Monday, March 17, 2014

March Madness 2014: Gators and Shockers and Bairstows (and Jabari Parker)

There's a great throwaway scene in Major League when the immortal Bob Uecker is growing increasingly frustrated by the combination of the Indians' poor play and the city's utter disinterest in the team. He's doing his solo radio show, and he knows nobody's listening anyway, so when he struggles to locate the sponsor he's supposed to be plugging, he just gives up: "Christ, I can't find it. To hell with it!"

Well, that's pretty much how I feel analyzing this year's March Madness bracket. I didn't watch quite as much college basketball in 2013–14 as in years past—which is to say that the number of hours I spent glued in front of my television dipped from "coma-inducing" to "merely socially unacceptable"—but I'd like to think I'm fairly knowledgeable about a fair number of the 68 teams competing for the national title. Yet at no point during this season did I watch a team and think to myself, "That squad is definitely making the Final Four." Well, that isn't strictly true, but the one team that did inspire those thoughts recently lost its second-best player—who has been repeatedly compared to Hakeem Olajuwon—to something called a "spinal stress fracture". Thanks a lot, Joel Embiid; you just robbed the Manifesto of its one surefire Final Four pick.

But to hell with it. The Manifesto soldiers on. As I've mentioned in the past, increased parity in college basketball may wreak havoc on predictions—don't be surprised if, by Thursday afternoon, your precious bracket resembles the defunct distillery that Beth and Daryl torched on a recent episode of The Walking Dead—but it sure makes for an entertaining two weeks of hoops. On to the picks (here's a blank bracket for reference).

SOUTH ("The Open Road")
The bottom half of this region features some intriguing matchups. The top half, not so much.

The top seed: In case you haven't noticed, Florida hasn't lost in awhile. Since a one-point loss at Uconn on December 2, the Gators have won 26 games in a row, including a one-point nail-biter against Kentucky to win the SEC Tournament. The Gators clearly pass the so-called "eye test"; they're a balanced team led by three seniors in point guard Scottie Wilbekin (SEC Player of the Year), slashing forward Casey Prather (shooting a ridiculous 62% from the floor), and low-post bruiser Patric Young. They also have one of the best three-point marksmen in the country in Michael Frazier (currently drilling 45% from deep). And while they don't block many shots, they play good team defense and force a ton of turnovers, which is why they're 11th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Offensively, though, the Gators are good but not great. They don't shoot the three that well aside from Frazier (37%, 78th in the country), they're turnover-prone (Wilbekin's assist/turnover ratio is a middling 2.1), and they're a horrible free-throw shooting team (Frazier and Wilbekin are the only regulars above 68%), which could bite them in close games (and nearly did today against Kentucky). Still, the Gators' record speaks for itself, and they've proven they can win close games. Whether that's skill more than luck remains to be seen. If the basketball gods are good, they'll get a sweet 16 matchup with ...

The high flyers: This VCU team can be fun to watch. They're sixth in the country in defensive efficiency, and unlike their in-state counterparts in Charlottesville, they don't do it with patience and discipline. There's a reason Shaka Smart's defense is called "Havoc"; VCU wins by speeding up the game, and they lead the country in both steals and forced turnovers. They're loaded across the board with long, aggressive athletes, most notably Rondo-esque point guard Briante Weber (leading the nation with a ridiculous 3.5 steals per game). But if you can slow them down, wow do they struggle to score. The Rams rank 162nd in offensive efficiency, and while they rebound at a decent rate, they're absolutely dreadful shooters, both from the floor and the line (270th and 256th in those percentages, respectively). That could make things interesting when they face ...

The unflappables: It's difficult to judge Stephen F. Austin based on their numbers, given that they didn't exactly play the toughest schedule in the world (281st). But the Lumberjacks have won 28 straight games, and they've done it through patience and ball movement on offense and ball-hawking tenacity on defense. If VCU rattles them, they're in trouble, but if they can keep their composure, slow down the pace, and force the Rams to make jumpshots, they're making noise.

