The good, the bad and the upshot for the top 25 teams

We’re less than six weeks away from the dance and I’m still ambivalent about which teams I think are true contenders for the 2014 tourney crown. If I had to pick my Final Four today, I suppose I’d go with Arizona, Syracuse, Michigan State (assuming they get healthy) and…geez…this is hard. Can I stick with a Thrilling Three? Aw heck, let’s call the my last Final Four team Kansadukanovowatucky.

That’s the problem this year. There are a lot of teams that show promise, but they also come with troublesome weaknesses. After I did the Champ Check this week–and noticed how few teams passed one of my three tests–I decided to assess the good, the bad and the upshot for the top 25 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. Here’s where I stand at this moment. By the time you read this, I might have already changed my mind.

(Note: This list is in the order of the current KenPom ratings. It’s not the order of my tourney favorites.)

1. Arizona

    • The Good: Big, talented squad that plays great D and hits the offensive glass.
    • The Bad: Not as offensively efficient as your typical champion.
    • The Upshot: Despite the Cal loss, still my favorite to cut down the nets.

2. Syracuse

    • The Good: Strong on both ends of the floor, top 10 offensive rebounding team
    • The Bad: Slower paced and lower scoring than most champions
    • The Upshot: Win against Duke and play of Ennis sold me; Arizona’s biggest rival

3. Duke

    • The Good: Nation’s most efficient offense, great three shooting…and Jabari Parker.
    • The Bad: Soft defense, thin front line make Blue Devils vulnerable to upset.
    • The Upshot: Parker can dominate, but defense dooms Duke to Elite Eight.

4. Creighton

    • The Good: Doug McDermott, nation’s best three shooting and second most efficient offense.
    • The Bad: Soft defense and a propensity to turn the ball over.
    • The Upshot: Maybe the Elite Eight, but more likely the Sweet 16.

5. Florida

    • The Good: Great defense and Donovan’s habit of overachieving in the dance.
    • The Bad: Low scoring, weak three shooting doesn’t usually add up to a deep run.
    • The Upshot: Kentucky games will be telling, but for now, they’re Sweet 16 material.

6. Iowa

    • The Good: Balanced offense/defense efficiency, great depth and height.
    • The Bad: Gesell is only real point guard; struggles down the stretch in close games.
    • The Upshot: Hawkeyes have the talent for an Elite Eight run.

7. Virginia

    • The Good: Lockdown defensive squad with balanced scoring.
    • The Bad: Plays at slow tempo but still struggles with offensive efficiency.
    • The Upshot: Will be a tough out…but could get beat in any round.

8. Louisville

    • The Good: Nation’s best offense/defense balance, Russ Smith…and that Pitino guy.
    • The Bad: Behanon loss hurts already thin frontcourt, struggles on defensive glass
    • The Upshot: I don’t see another Final Four run in these Cards. Elite Eight, maybe.

9. Wichita State

    • The Good: Great defense limits second looks; Early and Van Vleet still there
    • The Bad: Weak three shooting, mediocre offense…and soft schedule.
    • The Upshot: Butler managed to repeat its magic, but I don’t see it in the Shockers. Run ends in Sweet 16.

10. Villanova

    • The Good: High scoring, efficient offense; passed tests against Kansas and Iowa.
    • The Bad: Creighton exposed weak three shooting defense.
    • The Upshot: A good showing in Creighton rematch might convince me that Wright’s crew is Elite Eight material.

11. Kansas

    • The Good: Powerful offense, talent to burn with Wiggins, Embiid and Selden.
    • The Bad: Sloppy ballhandling and weaker than usual defense for an elite team
    • The Upshot: A Jekyll and Hyde team. They could get upset early…or reach the Final Four. I’ll go with the Elite Eight.

12. Pittsburgh

    • The Good: Impressive efficiency on both ends of floor and a top-five player in Patterson.
    • The Bad: Jamie Dixon—second biggest tourney underachiever behind Oliver Purnell.
    • The Upshot: I’ve been burned by the Panthers too many times. They’re out in round two.

