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Handicapping today's NCAA matchups: Long-range shooting key

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

March 21, 2018 11:24 PM

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Sharp bettors aren't showing much faith in Eric Musselman and his Nevada team.
© USA Today Sports Images

That music you hear is driven by the drumbeat of basketballs hitting the hardwood as the 2018 Big Dance is ready to resume. We preview Thursday’s Sweet 16 action with our Holy Trinity stats and check in on the NIT and NBA right now in VSiN City.

NCAA Tournament: Thursday previews using the Holy Trinity

No statistical indicators give you a perfect read. But we’re pretty happy with the accuracy of the pictures that have been painted by our “Holy Trinity” stats so far in the NCAA tournament and the NIT. If you’re new to VSiN City, we’ve been focusing on…

  • Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rankings from Ken Pomeroy’s website
  • Rebound Rate as calculated by teamrankings.com
  • Turnover Avoidance as calculated by teamrankings.com

Defense. Rebounding. The most impactful element of guard play. Historically the factors that matter most in “playoff” style basketball, even with the growing influence of the three-point shot. These three factors have the most game-to-game predictive value because they emphasize skill sets, and are much less prone to the random extremes we see with three-point shooting. 

We’ll go region by region in our previews, using tip-off order in reach region. Thursday’s games now…Friday’s games in tomorrow’s report.

THURSDAY’S GAMES IN ATLANTA

Nevada (-1/143.5) vs. Loyola-Chicago (7:05 p.m. ET on CBS)

Loyola-Chi: #24 defense, #120 rebounding, #213 TO avoidance

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

Loyola was able to upset Miami and Tennessee by slowing the game down and getting the job done in crunch time. They grade out very well in defense above. That’s not necessarily “inside” defense, because both Miami and Tennessee shot 53% inside the arc. But Miami turned the ball over 16 times, while Tennessee couldn’t earn many trips to the free throw line (3 of 6). If you believe that “defense and rebounding wins championships,” then you’re going to have Loyola winning the game. Sharps have been betting that way so far, as an opener of Nevada -2.5 is down to -1 as we put this preview together. 

Check this out…

Dance Rebounds

Loyola down 57-54 vs. teams seeded #6 and #3

Nevada down 86-67 vs. teams seeded #10 and #2

Nevada better shoot lights out because it may not get many second chance opportunities. As we noted yesterday, Nevada is 20 of 45 on treys for a sharp 44%, which works out to the equivalent 67% (rounding) on two-point shots.

Nevada should win turnover avoidance. But it is missing its point guard for this event. Hasn’t mattered yet. The Wolfpack has only turned the ball over NINE times total in two games! Unbelievable against the defenses of Texas (7) and Cincinnati (2). Speaks very well of this coaching staff and the basketball IQ of its players. 

Let’s assume Loyola wins defense and rebounding, while Nevada wins turnover avoidance. The Wolfpack still still probably have to shoot well from long range to win. That’s the toughest thing to do on purpose, particularly after a few days off during a site switch. We can see why Loyola got the smart money. Bettors have to determine if the value has been “bet out of the line” on the dog already. 

Wouldn’t be surprised to see the Over/Under drop on game day. Regulation totals have landed on 126 and 125 for Loyola, 136 and 148 for Nevada with slow pace. 

Kentucky (-5.5/138.5) vs. Kansas State (9:35 p.m. ET on CBS)

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

Kentucky #23 defense, #42 rebounding, #181 TO avoidance

As we’ve noted for a while, Kentucky is playing better in the postseason than its regular season stats would have predicted. A great run in the SEC Tournament, and then easy wins so far over Davidson (who rallied late to create a misleading final margin) and Buffalo. You can see above that once again we have one team winning defense and rebounding, the other turnover avoidance. Let’s see if Kentucky has improved in the turnover category so far.

Dance Turnovers

Kentucky loses 23-19 to teams seeded #13 and #12

Kansas State wins 30-29 over teams seeded #8 and #16

Well, Kentucky is still a negative even against a soft slate. Kansas State was the surprise, with way too many turnovers vs. UMBC. Let’s say it this way, K-State’s projected edge might not be as big as the regular season stats suggest. 

Kentucky’s rebounding edge is likely to be that big…

Dance Rebounds

Kentucky leads 78-58

Kansas State trails 73-70 

Kansas State finds itself in the same boat as Nevada, but against a much more athletic opponent. The Wildcats may not get many second chance points. They’ll have to shoot well from long range to make up for that. Toughest thing to do on command under pressure after a layoff and a site switch. 