The revolutionary: Overall, I'm not a huge fan of this UCLA team. They're sloppy on defense, they have no rim protection, and they're wildly undisciplined (future lottery pick Zach LaVine will make 2-3 spectacular plays per game, then immediately follow those up with horrific decisions). But if you like basketball, you're going to want to watch Kyle Anderson play the game. He's a pure, pass-first point guard (6.6 assists per game, 6th in the country), but he's also a dead-eye shooter (48% from three). That's all fine, but he also pulls down 8.8 rebounds per game (fifth in the country in defensive boards per contest). Oh, and he leads the team in blocked shots, just for fun. How does he do that? Because he's six-foot-nine, that's how. They don't make basketball players like Kyle Anderson anymore. The Magic Johnson comparisons are crazy, but they're also sort of apt. Watch him play.

The fraud: Look, Aaron Craft is a great defensive player, and Ohio State is a great defensive team. But the Buckeyes are just painful to watch on offense. They shoot a putrid 33% from three (256th), and their free-throw shooting isn't much better (69%, 209th). Plus, it's not as though they create many second opportunities, as they rank 214th in offensive rebound percentage. Put simply, this team can't score. I desperately want to pick Dayton to beat them, but I don't think Dayton is very good. But there's no way they're getting past ...

The sandbagger: O.K., Syracuse had a rough past month, losing five of their last seven games. But it's crucial to remember that Jerami Grant was injured for most of those games, and if there's one thing Jim Boeheim has never cared to do, it's to develop his bench. Grant, however, looked healthy against NC State, and if the perpetually exhausted C.J. Fair (37.9 minutes per game) can start making some of his floaters again, the Orange will be a tough out. Even when they struggle to score, they still rebound (9th in offensive rebound rate), they force turnovers (fifth in steals), and they take excellent care of the ball (fourth in turnovers per game, thanks to the imperturbable Tyler Ennis, who may actually be an alien). And they're also lucky because ...

The crippled contender: As I suggested earlier, if Joel Embiid were healthy, Kansas would be my pick to win the title. (For the record, they're my pick most years, including last year (when they lost to eventual runner-up Michigan in overtime), 2011 (when they lost to VCU during its Cinderella run to the Final Four), 2010 (when Northern Iowa, wait, what?), and 2008 (when they actually won). They recruit well, and Bill Self is a good coach. Moving on.) But Joel Embiid is not healthy. Technically, he hasn't been ruled out for the entire tournament yet, but if I just turned 20 and were projected to be the top overall pick in the NBA Draft, I'm not rushing back from something called a spinal stress fracture. Andrew Wiggins has been absolutely possessed lately, but he isn't polished enough just yet to take over games consistently, and I can't trust a team that just lost its defensive identity and is also playing Naadir Tharpe 30 minutes per game. Which means we need to keep our eye on ...

The big guy: Don't worry, he's not exactly hard to miss.

Alex Kirk of the New Mexico Lobos

But seriously, New Mexico is an intriguing team. The awesomely gigantic Alex Kirk is, obviously, a presence in the middle, but Aussie frontcourt mate Cameron Bairstow is the real threat, a multi-talented 6'9" forward who impacts the game on both ends. I don't know if they have the horses to beat Kansas—I can definitely see Kirk and Bairstow both picking up two fouls within the game's first three minutes—but if Wiggins has one of his cold nights and the mercurial Wayne Selden follows suit, the Jayhawks could be looking at an early exit.

The Picks
Play-in game: Albany over Mt. St. Mary's.

Sweet 16: Florida over Pitt, UCLA over Stephen F. Austin, Syracuse over Ohio State, New Mexico over Kansas.

Regional final: FLORIDA over Syracuse.

WEST ("The coin flip")
Why do I feel like this region comes down to one matchup involving the #9 seed? Intrigue awaits.

