Tuesday, March 17, 2009
The Million Dollar Bracket, year 4
For the fourth straight year, I'm posting the JCCW's official bracket picks, and no doubt, for the fourth straight year they will be no better than the ones you could get from your Irish setter or cockatiel.
But there's a reason for that. You could pick a lot of chalk, three 1 seeds and a 2 in the Final Four, deviate from seed elsewhere only where you feel really confident, and probably wind up near the top of your office pool and the 80ish percentile on ESPN. Or: you could take a shot at becoming a freaking millionaire.
It will never ever happen, of course, not even when brackets are being filled out by cockroaches with nuclear-powered brains and the basketball is played on the moon. But that's no reason not to try. You either go hard or you go home, and all that jazz. So here at the JCCW, we pick a lot of craaaaaazy upsets, because you're never going to pick a perfect bracket without crazy upsets, right? Unless you see "San Diego over UConn" or something like it coming, you're not even in the running.
So here's what I'm going with this year, and no fair entering the same thing in this site's own Bracket Challenge, please.
1. FINAL FOUR
Pop quiz, hotshot: out of the 22 64-team tournaments prior to 2007, how many featured a Final Four without a single team seeded lower than a No. 2? I'll give you a second.
*Jeopardy-style teapot music*
Time's up. The answer is: 1, in 1993. As you may know, the number of tournaments since 2007 without a single team seeded lower than 2nd is 2. So, yeah, these last two seasons have been something of a statistical oddity. I'm not suggesting you load your own Final Fours with 4s, 6s, and 7s, but I would be a substantial sum of money that some sleeper at the 3 line or lower will survive to Detroit.
My pick? I can't believe I'm about to say this, but Gonzaga. The Zags have an atrocious record as a high seed under Few, but they've also never looked as dominant as they did during the WCC tourney last week, never had the kind of statistical approval that both Pomeroy and adjusted scoring margin give them. Sure, you can bully them around on the defense end, but who in the South is going to do that to them? North Carolina? Syracuse? Oklahoma? All three are decidedly offensively-minded teams. As for how the Zags might stop the Tar Heels, Josh Heytvelt looked as strong defensively as I've ever seen him--I think he's ready to take on Hansbrough, and regardless, the No. 1 team in the nation in 2-point FG defense taking on a team that ranks 284th in getting its points from 3's is a match-up I like.
So there's the sleeper. In this era of chalk, I'm not wavering too far with the other three picks, though: I like Memphis to survive a brutally close game with Missouri, Louisville to enjoy the friendly surroundings in Indianapolis, and Pitt to be too much on the glass for the weak defensive rebounders at Duke.
So two 1's, a 2, and a 4. Looks like a nice regression to the man to me.
2. FIRST-ROUND UPSETS
This is a weird year in that none of the mid-major upsets I'm in love with fall in the 11-over-6 or 12-over-5 match-ups. Your average NCAA tournament sees 2.5 upsets on the 11/12 lines, so you usually want to pick 2 or 3 ... but past Wisconsin, who I think is almost a lock to "upset" the overrated Seminoles, everyone else makes me nervous.
So I'm sticking with the upsets that look the most likely to me and picking all three of Cleveland St., Portland St., and North Dakota St.. By the numbers, this is kind of insane--the average tournament only produces 1.6 first-round upsets below the 12 line. But it's not unprecedented--four other tournaments have produced three such upsets, 2001 most recently--and as I said, I think the bottom of this bracket is much, much stronger than usual. And besides, picking just one upset on the 11/12 lines feels dangerously sane, so why not balance it out with a little insanity on the 13/14 lines?
The JCCW's personal pet definition of Cinderella is a mid-major with a double-digit seed that advances to the Sweet 16, the team that becomes the standard-bearer into the second weekend for the underdogs of the world. There's been an average of a little over one a year and only five of the 24 tournaments haven't had at least one.
It's tough sledding finding one I really like this year, though. Even if I liked Utah St. or Western Kentucky enough to advance them to the second round, no way they'd get past Missouri or Gonzaga. VCU? Even if they survived UCLA, they'd get 'Nova in Philly. Man, how I wish the Committee had stuck a mid-major (Siena? Butler? Utah St.? VCU?) in that 10 slot next to Oklahoma.
But they didn't, and I'll be damned if I'm going to pick a Sweet 16 where Gonzaga is the only mid-major remaining. So I'm pretty well stuck with the two 13 seeds and NDSU as candidates. Wisconsin is a lot better equipped to stop Portland St.'s outside-in attack than Xavier, so they're this year's annual low-seeded power-conference team in the Sweet 16. As for North Dakota St., West Virginia is one of the best teams in the country, as that whipping Pitt in the Big East tournament proved. No go there. That leaves just Cleveland St., who'll have a tough go of it against Luke Nevill and Utah who but should also win the turnover battle decisively--and in a knock-down, drag-out kind of game reminiscent of both teams' conference tourney finals, maybe that'll be enough.
