In the days leading up to the NCAA tournament, it’s interesting to look at who the public is (or isn’t) favoring in bracket selection. We know that Duke and Kentucky will be common choices around the country, but on the other hand there is also a select group of teams that becomes undervalued in the eyes of the public.
The best case for an undervalued Final Four contender this year is perhaps the Utah Utes. They are only being picked in 1.6% of ESPN brackets, despite Ken Pomeroy’s numbers giving the Utes a 15% chance of making it that far, and Nate Silver’s numbers giving them a 14% chance. Furthermore, Utah is strong on both sides of the basketball, and teams with a balance of both offense and defense have succeeded in the tournament in recent history. Below is a list of the seven teams currently ranked in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency on kenpom.com:
One possible reason for the public sleeping on Utah is the emphasis on recent performance. After starting 11-2 in Pac-12 play, the Utes finished 3-4 with a semifinal loss to Oregon in the conference tournament. But while this is not ideal, there is still an argument to be made for Utah’s Final Four candidacy.
First, Larry Krystkowiak’s team was a victim of some poor luck in close games during their skid. Despite the 3-4 record, Utah’s combined point margin was actually +45 thanks to blowout wins and close losses. Second, the idea of picking teams with “March momentum” (playing their best basketball in heading into the tourney) is flawed. Take a look at the graph below:
On the left is the correlation between NCAA tournament wins and March (pre-tournament) performance. On the right is the correlation between NCAA tournament wins and November/December performance. As you can see, the early season results are actually more predictive of success.
Note, though, that the conclusion from the graphs is not that early-season success is more important than late-season. This is because we aren’t exactly comparing apples to apples. Teams generally only play four or five pre-NCAA tournament games in March. In January and February, however, they usually play somewhere around 12 games.
The actual takeaway here is that only looking at games from a specific time frame is not worth the trade-off of sample size. We learn more and more about a team after every game. The effects of being “hot” going into the tournament aren’t even close to large enough to simply push aside results from the first two months of the season.
Therefore, not only was Utah’s March skid likely not as bad as the record indicates, but we should also be evaluating the full body of work. And that full body of work is in fact very strong. The Utes have both an elite defense and a good offense led by point guard and future NBA lottery pick Delon Wright.
Utah’s defensive philosophy is partly what makes the team so good on that end of the floor. With great rim protection in 7’0″ freshman Jakob Poeltl, the Utes run their opponents off the three-point line and force difficult shots inside the arc. Just 28% of shots opponents have taken against Utah have been from three point range, good for 19th in the country. Furthermore, finishing inside the arc is a nightmare for opposing offenses – led by Poeltl, Utah’s defensive two-point field percentage is fourth in the country at 41%.
In Wright and forward Jordan Loveridge, Utah has versatile defenders capable of guarding multiple positions. As a team, they often switch and help neutralize opponent movement. In their Pac-12 tournament blowout win over Stanford, Utah showed strong defensive discipline indicative of their success:
In the clip above, Delon Wright’s defensive assignment is in the right corner during dribble penetration. Instead of over-helping on the drive, though, Wright’s clear focus is to prevent an easy pass leading to a rhythm three. Even without the help, sophomore forward Chris Reyes is able to get the blocked shot. Utah’s combination of defensive discipline and outstanding individual defenders is hard to find across the country.
We can also see Utah’s commitment to taking away the three by looking at ball screen defense. Utah downed pick-and-rolls against Stanford, forcing the ball handler to the baseline and enabling the roll defender to drop. By choosing not to hard hedge, the other three defenders not directly involved in the pick-and-roll aren’t forced to sink off their men:
Downing the screen baits Stanford’s Chasson Randle into the least efficient shot in basketball. The clip above also shows more of Utah’s versatility prior to the screen. Both wing defenders get up in the passing lane and deny. When teams counter these denials with backdoor cuts and screens, Utah simply switches without creating any terrible mismatches.
Between Delon Wright’s length and athleticism on the perimeter and the Utes’ size inside, it’s very hard to force the issue in isolation situations against Utah. Watch below as Randle (one of the premier scorers in the Pac-12) gets gobbled up inside:
Offensively, Utah relies heavily on their superstar to create. Wright is great inside the arc, finishing the season shooting 57% on two-pointers. From three-point range Wright isn’t a terrific shooter, but he has improved, and shot 37% from three on 70 attempts throughout the season. The senior also was second in the Pac-12 in assist rate. His court vision and ability to draw defenders lead to efficient shots for Utah. Here are three great assists from Wright during the Stanford game, an accurate sample of the work he constantly does on that end:
Wright certainly fits the stereotypical profile of a veteran upperclassmen guard capable of leading a deep tournament run. The combination of him and the elite Utah defense makes for a strong dark horse contender.
Of course, picking the Utes doesn’t come without risk. The committee didn’t give them any favors with an opening round game against Stephen F. Austin, by far the best 12-seed in the field. Picking a team to make the Final Four with that strong of an opening round opponent should naturally leave you feeling a bit uneasy.
However, Utah has the resume of a legitimate Final Four contender. They have an elite player capable of changing a game, they have size and speed, they are good on both ends of the floor, and they can match up with anybody. With under 2% of brackets believing in Delon Wright and company, they are absolutely worth a look as a strong value pick to get to Indianapolis.