Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Million Dollar Bracket, Year 2

So there I was Sunday night, poised at the keyboard, ready to write my 10,000-word thesis on the Drexel snub, the fellating of the Big 10, whether Jay “Puppy Kicker” Bilas is pure, undiluted evil or if, like Darth Vader, there’s still a few tiny specks of good still in him. (The answer: he’s from Duke. So no.)

Then I get this tap on my shoulder.

The JCCW: Oh, Real Life. Hey, how you doing? Could we make it quick? I’ve got this post I want to write and …
REAL LIFE: Let me just stop you there. I’ve got an awful lot of work I need you to do over the next couple of days, and if you could help me out with that it would be really appreciated.
THE JCCW: Oh, um, sure. But, uh, could you maybe just cut me a little bit of slack on this one, Real Life? You know I’m a college hoops blogger, and with this being the biggest week of college hoops season and all, it’s really important that …
REAL LIFE: Oh, is that what do you call it … Tournament, thing, that you like so much … is that this week? I’m not the biggest sports fan. Still, if you could just do V, W, X, and Y, and if you could get to Z that would just be great. Thanks so much!
The JCCW: *Siiiiiiiigh*

So the Million Dollar Bracket: Year 2 is arriving too late for it to be of any use to anyone. (Except maybe, after this weekend, as an archeological document on how not to pick a bracket.) In the exceedingly likely prospect that you’re unfamiliar with or have forgotten the Million Dollar Bracket project, here’s last season’s version. Basically, what the JCCW is attempting to pull off is nothing less than the greatest feat of sports prognostication in the history of man: a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket.

It will happen when pigs not only fly, but do so by ditching the commonly illustrated cherub wings* for a rocket ship made of corn cobs and mud. I know that. But aiming for anything less (like, say, winning the office pool) just feels like resorting to conservative pragmatism and general half-assery … like a dozen people’s senior quotes in my high school yearbook said, you shoot for the moon, you end up amongst the stars, right?

So here’s how, in theory, you pick a Million Dollar Bracket:

1. Rule out any 1 seeds that will lose in the second round. Up until last year, a top seed had lost in the second round every even-numbered year (but never in an odd-numbered year) every tournament since 1990. It didn’t happen, but in the JCCW’s view that only makes it more likely it’ll happen this year—there’s only been one three-year stretch in the 64-team tournament era without one, and that was ’87-89.

So who? There’s two candidates: Arizona (after bludgeoning Purdue) over a potentially sleepwalking Florida, and Michigan St. or Marquette over UNC.

In the first possibility, the way the Gators rolled through the SEC tourney and the way Arizona just doesn’t seem to have enough defense even when playing their best ... it's a game that looks competitive, but also looks very much like it's Florida’s.

On the other hand, Carolina is a team a) whose best player flailed through the ACC tourney thanks to his unfortunate and ongoing Phantom of the Opera impression b) that is very, very young and like young teams does things like lose to lesser foes c) is coached by the same coach that brought you both 9-seed UTEP over 1-seed Kansas in 1992 and 8-seed Rhode Island over 1-seed Kansas in 1998.

Michigan St.? Wonk says they’re Ohio St. or Wisconsin in disguise if they just hold onto the damn ball. Also, the last two times Michigan St. lost in the first round, Tom Izzo took them to the Elite Eight as a 7-seed and the Final Four as a 5-seed the following seasons. As you’ll recall, the Spartans were upset by George Mason last year. Expect more big things—as in a win over wounded Marquette and an upset of the Tar Heels.

2. Pick a Final Four of one or two 1-seeds, one or two 2-seeds, and a sleeper. With no 1-seeds in last year’s Final Four, it looks like a good year for two to make it. The Midwest doesn’t offer any serious threats to Florida, so there’s one. Kansas has been on the JCCW’s Final Four list for months, so there’s two.

