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Here Comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again

March 16, 2017

We are now entering the 6th year of my macro-level, view-from-10,000 feet preview of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship™, and there’s something about my bracket that leaves me uneasy. A familiar rainy-day feeling. The rain won’t be in my actual weather today; it’s going to be bright, hot and sunny where I live (apologies to my friends still digging themselves out of Stella).

Rather, I get the distinct sense that despite the hundreds of hours logged watching college basketball this year, and the sleepless nights this week poring over data and conference tournament film (well, not exactly “film”, but the DVR was full last week), it won’t be long before the clouds appear and take away my bracket sunshine. Not only is my wastebasket is full of tossed drafts of the one bracket I submit for every pool, but sorting the field into my tried and mostly true categories has been quite the chore for this edition of the Madness.

You see, I endeavor to give the reader a sense of what I think will happen, not through examining particular matchups, but by organizing the field into bite-size pieces, groups and categories that should frame expectations for every invitee to the Dance. Yet, I find myself suggesting below that over a third of the 68-team field has a realistic or honest chance to win it all (between Contenders and Darkhorses), and otherwise favoring way too many higher seeds to advance for my liking. Which, if history tells us anything, means soon my tears will be falling like rain.

Without further ado, let’s compartmentalize the NCAA Tournament field. My chalky bracket is here as a matter of disclosure, a printed copy of which will surely be crumpled up in the trash can by Saturday night.

Championship Contenders – Regular readers of this feature – all 7 of you – will no doubt be familiar with the three Championship Tests created by the basketball gentleman and scholar Peter Tiernan of the long defunct BracketScience.com website. If not, you can refer to my 2015 NCAA Tournament Preview, under the same “Championship Contenders” heading, for a detailed breakdown of each Championship test. Tiernan identified common characteristics and minimum statistical thresholds of every National Champion from 2003-2013. Since then, these tests have become subject to more variables. The differentiated and unforeseen paths of recent champions, from 2014 Connecticut blowing out the coaching experience, seeding and offensive metric criteria which led to a modified “UConn Standard” that allows for a lesser offensive efficiency (Offensive Efficiency Ranking equal or better than #39, as opposed to #18 in the original Raw test), to 2015 Duke flipping the defensive switch and lowering their season-long AdjD by almost 4 points per possession on their way to the Championship, demonstrated that teams close to meeting these tests entering the tournament can play their way into Title form. Meanwhile, the recent advent of the 30-second shot clock and continuing emphasis on “freedom of movement” have seen Ken Pomeroy’s early suspicions that efficiency, pace, shooting and scoring would see a net positive effect come to fruition.

While I’m still sorting out the value of Raw Data thresholds from what can now be referred to as a prior era, these tests are still useful to separate the wheat from the chaff – especially the relative aspects of the Rankings test from year to year in addition to the historical record of the Tiernan Criteria – as well as to spot teams on the verge of making that leap into title contention. Testing this year’s field, a whopping 20 teams meet the Pomeroy Raw Data test (compared to 9 last year), while 11 teams meet the original Pomeroy Rankings Test, and another 12 satisfy the UConn Standard (also appreciably more than last year). Eight (8) teams met Tiernan’s Criteria; North Carolina, defending Champion Villanova, Kansas and Kentucky pass all three tests, while Arizona, Louisville and Oregon satisfy the UConn Standard in addition to the other two tests. Duke is the other team to meet the Tiernan Criteria, as they also meet the Rankings Test and have roughly the same AdjD entering the NCAAs as they did in 2015 (albeit this year a 96.1 AdjD ranks them 20 spots higher at #37). Gonzaga is the wild card entry here to make it nine (9) Contenders; They will never meet the Tiernan Criteria because they are not in a Power (high-major) Conference and correspondingly will hardly ever have the requisite strength of schedule, but they easily pass both KenPom tests and meet all the other Tiernan Criteria, are the # 1 ranked team by KenPom, are one of only two teams (Villanova) to rank in the Top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency , are ranked 8th in the RPI and 2nd in both polls, and despite their star-crossed tournament history, are to be ignored at one’s peril. Coincidentally, and slightly troubling since it is not my favorite metric, these are the Top teams in the RPI as well. If that’s not enough for you, the crew at FiveThirtyEight project these nine (9) teams have approximately a collective 72% chance of winning the National Championship.  From more to less likely, one of these Nifty Nine will cut down the nets on April 3:

  • North Carolina
  • Villanova
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Duke
  • Arizona
  • Louisville
  • Gonzaga
  • Oregon

Darkhorses – Here is where I cast most of the other teams that passed one or more of the Championship Tests yet contain more glaring flaws. An admittedly slim margin separates Darkhorses from the Contenders above, due to deficiencies that cause these teams to either be “jack of all trades/master of none” or be acutely one-dimensional favoring offense or defense, and further exacerbated by either being situated in a weaker conference or having a non-conference schedule that fails to provide adequate challenges. Although operating at a relatively high efficiency compared across the entirety of Division I, these 16 Darkhorses in the No. 3-10 seed range fall short in one or more key areas of both production (rebounding, turnovers, rim protection, perimeter shooting, making free throws) and personnel (an over-reliance on underclassmen, a lack of depth, or roster imbalance due to injury or attrition), acting in concert to reduce the margin for error and raise the degree of difficulty in stringing together the requisite wins for Title contention. In prior years, I would have separated some of these teams into a different category I called “Feast or Famine”, to indicate the high ceiling/low floor character of teams I once considered a step down from Darkhorses, but the gap between these two sets of teams have narrowed so much as to make separate categories redundant. After all, 2014 Connecticut was the last of my Darkhorse candidates that year, and every game was so close that their Feast could have become Famine in every round.

