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Predicting the Future is Hard

March 15, 2018

This is the 7th Edition of my macro-level, view-from-10,000 feet preview of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship™, and I feel like I know less than I ever did. My goal with this yearly preview isn’t to analyze every matchup and tell you who to pick on your bracket (there’s a little bit of that anyway), as much as it is organizing the field into bite-size pieces, separating the field into groupings that should frame expectations for every invitee to the Dance.

Yet, the combination of  increased parity and external factors have turned my crystal ball into a snow globe (with apologies to those digging out of their most recent Nor’easter).

For instance, this whole FBI business. While I don’t have any additional evidence besides the facts available to everyone, I – and clearly others – suspect that the NCAA Selection Committee had a clear bias towards any program involved in the FBI’s investigations into college basketball corruption. Bubbles burst for several of the teams involved, including USC (which was a felonious act without historical precedent), Louisville and Oklahoma State, the latter two of whom were understandable omissions any other year, but it’s difficult to separate that from the current context. Although there is seed-line flexibility built into the process, it’s possible (Probable?) that Arizona (Pac-12 Regular Season and Tournament Champions) and Auburn (SEC Regular Season Champions) were purposefully underseeded and shipped away from their regions (Arizona’s in the South Regional, starting in Boise then Charlotte if they advance; Auburn is in San Diego then would proceed to Omaha), and only Miami seemed to get a fair shake.

Nevertheless the FBI investigations are a discussion and a rabbit hole for another time.  I only mention them because whatever influences the Selection Committee’s decisions on each team not only affects those teams, but the teams they will and could play. You think Kentucky and Virginia are happy to see Arizona in their half of the South Regional? Auburn as a #4 seed in the Midwest could also have impacted Duke and Michigan State having to meet in the Sweet 16, another potential crime against basketball (more on that later).

Parity is really the bigger influence on the current proceedings.  In my likely vain attempts to identify the small group of teams that are capable of winning the 2018 NCAA Title, not only did I examine no less than 40 teams who could conceivably win it all – or at least get to the Final Four – but I could only narrow it down to nine Contenders, and a phalanx of Darkhorse teams so numerous as to render the concept mute.  I have never seen a field so wide open, or the margins between teams and seeds so narrow. Recent seasons have seen a separation of teams at the top, and the parity coming right after that; This season, the sands shift as soon as you draw the line.

Without further ado, let’s compartmentalize the NCAA Tournament field. My scattershot bracket is here as a matter of disclosure, a printed copy of which is likely be folded into a paper airplane and flown into the trash can by Sunday morning.

Contenders – Since 2014, I have utilized the three “Championship Tests” created by basketball hobbyist Peter Tiernan of the long defunct BracketScience.com website, to sift through the field and decide who has a legitimate shot at winning it all. For a detailed breakdown of each Test you can refer to my 2015 NCAA Tournament Preview, under the “Championship Contenders” heading, but generally these tests identified common characteristics and minimum statistical thresholds of every National Champion since 2003.  With the exceptions of Connecticut in 2014 (missing the coaching experience, seeding and offensive metric criteria which led to what I call the “UConn Standard” that allows for a lesser Offensive Efficiency) and Duke in 2015 (who played their way into meeting the KenPom defensive metrics, improving their season-long Defensive Efficiency by almost 4 points per possession and 45 spots in the rankings), the tests have held up rather well, as the last two champs Villanova and North Carolina passed all the tests by wide margins. If anything, those two outliers have demonstrated that teams close to meeting these tests entering the tournament can win their way into Title form.

ESPN’s John Gasaway also attempts to determine the same thing in a data-intensive fashion with his yearly “343 Teams That Will Not Win” feature, and he’s been 2-for-2 so far in identifying the eventual Champion from an eight-team pool of true contenders. Using Tiernan’s tests I am 3-for-4 since 2014 (missing Connecticut in 2014, who I had as a “Darkhorse”) in placing the eventual Champ in my “Contenders.”and 5-for-6 over the life of this perennial feature.  So, I got that going for me.

Testing the 2018 field, only 11 teams meet the KenPom Raw Data test (20 did last year), while  nine (9) meet the original KenPom Rankings Test, and another seven (7)  satisfy the UConn Standard (whereas 23 met at least the UConn Standard last year).  Only Five (5) teams met Tiernan’s Criteria, and only two (2!) teams pass all three tests: Michigan State and Duke.