In the South, Memphis was supposed to be vulnerable last year as a 1 and laughed all the way to the Elite 8, where they would have beaten UCLA if not for a damn-near-impossibly bad shooting night. Sure, the C-USA sucks, but they dominated it in a fashion they didn’t even manage last year. They’re the Final Four’s 2-seed.

Everybody loves them some Georgetown in the East (and those that don’t love them love the Heels) but while the Hoyas were rolling through a mediocre Big East (and the Heels were busy looking bored against N.C. State), Texas was busy twice taking Kansas down to the very wire. The Horns have gotten progressively better all season, and by the Elite 8, they’ll be better than Georgetown. They’re the sleeper.

3. Pick one or two first-round upsets of protected (i.e.1-4) seeds. There’s been 37 of these in 21 years, so that’s around 1.75 a year, or about five every three years. With two each of the past two seasons and a few solid Cinderellas biting the dust in their conference tourneys, I think there’s only one this year.

The semi-candidates are TAMU-CC over Wisconsin (slow game plus Christi’s 3-point bombers could be gold), Albany over Virginia (Virginia isn’t any good, Albany’s Jamar Wilson is), and Wright St. over Pitt (Dashaun Wood! Dashaun Wood!). But those are still pretty unlikely, in TAMU-CC’s and Wright’s case because Wisconsin and Pitt are well-coached and solid, and in Albany’s case because they’re still Albany.

So the real candidates are Holy Cross over Southern Illinois, Oral Roberts over Washington St., and Davidson over Maryland. The Oral Roberts upset is a carbon-copy of last year’s Winthrop over Tennessee pick: experienced, savvy multi-tournament team going against overseeded, fading, first-time-in-the-NCAAs-in-forever team and gets plenty of analyst love (Seth Davis predicted a Roberts win the moment the brackets were revealed). It’s so, so tempting. But I think it ends like the Winthrop game: with the high seed just awake enough to just edge the Cinderella.

That leaves Holy Cross and Davidson. Both have veteran coaches. Both have major-conference talent. Both are due as hell after some close calls over the past several years. But Davidson has the weaker opponent—and one much more likely to look past a mid-major. After the unconscionable cruelty of Maryland’s escape past UNC-Wilmington in 2003—on what has to be the luckiest shot in NCAA history—karma has some wicked payback in store for the Terps.

4. Pick two or three 5-12 and 6-11 upsets. There’s an average of 2.6 of these a year, or around five every two years. After four last year, two is probably the smarter call, but … I just happen to think USC and Butler are awfully ripe, and playing teams in Arkansas and Old Dominion that have shown some ability to win away from home.

And I’m picking Winthrop again. Notre Dame is a good team, no question. They looked very good against Georgetown, no question. But Winthrop has to win this game. They have to. Or they are cursed, and will never get over the hump, and are unworthy of the hype and blah blah blah. Gregg Marshall's not ready to hear all that, and that should make the difference. (Also? Winthrop still defends 3’s pretty well—and 3’s are a big, big part of the Notre Dame offense.)

5. Find six or seven protected seeds that will fall before the Sweet 16. You know what drives me bonkers? Experts that to a man (or woman) don’t seem to understand how frequently protected seeds lose in the first weekend. There hasn’t been any fewer than six gone by the round of 16 for a decade, but here’s an alleged “expert” telling us there’s going to be two and another saying three. This guy has the stones to call Oral Roberts for the Sweet 16 … but then only two other non-protected seeds in the rest of the bracket?

My feeling is that the conference tourney upsets and a stronger set of 2 seeds that usual means we’re looking at six upset favorites, same as last year. We’ve already evicted (1) UNC and (2) Maryland. Let’s add (3) Oregon, who doesn’t play defense, surely peaked at the Pac-10 tourney, and (like Notre Dame) gets a lot of points from deep. Winthrop can take them. (4) Washington St. will fall to a streaking Vandy, who made the Sweet 16 as a late-charging 6 a few years back. (5) Virginia sucks and will lose to Tennessee, who will surely thank their deities of choice they were handed patsies like ridiculously overseeded Long Beach and the Cavaliers. And Louisville will take advantage of their unfair home court advantage by toppling (6) Texas A&M, who has somehow become a consensus Final Four favorite despite the fact they lost two of their last three games.

