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March Madness 2017: Predicting the First Four

Jordan McLaughlin

Each year, college basketball fans both die-hard and casual embark on the same fruitless, unattainable quest -- picking the perfect March Madness bracket. It's something that's not technically impossible, but experts estimate the odds are around one in 9.2 quintillion (that's 19 figures for those keeping track at home). Business magnate Warren Buffett offered the public $1 billion for picking a perfect bracket in 2014, and has upped the ante for his employees this year: if someone at his company simply picks the first round correctly, he or she will receive $1 million.

Maybe striving for perfection is an exercise in futility, but that won't stop millions (present company included) from giving it a shot. To give ourselves the best chance at glory, PointAfter, a sports data site powered by Graphiq, used data from Bing Predicts to pick every game in the 2017 NCAA tournament. Bing Predicts uses web activity and social sentiment -- in addition to historical player, team and match stats -- to predict the outcome of college basketball games. Web and social data allow Bing Predicts to capture real-time information about lineup changes and reaction to them to tune the strengths of teams.

Before taking a stab at the first round, Bing Predicts looked at the First Four set to take place in Dayton, Ohio. The tournament officially tips off on Tuesday, when Mount St. Mary's -- winner of the Northeast tournament -- takes on Southland champion New Orleans, followed by Kansas State-Wake Forest. On Wednesday, North Carolina Central faces UC Davis, followed by USC vs. Providence.

PointAfter will break down each game, starting with the contest Bing sees as the most tightly contested and ending with the one with a more certain outcome (at least as far as the data is concerned).

Note: Also included with game predictions are the opening lines for each game, courtesy of Vegas Insider.

16 Mount St. Mary's vs. 16 New Orleans

New Orleans

Bing Predicts winner: New Orleans (51 percent)

Location: Dayton, Ohio
Opening line: NOR -1.5
Tipoff time: 6:40 p.m. EST (Tuesday)

Thanks to an incredibly tough non-conference schedule that included road games against West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas, Mount St. Mary's started the season 1-11. It has since gone 18-4 and won both the Northeast regular season and conference tournament titles. The Mountaineers struggle offensively, averaging just 68.3 points per game (ranked 284th out of 351 teams) and rank 270th in offensive rating (96.97) -- a metric that estimates how many points a team scores per 100 possessions -- according to Sports-Reference.

New Orleans ranks 243rd in offensive rating (98.36), so don't expect a ton of efficient scoring. Both teams like to apply heavy pressure on defense, which could lead to a track meet with plenty of fast break opportunities. Mount St. Mary's gets the bulk of its scoring output from guards Elijah Long (15.4 points per game) and Junior Robinson (14.1), who ranked sixth and ninth in the NEC in scoring, respectively. Robinson, who is listed at 5-foot-5, is the smallest player in Division I basketball and will be the most entertaining player on the floor.

New Orleans won both the Southland regular season and conference tournament championships and will make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996. The Privateers aren't as battle-tested as Mount St. Mary's, though they did face fellow tournament teams Oklahoma State, USC and Northwestern, losing all three games by an average of nearly 38 points. New Orleans' go-to guy is senior forward Erik Thomas, who ranked second in the Southland in scoring at 19.5 PPG. Thomas is great at getting to the rim and drawing fouls, as he averages 6.8 free throw attempts per game and hits at a 78.3 percent clip.

New Orleans has three starters averaging at least 1.5 steals per game, but the Privateers also turn the ball over plenty themselves -- they average 16.8 giveaways per game, third-most in the country. Mount St. Mary's takes better care of the ball and ranks 66th in turnover margin. The two squads are very similar, but New Orleans' size advantage in the frontcourt is enough to earn the Privateers the nod by a slim margin. The winner advances to face defending champion Villanova, so whichever team comes out on top should soak in the glory while it lasts.

11 Kansas State vs. 11 Wake Forest

John Collins

Bing Predicts winner: Wake Forest (58 percent)

Location: Dayton, Ohio
Opening line: KSU -1
Tipoff time: 9:10 p.m. EST (Tuesday)

Bruce Weber has Kansas State back in the NCAA tournament after a two-year hiatus in which the Wildcats went a combined 32-33. Kansas State was the last team selected in the field by the committee, ranking as the lowest at-large bid (No. 46). An upset over Baylor in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinal gave the Wildcats' resume a much-needed boost, and their hard-fought loss to West Virginia in the semifinal didn't hurt either.

