March Madness games are won and lost on the court, but there are some statistical trends worth noting in first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
Basketball games are not won on spreadsheets. They are not won with numbers.
There is simply too much unpredictability, even among the items that are generally predictable and with minimal external stimuli (such as free-throw shooting). Numbers are an asset, a tool, but not the answer. They can take a picture of a given matchup or situation but some things might be out of frame or focus. In the NCAA Tournament, where seemingly anything can and has happened, there are just so many things that are immeasurable.
But while chaos will undoubtedly ensue later this week with the onset of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, that does not mean numbers carry no value. There is an entire season of data points for every single team in the field, and those results carry with them a scouting report and yield trends that could impact the results of the Big Dance. Every game is its own new data point, and the numbers will never always be right – there is too much variability in basketball – but they lend a hand towards getting an idea of what is necessary to win.
The most anarchic two days in all of college basketball are the opening Thursday and Friday of March Madness. Not only are there 32 games played, but fans across the country have filled out their brackets and are rooting for those bragging rights of selecting the correct 13-over-4 upset or for their arch-nemesis to see one of their Final Four teams drop out right away.
So as those two days – which should be national holidays, I might add – approach, let’s take an analytical dive into what trends might matter most in each matchup.
(1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Georgia State
Georgia State is among the most dangerous No. 16 seeds in recent memory. The Panthers started this season just 6-9 while dealing with lots of injury woes. Now, though, they enter the NCAA Tournament having won ten straight games and 12 of their last 13. Alas, they were rewarded for their strong play of late by matching up with the No. 1 overall seed in the field in Gonzaga. The Bulldogs will be the heavy favorite in this game, and the Panthers’ chance at an upset will rely on forcing a ton of turnovers defensively.
Gonzaga ranks 39th nationally in offensive turnover rate, a very strong mark. The Bulldogs are only 2-2 when committing turnovers on over 19.2 percent of possessions this season (24-1 in all other games). Georgia State matches up well in that department, given that it forces turnovers at the 19th-highest rate in the country. The Panthers will need to force many mistakes to stay in the upset conversation; it will take a lot of them to overcome being the fourth-worst 2-point offense against the nation’s best 2-point defense.
(8) Boise State vs. (9) Memphis
Teams on the 8/9 seed lines tend to always be closely matched, and these two are no different. Boise State won both the regular-season and conference tournament titles from a four-bid Mountain West, which is no easy feat. Memphis, on the other hand, struggled early in the year but has performed at a much higher level than a No. 9 seed for the past few weeks.
Diving into a matchup-specific analytical trend, this game might be won on the glass. Memphis ranks fifth nationally in offensive rebounding rate, amassing a 16-3 record when grabbing at least 36 percent of the available boards on the offensive glass (5-7 in all other games). Boise State, conversely, is the fifth-best defensive rebounding team in the country. The Broncos keep their opponents from second-chance opportunities better than just about anyone else.
In terms of overall rebounding, the Tigers enter this game with a +6.5 percent season-long rebounding rate advantage (i.e., ORB% minus DRB%), while the Broncos’ advantage sits at +8.7 percent. Whoever can control the paint and secure second-chance opportunities will likely be in good shape.
(5) UConn vs. (12) New Mexico State
UConn ranks as the best offensive rebounding team in the entire country in terms of rate. The Huskies secure second-chance opportunities after 37.9 percent of their overall misses and tend to dominate the inside behind Adama Sanogo, Tyrese Martin and Isaiah Whaley. They rank as the 39th-tallest team in the country by average height and are very difficult to slow down underneath. The Huskies are 15-2 when securing a better than 38.5 percent offensive rebounding rate this season and just 8-7 when below that threshold.
In order for New Mexico State to pull off the upset, it needs to end possessions defensively. Forcing misses is only one part of the battle and UConn’s tenacity on the glass needs to be neutralized. New Mexico State rates as a strong rebounding team in its own right, ranking 33.2 percent in offensive rebounding rate and 102nd in defensive. The Aggies rank 42nd in average height nationally, so they are one of the few mid-majors that might be able to match up size-wide with the Huskies.
New Mexico State faced six KenPom top-100 opponents during the regular season; it only held one of those teams to an offensive rebounding rate of lower than 26 percent. Utah State was able to beat NMSU behind a 30.8 percent offensive rebounding rate back in November.
