So for the second consecutive year, we find ourselves staring down the consensus pick for the Region of Death. The Midwest Region contains (1) the overall top seed in the field (Louisville), (2) a 2-seed that was a popular pick to be the overall top seed just a week or so ago (Duke), and (3) nine of the top 25 teams in the country according to KenPom.
The geography (Auburn Hills/Indianapolis) couldn't be any friendlier. The potential opposition couldn't be much more disagreeable.
Of course, you can only play a maximum of four of those nine top-25 teams. So, as always in the Big Dance, it comes down to individual match-ups and dumb luck (remember when we were all bummed about getting slotted in the same region as Kansas in 2010)?
To provide some sense of the match-ups that might lie ahead--and at the great risk of being a jinxy jinxing jinxer--I put together this table, showing national ranks (out of 347 teams) in key KenPom categories for the ten teams MSU would be most likely to face over the first four rounds (shaded teams would be the opponents if chalk holds):
The four columns at the right are cherry-picked to reflect my own personal fears, which may or may not have statistical significance:
--Teams with a big man (/men) who can prevent Derrick Nix from using his girth to get the looks around the basket he needs to be effective (effective height).
--Teams with the depth to take advantage of the fact that MSU relies heavily on its starters--particularly with Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine struggling in the conference tournament (bench minute percentage).
--Teams that get to the line a lot and could, therefore, cause foul trouble for MSU's starters (free throw rate).
--Teams that force a lot of turnovers (defensive turnover percentage). Like we're ever going to stop worrying about turnovers.
My fifth worry, not reflected above, is an opposing power forward who can shoot the three. Adreian Payne is getting better at getting out on shooters, but I'm personally more comfortable when he's the one pulling the opposing power forward outside. (So, yes, I want an opposing frontline that's undersized but not a threat shoot the ball from the outside. I warned you this wasn't a fully rational exercise.)
Each of the most likely opponents hits at least one of these fears. Valparaiso (12:15 p.m., CBS) draws a lot of fouls, with nearly everyone in its rotation at close to 40, or higher, in individual free throw rate. They also shoot 56% on two-point attempts (3rd in the country, led by 6'8" center Kevin Van Wijk at 65.3%); giving up easy looks in the lane has been an issue for MSU in conference play.
Memphis--and to an even greater extent, Middle Tennessee State--cause a lot of havoc with defensive pressure. The good news is that none of the four potential opponents for the first weekend are very big, so MSU should be able to run its offense from the inside out.
In terms of the 4-spot, Valpo has a guy who can really knock down the three (6'7" Ryan Broekhoff: 43.2%), while Memphis has a guy who can merely shoot it (6'7" Adonis Thomas: 28.6%). Also: Beware Valpo's seniors. The Crusaders are the most experienced team in the country according to KenPom.
Looking further down the road, Duke worries me a lot. Ryan Kelly could knock down the three against Payne, and Mason Plumlee would be a challenge for Nix to score against consistently. Louisville, of course, is simply the toughest team to score on in the country, primarily due to the bunches of turnovers they force. There are some other tough defensive teams lurking on the other side of the bracket (St. Louis, Oklahoma State, and Cincinnati) although we'd be thrilled to advance to a regional final to play a non-1-seed opponent.
Now, that's all mighty speculative. At the end of the day, there's no such thing as an easy Final Four run. KenPom gives MSU an 11.2% chance of making it to Atlanta. That number isn't great, but it's still higher than two of the other three 3-seeds (the exception being Florida, which has used its Wisconsin-esque powers to retain the #1 spot in the KenPom rankings despite not having notched a quality win in like two months).
This is a Spartan team that hasn't fallen on its face very many times (if any), but also hasn't dominated a lot of teams. The team doesn't rank higher than 38th nationally in any of the eight four-factor categories, but it does rank in the top 25 in both adjusted offensive (#24) and defensive (#8) efficiency. That could be a recipe for an exciting (/highly stressful) run deep into the bracket. Or it could be a recipe for an early, narrow loss. Let the games begin.