Last Sunday was a big day for me. For one, it was Christmas Morning for college basketball with the bracket’s unveiling. However, that reveal led straight into the Oscars. I don’t particularly enjoy watching, but I relish following the drama of who wins and loses. If you’ve seen the film that swept just about every single category it was nominated in, Everything Everywhere All at Once, you’ll know the villain (without spoiling who that is) gets their motivation by putting everything in the multiverse onto a literal bagel in a quest to find meaning, leading to the conclusion that we’re really nothing in the overwhelming cosmic picture, and thus nothing matters. That’s how I feel about NCAA tournament analysis at this point. If you look for predictions or bracket advice, you get everything from everyone everywhere all at once. KenPom? Torvik? BPI? RPI? NET rankings? (Let’s not talk about those.) Jay Bilas’s ESPN+ Exclusive Official Bracket? Who’s to trust? You’re left staring at that giant, black void of an analytics bagel with no conclusions.
(I preferred Puss in Boots: the Last Wish’s meditations on existentialism and life’s impermanence for Best Picture to EEAAO’s forays into nihilism, but I digress.)
Well, the purpose of this piece is NOT offering bracket advice or predicting games. I want to sort out that bagel of information as much as I can, though. What’s one statistical storyline to glean about every game this weekend? My findings may affect your picks in some manner, but again, this is not advice. Please don’t DM me saying “u don’t know ball” after you incorrectly pick Utah State to the Final Four because I say they’re a bit underseeded. I’m simply here to observe and report; I’m a bracket auditor. You should get the glory for making good picks anyway, and copying a bracket is like doing a note-for-note cover. If you want a good cover, do something like Dinosaur Jr. did with “Just Like Heaven.” Go crazy and be bold. I went 28 of 32 in the first round 2 years ago but only got 1 Elite Eight team right last year, so don’t listen to me. If you learn something here, make it your own!
Cats Stats’ Advanced Stats Glossary: The “Four Factors“
eFG% – An adiusted field goal percentage metric that accounts for the fact that three-point shots are worth more than two-point shots. On defense, it’s the eFG% allowed. NATIONAL AVERAGE: 50.5%
TOV% – On offense, it’s the estimated percentage of possessions that a team turns the ball over. On defense, it is an estimated number of possessions the team forces a turnover. NATIONAL AVERAGE: 18.2%
ORB% – The percentage of rebound opportunities on offense where the team successfully gets a rebound. On defense, it’s the offensive rebound percentage allowed to the other team (also known as DRB%). NATIONAL AVERAGE: 28.5%
FT% – The percentage of shots that result in a trip to the free throw line (only includes 2-point attempts). Calculated by FTA/FGA. NATIONAL AVERAGE: 31.6%
1 Alabama vs. 16 Texas A&M CC / SE Missouri St.
The Tide snatched the top-overall seed in the dance for the first time in program history off the back of steamrolling through 3 games in 3 days at the SEC tournament. They defeated 3 tournament teams (11 Mississippi State, 7 Missouri, and 7 Texas A&M) all by double digits en route to the SEC title. If you’ve watched the Tide the past couple of seasons (or watched them lose to your Davidson Wildcats last season) you’ll know they’re built around high-octane offense. They ranked 4th in adjusted tempo this season per both KenPom and Torvik. However, you might not have noticed they’re the top defense in the nation this year in terms of opponent effective field goal percentage at a smothering 41.5%. Their reward is facing one of the two lowest-rated teams in the bracket: KenPom #257 SEMO or #170 Texas A&M CC. Update: Texas A&M CC advanced, winning 75-71.
8 Maryland vs. 9 West Virginia
The NCAA loves their geographical rivalries, so the border war between Maryland and WVU should be an unsurprising matchup here. They haven’t met since the 2015 Tournament. This is also the first game of the dance (outside the First Four), tipping at 12:15 Thursday, at which point I will tragically be in class. However, it ranks 1st among Thursday games in the Torvik Thrill Quotient at 80, and projections spit out nearly coin-flip odds. It’s worth noting that this is the only 8/9 matchup this year where the 9-seed is actually ranked higher on both KenPom and Torvik, and 9s went 3-1 last year against the 8s. The storyline here is turnovers: the Mountaineers are top 50 at forcing them (20.9% turnover rate on defense), while the Terps are top-50 at avoiding them (16.2% on offense).