(4) Arkansas vs. (13) Vermont
Vermont enters this game with the third-best 2-point percentage in the entire nation, finishing on 58.9 percent of its total looks inside the arc for the campaign. Arkansas is strong on the defensive end in that department, holding opponents to the 47th-lowest 2-point percentage. In order for the Catamounts to pull off the upset, they will need to maintain their ability to score inside the arc against a high-major defense.
The America East champs went 24-0 during the regular season when shooting at least 54 percent on its 2-point attempt but limped to a 3-5 record in all other games. Conversely, Arkansas went 18-1 during the regular season when holding opponents to below 48 percent on its 2-point attempts, its lone loss coming against a No. 3 seed in Tennessee. The Razorbacks went 7-4 in all other games.
Vermont boasts an elite star duo with Ryan Davis and Ben Shungu, and Arkansas will counter with Jaylin Williams and JD Notae. This matchup is among the potentially best in the first round — Vermont was under-seeded — but the Catamounts will need to consistently finish to win.
(6) Alabama vs. (11) Rutgers/Notre Dame
Alabama has a lot of film to watch this week, both with regards to how it can improve and how to prepare for a pair of potential opponents. The Crimson Tide enter the NCAA Tournament having lost their last three games – two to non-tournament teams – and will have to watch the First Four matchup between Rutgers and Notre Dame to determine who its first-round matchup will be.
The statistical trend with the biggest correlation for Alabama is its 2-point defense. The Crimson Tide went 15-2 when holding opponents to below 50 percent inside the arc this season and just 4-11 when it did not. That is an incredible difference.
Looking ahead to Alabama’s first-round matchup, Rutgers ranks 204th nationally in 2-point percentage offense while Notre Dame slots in at 87th. Given those two statistics, the Crimson Tide might be better suited to face off against the Scarlet Knights. Stay tuned.
(3) Texas Tech vs. (14) Montana State
Texas Tech boasts the best adjusted defensive efficiency rating in the whole country. The fact is that not many teams are able to score with any sort of consistency against the Red Raiders and that is likely to continue in the NCAA Tournament as well. The biggest key for Texas Tech will simply be to find consistent offense. The Red Raiders won all 10 games this season when they shot over 53 percent on 2-point attempts and over 34 percent on 3-point attempts.
Montana State is not a particularly strong defensive team, ranking outside of the top 100 in both 2-point and 3-point defense. The Bobcats also send their opponents to the free-throw line at one of the bottom-50 rates in the country (TTU gets to the line at a top 50 rate). They must keep the Red Raiders off the line and prevent them from getting an offensive rhythm.
Whenever Texas Tech finds an offensive rhythm, it is nearly unbeatable. They went 20-1 in games with an effective field goal percentage of better than 50 percent (5-8 in all other games).
(7) Michigan State vs. Davidson
The main storyline of this matchup will be Davidson’s Foster Loyer facing his old team. The statistical trending for both teams also points to how important Loyer could be in this contest. The 6-0 point guard is the best 3-point shooter (by percentage) on a loaded perimeter-shooting team in Davidson. The Wildcats went 20-1 when shooting over 36 percent from beyond the arc this season and 7-5 in all other games. They rank eighth nationally in team 3-point percentage.
Michigan State, conversely, has had trouble winning games when its opponent gets it going from deep. The Spartans won all 11 games that it held teams to 26 percent shooting or lower from beyond the arc (11-12 when it did not). MSU’s defense ranks 60th nationally in 3-point percentage allowed at just 31.2 percent.
If the Spartans can slow down the Wildcats’ perimeter-oriented attack, they should move onto the likely Izzo vs. Krzyzewski battle of the second round. If Davidson can channel its inner Steph Curry and launch a barrage of threes from Loyer/Lee/Jones/Brajkovic, it will be tough to beat.
(2) Duke vs. Cal State Fullerton
Coach K’s final ride might be the biggest storyline of this entire tournament. Duke’s journey will begin with a first-round matchup against Cal State Fullerton in which it will be a heavy favorite. The Blue Devils know not to take a No. 15 seed lightly, though, as flashbacks of CJ McCollum will never be forgotten in Durham. The biggest key for Duke in this game will be to dominate the offensive glass. The Blue Devils went 22-2 during the regular season when exhibiting offensive rebounding rates of better than 24 percent (6-4 in other games).
Conversely, Cal State Fullerton rated just in the middle of the pack nationally in defensive rebounding rate (72.0 percent, 173rd). The Titans rate as the 255th-tallest team by average height, while the Blue Devils stand as the 25th-tallest. Duke will have a major size advantage, and controlling the glass will keep its offensive efficiency up to the point where it will be very difficult for Cal State Fullerton to match.
