A Guide To March: Under-The-Radar Favorites and Upset Picks

As the name would suggest, March Madness is the most chaotic event in sports. Whether it be Kris Jenkins’ game-winning, buzzer-beating shot in the National Championship game or Middle Tennessee’s shocking win in the opening round over Michigan State, the month of March (for college basketball at least) is simply filled with madness. Nothing that happened during the regular season matters anymore, as the only thing that counts, is that you are in the tournament right now. Although March Madness seems like it is just a flurry of luck, momentum, and chance (which to a great extent it is), taking a structured, statistical based approach to evaluating match-ups will allow March to make much more sense. Additionally, filling out your brackets in this statistical-backed approach will dramatically increase your odds of winning your pool, so read these helpful tips to feel a little less “mad” this March when your brackets aren’t busted after Day 1.

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Photo Credits: Sporting News

Under-The-Radar Favorites:

Look for these characteristics when picking teams to go far:

  • Good on both ends of the court
    • Both offensively and defensively efficient
  • Have one “unstoppable” aspect
    • Ex: West Virginia’s press or UCLA’s shooting
  • Make the most out of their possessions
    • High Floor % (% of possessions ended with points)
  • Don’t turn the ball over
    • Low turnover %

Unexpected Teams Poised To Make Big Runs: Southern Methodist (SMU), Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa State

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Photo Credits: Bleacher Report

Southern Methodist: Winners of 15 straight and 24 of their last 25, SMU comes into the tournament as possibly the hottest team in the field. Although they pack one of the least deep rosters in the country, SMU’s athletic starting 5 more than make up for that through their ability to score and rebound. SMU has great shooting ability, especially from deep, as they shoot 40.6% from beyond the arc, which is the 5th best mark in Division I. Their shooting ability from deep, paired with big men who grab an offensive rebound on 36.8% of their shots (6th in the country), makes a combo that will be awfully hard to stop. Additionally, SMU plays at the 4th slowest pace in the country, averaging only 65.2 possessions per game, which allows for great volatility in the outcomes of their games. Pair this with their efficient play on both sides of the ball (6th in offensive efficiency and 15th in defensive efficiency), and you have a team that could readily take down major contenders such as Baylor, Duke, and Villanova, Florida, or Virginia. On top of that, advanced metrics show that SMU is very underrated as a 6 seed, as they are ranked #11 by Kenpom, which is ahead of every team in their region besides Villanova, Florida, and Virginia.

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Photo Credits: AP Photo

Michigan: Coming off upset wins over Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Purdue to win the Big 10 championship, Michigan is riding a huge wave of momentum that should carry over into the tournament. After a rough start to the season, Michigan has turned it around as of recently, and this version of the Michigan basketball team is a force to be reckoned with. With a defense that is just alright, even below average by advanced metrics such as defensive efficiency, Michigan’s offense is what has carried them so far. Michigan possesses a lethal combo of slow pace and efficiency, which allows them to capitalize on the few possessions that they have. Averaging just 65.5 possessions per game, Michigan has the 5th slowest pace in all of college basketball, which (just like SMU) gives greater volatility in the outcome of their games. As mentioned above, Michigan’s offense is quite effective and efficient as well, as they are 6th in offensive efficiency and 8th in effective field goal %. Michigan’s patient, efficient style of play, along with their great ability to hold onto the ball (6th lowest turnover %), is quite taxing on opposing defenses, which has led to diminished offensive production for opponents as well. If Michigan can defend the deep ball better than they have recently, don’t be surprised if you see them take down powerhouses such as Louisville, Oregon, and Kansas, Iowa State, or Purdue.

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Photo Credits: Bleacher Report

Notre Dame: Unlike SMU or Michigan, Notre Dame does not come into the tournament red-hot, as they have only won 8 of their last 12 and are fresh off a devastating loss to Duke in the ACC Championship game. Notre Dame boasts a potent offense, the 15th most efficient in the country, that is extremely hard to stop when Bonzie Colson is at his best. Unfortunately for everyone else in the tournament, Colson has been doing exactly that as of recently; in his past 10 games, he has scored at least 20 points in all but 2 of them and has posted 5 double-doubles over that span as well. On top of that, Notre Dame shoots 38.6% from behind the arc (32nd in the country), but more importantly, their 4 main players (Colson, Vasturia, Beachum, Farrell) all are legitimate 3-point shooting threats, as they all shoot at least 36.1% from deep. One of Notre Dame’s most lethal qualities is that they are not going to beat themselves up; Notre Dame shoots 79.9% from the free-throw line and commit turnovers on only 13.6% of possessions, both of which are tops in the country. On top of that, Notre Dame’s match-ups after the first round (likely West Virginia then Gonzaga) are good fits for them. West Virginia’s full-court press was rendered useless against other teams that didn’t turn the ball over (Iowa State), and that should be no different against Notre Dame. Against Gonzaga, Beachum and Vasturia should be able to handle Karnowski, and Colson will give him plenty of trouble on the defensive end. In conclusion, Notre Dame has an experienced, disciplined roster that matches up well with potential opponents and should last well into March.

