2019 NCAA Tournament Picks and Analysis

*** All game probabilities and efficiency ratings are referenced from the Ken Pomeroy website, as it is the single greatest predictive evaluator ever created by mankind.
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EAST:

Early Upsets:

#9 UCF over #8 VCU: 

This is an interesting matchup that features two teams that rank in the top 15 nationally in defensive two point shooting percentage, so this could come down to who is able to knock down threes the most effectively. That is not VCU’s modus operandi at all, as they rank a lousy 330th nationally in three point shooting percentage, and UCF’s imposing 7-6 center Tacko Fall could wreak havoc on their inside game. With leading scorer Marcus Evans still questionable to play, VCU will likely not be at full strength.

#6 Maryland over #3 LSU:

There’s value here as many hot on the Belmont bandwagon may pick the Terps to lose their first round game, but a significant rebounding edge (#7 vs #73 in total rebounding percentage) combined with superior talent should push Maryland forward in that one. LSU actually looms the most likely 3 seed to lose first round, so it’s a low risk proposition to take a chance with a balanced team like Maryland, who ranked in the top 25 in efficiency on both sides of the ball per KenPom for most of the season, to make the Sweet 16. LSU is defensively challenged, ranking just 62nd in defensive efficiency, and looks to be the most overseeded from an overall efficiency standpoint of all the 3 seeds. Additionally, questions loom over coach Will Wade’s suspension from his duties.

Upsets to avoid:

#5 Mississippi State over #4 Virginia Tech:

This is a bad matchup for the Bulldogs who rank 221st nationally in three point percentage defense against a Hokie team that ranks 8th in three point shooting percentage and plays at a glacial pace (345th in the nation in terms of tempo). Mississippi State’s inability to defend the perimeter will likely force themselves into an early hole that they won’t have enough possessions left to cut into.

#7 Louisville over #2 Michigan State: 

This one will be tempting for some as Louisville has a head to head win from earlier this year and Michigan State has made early exits the last two seasons and draw an underseeded opponent in terms of efficiency (the highest ranked of all the 7 seeds), but the Spartans have made defensive strides since the overtime loss to Louisville despite injury issues. More specifically, MSU boasts the 3rd best two point percentage defense in the nation, which may force Louisville into attempts from beyond the arc, and they rank just 179th in three point shooting percentage. Izzo is hell-bent on getting back to the Sweet 16.

Regional Semifinals:

#1 Duke over #4 Virginia Tech:

Virginia Tech pulled the upset at home while both teams were missing their best players, but now Zion Williamson and Justin Robinson return for this potential clash. One of those tips the scale a bit more than the other, however, and we like Duke’s ability to guard to perimeter (37th in three point shooting percentage defense) against a team that plays slowly and lives and dies by the three.

#2 Michigan State over #6 Maryland:

Sparty won the lone conference meeting at home in a fairly easy manner, and the way they are playing currently, this doesn’t look like a table that can be turned. Maryland’s major strength is on the boards and that will be completely neutralized by the Spartans, who rank 6th nationally in total rebounding percentage.

Regional Final: 

#1 Duke over #2 Michigan State:

For as much crying as the Spartans have done over the unfortunate (and incorrect) decision for the committee to send them to same the region as the field’s top seeded team, it’s arguably Duke that should be more outraged by this potential matchup- they should have been rewarded with the field’s weakest 2 seed, rather than the team with more quadrant one wins than any other in the field and a legitimate claim to a 1 seed based on that attribute. It’s actually a dangerous game for the young Blue Devils from a matchup standpoint; Michigan State ranks 3rd nationally in two point field goal percentage defense, and Duke is dismal from three point range, ranking 330th nationally (at 30.9%, they would be the worst ever three point shooting team to win a National Championship). Still, with Zion Williamson playing at his current level and the boon of NBA talent surrounding him, Duke will get some threes to fall and create enough points off turnovers, as Michigan State ranks just 180th in turnovers per possession, to get the job done. After watching Duke erase a 20 point lead with under ten minutes to play at Louisville, it appears they may simply refuse to lose with their current core of starters at full strength.

