Point Blank – March 18-19, 2017
NCAA Weekend – The Game Inside the Game
The NCAA Tournament is down to 32 teams now, and with that comes a shift in the handicapping approaches. While basic power ratings can bring significant edges through the first round, especially with various conference notions built in, the raw math gets tougher now off of the base ratings. The markets aren’t going to make many mistakes on relative team strength from here on out, but that doesn’t mean that opportunity is reduce – if you are a student of the sport, and in particular of team matchups, there are going to be many opportunities ahead.
The focus from now till the final nets are cut down in Arizona will be on “The Game Inside the Game” focusing in on some of the key matchups that will dictate the game flow, and ideally point us to some scoreboard outcomes that the betting lines leave some value for. I am going to split this one up a little different, with a couple of games ready to go now, and two more to be added on Saturday morning. But since Notre Dame/West Virginia is so compelling, and also tips off early, I wanted to get some details up early enough for you all to digest them.
With a lot of statistical studies and game watching ahead you are also going to need some proper background to stay in the proper flow, and for the Weekend Edition the jukebox will remain on the recent theme of some guitar legends that had their lives cut far too short, in some of these instances their attempts to come to terms with their creativity playing a role in their demise. Today we go to some classic work from the late Tommy Bolin, not just with his guitar but a showcase of his abilities as a songwriter as well, an extended version of “Wild Dogs” -
Run down ghost town, no chance for love
No sign of life – just wild dogs howlin’ in the night
It was only later that the realities behind those lyrics tragically took on even more meaning, but for now we give due appreciation to the artistry, and let it glide us up and down the court…
NOTRE DAME/WEST VIRGINIA – The immovable force vs. the irresistible object, when the Fighting Irish have the ball
In terms of classic matchups the focal point here is about as good as it gets, especially in that so much of the game flow will be decided by how that key element plays out. So without further adieu -
Notre Dame Offense vs. West Virginia Defense
Full-season readers will understand a big part of why that matters, but let’s set it up again for those just coming on board at tourney time. Few teams have the depth and athleticism of Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers, and he utilizes that roster to press all over the floor, and often the full length of the game. Those presses are effective both in taking the ball away for easy scores, as evidenced by the above numbers (WVU is also #3 in the nation in steal%), and also in terms of wearing opponents down.
But there is a problem. The same athleticism that makes the defense so good has also produced a rotation that is rather limited when it comes to one of the key aspects of the sport – making shots. So let’s take a look at that offense -
The key here is that for as mediocre as the shooting tracks, that includes all of those layups and dunks in the open court after turnovers, and also easy scores from the offensive boards. Because of their athleticism and tenacity they are #6 in the nation in offensive rebound%, part of that also because they get a lot of practice at chasing down missed shots.
What happens when the defense does not generate easy opportunities? The West Virginia half-court attack can go stagnant. And the offense is likely to become a significant factor in this game, for while the WVU pressure will still create some havoc, the Notre Dame numbers are clear – no team did a better job of taking care of the ball, and in facing the #23 schedule in the nation, the Fighting Irish had five ACC games against Florida State and Louisville teams that bring the Mountaineer calling card of size, depth, athleticism and pressure defense. Mike Brey’s team went 3-2 SU and 5-0 ATS across those games, and not only handles pressure defense well but also use those offensive ball skills to set tempo. That matters, because WVU was just 2-7 ATS in regulation this season when neither the Mountaineers nor their opponents scored more than 75 points.
Brey’s offense may do as good of a job as any team can at thwarting the West Virginia pressure, and force the Mountaineers to run their offense often and have to make shots out of it. But while that is the lead story, note that in this one it does not necessarily solve the entire riddle – even when shots are missed, there is that #6 on the offensive boards going into a Fighting Irish squad that was only #244 at clearing the defensive glass. This one brings some classic basketball elements to it.
IOWA STATE/PURDUE – Were the Boilermakers fundamentally sound on defense, or just a step slow
The Purdue defense was a lead topic here earlier this season and elements of that come front and center tonight. The Boilermakers have one of the biggest lineups in the country, a front-court rotation of not just height but also bulk, and as one would expect it is not easy to score around the basket against them – they rated #15 in the nation in defensive efficiency, and #31 in Effective FG% allowed.
There were also seeming weaknesses, and hence the question became one of whether it was the negative of a lack of quickness in terms of ball pressure, or whether it was a positive in terms of basketball philosophy by Matt Painter. The issue is that his defense was #276 in the nation in TO% forced, and #281 in Steal%. The optimistic answer to that is style, Purdue guarding with fundamentals in the half-court and avoiding fouls, and the defense was indeed #2 in FTA/FGA, only Villanova rating better. But does that necessarily answer everything, especially in this particular matchup? Does this big, but slow afoot lineup have an issue in getting out and guarding talented players on the perimeter? Vermont just spread them out to the rather shocking tune of 21 assists vs. only six turnovers on Thursday, when the Boilermakers only came up with two steals, and there are few teams more difficult to guard than Monte Morris and the Cyclones.
