Monday, March 30, 2009

2009-10 Previews Coming

I just want to give everybody a heads up on what is coming over the next two weeks. The main thrust will be the 2009-10 previews. As always, I'll have a preview for every single conference, starting from the smaller conferences and working towards the bigger conferences. The last six previews will be the SEC, Pac-10, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East and ACC, respectively. After the ACC preview will be the Preseason BP65, looking ahead to Selection Sunday 2010.

As always, I promise to have all of the previews up within one week of the National Championship game, which means that every single preview and the Preseason BP65 will all be up by two weeks from today. And if you're wondering if I already have my 1 seeds figured out, the answer is no. I still haven't done enough research on the incoming recruiting classes, or on the NBA defections. Besides, I still have two weeks to work it out.

After the previews are done, I'll probably speak a little bit about other issues around the nation, such as the Seth Curry transfer and the Kentucky coaching situation. It's remarkable to me that after the way that Kentucky treated Billy Gillispie that John Calipari might come there and bring his top recruits with him. It would be like Tony Dungy wanting to move to the Oakland Raiders after what Al Davis did to Lane Kiffin. But I'll talk more about this later. The previews are coming first, and you should expect the first few to come out this weekend.

Also, let me know how your brackets went. I hope my advice helped you. I entered two pools, both with about 25-30 people in them, and will likely win both of them. This despite the fact that I actually did a pretty poor job of picking Sweet Sixteen teams. It turned out the key was my Final Four: I had North Carolina beating Duke and UConn beating Michigan State, with UNC beating UConn in the Championship game. Let me know either through comment or e-mail how your own pool went. I'd love to know if my advice helped you win yours.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thoughts On Day 3

Not too many surprises: Only two games surprised me yesterday. One was that I was surprised how well Western Kentucky hung with Gonzaga. They were shooting three pointers out of their minds, and Gonzaga has had a little bit of a habit the past two years of playing down to their competition. But just the fact that WKU made the game come down to the final moments was probably the biggest surprise of the day.

The other surprise for me was that UCLA performance. You knew that there was a possibility that they'd just stink up the joint, considering their Pomeroy Consistency rating was 270th in the nation. They have had a few games this year where they've just sleep-walked through the first half, and there was always the risk that they'd come out and be losing to Villanova by 15 points after 10 minutes and dig themselves too big of a hole to get out of. But the assumption would be that they'd do what they did all year, which was to fight back and make a game out of it. The fact that they just gave up on the game was an embarrassment, and really a big shocker for me. I've never seen a Ben Howland team play that poorly. Even Darren Collison missed three free throws after only missing ten all season long. Without question, UCLA's performance yesterday was the worst performance (relative to their ability) out of any team in the entire Tournament thus far.

Who looked the best: As for a full team, I'd have to go with Memphis. They really beat up Maryland early on and never took their foot off the pedal. With the way that UConn has been rolling through their competition, it seems pretty clear that those two teams are heading for an epic Elite 8 clash. As for an individual player, Ty Lawson played just about as well as he's ever played. If he can keep that up for the full Tournament then North Carolina has to be the clear favorite to win the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, Tyler Hansbrough just seemed invisible to me. It's one thing I've never understood about somebody who is supposed to be one of the two or three best players in the nation. When Ty Lawson is on the floor, he's involved at all times. You never forget what Blake Griffin or DeJuan Blair are. But Hansbrough can absolutely disappear for five minute stretches. Fortunately for North Carolina, Lawson is the most important player on that team. If he's playing like he did against LSU then they can win the National Title whether or not they get a big performance out of Hansbrough.

The best match-up already set for next weekend: North Carolina vs Gonzaga. If the Zags were up against Louisville or Pitt, I'd probably have actually picked them to win the game. They are a very dangerous team that has the potential to really go nuts on the offensive end. And they've got a lot of great pieces off the bench, and are possibly even deeper than the Tar Heels are. I do think North Carolina will still win the game, but the one chance that the Zags have will be if Jeremy Pargo can go nuts and take over the game. And if Pargo is the reason that Gonzaga wins, you can bet that it will take a very long time for Tar Heels fans to stop imagining "what if Marcus Ginyard hadn't gotten hurt".

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Dayton Was A Bigger Upset Than Cleveland State

I realize that I didn't really put any statistical backing when I made this statement earlier today. My regular readers know about which computer ratings to use when predicting games, and which to ignore. But I get a lot of non-regular readers around Tournament time, and they might be surprised to read somebody who isn't just regurgitating the crap from morons like Digger Phelps and Greg Anthony. Dayton was indeed the biggest upset yesterday, but let me give you some reasons.

The best predictive tool, of course, is the Sagarin PREDICTOR. Unfortunately I can't pull up the numbers from yesterday, so I can only give you the Sagarin numbers as they are now, but with the sample sizes as large as they are nobody moves all too much because of one game. But given the caveat that the numbers have changed a bit, Wake is currently an 86.31, West Virginia is 89.25, Dayton 80.43, and Cleveland State 81.56. In other words, on a neutral field Wake would be favored over Cleveland State by 4.75 points, while West Virginia would be favored over Dayton by 8.82. Considering that both Dayton and Cleveland State won yesterday by fairly similar margins, I would guarantee that the gulf between those predicted margins of victory hasn't changed much.

Now, let's move over to Pomeroy. Pomeroy has also updated with yesterday's results, but again, I'm certain that the relative numbers for Wake-vs-Cleveland State and Dayton-vs-WVU haven't moved much. Pomeroy has Wake at .9135, WVU at .9500, Cleveland State at .8367 and Dayton at .7973. If we use the classic Bill James method of calculating winning percentages with Pythagorean rankings (which is what Pomeroy is) we find an estimation that Wake would have a 67.3% chance of beating Cleveland State on a neutral floor right now. West Virginia, on the other hand, would have an 82.8% chance of winning. Again, not only is West Virginia the bigger surprise, but it's not even close.

Before the Tournament, Basketball Prospectus put some numbers together with statisticians like Ken Pomeroy, and gave the percentage chance that each team had of reaching each round of the Tournament. The East and Midwest are here, and the South and West are here. I actually wasn't aware of these previews before the Tournament started, but I don't think it would have hampered your bracket too much if you only read this blog. They use the same computer ratings that I do, so they ended up with similar results. The reason that I think my previews are better is because they take into account even more factors, like psychology. For example, while they did nail Wisconsin (they gave the Badgers a 53.0% chance of winning over Florida State, and made them the sixth most likely team to win the whole region at 2.8%), they erred on two games that the computers would not have noticed. They gave Arizona only a 42.3% chance of beating Utah, which doesn't take into account the fact that I always talk about, which is that BCS conference 12 seeds actually have a winning record since the bracket moved to 64/65 teams, and non-BCS 5 seeds have historically been much more likely to lose than BCS 5 seeds. The computers also gave Marquette a far-too-large 71.68% chance of winning over Utah State, because they can't take into account the fact that Marquette's best player wouldn't be on the floor. Marquette did win by 1 point, but if you played that game ten times Utah State would win a majority of the time.

Getting back on topic, the computers agreed with my sense that Wake Forest was a heck of a team, but that West Virginia was better. They gave West Virginia an 87.3% chance of winning in round one, compared to only a 75.1% chance for Wake Forest. These are very similar to the numbers that I came up with. Also, they gave West Virginia a 54.0% chance of making the Sweet 16 (I also put them through to the Sweet 16), compared to 45.2% chance for Wake Forest. Of course, that 45.2% chance is far higher than either Utah (28.6%) or any other team in that pod, so Wake was still the right play to the Sweet 16, which is also as far as I had them going.

I'm sorry for throwing so many numbers at people. If you have an educational background that is heavy on numbers and/or have a job that is numbers-oriented, I think all of that math will be really interesting to you. It sure is very interesting to me. If you aren't a big numbers person (and don't view that as a putdown, it's just a different style of thinking and many of the smartest people I know are not numbers people), you might glaze over some of those numbers. But the moral of the story is that the computers agree and the numbers are overwhelming: the Dayton result was the biggest upset of yesterday by far. The Cleveland State over Wake Forest result was a surprise, but not a huge surprise. You won't hear anybody point that out on ESPN or CBS, but nobody gets an analyst position on ESPN or CBS because they make good, educated points. Most of the time they're told what argument to make by their producers, so they don't even have to think. But thankfully we can all do the math ourselves. And the results are enlightening, don't you think?

Looking Ahead To Saturday

A number of potential upsets: I picked UCLA to beat Villanova, so I'm going to stick with that. There are no other big upsets that I picked (taking a 5 over a 4 isn't really an upset), but I'd point out a few games that could potentially end up with an underdog moving on. All of the 2 seeds are vulnerable, and I like all of the 7/10 seeds playing today, so any of those could end up exciting. If I had to pick one, it's going to be Texas over Duke. Texas is the best 7/10 seed remaining in the whole Tournament, but Duke might be the best 2 seed and is going to be very difficult to beat. Both of these teams rely on three-point shooting, but Duke has a slew of great shooters while Texas is really all about the AJ Abrams show. Texas won't win unless Abrams hits at least five three-pointers, and has at least 25 points.

