Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Million Dollar Bracket?

The most depressing development about the NCAA Tournament over the last couple of years? No, not Billy Packer devolving into everyone’s mean Uncle Oscar who always gripes that things were better in the old days, before the war. Nor Gonzaga going from lovable underdog to teeth-gnashing tease. Nor the SEC deciding it had better things to do than actually qualify for Final Fours anymore (nor my unfortunate inability to quit caring about those failures).

No, for the JCCW it’s the end of the Million Dollar Bracket contests. A few years back, CBS Sportsline and (I think) each offered a million bucks for picking a perfect bracket. Now, the best you can do is win a million pizzas…for other people?!? The Holy Grail of a perfect bracket used to promise both fame and fortune. Now, well, there’s probably at least a smidgen of fame still attached. A five-minute interview with that Asian guy on ESPNews, I guess.

So there’s not really any motivation to try and pick a perfect, Million Dollar Bracket anymore. If you’re looking to win your office pool or even your ESPN group, better to avoid picking any big upsets and only deviate from the chalk when absolutely necessary.

But the JCCW has never been about heading into things besides an honest day’s work half-assed. So here’s my system (honestly, what self-respecting college hoops nerd fan doesn’t have some kind of bracket-picking system?) for navigating the way to the Million Dollar Bracket, and where it takes us this season:


In than hands-down most inexplicably ignored development in all of bracket sciences, since 1990 at least one 1 seed has lost in the second round of every even-numbered year. During the same span, no 1 seed has ever lost in an odd-numbered year. For 16 years now this on-off pattern has prevailed, and yet virtually no expert brackets I’ve seen have included this year’s 1-goes-down special, Arkansas over Memphis. The Hogs are about as athletic as even the Tigers, have an NBA-quality leader in Ronnie Brewer, do a better job of attacking the basket, and just have that same “NOW we’re ready” look that ‘Bama had as an 8 two seasons ago (before they knocked off Stanford). After thumping the likes of Central Florida and Southern Miss for two straight months in C-USA Memphis, well, isn’t ready for the likes of Arkansas. (It’s a condition we should call “Few’s Complaint.”)

That removes one contender for the…


Start at the top, with a 1 seed since (duh) no FF’s ever been held without one. UConn should be there. North Carolina is actually being underestimated in my view (no one, and I mean no one has them surviving both Michigan St. and UConn) and the Heels scare me to death here. But the Huskies have Marcus Williams and UNC doesn’t.

Now, how many more top seeds? Little-known fact is that the most frequent number of 1 seeds in the Final Four is just one. Happened 10 times, to two’s 8 times and three’s 3. The JCCW’s guess is that it’s just one again this year. Kansas is just flat-out the best team in the Oakland region; their supposed weakness is being young, which I’m pretty sure Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara successfully disproved was not that big a hindrance three years ago. Texas should win a rematch with a Duke team that never plays its best as a 1 seed (ask Florida, Indiana, or Michigan St. if you like). And I like Florida to be the beneficiary of Villanova and Boston College wearing each other out in a Sweet 16 slugfest. The big n’ balanced Gators are much more similar to Donovan’s 2000 title game squad than the underachievers from the last several tourneys. The 1-2-3-4 collection of seeds adds up to a total of 10, a little higher than average but still lower than last year’s 11.

Another factor in my Final Four decision-making? Kenpom’s efficiency ratings and Lunardi’s adjusted scoring margin (Insider-only, sorry) got my back.


The hard part. Typically the JCCW (well, Jerry…this is technically the JCCW’s first set of brackets) makes three “surefire” upset picks: one protected seed (1-4) to fall in the first round, one 5, and one 6. And then one extra upset—usually a 12 or 11. (No, 8-9 and 7-10 games don’t count.)

