NCAA Tournament: First Round Preview

Here. We. Go. A Statistical Preview of Every Matchup.

I would normally start this piece with a witty anecdote or burning statistical question. We’ll get to both of those shortly, I’m sure, but I mostly want to emphasize how much you should cherish this tournament in its current form.

I’m writing this the morning the transfer portal opens, and if one of your teams isn’t dancing, odds are you’ve already missed some big news about next year’s roster. We’ll have Stanford student-athletes traveling across three time zones next winter to play ACC conference games in the Triangle. And many are dead set on expanding the NCAA Tournament to 80 teams or more in the very near future so we can get first round matchups like the coming NIT game between 17-16 Georgia and 16-17 Xavier in the NCAA Tournament.

I jest and I’m not here to editorialize, but pretty please do not change the NCAA Tournaments. I could be sold on a First Four for every region perhaps, but going past 72 borders on silly. Expansion might sound egalitarian at first, as if it will benefit teams like this year’s 28-6 Indiana State, but SEC commissioner Greg Sankey recently made it very obvious who the Powers That Be want to help out. It’s the 18-15 Villanovas of the world, not the Indiana States or Princetons or Davidson Colleges.

My final research project for Eco 321 (Sports Economics!) just last semester focused on parity in the transfer portal era. Here’s the gist that you don’t need an econometrics class to understand: the average seed in deeper rounds of the tournament is increasing. Think about it: we had a Final Four with San Diego State and Florida Atlantic last year! In fact, the average seed in the 2023 Final Four was the second highest ever and higher than all but one Sweet Sixteen in the KenPom era.

For reasons we’ll get into, I’m expecting a little less early chaos this time around. I’m also going to be shocked if we somehow get a 5 and 9 matchup to make the National Championship this year. That doesn’t mean this tournament won’t be memorable, because they all are, aren’t they? Don’t mess this format up, NCAA.

I’ll be citing my self-compiled KenPom dataset of historical pre-tournament rankings throughout this article to try to pick up on any trends. Be wary of anyone who tries to use post-tournament ratings to retroactively “predict” national champions. If you want to use “predictive” metrics like KenPom or Torvik’s T-Rank, you should use the data at the time you would have made the predictions, not ex post facto. The historical averages in efficiency and ranking are below. Broadly speaking, Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) is a team’s scoring margin per 100 possessions relative to the “average” D1 team. The numbers cover every tournament from 2001-2023. I’ll be coming back to these to check which teams are relatively strong or weak for their seed line. e.g., 1 seeds are generally in the top 5 and have roughly a 29.0 margin, and so on:

The Cats Stats Advanced Stats Glossary: The “Four Factors“ (in order of importance)

eFG% – An adjusted 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: 17.1%
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 (1 – ORB% against = DRB%). NATIONAL AVERAGE: 29.0%
FTr% – 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: 32.9%

All game times EST. All opinions are my own. If you like any of this analysis and want to use it feel free! Please credit us on Twitter @CatsStats or @LLB_Podcast.

Enough talk. Let’s get into it.

East Region

1 UConn (31-3) vs. 16 Stetson (22-12) 2:45 PM, Friday, CBS

Last year, UConn’s dominance may have taken some by surprise. The Huskies were a top 5 metrics team entering the tournament last year, but they were also a 4 seed with 8 losses. They rolled to the championship, winning every game by double digits. The Huskies might have a history of titles, but they haven’t won one as a 1 seed this century; they’ve done it as a 2, 3, 4, and 7. The 1 seed may have been the kiss of death last year, but last year’s group was historically weak. The average AdjEM of 1 seeds all-time is 28.89, but that number last season would have been enough to be the best team in the field entering the tournament, with the 4 ones averaging a 26.01. All lost by the Sweet Sixteen. The ones this year, however, average 29.43 and comprise all of the KenPom top 3. In short, expect less chaos, though one early exit might be likely (we’ll get to that later!).

Stetson made an impressive run in the A-Sun tournament to clinch their first ever Division I tournament trip. Naturally, then, the selection committee rewarded them with a virtual road game against a Huskies team that profiles as one of the top 20 teams to ever enter the tournament by efficiency margin at 32.21. Only 26 teams have entered the tournament in the Over 31.0 Net Efficiency Club: that elite group represents 7 National Champions and makes the Final Four more often than they miss it, at 15/26. Only 2 were eliminated in the first weekend (2010 Kansas and…2018 Virginia). Houston is also in this club. The matchups don’t look great for Stetson, either; they’re a bottom 25 defense playing the most efficient offense in the country, and they’re the number 283 defensive rebounding squad facing a top 15 offensive rebounding team.

8 Florida Atlantic (25-8) vs. 9 Northwestern (21-11) 12:15 PM Friday, CBS

If you had told me FAU would find themselves in an 8-9 game once again in late December, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. The reigning Final Four participants defeated Arizona in a triple OT thriller and looked poised to run through the weakened Houston and Memphis-less American for a top 5 seed. Much of last year’s roster was intact. Instead, they hit for the NET Quadrant “cycle,” notching both wins and losses in Q1, 2, 3, and 4. Their AAC tournament run ended with a Q3 loss to sub-.500 Temple, cementing an odd boom-or-bust resume. Northwestern is making their 3rd NCAA appearance under Chris Collins and 3rd all-time. They too failed to escape the dreaded 7/8/9 seed lines; they’ve been a 7 and 8 only to lose to a top 2 seed in the Round of 32 in their prior appearances. The number 1 overall seed awaits them with a win here, but they are one of just 4 teams to defeat 1-seeded Purdue this season. Both of their matchups with the Boilers went to OT, and they defeated them at home to open B1G play.

