Basketball, NCAAB

NCAA Tournament Championship: Expect Defense

What a great tournament this has been. After we got past the world’s worst series of “Round of 32” games in history, the tournament really shined.

In the Sweet Sixteen we had Duke and Virginia almost go down. Kentucky squeezed by Houston and Auburn upset UNC in a very big way. Texas Tech, Gonzaga, Michigan, and Michigan State handled their business adequately en route for one of the best Elite 8’s in memory.

We saw the “Upset of Duke” that destroyed many brackets. Virginia and Auburn won their games in overtime. While Texas Tech took down Gonzaga at the very end and finished it out by hitting their free throws.

Meanwhile, the Final Four didn’t disappoint with Virginia winning a controversial back and forth with Auburn and Texas Tech’s defense second half suffocation of Michigan State. Now here we are.

Who saw this coming?

Dissecting the tournament can be relatively simple really, I’m almost upset I didn’t have this bracket because it all makes sense.

For starters, this year’s 1st round didn’t have the usual upset flair the tournament has known in the past. A strong reason for this comes from the NCAA’s use of the new NET rankings. This produced the most accurately seeded tournament in recent memory. Not without some issues of course but overall the seedings were fair and accurate. So the typical “upsets” really didn’t seem so far fetched.

12 Seeds:

12 seeds have a nice time recently at the tournament and this year we saw 3 12-seeds win their opening round matchup (Murray State, Oregon, Liberty).

Murray State won their conference and their PG is going top 5 in the NBA this year. Marquette had a nice scorer in Markus Howard who averaged 25 ppg, but they finished the season losing 5 of 6 and losing in their conference semifinal round. Meanwhile Murray State finished off a 28-5 season by winning the Ohio Valley Conference. Advantage: Murray State.

Oregon should’ve never been a 12 seed. They had one of the better offensive teams in the tournament. They won the Pac12 tournament. Their mismatch against Wisconsin didn’t even feel like an upset because Wisconsin never had the firepower to keep up. It felt more like the best team won the game. Advantage: Oregon.

Which brings us to Liberty. Winners of 29 games and a conference championship playing an inconsistent 11 loss Mississippi State team that just couldn’t get over the hump against the best of the SEC. Liberty could shoot well whereas Mississippi State couldn’t consistently make their shots down the stretch. Advantage: Liberty

All of these 12 seeds were upsets, of course. They were all Champions of their conferences in one way or another and ultimately had better seasons than the middle of the conference foes they faced.

Champions:

To some people, the Final Four seemed random with 1, 2, 3, and 5 seeds when almost everyone had Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Gonzaga, or Tennessee in the final four. However, just like the teams above (Murray State, Oregon, Liberty), the Final Four was a tournament of champions. Virginia, Texas Tech, and Michigan State were co-champions of the regular season with Michigan State also winning the Big 10 Tournament. Auburn went on a spectacular run to win the SEC Tournament, easily beating former #1 Tennessee in the championship game.

Sometimes we get lost in the seedings and forget to recognize the teams who had the better years. We can get caught up in the names and forget who were the actual champions of their leagues.

UC Irvine would seem like an upset until you understand they won the Big West behind a 30 win season who went up against beat another Co-Champion Kansas State missing their 2nd leading scorer and leading rebounder Dean Wade. UC Irvine was a good team. Like my thinking with UVA last year (more on that below), losing one of their top contributors, I thought Kansas State would be good enough to get past the first round.

Of the 16 Sweet Sixteen teams, only 5 were not a champion or co-champion in any shape or form:

  • Tennessee (tied-2nd in SEC runner-up in Conference Tournament)
  • Kentucky (tied-2nd in SEC)
  • Michigan (3rd in Big 10, runner-up in Conference Tournament)
  • Florida State (4th in ACC, runner-up in Conference Tournament)
  • Virginia Tech (5th in ACC)

Meaning 11 of the final 16 teams all finished Co-Champions of their conference or won their conference tournament:

  • Duke (Won ACC Tournament)
  • LSU (Regular Season SEC Champion)
  • Michigan State (BIG 10 Regular Season Co-Champion; BIG 10 Tournament Champion)
  • Virginia (ACC Regular Season Co-Champion)
  • Oregon (PAC12 Tournament Champion)
  • Purdue (BIG 10 Regular Season Co-Champion)
  • UNC (ACC Regular Season Co-Champion)
  • Auburn (SEC Tournament Champion)
  • Houston (AAC Regular Season Champion)
  • Gonzaga (WAC Regular Season Champion)
  • Texas Tech (Big 12 Regular Season Co-Champion)

What can we deduce from this?

Basically, there were a lot of really good basketball teams this year. In fact, this entire season was one of the better in recent memory because there were so many good teams. Just look at Wofford (SOCON Champion) who held their own against Kentucky and had a chance for the upset even with the NCAA 3 point leader and star player shooting 0-12 from 3pt range. It just goes to show how even the playing field is throughout the college landscape.

