Monday, March 17, 2008

The Million Dollar Bracket, year 3

Cash money, baby.

The stakes have been raised, folks.

The JCCW has always taken the damn-the-torpedoes approach when it comes to filling out a bracket, partially because it's not like it would ever make any difference--the next pool of any size (including, sadly, the two-person pool made up of "people who live in the apartment I live in") I win will be the first--and partially because, hey, screw that chicken feed hundred bucks you're picking up at the office; I'm looking for the bracket that's going to set me up for life, man. The Million Dollar Bracket. Pick it perfect, all 63 games, and the last few years either CBS or SI would allegedly hand you a million bucks. Those two have apparently backed off, but hey, here's Yahoo, offering an unprecedented 5 million dollars for a spotless bracket. Seriously: why would you go the brainless "All four No. 1's in the Final Four and one No. 12 upset!" route when you could win five million dollars? Live a little, people! Pick that seven-seed whose uniforms you like to make the Elite Eight! Match up a 12 and 13 in the second round because you paid $12.13 after tip for your lunch yesterday! Remember: five million dollars!

Anyways, well aware that a perfect bracket will happen the day before the Earth is sucked into the sun, that's the JCCW philosophy. So here's the third annual attempt at it:

Final Four

Have to start here. First rule is not to be swayed by those fancy-schmancy records, glittering efficiency numbers, that nice shiny "1" beside their names: you don't pick more than two No. 1 seeds to make the final weekend. All four (you know this already) have never made it; three surviving has only happened three times; and all three of those happened in a narrow seven-year frame between 1993 and 1999. Yes, the crop of 1-seeds does look especially imposing this year, but a) after the two 1's and two 2's super-chalky FF last year, we're due for a little more surprise this year b)the "This is the year all four 1 seeds finally make it!" talk reminds me more than a little strongly of 1998, when Kansas, Arizona, Duke, and UNC were all supposedly untouchable--and Kansas was toast by the end of the second round, Arizona got crushed by Utah, and Jeff Sheppard's Kentucky ousted Duke. So: I'm picking two 1-seeds, and that's it.

Which ones? Looking at efficiency margins and Lunardi's Adjusted Scoring Margin ($), it's hard to pick against Kansas and UCLA. Kansas's numbers in both are flat ridiculous and, frankly, you know Self's going to get there one of these years. As for the Bruins, given the strength of the Pac-10, that +.17 margin is probably an even bigger deal than Kansas's +.24 ... and, uh, it's not like anyone else in their region (Xavier, maybe?) exactly looks like the type to haul down a well-coached target like UCLA.

As for the other two teams ... well, Louisville has been the secret best team in the Big East all season, and a three-point loss to Georgetown and overtime loss to Pitt-on-a-mission doesn't change that. Having Pitino at the helm doesn't hurt, either. Finding a good candidate in Memphis's region isn't quite so easy. Texas's efficiency numbers don't scream "underrated Final Four semi-sleeper!" (and quite frankly worry me) but their ASM isn't bad and they seemed to have their biggest problems on the road ... which, as has been pointed out ad nauseum, isn't so big of an issue since they're playing the regionals in Houston. That they saved their best performances for the toughest teams on the schedule (W's over Tennessee, Utah) doesn't hurt, either.

Two 1's, a 2, a 3. Nice and balanced. (Which is why it'll end up a 1, two 6's, and an 11.)

First-round upsets

Generally, there's going to be two or three teams on the 12 and 11 lines to survive the first two days--three seems more likely, after that overabundance of chalk on all levels last year. The guess here is that at least one of those two will come from a 12--2007 was just the third year since the bracket expansion that the 5 seeds swept.

Clemson's underrated as a 5, so I don't see it there; Western Kentucky's not in position to attack Drake's weakness in the post; and hot as they might be, Temple never beat anyone of consequence outside the A-10 and likely won't start against a Michigan St. team that looked good against Wisconsin in the Big 10 semis. So that leaves George Mason to take on a Notre Dame team that lost as a 6 last year and came within the worst missed last-second layup in the history of missed last-second layups of falling to Bruce Pearl's 12th-seeded UW-Milwaukee team in 2004. Mason's last tournament trip, you may have heard, was something of a success. Their post forward is the same, the shooting guard is the same, the head coach is the same. They (mostly) fit Pete Tiernan's remarkable "stats to look for" profile. They're ready.

On the 11 line, Oklahoma was outscored in Big 12 play and sucked on the road (loss to Colorado, anyone?). Good-bye. Tiernan likes Baylor and I hate Purdue and the weak-sauce Big 10--I think that's your third.