Of course, as poor bracketing would have it, Michigan State and Duke are scheduled to meet in the Sweet 16, instead of being on the opposite sides of the field as they should have been. I was tempted to just predict the winner of Duke-Michigan State to win the Title, but in reality, neither are #1 seeds, and there are several more teams at or near their level. Michigan is the only team to satisfy the UConn Standard in addition to the other two tests. While Gonzaga will never meet the Tiernan Criteria, as they are not in a Power (high-major) Conference and accordingly will struggle to attain the requisite strength of schedule, they easily pass both KenPom tests like last season’s National Finalist. North Carolina misses Tiernan’s Criteria by 0.1 points allowed per game; They are also one of six (6) teams who meet the KenPom Rankings Test, yet likely due to the influence of the 30-second shot clock on tempo and defensive efficiency, slide just outside the KenPom Raw Data AdjD threshold. All but one of those six (6) teams (Auburn, Spoiler Alert!) are included below, on the presumption they could improve their AdjD as they win. Collectively these Contenders have a 61.9% chance of winning the National Championship according to FiveThirtyEight, which is about 10% less than 2017’s nine (9) Contenders, further speaking to the parity. From more to less likely to cut down the nets on April 2nd:

  • Duke
  • Michigan State
  • Villanova
  • Purdue
  • Michigan
  • Kansas
  • Gonzaga
  • North Carolina
  • West Virginia

Darkhorses – Here is where the 11 other teams that passed one of the Championship Tests fall, as well as six (6) other teams that either come within striking distance of meeting one of the KenPom tests or miss the Tiernan Criteria by one factor (usually seed). The hesitancy in this analysis is twofold, as 1.) I actually have two #1 seeds, Virginia and Xavier, categorized as “Darkhorses” based on their Championship Tests (which I think reinforces the idea that the Selection Committee had a poor outing); and, 2.) The sheer number of teams, 17 in the Nos. 1-10 seed range, almost renders this breakdown meaningless, as I am basically saying in addition to the Contenders, a quarter of the tournament field are potential challengers for at least the Final Four.

Further, these teams are separated from the Contenders above by the thinnest of statistical or categorical margins, typically due to being acutely one-dimensional (favoring offense or defense by a wide margin over the other) and falling short in one or more key areas of both production (rebounding, turnovers, perimeter shooting, free throw percentage) and personnel (over-reliance on underclassmen, a lack of depth, or roster imbalance due to attrition). All of which reduces the margin for error and raises the degree of difficulty in stringing together the requisite wins for Title contention.

In prior years, some of these teams were separated into either “Stepsisters”, or a different category I called “Feast or Famine”, to indicate the high ceiling/low floor character of teams I used to consider a step or two down from Darkhorses, but the gap between “Darkhorses” and “Feast or Famine” teams have narrowed so much as to make separate categories redundant, albeit with one exception this year (see below). The true Darkhorses among this group will be revealed by revealed by Sunday evening; As an aside, I have Auburn here despite having an almost identical dataset as West Virginia, due to the fact they weren’t in the NCAAs last year, and whereas Arizona and Virginia are in Gasaway’s pool of eight potential winners, my analysis relegated them to Darkhorse status. In order of likelihood of deep advancement:

  • Virginia
  • Auburn
  • Ohio State
  • Houston
  • Tennessee
  • Texas Tech
  • Clemson
  • Cincinnati
  • Xavier
  • Kentucky
  • Florida
  • Butler
  • Arizona
  • Wichita State
  • Virginia Tech
  • Seton Hall
  • Creighton

Cinderellas – Another effect of parity is that the very notion of “Cinderellas”, what observers used to conceptualize as mid-major or lesser teams who reached the Sweet 16 or further, has been relegated only to the seed attached to one’s name, and not the “provenance” of one’s conference affiliation. Yet college basketball still relies on the supposition that the proverbial glass slipper might fit anyone. Although relatively below-the-radar compared to the field, it’s worth noting that everyone listed below except TCU – making their first NCAA Tournament Appearance in 20 years – either won a share of their conference’s regular season title, or played in their conference tournament final. At least, that’s a rough outline of what it could mean to be a Cinderella going forward. For the record, none of last year’s six (6) “Cinderellas” made the Sweet 16, and I have only one of these six (6) teams in my Sweet 16 (Nevada):

  • TCU
  • Nevada
  • Rhode Island
  • Providence
  • Loyola-Chicago
  • San Diego State

Stepsisters – As a reminder, these are the underseeded or underachieving teams capable of a deep run, the high-major conference corollary to the modern mid-major “Cinderellas”. A more descriptive name for this category would be 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. But I like the fairy tale symmetry. Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, all six (6) “Stepsisters” a.) Come from a high-major conference, b.) Are seeded #7 or worse, c.) Have double-digit 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.

