Favorites dominate, but one underdog second to nun

By Jeff Fogle  (VSiN City newsletter) 

Jordan Poole celebrates his buzzer-beating three-ponter that lifted Michigan over Houston.
© USA Today Sports Images

Another day at the Dance with mostly favorites winning. But Loyola scores its second straight upset. (Who knew Cinderella was a 98-year old nun?) Saturday recaps and Sunday previews right now in this bonus edition from VSiN City.

NCAA Tournament: Sports books still tasting chalk as favorites star Saturday

We’ll start today’s report with nutshell recaps from Saturday’s eight games. The computer rankings you see were gathered for all tournament teams at the beginning of the week. We estimate possessions with the formula shots…minus offensive rebounds…plus one-half free throw attempts…plus turnovers. Games are presented in the order they were played.

Villanova (-11) 81, Alabama 58 

Two-point Pct: Alabama 50%, Villanova 36%

Three Pointers: Alabama 4/16, Villanova 17/41

Free Throws: Alabama 14/23, Villanova 14/16

Rebounds: Alabama 33, Villanova 35

Turnovers: Alabama 15, Villanova 10

Estimated Possessions: Alabama 68, Villanova 68

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Alabama 51-46-54, Villanova 2-1-1

The big news here was Villanova attempting two-thirds of its shots from behind the three-point arc…and winning a rout in the process because hitting 41% on treys is like hitting 62% on two’s. Alabama was as sloppy as expected on offense. But this was going to be a rout anyway considering how well Villanova shot in the second half. Still true that Villanova either crushes people or goes right down to the wire. Alabama gets steamrolled by class, which we saw a week earlier in the SEC tournament against Kentucky. Villanova faces the winner of West Virginia/Marshall in the Sweet 16 in the manageable East. 

Duke (-9) 87, Rhode Island 62 

Two-point Pct: Rhode Island 41%, Duke 63%

Three Pointers: Rhode Island 7/19, Duke 10/21

Free Throws: Rhode Island 5/13, Duke 19/24

Rebounds: Rhode Island 29, Duke 36

Turnovers: Rhode Island 13, Duke 14

Estimated Possessions: Rhode Island 70, Duke 68

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Rhode Island 49-45-32, Duke 3-3-3

Duke ran away and hid early, making CBS execs curse their awful luck for getting two blowouts in the exclusive early TV windows. Duke was better at everything except turnovers. The defense continues to shine with the zone. Will everyone be playing a zone next season?! It’s helping so many teams disrupt opposing offenses. Rhode Island’s #7 seed seems inflated in retrospect. Rams had to go OT to beat a bubble team in Oklahoma (who shouldn’t have been a #10 seed), then were badly outclassed here. Pomeroy and Sagarin look to have pegged that right. Duke plays the winner of Michigan State/Syracuse in the Sweet 16. Would have been hard to imagine a month ago that Duke/MSU would come that early. 

Kentucky (-5.5) 95, Buffalo 75 

Two-point Pct: Buffalo 53%, Kentucky 59%

Three Pointers: Buffalo 7/31, Kentucky 7/15

Free Throws: Buffalo 16/22, Kentucky 16/23

Rebounds: Buffalo 30, Kentucky 42

Turnovers: Buffalo 10, Kentucky 13

Estimated Possessions: Buffalo 74, Kentucky 76

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Buffalo 77-73-81, Kentucky 18-14-21

Pretty much what logic would dictate based on the natural letdown spot for Buffalo and the Holy Trinity edges for Kentucky that we discussed yesterday (particularly with how the Wildcats have been playing lately). Buffalo cooled way down from 15 of 30 on treys to 7 of 31. They also were bullied inside given almost 60% allowed on deuces and the big rebounding disadvantage. Very tough for a team around #75 in the country to play at a peak two games in a row against top competition. Kentucky gets the winner of Kansas State/UMBC in the Sweet 16. Coach Calipari had been complaining about the bracket initially. Turned out to be a relative gift. 

