Tuesday, March 13, 2007

East ACC Pod Preview

Let's start up with the top of the east regional. Here's the pythagorean odds for advancing.

2nd Round Sweet 16
UNC 99.26 81.35
Marquette 39.24 5.84
Michigan St 60.76 12.79
E. Kentucky 0.74 0.02

Not surprisingly, as the one seed, UNC is a heavy favorite to advance to the Sweet 16. While a lot of that is due to the infinitesimal chance that they lose to Eastern Kentucky, they're also big favorites in head-to-head matchups with Marquette or Michigan St - Carolina would win either matchup about 4 out of every 5 times. These numbers also don't account for the absence of Jerel McNeal for Marquette. He's Marquette's second best player, and his defense is equally important to the team as his offense (he would have drawn Neitzel). Michigan State is much like Duke this year, in that they played a very difficult in-conference schedule, and their record and naked eye assessment doesn't match their statistical performance, which has been stellar. Also like Duke, MSU's defense is ahead of its offense.

As for the matchups... UNC drew Eastern Kentucky, participants in this year's dance by virtue of a 1-point win over Austin Peay in the OVC tournament. EKU is going to have a ton of problems with UNC's pace - they play very slow basketball, but don't take good enough care of the ball to seem like a likely candidate to actually slow UNC down. Add in problems with size (their tallest player is 6'8") and rebounding (279th in the country in preventing offensive rebounds), and this looks like a long night for the Colonels. Their one strong point is interior scoring - they hit 55% of their twos, led by 6'4" senior Julian Mascoll, who has the dubious distinction of shooting better from the field (62.5% on twos) than from the line (56.5%). However, they haven't faced many frontcourts as big, talented, and deep as Rey Terry, Brandan Wright, The Mask, Deon Thompson, and Alex Stepheson. In fact they played only the 286th ranked schedule in the land, and they got annihilated by Ohio State 74-45 in one of their only games against top competition. Look for UNC to put up a very comfortable win that lets their starters get some rest.

Marquette and Michigan State is a matchup of two under-seeded teams that was diminished ever so slightly with the announcement that McNeal would miss the game. MSU is only 5-7 in their last 12, but the only loss to a non-tournament team in that stretch was at Michigan, and 2 of the 5 wins are over tourney teams in Wisconsin and Indiana. MSU has displayed Georgia Tech-like home/road disparities on account of their youth - they lost their only true non-conference road game (at Boston College) and picked up just one road win in conference play (at woeful Penn State). Of course, their conference road schedule was brutal - all of the top eight teams not named Michigan State (plus Penn State) - possibly the hardest, relative to conference, in BCS conference basketball. MSU will rely heavily on Drew Neitzel (you knew that) and Raymar Morgan (you may not have known that). Morgan is a freshman who missed some time with injury, but he uses almost exactly the same number of possessions as Neitzel does (Neitzel shoots more, Morgan turns it over more). MSU has some excellent offensive rebounders in the front court in Suton, Naymick, and Gray. Their big flaw on the season has been turnovers (again, similar to Duke) and particularly generous have been the big men. Turnovers could really be a problem for the Spartans against Marquette. The Golden Eagles are in the top 10% in the country in forcing turnovers, and they thrived against Duke in creating steals and getting easy points in transition. Marquette needs those turnovers, because in the half court, their offense is a little cringe-worthy - they are a very poor shooting team, and even a 39.3 ORB% can't elevate their EFG above 50% (note: I consider high offensive rebounding to contribute to higher field goal % because a second chance point is often an easier shot). That places Marquette's shooting in the bottom half of the country. James, Matthews, and McNeal have combined to hit just 28.3% of their 346 combined three-point attempts - that's really not good. Against MSU, they're facing one of the top half court defenses in the country. If they don't get turnovers to create points for them, it will be very difficult for the Eagles to score enough to win.

MSU would have the better chance to knock off the Heels in the round of 32. The frontcourt for the Spartans is better on defense and on the glass, and Neitzel is much more likely to go crazy and completely carry a team than James is. Carolina isn't too big on forcing turnovers, either, so MSU's season-long TO problem might not be too much of an Achilles heel. However, when it comes down to it, UNC just creates too many matchup problems for either Marquette or MSU to overcome. I like Michigan State to make it a game for 30-34 minutes (kind of like Duke did in Cameron) but for UNC to pull away comfortably at the end. And oh by the way, they'll have a very partisan crowd in Winston-Salem, which will make matters worse for whoever's trying to pull the upset.

