Wednesday, March 14, 2007

West ACC Pod Preview

Let's start up at the top half of the bracket, with a look at Virginia Tech's pod. Here's the pythagorean odds:

2nd Round Sweet 16
S. Illinois 82.73 38.15
Virginia Tech 49.63 29.32
Illinois 50.37 29.92
Holy Cross 17.27 2.62

Virginia Tech and Illinois would both be favored over Southern Illinois, but SIU has the best odds at getting into the sweet 16 on account of being heavy favorites over Holy Cross. Duke fans should be familiar with the Crusaders, who visited Cameron back in December. Keith Simmons, Patriot POY, is good enough to play in any league in the country. Torey Thomas is a lightning quick point guard who is 17th in the country in steals - along with backcourt-mate Simmons, the 'Sader guards are among the pilferin'est duos in the country (no one tops VMI brothers Travis (2nd) and Chavis (13th) Holmes). And Tim Clifford is a shot-blocking force who's reasonably effective, albeit very plodding, on the offensive end. Clifford has had serious problems with fouls against major opponents - if this rears its ugly head against SIU, watch out.

As for the Salukis, they happily wear the mantle of best team that people know of, but don't really know anything about. SIU's only loss since January 17 is in the Valley Championship game - that includes a very impressive 4 straight Valley road wins. SIU thrives on defense, particularly creating turnovers and getting on the glass. They excel so much in those two categories that the Salukis took nearly 200 more shots from the field than did their opponents. However, they're not shy about giving away fouls - SIU is the 11th worst team in the land in sending opponents to the line. SIU's offense is pretty well distributed among four top players, with Jamal Tatum, Matt Shaw, Randal Falker, and Tony Young all scoring over 300 points on the year. This team loves to play slow, defense-oriented games - look for the first round matchup with Holy Cross to stay in the 50s.

On the other side, VT and Illinois are about as evenly matched statistically as you can get. The Illini pair truly excellent defense with truly atrocious offense. I've tried to watch parts of 5-6 Illinois games this year, and they're pretty much unbearable. Neither the Illini nor their opponents post a .500 EFG%, and their games tend to be filled with lots of threes, not many of which go in. Warren Carter, Shaun Pruitt, and Brian Randle can really lock down the inside, and will be a load for Collins and Washington to handle in the front court - heads up Hokie fans, there could be a Robert Krabbendam sighting in the NCAAs (the horror!). As for Virginia Tech, they've lost three of four, including a game in which they gave up 0 offensive rebounds. That's unlikely to repeat itself against the Illini. Tech is very adept at hanging on to the ball, and in AD Vassallo, they have a legit threat to go off from the outside. They'll hope that Gordon and Dowdell can generate some free points with their defense, since scoring will be at a premium. I think Deron Washington could be a difference maker - Brian Randle is really the only Illinois player with the size/speed combination to be able to check him, and Randle tends not to be able to stay on the court for too long. Potential sour note for whichever team is leading toward game's end - neither side is good at shooting free throws, making a late game comeback scenario very plausible.

In the second round, I think SIU most wants to face Illinois, just to beat their big brother rivals from Champaign/Urbana. The Salukis beat the Hokies earlier this year in Orlando in a game that was uncharacteristically turnover filled. SIU put up a .605 EFG% and spent lots of time at the line, which let them overcome a 31.0 TO% (yikes). An SIU-Illinois matchup would probably be the most unwatchable game of the tournament - it would be the game where old points go to die, and no score would be too low to surprise me.

Now, onto the lower half of the West, and the pod for 6-seeded Duke:

2nd Round Sweet 16
Pittsburgh 89.78 44.00
Duke 86.27 51.78
VCU 13.73 3.01
Wright St 10.22 1.21

Duke is the statistical favorite to reach the Sweet 16 but, like Michigan State (and Clemson, and Georgia Tech, and ...) the stats paint a rosier picture than what lies ahead. The Duke defense of the last 10 games is simply not the same one as held the best offenses in the Big East and Big 10 (yes, Indiana had the best offense in the Big-10) to O Ratings in the 80s. The 3/14 matchup seems like a mismatch. Pitt has a pair of dangerous big men in Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall and a quartet of very effective guards in Levance Fields, Antonio Graves, Mike Cook, and Ronald Ramon. Those guards helped Pitt post the 5th best assist rate in all the land, as they share and share alike (all four at 16.6% or better). Their assist to turnover ratio is stellar as a team - Pitt only turns it over on 18% of possessions. All the guards, but particularly Ramon and Graves, are threats from beyond the arc, even though Pitt devotes under 30% of their attempts to threes. On defense, the Panthers play position defense - they don't force turnovers at all, but they clean up on the glass and they hold down your shooting percentage. Pitt has been on a similar period of defensive struggle to Duke - 9 of the last 10 opponents scored a point per possession or better. The difference is that Pitt's offense is good enough to overcome the recent defensive lapses to the tune of 6-4 - not a great stretch record, but not an awful one either.

