Another year, another forecast upset. No sooner had Georgetown been slotted as a 4 seed and sent to Portland to play 13 seed Eastern Washington than the forecasts of the Hoyas' imminent doom started rolling in. Pundits pointed to the Hoyas' over-seeding and their string of recent early exits from the NCAA tournament, and figured Georgetown was primed for another upset. Those same experts saw Eastern Washington's run-and-gun, 3-jacking attack spearheaded by The Nation's Leading Scorer Tyler Harvey, and found a foot that fit Cinderella's shoe.
Of course, we have lived through the years of upsets, and we were surprised as anyone that Georgetown was bumped up to a four seed. And an up-tempo, long-range bombing upstart brings up tortured memories from big dances gone by.
But what's actually going on here? Are the Hoyas sure to be knocked out by yet another double-digit seed? Let's take a closer look.
2 Reasons Eastern Washington Might Beat Georgetown.
The Eagles are no push-overs, and they do one thing well and often that makes them more likely to pull off an upset.
(1) Holy Cow, Eastern Washington Can Really Shoot.
The Eagles bomb away from three: Eastern Washington ranks in the top 20 nationally in three-point percentage (39.6), percentage of shots taken from 3 (43.2), and percentage of points scored from 3 (37.7). Eschewing tempo-free stats, Eastern ranks in the top 10 nationally in three-pointers taken and made. The Eagles are similarly proficient inside the arc, where they hit 52.3 percent of their two-pointers. They rarely give the ball away (they turn the ball over on just 16 percent of possessions, also a top-20 mark nationally), so most times they get up one of those efficient shots.
Harvey is the star of the team, of course. He averages nearly 23 points per game (counting just D-1 opponents), nailing nearly 4 three-pointers per game at a 43 percent clip. He's equally adept from two and at getting to the line. He can spot up and create off the bounce. At 6'4", he's not a shrimp who's at risk of getting swallowed by a long-armed defender. He's really good.
And there are plenty of role players to flesh out the rotation. Venky Jois (16.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg, .608 FG%) is a mobile big man with an array of moves in the paint and around the basket. Ognjen Miljkovic (10 ppg) has a similar array of funky moves from the high post and down low. Parker Kelly (7.9 ppg), and Bogdan Bilznyuk (8.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg) are threats to bury triples, and Drew Brandon is a large, do-it-all lead guard. It's a very strong rotation, and not just a one-headed beast.
Watching EWU, it's clear how they amass their impressive stat lines. They push the ball off of misses, getting baskets in transition and semi-transition. They fill lanes ably, with shooters running to the corners, a big guy running down the lane, and a guard looking to penetrate, feed the ball inside, kick to the arc, or shoot. The Eagles are disciplined in their pace-and-space attack, and have the personnel to execute that plan. They count on opponents not being able to cover the entire court, and generally they've been right.
Georgetown is just 6-5 against teams that can really shoot (those ranked in the top 100 of effective field goal percentage). A deeper examination shows that record has something of an asterisk next to it: two losses came against #1 seeds (Wisconsin, Villanova) and 3 came against kryptonite-bearing Xavier, so there's more at play than just a team's shooting ability. Indeed, Georgetown has gone 4-2 against teams in the nation's top 100 in three-point percentage, Eastern's strongest trait, and 7-1 against teams that score at least a third of their points from 3. Even so, Eastern's willingness and ability to jack the three could turn the game in a hurry.
(2) The NCAA Tournament is a single-elimination tournament with very thin margins.
Georgetown fans don't need a lesson here. The NCAA Tournament is not about who would win 4 times out of 7, or who is the better team over the course of a season. It's about who wins a game, and in those 40 minutes, crazy things can happen. Eastern's willingness to jack up 3 after 3 could translate into a quick double-digit lead. (It also could lead to a double-digit deficit, if they hit a cold patch.)
On Georgetown's side, the obvious concern with a one-game playoff is foul trouble. This has been a problem all year for the Hoyas, who have one of the worst foul rates in the country. Georgetown will enjoy a decisive size advantage over Eastern Washington (more on that below) but won't be able to make use of that advantage if its bigs are riding the bench. Harvey and Jois are both draw fouls at high rates, and Jois's agility looks like a particularly likely problem. It's easy to see a scenario where Jois flops to draw a charge then throws himself into Joshua Smith for a cheap second foul and Mikael Hopkins sets a moving screen, goes over the back, and suddenly has two whistles of his own. If the Hoyas run into foul trouble, JT3 will be forced to make rotation choices (Bradley Hayes or going super-small with Isaac Copeland at the 5) and Eastern Washington could parade to the free-throw line, where the Eagles hit a healthy 71.4 percent of their foul shots.