For only the second time, I’m picking that protected seed to be a 2. Scroll down a bit to the other posts I made this week and you can see who I’m talking about. (I also had 15 Northern Arizona pegged to knock off 2 St. John’s in 2000. The Lumberjacks had a one-point lead and a foul to give with less than 20 seconds left when the refs made a gawd-awful call, saying that a foul occurred in the act of a St. John’s player tossing in a circus shot rather than being on the floor. I will never, ever forgive or forget this.)

As for the 12-over-5 upset, I think Pitt is too tough for Kent St.; that Utah St. will give Washington a hell of a game but finally have no answer for Brandon Roy; and that Syracuse has just enough gas left in the tank to see off Texas A&M. I’m usually very distrustful of teams coming off of miracle conference tournament runs, but since getting burned picking against Charlotte, Indiana St., and Maryland this decade I’ve revised that a bit. I also don’t think GerryMac will let his team become first-round fodder two years running.

That leaves Montana vs. Nevada. Montana is grossly overseeded as a 12. But Nevada is grossly overseeded as a 5. This Wolf Pack squad does have Fazekas, but they don’t have a Kirk Snyder or a Kevin Pinckney, either. Furthermore, mid-majors with seeds this relatively high in the stratosphere tend to, well, get nosebleeds: Gonzaga’s become the poster children, of course, but Creighton also bombed as a 6 a couple seasons back and Princeton couldn’t live up to unfair expectations as a 5 “back in the day,” either. Montana’s plenty good enough (they took down Stanford and took UW-Milwaukee to the wire) and plenty experienced enough to take advantage of Nevada becoming the latest mid-major favorite to contract a case of the yips.

The 11-over-6? Gimme UW-Milwaukee over Oklahoma. SIU can’t score enough to keep up with the WVU bombers, George Mason has no shot without Skinn, and Indiana’s playing too well at the moment for San Diego St.

So where’s the extra upset come from? I don’t like the look of any other 12s or 11s (I would rate Texas A&M the most likely victors), but more importantly there’s unprecedented opportunity—at least, on paper—for a second protected seed biting the dust in the first round for a second straight season. 15 of the 18 one-bid league championships (not counting the WCC) were claimed by the consensus most dangerous NCAAs team in that league. The result, as has been noted elsewhere by multiple analysts, is the strongest set of 13-16 seeds ever. The ol’ gut tells me that equals another big upset somewhere.

But where? To my view there’s six candidates with legitimate protected-seed upset potential besides Winthrop: Pacific (over BC), Bradley (over Kansas…yes, the same team I just picked to make the Final Four. Bradley’s that good), Iona (over LSU), Xavier (over Gonzaga), Northwestern St. (over Iowa), and Davidson (over Ohio St.).

The most likely two, I believe, are 14 Northwestern St. over 3 Iowa and 13 Pacific over 4 Boston College. Neither would surprise me at all. Skinner does a poor job of preparing BC for the NCAAs and the Eagles don’t play a lot of defense. Iowa struggled away from home, won a lot of close games that may swing the pendulum the other way, and may not handle the quickness of the Demons very well.

Smith and Dudley were so completely dominant on the inside against North Carolina in the ACC tourney game I watched, however, that I can’t see Pacific slowing them down that much, even with senior stud Christian Maraker and the Eagles’ cross-country flight. Iowa looked less impressive to me, even in victory, and Northwestern St. (whatever the seeds might say) is also the more impressive of the two ‘dogs. Says here the Demons will pull it out. (Not a Million Dollar Bracket consideration, but it doesn’t hurt that Iowa would face superior West Virginia in the second round anyway whereas BC would have a substantially more manageable task vs. Nevada or, if you take my word for it, Montana).

It seems fairly insane to predict a 2 and a 3 going down in the same first round, but it’s happened twice before. And really, Winthrop over Tennessee is a 15-2 upset in name only. It’s honestly a 13-over-4 upset the Committee trotted out in a fake-mustache-and-glasses get-up.