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Photo Credits: SB Nation

Iowa State: Although they are not quite as hot as Michigan or SMU, Iowa State has also been on a tear recently, coming fresh off a win over ‘Press Virginia’ to win the Big 12 Championship. In most regards, Iowa State is a very similar team to Notre Dame; both are offensively oriented, live off of the deep ball, hardly turn the ball over, and sport experienced rosters. Iowa State thrives off of how they shoot from beyond the arc, as they shoot 24.8 of them per game, which is the 36th most in the country. Fortunately for Iowa State, they are pretty good at doing so, as they make 40.2% from beyond the arc, which is the 11th best mark in the country, and average 10 made 3-pointers per game, which comes out to 8th. Iowa State’s stay in the tournament will be completely dependent on how they shoot the 3 ball. With that being said, Iowa State does have a number of other attractive characteristics as well. Iowa State’s potent offense, which averages 80.9 points per game (24th in the country), is also among the most efficient, as they rank 25th in offensive efficiency. Iowa State can also handle the ball well, as they turn the ball over on only 13.8% of possessions, which is the 2nd lowest rate in the country. Good match-ups against Purdue (big roster is to slow to keep up with quick Iowa State guards) and Kansas (who Iowa State has beaten in Lawrence), as well as an experienced starting roster, made up of 4 seniors, give Iowa State the potential to make a huge run in the tourney this year.

 

 

Sleepers:

Characteristics of teams that pull off upsets:

  • Forces lots of turnovers
    • High opponent turnover %
  • Strong offensive rebounding
    • High offensive rebounding %
  • Good all-around shooting
    • High effective shooting %
  • Slow pace
    • Low number of possessions per game
  • Very strong offensively or defensively
    • Either offensively of defensively efficient

Sleepers: St. Mary’s, UNC Wilmington, Princeton, Vermont

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Photo Credits: Bleacher Report

St. Mary’s: After losing to Gonzaga for the 3rd time in the West Coast Conference championship, St. Mary’s dropped off of almost everyone’s radar, but advanced metrics show us that is not a wise move. St. Mary’s is ranked #14 on Kenpom and are actually 6 spots ahead of Arizona (#20), meaning that advanced metrics favor St. Mary’s over Arizona in a potential Round of 32 match-up. St. Mary’s only averages 62 possessions per game, which is the slowest pace in the country, and as we talked about earlier, this low number of possessions allows for greater volatility, thus dramatically increasing the chances of an upset. St. Mary’s also has one of the most potent, efficient offenses in the country, as they rank 3rd in offensive efficiency and rebound 31.8% of their own shots (51st in the country). St. Mary’s also is a very good shooting team, as they have an effective field goal percentage of 57.9%, which ranks 5th in the country, and shoot 39.9% from beyond the arc, which ranks 14th. On top of that, St. Mary’s has a very stingy defense that only gives up 56.5 points per game and ranks 10th in defensive efficiency, and commits the 3rd least fouls per game in the country. This lethal combo of an slow, efficient offense that has elite shooting paired with a stingy and efficient defense has upset spelled all over it.

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Photo Credits: SB Nation

UNC Wilmington: The Seahawks return a number of their starters that gave Duke quite the scare last year where they took them down to the very end last year, nearly pulling off a highly improbable upset. This alone justifies UNC Wilmington as a very legitimate upset contender, they also have a number of other credentials that make them a quality upset pick for this year’s tournament. Although their defense can at best be described as average, their offense more than makes up for this lack of star power on the defensive end. UNC Wilmington has one of the most potent offenses in the country that exhibits lots of variety, which makes them particularly hard to stop. The Seahawks’ offense is quite efficient, as the rank 5th in offensive efficiency, just behind the likes of UCLA, Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and Villanova, all of whom are considered quite legitimate threats in the tournament. UNC Wilmington’s ability to shoot from deep (they make 9.5 from beyond the arc per game, which is 20th in the country) makes them a serious threat to dethrone higher seeds. Their offense also has an effective field goal percentage of 55.2% (25th in the country), which showcases their elite shooting talent as well. UNC Wilmington’s high-powered, potent offense has the ability to potentially take them deep into March.

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Photo Credits: Getty Images

Princeton: The Tigers, fresh off an Ivy League championship, come into the tournament as possibly the hottest team, as they have won their past 19 straight and haven’t lost in almost 3 full calendar months. Princeton is quite talented on both sides of the ball, and their unique credentials give them a legitimate chance of pulling off an upset in the Round of 64 (Bonzie Colson and the Irish might think otherwise). Princeton runs one of the slowest offenses in the country, as they only average 66.2 possessions per game, which is the 11th slowest pace in Division I. As we talked about earlier, this slower pace allows for greater volatility in the outcome of their games, which essentially increases their chances of pulling off an upset. Princeton’s offense also has a number of other dynamic elements, as they can shoot quite well (46th in effective shooting %), especially from beyond the arc, where they average 9.9 3-pointers made per game (15th in country). On top of that, Princeton’s offense hardly ever turns the ball over on 14.9% of their possessions, which is the 11th lowest rate in the country. Princeton also has quite a solid defense that has given their opponents trouble so far this season. The Tigers’ defense is quite efficient (29th in defensive efficiency), which is especially important given their slow pace (meaning that they need to capitalize on all possessions since there are so few). They also force a turnover on 20.2% of opponent possessions (50th in country) and don’t foul very much either (29th least fouls per game in country), which makes them a formidable opponent. Their combination of slow pace and efficient play will make them hard to stop this March.

