Gonzaga v Southern

Does the first round score really matter?

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I think Rob Neyer did a quick study like this not too long ago — and I’m sure many others have as well. But, well, you certainly know the famous story about writing a long letter, a story that has been attributed to many people. Somebody wrote a very long letter. “If I had more time,” Benjamin Franklin or Blaine Pascal or Woodrow Wilson or Mark Twain or someone else ended that letter, “I would have made it shorter.”

Well, if I had more time I would have looked up the other studies. Instead, I just tried to answer it myself.

The question is: Does it MATTER how much a No. 1 seed wins by in the first round* of the NCAA Tournament?

*And, oh yes, I will continue to call the Round of 64 the “first round” — let the NCAA sanction me if they want. Calling those play-in games the first round is, well, it’s certainly not the MOST ridiculous thing the NCAA has done in recent months, or even in the Top 100, but it’s plenty ridiculous and I won’t be a party to it. What, we’re now supposed to believe that SIXTY TEAMS get a bye in the first round? Dear NCAA: Stop it right now.

I started thinking about this again when Gonzaga beat Southern by only six points on Thursday. I wondered, “Does this mean anything at all?” Then I watched Kansas play a brutal game against a spirited Western Kentucky and win by only seven IN KANSAS CITY, a virtual home game. And I thought: This HAS to mean something.

Let’s go to the spreadsheet.

OK, so here’s the deal: Coming into this year, there have been 112 No. 1 seeds since the tournament expanded to 64 teams (and beyond). You’ve probably seen the lists, but since I have them right in front of me I’ll show you the teams that have been No. 1 seeds multiple times:

12 times: Duke
11 times: North Carolina
10 times: Kansas
9 times: Kentucky
5 times: Arizona; Connecticut; Michigan State; Oklahoma.
4 times: Ohio State
3 times: Georgetown; Illinois; Purdue; Stanford; UCLA; UNLV
2 times: Arkansas; Indiana; Memphis; Michigan; Pittsburgh; St. John’s; Syracuse

OK, in total there are 112 No. 1 seeds. And, as you know, they all won their first game — No. 1 seeds, including this tournament, are now 116-0 against No. 16 seeds.

What happened from there? Well, 48 of those No. 1 seeds won their region and went as far as the Final Four. That’s about 43%. Here’s the complete breakdown.

No. 1 seeds: 112
Lost in the round of 32: 13 (11%)
Lost in the Sweet 16: 20 (18%)
Lost in the Elite 8: 31 (28%)
Lost in the Final Four: 21 (19%)
Lost in national championship: 10 (9%)
Won championship: 17 (15%)

That probably lines up with you what you were expecting. Only 29% of the teams fail to reach at least the Elite 8. It’s a pretty nice setup, being a No. 1 seed. And it should be.

But, to get back to the point — does that first round score matter? Does it matter if you win by 50? By 30? By 2? Well, let’s break it down — remember, in total, No. 1 seeds reach the Final Four about 43% of the time and one out of seven win the national title.

No. 1 seeds that won by 40 or more points:

There have been 16 of these teams. Eight of them — exactly half — have reached the Final Four, and three have won a national championship. Only one of these teams — the stunned 1998 Kansas team — lost in the round of 32.

No. 1 seeds that have won by 30 to 39 points:

There have been 23 of these teams. Thirteen of them have reached the Final Four, so that’s almost 57% — even higher than the 40-plus group. Four have become national champions. Two of these teams — 2002 Cincinnati and 1992 Kansas — lost in the round of 32. At quick glance, it does not appear there’s much difference between winning that first game by 35 or 55, which shouldn’t be surprising.

No. 1 seeds that have won by 20 to 29 points:

There have been 37 of these teams. Eighteen of them — just a touch under half — have reached the FInal Four. Seven of these teams have won the national championship, and six have lost in the round of 32. So, again, not seeing much difference. But that’s about to change.

No. 1 seeds that have won by 10 to 19 points:

Um, well, now comes a big difference. There have been 23 teams that have won their first round games by 10 to 19 points. Only six of the 23 — barely more than a quarter of them — have reached the FInal Four.