LSU is a very dangerous team, and I'd give them a great shot against any of the other 1 seeds. But unfortunately they got stuck playing North Carolina, and the Tar Heels are just a cut ahead of every other team in the nation. Hard to see the upset there. UConn is potentially vulnerable, but I don't see Texas A&M being able to win this one. If you're looking for a 1 seed to lose in the second round, watch Sunday, where we are much more likely to see one of those upsets.

One other "upset" to watch for is Purdue over Washington. Not that a 5 over a 4 is much of an upset, but I did pick Purdue in my bracket. That said, the Pac-10 has looked great, and Washington looked great in round one. This should be a very good game.

And the best game will be...: I narrowed this one down to three choices. LSU/UNC should be a very fun, up-tempo game. Don't expect to see any shot clock violations. Unfortunately, the game might also turn into a romp. UCLA/Villanova should be a good game between evenly matched teams. I expect that game to come down to the final minutes. But the game of the day for me is Texas/Duke. All in all it's probably going to be the highest quality game, with the best athletes and talent on both teams. And it will likely be fairly close. Texas could easily pull off the upset.

The most to prove: Easy question, the answer is the ACC. All three of their remaining teams play today. You've got to figure that North Carolina will win easily, so this question is about Duke and Maryland. If Duke gets upset and Maryland gets rocked then this Tournament will be a total failure for the conference, no matter what North Carolina does. But if Duke can get a win over a very solid Texas team, and if Maryland can shock Memphis (not as unlikely as you might think), then suddenly all will be well, and the ACC will reaffirm its status as a major player in this Tournament.

Thoughts On Day 2

Our first complete shocker: No, not Cleveland State. The shocker of the day was Dayton over West Virginia. In West Virginia you had a very dangerous team with insane computer numbers (Top Ten in both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR coming in). And Dayton was by far the worst at-large team. Remember, I always stress the difference between the best teams and the best resumes: Dayton did not have the worst resume among at-large teams, and they were not one of the last two or three teams into the bracket, but their resume was far better than their actual team. I thought that other than the 1, 2 and 3 seeds, West Virginia was the absolute safest team of the day. I go back when I miss a game in my bracket and try to understand what I did wrong: for example, I missed the BYU/Texas A&M game, and I realized that I was too blinded by the numbers, and BYU's numbers weren't better by enough to counter the vast intuitive sense I had watching all of the games this season that A&M was just the far better team. But I still don't know how anybody could have rationalized picking Dayton. I'm shocked.

A number of other upsts... just as we expected: As I told you yesterday morning, we had to expect more upsets on Friday. Besides my intuition that Day ones that are upset free are followed by upset-filled Day twos, you just had a ton of opportunities. I told you to pick Wisconsin, and considered Arizona a near-lock. Of course, I also put West Virginia in the Sweet 16, and I stil don't understand what happened in that game. The Midwest had the most upsets, but that's what we all expected. Utah State was the one upset I picked that didn't come through, but it was a 1 point game, including one of those classic gambling moments when a final shot does not alter the result of the game, but flips the gambling spread of the game. Always love those.

The one upset that a lot of people think is bigger than it really was is Cleveland State over Wake Forest. The margin of victory is a big surprise, but not the fact that Cleveland State won. If you'd watched Wake Forest all season long you knew that they played their best ball against elite teams, and stunk it up against bad teams. There was no doubt in my mind that Wake's second round game would be easier for them than their first round game. If they could have made it to the Sweet 16 they very well might have beaten Louisville. But they could have derailed it all by getting out to a terrible start against a team they figured they'd blow away in round one, which is exactly what happened. We'll see how many players from this Wake Forest team return for next season. They are extremely talented, but they are extremely young, and in the end it was their inexperience and immaturity that did them in this year. They'll be far better next season if they can get the key parts to come back.

Don't get too excited, Big 12 fans: They did got 6-0 in the first round, but I always warn people that records are not everything. You wouldn't say that College of Charleston is better than Ohio State because they went 24-6 and Ohio State went 22-11, so don't be so quick to say that one conference did better than another because they had a better record. Look at the individual teams in performances. Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State all played very well. But Kansas and Missouri both struggled badly with vastly inferior 14 seeds. Oklahoma's performance wasn't good or bad, they just did what they were supposed to do against the weakest 15 seed. So three teams overperformed and two underperformed. I wouldn't get too excited about this performance until we see how these teams do in the second round. It was a very good performance by the Big 12, but they weren't (in my opinion) the best performing conference in round one.

And the best conference in the first round was...: In my opinion, this isn't even a question. It's the Pac-10. Just look at what they did up and down the bracket. Washington looked very impresive in a blowout victory, as did USC in just embarrassing BC. I thought Arizona would beat Utah, but the game wasn't even close at any point. Arizona State and UCLA both had solid victories against tough opponents. The only team that didn't play that well was Cal, but that wasn't really an upset. I think most of us picked Maryland in our brackets, and the game was very close until the last ten minutes or so. They may have only gone 5-1, but relative to expectations I don't think there's any question that the Pac-10 had the best first round.

The ACC is not off to a very good start: Their 3-4 record is a little bit skewed. Clemson and Florida State were both teams that we expected to lose. Wake Forest played badly, as did Boston College, but those were the only two that really underplayed their expectations. Maryland looked great against Cal, and both North Carolina and Duke are still sitting around as legitimate Final Four teams (in fact, I think both teams are the favorites in their respective brackets). I still think the ACC is the best conference in the country. I just think that the gap between them and the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10 is smaller than we thought. The SEC still sucks, though.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Thoughts On Day 1

A lot of chalk: This isn't a surprise. If you look at my bracket previews, most of the games took place in areas of the bracket that I expected a lot of chalk. The only real upset was one that a lot of people saw coming: Western Kentucky over an Illinois team that really struggled to score without Chester Frazier. One thing that I didn't understand was why they tried to play such a conventional game without him. It's not a coincidence that they started their comeback once they started to press, throwing fresh bodies all over the floor and forcing Western Kentucky to try to run. If they'd done that earlier they probably would have won. A surprisingly poor effort out of Bruce Weber, who is usually a good in-game coach.

In addition to the Western Kentucky win, the only other two "upsets" were a couple of 10 seeds, but I think most of us had those two 10 seeds winning. And at some point the talking heads on television will understand that it's not an upset when a 9 seed wins. If anything, it's an upset when an 8 seed wins, considering the fact that they've only won 46% of the time during the modern Tournament format (since 1985).

Expect more upsets today: First of all, you have more likely upset opportunities: you've got two 12 seeds (Arizona, Wisconsin) and an 11 seed (Utah State) that I picked in my previews. You've also got three games with 3 and 4 seeds where the favorite is vulnerable and the underdog is dangerous, meaning that we could potentially see another scare like Villanova and Memphis had (Xavier, Kansas, Syracuse). Also, while I have no stats to back this up, my impression has been that Day 2 is often the opposite of Day 1 with respect to upsets. If a lot of big teams go down on Day 1 then the big teams are all very vigilant and motivated on Day 2. If Day 1 goes chalk then the top teams are more likely to come out complacent and expect to just waltz to victory. Of course, the close games for Villanova and Memphis might have scared some teams straight, and maybe my impression of this behavior is just a figment of my imagination. As I said, I've got no numbers to back this theory up. But it's just been my general impression over the years.

Don't draw too many conclusions from Memphis/Villanova: You see this a lot, with top teams coming out expecting that all they need to do to win is to put on their uniforms. You can't do that in the NCAA Tournament, especially against potentially dangerous teams like American and Cal State Northridge. Both Memphis and Villanova proved that they were elite teams in the final minutes, when they finally woke up. We'll get a much better sense of these teams in their next game. I have Villanova losing because I just think that UCLA is the better team with the higher ceiling, but I think all of us have Memphis surviving at least one more round. We'll see how easily they handle a Maryland team that looked very good against Cal, but won't look as good when they face a team with more height and length, like Memphis.

Don't draw too many conclusions from UNC/UConn either: For one thing, they were both playing terrible teams. Unlike Memphis and Villanova, who were playing teams they could have potentially lost to, UNC and UConn could have completely sleepwalked to a 25 point victory against their opponents. And both of those schools like to run up the score on teams. One misconception that a lot of people have is that they don't understand the vast difference in quality between some of the 14/15/16 seeds. We know that, for example, there isn't a huge difference between 6, 7 and 8 seeds, so we just unconsciously take the same point of view for the other seeds that are similar. But there is a huge gap between some of these smaller teams. American University went 8-7 against the RPI Top 200 with an RPI of 72nd and a 14-7 road/neutral record. Radford, on the other hand, went 3-10 against the RPI Top 200 with an RPI of 131st and a 9-7 road/neutral record. Morgan State was also the weakest 15 seed (3-8 against the RPI Top 200). In addition, certain teams are just more dangerous than others - you can have a case where Team A and Team B are exactly equivalent against an arbitrary opponent on average, but Team A has a far better chance of pulling a miracle upset over a 2 or 3 seed because of their style of play. American is the type of school that is dangerous, Radford is not.