WEST

Early Upsets: 

#12 Murray State over #5 Marquette: 

It’s the only one of the always popular 12/5 upsets that we like this year. Marquette comes in having lost five of six and is the lowest ranked of all the 5 seeds from an efficiency standpoint by a wide margin (28th per KenPom, which equates to the weakest 7 seed). Murray State’s Ja Morant may be the second best player in this entire tournament, and while Marquette has ammunition of their own in the sharp-shooting Markus Howard, they don’t have a clear defensive matchup advantage that shows any ability to stop Morant, who may very well score and assist at will in this one. Conversely, Murray State ranks 4th in the nation in three point shooting percentage defense, and looms well equipped to neutralize Marquette’s biggest strength, as the Golden Eagles rank 9th in three point shooting percentage. A key matchup to keep an eye one will be how Murray State can get to the rim, as they rank 5th in two point shooting percentage to Marquette’s 19th ranked two point shooting percentage defense. Given that Marquette is the most likely 5 seed to lose both their first and second round game, this looks like a low risk play in what should be a fun, high-octane game.

#10 Florida over #7 Nevada:

This game is a virtual tossup from an efficiency standpoint, with just 0.52 points separating them, the closest of all the 7/10 matchups. More than that though, the feeling here is simply that the Gators are more battle tested, having made a late run to the SEC tournament semifinals to earn a bid following a lot of close defeats to top competition in conference play. Compare that to Nevada’s complete lack of quality wins and their puzzling, inexplicable losses- a 27 point loss at New Mexico and two losses to San Diego State- and we’ll give the Gators the seasoning edge. The key here could be the Wolfpack’s ability to take care of the ball- they rank 8th nationally in turnovers per possession, but Florida turns its opponents over at a decent rate, good for 46th nationally. With Michigan statistically the most likely 2/7 winner next round anyway, this is a low risk pick.

Upsets to avoid:

#6 Buffalo over #3 Texas Tech:

This is a pick that is gaining steam and it’s borderline disrespectful to the often overlooked Red Raiders, who made the Elite 8 a year and boast the nation’s best defense. Specifically, their 2nd ranked two point percentage will likely force the Bulls (who like to shoot quickly- they’re 12th in possessions per game) into ill-advised attempts from the perimeter, and that’s not their forte- they rank 215th in three point shooting percentage.

Regional Semifinals: 

#4 Florida State over #1 Gonzaga: 

In a rematch of a game that the Noles won by 15 a year ago (strange that the committee set this same region up to be potentially identical to last year), the depth and seasoning of Florida State could again be too much for Gonzaga to overcome for the same reasons. The Bulldogs enter the tournament on an ugly note, as they were held to 47 points by a St. Mary’s defense that ranks just 55th nationally in total efficiency. The Noles check in at 9th, and their impressive length presents a much stiffer challenge that Gonzaga’s top ranked offense may likely be unprepared for given their recent competition, especially inside the arc, as they enter this tourney riding high off an impressive ACC tournament showing. Florida State stunningly shows 11 players that average ten minutes or more, and this depth could come into play with Killian Tillie’s status still up in the air for Gonzaga, just as it was a year ago in the same spot.

#2 Michigan over #3 Texas Tech:

An intriguing matchup featuring the nation’s two best defenses, we’ll give the edge to Michigan, who has a bit more consistency on the offensive end (18th vs 35th in offensive efficiency) and has an experience edge after last year’s run to the title game. Michigan is also far more likely to reach this game in the first place, so this is partly an odds play in a region that looks like it could completely explode.

Regional Final: 

#2 Michigan over #4 Florida State: 

Michigan beat Florida State 58-54 to win the West region a year ago, and a similar defensive struggle can be expected again this year with the same team emerging victorious. Michigan has two major attributes that should work in combination for them in this spot. For one, the importance of point guard play in the tournament can’t be overemphasized, and Zavier Simpson’s assist to turnover ratio of 3.56 is the best in the nation. This correlates to Michigan’s top ranked offensive turnover percentage; this team simply doesn’t give the ball away. Its tendency to play slowly (340th in possessions per game) exacerbates this efficiency.

SOUTH

Early Upsets:

#11 St. Mary’s over #6 Villanova: 

There are a lot of reasons to like this pick. For starters, St. Mary’s is the highest rated 11 seed in terms of efficiency, and Villanova is the lowest rated 6 seed, making this by far the most likely 11/6 upset independent of the matchups. But the matchups add further issues for the Wildcats, a team with a tendency to bomb threes relentlessly (53.5% three point rate, highest in the tourney), and one that ranks 352nd in percentage of points from two point shots. That’s very bad news against a team like St. Mary’s who really contains the perimeter, ranking 9th in the nation in both three point percentage defense and three point rate defense. Both teams play a very slow style, ranking 324th and 340th in possessions per game respectively, which likely means less three point attempts for Villanova. And they don’t connect that well on all those threes in the first place, ranking just 121st in the three point shooting percentage. That’s more bad news, because St. Mary’s hits the glass hard, and ranks 16th in defensive rebounding percentage. With Purdue the most likely winner of all the potential 3/6 games, this looks like a low risk upset pick with a lot of upside.