5 San Diego St. vs. 12 Charleston
You may remember Charleston’s game against Davidson in the Charleston Classic. I’d rather not reminisce, but let’s just say the Cougars looked really, really good during both that tournament and the majority of the season, eclipsing 30 wins and cracking the AP Top 25 at one point. The Cougars want to overwhelm you with tempo and a barrage of threes (9th in 3PT attempt rate at 47%). They win by winning extra possessions: lots of threes lead to plenty of long rebounds, thus plenty of offensive rebounds. Charleston ranks 17th in ORB rate at 35.1%. However, they got a tough draw in a feisty SDSU defense, so they’ll need all the extra possessions they can get against the #7 3PT defense in America, which holds opponents to 29.2% from deep. This one comes down to Charleston’s stroke from outside and their ability to earn more shot attempts against a good (but not quite great) defensive rebounding SDSU team (64th nationally). That’s nothing the Cougars aren’t used to. A rock fight here would favor the Aztecs, who have the best odds of advancing among 5-seeds on Torvik at 78%.
4 Virginia vs. 13 Furman
Furman, Davidson’s old SoCon rival and most played all-time opponent, just made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1980. They’ll tango with a UVA team that lost their last time out as a 4-seed to Ohio in 2021. In fact, they’ve lost in the first round 2 of their last 3 tries in March. (Don’t ask Auburn fans about that time they didn’t.) Despite the championship pedigree, Virginia looks overseeded by advanced metrics: they’re on the 4 line despite ranking outside the top 32 on both KP and Torvik. The Cavaliers are, as always, built on a Tony Bennett pack-line defense (ranked 25th in defensive efficiency) that lives in the gaps and takes away the dribble drive. It’s prone to cracking when facing a deluge from long distance, though, and Furman’s sharpshooting gives them more than a puncher’s chance. The Paladins rank 10th in eFG% at a red-hot 55.6%. They’re also 1st in 2PT% at 59.1%. Two-point defense is Virginia’s calling card (35th nationally, 46.5%), so this one is strength-on-strength. Getting hot from outside the paint will be Furman’s path to an upset.
6 Creighton vs. 11 NC State
It’s tough not to like Creighton to make a run. Outside of a bizarre slump where the Jays lost 8 of 11 games, they’ve looked like one of the best teams in the nation, going 18-4 the rest of the year. They sport a balanced attack at 25th in offensive efficiency and 18th in defensive efficiency (Torvik). The Wolfpack have been a quality squad as well, except when facing Clemson, who blew them out by a combined 51 points in 2 recent losses. One of the starkest statistical storylines I’ve found in the whole bracket could decide this one. The Wolfpack ranks 340th nationally in free throw attempt rate on offense at 25.3%. Creighton, on the other hand, is elite at guarding without fouling: they’re 2nd best nationally at a 19.8% defensive FTr. It’s going to be tough for NC State to steal one if they can’t get to the charity stripe.
3 Baylor vs. 14 UC Santa Barbara
Baylor recently hung a National Championship banner, but this year’s team looks a bit different. Why? Their defense is just…not good. Despite being the #2 team in Torvik’s adjusted offensive efficiency, they’re 99th on the other end. That includes poor rebounding (300th in DRB%) and alarming defense on close two-pointers (teams shoot a wildly efficient 72.7% against the Bears there, even if they only get there 30% of the time). If there’s any hope for an upset, it rides on UCSB getting to the cup often (a relatively high 40.8% of their FGA are close twos) and converting there often (they shoot an impressive 63.6% close to the rim). Do with this information what you will, but know only one 14-seed has defeated their 3 in the last 5 dances. Maybe a 14 is due, but it’s tough to pull the trigger when admiring Baylor’s offensive juggernaut. Also note that Baylor has the 2nd-best odds of advancing among 3-seeds on Torvik.
