The Rock-Paper-Scissors of College Basketball’s Season of Parity

The prevailing theory of this season of college basketball has been that parity is king. Unfortunately, NCAA officials won’t allow the theoretical idea of parity climb the ladder in Houston to cut down the nets when the season concludes. Someone needs to win the tournament. One of the many, many teams capable of doing so will actually be crowned champion in early April.

But parity is a real factor, especially compared to last season. We entered the Madness last season fairly certain that Kentucky, Duke, and the winner of the Wisconsin-Arizona game would play in the Final Four. If Justin Anderson had been healthy, Virginia could have been included in that group as well.

This year, the only guarantees we can make about the Final Four is that four basketball teams will qualify. Even that feels like a stretch.

Earlier this week, ESPN’s panel of (wink) experts re-picked their Final Four predictions and their choices did not reflect the season we’re having. Of the 27 people asked, only four listed a team outside the KenPom top 20 (all four chose #21 Oregon). None ventured outside the KenPom top 25. That means no sleepers. No Notre Dame. No Dayton. No Vanderbilt or South Carolina or USC.  And surprisingly for ESPN, no LSU.

Worst of all, this panel predicted 108 total Final Four teams and only chose 14 different schools (Villanova, Iowa, UVA, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Maryland, Kansas, UNC, Oregon, Wichita State, Duke, Kentucky, Xavier, and Indiana).

Last year, this would have been totally understandable, but this year, is there any way in hell that four teams from the cream of the crop survive the run to Houston? I’d feel better betting that one of those 14 teams makes the Final Four than betting that all 4 will come from that list.

Not to mention, that list of teams includes one school from a non-power conference and one school west of Wichita, Kansas. If any Final Four will feature fewer of the blue blood programs and less of the typical biases we’re used to, it will be this one.

I am here to embrace the choas of 2015-2016. Every team, yes every single one, has significant flaws. A huge part of advancing in March will be avoiding teams who will exploit your flaws. If you can’t defend, you don’t want to face one of the nation’s best offenses. If your team fouls a lot on defense, hope that your bracket doesn’t feature a team who makes their living at the line.

Every team has other teams they would love to see pop up in their region and others they pray they’ll never see. Every team has their kryptonite, like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. Let’s coast through a host of Final Four contenders, spotting the team they’d love to be matched-up against and one who they fear finding in their bracket.

Before we begin, let’s acknowledge a host of teams, who for a variety of reasons, were not included in this exercise. For the most part, they were left out because they do not have an elite skill or a glaring weakness. That may sound great, but once the tournament tightens, lacking a reliable way to win games is just as scary as having a way to lose them

So, apologies to:

Xavier, Oregon, Arizona, Miami, UConn, Texas A&M, and Indiana (though the Hoosiers turn it over like crazy and should be terrified of running into a team like West Virginia).

With that out of the way, let’s get started.

rock paper scissors

Oklahoma beats UNC

Oklahoma makes a higher percentage of its threes than any other team in the nation. They score nearly 40 percent of their points via the longball (that’s 12th highest in Division I). Some have started to liken the Sooners to the Golden State Warriors. Think of them as the Junior Warriors.

Problem is, unlike the NBA, college basketball has yet to fully dive into the 21st century of basketball. The Warriors can count on four hot nights out of seven, but jump shooting NCAA teams still face the risk of a cold night ending their run through the tournament.

Thankfully for Lon Kruger, Buddy Hield, and the gang, teams like North Carolina exist. The Tar Heels play at a face pace (39th fastest in the nation) and when you’re playing such a transition heavy game, shooters get open. UNC has allowed the 79th highest 3-point percentage this season, odd for a team in the top 50 of defensive efficiency. A third of the points Carolina allows come from beyond the arc, that’s 33rd most in America.

I wrote earlier this year about how Justin Jackson playing small forward, rather than as a stretch four, limited North Carolina’s ceiling. Never would that be more evident than when watching the 6’8 Jackson desperately chase Buddy Hield around the court.