THURSDAY’S GAMES IN LOS ANGELES

Michigan (-2.5/136) vs. Texas A&M (7:35 p.m. ET on TBS)

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

Michigan #5 defense, #141 rebounding, #2 TO avoidance

This could be a lot of fun. If the Texas A&M team that’s suddenly feeling its oats (long overdue) runs into the Michigan team that was so dominant in the Big Ten tournament, this is going to be high-level college basketball. If the version of the Aggies that disappointed much of the season faces the version of Michigan that was lucky to get past Houston…UGLY!

Michigan was showing better in the rebounding category late in the season than the full campaign ranking would suggest. Defense is a wash…so let’s run the rebounding and turnover Dance numbers for these teams too.  

Dance Turnovers

Texas A&M loses 28-12 (14-6 both times!) to teams seeded #10 and #2

Michigan wins 22-21 over teams seeded #14 and #6

Michigan has been a disappointment at ball protection, particularly against Montana. Texas A&M is still a disaster. The offense is high-risk high-reward. The Aggie defense hasn’t done a good job yet of forcing turnovers either. 

Dance Rebounds

Texas A&M leads 94-62 (wow!)

Michigan is tied 74-74

We have to assume off that and the full-season rankings that Texas A&M is going to win the rebounding category. That puts Michigan on the list of teams that must shoot well to advance. Though, at least the Wolverines have a chance to pick up some cheap points off Aggie turnovers. 

The sharps made it clear that they saw value on Texas A&M at plus 3.5 and plus 3. Sharps have always respected defense and rebounding in this event, whether it’s through pure stat analysis or modeling that places weights on important categories. You’ve seen Loyola and A&M both get underdog money as the “defense and rebounding” side, while Kansas State didn’t get that money with a likely deficit on the boards. 

Guess we can’t leave out that the Big Ten went 0-4 ATS last weekend, and is 2-5-1 ATS in the Dance. The market has either overrated the teams, or underestimated the negative impact of a long layoff might have on their hopes. 

Gonzaga (-5.5/152.5) vs. Florida State (10:05 p.m. ET on TBS)

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

Gonzaga #17 defense, #4 rebounding, #33 TO avoidance

The only harmonic convergence on Thursday, with a team winning all three Holy Trinity categories. Plus, there are added boosts for the favored Bulldogs from playing in their home time zone (Florida State had to travel cross-country), and facing a team in an obvious letdown spot (Florida State just rallied to knock out the #1 seed). Also, many would also give Gonzaga a big edge at the head coaching position too. 

This approach to handicapping is pointing aggressively at Gonzaga (-) as a fundamentally smart play. If you watched FSU’s upset of Xavier, you saw the #1 seed implode with panicky turnovers down the stretch. Gonzaga is less likely to do that. Gonzaga had the chance to do that vs. Ohio State, but ended up pulling away for the win. 

So…three games where it looks like one team will have to hit treys (Nevada, Kansas State, and Michigan) to overcome issues in the areas of defense and rebounding, and one harmonic convergence. Best of luck with your choices!

Wednesday NIT: Western Kentucky and Utah complete unlikely road sweep in quarterfinals

Last night Penn State and Mississippi State earned their trips to New York for the Final Four of this secondary college basketball postseason event. The Nittany Lions and Bulldogs will face each other in one semifinal. Two more tickets were stamped Wednesday night. 

Western Kentucky (plus 6) 92, Oklahoma State 84

Two-point Pct: W. Kentucky 56%, Oklahoma State 38%

Three Pointers: W. Kentucky 5/13, Oklahoma State 10/24

Free Throws: W. Kentucky 23/30, Oklahoma State 18/22

Rebounds: W. Kentucky 40, Oklahoma State 39

Turnovers: W. Kentucky 10, Oklahoma State 6

Estimated Possessions: W. Kentucky 74, Oklahoma State 71

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: W. Kentucky 42-67-53, Oklahoma State 60-45-59

Market Watch: Oklahoma State opened at -4.5 or -5 depending on the store, and was bet up to 6.5. The total rose from an opener of 148.5 to 150.5 based on quant interest. Only Over bettors were happy.  

