January 19, 2018
The NCAA Tournament is not unlike one giant game of H.O.R.S.E. Whom does that benefit the most?

HORSE is a pure shooting game. You take one uncontested shot, I take one uncontested shot, and we continue until the best shooter is determined. 

Conceptually, a basketball game is contested the same way. One team takes a shot, the other team takes a shot, and the best team is determined at the end.

Obviously, every game is a departure from that stylistic ideal, and every team ventures away from it to some degree. The degree to which each team’s style differs from that theoretical five-man game of HORSE can be measured by Shots Per Possession (SPP), which includes both FGA/poss and FTA/poss.

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Shots Per Possession, and SPP margin, is a function of the turnovers committed and forced, and the offensive rebounds snared and allowed. The greater the gap between a team and the baseline HORSE game, the more uncomfortable an opponent they are to play the grind-it-out teams.

The closer a team is to that baseline, the greater the premium on outshooting an opponent from the field and the foul line. That is not to say their style of play is similar – no one will confuse Utah for Iowa State, or Gonzaga for Dayton – only to say that their games are mostly determined by efficiency, not volume.

The Grind Wheel below shows the comfort level of each playing each team in the tournament. You will notice very few teams from the East Region rely on a high SPP margin. None of the 10 most uncomfortable teams are in the region, while the relative La-Z-Boys in the field are concentrated in the East.



Shots Per Possession can also be viewed as Bad Shooter’s Insurance. A team like Belmont that has a negative SPP margin must rely on making shots, which they do at a very high rate. Despite poor rankings in the four categories that comprise SPP, Belmont made the Tournament on the strength of its fifth ranked eFG%.

from Kenpom.com
from Kenpom.com

Within the East Region, two teams’ over-reliance on a free throw rate advantage could make them vulnerable in a game with unfamiliar officials. While Villanova will likely see familiar faces blowing the whistle playing in their home state in the early rounds, Northern Iowa could encounter such a problem in Seattle. Fortunately for UNI, their first round opponent Wyoming does not play a grinding style at all. The Cowboys rate 58th in the field in SPP; their FGA/poss ranks 66th.


The biggest surprise in the East Region are Tom Izzo’s Spartans. Usually one of the industrial strength meat grinders in the Tournament, Michigan State has struggled the last two years with an inability to turn teams over. Compounded by an infrequent FT Rate, Michigan State is a middle of the pack SPP team.

from Kenpom.com
from Kenpom.com

Through the first two rounds this weekend, only one higher seeded team in the East will face an opponent that plays more uncomfortably – Oklahoma against Albany, and (presumably) against Providence. That portends a form-friendly first weekend in this region, where upsets will likely require an incendiary shooting performance from the underdog (or Byrd), or an especially frigid one from the top seeds.

Kind of like a game of HORSE.


Jay Cipoletti

Move well without the ball, not much of a threat with it

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