West Virginia beats Oklahoma

On the other hand, Oklahoma’s own conference foe, West Virginia, is absolutely equipped to chase Hield and the Sooners around. The aptly nicknamed “Press Virginia” does not relent for 40 consecutive minutes. They lead the nation in steal and turnover percentage. You’d think that could leave a shooter or two open after a missed steal, but that’s not the case. The Mountaineers have allowed the 16th lowest 3-point percentage nationally. a mere 23.5 percentage of WVU opponents’ points come from downtown (18th lowest in America).

These teams have already met once, with Oklahoma leading a comeback to seal a home win by only two points. They’ll meet again in Morgantown on February 20. If I’m Lon Kruger, I hope that’s the last time I see West Virginia.

South Carolina beats West Virginia

Remember a few seconds ago when I said only 23.5 percent of West Virginia’s points allowed come from 3-point land? That’s still true. And West Virginia also allows only 46.6 percent of points scored on 2-point baskets, among the 50 lowest in America.

So…how are people scoring against the Mountaineers?

By process of elimination, it’s easy to see that opponents have feasted at the charity stripe against WVU. The 29.9 percent of points scored from the foul line West Virgnia has allowed is the highest in the country. Allowing .57 free throw attempts for every field goal attempt? Also the highest in the nation!

via SmokingMusket.com
via SmokingMusket.com

There are risks associated with playing that level of pressure defense. Fouling your opponents at an alarming rate just happens to be one of them. South Carolina, the surprise of the SEC, would be more than glad to reap the benefits. They’ve taken more free throws per field goal than anyone in Division I and score the 5th highest percentage of points from the foul line. Frank Martin’s team has lived at the line and might break some sort of free throw attempts record if they played the Mountaineers.

Iowa State beats South Carolina

The answer to beat the Gamecocks then, logically, would be playing defense without fouling. Iowa State has done so better than anyone. They lead nation in both of those lovely FTA/FGA and Free Throw Point Distribution stats I’ve been yammering about.

Something would have to give in an Iowa State-South Carolina match-up. If the game were properly refereed, the Cyclones should be able to mitigate the Gamecocks’ favorite method of scoring.

Maryland beats Iowa State

So Iowa State is hands down the best in the nation at avoiding fouling on defense…and among the absolute worst at getting to the line on the other end. It’s boggles the mind.

IOWA STATE

aziz confused

The Cyclones score the fewest percentage of points from the foul line and allow the fewest percentage of points from the foul line. Next time you see an Iowa State game on TV, at least you know it won’t be a slowed down into a foul shooting contest.

Maryland would make scoring for the Cyclones even tougher than they are used to. So much of Iowa State’s offense flows through Georges Niang and you’d  be hard pressed to find a team more equipped to slow Niang. The Terps have a variety of players capable of covering Iowa State’s senior leader, including the lanky Jake Layman, the stout Robert Carter, and Damonte Dodd off of the bench.

Villanova beats Maryland

Maryland’s biggest problem defensively has been their opponents success inside the arc. The Terps allow the 26th highest percentage of 2-point baskets. That number would excite Villanova, as they shoot the 5th best percentage on 2-pointers in the nation. Nova has a plethora of guards who create for others, leading to easy buckets.

Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon are capable defenders, but asking them to stop Ryan Arcidiacono, Jalen Brunson, and Josh Hart for 40 minutes is a tall task.

Iowa beats Villanova

A lot of these scenarios have been based in numbers and past performances. This one is one of the most theoretical, but also it started this entire exercise.

Who from Villanova could cover Jarrod Uthoff? I don’t even mean stop him, I mean who could actually even try to cover him?

Jay Wright’s rotation features four guards, two bigs, and two small forwards. I would not feel confidently about Kris Jenkins or Mikal Bridges attempting to cover Iowa’s All-Big Ten performer. In the same way that Ben Bentil, an elite stretch four, has gone for 31 and 20 point performances against Villanova, Uthoff could have a field day against Nova.