The Titans will first and foremost need to slow down the 15th-best effective field goal percentage in the country, but even after misses, Dedrique Taylor’s squad will need to constantly put a body on every Blue Devil.
(1) Arizona vs. (16) Wright State/Bryant
Arizona will await the winner of Wright State vs. Bryant for its first-round matchup. The Wildcats posted a tremendous season in their first under head coach Tommy Lloyd and are among the favorites to win the national title. Arizona won all 22 games this season when turning the ball over on fewer than 19 percent of its offensive possessions, going 9-3 in its other games.
With starting point guard Kerr Kriisa potentially sidelined due to a sprained ankle, how well Arizona takes care of the ball without him could be critical. Kriisa has missed three games this year, and the Wildcats exhibited a worse turnover rate in each of those games (24.7, 18.8 and 21.9 percent) than their season average (18.0).
As far as how this pertains to their first-round game, Wright State forces more turnovers on a per-possession basis (18.5 percent, 161st nationally) than Bryant does (16.4 percent, 293rd).
(8) Seton Hall vs. (9) TCU
Seton Hall is one of the worst finishing teams in the entire NCAA Tournament field, ranking just 312th nationally in 2-point percentage (46.2 percent). The Pirates do collect their fair share of offensive rebounds but will have a difficult time advancing if they do not perform well inside the arc. Seton Hall won all 11 games this season when it shot just 50 percent or better on 2-point shots (50 percent is around the national average — it’s not asking a ton). They went 10-10 in all other games. Seton Hall’s defense is very good but it needs to finish offensively to make a run in March.
The Pirates also face a first-round opponent whose biggest statistical correlation to success might be its 2-point defense. TCU ranks 106th nationally in 2-point defense – not an elite rate but certainly quite good. The Horned Frogs were 15-4 when holding opponents below that 50 percent 2-point shooting threshold and 5-8 when teams shot better than that.
(5) Houston vs. (12) UAB
Houston is an aggressor. The Cougars do not care how much size they are playing against, they will come out of the tunnel ready to be the more physical and aggressive team in every single game. This has been true throughout much of the Kelvin Sampson era and continued this year. Not only does Houston rate as the third-best offensive rebounding team in the nation, but securing second-chance opportunities is a huge part of their winning recipe. Houston has only lost five games all year, and four of them came when securing fewer than 32 percent of its offensive rebounding opportunities.
UAB comes into this contest rated as the 145th-best defensive rebounding team in the country (72.6 percent). The Blazers will need to be able to hold their own underneath by matching the aggressive and high-energy nature of their competitors. While not a statistical trend, it is worth noting that any team in March Madness has a chance at victory when it has the best guard on the floor. Jordan “Jelly” Walker might be that in this matchup for the Blazers.
(4) Illinois vs. (13) Chattanooga
Illinois boasts the most physically imposing player in the entire country in Kofi Cockburn. Chattanooga, though, is one of the few double-digit mid-majors with a big man that has experience playing in a high-major league. Silvio De Sousa will at least be able to pose more challenges than some other potential matchups that Illinois could have drawn. Trent Frazier likely guarding Malachi Smith could be one of the more enjoyable 1-on-1 matchups of the first round.
In order for Chattanooga to pull off the upset, it will need to finish effectively inside the arc against an excellent defense. Illinois limits 3-point attempts at the eight-best rate in the country and defends 2-point attempts at the 28th-best rate. It is a ‘pick-your-poison’ situation against Illinois’ defense, and Chattanooga is more likely to seek to attack the basket.
The Mocs rank 41st nationally in 2-point percentage (53.9 percent) and feature a downhill scoring guard with size in Malachi Smith. If Smith can get to the rim and either score or pick up fouls on Cockburn, that would be huge. Illinois did not lose any of its 13 games in which it held its opponent below 45 percent shooting inside the arc, so limiting Chattanooga’s ability to score inside will be a top priority.
(6) Colorado State vs. (11) Michigan
Michigan has alternated wins and losses for its last ten games, losing its most recent contest to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament. If we are following rudimentary trending here, the Wolverines might be ripe for an upset bid. But let’s dive a bit deeper.
The biggest statistical correlation between Colorado State and winning percentage is keeping its opponents off the free-throw line. The Rams are an undefeated 23-0 this season when holding their opponents to below a 33.3 free throw rate. They went just 2-5 in all other games. Colorado State generally lacks size – ranking 303rd in average height (though David Roddy is an absolute tank at 6-6) – and can struggle when it is called for fouls and opponents shoot free throws.
