Archive for March 2021

NCAA Tournament 2021 Picks and Analysis

March 18, 2021

WEST

For once, the tournament’s number one overall seed received by far the easiest region as a reward. Gonzaga’s quest for its first ever national title would result in the first undefeated season for any team since 1976, and they will be heavy favorites to win this region having already beaten its next three highest seeds in Iowa, Kansas and Virginia. The latter two of those two have major question marks as well, given that both had to forfeit games in their respective conference tournaments due to Covid issues, will not have practiced since, and will both likely be shorthanded on some unspecified level. With so much uncertainly surrounding them, there seems to be value in picking against those two teams early on, as their potential matchups don’t look great to begin with, and with Gonzaga a near certainty to beat either of them anyway, there isn’t much to be lost by shooting for upsets here in the top section of the bracket.

Upsets We Like:

#13 Ohio over #4 Virginia: Virginia may have peaked in the middle of the year, and the fact is that even outside of the Covid pause, the defending champs simply don’t seem have the horses they had when coming back to miraculously win three straight games in route to their first National Championship two years ago. Their slow pace of play (347th nationally in possessions per game) can always be a liability against a solid offense as it becomes difficult to come back from deficits (see UMBC in 2018), and an Ohio squad that nearly won at Illinois earlier in the year looks like a particularly tough matchup in that regard. The Bobcats boast the 29th most efficient offense in the nation and the rank 13th in effective field goal percentage behind star point guard Jason Preston, who may well be the best player on the floor in this game. Add in the fact that this is the worst defensive Virginia team in the Tony Bennett era (34th in defensive efficiency per KenPom), and this looks like a fair spot to take a shot.

#12 UCSB over #5 Creighton: The Blue Jays were last seen while being demolished in the Big East final by Georgetown, have lost three of their last four, and there may be a bit of dissention within the ranks following head coach Greg McDermott’s bizarre and controversial “plantation” remarks. The Gauchos’ 22-4 record is somewhat bloated, having not beaten a single team in the Top 100, but ten of those came outside of Quad 4 which a lot more than fellow #12 seed Winthrop can say, and actually match up well here. Creighton is a team that loves to shoot the three, ranking 33rd nationally in three point rate, and is 49th in three point shooting percentage. UCSB, however, does a great job limiting its opponents from scoring beyond the arc, ranking 14th nationally by that metric. If the Gauchos can lock down the perimeter, the Blue Jays may find themselves out of answers in a fascinating matchup of strength versus strength. UCSB also ranks 33rd nationally in shooting percentage and 26th in scoring defense, a formidable combination, while Creighton’s dreadful free throw shooting (329th in the nation) could spell doom here. There’s always a double digit seed in the Sweet 16 (33 out of 35 times) so we will make UCSB our pick, as their balance gives them the edge next round over Ohio. According to KenPom math, they have the second highest probability of any #12 or #13 seed to reach the Sweet 16 (10.1%) behind Georgetown.

#9 Missouri over #8 Oklahoma: These 8/9 games are always toss ups, but the Sooners simply haven’t been playing well of late, having not beaten a single team outside of bottom dweller Iowa State since a February 13th win over West Virginia. They’ve gone 2-7 over that stretch. Missouri was, by our math, the most poorly underseeded team in the field considering their 5-3 record in Quad 1A games, while Oklahoma looked more like a 10 or 11 seed. Oklahoma will also be without second leading scorer De’Vion Harmon after a positive Covid test. Missouri has been terrible at holding on to leads but has beaten the likes of Illinois and Alabama this season. This play is mostly based on our relative perception of their seeds in a total coin flip game, and perhaps the idea that the SEC may be slightly undervalued in this tournament. The winner will be absolutely demolished by Gonzaga, as both are the worst ranked team in total efficiency for their respective seeds.

#6 USC over #3 Kansas: This actually may not be an upset if you log into your DraftKings account the day of this game, as USC actually ranks higher in overall efficiency per KenPom on the strength of its 19th ranked defense, and is the strongest of all the #6 seeds based on that metric. Kansas has been at its best this season when center David McCormack has been able to get going inside, and the visual here seems to be future NBA star Evan Mobley absolutely dominating him in the paint. Once that happens, the Jayhawks will have to depend on consistent guard play, and they haven’t had that against tougher defenses (see Tennessee game), and aren’t a very good three point shooting team, ranking 173rd nationally. Add in the fact that star freshman Jalen Wilson will be sidelined for at least the first weekend, there are lots of reasons to believe that this simply isn’t the year for Kansas, a year after they would surely been our pick to win it all had the tourney not been canceled. The Jayhawks have the lowest Final Four probability of any #3 seed per KenPom (4.1%), and are a historical toss from consideration there by our formula due to their 58th ranked offense, so this is a low risk play.

