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Will laws of math catch up to Duke, Villanova?

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

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Grayson Allen and the Blue Devils have displayed three-point dominance, but can it last?
© USA Today Sports Images

Three-point dominance has launched Villanova and Duke to the top of the futures ladder. But can they keep it going in such a fickle stat? Offensive and defensive three-point percentages for the last 16 on the Dance card plus the latest from the NIT right now in VSiN City. 

NCAA Tournament: Villanova and Duke made more three-pointers…at a higher percentage…than anyone else in the Dance so far
Yesterday we talked about how Villanova and Duke are virtual co-favorites in current futures prices to win the 2018 NCAA tournament. We also showed that they’re in a perceived dead heat in estimated “market” Power Ratings based on current (and recent) point spreads. As much as we love the “Holy Trinity” stats we’ve been studying throughout the Dance, we have to admit that old school fundamentals may be moot if the two most elite remaining teams keep shooting lights out from long range. 

Here are the three-point performances so far in the tournament (two games for everybody but Syracuse, who’s played three) for the survivors. We’ll rank them by percentage, with the shooting marks in parenthesis. 

Three Point Shooting
Villanova: 46% (31 of 68)
Duke: 45% (23/51)
West Virginia: 44% (16 of 36)
Purdue: 43% (20/46)
Kansas: 42% (16/38)
Clemson: 40% (16/40)
Texas A&M: 40% (16/40)
Florida State: 39% (15/38)
Loyola-Chicago: 39% (16/41)
Nevada: 36% (17/47)
Kentucky: 33% (7/21)
Texas Tech: 32% (10/31)
Kansas State: 32% (10/31)
Gonzaga: 31% (14/45)
Michigan: 28% (13/46)
Syracuse: 26% (11/42)

Only Villanova and Duke have made more than 20. Purdue is right at 20, and needed a big game from long range to get past Butler. You can see it’s not “essential” to make a bunch of treys for teams to advance. Syracuse can’t shoot a lick. Michigan’s been surprisingly shoddy. Gonzaga had a horrible opener from long range but recovered. Kentucky is currently the “favorite” on its softer half of the bracket despite only making seven treys over the first weekend. 

That said…how is anybody else going to catch Villanova and Duke from behind if they keep shooting like THAT?!

The good news for everyone else is that it’s very hard to maintain that level of performance in this stat, even for sharpshooters. Pressure increases. New sites have tricky backdrops. And the laws of math aren’t your friend after positive extremes. We’ve talked all season about teams that are mortal when the treys aren’t falling. Villanova and Duke haven’t had a chance to show us yet in this event that they’re mortal because the treys have been falling. Villanova had to go overtime in the Big East tournament championship against Providence. Duke didn’t even make the ACC finals after losing to North Carolina. Still time for more surprises. 

What about defense? The problem with putting too much weight on defensive numbers is that analytics has had trouble proving much predictability for this skill set. For years, it was thought that “three-point defense” was relatively random. Opponents either made their shots or they didn’t. Yes, teams launching desperation treys from behind would lag statistically…but you had to know who was going to fall way behind in advance to make that work. More coaches are emphasizing guarding the arc with speed and length as the sport continues to evolve, which may lead to advances where skill sets are isolated more emphatically. 

Let’s take a look to see if anything jumps out…

Three Point Defense
Texas A&M: 24% (12/51)
Syracuse: 26% (22/86)
Purdue: 26% (10/38)
Kansas State: 27% (15/56)
Duke: 28% (12/43)
Clemson: 28% (16/57)
Kentucky: 28% (18/64)
Gonzaga: 29% (14/48)
Villanova: 30% (12 of 40)
Michigan: 30% (10/33)
Texas Tech: 31% (11/36)
Florida State: 35% (13/37)
Loyola-Chicago: 38% (13/34)
West Virginia: 39% (19/49)
Nevada: 39% (16/41)
Kansas: 40% (20/50)

Let’s quickly note that the median offensively was 39%. Here on the defensive side it’s 29% and 30% (median being the 8-9 spots on the 16-team ladder). So, clearly the survivors as a composite are making a lot more than they’re allowing so far. How much credit do we give A&M’s “defense” for North Carolina launching panic treys from way behind all through the second half? It’s easier to respect the proven Syracuse zone defense. But 22 of 86? That might be too extreme to maintain. 