#13 UC Irvine over #4 Kansas State:

The red hot Anteaters haven’t lost in two months and boast the nation’s best two point percentage defense. Kansas State isn’t an offensive juggernaut by any means as they rank just 104th in offensive efficiency, but they especially struggle from deep, ranking just 211th in three point shooting percentage. If those are the shots that Kansas State is forced to settle on against the stingy UC Irvine interior defense, they could be in for a long afternoon, especially as leading rebounder and double digit scorer Dean Wade remains questionable and unlikely to play. Kansas State is the lowest ranked 4 seed in terms of efficiency while UC Irvine is the highest ranked 13 seed, and with Wisconsin the most likely 5/4 winner, this pick checks out as another obvious low risk shot.

Upsets to avoid:

#12 Oregon over #5 Wisconsin:

Oregon is actually going to go off favored in this game so this isn’t technically an upset, but rather an extreme value proposition to fade the public by backing the higher seeded and better team. Oregon has been hot lately but Wisconsin holds far superior efficiency numbers and this is a rare instance where you can receive several points of edge relative to the Vegas line, which usually converges to analytical estimates like KenPom and Sagarin. Notably, Oregon’s main defensive strength is containing the three, as they rank 10th in three point percentage defense. However, this advantage is likely to be meaningless as Wisconsin is not a team that depends on the three; they rank just 295th in three point rate. We have to side with the math in this one, especially as the Badgers have a favorable matchup in the next round.

Regional Semifinals:

#1 Virginia over #5 Wisconsin:

This won’t be the most exciting game in the tournament, not by a long shot, as these teams play some of the slowest styles of basketball in the country, ranking 353rd (dead last) and 323rd respectively in possessions per game. Virginia has perfected the style, however, and won the battle of styles earlier this year against the Badgers.

#2 Tennessee over #3 Purdue:

Purdue may be lucky to get this far, but we are picking them to get here primarily because of a favorable path. No team depends more upon one player than Purdue depends on Carsen Edwards, who takes 37% of their shots. That strategy can’t last forever, as every great player is bound to have an off night, and an experienced Tennessee squad with an upperclassmen point guard like Jordan Bone, who ranks in the top five tournament players in assist to turnover ratio, will expose the inconsistency of the Boiler offense.

Regional Final:

#1 Virginia over #2 Tennessee:

We promised to never take Virginia to the Final Four ever again after last year’s unprecedented debacle of a first round exit as a one seed, yet here we are. Of course, the name on the uniform doesn’t mean this team is constructed the same as last year’s was, or any of the other Virginia teams that disappointed before it were. For starters, DeAndre Hunter didn’t play in that game, and the Cavaliers have never had a lottery pick type of talent on a team in the Tony Bennett era. Statistically speaking, consider that last year’s squad ranked just 30th in offensive efficiency, and this year they rank 2nd. It would be unwise to dismiss that massive difference in production. In fact, they are the only team in the nation to rank in the top five on both sides of the ball per KenPom. They boast one of the strongest backcourts in college basketball behind the trio of Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, the latter of which is 3rd in the tournament in assist to turnover ratio at the point (3.25).

But perhaps the most terrifying stat about Virginia is that they rank 4th in the nation in three point shooting percentage, but rank just 174th in three point rate. This essentially suggests that they don’t depend on the three at all, but when they shoot from beyond the arc, they usually go in. Tennessee isn’t especially strong defending the perimeter, as was on display in their blowout loss to Auburn in the SEC Championship, and rank just 174th in three point defensive shooting percentage. Both teams leave something to be desired in terms of front court presence, and Tennessee’s backcourt is talented but doesn’t seem physical enough to truly take Virginia out of its game plan. Tennessee also leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive side of the ball altogether, ranking just 33rd nationally in defensive efficiency. That’s a fringe number for a Final Four team, and doesn’t inspire much confidence against the nation’s 2nd best offense. Virginia was gifted with the field’s easiest region and path to the Final Four, full of teams that play to their desired tempo but aren’t as skilled as they are at doing so. The loss in the ACC tournament to a tough and underrated Florida State squad seems to have added some value to a team who remains by far the most likely winner of the tournament per KenPom; this is the year they finally land in the Final Four for Tony Bennett. And if they don’t, then they likely never will.