7 Missouri vs. 10 Utah State
Pop quiz! Who were the last 2 #10 seeds to be ranked in the top 20 on KenPom entering the dance*? One of them you can probably guess: Davidson entered the 2008 tournament 14th in KP and finished 11th. You know what happened there. The other was 2017 Wichita State, who lost by 3 to a 2-seed, Elite Eight team in Kentucky in the second round. Those were the only such cases I could find of this happening, but 2006 11-seed George Mason, who made the Final Four, entered 22nd, and 2014 11-seed Tennessee, ranked 14th pre-tourney, made the Sweet Sixteen. 10-seed 2002 Kent State, an Elite Eight participant, was similarly 24th pre-dance. These sorts of double-digit seeds are rare. On an unrelated note, Utah State currently sits at 18th. It’s tough to call the 26-win Aggies “underseeded” when they got punished by the committee for losing two Quad 4 games, but they’re underseeded strictly by the analytics. Missouri, on the other hand, is the most “extreme” team in the whole tournament. There’s a difference of 164 places in their defensive (174th) and offensive ratings (10th) on Torvik, second most among anyone in the bracket. They can shoot the lights out themselves but may struggle to get stops against an Aggies team that is 10th in offensive eFG% at 55.6%. The Aggies are a vastly better defense and are given a 64% chance of advancing on Torvik, which is just absurd for a 10 seed. Remember though, this isn’t advice.
*Author’s note: I take serious issue with retroactively using post-tournament KP/Torvik ratings. Be wary of some analysts, because teams naturally rise when they win a bunch of games, and it’s disingenuous to cite efficiency numbers after a deep run. That’s not predicting, it’s observing.
2 Arizona vs. 15 Princeton
What happens when you can’t force turnovers and the other team is really really good at playing really really fast? Nothing good, usually. Princeton had an impressive Ivy League title run after finally vanquishing nemesis Yale, but they force turnovers at a very low 14.5% clip on defense, ranking 349th out of 363 DI teams. Arizona, on the other hand, is 4th in offensive rating and plays at a frenetic pace, ranking 7th in adjusted tempo. A 15-seed has won in the last 2 tournaments, but Arizona is a stout 2 after winning an intense, high-level PAC-12 Championship Game.
1 Purdue vs. 16 Texas Southern / Fairleigh Dickinson
Purdue won the B1G Championship and has 5 straight entering the dance, which is almost enough to make one forget the Boilermakers went 3-4 in February. However, have you considered all 7 foot 4 inches of Zach Edey? 22.3 PPG. 12.8 RPG. A 64.7 true shooting percentage. Your only unanimous All-American. Soon-to-be runaway NPOTY. To win, you have to make Edey give it up, then hope Purdue’s young backcourt turns the rock over. Their losses to Indiana (the 1st time), Rutgers, and Northwestern all occurred due to a turnover rate over 20% on offense. They also nearly lost to Ohio State and Maryland when doing so, escaping with 1 possession wins. Texas Southern, the only team dancing with a losing record after stealing the SWAC auto-bid, does not force many turnovers. However, FDU does; they’re 32nd nationally at a 21.4% rate. That and an ice-cold Boilermaker shooting performance are how this gets interesting.
8 Memphis vs. 9 Florida Atlantic
Memphis just knocked off the #2 overall seed Houston in the AAC title game, but the Tigers will have their hands full with an Owls team on a 7-game win streak that just dismantled a very good UAB squad in the C-USA title game. They’re also one of 4 teams in the field with at least 30 wins already, sitting at a pretty 31-3. Memphis excels at making you settle for threes; over 40% of their opponents’ shots come from beyond the arc. However, the good news for the Owls is they love the long ball: they shoot 37.2% from deep and happily take over 43% of their shots from downtown. If FAU is tickling the twine from outside, they are a very dangerous matchup for the American champs, or anyone, for that matter. Final note: this game is 1st for the entire 1st round in Torvik Thrill Quotient at 82. (I think either of these teams can and will hang with Purdue, so this is appointment television for me.)