Kentucky beats Iowa

Part of the problem of playing a stretch four like Uthoff is a disadvantage on the glass. Uthoff is a great rebounder, for his size. When faced with bullying bigs, he and the Hawkeyes struggle. Iowa finds themselves in the bottom 100 of defensive rebounding percentage. That allows their opponents’ extra possessions and easy baskets.

Big Blue Nation would be apt to take advantage, grabbing more than 38 percent of their own misses. John Calipari no longer trots out incredibly large lineups, but size is still in his arsenal and the Kentucky guards have found success hitting the glass.

Kansas beats Kentucky (and already did!)

Casual readers of this blog or less passionate fans of college basketball may notice how often I and the rest of the media quote statistics from Ken Pomeroy and KenPom.com. Mr. Pomeroy has placed himself at the forefront of college basketball analytics and provides the most in-depth looks at every college team, player, and game.

Some of you, however, will complain that some answers are just unable to be spelled out with statistics. For example, Kansas’ upperclassmen-heavy lineup is suited to win in March, especially against inexperienced teams like Kentucky. The Wildcats took Kansas to overtime on the road, but couldn’t make the plays down the stretch to leave Phog Allen with the win. In a tournament atmosphere, when the lights are brightest, the same could happen again.

But to say that stats don’t support that notion would be short sighted. KenPom features measurements of both experience and a newly introduced metric for continuity from year to year. The difference between these two clubs is startling.

ku uk

Teams with freshman have certainly had success, but when the game slows down in late March, which of those two teams would you rather rely on?

Notre Dame beats Kansas

The Jayhawks schedule has been as tough as any in the nation so far. They’ve played the 4th toughest per KenPom. They’ve certainly been tested on both ends of the floor, but especially defensively.

Kansas has played six games against the top 11 teams in offensive efficiency already (Michigan State, Baylor, Iowa State, Kentucky, and Oklahoma twice) with two more on the dais (rematches with Iowa State and Baylor). To date, they are 4-2 in those match-ups, a very respectable mark. Three of those four wins have come in the comfort of Allen Fieldhouse, where Bill Self has fewer losses than he has conference championships. Overall, the Jawhawks are 14-0 at home, but only 6-4 away from Lawrence. Considering they’ll travel at least 200 miles the first weekend of the tournament (to Des Moines or St. Louis) and 500 the second weekend (to Chicago or Louisville), that could be troubling. Yesterday’s victory at Oklahoma certainly quells those fears to an extent, but it remains among the biggest question marks on the Jayhawks’ resume.

Notre Dame hasn’t exactly been a group of road warriors this season, but they are the #1 offensive team in America in 2015-2016. Kansas won’t go down easy in March, but could to a team that is able to rely on veteran guards and the ability to score against even the best defenses. Playing Notre Dame in front of a pro-Irish crowd in Chicago will be a tough win for any team come tourney time.

Duke beats Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s top ranked offense has been spectacular. Their defense has been…less successful.

Duke knows the feeling. Surely, a Coach K team must be defensively sound, with that classic Duke pressure and all of that floor slapping, right? Not this year.

duke and nd

A game between the Irish and Blue Devils would be plenty fun, but it would probably look a little something like tonight’s NBA All-Star game. Tons of points, not a lot of defense. For Duke, the chance to play a top team who is actually worse at stopping opponents would be a welcome match-up.

Purdue beats Duke

Duke’s problems have not been on offense. Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram are both capable of dropping 30 on any given night.

Due to Amile Jefferson’s injury though, Coach K’s bench has tightened to a six-man rotation. Four of those six players are guards, one is Marshall Plumlee in the middle, and the last is the human rubber band, Brandon Ingram. Ingram, listed at a ridiculously slim 6’9/190 lbs, has been able to play tons of minutes at the four, with Coach K helping him guard bigs with doubles and zones.