Michigan does feature a dominant big man in Hunter Dickinson, but it will be positive news to CSU fans to hear that it does not get to the free-throw line very much. The Wolverines rank just 222nd in offensive free throw attempts rate this season, though their 34th ranking in average height could post some challenges to the No. 6 seed.
Colorado State is very tough to beat when it is playing clean, non-foul basketball.
(3) Tennessee vs. (14) Longwood
Tennessee is playing as well as any team in the country of late. Head coach Rick Barnes’ decision to go to more small-ball lineups featuring all three of Zakai Zeigler, Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi has proven brilliant as it has opened up the offense with more spacing and versatility. The Volunteers have won 12 of their last 13 games and still feature one of the best perimeter defenses in the country. Zeigler, Chandler, and Vescovi are all excellent defenders. Longwood will put that trio to the test, though.
The Lancers rank sixth in the entire nation in 3-point percentage at 38.6 percent. They feature a pair of absolute dead-eye snipers in Isaiah Wilkins (40.9 percent) and DeShaun Wade (46.6 percent), and the Big South champions have been scorching the nets better than ever of late. Longwood is shooting 43.8 percent from distance over its last ten contests.
Tennessee lost three of its four games when surrendering better than 43.5 percent shooting from three this season. The Volunteers – much like essentially every team in America – are vulnerable when giving up a ton of threes, but that only happened four times. Tennessee’s backcourt is elite defensively.
(7) Ohio State vs. (10) Loyola Chicago
This feels like a battle of two teams that have been trending in opposite directions down the stretch. Ohio State has lost four of its last five games coming into the tournament, with three of those losses coming to teams that were not even close to making the field. Loyola Chicago, on the other hand, put forth arguably its best performances of the season in the Missouri Valley Tournament, rolling by an average of 15.0 points across three games. The Ramblers also exacted revenge on three teams that beat them in the regular season during that tournament.
Ohio State is the better offensive team with the best player (EJ Liddell) on the floor. Loyola Chicago, though, is more balanced and features several holdovers from last season’s Sweet 16 team (Lucas Williamson remains as a holdover from their 2018 Final Four roster as well).
The game might come down to whether the Ramblers can slow down Liddell. Ohio State’s 6-7 star is one of the best players in the country and also makes a living at the free-throw line, ranking 79th nationally in free throw rate. Additionally, Loyola runs an analytics-friendly defense that forces opponents to take a good chunk of shots in the mid-range; Ohio State is comfortable in that position, though, attempting the 30th-most percentage of shots from the mid-range in the country and hitting them at the eighth-best rate. Liddell, in particular, is deadly in the mid-range.
(2) Villanova vs. (15) Delaware
Villanova is one of the most consistent teams in the country and rarely beats itself. The Wildcats are very experienced, take care of the ball, hit the 3-pointer, and hold the best single-season team free throw percentage in NCAA history. In order for a team to pull off an opening-weekend upset, it will have to put together an excellent performance.
For Delaware, that likely means an outlier offensive performance. The Blue Hens have that potential, ranking as the 100th-best offensive team in the country by efficiency measures. They rank in the top 100 in each free-throw attempt rate, 3-point percentage, 2-point percentage, and free throw percentage. Taking care of the ball is an issue, as the Blue Hens went 7-9 when turning it over on more than 20.2 percent of its possessions this season (15-3 in other games)
An upset would be difficult, though Delaware has some offensive firepower. The Blue Hens will need to shoot very well and also take care of their possessions.
(1) Kansas vs. (16) Texas Southern
Kansas will face Texas Southern in its first-round matchup. The Jayhawks are 28-6 for the season and feature one of the best players in the country in Ocahi Agbaji. Kansas’ biggest pitfall this season has been when it is unable to control the defensive glass. The Jayhawks’ worst four games by defensive rebounding rate standards all ended in losses; the only other two times they lost were to Kentucky and Baylor, both of which came in games where they gave up a larger offensive rebounding rate than their season average.
Texas Southern was an exceptionally strong offensive rebounding team throughout the season, ranking in the nation’s top 25. In terms of their potential opponents would have been a better matchup for Kansas, Texas Southern exhibits much more overall height (143rd in average height) compared to now-departed Texas A&M Corpus Christi (334th). Bryson Etienne led the Tigers with 21 points in Texas Southern’s First Four win over the Islanders.