Honestly, handicapping hasn’t gotten to the point where it can tell you what’s going to happen next time out in a fickle stat from two-game sample sizes. If the numbers do have meaning, Villanova might make a run at 20 made treys given its aggressiveness from outside and West Virginia’s “allowed” percentage up near 40 vs. the likes of Murray State and Marshall. 

We’ve spent so much time on the Holy Trinity that we wanted to make sure to get some three-point data into your hands before the Dance music resumed. Some added context for you at the very least. 

Tuesday NIT: Road warriors Penn State, Mississippi State stamp tickets to New York for Final Four
So much for home court advantage meaning much in the NIT. Visitors Penn State and Mississippi State won in impressive fashion Tuesday night to earn spots in the Final Four next week at Madison Square Garden. 

Penn State (plus 2.5) 85, Marquette 80
Two-point Pct: Penn State 57%, Marquette 50%
Three Pointers: Penn State 6/14, Marquette 12/29
Free Throws: Penn State 17/21, Marquette 12/14
Rebounds: Penn State 30, Marquette 29
Turnovers: Penn State 12, Marquette 12
Estimated Possessions: Penn State 69, Marquette 72
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Penn State 29-32-27, Marquette 53-49-50
Market Watch: An opening line of Marquette -1.5 was bet up to -2.5 (in direct opposition to the indicators we outlined in our preview for this game yesterday). The Over/Under fell from an opener of 153 down to 151 or 150.5, guided by quants (who else would bet Unders at this time of year?!)

The Holy Trinity was screaming that Penn State was the much superior team in the stuff that matters most in playoff style basketball. You can see the edges in two-point shooting and rebounding above. So, even playing on the road against a motivated host, the Nittany Lions were able to get the best of it in those categories. Be sure you notice that Marquette needed a 12-6 six edge in made treys just to rally late from a double-digit deficit. Penn State won scoring on 1’s and 2’s by a count of 67-44. So, a slaughter inside the arc that Marquette almost counter-acted with the high trey volume. 

This continues a run for Penn State that saw them cover three times in the Big 10 tournament…then win outright at Notre Dame this past weekend (a team that was supposed to be Dance caliber at full strength), then coast to a comfortable victory here. Definitely a team to watch in New York next week, particularly if the market continues underestimate them. 

Mississippi State (plus 6) 79 Louisville 56 
Two-point Pct: Mississippi State 52%, Louisville 39%
Three Pointers: Mississippi State 8/21, Louisville 7/24
Free Throws: Mississippi State 9/12, Louisville 7/10
Rebounds: Mississippi State 42, Louisville 32
Turnovers: Mississippi State 11, Louisville 16
Estimated Possessions: Mississippi State 67, Louisville 69
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Mississippi State 60-62-65, Louisville 31-23-32
Market Watch: A lot of support for Louisville here, as an opener of -5 was bet up to -6 (even sightings of a 6.5). The Over/Under didn’t garner much interest either way at 144. Some shops closed a half-point higher. 

Disappointing non-effort from the hosts. Guess they weren’t interested in going to Gotham after all. Mississippi State established dominance in the first half, then went for the jugular after the break to win a blowout going away. You can see dominance up and down the box score. Not a replay of the win at Baylor, which was fueled by treys. This was fueled by intensity on both sides of the floor! Great stuff from Mississippi State. 

Wednesday NIT: Previews of the last two quarterfinals
Two teams are headed to New York. Two more will join them after Wednesday’s final two quarterfinals. Let’s check out the Holy Trinity stats for these matchups. As promised, we’ll also get caught up with the very late Monday boxscores that launched two of these teams into the Elite Eight. If you’re just joining the fun with the Holy Trinity, the stat rankings below are from the beginning of the week in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession adjusted for strength of schedule), and then rebound rate and turnovers committed per offensive possession from teamrankings.com (not adjusted for schedule strength at that site). 