UCLA is still dangerous, even though they barely survived VCU: I've talked about how I picked UCLA to the Sweet 16, and think that they're the fourth most likely team to win that whole region, and so it might be discouraging that they barely survived the 11 seed in round one. But I would make a few arguments against that. First of all, VCU is just a very dangerous team, and we all remember what happened the last time they got into the Tournament, when they were also an 11 seed and Eric Maynor single-handedly toppled Duke, and then took Pitt to overtime in the second round. Second of all, it was very encouraging to finally see UCLA get off to a fast start. They are finally showing the sense of urgency that I've been begging for all season long. They actually started to relax in the second half, when they had a fairly big lead, which does sound like something UCLA would do. Trying to cruise to victory is the same characteristic as getting out to slow starts, it's all about not focusing except when you think you need to focus. At this level of play, you've got to focus for all 40 minutes. I would think UCLA isn't going to do that with a second half lead against Villanova. It's going to be tough beating Nova in Philadelphia, especially since they looked very good in the second half against American and should be focused after that first round scare. But I still think UCLA is the slight favorite in the second round game.

Blake Griffin really must be infuriating to play against: It's remarkable how many dirty plays have been exacted upon him this season. I even spoke about this all the way back in early December, when USC's Leonard Washington was thrown out of a game for a dirty elbow against Griffin. As I mentioned back then, I can imagine why Griffin is infuriating to play against, because he is extremely physical and is constantly throwing his body around without getting called for fouls. We all have played against guys like that who drive us nuts. But I've never ever seen a guy get hit with as many cheap shots as Griffin. I don't want to blame the victim here, because obviously there is never any excuse for a cheap shot like he got yesterday, or like he got from Washington, but it can't possibly be a coincidence. It's got to have something to do with Griffin's style of play.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How Well Did The Computers Predict The Field?

If you're on this site looking for help filling out your brackets just scroll down to the next post. This post is going to tackle the issue of computer polls as objective tools for predicting the behavior of the Selection Committee. Before getting into the numbers I did have the feel that this was not one of the best jobs by the Selection Committee in terms of seeding teams (Boston College as a 7? Marquette as a 6? Wisconsin as a 12?), but I did feel like they picked the field fairly well. There was certainly bias in favor of the Big East and ACC, and against the mid-majors and the Big Ten. But let's see how the three major computer rankings (RPI, Sagarin and Pomeroy) did at predicting the field (for the record I'm using the Sagarin ELO_CHESS since it's the one that should apply to what the Committee is doing, since it only looks at wins and losses - the PREDICTOR is useful for predicting which teams will go far in the Tournament, not which teams will get in):

Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):
34 - San Diego State (1)
40 - Creighton (1)
46 - UAB (7)
47 - Illinois State (5)
48 - Saint Mary's (2)
49 - Niagara (3)
51 - George Mason (7)
53 - Tulsa (4)
54 - Florida (1)
56 - Baylor (3)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
62 - Arizona (12)
60 - Boston College (7)
55 - Maryland (10)
45 - Wisconsin (12)
44 - Michigan (10)
42 - Minnesota (10)
41 - Texas (7)
39 - California (7)
37 - LSU (8)
36 - Texas A&M (9)

Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):
35 - Penn State (2)
42 - Miami (Fl) (4)
44 - Saint Mary's (2)
45 - Northwestern (5)
46 - San Diego State (1)
48 - Creighton (1)
51 - Notre Dame (2)
52 - Virginia Tech (2)
53 - Baylor (3)
55 - Providence (5)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
50 - Arizona (12)
47 - Tennessee (9)
43 - Dayton (11)
40 - Maryland (10)
39 - Texas A&M (9)
38 - LSU (8)
37 - Boston College (7)
34 - Texas (7)
33 - BYU (8)
32 - Utah (5)

Ten highest rated teams to miss the Tournament (NIT seed given):
26 - Georgetown (6)
31 - Washington State (7)
34 - San Diego State (1)
37 - Notre Dame (2)
38 - New Mexico (3)
40 - Miami (Fl) (4)
41 - Kansas State (4)
42 - UAB (7)
44 - Florida (1)
48 - Kentucky (4)

Ten lowest rated teams to earn an at-large (seed given):
83 - Dayton (11)
59 - Boston College (7)
54 - Maryland (10)
52 - Texas A&M (9)
49 - Michigan (10)
46 - LSU (8)
45 - Minnesota (10)
43 - Butler (9)
39 - Arizona (12)
36 - Ohio State (8)


Now the first thing I want point out is that we shouldn't have expected the Pomeroy ratings to be a good predictor of bracket position. It is a rating of how good teams are, rather than how good their resumes are. The Sagarin PREDICTOR is also a horrible predictor of Tournament seed, for the same reason. Use the Pomeroy (along with the PREDICTOR) to make your bracket picks now, but don't expect either to be a good predictor of where your team will be seeded by the Selection Committee.

The second thing I want to point out is that, as expected, the Sagarin ELO_CHESS was a much better predictor of the brackets than the RPI. The second best resume left out (Miami) was only ahead of the three worst resumes that got in (Arizona, Tennessee, Dayton). That's pretty remarkable when you consider that the Sagarin ratings don't take into account things like injuries, streaks at the end of the season, and the name on the uniform (all of which are factors with the Selection Committee). If Arizona wasn't called "Arizona" they almost definitely would have been left out of the Tournament, and Sagarin's computer doesn't know that.

Finally, remember what I was telling people all through February and March: it is very rare for a team with a Sagarin ELO_CHESS outside of 50th to make the Tournament as an at-large. That held again, with no team worse than 50th getting in. I'm sure there are a few examples of teams around the 53-55 range getting in from years past, I just can't think of any off the top of my head. I also talked about how you never see teams with a Sagarin inside 35th missing out (unlike the RPI), and this year the only team inside the Sagarin Top 40 to miss was Penn State. Sagarin can't take into account things like the Selection Committee having a big anti-Big Ten bias and not wanting to give that conference an eighth team. If Penn State was in the Big East or ACC they'd most likely have been in the field.

So the Sagarin isn't going to be perfect because it can't take into account things like personal biases in the Selection Committee. But it's a pretty darn good predictor. So if you don't trust bracketologists like myself, just look at the Sagarin ELO_CHESS. If your team is 60th, they've got work to do. If they're in the Top 40 they're looking good. And if you're talking to somebody who isn't convinced by that argument, just send them the link to this blog post. I'll plan to do another analysis like this after each season from here on out. I hope you enjoyed seeing this information.

Monday, March 16, 2009

East Region Breakdown

Most likely 11+ seed to win a game: You can make a good argument for Portland State knocking out Xavier, but the pick here has to be Wisconsin. This Wisconsin/FSU game reminds me so much of the Drake/WKU game last season. Intuitively, FSU seems like the heavy favorite for the same reason that Drake seemed like a great pick last year, because they just seem like they're a horrible match-up for their opponent. Drake looked so experienced and savvy last year, and they were so well-coached, that they seemed like a great Cinderella pick. And similarly, FSU seems like an awful match-up for Wisconsin. Wisconsin has the most trouble with long, athletic teams that press defensively, and they're also weak at defensive rebounding while FSU is wonderful at offensive rebounding. And as much as the idiot analysts on ESPN are calling this a match-up between Wisconsin's defense and Florida State's offense, it's actually Wisconsin with the better offense, and Florida State with the better defense. I don't see how Wisconsin stops Toney Douglas without fouling Trevon Hughes out of the game. But all of that said, the numbers scream that this is an obvious upset. First of all, the best 12 seeds to pick are the ones from major conferences, and Wisconsin was already the best 11 seed before the Selection Committee dropped them to a 12 for scheduling purposes. And both Pomery and the Sagarin PREDICTOR have Wisconsin as the better team. Last year I went with Drake because I trusted my intuition over the numbers. I learned my lesson. This year I'm going with the numbers, and as silly as it seems to me I'm picking Wisconsin.

Most likely 6+ seed to make the Sweet 16: This region is so good that there are a number of great choices. The winner of Texas/Minnesota will have a great chance against Duke. And even the winner of Oklahoma State/Texas will have an excellent shot knocking out Pitt in the second round. Even Wisconsin will have a great shot against Xavier (whoever you pick to win the Wisconsin/FSU game, I'd pick them in the second round over an overrated Xavier team). But I'm going with UCLA, for the same reason I picked Wisconsin: the numbers. They are rated the 9th best team in the nation by both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR, and their big problem all season long has simply been motivation. If seems like they've spent all season long spotting their opponents 15 points to start the game, and if they can ever get out to a quick start they're going to be extremely dangerous. Villanova is a good 3 seed that has been very good away from home, but UCLA is an absurdly dangerous 6 seed (even more dangerous than West Virginia) that will have a great shot to pull the upset.

Most likely 3+ seed to win the region: I'm going with UCLA here again, for the reasons above. I don't see Xavier or Florida State having any shot at winning this region (just look at their terrible computer numbers), and in fact the next most likely 3+ seed to win the region might be 7th seed Texas. Both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR rate UCLA as the third best team in this region, and there's a chance that both the 1 & 2 seeds might be taken out early in this region, for reasons that I'll get to in a moment. Don't count UCLA out of not only making the Sweet 16, but making it back to the Final Four for a remarkable fourth straight season.

