Sweet 16 Preview: We Picked Against Louisville And Michigan State, But We Have Our Reasons

  • Matt Rudnitsky

We have reached the sensual, Sweet 16 Round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Let’s pick the games.

(Before you read these, know that the writer picked Villanova to make the finals.)


Stanford (-3) vs. Dayton

Via KenPom, these are the two lowest-rated teams in the tournament. It’s not particularly close. But one will advance, because that’s how tournaments work.

They’re both decent teams. Dayton performed mildly well against a stout OSU defense. They stopped a subpar OSU offense. They won by one point. They did the same exact thing against Syracuse, except it was a two-point win that was (greatly) helped by Syracuse going 0-for-10 from 3-pointsville.

Stanford played very good defense against a solid New Mexico team. They shot over 50% from three and the Lobos went 4-for-21 and lost a close game. The Kansas win was very impressive, I will admit. Stanford has had the most impressive performance of the two teams, and they’re rated higher through the entire season. Hence, they’re favored.

KenPom has their win probability at 56%.

I just don’t really know what to add here. Stanford is very big; Dayton is of average size. Dayton’s offense is the better unit and Stanford’s defense is the better unit. Stanford’s defense is probably the best unit in this game. Dayton’s defense is probably the worst. It’s not especially good.

I would take the points if I were forced to by some strange entity that forces people to gamble. (Maybe this asshat?)

Pick: Dayton
ATS Pick: Dayton +3
Bet: Ew, no

Wisconsin (-3) vs. Baylor

Wisconsin seems to be flying under the radar despite a No. 7 KenPom ranking and wins over Florida, Virginia, Michigan State and Michigan. That’s two No. 1s, a No. 2 and America’s favorite championship pick.

I guess that’s what happens when you start four white dudes.

Wisconsin is very good; I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Frank Kaminsky is a matchup nightmare and the best college athlete named Frank since Frank Gore. And maybe the best Kaminsky ever. He is a 7-footer who can shoot and has skills and he is scary.

Wisconsin is stereotypical Wisconsin, even though this year’s team plays nothing like last year’s. They play a bit faster than normal, though still extremely slow, jack up lots of threes (but shoot them well this year), and generally have a great offense. They struggle on defense but limit threes. They play plodding shootouts. They manage to be mildly entertaining because of their defensive shortcomings and improved shooting. On my hate and unwatchability scale, this year’s Wisco is only like a 90 out of 100. Last year’s was a 750. Fuck that team.

As much as I hate Bo Ryan’s style, we all know he’s a good coach. We all know Scott Drew is not. This probably accounts for some or all of the one-point increase in the betting line vs. KenPom’s prediction.

Wisconsin does everything well to counter Baylor’s strengths — they defend the 3-point line, box out well and keep teams off the 3-point line. It seems like an ideal matchup. The obvious red flag is Wisconsin’s underwhelming athleticism vs. Baylor’s overwhelming athleticism. But they played Michigan State very well, twice, and while I think the line is pretty fair, it seems like the smart pick here is the Badgers.

Almost all of Wisconsin’s losses have come when they were outshot significantly on 3-pointers. That doesn’t happen often. Baylor shoots threes well, so they can pull this out. But unless there’s a big discrepancy, I think they lose.

(Note: Baylor just annihilated Creighton, a similar team to Wisconsin. They’re better shooters but worse on defense. But Baylor shot insanely well and Creighton couldn’t hit a shot and I don’t see reason to act like that was meaningful for predictive purposes.)

(Other Note: I think that logic suggests there might be value on Wisconsin. But I hate Bo Ryan more than I hate Bret Bielema, and that’s saying something. And Baylor is athletic and talented and has underachieved. They might be coming into their own. Regardless, they have a good shot to win.)

Pick: Baylor
ATS Pick: Baylor +3
Bet: Nah

Florida (-5) vs. University of California-Los Angeles

Florida’s closest relative in the tourney is Arizona. They’re both great defenses with good offenses and ranked No. 1 and 2 overall in KenPom. Florida is a bit more aggressive on D but worse, and a bit better-shooting on offense. I like Zona better. Plenty of people disagree, but nobody has them too far apart.

UCLA is a great offensive team that shoots extremely well despite not relying on threes. They don’t turn the ball over. They can score on anyone. Their defense would be horrible but is middling because of forcing turnovers, boxing out and keeping teams off the free-throw line. They play defense at times, but it’s not their forte.

They played Arizona as tough as anyone. Lost a tough, well-played home game, then won a neutral-site game in the Pac-12 tourney. They scored 1.07 PPP and 1.09. The only team to top that was Michigan, with 1.15, unsurprisingly coinciding with an 8-for-17 performance from 3.