The good news is that three of the six teams that DID reach the Final Four — 1994 Arkansas, 2002 Maryland and 2012 Kentucky — went on to win national titles. But the cutoff is pretty glaring. It seems that you want to win that first round game by 20 or more points. And it’s about to get worse.

No. 1 seeds that have won by fewer than 10 points:

Oh boy. Coming into this year, only 13 No. 1 seeds have won their first round games by fewer than 10 points. Truth is, it just doesn’t happen much. But when it does happen, it’s pretty telling. Just three of the 13 reached the Final Four. None won the national title. The closest was 1986 Duke, which finished runner up to Louisville. And that’s a long time ago. Since 1990, seven No. 1 seeds squeaked by their first round game by fewer than 10 points, and only one of these — 1997 North Carolina — even reached the Final Four.

Obviously, we’re not dealing with a huge sample size here … but these seem to be pretty clear results. Twenty points looks like a severe cutoff point. Teams that have won by 20-plus have reached the Final Four a little bit more than half  the time.

Teams that have won by 19 or fewer have reached the Final Four only a quarter of the time. And the less they win by, the less likely they are to reach the Final Four. Indiana and Louisville this year both finished above that 20-point victory line. Kansas and Gonzaga finished well below it. With a tournament as wide open as this one appears to be, I would have to say it’s a bad indicator for Kansas and Gonzaga.

I looked up one more thing. I wanted to see last the time a team — no matter what seed — won its first game by seven or fewer points (like Kansas and Gonzaga) and went on to the win the national title. And I found something pretty cool: It hasn’t happened in almost 25 years. That’s not the cool thing. The cool thing is that in the 1980s is happened ALL THE TIME.

— In 1980, Louisville needed overtime to beat Kansas State by two — and went on to the national title.

— In 1982, North Carolina — that incredibly loaded team with James Worthy and Sam Perkins and the freshman Michael Jordan — beat James Madison by just two points before going on to win the championship.

— In 1983, Jim Valvano’s N.C. State began its improbable run with a two-overtime 69-67 victory over Pepperdine.

— In 1984, Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown — and I guess I forgot this — barely held on to beat Southern Methodist in a 37-36 thriller. Yeah: 37-36. I think you know where this is leading.

— In 1985, Villanova beat Dayton by just two in the opening round of its magical run to the title.

— And in 1989 — this is the last time it has happened — Michigan beat Xavier by five, 92-87, and went on to the title.

I think it’s pretty obvious why this happened so often in the early 1980s: There was no shot clock (and also no three-point line). There is a lot of talk about how much more parity there is in college basketball now than ever before because of the NBA draft and national exposure to so many teams and so on. That’s probably true. But I would argue that THE GAME ITSELF does not cater nearly as much to parity.

Since the shot-clock has been introduced to college hoops, the national champion has won its first game by an average of 25 points.

In the six years leading up to the shot clock, the eventual national champ won its games by 2, 34 (Indiana), 2, 2, 1 and 2.

Just more fun stuff to think about as we head into the round of 32.

UCLA is no longer a Final Four contender if their defense doesn’t improve

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s win over No. 8 UCLA was massive for No. 7 Arizona for a number of reasons.

They got Allonzo Trier back into the fold. They remained undefeated atop the Pac-12 standings, keeping pace with an Oregon team that’s dealing with another Dillon Brooks foot injury and getting ready to make the nightmarish trip to the Mountain schools, Utah and Colorado, this weekend. They took a two game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings.

Perhaps more importantly, the Wildcats certified themselves as a legitimate threat to get to the Final Four. Their 17-2 record entering Saturday was pretty. A win at Pauley finally gave that résumé some substance.

So good for Arizona.

But that wasn’t the biggest story line coming out of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

UCLA’s defense, or lack thereof, was.

Ever since the Bruins went into Rupp Arena and knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky, UCLA has been considered one of the very best teams in the country. Villanova’s up there, too. So is Kansas, and Gonzaga, and those Kentucky Wildcats. North Carolina probably should be in that conversation as well. Maybe Baylor, maaaybe Florida State.