Come tourney time, every Duke fan should fear landing near Purdue in the bracket with every cell in their body. The Boilermakers frontline rotates among three giants: 7-footer AJ Hammons, 6’9 freshman Caleb Swannigan, and 7’2 Isaac Haas. Even if Jefferson returns by mid-March, Duke would struggle to rebound and defend against that group of bigs. Should Plumlee, or a healthy Jefferson, get into foul trouble, Coach K would need to dig into his bag of tricks for some way to keep Duke afloat.

Which he totally could, because he is Coach K and he’d use some witchcraft that would lead the Devils to a win.

Wichita State beats Purdue

Purdue’s defense has been excellent this season, ranking 7th nationally. A big part of that has been their ability to funnel opposing slashers and cutters into the forest of giant humans they play at forward and center. Purdue opponents have shot the 10th worst field goal percentage and grabbed the 5th lowest percentage of their misses off the glass.

In some cases, you’d look for a team capable of challenging Purdue at the rim or grabbing offensive boards, but finding someone able to do so seems unlikley. Teams who have beaten the Boilers have instead taken advantage where they can. Purdue forces a turnover on the 13th lowest percentage of possessions in the country and has lost to teams who are particularly careful with the ball and make the  most of their possessions. Five of Purdue’s six losses at come at the hands of teams with top 12 turnover rates.

prudues losses

For reference the national leader (Notre Dame) turns the ball over 9.0 times per game. Even turnover-happy Maryland was able to stay below that mark against Purdue.

Wichita State has coughed the ball up the 18th fewest times this season, averaging 10.36 turnovers per game, although that stat is misleading. Star point guard Fred VanVleet missed three games early this season in which the Shockers turned the ball over double digit times.

Unlike Duke, Wichita State has the size and depth to take advantage of Purdue’s weakness. Shocker guards VanVleet and Ron Baker would having their offense humming, finding the best shot possible each time down the floor.

Virginia beats Wichita State

Logically then, the answer to stopping Wichita State is stopping VanVleet and Baker. No one defends guards, or really anyone, as well as Virginia.

Tony Bennett’s Pack Line defense would keep the Shockers out of the lane, eliminating the penetration-and-kick element of their offense.

Michigan State beats Virginia

If there is one chink in the armor of the vaunted Virginia defense, it has to be the inability to stop catch-and-shoot threes.

The basic premise of the Pack Line defense is keeping defenders in a position capable of helping. Rather than cutting off passing lanes, off-ball UVA defenders sag off of their man to cut off penetration.

via CardChronicle
via CardChronicle

For many players or teams, this would make closing out on quick-releasing shooters difficult. Tony Bennett knows that and has built a team of great athletes, capable of closing out to make shots difficult. When a player catches the ball, the Pack Line defense allows an extra half second. That half second is key. In basketball, a half second can mean everything, especially with staunch defenders like Malcolm Brogdon and Marial Shayock closing out on you.

For Michigan State though, that half second is a chance to get a shot off or swing the ball to a teammate for a better shot. The Spartans topped Virginia last year in March and understand the blueprint to beating the Cavalier defense.

Sparty shoots the ball as well as anyone (4th in 3PT%) and passes even better (1st in Assists per FGA).

Virginia’s defense allows the ball to swing around the perimeter and Spartans like Denzel Valentine and Brynn Forbes have the skills to take advantage.

North Carolina beats Michigan State

Michigan State has had their issues on defense, creating the 6th lowest percentage of turnovers and the 21st lowest percentage of steals. Thanks to Tom Izzo magic, they’ve still been able to hold teams to low shooting percentages.

Those problems are compounded when the Spartans also allow offensive rebounds. A team like Carolina, who takes care of the ball and hits the glass, would enjoy the luxury of extra possessions and extra chances to score against Michigan State.  The Tar Heels are fueled by easy baskets and score in bunches. Allowing them putbacks and limiting their turnovers is an easy way to give them open looks.

Oklahoma beats North Carolina and wait a second we’re back at the beginning…

**

Header image via AP/SEC Sports

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com.

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