RE: Good reads
Good ESPN insider read.
Do the Jayhawks and Blue Devils have a lot to fear in the tournament's first weekend?
With just two weeks until Selection Sunday, we might not know about tourney matchups yet, but key traits are readily apparent. And for fans of some of the best teams in the country, that means it’s time to start worrying.
Giant Killers IDs the most likely NCAA tournament upsets using a process laid out in a little more detail in the right column. Our vaunted statistical model is able to assign a rating to each Giant, based on the likelihood that it would lose to a generic Giant Killer. In evaluating the top 10 teams in the current AP poll, it finds a pretty large disparity in how safe each squad should feel during the tourney’s first weekend. Here’s a closer look, in decreasing order of vulnerability.
Saint Louis Billikens
AP Poll Rank: 10
Giant Rating: 71.3
As we addressed two weeks ago, St. Louis plays much more like a Killer than a Giant. And as the Billikens try to live up to a top-10 ranking and a potential No. 4 seed, that could prove problematic. Granted, Saint Louis should still beat a generic GK more than seven out of 10 times. But that’s not a strong enough rating to feel safe, especially given the issues our model identifies.
St. Louis doesn’t send many guys to the offensive glass, resulting in an offensive rebound rate of 29.1 percent. Historically, that’s been a key safeguard for Giants, and it makes sense: On a poor shooting night, you’re in much better shape if you can collect your own misses. Our model also sees Saint Louis as overrated: Its power ranking is just 29th in the nation, behind teams like Tennessee, Gonzaga and SMU. That’s due in large part to the Billikens’ sluggish offense, which ranks just 145th nationally (per KenPom.com) with an adjusted 106 points per 100 possessions. Even with the country’s second-best defense, those scoring woes are scary in a tourney setting.
Wichita State Shockers
AP Poll Rank: 2
Giant Rating: 72.7
Speaking of teams our model pegs as overrated, the sage-like spreadsheet has some issues with the Shockers. Sure, they’re undefeated, but our model accounts for the nation’s 130th-ranked schedule, and as a result is unwilling to bet heavily on Gregg Marshall’s crew. Wichita State takes a further knock from the model’s “Secret Sauce,” which accounts for similarities to historically safe Giants. The Shockers carry some warning labels, particularly their lack of emphasis on forcing turnovers (18.7 percent of opponents’ possessions).
Look, it’s hard to argue against a 30-0 team, regardless of its schedule. After all, the Shockers can beat only the teams they play. And it’s also difficult to argue that they aren’t cut out for tourney play when the likes of Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet all played key roles on a Final Four squad. But by our measures, Wichita State has a disturbing number of traits in common with previously slain Giants, meaning a potential 1 vs. 8/9 matchup could be a real challenge to a crew that pulled off that kind of an upset last year.
AP Poll Rank: 9
Giant Rating: 72.9
The Bluejays have the nation’s best offense. They take a huge quantity of 3-pointers and make 42.9 percent of them. They’re a top-10 team inside the arc as well, shooting 55.4 percent on 2-pointers. They rarely turn the ball over and assist on 65.1 percent of their made baskets. That’s as good as it gets.
But the one thing Creighton doesn’t do well is a major issue for Giants: It grabs only 28 percent of available offensive rebounds. And the problems are much greater on defense, where the Bluejays force a turnover once every lunar cycle (15.6 percent, 325th in the nation) and generally struggle to get stops (an adjusted 100.5 points per 100 possessions). Unlike Saint Louis and Wichita State, Creighton is as good as its reputation suggests according to the model, which places the Bluejays fifth in its power rankings. But those two major flaws could cost Doug McDermott & Co. against a pesky Killer.
AP Poll Rank: 8
Giant Rating: 84.2
The Wildcats weren’t supposed to be this good. At 25-3, though, they’ve proved their worth to our model, which rates the Wildcats as the nation’s seventh-best team. But as with their Big East buddy Creighton, there are some lingering flaws that could make Villanova susceptible to an early upset.
It’s uncommon for a top team to foul a lot, for a fairly obvious reason: Generally, weaker teams foul more because they are outclassed. When you can’t match an opponent’s size, speed or skill, you’ve got to clutch and grab and hack in response. But Villanova doesn’t follow that script, allowing its foes to generate 22.8 percent of their points from the foul line, which is greater than the national average. The good news is that JayVaughn Pinkston and James Bell lead a rebounding effort that is above average at both ends, and Nova’s excellent ball pressure forces turnovers on 20.2 percent of opposing possessions. Something to watch that doesn’t show up as significant in the model, though: Villanova doesn’t guard the arc especially well. Opponents take 32.3 of their shots from deep, which is just 161st in the country, and that could be a problem against a hot-shooting mid-major.
