Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Preview American University -- NCAA 1st Round

The Wildcats, #3 seed in the East Region, meet the #14 seeded Eagles of American University in the 7:30pm game, Wachovia Center in the Philadelphia pod of this season's NCAA Tournament. The Eagles, winners of the Patriot League Tournament last week come into the Wach riding a 13 game winning streak. This is only the second time in recent memory that the 'Cats have been seeded #3. The last time was 1995 when the 'Cats met the Monarchs of Old Dominion University in a 1st round game in Albany, NY. The Wildcats and Eagles have played 8 times in a series that dates back to 1932, with 3 games played between 1991 and 1993 (a 2-for-1 deal?). Villanova holds an 8-0 margin.

Common Opponents, Good Wins, Bad Losses...
The 'Cats and Eagles shared two common opponents -- a team from each other's conference -- during the past season...
NovaAm U
Navy  W(A)+1

American University (Patriot League, 24-7, 16-1, RPI #74) is 0-4 versus the RPI Top 50 with losses to Georgetown, Maryland, Oklahoma and Fairfield. Maryland (#10 seed, West Region) and Oklahoma (#2 seed, South Region) are in the NCAA Tournament. Best win for the Eagles was over the Dolphins of Jacksonville University (Atlantic Sun, 18-13, RPI #142), the Atlantic Sun Conference Champion who lost to East Tennessee State in their conference tournament and are a #8 seed in the NIT. Their worst loss came against George Washington University (A10, 10-18, RPI #203). The Eagles are riding a 13 game winning streak coming into Thursday's game.

Offense, Defense, by the Numbers...
American runs one of the lowest paced teams in D1 ball, going for about 61.2 possessions per game (adjusted), about 8% fewer than the D1 pace (66.5), and about 10.5% lower than Villanova. The 'Cats are not comfortable playing at the lower pace (think Georgetown, DePaul and Rutgers) lately; whether they will be able to push the Eagles to accellorate their play may well rest with transition points and defensive rebounding. The Eagles are better than average for offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. Coming out of a conference whose efficiencies largely (but not universally) register below average in D1, gives the Eagles some separation between themselves and the rest of the conference, as the efficiency margins below suggest...

TeamPPPOp PPPMargin
Holy Cross1.030.910.12

American was the class of the Patriot League this season and it was not (from an efficiency perspective) very close. How does American's offense measure up with Villanova's defense? The numbers show a few places where it could get very competitive...

When American has the ball...
Eagle O53.820.932.032.8
Wildcat D47.421.930.637.9

Villanova's 3 point defense will tested yet again. The Eagle's low pace combined with high 3FGA-to-All FGAs percentage (about 37.6%, ranked #69 in D1) suggests the Wildcats will be in a Thompson or Beilein type game, with Eagles (most likely their guards Derrick Mercer and Garrison Carr -- especially Carr -- and Nick Hendra) running off screens and back cuts to see open looks on the perimeter. American hits a decent enough percentage of their 3s (37.7%, #40) to be dangerous. Brian Gilmore, a 6-8 senior forward/center plays a role much like Dante Cunningham, provide an inside threat good enough to prevent a 3 point line type defense. Gilmore, along with backups Brian Lumpkin (freshman, 6-8, 210lbs) and Frane Markusovic (senior transfer from USF, 6-10, 240lbs) are efficient from inside the arc, but tend to, either from PT or possessions, get few opportunities to score. A point of interest may well be turnovers. American is not especially careful with the ball, racking up a mediocre turnover rate of 20.9 to go with their average offensive rebounding rate of 32.0. These are not terrible numbers, just average/below average numbers. Nova will press them a bit in both areas. The Eagles don't get to the line often, a mixed blessing to be sure. While they won't rely on points from the stripe to feed their offensive production, lack of aggression also means Nova's best players will most likely be available throughout the game, something of a problem in the closer games the 'Cats have played this season.

Looking at Villanova's offense versus American's defense, we find a few of the same points of competition...