(8) San Diego State v. (9) Creighton
San Diego State features the second-best adjusted defensive efficiency rate in the country. It is absolutely tremendous on that end of the floor and thrives in just about every category. The Aztecs rate in the top 50 in defensive effective field goal rate, 3-point defense, 2-point defense, block rate, steal rate, and overall turnover rate. They do it all defensively, which sets the bar rather low for what they need to do offensively to win games.
Yet, the Aztecs have posted a raw efficiency mark of below 100 in nearly half of its games this season. All eight of their losses came come with raw efficiency rating lower than 95. It does not matter if it is from three or inside the arc, it just needs to score, which has been easier said than done.
The biggest key for Creighton is also on the offensive end of the floor. Unlike years past, the Bluejays are not a very good 3-point shooting team; they rank just 314th nationally in 3-point percentage and do not feature a single player shooting better than 35 percent from deep. They are, though, 14-1 when hitting better than 33 percent of their triples. If Ryan Hawkins and Alex O’Connell can get it going from distance, they are very difficult to beat with their already rock-solid defense.
It is worth noting that SDSU is the 34th most experienced team in the country, while Creighton is the 309th.
(5) Iowa vs. (12) Richmond
Iowa is perhaps the hottest team in the field right now. The Hawkeyes enter the NCAA Tournament having won the Big Ten Tournament and nine of their last ten games. They feature arguably the best player in the country in Keegan Murray as well. Their defense is rather hit-or-miss and has been very hard to project throughout the season. Iowa’s path to a deep run relies on its offense remaining as one of the best in the whole country.
The Hawkeyes rank 139th nationally in 3-point attempt rate and 35th in efficiency on those shots. They feature three different players that have all made over 38 percent of their 3-pointers on over 100 attempts each. Iowa has not lost yet this season when shooting over 39 percent (13-0) from beyond the arc, and four of their losses came in the only six games when they shot worse than 25 percent from distance. Maintaining solid shooting will be key against the 219th-best defense in terms of limiting 3-point percentage.
Richmond is one of the most experienced teams in the nation and also won its conference tournament. The Spiders’ biggest key is being able to finish inside the arc. They went 11-1 when shooting 60 percent or better on 2-point shots this season, with the lone loss coming at exactly that efficiency rate. They rank 78th nationally in 2-point offense while Iowa ranks 185th in defense in that area.
(4) Providence vs. (13) South Dakota State
Providence is barely favored to win its first-round game despite landing as a No. 4 seed. Why? Well, the Friars have been unable to shake the “lucky” label despite their outstanding record. They are just incredible in close games, plus losing in blowout fashion in the Big East tanked already-poor metrics for such a high seed. Additionally, South Dakota State is one of the best mid-majors in the country and was underseeded. The Jackrabbits have won 21 straight and have not lost since before Christmas.
The biggest key to this matchup will be South Dakota State’s 3-point shooting. The Jackrabbits lead the nation in 3-point percentage this season, shooting 44.2 percent from beyond the arc. Baylor Scheierman leads the way in terms of volume (75-for-161, 46.6 percent), but he is surrounded by several other great snipers: Charlie Easley (46-for-91, 50.5 percent), Zeke Mayo (49-for-118, 41.5 percent), and Alex Arians (30-for-61, 49.2 percent). This team is full of flamethrowers and shot nearly 46 percent from deep as a team in conference play.
Providence has held its opposition to the 57th-lowest 3-point percentage in the country this season. Opponents have only shot better than 39 percent from deep against the Friars six times this season. PC is 23-1 when teams do not shoot the lights out. Those are all good signs, and slowing down the Jackrabbits’ shooting would effectively end an upset bid. On the other hand, Providence is just 2-4 in those games when its opponents shoot better than 39 percent from beyond the arc, something that SD State has done in ten (!!) straight games.
(6) LSU vs. (11) Iowa State
Wow, what an interesting matchup this is. LSU comes into this contest after just firing its head coach while Iowa State has lost three consecutive games. The Cyclones might be a No. 11 seed, but they picked more Quad-1 wins than the vast majority of the field during the regular season. This could be a very interesting matchup between a pair of teams with top 10 defenses by adjusted efficiency measures.