5 Duke vs. 12 Oral Roberts
ORU captured plenty of hearts dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen as a 15 two years ago, and they retain half of the dynamic duo that powered the run in Max Abmas, who averages 22.2 a game. They retain the spread offensive principles and pick-and-pop scheme with Connor Vanover serving as Abmas’s stretch big. Abmas has logo range, and the Golden Eagles will use that to set very high screens and extend the defense as far to the perimeter as possible. ORU’s offense is elite with Abmas at the helm: they’re 7th in eFG% and 1st in turnover rate at only 13.2%. That could be the path to toppling Duke, who forces turnovers on only 16.6% of defensive possessions. The Golden Eagles will play fast (36th in tempo), while Duke will play a methodical game (286th in tempo) riding the post scoring of 7-footer Kyle Filipowski (15.4 PPG). Pay mind to who dictates the pace and turnover battle here. It will be tough for ORU to compete with Duke in a slower half-court game, but Abmas can and will cook in transition if things get sped up, forcing Jon Scheyer and Duke to go small-ball.
4 Tennessee vs. 13 Louisiana
Remember when Tennessee was #2 in the country, with wins over Texas and Kansas? Then beat Alabama after the Tide finally ascended to #1? Maybe not, because this is a “what have you done for me lately” game, and the Vols are reeling. They’ve lost 6 of 10 coming into the dance, including 2 on buzzer-beaters. They lost PG Zakai Zeigler, the embodiment of the team’s grind-it-out culture, to a torn ACL. However, momentum didn’t help them avoid a first weekend exit last year after winning the SEC Tournament, so maybe bad momentum won’t hurt them this time around. The other bad news? Rick Barnes has a losing record in the Big Dance at 25-26. The good at last? The Vols are AWESOME at defense. They hold opponents to a 42.4 eFG%, 2nd best in America. They also force plenty of turnovers, and their great offensive rebounding (5th in ORB%) can mask shooting issues (sometimes). That gives them the best chance among the 4-seeds at advancing on paper at Torvik with an 85% win probability. The Ragin’ Cajuns are an excellent offense, though, and have one other key advantage: they’re great at getting to the FT line, with a 37.7% offensive FTr. The Vols’ hyper-aggressive ball pressure can cause foul trouble; they’re 267th in defensive FTr, allowing opponents to shoot FTs for 34% of FGA. If Louisiana finds a way to shoot it as well as they usually do and gets to the line early and often, they can give the Vols another March to forget.
6 Kentucky vs. 11 Providence
If you want an “old-school” game decided in the half-court offense and the paint, here’s one for you. These teams have quite similar profiles. Both are exactly 21-11. Both are elite at offensive rebounding, at 2nd for the ‘Cats and 14th for the Friars. Neither likes shooting threes very much, either; only a hair over 30% of each’s shots come from beyond the arc. If this is a game decided down low, which it trends to be, reigning NPOTY Oscar Tshiebwe could be the star power that makes the difference; he’s also surely eager to avenge the ‘Cats’ loss to 15-seed St. Peter’s that soured a dominant campaign last season. However, note that Kentucky has relatively low odds of advancing for a 6-seed at 61% on Torvik. Also note 11-seeds have a winning record against 6s over the last 10 tourneys at 21-19. Also note that it’s been 19 years since an 11-seed failed to advance.
3 Kansas State vs. 14 Montana State
If you like free throws, here’s a game for you! Montana State is the 4th best team in the country at getting to the line according to FTr, while K-State is 45th. Moreover, both of these squads don’t defend well without fouling: they’re 282nd and 298th in defensive FTr, respectively. Expect a lot of trips to the charity stripe. I don’t like watching teams shoot free throws, but I love watching players sweat out free throws in a close game. If this game is indeed close, it will be due to Montana State turning the Wildcats over often; KSU is 298th with a 20% turnover rate on offense. When KSU gets careless, they play a dangerous game. However, they have the horses to run with anyone, with 2 3rd team All-Americans in Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson.