13. Michigan State

    • The Good: Strong offense/defense numbers, pro quality players in Harris and Payne.
    • The Bad: Recent losses show they can’t force Harris to shoulder so much of the load.
    • The Upshot: Izzo and crew are laying in wait; once Payne and Dawson get back, this is a Final Four squad.

14. Kentucky

    • The Good: Nation’s best offensive rebounding squad with beasts in Randle and Cauley-Stein.
    • The Bad: So-so defense that doesn’t generate turnovers…weak foul shooters.
    • The Upshot: One of nation’s youngest teams searching for floor leadership struggles to reach the Sweet 16.

15. Michigan

    • The Good: Great shooting squad with surprise one-two punch in Stauskas and LeVert.
    • The Bad: Soft defense and thin frontcourt if McGary doesn’t come back.
    • The Upshot: When Michigan is on, they can beat anyone…but penetrating guards and big teams will stop their run at Sweet 16.

16. Ohio State

    • The Good: Great defense, hard-nosed backcourt leaders in Craft and Smith.
    • The Bad: Struggles on offense with poor shooting, weak offensive rebounding.
    • The Upshot: Not as bad as five of seven losses suggests, but not an Elite Eight squad either.

17. Iowa State

    • The Good: Fast paced, high scoring squad with premier player in Kane.
    • The Bad: Not super efficient on either end of the court, doesn’t create extra possessions.
    • The Upshot: Offensively potent teams thrive in the tourney. Could the Mayor take the Cyclones to the Elite Eight?

18. San Diego State

    • The Good: Among nation’s top three shot defending teams with true star in Xavier Thames.
    • The Bad: Dismal shooting squad…and I really hate the Mountain West.
    • The Upshot: Yes, they beat Kansas, but I don’t see the Aztecs getting out of the second round.

19. UCLA

    • The Good: Top 25 in offensive and defensive efficiency with low turnover and high shooting percentages.
    • The Bad: Hasn’t had any signature wins…young team led by Alford, a notorious tourney underachiever.
    • The Upshot: Alford gets the Dixon treatment; I won’t believe until he proves it to me…so it’s out in round two.

20. Wisconsin

    • The Good: A solid offensive squad that protects the ball and spreads around the scoring.
    • The Bad: A play-it-safe defense that’s not efficient enough for deep run…five losses in six games.
    • The Upshot: Though not as bad as their recent slump suggests, I don’t see the Badgers getting beyond the Sweet 16.

21. Cincinnati

    • The Good: Rock-solid defense that generates turnovers, forces poor shooting and hits the offensive glass; stud player in Kilpatrick.
    • The Bad: Poor shooting, inefficient offense…allows too many second chances.
    • The Upshot: How far can strong defense take a team?  These Bearcats could surprise and run to the Elite Eight.

22. Oklahoma State

    • The Good: Balanced if not elite efficiency on offense and defense; up-tempo team that’s more than just Marcus Smart.
    • The Bad: Aside from Texas home win, lacks signature win, sputtering of late.
    • The Upshot: On paper, the Cowboys look better than their record indicates. I’ll peg them for the Sweet 16.

23. Tennessee

    • The Good: Great rebounding squad compensates for weak shooting; McRae and Stokes strong tandem.
    • The Bad: Streaky squad, capable of destroying Virginia one game, then losing at home to Texas A&M the next.
    • The Upshot: Too up and down to depend on; they’re out in round one.

24. Saint Louis

    • The Good: Among the nation’s top three most efficient defenses.
    • The Bad: Ranks #164 in offensive efficiency. Oh yeah…and when your best win is against Dayton, you know your schedule is weak.
    • The Upshot: The VCU game in two weeks will tell if the Billikens 14-game win streak is real. I say no…and they go down in round two.