Now to the bottom of the bracket, and the pythagorean odds for BC's Pod:

2nd Round Sweet 16
Georgetown 96.59 81.35
Boston College 64.90 13.46
Texas Tech 35.10 4.62
Belmont 3.41 0.57

Georgetown has precisely the same odds to hit the sweet 16 as UNC, but I think as a practical matter, they're even less likely to be upset. First, let's get Belmont out of the way. The Bruins upset ETSU in the A-Sun tourney and earned themselves a 15-spot in the process. Belmont has been stingy on the defensive end all year, giving up the 4th lowest EFG% and the single lowest 3pt % (28.3) in all the land. They don't do much else on D though - not a lot of turnovers, too many offensive rebounds, and too many opponent free throws. On offense, Belmont was again all about shooting - their EFG% is 15th in the nation, a full 11.7% better than opponents, but again, they do little else - way too many turnovers, a paucity of free throws, and no real offensive rebounds to speak of. All of Belmont's top 7 players are offensive threats, and all got plenty of shots on the year. Inside, they have height in 6'11" Boomer Herndon and 6'10" Andrew Preston, and that height can score (a combined 17 points per game on 62.4% from the floor). But they haven't had to face anyone like Roy Hibbert yet this year. Belmont's game is totally dependent on hitting shots and preventing the opponents from doing the same, and I'm not sure they'll do either very well against Georgetown.

I'm kind of underwhelmed by the 7-10 game. BC and Texas Tech are kind of similar in makeup - very good offenses supported by subpar defenses, and average supporting casts surrounding a couple of very good high usage players. In Texas Tech's case, Jarrius Jackson has played the 3rd most minutes in the country, with Martin Zeno not far behind. Both Ty Rice and Jared Dudley were over the 95% mark for BC during ACC play. Both Jackson and Dudley are superb, but Jackson is much more likely to demand the ball and take over (he took 15 shots per game on the year), and Coach Knight has managed to get his team to buy into the idea that that'll be the only way they can win. Dudley has been deferential to Rice and Marshall a bit too much, which is dangerous because both have some ball-hog tendencies. He needs to demand the ball be in his hands more often, because at 6'7", with 25 foot range, quickness to drive past a forward, strength to post up a guard, and a great ability to get to the line, he's a matchup problem for almost anyone. The Red Raiders are a good shooting team, both from 3 and from the line (they also get to the line a lot), which means they can shoot themselves back into any game. They also don't turn the ball over at all (likely to be even lower in this game, since BC is 308th! in the country in TO%). This could be a high scoring affair, with both teams getting up into the low 80s, and a game that goes down to the wire. I think BC has enough to get by Tech in the end.

Against Georgetown, however, BC's defense will get absolutely torched. This could be one of the biggest blowouts of the second round. BC plays cover-your-eyes awful team defense, which means they're liable to get screened and back-cut to death by a team that moves the ball and moves off the ball as well as the Hoyas. Jeff Green is a matchup problem for whatever combination of Dudley, Oates, and Spears is used to defend him, and that doesn't account for Dajuan Summers, who has started to develop into Jeff Green-lite as the season has played on. Wallace and Rivers handle the point capably, although Wallace is the only offensive threat of the two. And, oh yeah, they have the best 7-footer not named Greg Oden in Roy Hibbert. If Georgetown is vulnerable, it will be either to a team with athletes, that can get up and down and force the Hoyas out of their tempo, or to a team that plays excellent half court defense, and can frustrate the Hoyas' offense. Boston College and Texas Tech are neither of those teams, and Georgetown should win in a walk over either.

Congrats to FSU and NCSU for representing the ACC well in the first round of the NIT. Thornton was his typical Thornton-y self, scoring 24 on very good shooting, and leading the Noles in points, shots, and minutes (he tossed in a couple steals and blocks to boot). Every day of the post-season makes me more satisfied with my personal choice of him over Dudley for POY. As for the Pack, they must have been feeling fresh after having a whole day off to travel from Tampa to Philadelphia to take on a Drexel team that figured to be angry after a widely perceived snub in the tourney. Turns out only Frank Elegar (who went off) was angry, and NC State came from behind early to pull out a narrow win. All five starters made solid contributions. The Pack finally get rewarded, as the big upset by Marist over Okie State means that the RBC Center will get one more home game - that place should be absolutely packed and rocking, if nothing else as a tribute to the recent play of their team.

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