One of these teams usually lingers at the Dance until the second weekend as the rest hurry to catch their stagecoach buses waiting outside, and pegging the right team will give your bracket a substantial edge as all of these Stepsisters will have to knock off a Top 3 seed in the Second Round.  Of particular interest here is Texas A&M, a Top 10 team going into January until injuries and suspension ravaged their depth, before recovering in February to solidify their NCAA invite; North Carolina State and their five (5) wins against Top 25 ranked teams; and Missouri, who will have future NBA Lottery pick Michael Porter Jr. for their 3rd game this season, with another whole week of practice to integrate him into their flow. In order of my preference:

  • North Carolina State
  • Texas A&M
  • Arkansas
  • Missouri
  • Florida State
  • Kansas State

Feast or Famine – Last year I did away with this category as all the teams I would have put here were either qualitative Darkhorses or quantifiable Stepsisters in disguise. HOWEVER …there is one team that bucks both categories, fitting the literal definition of the phrase “Feast or Famine” because they are the quintessential high ceiling/low floor team of this tournament: Alabama.  Led by a dynamic freshman in Collin Sexton, an NBA Lottery point guard as soon as this summer, and a plethora of tall, athletic wings and bigs with the quickness and length to bother any team, their run to the SEC Conference Tourney semis has reversed their momentum after a 5-game losing streak (and prevented them from Freeeeee … Free Fallin’ into the Dance). To me, the Crimson Tide have not underachieved, so they aren’t really a Stepsister, their SEC affiliation negates traditional Cinderella potential, and I can’t really see them stringing together four wins to get to San Antonio either, but I can see them beating Virginia Tech and giving Villanova all they can handle, or losing to Virginia Tech by 20, so who knows?

  • Alabama

Free Fallin’ – Normally, these “Tom Petty Memorial” teams are trending downward due to inconsistency or notable downward shifts in performance from earlier in the season. In better days they share much in common with the Stepsisters or the Feast or Famine teams, except now they’re in a famine.  Oklahoma, despite having certain All-American Trae Young and rising as high as #4 in the rankings, lost 11 of their last 15 games. Syracuse lost five (5) of their last eight (8) before beating Arizona State (who would have been here as well had they won) their First Four game yesterday.

  • Syracuse
  • Oklahoma

“No Idea” – As in, I truly have no friggin’ idea about these teams despite several viewings, 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, injuries to starting guards seem to have added to the inconsistency. Texas has been .500 for 2018 despite the emergence of NBA Lottery talent Mo Bamba, while Miami is 10-8 over the same time frame. The best thing I can say about the Bonnies having watched them beat UCLA on Tuesday in their First Four game, is that they are well-coached and scrappy, even as I don’t trust their 14-4 Atlantic-10 conference record with all four (4) conference losses to other Top 4 Atlantic-10 teams. As a result, I usually have all of them gone sooner than later:

  • Texas
  • Miami
  • St. Bonaventure

Likely Upsets – Although these upset picks might actually happen, as I said last year the term “Upset” has become a misnomer in the parlance of March Madness. Recent trends have continued to support a line of demarcation on what an “upset” actually is, between the #11 and #12 seeds, as in the last eight (8) NCAA Tournaments, #11 seeds are 18-14 vs. their #6 seed counterparts (3-1 last year), while #12 seeds are 3-9 over the last three (3) tournaments against #5 seeds (1-3 last year). With the increase in parity this year, conditions for these disparate seed upsets arise from the clash of high-major conference teams with substantial roster turnover and youth with mid-major teams who have managed to assemble upperclassmen-laden rosters. No coincidence that all of the teams listed below have Darkhorse teams (or in UNC Greensboro’s case, a Contender in Gonzaga) as opponents:

  • New Mexico State
  • South Dakota State
  • Davidson
  • UNC Greensboro
  • Charleston
  • Stephen F. Austin

Unlikely Upsets  – These are the upset picks that probably won’t happen, the double-digit seeds that 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 (Although I do think Penn will give Kansas a tough game, and Texas Southern might stay with Xavier for a half). Just like the last two years, I am not buying any of the #15 seeds, although I am slightly tempted by Georgia State. Other teams like Buffalo, Montana, and Bucknell  would be worthy, even alluring candidates with different matchups, but the ones they were given (Arizona, Michigan, Michigan State) preclude their consideration in my book.

