March Madness is upon us at last
Last year, it was cruelly snatched away from us just days before Selection Sunday. College basketball fans have waited 24 months to taste the glory of this most wonderful month on the sports calendar. The waiting is finally over. The bracket has been released.
For Michigan State Spartan fans, the wait was unusually long and tense. Three entire regions were announced and the Spartans’ name had yet to be called. More concerning was that several obviously less deserving teams (*cough* Syracuse and Utah State *cough*) were already on the board, and it was clear that MSU had either slipped into the First Four... or off from the board entirely.
But, around 6:35 p.m. Eastern Time as the final section of the West region was revealed, MSU’s name was finally called. The Spartans have officially extended the now second longest active NCAA Tournament streak to 23 years. Based on where the Green and White were sitting just three weeks ago, just making the NCAA Tournament is a major accomplishment.
For the first time in program history, MSU will participate in the “First Four” play-in round. On Thursday evening, MSU will face UCLA at Mackey Arena on the campus of Purdue University. The winner will enter the full bracket as a No. 11 seed, where they will face No. 6 seed BYU at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Based on the seed ranking list released by the NCAA, the Spartans were ranked as the top team that will play in the First Four. What this means is that had Oregon State not upset Colorado to earn the automatic bid in the Pac-12, the Spartans would have been an ordinary No. 11 seed.
In this case, UCLA would have faced Wichita State in the play-in round for the right to be a No. 11 seed, while Drake would have faced Louisville for the right to be a No. 12 seed. It is unclear exactly how the committee would have adjusted the bracket in this scenario, but as I look at it, I would guess that MSU’s first round opponent would have been No. 6 USC.
Nevertheless, the draw is what it is at this point. In a normal first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans would have up to two games with three possible different opponents. This year, the Spartans might play in as many as three games (if all goes well) between Thursday evening and Monday evening against three of four possible opponents.
In order to get a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of these possible opponents, I decided to take a closer look at the statistical profile of each team that MSU could face using a similar approach to the one that I took last week with other MSU teams in history. Below, I will compare MSU to the other four teams on the horizon based on offensive and defensive efficiency and the “four factors” of efficient basketball: shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throw rate.
Sizing Up the Competition
Figure 1 below plots the Kenpom adjusted defensive efficiency of Michigan State and the four possible first weekend opponents versus the adjusted offensive efficiency. These are measures of the number of points each team will score or give up over 100 possessions, adjusted to the skill level of the opponent. A fairly simple equation can be used to convert the efficiencies of any given two teams into a projected point spread.
For MSU and the four possible opponents (UCLA, BYU, Texas, and Abilene Christian) are all shown by the labeled, large dots. In each label, I also include the national ranking of each team, based on Kenpom’s calculated offensive and defensive efficiencies. For reference, I have added the profiles are the remaining 13 Big Ten teams as smaller dots.
All subsequent figures will be labeled and set up in the same manner. For consistency, the axis may be in reverse order such that in all cases, the upper right-hand corner represents both good offensive and defensive stats, while the lower left hand corner is the opposite.
As we can see, Michigan State and the four possible opponents form an inverted “L” shape on the efficiency graph. Basically Abilene Christian, MSU, BYU, and Texas all have very similar defensive profiles which rank between No. 26 (for BYU) to No. 36 (for Texas) in the country. For this metric, the outlier is UCLA, who ranks No. 86 overall on defense. If the Bruins were a member of the Big Ten, they would have the worst defense in the conference.
On the offensive side of court, it is BYU, Texas, and UCLA who have similar profiles. Those teams rank from No. 21 (Texas) to No. 28 (BYU) is scoring efficiency. MSU (ranked No. 98) has a significantly worse offense, but it is not as bad as Abilene Christian’s offense (No. 157).
Note that from an overall efficiency point of view, No. 6 seed BYU is actually better than No. 3 seed Texas. This suggests that if those two teams meet for a chance at a berth to the Sweet 16, the Cougars might be slight favorites over the Longhorns.