5 Reasons The Hoyas Will Probably Win
...But just because Eastern Washington can beat Georgetown doesn't mean it probably will do so. That's a point worth dwelling on, momentarily. The three-plus days between Selection Sunday bracket reveal and Thursday's opening tip have become an orgy of opinions, hot takes, and analyses. Any talking head has to pick some upsets and, of the available options, is more likely to pick Georgetown to be upset, given its recent history. Likewise, surveying the possible Cinderella line-up, an expert will instantly be drawn to the romantic story of Tyler Harvey, the Three Bomber Who Didn't Have a Division 1 Offer. Indeed, almost all of the quick-hitting upset predictions point to the same three factors: Eastern Washington beat Indiana on the road; the Eagles, and particularly Tyler Harvey, can score with the best of them; and Georgetown has stunk it up recently in the tournament.
And yet, Eastern Washington still stands about a 1 in 6 chance of beating Georgetown, per KenPom. Even if the Hoyas' recent history helps the Eagles a bit, we're talking, what, 1 in 5? 1 in 4? Each passing bracketologist's upset prediction certainly doesn't multiply the percentages. Most likely upset is a lot different than probably will be upset. It's easy to become conditioned, by repetition from one outlet after another, into thinking that the Eagles are basically a favorite. They're not. Here's why.
(1) Georgetown will be able to score.
For all the focus on Eastern Washington's offense, almost no one's mentioned the Hoyas' offense or the Eagles' defense. So let's talk about that half of the game. Eastern Washington has the 279th most-efficient defense in the country, per KenPom. That's bad--really, really bad.
To give you some context, Georgetown hasn't played a defense as bad as Eastern Washington's this entire season. Even drawing the line at 200 (which lumps in run-of-the-mill bad defenses with truly terrible ones), Georgetown has played just six "bad" defenses: Towson, Radford, Charlotte, Indiana, and DePaul twice.
So how has Georgetown done against below-average defenses? Very well, as it turns out. The Hoyas have averaged nearly 79 points in those six games, and have scored efficiently, notching 1.20 points per possession. To give some context, just four offenses in the country have averaged that scoring efficiency for the season, and they're all in the NCAA Tournament, seeded 1, 1, 1, and 3.
Let's dig a bit deeper on shooting. For the most part, Georgetown has shot well inside the arc and just so-so from 3. In six games against sub-par defenses, however, the Hoyas' three-point percentage has jumped from a pedestrian 34.7 percent to a lights-out 41.4 percent. D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera has been particularly hot from deep in those games, burying 2.5 three-pointers per game at a 50 percent clip. Overall, the Hoyas have an effective field goal percentage of 53.7 against these defenses, a nearly 3-point bump from their overall performance.
And not to bury the lede, but perhaps Georgetown's biggest advantage against sub-200 defenses is on the boards, where the Hoyas grab fully 40 percent of their own misses, a mark that, over the season, would match them up with Kentucky's gargantuan front line.
|Points per possession||Effective FG%||Turnover rate||Off. Reb %||FTA/FGA|
|Nat'l Rank (all)||41||83||183||70||29|
|v. sub-200 defenses||1.20||53.7||17.0||40.5||41.4|
|Nat'l Rank (sub-200)||3||29||49||5||68|
The Eagles' defensive profile suggests that they will struggle to contain Georgetown. Eastern has an undersized front line, meaning they'll have to collapse down on Georgetown's bigger interior players, thus abdicating the perimeter, or stay home on outside shooters and yield easy baskets near the rim. The Eagles have struggled to contest opponents' shots all year, ranking a near-catastrophic 290th in opposing field goal percentage. They also force very few turnovers, suggesting Georgetown will have plenty of room to seek an open shot. Still, Georgetown has shown it can score inside well, and, against lousy defenses like the Eagles', can pour it in from 3.
