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Five Weird Teams To Watch In The NCAA Tournament

A large part of enjoying the NCAA Tournament is about grinding your friends’ and family’s brackets into paste. For that, there are our March Madness predictions. Some other sizable portion of the tournament’s fun, though, is wrapped up in the diverse cast of teams assembled to play for the national title. The college game, much more so than the pros, is still home to quirks and oddities that can power a team to a few unexpected tournament wins. Here are five (or so) teams, and their statistical idiosyncrasies, to look out for this March.

Xavier’s 1-3-1 zone

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The 1-3-1 is not a popular defense. Its spatial concepts are difficult to teach (players form an elongated plus sign in the defensive half court), and the formation is prone to imbalance if an opponent gets hot from the wing, which is easy to probe either for 3-point attempts, drives and backdoor lobs. But when a team is comfortable with the 1-3-1, the defense can be one of the most potent change-ups in the college game. Baylor used the 1-3-1 to advance to the Elite Eight in 2010, and Xavier is attempting a similar run this March.

For the season, 33.6 percent of the Musketeers’ defensive possessions have featured the 1-3-1.1 Last season, just 13 percent did. The only Division I team to rely on any zone more often this season has been Cincinnati (which uses the 2-3 variety); Xavier has used the 1-3-1 for 759 possessions, allowing just 0.797 points per defensive trip. Chris Mack doesn’t stray too far from his man-to-man roots with the base defense, but his personnel at XU is suited to making the 1-3-1 work. J.P. Macura, a wiry and lanky wing, has long arms atop the zone that can disrupt the vision of opposing guards, and Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett — both long for their respective positions — are adroitly positioned at the wings to help trap and further obscure passing lanes and shot attempts.

What distinguishes Xavier’s 1-3-1 from historical 1-3-1s like Baylor’s or Michigan’s (during John Beilein’s early years), though, is Mack’s use of two bigs — one in the middle and another on the baseline. Typically, a guard runs along the baseline of a 1-3-1, having the requisite speed to close out on short corner threes. But Xavier’s bigs — James Farr and Jalen Reynolds — are both quick for their position and also help XU rebound out of the zone defense (Xavier allowed opponents a 26.3 percent offensive rebounding rate), which is a traditional weakness of the formation. Some teams, like Seton Hall in the Big East tournament, have begun to figure out the scheme after playing Xavier a second time, but that’s not much comfort for teams getting their first taste this month.

Hampton, Green Bay and Buffalo’s tempo

Before this season, the NCAA trimmed the Division I shot clock from 35 seconds to 30. Naturally, tempo has risen a bit — the average number of possessions in 2016 has been 69, per Ken Pomeroy, an uptick from 64.8 a season ago. The conventional wisdom is that this is bad news for underdogs — that weaker teams are best served by slowing down the game and pumping up the variance — but there are a few lower-seeded teams in this year’s field that push the ball anyway.

The first is No. 16 Hampton (72.2 possessions per 40 minutes), which will face No. 1 Virginia (61.4 possessions) in the Midwest region. This is the largest difference between teams matched up in the first round. There is virtually no chance that the MEAC auto bid winners will be able to speed up and disrupt the methodical style of Tony Bennett’s squad enough to pull off a win (the FiveThirtyEight model gives Hampton a 2 percent chance of advancing).

Another fast-moving team among the lower seeds is No. 14 Green Bay (76.6), which will play No. 3 Texas A&M (67.5). That matchup has the second-biggest difference in tempo, at 9.1 possessions per 40 minutes. Our model gives the Phoenix a 12 percent chance to pull the upset. Under new head coach Linc Darner, who came to the Horizon League school from a Division II program, the Phoenix went into overdrive and underwent a huge transformation, with 11.2 possessions more per 40 minutes than last season.

Then there’s 14th-seeded Buffalo, which has a 14 percent chance of knocking off No. 3 Miami. Nate Oats became head coach at Buffalo when Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State, and Buffalo quickened its pace from 68.8 to 73.0. The margin between the Bulls’ pace and Miami’s 66.8 possessions per 40 minutes is 6.2.

West Virginia’s bench

Few teams in Division I rely on their bench as much as West Virginia. The No. 3 seed Mountaineers allot 41 percent2 of their overall minutes to reserves, which ranks 18th nationally and third among tournament teams. But WVU’s bench is unique because it isn’t just heavily utilized, it outperforms other units by a wide margin — even other teams’ starting lineups.

Ian Levy of Nylon Calculus broke down the bench Box Plus/Minus of the top 30 squads in Pomeroy’s rankings, and the West Virginia bench’s BPM of +7.6 is better than that of every team’s except for Kansas’s (+8.2), but the Jayhawks don’t use their bench nearly as much as WVU (just 30 percent of their minutes). Among tournament teams that use their bench more often than WVU — Michigan State and Wichita State — the Mountaineers’ bench play is more valuable by a wide margin. (The bench BPMs for those two teams are +4.8 and +3.2, respectively.) Bob Huggins’s bench also outperforms 17 top-30 starting lineups, including No. 1 seed Oregon (+6.6) and No. 2 seed Xavier (+7.3).