Regional Final:

#1 Gonzaga over #2 Iowa: This will be an intriguing contest due to the similarities of styles, matching the nation’s two best offenses in a game that figures to be defense-optional. Iowa’s defense was once ranked outside of the KenPom Top 100 but has made massive strides recently to improve to 50th, which is right inside the historical threshold to merit consideration as a true Final Four contender. Gonzaga’s defense, meanwhile, seems to be getting slightly worse, and it bears mention that the opponents that Gonzaga has played since defeating Iowa 99-88 back in December haven’t been of the same quality as their preseason foes. However, Iowa lost twice to Indiana, which is something we still can’t explain, and the feeling is that Iowa may be a bit too dependent on the three, while Gonzaga is a bit more balanced offensively, although National Player of the Year Luka Garza may have something to say about that. It’s also notable that Iowa is the best team in the nation at taking care of the basketball, and guards C.J. Frederick and Connor McCaffery both rank in the top four nationally in assist to turnover ratio. Expect a lot closer affair this time in what might be the best game of the tournament up to this point. In the end, a loaded Gonzaga team will find a way to pull out the win in a high scoring affair.

EAST

The news out of Ann Arbor regarding Isaiah Livers is heartbreaking, as the Wolverines would likely cruise through this region with the same fully healthy squad that dominated the Big Ten in route to a 14-3 record and an outright conference title. Instead, losing their second-leading scorer and senior team leader in Livers indefinitely with a rumored stress fracture is a massive blow that throws the entire region into flux and potential chaos. In a bracket that seems exceptionally chalky overall, this looks like the best region to take a shot at an upset winner.

Upsets We Like:

#12 Georgetown over #5 Colorado: Colorado was the most overseeded team in the dance based on our math, and Georgetown is the strongest #12 seed of the bunch in terms of overall efficiency. After Patrick Ewing’s squad blew threw the Big East tourney to claim an automatic bid that no one saw coming, it’s hard to imagine anyone is excited to play such a hot team in the first round. The Buffaloes excel at the free throw line with an 82% percentage from the stripe which ranks 2nd nationally, but Georgetown isn’t a particularly foul-happy bunch, ranking 41st in opponent free throws attempted per 100 possessions, and on the flip side, the Hoyas hit 23/23 from the line in their conference tourney win over Villanova. Colorado’s loss to Oregon State ironically happened to result in the other bid steal, so by transitive property, you’ve got to take the actual bid stealer over the team that lost to the other bid stealer. KenPom says this is the most likely of all the 12/5 upset possibilities (32.0%), while Colorado also has the lowest probability of any #5 seed to make the Sweet 16 (37.2%) due to a tough potential matchup against Florida State in the next round, so this pick doesn’t lose you much if it’s wrong.

#11 Michigan State over #6 BYU: There isn’t any analytical reason to believe in this pick, so let’s just call it a gut feeling. If Tom Izzo gets to this game, talent-wise it’s hard to pick against a Big-Ten battle tested squad coming off of wins against Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State over its last seven games. Aaron Henry has been on a mission for the Spartans, and it’s tough to forget BYU’s utter collapse in their conference final over the final minutes. Sparty is ranked 56th in three point percentage defense and can seal off BYU’s main strength shooting from three point range (34th nationally). BYU is the weakest of the #6 seeds in terms of overall efficiency, but we don’t like this pick nearly as much if UCLA beats Michigan State.

#9 St. Bonaventure over #8 LSU: Fun fact! LSU’s defensive efficiency ranking of 125th is by far the worst of any at large team in the tournament. That essentially eliminates them from Final Four consideration, so this is a low risk pick against a far more balanced Bonnies team that looks underseeded to our eyes after winning the Atlantic 10 regular season and conference tournament titles, ranking 17th in defensive efficiency and 38th in offensive efficiency.

#7 Connecticut over #2 Alabama: This is the big one. You’ve got to take one of these #2 seeds to lose early and Alabama, the weakest of the bunch in terms of overall efficiency, seems like the perfect candidate, getting a pretty tough draw here while seemingly riding high off of a conference championship. Conversely, UConn is by far the strongest of the #7 seeds from an analytical standpoint, has a bonafide star in James Bouknight, and poses a matchup problem here for the Crimson Tide with the strength of their perimeter defense, which ranks 15th nationally in three point shots made per game. From a historical standpoint, Alabama is a complete toss from Final Four contention based on their reliance on the three point shot, ranking 2nd nationally in points from three and 13th in three point rate, while only 104th in three point shooting percentage. Those numbers suggest that an off night from the arc will come at some point, and the value comes in predicting that sooner than later against a hungry team that may be able to neutralize Alabama’s strength. The fact that UConn’s three point percentage defense isn’t nearly as good as their ability to keep teams from actually making three point shots equates to only one thing statistically: they’re great at shutting off and limiting the three point shot itself as a scoring option, and that will take Alabama completely out of its game plan. Alabama’s odds to make the Final 4 (18%) and the Elite 8 (38%) are the lowest of any #2 seed per KenPom while UConn’s chances to make the Sweet 16 are by far the highest of any #7 seed (25.4%), so this pick feels low risk and logical. Additionally, no #2 seed that began the season unranked has ever made the Final Four (32 tries).

Regional Final:

#3 Texas over #1 Michigan: We had Texas as a Top 4 team and surefire Final Four contender following its preseason Maui Invitational win. The Longhorns became a bit overlooked following a three game losing streak in February following a Covid pause, but have gone 5-0 in March including a Big 12 Tournament title, which makes them undefeated this season in tournament settings. Assuming they can take care of the basketball in a landmine game against a tough #14 seed first round in Abilene Christian that forces a lot of turnovers, Texas would look poised to take advantage of what will likely be a short-handed Michigan team. Texas is stacked and experienced starting four upperclassmen, and can really spread the floor behind the sharp-shooting Courtney Ramey and streaking Andrew Jones, whose cancer recovery story is one of the best in recent college basketball memory. This should be an entertaining battle in the paint as well between the Longhorn big man Jericho Sims, who ranks 2nd in the nation in field goal percentage, and Michigan freshman seven-footer Hunter Dickinson. In a bracket that could open up for Texas with our predicted upsets, it’s hard to bet against a veteran backcourt that is clicking right now against a Michigan squad with big injury questions.

SOUTH

Baylor is probably the toughest team to figure out of any of the #1 seeds. The Bears looked dominant for half of the season before a long Covid pause that clearly took them out of their element. Notably, it’s the defense that has declined massively for what may be the single best shooting team in the nation. The question of whether they can regain their form on defense (currently a mediocre 43rd in efficiency) is anyone’s guess at this point. They would be a team we would be eager to play against in another region, but the #2 seed in this one, Ohio State, has an even worse defensive profile that eliminates them from Final Four contention if history is any indication. The top seed could have to navigate two feisty Big 10 squads in Wisconsin and Purdue just to reach the Regional Final, and what happens in the bottom part of this bracket could go a lot of different ways. According to KenPom, no #1 seed has a lower probability to advance to the Final Four than Baylor (31.5%).

Upsets We Like:

#9 Wisconsin over #8 North Carolina: Call this a KenPom pick, as there isn’t a bigger efficiency margin difference between any of the other 8/9 tossup games. It’s true that Wisconsin hasn’t beaten many of the Big 10 top tier teams, but North Carolina ended up without a single Quad 1A win. The main concern for the Badgers will be on the boards, as UNC is the best in the nation on the offensive glass, but Wisconsin is no slouch rebounding the ball, ranking 60th in defensive rebounding percentage, and has the better backcourt in this matchup. They also take great care of the basketball, ranking 2nd nationally in turnover percentage. North Carolina came on late in the season but may find challenges scoring with its 53rd ranked offense against a stout Badger defense which ranks 13th in efficiency. The wrong team is favored here, as Wisconsin looms the strongest #9 seed in the field in terms of efficiency.  

#10 Virginia Tech over #7 Florida: This might be the biggest toss up game of the entire first round, and Vegas seems to agree, as it is the only pick ‘em line at the moment. However, it’s the first game of the tournament and it should be a competitive one, so bettors simply have to pick a side even in a low confidence scenario to get the juices flowing. We will lean towards the Hokies here, who have had time to recover from a long Covid layoff, and have proven their ability to beat good teams with wins over Villanova and Virginia this season. Florida seems to play every game down to the wire, regardless of the opponent, but Virginia Tech has a real advantage here on the boards, as they rank 22nd in defensive rebounding percentage while Florida struggles in that area, ranking just 291st.