Now, tactics matter, and Georgetown must be prepared for a tightly packed zone that seeks to deny Smith the ball at all costs. But even a zone defense is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the extra-large zones Xavier and Providence rolled out to the Hoyas' detriment. The Hoyas will be able to generate open looks from the perimeter or establish position inside. They'll also likely be able to get out in transition to generate easy buckets.
(2) Eastern Washington's offense is good, but not as good as the numbers suggest.
Sure the Eagles have scored a lot, but against whom? Georgetown has the 25th best defense in the country. Eastern Washington has played just 3 games against top-100 defenses and 14 against sub-300 defenses. (Again, Georgetown has played zero games against defenses that bad.) In all, focusing just on opposing defenses, Eastern Washington has faced the 331st-best collection of defenses (that is, the 21st-worst group) in the country. (H/t Chris Haines, in the comments below.) So, were the Eagles fattening up on the Little Sisters of the Poor, or what?
Eastern's most defensive-minded foes have been SMU, Cal, and Sam Houston State. All three games have been EWU losses, by an average of nearly 15 points per game. In those games, Eastern has scored less than .97 points per possession, a far cry from the Eagles' robust 1.1 points per possession overall. (That figure would place EWU second-to-last among NCAA Tournament teams and about 270th in the nation generally--like their defense, not good.) In particular, the Eagles' shooting has suffered against good defenses, plummeting by 5 percentage points from 3 and 8 percentage points inside the arc. Overall, Eastern Washington's sparkling 55 eFG% has dropped to a below average 48% against quality defenses.
Looking at the individual numbers, Tyler Harvey has continued to get his against the best defenses, scoring 27 points per game and hitting half of his threes. He's a great scorer, and quality defenses haven't changed that fact all that much. But the rest of the offense stagnates as defenses improve: Harvey's teammates have shot just 24 percent from 3 and 39 percent from 2 in those three games. The lesson could be not to over help on Harvey, but rather to slot your best defender on him (for the Hoyas, Trawick, and then Bowen in reserve) and lock down the rest of the Eagles.
As a final point, Eastern Washington's offense has been so fetishized, and the Hoyas have been so maligned, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Eagles have a better offense. In fact, EWU is 46th nationally in offensive efficiency, and Georgetown is a few spots higher, at 41st.
(3) Size matters.
Sometimes basketball boils down to simple things like who's taller. Georgetown is really tall--39th in the country in effective height (which factors playing time into team height so, for example, DSR's height counts more than Hayes' because the former plays much more). EWU is 266th in the same category.
Now, height never won or lost anyone a game. But what happens when Georgetown plays short teams like EWU? What about when EWU plays tall teams like Georgetown?
Against sub-200 effective height teams, Georgetown is a robust 8-1. Those games were played against a pretty fair cross-section of the schedule: four conference foes (St. John's and Marquette twice each), a major non-conference opponent (Indiana), and four easy non-conference home wins (Robert Morris, Texas A&M-CC, St. Francis (NY), and Radford). Four games against NCAA Tournament teams, five against the rest.
You can see from Georgetown's general profile why they do well against small teams. The Hoyas' length bothers smaller teams: they block shots at a top-15 rate nationally, have the best 2-point field-goal defense in the Big East, and they generate steals at a top-25 rate nationally. Height and length matters.
On the other side of the coin, Eastern Washington is just 3-3 against the tallest 100 teams in the country. Two of the losses were the SMU and Cal defeats mentioned above. The third defeat was at a not-very-good Washington team in which the since-exiled Husky (and husky) big man Robert Upshaw dominated EWU for 21 points (on 8-of-9 shooting!), 9 rebounds, and 6 blocks in just 26 minutes. Even drilling down on Eastern Washington's wins, 2 were narrower than expected victories over the sorta-tall-but-definitely-bad Weber State, and the final W was respectable win at San Francisco.
And, while we're here, let's go a bit deeper on Eastern Washington's signature win over Indiana. Listen, the Hoosiers are a worthy adversary: they made it to the NCAA Tournament, shoot the lights out, and gave Georgetown everything it could handle in MSG in December. But do you know what Indiana isn't good at? Defense, where the Hoosiers rank below 200 in KenPom's ratings. And you know what Indiana's rotation isn't? Tall! In reality, Indiana looks a lot more like Eastern Washington than it looks like Georgetown, and doesn't tell us much about how the Eagles will match up against the Hoyas.