7 Michigan State vs. 10 USC
January. February. Izzo? Since the dramatic 2019 Final Four run that cemented this T-shirt slogan, Sparty has lost double-digit games in every non-Covid-interrupted season and failed to reach the second weekend. If I were picking games off vibes, I’d say MSU feels “due” for another trademark Izzo run, but I’m not picking games here! The Spartans don’t attempt a lot of threes (a 32% attempt rate), but they’re exceptionally good at hitting them, converting 39.5% from range. 3 of their starters shoot over 40% from distance. That’s going to be crucial against a USC team that excels at defending twos. Even without a Mobley brother protecting the rim this year, the Trojans have the 2nd-best 2PT defense in the nation, allowing opponents to score on only 42.4% of attempts. MSU, by comparison, has a relatively low 47.7% success rate converting twos. That’s 279th nationally. USC wins by riding their strong defense (9th in eFG% against) and getting just enough production from star G Boogie Ellis, who averages 18.0 PPG. MSU wins by making it rain from the perimeter, because going inside on USC is very difficult.
2 Marquette vs. 15 Vermont
Vermont is the ever-dangerous low-seed that seems like they should have at least lucked into a deep run by now; they’ve made 4 out of the past 6 tournaments. The Catamounts got their worst seed during that stretch this time around, however, falling to the 15 line. Coincidentally, they’ve won 15 straight after an 8-10 start. This is Torvik’s most likely 2-15 upset at 18% odds for Vermont, but they’ll have to get past an explosive Marquette offense. The Golden Eagles have 9 straight of their own, boast the 8th-best eFG% nationally, and are the 3rd-best 2PT shooting team in America, converting at a 58.8% clip. That’s problematic for a Vermont team that’s mediocre at defending the 2; they allow opponents to convert on 50% of these attempts.
1 Houston vs. 16 Northern Kentucky
For only the 3rd time in the history of KenPom (since 2002), and first time since 2006 the #1 team in adjusted efficiency is below a +30.0 net. (That’s essentially the plus-minus for a team per 100 possessions against the “average” NCAA team.) There’s still an NCAA Tournament to be played, but at +28.82, it seems unlikely Houston will climb above that threshold, barring a dominant run. Therefore, Houston, this year’s #1 on KP, is weaker than the average best team in college basketball for the last two decades. Even with this relative parity of the bracket this year, the Cougars are still the clear-cut top dog by the metrics entering March: Torvik also has them at #1. Marcus Sasser, Houston’s top scorer (17.7 PPG) and 1st team All-American, missed the AAC Championship loss to Memphis after sustaining an injury in the semifinal, but will likely be ready for the tournament. Northern Kentucky can force turnovers with their aggressive defense (13th nationally at 23.2%), but the Cougars are a perennial defensive powerhouse. I love the interesting matchup zone scheme of NKU, but like any zone, it’s vulnerable on the glass. The Norse struggle at defensive rebounding, giving up a 32.8 ORB% to opponents, which is especially problematic against a Houston team that has a dominant 37.1 ORB% (4th in DI). Expect a low-scoring game, with both teams in the bottom 20 in tempo nationally.
8 Iowa vs. 9 Auburn
In 13 years and 7 appearances in the dance, Iowa has never made the second weekend with Fran McCaffrey at the helm. They didn’t even get past the round of 32 as a 2-seed with NPOTY Luka Garza two years ago, and they fell to 12-seed Richmond last year in the first round. The problem has been defense, and it lingers. The Hawkeyes are the only team more unbalanced than Mizzou, with the #3 Torvik offense but #178 defense. They allow opponents to shoot at a 53.3 eFG%. Auburn, on the other hand, holds opponents to an elite 45.6 eFG%, good for 12th nationally. However, the Tigers also bowed out of the tournament in the round of 32 recently; they fell to Miami as a 2-seed last year. They do possess balance, ranking 38th in offensive efficiency and 27th in defensive. The ultimate “something’s gotta give” here, however, is the 3PT shot. Auburn is 312th in 3PT% (31.4%), while Iowa is 316th in 3PT defense (36.6%). Conventional wisdom says poor defense heats up streaky shooting, but Iowa can score with anyone.