Loyola-Chicago (plus 4.5) 63, Tennessee 62 

Two-point Pct: Loyola 58%, Tennessee 53%

Three Pointers: Loyola 8/20, Tennessee 9/25

Free Throws: Loyola 11/16, Tennessee 3/6

Rebounds: Loyola 27, Tennessee 24

Turnovers: Loyola 10, Tennessee 7

Estimated Possessions: Loyola 57, Tennessee 59

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Loyola 41-62-50, Tennessee 11-17-15

Thursday, Loyola led for only three-tenths of a second in the second half of the Miami game. You know the Ramblers won with a dagger trey. Here, it was Tennessee that trailed for almost the whole second half before taking a one-point lead in the final minute. Once again, Loyola came through with a last-second shot to advance (sending the flying nun and her carry-ons to Atlanta for the Sweet 16). You can see this was a very slow game. Here, there weren’t high offensive rebound counts either. Just slow, methodical basketball. Loyola did a better job of creating free throws. That was the most important difference-maker. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes hits a ceiling in the postseason that eventually drives his fans and bosses crazy. Loyola faces the winner of Cincinnati/Nevada in a few days. 

Kansas (-4.5) 83, Seton Hall 79 

Two-point Pct: Seton Hall 48%, Kansas 54%

Three Pointers: Seton Hall 10/24, Kansas 9/21

Free Throws: Seton Hall 11/16, Kansas 18/26

Rebounds: Seton Hall 39, Kansas 32

Turnovers: Seton Hall 15, Kansas 11

Estimated Possessions: Seton Hall 72, Kansas 71

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Seton Hall 26-26-27, Kansas 9-6-8

Wild ending. Game was hanging around the spread in the final minutes. Seton Hall would score…Kansas would make its free throws…Seton Hall would score…Kansas would make its free throws. The dog hit a trey at the buzzer to trim a 7-point deficit to four, which mattered to a whole lot of people. Kansas felt like the superior side most of the way. Ultimately that manifested itself with inside scoring and more free throws. Kansas gets the Clemson/Auburn winner in the Sweet 16. 

Gonzaga (-4) 90, Ohio State 84 

Two-point Pct: Ohio State 48%, Gonzaga 61%

Three Pointers: Ohio State 11/26, Gonzaga 9/22

Free Throws: Ohio State 13/16, Gonzaga 19/31

Rebounds: Ohio State 26, Gonzaga 39

Turnovers: Ohio State 12, Gonzaga 13

Estimated Possessions: Ohio State 77, Gonzaga 74

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Ohio State 15-22-16, Gonzaga 8-10-9

Gonzaga jumped out to a 13-0 lead, but would trail by as many as five in the second half. Tight with just a few minutes to go. Ohio State played like the concept of crunch time basketball had never even occurred to them. Very sloppy. Gonzaga created open looks…drained them…then pulled away with an 18-3 run to get the win/cover. Got dicey at the end here as well with Ohio State draining some late shots to threaten the number. Plenty of betting entertainment value Saturday! You can see Gonzaga dominated the inside game in terms of two-point shooting, earned free throws, and rebounds. Gonzaga faces the winner of Xavier/Florida State in the Sweet 16. 

Texas Tech (-1.5) 69, Florida 66 

Two-point Pct: Florida 46%, Texas 46%

Three Pointers: Florida 6/22, Texas Tech 6/15

Free Throws: Florida 10/15, Texas Tech 7/14

Rebounds: Florida 39, Texas Tech 39

Turnovers: Florida 11, Texas Tech 8

Estimated Possessions: Florida 69, Texas Tech 65

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Florida 23-18-24, Texas Tech 12-13-12

Quick version…when Florida doesn’t hit a lot of treys, it’s nothing special. Tech lacks dynamic talent, so the game turned into a grinder won by the team playing in front of a friendly crowd in its home state (granting that it’s still a 350-mile trip from Lubbock to Dallas). Texas Tech will face the winner of Purdue/Butler in the Sweet 16. 

