The 2023 NCAA Tournament is upon us. Here are some statistical trends to watch for in each of the 32 first-round matchups.
The NCAA Tournament is the definition of unpredictable. The volatility of the event, particularly on the opening weekend, makes it so unique. Nobody ever knows what will happen, and that is epitomized by the ridiculously long odds of anyone ever achieving the perfect bracket: 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808.
Don’t worry; that’s the least important number we’re about to talk about. Of course, basketball is not played on a spreadsheet. Every matchup is different, every game can go any direction, and the unpredictability is impossible to, well, predict. With that said, though, numbers can serve as a tool to indicate critical areas to watch in each matchup.
Is there a great 3-point shooting underdog facing a higher seed that gives up looks from deep? How about a unit that struggles with turnovers matched up against a team that presses? Chaos will undoubtedly ensue during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Still, there are always trends, whether obvious or hidden in the data, that can aid in previewing a matchup. (Also, the answer to those questions was ‘yes.’)
With the field now selected and the should-be national holiday nearly upon us, let’s dissect first-round matchups with some vital statistical trends to monitor.
(1) Alabama vs. (16) Texas A&M-CC
Alabama earned the No. 1 overall seed in the field following a 29-5 regular season. The Crimson Tide are a fast-paced, 3-point-heavy team that does an excellent job on the glass. A rarity for a team with their tempo, they are elite defensively — Alabama leads the country in effective field goal percentage surrendered. Their first-round matchup will be against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
The statistic that correlates most strongly with Alabama’s (admittedly few) struggles is turnover rate. When the Crimson Tide cough up possessions, they are prone to losses. Alabama went 26-1 this season when keeping its turnover rate below 24.4 percent; it went 3-4 in all other games.
Texas A&M-CC slots in at 52nd in defensive turnover rate, but only forced giveaways on 16.4 percent of SEMO’s possessions in the First Four. Alabama ranks top-50 nationally in free throw rate (FTR), while Texas A&M-CC struggles to keep teams off the line. If there is any hope for a 16-over-1 upset here, the Islanders must force turnovers and keep the Tide from the easy points at the line.
(8) Maryland vs. (9) West Virginia
Finding a statistical edge in an 8/9 matchup is never easy; these teams are oftentimes evenly matched on paper, and this pairing is no different. Both Maryland (No. 22) and West Virginia (No. 17) were underseeded relative to their adjusted efficiency margins from the regular season. However, one area that stands out as a difference between the squads: their performance away from home.
Maryland went just 2-9 in true road games this season, with its lone wins coming over Louisville and Minnesota. West Virginia, meanwhile, had a bit more success; the Mountaineers beat NCAA Tournament teams in Pittsburgh and Iowa State on the road while also taking down Texas Tech twice (once in Lubbock, once last week in Kansas City at the Big 12 Tournament). This game will be played in Birmingham; Maryland will need to overcome its away-from-home woes to land a victory.
Statistically, Maryland will want to work its way to the free throw line to show off its 106th-best free throw percentage. The Terps are 15-2 when earning an FTR above 30.2; they went 6-10 when below that mark. West Virginia enters the contest ranking 317th nationally in defensive free throw rate allowed, so they will need to keep their hands to themselves or face the consequences.
(5) San Diego State vs. (12) Charleston
Charleston will need its 3s to drop in this game. It is hard to look at this statistical matchup any differently. The Cougars are one of the highest-volume 3-point shooting teams in the country, attempting 47.4 percent of their total shots from three (ninth in D1). San Diego State, meanwhile, is tenacious in covering the perimeter; opponents shot under 30 percent on 3-pointers for the season against the Aztecs, a mark which ranked seventh-best among all defenses.
Charleston’s worst losses this season (at Drexel, vs. Hofstra) came in two of the only three games in which the Cougars shot worse than 22 percent from three. Now, Pat Kelsey’s team faces the best perimeter defense that it has seen all year in SDSU. But there may be a backroad to success for The College.
Over the two-year Kelsey era, Charleston is 17-1 when it either shoots >35.3 percent from three or wins the turnover margin. Doing either will be easier said than done against SDSU’s perimeter defense, which also ranks top 100 in turnover rate. Charleston will rightfully be a popular upset pick, but this was a tough draw for their style.
(4) Virginia vs. (13) Furman
Virginia vs. Furman features arguably the biggest contrast in styles in the first round. The Cavaliers are a grind-it-out, defense-first program; the Paladins are the opposite. Furman ranked 124th in adjusted tempo this season while thriving on the offensive end. There are some commonalities between the two squads — namely the ability to protect possessions — but there are plenty of differences, which should make for an interesting match.
Furman’s 3-point defense could be the linchpin. When the Paladins limit their opponents to 40 percent or worse from deep, they are 26-2 this season; they are just 1-5 otherwise. Furman is also at its best when getting to the free-throw line; it went 15-1 when attempting 20 or more free throws.
Virginia’s season-long numbers project well on both fronts. The Cavaliers ranked 105th nationally in 3P% this season, including hitting over 40 percent from three in 10 contests (none since Jan. 30, though). They ranked 42nd nationally in FTR allowed, surrendering 20 or more free throws to only five opponents.
Who controls the tempo will also be worth monitoring. Virginia only played four games with more than 66 possessions per team; Furman only played seven with fewer than 66 each.
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