6. You need a Cinderella. First, it’s no fun if you don’t. Second, defining a bona fide Cinderella as “a double-digit seed mid-major (A-10 and MWC excluded) that advances to the Sweet 16,” there’s been at least one Cinderella each of the last 10 seasons and 17 of 21. If you’ve been paying attention, you know Winthrop’s one. But by the happy coincidence of Old Dominion and Davidson facing each other in the second round, ODU becomes a second. No less a personage than Gregg Doyel is on board with Davidson in this game, but I think you have to take the Colonial team over the SoCon team after what Mason did last year.

7. Fill in. We’ve got our Final Four, our Sweet 16, and our first-round upsets. What’s left? In the East, Texas Tech takes advantage of better coaching to beat Boston College. Georgetown dumps Vandy to advance to face Texas in the Elite 8. In the South, BYU beats Xavier and Creighton ousts “We didn’t beat anyone the RPI ranks higher than 45th, and that was at home, but for whatever reason people still think we were underseeded” Nevada. Ohio St. makes shorter work of Tennessee this time around in the regional semis, before losing to Memphis. In the West, Duke has too much coaching (dammit) for VCU, Gonzaga wreaks vengeance for the Committee’s Big 10 fascination on Indiana, SIU sees off Virginia Tech, and Pitt earns the JCCW’s gratitude for dumping Duke before getting dispatched itself by a just-plain better UCLA in the Sweet 16.

Now, in the Midwest, there’s a dilemma. UNLV will take out their seeding frustration on Ga. Tech before getting bounced in the second round by Wisconsin, who’s a lot closer to home than the Rebels. But does Wisconsin or Winthrop advance to the Elite 8? The ol’ gut says Winthrop can’t pull a third straight upset, even over a team that had to go to overtime to beat them the first time around at home and at full strength. The Badgers won’t have either of those advantages in a rematch. But just as important—really, more importantly in the Million Dollar Bracket’s eyes—is the fact that with Ohio St. meeting Memphis and Kansas facing UCLA, a Florida-Wisky match-up would mean three 1-vs.-2 contests in the Elite 8. That’s never happened. Plus, a Wisconsin win would mean the lowest seed in the round of 8 would be Texas’s 4—and all 21 Elite 8’s have had at least a 5 or 6. In fact, no Elite 8 since 1996 has gone without at least one team seeded 7th or lower. The only candidates for that qualification the JCCW can see are the Ga. Tech/UNLV winner, the Creighton/Nevada winner, Gonzaga, Mich. St., maaaaaaaaybe Texas Tech or Arizona … or Winthrop. Of all those nominees, I like Winthrop’s draw (every other 2-seed, or Texas, or Florida, are too strong) and Winthrop’s massive cache of karma best. I think they beat the Badgers and make the Elite 8.

Is that likely at all? No. But some team seeded 7th or lower is going to get that far. If you’re trying to win your office pool, you pick Wisconsin and don’t sweat it. If you’re trying for a Million Dollar Bracket? You take your best guess and hope.

8. Finally, pick your winner. I like Texas’s athletes even better than I like Memphis’s, so the Longhorns win one semifinal. In the other, the run simply has to end sometime for Florida. Winning 12 straight NCAA Tournament games in today’s college basketball is, in the JCCW’s opinion, all but impossible. Kansas advances.

And because Kansas has already proven they’re just a touch better than Texas, they score just a touch more in yet another classic between the two. The Jayhawks have looked like the best team in college hoop to the JCCW for a while, and while the best team doesn’t always win the NCAAs, I think this time it will.

So there you go. Worth a million dollars? No. Evidence that it’s probably time to think about investing in a shrink? Probably. Fun as hell to put together, research, and write up? Oh yeah. Here’s hoping your NCAAs are just as fun.

*You'll have to scroll a bit.

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