MIDWEST

Early Upsets:

#7 Wofford over #2 Kentucky:

Gasp! Admittedly, part of the allure of this pick is the sheer amount of joy and warmth that this upset would create within our collective hearts. But, this selection isn’t without support. Of all the potential 7/2 games, this one contains the smallest efficiency gap, and we love the matchup here for a Wofford team that has won 20 in a row and basically wins by making threes. Kentucky really struggles defending the perimeter, and ranks just 211th in three point defensive shooting percentage. They could find the pesky Terriers a tough out considering they are the 2nd best three point shooting team in the land and the best in the tournament behind the theatrics of Fletcher Magee. Kentucky’s main advantages are all neutralized here, specifically their ability to rebound, as they check in at 2nd in the nation in total rebounding percentage, but Wofford is no slouch at 18th. Digger deeper, Kentucky doesn’t rank in the top ten in either offensive or defensive efficiency, and that’s historically meaningful in terms of Final Four probability- it drops them a tier, so the risk in making this pick is less than it seems. Also, “Wofford” is super fun to say. Much more fun than “Kentucky”, for sure.

#6 Iowa State over #3 Houston:

This is the most likely 6/3 upset as Houston owns just a 0.56 efficiency margin over the Big 12 Tournament champion Cyclones having played a weaker schedule by far. Houston has had a spectacular season and is very balanced, ranking in the top 25 in efficiency on both sides of the ball per KenPom, but they may not be ready for the attack of the Iowa State offense, which ranks 9th in the nation and will be the strongest weapon for either team on the court.

Upsets to avoid:

#10 Seton Hall over #7 Wofford: 

Part of this opinion derives from our generally negative opinion of Marquette, who the Pirates beat to advance to the Big East Championship, and they seem to be getting a lot of credit for that. In fact, this seems to be the most popular 10/7 upset pick by the public despite the fact that from an efficiency standpoint, this is the least likely of the four 10 seeds to win a first round game. That equates to serious value whether you are playing a bracket pool or betting the game. Seton Hall will struggle with Wofford for the same reason we believe Kentucky will- they struggle to defend the three point shot, ranking just 130th in percentage terms. Amazingly, Wofford will be the best offensive team Seton Hall has played all season, as they rank 11th in offensive efficiency, besting Kentucky, Marquette and Villanova.

#12 New Mexico State over #5 Auburn:

Similarly, this is the least likely 12/5 upset in terms of efficiency, and ironically, the higher seeded team is another that lives by the three, perhaps even more extremely. New Mexico State ranks 105th in defensive three point shooting percentage, and that likely won’t do against Auburn, who depends heavily on this shot, ranking 8th in three point rate and 27th in shooting percentage. For as well as they shoot it, Auburn’s Achilles’ heel appears to be its perimeter defense, but neither of its first two likely opponents present much of a challenge here. New Mexico State is 190th in three point shooting percentage, and Kansas ranks just 136th, and also can’t defend the three (127th). Auburn also is the best in the nation at turning teams over, which they do on nearly 25% of possessions. Both NMSU and Kansas have a tough time taking care of the ball, ranking 129th and 168th respectively.

Regional Semifinals:

#1 North Carolina over #5 Auburn:

If it happens, this game will be a lot of fun, if a tad anxiety-inducing given North Carolina’s preference for a breakneck pace (5th in the nation in possessions per game, and fastest in the tournament), and Auburn’s reliance on the three point shot. Carolina is just average against the three, ranking 89th in the nation against it, but the difference here will be the speed of the Tarheel offense, which is lethal in transition, against a suspect Auburn defense that ranks just 41st in efficiency- a borderline eliminator for Final Four consideration.

#6 Iowa State over #7 Wofford:

These teams are similarly constructed, as both have strong offenses and defenses weak enough to ensure that they will not win their next game. We’ll lean towards the team that has both the slightly stronger offense and the less difficult second round upset to accomplish, but from an efficiency standpoint overall, this is neck and neck, with Iowa State holding only a 1.03 point advantage.