Momentum will make all the difference for these squads, many of whom were criminally underseeded by the Tournament Committee, with the true Darkhorses among this group to be revealed by Sunday evening. One note: It may seem strange to see UCLA listed as a “Darkhorse” when they sport a Top 3 offense, the sportsbooks have them listed among the Top 8 favorites for the title, and they are 6th most picked team (7.9% of entries) to win it all on ESPN. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: UCLA does not defend well. After losing 96-85 to Arizona on January 21, allowing the Wildcats to score 20 points above their season-long average, UCLA’s team to a man committed to playing better defense. Since then, over a 12-game span they have improved their AdjD from 102.5 (#128) on January 24 to 99.8 (#76) on the eve of the tournament.  To put that in perspective, UCLA would have to improve their AdjD by more than that spread, and more than what Duke did in 2015, in only 6 games, just to meet the defensive efficiency threshold of the KenPom tests. That’s not happening; I doubt they’ll be able to outscore six (6) teams to a title, but stranger things have happened. In order of likelihood of deep advancement:

  • UCLA
  • Michigan
  • Notre Dame
  • Virginia
  • Baylor
  • West Virginia
  • Florida State
  • SMU
  • Purdue
  • Florida
  • Iowa State
  • Wisconsin
  • Cincinnati
  • Wichita State
  • Butler
  • St. Mary’s

Potential Sweet 16/Elite 8/Final Four Cinderellas – What does this term even mean anymore? Was the normally blue-blooded Syracuse a “Cinderella” last year when they reached the Final Four as a #10 seed? No, they were merely one of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Can one consider teams such as Gonzaga, St. Mary’s Butler, Dayton (with my man Scoochie making his 4th NCAA appearance) and Wichita State real “Cinderellas” anymore, regardless of seed or conference affiliation, in light of their recent history of bracket busting and barnstorming success? I would think not. Thankfully March Madness, indeed the whole of College Basketball, still thrives on the notion that the glass slipper might fit anyone. So the following teams are only relatively below-the-radar compared to the field, but chances are one of these teams will be a household name by Sunday night. Something else to note is that everyone listed below except Northwestern – who gets included here despite being in the Big Ten because it is their first-ever NCAA Tournament Appearance – either won a share of their conference’s regular season title, or played in their conference tournament final. For the record, however, I like the first three (3) teams listed better than the others, and I have none of these teams in my Elite Eight:

  • Northwestern
  • Rhode Island
  • Middle Tennessee State
  • Nevada
  • Dayton
  • VCU

Underachieving or Underseeded “Stepsisters” Capable of a Deep Run – As a reminder, these are the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, harkening to the double-digit seeded 1986 (#10) and 1987 (#11) Tigers of Baton Rouge that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession. Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, all nine (9) teams here a.) Come from a high-major conference, b.) Are seeded No. 6 or worse, c.) Have nine (9) or more losses, d.) Have beaten or pushed multiple highly ranked teams to the limit this season, and e.) Despite lacking cohesion or suffering curious losing stretches or streaks, are very talented with difference-makers that can heat up and win games. While most of these teams fall by the wayside early, one usually makes it to the second weekend, and if you can peg the right team, your bracket will have a big edge on others as all of these Stepsisters will have to knock off a Top 2 seed in the Second Round. Didn’t you just know that Michigan State would find their way here?  Also of particular note is Oklahoma State with the #1 ranked offense in the country per KenPom, Maryland with experienced guard play led by Melo Trimble, and a USC team that could surprise (more on that below):

  • Michigan State
  • Oklahoma State
  • Maryland
  • USC
  • Miami
  • Arkansas
  • Kansas State
  • Virginia Tech
  • Seton Hall

“I Have No Idea What to Make of This Team” Teams – Every year there’s a few teams I truly don’t understand despite multiple attempts to observe them, typically resulting in a sense of basketball ennui, wanting more from these teams despite being unable to identify what exactly that “more” would be. This year, major injuries to star players (as in the case of Xavier and Creighton) seem to have added to the confusion. As a result, I usually have them gone sooner than later:

  • Minnesota
  • Vanderbilt
  • Creighton
  • Xavier
  • Marquette
  • South Carolina

