Conference Call: Postseason Previews, Day 2

Minnesota wasn't terribly impressive in holding off High Point, but for their troubles, they earned a second-round matchup with St. Mary's, as Utah dropped that 4-5 matchup and gave the NCAA selection committee something to be thankful for, a rarity this season. In the meantime, we preview the three matchups involving Big Ten teams today, each of them from a different tournament.

Also, you should really join our ESPN bracket group, because what's better than besting an analytics person at their own game? All people who outscore me in this challenge win the right to remind me of it for the next 12 months. (Yeah, it's not much of a prize. We'd offer more, but apparently NCAA rules ...)

CBI First Round: Penn State (15-17, 83) vs. Hampton (18-12, 219), 7:00 PM

Hampton finished second in the expanded MEAC this season, going 13-3 in conference play before falling to seventh-seed Coppin State in their opening MEAC tournament game. Their reward is a trip to a sub-.500 Big Ten team, where they're likely to be a first-round out in a no-name tournament rather than a first-round out in the NCAA tournament. (The MEAC has been a primary beneficiary of the play-in games, recording 5 of its 6 wins in those games. The notable exception was Coppin State's win as a 15 over 2-seed South Carolina in 1997. Interestingly, Ron Mitchell, who coached the Eagles that season, is still in charge there.) 

The Pirates ran through the MEAC ... literally. Their record came primarily from quick possessions (15.6 seconds, 14th in DI) coming off turnovers (21.9%, 17th). Of course that also came against a different type of team than the Pirates will face tonight: Penn State doesn't turn the ball over (15.7%, 30th) and has a reasonably sound defense (101.2, 99th), which suggests that points from a set offense will not be easy for Hampton. 

Hampton also is good at drawing fouls (50.7 FTA/FGA, 19th), and Penn State does foul ... a lot (48.1, 303rd; the DI average is 40.6). So if Deron Powers is able to work the ball inside to senior Du'Vaughn Maxwell ... uh, who shoots .507 from the line. Right. So if Powers is the one taking the ball to the hoop, his .841 mark at the line could be an issue for Penn State. If Maxwell isn't drawing and-ones, he'll likely just be working his way through Penn State's bigs. 

Penn State doesn't turn the ball over (15.7%, 30th), but they do get shots blocked (11.8%, 307th), and Hampton does block shots (15.4%, 11th). Surprisingly, Penn State isn't that much taller, and if they continue to put up questionable shots, they could let the Pirates run themselves into a difficult situation. It's hard to see Hampton pulling off an upset, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a final score well under the 77-65 prediction that kenpom generates, maybe under 120 combined.

NIT First Round: #2 Illinois (19-14, 58) at #7 Boston U. (24-10, 123), 7:00 PM

State Farm Center renovations began immediately after the regular season ended, so rather than hosting one or two NIT games, the Illini will be on the road. This might actually be a blessing in disguise for Illini fans, as any disappointment will come away from home rather than right in front of their eyes.

Illinois coach John Groce engineered an upset of 4-seed Michigan in his last year at Ohio U. (Two years ago, in fact. Hard to imagine.) That team lost in the Sweet 16 in overtime to North Carolina, but did it mostly by raining threes (38.4% of their attempts, 60th) and forcing turnovers (26.4%, 2nd). Last year's Illinois team increased the threes (41.7%, 22nd), but the turnovers dropped off (21.7%)., and this year ... well, the threes dropped off a lot (33.9%), but two-point accuracy also dropped (.456, 288th), and without turnovers to drive easy buckets (18.7%, 151st), Illinois really struggled, especially in Big Ten play. During their eight-game losing streak, they topped 70 points just once, in a 7-point loss to Iowa. They inexplicably allowed 95 points to a Bo Ryan team, managed just 60 in the win over Penn State that stopped the skid, and two games later, lost a 48-39 snoozer to Ohio State that probably was the nail for their NCAA hopes. As well as the Illini have played recently, their wins over Michigan State and Iowa were over an injured team and a slumping team, respectively. Their 31-point loss at home to Michigan is probably more indicative of their strength than the 1-point loss last week in the Big Ten quarters.

The Terriers, six-point winners at Big Tenteen adoptee Maryland in December, are like a smaller version of that Michigan team: accurate shooters, don't rebound on offense, don't draw fouls, don't turn the ball over much. But they are a less-accurate version, too, and that may make the difference. Boston does rely pretty heavily on threes (39.0% of their shots, 33.5% of their points), and if senior D.J. Irving (.374 from long range) gets hot, that could pose a problem for the visitors. Groce's team is strong in all non-turnover areas on defense, though: 93.9 DRtg (14th), and just 32.7 FTA/FGA (34th), so if Boston can't find outside shots, they may not get any.