Kansas State features four players averaging between 11.2 and 12.5 points per game, so expect a balanced offensive attack. The team ranks 32nd in defensive rating (90.71) and 31st in net rating (22.95), and the Wildcats force just over 15 turnovers per game (34th nationally). Kansas State's most important player is senior forward Wesley Iwundu, who leads the team in scoring (12.5 PPG) and rebounding (6.4 RPG) and ranks second in assists per game (3.4). Iwundu has developed some consistency as a three-point shooter, making 35.9 percent of his 78 attempts this year after making just 19 combined threes in the previous three seasons.

Kansas State's biggest weakness is that it is undersized. Forward Dean Wade is the only player listed at least 6-foot-10 who averages double-digit minutes per game. This is something Wake Forest should be able to exploit, as the Demon Deacons are led by 6-foot-10, 235-pound forward John Collins. Collins ranked third in the ACC in scoring (18.9 PPG) and second in rebounding (9.8 RPG), and he had 17 double-doubles this season.

Wake Forest ranks 10th in the nation in offensive rating (121.07), ahead of teams like Gonzaga, Kentucky and Arizona. Surrounding Collins on the perimeter is a deep lineup of capable shooters, with three players who shoot at least 40 percent from deep. The most dangerous among them is sophomore guard Keyshawn Woods, who made 45.8 percent of his 107 three-point attempts this season.

Having that many sharpshooters along with a legitimately gifted scoring big man will make the Demon Deacons tough to stop, regardless of how sound Kansas State is defensively. Expect Wake Forest to win this one and advance to face No. 6 seed Cincinnati in the next round.

16 North Carolina Central vs. 16 UC Davis

Patrick Cole

Bing Predicts winner: North Carolina Central (60 percent)

Location: Dayton, Ohio
Opening line: NCCU -3
Tipoff time: 6:40 p.m. EST (Wednesday)

North Carolina Central is the most experienced team in the country, with six seniors and two juniors comprising its primary rotation. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion's best player is senior guard Patrick Cole, who averages 19.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. The Eagles rely on him almost exclusively to prop up their offense, as the team ranks 221st in offensive rating (99.59).

Where the team thrives, however, is on the defensive end. The Eagles hold opponents to just 29 percent on three-pointers, second-best nationally. That bodes well for their matchup with UC Davis, as the Aggies don't have a single player who shoots better than 38 percent from deep. Their most important player is senior guard Brynton Lemar, who made a team-high 74 threes at a 38.1 percent clip. UC Davis' offense relies on getting to the free throw line. The team shot 788 free throws this season -- tied for 32nd nationally -- while making just 66.5 percent of them.

UC Davis is in the tournament for the first time in program history, a momentous accomplishment for a program that only joined the Big West in 2007. Expect the experience, defensive-minded Eagles to control the tempo early on and move on to the next round, where North Carolina Central will take on Kansas.

11 USC vs. 11 Providence

Chimezie Metu

Bing Predicts winner: USC (77 percent)

Location: Dayton, Ohio
Opening line: PK
Tipoff time: 9:10 p.m. EST (Wednesday)

The final game of the First Four gives us a rematch from last year's NCAA tournament. In a first round East region game, Providence beat USC, 70-69, thanks to a late defensive lapse by the Trojans that allowed Rodney Bullock to make an easy go-ahead layup. After the departure of Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil from a season ago, Bullock returned and is the Friars' leading scorer and rebounder.

Providence is quite balanced on offense, though, with four players averaging over 10 points per game. The pieces all fit together nicely, and the Friars have five rotation players shooting at least 35 percent on three-point attempts. What Providence lacks is frontcourt size, with only one player on the roster (Kalif Young) listed taller than 6-foot-8.

The Trojans are balanced offensively as well, featuring two skilled, athletic big men who could exploit the Friars' weakness. Sophomore forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu are USC's top two leading scorers and are listed at 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-11, respectively. Boatwright missed 17 games this season with a sprained knee but returned to action in February. He shot 36.2 percent on three-point attempts and 92.6 percent from the free throw line.

Metu was named the Pac-12's most improved player this season and is among the most athletic bigs in the country. USC's length also pays off on the defensive end, as the Trojans rank ninth nationally in blocked shots (179).

If USC can get Metu in an early rhythm and force Providence to compact its defense on the inside, it can really open up the perimeter for open threes. The Trojans do a good job of taking care of the ball, averaging 11.2 turnovers per game (30th nationally), so it should take an uncharacteristically sloppy game for Providence to be able to compensate for its size disadvantage. The experts in Las Vegas set this game as a pick 'em initially, but the line has since moved to favor the Trojans by 2.5 points. A win by USC sets up a first=round matchup with No. 6 seed SMU, a team the Trojans beat at home this year, 78-73, on Nov. 25.

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