The top seed: This just in: Arizona is not as good without Brandon Ashley. The 6'8" forward gave them another athletic forward who could knock down mid-range shots, run the floor, and bang inside. But they're still a good team—their four losses (all after Ashley got hurt) came by a combined 16 points—with a loaded roster, including a freakshow freshman forward (Aaron Gordon, somehow shooting 48% from the field and 44% from the line), an imposing center (Kaleb Tarczewski, somehow averaging less than one blocked shot per game), a steady point guard (T.J. McConnell, averaging 5.5 assists to just 1.8 turnovers), and a spectacularly untrustworthy shooting guard (Nick Johnson, yuck). They're well-coached, they're athletic, they rebound (third in defensive rebound rate), and they're the best defensive team in the country in terms of points allowed per possession. So why do I desperately want to pick them to lose in the second round to ...

The wildcard: I'm dying to pick Oklahoma State to make the Final Four. They have the talent, as they've surrounded star Marcus Smart with a legit second option (Markel Brown, good for two eye-popping players per game), a post presence (LeBryan Nash, accepting third-banana status), a sharpshooter (Phil Forte, 45% from three and 87% from the line), and a rim protector (Kamari Murphy). They also have swagger; Smart is a tenacious two-way player, and his energy is infectious. But they also have Travis Ford, and I don't think he has any control over this team. They just make too many dumb plays, and their offensive execution never seems to maximize their considerable talent. The Cowboys are the ultimate "can beat anyone, can lose to anyone" team. That makes them a legit threat to Arizona, but it also makes them a dicey Final Four proposition.

The temptation: I picked Wisconsin to make the Final Four last year as a five seed, and that didn't go so well. They're a two seed this year, but overall, not much has changed. They still take excellent care of the ball (second in turnover rate), they pass and cut beautifully, they never foul (second-fewest fouls per game), and they still have the sneakily talented but weirdly underused Sam Dekker. They aren't going to beat themselves. But they also aren't going to blow teams out, partly because of their lack of athleticism but also because they're actually a mediocre three-point shooting team (37%, 57th). Besides, why pick a bunch of farm boys from Wisconsin when you can pick a bunch of farm boys from ...

The great white hope: Creighton! The Wisconsin of Nebraska, the Bluejays led the country in offensive efficiency, and you probably know why. Doug McDermott's NBA future is an open question, but his collegiate excellence is not. The senior dropped 27 points per game this season while putting up insane shooting percentages of 53/87/45, and it's not as though he flew under the radar; teams schemed to stop this guy, and it didn't matter. Still, the Bluejays aren't a one-man band. Ethan Wragge is one of the best-shooting big men in the country (47% from three!), while 6'5" Grant Gibbs actually shoots the three-ball a tick better. In fact, as a team, Creighton shoots a preposterous 42.2% from three, easily the best mark in the country. Sure, they're a mediocre defensive club, and they might lack the athletes to keep pace with a frisky team like Baylor, much less Arizona. But if McDermott gets hot, there's no stopping him. There's a reason—besides alliteration—that they call it March Madness.

The Picks
Sweet 16: Arizona over Oklahoma State, San Diego State over North Dakota State, Creighton over Baylor, Wisconsin over Oregon.

Regional final: CREIGHTON over Arizona.

(Note: This is where predicting 67 games in advance can get weird. If Arizona actually plays Creighton in the Elite Eight, I think Arizona will win, because the Wildcats are just too athletic for the Bluejays. But I'm less sold on Arizona's chances of making it to the Elite Eight, since they'll first have to muscle past not just Oklahoma State but also a relentless San Diego State squad. Creighton, on the other hand, has an easier road, and if 'Zona gets upset early, I don't see anyone else stopping Creighton. Glad we cleared that up.)

MIDWEST ("The slugfest")
This region is flat-out mean. Going into selection Sunday, roughly 10 teams were bandied about for potential number one seeds. Four of them are in this region. Be afraid.

The top seed: Yes, Wichita State hasn't played the toughest schedule (111th), but it's not as though the Shockers have been squeaking by. They beat teams up, which is why they're one of only two teams to rank in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (more on the other team in a moment). They aren't flashy, and they don't shoot the three all that well (35%, 154th), but they're ferocious on the backboards (2nd in defensive rebound rate), and they have one of the country's most dynamic point guards in Fred VanVleet (putting up some McDermott-esque shooting percentages of 50/82/45 while doing most of the ball-handling). They seem destined for a Final Four rematch with ...