8-9 games are as close to a coin flip as it gets. My dataset will tell you 8’s have won 51% of the time since 2001, but they do have higher ceilings. This game is also as close as any to a coin flip in the entire first round, with only 5 spots separating 41 FAU and 46 NW in the efficiency rankings. These are both top 30 offenses that can shoot the rock very well, but if it comes down to perimeter defense, FAU has a slight edge. Northwestern ranks 310th in 3PT% against at 35.9%, while FAU shoots it a solid 35.6% from distance and places 24th in eFG% at 55.0. The Wildcats, who hit 39% of their own triples, will need to remain an elite 3PT shooting club to keep pace.

5 San Diego St. (24-10) vs. 12 UAB (23-11) 1:45 PM Friday, TNT

For the third time in 3 games, the East Region features one of last year’s Final Four. SDSU has been a metronome under Brian Dutcher. This is their 6th tournament appearance in 7 years, and the best regular season team during that stretch – the 30-2 2020 team – had its postseason canceled. They’ll have a tough road ahead of them with UConn as their 1 and a historically strong 4 that we’ll get to momentarily, but this matchup looks manageable. UAB is making their 2nd tourney in the last 3 years under Andy Kennedy after an AAC title run, but they come in with 11 losses and an efficiency profile that would be below average for a 14 seed, much less a 12 seed. 12s, a usual golden upset pick, average an AdjEM of 12.97 and an overall ranking of 56.7 in the dataset. UAB ranks outside the top 100 at just 6.28. That said, they’re 19-6 since a mediocre start and have won 5 straight. They may fail to counter one of SDSU’s biggest strengths, however; the Aztecs are a solid offensive rebounding team at 32.7%, while the Blazers are a poor defensive rebounding side at only 31.0%. Pair that rebounding edge with a defense that’s elite as always, and SDSU has the makings of a strong favorite.

4 Auburn (27-7) vs. 13 Yale (22-9) 4:30 PM Friday, TNT

Last year’s tournament boasted 2 4-seeded teams in the overall top 5: UConn and Tennessee. One was champion, and the other lost to Final Four bound FAU in the Sweet Sixteen. This year’s elite 4 is Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers, ranking 4th in AdjEM. However, they’re not just elite among 4’s, they would be elite among 3’s. Here are all the 3 or 4 seeds above a 26.0 AdjEM in the KenPom era:

That’s an elite group, in which all but 2 teams made the second weekend and 5/12 made the Elite Eight. For reference, 3’s and 4’s make that round only 28% and 13% of the time, respectively. Auburn currently sits at an incredibly impressive 28.90 AdjEM after winning the SEC Tournament. That means Auburn is not only the second strongest 4 seed ever, it would be the second strongest 3 seed ever as well. The Tigers’ dismal 3-7 Quad 1 record kept them off a higher line, but they didn’t lose a single game below that quadrant and usually won in blowout fashion.

They get Yale in the first round. Those Bulldogs dramatically came back late to steal the Ivy League Championship from Brown, but they fell to the 13 line over some 12 seeds who they’re ostensibly better than. Despite Yale being the second strongest 13, Torvik gives Auburn an 89% chance of advancing here, which is unsurprisingly highest among the 4 seeds. If there’s hope for Yale, it’s that they’re an elite defensive rebounding team, allowing a 24.0 ORB% against. However, they’ll have to find ways to score against an aggressive Auburn defense that’s best in the nation in 2PT% against at 42.4%. Johni Broome is the star that anchors it, notching north of 2 blocks a night while leading the Tigers in scoring. 

If you pick Auburn to get past a potential UConn matchup – which is *ON PAPER* far more likely than you’d think – you stand to gain a lot of extra points in your bracket contest over the average user. UConn is being picked as champs by roughly 30% of users depending on your platform, which is more akin to the odds of a 2001 Duke or 2015 Kentucky type team than the typical top overall team. I’m not convinced it will actually happen, but drawing a 4 seed that has the profile of a top 2 seed is a rough break for the defending champs.

6 BYU (23-10) vs. 11 Duquesne (24-11) 12:40 PM Thursday, TruTV

14 out of 15 A10 fanbases found themselves rooting for Duquesne last Sunday, as the 6-seeded Dukes dashed VCU’s hopes of repeat championships in a 57-51 title game win. In the process, they clinched their first tournament berth since 1978 to send HC Keith Dambrot into retirement in style. His last dance would, of course, be more stylish with a win or two in the NCAA tournament. They face one of the most electric offenses in the whole thing in a BYU team that lights it up to the tune of a 55.1 eFG% and a 3PT attempt rate over 50%. The Cougars profile as potentially the strongest of the field’s 6 seeds, appearing in the top 20 on both KenPom and Torvik. The Dukes, on the other hand, look at first like one of the weakest 11 seeds in recent memory: they’re one of six 11 seeds ever to rank outside the top 80 overall. Only 1 out of 24 11’s ranked 60 or worse has made the second weekend.

HOWEVER! There is one 11 who entered the tournament outside the top 80 that made a legendary run all A10 fans will be familiar with. That team was 2011 VCU, who just barely got into the dance from the CAA by winning a First Four game. The rest is history. Strangely enough, even 3 of the 5 non-VCU 11 seeds ranked outside the top 80 won their first round game as well. Moreover, the Dukes have been a different team since late January, winning 15 out of 18 games with a defensive efficiency bordering on the top 10 in that span. Duquesne has shot makers in Dae Dae Grant and Jimmy Clark III, but they make their hay with a top 30 defense that excels on the perimeter, holding opponents to just 31.4% from deep. That could be pretty handy when facing a team that puts up 50.7% of their shots from long range. This overall second game of the tournament is one of my favorite matchups of the entire first round; call Duquesne overseeded at your own risk.