Wright State, victors of two straight over Butler and both regular and tournament champs in the Horizon league, is likely going to have problems scoring the ball. Aside from not turning it over, the offense is just not very good. Emblematic is Dashaun Wood - the senior guard takes a full third of his team's shots, but his EFG% is under .500. He'll likely have big scoring numbers against Pitt - somewhere in the 20s, but may take 20 shots to get there. Jordan Pleiman is the only real inside threat - a good offensive and defensive rebounder who shoots 57% from the floor - but at 6'8", he's going to be looking up at Gray and Kendall all night. As long as Gray doesn't get in foul trouble, there should be no stopping him all night - Wright St just doesn't have the size to match.

Duke's first round opponent is the VCU Rams, alma mater of GH Sr and former squad of two Coach Jeff Capels. They to the popular media (to some extent) and the national fan community (to I think very large extent) at the very least a sentimental rooting interest, if not viewed as the likely victor over "hated" Duke. I can't tell you how many things I've seen in the last few days positively giddy over the thought of Duke losing to a CAA team in the first round. I'm here on the hold-your-horses brigade. First, VCU's best non-conference win is Houston (seriously). In their three games against top-flight mid-major opponents, VCU lost on neutral courts to Xavier and Toledo, and dropped a home bracket buster game to Bradley. The Rams split with ODU and Hofstra, but did record two wins over the Drexel Dragons. But that's it on the impressive win list - ODU, Drexel, Drexel, Hofstra, Houston. Let's not forget - VCU was an Eric Maynor-filled two minutes away from dropping the CAA title to George Mason, which had a very middling year.

VCU does two things well that could be a problem for Duke - one is create turnovers, and the other is knock down threes. Both come from a quartet of four very solid guards - starters Eric Maynor, Jesse Pellot-Rosa, and B.A. Baracus.... I mean Walker, and super sixth man Jamal Shuler. All create steals, and all hit from the outside - only Shuler (at 38.3%) is below 40% from three. Duke has been vulnerable both to the turnover and to giving up the three. However, I will note that VCU's assist rate is not very good. Duke has far less trouble with teams that try to create their own shot from outside than from teams who live off the drive and dish. Aside from Eric Maynor, there's simply no dish to this Rams team. VCU is also going to struggle on the boards against Duke more than they're used to - VCU has been an effective offensive rebounding team, but Duke's rebounding on the defensive end is best in the ACC and among the best in the country. In the loss to ODU, a similarly effective defensive rebounding team, VCU could pull in only 24.5% of their misses.

Finally, I like that we're bringing this Duke team out on rested legs, with Henderson back in the lineup, and looking to prove something to the naysayers who say Duke was a) overseeded and b) ripe for the picking. VCU has beaten a grand total of 2 NCAA teams - 12 seeded ODU and 13 seeded Albany - and played just one more. Duke has beaten 7 and played another 5. It's easy to talk yourself into the idea that VCU is going to force Paulus to turn the ball over, that they're going to stay hot from outside, and that they're going to run Duke out of the building in an upset. I just don't see it. The Rams are 199th in field goal defense, and Duke is going to go inside, inside, inside, inside, against the Rams' small front line all night long. I think McRoberts has a big day, and I think both Nelson and Henderson score a lot of points around the rim. And by the way, since the Virgnia Tech debacle, Paulus' A/TO ratio is about 1.5, and would be even higher if not for a 9 TO performance at Clemson (only the 2nd best team in major conference basketball at forcing turnovers). To me, VCU is the overrated, overhyped team of this pair, and Duke should be able to put them away (knocking firmly on wood).

Speaking of Clemson, the ACC is now 3-0 in the NIT as the Tigers put away ETSU 64-57. KC Rivers led the way with 17, and Trevor Booker was a man inside, pulling down 7 offensive boards on the way to a symmetrical 11-11 double-double (remind me again why he wasn't at least honorable mention on the all freshman team?). The Tigers will host Ole Miss in the next round. As a side note, it's been a rough NIT so far for the non-BCS schools. Only Bradley, UMass, and Marist beat major conference opponents (SDSU and Air Force knocked off Missouri St and Austin Peay, respectively).


Anonymous said...

VCU is very mediocre on the defensive end. Duke has had most trouble with teams like Carolina and Maryland that excel defensively.

Unknown said...

big ups on both the superb previews, and also on the NIT shout-outs. usually i find it very hard to track how teams are doing in the tourney, as the NCAA coverage dwarfs whatever exposure the NIT might otherwise generate.

i'm not positive about this, but i think that NCSU was one of only two visiting teams to win in the first round of the NIT. it's all the more impressive that they won at drexel, who was one of the teams supposedly "snubbed" by not getting into the dance.

ACC now 5-0 in postseason play, not to jinx anything a mere couple of hours before duke suits up...

Unknown said...

why did i feel at the end of that game like i was watching a broken record?

after the last couple of weeks of duke basketball, was there any doubt on any of VCU's final possessions that our defense would allow them to score? :(

i don't have any deep analytical insight really to offer, other than to clutch at the instinctive calls of "fatigue" or "conditioning."

i will say that maybe some small part of me is relieved it's over, as the expectation of losing every close game (not involving a clock controversy, the fallout of which was probably worse than a loss) was getting to be a lot to bear.

Anonymous said...

This Duke team apparently had dissention unlike any Duke team in recent memory. Goodbye Josh McRoberts and good luck in the NBA. You also might want to work on those free throws a little too.