IT’S TOURNAMENT TIME!!!
And that means that you, alongside 40 million other Americans, will be filling out a bracket in the next few days. You’re not special of course, as research released Thursday predicts there will be an estimated 70 million brackets filled out this year.
But yours is special. It’s unique. It’s perfect. At this point in the week everyone is already planning out how to spend their prize money from their office or family pools.
Some of you are confident enough that you’re planning on contributing to the over $9 Billion that’s going to be bet on the NCAA Tournament over the coming weeks. As someone who’s been following college basketball incredibly closely all season, and more importantly as someone who’s always up for a bet (no matter how stupid), I know I’ll be joining you.
You all most likely didn’t watch a lot of the regular season, so let me fill you in on what happened and hopefully help you win some money.
This was the most fun and unpredictable college basketball regular season that I can remember since I started watching college basketball religiously at the age of five.
Top twenty-five, top ten, and even top five teams lost every week, including many of the blue blood programs that normally look invincible. All of us fanatical fans soaked it up, and felt the urge to tell everyone we knew (in breathy, excited tones) that we couldn’t wait for March Madness.
I tried to make sense of the madness of pre-March basketball through my columns all year, and even spent my entire spring break watching every single mid-major in the field, at the expense of knowing that the act simultaneously lowered my chances of actually predicting games correctly by a minimum of 600%.
But I have some bad news for the casual basketball fans who are going to tune into the NCAA Tournament this year hoping to witness tons of upsets and Cinderella runs: it’s not going to happen. The crazy regular season was more of an illusion than an admonition.
The perfect bracket is out there, and though it’s almost a certainty that no one will achieve it, I’m almost certain that it’s going to include a lot of chalk picks.
The first misconception: parity. This concept popped up throughout the regular season as the top teams and perennial programs lost, causing college basketball experts to reach the conclusion that there are no “super teams” like we saw last year.
But look at the Las Vegas odds to win the National Championship. Here’s the top six: Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina, Virginia, Villanova, Kentucky. The same names we see every year.
While they collectively were slow out of the gates and took a lot of losses because of it, the blue bloods emerged down the stretch. Sure this class isn’t as talented as last year’s class for example, but comparatively the best talent still plays for the best programs, and is coached by the best coaches. And the teams with the best talent and best coaching win more games than not, especially in the NCAA Tournament. What a novel concept.
I’m not saying that those teams can’t get upset, but as far as making brackets, it would be foolish to have these teams losing to anyone other than someone else on the list. It’s always risky, but particularly this year it’s not going to happen, because of an irregular amount of senior leadership in the blue blood programs.
Every team I mentioned above is led by at least one senior. Michigan State has Denzel Valentine, UNC has Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, UVA has Malcolm Brogdon, Kansas has Perry Ellis, Nova has Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, even Kentucky has Alex Poythress. In most years we might see a talented but young group at these schools, but this year there’s experience that’s going to help them avoid upsets.
The more you look at it, the more you realize that there is a pretty strict and defined “upper tier” of teams, exactly like we’ve seen in years past.
The second mistake that people will make is falling in love with upsets. Every year we seem to see a handful of crazy, out-of-nowhere upsets of teams that we predict to make deep runs. So, in pursuit of the perfect bracket, we feel like we need to try and predict a few of these upsets, right?
Often the cause of these surprises is our ignorance of how good some of these mid-major teams are, instead trying to judge the merit of an upset by the potential flakiness of their opponent, the powerhouse. There’s some really good mid-major teams out there that go unnoticed.
The problem is, this year almost none of those teams made it into the tournament. There was a crazy trend that emerged last week, in which seemingly all of the number one seeds in the conference tournaments lost along the way.
Excluding the top six “powerhouse” conferences (Big 12, Big East, ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big 10), only eight of the twenty eight mid-major conferences sent their top seeded team to the tournament. But here were the winners in the power conferences: Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Oregon, Seton Hall and Michigan State. Parity, sure.