Regional Final:

#1 North Carolina over #6 Iowa State:

It bears mention that the Midwest is by far the toughest path to the Final Four, as 7 of the Top 20 KenPom teams reside in the region. But our predictions benefit Carolina as they would not have to play Kansas in Kansas City or Kentucky in the regional final, which generously upgrades their overall chances of advancing to Minneapolis. Iowa State will try to impose their will and play a slower pace (234th in possessions per game) but UNC is simply the deeper and more talented squad. The rebounding edge looms large here, as the Tarheels rank 5th in the nation in total rebounding percentage to Iowa State’s 147th.

FINAL FOUR:

#1 Duke over #2 Michigan:

Duke got a raw deal as their potential opponents weren’t seeded anything like what one would expect for the overall number one seed, but that’s just the committee being the committee. They would find themselves in a favorable matchup scenario here, however. Michigan would be at a huge disadvantage on the boards, ranking 162nd in total rebounding percentage to Duke’s 20th. As neither team depends too heavily on the three, the battle here would be inside the arc, with Duke’s 4th ranked two point shooting percentage battling the 12th ranked two point shooting defense of the Wolverines. Compare that to the fact that Michigan ranks just 105th in two point shooting percentage and Duke ranks 20th defending shots inside the arc, and you have to wonder where the Wolverines get points in this game. Michigan has been prone to long stretches of offensive droughts and would have trouble making up ground from the perimeter, as Duke ranks 37th in defensive three point shooting percentage.

# 1 Virginia over #1 North Carolina:

From a possessions per game standpoint, this potential showdown features the fastest team in the tournament against the slowest team in the tournament- the tortoise versus the hare, if you will. This game happened once already and Virginia won fairly convincingly on the road. North Carolina has been hot lately but given the prior head the head result and the relative difficulties of both teams’ paths to this spot, we have to side with Virginia, aside from an obvious rooting interest- does anyone really want to see UNC in the National Championship for the third time in four years?

CHAMPIONSHIP:

#1 Virginia over #1 Duke:

Part of March Madness is having someone to root for. The entire planet is picking Duke and North Carolina to play in the title game, which has never happened before, and admittedly, would be pretty cool. If that’s your play, you’re probably right, so go ahead, but you won’t be getting much value, and you’d better make sure you get everything right before it because there won’t be much separating you from the masses. But, who doesn’t want to see UNC win a 7th title or Duke win a 6th, and pass Indiana in the process?  **(buries head in the sand)**

What would be even better though, would be this story: A team that endured one of the greatest embarrassments in the history of sports only a year earlier pulled itself together, improved, and angrily, with a massive chip on its shoulder, avenged that loss and earned a highly esteemed university its first national title ever, while simultaneously rendering  a certain style of play to be revolutionary rather than simply uneasy on the eyes. That is a story I would want to hear, and the good news is, the math supports it.

As mentioned before, Virginia is the best value pick in the field based on their actual probability of winning it all, based not only on KenPom math but also on their entire body of work. Duke has beaten them twice already this season, but instead of falling into a cliche in regard to how difficult it is supposed to be to beat the same team three times, let’s instead break down each game individually. Most recently, Virginia was dominated at home by Duke, losing by 10 in a game that was not nearly as close as that score seems to indicate. In that game, Duke- the worst three point shooting team in the tournament against the best three point defending team in the tournament- made 13 of the 21 three point shots they attempted. You do not need to be a mathematical genius to recognize that this amounts to an enormous outlier that can’t possibly be repeated.

The game at Cameron Indoor Stadium was much closer and could have gone either way, as the teams traded leads throughout before Duke emerged victorious by a 72-70 score. However, there are too many eternally rule-breaking strikes against Duke to pick them as a national champion this year, and as a value proposition, it is basically absurd considering everyone has convinced themselves that they are the second-coming of the ’76 Hoosiers. Aside from having a much more difficult path to even get to this game, we again must restate that they would be the worst three point shooting team ever to win a title. In an era so defined by the long ball, we find this difficult to grasp and support. Some argue this deficiency is balanced by the stat that Duke gains more “and one” opportunities than any team in the country. The problem with that argument is that Duke is also a truly bad free throw shooting team, connecting on only 69% of its attempts, good for just 241th nationally. Virginia ranks 48th and in games like this, that has to mean something. Speaking of fouls, Duke’s bench is shorter now given the injury to Marques Bolden. This is a team currently playing, realistically, with only six players for real minutes. If Zion, or Jack White for that matter, encounters foul trouble, then what? Depth is a real concern here and gives the Cavaliers the edge.

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