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02-05-2015, 09:02 AM
First look at Giants that could fall

By Peter Keating and Jordan Brenner

Read their tea leaves correctly, or at least their tempo-free statistics, and you can divine not only which top-notch teams deserve NCAA tournament berths but also which squads are likely to advance or trip in March. Thatís the promise of our Giant Killers project. For 10 years, we have refined a statistical model to identify traits common to deep underdogs that pull off big tournament upsets and to heavy favorites that topple. And we can already glean which Giants are shaping up as vulnerable.

So who could make it to the Big Dance only to be upstaged by Cinderella? Without further ado, five Giants whose slips are showing. (For projected seeds, we have used the latest from Joe Lunardiís Bracketology.)

Arizona Wildcats
Projected Seed: 2
Giant Rating: 83.4

Arizona is certainly a lion, not a gazelle. But if it wanders into the path of the wrong herd of feisty buffalo, it just might get hurt. The Wildcatsí Giant Rating is solid at 83.4, but thatís not quite up to the standards of a typical top-two seed. This year, for instance, Virginia checks in at 93.6, Duke stands at 94.0, and Kentucky sports an absurd 99.3 rating.

So why is Arizona somewhat more vulnerable? It comes back to an old GK standby: offensive rebounding. As big and athletic as the Cats are with Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, they are only slightly above average on the offensive boards. Per Kenpom.com (all data through Tuesday), they grab 32.4 percent of their missed shots, which ranks 127th in the nation. That matters because these Wildcats are not an offensive juggernaut. Although they rank 13th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (115 points per 100 possessions), they have shown that they can go cold at inopportune times. In their loss to UNLV in December, the Cats shot just 42.6 percent yet grabbed only seven of 39 available offensive rebounds (17.9 percent). It was the same story in a two-point loss at Oregon State: poor shooting (37.8 percent) compounded by a weak effort on the glass (19.4 percent).

Itís virtually impossible to shoot well for six straight tourney games. So a team has to find other ways to win, and the safest route for a Giant typically involves creating additional chances by taking advantage of its superior size and athleticism. Arizona has the skills to do that, but the Wildcatsí emphasis on transition defense means they donít have the scheme to match. Over the seasonís final month, it might make sense for Sean Miller to turn his guys loose to track down their own missed shots. Chances are theyíll end up mauling their prey.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Projected Seed: 3
Giant Rating: 76.8

Notre Dame is a team of extremes, which is what you might expect from a team that starts four guards. The Fighting Irish are uberefficient on offense yet glaringly porous on defense. They take care of the ball and never take it away. They clear their defensive boards but rarely track down their own misses. And all these extremes add up to a rťsumť that is highly unusual -- and makes the Irish somewhat vulnerable to a tourney underdog.

Since the dawn of the modern spreadsheet era (2001-02), no team has finished the season ranked among the nationís 20 best teams with a defensive efficiency as low as 150th. In fact, only eight teams have ranked outside of the top 100 in defensive efficiency and still landed in the top 20 overall (Marquette and Georgia in 2002-03, Wake Forest in 2003-04 and 2004-05, California in 2009-10, Missouri in 2011-12 and Michigan and Duke last season). But the Irish are sitting at 15th overall despite a defense ranked 150th in the nation, one that allows foes to shoot 45 percent from 2-point range.

Even more worrisome to us at GK Central is Notre Dameís inability to force turnovers. Opponents give up the ball on just 17.3 percent of possessions, which leaves Notre Dame vulnerable to a hot-shooting underdog (since the best way to contest shots is to never allow them in the first place). The Irish caught a glimpse of what that could mean over the weekend, when Pittsburgh shot 58.5 percent in a four-point home win.

At the other end, the Irish face an even more severe version of Arizonaís greatest weakness. Notre Dame grabs just 29.4 percent of available offensive rebounds, which isnít surprising, given the four-guard lineup. The trade-offs have certainly worked in Notre Dameís favor, with an offense that scores an adjusted 122.6 points per 100 possessions while hitting 40.1 percent of its 3-pointers and 59.9 percent of its 2s. Mike Breyís offense is a study in spacing and ball movement, and Jerian Grant has been a worthy conductor.

Iowa State Cyclones
Projected Seed: 3
Giant Rating: 64.2

The Cyclones are spun from the same cloth as Notre Dame. They are not quite as small, not quite as efficient on offense and not quite as porous on defense, but they have similar strengths and weaknesses. From a GK perspective, weíre most concerned about that double scoop of trouble known as poor offensive rebounding and a defense that doesnít force turnovers.