Conclusions: The East region is by far the toughest region. You've got a very good 1, 2 and 3 seed, as well as what I would argue is the best 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15 and 16 seed. The depth in this region is astounding, and there's no way that the Selection Committee should have a region this good with another region that is so bad (the south region). There's no question in my mind that this was an artifact of the Selection Committee needing to play mental gymnastics to keep teams from the same conference from playing before the Elite 8, which is why I'm calling for them to allow teams from the same conference to play in the Sweet 16.

I see five teams that have a legitimate chance to win the region: Pitt, Duke, Villanova, UCLA and Texas. One thing to keep in mind is that as good as Pitt and Duke are, they are also highly flawed. Pitt is a deceptively thin team, and they will have trouble even getting out of the second round if Levance Fields isn't completely healthy, or if DeJuan Blair fouls out. They really, really struggle when either of those two players are out. Meanwhile, as much Tournament success as Coach K has had, and as good as they've looked since Gerald Henderson made himself the star and Elliot Williams joined the starting lineup, they still have struggled in the Tournament over the last two years. They are vulnerable to large, athletic teams. And even with the emergence of Henderson, they are still dependent on three-pointers that have had a tendency to fall less often away from Cameron Indoor. Now throw in the fact that you've got a really dangerous 7 seed in Texas, and two outstanding teams in the 8/9 game, and both the 1 and 2 seed will have a problem in the second round. If Pitt survives the second round, they should actually have an easier opponent in the third round, but they will struggle against whoever comes out of the bottom half, be it Duke, Villanova, UCLA or Texas.

In addition to being the toughest overall region, this is the toughest region to pick. I see a remarkable 11 teams that have a great shot to go to the Sweet 16 (all of the top 12 seeds other than VCU), and of course five teams with a great shot to win the whole region (Pitt, Duke, Villanova, UCLA and Texas). If you can nail this region you're in great shape.

Midwest Region Breakdown

Most likely 11+ seed to win a game: No question here: Arizona. The best upsets are always where you have a favored mid-major or small conference team against an underdog BCS conference team, and Arizona-Utah is the only game that fits that formula this year. Utah also showed up on the list of teams that stink away from home, with a 13-1 home record and a 6-7 true road record (to be fair, they went 5-0 in neutral floor games, but only two of those wins were over RPI Top 100 teams, and they were Ole Miss and San Diego State). Also, Arizona is a team that has been up-and-down all season, so while they've had a bunch of clunkers, they've also had some games where they've looked great. All in all, Utah was the better team all season. But when you look at upside, and you look at underdog psychology, I'd pick Arizona here.

Most likely 6+ seed to make the Sweet 16: No question here either: West Virginia. It feels like a repeat of last season, where they earned a 7 seed and also had outstanding Sagarin PREDICTOR and Pomeroy numbers. Kansas is a good 3 seed, but they are young and inexperienced, and they haven't played well over the last couple of weeks. West Virginia is all over my overachieve lists, and both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR say that West Virginia is actually better than Kansas. Throw in a very, very weak first round opponent for West Virginia (Dayton is the worst 11 seed in the field, so don't even dream of picking them for an upset) and a difficult first round opponent for Kansas (North Dakota State is probably the most dangerous 14 seed), you've got a possibility of Kansas not even making that second round game. And even if they both get there, I'm still picking West Virginia.

Most likely 3+ seed to win the region: There are a number of choices here. West Virginia could easily knock off Michigan State in the Sweet 16, and of course it would be silly to discount a Kansas team (if they can survive West Virginia) that is the defending champion and that did win the Big 12 regular season title outright. With Wake Forest being a team with a ton of upside potential (remember, they were #1 in the nation not too long ago, and have tended to lose to bad teams while beating elite teams), I think we could easily see the 3, 4 or 6 seed win this region. But I've got to pick one, and I'm going with Wake Forest. Louisville is the weakest 1 seed and, as I said, Wake Forest has consistently played their best basketball against their top opponents all season long. But don't be too surprised to see a Wake Forest/West Virginia Elite 8 match-up.

Conclusions: This is an interesting region in a lot of ways. First of all, it's the second toughest region (behind the East), and is also likely to have the most upsets. You've got a 12 seed that I have favored against the 5, and a 6 seed that I have favored against the 3. And you've got five different teams that have a great shot to win this region. Louisville was rated #1 overall by the Selection Committee, but in my opinion they're the worst of the top four seeds and the least likely to make the Final Four. As I talked about here, there is no correlation between conference tournament success and NCAA Tournament success. Meanwhile, you've got a 2 seed in Michigan State that is finally getting healthy for the first time all season, and has had a ton of success getting to the Final Four since Tom Izzo has been at the helm. You've got a 3 seed in Kansas that has a ton of upside potential, even if they might flame out early. You've got the best and most dangerous 4 seed in the Tournament in Wake Forest, meaning that Louisville is not only the least likely 1 seed to make the Final Four, but they're also the most likely 1 seed to lose before the Elite 8. And don't forget West Virginia having a great shot to win it themselves. I talked about the south region as the most likely region to have favorites winning every game, and this region is the opposite. If you're not picking a lot of upsets in this region, you're not going to get a lot of points in your bracket competition, regardless of the scoring system.

South Region Breakdown

Most likely 11+ seed to win a game: I'm not a fan of any of these 11+ seeds, but if I have to pick one I'm going with Western Kentucky. For one thing, they know they can win as a 12 seed, and being mentally confident is 95% of the formula for a first round upset. And Illinois is the one Big Ten team that is over-ranked, as they're a stretch as a 5. And if Chester Frazier doesn't play, they're really going to have trouble creating offense. They are going to have to hammer the ball inside and hope that they can just out-big man Western Kentucky. Keep an eye on the injury reports. But if there's one region where you can pick all of the 3, 4, 5 and 6 seeds to get through to the second round, it's probably this one.

Most likely 6+ seed to make the Sweet 16: There are a number of good choices here, but I'm picking Arizona State. First of all, I don't see any way that they lose to Temple in the first round, and it's always good to make sure that a team you're picking to win their second round game will actually be in a second round game. Second of all, I love their match-up against Syracuse. Syracuse is over-rated, as teams always are when they play well in conference tournaments. Historically, there really is very little correlation between conference tournament success and NCAA Tournament success. ESPN was interviewing Gerry McNamara about 12 times a game during the Big East tournament, and they kept comparing this year's run to that miracle run in 2006. What they don't mention is that the run pushed Syracuse from being a Bubble team all the way up to a 5 seed, where they flamed out in the first round against Texas A&M. The previous year they also won the Big East tournament, and also lost in the first round (that time to Vermont). So don't judge Syracuse on that Big East run, judge them on the season as a whole, where they really were more of a 6-8 seed quality than a 3 seed. In fact, the two best predictive computer rankings (Pomeroy and Sagarin's ELO_CHESS) both rank Arizona State as better than Syracuse. Throw in the fact that Arizona State ended up on the most importnat "most likely to overachieve" list, and I think they're a great pick against Syracuse. I'd also note that Michigan, if they can beat Clemson, would have a legitimate shot to take down Oklahoma. But I wouldn't pick it unless you're being heavily rewarded for picking upsets. Go with Arizona State in the Sweet 16.

Most likely 3+ seed to win the region: Honestly, I don't like anybody here. Forget Illinois and Syracuse. I have to choose between Gonzaga and Arizona State here, and in the end I'd go with Arizona State just because Gonzaga has failed to make it past the Sweet 16 since 1999. Three teams in this bracket have likely First Team All-Americans, and Gonzaga is the one team left out. But really, I would say that this is the most likely region to have the 1 and 2 seeds playing each other in the Elite 8.

Conclusions: This is the region where I expect to see the most chalk. The Butler/LSU game is probably the most interesting 8/9 game, but other than that I expect a very boring first round. The only excitement I see in the second round will be a potential upset by Arizona State. The third round is about an interesting potential match-up between North Carolina and Gonzaga, and the fourt round will likely be a match-up between two first team All-Americans. But all in all, it's going to be a boring region. North Carolina got handed a gift of a bracket, and they are the safest Final Four pick. Just take them, and don't get too ambitious when picking this region.

West Bracket Breakdown

And finally, here come the complete region breakdowns. I'll go in my typical reverse alphabetical order, beginning with the West region:

Most likely 11+ seed to win a game: I have to go with Utah State over Marquette here. In general, it's actually not a good idea to pick a small conference team to pull an upset over a major conference team in the NCAA Tournament (you're much more likely to have an upset pulled by a major conference team over a small conference team), but I'll make an exception for a Marquette team that is 1-5 since Dominic James got hurt, with that one win being over St. John's. They are in a tailspin, and Utah State has been red hot and they're playing with a chip on their shoulder. Especially in a region where I really dislike the 12 seed over the 5, I'd go with the 11 over the 6 here. One last thing to note here is that we have by far the best 13/4 match-up in the whole bracket, so if you're in a bracket competition where you get heavily rewarded for picking upsets (like a scoring system where you get the seed of the team + 1 point for a correct first round selection) then I'd think seriously about taking Mississippi State. But the question is which team is most likely to win, and that's Utah State.

