The NCAA tournament has a profound effect on all of us. After the tournament bracket has been released on Sunday but before the games tip off Thursday morning, we are all transformed into systems analysts and theoretical physicists.
I never studied as hard for a final exam as I do before filling out my bracket. And let’s be honest, which one is actually more important? (If you said “bracket”, you are correct).
We dissect every coach, player and matchup. We look for statistical trends (Kentucky is 0-1 in their last one game) and breakdown possible location advantages (West Virginia gets Gonzaga in Pittsburgh, practically their own backyard). We try to anoint “this year’s Kemba Walker” or “this year’s VCU.”
Basically, we try to predict the unpredictable and explain the unexplainable. In 2011, it was statistically easier to win the lottery than to predict the VCU, Butler, UConn and Kentucky Final Four correctly.
Yet, we continue to search deep within to find the answer to the age-old question: Who will win and who will go home? Why can’t we just watch and enjoy the games for the awe-inspiring roller coaster rides that they are?
Because it’s more fun this way!
So without further ado, here are some of the most important questions going into this year’s Big Dance and my misguided attempts at answering them.
1. Q: Who Is This Year’s Kemba Walker?
A: Draymond Green, Michigan State
Let’s start with a question I just said was impossible to answer! Last year, Kemba Walker led the Connecticut Huskies, who went 9-9 in the Big East, to a magical run through the tournament and all the way to an improbable National Championship. Walker was the heart and soul of the team with both his leadership and his lightning-fast play at the point guard position.
Green fits the bill. An unrivaled leader on the floor, Green can play all five positions on the court for Coach Tom Izzo. He led the Spartans in almost every offensive category this season, and led Michigan State to a No. 1 seed after the team was unranked to start the season.
While the role players have stepped up nicely for Michigan State, Green is the lifeblood of the team. He is the type of impassioned leader that you cannot help but rally around. His teammates want to go to war for him, you could see it on display against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. If you are looking for one player who could will his team to a title in 2012, Draymond Green is that man.
2. Q: Who Is This Year’s VCU?
Did you see what I did there? Pretty clever, I know. Sure, VCU doesn’t excel at much statistically and only one starter on this year’s team played significant minutes last season (Bradford Burgess). But let’s take a look at it.
Everyone is talking about Iona, Long Beach State and Creighton as mid-majors most likely to pull a Butler and make a Final Four run. But if we are looking for a team to pull a Butler, then it has to be VCU.
Because Butler did it two years in a row. The Bulldogs followed up their impossible 2010 championship game loss to Duke by basically doing it all over again last year while the rest of us idiots were looking for a new Butler. VCU is the next VCU. It’s only logical.
3. Q: Will Vanderbilt Continue Its Historic Run of First-Round Exits to Lower-Seeded Teams?
A: Of Course
Vanderbilt just became the first team to beat Kentucky in 2012. They won the SEC Tournament Championship by out-muscling and out-shooting the previously 32-1 Wildcats. Vandy has unbelievable perimeter talent in Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Brad Tinsley. All three can be lights-out shooters. Vandy also has a strong inside presence in Festus Ezeli.
Meanwhile, the fifth-seeded Commodores will take on 12-seed Harvard, a team who hasn’t even been to the tournament since before man invented the wheel (1946). The Crimson’s best player only averages 11 points per game, and the team’s best win came against Florida State in the middle of the Seminoles’ worst stretch of play this season (FSU lost five of eight games after losing to Harvard).
Clearly all signs point to Vanderbilt cruising into the round of 32.
But as Jim Carrey says in Dumb and Dumber, “I’m going to go with my instinct on this one.” You can add (12) Harvard to the list that already includes (13) Siena, (13) Murray State and (12) Richmond as teams that have prematurely shown Vanderbilt the tournament door since 2008.
4. Q: Which Team Is Most Likely to Ruin Your Bracket?
A: Syracuse Orange
Back in college (I’m not going to look up what year because the memory is too painful), I entered my first big money bracket challenge. Every year before, this was just me scamming five bucks from every kid I could find at my middle school that couldn’t spell bracket yet, let alone fill one out correctly. But this time it was for real, and I was ready to prove my lordship over Bracketville.
So naturally I took No. 1 Kentucky to win it all, and they were promptly beat down by UAB in the second round. My entry was shot, so after an eloquent, yet profanity-laced tirade, I lit my bracket on fire.
I learned a tough lesson that day. One of the favorites to win it all can and will destroy your bracket. This year, I believe that team to be Syracuse. The Orange has more talent than anyone not named Kentucky or North Carolina.
They have senior leadership in Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph, an impenetrable zone defense and a Hall of Fame Coach in Jim Boeheim. Even better, I think the East Region sets up very nicely for Syracuse.
Neither Vanderbilt nor Wisconsin should prevent them from reaching the Elite Eight, and Syracuse has the size and toughness to match up with Jared Sullinger and Ohio State if they happen to meet them in the regional final.
Today the news broke that Syracuse will be without Fab Melo for the tournament. That just makes it harder to predict what will happen to this team.
Yet, I just get the feeling that a tough-minded, well-coached Kansas State team is going to bury Syracuse in the second round. I am telling you it is one or the other. Just as their Big East brethren Pittsburgh fell to Butler as a one-seed in the second round last year, the Orange may face a similar fate. If you are looking to avoid getting completely screwed by one “contender,” steer clear of Syracuse.
5. Q: Granted, Statistics Are Overrated, But What Are the Three Most Important Stats in March?
A: 3PT%; Rebounding Margin; Turnovers
One of the hardest things to do when analyzing your bracket is to ignore seeds. How can you ignore them, they are right there on the page in front of you! If you end up picking (7) Saint Mary’s over (10) Purdue and the Boilermakers win, you’ll feel inadequate for not having the foresight to see such an upset (Purdue plays in the Big Ten, duh).
If you try to make the shrewd selection and go with Purdue, only to see the higher seed Saint Mary’s take care of business as they were supposed to, then you are just the guy who tried too hard and got burned for it.
So use some helpful metrics to guide you. The above statistics are self-explanatory in importance, but are relevant nonetheless.
Any team who can shoot the three at a high percentage is never out of a game. Teams who get hot from behind the arc can run away with a game in a hurry (like (8) Michigan did against (9) Tennessee in the first round last year). Here are a few teams that can really fill it up from downtown: (4) Indiana, (8) Creighton and (6) Murray St.
Rebounding becomes imperative in the Big Dance. You absolutely cannot give up easy buckets from offensive boards if you hope to advance. Games slow considerably in the tournament, scores go down and scoring chances are fewer and farther between. Cleaning up the opponents errant shots becomes as important as making your own. These teams are true glass-eaters: (1) Michigan State, (7) Saint Mary’s and (10) West Virginia.
As previously mentioned, the game really slows down in March. The value of each possession is amplified, and that is bad news for teams who are loose with the ball. A few teams to be weary of in terms of turnovers per offensive play (so faster paced teams are not penalized): (6) Murray State, (8) Kansas State and (3) Baylor. And here are the schools that really know how to protect the rock: (10) Purdue, (6) Cincinnati and (2) Missouri.
6. Q: So Who the Heck Is Going to Win It All?
A: Why would you ask me, I have no idea.
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