Relative to the more familiar Big Ten teams, BYU’s profile is pretty similar to both Purdue and Maryland. Texas is a bit more unique. For an efficiency standpoint, the Longhorns’ profile is a like a cross between Purdue and Penn State, or like Indiana, but with a better offense.
As for UCLA, the Bruins’ offense is similar in efficiency to Penn State and Purdue as well, but with a defense that is worse than Ohio State or Iowa. As for the Abilene Christian Wildcats, their overall efficiency is a cross between Nebraska and Northwestern. While that is not impressive, both of those teams logged high quality wins this year.
Now, let’s dive into the four factors for each team in more detail, starting with shooting, as measured by effective field goal percentage.
When it comes to pure shooting numbers, the best two teams in MSU’s first weekend pod are BYU and interestingly, Abilene Christian. BYU is better on offense (ranked No. 12) while Abilene Christian is better on defense (ranked No. 12 in the country on effective field goal percentage defense). Obviously, Abilene’s competition is not as good in the Southland Conference, but this is a notable statistic. Also note that BYU’s shooting profile is almost identical to Illinois in the Big Ten.
Texas is essentially the weaker combination of the previous two teams. The Longhorns apparently shoot like Abilene and defend shots like BYU. Michigan State plays good field goal defense, similar to some of the better Big Ten defensives, but on the offensive end, the Spartans, on average, have shot very poorly (ranked No. 266 in effective field goal percentage, nationally).
UCLA shoots reasonable well (No. 83 in the country, which is better than Purdue, but not as good as Maryland) but defensively, the Bruins are giving up over 50 percent from the field. Hopefully, this is just what MSU’s struggling offense needs.
In order to expand on the shooting statistics a bit more, I have also separated out the data for two-point and three-points shots on both offense and defense, as shown below in Figure 3.
This figure gives more detail about the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team from a shooting perspective. For two-point offense, Abilene Christian, Texas, and BYU have similar numbers. Texas’ two-point percentages are essentially identical to Iowa’s numbers. On defensive, however, BYU defends inside the arc better than Texas, who defends better than Abilene.
As we know, the Spartans’ have struggled shooting inside the arc and MSU’s two point defense, on average, is outside of the national top-100. As for UCLA, two-point defense is respectable, and the Bruins do shoot the ball a bit better than MSU.
From beyond the long line, the story is a little different. As for defending three-pointers, MSU, Texas, and BYU have similar numbers. On both sides of the ball and from everywhere on the court, BYU shoots and defends like Illinois (statistically). UCLA shoots the three almost as well as BYU. However, the Bruins are ranked only No. 242 in defending the three.
This is almost as bad as MSU’s three-point shooting (ranked No. 255). Without reviewing any film at all, I would say that MSU will likely have chances to knock down three-point shots against the Bruins on Thursday night. Can the Spartans hit them? That is the major question.
That all said, the most notable feature of Figure 3 is the three-point offense and defense of Abilene Christian. The Wildcats are in the top-25 nationally in both categories and lead all teams in MSU’s first weekend pod. A closer look at the Wildcats’ profile suggests that they don’t take a lot of threes (ranked only No. 197 in three-point attempts) but when they do, they are efficient. Interesting...
The Rest of the Four Factors
Let’s continue our review of the four factors with turnovers, as summarized in Figure 4.
For the four top rated teams in this pod, there is not a lot of difference in way that the teams take care of the ball or create turnovers. BYU and MSU’s profiles are similar in this regard. Both teams are OK at holding onto the ball, but neither team is good at creating turn-overs. Both Texas and UCLA create more turnovers than BYU and MSU, and UCLA is more careful with the ball, while Texas is more sloppy.
Only UCLA’s avoidance of turnovers ranks in the top-100 nationally in this category. There is no Bo Ryan era Wisconsin or John Beilein era Michigan squad in this pod when it comes to ball security.