Western Kentucky (plus 4.5/148.5) at Oklahoma State (8 p.m. ET on ESPN2)
W. Kentucky: #80 defense, #96 rebounding, #66 TO avoidance
Okie St. #53 defense, #86 rebounding, #189 TO avoidance
Oklahoma State gets the nod in defense and rebounding, but it’s not really an emphatic nod considering the closeness of those rankings. Western Kentucky did the better job of avoiding turnovers this season. That could prove important at a tricky road site…in the second road game in three nights for this dangerous floater. We already ran the numbers from Oklahoma State’s win over Stanford. Let’s see how Western Kentucky got here. 

Western Kentucky (plus 4.5) 79, USC 75
Two-point Pct: W. Kentucky 57%, USC 53%
Three Pointers: W. Kentucky 3/9, USC 9/24
Free Throws: W. Kentucky 16/17, USC 8/19
Rebounds: W. Kentucky 32, USC 27
Turnovers: W. Kentucky 12, USC 8
Estimated Possessions: W. Kentucky 68, USC 68
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: W. Kentucky 50-67-54, USC 51-42-51

A lot to love about that boxscore. As we just saw with Penn State, Western Kentucky owned the inside game in dominant fashion against a host that was supposed to be NCAA tournament caliber. USC won made treys 9-3. Western Kentucky won scoring on 1’s and 2’s by a count of 70-48…and then also earned clearance in rebounding. Now, admittedly, this could be USC still “on strike” because the Trojans were so mad about missing the Dance. USC had to go overtime in a 1-8 game in the seedings against unheralded NC Asheville. Then, another big point spread miss here against a #4 seed. We can’t just assume Western Kentucky is going to play at this same level. But you have to respect what they’ve accomplished to this point. 

Is there an obvious bet in Western Kentucky/Oklahoma State? Feels like “intangibles” favor the visiting team on a mission. But this is an awkward trip to Stillwater in a potential fatigue spot. Conflicting signals. 

Utah (plus 6.5/140.5) at St. Mary’s (10 p.m. ET on ESPN2)
Utah #78 defense, #219 rebounding, #127 TO avoidance
St. Mary’s #111 defense, #13 rebounding, #16 TO avoidance
A lot of sleepers show well in “defense and rebounding,” and you have to live with some turnover issues. St. Mary’s isn’t like that. Crappy defense by postseason standards…but excellence in rebounding and turnover avoidance. Worth remembering that they didn’t exactly close the regular season on a tear. The Gaels still get the best of it in the three-stat composite because Utah is lousy at rebounding and disappointing with the ball. Worth noting though that St. Mary’s seemed to have a HUGE edge over Washington Monday night, and posted this unimpressive result… 

St. Mary’s (-11) 85 Washington 81 
Two-point Pct: Washington 62%, St. Mary’s 55%
Three Pointers: Washington 9/21, St. Mary’s 9/15
Free Throws: Washington 8/12, St. Mary’s 14/16
Rebounds: Washington 21, St. Mary’s 31
Turnovers: Washington 9, St. Mary’s 12
Estimated Possessions: Washington 65, St. Mary’s 63
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Washington 97-91-112, St. Mary’s 28-29-22

So…a team that the computers unanimously believe is top 30…was laying 11 points to a visiting underdog that the computers unanimously believe is outside the top 90….and that “superior” team shot a blistering 60% on three-pointers, while also winning free throws and rebounds (by 10)…yet it could only win the game by FOUR points? What happened?

That awful defense let Washington shoot 23 of 37 on two-pointers. Washington’s a sub-par team from a disappointing conference! Maybe St. Mary’s can get past another mediocrity from that same conference Wednesday when Utah visits. But in New York next week…St. Mary’s is very unlikely to impress because the defense will still be soft but 60% on treys won’t be happening again. 

Does Utah make sense as a value bet Wednesday? The problem with that is that the Utes won’t have home court advantage at altitude the way they did in the blowout of LSU. Can you trust them without that perk? Beating Washington by four is so unimpressive that fading St. Mary’s is at least worth thinking about. St. Mary’s is 2-7 ATS its last nine, with the wins coming over outmatched Santa Clara and SE Louisiana squads. You can trim it to 1-6 ATS at lines of -11 or lower, meaning that St. Mary’s isn’t playing to expectations against opponents who have a decent shot of competing with them. 

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See you Thursday for Holy Trinity previews and market watch updates of the first four Sweet 16 matchups. 

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