25. VCU

    • The Good: High-risk, high-reward defense, first in the country in steals and turnover percentage.
    • The Bad: Good thing the Rams generate extra possessions, because they’re weak shooters.
    • The Upshot: Typical Shaka Smart high-pressure squad that needs the right match-ups to spring tourney surprises. I’ll say the stars align for a Sweet 16.
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14 Responses to The good, the bad and the upshot for the top 25 teams

  1. Ray says:

    #18 San Diego State are the Aztecs, not the Cyclones (Iowa State)

    • ptiernan says:

      Sorry Ray. Nice catch. I’m fixing.

      • Tyler says:

        Have you thought about doing an analysis on the impact of “big wins” and “bad losses” on a teams’ tournament play? Not necessarily to the championship contender level, but more regarding the likelihood of advancing each round.
        I know I always look at a team’s top-25 and top-50 record when they get into the bracket because I figure their opponents will be around that quality. But I wonder if what I’m doing is actually a good move. A team like UNC this year for example – no they’re not great, but they’ve beaten some great teams – do these types of top wins, even if coupled with bad losses, give them a better chance of advancing because they’ve shown they can beat top teams or does their inconsistency and presupposition to playing up/down to the level of their opponent come back to bite them early?

        • ptiernan says:

          Tyler, Last year, in the wake of a couple big blowouts, I wrote a blog about ass-whoopings. Check it out here: http://wp.bracketscience.com/?p=377. Not sure about big wins.

          • Tyler says:

            I think more specifically what I was going for is the impact a team’s inconsistency/variability has on tournament results. The team that
            Volatile margin of victory/defeat is definitely a sign of inconsistency, but I’m asking more about teams that seem to play up/down to the level of competition and so have several wins over kenpom top-25/top-50 but also losses to sub-100 teams

  2. Blazer!! says:

    That was a good read. A couple of teams on that list can be one of those seeded 1-3 that may go down on the second round and funny that they both have the same color (ehmm black/red).

  3. Blazer!! says:

    I do have a quick question: How do you re-analyze the stats from a team that just lost a key player (like Arizona)?

    • Andy says:

      First off to be fair, injuries are seen as significant, and I hate to see them happen. However, I can think of two examples in recent years where they were heavily talked about but really didn’t mean much in how their teams finished. The big one is when Kevin Ware went down in the Elite Eight last year for Louisville. Granted, brackets had already been filled out and couldn’t be corrected, but how many people who (like me) had Louisville winning were now second guessing themselves? But it didn’t stop them, and they won anyway. Also, I remember in 2010 when Robbie Hummel for Purdue went down with a season ending injury not long before the dance that year. They were a popular upset victim pick to Siena (though not entirely on them, as Siena had done this recently). However, Purdue dug deep that year and not only fended off that upset bid, but still found a way to make the Sweet 16.

      I have been high on Arizona all year, but some things have happened in the last couple weeks with their offense that have made me cast a much colder eye on them. Their tempo is still fairly slow, but they have been barely score one point per possession on average – even in the three straight games before Brandon Ashley got hurt. If your team is coming into the tournament like that, you probably are in more trouble that you realize. I predicted they would lose at either Stanford or Cal if not both before the injury, and it happened. We won’t know what Ashley might have been able to do against Oregon’s seemingly weak defense, but Arizona is clearly not showing to be as tough as they appeared earlier on. They may still get to the Final Four as Sean Miller is an outstanding coach, they have plenty of talent, and they have proven they can win against tough opponents away from home, but the championship now looks like too much of an uphill climb at this point.

      So really, I think the stats don’t get re-analyzed a whole lot with injuries, but maybe Pete has a better answer for that.

