Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 at 12:00 PM
And, then there were four!
After a few weeks of basketball warfare, only Virginia, Auburn, Michigan State, and Texas Tech have a shot to win the 2019 college basketball national championship.
You can make a case that each of them are lucky to be there. That’s not a slam. There were so many dead even teams in the upper half of the brackets this season that it was going to take some lucky breaks to survive and advance. In the four games last weekend comprising the Elite Eight, two games went overtime…while another was decided by one point! A couple of calls or bounces here and there…and this could easily have been Purdue, Kentucky, Duke, and Gonzaga this weekend in Minneapolis.
Is there a way to separate the skill sets of the remaining teams to isolate who’s going to win? If we’re still dealing with virtual coin flips, you should just take the dogs and hope for the best. Heck, dogs went 4-0 last week in regulation. Purdue backers at +4.5 got hosed in a 5-point overtime loss.
You longtime readers of JIM HURLEY’S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK will remember a stat we liked to use in college basketball. It’s called “Phantom Score.” It’s simply a “secondary” score that focuses on the most important factors in playoff-style basketball
Phantom Score: Points scored on two-point baskets PLUS total rebounds.
Simple, but amazingly effective. Often, it comes very close to matching the actual final score. When it doesn’t, it’s telling you which teams are over-reliant on three-pointers in a way that hides other weaknesses. You don’t need to be a computer programmer to calculate it either.
Here are last week’s Phantom Scores…
Virginia 75, Purdue 57
Gonzaga 73, Texas Tech 61
Kentucky 83, Auburn 75
Duke 80, Michigan State 79
Winners were reversed in three of the four games. What do those numbers tell handicappers about team skill sets? Let’s take them in order…
*Virginia was a lot better than Purdue at “inside” basketball. The underdog Boilermakers needed to shoot lights out on treys to compete. A 14 of 32 mark on three-pointers almost did the trick (Virginia was just 9 of 27). But, Virginia was able to overcome that with a 39-31 rebounding advantage…plus edges in free throw shooting and turnovers. Virginia was better at classic basketball, which is why the market has them laying so many points to Auburn this week. Virginia is a perennial power because its head coach emphasizes fundamentals.
*Texas Tech wasn’t red hot from long range vs. Gonzaga. But, 9 of 23 will get the job done when the opponent is a poor 7 of 26! Texas Tech was outrebounded 37-29, a red flag that suggests sweeping this final weekend will be difficult. Tech does deserve credit for forcing 16 turnovers. Can they do that against Michigan State? Let’s say it this way. Tech could win the championship, but it isn’t championship material at this level.
*Auburn was another team that advanced because its favored opponent couldn’t make treys. Kentucky was just 5 of 21 in an overtime game. Sometimes it’s all about hot three-point shooting (Auburn in earlier rounds). Sometimes it’s about holding your own while your opponent keeps clanking bombs off the rim. Auburn is better than its #5 seed in the Big Dance. They don’t have the stat pedigree of a #1 seed, though.
*No real surprise in Michigan State/Duke, as these were two excellent teams who fought a hotly contested battle. Neither of those teams relies on three-point scoring, which provided a clean read on the game. Whoever won was going to be a favorite over Texas Tech.
The main lessons? Virginia and Michigan State are where they belong in terms of skill sets (granting that Duke also belonged but there wasn’t room for everyone!). Auburn is a great story, but needs to keep winning the three-point category (the most fickle of all!) to finish out a Cinderella run. Texas Tech’s defense-first approach is much better at messing up other people’s plans than it is at winning a championship on its own. Yes, JIM HURLEY respects the “defense and rebounding wins championships” mantra. Tech was outrebounded 37-29 by Gonzaga, and 35-31 by Michigan. That’s only half the mantra!
Betting markets have anticipated the realities of tournament basketball by posting Virginia and Michigan State as favorites this week. It’s your job as handicappers to decide if point spreads have captured true probabilities. Should Virginia be favored by THAT much over an Auburn team fueled by so much emotion? Should Michigan State be favored by THAT much in a letdown spot after beating Duke?
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