Kansas 70% 30% 8.7 8.2
West Virginia 59 41 8.1 7.6
Indiana 63 37 7.5 6.9
Purdue 61 39 7.9 6.8
Louisville 66 34 8.7 6.5
Baylor 70 30 6.1 6.1
Virginia 68 32 9.8 6.0
Miami 69 31 7.5 5.8
Duke 79 21 7.4 5.8
Kentucky 71 29 7.8 5.7
Arizona 64 36 7.6 5.4
SMU 74 26 7.5 5.4
Iowa 70 30 6.8 5.4
Texas A&M 70 30 6.8 5.4
Vanderbilt 67 33 6.9 5.4
North Carolina 65 35 9.1 5.3
Xavier 65 35 7.3 5.2
UConn 70 30 6.0 4.9
Michigan State 56 42 11.2 4.8
Villanova 69 31 10.0 4.5
Oregon 74 26 6.6 4.5
Utah 71 29 6.8 4.4
California 69 31 6.7 4.1
Texas 62 38 6.5 4.1
Wichita State 54 46 8.6 3.2
Iowa State 81 19 6.8 3.1
Maryland 72 28 7.6 3.0
Gonzaga 76 24 6.8 2.7
Seton Hall 73 27 6.6 1.3
Oklahoma 76 24 9.2 1.1

Sources: Sports Reference, Ian Levy

The catalyst is the play of both Jaysean Paige and Jonathan Holton, two Mountaineers who could start but thrive coming off the bench. Holton, a 6-foot-7 big, uses 51 percent of the team’s minutes and is nearly impossible to keep off the offensive glass, grabbing 17.1 percent of WVU’s misses — more than a quarter of his field goal attempts are putbacks, and he is second on the squad at field-goal percentage at the rim.

Paige is West Virginia’s X-factor. Despite using only 56 percent of WVU’s minutes, Paige attempts 31.8 percent of the Mountaineers’ shots when he’s on the floor, and when he checks into the game, the Mountaineers often see an improvement, since he frequently subs for Daxter Miles, a 6-foot-3 guard with a BPM of +7 (Paige’s BPM is +10).

North Carolina’s small ball

Roy Williams loves his bigs. Throughout his career, the North Carolina coach has almost always played two traditional forwards at the same time. “I like to play two big guys, because I still think defending around the rim and grabbing rebounds are big parts of the game,” he told The New York Times earlier this season. But Williams’s thinking is beginning to align with the small ball revolution.

It’s a good time for the change, since UNC’s roster is suited for small ball. Both Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson are mismatches at their respective positions of the 3 and the 4, and Pinson can help guard 4s while Jackson has the speed and the length (6-foot-8) to disrupt the offensive rhythm of 3s. During early ACC play, Williams began to dip his toe into the small ball waters, and the results were promising; per Adrian Atkinson, who specializes in crunching data for all things Tar Heel blue, UNC’s net efficiency was +43.1 in 39 minutes for the first five conference games.

But then Kennedy Meeks returned from a knee injury, and Williams reverted back to his traditional lineups: UNC’s small ball lineups played only 50 minutes for the next 12 ACC games. In the final three games of ACC play, that net efficiency spiked to +55.1. Williams may only exploit this mismatch in small doses, but it is an interesting wrinkle for a coach with national title aspirations and a long-held two-post belief system.

Kentucky’s adaptability

Kentucky is the field’s most dangerous seed that is not a No. 1 or 2. The No. 4 seed in the East region has potential matchups against Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia, but outside of a handful of squads, there aren’t many teams in the tournament playing as well as the Wildcats. Kentucky has won 10 of their last 12 games, including the SEC tournament title.

John Calipari has done his usual lineup juggling act this season, but it got particularly interesting after forward Alex Poythress injured his right knee and was sidelined for five games. In Poythress’s absence, Calipari slotted in Derek Willis, a stretch 4 whose skills combined well with the pick-and-pop game of Tyler Ulis, and UK’s offensive efficiency rate went from 1.11 points per possession pre-injury to 1.14 — unusual for a team that loses one of its best players. The team upped its rate of 3-point field goal attempts (from 30.2 percent to 37.4 percent) and began converting a whopping 49.1 percent of their threes. Poythress’s absence opened the half court for penetration and kick-outs, and while the squad didn’t defend at the level that we expect from Calipari-coached teams (UK began hacking opponents, notching a defensive free throw rate of 46 percent), its offense more than compensated.

But then Poythress returned, and questions surfaced about how Kentucky would adjust with its sole traditional post player back in the lineup. The team adapted. Skal Labissiere began to play more on the elbow and above the free-throw line, which allowed for potential high-lows. The 1.05 PPP the Kentucky defense allowed in the seven games with a healthy Poythress is below the typical Calipari team’s standard, but we’ve learned that Kentucky’s offense is perhaps the best ever during the Calipari era: 1.25 PPP in 66 possessions.

The team is hitting a similar percentage of threes (45 percent), and even Poythress is contributing to the 3-point-fueled offense; he’s taken seven of his 23 threes for the season since returning. Compared with the efficiency margins posted by other high major teams at the end of conference play, Kentucky’s +.20 efficiency margin would top every other squad.

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  1. I went through each of the defensive possessions in which Xavier played zone using Synergy Sports Technology’s video tools and verified that all of the Musketeers’ zone plays came out of the 1-3-1.
  2. Data via Sports Reference with additional research by Ian Levy.

Matt Giles has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, BuzzFeed, and Salon.

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