But, once again the Abilene Christian Wildcats are the outlier. The Wildcats are a bit sloppy with the ball themselves, but they rank No. 1 in the nation in creating turnovers.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Abilene Christian is a small school in Texas who has a chance to play the University of Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Texas tends to turn the ball over, while Abilene is good at forcing turnovers. Also, the Wildcats happen to be a top three-point shooting team. Can you think of a better recipe for an upset? I am not sure that I can.
Moving on, Figure 5 below focuses on the rebounding prowess of each team in MSU’s pod.
At first blush, all five teams in this first weekend pod seem to be respectable rebounding teams. The best two teams in this regard seem to be UCLA and BYU, especially on the defensive glass. The rebounding numbers are similar to Big Ten teams such as Michigan, Purdue, and Penn State.
MSU and Texas have similar numbers to each other as well. Texas is a little better on the offensive glass, while MSU is better on the defensive glass. If the two teams were to meet, this looks like a stalemate.
As for Abilene Christian, rebounding is a category where they struggle a bit. While the Wildcats have similar offensive rebounding rates as UCLA, Michigan State, and Texas, they are outside of the top-150 in cleaning the defensive glass. Abilene’s rebounding numbers most resemble those of Iowa.
Finally, Figure 6 below summarizes the ability of each team to draw or avoid fouls.
For free throw rate, none of the five teams in this pod are particularly good in this area. BYU and UCLA grade out similar to some Big Ten members. UCLA is average in both categories, similar to Maryland and Purdue. BYU puts opponents on the line at a similar rate, but gets there themselves very infrequently, similar to Wisconsin.
The other three teams foul more frequently. MSU and Texas are similar in this regard, but Texas does a better job of getting to the foul line. Then, there is Abilene Christian. The Wildcats foul. They foul a lot. They currently rank No. 334 out of 347 teams that competed this year in opponents’ free throw attempts compared to field goal attempts.
Putting it all together
In MSU’s first game against UCLA, the graphs above start to paint a picture of what to expect. In some regards, the teams are mirror images. On average, MSU is a solid defensive team that struggles to score, while UCLA is a solid offensive team who struggles to defend. It will be strength on strength and weakness on weakness. In particular, the Bruins seem susceptible to three-point shooting, if MSU can hit those shots.
As for the other factors, on paper UCLA has a slight advantage in turnovers, rebounding, potentially at the free throw line. Overall, both teams have similar efficiencies. On balance, Kenpom and Vegas have both decided that UCLA is a slight, one-point favorite.
That said, MSU has shown that they can be a good offensive team at times, but has been inconsistent. Does UCLA have the ability to play good defense? Usually, that is harder to turn on. If MSU can play at close to the level that we saw against Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State, or Michigan (the second time) then MSU should win this game. However, if the Spartans play like they did against Maryland...it’s time to start thinking about spring football.
If MSU can beat UCLA, BYU looks to be a bigger challenge, as expected. On paper, BYU is similar in efficiency to a team like Purdue. The Cougars shoot like Illinois, but they don’t rebound it quite as well and they don’t get to the free throw line quite as often. Turnovers don’t look to be an important factor. Once again, if MSU plays close to the level of their potential, I see no reason why the Spartans cannot advance to the Round of 32.
If MSU is still playing on Monday, on paper, the Spartans would face Texas. Based on this analysis BYU grades out slightly better than Texas, and they have similar profiles. The Longhorns get to the free throw line a bit more often, but BYU seems a little better in most other areas.
That said, based on the analysis above and a broader analysis of the entire bracket (which is yet to come), I am going to go ahead and make this prediction now:
I am picking No. 14 Abilene Christian to beat No. 3 Texas, thus scoring the biggest upset of the first round. If MSU wins two games, I think that the Spartans draw the No. 14 seed with a berth to the Sweet 16 on the line.
If that were to happen, I do think that MSU would win. While a team that hits three-pointers and turns you over is scary, I think that the adrenalin dump of beating in-state foe Texas would result in a let-down in game two of the weekend for the Wildcats. That is what usually happens to double-digit seeded mid-majors in the second round. This year, it could be to MSU’s benefit.
Can MSU make it to the second weekend? I think that they can. Will they? That remains to be seen. Stay tuned, and Go Green.