What I’m trying to say is that UCLA can score on great defenses like Florida. I think they’ll fare well. Couple that with Florida’s periodic offensive struggles, and I think this should be a close one. I think Florida is a bit overrated by efficiency numbers. I might be an idiot, but I will take the points.

Pick: UCLA
ATS Pick: UCLA +5
Bet: Sure, I will

Arizona (-6.5) vs. San Diego State

San Diego State is Arizona but worse. They’re worse at everything besides forcing turnovers. They’re much worse on offense and can’t really shoot.

The only reason to think they’ll win is that Arizona can go cold on offense, and the Aztecs probably have the best player in this game. Their offense is Xavier Thames, so if he goes off (like he did in scoring 3x points last round), sure, they could win.

Thames’ offensive rating this year was 120.1. That’s excellent (121st in the country, especially impressive at his high usage). But the best defenses he’s faced have fared relatively well against him. He’s played four top-30 defenses via KenPom. He’s been held to worse than that 120.1 number in 7 of his 8 matchups vs. those teams. And in that one efficient game, he “only” scored 17 points. He hasn’t been horrible against good defenses, but he has been slowed down considerably.

He also played Arizona. He was decent, scoring 19 points… but he was 3-for-12 on 2-pointers. His production came from the free-throw line, at home, where he’s likelier to get calls.

I’m not saying Thames will suck. I’m saying it’s likely that he’ll be good but not insane, and if he’s not insane, I don’t think there’s a reason to think that the Aztecs win.

Though I wouldn’t put too much stock into the early-season Wildcats win — Brandon Ashley played for Zona (he’s hurt) and the Aztecs were missing a key offensive contributor in Dwayne Polee.

I still lean Arizona, but in a slow, defensive battle between two bad free-throw teams, I can definitely see an argument to take the points.

Pick: Arizona
ATS Pick: Arizona -6.5
Bet? Only if I get drunk


Iowa State (-1.5) vs. UConn

Yes, Georges Niang is hurt, and that’s bad. But Iowa State is still favored.

UConn is a strange team. They’ve got one of the best players in the country in Shabazz Napier. DeAndre Kane is a great athlete with the size advantage, but Shabazz is Shabazz. He could go all Kembazz Walker and win this by himself. UConn is great on 2-point defense (8th nationally) and great shooting threes (17th nationally). But they can’t shoot twos? (210th).

They aren’t particularly stingy allowing threes, and all Iowa State does is run and jack threes. Yet somehow the Cyclones don’t turn the ball over. Which is why, unless they’re missing a lot of threes (which does happen fairly often), they can rout teams. Gotta think that’s what happens here. Decent or good showing from three, they win. Bad showing, UConn wins.

Shabazz, roasted.

Pick: Iowa State
ATS Pick: Iowa State -1.5
Bet: Took em for a little bit at -1

Michigan (-2) vs. Tennessee

I’m a Michigan fan and I have been wetting my pants about this matchup.

The argument for Michigan: They are the best offensive team and shooting team left in the tournament. When they make their threes, they are nearly impossible to stop. They are the only remaining team with Nik Stauskas.

John Beilein is a beast, especially with extra time to prep. He has an insane NCAA Tournament record against the spread. He is 17-3 ATS in the Tournament since 2005.

The Argument for Tennessee: Tennessee might be a bit overrated by KenPom (they’re No. 6 overall!) because most of their victories were blowouts… but maybe not. They’ve had bad luck. They start games quickly. They’re athletic. They’re freakish at offensive rebounding. (But they can’t shoot.) They play very, very good defense. They’re exactly like Texas, who Michigan just killed… except that they guard the 3-point line as well as anyone (22nd in opponent 3PA/FGA). Michigan beat Texas by nailing threes, and beats most teams by doing that.

Michigan gets torched on defense and is relatively weak and very thin down low. They have Jordan Morgan, who is underrated and solid as a defender. Then they have Jon Horford, who is not Al Horford and a fairly weak man born with fly swatters instead of hands. They’ll probably have to guard girthy tight end Jarnell Stokes, who has a free-throw rate 62.9%, 141st in the country. If not, Glenn Robinson probably will, and I’m not sure he can. If Morgan and/or Robinson gets in foul trouble, my beloved Wolves are in trouble.

That said, it’s probably tough to beat Michigan if you can’t shoot, right? Who has beaten Michigan or played them close?

Iowa State (18th in EFG%)
Charlotte (who got hot from three and wow that was a bad outlier for Michigan)
Florida State (64th in 3PT%)
Duke (duh)
Arizona (68th in EFG% and best team in country)
Stanford (70th in 3PT%)

All pretty good at shooting or shot well. But wait, the list isn’t done.