Iowa State is going to get a lot of shots. The Cyclones were #3 in the nation in TO% despite facing the #4 schedule, and when you match that up against the Purdue perimeter defense, it could mean only a small handful of ISU possessions not ending up with a shot being taken. And while there is that imposing Swanigan/Haas/Edwards front-court to alter shots near the basket, the Cyclone offense rarely attacks from the post, instead spreading shooters around the arc for 3-point attempts. State was #10 in the nation in knocking those shots down at 40.3 percent, and also #34 in the ratio of total points that came beyond the arc.
This is an acid test for the Purdue defense. In the closest style matchup in Big 10 play, a Michigan team that spreads the floor, does not turn the ball over, and can knock down perimeter thots, Painter’s squad was 0-2 SU and ATS this season.
Of course when you do the full handicap there is also a flip side – Iowa State does struggle to guard the paint because of a lack of size, and the Boilermakers will control the glass. But that is also what “The Game Inside the Game” can be about, learning to do the best possible weighting of various matchup components.
SAINT MARY’S/ARIZONA – On why there was such confusion behind the counter before this one got posted
OK, so “The Game Inside the Game” from a betting market standpoint is not just about what happens on the court, but the price point that the scoreboard will be graded against. So in this one we leave the court for a moment and head to that mysterious Oz, where the wizards behind the oddsmakers curtain had a wild card to deal with.
I had noted at the start of the tournament that we had come to the time of the season in which the raw math models of the power ratings would be carrying so much weight, using Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin as the standards because they not only get respected by the betting markets, but there are groups that also do some modeling off of their methods. Hence the conundrum for tonight’s second tipoff in Salt Lake City.
The KenPom model calls for Saint Mary’s -1, and Sagarin for Arizona -1.5. You can’t find an oddsmaker’s set that comes close to that, which led to some interesting conversations. Open up Arizona too low and the public would blast the number; open the Wildcats too high and some wise guy math models might flock quickly to the underdog. The common opener was -3.5 but it has not taken long at all to climb to -5.5.
Why do the raw math numbers see this one so differently? It has to do with Saint Mary’s playing Gonzaga three times. The Gaels didn’t do much of anything to impress across those 120 minutes, losing by 51 points, and never really being in the hunt. But it is what those games did for the strength of schedule. The Gaels faced the #280 non-conference schedule according to the Pomeroy numbers, which looks about right, and outside of Gonzaga the West Coast Conference was rather wretched this season, not only with the teams at the bottom being weak, before several of those teams taking on key injuries as well. Yet Saint Mary’s ends up with a #140 overall in strength of schedule, which shows how much three games vs. Gonzaga, #1 overall on the Pomeroy ratings, weigh into the equation.
As for the game on the court, I can direct you to a really good read – these programs conducted pre-season scrimmages against each other for three straight seasons before not having one this time, something that was planned but had to be changed because of an Arizona scheduling issue. What is interesting when you read through the comments is that Saint Mary’s apparently got the better of it in those scrimmages, which is meaningful because there is a style difference between the programs. But with Kadeem Allen, Dusan Ristic and Parker Jacks-Cartwright having all been through a pair of them, does that help the Arizona prep for today (I believe the familiarity helps the Wildcats more than it would the Gaels given the style components).
VIRGINIA/FLORIDA – Is this the worst possible matchup for the Florida offense
Much like West Virginia noted above, Florida had a lot of success this season through pressure defense – the Gators had the size, depth and athleticism to rate #4 in defensive efficiency, #19 in effective FG%, #32 in TO% and #46 in blocked shot%. All of those elements suffered when center John Egbunu went down in mid-February, and it led to a 3-3 SU and 2-4 ATS slide down the stretch, but the defense is still rather salty.
What does that defense do for the offense? A lot of quick easy points in transition, Florida rating #29 in offensive efficiency, and #18 in pace. That looks good, but in reality those numbers say more about the Gators defense than their offense. These say more about the offense -
Effective FG% #120
and as such that offense was written about as a lead topic here earlier in the season. For as good as Mike White’s defense is, he doesn’t have a NBA-prototype player to take the ball and make something happen at the end of a close game. Or perhaps for today’s matchup against Virginia, to make something happen at any time of a close game.
There was a common theme to Florida’s two late losses to Vanderbilt – the Commodores only committed nine turnovers each time, despite one of the games going to overtime. It not only forced Florida into half-court sets, but also creating a much slower pace. Now comes Virginia.
