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Though This Be Madness, Yet There Is Method In’t

March 20, 2014

Leave it to The Bard to centuries beforehand presage the machinations and deliberations that characterize filling out a bracket for the NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

First off, here is my bracket, a printout of which will likely be crumpled up in the wastebasket by Sunday afternoon.  Too many of my picks required rounds of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock with the dog (who was surprisingly clever).  One thing you’ll notice below is almost 1/3rd of the field could contend for the Final Four, but only a few teams are of Championship timber.  Without further ado, I present my macro-level look at the NCAA Tournament field …

Championship Contenders – Last year, I had nine (9) potential Champions, and somehow, crazily hit jackpot when my 2nd overall Contender Louisville held off my 4th overall Darkhorse Michigan in the Final. Wacky. Everyone talks about parity – and I think that will bear itself out in the Darkhorse, Cinderella and Stepsisters’ Deep Run segments below – but despite that I think there are only five (5) teams this season, in this tournament, that can win it all.  Peter Tiernan, whose site BracketScience.com I linked in the prior post, has developed a set of credentials based on the common characteristics of every National Champion since 2000. Among the criteria include being a member of a “power conference” (think BCS in football, the high-majors), scoring more and allowing less than 73 ppg as well as an average scoring margin greater than 7.0, being a Top 3 seed, having an experienced tournament coach (at least 5 NCAA trips and one Elite Eight), either having an All-American player or having played in the prior year’s NCAAs, and a strong overall (Top 75) schedule.  He’s also studied Ken Pomeroy’s historical data on offensive and defensive efficiency (expressed in points per 100 possessions) since 2003 to determine two other “tests” for championship contenders, based either on the comparative rankings of offense (AdjO 18th or better) and defense (AdjD 49th or better) or the raw numerical outputs of points scored (≥ 112.4) and allowed (≤ 95.4) per 100 possessions. The residue of all of that is 15 teams meet at least one of the three sets of criteria.  My list is much less inclusive, for reasons that will reveal themselves shortly, but my guess is that he may have to change one of his credentials to “Top 4 seeds”, as I have two such No. 4 seeds in my list of five, one of which ticks off all the other credentials, and the other which technically isn’t in a power conference (AAC), and as such didn’t play a Top 75 schedule (Top 80-105ish, depending on your metric), but is the Defending Champion.  All five meet at least two of Tiernan’s tests as well (except the last one), so in order of more to less likely:

  • Florida
  • Arizona
  • Louisville
  • Kansas
  • Michigan St

Darkhorses – Although each of these teams has a serious defect that I believe will keep them from winning it all (ranging from mediocre team defense to lack of a proven scoring option late in close games, to playing a less than challenging non-conference schedule), this year’s Darkhorse candidates to reach the Final Four and possibly beyond numbers into double digits.  Each of the 11 teams below has good-to-great guard play, is highly efficient offensively or defensively (if not both), and performs at least one aspect of the game that causes opponents problems at a very high level, whether it’s sharing and taking care of the ball, causing turnovers, offensive rebounding, blocking shots, shooting or defending the 3-pointer, or hitting their free throws. In addition, the first eight (8) teams listed meet one of Tiernan’s tests, and all of them have winnable match-ups with Contenders or other Darkhorses before the Elite Eight.  By Sunday night, we should know who has emerged from this group:

  • Virginia
  • Villanova
  • Michigan
  • Wichita State
  • Wisconsin
  • Duke
  • Syracuse
  • UCLA
  • Iowa State
  • Creighton
  • Connecticut

Potential Sweet 16/Elite 8 Cinderellas –  Only one of last year’s Cinderella candidates made the field this year: #1 seeded Wichita State (Talk about the Belle of the Ball, those glass slippers are quite durable!).  To borrow from another Disney classic, Wichita State, as well as Creighton (#3 seed), VCU (#5),  Saint Louis (#5) and Gonzaga (#8), have become hunted like Snow White.  As such, the idea of a Cinderella is losing its meaning.  Nevertheless, here are seven (7) mid-major (or low-major) teams still flying under the radar (barely), with coaches and players you may not have heard of yet, but have the chance to become household names before this weekend is out:

  • George Washington
  • Saint Joseph’s
  • Dayton
  • Harvard
  • North Dakota State
  • Louisiana Lafayette
  • Mercer

Underachieving or Underseeded “Stepsisters” Capable of a Deep Run –  With the Preseason No. 1 team Kentucky as the poster child of this category, this category makes the strongest argument for parity this season.  As a reminder, these are the “LSU 1986/1987” teams, in reference to Dale Brown’s double-digit seeded 1986 (#11 seed) and 1987 (#10) Tigers’ squads that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight respectively.  Like those Tigers, these teams all a.) come from a high-major conference (much like Cinderella’s Stepsisters), b.) lost 9 or more games (8 of the 10 have lost 10+ games), c.) are seeded No. 8 or worse, d.) have already proven capable of beating top teams, while staying with others for 40 minutes, and e.) despite lacking a certain cohesion or having suffered some curious losing stretches or streaks, are very talented and have difference-makers that can heat up and win games.  Basically, most if not all of these 10 teams could challenge for a Final Four berth, they just have to put it all together consistently:

  • Kentucky
  • Oklahoma State
  • Memphis
  • Pittsburgh
  • Providence
  • Stanford
  • Tennessee
  • North Carolina State
  • Kansas State
  • Nebraska

Feast or Famine – Of particular note here is that five (5) of the eight (8) teams listed below are in the West Regional as Seed Nos. 4-8, which likely spells chaos in the first few rounds of that regional. Typically a high ceiling and low floor, their patterns are less discernible and thus have earned seeds in the 3-8 range. Many of them either rely heavily on underclassmen or otherwise have shallow but talented playing rotations, have suffered what bracketologists call “bad losses” (outside the RPI or Pomeroy Top 50), and/or have otherwise dangerous match-ups in their first games. Survive those however, build confidence and rhythm, maybe have a talented player emerge out of a slump or off the bench into a larger role, and much more is possible for these squads:

  • San Diego State
  • Oklahoma
  • North Carolina
  • Baylor
  • Oregon
  • New Mexico
  • Gonzaga
  • Colorado

Tom Petty Teams (Freeee … Free Falling!) – For the second year in a row, Syracuse would have been included here, except that I gave their talent and coaching benefit of the doubt as they meet Tiernan’s raw numerical output efficiency test for champion contenders. Iowa would have also qualified even if they had won their play-in errr.. “First Four” game against Tennessee.  Normally, Tom Petty Teams are trending downward due to inconsistency, key injuries, drastic changes in performance from earlier in the season, player unrest, suspension or benching, or off-court distractions. These four (4) teams appear to be moving in the wrong direction without much potential for recourse, and yet, have still have the talent to surprise. In many ways they’re similar to the Stepsisters or the Feast or Famine teams, except that they’re in the middle of a famine at the moment:

  • Saint Louis
  • Cincinnati
  • Ohio State
  • Arizona State

“I Have No Idea What to Make of This Team” Teams – Every year, there’s a few teams that I really, truly  don’t “get”, despite my attempts to watch and analyze them. I even have one of them winning their first game, but don’t ask me why beyond mere seeding or a coin flip:

  • VCU
  • Massachusetts
  • Texas
  • BYU

Upset Picks That Probably Won’t Happen – Amateur bracketologists like you and I like to ferret out the potential upsets, knowing that picking the correct low-seeded and otherwise undervalued upstarts is key to winning our tourney pools. In stark contrast to the Cinderella candidates however, most of these double-digit seeds have bad matchups and should play to their seed (i.e., lose). Despite the fact that a #13 seed has beaten a #4 seed six straight years, all the #13 seeds are listed below (as well as all the #15 seeds, but oddly, only two of the #14 seeds). Stats guru and Mr. FiveThirtyEight.com Nate Silver tends to agree; he calculates that all the teams below have a 25% or less probability of winning their first game. Remember that just because many of these teams could beat their higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean that they actually will:

  • Stephen F. Austin
  • Tulsa
  • Delaware
  • Manhattan
  • New Mexico State
  • Western Michigan
  • North Carolina Central
  • American
  • Milwaukee
  • Wofford
  • Eastern Kentucky

And Now … Five Fearless Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” … North Carolina State. One could also make a case for a gritty Tennessee team that may well win a game or two more going forward, but the Vols and the #16 seeds that survived the “First Four” in Dayton just don’t have the talent – led by the reigning ACC Player of the Year and probable NBA 1st Round Draft Pick T.J. Warren – and depth (they usually play a 9-man rotation) to beat four more teams and get to Jerry World.  I believe the Wolfpack beats Saint Louis and gives Louisville everything they can handle before losing, but should they somehow vanquish the Title Holders, no one else left in the Midwest Region will scare them.  Even if that were to happen, it would be more akin to the underachieving Stepsisters above than a true “VCU” Cinderella run to the Final Four; Much of what made VCU special in 2011 is that they were a true mid-major Cinderella, whereas the two non-#16 seed First Four survivors this season are from power conferences.

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Kansas.  I think the injury to their anchor in the post, freshman wunderkind Joel Embiid, and their loss in the semis of the Big 12 Tourney to a rolling Iowa State team has obscured the fact that Kansas may have more talent than any other team in the country.  Sure, they’re 2-3 without Embiid over their last five (5) games, but those three losses were relatively close and away from home to quality teams (two of which, Iowa State and Oklahoma State, made the Dance). Sure, losing a player that by all accounts will be a Top 5 (maybe even the #1 overall) NBA draft pick in June to injury until late in the tournament (if Embiid can return at all) would severely hamper any team’s title chances, but the Jayhawks have ample cover in the post offensively between Perry Ellis, Tarik Black, Landon Lucas and Jamari Traylor. (Granted, Embiid’s absence is best felt defensively, as Kansas doesn’t have someone to replace the rim protection and post defense he provided). Plus, Andrew Wiggins. Sure, one could also make a case for #1 seeds Wichita State and Virginia here as well, but at least I’ve seen predictions for them making the Final Four. Almost every talking head I’ve seen in the last four days has Kansas losing in the Round of 32 to New Mexico or in the Sweet 16 to Syracuse or Ohio State (while they are slated to reach the Elite Eight as a #2 seed), Dukie Vitale among them. Quite curious when you consider a.) Kansas is coached by a future Hall-of-Famer who has a NCAA Championship and Two Final Fours on his résumé, b.) They are in the Top 10 of Pomeroy, Sagarin, and RPI ratings and spent the last half of the season ranked in the Top 10 of the polls; c.) They meet two of Tiernan’s champion tests (barely missing the third with a 96.9 AdjD), and d.) Andrew Wiggins, the presumptive #1 overall pick in June’s NBA draft (if it isn’t Embiid).  Which, among many other reasons, is why I have them as one of my five Championship Contenders.  If Naadir Tharpe can continue to provide the steady point guard play he showed in the Big 12 Tourney, and Embiid can return for the second weekend and be an able contributor, another Final Four for Bill Self isn’t out of the question.  And did I mention … Andrew Wiggins?

