The best sports weekend of the year is nearly here — the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament is better than anything in any other sport and I will breakdance fight you over this point — and though Texas is primed to go undefeated for the first three-week stretch since October, it’s time to take a look at what the rest of the country is doing for March Madness. (I had to mention the Texas Longhorns once for SEO purposes, otherwise Sailor Ripley wouldn’t approve my Spec’s expense report.)
I enjoy filling out a bracket every year despite invariably losing in the office pool to the guy in HR who doesn’t watch basketball and picks games based on which mascot is most likely to give his diabetic sister its spare kidney. (He has Minnesota making the Final Four because he doesn’t know the difference between gophers and otters. Otters will dive in front of a semi for you, but gophers are real assholes, Jerry. I learned this on BBC’s ‘Planet Earth II’.) This is what draws everyone in to filling out a bracket, the idea that basketball knowledge isn’t a prerequisite to win. It combines the fun of gambling with the joy of throwing darts, if darts was easy and also enjoyable for anyone other than old drunks in dive bars. Nancy in accounting is just as likely to win the office bracket challenge as Mike, who is also in accounting and definitely hates Nancy for imitating the Geico Camel every. Fucking. Wednesday. That commercial is four fucking years old, Nancy, let it go. Nancy stopped saying ‘WASSUUUUUUUUPPPPP’ in 2011 and still shuts down conference calls by yelling “WHERE’S THE BEEF” any time somebody discusses healthcare deductibles. Nancy is the worst.
All of this is saying that while I watch more college basketball than any healthy human should, I am not Kreskin. If anything, I’m more like David Blaine in that what I do makes it seem like I might know what I’m talking about without actually doing anything that directly proves my skill at my stated profession. Seriously, how does living in a coffin for a week count as magic? In San Francisco, that coffin costs $500/week and doesn’t come with cable. I think David Blaine may be a homeless man running the longest free housing con ever, and it’s kind of genius. We’re the suckers for paying on a mortgage for 30 years, Blaine’s just a guy willing to live in anything for a week if it gets him extra cash in his pocket. He actually retired at age 28 and is just stacking Benjamins for the hell of it now. Where was I? Right, your brackets.
(P.S. We have our Yahoo bracket challenge once again, feel free to jump in.)
Most people who read my basketball posts know I am a fan of Ken Pomeroy and the wealth of data he provides on his site. I appreciate the level of basketball nerdery it requires to bury yourself in statistical models when you’re not telling the government about thundersleet in Akron during the day, and his information provides interesting glimpses into the quality of NCAA Tournament teams. There are two metrics I’m going to focus on for this first point, Adjusted Defense (AdjD) and Adjusted Offense (AdjO). Each of these are essentially a measure of the efficiency of a team on each end of the court, and they’re derived in a method that accounts for differing tempos. So while the UCLA Bruins are ranked third in AdjO, they’re behind the Oklahoma State Cowboys (1st) despite UCLA’s tempo being significantly faster. Oklahoma State gets more points out of each possession than UCLA, UCLA just plays faster so they score more points per game (90.4) than OSU (85.5). Why am I bringing this up? Because I pay a yearly fee for access to Pomeroy and I’m going to get my money’s worth. Also, because these metrics are useful guides this time of year. I went back to the 2001-2002 season — the first season in Pomeroy’s data — and pulled the post-tourney AdjD & AdjO for all the Final Four members for the last 15 years. (In hindsight, I probably should have used the pre-tourney info, but it’s still a reasonable metric. Also, I’m too lazy to go back to change them all...but now that I’ve said it, I can already feel my brain wanting to go back and redo my spreadsheet. (Yes, I have a spreadsheet. (It has multiple tabs. (OK I don’t have another digression, just wanted to use another nested parenthesis.)))) So what can I tell you about the historical performance of Final Four members? This may come as a shock to you, but they rank pretty highly in these two metrics.
- Since 2002, only one National Champion has ranked outside of the top-25 in either AdjO or AdjD. (2014 UConn was 39th in AdjO). In fact, 8 of the 15 champions ranked in the top-10 in both categories.
- The runners-up fit a similar (yet slightly watered-down) formula, as 9 of the 15 were ranked in the top-25 in both AdjO & AdjD and only one (2011 Butler) was ranked outside the top-25 in both metrics. 2011 Butler is the only team that had a metric outside the top-50, their AdjD was 51st in the nation. The rest with one foot out of the top-25 pool usually paired their lower metric with an elite one. 2013 Michigan was 39th in AdjD but 1st in AdjO, as an example.