One other note about upsets: shy away from the super-popular, just-about-a-consensus ones, like 11 Western Michigan over 6 Vanderbilt in 2004. For the first time I can recall, however, there is no especially popular upset in this bracket. Southern writers like the AJC’s Mark Bradley are all over Tennessee-Winthrop, which bugs me, but not one of the nine expert brackets at and called it. Utah St. and Texas A&M are probably the closest things to consensus upset picks, but neither is as popular as top upsets of years past.


The JCCW defines a Cinderella as a mid-major with a seed of 10 or higher that makes the Sweet 16. There’s been at least one 17 of 21 64-team-tournament years and every season since 1995. There was a string of 12s in the early ‘90s, but since then they’re more likely to be a different seed: only four of the 12 since ’95 have been 12s.

Which is why the JCCW is looking elsewhere, namely to the strongest team in the strongest mid-major conference: Northern Iowa. Sure, the Wildcats struggled down the stretch, but they were struggling as the Team to Beat in a loaded conference while their best player first got injured and then worked his way back into the rotation. They have seniors. They have shooting. They have defense. They’ve been there before. They’ve already beaten customers (LSU, Iowa) just as tough—if not tougher--than either Georgetown or Ohio St. Insert your favorite glass slipper / midnight-striking / Prince Charming / rags-to-riches allusion here.


For a Million Dollar Bracket, you must pick second-round upsets. Consider: since 1997, the highest number of protected seeds to survive to the Sweet 16 in one tourney is 10. The average in that span is 8.8, the average for all 21 64-team tourneys 9.6. So you’re looking for somewhere in the neighborhood of six to eight protected seeds to fall during the first weekend. Mine are:

Tennessee, Iowa, Ohio St., Memphis: For reasons listed above. I’ve got Tennessee replaced by Seton Hall, whose big wins matter more for NCAA purposes, to me, than their halfhearted losses.

Gonzaga: Morrison and Batista are obviously great players, but if you can’t beat either San Diego or Loyola-Marymount soundly at home, you’re not going to beat a hot Big 10 team (Indiana) at a neutral venue. Remember, the Zags defeated only one tournament team, and that was yo-yo-esque Michigan St. in Maui in November.

UCLA: The Bruins come from one weak-arse conference. Marquette comes from one bad-ass conference and brings Steve Novak and Tom Crean’s coaching to boot.

Illinois: I feel the same way about Washington I do about UCLA. But with Boston College getting past Pacific and LSU and Kansas all but shoo-ins for the Sweet 16 in my book, advancing Illinois means having all four 4 seeds playing on the second weekend. That’s never happened. Given Kenpom’s support for Wash U, they're good enough for me.

Note: Because they are gutless cowards who do not want to look like fools for calling upsets that don’t happen, MSM experts very, very rarely pick a remotely correct number of first-weekend protected seed victims. You would think a columnist with Gregg Doyel’s shockjock mentality would have idiosyncratic upsets all over the place, but instead he picks all of two 1-4 seeds out in the first two rounds: that would set a new 64-team tourney record. Even the redoubtable Grant Wahl picks a whopping 12 protected seeds to survive to the Final Four.


So if you’ve put all of that together, you know we’ve got Texas over Duke (Elite 8), LSU, and West Virginia in Atlanta; Kansas over Indiana (Elite 8), Marquette, and Arkansas in Oakland; Florida over Villanova (Elite 8), Boston College, and Northern Iowa in Minneapolis; and UConn over North Carolina (Elite 8), Seton Hall, and Washington in D.C.

UConn should handle Florida, and Texas wins the rubber match with Kansas. That leaves the Huskies and Longhorns, and as big a jerk as Jim Calhoun is, he’s done pretty doggone well at the Final Four before. Gimme UConn.


The only thing left are those three meaningless 8-9 games and one 7-10 games. UNC-Wilmington plays defense too well for George Washington; UAB’s press worked against a much better Kentucky team two years ago and should work again; and in a game that will surely be remembered by all a few select Arizona and Wisconsin fans for years to come an hour or two, I like Arizona.

And that’s your bracket. Well, my bracket, rather.

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