Final Four Predictions: Inside The 2010 NCAA Tournament (With More Stats)

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Inside The 2010 NCAA Bracket: Final Four Predictions

Welcome back to the future, to a time when March was mad. You'd be forgiven for wondering how exactly March had earned its reputation for being so certifiable after the past two chalk-filled tourneys. Indeed, the 2008 edition was the first to feature every 1-seed advancing to the Final Four, and last year's tournament, while certainly more topsy-turvy, still saw all the top seeds make the Elite Eight. But this year has been more of a vintage, upset-laden edition, with names like "Farokhmanesh" joining "Pittsnoggle" in our tournament lexicon.

With just a single 1-seed making it to Indianapolis, pundits have struggled to find a common theme among the chaos of this year's March Madness. The best, most plausible explanation so far? It's all about offensive rebounding. ESPN's Eamonn Brennan explained that Duke, West Virginia and Michigan State all rank in the top ten of offensive rebounding rate, which measures what percentage of a team's own misses they rebound (this is a better measure than rebound margin, which depends in large part on what pace a team plays at). It makes intuitive sense why offensive rebounding would be a reliable predictor of tournament success; in fact, it's the old Tom Izzo formula. In our Sweet 16 breakdown we explained:

Rebounding and defense are both about effort, so even when shots aren't falling, Michigan State remains consistent in what it does.

But while this might be generally true, is it really how our final foursome made it to Indianapolis? We crunched the numbers, calculating each team's offensive and defensive rebound rates for each tournament game, then adjusted them for the level of competition (racking up rebounds against Kentucky is clearly more impressive than doing so against Missouri, one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the nation). We also calculated each team's offensive and defensive efficiencies through their four tournament games; that is, how many points they score and allow per possession. We adjusted these numbers as well, then ranked the teams on what their expected winning percentage would be based on their efficiency numbers to get a snapshot of who's been playing the best ball.

Maybe Duke is a little bit better than we thought.

Teams' offensive efficiency is listed first, followed by defensive efficiency.

THE VILLAIN: DUKE (128.4, 83.6)

How They Got Here: Beat No. 16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff 73-44; Beat No. 8 California 69-53; Beat No. 4 Purdue 70-57; Beat No. 3 Baylor 78-71

The numbers say Duke has played the best tourney-ball of the remaining quartet of teams. The numbers lie. We hope. The truth is that this Blue Devils team is unlike any other recent incarnation of the Dookies in a way that makes them legitimate, if overrated, contenders. Yes, Coach K still employs an aggressive man-to-man defense (with plenty of flopping) that disrupts opponents' offensive sets. But where this year's squad differentiate themselves is on the other end, specifically the offensive glass.

It's easy to dismiss Duke's impressive offensive numbers because...well, they're Duke, and the program has been on a downward trajectory for years now. Sure Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith (who has quietly been their best option) are nice college players, but don't they just seem like worst versions of actually decent players who have come through Cameron Indoor? Singler is a poor man's Mike Dunleavy; Scheyer a lame version of J.J. Redick; and Nolan Smith is the second coming of Chris Duhon. In as diluted a year as this one, that trio is enough to make Duke a tough out -- but championship contenders, let alone favorites? Does not compute.

That's where Duke's phalanx of quasi-talented big men comes in. While Singler, Scheyer and Smith may not be good enough to carry a team to a title, they are good enough to do so when they simply get more shots than the other team. And that's exactly what Duke has excelled at. The awkwardly effective, if foul-prone, Brian Zoubek has been the improbable catalyst for this reinvented Duke team, though he has had plenty of help. Hightly-touted freshman Mason Plumlee seems good for one eye-opening, athletic dunk/putback per game, just enough to remind you that he's not a complete stiff. Meanwhile, his brother Miles and Lance Thomas (aka the "Black Plumlee") aren't very skilled, but both give the Blue Devils five fouls to use in the post, and crash the offensive glass.

The result? In tournament play, Duke has posted a staggering adjusted offensive rebound rate of 48.6. Put another way, the Blue Devils would rebound nearly half of their misses against an average opponent based on their recent play. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the key to beating Duke isn't necessarily containing their Singer-Scheyer-Smith troika, but rather getting their bigs into early foul trouble. Unfortunately for Coach K, West Virginia has exactly the type of athletic front-court players to do just that. We hope.


How They Got Here: Beat No. 15 Morgan State 77-50; Beat No. 10 Missouri 68-59; Beat No. 11 Washington 69-56; Beat No. 1 Kentucky 73-66

Most years, some upperclassman (usually a senior) eschews NBA riches to come back for one more year and win a title. Call it the Unfinished Business Theory. Consider some of the champions from the last decade: Mateen Cleaves (Michigan State '00);  Shane Battier (Duke '01); Juan Dixon (Maryland '02); Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, and Sean May (UNC '05); Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer (Florida '07); Tyler Hansbrough et. al. (UNC '09). And it's worth noting that if Nick Collison could have made a free throw in the 2003 title game, he and Kirk Hinrich would likely be on this list as well.