3 Illinois (26-8) vs. 14 Morehead State (26-8) 3:10 Thursday, TruTV

Illinois makes its fourth consecutive tournament appearance under Brad Underwood, but the Illini have failed to make the second weekend each time. While they can score with anyone, they’re the first of 3 teams on the 3 and 4 seed lines this year that – to put it lightly – experiences lapses defensively. Despite a consensus top 3 offense and the Big Ten Tournament Title, the Illini struggle to disrupt on the defensive end, ranking bottom 5 in the nation in TOV% on defense at just 12.3%. Morehead State enters with 6 consecutive wins behind a red-hot offense of their own that ranks 34th in eFG%. The one thing they struggle at that might be pertinent here is turning the ball over. They give it up on 18.6% of possessions; when they avoid this issue their offense is quite impressive. Their willingness to shoot the three ball (45.1% 3PAr) also sticks out against a mediocre Illinois perimeter defense that allows opponents to shoot 34.3% from deep, which puts them outside the top 200.

7 Washington State (24-9) vs. 10 Drake (28-6) 10:05 Thursday, TruTV

I’m personally still reeling from picking Drake in the first round last year over Miami, but the Bulldogs look pretty attractive once again, making their third tourney appearance in 4 years after a dramatic 84-80 win against Indiana State in the MVC title bout. Like so many college ball lovers, I LOVED that Sycamores team and are sickened they’re at home while Virginia and Michigan State dance. Que sera, sera. Drake’s odds look poor on the surface: of the 20 teams seeded on the 10 line to rank outside the top 50 in AdjEM, just 3 won in the first round. That’s dismal compared to the nearly 40% rate at which all 10’s beat their 7’s.

Wazzu, though, profiles as a lighter 7 seed. The Cougars rank 42nd overall, which historically puts them in the bottom quartile of all 7’s. Drake went 7-4 against top 100 teams and actually profiled better in those games, playing more like a top 35 team. They take great care of the rock with a 13.9 TOV% in the top 15 nationally, while Wazzu struggles to force turnovers at a mere 15.9% on defense. Combine that with elite defensive rebounding from Drake – which is quite literally the Best Defensive Rebounding Team in America – and the Bulldogs might have the extra possessions that give them the edge. Finally, note that this game is in Omaha, meaning it’ll be a very Drake-heavy crowd.

2 Iowa State (27-7) vs. 15 South Dakota State (22-12) 7:35 Thursday, TruTV

Iowa State rolled through the Big XII tournament in such impressive fashion that there were calls for the Cyclones to be a 1 seed the eve of Selection Sunday. An abhorrent and frankly Bad for Basketball non-conference schedule that ranked outside the top 300 in difficulty might have prevented that. (This is no opinion piece about the state of the sport, so I digress, but if you want to be on the top line, you should schedule like a top team.)

The truth is, though, the Cyclones look For Real. They absolutely demolished the 1 seed Houston 69-41 in the Big XII final. Iowa State is now a top 5 KenPom team, weak non-conference schedule be damned. However, they’ve done so with a dominant defense and an offense that’s sort of just good enough, ranking outside the top 50. No top 2 seed with an offense outside even the top 35 in efficiency has ever made the Final Four, but don’t look for fireworks this round. South Dakota State hangs their hat on offense and doesn’t really thrive in the sort of rock fights that Iowa State lives for. The Jackrabbits will lose a lot of possessions against the second best defense in the land at forcing turnovers, and they don’t rebound well enough to win those extra shots back.


1 North Carolina (27-7) vs. 16 Howard/Wagner 2:45 Thursday, CBS

UNC gets the winner of the first game of the NCAA Tournament game in Dayton Tuesday night, which I’ll be watching while finishing up this article. Wagner looks to be the more dangerous of the two, but it would take an incredibly poor shooting day for this one to get close.

Just while we’re here, though, let’s have a talk about these Tar Heels. Do I expect any 16 over 1 upsets this year? No, and expecting one to begin with is a silly proposition. However, as transcendent as newly minted First Team All-American RJ Davis can be and as dominant as Armando Bacot has been, I’m left feeling the Heels are the most vulnerable of all our top seeds. UNC currently sits 9th in the metrics, the only 1 seed outside the top 3. Since the start of February, Torvik thinks UNC has played like the number 14 team in the country, not a top 4 one. UNC sits at a 24.65 AdjEM; here’s every 1 seed to ever enter the dance below 25.0:

Predictive metrics are not the end-all-be-all. They never are: there’s the difficulty of a team’s draw and schematic matchups and sheer luck and everything else. That’s why we write these previews. The fact more of these teams lost in the first weekend (5/12) than made the Final Four (2/12) and none even made a title game appearance is noteworthy, though. For reference, 1’s represent their region at the Final Four about 36% of the time and only lose in the first weekend 18% or so of the time. ESPN users are choosing Carolina as their champion around 10% of the time, behind only Houston and UConn. I still believe Carolina could make the Elite Eight or further. That said, there is undeniable value to fading this squad early. We need to find a tough draw that might further incentivize us to make that call. So, let’s do exactly that.

8 Mississippi State (21-13) vs. 9 Michigan State (19-14) 12:15 Thursday, CBS

I’m tired, man. I’m tired of having to advocate for Michigan State teams because of Analytics. Yet here I am once again, telling you how Tom Izzo still has good odds of advancing despite a low seed in the Year of Our Lord 2024. Sparty was a team I bought low on last year when they drew a weak high seed, and it paid off with a win over Marquette and trip to the Sweet Sixteen. This team isn’t as good as that one on paper – 14 losses and a 3-9 Q1 record are just gross for a tournament team – but they find themselves as the KenPom number 18 team with an AdjEM over 20. Here are the 8/9’s in the last decade with that efficiency and a top 25 ranking:

3 wins over 1 seeds in 7 tries is not too shabby. It’s also noteworthy that these teams are 5/7 at winning the traditional coin flip 8/9 game. Even if Mississippi State wins this one, they’re also a top 30 team with a top 20 defense as an 8 seed, which is above average for this seed line.