AP Poll Rank: 4
Giant Rating: 86.7
A week ago, the Orange were as safe a Giant as you’d find. But after their losses to Boston College and Duke and a tight win at Maryland, the model has further evaluated Syracuse and started to find some more glaring blemishes. Not surprisingly, the biggest issue is defensive rebounding, which is always a fatal flaw of the 2-3 zone. Rakeem Christmas, Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair do excellent work on the offensive boards, but without a clear man to block out, they struggle to produce at the other end. So opponents grab 32 percent of their own misses and can often kick out for open looks from 3-point range, where the Orange allow the second-highest percentage of points in the country (36.8). Syracuse still looks quite safe, but after the Orange dropped from a 97.8 rating to 86.7 that sentiment may not last much longer.
AP Poll Rank: 1
Giant Rating: 89.8
There may not be a more balanced team than the top-ranked Gators. They’re the only team to rank in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and it’s tough to find any significant warts. So it’s no surprise that our model gives them a nine-in-10 chance of fending off a generic Giant Killer.
Led by the relentless Patric Young (13.5 percent offensive rebound rate) and Dorian Finney-Smith (14.0 percent), the Gators get all sorts of second chances on offense. They play D without fouling, they force bundles of turnovers and they hold their own on the defensive glass, too. The real question, then, is why the Gators aren’t the safest Giant in the country. And it appears our model’s answer is that they may not be as good as they appear, thanks to a relatively easy run through the watered-down SEC. Still, that’s not enough to cause real concern early in the tourney for a team that seems destined for a No. 1 seed.
AP Poll Rank: 5
Giant Rating: 90.6
Yes, the Jayhawks have lost to four teams ranked 30th or worse in BPI. But that’s not a harbinger of a March disaster. Fact is, our model is bullish on the Jayhawks, ranking them as the fourth-best team in the country. And that rock-solid power rating is most of the basis for Kansas’ being such a safe Giant, since the team doesn’t gain much from the model’s Secret Sauce.
Why? The Jayhawks don’t force turnovers. Their 16.6 percent rate is well below the national average (18.4) and essentially means that weaker teams will still get enough looks at the basket to frighten Kansas on a hot-shooting night. The Jayhawks also foul far too often -- foes generate 24.3 percent of their offense from the free throw line. However, Kansas offsets much of those weaknesses with strong rebounding at both ends (not to mention a fantastically efficient offense). Could the Jayhawks go down early? It’s possible. But it sure isn’t likely.
AP Poll Rank: 3
Giant Rating: 94.2
One of the great surprises in the model is how safe Arizona looks, even in light of Brandon Ashley’s season-ending injury. Even without the versatile forward, the Wildcats do all the things a Giant is supposed to do, particularly on the glass, where they dominate at both the offensive (38.5 percent) and defensive (26.1 percent for opponents) ends.
And it’s not just that Arizona bears strong similarities to historically safe Giants. Our model also pegs the Wildcats as the best team in the country on the basis of their power rating, due largely to the nation’s stingiest defense. With Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell locking down the perimeter and plenty of size inside, the Wildcats negate all the common tricks GKs employ. In particular, they chase foes off the 3-point line, allowing only 26.9 percent of opposing shots to come from beyond the arc. Arizona might not be the exact same team without Ashley, but it remains every bit the safe Giant.
Duke Blue Devils
AP Poll Rank: 6
Giant Rating: 95.0
It’s somewhat remarkable to see the Blue Devils ranked so high, given some fairly obvious issues that manifested themselves in losses at Notre Dame and Clemson and a near escape at home against Vermont. For a team that often utilizes at least four perimeter players at a time, Duke isn’t particularly effective at forcing turnovers (19.2 percent, 125th in the nation). And the Blue Devils are below-average defensive rebounders. Quietly, they’ve grown more and more effective on the offensive glass (33.5 percent), but that’s not close to the level of Arizona or Florida.
Instead, what makes Duke such a good Giant is the way it plays defense. The Blue Devils are ranked only 57th in adjusted efficiency, but their issues are much more likely to be exploited by a fellow Giant, not a Killer. They basically shut down their opponents’ 3-point shooting (17.5 percent of total points, 351st in the country), and avoid putting them on the line. So teams have to take advantage from 2-point range, which is where 60.9 percent of opposing points come from against Duke (third in the country). For GKs, the problem is that is the antithesis of the high-risk, high-reward style that typically leads to a tourney upset. Add in the model’s third-highest power rating, and Duke should be able to stick around for a while come tourney time.
AP Poll Rank: 7
Giant Rating: 97.7
This season’s safest Giant was also the last one standing a year ago. The Cardinals have quietly gone about their business in a new conference this season, compiling a daunting statistical profile in the process. Louisville boasts the nation’s 15th-best offense and seventh-best defense. The Cardinals take care of the ball when they have it (14.8 percent turnover rate) and take it away at the other end (24.7, fourth in the nation). They knock down 3s and keep opponents from launching them. With the second-best power rating according to the model, they’re a dream Giant.
If there is one lingering issue, it’s defensive rebounding, where Louisville is clearly not the same team without Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan. Teams grab an alarming 33.3 percent of their misses against Louisville, and the program knows what a massive offensive rebounding game can do for an upstart in the tourney. But the Cardinals have so many other weapons at their disposal that they’re much more likely to be playing on the tourney’s final weekend than to be eliminated in the first one.