit of a surprise, but given that it came with a pseudo-home game against an overseeded #9, they're likely not complaining. Everything goes through Evan Turner, nationally ranked in an assortment of categories and fifth in the nation in usage rate. The big-man platoon of B.J. Mullens and Dallas Lauderdale makes it hard to go inside against them (fifth in block rate) but hasn't been enough to make the team good on the boards. Against Siena, however, the bulk inside is going to be the difference.
Florida State : Leonard Hamilton's oversized charges (fourth in effective height) play lockdown defense in the halfcourt, forcing opponents to the perimeter. They can be very sloppy at times, turning the ball over and giving up a lot of offensive boards, and they are not a strong offensive team, with a lack of shooting touch and a tendency to go one-on-one. Their wins over good teams were almost all close, and any wins they pick up this week will be the same.
Washington : Freshman point Isaiah Thomas allowed Lorenzo Romar to get back to the fast-paced game the Huskies played so well in 2005 and 2006, a style that's big on transition buckets, getting into the lane for layups and foul shots, and that almost completely eschews the three (343rd in 3PA rate, 342nd in percentage of points on threes). Jon Brockman is a devastating force on the boards and gets to the line frequently. This high-effort offense lacks only shotmaking-49.1 eFG-and a first-round matchup with Jarvis Varnado makes the Huskies' forays into the lane riskier than usual. They drew an underseeded team that they don't match up well with. Danger, Nate Robinson.
Wake Forest : With just one senior who gets near the floor and two sophomores and a freshman at their core, Wake sets up to be a second-weekend staple for a few years to come. In this one, they play like a young team: frenetic and energetic, sloppy with the ball, not great at the whole "putting it in the basket" thing. Like Washington, they never shoot threes, which at 31.7% is for the best. They might make the weekend, but both Arizona and Utah can take them out.
Villanova : They're quicker then you are, and they rely on that quickness in beating you to spots on both ends of the floor, and blowing by you on their way to the foul line. The speed will be a handful for American, but UCLA is more than equipped to defend this team in the backcourt, and will go shot-for-shot with them. Were the second-round matchup not a home game for 'Nova, they'd be a huge dog to advance to the Sweet 16. As it is, they're probably going to get beat by a team they cannot stop, and which won't give them enough from the line.
Purdue : They were the second-best defensive team in the Big 11, which is no mean feat. Their height makes them difficult to shoot over in the halfcourt, which means you have to get out in transition and get easy baskets on them. Northern Iowa is…not that team. Whoever comes out of the 5/12 game, however, is quite equipped to do this, and JaJuan Johnson would be challenged by either Brockman or Varnado. Purdue is not that impressive an offensive team, and would have a hard time coming back from a deficit.
Syracuse : No team is tougher to beat past the 60-minute mark. Up until that point, you can get to them by blowing by Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins and taking the midrange jumper. They have a broad range of offensive skills, with Johnny Flynn breaking down his man and getting to line or distributing for twos (Arinze Onuaku, Paul Harris) or threes (Devendorf and Rautins). Their overall numbers at the line (64%) are deceiving; Onuaku is 36/120, the other starters all hit at least 70%.
Kansas : As you might expect from such a young team, the Jayhawks turn the ball over a lot, and they're prone to fouling. These two things make them a candidate for a first-round exit, even as a three-seed. They do everything else well, with good offensive balance, excellent halfcourt defense with Cole Aldrich swatting shots on the backline, and strong rebounding on both ends. In two of their last three games, they took inexplicable losses to non-tourney teams, which is why there's a hesitation to consider them a title threat.
Missouri : Their height and speed in the backcourt, as well as their intense pressure, takes away threes (30.7%) and funnels shooters into the lane, where DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons get their share of blocks. At times, they've had adventures at the line, where no one is great and Carroll is shaky (62.9%), so keeping the game close is a good way to beat the Tigers. Another is to crash the offensive glass, where they give up a lot of extra possessions. The dream likely dies at the hands of Memphis, but their second-round game, Marquette or Utah State, is no bargain either.
Oklahoma : Since Blake Griffin got knocked out of the Texas game, his team is 2-4 with wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. There are no bad losses in that stretch, but you have to wonder what's happening here. Any team that wants to beat them has to think seriously about Hack-a-Blake. The younger Griffin shoots 64% from the field and 59% from the line. Swallow your pride and put him on the line whenever he has the ball down low. Clemson's pressure could give the Sooners all kinds of trouble in the second round, as they can be turnover-prone.
Connecticut : They miss Jerome Dyson as a distributor and for his defensive pressure, but we're still talking about a fantastic defensive team. You can see where a team with a great backcourt, especially one that shoots threes, could give them trouble, but that combination is hard to find in their draw. Washington's guards would be an interesting challenge, but what we're looking at here is a matchup of probably the two best defensive teams in the country in the Elite Eight. Interesting to not that this is another protected seed that doesn't shoot many threes.
Michigan State : After all these years, we know what Tom Izzo's teams do: crash the boards like there was money on the rim, move the ball on offense, lock down the perimeter, give the ball away a little too often. This sophomore-heavy squad may be a year early, and Michigan State has enough head-shaking moments on their c.v. to make them a risky pick in the brackets. The likely second-round matchup with USC could be the most physical game of the tournament.
Memphis : The Tigers haven't lost since deciding that Tyreke Evans should be running the point. They've won at Tennessee and at Gonzaga in that stretch, and famously won every game in Conference USA in that time as well. Opposition noted, but they simply don't let their opponents get any kind of shots. Their flaws are at the other end, where they don't shoot well-again-so the next time their defense lets them down could be a very bad day indeed.
Duke: The image of Duke burying threes and going on huge runs persists, but this team doesn't shoot that particularly well from the arc (34.9%) and instead relies on ball penetration to get layups and foul shots. Moving Ellot Williams into the lineup improved them on both ends, making them more capable of defending opposing guards and deeper on the attack. A physical front-line could present a challenge, making the second-round game against Texas an interesting matchup.
Pittsburgh: DeJuan Blair raises them from an OK defensive team to a good one, so any time he goes to the bench with foul trouble, bad things can happen. That's the biggest reason to worry about their chances, because they need Blair to avoid foul trouble for six straight games to win the title. Their ridiculously efficient offense is also keyed by Blair, who recovers nearly one in four of their missed shots. All the Sam Young in the world won't save them in the game Blair plays 19 minutes.
North Carolina: They can survive the Radford attack without Ty Lawson, but if you watched them in the ACC tournament, you can see that for all the attention paid to Tyler Hansbrough, Lawson is the guy who makes them go. He's unguardable for all but a few players, and the Tar Heels don't get the transition points that make them Carolina without him. A Sweet 16 matchup with Gonzaga, which has the height to challenge Hansbrough and the offensive and defensive weapons to match up man for man, is not good for them. One other problem: they can be scored on, especially from outside, and good-shooting teams litter their draw.
Louisville: Since losing by 33 at Notre Dame, they've won ten straight, but just four of those were against tournament teams. It's a stronger slate than Memphis faced, but the current hype, which includes the #1 overall seed, may be overwrought. The Cardinals pressure the ball both full-court and half-court, and at times, their pressure can make very good backcourts fall apart. Two good shot-blockers, Earl Clark and Samardo Samuels, protect their back side. Close games might be a problem: they have no great foul shooters, and both Williams (57.3%) and Clark (65.6%) struggle from the line.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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