5 Miami vs. 12 Drake
Experience is always the wildcard when predicting March performance. There’s essentially no quantitative conclusions on how much it increases a team’s odds. However, common sense says it should matter; it makes one more poised and confident in a high-pressure environment. If you subscribe to that theory, this matchup will intrigue you. Drake is the “oldest” team in all of DI basketball, while Miami is fresh off an Elite Eight run last March. Drake doesn’t allow opponents to get to the rim often; the Bulldogs’ opponents only attempt 29.1% of their shots close to the basket. That could be crucial against an explosive Miami offense built on guards’ back-cuts to the rim to spread the defense. The ‘Canes shoot an elite 64.8% on close 2PTs. If Miami is getting inside with ease, it’s tough to see a path for Drake. However, the ‘Canes have only a 52% chance of advancing on Torvik, which is by far the lowest of any 5-seed. They recently lost big man Norchad Omier (13.6 PPG / 9.7 REB) to an ankle injury, though we could still see him Thursday. Miami also doesn’t play good defense (136th in efficiency), and Drake is a balanced, experienced club, only 8 spots below Miami in Torvik’s overall efficiency (38th vs. 46th). They’ve also won 13 of 14 and avenged their only loss in that span by drubbing Bradley in the MVC title bout.
4 Indiana vs. 13 Kent State
The Hoosiers limp into this one having lost 4 of their last 8, despite sweeping their archrival Purdue. Their reward is a date with the MAC Champion Golden Flashes, one of the most aggressive defenses in college basketball. They rank 20th in turnover rate forced and 36th in opponent eFG%, at the cost of foul issues (their opponents have a 38.8% FTr). Indiana’s shot selection may decide this one. They shoot more mid-range shots than almost anyone, with 33.6% of their FGs coming in the long 2PT range. Kent State, on the other hand, forces opponents to shoot outside more than nearly anyone; their opponents take 40.7% of shots beyond the arc, but they shoot a very poor 30.9% from there. If Indiana settles for tough shots and can’t pound it inside with 1st team All-American F Trayce Jackson-Davis (20.8 PPG), they may have trouble. They’re also mediocre at avoiding turnovers. Finally, note that Indiana has the lowest odds of advancing among 4-seeds at 64%; they’re the only 4 with a less than 70% chance of victory per Torvik.
6 Iowa State vs. 11 Mississippi State / Pitt
Iowa State just loves playing defense. They rode a top 10 ranked unit on KenPom last season to the Sweet Sixteen, and they’re in the top 10 once again entering this March at 8th. However, expect a drastically different game depending on whoever wins the play-in. Mississippi State is the most extreme defense-first team in the field, with a defensive efficiency (9th) 168 spots above their offense (177th). Both teams also rank in the top 25 in defensive turnover rate. If MSU comes out of Dayton, these two may not combine to reach triple digits. Pitt is probably the matchup ISU prefers: the Panthers can score (29th in Torvik’s AdjO), but they aren’t good at forcing opponents to turn it over (16.7 TOV%), which is often a problem for the Cyclones (285th on offense at 19.8%). If that’s the matchup, it’s strength-on-strength with a great offense and defense colliding. Update: Pitt defeated MSU 60-59 to advance.
3 Xavier vs. 14 Kennesaw State
Xavier is one of the best offenses in the nation, ranking 10th in eFG% at 55.6% and 3rd in 3PT% at 39.5%. However, the Owls of Kennesaw State can shoot the rock too; they’re 33rd in 3PT% at 37.1%. That is the path to an upset against a Xavier team that experiences lapses defensively. DePaul hung 84 and 8 threes on the Musketeers in the Big East Tournament, while Providence hung 89 and 11 triples on them just a week prior. Xavier just barely escaped those games. Overall, they’re a poor 168th in eFG% defensively. However, that’s still better than the Owls, who rank 212th. This one is trending to be high scoring, but it only gets interesting for KSU with an offensive implosion by the Musketeers.
