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The Wild Wild West

On the run.
On the run.

So the only damper on what was otherwise the BEST SELECTION SUNDAY EVER was the realization that the selection committee had dumped a bunch of distinctly-underrated-by-the-RPI mid-majors into Michigan State's section of the bracket. Seven of KenPom's top 20 teams are in the West, with the winner of a Friday game between #9 Memphis and #15 St. Louis awaiting the Spartans after LIU-Brooklyn.

Kevin Pelton's take:

The West's real strength is its depth. Seven of Pomeroy's top 20 teams were sent out West, including sleepers Memphis, St. Louis and No. 7 seed Florida. All are the top-rated teams on their respective seed lines. By contrast, the Midwest boasts just three of Pomeroy's top 20 teams because Michigan is rated as a particularly weak four seed. In fact, both Belmont and Purdue (a 10 seed) rank ahead of the Wolverines in the Midwest.

The deepest region may not necessarily be the most challenging one to navigate for a top seed. After all, the No. 1 seed can only face one team from the opposite half of the bracket, and no more than four teams total. For example, while Michigan State is assured a difficult third-round matchup against either Memphis or St. Louis, counting both teams doubles how problematic this really is because the Spartans can only face one of them.

He concludes that MSU actually has the second toughest draw of the 1-seeds, behind Syracuse. So, given the elation of earning a 1-seed, the draw is a bad one, but not a horrific one overall. After all, the same system that thinks Memphis is the 9th best team in the country thinks MSU is the 3rd best team. Indeed, Mr. Pomeroy's calculations have MSU as the third best shot in the 68-team field both to advance to the Final Four (35.2%) and to win the whole tournament (12.5%).

That shouldn't stop us from ranting, though. Even the RPI thinks Memphis is the 17th best team in the country, which would equate to being the top 5-seed. (And the Tigers have won 20 of their last 23 games, so there's no discount for ending the season poorly.) For as much time as these guys spend locked in a room, engrossed in data, they sure seem to ignore an awful lot of it.

The positive spin is that Memphis may be getting some of the Wisconsin treatment from KenPom. They've generally dominated against weaker competition, but they also sport a 2-5 record against top-50 opponents (the last of whom they played in December). Margin of victory definitely matters, but 20-point wins against Conference USA opposition only tells you so much.

The Rest of the West. If MSU can escape the first weekend, the bracket appears to set up fairly nicely. Missouri is, in terms of pure talent at least, the least scary of the 2-seeds. (Which isn't to say they're not dangerous--only that MSU isn't going to get dominated athletically.) Marquette is solid but generally non-imposing. Louisville got something of a bump from winning the Big East Tournament. New Mexico is . . . well, I really have no idea what New Mexico is.

The biggest theme in the West bracket is up-tempo play. Almost everyone (Missouri being the exception, but they're still a smaller, guard-oriented team) ranked near the top of their leagues in pace. Memphis and Marquette both ranked second in their respective conferences. And MSU's first opponent, LIU-Brooklyn, is the paciest team in the whole field (second paciest in the whole land, in fact). KenPom projects 91 points for MSU Friday night.

More factoid:

Six of the top 12 teams in tempo (possessions per game) in the NCAA tournament are in the West Region. Brigham Young and Iona play in the first round. Seven teams that led their conference in transition points per game are in that region (Michigan State, Missouri, Marquette, Murray State, Memphis, and Iona).

I think that's a good thing. While Branden Dawson's sidelining robs Tom Izzo of both his athleticism in the open court and overall depth, playing transition basketball is still something that tends to be flourish-inducing for this team. Keith Appling, in particular, is much happier pushing the ball down the court than manufacturing something in the halfcourt. And, since higher pace generally means less size, there will be chances for MSU to impose its low-post presence, as well (more on that below).

Five Days is a Long Time to Find Things to Worry About. My two biggest concerns going into the tournament are foul trouble and three-point shooting. The foul trouble concern is simply a matter of depth. If Derrick Nix or Adreian Payne pick up two early, you're either looking at Alex Gauna playing significant minutes or Draymond Green sliding over to the 5, with Austin Thornton at the 4 (and no Dawson to help with rebounding chores). There's less chance of foul trouble being an issue among the guards, but there's a big drop-off from the Appling/Wood/Thornton/Trice group to Kearney/Byrd.

The anxiety over three-point shooting is perhaps an odder one, given that the team has been shooting from the outside as well as you could possibly hope for. MSU knocked down 47.9% (23-48) of their shots from behind the line in Indianapolis. If there's any silver lining in Dawson's injury, it's that the halfcourt offense has become a more straightforward operation. Nix and Payne post up down low; everyone else can shoot the three. Dawson was the one perimeter player defenses could really sag off.

(BTW, Derrick Payne's averages in the BTT: 18.7 points (on 12.3 FGA), 8.7 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in 36.3 minutes. That's a nice center to go with your first team all-American power forward. Albeit a power forward who would clearly play point guard if the all-American team took the floor. Smashing hashtag success, boys and girls. New hashtag is here.)

To the extent MSU does have to play half-court offense now and again in the up-tempo west, they'll need to keep knocking down the treys to make that formula work. The good news is that multiple guys are hitting from deep: Thornton was 7-10 over the weekend, Brandon Wood was 7-13, and Travis Trice was 4-6. Appling also managed to knock down a couple from deep. Still, beware reversion to the mean.

A milder concern is offensive rebounding. MSU has posted an offensive rebounding percentage above 30% in only 2 of its last 7 games. The loss of Dawson really hurts there. It's been less of a concern so far, given how well the team has shot the ball. (And yesterday, in particular, there were some odd bounces on missed OSU shots.) Draymond has cut back some on his perimeter play (no more than three 3-point attempts in a game since Dawson went down), so that should help bolster the team's ability to crash the glass. The occasional hustle rebound from Thornton and Wood will be needed too, though.

Unexpected success begets heightened expectations begets nervous worrying. By all rights, an unranked team winning two championships in a major conference should be able to rest on its laurels. But, despite the danger of tripping over the threshold on Sunday, the door looks open for even bigger things.