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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four Practice

March Madness Preview

CougCenter writers take a crack at the Big Dance

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

True Contenders

Houston Cougars

Houston is my favorite to win the title, and their combination of elite coaching, defensive intensity, and experienced guards is virtually unmatched by any other team in the country. The Cougars are the number 1 team according to Kenpom, ranking 4th on defense and 11th on offense. Part of what makes Houston so easy to buy as a national champion is their impressive versatility on defense. Houston is usually an aggressive hard-hedge team, but they’ll mix in switches and doubles when needed. There are some questions about the health of Marcus Sasser and they can go cold from deep at times, but they went 31-3 for a reason and they won most of their games comfortably. The Cougars are led by maybe the best coach in all of college basketball, they are talented, and their pick-and-roll offense is hard to stop when their guards get going.

Houston checks all the boxes we are looking for from a numbers standpoint. Great offense? Check. Great defense? Check. This isn’t a new trend for the Cougars either. They’ve been elite all season long. If they can manage to get into the final four, history favors them. Three of the eight KenPom #1 teams to reach the final four, finished the job and won the national championship. On the flip side, as good as Houston’s offense is, the teams who have won the national championship have been even better offensively. The last five national champions all entered the tournament in the top six offensively. None of them however, had a top five defense like Houston has. This is a well balanced attack that is ready to go deep into March.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama is the true number-one seed and they are a true two-way powerhouse. No other team in the country has a scheme on both ends that more resembles the NBA. The Crimson Tide is the 2nd ranked team in Kenpom, ranking 3rd on defense and 19th on offense. Defensively, they are all about limiting threes and protecting the rim. They play an aggressive drop coverage and are always looking to force opponents to take mid-range shots. They don’t force many turnovers on the defensive end, but they hold opponents to 41.2% from two and 28.1% from three. Charles Bediako and Noah Clowney are both elite rim-protectors and their guards execute scheme well on that end. Offensively, the Crimson Tide have become famous for their “threes and layups style.” This is an obvious oversimplification, but the general principle is true. Bama plays at a breakneck pace- 4th in the country in tempo- and they are always looking to generate outside shots in early offense. In the half-court, Bama tends to run a lot of empty side and well-spaced middle pick-and-roll. Their guards are great drivers, but they tend to rely on freshman Brandon Miller to generate offense for them when things slow down.

Despite the trend of offensive teams going deeper into March, don’t rule out the old defenses wins championships. 2019 Virginia and 2016 Villanova are prime examples of this. Alabama isn’t just a menace defensively. The Crimson Tide play fast and efficiently on the offensive side, just sneaking them into the top 21 offensive checkmark we need to qualify them in our trend of champions.

UConn Huskies

UConn is the lowest-seeded team that we are ranking as a true contender, but their stats back up their upside as title contenders. The Huskies had one tough stretch in the middle of the season, but the two sections around that were tight, and they ended the season as the 4th ranked team on Kenpom. The Huskies are the 6th ranked offense in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and they are incredibly talented inside and outside. Jordan Hawkins is one of the best shooters in the country, and UConn’s offense is built around his ability to hit shots off of complex movement and operate dribble handoffs. Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan are also both strong interior finishers, both on post-ups and on the offensive boards, and are 1st in the country on the offensive glass. Their biggest issue on offense is that they turn the ball over a lot. Turnover margin tends to be a major indicator in the tournament and there is some legitimate worry for the Huskies. UConn is also an elite defensive squad, ranking 18th in the country on that end. They are one of the best teams in the country at suppressing three-point attempts, ranking 14th in opponent three-point rate. They are super athletic and long on the perimeter. They are also great at protecting the rim, especially when Clingan is in the game. UConn is one of the more explosive and volatile teams in the tournament, especially with their predilection for turnovers, but if everything clicks, they are strong contenders to win it all.