Given that at least one team seeded 13th or lower has sprung a first-round upset every year but four and that one of those four was last year, I think we have to pick one of those, too. Tiernan likes Winthrop or Oral Roberts, but for yours truly the easiest way to spot one of these is simply a team that won its conference, won its tournament, has a major pelt on the wall, and is facing an overrated team that's struggled on the road--and whaddya know, here's Siena vs. Vandy, whose efficency rating was the definition of mediocre even in the definitively mediocre SEC. I'm taking the Saints.


The JCCW's permanent and inflexible definition of a Cinderella: a double-digit mid-major who advances to the Sweet 16. Until last year that had been at least one for 10 straight years (and there's still only been four Cinderella-less years in 23), so it should make a triumphant return in 2008. Your nominees are: The aforementioned George Mason Patriots and Siena Saints; the St. Mary's Gaels, who I expect to dispatch outscored-in-the-ACC Miami; and Davidson, whose scoring margin in the SoCon was frightening and who faces a Gonzaga team that looked hella discombobulated in the WCC finals.

And your winner is ... George Mason! Put simply, I think Clemson, Texas, and Georgetown--terrific teams all--are just a bit too out of reach for Siena and the two 10-seeds. Washington St., however, is overseeded, sorta underachieved this year, and got picked off in last year's second round, too. Welcome back, Patriots.

Second-round upsets

On average, 6.3 "protected" seeds lose out before the Sweet 16. Remember this when you see those "expert" brackets later this week in which just two or three bite the dust.

So how many this year? Again, after a year in which just one two-seed and one three-seed lost on the first weekend--record lows for this decade--there should be more chaos. I'm looking for seven.

Let's start at the top. I'm picking Miss. St to beat Memphis. I know, it's insane. But:

1. It's now been four long years since a 1-seed lost in the second round (the three-season drought ties the longest on record). We're due. Good teams, even the best ones, don't go 16-0 (four years' worth of second-round matchups) against other good teams.

2. Miss. St. has been getting pimped by the Unaffiliated Wonk all season and Tiernan gives them the only 8-over-1 semi-approval he gives in this tourney.

3. This is a good matchup for Miss. St. Memphis isn't a good outside shooting team at all and needs to come inside for their scoring, but guess what? The Bulldogs are the best team in the nation in 2-point FG defense. Memphis's nation-best defense means MSU won't score much either, but regardless, this game is going to be a slog, and the longer it goes the more the pressure mounts on Memphis. The drought ends.

So who else? We've already mentioned Washington St.'s (2) and Vandy's demise (3), but there's also:

4. Tennessee. To quote Wonk again, "If you're watching Bruce Pearl's team in the tournament and the other team is making threes and taking care of the ball, the Volunteers just might be in trouble." Butler makes threes and is the eighth-best team in the country at not turning the ball over. Sorry, Vols. Every year some team gets a planet-sized shafting from the Committee; this year, it's you.

5. Duke. West Virginia has a hell of an ASM and looked every bit the part of stereotypical "7-over-2" team in the Big East tourney while Duke looks to be undergoing their near-annual (by now) slow fade.

6. UConn. Drake remains the Mid-Majority computer's favorite team, and that's worth something, particularly after the 2007 Drake (Butler) survived two rounds, including a second against a run-of-the-mill power-conference team much like the strangely anonymous Huskies.

7. Marquette. Like WVU, the ASM numbers love them some Eagles (look, slumming NBA stats guru John Hollinger likes them in his Final Four!) and Stanford isn't anything special.

Filling it out

What's left? For starters, the 8-9 detritus: Arkansas over Indiana, Kent St. over UNLV, Texas A&M over BYU.

In the East, UNC ends GMU's run before falling to the 'Ville. Kansas escapes a Clemson team that scares me before finally getting over the Elit Eight hump against Georgetown, who beats Wisconsin in the round of 16. (FYI: the Badgers have been too good even in the well-water Big 10 to lose to the likes of USC.) In the South, Pitt beats Michigan St. in the Round of 32 and Miss. St. in the Sweet 16 before falling to Texas (winner over Marquette). Out West, West Virginia downs Xavier in the regional semis before falling to Drake-beater UCLA.

The Champions

Don't have much problem picking two teams as dominant as Kansas and UCLA have been to meet in the final, but who wins? In a case like this I think it's best just to pick the team that played the tougher schedule, played in the tougher conference, has been in that Final Four environment before--in short, is just more prepared. That team is UCLA.

Now, hopefully all of that will wind up being a little less embarrassing than the last two attempts. There'll be one more post before the tourney; do check back.


J.M. said...

Any chance of setting up a first annual "The Joe Cribbs Carwash Bracket Challenge" on Yahoo for your loyal readers?

J.M. said...

Also, as a resident of Baltimore, I'm kicking myself for not going to a single Coppin State or UMBC game this season. For shame.

Jerry Hinnen said...

JM, it's on like Donkey Kong next year. But this year, well, it's Wednesday afternoon already and I think the only people who'd end up in it would be you and me my fiancee, and, you know, it'd just be awkward. Sorry.