  • Murray State
  • Marshall
  • Buffalo
  • Montana
  • Bucknell
  • Georgia State
  • Lipscomb
  • Cal-State Fullerton
  • Iona

And Now … Six Audacious Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” and Make The Final Four … I don’t think any of them fit this bill.  UCLA to me, on sheer talent alone, was the most likely candidate, but they failed to show  up against the Bonnies. Syracuse’s match-up zone is always problematic, so maybe they have a better shot against a green TCU squad, even as Horned Frogs’ Head Coach Jamie Dixon had plenty of experience coaching against Jim Boeheim’s zone at Pitt. I don’t rate St. Bonaventure’s chances against Florida that highly, as the Gators have six (6) Top 25 wins despite having some consistency issues similar to the “No Idea” teams above. Although history favors one of Syracuse or St. Bonaventure winning another game – Starting with VCU in 2011, one of the First Four teams has gone on to win multiple games in every tournament – this might be the year that trend bucks, and I can’t see either of them getting to San Antonio.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Oklahoma. Their recent form detailed above in “Free Fallin” aside for a moment, the idea that a fresh start in the NCAAs away from Big 12 opposition would be beneficial from a scouting perspective has some currency, in that non-conference teams will be less familiar with the Sooners than their Big 12 foes. None of  that precludes the idea that Oklahoma has just become too reliant on Trae Young, and that his surrounding cast is wanting. Atlantic-10 Regular Season Champs Rhode Island won’t be a picnic either.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … Kansas. Duh! Truth be told, I‘ve been arguing with friends all season that Kansas is Fraudulent.  Sure, I could see Xavier losing in the Second Round to either Missouri (more below) or Florida State, but of the #1 & #2 seeded teams, only Duke and North Carolina face potential opponents in the Second Round as dangerous as Kansas.  Either North Carolina State or Seton Hall could beat a guard heavy Jayhawks squad, especially with Udoka Azubuike a “game-time” decision. Despite their gaudy analytics and win totals, and despite the fact I have them as a Contender due to said analytics, I’ll believe Kansas gets to the Final Four this year when I actually see it happen, and not a moment before.

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Purdue.  Many of the talking heads this week have made a point of saying that Villanova has a relatively easy path to the Final Four in the East Regional, phrases like “Cake walk” and “Easy Street” being tossed around.  That might be the case for their first two games, but I wouldn’t say West Virginia or Wichita State lives on “Easy Street,” and Purdue should be no one’s idea of a “Cake walk.” Spending 2018 ranked in the Top 13 of the polls, 5th overall in KenPom and Sagarin, and 9th in the RPI, the Boilermakers start four (4) seniors and a Wooden Award Finalist in sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. They barely miss all three of the championship tests, and would pass them if a.) They allowed 0.6 points-per-100-possessions less, and b.) Head Coach Matt Painter had reached an Elite Eight in his 10 NCAA appearances at Purdue and Southern Illinois. Both FiveThirtyEight and The Power Rank have Purdue among the Top 7 favorites to win the NCAA Title. Simply put, they are a team built to last in the NCAAs.

Could Some Middle-Seeded Team Pull a 2014 Connecticut on The Field? … Dubious, but if I had to make a bet on it, I would look at the SEC. Missouri, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Florida are all in that Nos. 6-8 seed range, all have winning records against Top 25 teams, and have the requisite star talent and enough depth to make a deep run against highly rated opposition. Unlike 2014 Connecticut, who won their conference tournament, none of those teams won a game in the SEC Tournament this year, so the momentum is lacking.

My Final Four and Champion … Last year I went 2 for 4, which for me is par for the course. Like Davy Crockett, I’m sticking to my guns this year at the Final Four (couldn’t resist an Alamo reference). Despite the rampant parity, I have to go with what I believe to be the Best Starting Five in College Basketball, the Michigan State Spartans, to be sitting in the last chair when the music stops. I think the Best Defense in College Basketball (and historically great at that) will propel the Virginia Cavaliers to the Title Game (a Darkhorse by my analysis, but the #1 overall seed according to the NCAA). I think the Best Offense in College Basketball, the Villanova Wildcats, will also make it to San Antonio, and I’ll pick what some would consider to be the Hottest Team in the Nation, winners of 11 of their last 12 and the Big 10 Conference Tournament, the Michigan Wolverines, to round out the party. Many worthy candidates for Champion, but I suspect Sparty will feel the most at Home in San Antone.

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