Don’t sleep on UConn. Despite their loss in the Big East championship, UConn bolsters one of the better balanced attacks with a lean toward the offensive side. They enter with the nation’s 6th-best offense, matching the profile of the last five national champions who also had a top-six offense. UCONN also has a top-18 defense, which is better than 2022 Kansas and 2021 Baylor. UCONN is a dangerous four-seed that aligns well with the past champions.

Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas is probably the best chance the NCAA will have for a repeat champion in a long time, and they’re a solid team on both ends. They are the 7th-ranked defense according to Kenpom, though there is some shooting luck present in that number. However, they are a great rim-protecting team despite not having a stand alone rim-protector, and they’re great at forcing turnovers as well. Offensively, they tend to wax and wain based on how well they’re hitting their outside shots. They don’t take a high volume, but players like Kevin McCullar and Jalen Wilson are inconsistent from outside, even when open. However, Wilson is one of the better players in the country and his ability to generate easy rim pressure when attacking off the catch is nearly unmatched by any other wing in the country. It is also just easy to bet on Bill Self, as he is one of the best coaches in all of college basketball and his ability to adjust in games is a big reason they got a ring last season.

After hitting a bit of a rough stretch in January, the defending champs turned things around and finished a brutal Big-12 slate hot. This is quite the same profile the champs had last year though. In fact, it’s basically flipped. Last year, Kansas entered with the sixth best offense and 29th best defense per KenPom. This year, they come in with the 29th best offense and the seventh best defense. Based on the past champions, the Jayhawks would be just eight offensive ranks shy of hitting the threshold we are searching for. That obviously doesn’t rule them out, they are the defending champs for a reason. But with an offense that’s not quite as elite as last years, and coming out of a brutal region, things aren’t going to be quite chalk for the Jayhawks.

Sneaky Contenders

Creighton Bluejays

Creighton is right up there with Alabama in terms of how well they play the stats game and they have the talent to execute on both ends. They are the 15th-ranked defense on Kenpom, and they’re elite at running opponents off the line and protecting the rim. Ryan Kalkbrenner is one of the best defensive big-men in the country and he has helped Creighton to rank 19th in opponent two-point percentage. Creighton also ranks 9th in opponent three-point attempt rate and their guards are ultra-aggressive at preventing open looks from deep. The Bluejays don’t force many turnovers, but they do rebound the ball incredibly well. Teams that play the numbers like they do tend to get good results defensively. On offense, Creighton is not elite, but they are a well-balanced attack, with five players who can all go off for big games and they are great at executing the threes or layups style. Baylor Scheierman is of specific note to watch here, as the veteran wing is one of the best shooters in the country and exactly the type of guy who can get going for a hot stretch in March.

Texas Longhorns

Texas has had a bit of an odd season, losing their head coach halfway through, but they won the best conference in college basketball and they are a high-level team on both ends. Having a legit veteran presence is huge in March and Texas is one of the older teams in this tournament. Marcus Carr, Timmy Allen, and Sir’Jabari Rice are all super seniors and Dylan Disu is a 4th-year starter as well. They are not an elite outside shooting team and they have a major wart with their rebounding issues, but they are elite at winning the turnover margin. They are an aggressive defensive team, consistently hard-hedging and getting into passing lanes, which will make them a nightmare matchup for weak ball-handling teams. Overall, it is easy to bet on veteran teams in March, especially when they win they win the turnover battle like the Longhorns do.

Texas entered the dance as one of my favorites and the trends back it up. The Big-12 Champs are playing some of their best basketball and check off all three of the KenPom boxes needed to be a champion. They will have to likely get through hated rival Texas A&M, Xavier and Houston, but if they can survive the Midwest gauntlet, Texas could have enough momentum to finish it off in their home state. Their offense does hang towards the bottom percentile of champions, but their defense can more than make up for any struggles the offense may encounter.

