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Initial Bracket Thoughts

Amazingly, there seems to be less and less controversy with the final bracket in recent years. According to kenpom.com, the Virginia Cavaliers were the biggest snub. But the Cavaliers were not favored in many other computer rankings. While Virginia was 27th in the Pomeroy rankings, they were only 34th in Sagarin Predictor, 40th in Sagarin’s ELO Chess, 38th according to the LRMC rankings, 48th in ESPN’s BPI, and 66th in the Massey rankings. Clearly, Virginia had one of the weirdest profiles in recent years, and even the computers cannot agree on whether or not they were a snub.

Picking Your Final Four

As almost every expert has already stated, there were not any dominant teams in college basketball this year. If you want to argue against any team, you have plenty of ammunition:

-Louisville has issues offensively (especially when Russ Smith struggles), and faces a very tough bracket. Louisville’s pressure won’t work on a St. Louis team that has already survived VCU multiple times. And a Michigan St. or Duke regional final game would be extremely tough.

-Gonzaga is not prepared for the NCAA tournament because the level of competition in the WCC was not up to snuff this year. This has also been a problem in previous seasons. When Gonzaga has been favored in the NCAA tournament, they have historically under-achieved.

-Kansas doesn’t have a true PG and often struggles offensively. They either end up playing talented but inconsistent young players (like Perry Ellis) or experienced but non-elite talent (like Kevin Young), and that doesn’t always work. Kansas even lost to a dreadful TCU team this year.

-Indiana is great in a fast-paced game when they can find Jordan Hulls in transition and blitz people, but they are not always dedicated enough in the half-court defensively. The Hoosiers snuck into a one-seed after losing to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament, but 10 of the last 15 national champions have won their conference tournament.

-Duke’s defense fell apart after Ryan Kelly was injured, and in the four games he has been back Duke has still only posted an adjusted defensive rating of 95.9 which would only be 90th nationally. That is far from adequate for a deep NCAA tournament run. Duke is in a brutal region with Michigan St. and Louisville.

-Ohio St. relies far too much on DeShaun Thomas for their offense. As well as Aaron Craft has played lately, there is no guarantee he can keep it up.

-Georgetown was a brutal offensive team for much of the year (before a late hot streak), and depends too much on Otto Porter.

-Even when at full strength and supposedly rolling late in the year, Miami lost to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, both non-tournament  teams. The later loss came at home. The Hurricanes can lose to anyone.

-Michigan St.’s Keith Appling is not a natural point-guard, and while he is extremely talented, this team doesn’t have the same vintage decision making of other Spartans squads. Look no further than the end of Saturday’s Ohio St. game where a Spartan player decided to roll the ball on the inbounds (to conserve time) and let a Buckeye player pick it up and steal it.

-New Mexico has been extremely successful in close games this year, but they rarely blow teams out like the other top-seeded teams.

-Florida has lost almost every close game it has played this year. The Gators margin-of-victory stats are great because they have blown a lot of team’s out, but they don’t seem to have any clue how to play well under pressure, and the NCAA tournament is all about pressure.

-Buzz Williams is one of the most-underrated coaches in the country, but Marquette has massively over-achieved to even earn a 3 seed.

-St. Louis does not have an elite offense in part because their best lineups are often under-sized and fail to crash the offensive boards.

-Kansas St. does not have great margin-of-victory numbers relative to the other top seeds. In their only games against top talent (Michigan, Kansas, and Gonzaga), they have been blown out in 4 of the 5 games and lost all 5.

-Michigan’s defense is not Final Four caliber and they even lost to Penn St. this year.

-Syracuse can struggle mightily on offense because of turnovers or missed jump shots, and they don’t have any alternatives at the guard spots when things aren’t going well.

And so on, and so on. There are no overwhelming choices, but if I am going to pick teams for a deep run, I don’t want to pick teams that are extremely inconsistent. Everyone has been bad at times this year, but some teams have played poorly more often.

The next table shows how teams have performed since January 1st, controlling for opponent and venue. I break performances into 4 groups, dominant (single game Pythagorean rating over 0.95), strong (single game Pyth between 0.9 and 0.95), middling (single game Pyth between 0.8 and 0.9) and weak (single game Pyth below 0.8). Then I list the percentage of games where the team’s performance has been middling or weak. I call this the percentage of times the team has been beatable this year. Not surprisingly, everyone has been beatable at some point.

Seed Region

Team

Dominant

Strong

Middling

Weak

Beatable

1 MW

Louisville

15

3

2

1

14%

2 MW

Duke (with Kelly)

4

2

0

1

14%

3 S

Florida

16

1

1

4

23%

2 W

Ohio St.

11

5

2

3

24%

4 S

Michigan

7

8

1

4

25%

1 W

Gonzaga

9

5

4

1

26%

3 W

New Mexico

8

6

2

3

26%

2 E

Miami FL

9

7

2

4

27%

1 E

Indiana

12

1

4

2

32%

3 MW

Michigan St.

7

6

6

0

32%

2 MW

Duke (all games)

10

3

2

5

35%

2 S

Georgetown

9

4

4

3

35%

4 MW

St. Louis

9

4

2

5

35%

1 S

Kansas

10

4

4

4

36%

4 E

Syracuse

8

6

2

6

36%

6 W

Arizona

7

3

2

8

50%

5 W

Wisconsin

7

3

7

4

52%

4 W

Kansas St.

4

6

5

6

52%

6 S

UCLA

3

7

3

8

52%

3 E

Marquette

4

5

4

6

53%

5 MW

Oklahoma St.

4

5

6

5

55%

6 E

Butler

4

5

4

9

59%

6 W

Memphis

4

4

9

5

64%

5 E

UNLV

5

2

8

6

67%

5 S

VCU

5

2

6

8

67%

I love this table because it really helps explain what is happening with Wisconsin. The Badgers have a very high Kenpom.com rating, but over half the time the Badgers have looked beatable. Similarly, Marquette and UCLA have massively over-achieved this year winning close games. UCLA was basically in danger of losing every single game in the Pac-12 tournament. And with Jordan Adams out, UCLA becomes an even shakier 6-seed.

The two most confusing teams in this table are Michigan and Kansas. Michigan clearly has NBA-level talent, and it isn’t that hard to talk yourself into believing in the Wolverines. But all of the Wolverines worst performances have come in their last 9 games. Michigan went from being nearly flawless to start Big Ten play, to quite beatable in recent games, and thus I’m still not completely comfortable with that pick. Conversely, Kansas has only had one bad game (against Baylor) in that same stretch of time and the Jayhawks appear to be peaking.

According to these numbers, Louisville (or Duke with a healthy Ryan Kelly) are the best bet for national champion. But remember, the best bracket pool bets aren’t necessarily about picking the favorites. You have to know what type of people are entering your bracket pool if you hope to win. Do you live in Indiana and have a lot of Hoosier “hometown” fans? Then picking Indiana may not give you the right odds. If everyone is picking Louisville (because they are the most popular expert choice), that isn’t necessarily a great bet either. Similarly, if you are in a pool with a bunch of stat-heads who love kenpom.com, it might not be worth picking Florida. The bottom line is that in a year like this one, almost any set of Final Four choices is defensible. But recognize where you are making risky bets by banking on inconsistent teams.

Bonus note: Pittsburgh has only looked beatable in 33% of the games since January 1st, which is much better than many of the highly seeded teams listed in the above table.

Coming Monday Night:

-The right way to measure hot teams (by scoring margin, not wins and losses)

-My bracket picks

 

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