By Mikee Salud
We are currently in the middle of March, and all eyes are on the NCAA, basketball, and March Madness. The First Round has already provided a historic upset with the 16-seed UMBC defeating 1-seed Virginia, something that many, myself included, did not think would happen in our lifetime (let's take a moment of silence for everyone's bracket). As the Round of 64 has come to a close, let us look at who has the best chance of winning the tournament right now as we head into the Second Round.
To start off, it must be said that using stats will always be the best way to predict winning. However, in the case of March Madness, where every round is decided by one game, there is a high degree of unpredictability that not even stats can quantify. No one could have predicted that UMBC would upset Virginia, no matter how many stats were being used. In fact, there are over 9 trillion different ways to make a bracket, which make it literally impossible to create the perfect bracket. All in all, this article can be seen as completely foolish within an hour of this article being released. That being said, all we can do is make our best predictions, and this is where statistics can come through.
The First Round of March Madness had a general lack of upsets up until the historic UMBC win (Rest in Peace Arizona, DeAndre Ayton, and Sean Miller’s coaching career). While we cannot calculate certain variables such as momentum, what we can look at are stats that correlate the most to winning basketball games. Former Sacramento Kings and ESPN Director of Analytics Dean Oliver once stated that the four factors that most correlate to basketball wins are shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throw proficiency. Using these four factors, we will try determine which teams lead these categories and make an educated guess on who has the best chance to win.
The objective of basketball is quite simple: one team needs to score more points against the other team before the time runs out. When looking at which team is the most efficient at shooting, we look at certain stats, most specifically effective field goal percentage. The difference between field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage is that eFG% adjusts for the fact that a 3 pointer is worth one more point higher than a 2 point field goal. This helps to more clearly identify which team is scoring more efficiently. The top five teams in effective field goal percentage that are still in the tournament are:
Villanova was already one of the favorites to win the tournament altogether, and it is no surprise as they have with the most efficient offense in the nation. Their starting five alone boasts incredible shooting prowess, as all five shoot the three-ball 38% or higher, leading to a nice spread offense and wide open lanes for their players such as Jalen Brunson to penetrate through. Elsewhere, we have Kansas, who besides having Devonte' Graham, are also aided by the Nation-leader in Field Goal Percentage in Center Udoka Azubuike. Shockingly, eleventh-seeded Loyola Chicago had the fifth highest effective field goal percentage in the nation, which aided their attack as they upset Miami in their first round match up.
The next thing that we need to look at is turnover stats. The importance of limiting one's own turnovers and creating turnovers against opponents cannot be understated. Turnovers can allow easy fast breaks and buckets, and can easily ruin the momentum for any team. To see which team prevents the most turnovers, we look at turnover percentage, which shows how many possessions a team coughs up per 100 possessions.
Among the Second Round teams, Nevada and Florida take care of the ball the best, with the Wolf Pack having multiple ball handlers such as guard Cody Martin and forward Lindsey Drew, while Florida's offense is being mainly initiated by senior guard Chris Chiozza. There is also another appearance from Villanova, proving that they do not only shoot the ball well, but protect it also.
When looking at rebounding, we do not just need to look at rebounding percentage, but offensive rebounding percentage as well. Rebounds in general create possessions, and the more possessions one has means more opportunities to score. Having more offensive rebounds creates extra opportunities on the offense and can wear out a defense. Rebounding percentage tells us the percentage of rebounds a team grabbed.
While Gonzaga is within the top five in Total Rebounding %, they are nowhere near close to the top five in the country in Offensive Rebounding %. This tells us that their rebounding percentage is most likely deceiving and could possibly be more of a result of opponents missing shots as opposed to a more all around rebounding prowess. Going further into the tournament, they are not the safest bets to create extra possessions the same way that a team such as Duke or Michigan State are. Duke currently has freshmen stars Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., who pull down an impressive 11.3 and 9.3 rebounds a game respectively, while Michigan State has a plethora of long, lengthy guys such as Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. who can do the dirty work down low. The Spartans even have their point guard Cassius Winston pulling down 3.5 boards, an impressive number for a guy six-feet tall.
The last factor that needs to be looked at is free throw proficiency. Free throws should essentially be free points, so being able to get to the line will enable teams points that the defense cannot prevent. However, being able to have many free throw attempts is not enough, as teams need to make them. Take for example someone like Shaquille O'Neal, a career 52.7% free throw shooter, was fouled numerous times due to his inability to knock down free throws and ruined his teams flow and momentum. Being able to draw fouls and make free throws is crucial to winning basketball games. Free throw rate calculates the amount of free throw attempts per field goal attempt.
Xavier's one advantage by far is the ability to win the free throw game, as they consistently get to the free throw line often and convert them at a near 80% clip. They are led by Senior guard Trevon Bluiett, who attempts 5.5 free throws a game and makes them 86% of the time. Interesting to note that while Kentucky attempts the most free throws per field goal attempt among the teams that are left, they shoot free throws at a poor 70%, which can seriously hinder their team, especially at the end of games where hitting free throws are crucial to win. Some of their key players, such as PJ Washington, Hamidou Diallo, and Wenyen Gabriel will become almost unplayable in late game situations, as they all shoot below 63% from the free throw line.
With all of this in mind, Villanova should be the winner of the tournament. Led by Head Coach Jay Wright and star Juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, this is not at all a bold prediction in the slightest, as they are a number one seed in the tournament and NCAA.com reported that the majority of all brackets made have Villanova coming out on top. That being said, they score at an incredibly efficient clip, keep the turnovers low, and convert free throws at a good rate, making the most of every opportunity and giving themselves the best chance to beat anyone. However, they do lack in the rebounding department, which could hurt them if they face a dominant big man, such as Duke's Marvin Bagley. If we are looking at a potential upset or cinderella story, take a look at Loyola Chicago, who score incredibly efficiently and, while this stat was not discussed, also carry a decent defense with an Opponents eFG% of .475. Or you could look at UMBC, who already have etched their name in the record books and could ride this momentum into a Sweet Sixteen bid. Nonetheless, like I said in the beginning of the article, any team can theoretically beat anyone in any given night, which could make this prediction foolish. Heck, UMBC could win it all and truly surprise the entire world even more than it already has. After all, this is what makes the "Madness" in March Madness: exhilarating, unpredictable, and completely fun.
Sources: Basketball Reference, NCAA.com, Sportingnews