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Syracuse. While I didn’t list them as a Tom Petty Team due to their season-long efficiency at both ends of the floor, and a 12-5 NCAA Tournament record over the last 5 years that illustrates their match-up zone has proven difficult for unfamiliar opponents, the fact is they have lost five (5) of their last seven (7) games after being undefeated and ranked #1.  Again, Iowa would contend for this spot had they won in Dayton, now losers in seven (7) of their last eight (8) contests, but I still have a philosophical objection to counting the “First Four” games in any fashion beyond a play-in situation.  I’d hear an argument for Saint Louis as well, but going 1-4 in their last five (5), three of the losses by three possessions (7 points) or less, after winning the previous 19 to me isn’t quite the “shambles” that Syracuse finds themselves in. Home losses in the Carrier Dome to Boston College and Georgia Tech, to me, cinch it for the Orangemen. Arizona State could be a candidate, having lost also lost five (5) of their last seven (7), but four of those losses were on the road, and as recently as Valentine’s Day, they beat then #2 ranked Arizona in double overtime.  North Carolina is a team that has both Tom Petty and Darkhorse qualities, because they lost their last two games in less than convincing fashion, but before that they had won 12 straight, and have one of the best inside-out combos in guard Marcus Paige and forward James Michael McAdoo (must say all three names). Which to me makes them the quintessential Feast or Famine team.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Second Round Upset Departure Team” is … Take your pick.  It could be Wichita State, if the resurgence of the Preseason No. 1 Kentucky team is more fact than fiction.  Maybe it’s Arizona, losing to the Gonzaga-Oklahoma State winner if they miss free throws like they did against UCLA in the Pac-12 Title game.  I could see Villanova having trouble with former Big East rival Connecticut, Virginia getting caught in an uptempo shootout with Memphis (or even George Washington), and let’s not forget that many believe Kansas will be this year’s “Kansas”.  My pick though is Wisconsin.  Although defense is a hallmark under Bo Ryan, this year’s edition of the Badgers do not defend as well as they have in years past, and while their offense is highly efficient (#5 in Pomeroy’s AdjO), they’ll face a No. 15 seed American squad that likes to grind out possessions more than Wisconsin does, before facing an Oregon team that went undefeated in their non-conference schedule and is almost as efficient offensively while playing at a much higher tempo. I’m not convinced playing in Milwaukee will save them either.  My gut tells me Villanova is the next most likely candidate, but I think they at least get to the Sweet 16 before playing below their seeding.

Is There a Potential “Butler” or “George Mason” This Year? …  Probably Not, although the East Region seems the most likely for that to occur.  George Washington is the closest candidate to a mid-major team that I could see coming from seemingly out of nowhere to find itself in the Final Four or Title Game, with two experienced transfers from high-major programs in Maurice Creek (formerly of Indiana) and Isaiah Armwood (Villanova).  Yet I’m not convinced they win their first game against Memphis, much less beat Virginia and Michigan State to get the Elite Eight and merely have a chance at the Final Four. Maybe I’m sleeping on fellow Atlantic-10 mate St. Joseph’s and their inside-out combo of Langston Galloway and Halil Kanacevic, but I doubt it with Connecticut and Villanova blocking their way to the Sweet 16. I also like Harvard’s talent and style of play, but not enough to suggest they could get by Michigan State in the Round of 32.  Any of those teams would have to manufacture upsets (read: plural) against heavily favored high seed, which I can’t see happening.  Maybe chaos erupts in the West Region and a BYU, North Dakota State or Louisiana Lafayette wins a couple games, but I can’t see any of them getting past Arizona or Creighton.

All of which leads to my Final Four and Champion …

In assessing which teams are most likely to reach a Final Four, I tend to favor teams that are relatively balanced in offensive and defensive efficiency, and not teams that are efficient at one end of the floor at the expense of the other (which is why I don’t see Top 3 seeds Michigan, Wisconsin, Duke or Creighton making it to Dallas). I think defense matters more earlier in the tournament, where scheme and effort can slay giants who don’t defend as well as they should, and then the pendulum shifts later in the tourney as the more offensively capable teams tend to assert their talent under increasing pressure.  Once at the Final Four stage, I go with the most talented team remaining – or more succinctly, the most complete and talented team playing the best basketball – to cut down the nets.  Although I don’t think this season’s version of Florida is actually as talented as any of their prior three Elite Eight teams from the last three seasons, I do think these Gators will be talented enough to win a third NCAA Title under Billy Donovan, prevailing over the Defending Champion Louisville Cardinals in a barnburning affair.  Rounding out the party is an Arizona Wildcats’ squad that I would have picked to take the whole enchilada before Brandon Ashley went down for the season, and the irrepressible interlopers from Ames, “Mayor” Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State Cyclones.

All that’s left is cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.

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