Most likely 6+ seed to make the Sweet 16: I don't really like any of the 6+ seeds here, but if i had to go with somebody I'd go with Maryland. They are overrated as a 10 seed (they were most likely an 11 seed that got bumped up to make room for another ACC team), and I think that the first round game against Cal is 50-50, but I think they're in a better position than Cal to get hot and go on a run. Maryland has been inconsistent this year, but they have shown the ability to pull big upsets. I can't see Cal possibly beating Memphis. I'd take Memphis over Maryland also, but Maryland would at least have a chance to get hot and win the game. The 8/9 game is an interesting one, but I don't see either of those teams having a chance against UConn, and I've already said that I think the 6 seed is going out in the first round. So that is why I'm picking Maryland here.

Most likely 3+ seed to win the region: This was a tough decision, and it comes down to Missouri and Purdue here. Missouri has been the better team over the course of the season, but Purdue has played as well as just about anybody in the nation since Robbie Hummel has been relatively healthy again. Should he start having back problems again, though, they're not going to beat anybody. But because we're talking about upside here, I think Purdue has the highest upside. This Missouri team is new to the Tournament, and I think they need to have a learning experience before Mike Anderson has a team that can be a serious Final Four contender. That said, with both UConn and Memphis being highly flawed, I would not be shocked to see Purdue playing Missouri in the Elite 8.

Conclusions: This is a quirky region, and that's why it's so wide open. You've got the weakest 1 seed, the strongest 2 seed, a good 3 seed, the weakest 4 seed, the strongest 5 seed, and the weakest 6 seed. All in all it's a weird combination that doesn't work out by the normal "S-Curve", but we already knew that the "S-Curve" was completely destroyed by their need to keep the 7 teams out of the ACC, Big East and Big Ten from playing each other before the Elite 8.

I see four teams with a very legitimate chance to win this region. If I had to pick a single favorite, I would actually have to pick UConn. I think they can out-tough Memphis, and I still have questions about a Memphis team that hasn't really proven that they could beat elite teams this season. Of course, as I said two paragraphs ago, I could easily see a Missouri-Purdue Elite 8 game. And as I also said, I think Purdue takes that game. The key for Purdue will be finding a way past UConn.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bracket Lesson #3: "Clutch" Vs "Overrated"

Probably the most controversial bracket lesson that I have is actually the most successful. Just look at the teams I picked to overachieve and underachieve last season, and it's remarkable how accurate that list was. I picked a 4, 5 and 9 seed to underachieve, and all three flamed out in the first round. Of the teams I picked to overachieve, I picked an 11 seed that made the second round, a 7 seed that made the Sweet Sixteen, and a 6 seed that made the second round. So the "overachieve" teams all did at least as well as their seed would suggest, and none of the "underachieve" teams did better than their seed would suggest.

So what's the point?

The point is that the college basketball season is a small sample size. And while you can get some anomalies over short periods of time, over the long time teams revert to the mean. The mistake that people make is that they see a team that was so clutch during the regular season, and project an even better performance during the postseason. First of all, teams that won a lot of close games were probably some combination of "clutch" and "lucky". Second of all, even if there was no luck involved, they still played so clutch during the regular season that even a very clutch performance in the NCAA Tournament would only cause them to "achieve"... they're not going to shock anybody as a Cinderella. Whatever clutch play they had is already built into their seed. And over the long run, teams will always revert to the mean.

In other words: pick AGAINST teams that won a lot of close games, and bet on teams that lost a lot of close games. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it's a well known issue for those in the statistical community. We see it a lot in Major League Baseball, where statisticians talk about a team's Pythagorean record, and where you can bet the house that a team that plays well ahead of its Pythagorean record is going to come down to Earth in the second half of the season. Teams with great closers and clutch hitters will finish ahead of their Pythagorean, as you'd expect, but never by more than a few games.

So since I'm sure some people just want to know which teams they should keep an eye on this Tournament, I'll just list here some teams that I feel should be expected to over- or under-perform. If you're wondering where I came up with this list, it's mostly just a study of the Sagarin ratings, as well as my own intuition from watching teams this season.

Likely to overachieve:
Arizona State
West Virginia

Likely to underachieve:
Florida State
Wake Forest

Bracket Lesson #2: Look At Road/Neutral Records

Road/neutral records are an important thing to look at, because you've got a lot of teams that are very dependent on their home crowds. If their home crowds carried them to some big upsets that got them into the Tournament then more power to them, and I hope to visit those arenas some day, but you don't want to be picking those teams to go far in a Tournament where they'll never have a home crowd.

One thing to always keep in mind is that you can't look at road records in a nutshell. You've got to compare to home records. For example, Binghamton went a very solid 9-6 in true road games... but they also went 11-2 in home games. They clearly just beat up on a weak schedule, and you wouldn't judge them as any kind of a road warrior team. Similarly, Pitt went 7-3 in true road games... but they also went 18-0 at home. They were just a really good team that was going to win most of their games in any arena anywhere. On the other hand, note that Michigan State and UConn both actually had better winning percentages in road games than home games (both went 9-1). That suggests that both teams had a little bit of a habit to get complacent at home, and that they focus more away from the distractions of home. That's encouraging when picking them in your bracket. On the other hand, look at a Dayton team that went 18-0 at home and 5-6 on the road, or a USC team that went 15-2 at home and 2-8 on the road. Those are very discouraging numbers for teams that won't be able to benefit from home crowds in the Tournament.

So what I've done is gone through all of the Tournament teams and picked out those that stuck out to me either by having really good road records relative to their home records, or the opposite. Here's what I came up with:

Likely to overachieve:
Michigan State
North Dakota State
West Virginia

Likely to underachieve:
Ohio State
Oklahoma State
Western Kentucky

Bracket Lesson #1: Which Upsets To Pick?

I was going to wait until tomorrow morning before starting to analyze the brackets, but a quick glance at the tsunami of web traffic right now suggests that people are looking to fill out their brackets NOW. I guess it makes sense that most brackets will be filled out right after the selection show, or at the last possible moment on Thursday morning. Depends what type of person you are.

Anyway, the first thing I want to talk about is picking upsets. And by "upsets", I'm talking about the 7/10, 6/11, 5/12 and 4/13 games. Picking a 9 over an 8 is not an upset, in fact, the 9 seeds have won 54% of the time since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985, so it's an "upset" to pick the 8 seed. Wins by 14, 15 and 16 seeds are so rare that I generally strongly recommend against picking any of those in your brackets. This year is no exception: the only upset I'd even consider is North Dakota State over Kansas. And again, don't pick it unless your bracket challenge has a scoring system that really rewards upsets, otherwise it's a high risk, little reward play.

Now, I've talked about 5/12 and 6/11 games here, and I linked there back to an analysis I did a couple of years ago on 5/12 games and another one on 6/11 games. The lessons from both analyses are the same, and can carry over the 4/13 and 7/10 games. The lesson is: bet on underdogs from major conferences, and bet against favorites from mid-majors and small conferences. In fact, the stats are so remarkable that if you have a major conference 11 or 12 seed against a small conference 6 or 5 seed, just take the 11/12. Don't even look at the team names. This year we've got a number of major conference teams with 12+ seeds, but no 11 seeds. The 12 seeds are Arizona and Wisconsin. The 13 seed is Mississippi State. The formula also suggests that Gonzaga and Xavier would be vulnerable 4 seeds. If we look specifically for small conference teams favored against BCS conference teams, I see only one example: Utah against Arizona.

The Short Version:

Slam dunk picks: Arizona over Utah.

Not-so-slam dunk picks: Mississippi State over Washington, Wisconsin over Florida State.

In other words... this rule isn't going to do a lot of good for you this year. In fact, a more likely upset pick than Mississippi State and Wisconsin is taking Utah State over Marquette. And that has nothing to do with player psychology, and everything to do with the fact that Marquette just hasn't been very good without Dominic James.

It's unfortunate that this analysis, which is often very useful, isn't so useful this year. I'll be back in a moment with some more useful things to look for in your brackets.

Some More Bracket Notes

I just wanted to talk about two more issues before actually analyzing the specific regions and games:

The Selection Committee should ease the rules on conferences playing each other in the Tournament: I understand the rationale here, with you not wanting to have two teams from the same conference ending up playing each other in the first round. You want to have different match-ups in the NCAA Tournament. I'm totally on board there. But I have a problem with them not allowing two teams to play before the Elite Eight. They should move it up to the Sweet Sixteen. When you have these massive super-conferences (like the Big East, with 16 teams), you are going to have conferences getting seven or eight teams in every year. When you have a conference getting seven or eight teams in, it really pigeonholes the Selection Committee. They already have an official rule that they can break this procedure when a conference gets nine teams (which you have to figure the Big East will do over the next few years), and I think that once that happens there will be a movement to push things back. Keep conference teams apart for the first weekend, but let them play in the Sweet Sixteen. I saw too many cases this year of an ACC, Big East or Big Ten team clearly one line away from where they should have been, and it was most likely because of this rule.