Michigan (-3.5) 64, Houston 63 

Two-point Pct: Houston 36%, Michigan 45%

Three Pointers: Houston 7/18, Michigan 8/30

Free Throws: Houston 16/22, Michigan 14/20

Rebounds: Houston 41, Michigan 38

Turnovers: Houston 10, Michigan 7

Estimated Possessions: Houston 65, Michigan 66

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Houston 17-20-17, Michigan 10-11-14

Heartbreaker for Houston, who missed two free throws with 3.9 seconds left that would have cinched the win. Michigan hit a trey at the buzzer to advance. Slugfest between two teams who were arguably both Sweet 16 caliber in recent action. Stylistically, they didn’t bring out the best in each other. Somebody was going to survive. Michigan fortunate to get through to face the winner of North Carolina/Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. 

NCAA Tournament: Sunday previews using our Holy Trinity stat rankings

If you’ve been with us all week, you know we’re focusing on defense, rebounding, and turnover avoidance in the Big Dance this season. The rankings you see below reflect pre-tournament national rankings (out of 351 Division I teams) for adjusted defensive efficiency (from kenpom.com), rebound rate, and turnovers committed per possession (both from teamrankings.com). This forces us to focus on the skill sets that loom largest in tournament basketball. 


North Carolina (-6/150.5) vs. Texas A&M (5:15 p.m. ET on CBS)

Texas A&M #12 defense, #24 rebounding, #231 TO avoidance

N. Carolina #34 defense, #3 rebounding, #61 TO avoidance

Some potential for this one to get very interesting if Texas A&M can protect the ball better than it’s been doing. Is that possible so late in a season? Probably not…which means that’s the tie-breaker that justifies the Vegas point spread. Both teams excel at defense and rebounding. The fact that UNC does well on defense magnifies the likely weak spot for the Aggies. That said, the Tar Heels have shown vulnerability in recent big games. Losses to Virginia and Miami look worse now than they did at the time. And, two second half fades vs. Duke are a strike against a deep Dance run. Texas A&M has the athletes to pull an upset. Does it have the in-game discipline? 

Kansas State (-10/135.5) vs. Maryland-Baltimore County (7:45 p.m. ET on truTV)

MD-Balt Co: #170 defense, #279 rebounding, #67 TO avoidance

Kansas St.: #41 defense, #289 rebounding, #90 TO avoidance

History has made it clear that unheralded underdogs who score shocking Round 1 upsets typically fall back to earth with a thud the next time out. No matter how great they looked…no matter how often the players say they won’t let down…the laws of math and human emotion combine to case a lot of train wrecks. That said, this is a double-digit line and Kansas State sure doesn’t impress head-to-head in the areas of rebounding and turnover avoidance. And, the “turning into a pumpkin” games are often a 12-13 seed having to deal with a 4-5 the second time out. This is the first time ever a 16 reached the second round. Worth remembering that K-State plays hard-nosed defense, while Virginia inexplicably panicked and played in a daze the other night. K-State won’t be caught napping, which will make it tougher for UMBC to get scary. And K-State’s going to attack the basket rather than rushing treys through the second half. 


Purdue (-4.5/143.5) vs. Butler (12:10 p.m. ET on CBS)

Butler: #48 defense, #117 rebounding, #27 TO avoidance

Purdue #28 defense, #74 rebounding, #25 TO avoidance

Haas of Purdue suffered a broken elbow, but may try to play anyway because his size can be of assistance even if he’s not his usual self. The Holy Trinity is painting a very interesting picture. Let’s say Haas is reduced enough (our erased) in a way that makes Purdue’s defense and rebounding worse. Suddenly it’s a dead heat across the stat lines. Butler plus the points makes sense in that regard…as does the reality that Purdue’s been overpriced for weeks. Butler’s a very smart dog that has a real chance to spring this upset. 

