2018 NCAA Tournament Preview: First Four

It has finally arrived ladies and gentlemen, the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament AKA The Big Dance AKA March Madness AKA my favorite sporting event of the year!

I’m going to separate my Tournament preview into three different posts, and I’m going to go chronologically, which means this first post is a look at the First Four games, taking place in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday and Wednesday night.

*Statistics mentioned are courtesy of KenPom.com and ESPN*

Tuesday, March 13th

Dayton, Ohio (East Region)
#16 Radford vs #16 LIU Brooklyn
6:40 pm, TruTV
Spread: Radford (-4)

Radford Highlanders
Record: 22-12
Leading Scorer: Ed Polite Jr. (13.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG)
Other Key Players: Carlik Jones (11.8 PPG, 3.0 APG)
Key Stats: Average height of 74.8 inches (346 out of 351 teams in DI, smallest team in Tournament); 346th in the nation in Adjusted Tempo (only Virginia is slower among Tournament teams)

Radford had one of the more exciting finishes of Championship week when Carlik Jones nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to defeat Liberty and punch the Highlanders’ ticket to the Dance. Radford likes to limit possessions and keep the game low scoring. They win with defense, which can sometimes be boring, but is often effective (Just ask Virginia). None of Radford’s three games in the Big South Tournament reached a point total of 115.

LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds
Record: 18-16
Leading Scorer: Joel Hernandez (20.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG)
Other Key Players: Raiquan Clark (17.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
Key Stats: Average height of 75.2 inches (only Radford is smaller among Tournament teams); 39th in the nation in Adjusted Tempo

The Blackbirds have reached the Tournament after being just the 4-seed in the Northeast Tournament, defeating the league’s top team Wagner in the title game 71-61. Leading scorer Joel Hernandez did it all in that game, scoring 32 points on 10 of 16 shooting. Hernandez is the best player on the court in most of Brooklyn’s games. This team likes to play fast, they like to get out in transition and they like to attack the rim.

Matchup – This game will be a true clash of styles. The Blackbirds want to get out and run and speed the game up, while Radford will look to grind this game to a halt and limit Brooklyn’s possessions. These are the two smallest teams in the Tournament, so rebounding could be a major factor (Radford is the better rebounding team).

 

Dayton, Ohio (East Region)
#11 UCLA vs #11 St. Bonaventure
Approx. 9:10 pm, TruTV
Spread: UCLA (-3.5)

UCLA Bruins
Record: 21-11
Leading Scorer: Aaron Holiday (20.3 PPG, 5.8 APG)
Other Key Players: Thomas Welsh (13.0 PPG, 10.7 RPG), Kris Wilkes (13.8 PPG, 5.0 RPG)
Key Stats: 23rd in the nation in Offensive Efficiency

I was a little surprised to see UCLA make the Tournament (I did not have them making it in my prediction), but I don’t think anybody would deny the fact that the Bruins can beat anybody. They have wins over Kentucky and Arizona this season, and I think that’s the main reason they are here. Aaron Holiday is one of the best guards in the country, and if it wasn’t for DeAndre Ayton, he probably would have been the Player of the Year in the Pac-12. UCLA is great at protecting the ball on offense, but they do not force many turnovers on defense (only two Tournament teams have a lower defensive turnover rate).

St. Bonaventure Bonnies
Record: 25-7
Leading Scorer: Jaylen Adams (19.8 PPG, 5.4 APG)
Other Key Players: Matt Mobley (18.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG)
Key Stats: 19th in the nation in Offensive 3PT%, 23rd in Defensive 3PT%

The Bonnies are one of the hottest teams in the nation right now, having had a 13-game winning streak ended by Davidson in the A-10 semifinals. They boast an incredible backcourt led by seniors Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. Both guys are extremely talented scorers, each shooting better than 38% from 3-point range and over 85% from the free throw line. Free throw shooting can be a major factor in March, and it could be advantage Bonnies on that front.

Matchup – I think this is going to be the best game of the First Four, with both of these teams likely to feel a little disrespected by the Selection Committee. Both the Pac-12 and A-10 weren’t represented really well in this field of 68 teams, so both the Bruins and Bonnies will be out to prove that they belong. This is the first trip to the Tournament for St. Bonaventure’s seniors, so they will be very motivated in this one. Possibly of note, St. Bonaventure did play in Dayton Arena this season, losing to Dayton 82-72. Despite the loss, familiarity with the court and arena could play a factor for sure.

