NCAA Tournament Preview: West Region

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 2:02pm

Why Xavier Will Make The Final Four

Trevon Bluiett & JP MacuraTrevon Bluiett & JP MacuraThis Xavier team has exceeded expectations and climbed all the way to a #3 ranking. It’s probably the greatest team in the history of a program that has sported some pretty darn good teams in the Chris Mack era. Trevon Bluiett is one of the best scorers in the nation and four hot games from him alone might be enough to get X to San Antonio, But this team got the 1 seed with fast-paced, aggressive offense, a system predicated on attacking the rim, getting to the line, and getting points in transition. They rank #7 nationally on offense according to Ken Pomeroy; the only other team in the Top 25 offensively is North Carolina at #4. Most of the teams in this region simply won’t be able to match the Musketeers scoring pace for 40 minutes.

Xavier’s strength on offense is illustrated by their offensive efficiency numbers. They are a top 20 team in both effective field goal percentage and two-point percentage. Eight of their nine rotation players shoot at least 44% from the floor, and the ninth, stretch big man Kaiser Gates, shoots all but one shot per game from outside the arc. Xavier is also the second-best free throw shooting team in the tournament, connecting at a 79% clip. And not only are they successful at the line, but they get there with regularity as well. Texas Southern and Lipscomb are the only teams in this regional that get to the line with more regularity than Xavier.

Advanced data aside, look at Xavier’s body of work. This year, teams had to meet one of the following conditions to beat Xavier and sometimes that still wasn’t enough:

1) Be #2 team in the nation Villanova
2) Shoot 56-48-92 and make 13 3’s (Arizona State)
3) Be Providence, which has Xavier’s number for some reason

I don’t see Villanova (or any team of Villanova’s caliber) in this bracket. Providence is in this region but they are a distant 10 seed and I am sure Xavier would love a shot at any 10 seed, Providence or not, in the Elite Eight. And while a hot shooting day could be anyone’s undoing in a win-or-go-home tournament, Xavier is just as likely as anyone to be the team having one.

This is a team that ranks 9th out of 351 NCAA Division I teams in Ken Pomeroy’s Luck factor. But while he calls it luck, others might call it “the ability to win close games with consistency”. Xavier is 9-1 in games decided by 5 points or less. While it raises the question of why they were in such close games against supposedly inferior teams in the first place, it leaves little doubt that Chris Mack is a great end-of-game coach and that Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, and the rest of the guys have the intestinal fortitude to get it done in high-pressure situations, and it doesn’t get any more high-pressure than the NCAA Tournament. Despite many calling Xavier the “weak” 1 seed, with the support of Bill Murray, who's son Luke is an assistant coach, they have a golden opportunity to finally make the Final Four.

Why Xavier Won’t Make the Final Four

What the optimist would call “Intestinal fortitude” and “the ability to win close games with consistency”, the pessimist and maybe even the realist would call an indicator that this Xavier team is not as good as it purports to be. If that 9-1 record is 5-5, Xavier finishes 24-9 and likely finishes in the 3-5 seed neighborhood. What they have in offense, they lack in defense, as they rank 59th in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Defense metric, 37th amount tournament teams despite the fact that X has been dubbed the fourth best overall team in the nation. From this regional alone, UNC, Gonzaga, and Michigan are all ranked higher by KenPom and Ohio State is one spot behind. If Xavier wasn’t given a first round matchup with a play-in winner, there might be some who would even be considering them susceptible for the first ever 16-1 upset.

All that might be hyperbole, but the fact is, this is one of the more flawed 1 seeds in recent memory. This is a team that, just 10 days ago, nearly lost to Depaul, that took overtime to beat Georgetown at home, that required a pair of comebacks to beat St. John’s in the regular season, that also trailed late against Depaul at HOME in January, that gave up 102 points to a bubble team in Arizona State, and that trailed East Tennessee State by 18 at one point.

Xavier played the bottom three teams in the Big East (Georgetown, St. John’s, Depaul) a total of 6 times in the regular season, and in every single one of those six games, they either trailed with under 10 minutes to go, trailed by 7 or more points, or won by a single possession. This is a team that certainly has a way of playing down to its competition. The formula for an upset of Xavier could be as simple as forcing Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura into off shooting nights and the opponent putting up a lot of points on Xavier’s mediocre defense Gonzaga could do it, Ohio State could do it, even Missouri could do it. And if Xavier manages to make the Elite Eight, their likeliest opponents, North Carolina and Michigan are arguably better, and definitively hotter teams right now.

Best Non-1 Seeds


#2 North Carolina

Not only are the Tar Heels the biggest challengers to Xavier, they have 13% more folks on ESPN picking them to advance to the Final Four, myself included. Some of that may be name recognition, but the Tar Heels have proven time and time again they can beat elite competition. They play aggressively and crash the offensive glass at an elite level, and they have experience all over their lineup. Star seniors Joel Berry and Theo Pinson have played in the last two national championships, and Luke Maye was the MVP of the South Regional in last year’s tournament. They have a top 5 offense and a solid defense and few teams can match their athleticism, particularly on the wings.

#3 Michigan

When you come out of a conference feature Michigan State and Purdue with a conference tournament title, you have a fair bit of momentum going into the tournament. Michigan did that and they have peaked at #7 in the nation in the latest AP Poll. They’re a tough team to match up with, with shooters all over the floor, and their DEFENSE, not usually the calling card of a John Beilein team, ranks fifth in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy. They take care of the basketball, they control the defensive glass, and they work the ball around until they get a great shot. A potential UNC-Michigan matchup in the Sweet Sixteen could pit this regional’s two hottest teams against one another. When Moritz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Charles Matthews and the rest of this team gets hot, few teams in the country can keep up with them.

