[NOTE: Cross posted at Upon Further Review.]
If Kansas State wins on Saturday to reach the Final Four, basketball historians will look back and think they had a relatively easy path to Indianapolis, playing no team seeded better than #5. That’s misleading, though, as BYU, Xavier, and Butler are all much better than their seeds indicate. Take a look at the RPI, Pomeroy, and Sagarin ratings for each team, along with the average of those, what seed that would entail, and what seed they actually received (I included Pitt to show that Xavier is actually better than Pitt):
They will have basically played three Sweet 16 games in a row, which is no tough task. Though all three teams are rated roughly equal, the game against Butler will have a very different feel. Butler is a slow-paced defensive-oriented team, while BYU and Xavier were more than happy to turn their games into offensive shootouts. If Butler can avoid turnovers – and Butler usually can, but it’s a big if when facing a KSU team whose main defensive strength is creating them – then they should be able to impose their tempo on the game. Butler’s fastest-paced game so far in the tourney was 67 possessions, in the opening round against UTEP. The Wildcats have only played 6 games all year that were that slow, going only 3-3 (compared to 26-4 in faster games). All three of those losses were to Kansas, while the wins were over Colorado, Oklahoma, and North Texas – so they haven’t beaten a good team in a slow game once this year.
On the other hand, the tempo argument can be used against Butler as well. KSU has reached at least a 70-possession pace in 2 of 3 tourney games. Butler has only played 5 games that fast all year, going 3-2 (compared to 28-2 in slower games). Their losses were to Minnesota and Georgetown, and their wins were against Youngstown St., Illinois-Chicago, and Valparaiso. So they’ve also not beaten a good team and Kansas State’s preferred tempo. My guess is that neither Butler’s nor KSU’s trend will change – whichever team gets to play their style of game will win. As you’ll see below, my system picks K-State as a large favorite, but I think it may have a blind spot here in regards to the tempo issue.
Let’s go over what the game will look like when Butler has the ball:
I think the most important category in the above two tables is TO%; you can see this is a strength vs. strength match up, with Butler being as good at avoiding them as K-State is at causing them. As I mention before, if Kansas State can win this battle, and force Butler to commit more turnovers than usual, I think they can force the pace and win this game. Another area that could be key is offensive rebounds – Butler doesn’t get many, but Kansas State doesn’t prevent them very well, either. If the Bulldogs get more second chance points than they’re accustomed to, it could be a bonus for them.
One facet of the game where it seems clear what will happen is free throws. Butler gets to the line often, and Kansas State puts their opponents there often, so expect a parade of trips to the line for Matt Howard and Ronald Nored (who have the top FTR’s on the team).
Last game, I told you that Curtis Kelly should be salivating, as Xavier was relatively weak inside, and he ended up with a line of 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 blocks, near his season highs of 22/11/6. Butler’s not quite as bad inside as Xavier, but they do get blocked quite often, and aren’t very tall (293rd in effective height). Expect another big game from Kelly, though perhaps not quite as good as last night.
Now how about when Kansas State has the ball:
Kansas State likes to push the ball up the court, but Butler will get everybody back to make this more difficult. That’s part of the reason Butler has such a low offensive rebounding percentage – they choose transition D over crashing the boards. If you watched the Kentucky-Cornell game, you saw one of the more dramatic examples of this that I can remember, with at times literally zero Cornell players within the three point circle when their shot hit the rim. Rebounding on Kansas State’s offensive end will be the direct opposite of this – they hit the boards hard (5th nationally in OReb%), but Butler is one of the best in the country at boxing out (13th in OReb% allowed). This is another strength-on-strength battle that will go a long way towards deciding the game.
Though it’s not shown above, Butler has been forcing a high number of turnovers during the NCAA tournament. Being careful with the ball is not a huge strength of KSU, so there’s a chance Butler can keep this new trend going.
We all know by know that free throws are on of Kansas State’s main weapons. Butler has only been middling at avoiding fouls overall this year, but have done much better during the tournament. I’m guessing this trend will end Saturday.
Putting it all together, here’s what the similarity system says:
Frankly, I don’t agree with this at all. Something I want to address in the offseason is that early games are weighted equally to later games (this was a problem with the Xavier prediction as well). Most of Kansas State’s advantage here is derived from some bad defensive games early in the season against (as that’s when they played the major conference teams that are similar to Kansas State). If I take out games from November and December, the similarity system changes it’s mind, and basically agrees exactly with Pomeroy:
That’s what my gut says as well – I expect a close, tough game with Kansas State a slight favorite.