The Cavaliers are not going to turn it over much, #16 in the nation in that category. That is a part of what makes Tony Bennett’s “Pack Line” defense work, the offense staying in structure, getting a shot off on most possessions, which then enables the defense to get back and get set. When they do set they are not only good at generating stops, #2 in the nation in efficiency, but also #328 in forcing the shot clock to be used at 18.2 per trip. That is more than two full seconds more than what the Florida offense averages.
Virginia will also struggle to score here, the Cavaliers offense putting the overall numbers together to rate #37, but doing that in a most inconsistent way. But with the markets helping my purposes a bit by flowing towards the Gators, which sets up the various betting menu options, I will be in play with #522 Florida Team Total Under, with 64 having become available. It is the inconsistency of the Virginia offense that makes either Cavaliers +2 or Full Game Under a riskier proposition, but I have no problem calling for Bennett’s defense to make stops in this matchup.
Now let me also repeat one from the Friday edition, in case you missed it the first time around (and hopefully those that did read were able to put a little -10 in pocket)…
In the Sights, NCAA Saturday…
One of the key items I look for each tournament is the under-achieving first round favorite, especially if they were off of a conference tourney win, and faced an opponent that did not motivate them in any special way. There will often be a lethargic showing from such chalk, and because the focus is on the elite teams, they know when they didn’t play well, the coach being given the opportunity to crack the whip. That often means a much stronger second round showing, and it helps when they also get matched up against an opponent that may have the Cinderella slippers going to their head to the point at which it creates a glass jaw. For me that leads to #530 Gonzaga (5:25 Eastern), and I will use today to shop around the market to find a bargain (consider this good to -11).
Mark Few’s Bulldogs were terrible yesterday. They shot 39.7 percent; launched far too many times from long range and missed most of them (8-30 on 3-point attempts); made only 8-18 free throws; and had more turnovers than assists. That was not Gonzaga basketball, yet it led to a 20-point win anyway. It is unlikely that anyone in that locker room after the game was pleased with their performance, regardless of how the scoreboard looked, and in particular consider floor leader Nigel Williams-Goss, who finally got the opportunity to play his first tournament game. Williams-Goss was 4-13 from the field, missing all three attempts beyond the arc, and had only nine points and four assists.
His take in the post-game helps to understand the mindset - "We were able to grind out a tough game, not a pretty game. It feels good when you win a game when you know you didn't play your best." The players can feel good because they know they got away with one, and are not likely to again as the competition gets tougher.
I am not sure how difficult the challenge will be, with Northwestern potentially just so happy to have reached this stage that there may not be a lot left, perhaps comparable to the 76-48 shellacking the Wildcats suffered vs. Wisconsin in the Big 10 tourney last Saturday, their win over Maryland the previous evening seemingly having been “mission accomplished”.
Here is where that frame of mind matters. Chris Collins has done a simply superb job at getting his team to this stage, in particular the way that he has increased the confidence level, and Collins may be a coach star in the making. But now let’s go to his post-game take from yesterday –
"You dream of being in these games. That's why you get in the gym with these guys. That's why you put in the time. I tell these guys all the time, when you dream about these games, you don't dream about losing them. You don't dream about playing scared. You don't dream about being timid. You dream about being great, having confidence and winning."
That is a nice speech after winning a national championship. Perhaps after winning in the semi-finals to get to the championship game. You can even take it back to winning an Elite Eight game to move on to the Final Four. That is not the speech that comes from beating a mediocre Vanderbilt team that entered the game with 15 losses.
The Northwestern roster does not have a legacy of success, and it isn’t just about winning post-season games but merely even being in them. Most of the current rotation got knocked out of the Big 10 tournament in the first round each of the past two seasons; now they are playing their fifth game in 10 days under tourney pressure. I would not be surprised if there was a crash here, especially given the kind of punch I expect to see Gonzaga throwing, and there are also only minor concerns about the back door; once the crash happens the fight could go out of a team that has had a marvelous season, but just isn’t in this class yet.
WICHITA STATE/KENTUCKY – Gregg Marshall’s roster is deep enough and tough enough to win, but are the players good enough
There are some fascinating aspects to this one. Ordinarily the fear with taking a mid-major underdog against a national power is that the underdog will often lack the size and depth to be able to compete for the full 40 minutes. This one is much different – the Shockers are deeper than the Wildcats, and have the toughness and tenacity to create genuine matchup problems for John Calipari. That can put State right in the game, but are the players that are good enough to step up and actually win it?
For those that don’t get to see Gregg Marshall’s team play often they are unique. Only Landry Shamet has started all 35 games, with no other player even at 30, and nine different players have at least five starts. There are 10 in the rotation that average more than 12 minutes per game, but no one goes more than Shamet’s 26.2. No player even averages 12.0 points per game or 6.0 rebounds. Because of that depth the Shockers can play with a tremendous amount of physical energy, and that was evident on Friday afternoon when they whipped a tough and veteran Dayton team 40-24 on the boards.