There Can Only Be One

There will always be the people who want to anoint the “Elite Conference of the Year”. Most years the ACC leads the way with the BIG 10 and Big East claiming it from time to time. Even though this season proved the talent level was evenly spread throughout multiple conferences, it is fitting to see the 2 regular season co-champions from the 2 best conferences this year going after it for the championship.

The ACC and Big 12 have been my top 2 conferences since about mid-season. Kansas being healthy and not losing Vick (for undisclosed reasons) would’ve strengthened the Big 12 more but when it came down to quality depth, shooting abilities, and true championship caliber teams, both the ACC and the Big 12 had the best collection of teams coming into the tournament. The BIG 10 turned out to be much better than I originally thought however Michigan State was their only true threat to win a championship in my opinion, but I have a lot of respect for Purdue now. (If only the BIG10 network were more accessible…)

Now we have ourselves 2 of the top defensive teams in the country. Both have strong coaches and NBA talent to go along with great defenses. Virginia and Texas Tech both rank in the top 10 in 3pt defense, both are top 3 in Scoring Defense, and both are top 5 in Field Goal Defense.

They aren’t all defense with Virginia and Texas Tech ranking in the top 46 in field goal percentage. However, Virginia has the clear edge in 3pt shooting as the Cavaliers rank 7th in the category with Texas Tech ranked 70th.

This game will come down to who can turn the ball over the least and who can make their shots down the stretch.

Pre-Tournament, I picked Virginia for many reasons. The main reason is because they were the most complete team in the tournament. They’ve had some help and some up and downs but through and through they play great defense, shoot 3’s exceptionally well, rank number 1 in fewest turnovers per game, and have a lot of experienced guys in the locker room. They are the complete package and should hold on to beat Texas Tech tonight after last year’s historical defeat in the 1st round. I think this year is redemption for the Hoos. Championship Prediction: Virginia over Texas Tech 57-51.

Extra Thought on UMBC defeat last season:

Many people felt uneasy picking Virginia to advance far into the tournament. After being down 10 against Gardner Webb at half, I was having my own doubts about what they could realistically accomplish. Many doubts came from last season’s historic defeat against UMBC in the 1st round to mark the 1st and ONLY time a 16 seed has beaten a 1 seed. There were a couple of factors that led to the defeat I want to address.

Immediately after the lost, I seemed alone in saying, “This was not the greatest upset in tournament history”. Many people laughed and said well losing 1 player shouldn’t alter your team that much or they should’ve still been able to beat UMBC. Hopefully now, all those people can understand how losing De’Andre Hunter 6 days prior to their game against UMBC was actually a huge loss. Now he’s their 2nd leading scorer, shoots 42% from 3, he’s their 2nd leading rebounder, while producing 22 Blocks and 21 steals on the season for UVA.

Not only was his presence as a main contributor in a 7 man rotation missed on defense but the team had to learn to play defense without the 6’7” forward filling the lanes and helping on defense with the extra length.

A good example of this is the lack of defense Duke played with in their immediate games once Zion went out. When you get used to playing with someone who is a regular contributor on defense, once that guy is lost, it creates holes that have to be filled. UMBC did a great job in that game exploiting the lack of length in the middle once Hunter was out.

I bring this up to 1.) Clarify the differences between the 2 teams and 2.) Highlight the X-Factor for Virginia this year.

History is written 1 page at a time. It happens in the moment and can define players, coaches, programs, and generations to come. Just as they were the 1st to make history last year, they can be the first #1 seed to win the tournament 1 year removed from losing to a #16. Everything they did this year will be put on graphics for years to come when comparing historic losses.

Tony Bennett and his players know what happened last year. They knew they were the best team in the country when at full strength and have to be motivated to follow-up the infamous loss with the school’s first basketball championship. Tony Bennett came under fire for his coaching style because he hasn’t been able to finish his program’s success with a championship banner just yet. This year is his best opportunity since turning Virginia into a perennial powerhouse from within the top heavy ACC.

Virginia has a chance to extend the ACC’s legacy by etching their names into the history books alongside UNC, Duke, NC State, and Ex-ACC member Maryland (Maryland is now in the BIG 10, while Syracuse and Louisville won their championships outside the ACC). Anyone who has followed Virginia knows Tony Bennett deserves to have validation as one of the premiere coaches in college. He’s made Virginia a top tier program and it would be fitting for the ACC to win its 8th tournament this century on the backs of Virginia’s defense.

I’ll write something about Texas Tech if they pull off the upset.

-Jaracz

*ncaa.com for all stats

**https://hfvoyager.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/ncaa-trophy.png for featured image

***https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_NCAA_Division_I_men%27s_basketball_champions

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