4. SECOND-ROUND UPSETS
As you probably know, teams seeded 1-4 are the "protected" seeds. As you may not know, picking large numbers of them to survive into the second weekend is not going to net you a Million Dollar Bracket. The average number of protected seeds to fall in the first or second round is 6.3, and picking any less than five is pointless--'89, '91, and '96 were the only three tournaments where the number dipped that low. (This is where I put my annual gripe about the cowardice of mainstream media "experts"--go here and you can see five different brackets by the writers at SI.com. Not one of them picks more than four protected seeds to fall, capped by this show of testicular fortitude by Andy Staples, who daringly picks Washington and Washington alone to miss the Sweet 16. I hate you, Andy Staples.)
So ... with just five gone each of the last two seasons, we should sneak back towards the average and see six or even seven this year. We've already eliminated Kansas, Xavier, and Wake Forest, so we need at least three more candidates. I like these:
1. Washington. Purdue looked awful good in the Big 10 tournament, didn't they? This is another case of one team that specializes in stopping 2-point FGs (the Boilermakers) meeting a team that shoots nothing but 2's (the Huskies).
2. Syracuse. I don't really trust the Orange to get past Stephen F. Austin, much less an underrated Arizona St. team that looked just as good (if not better) in dismissing both Arizona and Washington by double-digits in their conference tourney as the Orange did in making the final of theirs.
3. Villanova. In Kenpom I trust: even in Philly, the No. 9 team going against the No. 19 team looks like an upset to me.
So that's six. I think there are two other possibilities worth looking at: BYU vs. UConn and the Clemson/Michigan winner vs. Oklahoma. As to the former, we've now had four whole tournaments in which no top seeds lost in the second round, with the previous record drought having only been three seasons; between 1990 and 2004, we never even went back-to-back seasons without a No. 1 seed second-round stunner. So my Spidey sense is tingling, and Ohio St. surprising Louisville in Dayton and the Oklahoma St./Tennessee winner catching fire against Pitt are possibilities, the most likely victim is UConn playing sharp-shooting, underrated BYU. But I'm awful gunshy after calling for another 1-seed upset after doing so each of the past three years, and UConn's FG defense is good enough to slow the Cougars. Don't think it's happening, but it wouldn't surprise me. As for Oklahoma, at No. 17 in the Kenpom ratings they're ripe for the plucking ... as I said yesterday, there's a very real possibility they don't get past Morgan St. But the coaching match-up of noted March failure Oliver Purnell vs. noted March genius John Beilein makes me think the Sooners will face the Wolverines in the second round, and having watched Michigan plenty of times this year, I can't see how they even begin to slow Griffin down. It's tempting--Michigan was at their best this year going against nonconference heavyweights, having gone 1-1 against Duke, beating UCLa, and scaring the bejesus out of UConn up in Storrs--but I think OU survives.
So, we're left at 6. Nice number, that.
5. FILLING IN
First-round games we haven't covered: Tennessee beats Okie St. in a coinflip, just because the SEC has to have someone in the Round of 32; Butler and their solid interior defense beats an LSU team that never did learn how to shoot from outside; and Texas beats Minnesota, USC beats Boston College, and Cal beats Maryland in the three yawn-inducing 7-10 games.
In the Round of 16, you should already know I like Louisville over Cleveland St., Gonzaga over UNC, Memphis over Missouri, and Pitt over Wisconsin. I'm also taking Pomeroy darling West Virginia over Michigan St., eliminators of USC; UConn over Purdue, though it's a close shave; Arizona St. over an Oklahoma team that can't ride its luck forever; Duke over UCLA, because the Blue Devils can't suck in the NCAAs forever, unfortunately.
One other note here: back in 2007 I picked Winthrop all the way into the Elite Eight because every Elite Eight up until that year had had at least one team seeded 5th or lower. Naturally, that became the very first year that wasn't the case, but Davidson turned around and picked up the slack last year, so I feel like I wasn't totally crazy, just a year ahead. The point: if you've got all 1's, 2's, 3's, and 4's in your Elite Eight, you're wrong somewhere.
6. THE CHAMPIONSHIP
So I look at it this way: Pomeroy and Gasaway have said, over and over, that Memphis is just as good--or pretty close to it--as they were last year. Last year, they had three other teams with them in the Final Four that were all better according to Kenpom than any team in the field this year, and it took an incredible series of circumstances in that final to keep them away from the title. I don't think those circumstances happen again. As much as it hurts to predict John Calipari will win a title, I like them to stifle Louisville's questionable offense in the semifinal and then hold off Pitt--who rebounds Gonzaga to death--in the final.
So there you have it. Worth a million bucks? Nope. But at least it's got a shot. And if you think you can do better (and I'm well aware you can, actually), you're always welcome to prove it.