The Selection Committee gets injuries backwards: Just look at how they judged injuries this season. You had several teams that had injuries to key players, and those players will not be back for the NCAA Tournament. Some that come to mind are UConn, Marquette and Illinois (Chester Frazier might come back, but he likely will not). The Selection Committee chose to completely ignore these injuries, and ranked all of these teams as if the injuries weren't there. Then look at the other side, which is teams that had key players missing for part of the season but now have them back and (relatively) healthy. Two teams that come to mind are Purdue and Saint Mary's. The Selection Committee completely ignored those injuries, and treated their resumes as if the injuries had not happened.

Now to be fair, at least the Committee was consistent. They did not judge the injuries at all, and just judged the teams as if they had no idea who was on each roster. And there's something to be said for that. But I think you've got to go the other way: you want the 65 best teams now, and not the 65 best teams from November. You can't tell me that Arizona has a better chance of making a Tournament run than Saint Mary's. You can't tell me that Marquette has an equivalent chance of making a run as Purdue. You've got to take into account how good teams are now, based on who is injured and healthy now.

What's interesting is that the Committee already finds a balance here when it comes to teams that finish well versus teams that stink it up over the final few weeks. They don't completely ignore games from November or December (or else Michigan wouldn't have been in the bracket), but they weight the games from the last few weeks much more than the games from a few months ago (or else USC would never have gotten a ten seed). Similarly, you've got to weight teams by their injuries, by weighting how they've played with the current lineup more than the lineup before their health situation changed. Take Marquette: they haven't even played like a Tournament team at all since Dominic James got hurt (they're 1-5, with that one win coming over St. John's), but you're not going to completely throw out what they did achieve with James either. That's why you should drop them to a 7-9 seed, from the 6 where they were instead seeded. The Committee needs to find the same balance with injuries that they have with comparing teams that finished well versus teams that played better back in the out of conference slate.

Initial Thoughts On the Bracket

I just wanted to post a few initial thoughts on the bracket. I'll get to actual predictions of Tournament performance later tonight or tomorrow morning, but at the moment I just want to talk about who got in, who got left out, and who got seeded where:

Did we have the right 65 teams? I actually didn't have a big problem with this, even though I missed two teams this year. I talked about how I felt I left out three legitimate Tournament teams: Arizona, Florida and Maryland. The two teams that I missed both came from those three. I would have had a much bigger problem if a team like Penn State or Providence got in. I do feel that Maryland should have gotten in over Arizona, and I think Arizona benefited from some bias (I forgot one of my cardinal rules, which is that a glamor school like Kentucky or Arizona or North Carolina will never be the last team left out). I did have a problem with Maryland getting a 10 seed, but most likely they got an 11 and got bumped up a line because the ACC had 7 teams. As for the two teams left out, I did talk about how Saint Mary's didn't deserve to get in on resume alone, but I guessed (incorrectly, apparently) that the Committee would give them a break on the Patty Mills injury. I'm actually going to talk more about this in a moment (look at the bottom of this post), so hang on. One last thing I wanted to mention here is the issue of mid-majors vs BCS teams on at-large bids. I hate that graphic that always gets thrown up about how many fewer mid-majors have gotten at-large bids over the last few years. First of all, it's skewed because of how Conference USA gave all of its best teams (besides Memphis) to the Big East. Second of all, you're comparing apples to oranges. Each year is different. Nobody can argue that the mid-majors deserved ten at-larges this year. You just can't argue it, so arguing the mid-majors got shafted because they didn't get 14 teams is disingenuous. But it is suspicious that the two last two teams in were glamor teams (Maryland, Arizona), and the two first teams out were mid-majors without a lot of history (Saint Mary's, San Diego State). Personally, I'd have preferred to have seen Saint Mary's and San Diego State in.

Who got a ton of love? The Big East. I'm not shocked that the Big East got a little bit of bias, since it's hard not to be somewhat influenced by the propaganda from ESPN and the other major sports analysts. But I assumed that the Selection Committee would at least be a little bit better when it came to judging teams on the numbers and the facts rather than silly comments about the Big East being the best conference. First of all, giving three #1 seeds to them was preposterous. UConn should not have gotten in over Memphis. Also, across the board the Big East schools all got the best seed they could have. What I mean by that is that I often talk about how a team could get a 5 or a 6 seed, or maybe I say they could be an 8-10 seed. In all cases, the Big East team got the high end of that range. From Syracuse to UConn to Marquette, to even Lousville being the preposterous #1 overall (when UNC is clearly better).

Who got screwed? The Big Ten. Not a shocker, for the same reasons as the Big East getting a ton of love. I was shocked to see the Selection Committee so influenced by the mainstream media. Just as the way that the Big East teams all got the highest seeds in the expected range, the Big Ten teams all seemed to get the worst seeds you could have imagined, from Purdue to Ohio State to Wisconsin. The one exception was Michigan - they are overrated as a 10. I know that it's hard to pigeonhole teams when you're taking seven teams from the same conference and have to make sure that they can't play each before the Elite 8, but I would have flipped Michigan and Wisconsin.

Coming up soon... Why the Selection Committee should ease the bracket rules with regards to conference teams, and why they are completely wrong with how they judge injuries to key players.


I'll be back later this evening with analysis of what I think the Selection Committee got right or wrong, as well as help with filling out your bracket. I'll link to posts from the past that have discussed things like which 12 & 13 seeds to pick for upsets. And either tonight or Monday afternoon I willhave a full analysis of each of the four regions. But for now, here is my final attempt at nailing this year's bracket.

For the record, my toughest selections were Boston College/Saint Mary's in, and Arizona/Florida/Maryland out. And for the record, I think that all three of the teams I left out had a better overall resume than Saint Mary's. The sense I'm getting, though, is that the Selection Committee does not want to punish them for the Patty Mills injury. But that's why this is an inexact science... you have to try to predict the psychology of the members of the Selection Committe, in addition to everything else. Excuses aside, here's the bracket:

1. North Carolina
1. Pittsburgh

2. UConn
2. Michigan State
2. Oklahoma

3. Villanova
3. Kansas
3. Florida State

4. Wake Forest
4. Syracuse

5. Illinois
5. Washington
5. Arizona State

6. West Virginia
6. LSU
6. Xavier

7. Texas
7. Clemson
7. Ohio State
7. Tennessee

8. Marquette
8. Oklahoma State
8. Butler
8. California

9. BYU
9. Minnesota
9. USC (PAC-10)
9. Texas A&M

10. Wisconsin
10. Dayton

11. San Diego State
11. Michigan

12. Boston College
12. Saint Mary's





If I missed somebody on the bubble, here are the most likely teams:
Maryland, Penn State, Creighton, Arizona, Auburn, Florida, South Carolina

Other more distant possibilities - that could possibly get a bit, but probably shouldn't:
Miami (Fl), Virginia Tech, Providence, Tulsa, Illinois State, New Mexico, Davidson

Coming Soon

Just a reminder that the final bracket will be posted soon. I'm putting my final touches on it at the moment. I just want to be sure about the result of the Big Ten championship game before publishing the post. Like the real Selection Committee, I'll put together two brackets for the two possible results, and just publish the correct one in the end. At this point I'd guesstimate that the bracket should be up no later than 5:30PM eastern time.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Talking USC, Maryland & San Diego State

USC 66, #23 Arizona State 63
With all of the chaos that has gone on this week, USC might be the most surprising conference tournament champion thus far (maybe the second most surprising, after Chattanooga). They looked to be playing their way out of the Tournament, and even with a loss here might very well have been an NIT team. But none of that matters now, as they collect the automatic bid and get to relax tomorrow. I doubt they'll do worse than an 11 seed, and right now I've got them as a 10 seed. As for Arizona State, I think James Harden was too complacent in this game. He did a great job creating and passing for the first 35 minutes of the game, but then he tried to turn it on and score all of the points on the final few possessions and he just wasn't ready for it. You can't just flip the switch like that, and it cost Arizona State the Pac-10 tournament title. Still, they helped their NCAA seed by just getting this far, and look to be a 5-6 seed in the Tournament.

#8 Duke 67, Maryland 61
Even in losing this game, Maryland achieved something. You never want to have your last performance of the season be a blowout loss, because you never want to give the Selection Committee a bad final impression. The Bubble is already down to the final four or five teams, and Maryland will be in that last grouping of teams. They might end up being the last team in or the first team out. All of the numbers are decent, but none are all that good: 7-9 in the ACC, 8-11 against the RPI Top 100, 13-13 against the RPI Top 200, 6-9 in road/neutral games, RPI of 55th, and they entered the day with a Sagarin of 45th. Maryland could still get in, and they really might be my final decision tomorrow afternoon. The result of the SEC title game will have a large effect on this as well. As for Duke, it's simple for them now. With the Louisville win over Syracuse, I don't see any way that Duke gets a 1 seed. And even with a loss tomorrow, I can't see them dropping to a 3. So in my opinion, tomorrow's game is meaningless: Duke will be a 2 seed no matter what.