Kentucky can be vulnerable to just that. The rotation will likely be only seven deep, and this time around the Wildcats were a good rebounding team, not a great one. They win because once again the talent is superb, the back-court of Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox potentially being the best ever if they were going to stick around for four years.
Hence the handicapping conundrum between now and tipoff. Wichita State presents us with an underdog that is deeper and more tenacious than the favorite, and also plays smarter fundamental basketball. But do any of the Shockers have the individual talent to be able to step up and make the kind of plays that Monk and Fox can? Both of those two will be in the NBA next season; will anyone from the current Wichita roster ever make it as a full-timer at that level?
I have written about several teams this season that are admirable for their balance, but with that can come the weakness of not having a go-to guy for the end of a close game. The lingering doubt in pulling a trigger here is whether or not the Shockers have that player.
RHODE ISLAND/OREGON – Can the Rams score vs. a quality defense
Notice a running theme as we head to the second round? So many teams get offense off of defense during the regular season, especially when stepping down in class against opponents that they can wreak havoc on, the offense scoring from transition opportunities. That can cloud statistics, and it leaves teams that are not all that good on the offensive end looking better than they are. What can happen to these teams when they not only don’t get the transition opportunities, but also run into tougher defense? It can be a problem scoring.
That particular handicapping thoroughfare takes us to Rhode Island next. The Rams have played with tremendous intensity under Danny Hurley, one of the nation’s most fundamentally sound defenses, and one of the best at scrapping hard for loose balls. And while the size does not look overwhelming on paper, there are good wing spans up front, which is a big part of what they were #2 in the nation in Blocked Shot%.
#1, of course, was Oregon, which makes that a particularly fascinating matchup component. The Ducks do take a hit in that category without Chris Boucher, but note that while Kavell Bigby-Williams is still learning his way, his 6-11/230 presence does help patch up the rotation – he has seven points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots over 29 minutes in the first two games without Boucher.
So here we go. The Rams are lousy shot-makers, #239 in the nation from 3-point range and #287 at making FTs. They need to get the ball to the basket (though still only #109 on 2-point shots), either off of something the defense created, or their offensive sets.
But what do they find vs. Oregon? A tourney-tested veteran team that will not shrink from the moment, take good care of the ball, and play imposing defense. I am having difficulty finding the Rams points, especially if the pressure of the spotlight is built in.
The flip side is not as easy to decipher because while the Rhode Island defense has passed the eye test, there is also a lot more athleticism to cope with than what the Rams faced throughout the Atlantic 10 schedule. But I will use the above notions to be in play with #729 Rhode Island Team Total Under, with 67 showing in the first trading, and value holding at 66 or better.
CINCINNATI/UCLA – On why the Bearcats offense has become so good (and whether it can be good enough in this matchup)
Once upon a time Bearcats/Bruins would have been a study in contrasts, Mick Cronin sending out his team needing to scrap hard on defense, and win the loose balls and rebounding, to have a chance to compete vs. superior talent. And UCLA does have more talent, including the almost limitless upside of Lonzo Ball. But it is becoming a different Cincinnati team as the current season unfolds.
Both the talent and tactics are different on offense for the Bearcats, Mick Cronin stating that he has consciously been recruiting players with better ball skills in recent classes, having run into a wall in this tourney without them. And perhaps even more important was the matter of Cronin spending time with Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, in terms of creating better offensive structures. What have the Fighting Irish been so good at under Brey? Taking care of the ball to ensure that as many offensive possessions as possible ended up with a shot being taken (although the sloppy play of the Fighting Irish offense vs. West Virginia was not a shining moment). So guess what Cincinnati is also getting better at? Let’s look at the improvement both in overall offense, and in how well the Bearcats value the ball -
“O” Eff TO%
2013 #116 #139
2014 #98 #109
2015 #95 #300
2016 #69 #61
2017 #33 #13
Two seasons ago the Cincy offense was hideous with the ball. There was a huge improvement over that the following campaign, and another impressive leap this time around.
Why does that matter so much? Because if you take care of the ball against the Bruins you are going to get a shot – UCLA rates #314 in TO% forced. And if the Bearcats get a shot and miss it, there is the prospect of getting another try, Cincinnati #20 in offensive rebound% and the Bruins only #145 at clearing the defensive boards.
Does Cincinnati have the individual talent to win this one? Much like Wichita State for the Kentucky matchup, that is the magic question. But these Bearcats are not the offensively-challenged bunch that has worn the uniforms in the past, which means a much better opportunity to hang around should they fall behind.
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