(4) Georgetown has the best player on the court
Unpopular opinion alert! Yes, I know, Tyler Harvey is the nation's leading scorer and he's very admirable because he didn't have any D-1 offers out of high school. He seems like he's worked his tail off to get as good as he is, and he'll probably be raining threes on Georgetown in about 2 days. He is already making me lose sleep. My purpose isn't to take anything away from him.
But do you know who plays tougher competition at a slower pace and yet still gets buckets? D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. And DSR's numbers stack up well against Harvey's. They have similar offensive ratings and, while Harvey has better shooting numbers (because he jacks up more threes and, inside the arc, faces lousy defenses), DSR has Harvey in every other category: rebounding percentages, assist percentage, fouls drawn, free-throw rate, you name it.
(5) Pace won't matter as much as you think.
A common justification for picking EWU to upset Georgetown is: (1) Georgetown prominently features Joshua Smith; (2) Joshua Smith is a big guy who can't play at a fast place; and so (3) Georgetown struggles to play at a fast pace.
As it turns out, (3) isn't true! As an initial matter, the real distinguishing factor between the two teams' pace is Eastern Washington's fast-paced (i.e., crappy) defense. Both teams play at a fairly fast pace on offense: Eastern Washington takes about 17.6 seconds per possession (80th nationally) and Georgetown takes about 17.9 seconds (111st). The real difference is on defense, where EWU's opponents take just 17.4 seconds per possession (40th nationally) and Georgetown's foes take a clock-milking 18.9 seconds (263rd). Putting both teams on the same court may further speed up Georgetown's attack, and the Hoyas may be able to slow down EWU.
But even looking at Georgetown's "fast paced" games, it's hard to see much of a difference in performance. Let's take as a bench mark for "fast pace" Eastern Washington's preferred pace of 68 possessions per game (rounding down). Georgetown has played 8 games that fast or faster this season: St. Francis (NY), Robert Morris, Kansas, Charlotte, Indiana, Providence (home), Seton Hall (away), and St. John's (home). (Florida and Marquette don't count because they're not above 76.5 possessions, which is the prorated "fast pace" for overtime games.)
Once again, a pretty fair sampling of the Hoya schedule, right? Five NCAA Tournament teams; five power conference teams; one mid-major; two low-majors. Georgetown's record in those games? A very healthy 6-2. The slate includes two better-than-expected wins (Seton Hall and St. John's), one narrower-than-expected win (Charlotte), one loss that should have been a win (Providence), and four games that were in the expected range.
Drilling deeper, as you might expect, Georgetown's defense slips a bit playing at a fast pace, as the Hoyas give up 1 point per possession instead of .93 overall. The Hoyas prefer to get their foes into the half court and then lock them down; speeding things up doesn't help in that regard. But speed also boost the Georgetown offense, which scores 1.14 points per game in fast-paced games instead of the usual 1.10.
The point here isn't that the Hoyas particularly thrive at a fast pace. It's that they're not hampered by it. They get out an run when the circumstances call for it, and don't slip much in the process.
And supposed laggard Joshua Smith? In those fast-paced games, he averages similar playing time (22.25 minutes) and better scoring (13 points per game) on typically excellent shooting (60 FG%).
Listen, don't get me wrong. I'm terrified--TERRIFIED--of this game. Why else would I push 3,000 words on an analysis of a 13 seed? Eastern Washington has a nice win on its resume, some impressive shooting stats, and a star that you can already see being included in the One Shining Moment montage. Georgetown's embarrassing history in the NCAA Tournament casts doubt on the Hoyas' ability to beat a lower seed, and people have been willing to make the logical leap from "overseeded" to "likely to be upset." This could all go horribly wrong, in a hurry, if the Eagles start raining threes from all over.
On the other hand, so many of the hot takes out there don't take into account that Eastern Washington is a small team that plays virtually no defense and has failed when to score against defenses approaching Georgetown's caliber. These are real points, borne out by an actual game data, and not just a romantic storyline to which a pundit tasked with handicapping 36 opening-round games (and spending 60 percent of his time contemplating whether Kentucky will go undefeated) was drawn to like a moth to a flame. Eastern Washington is a nice story, but Georgetown should win this game.