#3 Arkansas over #2 Ohio State: There has been an unwillingness to accept and understand how good Ohio State is all season long on our end. Their 79th ranked defense would seemingly make them a complete toss to even be considered to get any further than this game, yet they continue to play right down to the wire against teams we fancy as title contenders. The double digit lead they lost to Purdue was horrific, yet they came back to do the same two days day later when losing to Illinois, splitting overtime decisions. They’ve certainly played and beaten teams with better offenses and defenses than Arkansas, but the Razorbacks’ 14th ranked defense might just be enough to give the 4th ranked Buckeye offense a new look and throw them off their game. Arkansas can also make the Buckeyes uncomfortable by forcing the pace and taking Ohio State out of its game plan, as the Razorbacks rank 12th in possessions per game compared to Ohio State at 243rd. Per KenPom, Arkansas has the highest probability to make both the Elite 8 and the Final 4 of any of the #3 seeds, and with Ohio State eliminated from the latter by our formula due to their defensive profile, this is a pick that simply has to be made. Also, PIG SOOOEY!!

Upset to Avoid:

#12 Winthrop over #5 Villanova: This seems to be the trendiest pick of all of the 12/5 upset possibilities after Villanova lost senior Colin Gillespie to a season-ending MCL industry. Winthrop has done nothing but win, but has played an incredible 20 of its 24 games against Quad 4 opponents. We can’t forget that Villanova, even with all of its blemishes, is still a very well coached basketball team and will have all of the best players on the floor in this matchup starting with Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Winthrop will have the advantage in the backcourt behind 6-7 point guard Chandler Vaudrin, but this still feels like a reach; Villanova is the single highest rated #5 seed in terms of overall efficiency, while Winthrop is the very lowest rated #12 seed.

Regional Final:

#1 Baylor over #3 Arkansas: Wouldn’t this be a great throwback game to the glory days of the Southwest Conference? It’s easy to forget that there was a time this season when Baylor and Gonzaga were considered on equal levels with one another, and it’s still such a shame that the game between them in Indy had to be canceled. There’s a chance we will get that game anyway if Scott Drew’s team can find their footing again defensively, and the smart bet is that they will as the tournament goes on. The talent level is there, and it’s hard to pick against such a good shooting team with an experienced starting five. The Bears rank first in three point shooting percentage and third in effective field goal percentage, and start two juniors and two seniors, while Arkansas (35th in offensive efficiency) doesn’t have quite the explosiveness on offense needed to expose Baylor’s sudden defensive deficiencies anyway; in fact, none of the Bears’ likely opponents in this region do. Outside of a depleted Villanova team, the highest ranked offensive team that Baylor could face would be Purdue (23rd).  Baylor also figures to have advantages rebounding the ball, especially on the offensive end, where they rank 6th in terms of percentage, while the Razorbacks can struggle to rebound opponent misses, ranking just 110th in defensive rebounding percentage.

MIDWEST:

It certainly was quite the decision by the committee to create a potential Illinois-Loyola second round matchup, and aside from the inferno that would engulf the entire Chicago area during this game, that was quite the slap in the face to the overall #2 seed to have to potentially play a Top 10 KenPom team in the second round. If Illinois can avoid that trap in what would be an epic moment for the entire state, they should have pretty steady waters the rest of the way here, relatively speaking. It’s also worth of mention that either the committee pays very little attention to analytics, or they just like doing weird things. There are just three mid-major teams in the KenPom Top 20, and they are all placed in this region.

Upsets We Like:

#10 Rutgers over #7 Clemson: A likely rough watch between two teams with solid defenses and challenged offenses, Rutgers is at least a battle-hardened squad that can beat you inside and out with a tough post presence in Myles Johnson paired with the perimeter shooting threats of Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker. Clemson’s early exit in the ACC tourney against Miami doesn’t inspire much confidence. The Tigers have the lowest probability to advance to the Sweet 16 of any of the #7 seeds (12.2%), and are also the lowest ranked in terms of overall efficiency of that group. Rutgers should be motivated here to capitalize on their best season in recent memory while getting a bit of class relief from the Big 10 grind.

 #5 Tennessee over #4 Oklahoma State: In a battle of two teams that we see as having absolutely no Final Four shot based on their weak offensive efficiency numbers and are both the weakest of their respective seeds in terms of overall efficiency, the pick here feels relatively low stakes. Oklahoma State seems vastly underseeded based on its body of work, and even worse, draws a Liberty team that plays a pack line defense and takes great care of the basketball, a matchup disadvantage that could really cause some problems for the Cowboys in the first round. This pick is predicated on the idea that 1) Oklahoma State’s likelihood of losing first round is greater than Tennessee’s is (the most likely 13/4 upset compared to the least likely 12/5 upset, and the lowest probability of any #4 seed to make the Sweet 16 of 37.6%), 2) Tennessee’s defense is the single best unit on the court (4th in the nation in terms of efficiency), and 3) Cade Cunningham’s injury may limit him more than expected. The Vols have two likely top 10 NBA picks of their own in Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer.