      Maybe straying here, but my new favorite is actually quite a surprise: Michigan State. I know they rank (as of tonight, not this post) 13th on kenpom.com, but it doesn’t take much analysis of the remaining teams to note glaring weaknesses. Let’s run through (I’ve already covered Arizona):

      – Syracuse and Florida play slow tempos and don’t score enough points per game.
      – Duke’s and Creighton’s defenses are too weak to legitimately contend.
      – Iowa’s defense is unraveling, they missed last year’s dance, and probably don’t have any All-Americans.
      – Virginia is the same thing as Syracuse and Florida, with a weaker offense.
      – Louisville played a soft non-conference schedule with three somewhat tough opponents. 1-2 record against them.
      – Wichita State is undefeated, but their strength of schedule is too soft for a champion.
      – I can’t remember the last time an eventual champion was ever down 40 points in a game, like Villanova once was.
      – Kansas is talented, but Bill Self is up-and-down. One year he is in the finals, and a couple years later is the victim of a big upset. He is due for an upset.
      – Jamie Dixon is Pitt is one of the worst underachieving coaches in the tournament.

      Don’t look at that #13 rating alone. Michigan State meets the basic champ credit, their offense as of this writing has moved up to the acceptable #17 rating, and they are the most balanced of the top teams. The only thing they need to work on is defense, but Tom Izzo does stress that and rebounding like crazy, and he’s never had a class miss the Final Four. His last appearance there was the year before his current seniors played their first game ever, so he is due. Add in Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson getting healthy, and they have all the makings of a champion, even over Arizona and everyone else seemingly ahead of them.

      • Gary Diny says:

        Good thought on Michigan St. They have lots of qualities to like for a deep run. They remind me a bit of the MSU team that won it all in 1999 (I think that was the year?). Mateen Cleeves missed a good amount of time early in the season and they had something like 7 losses (unheard of for a #1 seed at that time), but were far and away the top team in the nation. Could be similar this year assuming Payne and Dawson return healthy for the end of season run.

        Gary

        • ptiernan says:

          MSU’s win came in 2000. Only real worry for me is whether Appling can come through against elite guards. Last year, head to head against Trey Burke and Aaron Craft, he struggled. Harris as a two is top-notch…but Appling running the show is my concern.

      • ptiernan says:

        Great points all, Andy. I too like MSU. Izzo’s team is laying in weight. Goodman at ESPN recently wrote a column about this. Arizona’s offensive struggles are starting to concern me a bit.

        • Andy says:

          Another thing too, although MSU ranks #12 now by Ken Pomeroy, they are #3 according to Sagarin. Again, I think this is very suggestive of all those teams Ken Pomeroy has ahead of them, having such glaring weaknesses. The only two teams currently ahead of the Spartans are Arizona and Villanova. Say what you will about Arizona’s offense struggling, but they did step up tonight (albeit against an inferior Oregon State team at home), however they only played 62 possessions, and I don’t know of any champion that played that few possessions per game on average. I’ve already mentioned Villanova, and re-read your piece from last year on the blowout losses. Not to mention their blowout loss was at home to a team that I think will do no better than meet expectations, and I can’t make this team my champion either.

          I have doubts that MSU will be a 1 seed, with Arizona and Kansas nearly locks, and if Wichita State goes undefeated where else can you seed them? The fourth seed is up for grabs, with Syracuse probably in the lead, though teams like Villanova, Florida, and (I know this will make you cringe) San Diego State are very much in contention for that spot. Actually, if the Aztecs run the table, keep in mind they have only one loss for the season, and won at Kansas….actually in better contention for that fourth 1 seed than the other two (but maybe not the Orange). With also Duke and Creighton hanging around, I even wonder if MSU could end up as a 3 seed, but that may turn out to be a very good thing for them, especially if they end up in the Midwest.

          Sagarin ratings in case you or anyone else doesn’t know where to find it:
          http://sagarin.com/sports/cbsend.htm

          • Andy says:

            Actually a quick update, Sagarin’s ratings were just updated and now after MSU’s loss to Wisconsin they are #5. Still may be better than what Ken Pomeroy’s stats indicate.

    • ptiernan says:

      Injuries are just one thing I factor in subjectively. Since I started building my database way back in 1990, I never put in any information on injuries. In hindsight, I wish I did…but it’s too late to go back. And it would be awfully difficult to separate between injuries to major/minor players as well as injuries that put a player out versus simply limiting them.

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