Iowa State needs to shoot the 3-ball well to win. The Cyclones are an atrocious 2-7 overall when shooting worse than 28 percent from three. Their lone victories when under that threshold are over Oregon State (KenPom rank: 234) and Alabama State (KenPom: 313). Their top shooter for the season is senior Izaiah Brockington, though strong outings from Caleb Grill and Aljaz Kunc are certainly possible and worth watching for as well.
LSU’s biggest key will be dominating the paint defensively. The Tigers have held their opponents to under 47 percent shooting on 2-point attempts on 14 different occasions this season; they won each and every one of those games. They are just 8-11 when not able to contain the inside at that level.
If LSU can defend the paint and Iowa State hits its threes, this could be a toss-up. If either one does not succeed in their key area, it will likely flip the other way.
(3) Wisconsin vs. (14) Colgate
Wisconsin enters the NCAA Tournament having lost its last two games – vs. Nebraska (home) and Michigan State (neutral) – but landed on the No. 3 seed line nonetheless. If the Badgers are able to make a run, they will play their first weekend in Milwaukee being playing in Chicago over the weekend. There is a strong argument to be made that they got the most favorable draw of any team in the field with regard to geography. A first-round matchup with Colgate, though, should not be overlooked.
Colgate is the second-best 3-point shooting team in the country (by percentage) at 40.1 percent. The Raiders are well-coached and move the ball consistently to create quality looks – many of which from beyond the arc – on the offensive end. They feature five players that have all hit at least 40 3-pointers this season, three of whom hit over 40 percent of those looks. Colgate has won 19 of its last 20 games and is on a 16-game winning streak.
Wisconsin will need to limit Colgate’s ability to shoot the 3, at least to some extent, and post a strong offensive outing against a weak defense. Johnny Davis will have had almost essentially a week off since his last game, and his ankle will hopefully be 100% for the Big Dance.
The Badgers’ biggest key is whether or not it can connect from 3-point range. Wisconsin has shot under 25 percent or worse from three in more games than it has shot better than 40 percent. It is 1-5 when held to under 23.5 percent.
(7) USC vs. (10) Miami
USC vs. Miami represents one of the largest size differentials in the entire field. The Trojans rank fourth nationally in average height while the Hurricanes are ranked at 212th. As you would expect, the teams play wildly different as a result of their size gap, and whether the size-and-defense Trojans will outplay the speed-and-offense Hurricanes is up to you as a bracket-filler to determine.
The biggest key for Miami will be to hold its own in the paint. The Hurricanes are facing off against a defense that ranks second-best in the nation in 2-point percentage allowed. Miami conversely ranks 324th in 2-point defense. They are also at a statisitcal disadvantage on both ends of the floor when it comes to rebounding.
If USC is able to control those two areas as is anticipated, it should be in good shape so long as the Hurricanes do not catch fire from three. Miami shoots 35.3 percent from three for the season (81st nationally) but has hit 10+ 3-pointers in eight of its games this season. The Canes are an extremely streaky bunch.
(2) Auburn vs. (15) Jacksonville State
If Auburn is able to utilize its size and quick guards to finish inside the arc, it is nearly unbeatable this season. The Tigers went 23-0 when shooting over 46 percent on 2-point shots this season. Considering the national average for 2P% this season hovered around 50 percent, it isn’t asking all that much for the Tigers to consistently provide that kind of finishing. After all, Auburn’s season-long conversion rate sits at 51.9 percent. The Tigers were, though, just 4-5 when held under that 46 percent mark.
Auburn’s first-round opponent, Jacksonville State, is a rare mid-major that earned an automatic bid without winning the conference tournament. Now that they are in the field, it is important to note a pair of items. First things first, they can look to combat Auburn’s finishing with the 80th-best 2-point defense this season. They do rank 235th in height relative to Auburn’s 87th, though. Additionally, the Gamecocks have the potential to light it up from downtown; they rank 11th nationally in 3-point percentage on the 63rd-highest attempt rate.
Catching fire from deep is always a good path to an upset, but Auburn’s ability to score underneath might be too much to handle — and it is the more consistent trend.
(1) Baylor vs. (16) Norfolk State
The defending national champions have been snake-bitten by injuries this season – and are still missing pieces – but earned a No. 1 seed nonetheless. Baylor may have lost its first game of the Big 12 Tournament but had won five games prior, all of which came over KenPom top 50 opponents. Among the biggest keys for Baylor will be how well it can control the offensive glass in the absence of Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua.
Baylor’s offensive rebounding rate with JTT settled at 38.0 percent. In the seven games without him, that number has dropped to 36.3 percent – not majorly significant but perhaps notable. The Bears are undefeated (16-0) when exhibiting an offensive rebounding rate above 36.5 percent and 10-6 in all other games.