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Photo Credits: Burlington Press

Vermont: If the Tigers are hot, then the Vermont Catamounts are on fire, as they are fresh off of an American East Championship and hold the longest current win streak in the country at 21 games. While Vermont is nowhere near a household team, their name might be coming up a lot more in conversation over the next couple of days if they pull off some upsets that they are potentially capable of doing (over Purdue and Iowa State). Vermont thrives off of an efficient, yet slow offense, which is a lethal combo that we have already discussed earlier (with Princeton, St. Mary’s, and Michigan) that makes their opponents susceptible to upsets. Vermont plays at a very slow pace, averaging only 66.6 possessions per game (15th slowest pace in the country) and boasts the 24th most efficient offense in Division I. Vermont is also a very talented shooting team, as they have an effective field goal percentage of 55.4%, which is 16th in the country. Additionally, Vermont ranks very high in floor percentage (which measures the percentage of possessions that end in points) as Vermont scores on 52.8%, which is 14th in the country. On top of that, Vermont has a stellar defense that is very capable of shutting down higher octane offenses they might face in potential opponents. Vermont has the 38th most efficient defense in the country, which is quite lethal when paired with their slow pace. In addition, Vermont is not gonna do the opposing team any favors, as they commit only 16.1 fouls per game, which is the 21st lowest rate in the country. Vermont’s combination of slow pace and efficient play both on offense and defense make them a legitimate upset threat.

 

 

Why the Top 8 Seeds won’t win the tournament:

Villanova: On top of not even being the favorite in their own region (Duke), Nova faces stiff potential competition against SMU, Duke, Virginia, Florida, and Wisconsin, all of whom rank well by advanced metrics. Also, Nova plays at an extremely slow pace (23rd slowest in the country at 67.2 possessions per game), which makes them vulnerable to an upset.

Kansas: Advanced metrics show that Kansas is highly overrated, coming in at 10th on the Kenpom scale, despite being a 1 seed, which highlights potential weakness. Kansas has not performed well in the tournament in year’s past, and face stiff potential competition from red-hot opponents, such as Iowa State (who beat Kansas in Lawrence), Michigan, Purdue, and Louisville.

North Carolina: Lacking backcourt depth, North Carolina lives or dies off the success of Joel Berry II, which is awfully risky for a long tournament. North Carolina has been somewhat inconsistent at times and is easily the least hot team coming into the tournament as a top seed. The potent talent on the other side of the bracket (UCLA, Kentucky, Wichita State) might also prevent North Carolina from returning to the Final 4.

Gonzaga: Despite being the top dog on the Kenpom scale, the ‘Zags have yet to play enough serious competition for them to be considered legitimate. They have played underwhelmingly bad in the tournament in years past. Elite talent and unique playing styles from West Virginia (full court press) and Notre Dame (Bonzie Colson and ability to guard Karnowski) might force the ‘Zags to change up their style and be overmatched.

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Photo Credits: Getty Images

Arizona: While stats don’t mean everything, advanced metrics such as Kenpom are not too high on Arizona, who sits at #20 in their rankings, even though they are a #2 seed. Additionally, they face legitimate competition from pretty early on, facing St. Mary’s (who is wildly underrated according to Kenpom), Florida State (who’s big men might be too much to handle), and Gonzaga, West Virginia, or Notre Dame.

Kentucky: The Wildcats are one of, if not the most inexperienced team in the country, which is something that will largely work to their detriment in the tourney. Additionally, Kentucky got by far the worst draw of any 2 seed, as they are lined up to play the #10 seed Wichita State (who is ranked #8 on Kenpom!) and UCLA, who easily has the most potent offense in the country.

Louisville: The Cards received one of the toughest draws in the tournament, facing either Michigan or Oklahoma State in the second round, both of whom are red-hot. Their fantastic reward for beating Michigan or Oklahoma State: playing Oregon next and then either Kansas, Iowa State, or Purdue. Also, although it hasn’t been an issue yet, Louisville is atrocious at shooting free throws (236th in the country), which might catch up to them.

Duke: Although Duke has a number of skilled big men, they lack an interior presence on the defensive end, which could come back to haunt them later in the tournament, where they might play bigger teams such as Baylor. Duke is either going to play South Carolina (stingy defense) or Marquette (best 3-point % in the country) in the second round, which is much harder than the average 7 or 10 seed they could have drawn.

 

Data courtesy of ESPN, CBS Sports, TeamRankings, Kenpom, and Basketball Reference. Thanks for reading!

Written by Jason Platkin

Cover Photo Credits: AP Photo

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