Upset Picks That Actually Could Happen – “Upset” has become a misnomer in the parlance of March Madness. Considering that in the last seven (7) NCAA Tournaments, #11 seeds are 15-13 vs. their #6 seed counterparts, that scenario is no longer an “upset”. Meanwhile, #12 seeds are 2-6 over the last two tournaments against #5 seeds, so that seems to be the present line in the sand. Conditions for these disparate seed upsets require competitive “parity” to actually occur, often from the clash of high-major conference teams with substantial roster turnover and inconsistent results with mid-major teams who have managed to assemble upperclassmen-laden rosters. As such, it’s no mere coincidence that all of the teams listed below have Darkhorse teams as opponents:

  • East Tennessee State
  • Florida Gulf Coast
  • New Mexico State
  • Winthrop
  • UNC Wilmington
  • Bucknell

Upset Picks That Probably Won’t Happen – These double-digit seeds have unfavorable matchups and should play to their seed (i.e., lose). No #16 seed has beaten a #1 seed in the Men’s Tournament since it expanded to 64 in 1985, so I’m only including them by reference. Just like last year, I am not buying any of the #15 seeds, although that bit me in the rear with Middle Tennessee State beating #2 seeded Michigan State last year (Middle Tennessee State won’t be sneaking up on me this year!). Nevertheless, we forge ahead:

  • Troy
  • North Dakota
  • Northern Kentucky
  • Jacksonville State
  • Iona
  • Kent State
  • Vermont
  • Princeton

And Now … Three Fearless Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” and Make The Final Four … I’d favor USC over Kansas State in this calculus. I don’t think USC defends well enough to make the Final Four (KenPom ranks them 91st in defensive efficiency), and I don’t think Kansas State scores the ball well enough (their 72.4 ppg is 198th out of 351 Division I teams). However, starting with VCU in 2011, one of the First Four teams has gone on to win multiple games in every tournament, Wichita State continuing the streak last year by beating Vanderbilt and Arizona, and I won’t predict a bucking of this trend. USC already beat their Friday opponent SMU 78-73 back in November, and while both teams have progressed since, SMU will still have issues containing Bennie Boatwright as they did four months ago, and USC should be able to impose a faster tempo on SMU. Boatwright, USC’s leading scorer since returning from injury February 1 in their win over Washington, had 24 in USC’s comeback win over a similarly undersized Providence last night, and if he’s on again, midnight may come quickly for SMU. I think Cincinnati will be too much of a challenge defensively for Kansas State, despite a respectable showing in the Champ Tests (barely meeting the Raw Data and barely missing the UConn Standard for the Rankings test by 4 spots).

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Xavier.  Before starting point guard and NBA 1st round prospect Edmond Sumner went down for the year with a torn ACL on January 29, Xavier was ranked in both polls and had a #29 KenPom ranking. Since then, even Tom Petty thinks Xavier is Free Falling into the NCAAs, losing 7 of their last 10 games. To their credit, they won two games in the Big East Tournament including a win over then-#18 ranked Butler, and they still have dangerous shooters Trevon Blueitt and J.P. Macura at their disposal. It likely won’t be enough against Maryland.

My Final Four and Champion … Last year I went 2 for 4, and my Champion pick North Carolina was beaten at the buzzer in the Final. I still feel good about it that pick. The last two times a team had the opportunity to play for the National Championship less than two (2) hours from their campus, Butler barely missed a half-court shot to beat Duke at the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis, and Michigan State got blown out by North Carolina at the 2009 Final Four in Detroit. This year’s Final Four festivities happen to be at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, a two-hour drive up the I-10 from the Arizona Wildcats, and I’m going to cast my lot with the old adage that the third time is the charm for what would be a virtual home team. Aside from Michigan winning the Big 10 post-near-death airplane experience, only the Duke Blue Devils in the ACC were as impressive as the Wildcats during the conference tournaments, and I believe they will vanquish the defending Champion Villanova before falling to Arizona. Joining them in the Valley of the Sun will be the Oregon Ducks, who should still have enough to get to Glendale despite the loss of star big man Chris Boucher, and those North Carolina Tar Heels, who should overcome the plucky Ducks before once again losing in the National Championship game. Aside from my blatant homerism, the reasons I pick Arizona cut down the nets are threefold: 1.) Arizona is peaking at the right time, beating two Top 5 teams back-to-back to win the Pac-12 Tournament; 2.) NBA prospects Lauri Markkanen and Allonzo Trier form as deadly and versatile a 1-2 offensive punch as there is in all of college basketball, and they have role players for every occasion in support; and 3.) The symmetry (on the 20-year anniversary of Arizona’s last and only title) combined with the potential for UOP Stadium aka “The Big Toaster” to become “McKale North on Steroids” with 50,000-plus Arizona fans packed to the rafters, was too good to pass up. Which means it probably won’t happen, despite Arizona having a more manageable path to Glendale than most of the other Contenders. I don’t believe Arizona is the best team in the country, but it’s quite possible they will be the team that is playing the best basketball come April. All I ask from the Basketball Gods on that Monday is for clouds not to appear to take away my sunshine.

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