Norfolk State rated around the national average in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates during the season. The Spartans are riding a six-game winning streak and won their conference tournament games each by at least eight points. Joe Bryant was a stud in MEAC play, averaging 18.8 points on .451/.364/.905 shooting over those 17 games.
(8) North Carolina vs. (9) Marquette
North Carolina and Marquette is a first-round battle between two coaches — Hubert Davis and Shaka Smart — in their first years at their respective schools. The two squads appear to be trending in different directions, though. The Tar Heels have won six of their last seven games, while the Golden Eagles have lost five of their last eight games and have not beaten a tournament-quality team in over a month.
Marquette’s biggest key will be 3-point shooting. The Golden Eagles won all 10 games this season when they shot better than 38 percent from beyond the arc; they were 9-12 in all other contests. Kam Jones (55-for-139, 39.6 percent), Greg Elliott (34-for-87, 39.1 percent) and Justin Lewis (56-for-159, 35.2 percent) are the core players to watch in that department. Tyler Kolek is the primary playmaker tasked with creating looks out of the pick-and-roll.
North Carolina surrendered 34.9 percent 3-point shooting in the regular season, one of the 100 worst defensive marks in the country. It is also vital to mention that the Tar Heels won all 17 games this season when holding opponents below 38 percent on 3-pointers, going 7-9 in all other games. How Marquette shoots from deep might be the deciding factor.
(5) Saint Mary’s vs. (12) Indiana
Saint Mary’s was an analytics darling this season and is peaking at the perfect time. The Gaels are currently rated at No. 16 in the nation by KenPom, their highest ranking of the year. SMC is a very experienced group guided by a talented senior in Tommy Kuhse that is a good playmaker and a 47.3 percent 3-point shooter. He will be the steady hand hoping to guide the Gaels to the second weekend.
Indiana, though, stands in their way after taking down Wyoming in the First Four. The Hoosiers have won five of their last eight games with three of those victories and all of those losses against teams in the field. Trayce Jackson-Davis is one of the best bigs in the country, and SMC’s Matthias Tass (6-10) will need to have a strong game to slow him down.
The Hoosiers are at their best when they are able to control the paint offensively. They are just 2-9 when shooting worse than 50 percent on 2-pointers and 18-4 otherwise. Indiana has had its way inside against a lot of teams this year, particularly with TJD, but Saint Mary’s is very good inside defensively. The Gaels rank 65th nationally in 2-point defense and fourth in defensive rebounding rate.
Saint Mary’s biggest key might be whether or not it can force Indiana into mistakes. The Gaels are 22-2 when creating turnovers on more than 17 percent of their defensive possessions, while being only 3-5 in all other games. They hold the 107th-best defensive turnover rate in the country. If SMC can force turnovers and assert its glacial pace, it is hard to beat. Indiana’s offense takes care of the ball fairly well (17.3 percent TO rate, 106th nationally) but has had struggles at times.
(4) UCLA vs. (13) Akron
UCLA enters the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed but a very dangerous one at that. The Bruins are only one of four teams in the country that ranks in the top 15 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. With many of their pieces back from a Final Four run a season ago, they also know what it takes to win in March. Still, a first-round matchup with the MAC champion Akron, who has won eight straight games, will not be easy.
Perhaps the most notable key in this game will be how well UCLA can control the glass defensively. The Bruins boast one of the better defenses in the country but can fall when losing the battle on the glass. UCLA will enter this game with a season-long defensive rebounding rate of 75.2 percent, a mark that ranks 54th nationally. When the Bruins perform better than their season average in that department, they are 17-0. They are just 8-7 when they do not, which includes securing only 64.3 percent of defensive boards in a Pac-12 title game loss.
Akron enters this game ranked as the 147th-best offensive rebounding team in the nation with the 252nd-tallest average height. UCLA should be able to control the glass above its season-average threshold, which usually leads to wins. If the Zips are going to pull off the upset, being an aggressor on the glass is one part of the puzzle. The other is simply making threes. Akron rates 93rd in 3-point rate this season and 74th in 3-point percentage; they can be dangerous when they get it going. The Zips’ worst five games by 3-point percentage all ended in losses and they are undefeated when shooting over 39 percent (12 such games).