#6 San Diego State over #3 West Virginia: If the Aztecs can get past a tricky spot first round against a suddenly hot Syracuse team, they’ll get a favorable matchup against the worst defensive Mountaineer team in recent memory. West Virginia’s 65th ranked defense eliminates them from Final Four contention, so this is a fair spot to take a shot against them. They simply haven’t been consistent in closing out games, giving up a ridiculous run late to Oklahoma State in the first round of the Big 12 tourney after building a ten point lead, and it bears mention that they have the lowest probability of any #3 seed to advance to the Elite 8 (17.1%), so this feels like a low risk, high return pick in your bracket.

Regional Final:

#1 Illinois over #2 Houston: In a matchup of a couple of strength versus strengths, the Illini could have their work cut out for them against the nation’s #1 shooting defense, but should find a matchup advantage on the interior and are no slouch shooting the basketball themselves, as they rank 6th nationally in shooting percentage. Houston also hits the offensive glass hard, ranking 2nd in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, but Illinois can neutralize that advantage with the 14th best defensive rebounding percentage in the land. It’s hard to know what to expect from Houston, who has built an incredibly solid analytical profile (8th in offensive efficiency and 16th in defensive efficiency) behind star guard Quentin Grimes while playing in a very weak conference (the 106th strongest schedule according to KenPom). The Cougars have looked dominant at times against weak competition, but their losses (Tulsa, East Carolina and Witchita State) have been true head-scratchers. It is tough to find an angle that creates much confidence that they will be capable of defeating the nation’s hottest and deepest team as they haven’t defeated a true tournament team since November, but the numbers see them as a pretty safe bet to advance to this spot, as Ken Pom gives them the highest probability of any #2 seed to advance to the Elite 8 (49.8%).

Final Four:

#1 Gonzaga over #3 Texas: There seems to always be a rather lopsided Final Four game, and this matchup seems to fit that mold. Texas will have done a lot just to make it this far, but are simply outmanned in this spot. The Longhorns provide a value option as a Final Four player, but it doesn’t make much logical sense to take a shot with them here against the undefeated Zags, a tremendous offensive team who lead the nation in efficiency and effective field goal percentage. Texas and their 34th ranked defense in terms of efficiency may struggle to contain them.

#1 Illinois over #1 Baylor: The rematch of an early December game that saw Baylor win 82-69 in fairly easy fashion finds these two teams in completely different spots in April. Illinois is battle tested and hasn’t had to deal with any stoppages in play within their program, and has had to overcome countless close games and late deficits. Ayo Dosumnu is the best clutch player in the land, and he will make the difference in the backcourt battle as the Baylor defense loses its legs late, reversing the outcome of the first matchup down the stretch in this one in a close finish. In the end, Baylor’s 44th ranked defense catches up to them against an Illinois defense ranked 5th in efficiency, and Kofi Cockburn becomes too much to handle on the interior.

National Championship:

#1 Illinois over #1 Gonzaga: This is the title game everyone should be hoping for, and by the looks of it, will be a pretty popular pick, as well as a logical one. Both teams rank in the Top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency per KenPom; the only other team that can boast such a claim is Michigan, but they may not be able to duplicate those numbers without Livers. We will reverse the presumed outcome we see most experts leaning towards, however, in a game that could admittedly go either way. Gonzaga has two likely lottery picks in Jalen Suggs and first team All-American Corey Kispert, but can’t match the depth of the Illini, who can legitimately go eight deep and not lose a step, and has a matchup advantage down low with Cockburn (The third player off the Illini bench is Da’Monte Williams, who leads the nation in three point shooting percentage). Pedigree could make the difference here, as Illinois has played a top three schedule nationally, while Gonzaga’s ranks just 95th despite a respectable preseason slate. Look for the Illini to capture their first ever National Championship and the first for the Big Ten since 2000, while preserving a historic record for a certain fellow conference rival.

BEST BETS

Futures:

Illinois- National Champion +600

Texas- Final 4 +600, Elite 8 +300

Arkansas- Elite 8 +375

UConn- Sweet 16 +250

USC- Sweet 16 +150

San Diego State- Sweet 16 +200

Tennessee- Sweet 16 +120

Purdue- Sweet 16 +100

UC Santa Barbara- Sweet 16 +800

First Round:

Virginia Tech ML -105

Wisconsin ML +105

Rutgers ML -135 or -2 -115

Georgetown ML +210

St. Bonaventure ML +104

UC Santa Barbara ML +225

UConn ML-150 or -3 -110

Ohio ML +255

Missouri ML -107

Michigan St ML over BYU