(* This might be more like a Patrick Ewing guarantee than a Joe Namath guarantee.)
No. 8 Colorado faces No. 9 Connecticut in the South’s first round, with the reward for winning being a second-round face off against the Kansas Jayhawks, the best team in the country, per the 2016 Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings.
Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, is led by senior forward Perry Ellis. One of the top players in the country, Ellis leads his team in scoring (16.0 points per game) by posting up, making shots off the pick-and-roll or spotting up opponents. Defensively, he allows just 0.74 points per possession to his defensive assignment on 34.5 shooting from the field. That’s the sort of difference maker that can carry a team when it’s not firing on all cylinders, and it’s part of the reason Kansas is the early betting favorite to win the title.
Maryland, the No. 5 seed, should be able to squeak by No. 12 South Dakota State, but coach Mark Turgeron has been to the dance six times with just one appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, earning him a black mark in a study of NCAA tournament coaches by Peter Tiernan of BracketScience.com. Tiernan found that coaches in this class are the worst performers in the tournament, barely winning more than 55 percent of their games.
Both Fran McCaffery, who coaches No. 7 Iowa, and Fran Dunphy, coach of No. 10 Temple, also fall into this category, so no matter who wins, it’s a smart bet to pick No. 2 Villanova in the second round.
The Wildcats won the Big East regular-season title but lost in the tournament final to Seton Hall, possibly hurting their seeding. And that could cost them a shot at the Final Four.
Villanova is one of the best shooting teams in the nation, ranked sixth for two-point shooting (56.4 percent). That helps them to be very reliable in the scoring department.
But it also could be counteracted by one of Kansas’s top statistical traits: two-point field goal percentage defense. The Jayhawks rank 18th in the nation in that category. In a test of strength vs. strength, the pick is for the Wildcats to fall to the Jayhawks in the Elite Eight.
Oregon is a weak No. 1 seed.
Since 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams, the top four No. 1 seeds are 124-0 in the round of 64. While no one expects Oregon to go down that early, they also won’t be the last team standing in this bracket. But if you’re looking for alternatives, don’t be seduced by the Blue Devils.
Duke ranks sixth in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating (119.3), fifth in turnover percentage on offense (14.3 percent) and has a coaching legend on the sideline in Mike Krzyzewski, who has 12 Final Fours and five championships to his credit. But Oklahoma is the better bet for the West. The Sooners rank 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 11th in adjusted defensive efficiency, plus they have the three-point range to run up the score on opponents.
One upset to watch in this region is No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth over No. 7 Oregon State. VCU can create enough extra possessions to get into the second round and the Beavers’ efficiency metrics don’t support them as a No. 7 seed.
The top of the bracket will see North Carolina and Kentucky battle it out in the Sweet Sixteen, with the Pomeroy ratings suggesting the Tar Heels should win 62 percent of the time on a neutral court.
The bottom of the bracket is less certain.
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey has just a single Elite Eight appearance in 12 tries, and could fall to Michigan if the Wolverines win their play-in game against Tulsa. To revisit the aforementioned coaches study, Pittsburgh has a “snake-bit” coach in Jamie Dixon and West Virginia is ripe to be upset by Stephen F. Austin, a team that could give the Mountaineers a taste of its own medicine. The Lumberjacks created 6.2 extra possessions per game from turnovers this season, and won’t be intimidated by the Mountaineers’ press.
The Lumberjacks show signs of being a Cinderella. In addition to getting turnovers, coach Brad Underwood has his squad outscoring opponents by more than 17 points per game. Margin of victory is a good barometer of winning games, and while their strength of schedule is among the lowest in the nation that hasn’t stopped them from rising up to No. 33 in the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings.
Xavier will ultimately dominate the lower portion of the bracket before succumbing to North Carolina.
Michigan State got robbed by Oregon. Its offense is good enough to be rated the second best in the country and they have a top-20 defense, yet they ended up as a No. 2 seed, with Virginia, deservedly, getting the region’s No. 1 spot.
Malcolm Brogdon struggled in the ACC title game, but he produced 1.08 points per possession on offense — putting him in the top seven percent of players in the nation — while allowing just 0.71. He was at his best coming off the screen, where he had an effective field goal percentage of 59.4 percent. He carried the Cavs through much of the ACC tournament and will do so again early here.
That sets up an Elite Eight showdown against arguably the best player in the nation — Denzel Valentine of Michigan State.
Valentine was rated No. 1 in the 2016 kenpom.com Player of the Year standings and leads the team in scoring with 19.6 points per game and is second on the team in rebounding, at 7.5 per game. He also ranks second in assist rate (45.5 percent), which boosts his production in transition from 0.95 to 1.55 points per possession once you factor in his ability to pass the ball.
The two big upsets in this bracket will be Gonzaga — whose 13.5 net points per game is historically more in line with what we see from the average No. 2 seed — beating Seton Hall and No. 10 Syracuse over No. 7 Dayton.
The Orange should beat the Flyers 58.6 percent of the time, and coach Jim Boeheim does have a squad that ranks 12th in defending the three (30.4 percent against) and flaunts a 12.3 percent steal rate that it can usually turn into easy transition points. The concern for Syracuse will be a lack of bench depth. The Orange starters play 83.6 percent of available minutes, second only to Hofstra for most in the nation. But with the Spartans waiting in the next round, expectations should be low already.
Final Four and beyond
My Final Four is full of chalk: No. 1 North Carolina, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Oklahoma. And while that’s boring, consider that the title winner in nine of the last 10 years has been a No.1 or No. 3 seed, the lone exception being the No. 7 UConn Huskies in 2014.
Of my projected Final Four, only Oklahoma ranks outside the top 10 for both offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency, indicating they should lose to Kansas (for the third time this season). On the other side of the bracket, Michigan State beats North Carolina. The Spartans lead the league in three-point shooting (43.4 percent) and can prevent their opponents from begin successful from long range (30.2 percent against, eighth best) — that can often be the difference maker in a one-game, winner-take-all format.
Kansas isn’t as good at defending the three-point shot (33.0 against), which is why Tom Izzo and Michigan State wins Sparty’s first championship in 17 years.
More 2016 NCAA tournament coverage: