Welcome to the least productive work week of the first quarter of 2014. While the Super Bowl draws more individual eyeballs and probably leads to the least-productive non-official holiday in the American economic system (note: I have no economics degree), the NCAA tournament is special because it strips an entire week of concentration away.
The con here is simple. Selection Sunday opens the work week with everyone and their bosses quietly filling out a bracket at their office desk, while everyone who isn't filling out a bracket is subsequently trying to argue their way out of being the money collector for the office pool. (Never be the money collector for your office pool.)
Once that nonsense is settled, you then have to spend your next few days relentlessly fiddling with your bracket. Because that's what we do. Talking Head X makes a good point about Creighton actually being the team to beat in the West Region, and suddenly you're feverishly changing your big UPSET selection of Louisiana-Lafayette. (A better visual would have involved an eraser, but we are in 2014. If you're still in a pool that's only filled out by hand, please inform your office pool manager that technology will not steal his children.)
Not that the printable bracket is entirely useless. I mean, you Googled it and somehow wound up here, right? There's something about the printed bracket that brings forth nostalgia, and not everyone is as tethered to their electronic devices as I am.
Plus, crumpling up a bad bracket is an infinitely less expensive way to show your displeasure than tossing your laptop out a window when your bracket inevitably fizzles. Printing out your bracket might not save trees, but it'll save you hours of anger-management counseling.
At least, that's what I always say.
Anyway, here are more words you should read—these specifically pertaining to the actual event that will rule our weeks.
Don't Be Crazy—Send No. 1 Seeds Through to the Sweet 16
This, obviously, is a much tougher rule this year than in most past instances. Oklahoma State and Kentucky loom as exceedingly dangerous round of 32 opponents for Arizona and Wichita State, respectively.
The Cowboys have righted their ship since their midseason seven-game losing streak. They've won five of their last seven games since and aren't nearly as bad as their record indicates. Ken Pomeroy's luck metric ranks Oklahoma State as one of the 10 unluckiest teams nationwide. Kentucky also ranks outside the top 300 from a luck standpoint.
Oh, and the Wildcats were the No. 1 team in the country this preseason. There's also that.
But while it's certainly tempting to take Kentucky or Oklahoma State to pull off the upset—and I suspect many will back the Wildcats against Wichita State—the numbers don't make that a worthwhile bet. Since the NCAA went to the 64-team tournament in 1985, No. 1 seeds are 101-15 in the Round of 32.
Fifteen wins for No. 8 or No. 9 seeds isn't zero, but it might as well be. For comparative purposes, No. 2 seeds are more than twice as likely to lose their second game. The separation between the likelihood of a No. 2 and a No. 3 seed losing is just eight percent—but it's nearly 20 for the drop between a No. 1 and a No. 2.
There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest one top seed may lose. You're just setting yourself up for an impossible task in choosing the correct one. Knocking Wichita State or Arizona out early and it not happening may serve as a death knell to your bracket. It may seem clever or risky to take the chance in theory, but in practice you're going to be giving up at least one win to the entire rest of the pool—who smartly went chalk with the best teams.
Being aggressive and going big isn't a bad thing. Just don't do it with No. 1 seeds.
Only Seeds Nos. 1-3 Need Apply to Cut Down the Nets
Thanks to some utterly baffling decision-making from the selection committee, this again seems like odd advice in 2014. Louisville and Michigan State are among the most talented No. 4 seeds of my lifetime—they may even be the most talented duo of No. 4s in history.
And we're not the only ones who noticed. The Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and Casino came out with national-championship odds after the brackets were announced, and the Spartans came in at surprising 9-2 odds. Only top overall seed Florida is considered a more likely national champion. That dually shows what little faith Las Vegas has in Virginia and Villanova while also sending a direct message to the committee that they screwed up.
Having Louisville at 15-1 in the daunting Midwest Region is almost as high of a compliment.
Using our best indicator of future results (history), it seems like the committee's strange decisions will lock Michigan State and Louisville out of the national-title picture. Only three times in history has a team seeded lower than No. 3 won a national championship, with the last being Arizona in 1997. Before Lute Olson's Wildcats, the 1985 Villanova champions and 1988 Kansas squad were the only two others.
Arizona is actually the only No. 4 seed to win a national championship. Last season, Michigan became the first to reach the final game as a No. 4 since.
Excluding the Cardinals and Spartans entirely from the conversation is a bad idea, of course. The one lesson we learn over and over in history is that things don't happen—right until they do. And it's worth noting that three of the 10 teams to make the national-championship game as a seed lower than No. 3 have come since 2010.
But there's a reason teams are seeded the way they are. Top seeds alone have won the national title 18 times during the 64-team alignment. They are more than four times as likely to cut down the nets as a No. 2 seed or a No. 3 seed.
Going chalk makes people cranky because it's boring. More often than not, though, you'll be rewarded for your choices.
Reward Two-Way Efficiency
Hi, welcome to Cliche Barn, how many I help you? Oh, you'd like one "people forget there are two ends of the floor"? OK, good. Because they totally do.
Saying that kids these days just don't pay attention to defense is patently false. If anything, defenses now are more complex at all levels of basketball than they've ever been. Nearly every NBA team runs a man-zone hybrid scheme in defending the pick-and-roll, and college teams mix up their defenses on a matchup basis.
Where many brackets often go wrong is forgetting the deficiencies of teams—on either end of the floor. The best teams (duh) are the ones who can not only put the ball in the basket but prevent the opposing team from doing so as well. According to Peter Tiernan's Bracket Science website, no national champion has finished worse than 18th in offensive efficiency nationally since 2003. Likewise, no team has finished worse than 49th defensively.
Tiernan's study on this year's crop of teams show eight possible national champions: Villanova, Kansas, Florida, Louisville, Wichita State, Michigan State, UCLA, Pittsburgh. His further studies show that Villanova has the best chance of winning the title this season based on a three-tiered study.
The bracket certainly worked out for the Wildcats—I'm just not 100 percent ready to buy into them as a champion. Knowing what we do, Wichita State and Florida seem like the best national-champion bets. The Gators, of course, are by far the better of those options. They both have wins against actual opponents and do not have to rummage through the gauntlet Midwest Region.
At the risk of sounding like the vanilla ice cream of prognosticators, I'm not going to fill out a bracket this season that doesn't have Florida winning the national championship. As for potentially strong upset candidates, be on the lookout for Tennessee if it gets through Round 1, Iowa and Harvard. Don't even remotely consider Delaware or North Carolina State.
Also, please continue doing research. I wouldn't want you to have to go back to work or anything.
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