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You get my point. The Bruins, for better or worse, were one of the handful of teams that everyone thought would enter the NCAA tournament as a favorite to win the national title, but it’s time for us to question whether or not that is actually the case. That’s how bad the UCLA defense has been this season, particularly of late.

Against Arizona, the Bruins were a train-wreck. They gave up 96 points on 1.315 points-per-possession, which, for those of you who aren’t into advanced stats, is atrocious. That game was the culmination of a four-game stretch where UCLA’s defense had gone from concerning-but-good-enough to a major red flag. In those four games – road trips to Colorado and Utah and home games against Arizona and Arizona State – the Bruins allowed an abysmal 1.153 PPP. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Kentucky team that went 38-1, the best defense we’ve seen in the KenPom era, gave up 0.847 PPP. UCLA averages 75 possessions a game, which is a difference of 23 points over 40 minutes.

That’s a big deal.

And on the season, UCLA has fallen the way to 125th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

That’s a bigger deal.

For those that don’t know, KenPom.com is a website that ranks teams based on how many points they score and allow per possession, adjusted for schedule strength. It’s widely considered the best way to determine who the best offensive, the best defensive and the best overall teams are.

It’s been around since 2002.

And since 2002, given where UCLA’s defense is today, they would be the second-worst defensive team to ever get to a Final Four.

In 2011, VCU ranked 138th in defensive efficiency as of Selection Sunday*, and they are the only team to ever rank outside the top 80 in defensive efficiency and make it all the way to the Final Four. Only three other teams have ranked outside the top 50 and made it to the final weekend of the season: Marquette in 2003 (76th), Butler in 2011 (72nd) and Michigan in 2013 (66th). Two others ranked outside the top 40 and won at least four games in the Big Dance: Texas in 2003 (46th) and Wisconsin in 2014 (50th):

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-3-16-43-pm

*(All of this info is via KenPom.com and as of Selection Sunday in those given seasons. That’s important to note, because winning games against good teams in the tournament changes those stats.)

The precedent is there.

UCLA, unquestionably, has to get better defensively if they want to win a national title.

But all hope is not lost.

The two teams with the lowest defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament to win the national title – North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015 – both had top three offenses nationally.

UCLA leads the nation in offensive efficiency.

AP Poll: Villanova, Kansas neck-and-neck for No. 1

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 13: Head coach Jay Wright and Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats congratulate Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the second half against the Temple Owls at The Pavilion on December 13, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls 78-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova maintained a slim lead over Kansas for the No. 1 spot in this week’s AP poll, with Gonzaga being the only other program to receive any first place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

After losing to Arizona at home, UCLA dropped to eighth as the Wildcats vaulted them into No. 7 in the poll.

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1. Villanova (35 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (28)
3. Gonzaga (2)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. Florida State
7. Arizona
8. UCLA
9. North Carolina
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Virginia
13. Louisville
14. Notre Dame
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Saint Mary’s
22. Maryland
23. South Carolina
24. Xavier
25. Florida

Coaches Poll: Kansas remains No. 1, Villanova No. 2

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 21: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives to the goal against Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns in the first half at Allen Field House on January 21, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Kansas remained No. 1 in the Coaches Poll this week, getting 18 of the 32 first-place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

Villanova sits at No. 2 in the poll, with Gonzaha in third, the only other team to receive a first-place vote.

After beating UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, Arizona jumped up to No. 9 but still sits two spots behind UCLA at No. 7.

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1. Kansas (18 first-place votes)
2. Villanova (11)
3. Gonzaga (3)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. North Carolina
7. UCLA
8. Florida State
9. Arizona
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Notre Dame
13. Virginia
14. Louisville
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Sainy Mary’s
22. Xavier
23. Maryland
24. South Carolina
25. Florida

College Basketball Talk Top 25: It gets muddy after a clear-cut top four

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the first half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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This week’s rankings were probably more difficult to put together than any week so far this season.