This game might get ugly. It’s especially concerning that the NCAA thought this was the appropriate game to lead off the tournament on Thursday, as it screams something like a 64-59 final score. Both teams possess elite defenses and play slow paced games. Sparty has the advantage of forcing a lot of turnovers (18.7 defensive TOV%) against a careless Dawgs offense that is bottom 75 nationally in giving the ball up. Mississippi State can make up for that by pounding the glass and getting to the FT line, which they excel at, but neither of those areas are glaring weaknesses for Izzo’s squad on defense. Michigan State is the team that everyone resents is in the field, but the vibes say that those sorts of teams usually steal a game.

Doesn’t change the fact that I hate it!

5 Saint Mary’s (26-7) vs. 12 Grand Canyon (29-4) 10:05 Friday, TruTV

It’s another matchup of elite defenses, with both teams in the top 10 in eFG% against: SMC is 3rd and Grand Canyon is 10th. Though KenPom ranks the Lopes as the best of the 12 seed bunch at 53rd overall, they draw a top 20 team in the Gaels, fresh off dethroning Gonzaga in the WCC. The story for the Gaels is the same as ever under Randy Bennett: elite defense, capital F fundamentals, and rebounding. They are likely the best all-around rebounding team in America, placing in the top 3 in both offensive and defensive rebound rates. That could cause serious issues for a Lopes team that generates a fair chunk of its offensive output by crashing the glass with a 34.6 ORB% of their own. They’re also a bad defensive rebounding team, ranking outside the top 200 on that front. That will undoubtedly be problematic against this St. Mary’s team.

4 Alabama (21-11) vs. 13 Charleston (27-7) 7:35 Friday, TruTV

Illinois was the first of our top 4 seeds with a questionable defense, and Alabama is the second. The Tide, however, grade out even worse, with a defense outside the top 100 nationally. They live to win games with 102-91 final scores, possessing the 2nd most efficient offense in the country that plays at a breakneck pace. Their offensive efficiency was as high as 128.1 in mid-February, which would have set a record for the KenPom era. It’s tough to find a historical comparison for them, but here’s an attempt:

That’s every top 4 seed with a top 10 offense and sub-100 defense; they all roughly fall in the teens in overall efficiency. To be fair, none of these teams come close to matching Alabama’s pace, but this is the best we can do! While 2015 Notre Dame pushed 38-1 Kentucky to the brink in a legendary regional final, the others are notable for the wrong reasons: Purdue lost to a 15, Creighton lost in the Round of 32 with Dougie McBuckets himself, and Wichita State went down in the first round to an 11 loss Marshall team.

The numbers are even more bleak for Alabama’s defense in recent months. They’re 178th in defensive efficiency since mid-January per Torvik. It’s fair to question their effort on that end. Pat Kelsey’s teams, on the other hand, are known for relentless effort. They work tirelessly on the offensive glass, which could exploit Alabama’s 218th ranked defensive rebounding. Alabama also does not force turnovers (277th in TOV%), while Charleston is disciplined with the rock (27th in offensive TOV%). Charleston will certainly not “stop” Alabama per se, and Mark Sears is the type of offensive superstar (21.1 PTS / 4.1 AST / 65.3 TS%!!) who keeps you alive in close games in March. The Cougars are 18-0 when scoring 80+ this season, though, and the fact that seems more likely than not is concerning for the Tide.

6 Clemson (21-11) vs. 11 New Mexico (26-9) 

Of all the regions, this is the one with games that I will keep going back and forth about right up until Noon Thursday. Not this game though!

The Lobos are going to be a trendy upset pick by the conventional wisdom of being a “hot” 11 seed coming off a conference tourney win. With their season on the line, they won 4 games in 4 days (3 against tournament competition) to secure a 6-bid MWC. UNM would have been below the at-large cut line, and, as KenPom’s 23rd best team in the land, my research tells me they would have been the highest rated team on the site to not get a bid in over 15 years (excluding Louisville and SMU teams that were sanctioned).

The pesky thing about conventional wisdom is that it’s sometimes true, just for perhaps the wrong reasons. In “four factors” terms, UNM is going to have a massive turnover advantage here (Clemson never forces them on D at 342nd, UNM is top 15 in not giving it up) and is an elite offensive rebounding team. They will get off more shot attempts, and Clemson will need to shoot very to keep up. Analytically, the Lobos are also straight up favorites on both KenPom and Torvik. A 11 favored over its 6 has happened only four times in the past decade: 2017 Xavier (def. Maryland, made E8), 2016 Gonzaga (def. Seton Hall, S16), 2015 Texas (lost), 2014 Tennessee (def. UMass, S16).

3 Baylor (23-10) vs. 14 Colgate (25-9) 12:40 Friday, TruTV

Remember that chart of teams who don’t play much defense but can score with anyone? Baylor was on that list just last season, but they’ve improved this year. They retain an elite offense with a defense now at least inside the top 75. They’re top 25 in eFG%, ORB%, and FTr%, putting them as the nation’s 6th most efficient offense. Pretty good!

If you’re looking for reasons to sell Baylor stock, I do have some. They’re 15-64 from three over the last 3 games with an eFG% below 50 in all of them, and I’m not convinced their defense has been fixed. More like patched up. The Bears are top 100 in ORB% against, making them a respectable team on the defensive glass. Where they’re not respectable in eFG% against – they allow opponents to put up a 51.3 eFG%. That’s 223rd nationally.