The most interesting aspect of that low defensive turnover percentage (18.5 percent) is that the Cyclones play fast. Really fast. They are 11th in the country in tempo at 70.8 possessions per game and second in average possession length (14.3 seconds). Typically, you associate pressure defense with an up-tempo offense, but not in Ames. The good news for the Cyclones is that Giant Killers typically play a slower game; if Iowa State is able to force its preferred tempo against a weaker foe, it helps to create a larger sample size of small-scale skirmishes, which ultimately favors the more talented squad.

Maryland Terrapins
Projected Seed: 4
Giant Rating: 53.8

If youíre sensing a theme, itís because there is one. Vulnerable Giants tend to struggle on the offensive glass and donít force many turnovers. You can add Maryland to that club, but the Terps have bigger problems than Notre Dame and Iowa State. Theyíre just not that good.

Our model pegs Maryland as just the 33rd-best team in the nation, which doesnít connect with its 19-4 record or projected No. 4 seed. Why? Well, the Terps are good -- but not great -- at both ends. They rank 56th in adjusted offensive efficiency (108.5 points per 100 possessions) and 44th on D (94.0). They donít convert well close to the hoop (47.7 percent shooting on 2-pointers) and allow foes to take a lot of treys (38.2 percent of opponentsí shots). In other words, there are lots of ways to beat Maryland, despite Melo Trimbleís emergence as an impact point guard and the veteran influence of Dez Wells and Jake Layman. We might be seeing evidence of just how meaningful these stats are. Before outlasting Penn State at home Wednesday night, Maryland had lost two of its previous three games by a combined 43 points.

Then you come back to the offensive rebounding woes (29.9 percent) and inability to force turnovers (17.7 percent) and you start to see how a well-trained Giant Killer could take aim at the Terps.

So how can Maryland prevent a March collapse? Keep developing Damonte Dodd. At 6-11, he provides a different dimension. Yes, he has been frustratingly inconsistent and foul-prone, with just two points and three rebounds in 28 minutes over his past three games. But he also grabs 12 percent of available offensive rebounds and can punish weaker teams; witness his nine-point, 10-board, three-block performance in December against Winthrop. No, heís not suddenly going to lift the Terps to the Final Four, but he just might save their shells in the round of 64.

Northern Iowa Panthers
Projected Seed: 5
Giant Rating: 53.4

Northern Iowa is a great story, and the Panthers are playing great basketball. So they will rightly enter the tourney next month as a Giant. But that doesnít mean theyíll be safe.

Our model is extremely skeptical of how they will handle a talented underdog, because they donít play like a typical Giant. Once again, that starts with offensive rebounding. UNIís 26.7 percent offensive board rate is 298th in the country, despite the efforts of powerful 6-6 senior Marvin Singleton (12.3 percent offensive rebound rate). Fellow senior Seth Tuttle (15.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.0 APG) has been fantastic and has the size (6-8, 240) to hunt down second shots, but thatís not his game. So the Panthers have to be efficient offensively, because they wonít get many second chances.

On defense, the Panthers have two hidden problems on a unit that is strong overall (90.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, 13th in the nation). First, they -- wait for it -- donít force a lot of turnovers, as their 19.6 percent mark is right around the national average. Second, they let opponents shoot way too many 3-pointers (38.5 percent of opponentsí shots, 297th in the country). Our model doesnít specifically deduct points from Giants for that issue; overall, it doesnít show up as a significant trait of teams that fall in early upsets. But Giant Killers do tend to be high-volume 3-point shooters, meaning UNIís defensive scheme could play right into the hands of the wrong opponent. Itís hard to tell a coach of a 21-2 team to do anything different, but it might behoove Ben Jacobson to focus more of his teamís defensive attention to the arc as the regular season winds down.

02-05-2015, 09:08 AM
Yup. Pretty solid list. Thanks for sharing jazzdelmar. What a great article.

02-05-2015, 11:09 AM
Great piece. I want to know what Gonzaga's Giant Rating is.

If we have a weakness, it's offensive rebounding. Maybe not statistically, I'm not sure. But when you watch them play, you know they could be gathering and securing the ball a lot better on both ends of the floor.

02-05-2015, 11:12 AM
Most of the teams on this list are not at all what I would call "giants." They are looking at some statistical data, but not really watching games I would say. Duke absolutely should be on this list. They have been very shaky since conference play started, one big win at Virginia being an exception (okay, big win over Louisville too, so 2 exceptions). And talk about porous defense. They got shredded by average NC State and Miami teams. Nearly lost at home to a bad Georgia Tech team last night.