When Villanova has the ball...
Wildcat O51.418.936.042.7
Eagle D44.920.229.035.2

According to the numbers Villanova should find their shots contested rather vigorously by the American starting lineup. American has however, one of the shortest lineups in D1 ball; Pomeroys computes their average height at 74.9 inches (#335) with an effective height of -1.1 (#240) low to very low for D1 ball. While Pomeroy does cite mitigating circumstances when considering height, the conclusion is long enshrined among the truisms -- height powers defenses. In American's case the height deficit has been mitigated by experience, the squad is ranked #2 in D1 for experience (Villanova by contrast is ranked #65). Villanova is more than a little familiar with that combination. Will the 'Cats exploit the height advantage while negating American's experience? This may be one of the few times when the fans will be able to see both Scottie and Fish put in extended time together in the back court.

Keating, Pomeroy, Pythagoras, Tiernan...
The log5 probabilities show Villanova has a 90% chance of taking this game. The teams will probably play for about 62 possessions, below D1 average, but low enough to disrupt the Wildcat's gameplan and offensive flow? Pomeroy's efficiency comparison projects a 13 point Wildcat win. According to Pete Tiernan's PACE system, there are 4 factors present in most (non-power conference) Cinderellas...
1. The squad is dominated by seniors. Check. American as noted before is one of the most experienced in D1 ball.
2. The squad is dominated by guards. Check. There are articles by the ream about Carr and Mercer. Not to mention senior backups Frank Borden, Bryce Simon and Jordan Nichols. Lots of experience in the back court and wings.
3. A solid starting unit that has accumulated a lot of solid wins. Check. Three members of the starting 5 have logged >80% of the minutes at their positions, the next 3 have 50% or better of the minutes as well. And American was the regular season and conference tournament champions in the Patriot League.
4. Meeting the favorite on a truly neutral court (not too close to the favorite's home). Ahhh, nevermind.

Jordan Brenner and Peter Keating, analysts for ESPN this season, who developed the "Vulnerable Giants & Giant Killer" approach to upset analysis, identified 2 vulnerabilities exhibited by Villanova...
1. Nova's 3 point defense is suspect (and American shoots it pretty well).
2. The Wildcats rely on free throw points for a large(r) part of their point production. Free throw points comprise nearly 25% of the 'Cats total points.
But they suggest the Eagles are not strong enough across the board to pull the upset (possible, but not probable...). Noteworthy as a counter point to the Giant theories, the 'Cats give up a lot on fouls (a weakness), but the Eagles, by offensive style (many POT characteristics), are in no position to exploit that weakness. A paradox about Nova's 3 point defense (not obvious unless you look at both the percentage taken and the rate at which their opponents convert...) is that opponents don't convert at an especially high rate (33.9%, earning Nova a rank of #149 -- in the upper division of D1-- the average is 34.2), but what those do is take a lot of 3s relative to the total number of FGAs taken (about 41%), thus translating their converted 3s into 34.7% of their point production. It appears that the 'Cats do a mediocre job of defending the 3, but opposing teams take those 3FGAs because relative to the available 2FGA opportunities, the 3FGA translates to a better point yield. The conversion rate for opposing 2FGAs is 45%, ranking Villanova #62 in D1. The Wildcat defense works to shut down the inside, if the 'Cats can clamp down enough on American's 2FGAs to force the Eagles outside (and given their propensity to shoot the 3, the Wildcats may not have to twist their ah...wings too hard to push them beyond the arc...), the dimensions of the Wachovia Center may be enough to throw their shooting off. If the projected pace holds, putting up more than 70 points should seal it (given that the 70 points are scored by Villanova...) for the 'Cats. More than 75 points will most likely spell blowout.

What Others Say
Looking around for more previews? Try...
Tim over at the Nova News Blog penned a good background piece on the game.
The Villanova Viewpoint Publisher wrote a three part essay examining American's Non conference schedule and results, American University's Patriot Conference Results, with the latest installment covering American's rotation & gameplan. All three installments contain links to American Univrsity blogs and sources for an Eagle-based perspective.

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