Colgate is a team we keep waiting to pull a big upset. This is their 5th tournament in a row: they’ve dominated the Patriot league under Matt Langel. They’ve been a 14 or 15 every year, but only keep it within single digits twice. This squad looks like the weakest of the bunch; it ranks outside the KenPom top 130 and lacks the gaudy shooting numbers of the last few Raider squads. They do have a very good defense by eFG% (47.2%) and ORB% against (24.5%), but those are Baylor’s strengths. The Raiders have a good enough 3PT defense (their opponents shoot under 30%) to exploit Baylor’s recent struggles from deep, but the Bears still have 91% odds of advancing here per Torvik. I’ll be monitoring this one, though, especially if Baylor comes out shooting cold.

7 Dayton (24-7) vs. 10 Nevada (26-7) 4:30 Thursday, TBS

It’s another virtual pick ‘em game here, with only four places separating our 32nd-ranked Flyers and 36th overall Wolfpack. Torvik, meanwhile, has the teams flipped, with Nevada outpacing Dayton by 3 spots. The Pack’s resume looked much better than that of a 10 seed, and I abhor the committee making mid majors play each other in the First Round, but I digress.

Dayton is a top 3 team from beyond the arc, hitting over 40%, but Nevada’s strong 3PT defense (31.4%) will test them. Dayton is also excellent at not fouling, which could be huge against a Nevada side with a 46.2% FTr, good for 3rd in the country. That discipline comes at the expense of forcing turnovers. The Flyers don’t do it much (15.0%), and Nevada has great ball security (15.0 TOV%). 

I don’t have much else useful wisdom here, as I think this is probably the closest matchup in the whole First Round. Both teams are virtually tied in the resume metric Wins Above Bubble (2.8 for 23rd Dayton, 2.6 for 24th Nevada), meaning they’d probably have seven losses if they swapped schedules. One thing I do know is that Dayton has Daron Holmes II, and Nevada does not. This is probably going to be my last decision in my bracket Thursday morning.

2 Arizona (25-8) vs. 15 Long Beach State (21-14) 2:00 Thursday, TBS

If you haven’t heard, Long Beach State managed to win the Big West conference tournament after announcing they’d part ways with head coach Dan Monson. Awkward! But also a perfect encapsulation of how wild this sport can get.

Unfortunately, that’s probably going to be the most interesting thing about this game. Yes, Arizona lost to a 15 in Princeton just last season, but LBSU is a fair worse team than those Tigers (KenPom #163) and Arizona is a far better team this time around. The Wildcats are an elite rebounding team on both ends of the floor – 16th on offense and 5th on defense – and even a horrid ‘Zona shooting day would leave the Beach (yes, this is their nickname!) with an uphill battle.

I despise the X offense and Y defense KenPom stats, but I’ll allow one here: teams with top 15 offenses AND defenses are undefeated in the First Round, and 47 out of 72 (65.3%!) have made the Elite Eight or farther. Plus 26 Final Fours. And 8 Championships. As of writing, Arizona sits 8th and 12th, respectively. This team stands in stark contrast to last year’s Wildcats team that was just okay at defense and weak among 2 seeds historically. They’re quite strong for the 2 line this year at a 26.62 AdjEM and 6th overall ranking. Caleb Love hit the Shot of All Shots for the Tar Heels against Duke two years ago; the third team All-American could conceivably do it to his former squad in an Elite Eight game this year.

South Region

1 Houston (30-4) vs. 16 Longwood (21-13) 9:20 Friday, TNT

Same old, same old for Houston. They’re a 1 seed for the second year in a row and looking to make the Sweet Sixteen or farther for the fifth tournament in a row, and they’ve done it with basically the same formula: defense and shot volume. They force turnovers like nobody else, and crash the offensive glass like nobody else. They also have my 2nd favorite player in the country in first team All-American Jamal Shead. He’s the dream playmaking, two-way PG: 2nd in the country in Defensive Box-Plus-Minus and 8th in Assist rate at 39.6%. If you buy the “guard play wins in March” cliche, he and LJ Cryer are as good as it gets.

I could gush about Houston’s defensive scheme for hours – it is by far my favorite in the sport – and love the way they take away every single ball screen. I am concerned about the Cougars’ shooting, however, which sits at a dismal 47.7 eFG% away from home. Despite this troubling fact, they’re the best ball-security team in the nation and are an offensive rebounding juggernaut as always. There’s an 11 percentage point difference between their TOV% on D (24.7%, 3rd overall) and O (13.7%). Let that sink in!

Longwood plays a similar rebound and pressure style to Houston, but they’re markedly worse at both. Moreover, they aren’t a particularly ball secure team, giving it up on 18.0% of possessions. That’s not going to cut it against the Cougars.

8 Nebraska (23-10) vs. 9 Texas A&M (20-14) 6:50 Friday, TNT

I have nothing against the Aggies, but Texas A&M might be my least favorite team in the field to watch; they shoot 28.4% from three and get by on the offensive boards, where they’re first in the country with a 41.9 ORB%. Nebraska is nearly the polar opposite: a great shooting team that takes (45 3PA%) and makes (35.7%) a lot of threes. A&M’s defense allows opponents to attempt roughly 45% of their shots from beyond the arc, so they’ll need some outside shotmaking from Wade Taylor to keep pace. His shooting percentages aren’t great (36% overall, 30% from deep), but he can explode for 5 treys or more. Also of note: the Huskers are a top 15 2PT defense at 45.2%, while the Aggies convert only 47.0% of their twos.

5 Wisconsin (22-13) vs. 12 James Madison (31-3) 9:40 Friday, CBS

At last, a 5-12 that looks ripe for an upset. Wisconsin played so well in the Big Ten Tournament it almost made one forget they lost 12 games. They were knocking on the door of the AP Top 5 at one point and could have been a top 2 seed. They’re an undeniably great offense, but James Madison has experience beating B1G opposition. The Dukes won in dramatic fashion over then top 5 Michigan State on opening night to set the tone for a 31 win season and their first tournament appearance in over a decade.