The third straight NIT quarterfinal where the road team came out on a mission and the host couldn’t match that intensity. It was a pattern all night where Western Kentucky would build a lead…Okie State would try to battle back…only to see the visitor pull away again. You can see that Western Kentucky did this by attacking the basket to score easy deuces and earn free throws. Hilltoppers win scoring on “1’s and 2’s” by a count of 77-54, while also eking out a win in the rebounding category. Extremely impressive for a road dog. 

Utah (plus 6.5) 67, St. Mary’s 58 (in overtime) 

Two-point Pct: Utah 52%, St. Mary’s 46%

Three Pointers: Utah 12/27, St. Mary’s 7/22

Free Throws: Utah 3/6, St. Mary’s 5/14

Rebounds: Utah 26, St. Mary’s 40

Turnovers: Utah 8, St. Mary’s 15

Estimated Possessions: Utah 62, St. Mary’s 63

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Utah 61-57-69, St. Mary’s 29-28-22

Market Watch: An opener of St. Mary’s -6 was bet up to 7 before dropping back down to a closer of -6.5 (some stores never got to seven). The Over/Under ticked up from 140.5 to 141.

An amazing 4-0 straight up sweep for road underdogs in the NIT quarterfinals. Though, less of a shock here because St. Mary’s had been struggling against market expectations the past few weeks (as we discussed yesterday). The game was tied at 54-all at the end of regulation. Utah would dominate extra time with a 13-4 blitz.

This was an extremely slow game, only reaching the mid 50’s in possession counts in regulation. Utah shot well, particularly from long range. St. Mary’s was cold, but made up for that with offensive rebounds. Turnover rate turned out to be a huge difference, surprisingly going against St. Mary’s. After a great turnover avoidance ranking through the season, the Gaels would lose that stat at home to both Washington and Utah. (15 giveaways in a slow game is ridiculous!)

The NIT was hoping for a Final Four featuring Notre Dame, Baylor, USC, and St. Mary’s (the top seeds), and would have been okay with Louisville sneaking in there instead of Baylor. Instead, it’s Penn State, Mississippi State, Western Kentucky, and Utah…with the much smaller TV markets three of those schools bring to the table. Should be some quality basketball though, given how well that quartet had to play on the road to extend their seasons. We’ll pick up with the NIT again next Tuesday for semifinal previews.  

Wednesday NBA: Cleveland beats Toronto 132-129 in high scoring, SLOW-PACED thriller!

This one had to be seen to be believed. If you were only scoreboard watching, you may have assumed that Wednesday night’s Toronto/Cleveland thriller had to be a run-and-gun affair that looked like the ABA circa 1972. Toronto led 79-64 at halftime! Cleveland would rally with a great second half to earn a 3-point win in a matchup many are expecting to be the pairing in the Eastern Conference finals in a couple of months. 

Amazingly, it was played at a playoff tempo. This was half court basketball. Toronto only had two fast break points all night, out of 129 points! We use the rudimentary shots…minus offensive rebounds…plus one-half free throws…plus turnovers to estimate possessions. That estimate showed a below average sum. Widgets that turn boxscores into “advanced” boxscores pegged the “pace factor” at 93.6. Keep that in mind as you read this boxscore…

Cleveland (plus 2) 132, Toronto 129

Two-point Pct: Toronto 60%, Cleveland 59%

Three Pointers: Toronto 15/34, Cleveland 15/24

Free Throws: Toronto 20/23, Cleveland 23/28 

Rebounds: Toronto 33, Cleveland 32

Turnovers: Toronto 7, Cleveland 8

Estimated Possessions: Toronto 96, Cleveland 97

Market Watch: The market flipped favorites from an opener of Cleveland -1 to Toronto closing -1.5. or -2. The Over/Under was within arm’s reach of 226 all day, which had no chance of being high enough after an 80-point first quarter. 

Both teams made 15 treys, with Cleveland hitting a ridiculous 63% (equivalent to 94% on deuces with rounding). Both teams shot at or right at 60% inside the arc. Neither offense turned the ball over much. LeBron James had 17 assists with 0 turnovers!

You have to assume we’ll see better interior defense in the playoffs, with more turnovers forced. But that could lead to more foul shooting as well. THIS could be what that eventual championship series looks like…with both defenses overmatched by the opposing offense in halfcourt, playoff style basketball. Amazing. The sport at the highest level is evolving before our eyes. Handicappers must keep on their toes to anticipate what “playoff basketball” is going to look like in this brave, offensively efficient new world. 

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