Don’t Buy It

Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue is the worst one-seed by a solid margin, but they were still the 6th ranked team on Kenpom, and they have the national player of the year, so why aren’t they an easy buy? Well, for one, the Big Ten was pretty weak this year in terms of teams that could conceivably challenge their pick-and-roll coverage, but Zach Edey’s plodding, paint-centric defensive style combined with their lack of elite perimeter athleticism could leave them exposed to teams with good shooters or pick-and-pop bigs. Purdue’s athletic deficiencies will cause more problems the farther they get into the tournament and their inexperienced guards could struggle if teams pressure up. The Boilermakers are also a pretty mediocre shooting team and this could allow teams to suck in deeper on Edey and make his life much harder in the paint. Again, Big 10 teams rarely had the personnel to do this, but teams like Tennessee, Kentucky, and Kansas State will all have the type of athletes who can cause problems for the Boilermakers.

Purdue started the year looking like an unstoppable force pulled by Edey. The Boilermakers jumped out to a 22-1 start, before going on a 5-4 “slide” to end the regular season. Purdue did end up winning their conference tournament but didn’t look all that impressive in their run. While Purdue checks the boxes we want for a great offense and solid defense, they do fall into a pretty rough trend. According to Ken Pomeroy’s Twitter, 36 teams have entered the tournament as a one or two seed that weren’t ranked in the preseason AP top 25 in the 64-team era of the tournament. None of those 36 teams have made the final four. Purdue and Marquette both qualify.

Baylor Bears

There is a fairly common stat that goes around that states that 18 of the last 20 national champs have been top 21 on offense, top 37 on defense, and top 20 overall. The only outliers are 2014 UConn- who was 57th in offense- and 2021 Baylor- 44th in defense. This year, Baylor ranks 105th in defense, which is a bit too outlier to make even Scott Drew bankable. They are a truly elite and explosive offense, but their defense is heavily reliant on forcing turnovers and their lack of any real rim-protection is going to make it tough for them. Especially considering their expected matchups against UC Santa Barbara, Creighton/NC State, and Arizona, all teams who put a ton of pressure on the rim.

Baylor is a fascinating team numbers-wise. They enter the dance with the second-best offense, but a rough defense. Teams that have historically profiled similarly to them – a top 10 offensive efficiency and below top 100 defensive efficiency – have struggled heavily in March. According to The Next Round, those teams are just 5-19 in first-round games and have never made it to the Sweet 16. This year’s bunch that fall into that category are Baylor, Missouri, and Iowa.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Much like Baylor, Gonzaga’s defense just feels far too flammable to safely bet on in the tournament. They rank 75th on that end, but the majority of their season has come against WCC-caliber offenses, and playing against more athletic teams will stress that defense even more. The Bulldogs are a bad rim-protection team- 228th in opponent two-point percentage- and they also allow teams to hurt them from outside- 258th in opponent three-point attempt rate and 249th in opponent three-point percentage. The Bulldogs could even be sneaky candidates for a first-round elimination because Grand Canyon is an elite drive-and-kick team, but even beyond them TCU/ASU and UCLA will all have major athleticism advantages that should allow them to consistently get to the rim to score against the Zags. There is a chance that Gonzaga’s offense is explosive enough to overcome their shortcomings on defense, but if an opponent can effectively slow them down, then they could have trouble on that end as well.

Favorite Cinderellas

Furman Paladins

Furman is one of the best Mid-Major offenses in the country and their five-out style is hard to gameplan for in the short time frame of the tournament. Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson are two senior scorers who have great chemistry when playing pick-and-roll together. Slawson is a small-ball five who can space the floor, roll to the rim, and attack from the perimeter. He is an efficient slasher who excels when guarded by slow-footed bigs on the perimeter. Bothwell is a classic college guard, an elite pull-up shooter in the mid-range who can get downhill to finish near the rim. The Paladins are a complex offense with a lot of innovative actions that make them difficult to guard for most opponents. Their first-round matchup against a slipping Virginia squad could be prime ground for an upset.

Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

Oral Roberts’ ranking as a 12-seed feels too low, and they’re in a prime position to make a huge run in the tourney. The Golden Eagles have won 17 straight games, they are full of veterans with tournament experience and they have made runs like this before. They are one of the best offenses in the country and their specialized pick-and-rolls are some of the hardest-to-defend actions in college basketball and they put a ton of stress on opponents. Connor Vanover is one of the best pick-and-pop bigs in the country and Max Abmas is an explosive pull-up shooter and playmaker. They play in great spacing and they run a lot of creative zoom exit and dribble handoff actions that create a lot of open shots from deep and near the rim. Against opponents that play drop coverage, like Duke, the pick-and-pop actions could be absolutely deadly and near impossible to keep up with.

Kent State Golden Flashes

As mentioned a couple of times, one of the most important indicators for success in March is turnover margin, and Kent State is elite at forcing turnovers on defense and avoiding turnovers on offense. Veteran guards Sincere Carry and Malique Jacobs are both elite on-ball defenders who force a lot of turnovers with their quick hands and ability to jump passing lanes. There is some luck present in their defensive numbers, as teams shoot a poor percentage from three but they allow a lot of attempts from deep. However, there is a lot to like about their defensive profile and they have a pretty advantageous matchup in the first round. They are also a veteran team and that gives them a solid floor on offense. Carry and Jacobs are elite shot-creators and playmakers who can each go off for a huge game if the moment strikes.

Pac-12 Chances

UCLA Bruins

The Bruins have looked every bit of the part as the Pac-12’s best team all season long. Not only do the Bruins have an abundance of guys who can score at will, but they will also lock you down defensively for 40 minutes at the same time. UCLA finished with the 26th-ranked offense and the nation’s top defense on KenPom. Jaimie Jacquez is one of the best players in the nation with the ability to score from all over the court. This team blends a balanced mix of experience with Jacquez, Tyger Campbell, and David Singleton, with young talent like Adem Bona and Amari Bailey. While the Bruins lost Jaylen Clark for the season, this team is still full of plenty of depth and has the experience needed to make a deep push in the tournament.

UCLA has a legit path to the Final 4 this year. UNC Asheville might be the best 15-seed, but UCLA was probably the worst two-seed they could’ve drawn and a healthy Bona could open up a lot for the Bruins. Boise State and Northwestern are both beatable, Gonzaga is a dangerous offense but a flammable defense, and an Elite 8 matchup between Kansas, UConn, or St. Mary’s are all winnable games for the Bruins.

Arizona Wildcats

Despite knocking off the Pac-12 regular season champs in the Pac-12 tournament championship, people seem to be fading the Wildcats. Why? Sure, the Wildcats have had some slip-ups during the regular season, including a stunning loss on a half-court buzzer-beater to ASU, but this team is very good. The Wildcats are a great offense, ranking fourth in KenPom’s offensive efficiency, and are stacked with experienced scorers at every position. Azulous Tubelis and Oumar Ballo man the frontcourt with plenty of height, inside scoring ability, and elite rebounding. On the outside, Kerr Krissa and Courtney Ramsey are always threats to shoot at a high level with Cedric Henderson and Pelle Larson being some of the best wing options as the cherry on top.

Going back to 2002, 19 out of the 20 national champion teams (95%) have had a top-21 offense, a top-44 defense, and rank in the top-25 in KenPom. Arizona is one of the six teams in the field that check all of those boxes. The path for Arizona is a bit of a weird one. Princeton is incredibly beatable, then both Utah State and Missouri play similar, fast-paced styles as Arizona. Then comes a likely matchup between either Creighton or Baylor, both of whom play completely different games but they could also both clip the Wildcats.