The fear factor: Remember how I said Wichita State was one of two teams that ranks in the top 15 in offensive and defensive efficiency. The other is Louisville, only the Cardinals don't just rank in the top 15 in both categories; they rank in the top three (third in offense, second in defense). Now, part of that is probably because Rick Pitino has no compunction about running up the score against the likes of Rutgers and South Florida, but still, this team is scary. They're second in the nation in steals, they take surprisingly good care of the ball (11th in turnover rate), and they simply don't let opponents make threes (fourth in the country at 29%). Russ Smith is as electric as ever, but he's also improved his decision-making and shot selection (he's shooting a shocking 48% from the floor, up from 41% last year and 35% the year before), while Montrezl Harrell has transformed from a pure brawler into legitimate offensive threat who also terrorizes opponents on the glass. Oh, and they're coached by one of the greatest collegiate basketball minds of all-time. A matchup of Louisville's violent aggression against Wichita State's more contained tenacity would be thrilling. We should root for this. Of course, that would mean ...

The enigma: Before Wichita State faces Louisville in the Sweet 16, it may first have to handle Kentucky, as the selection committee apparently enjoys placing legitimately dangerous teams in the 8-9 matchup so #1 seeds don't have too easy a route. And look, Kentucky has talent. They get to the line a ton (second-most free-throw attempts per game), they devour the offensive glass (best in the nation in offensive rebound rate), and they protect the rim (6th in blocked shots). But they're horrific when it comes to taking care of the ball, and the Harrison twins seem prone to selfish play, while would-be superstar Julius Randle doesn't get nearly as many touches as he should. This is a dangerous team, but it's also a young, sloppy, and inconsistent team, one that's likely to fold when facing a disciplined, veteran Wichita State squad. Besides, there's another freshman in the region who's more deserving of the public's attention ...

The passion of the freshman: Mike Krzyzewski's teams have been slipping on defense ever since Shelden Williams graduated, but this year's Duke squad is an alarming case. The Blue Devils rank 110th in defensive efficiency, largely because they don't block shots (3.1 per game, 219th) and get killed on the glass (218th in defensive rebound rate). That's partly an intentional tradeoff, of course, since Duke is the second-best offensive team in the nation by points per possession, and they sacrifice size and strength for range shooters (11th in three-point percentage) and smart passers (ninth in turnover rate). Still, if Duke is going to win the title, it's going to be because Jabari Parker wills them to it. The freshman phenom is a below-average interior defensive player at this point in his career, but he's a once-in-a-generation talent on offense, someone who can score from anywhere on the floor and combines explosive athleticism with great touch and a brilliant overall feel for the game. Rodney Hood is a terrific second banana, and Rasheed Sulaimon is growing more confident, even though Quinn Cook is inexplicably ceding time to Tyler Thornton (he's averaging 26 minutes over the last 12 games, which leads me to believe he has incriminating photos of Steve Wojciechowski). Still, this is Parker's team. As a player, he's been compared to Carmelo Anthony, who memorably led Syracuse to the title in 2003. I can't think of a better way to make those comparisons stick.

The rematch: Duke killed Michigan at Cameron in December, stifling Nik Stauskas (who didn't make a shot from the floor) and generally making the Wolverines miserable. But Duke's defense has slipped since then, while Michigan has honed its offensive system, one that features a lot of off-ball cutting and more passing than dribbling. In fact, Michigan plays a lot like Duke: They shoot the three well (39%, 13th) and they rarely turn the ball over (19th in turnover rate), but they're an atrocious shot-blocking team (293rd), and they seem legitimately afraid of hitting the offensive glass (261st in offensive rebound rate). They also seem to be trying to eliminate the free throw from the game; they foul less than any other team in the country, but they also rank 301st in free throw attempts per game. With Michigan, it all comes down to shooting, which means it really all comes down to Stauskas. The Big Ten Player of the Year is a creative offensive player and a terrific passer in the pick-and-roll game, but he's also prone to droughts. Caris LeVert is a fine complementary player, but Glenn Robinson III has shied from the spotlight, so if Stauskas is misfiring, the Wolverines are in trouble.