Irving had 25 points, 4-5 from three and 7-10 from the line, in the upset of Maryland. Boston shot 10-26 from three in that game. If they can put up similar numbers against Illinois, they can walk away with a win. If no one finds the range, Illinois will be giving another lower seed a home game in the second round. kenpom says 62-61 Illinois, which sounds to me like neither team will be lighting it up from outside.

NCAA Opening Round: #11 Iowa (20-12, 28) vs. #11 Tennessee (21-12, 11) at Dayton, 9:10 PM

Once upon a time, the NCAA selection committee insisted that RPI was merely one of many tools that they used to determine seeding, and that it really wasn't as important as everyone else thought they thought it was. Then one year, the fifth-best team in the Atlantic 10 by standings, kenpom, and Massey (4th in Sagarin, 3rd in ESPN's BPI) drew a 6 seed while a team with a higher position in a stronger conference barely even got a bid ... and we haven't begun to talk about Iowa yet. (Apparently the committee was so taken with the Minutemen's list of 40s victims - Nebraska, Clemson, BYU, Providence, St. Joseph's, George Washington, all ranked between 40 and 49 in kenpom - that they ignored their losses to Richmond, St. Bonaventure, and George Mason.)

Rumor has it that people in Football Country were grumbling about Cuonzo Martin's team late in February, when they were 16-11 and in danger of missing out on a bid. (To be fair, the SEC is ... not strong this year. They're a distant sixth and have exactly three tournament-worthy teams, all in the dance. I suppose you could make an argument for Arkansas, but their claim to fame is beating Kentucky, and you can't play a conference opponent in the first round.) I'd always thought that the top five things on a Tennessee fan's mind were football, football, football, football, and how is Pat Summitt doing today, but apparently "why is Martin not getting the team over the hump this year" was on the list as well. 

Fortunately, the schedule was kind, and Tennessee beat Mississippi State, blew out Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Missouri, and shut down South Carolina before dropping a close game to Florida in the SEC tournament. That was enough to earn them an opening-round game against Iowa, essentially the mirror image of Tennessee. The Hawkeyes sat at 15-3 in mid-January and 19-6 in mid-February before imploding, dropping seven of their last ten (with wins over Michigan, Penn State and Purdue), including a loss to Northwestern in which they allowed one of the worst offenses in the country to score 67 points. 

We'll never know exactly how much of a role it played, but certainly one thing that's been on Fran McCaffery's mind for quite some time is the surgery his son Pat is having today. Hopefully everything goes well - that's certainly the kind of thing that can excuse any kind of, well, anything your team does or doesn't do.

The Iowa team that had a bid locked up earlier this year was very similar to regular-season conference champion Michigan: excellent offense (119.9 ORtg, 4th), questionable defense (102.7, 129th). Unlike Michigan, the Hawkeyes run run run (70.9 possessions per game, 19th) and rely on inside shots and volume rather than accuracy (38.1% OReb, 14th). Unfortunately for them, Tennessee is as deliberate as Michigan on offense (63.3 possessions, 313th), and slow tends to override fast when it comes to tempo.

The Vols don't force many turnovers (17.2% on defense, 244th), but they shut down pretty much everything else you do (DRtg 94.1, 15th), and that's where Iowa may run into problems. Tennessee's offense is efficient (113.6, 29th) in large part because of rebounding (39.7% OReb, 5th) and lack of turnovers (17.2%, 95th). Both teams rebound well at both ends of the court - their lowest rank is Iowa's OReb% allowed, 65th. 

Iowa's a very deep team (40.5% of their minutes come from the bench, 14th), and Tennessee is not (24.4%, 294th), but Tennessee's ability to control the pace could offset much of that advantage. The Vols also don't foul much (33.1 FTA/FGA, 39th), so if Iowa can't get their transition game going, they may have problems at both ends of the court.

Significant personal situations are wildcards: nobody can really tell how much it will affect the coach and the players. kenpom sees this as a 75-73 Tennessee win, but giving the Vols a 59% chance to win. Expect a burst of emotion initially from the Hawkeyes, but once things settle down, 'Zo's third Tennessee team should have enough to earn a favorable matchup against UMass ... and wouldn't it be nice to have a homecoming of sorts if they can take down 3-seed Duke and earn a spot in Indianapolis? That might even spruce up Martin's resume to the point that he'd consider a job with a true power-conference team ...

As Rumor Mill Churns...Big Ten Crumbles?

As Rumor Mill Churns...Big Ten Crumbles?

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