 

Wednesday, March 14th

Dayton, Ohio (West Region)
#16 Texas Southern vs #16 NC Central
6:40 pm, TruTV
Spread: Texas Southern (-4)

Texas Southern Tigers
Record: 15-19
Leading Scorer: Demontrae Jefferson (23.4 PPG, 4.5 APG)
Other Key Players: Donte Clark (18.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG), Trayvon Reed (9.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG)
Key Stats: Five players average over 9.5 PPG; 23.4% of points come from the free throw line (only two Tournament teams have a higher percentage)

I love when teams like Texas Southern are able to reach the NCAA Tournament. Don’t put a whole lot of stock in their 15-19 record. The Tigers played the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation this season. They receive payment from higher profile schools to come to their gym and play them, using that money to fund their own basketball program. They went 0-13 in non-conference play (all road games), but they did play a few teams tough, losing by 6 to Oregon and by 7 to Clemson, a 5-seed in this year’s Tournament. Head Coach Mike Davis is very experienced, having coached at Indiana and UAB prior, and he’ll have his team ready to fight.

NC Central Eagles
Record: 19-15
Leading Scorer: Raasean Davis (15.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG)
Other Key Players: Pablo Rivas (11.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG)
Key Stats: 11.5% Minutes Continuity (this is a measurement that involves playing time for players who were on the team the previous season. In short, it tracks roster turnover from year-to-year. The national average is around 50%. Only Kentucky has had more roster turnover this season among Tournament teams)

I hope I explained that key statistic in a way that makes sense. I wanted to highlight that because it is the perfect example of why Head Coach LeVelle Moton could be in line for a much higher profile job in the very near future. To take a team that reached the Tournament last season and find a way to return despite the massive roster turnover at such a low profile university is simply amazing. The Eagles were the 6-seed in the MEAC Tournament, and despite losing seven of their last 12 games in the regular season, they were able to win four games in five days to earn this Tournament berth, upsetting Hampton 71-63 in the title game. NC Central played in the First Four last season, so Coach Moton can lean on his experience to get the most out of his club.

Matchup – NC Central is the lowest ranked team on KenPom to reach the Tournament this season (309 out of 351 teams), but you know what they say… “Anything can happen in March.” Texas Southern is the more battle-tested team, having played the likes of Gonzaga, Baylor, TCU, Kansas and Ohio State this season. Both coaches have coached in the First Four before, meaning they’ll have their teams well prepared for the pressure and excitement that comes with the NCAA Tournament.

 

Dayton, Ohio (Midwest Region)
#11 Syracuse vs #11 Arizona State
Approx. 9:10 pm, TruTV
Spread: Arizona State (-1.5)

Syracuse Orange
Record: 20-13
Leading Scorer: Tyus Battle (19.8 PPG)
Other Key Players: Frank Howard (15.0 PPG, 5.0 APG), Oshae Brissett (14.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG)
Key Stats: Average height of 80.1 inches (tallest team in Division I this season); 16.4% of minutes played by non-starters (least bench minutes in Division I this season)

I try not to get too angry at the decisions made by the Selection Committee because it is extremely difficult to come up with the 68 team field, but Syracuse just does not belong in this Tournament. Their resume does not stack up to some of the teams that were sent to the NIT. Nonetheless, they are here, and Coach Boeheim will have his team ready to go. You know about their vaunted 2-3 zone defense, made ever the more effective by their height (second highest defensive block percentage in the nation). In 2016, a lot of people didn’t think Syracuse deserved to make the Tournament, and they responded by reaching the Final Four. Could they do it again this year?

Arizona State Sun Devils
Record: 20-11
Leading Scorer: Tra Holder (18.4 PPG)
Other Key Players: Shannon Evans II (16.6 PPG)
Key Stats: 17th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; 36th in Adjusted Tempo (only seven Tournament teams play faster)

Jay Bilas likes to say that the Selection Committee should not be in the business of sending messages, they should just pick the best teams. I tend to agree with him, but they sent a clear message by including Arizona State as an at-large selection, and that is that non-conference strength of schedule matters. The Sun Devils went a perfect 12-0 in non-conference play, including a neutral court win over 1-seed Xavier and a road win over 1-seed Kansas. Those are two of the best wins by any team this season, and that is why they got in despite an 8-10 record in Pac-12 play and a first round loss to Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament. Tra Holder is one of the most fun players to watch this season, and if he gets hot, the Sun Devils could make a run.

Matchup – The strongest opinions from the experts in the immediate aftermath of Selection Sunday are about these teams’ inclusion in the Tournament. One of them is going to get a win and face TCU on Friday night. Arizona State is not a fantastic 3-point shooting team, but they are capable of hitting outside shots, and they’ll have to if they’re going to have success against Syracuse’s zone defense. While I don’t think Syracuse should be here, I do think they have the edge in this game.

 

I will be back again tomorrow with a look at the First Round games taking place on Thursday. Enjoy the First Four, and happy March Madness!!!

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