Michigan State (-8/129.5) vs. Syracuse (2:40 p.m. ET on CBS)

Syracuse: #11 defense, #43 rebounding, #224 TO avoidance

Michigan St. #9 defense, #1 rebounding, #232 TO avoidance

Wow…hard to find teams more evenly matched than that. Both excel in the defense and rebounding categories, with Syracuse boarding better than you’d expect out of a zone. Both are awful at protecting the ball…which plays into the hands of the high quality opposing defenses. The Holy Trinity is saying this is another underdog that makes sense. Like Purdue, Michigan State has been overpriced for weeks. As ugly as Syracuse plays, the Orange are built for tournament basketball. That’s a lot of points for a low total game. 


Cincinnati (-7/136.5) vs. Nevada (6:10 p.m. ET on TNT)

Nevada #107 defense, #181 rebounding, #3 TO avoidance

Cincinnati #2 defense, #9 rebounding, #82 TO avoidance

We talked the other day about how Nevada’s injury at the point guard position erased its main strength in a way that made its weaknesses more prominent. Texas took advantage of that for awhile, building a 14-point second half lead. But a second-half collapse from the Horns helped launch Nevada into the next round. This isn’t exactly a classic “letdown” spot off a Cinderella dog. But it feels a bit like that because Nevada is realistically more like a 12-13 seed with its current lineup…and rallying from 14 down is its own Cinderella story. If Nevada comes out flat, it’s going to get squashed like a bug by talented Cincinnati. It’s also a “defense and rebounding” rout for the team that shouldn’t be flat. A lot of blowout indicators here, suggesting the favorite is worth a look. 

Xavier (-6/159) vs. Florida State (8:40 p.m. ET on TNT)

Florida State: #76 defense, #63 rebounding, #127 TO avoidance

Xavier #59 defense, #10 rebounding, #84 TO avoidance

Despite feeling like a “fake” #1 seed (based on computer rankings, “market” Power Ratings, and a Holy Trinity composite that’s nice but not dominating), the Musketeers still get the best of it in each of these categories today. Plus, Florida State is in a spot where its “poorly coached” reputation is more likely to come to the forefront. Tough to argue with the point spread all things considered. 


Auburn (-1/146.5) vs. Clemson (7:10 p.m. ET on TBS)

Clemson #8 defense, #86 rebounding, #139 TO avoidance

Auburn #44 defense, #61 rebounding, #60 TO avoidance

Auburn is playing much worse than those Holy Trinity rankings since suffering injuries. The Tigers looked awful in a survival win over Charleston, and got obliterated in its second half vs. the Alabama team that was then crushed by Kentucky and Villanova over successive weekends. How is Auburn going to impress against the #8 defense? Tough to call it a Holy Trinity grading to Clemson because you can’t know for sure how many spots to dock Auburn for its injuries. Let’s say it this way. The assumptions gained from a Holy Trinity guess don’t overcome reasonable impressions of recent form. Auburn is 0-5 ATS its last five games, missing the market by 5.5, 24.5, 2, 10.5, and 4 points. This current version of Auburn probably shouldn’t be favored on a neutral court over Clemson. We’ll see. 

West Virginia (-12/159.5) vs. Marshall (9:40 p.m. ET on TBS)

Marshall: #144 defense, #312 rebounding, #83 TO avoidance

West Virginia #39 defense, #54 rebounding, #34 TO avoidance

Marshall’s getting a lot of great press because its head coach has an NBA last name. Yes, there’s a lot to like about a team that’s trying to do things differently. But the Holy Trinity stats are SCREAMING warning signs about the horrors of defense and rebounding. Plus, Marshall’s turnover avoidance number might be of concern against the West Virginia press. So far, the betting markets aren’t buying into the underdog hype. Maybe the state rivalry thing will mean something for Marshall. Key stats say it’s a big mountain to climb. Though, tougher to call this a letdown game for Marshall because its win involved Wichita State sinking down to its level rather than the Thundering Herd playing over its head. Herd was 9 of 23 on treys, rather than Buffalo’s 15/30 or UMBC’s 12 of 24. 

That wraps up Sunday. See you Monday to review Sunday’s final eight “round of 32” matchups in the Dance, and to run some previews for a new batch of NIT matchups. 

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