(6) Texas vs. (11) Virginia Tech
Texas enters the NCAA Tournament on a three-game losing streak, though each of those came against fellow tournament teams. On the flip side, Virginia Tech is on a four-game winning streak with three of those victories over teams in the field. These two teams appear to be trending in different directions, but those pre-tournament trends do not always continue into the Big Dance due to a little cool-down time.
The biggest player to watch in this game might be Virginia Tech point guard Storm Murphy. The Wofford transfer struggled much of the year but found some rhythm down the stretch. Murphy will initiate the offense for the Hokies and will need to take care of the ball.
Texas ranks 14th nationally in defensive turnover rate, forcing mistakes on 23.3 percent of possessions. The Longhorns have won all 13 games when creating turnovers on over 25 percent of their opponents’ possessions and went just 8-11 when they were unable to do so.
Virginia Tech will need to steadily take care of the business and play its methodical style of play that creates strong looks from 3-point range. The Hokies are shooting 39.3 percent from three and exhibiting just a 17.0 percent offensive turnover rate during their stretch of winning 13 of their last 15 games.
(3) Purdue vs. (14) Yale
Purdue is an extremely dangerous team due to owning one of the nation’s best offenses. The Boilermakers have an NBA-level wing, snipers dotted around the perimeter and one of the best center tandems in the country. With their tremendous size, they should dominate the glass in just about every matchup while also putting up plenty of points. Their biggest key, at least in the first round, is to just continue to play at a high level offensively.
If the Boilermakers are able to score at their usual level, they should not be in major danger of an upset. They simply score too much. If Yale is going to have a shot in this 14-vs.3 game, it will need a huge performance from star guard Azar Swain and to limit Purdue’s 3-point shooting. The Boilers are likely to dominate the paint, but they take a fair number of threes and can be vulnerable if those shots do not fall.
Sasha Stefanovic is one player to watch Purdue in that department. He shot 43.0 percent on 3-pointers in the Boilermakers’ several regular-season wins, but only 22.5 percent in their seven losses. Yale must look to slow down Stefanovic (and the other shooters) while also putting up a great offensive performance itself.
(7) Murray State vs. (10) San Francisco
Murray State and San Francisco were two of the best non-power conference teams all season long, which should make for one of the best first-round matchups. The Racers own the nation’s best overall winning percentage, while the Dons can boast more high-quality wins from the regular season. The guard matchup of Tevin Brown (Murray) vs. Jamaree Bouyea (USF) should be excellent. Murray State’s two losses came with sizably different statistical profiles, so the biggest key in this game might be on San Francisco’s side.
The Dons need to be able to finish inside the arc. Their worst five games – and six of their worst seven – by 2-point percentage all ended in losses this season. They went 16-1 in all games where they finished better than 55 percent of their 2PAs as well. Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz both aggressively attack the basket. USF will be without Yauhen Massalski, though, which takes away from the team’s frontcourt.
Murray State was a very strong defensive team during the regular season, but its worst defensive statistic is 2-point percentage allowed. The Racers surrendered 50.0 percent shooting inside the arc for the year and were much better at forcing turnovers, defending the arc and securing rebounds. They will need to hold their own underneath against the Dons.
(2) Kentucky vs. (15) Saint Peter’s
Saint Peter’s posted one of the best defenses in the country this season, ranking 34th nationally in adjusted efficiency on that end of the floor. While the Peacocks really struggled with avoiding foul trouble, they ranked fifth in the entire country in defensive effective field goal rate behind top 15 marks in 2-point and 3-point defense. They guarded extremely well throughout the year but will have their hands full against the nation’s fourth-most efficient offense.
Saint Peter’s will not only need to attempt to slow down an elite interior force in Oscar Tshiebwe and lightning-quick guards Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington, but it will also need to find some offense of its own. The Peacocks did most of their damage this season by attacking the basket; they only attempted 30.3 percent of their total shots from three. The vast majority of their attempts were inside the arc that either ended in misses (317th in 2-point shooting) or fouls drawn (29th in free throw rate).
In fact, Saint Peter’s scored 21.2 percent of its total points this year at the free-throw line. The Peacocks will need to continue their trek to the stripe for a trio of reasons. First, it might be the most reliable way for them to score consistently. Second, putting Tshiebwe in foul trouble would be massive for the chances of an upset. Third, stopping the game with foul shots could help take Kentucky – which ranks 93rd in offensive tempo – out of its rhythm. It will not be easy for SPC to get inside and draw fouls or finish, but it is the journey it will most likely have to take.
Header image courtesy of Colorado State Athletics.