Potential Cinderella teams like Monmouth, Valparaiso, St. Bonaventure, and St. Mary’s all lost in their conference tournaments, and then were snubbed by the selection committee.
Not only does this affect those teams directly, but indirectly it hurts the other mid-majors. If these teams had won their bids, it would’ve forced other underdogs down into lower seeds, causing the field of lower seeds to be stronger overall. But as the bracket actually turned out, the field of mid-majors was stretched dangerously thin.
This problem could’ve been fixed by the selection committee, but instead the group of athletic directors only inflicted more damage. I’m trying hard not to question the motives of the committee, led by Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione and including Michigan State AD Mark Hollis, especially after seeing that the Sooners and the Spartans conveniently have two of the easiest draws of any of the title contenders.
When it comes to bubble teams, every team in the group has a pretty strong argument to make about why their team deserves to be in. In other words, there could never be a Tournament snub so great that people would suspect any foul play. But I can’t think of a reason why Tulsa and Syracuse deserved to be in the field outside of Castiglione and Hollis playing in a local bingo or pinochle game down at the local community center with fellow old-timer Jim Boeheim.
Again, the field of possible upset picks was thinned out by another event that is specific to 2016. Two teams that would be seeded at five or higher, SMU and Louisville, were both ruled ineligible for post-season play due to NCAA investigations. Again, not only are you pulling out two really good teams, but you’re now having to stretch teams beneath them up into higher “bubble” seeds.
Let me give you an example. Texas Tech and Cincinnati are good teams, but they aren’t scaring anyone as 8 and 9 seeds. However, if they were bumped down by the insertion of Louisville, SMU, and more worthy mid-major bubble teams like Monmouth and Valpo, they’d be downright scary as 11 seed play-ins. The entire field weakens as competitive teams are plucked out.
Finally, as these things go, there’s a fair bit of bad luck involved. When I was scouting all of the mid-major teams, there were a handful that I really loved and had my eye on as potential Cinderellas. Then they just drew really bad match ups.
Stony Brook is a solid, senior-laden team led by the best mid-major player that I saw all week in Jameel Warney. But playing against Kentucky is a death wish, since Calipari has a knack for motivating his players and historically his teams never get upset.
Same goes for Stephen F. Austin, a team that I would love in a game against anyone except Bob Huggins’ West Virginia squad, who can attack the one weakness in the Lumberjacks’ game, their lack of athleticism.
And you really think Iona can pull an upset now? A team that I loved in prep and match up well with Iowa State has no chance of winning after every single educated college basketball analyst in front of a television camera has predicted that upset. The thing you need to remember is upsets aren’t supposed to happen, and Iowa State is still a far more talented team than Iona. With the added motivated and “nobody believes in us” attitude, I don’t see any way they don’t win that game.
So what we’re left with is a surprisingly boring NCAA Tournament bracket. While it seems like the smart money every year is with the chalk, this year in particular could be extra chalky, which is really disappointing considering the hype that has built up all year.
Jay Bilas, someone that is unanimously considered one of the smartest college basketball analysts anywhere, has a grand total of five lower seeded teams beating higher seeded teams in the first round. Two of those are 8-9 match ups, and two are 10-7, leaving one true upset pick in my eyes (and it’s an 11-6). By the way, the teams he chose were Syracuse, VCU, Providence, Butler, and Michigan. Not exactly any mid-major Cinderellas in that bunch.
The sad thing is, it’s not just the first round. History has told us that once we get into deeper rounds, we see less upsets and more of the powerhouse teams winning. Bilas’s Elite Eight: 1 vs. 3, 1 vs. 3, 1 vs. 2, 1 vs. 2. His Final Four? Kansas (1 seed), Oregon (1 seed), North Carolina (1 seed), and Michigan State (2 seed but second best Vegas odds to win it all).
I would be more surprised to see someone seeded below three in the Final Four this year than I would be to see Charles Barkley effectively work a touch screen board. It’s disappointing, but if you want to win your office or family pool, it’s time to go chalk.
By Matt Craig
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