The top four, frankly, seem pretty obvious. I have Villanova No. 1, but I would have no qualms with ranking any of Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga in that No. 1 spot. I expect those to be the four teams that get votes for No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls this week.

After that, however, is when it gets difficult. Are you going to rank North Carolina above Florida State? UNC beat the Seminoles when they squared off this season but that was the Seminoles lone loss in a six game run against ranked teams. I went with Carolina over them because, simply, I think UNC is a better team.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the top three teams in the Pac-12. Arizona just won at UCLA and they got Allonzo Trier back. Oregon also owns a win over the Bruins, but there’s came at home on a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks, who is dealing with a foot injury again. And while UCLA has consistently proven to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, they are a nightmare defensively right now.

Where does West Virginia slot in after a pair of losses? What about Creighton without Mo Watson Jr.? Butler’s profile looks great but their performance on the floor has been less than stellar since their win over Villanova. Is Duke actually back?

You can find the rankings below. What did I get wrong?

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1. Villanova (19-1, Last Week No. 1)
2. Kentucky (17-2, 2)
3. Kansas (18-1, 4)
4. Gonzaga (19-0, 5)
5. North Carolina (18-3, 5)
6. Baylor (18-1, 7)
7. Florida State (18-2, 8)
8. Arizona (18-2, 16)
9. UCLA (19-2, 3)
10. Oregon (18-2, 10)
11. Louisville (16-4, 11)
12. Wisconsin (16-3, 13)
13. Purdue (16-4, 15)
14. Notre Dame (17-3, 17)
15. Cincinnati (17-2, 18)
16. Duke (15-4, 19)
17. West Virginia (15-4, 10)
18. Butler (17-3, 14)
19. Creighton (18-2, 12)
20. Saint Mary’s (17-2, 20)
21. Virginia (16-3, 22)
22. South Carolina (15-4, 24)
23. Maryland (17-2, 25)
24. Kansas State (15-4, NR)
25. Iowa State (12-6, NR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 21 Xavier, No. 23 Florida
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Kansas State, No. 25 Iowa State

Five Things We Learned This Week: Duke’s back, Creighton might be OK, and can UCLA win a title?

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 21:  Matt Jones #13 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after making a three-point basket against the Miami Hurricanes during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 70-58.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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1. Jeff Capel’s gamble paid off: For the first time in more than a month, Duke looked like Duke again, and it all came from a roll-of-the-dice by interim head coach Jeff Capel.

With the Blue Devils down 36-25 at the half at home against Miami, he benched Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Harry Giles III to open the second half, and it worked. Matt Jones scored all 13 of his points to sparked a 31-4 run that turned what should have been Miami’s first marquee win into a moment in Duke’s season that we have to highlight.

The specific turning point came less than two minutes into the half. Duke was finally playing with energy defensively, but they couldn’t quite get things going on the offensive end of the floor. After another missed shot from the Blue Devils, Jones picked off an outlet pass and rattled home a three that sent Cameron Indoor Stadium into hysterics. The crowd went nuts. The bench went nuts. Capel went to go chest bump Jones at half court after Miami called a timeout and nearly truck-sticked his veteran leader.

And it was more than just Jones hitting shots. Frank Jackson looked the part of an all-american for the first time since his more-heralded freshmen counterparts returned from injury. Marques Bolden played what was by far his best game as a collegian, too. They were brimming with confidence, but perhaps more importantly, it was the first time that Duke looked to be having fun playing basketball since the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 10th.

I don’t know what the future holds for Duke’s season.

But I do know that if they make a run now, Matt Jones rattling home a three will have been the turning point in their season.

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2. Creighton might be OK without Mo Watson Jr.: Creighton got smoked by Marquette at home on Saturday afternoon, losing 102-94 in a game that wasn’t really that close in the second half. That’s not exactly the most reassuring thing to have happen for a team trying to figure out how to survive without their all-american point guard, but there is something important to note about the result: Creighton lost because they decided not to defend.