USC Trojans

The Trojans are dancing again for the third straight year. Seniors Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson lead the charge for the Trojans balanced attack with the 43rd-ranked offense and 44th-ranked defense. USC also boasts one of the tallest teams in the nation, ranking fifth in average height, leading to one of the best block rates in the country at 12th. The Trojans get a tough draw with the Michigan State Spartans to open and will likely see the Marquette Golden Flashes if they get past the Spartans. USC carries the tournament experience needed to have them battle-ready for March.

USC has a fairly favorable first-round matchup against Michigan State, who is lacking in legit size at the wing and USC will have a huge defensive advantage with their rim-protection. Should USC win their first game, they would have a fascinating matchup with Shaka Smart’s Marquette squad. USC is in a good part of the bracket to potentially make a surprise Cinderella run, especially if Boogie Ellis or Drew Peterson get hot.

Arizona State Sun Devils

ASU just finished dismantling the Nevada Wolfpack in their First Four game on Wednesday night, earning the right to play the six-seed TCU Horned Frogs on Friday. TCU isn’t exactly world beaters. The Horned Frogs went just 9-9 in a brutal Big-12 and bowed out in the conference tournament in a close loss to the Texas Longhorns. They’re definitely beatable.

Now we shouldn’t expect another 98-point performance from Bobby Hurley’s squad the rest of the tournament, they’re a top 31 defense on KenPom and can lock teams up inside led by one of the nations best shot blockers, Warren Washington. However, ASU does struggle to reel in defensive rebounds. If the Sun Devils want to keep their momentum rolling, they’ll need to keep the Horned Frogs, and anybody else they cross, off the glass.

TCU is a bit of a team in shambles right now because they lost their starting center to the portal and their seems to be some tension there between the staff and the players. If ASU could pull off a win in the first round, they would get a great matchup against Gonzaga and their flammable defense.

Research trend

If you’re a bracket junky like me, you’ve probably been diving deep into every YouTube video, article, and everything else in between, looking for the winning stat that will win your bracket pool. A few stats I ran into mentioned how national champions finish in the top-25 defensively, and nearly everyone in the top 20 offensively. I decided to dive deeper and realized while those stats are technically true, they don’t quite help us pick a winner pre-tournament since those stats are all post-tournament. Let’s take Saint Peter’s for example. Entering the tournament, the Peacocks ranked 259th in offensive efficiency, 34th in defensive efficiency, and 118th overall. After the tournament, the Peacocks jumped 28 spots offensively, nine spots defensively, and 16 spots overall on KenPom. Teams can really bolster their KenPom resume with deep runs against good teams in the tournament. So, if we’re going to decide a winner for this year, we need to use KenPom’s pre-tournament rankings.

After assembling all the data from the national champions from 2002-2022, here’s what I found. Every national champion has ranked in the top 57 in offense, top 44 in defense and top 25 overall on KenPom. This creates a wide-group of teams, 17 of them to be exact. These teams are: UCLA, Alabama, Houston, Kansas, Saint Mary’s, Texas, Creighton, UCONN, Duke, Purdue, Maryland, Memphis, FAU, Arizona, Kansas State, Arkansas and Texas A&M. While this narrows the field down by 47 teams, this still seems like a pretty big group to pick from. Let’s narrow it down even further.

The biggest outlier amongst the champions was the 2014 seven seed UCONN Huskies improbable run to a national championship. They ranked 57th in offensive efficiency, by far the lowest amongst national champions. If we remove them, the second lowest offense is 21st for the 2011 UCONN Huskies. With the 2014 UCONN Huskies out of the picture, that cuts it down to 19 of 20 (95%) national champions having a top-21 offense, top-44 defense and top-25 overall. This leaves UCLA, Alabama, Houston, Texas, UCONN, Purdue and Arizona. If we wanna go further and eliminate the worst defensive team too, the 2021 Baylor Bears (44th), that leaves top-21 offense, top-37 defense, and top-25 overall teams. Which only cuts off the Arizona Wildcats from that mix.

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