A New Metric, and 2016 NCAA Tournament Picks and Analysis

A New Metric: I added each team’s Sagarin Schedule Strength rating to its Scoring Margin to create a Power Ranking. In terms of scale, the two fit together quite well, such that the absolute value of each different statistic between teams 1 and 100 is roughly the same. The idea is that over the large sample size of an entire season, a team’s Scoring Margin should be completely indicative of its supremacy once adjusted for its Schedule Strength. Here are the results after doing so, with each team’s seed listed:

2 Michigan State 94.98

1 Kansas 94.66

3 West Virginia 93.51

1 North Carolina 93.07

1 Virginia 92.48

2 Villanova 92.47

5 Purdue 91.77

2 Oklahoma 91.67

5 Indiana 90.22

4 Kentucky 90.14

 

4 Duke 89.89

6 Arizona 89.84

3 Miami 89.46

3 Texas A&M 89.24

2 Xavier 88.93

7 Iowa 88.89

1 Oregon 88.70

4 Iowa State 88.59

5 Maryland 88.01

5 Baylor 87.97

 

3 Utah 87.78

11 Witchita State 87.59

9 Butler 87.21

11 Gonzaga 87.12

9 UConn 87.09

9 Cincinnati 86.48

4 California 86.85

10 Pittsburgh 86.01

11 Michigan 85.86

6 Texas 85.73

6 Seton Hall 85.33

6 Notre Dame 84.79

 

Best of the other lower seeds:

 

12 Yale 81.39

13 Hawaii 80.22

14 Stephen F Austin 81.50

 

Some strategic observations based on this:

 