Most pundits tabbed Sherron Collins as this year's senior who "wouldn't let his team lose". About that...oops. Let's take a mulligan and instead nominate West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler, whose absurd shot-making over the past month has catapulted the Mountaineers to this point. But if Butler is indeed going to find himself celebrating his "One Shining Moment", he and his teammates will need to get back to doing what it was that burnished their rep as an elite team: boarding their own misses.

The Mountaineers were the second-best offensive rebounding team in the nation during the regular-season, collecting nearly 42% of their misses, but they've been more or less shut out on the boards during the tournament, at least by their lofty standards. Bob Huggins' squad has only managed a 33.8 adjusted offensive rebounding rate -- and that number is buoyed in large part by their effort against Washington, when they did in fact dominate on the glass.

West Virginia has advanced to this point almost solely due to their otherworldly defense. They like to start games in man-to-man, and then mix it up with their 1-3-1, a holdover from their John Beilein days. With the lanky Devin Ebanks on the top of the zone, teams typically struggle to do much more than throw looping passes along the perimeter, and then chuck up contested outside shots (see, Kentucky Wildcats). The potential Achilles Heel with the 1-3-1, as with all zones, is defensive rebounding. The Mountaineers haven't really struggled on the defensive backboard, but their opponents' 29.7 offensive rebounding rate in tournament games is the worst among the remaining teams, and it is obviously a concern with the monstrous Duke front-line up next.

Their matchup with the Blue Devils will more likely than not come down to who rebounds better. While the Blue Devils have played better to this point, West Virginia has a higher ceiling. We see them reaching it on the big stage.

THE DARLING: BUTLER (113.9, 80.3)

How They Got Here: Beat No. 12 UTEP 77-59; Beat No. 13 Murray State 54-52; Beat No. 1 Syracuse 63-59; Beat No. 2 Kansas State 63-56

Let's retire two tired media memes: asking whether or not Butler is in fact a "Cinderella" and saying "the Butler did it". Agreed? Good. Now as for their actual play, Brad Stevens' squad has turned out to be the unlikeliest of mid-major bracket busters: a shutdown defensive unit. As we explained last week:

There are only so many talented bigs, and most major conference teams snatch them up. That's why most mid-majors run guard-centric offenses, and also why mid-majors typically struggle on defense, particularly rebounding the ball.

Butler has flipped the script. While they do rely on perimeter shooting far more than any of the other surviving teams (particularly from Sheldon Mack), they run a good bit of their offense through Matt Howard and Gordon Haywad, who just happens to be the best pro prospect still playing.

The Bulldogs certainly haven't struggled been overmatched on the glass, either. While they've only recorded a modest 23.0 adjusted offensive rebounding rate, that's more a testament to their commitment to getting back in transition and setting up their halfcourt defense than any lack of ability. On the defensive end, they've held tournament opponents to a 24.4 adjusted offensive rebounding rate, just a hair behind Michigan State for the best among our four regional champs.

In other words, Butler doesn't give opponents any easy baskets, limiting transition and second-chance opportunities. Their half-court defense is so ferocious, with guards Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley two particulary adept perimeter erasers, that even elite offensive teams like Syracuse and Kansas State have struggled when they've been forced to consistently go up against their set defense. If Butler can keep the pace to its liking and limit Michigan State to one shot per possession, they should move on to the title game.

Prepare yourself for even more Hoosiers/Hinkle Fieldhouse references.


How They Got Here: Beat No. 12 New Mexico State 70-67; Beat No. 4 Maryland 85-83; Beat No. 9 Northern Iowa 59-52; Beat No. 6 Tennessee 70-69

Some things defy rational explanation. This is one of those times. How exactly has this Michigan State team made its way to the Final Four? Good question. It hasn't been their defense, which has been just average at best in the tournament. At first blush, it wouldn't seem to be their offensive board work either, as they've posted a respectable if unassuming 33.8 adjusted offensive rebound rate through their first four tournament games.

But dig a little deeper, and it becomes apparent that this is indeed a typical, albeit flawed, Tom Izzo team. Ignoring the numbers from their slugfest with Northern Iowa, the Spartans' offensive rebound rate jumps to a much more impressive 37.6, which goes a long way towards explaining how they've managed to be so efficient offensively despite unimpressive shooting totals. That's the good news. The bad news? Butler, much like Northern Iowa, is a slow-paced team that protects its own defensive backboard and gets back quickly in defensive transition. While the Spartans cruised (relatively) against Northern Iowa, that was due in large part to the Panthers' own struggles from the field; if Butler can stymie Michigan State on the offensive glass, much as Northern Iowa did, expect the Spartans' run to come to an end.

Taking a step back, it's worth appreciating the job Tom Izzo has done. Minus their best player for the past two and a half games, Michigan State has managed to navigate their way back to the Final Four, stringing together close win after close win. Maybe that's luck, but coaching certainly has something to do with that as well. And it's not as if their roster is loaded with NBA talent either. Durrell Summers is their only surefire pro, and even he's not a lock as a first-round pick. Whether it's because of East Coast media bias or the fact that his teams usually lack star power, Izzo has been criminally overlooked for someone who's enjoyed his type of success. Well, no more.

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