Looking for Cinderella

(This is the first in a series of posts in which Sam Ebb, 2017 Co-Lead of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and I will be using metrics and models to defend our respective points of view.)

Sam and I serving as greeters in our official Conference capacities

Sam: Every year at about this time, you hear about which teams are drastically underseeded, the weak 5 seeds that will be 12 seed fodder, and everyone’s pet pick for the national champion. We wanted to give a slightly different take and look at the path that different teams have to Phoenix, and which teams could have things break just right for a fairy tale run.

John: So rather than go completely chalk on the bracket, Sam and I wanted to examine the teams that are seeded as a 5th seed or worse who might do some damage and/or potentially ruin your chances of winning your highly competitive office pool where your co-workers have picked based on mascots alone. All right, Sam, time to put your money where your mouth is, who is your first choice to make some noise?

Sam: Let’s start with a team that is highly efficient on offense and has a path that I think is among the cleaner potential routes for a lower seed — SMU.

At 11th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (120.1) and 27th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (94.8) per KenPom, SMU looks particularly dangerous and well balanced as a 6 seed. To make noise, of course, a team has to make it out of the opening weekend, and SMU looks particularly well positioned to do so, with a matchup against a USC team that trails it significantly in both key efficiency metrics — 48th in offensive efficiency (112.4) and 85th in defensive efficiency (100.3) per KenPom. These numbers put USC in the vicinity of perennial powerhouses like Vermont and East Tennessee State.

Moving forward to matchups against teams such as Baylor and Duke (both teams that have struggled notably with consistency throughout the season), SMU’s profile of high efficiency offense, defense and rebounding (4th in total rebound percentage) make them a compelling choice for a team to bust some brackets (and the hopes of Duke fans across the country). John, do you think anyone can corral these Mustangs?

John: There’s a lot to like about SMU in terms of their statistical profile. Sam, you are putting me in an awkward position of having to say something positive about the USC Trojans, something I’m loathe to do as a Notre Dame alum. However, it is worth mentioning that this same USC team that you’ve dismissed above has already beaten the Mustangs earlier in the year (78–73 at USC).

Sam: So you’re saying they lost a mid-season road game to another tournament team? I’m not sure that’s grounds to write them off for this game.

John: Point taken, but they also lost to Boise State who ranks 88th in Adjusted Efficiency and have two top 25 wins on their entire resume (both against Cincinnati).

Sam: Fair enough. Time will tell if I we both get to celebrate with the misery of Blue Devil fans (and the 13% of America who picked Duke to win it all). Alright, your turn now. Who is your cinderella story of this year’s tournament?

John: My pick here will be no shocker; of course, I’m taking Wichita State.

Sam: Everyone’s favorite tournament darling. I’ve got one major problem with your choice (or really three), it starts with Kentucky, moves to UCLA and ends with UNC. I can’t think of many teams who have a tougher run to make it to Phoenix than Wichita State — likely having to face the 3rd, 4th and 18th overall teams in KenPom’s rankings. You really think they can pull it off?

John: It’s a tough road to hoe. There is absolutely no question about that. However, Gregg Marshall has enjoyed the role of giant killer, both at Winthrop and now with the Shockers. This team has routinely overachieved in the past, and I think there’s a chance that they do it again. While the slate of games is tough given their ludicrous 10 seed from the NCAA committee, they are nonetheless 8th in Adjusted Efficiency and 11th in Jeff Sagarin’s well known rankings.

Sam: Fair point, though their lofty status in adjusted efficiency leaves them still behind two of the teams they will likely need to beat just to cut down the nets in their region. While Syracuse did make the Final Four as a 10 seed last year, they were given quite the gift from the tournament gods to get there — they didn’t face a top 10 team in adjusted efficiency until the Elite Eight thanks to upsets by Middle Tennesse State and Gonzaga, something I just don’t see happening to highly efficient Kentucky and UCLA teams this year.

John: Also, if we are pointing out flaws on their resume, going 0–3 against top 50 opponents scares me a lot more than who they might face. They don’t turn the ball over a ton (26th in turnover percentage) and hit the glass as well as anyone in the tournament (5th overall in total rebound percentage).

I’ll borrow from Lloyd Christmas here and say, “So you’re saying there’s a chance” and that’s good enough for me.

Sam: Alright, we’ve both laid out our favorites, but let’s close it out with some quick hits. I’ve heard a lot about Oklahoma State and their high flying offense over the last couple days (#1 in adjusted offensive efficiency at 124.8). What are your thoughts on them?

John: There’s one reason I won’t be picking Oklahoma State to go anywhere, their likely second round opponent, the Louisville Cardinals. Aside from his disastrous stint at the helm of the Celtics, Pitino has repeatedly proven his chops. And I promise he won’t trade Chauncey Billups again if it makes you feel any better, Sam. Speaking of leprechauns, will luck be on the side of the Irish or will they prove to be a paper tiger in their matchup against Princeton?

Sam: Well, if this season has told us anything, the luck of the Irish may not be real (they rank 133 in KenPom’s luck factor this season), but this team definitely is. They have lost only one game to a team lower than a 5 seed this season (a 2 point loss at Georgia Tech on a buzzer beating 3 pointer). My main problem with Notre Dame is their questionable defense — 58th in adjusted efficiency (at 97.8) — and slow pace could come back to haunt them in a relatively low scoring close game the way it did against Georgia Tech.

John: It’s a veteran team that takes care of the ball (lowest turnover percentage in the nation) but perhaps most importantly can win games at the charity stripe (the team shoots a shade under 80% at the line). All right, we’ve talked about some Davids, what Goliaths are going down early in your view?

Sam: While they have maintained a high efficiency rating, a banged up Oregon team looks ripe for upset. A single case of foul trouble could spell the end of their run.

John: I’ll go with Duke. To be clear, not for any statistical reasons. Few things bring me a greater amount of joy than the Blue Devils exiting early so I just want to cheer for that.

Sam: Really? Piling on Duke here? While I do like SMU, the Blue Devils are an extremely talented team that is currently 13th in overall efficiency despite missing Coach K for 7 games midseason and battling back from the injury bug that has afflicted the team over the course of the season. Now healthy, they are a tough team to pick against.

John: You are assuming that Grayson Allen doesn’t Draymond their chances at some point…

Sam: To be clear, Draymond, I’m a big fan and don’t support that statement. Thanks everyone for sticking with us and keep an eye out for our piece next week on the NBA MVP race.

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