7 Texas A&M vs. 10 Penn State
Penn State’s offensive game plan is mostly “Let Javon Pickett cook,” which has worked quite well as of late. The Nittany Lions made it all the way to the B1G Championship and had Purdue on the ropes before falling late. Led by their All-American triple-double threat, they’re 13th in eFG% and 5th in TOV%, taking great care of the rock. However, this matchup has the wild distinction of pitting the 2nd-best offensive FTr in the nation (Texas A&M, 45.9%) against the 3rd-worst (PSU, 21.4%). The Aggies also made their conference championship game, and if you believe in momentum, they’ve won 10 of their last 12. They can advance by riding their strong offensive rebounding and free throws. The Nittany Lions win by shooting just well enough to overcome the possessions they lose.
2 Texas vs. 15 Colgate
Much like our last 15-seed, Vermont, Colgate feels like a team that should’ve gone deep by now. The Raiders have made 4 of the past 5 tournaments. However, they drew an incredibly tough Texas team in the round of 64. The Raiders will light it up from long distance as the best 3PT shooting team (40.9%!!!) and eFG% team (58.6%) in America. The Horns are a solid defensive team in terms of eFG% against (47.8%), and they’ve held their last 4 opponents below 45% en route to the Big XII title. That included holding Kansas to a 4-17 performance from 3PT land. Colgate is fun once again, but with a top 20 offense and defense by the metrics, Texas may have too much firepower. The Raiders have to find a way to maintain their otherworldly shooting against a long and athletic Horns defense to have a chance.
1 Kansas vs. 16 Howard
If you’ve watched any Kansas game this year, you’ve likely heard the reigning national champs have the most Quadrant 1 wins of any team in the nation at a 17-7 record in those games. They also haven’t lost a single non-Q1 game, going 27-7 overall. Howard has made their first NCAA Tournament since 1992, but they have a daunting task awaiting them. If there’s any path for the Bison, they’re a great offensive rebounding team (33.8 ORB%) in part thanks to their love of the long ball (they shoot plenty of treys at a 37% clip). Kansas, on the other hand, is a relatively poor defensive rebounding team: they give up a 28.3 ORB%, a mediocre 174th nationally.
8 Arkansas vs. 9 Illinois
Picking 8-9 matchups between double-digit loss Power 6 teams are the bane of any bracketologist’s existence, but, personally, I love low-scoring basketball games. Here’s another likely one: both of these teams rank top 30 in eFG% defense and are great at defending the 2: the Hogs hold opponents to 46.9% and the Illini hold opponents to 45.3% from inside the arc. Both these teams are also outside the top 300 in 3PT%. However, here’s the key difference: less than 30% of Arkansas’s shots come from outside, while Illinois shoots 41.9% of their shots from 3PT land. That could be the statistical storyline to follow here; the Hogs are top 25 in 3PT defense (30.6% against), while the Illini allow opponents to connect on a mediocre 33.6% of triples.
5 St. Mary’s vs. 12 VCU
Once again, the West pits 2 top 30 eFG% defenses against each other. VCU’s havoc has its match in a St. Mary’s squad who can defend with anyone. The Gaels are one of the best rebounding teams in America, at 45th in ORB% and 2nd in DRB%, allowing opponents to collect only 21.4% of their misses. They also don’t have turnover issues: their guards all boast turnover rates below 13.8%, which is of course crucial against VCU’s pressure. All of these factors could help the Gaels play to their extremely slow pace, ranking 356th in tempo, which would take away the transition opportunities and extra possessions VCU loves to win. However, the Gaels are coming off a clunker offensive performance in the WCC Championship against Gonzaga where they posted a 37.0 eFG%. You don’t need me to tell you that you can’t beat anyone without making shots.
