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Wednesday’s Meanderings on The Dance …

March 19, 2014

Late tonight I will post my Comprehensive Preview of the NCAA® Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship and what you need to know about the field writ large.

For now, after digesting all the TV “bracketology” I could stomach, poring over volumes of data and three mediocre nights’ sleep, here are some randomized, preliminary thoughts on parsing the bracketed field of 68, as well as a tease of which teams I expect to contend for the title …

–        If you only listen to the mainstream sports media (Would that be MSSM? I don’t know, but we’ll go with it), we might as well not even have the tournament, since almost everyone, even the President of the United States, has picked Michigan State to advance out of the East Region and win it all. I get it, to an extent; they are certainly among the deepest, most talented and well-coached teams in the country.  I do loves me some Izzo. In November, when they beat Preseason No.1 Kentucky and their fabulous freshmen class, it was viewed as a triumph of maturity and experience over the youthful one-and-done phenomenon that has revolutionized (and some would suggest ravaged) college basketball. Ranked No. 1 for the next three weeks before getting blitzed at home by North Carolina, injuries to key starters Branden Dawson, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne helped the Spartans to 7 more losses during the season.  But the band is back together, they’re all healthy now, winning the Big Ten Tournament in convincing fashion (and preventing Michigan from being the fourth No. 1 seed in the process) and as such, almost everyone has crowned them the presumptive champion.  I’m not fully buying it, mostly because many of the teams potentially standing in their way to a title – Virginia, Iowa State, Florida, Louisville, Arizona – are good defensive teams that match-up very well with Michigan State and excel at dictating their preferred tempo to their opponents.  Plus, I’m not 100% sold on their guard play, especially in a tight game when they need someone to create or score for them; Michigan State lost 5 games by three possessions (7 points) or less, and aside from their two losses to Michigan, were held below 68 points (or, 8+ points below their scoring average of 76.2 ppg) in their other 6 losses.

–        Other overly trendy picks I’ve come across in my media consumption (too many to bother linking them, but they’re not hard to find) include the following: Projecting #4 seed and Defending National Champion Louisville to the Title game out of the Midwest Region; Picking #9 seed Oklahoma State to beat #1 seed Arizona in the West Region Round of 32 (I’m not thoroughly convinced they get past an overlooked #8 seed Gonzaga in their first game); Having #7 seed New Mexico as both chronically underseeded (not according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, as the No. 28 rating = #7 seed line) and a popular pick to beat #2 seed Kansas in the South Region (when I don’t think they get past #10 seed Stanford in their first game); believing the Preseason No. 1 team, #8 seed Kentucky, put it all together in the SEC Tournament (losing to the current #1 ranked team and the NCAA Tournament’s #1 overall seed Florida by 1 in the title game) and therefore will dispatch with the undefeated, #1 seed in the Midwest Region, Wichita State (I’m not convinced Kentucky’s little babies are all grows up); and following the well-publicized 5-12 match-up trends, I’ve seen the case made for every #12 seed – Harvard, Stephen F. Austin, North Dakota State and North Carolina State – winning. With apologies for mixing several metaphors, pick your poison when it comes to putting stock into these supposed sure things.

–        In filling out your brackets – if you’re like me, you like to take your time and overthink things, so I haven’t finished mine yet – there are a number of various sources you could use for insight, to aid (or confuse) your own selection process. You could always look to “those guise” in Vegas, as the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino have Florida as the 4:1 favorite to win it all, or the mathematically rooted Jeff Sagarin Rankings, which currently rate Arizona as the No. 1 overall team (and No. 2 behind Louisville in their gambling-minded “Predictor” ratings model).  Aside from the MSSM sites like ESPN, CBS Sports, and USA Today, there are several other free and paywall internet sites dedicated to rating college basketball teams and projecting tournament winners. Often referenced in this blog, Ken Pomeroy is one of my favorites, taking an advanced statistical look at college basketball performance and efficiency (currently ranking Arizona as No. 1 overall). Peter Tiernan has been doing yeoman’s work the last few years at Bracket Science, where he has utilized historical data from Pomeroy’s site to provide compelling analysis on the characteristics shared by the past 13 National Champions. Noted political wonk, sports nut and stat guru Nate Silver (re)launched his Disney/ABC/ESPN backed FiveThirtyEight.com “data journalism” site, where he used a complex statistical model that combines a number of the previously mentioned ratings and rankings to forecast the same Final Four (Florida, Michigan State, Louisville, Arizona) President Obama has (ignoring the obvious Chicken and Egg arguments for a moment), but a different champion (Louisville, with a 15% chance of winning the title) . There are a number of so-called “prediction engines”, from Bracket Voodoo (they pick Arizona as the probable favorite) to Power Rank (ditto on Arizona) that similarly calculate not only their own probabilities of each team winning the tournament, but the win probabilities for all teams in each round starting with their first match-up. There are also several other articles (one of which I’ll link here, focusing on ideas to consider when you’re trying to win $1 Billion) that analyze the historical data of the tournament.  Or you could just go by team colors or mascots like every other person that won your bracket pool last year. In any event, if you have mathematical leanings of any sort (as I do), you also might be less likely to pick Michigan State as your Champion.

–        As some of you undoubtedly realize by now, there is a human element to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, underplayed to an extent whenever the tournament selection process is expressly covered or referenced.  A major part of their process is seeding the field 1-68, and that seeding order was released late Sunday night.  I won’t pick it apart like many others have, although I have a difficult time believing there are 12 better teams than Louisville, and I’ve heard a number of convincing arguments that Virginia should not have been the fourth No. 1 seed.  However, the committee always has the flexibility to put teams into seeds and matchups based on a number of other preferred considerations, from avoiding games between conference members until the later rounds as well as rematches of games already played this season (which they ignored for Oregon-BYU in the West region), geographical proximity to ease travel of the teams and their fans (with priority given to the higher seeds), and what I will call a sense of humor.  How else do you explain Ohio State playing in-state stepbrother Dayton in the Round of 64, or a potential Round of 32 game between Wichita State and Kansas State (both examples of forcing a match-up between a major conference program and an upstart mid-major in-state program they normally refuse to play)? Former Big 12 conference foes Baylor and Nebraska now separated by conference realignment but brought together by the NCAA Tournament? Or Louisville’s first game against Manhattan, pitting Mentor (Rick Pitino) against Pupil (Stephen Masiello, a walk-on at Kentucky for Pitino)? How about structuring potential matchups in the Round of 32 or Sweet 16 that by seed alone would result in high-profile rematches of games from this season (Arizona-San Diego State, Duke-Michigan, Kansas-New Mexico) or even last season’s Final Four (Wichita State-Louisville, Michigan-Louisville)?  Maybe even a combination of such factors like potential Creighton-Nebraska or Louisville-Kentucky games (both with in-state dynamics as well as a rematch) or Villanova likely having to play either a Philly rival in St. Joseph’s or former Big East rival Connecticut?  Never mind all the potential conference opponent rematches that could happen in the later rounds due to the nine (9) conferences that have multiple teams in the same region.  These are not happy accidents. While not all of these games will come to fruition, clearly the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee creates potential matchups to build in marketing appeal and maximize potential viewership. I don’t blame them either. Just don’t get caught up in the allure of all these potential match-ups in filling out your Buffett- Quicken Loans Challenge Bracket, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that …

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From → Basketball, Sports

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