Torvik has this as our most likely 12 seed victor, but the odds are still relatively low at 28%. All-time, JMU is a pretty average 12, ranked 59th compared to the 56.7 historical average. I do see positive matchups for the Dukes, though. They generate a lot of shots at the rim (43.3% of their attempts are close twos) and finish well (61.3%). Wisconsin, meanwhile, allows opponents to hit a nasty 65.3% of their close twos on defense. JMU could do it outside as well, though; Wisconsin allows opponents to shoot 37.1% from deep (bottom 20 nationally), where the Dukes connect an outstanding 36.5% of the time. JMU also does not bother with midrange jumpers, so from a shot quality perspective they excel. That said, don’t write off the top 15 Badger offense. I’m looking forward to a high-scoring, competitive game here.

4 Duke (24-8) vs. 13 Vermont (28-6) 7:10 Friday, CBS

This time last year, everyone was IN on Duke as a 5 seed thanks to an ACC Championship run and draw that included perennially suspect March programs Tennessee and Purdue. Duke was gone in the Round of 32. 

Now, everyone seems to be OUT on Duke. They were swept by UNC, blowing a potential share of the ACC Title in Cameron to the Heels. They lost in the ACC Tournament QF to NC State. And they’ve drawn one of the most consistent top seeds in Houston. Not even Jay Bilas’s bracket has them in the second weekend.

Paradoxically, then, I am *somewhat* buying Duke stock now.

Vermont, like our friends Colgate, has recently dominated their conference, but they too lack a signature upset. They’ve come out of the America East 5 times since 2017, but failed to win as a 13 and 15 seed each year. Also like Colgate, the Catamounts may have one of their worst teams in recent memory. Vermont was a top 100 team the last 3 times they got a 13 seed, but they’re outside the top 100 in the metrics this year. Duke, on the other hand, is the rare 4 seed in the KenPom top 10, just like Auburn. Here are the 4’s from the last decade to enter the dance in the top 10 with an AdjEM over 24.0 (Duke sits just a shade under 25 as of writing):

I can’t believe I’m selling myself on Duke, but here we are. Matchup wise, Vermont will not turn over Duke very much, and the Blue Devils should dominate the glass (25.9 ORB% against) versus a Vermont team that is not interested in offensive rebounding (345th overall). Crazier things have happened, but the odds say 8 of 9 similar teams to Duke have made the second weekend. That’s outstanding compared to the 47% survival rate for all 4 seeds.

6 Texas Tech (23-10) vs. 11 NC State (22-14) 9:40 Thursday, CBS

It’s not often you get bid thieves from power conferences, but the Wolfpack did exactly that with 5 wins in 5 days (or 5 ice cream scoops) to snag the ACC Title. That included wins over UNC and Duke. Their reward is a date with the Red Raiders, who profile as a pretty average 6 seed historically. They sit 24th at an 18.54 AdjEM; the average is 25.3 at an 18.8 efficiency margin. Tech sits at 66% to advance on Torvik, which is surprisingly good odds for a 6 seed, though. We just talked about the dangers of picking hot conference tournament champs with last year’s Duke example. See also: 2021 Georgetown, who went from Big East pillow fight to a 12 seed, then promptly lost in the first round. These sorts of runs can be draining.

Matchup wise, this game is hard to pin down. Both teams are basically decent at everything. The most pertinent information is that Tech is a great 3PT shooting club at 36.5%, while State struggles outside, allowing opponents to hit 34.9% from deep. NC State should get a slight shot volume advantage thanks to turnovers, but they’ll also need a subpar shooting performance from a good shooting team. I could be persuaded into picking either side here.

3 Kentucky (23-9) vs. 14 Oakland (23-11) 7:10 Thursday, CBS

Remember this graphic?

Kentucky, like Alabama, is in this club. Just like Alabama, they were torched in the SEC Quarterfinals, losing 97-87 to Texas A&M. 

It’s great to see Oakland and their living legend HC, Greg Kampe, back in the tournament for the first time since 2011 in Kampe’s 40th year on the job. They’ll face a tall task slowing down the best 3PT shooting team in the country; UK hits 41.2% of their triples. The Golden Grizzlies are a quality shooting club as well, hitting on 35.1% of their triples. Both teams’ opponents take roughly 40% of their shots from outside, so expect a lot of threes and a fun game. At 86% to advance, Kentucky feels safe here, provided Oakland does not pull a “14 made three-pointers” game out of the top hat.

Let’s discuss their long term outlook a bit further since, as usual, they’re a trendy Final Four pick. If the above graphic doesn’t convince you, here’s another stat that might: only 1 top 4 seed has ever made the Final Four with a defense ranked outside the top 50. That was 2013 Michigan. Trey Burke isn’t walking through that door. Moreover, that Wolverines team at least had a defense ranked 66th. To repeat, Kentucky is outside the top 100. 

My point is this. Most people building brackets are putting the ‘Cats in the Sweet Sixteen without much second thought. 72% of CBS users have them going at least that far. They’re being picked nearly 80% of the time in a hypothetical TTU matchup where they’d be favored by only 2 points in the metrics. I can’t blame them; they have the capital D Dudes. Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard are young but incredible and could give you 30+ any given night. KenPom has them as the weakest 3 seed in the field, though. They’re 21st on KenPom and 25th on Torvik when the historical average 3 would be in the top 15. The odds of Kentucky actually advancing to the second weekend are more like a coin flip, at 49.6% on Torvik.