4 UConn vs. 13 Iona
Rick Pitino may not be head coach at Iona much longer, as rumors of his exit to St. John’s were swirling quite literally during the Gaels’ games in the MAAC Tournament. If he’s still focused on the Gaels, he has his hands full with a UConn team that looks much better than the usual 4-seed. The Huskies were #1 for a spell this season, and they’re still the #4 team in the nation on both KenPom and Torvik. The most pertinent stat here is that Connecticut is the best offensive rebounding team in America (39.2%), while Iona is outside the top 300 in keeping opponents off the offensive glass (30.8 ORB% against).
6 TCU vs. 11 Arizona State / Nevada
Anotha one. Broken record time: you like defense? TCU is a very obvious defense-first squad, as are both of their potential First Four opponents, ASU and Nevada. We’ll update this one once the participants are finalized. Nevada is an interesting matchup for the Horned Frogs, as they avoid turning the ball over (23rd in TOV%), while the Frogs are 23rd-best at forcing turnovers. Nevada also wouldn’t be able to exploit TCU’s weakness on the offensive glass (they allow a DRB% over 30), as the Wolfpack collects only 23.1% of their misses, good for 331st nationally. An Arizona State team that’s 6th in 2PT defense would force the Frogs to take a lot more outside jumpers, which can be a serious issue: TCU hits only 30.6% of their 3PTs, which is bottom 30 nationally. Either way, it looks like another low-scoring outing in the West.
3 Gonzaga vs. 14 Grand Canyon
Gonzaga is really good at offense. Ho-hum. The Zags are #1 in Torvik and KenPom’s offensive efficiency metrics, as they seemingly always are, at the hands of the 2nd-best eFG% in America (58.5%) and unwillingness to turn the ball over (14.6 TOV%) despite quick tempo. Grand Canyon, making their 2nd appearance in the last 3 tournaments, is actually quite good by eFG% against, ranking 32nd nationally at 47.2%. However, you need to force turnovers to slow down the Zags, and the Lopes struggle to do so; they’re bottom 25 in the country, forcing them on only 16% of opponents’ possessions.
7 Northwestern vs. 10 Boise State
This is starting to feel like the “Rock Fight” region of the NCAA tournament, with another matchup pitting 2 top-25 defenses against one another. The Broncos are 22nd on Torvik, while the Wildcats are 14th. They take different approaches to get there: Northwestern does so with hyper-aggressive pressure, forcing many turnovers (26th at 21.7%), while Boise relies on elite rebounding (16th in DRB%) and solid eFG% defense (47.3%). The key issue is 3PT shooting. The Wildcats shoot only 32.1% from distance but take over 40% of shots from out there. The Broncos are 29th best at defending the 3-ball, however, allowing opponents to hit only 31%. If that trend holds, the Broncos can win their first ever NCAA Tournament game (0-8). However, Northwestern is ferocious and not to be underestimated. They won their round of 64 game in their only other NCAA appearance (2017) before falling in a close one to the national runner-up in Gonzaga.
2 UCLA vs. 15 UNC-Asheville
The Rock Fight Region (I’m just rolling with it now) gives us the best defense in the nation by efficiency in UCLA against one of the most gifted scorers in UNCA big man Drew Pember. He’s averaging 21.2 a game and shooting 37.3% from deep as the stretch 5 in a spread offense that is, in my editorialized opinion, oh-so-much fun. UCLA is great at defending in terms of eFG% and 3PT against at 27th and 31st respectively. Conversely, those are UNCA’s strengths; they have a 53.6 eFG% (34th) and 38.8 3PT% (6th). Even without a key defensive cog in Jaylen Clark, the Bruins are still incredibly scary as the #3 team in the nation on KenPom and Torvik. Their core has made a Final Four and Sweet Sixteen the past 2 tournaments, only losing to the national runners-up in both of those outings. Here’s the one piece of real advice I’ll give you to end the article: it’s worth staying up for the 10:05 Thursday nightcap to watch two of the most entertaining teams in the whole darn thing collide.
Thanks for reading! Expect another (not so long-winded) one next week to look at our 8 second weekend matchups and the potential Elite Eight.