Utah 52, San Diego State 50
A really valient effort in the final minute by San Diego State, but they fell just a little bit short. And the question is whether this will cause them to end up just short of the Tournament, and I would argue that it won't. They lack marquee wins, but they also lack bad losses, with zero losses outside the RPI Top 105. In total, they were 6-8 against the RPI Top 100, but a very solid 15-1 against the Division I RPI 100+. They also have a winning road record, and an 11-5 conference record. Remember, the Mountain West was basically as good as the SEC this season, so ask yourself whether you'd put an 11-5 SEC team that had zero losses outside the RPI Top 105 this season,, and that went 10-3 against an out of conference schedule that Pomeroy rates 97th, into the Tournament. I bet you would. They could end up with anything between a 10 and a 12 seed, but right now I have them at an 11. As for Utah, they have wonderful computer numbers, and the only question now is how the Selection Committee is going to judge that season opening loss against DII Southwest Baptist. The computer numbers are spectacular (especially because DII games don't count), as are things like a 5-5 record against the RPI Top 50. Right now I have them as a 6 seed, although they could move one seed line up or done.

UNC & Michigan State Go Down... And What About Auburn?

#22 Florida State 73, #1 North Carolina 70
Another day, another group of potential 1 seeds going down. I have never, ever seen a year like this. The only BCS conference that has not had its top seed go down has been the Big East, and Louisville was something of a fraud of a top seed. Pitt and UConn were the two best teams in that conference, and Louisville benefited from the unbalanced schedule. Still, North Carolina already had their 1 seed locked up, and this loss doesn't really affect them. In fact, I think they'll still be the #1 team overall. As for Florida State, they might have played themselves into a 3 seed with this win. They certainly will be no lower than a 4 seed.

Ohio State 82, #6 Michigan State 70
Ohio State had already locked up its own Tournament bid yesterday, and with this win they assure themselves of no worse than an 8 seed (meaning that they should be favored in their opening round game). If they can find a way to beat Purdue tomorrow then the Buckeyes can potentially get up around a 5-6 seed. It will depend how much the Selection Committee wants to weigh the conference tournaments, and also how much they truly take into account the Big Ten title game that famously always goes up until about when the brackets are due in to CBS and ESPN. As for Michigan State, they had a great shot at a 1 seed if they could have won the Big Ten tournament, but now they can forget about that. No matter what happens, they are probably locked into a 2 seed at this point. Not that there's a huge difference between a 1 and a 2 seed anyway.

Tennessee 94, Auburn 85
Tennessee has suddenly become the hero of Bubble teams everywhere. They will have the chance to save a Bubble team by beating Mississippi State tomorrow, and they potentially saved a Bubble team with this win here. Auburn could potentially still sneak into the Tournament, but at this point I'd bet against it. The one argument that they have going for them is that they've won a ton of games in a row (9-2 over their last 11 games), but most of those wins have been over mediocre teams. I just don't see how their overall numbers are good enough: 2-4 against the RPI Top 50, 6-10 against the RPI Top 100, wins over Tennessee and LSU, losses to Mercer and Vanderbilt, an RPI of 64th and a Sagarin rating that was 66th before this loss. They'll be in the Selection Committee's discussion, but I'd be very surprised to see Auburn make the bracket. As for Tennessee, they're probably a 6 or 7 seed right now. If they win the SEC tournament tomorrow they could potentially move up to a 5, but I'd be shocked if they went any higher than that.

Talking Boston College & Florida

#8 Duke 66, Boston College 65
Duke survives and keeps their hopes for a 1 seed alive, while Boston College now gets to play the waiting game. Rakim Sanders missed his shot at a game winner, and BC was unable to collect one more big scalp. Remember that they already have wins over North Carolina, Duke and Florida State. They finish a solid 4-5 against the RPI Top 50 and 7-8 against the RPI Top 100. The problem is that they've got some bad losses: Saint Louis, Harvard and NC State. But their bad losses aren't really much worse than many other teams on the Bubble, and despite the mediocre computer numbers (60th in the RPI, 49th in Sagarin), I think they're in the Tournament at the moment. A win here would have locked them in, but now they're just going to have to root for Missouri, Utah State, Tennessee and other teams that could potentially knock them out of the Tournament by losing. As for Duke, you wouldn't have thought so a few days ago, but Duke is suddenly a legitimate contender for a 1 seed if they can win the ACC tournament. I think they would end up behind UNC, Pitt and Memphis, but they could potentially get that 1 seed if Louisville loses to Syracuse.

Auburn 61, Florida 58

I don't want to get talk much about Auburn, because I'll discuss their bubble chances after their game against Tennessee ends, but I will talk about Florida here. They really would have been in excellent shape with a victory here, but their Tournament hopes are now looking pretty bad. I had them in the bracket this morning, but that was mostly because I was expecting bias out of a Selection Committee that would not want to see only two SEC teams in the Tournament. Of course, they could potentially take Auburn (I'll talk about that soon), and Mississippi State might take the automatic bid. And if teams like Baylor and USC start getting bids, Florida could be out anyway. Right now they're in quite a bit of trouble.

Mississippi State 67, #16 LSU 57

Speaking of the SEC, I guess we should have expected more upsets like this considering how much parity this was in the conference all year (I suppose "parity" is a little bit of a euphemism for "no good teams"). With the loss, LSU will get no higher than a 5 seed, despite being first in the SEC pecking order at the moment. They could fall to a 6 or a 7 seed. As for Mississippi State, the question is whether they can get in the Tournament even if they lose tomorrow. I would argue that the answer is probably that they can't. They're 9-8 against the RPI Top 100, but that's deceptive: other than this win right here, their only other RPI Top 50 win came against Western Kentucky. They've also got losses to Charlotte, San Diego, Alabama, Texas Tech and Washington State. Even with this win their RPI only goes up to 66th, and their Sagarin was 77th entering today. Even a close loss in the SEC title game won't be enough. They've got to win the automatic bid.

Can Louisville Earn A 1 Seed? Is San Diego State In?

#5 Louisville 69, #11 Villanova 55
Louisville came out pretty flat in this game, but whatever Rick Pitino said at halftime clearly worked. They now have a wonderful situation in the Big East finals as they play a Syracuse team that has now played 155 minutes of basketball in the last three days, rather than a well rested Pitt or UConn team. At this point I think they're in with a 2 seed even if they lose, but with a win they'll be a very likely 1 seed. One thing that doesn't help their case for a 1 seed are the numbers: 8-3 against the RPI Top 50, RPI of 7th and a Sagarin of 6th. Great numbers to be sure, but 2 seed numbers - not 1 seed numbers. But what they have going for them is what I said in this post: most college basketball analysts mistakenly believe that the Big East is the best conference in the country, and they're going to want to give a 1 seed to a team that sweeps its regular season and tournament titles. No matter what, they'll end up behind Pitt and UNC by the Selection Committee, and a Louisville team that wins the Big East tournament will probably be in a battle with UConn, Michigan State and Memphis for the final two top seeds. In other words, right now they're rooting for Tulsa and Ohio State. As for Villanova, I think this game seals them into a 3 seed. Every year the bracket has some quirks, and in my opinion the biggest quirk this year is the massive gap between the 1/2 seeds and the 4/5 seeds. Villanova is right in the middle, and I don't even think there's a chance that they'll get anything other than a 3 seed.

San Diego State 64, BYU 62

San Diego State has been something of an afterthought for most of this season, with almost nobody aware of them outside of Mountain West fans, but boy are they making a great run for the NCAA Tournament right now. They finished 11-5 in the Mountain West, which put them only one game out of first place, and they are a very solid 6-7 against the RPI Top 100. One thing that I really like is that they went 15-1 against the Division I RPI 100+, which is outstanding for a mid major school. The RPI is up to 31st, although while a BCS team with an RPI inside the Top 35 is a lock, that's not true for teams outside of the BCS conferences (just ask Missouri State fans). Sagarin has them up to 36th, although they'd probably drop out of the Top 40 if they lose to Utah tonight. I would argue that their overall numbers are not quite as good as a team like Arizona or South Carolina, but what they've really got going for them is the great finish. They have won their last five games, and 10 of their last 13. And the Mountain West is really a very good conference this season, and nobody will argue that they don't deserve a third team. With San Diego State clearly the third team in the Mountain West pecking order, I think that puts them into the Tournament. But they're not a lock, and they could really use that automatic bid on the line tonight.

