Written By: Jack Gray
As we’ve seen in the first edition of this week’s March Madness blog series here at IUPUI, seeding isn’t always the best indicator of which team has the better chance to win in the tournament. Upsets happen, and our goal is to use data analysis to give meaningful insights on which upsets might be likely. This post focuses on exciting, maybe surprising first round matchups where the teams’ offensive and defensive efficiency metrics will likely be a crucial factor in the outcome of the game. For these five matchups, I will explain how the teams’ metrics coincide or counteract one another, what to expect from the game, and where to take a chance at picking an upset.
Throughout the article I mention KenPom’s Adjusted Efficiency metrics. Pomeroy calculates Adjusted Offensive Efficiency as points scored per 100 possessions (adjusted for opponent). He calculates Adjusted Defensive Efficiency as points allowed per 100 possessions (adjusted for opponent). He ranks teams overall by their net efficiency in offense and defense (which I call KenPom Rating).
I also mention Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System. This metric accounts for average point differential and strength of schedule. The rating system is scaled by points above/below average for each team. I refer to this as SRS Rating in my visualizations.
(6) Texas Tech vs. (11) Utah State
This game features the best defensive matchup you will see in the first round of the tournament. Both Texas Tech (#24) and Utah State (#8) rank in the top 25 of KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They hold their opponents to an impressive 63.4 and 62.3 PPG respectively, so expect this to be a rock fight. Conversely, the Utah State offense is only 118th in the nation. The biggest lingering question going into this game is what kind of guard play we will see out of Texas Tech guys like Mac McClung and Kyler Edwards. This team has been offensively very streaky, but there’s no doubting that McClung loves playing in the spotlight, and I think this team is poised to make a scrappy run in this tournament. Texas Tech’s toughest test before the Sweet 16 will come right here in the first round. Expect this to be a battle.
(3) Arkansas vs. (14) Colgate
The 3 seeds in this year’s tournament are particularly vulnerable, and although Arkansas sits at KenPom’s highest ranking (#18) in Adjusted Efficiency compared to the other 3 seeds, they face a sneaky offensive juggernaut in Colgate to start the tournament. Colgate during the season posted an astounding 86.4 PPG while shooting 38.7% from three. This team throws flames offensively, but the doubt lies in the fact that this year they played teams with extremely low defensive efficiency (#328), and Arkansas has the best defense they will have most likely seen all year, although it’s not what the Razorbacks are known for. Both of these teams have elite, high-scoring offenses, and this is a nice matchup for Colgate to show how good it really is. Sports Reference even has Colgate rated higher than Arkansas on their Simple Rating System! I like the Raiders here.
(11) UCLA vs. (11) Michigan State
This is certainly the most intriguing First Four matchup, not just because of the prestigious history of both schools, but because they have interesting offensive and defensive metrics this season that directly counteract one another. Notice on the scatterplot how the two teams fall in diagonal quadrants of one another, signifying one team is very good at defense (Michigan State), and the other team is very good at offense (UCLA). Michigan State has an impressive Defensive Efficiency rating of 92.2 (32nd nationally). Amazingly this team has five Quad 1 wins even with an offense that barely breaks the Top 100. Conversely, UCLA had a fantastic offense this year, averaging 72.8 PPG and ranking 26th in KenPom’s Offensive Efficiency. So do you choose defense or offense to get this win? This matchup is a coin flip, and I’m picking UCLA because of the off balance season that Michigan State has had. I also think UCLA has the better chance to upset BYU, so this factors into my decision. It’s hard to bet against Tom Izzo though.
(7) Oregon vs. (10) VCU
Similar to the UCLA/Michigan State matchup, this game features offenses and defenses that clash–VCU having the 12th best defense in the country and Oregon having the 16th best offense in the country. Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System has these teams rated nearly identical in efficiency: VCU at 12.52 and Oregon at 13.63. You’d think that Oregon has played tougher competition in the PAC-12 compared to VCU in the A-10, but their Strength of Schedule ranking is the same as well (86th toughest and 75th toughest respectively). Basically the identities of these two teams are direct opposites, but they are rated nearly identical in overall efficiency metrics. I chose to feature this matchup because of the unique challenges both teams are presented with in this game, and I give the slight edge to Oregon because they have been hot recently winning 6 of their last 7 games.
(3) Texas vs. (14) Abilene Christian
Did I mention 3 seeds were vulnerable this year? Texas, similar to this year’s Kansas team, has at times looked like a National Championship contender yet also have occasionally looked like a pickup team at the YMCA. They enter the tournament ranked 26th in KenPom Rankings, ranked lower than an 8-seed and two 9-seeds. They’re not flawed in offense or defense, ranked 21st and 36th respectively; their test comes from facing one of the premier defenses in the country. Even with the 331st toughest Strength of Schedule in the country, Abilene Christian has an Adjusted Defensive Efficiency of 92.2, a higher defensive rating than teams I’ve already highlighted like Michigan State. . . and BAYLOR. I’m not calling the upset here because I’ve already burned my 3/14 upset with Arkansas/Colgate, and I also think the strength of Texas’s defense will be a rare challenge for Abilene Christian, but I do not doubt that Abilene Christian will make this Texas team sweat in the first round.
Other Notable Offensive/Defensive Matchup Insights
- (11) Drake’s 18th ranked offense going against (11) Wichita State’s 103rd ranked defense. That smells like trouble for the Shockers.
- (3) Kansas has been COVID-struck and has been streaky, but their 6th ranked defense led by Marcus Garrett is facing not the most dangerous of offensive teams in (14) Eastern Washington, ranked 86th. Go with the Jayhawks.
- (7) Florida and (10) Virginia Tech appear to be the most evenly matched two teams to meet in the first round. Neither team has an edge in defensive, offensive, or overall efficiency. Flip a coin.
- (8) LSU has a #5 ranked offense going against (9) St. Bonaventure’s #17 ranked defense. That sounds like a fun clash!
- I don’t think (10) Maryland will be strong enough offensively (ranked 42nd) to keep up with this (7) UConn team. Maryland and UConn’s defenses along with UConn’s offense are all ranked top 30 in efficiency.
- (8) Loyola’s nationally ranked #1 defense takes on (9) Georgia Tech’s #27 ranked offense in an 8/9 matchup. These teams both have more value than their seeding, and it’s a shame they drew each other.
- (6) San Diego State enters the tournament with the 11th best defense in the country matching up against (11) Syracuse’s 22nd ranked offense led by Buddy Boeheim. It’s hard to ever bet against Syracuse in the tournament, but San Diego State has a tough team.
We hope you have enjoyed the Sports Innovation Institutes pre-tournament blog series. For more information on these upcoming matchups or need advice filling out a bracket, feel free to email me at email@example.com. It’s my favorite time of the year. Now let’s play some basketball!
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