College Basketball Picks: Villanova +3 vs. UNC (Covers 55.2%)
In a statistical performance not dissimilar to its 1985 championship win over Georgetown, Villanova shot 77% from two and 61% from three in a 44 point win over Oklahoma in the first game of this year's Final Four. While the shooting prowess is gaining attention for being both impressive and unsustainable (see: UNC making first eight threes against Indiana and missing first 12 against Syracuse), Villanova's defense should keep the Wildcats in this game as underdogs for what should be a very close contest.
Villanova is currently 34-5 straight-up and 21-17 against-the-spread versus the 17th ranked strength-of-schedule in the nation. The Wildcats have covered the spread in all five NCAA Tournament games, beating 16th seed UNC-Asheville, 7th seed Iowa, third seed Miami, top overall seed Kansas and second seeded Oklahoma by an average score of 84.8 - 60.6. When simulating against the all 350 other teams in the country 50,000 times, Villanova ranks as the best team in the nation. The Wildcats are the only team in the country that ranks within the Top Five nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
That latter part is the key. The narrative around Villanova centers on an offense that ranks second nationally in efficiency and has both the second best two point field goal percentage and second best free throw percentage in the nation. The numbers for the Wildcats are great, but North Carolina is the only team in the nation that is better offensively. Where Villanova has an edge and where the team has really succeeded recently is on defense. The Wildcats rank fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency according to our pace-adjusted and strength-of-schedule adjusted metrics. More notably than their overall efficiency, they rank within the country's Top 50 overall in shooting defense, turnover rate, foul rate and steal percentage.
The lone weakness for Villanova is a concern and it's obvious to anyone who has seen both of these teams play. The Wildcats cannot have the height, length, depth and rebounding abilities of UNC. That's true in the numbers - to an extent. Villanova ranks 134th in defensive rebounding rate and is 3.2 inches per position shorter than North Carolina is (relative to playing time). The Wildcats are also just 213th in the country in bench minutes and have just one rotational player - Daniel Ochefu - taller than 6'8" (UNC has six players 6'8" and taller in the rotation).
That has not really been a problem for Villanova this season, though. The Wildcats have played 12 games this season against teams that offensively rebound at least 35% of their shots and/or are at least three inches taller per position than Villanova. They are 11-1 straight-up in those games, winning by an average score of 75.4-61.1, including wins the tournament over such teams Iowa (by 19) and Miami (by 23). The lone loss in that group was by Xavier in a Musketeers' home game where XU avenged a 31 point loss at Villanova (in which Xavier dominated on the offensive glass and still lost by 30+) on the strength of shooting almost 50% from three and shooting 20 more free throws. In fact, strong three point shooting is a common thread by opponents in Villanova's losses. UNC ranks 294th in the nation in three point efficiency.
North Carolina is currently 33-6 straight-up and 20-17 against-the-spread versus the ninth ranked strength-of-schedule in the nation. The Tar Heels have covered the spread in eight of their last nine games, winning all nine of those contests by an average of 15.2 points. UNC is second in our updated Power Rankings and ranks first in offense and 20th in defense. Carolina is the third-best offensive rebounding team and ranks in the Top 50 in the country in turnover rate (offensively), two point shooting, pace and free throw shooting, yet struggles from behind the arc and does not shoot many free throws (just 278th in free throw rate - this should be a clean game at the line). In addition to those offensive concerns, UNC has several red flags defensively. Despite length, height and depth, the Tar Heels rank just 196th in defensive rebounding rate. They also rank outside the Top 100 nationally in three point defense and turnover rate (defensively), while only ranking 70th in overall shooting defense.
There is actually a clear trend among the teams that have defeated UNC this season. All six opponents that won over the Tar Heels rank within the Top 25 in the country in offensive turnover rate. Though North Carolina has not been elite at forcing turnovers, Roy Williams' team is always looking to run. By not turning the ball over, opponents limit UNC's chances to generate easy baskets. All six of those teams also rank well in shooting offense and defensive foul rate. Those are obviously characteristics of good teams, but not fouling is key against a deep team like this that is also adept at getting easy baskets otherwise. Villanova shoots well, limits fouls and, by essentially starting four players who could be the team's primary ball handler at any point, minimizes turnovers.
In 50,000 simulations of the Championship Game, UNC wins 51.0% of the time over Villanova and by an average score of 75.2-74.9. As three point underdogs keeping the score within three TENTHS of a point on average, Villanova covers the spread 55.2% of the time, which is enough to warrant a $30 play from a normal $50 player. The UNDER (152) covers 52.4% of the time a "light" play that justifies a $1 bet from a normal $50 player.
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