Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press
At long last, the NCAA tournament has arrived. The 2015-16 regular season was one to remember. Elite teams fell by the wayside on a weekly basis, and it took until the end of the season for Kansas to truly establish itself as the nation’s best team.
The Jayhawks enter the tournament as the No. 1 national seed after closing with a 14-game winning streak. They’re joined among the No. 1 tournament seeds by North Carolina, Oregon and Virginia. Of the teams that held the top spot during the season, Kentucky is the lowest seed at No. 4.
Overall, there weren’t too many shockers in the field. Monmouth and Saint Mary’s have claims to possibly being snubbed, and their claims may wind up changing the tournament trajectory. In this topsy-turvy season, the difference between the haves and the have nots is small. It wouldn’t be a major surprise to see one of the First Four teams make its way into the second weekend.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the bracket and some advice for the early rounds.
High Seed to Ride: Virginia
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If it’s going to happen for Tony Bennett, this is the year. The Virginia coach is yet to make it past the Sweet 16 in four tournament appearances, something he should be able to change in 2016 with a veteran-laden roster.
Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill are one of the nation’s most consistent one-two punches. Brogdon hasn’t scored in single digits since the Cavaliers’ first game, while Gill has only done so four times. It’s a bit concerning that Gill’s single-digit games have all come since the beginning of February, but there isn’t much Virginia does poorly.
The Cavaliers are one of just two teams (Kansas) nationally that rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Their deliberate, slow style forces opponents to get outside their comfort zones; no team in the entire nation plays at a slower place, and it’s not even close. Virginia is averaging a full possession less than any other team this season, per Team Rankings.
Brogdon said after losing to North Carolina in the ACC title game, per David Teel of the Daily Press:
We know we’re a very good team. But we have lapses, we have deficiencies and we have to clean them up. … We are moving forward with momentum. We didn’t win this tournament, but we have momentum regardless. We beat Miami and Georgia Tech (in the ACC tournament) and we finished the regular season strong.
Virginia doesn’t take many threes—it ranks 324th in three-point-attempt percentage—but it feasts on high-percentage looks. Brogdon and London Perrantes are the only two players on the team with 100-plus three-point attempts, but both shoot over 40 percent. As a team, the Cavaliers rank 10th nationally in three-point percentage.
Given they also shoot nearly 52 percent on twos and rank 20th nationally in free-throw percentage, there’s not much to complain about here. Limiting possessions can lead to closer-than-expected games, and Virginia does have bad luck in close games. None of its seven losses have come by more than seven points.
But this team needs to be ready now. Virginia’s top four scorers are upperclassmen, and this is the program’s third straight NCAA tournament appearance. It’s time to make the program leap.
High Seed to Dump: Xavier
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
On the other end of the luck spectrum is Xavier, which ranks among the “luckiest” tournament teams by KenPom.com metrics. The Musketeers have won 6.7 percent more games than they were expected by that metric. That difference is enough to take Xavier’s 27 wins and turn them into 24.9, which would likely make it a No. 4 or No. 5 seed.
The issue with Xavier is efficiency. The Musketeers rank outside the top 100 nationally in three-point and two-point percentage. Their top three scorers have shooting percentages of 42.9 or lower. Trevon Bluiett and Myles Davis make enough threes to atone for their gunner tendencies, but Xavier’s offense devolves into a bunch of bad, jacked-up shots too often.
Making matters worse are Xavier’s issues on defense. Seton Hall dropped 177 points on Xavier in their last two matchups. In between, the Musketeers allowed 93 points to Creighton; only once in their last five games have they allowed less than 80 points. Overall, Xavier ranks 35th in defensive efficiency. That’s fine in a vacuum, but this team has real concerns on both ends of the floor.
Picking a No. 15 seed to take down a No. 2 would obviously be ridiculous, but look out for the Musketeers’ second-round matchup. The winner of No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 10 Pittsburgh will have an opportunity here.
The Badgers recovered from a turbulent season to finish 20-12, though a pair of losses to end their regular season is concerning. Pitt lost three of its last four games in the regular season, so neither side is especially hot. But Xavier is vulnerable.
Low Seed to Ride: Stephen F. Austin
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If Stephen F. Austin is going to make a run, now is its time. The Lumberjacks have made the tournament each of the last three years as a fashionable upset pick. They took down VCU in 2014 before losing their second-round matchup and nearly took down Utah a year ago.
The leading scorer each of the last two seasons, this will be Thomas Walkup’s last chance at making a March impact. Walkup is one of the nation’s finest all-around players no one knows. He averaged 17.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game during the regular season, at times propping up the Lumberjacks offense.
Stephen F. Austin ranks 61st nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, but those numbers may be misleading. In terms of raw efficiency, they’re 11th. Only three teams have a higher assist percentage on their field goals, and the Lumberjacks rank in the top 50 in percentages from both three-point and two-point range.
As always, the issue here is competition. Stephen F. Austin has zero wins against the RPI top 50, and its one game against such a team was ugly. Baylor laid a 97-55 whooping on the Lumberjacks in November. Their record against the RPI top 100 is just 3-4, so it’s fair to wonder if they’re just beating up on bad teams.
That said, the recipe for an upset is here. Stephen F. Austin’s three leading scorers are all seniors who gained valuable experience on the big stage last year. West Virginia is a tough No. 3 seed; Ken Pomeroy has the Mountaineers ranked sixth in his rankings. They have a battle-tested veteran coach in Bob Huggins and a deep, talented roster with six players who average at least 8.9 points.
But if you’re looking for a huge upset potential, SFA is worth consideration.
Low Seed to Dump: Chattanooga
Ben Earp/Associated Press
Of the No. 5-No. 12 matchups, there’s no bigger mismatch on the board than Indiana-Chattanooga.
The Hoosiers were a No. 5 seed for reasons that remain unclear. They won the Big Ten regular-season championship by two games and have a strong roster led by Yogi Ferrell. The senior guard averaged 17.0 points and 5.5 assists per game during the regular season, knocking down 41.7 percent of his shots from deep.
Injuries may be the only thing that keeps Indiana from making a deep run. James Blackmon Jr. is on the shelf for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, while Robert Johnson has missed the last four games with an ankle sprain. Forwards Juwan Morgan and Collin Hartman are also dealing with bumps and bruises.
That said, Indiana is benefiting from playing by far the worst No. 12 seed in the field. Chattanooga enters with a 29-5 record but some major deficiencies on both ends. The Mocs rank 149th in offensive efficiency and 77th on defense, and leading scorer Casey Jones hasn’t played since Dec. 8.
They’ve also been impossibly good in close games. Each of Chattanooga’s last four wins came by single digits, and the team has won 16 games by 10 or fewer points. Only Hampton has a higher luck score among tournament teams than Chattanooga. This team has won 11.9 percent more games than its expectation, the type of stat that usually screams regression to the mean.
By the numbers, Indiana is far and away the best No. 5, and Chattanooga is the worst No. 12. Little Rock and Yale are far superior options among the No. 12s.
Advanced stats via Ken Pomeroy.
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