Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Final Bracket Thoughts

I've been trying to avoid just going game through game to make my picks. First of all, I'm not exactly a seer, and so much can come down to final shots and fluke plays that it's impossible to make even a near-perfect prediction. All you can do is play the odds. But if I'm going to offer a little bit of advice, it's this: Don't let seed affect you too much, and don't discount how much seeding affects the players.

In regards to the first point, it means that you can't judge a team on its seed. The seedings are a huge help for casual fans, who need to know things like "Oh, Duke is only a 6 seed this year, I guess I shouldn't pick them to win the title this year." But for the more experienced analyst, like many of this site's readers, the seeding can often constrict you. You are loathe to pick an 10, 11 or 12 seed to go to the Sweet 16. You are more likely to pick the 4 to beat the 5, even though there really is no difference between a 4 and a 5. People are even substantially more likely to pick 1 seeds over 2 seeds, even though we all know that there is really no difference between UNC/Florida and Georgetown/Wisconsin.

In regards to my second point, we have to realize that a little bit of psychology can make a huge difference in close games. The reason there are so many upsets in the Tournament is because high-seeded teams simply come into games with a different mentality than lower-seeded teams. Take the classic 5/12 game. The 5 seed is looking ahead to Round 2 and thinking they have a great chance at dueling with the #1 seed in the Sweet 16. But the 12 seed is a team of comparable quality, yet who has no illusions of future games. They are likely a questionable at-large team, dealing with "Why are you here instead of Syracuse" questions all week, and desperate to prove themselves. They are going to put everything on the floor from the opening minute, and they are likely to pull off the upset.

I think it's that psychology which explains why 12 seeds win more first round games than 11 seeds. The #6 seed is much less likely to assume a first round victory than a #5 seed. We all know that 8/9 and 7/10 games are basically tossups, so 6/11 games are treated somewhat similarly. #5 seeds, on the other hand, have much higher expectations, and are thus much more likely to fall on their face.

A few games in the Tournament that represent these ideas in my head:

#5 USC vs. #12 Arkansas - To me, this game represents two teams that are pretty even in ability. USC has more pure talent, but Arkansas is one of those real "total is greater than the sum of its parts" teams. If you put these teams on a neutral court to play a random game on a random day, USC probably wins more than they lose - but not by too much. Maybe they win 55% of the time. But now we throw in the 5/12 psychology. Major conference teams seeded as #12s are extremely dangerous teams. Arkansas has a chip on their shoulder and they are going to come out firing. So it seems to me that Arkansas is a great pick to make here. However, let's switch up the seeds and make Arkansas a 5 and USC a 12, I immediately pick USC to win. In my mind, the talent is so similar that you have to go with the team that is going to be more fired up to play.

As a side note, Illinois/Virginia Tech represents a similar game to me. I picked both Arkansas and Illinois to pull of the upset in my main bracket.

#10 Creighton vs. #2 Memphis - Now this is a second round game, but certainly a very likely one. Creighton got killed on their seeding because they struggled so much early in the year and the Selection Committee really emphasized "entire body of work" and out-of-conference performance this year, but there's no question that right now they're playing like one of the Top 20 teams in the country. Meanwhile, Memphis has cruised through a joke of a schedule, and honestly hasn't proved themselves to anyone. Memphis is 1-2 against the RPI Top 50, Creighton is 7-3. Tell me again, which team is better?

Now, throw in the fact that Creighton will be the desperate #10 seed while Memphis will be thinking "Gee, I hope Texas A&M goes down so we don't have to play them in the next round." And not only does Creighton have the lower-seed psychology advantage, but they have a little bit of the Major-Conference lower-seed psychology advantage. Major conference teams have better records as #10, #11 and #12 seeds than do smaller conference teams. And let's be honest, the Missouri Valley is pretty much a Major conference at this point. Conference USA, on the other hand, was a joke this year. Creighton is the team that has been through the fire this year, not Memphis. Throw in the fact that they're pretty similar in overall talent, and I couldn't resist picking Creighton to win this game in every bracket I filled out.

As always, I could be completely wrong. All I can do is tell you the odds. I can't look into the future and see who is going to catch fire and make five straight threes, or who is going to get the lucky bounce in the last five seconds. But I hope this advice helps.

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