  • If these ratings are to be believed, then the most likely Final 4 is Michigan State, West Virginia, Kansas and Oklahoma. However, West Virginia is eliminated as true contender, albeit just barely, based on their Offensive Efficiency number being <115.0. Therefore, we will be selecting the next highest ranked qualifier in that region, North Carolina, while selecting West Virginia to advance to the Elite 8.
  • The lowest ranked #1 seed, by every metric and by a mile, is Oregon. The irony here is that the weakest #1 seed was actually rewarded with one of the weakest regions in the history of the tournament. Even so, we will look to beat the Ducks early with Duke, who although lacking in depth, have the superior power ranking and match up well in terms of efficiency, as both teams have high-powered offenses but relatively poor defenses. Neither team rebounds well either. Duke is one of three teams in the tournament that have two players projected as NBA First Round picks (California, Kentucky), and sometimes that means a lot in March. Additionally, Oregon stands the best chance to lose in the second round of all the #1 seeds per KenPom (20%), slightly decreasing the risk of this pick.
  • The lowest ranked #2 seed is Xavier, and both KenPom and FiveThirtyEight give them by far the lowest chance to make the Elite 8 of all the #2 seeds (below 30%), so we will play the numbers and keep them out of it, with West Virginia beating them in the Sweet 16. Our season-long opinion has been that the Big East is overrated.
  • Villanova is actually the second highest ranked #2 seed, but this is a bit misleading, as they have to potentially face two of four highly underseeded teams analytically speaking (Arizona, Miami, Witchita State, Iowa) in order to advance. Iowa, for starters, is by far the strongest #7 seed, which immediately decreases Villanova’s chance of advancing relative to its #2 seed peers. In addition, their Three Point Rate of 43.8% combined with a Three Point Shooting % of just 34.4% is a major red flag and a historical eliminator for a Final Four contender. Keeping with the bearish opinion on the Big East, we will try to stop them well short of that.
  • Value rests in locating the correct double digit seeds to advance to the Sweet 16, because let’s face it, some always do. Witchita State and Gonzaga appear fairly imposing in this department based on this metric. Gonzaga, especially, won’t have to contend with any far superior teams to get there. In fact, by drawing the lowest ranked #3 seed in the second round (Utah), this is a fairly riskless choice, as not too many will be taking the Utes past a dazzling Michigan State squad there. Witchita will have a tougher road, having to play the toughest 6 seed in the first round (Arizona), but there is still value here. The Shockers boast the #1 Defensive Efficiency in the nation, and are especially dominant in 2 Point FG% defense, which is where Villanova and Miami excel (#6 and #25 respectively in 2 Point FG Shooting %). Their achilles’ heel has been their offense, which ranks just #81 in terms of efficiency, but Arizona and Miami don’t play dominant defense (#40 and #44 respectively), and the Shockers help their chances in this department by taking extremely good care of the ball and making the most of their possessions (#8 in Turnovers Per Possession). Villanova could be a problem if Witchita State puts them on the line too frequently. The Wildcats rank #3 in the nation in Free Throw Shooting %, while the Shockers rank #327 in Opponent FTA/FGA. This is a result of playing aggressive defense inside the arc, however. Additionally, Witchita State is very strong on the glass, ranking #2 in Defensive Rebounding %. This could neutralize the opposition on the offensive boards and cut down on second chance points, as none of these opponents are incredibly strong on the offensive glass, and could be especially troublesome for Villanova, who ranks just #157 in Offensive Rebounding %.
  • Yale appears the most likely #12 seed to upset a #5, adding value to our Duke pick. Baylor’s main strength lies in its ability to crash the boards offensively (#3 in Offensive Rebound %). Yale can completely neutralize this by its strong rebounding on that end (#6 in Defensive Rebound %). Baylor also does not rebound defensively nearly as well as Yale does offensively (#107 vs. #5). Of course, a Baylor win conversely poses an extreme rebounding matchup problem for Duke in the next round (#3 Offensive Rebound % vs. #330 Defensive Rebound %). Still, regardless of that one rather glaring matchup dilemma, both KenPom and FiveThirtyEight agree with our metric and favor Duke slightly over Baylor, and FiveThirtyEight even predicts Duke as the most likely #4 seed to advance to the Elite 8, even above Kentucky.
  • Hawaii appears the most likely #13 seed to upset a #4, so we will select Maryland over California in the second round. The Terps’ higher ranking by our metric adds support to this conclusion. Both of these teams have the talent, on paper, to give Kansas a very tough game, but we will stop short of sending the Jayhawks home quite that soon.
  • Stephen F Austin appears the most likely #14 seed to upset a #3, and actually has a higher rating than any #12 or #13 seed, which makes things a bit tricky considering that West Virginia appears to be the strongest #3 seed. (Here is another example of really bad use of analytics by the committee). This is an area of the bracket that could potentially devolve into complete chaos. For starters, this is a crazy first round game between two underseeded teams who rank 1st and 2nd in Turnovers Per Possession. They are essentially the same team, and the scary thing is that West Virginia actually is a lot more prone to turning it over on offense than SFA is (#285 and #182 respectively, so this could be a complete trainwreck of a basketball game). Still, West Virginia ranks #1 in Offensive Rebounding % and played a far tougher schedule, while SFA doesn’t crash boards well (#157 Defensive Rebounding %). This Offensive Rebounding dominance could pose problems for Notre Dame in the second round as well (#247 Defensive Rebounding %), even if the Irish aren’t as susceptible to the West Virginia press (#10 Turnover Rate). Michigan rebounds much better (#47) and also takes care of the ball (#6 Turnover Rate) and would probably be a tougher matchup for the Mountaineers, but we view Notre Dame-Michigan as a virtual coin flip game and therefore a risky pick to advance either of those teams beyond the second round.
  • On Indiana-Kentucky: This is admittedly an incredibly regrettable and unfair draw for the Hoosiers. However, this is not the Kentucky team of last year or of 2012 that beat Indiana en route to a National Championship. There are matchup advantages that Indiana can exploit here, and the metrics above prove that Indiana played about equal to Kentucky this season. One that sticks out, and is always a wildcard in March, is Three Point Shooting %. Indiana is one of only five teams in the tournament that shoots over 40% from beyond the arc, ranking #6 in the nation. But Kentucky ranks just #86 in Three Point Shooting % Defense. In combination with that, this Kentucky team is not strong at all on the boards, ranking just #260 in Defensive Rebounding %. Indiana, conversely, has been highly successful creating second chance opportunities and taking advantage of them thanks to their #12 Offensive Rebounding %. The idea here is that Indiana may be able to either light up Kentucky from three point land, or rebound a lot of their misses if they do not. These are really two very similar teams, with roughly equally great offenses and equally mediocre defenses, depending on your preferred metric. Meanwhile, Purdue ranks the most likely #5 seed to make a Final Four run, and will be a matchup problem for anyone. They simply tower over a very unbalanced Iowa State team from an analytics standpoint. We will be playing both #5 seeds over the #4s on this side of the bracket.
  • North Carolina doesn’t shoot very well. While our elimination model still gives them the best shot to come out of the difficult East region, this statistic bears mention: Over the last 18 years, which is as far back as we could find data, not a single team has made the Final 4 with a Three Point Shooting % as low as the Tarheels (31.4%). In fact, this historically poor shooting is more than two standard deviations from the mean over that time span (36.4%, 2.4%). The lowest Three Point Shooting % for a Final 4 team over that time span was 31.8% (Louisville in 2012). The highest, somewhat ironically, was the 2005 Tarheels (40.3%). Having to overcome this trend will lead us to send North Carolina home after they play the Midwest winner in the Final Four and avoid them as a National Champion pick. Not surprisingly, the average Three Point Shooting % statistics for Champions are even more daunting: 37.6%, with 2013 Louisville the lowest at 32.9%. Additionally, 14 of those 18 National Champions have had a Three Point Shooting % ABOVE the 36.4% mean for Final 4 teams.