Best of the Rest

#4 Gonzaga

This isn’t the best Gonzaga team of the Mark Few era, but they were just as dominant in the WCC as usual. They have climbed to a respectable 8th in the KenPom rankings, making them the second-highest team in this regional after UNC. A group of role players from last year has stepped up and led this team to 30 victories this year. Killian Tillie and Jonathan Williams anchor the post, Josh Perkins and Silas Melson hold down the back court, Zach Norvell is the exciting newcomer, and Rui Hachimura is the X-Factor off the bench. This Gonzaga team is strong on both sides of the ball, especially inside. They sure don’t look like a mid-major with the way they impose their will in the paint.

#6 Houston

The Cougars are finally back to national relevance for the first time in the Kelvin Sampson era. The switch to the American Athletic Conference has helped, but the play of guys like [Player: Rob Gray, Corey Davis Jr. and Devin Davis has probably helped more. This team held it’s own against Wichita State and Cincinnati and in fact won 3 out of 5 against the two traditional conference heavyweights. Ever since the 51-point shellacking of ECU, Houston has been on a roll, winning every game but the conference championship and nearly beating Wichita State and Houston on back to back days. Good offense supplemented by great defense has this team in a position to pull off a few upsets against blue bloods and make the Final Four

Sweet Sixteen Sleeper

#12 South Dakota State

At this point, South Dakota State is the potential Cinderella story that everyone already knows about, but I’m here to espouse some further wisdom. Yes, they have Mike Daum. Yes, Mike Daum is the best player on this team by a landslide and you probably have already heard about him. This team also turns the ball over less than anyone in the nation and controls the defensive glass, a profile that makes it look like the lite version of a power conference team. Daum could always get even hotter than usual over a weekend and that could be enough to carry SDSU over a pair of quality opponents.

Final Four Sleeper

#8 Missouri

In my own bracket, Missouri will abruptly be ending the run of #1 Xavier before the first weekend is through. We all have heard about Michael Porter Jr. and the potential effect of his return for this team. But this current Missouri team already has the talent that was necessary to nab an 8 seed. With both Porter brothers in the lineup, matchup problems will abound if Michael is back to full health. Gonzaga may be able to counter, but Xavier may not. If you have potentially the Best-Player-in-the-Nation-not-named-DeAndre-Ayton on your team and you’re an 8 seed, you are definitely capable of being much better than your seed. This team can get hot from outside and let the Porter brothers do the rest so watch out, world, a second or third weekend experience may be in the cards.

Top 5 NBA Prospects


1) Michael Porter, SF, Missouri

This one's a no-brainer. He is the only lottery-caliber player in this region, at least right now, and he’s a guy who could change the face of a franchise when he joins after the draft this year. He’s a great shooter and a great athlete as well, and at 6’10”, he has all the physical tools he needs to be dominant on both ends of the ball. Before his near season ending back surgery he was seen as the possible #1 overall pick, and with a strong tourney showing and workouts, he could still contend for the 2nd pick.

2) Jontay Porter, PF/C, Missouri

The casual college basketball fan may have not even heard of Jontay, but he’s the unheralded older brother of Michael. He can stretch the floor and block shots and he has another inch (6’11) on Michael. With outside shooting ability and a 7'2 wingspan, there is some real intrigue in him as well. Jontay is currently considered a borderline first round talent and this tournament could be his moment to step out of his brother’s shadow and raise his stock tremendously with a surprise run.

3) Moritz Wagner, PF, Michigan

Wagner is a guy who mixes the rugged physicality of the traditional big man with the outside shooting touch of the modern big man. His versatility alone will get him NBA looks, and when you look at the fact that he is converting on 61% of his looks inside in addition to his outside stroke, you realize just how much he brings to the table as a scorer. He’s a 5 in college but will be a 4 in the pros, and his team is in a position to potentially make the Final Four and give Wagner plenty of exposure to scouts before he decides if he wants to leave a year early or not.

4) Rui Hachimura, SF, Gonzaga

We currently have Hachimura sticking around for another year of school and then being a 2019 lottery pick. But he could probably go pro today and be selected in the first round. He’s a tremendous athlete and he uses his explosiveness to crash the glass and get to the rim. He’s still a little raw and is currently more of an athlete than a basketball player in this writer’s opinion, but the talent is just too undeniable. He will likely spend the next year developing his shooting touch and come back in 2019 as a significantly more well-rounded player.

5) Keita Bates Diop, SF, Ohio State

We've hardly mentioned Ohio State to this point but we mention most of their 2017-2018 production when we talk about Keita Bates-Diop. He blossomed as a senior and he took his team with him as they made their way to a 5 seed. Bates-Diop is a great competitor at the college level, but can he score in the NBA? It will be interesting to see if he has the athleticism and the length to do some of the things he did in college in the pros. Currently, we are projecting him as a second round pick, and it’s likely he returns to Ohio State for his senior year if his stock doesn’t improve. KBD could watch his team bow out in round 1 as they did three times against an NIT team in Penn State or he could lead them to a surprising Final 4. Regardless, he’s had a fantastic year and put himself on NBA radars.

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