The obligation: A few years ago, Wofford made the tournament, but I declined to mention the Terriers in my analysis. (They lost to Jimmer Fredette's BYU squad in the first round.) This angered my friend Brent, a devoted Wofford alum who's also one of the Manifesto's most loyal readers. This year, Wofford faces Michigan in the first round as a 15 seed. They rank 174th in offensive efficiency, 224th in shooting efficiency, 324th in free-throw attempts, 214th in opponents' shooting percentage, and 347th in blocked shots (out of 351 qualifying teams). They also put up all of those numbers while playing in the robust Southern Conference, leading to a strength of schedule of 270. I don't like their chances.

The Picks
Play-in games: Texas Southern over Cal Poly, NC State over Xavier, Iowa over Tennessee.

Sweet 16: Wichita State over Kentucky, Louisville over Saint Louis, Duke over Iowa, Michigan over Arizona State.

Regional final: WICHITA STATE over Duke.

EAST ("The junk pile")
What a dump.

The top seed: I'll say this for Virginia: They defend. The Cavaliers are fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency, and while they don't force many turnovers (123rd in forced turnover rate), they make scoring very, very difficult, plus they finish off their possessions with a rebound (5th in defensive rebound rate). Akil Mitchell is a load inside, and Malcolm Brogdon is a pest on the perimeter who also happens to be their only playmaker on offense, unless you count the wildly overrated Joe Harris. Basically, Virginia tries to make the game as unpleasant as possible, which is why they rank 346th in possessions per game. It's a smart strategy, given the team's lack of firepower, but it's a dicey proposition against high-level competition. Like, you know ...

The hidden juggernaut: Much uproar ensued when Louisville was handed a four seed, but at least the Cardinals lost their games at full strength. Michigan State was racked by injuries for most of the year, but they still managed to finish 12-6 in a competitive conference. Now, they're healthy, and they're looking unstoppable. Gary Harris has been spotty from deep this year (36%), but he's still a silky-smooth shooting guard, while Branden Dawson does the dirty work and Adreian Payne is that rare breed: a difference-making athlete who can shoot the three. I still can't fully trust point guard Keith-Not-Luke Appling, but he's settled down a bit in his senior year, and he's a competent offensive player, though the Spartans are still better when running things through Payne and Denzel Valentine. I've underestimated Tom Izzo's teams in the past (and at my peril), and this one is hardly flawless, particularly given their terrible free-throw shooting (how does Appling shoot 66% from the line?). Still, other than perhaps Florida, this is as complete a team as I can find in the field.

The rest: I want nothing to do with the bottom half of this bracket. Villanova is the two seed, and they haven't beaten a ranked team since November. Uconn is frisky, but if Appling is untrustworthy, Shabazz Napier is the stuff of nightmares. North Carolina has two above-average players in Marcus Paige (who weirdly sleepwalks through first halves) and James Michael McAdoo (who can't stay out of foul trouble). St. Joseph's doesn't rank in the top 80 in either offensive or defensive efficiency. The only team I sort of like is Iowa State because they have some horses in Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane. Still, if you're looking for a team to come out of this bracket, stick to the top half.

The Picks
Sweet 16: Virginia over Memphis, Michigan State over Harvard, Iowa State over North Carolina, Uconn over Villanova.

Regional final: MICHIGAN STATE over Iowa State.

Semifinal #1 (Florida vs. Michigan State): Florida has been strong all year, but Michigan State is peaking at the right time. I'll take the Spartans.

Semifinal #2 (Creighton vs. Wichita State): First of all, CBS will do everything possible to ensure this game doesn't actually take place, including hiring Jeff Gillooly to break Doug McDermott's leg if necessary. Anyway, too much defense here from Wichita State.

Championship (Michigan State vs. Wichita State): I'm tempted to take the Shockers here, but I don't think they match up well with the Spartans' size and quickness. Michigan State is your 2014 national champion.

Or, you know, not. Now's when the fun starts. Enjoy the madness.

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