#24 Purdue 79, Penn State 65
Purdue is still not playing quite as well as they were earlier in the season, but Robbie Hummel's back is clearly getting better and they're going to be a very tough out for anybody in the Tournament. Remember, this was a team that had Final Four hopes before Hummel got hurt. Right now, the overall large number of losses has them around a 5-6 seed right now, but they could move up as high as a 3 if they can win the Big Ten tournament. As for Penn State, they join a slew of Big Ten teams on the Bubble. Of the eight teams in the Big Ten that currently think they are in, or have a great shot at getting in to the Tournament, I would argue that Penn State's resume is the worst. Their 10-8 Big Ten record is better than that of Michigan and Minnesota (both of whom went 9-9), but they had the weakest out of conference resume. Pomeroy rates their out of conference schedule 320th, which takes a lot away from that 11-2 record. They only played two teams in the RPI Top 100 out of conference (Temple and Rhode Island), and lost to both of them. Their best win was over Mount St Mary's. They did get that win over Michigan State, but plenty of teams on the Bubble have that one big upset. The Nittany Lions are rated 68th by the RPI and 36th by Sagarin (both of which are the worst of the aforementioned eight Big Ten teams). Without any strong finish either, I think it's pretty clear that Penn State would be the eighth team out of the Big Ten. But that said, they've still got a great shot. In fact, at the moment I think they are in the Tournament. They now just have two things to worry about. The first is that teams like Tulsa, Baylor and Maryland will play their way into the Tournament and bump Penn State out. The other is that the Selection Committee won't want to give an eighth bid to a Big Ten conference that is so unpopular nationwide. The Committee is never supposed to consider things like that, but as I always point out: the Selection Committee is made up of humans, and all of them bring a bias to the table. But like I said: with 29 hours left until Selection Sunday I've still got them in the bracket.

More Big Ten Action, Plus South Carolina Loses

Ohio State 61, Wisconsin 57
Another close game, another loss for Wisconsin. It's remarkable for a team that is so experienced and has historically been so good in close games to be in a situation where I knew without a doubt that they would lose when Ohio State had the game tied in the final two minutes. You knew that they'd miss their open shots, and that Ohio State's shots would go in. Luckily for them, they still should sneak into the Tournament. The RPI has plummeted to 44th, but Sagarin still has them 31st, and I can't recall any team with a Sagarin rating that high ever missing out. Wisconsin finishes only 18-12, but against a strength of schedule that the RPI rates 14th, and Sagarin rates 11th. They finish 9-11 against the RPI Top 100 with wins over Virginia Tech, Illinois and Ohio State, and only one loss against a team that won't be discussed on Selection Sunday (Iowa). Even without a lot of big wins, the solid play and the lack of bad losses should put them in unless a lot of crazy stuff happens over the next 24 hours. Ohio State, on the other hand, is now a lock. They also went 10-8 in the Big Ten, but they are also now 10-9 against the RPI Top 100 with an RPI of 35th and a Sagarin of 25th. And nobody will hold a potential loss against Michigan State this afternoon against them. The only question now is their seed, as they should end up with something in the 7-9 seed range.

#25 Illinois 60, Michigan 50
I was very impressed with the way that Illinois won this game without floor leader Chester Frazier. They were actually up by as many as 20 points halfway through the second half before Michigan made the final score more respectable with a little run late in the game. Right now, Illinois is probably in at a 4-5 seed, and could potentially go as high as a 3 if they can win the Big Ten tournament. As for Michigan, they join what seems like half of the Big Ten conference on the bubble. They finish 19-13 with a 9-9 record in the Big Ten. They still have those wins over Duke and UCLA, but one big worry I have is the 13-13 record against the RPI Top 200. They also finished poorly, anyway you put it: 5-5 over the last 10, 6-6 over the last 12, or 7-10 over the last 17. There will be teams out of the Tournament that played better over the last two months, and the question will be how heavily the Selection Committee weighs those big wins from November and December. I think they're in the bracket at the moment on the strength of the overall resume, but if they end up missing out it will because the Selection Committee put a heavy emphasis on the last few weeks.

Mississippi State 82, South Carolina 68

It's going to be a stressful next 24 hours or so for South Carolina fans, as they really needed to have this one. If you look at their resume, their only real argument is the 10-6 SEC record. They remind me a lot of Providence, another team that really has no argument for the Tournament other than their conference record. The stat that clinches it for me is that Pomeroy ranks South Carolina's out of conference schedule 337th. That's just embarrassing. They finish a respectable 7-8 against the RPI Top 100, but they have zero RPI Top 50 wins. In my opinion they've fallen below both Florida, and possibly even below Auburn, in the SEC pecking order. They could still earn an at-large bid, but right now I'd bet against it. Meanwhile, could Mississippi State earn an at-large bid if they beat LSU today and then lose a close game in the SEC tournament title game? It's possible, as they did finish 9-7 in the SEC, and are now 21-12 overall with an 8-8 record against the RPI Top 100 (the 12-4 record against the Division I RPI 100+ is a problem, though). They won't have a chance if they lose to LSU, but they'll get discussed by the Selection Committe if they can play their way into the SEC title game.

Talking Kentucky, Minnesota, Virginia Tech

#16 LSU 67, Kentucky 56
I got the sense watching this game that Kentucky has just resigned themselves to the NIT. They just seemed to give up near the end of the game. And Kentucky in the NIT is not a normal occurrence: Not only have they played in 17 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, but that streak goes back to their NCAA probation. They actually haven't played in the NIT since 1979. They finish 20-13, but only 8-8 in the SEC, 11-13 against the RPI Top 200, and 4-6 in road games. The five losses in their final six games are the clincher. They might not have even made the Tournament with a win here, but they definitely won't make it with the loss.

#6 Michigan State 64, Minnesota 56
This was an important game for both teams, but probably more so for Minnesota. As good as they've been this year, they did tail off late and it's hard to feel confident when you only finish 9-9 in conference play and don't make a run in the conference tournament. A quick look at the other numbers: 22-10 overall, including 9-10 against the RPI Top 100. Wins over Louisville, Illinois, Ohio State and Wisconsin (twice). Their RPI is 40th, and Sagarin has them 32nd. Those numbers are good enough for the Tournament, and they'd be in the Tournament if the season ended now. They just need to hope that they don't get killed by the final conference tournament games. Some of the teams they need to start rooting for include Missouri, Temple, Duke and Tennessee. As for Michigan State, all of the carnage among the top teams in the nation has opened up a 1 seed. Television analysts complain that Michigan State plays an ugly brand of basketball, but I'd rather win ugly than look good in a loss. Michigan State has a preposterous 13 wins over the RPI Top 50 (the only other team with double-digits is Oklahoma, with 10), and they're up to 4th in the RPI and the Sagarin ELO_CHESS. If they win the Big Ten tournament then their hopes for a 1 seed might depend on the Big East tournament. They should rank behind Pitt and UNC, and they might be ranked behind Memphis as well (that obviously will depend on the C-USA title game, which Memphis is winning by six as I type). They should be ahead of UConn, which means it comes down to Louisville. The Big Ten is a better conference than the Big East, but most people think the Big East is better and the Selection Committee is only human, and that's why a Louisville team that sweeps the regular season and tournament titles will probably have the upper hand, even though Louisville's regular season title only came because they lucked out with the unbalanced schedule, and Michigan State won the Big Ten by a remarkable four games. So that means that Michigan State needs to root for Syracuse tonight, and then needs to take care of business against Ohio State this afternoon, and then against either Illinois or Purdue tomorrow.

#1 North Carolina 79, Virginia Tech 76
Poor Virginia Tech just cannot win a close game, which is even more remarkable when you consider that they have one of the best late game players in the nation in A.D. Vassallo. Of course, a lot of that is just bad luck, which also goes for another extremely snake bitten team that on paper should be great in close games (Wisconsin). The only other teams I can think of off the top of my head that have had similarly bad luck in every close game this season are Georgia Tech and Oregon. Virginia Tech is a better team than some teams that are going to be in the NCAA Tournament, but the Selection Committee is about resumes, and Va Tech's resume just isn't good enough. I can't see them making the Tournament with an 18-14 record and 7-9 in the ACC, and with all of their computer rankings near 60th in the nation. North Carolina, on the other hand, probably had that 1 seed locked up before this game. All of losses for teams like Oklahoma, UConn and Kansas probably would have sealed that 1 seed for UNC without any ACC tournament wins, but now there is no doubt. The Tar Heels will have a 1 seed, and will probably be #1 overall.

D-1 BP65

Sorry for the slight delay on this... I know that I usually have this up before everybody wakes up in the morning. There will, of course, be one more of these, on Selection Sunday. The final BP65 with come out right around 5:30pm eastern time on Sunday. I'll try to hold out long enough to know the results of the final conference tournament championship games, but I'll have it safely posted about a half hour before the Selection Shows come on.

1. Pittsburgh

2. UConn
2. Duke
2. Oklahoma

3. Kansas
3. Villanova
3. Wake Forest

4. Florida State
4. Syracuse
4. Illinois

5. LSU (SEC)
5. Washington
5. West Virginia

6. Purdue
6. Texas

7. Clemson
7. Xavier
7. Tennessee
7. Marquette

8. Ohio State
8. Oklahoma State
8. Butler
8. California

9. BYU
9. Minnesota
9. Texas A&M
9. Wisconsin

10. Dayton
10. Michigan
10. San Diego State

11. Boston College
11. Florida
11. Penn State

12. Saint Mary's





Other teams considered, but that missed the cut:
Maryland, Creighton, New Mexico, Arizona, USC, South Carolina

Decent resumes, but not good enough:
Tulsa, Illinois State, UNLV, Auburn

Long shots, but still in the at-large discussion:
Virginia Tech, Providence, Northwestern, Kansas State, UAB, Niagara, Davidson

Still alive, but pretty much need a miracle:
Miami (Fl), Rhode Island, George Mason, Kentucky, Mississippi State