Marquette has one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country. They currently rank 7th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. They have loads of guards to spread around Luke Fischer in the post, and head coach Steve Wojciechowski has them running and gunning like some of those old Duke teams he played on. They made 12 threes against Creighton, shot 60 percent from the floor and scored 1.275 points-per-possession.

That’s atrocious defense from the Bluejays.

But they also put up 94 points. Marcus Foster went for 30. They were 11-for-24 from the floor and shot 49.3 percent on the game despite missing 23 of their first 34 field goals. Davion Mintz, playing the point in Watson’s absence, finished with 17 points and eight assists. Their offense, overall, looked fine.

Part of that is because Marquette is a bad defensive team. Part of that was likely because they were chasing the game late, able to get a flurry of points down the stretch against a defense that was trying not to foul. And it’s not like we can ignore the 11-for-34 start to the game.

That said, when you combine this performance with the fact that the Bluejays were able to hold on and win at Xavier after Watson’s first half injury, there is reason to be optimistic that Greg McDermott will figure this thing out. Creighton no longer has the same upside without Watson – he was awesome, let’s not forget that – but this weekend showed us the Bluejays aren’t dead yet.

OMAHA, NEBRASKA-NOVEMBER 26: Marcus Foster #0 of the Creighton Bluejays take s a break during their game against the Loyola (Md) Greyhounds at the CenturyLink Center on November 26, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Marcus Foster (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

3. Indiana isn’t dead yet, either: We were all ready to bury the Hoosiers after they lost O.G. Anunoby to a knee injury that will require surgery and end his season, but someone forget to tell Indiana.

Four days after James Blackmon Jr. hit a buzzer-beating three to give Indiana a win at Penn State, the Hoosiers smacked around Michigan State at Assembly Hall on the strength of 33 points from Blackmon. All of a sudden, Tom Crean’s club is sitting at 4-3 in the Big Ten, two games out of first place, having won four of their last five, the only loss coming by three points at league leader Maryland.

That’s impressive, but it doesn’t get any easier for the Hoosiers. This week, they visit both Michigan and Northwestern, who is currently 5-2 in the Big Ten. Winning at home in front of a raucous crowd is one thing. Taking care of teams that they should be able to beat on the road is another.

4. Can we still take UCLA seriously as a title contender?: At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, UCLA’s defense has gotten to the point where it’s difficult to picture them winning six games in a row against quality competition. They rank 125th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric after giving up 1.315 points-per-possession. Arizona routinely obliterated UCLA off the dribble, getting into the paint at will and exposing Bryce Alford as a defensive liability. Arizona also pounded the offensive glass, getting 34 percent of their own misses, and the cumulative effect was that the Bruins were unable to get their transition game into high gear.

As the saying goes, the easiest way to keep a running team from running is to make them take the ball out of their own net.

The Bruins are still the most dangerous team in the country. When they play their best, when they are banging threes and getting out in transition and Lonzo Ball is doing Lonzo Ball things, they can beat anyone else’s best. Their ceiling is the highest ceiling in the sport.

But we’re just not going to see that ceiling for six straight games.

So while Arizona proved themselves a Pac-12 favorite and a threat in March on Saturday, the more telling issue was that UCLA may not be quite as good as we thought they were.

5. Is West Virginia’s press broken?: One of the knocks we had on Baylor entering Big 12 play was that once they began playing teams that knew how to attack that funky zone they run their defense would take a hit. For the most part, that hasn’t been the case for the Bears.

It has, however, for the Mountaineers.

The blowout win over Baylor aside, West Virginia has not been impressive in Big 12 play. They lost to Texas Tech in overtime. They barely beat Big 12 bottom-feeder Texas. They lost at home to Oklahoma in overtime. They lost at Kansas State by four. In all four of those games, the Mountaineers had more turnovers than they forced. West Virginia leads the nation by forcing turnovers on 31.1 percent of their defensive possessions. In those four games, they forced turnovers on 20.3 percent of their possessions.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers reacts against the Temple Owls in the second half during the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Head coach Bob Huggins (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)