7 Florida (24-11) vs. 10 Colorado OR Boise State 4:30 Friday, TBS

We won’t know who the Gators face until Wednesday night with the conclusion of the First Four. Florida is yet another explosive SEC offense with a weaker defense, ranking top 15 in offensive efficiency but outside the top 75 in defensive. Florida has elevated their play against top 50 competition, though, playing like a top 20 team in those games. C Mitch Handlogten’s status is in question, but the Gators have one of the best backcourts in the country and rely on elite guard play. They’d be a much larger favorite over Boise than Colorado, so keep your eyes on their matchup tomorrow night. We’ll update this section as needed.

2 Marquette (25-9) vs. 15 Western Kentucky (22-11) 2:00 Friday, TBS

I have nothing against Shaka Smart; he seems like a fine dude. But Marquette is a team I faded early last year, and I may have to do it yet again. A Smart-coached team hasn’t even seen the Sweet Sixteen since the incredible 2011 VCU run. My real reasoning is much less personal, though. 2 seeds below a 23.0 AdjEM have rarely fared well, and Marquette will most likely be facing a strong UF or Colorado squad in the next round. Of the 22 teams on the 2 line to enter the tournament below that efficiency threshold, only 2 made the Final Four. 13 of them lost in the first weekend, including 4 to 15 seeds. Here are the last 8 such examples, which include last year’s Marquette and Arizona squads:

Marquette currently sits at a 22.48 AdjEM, making them pretty average among this group.

Western Kentucky doesn’t possess strengths in the areas that give Marquette the most trouble. They project to lose the turnover battle by quite a lot in this game, they don’t rebound well enough to expose Marquette’s poor rebounding, and they’re a fairly average shooting team. Marquette allows opponents to take 43% of their shots from deep, so some triples would come in handy for the Hilltoppers. And we haven’t even mentioned the health of All-American PG Tyler Kolek, who missed the Big East tournament and might not be able to go Friday. Nothing about this matchup screams incoming upset, but the path ahead for the Golden Eagles looks murkier upon deeper inspection.

Midwest Region

1 Purdue (29-4) vs. 16 Montana State/Grambling 7:25 Friday, TBS

From last year’s preview:

“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…FDU [forces turnovers well]; they’re 32nd nationally at a 21.4% rate. That and an ice-cold Boilermaker shooting performance are how this gets interesting.”

It can’t happen again. It surely won’t happen again.

But in all seriousness, Zach Edey still being Zach Edey combined with Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer turning into bona fide stars catapulted Purdue from great to elite. Their AdjEM has jumped to 29.09 this year, an improvement of nearly 5 points per 100 possessions. They were in the top 3 with Houston and UConn chasing the number one overall seed the past couple of months. Don’t let the bad taste from their loss to Wisconsin in the B1G Semis distract you from the fact Purdue is way better than last year and way better than all the Purdue teams before that. Yes, Matt Painter has been labeled a choker, but so was Jay Wright for a while. 

Their one Achilles Heel in an otherwise elite offense (it’s top 15 in all the other Four Factors) remains turnovers. They turned it over on 20% plus of possessions in all their losses. They also struggle immensely to force turnovers on defense, ranking in the bottom 30 nationally. Grambling is an aggressive defense that can capitalize on that weakness, so they’d be the more interesting matchup here. But I just can’t see it happening again.

8 Utah State (27-6) vs. 9 TCU (21-12) 9:55 Friday, TBS

Unlike a lot of the other 8/9 games, TCU is a pretty big metrics favorite here. The Frogs rank in the low 30’s on both Torvik and KenPom, with Utah State barely in the top 50. The Aggies are a great perimeter defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 29% from 3PT. If TCU does miss a lot of threes in this game, however, they can lean on their 35.5 ORB%. Utah State’s rebounding is decent, but it can’t quite stack up to that level. Moreover, the Aggies really struggle to defend inside, allowing opponents to convert 53.1% of 2PTs. If there’s hope, it’s that they excel at getting to the FT line, which could take advantage of TCU’s very aggressive defense.

5 Gonzaga (25-7) vs. 12 McNeese (30-3) 7:25 Thursday, TBS

Will Wade, the Outlaw himself, rides again with a McNeese squad that coasted to the Southland title in his first year on the job. The Bayou Bandits play one of the most fascinating pressure schemes in the country, blitzing ball handlers in the pick-and-roll and over helping to turn opponents over often. It works: they’re 6th nationally, forcing giveaways on 23.0% of opponents’ possessions. They also shoot 39.4% from distance, top 5 in the country.

The thing about pressure is that it doesn’t work as much when you’re playing, y’know, Gonzaga. The Zags have been better than basically everyone at playing an up tempo game in Mark Few’s storied tenure. They’re once again one of the most ball-secure teams in the field, giving it up only 14.0% of the time. Since a road loss to St. Mary’s in early February, the Zags have played like a legit top 10 team by Torvik’s standards, notching road wins over Kentucky and those same Gaels in a 9 game win streak. A rubber match loss to St. Mary’s in the WCC Championship soured the taste of that stretch just a bit.

This is undoubtedly one of the best First Round matchups. Gonzaga is a heavy metrics favorite thanks to McNeese’s poor schedule. The Cowboys played exactly one Quad 1 opponent: VCU in the season opener. They won, but Gonzaga is an entirely different beast. The 5 seeds most similar to the Zags (elite offense, good defense) offer boom-or-bust potential. If you squint, you can see 2019 Auburn, a team that got hot late and survived a very scary 12 seed to make the Final Four.​​ The Tigers were ranked 8th and 45th; Gonzaga is currently 9th and 45th.

4 Kansas (22-10) vs. 13 Samford (29-5) 9:55 Thursday, TBS

Kansas is going to be without Kevin McCullar for the tournament, and Hunter Dickinson’s status is questionable. That’s 2 All-Americans the Jayhawks may not have the services of. However, KU’s star was fading even before their injuries. In their last 10 games, in which they went 4-6, Torvik doesn’t even peg Kansas as a top 50 team. In short, they’re a trendy upset candidate for a reason.