THE DIABOLICAL, UNAVOIDABLE REMATCH BETWEEN MICHIGAN STATE AND VIRGINIA:

It’s easy to forget that if Justin Anderson hadn’t opted to go pro after last season- a decision that looks just as perplexing now as it did then- Virginia would have been the runaway choice for the preseason champion pick. However, an interesting development this season has been the improvement of the Virginia offense after Anderson’s departure. (They now rank #9 nationally in offensive efficiency after finishing last season at #24). This senior-laden squad is highly efficient on both sides of the ball, and is one of only two teams in the nation to rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense, the other being Kansas, per Ken Pomeroy. For what it’s worth, over the last 14 seasons since he has been keeping this data, 50% of National Champions own that profile. Malcolm Brogdon has become a spectacular playmaker on both sides of the ball, winning both the ACC Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year awards, and should finish third in the Wooden Award voting behind Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine. Brogdon doesn’t rely completely on the three point shot the way that Anderson did, and his versatility on the offensive end is less susceptible to cold streaks, thereby increasing this team’s efficiency.

Did you know that senior point guard London Perrantes shoots 48.0% from three-point range, the second highest among Power Conference players with at least 100 attempts? Seniors Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey anchor a formidable, experienced front court. This isn’t a flashy squad or one that likes to score in transition. The Cavaliers flourish almost entirely in a half court offense and operate strictly with off-the-ball screens. As a result, they are a patient bunch that wear down and frustrate defenses until they find the right shot. Out of 351 Division 1 teams, they rank 351st in pace of play. That statistic, combined with their highly efficient offense, means that opponents that fall behind early, which is usually the case, can feel like they are climbing up Mount Everest as they try to come back. This is an extremely well-coached team that will simply lull you to sleep, wear you down and suffocate you like an anaconda. They also refuse to make things easy for opponents, as their turnovers per possession numbers are among the top 95% in the land. I picked Virginia all the way to the final game last season, but they fell to Michigan State for the second straight year. This team is better than that one was.

Unfortunately for Virginia, the Spartans inexplicably fell into their bracket yet again this year. That’s the only team that I think can beat them. I like the winner of the Midwest region to win the tournament, but as much as I like Virginia, I’m picking against them this year for two reasons. For one, for all the controversy, the committee really synthetically awarded Michigan State the #1 seed here, since the Regional Final will be played in Chicago. Also, Virginia’s matchup against Purdue figures to be a lot tougher than whoever Michigan State meets in the Sweet 16 (we are going with Gonzaga, remember), and for that reason, from a probability standpoint, Michigan State seems the better play. The metric above adds yet more evidence to the idea that the Spartans are simply the best team in the country.

PICKS:

South: #1 Kansas over #11 Witchita State

West: #2 Oklahoma over #4 Duke

East: #1 North Carolina over #3 West Virginia

Midwest: #2 Michigan State over #1 Virginia

Championship: #2 Michigan State over #1 Kansas

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