Minnesota (90th in EFG%, I’m reaching a bit)
Nebraska (wait a second…)
Ohio State (haha)
Iowa (actually not that good at shooting)
Purdue (wait, no)
Indiana twice (shit)

In all of those games… they allowed opponents to rebound 30% or more of their misses. It was 39% or higher in most. They gave up 48.3%(!) when they got routed by MSU in the B1G tourney final. Michigan is an above average defensive rebounding team in the overall numbers, but they’ve struggled at times. Watching these games, I can confirm the thing I was yelling was “GRAB THE FUCKING REBOUND.”

Tennessee has the fourth-highest OR% in the nation (39.4%). That’s insane. If Michigan keeps that number low, they probably win in a rout. But that’d be an upset. Can you coach a team to not get dominated by a team’s dominant skill-set in four days?

I don’t like the matchup.

That said, MICHIGAN’S OFFENSE. Tennessee hasn’t seen anything like it. Mercer was a poor man’s Michigan, and they actually fared well against the Vols’ vaunted D. They got up 22 threes, made 8 and managed 1.12 PPP. They just couldn’t stop Tennessee and gave up offensive rebounds on 60% of missed shots which, holy shit, that’s hilariously bad.

The Michigan game will probably go similarly, except that Michigan is better.

This seems like a 50-50 game, so I would certainly lean towards Tennessee. Then again, Beilein. And if Michigan gets up and hits threes, they probably win, per usual.

Pick: Michigan (but only because I’m a homer)
ATS Pick: Michigan -2 (but if I wasn’t a homer I’d definitely lean Tennessee)
Bet? No.

Louisville (-5) vs. Kentucky

I wanted to fade both of these teams entering the tourney. But Louisville drew two uglier mirrors of themselves and won two games. I’m not impressed. It’s not that they’re not good; I just think the fact that oddsmakers have them as the second-best team in the country or so is a bit overstated. They’re not as good as last year.

Kentucky was solid against an inferior Kansas State team but then played out of their minds vs. Wichita State. Wichita State did not prove they were flawed. Wichita State proved they were really fucking good, then Kentucky played a tiny, tiny bit better. They looked great. That said, they shot 44.4% from 3 and have not looked that good once this year. Peaking late, or getting lucky once?

Louisville is better at most things, and their pressure defense may give the young Wildcats trouble. It didn’t when Kentucky beat Louisville earlier this year. But it could.

But most people seem to think the way to beat Louisville on defense is on the offensive boards. Kentucky scorched them for 17, 41.5% of its misses. That was actually slightly below their ridiculous 42% average, second in the nation. So, yeah, it’ll probably happen again. That mitigates their typically-poor 3-point shooting. They also get to the line a lot, and did so 30 times in their win. That’ll probably happen again.

Louisville is probably the better team. But they haven’t proven themselves against good teams, they haven’t been great in the first two rounds, and Kentucky can look terrifyingly good when they’re on. I think full-season numbers underrate the Wildcats and overrate the Cardinals, and I’ll gladly take five points. This seems like a good matchup for Kentucky, provided they take care of the ball and don’t shoot too horribly. I like them to cover, and I think they can pull the upset.

Pick: Kentucky
ATS Pick: Kentucky +5
Bet? Yeah sure why not

Michigan State (-1.5) vs. Virginia

The media fellating of Michigan State is out of control. Yes, they were banged up this year. But that’s exaggerated, and in just over the past month, they’ve lost at home vs. Illinois and at Ohio State (a good loss, but still). They are beatable, is all I’m saying. And Virginia is probably the best team they’ve played all year.

I almost want to pick Virginia out of principle. A real thing uttered by the mainstream media was: “The Spartans will be heavily favored” in this matchup. Jesus. Tits. Fortunately, the betting market is not this dumb. If it’s overrating MSU, it’s only by a bit.

Before the tournament, I argued that Virginia is incredibly well coached and good at defense, but I wasn’t sure they’re at the level of a team like Michigan State, talent wise. Playing an undisciplined, sloppy team like Memphis seemed like a dream matchup. They cruised. But like I said, MSU has the talent edge, and they’ve got a pretty good coach, too.

Michigan State does not seem like a dream matchup.

The knock on MSU is pretty simple: They give up a lot of threes on defense (36.9% of FGA are 3PA). That stayed true vs. Delaware and Harvard. Both teams hit threes and had decent success on offense. But they got killed on defense and lost.

Virginia is 5th in defensive efficiency and probably won’t get killed on defense. They stifled Wisconsin. If they get lit up, something weird happened.

I think the line is perfectly fair. MSU is more talented, but Virginia has the better defense, and is capable of attacking the Spartans’ weakness and drilling threes. If they do, they probably win. If not, this is a grinder and MSU probably has the edge.

Pick: Virginia
ATS Pick: Virginia +1.5
Bet? No thanks