Torvik still favors Kansas here by 78%, but that’s less than all of the other 4 seeds. Samford is a ridiculously good shooting team (8th in eFG%, 3rd in 3PT%), and they force a lot of turnovers on defense (21.7 TOV%), which makes for some pretty exciting basketball. Sometimes, though, upsets can feel a little too obvious, and if you need justification for still liking Kansas here, I can point to the fact Samford is an abysmal rebounding team (outside the top 300 in ORB% against) who also fouls a lot (283rd in FTr against). The Jayhawks also happen to be coached by Bill Self. This is another must watch first round game for me. Drama!

6 South Carolina (26-7) vs. 11 Oregon (23-11) 4:00 Thursday, TNT

This Oregon team reminds me quite a lot of Dana Altman’s 2019 Ducks, who had no path to at large but won the Pac-12 tournament to steal a bid. Like that team (and essentially every Altman team), they improved immensely down the homestretch of the season. They were in the Sweet Sixteen that year as a 12 seed.

Big man N’Faly Dante is a star, but played only 44.7% of minutes for the Ducks this year due to injuries. He’s healthy for the tournament, and, even though it’s cliche, the Ducks really are a different team when he plays. South Carolina’s record is incredibly impressive, but the Gamecocks aren’t loved by the analytics. KenPom and Torvik just barely have them as one the nation’s top 50 teams. Matchup wise, Lamont Paris’s side struggles to force turnovers and relies heavily on the offensive glass for points. The former will be a serious issue against an Oregon team that almost never coughs it up. The latter could also be problematic against a very solid rebounding squad. The Gamecocks do all the little things right, though, and that has served them extremely well in close games all year, as this one projects to be.

3 Creighton (23-9) vs. 14 Akron (24-10) 1:30 Thursday, TNT

Creighton is one of the all-around best teams in the field. They’re top 15 in both eFG% on offense and defense, ranking in the top 25 in overall efficiency in both. Schematically, they run one of the nation’s most complicated offenses and bring back key pieces from last year’s run to the Elite Eight. Do I have anything to suggest fireworks here? Not really, but I do have long term concerns with the Jays: 1) they are the least aggressive defense in the field and are dead last in the nation at forcing turnovers and 2) their ORB% is a poor 25.9%, which is a problem when you attempt a ton of threes and generate long rebounds. 

Akron enters as our KenPom #117 squad, and 14 seeds outside the top 102 have won only once in 37 tries. They’re a case of a team that does everything just fine but doesn’t rely on one strength. They lack the ball security to take advantage of Creighton’s conservative defense, and while they’re a great 2PT shooting club, the Blue Jays defense is designed to take away those looks. They’re more vulnerable against teams that can hit a barrage of threes.

7 Texas (20-12) vs. 10 Colorado State (25-10) 6:50 Thursday, TNT

The Selection Committee would really like a Texas win to set up a “Rick Barnes vs. former team” matchup in the second round, but Rodney Terry’s Longhorns have to get past a pesky CSU squad first. The Rams just blew out Virginia in the First Four despite being the last at large team in the field. This profiles as yet another difficult 7-10 game to pick, because both teams share the same strengths. They’re both top 50 shooting teams (Texas 50th, CSU 29th) with quality defenses. Against top 100 teams, the Rams play like a top 20 team, per Torvik. The Horns are top 30 against top 100 competition, but they’ve struggled on defense in those games, ranking outside the top 100 in efficiency. That said, Texas will have a major defensive rebounding edge, even if they’re not particularly great at it, as CSU is outside the top 300 on the offensive boards. Both these teams would have a real shot against Tennessee in terms of the metrics, but neither screams matchup nightmare, either.

2 Tennessee (24-8) vs. 15 Saint Peter’s (19-13) 9:20 Thursday, TNT

St. Peter’s completed arguably the greatest Cinderella run of all time just 2 years ago, but none of the 2022 Elite Eight team’s key pieces remain with the program. The Peacocks are now coached by Bashir Mason, with former helmsman Shaheen Holloway narrowly missing the tournament at Seton Hall this year. They’re still a defense-first club, posting a top 20 ranking in eFG% against. That comes at a price: St. Peter’s is the least efficient offense in this year’s tournament at #306. That’s a problem when you’re playing Tennessee, who’s the best defense in the field outside of Houston for the second year in a row. The Vols even made the Sweet Sixteen just last year without star PG and SEC DPOY Zakai Zeigler. His half brother, Armoni, is a freshman in the rotation for the Peacocks, which gives the NCAA a good storyline to sell for this matchup. That and the potential for the Peacocks to beat another SEC powerhouse 2 seed make this one look fun on paper. 

The reality might not be as fun. St. Peter’s has the worst offense for a 2 seed ever, and there are 16 seeds in the field rated higher in the metrics. They also cough it up on 19.6% of possessions, which is a problem against one of the most aggressive defenses in the country. 

I haven’t even mentioned Dalton Knecht, the National Player of the Year runner-up and SEC POTY, who should really get an entire paragraph. Tennessee has never, ever had a scorer close to his level under Rick Barnes. He averaged 21.1 on a 58.4 TS% on the year, but shrink the sample to conference play (the point at which he’d shaken off a nagging injury from December) and Knecht averaged 25.5 POINTS on a 60.3 TS%. That included 39 on a top 5 Auburn defense, 40 against Kentucky, 39 against Florida, and 36 at Georgia. His most impressive performance may have come in a loss at the Dean Dome, where he set the record for a visitor against UNC with 37 points on just 17 shots. The fact the Vols didn’t even need him to go for 20+ to pick up road wins over Alabama and Kentucky is scary. He is a lottery pick, and, for my money, the most exciting player in the tournament.

Thanks for reading! See you next week for the Sweet Sixteen outlook!

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