- The rest of the Final Four participants start to vary more significantly, but still average nearly top-20 in both metrics. The two teams who lose their Final Four games average 20.8 & 19.83 in AdjO & AdjD, respectively. Only two teams (2012 Louisville & 2003 Marquette) have stats outside the top-100.
- Since 2002, a 1-seed has won the title 60% of the time, and only one champion has been below a 3-seed. (2014 UConn, a 7-seed)
Looking at these two metrics can help to cull down your list of viable title contenders fairly significantly, especially when you combine it with their seeds. Only 20% of the Final Four participants over the last 15 years have been below a top-4 seed, which makes sense. The top 16 teams in the country are usually highly proficient teams on both ends of the floor, and being seeded in the top four leads to certain advantages in terms of where they are playing & who they are playing as they advance through the rounds. Those who remember the 2003 Texas Final Four run might recall the Longhorns played their Sweet 16 & Elite 8 games in San Antonio in front of basically a home crowd. Those who aren’t old enough to remember that run, welcome. Texas did actually make it out of the first weekend back in the day. I swear, it really happened. I promise I didn’t edit the Wikipedia entries for those years. Alright, I might have gone back and renamed Carmelo Anthony to Carmelo You Son Of A Bitch Anthony two or three times. But the results are real.
With that said, here are the teams that are top-25 in both AdjO and AdjD (as of 3/13) and seeded in the top 4 lines of the tourney.
Final Four Favorites
These teams are the most viable Final Four picks in the field, and while some of them may have caveats that keep them from making it to the final weekend (Oregon losing Chris Boucher to injury, Baylor being coached by a 5’9” blob of Ghostbusters II slime, etc.) on paper they are your favorites. This list isn’t a lock to make a deep run, but it could make for a decent tiebreaker if you don’t have a diabetic sister.
Those are the favorites, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least 3 of the 4 teams in the final weekend are from that list. There are a handful of other teams that didn’t quite make the cut-off I set in the first table but are definitely worth considering when filling out your brackets.
Final Four “Underdogs”
I’m calling this table the underdogs mostly out of sarcasm as there are some massive names in here, but perhaps it would be better to consider some of them undervalued rather than underdogs. Kansas and Duke should be no surprise, but the names that stuck out to me were Wichita State, SMU, and Wisconsin. People were yammering about Syracuse being snubbed, but these three team were arguably screwed harder than the team that was left out of the field. Wichita State has the profile of a Final Four contender, yet was one spot below Oklahoma State on the NCAA’s seeding list? SMU hasn’t lost a game in two months, has four players who shoot 40%+ from three, and a junior that cracked Pomeroy’s top-10 Player of the Year list...and they’re a six? Weird decisions.
These two lists led me to some places that I wasn’t expecting when I started on my bracket:
- I have historically avoided Purdue like the plague, but this year I have them making the Elite Eight and ending the run of two different Big 12 teams (Kansas & Iowa State).
- I don’t have a Big 12 team making it out of the Sweet 16, though Kansas seems primed to make me look more foolish than normal.
- Kansas State could be the First Four team that makes some noise this year, as they’re rated 50th & 27th in AdjO and AdjD, respectively. Cincinnati is a tough potential opponent, but I like KSU’s (or Cincinnati’s) chances at slowing down a team like UCLA if they make it that far.
- I wouldn’t have paid SMU much attention before compiling this list, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them knock off Duke and make the Elite Eight. The potential second round match-up between SMU and Baylor could be one of the best first-weekend games.
- Notre Dame is lowest in the nation in turnover percentage on offense, West Virginia is 1st in the nation at turning over the other team. If they both win their first game, that will be a really interesting battle. I’m generally cautious about picking any pressing team to make it far in the tournament, as I think the gamble of a press pays off less and less as they advance and face increasingly better guards. West Virginia presses as well and as frequently as any team in the nation, but the press can still be beaten by good guard play and the teams that make it to the later rounds invariably have good-to-great point guards.
Tourney teams w top 40 KenPom D and DraftExpress projected NBA guard:— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) March 14, 2017
Titus is onto something here, and not just because it overlaps with my data or because his beard is a personal manifesto taken follicle form. Elite bigs and wings can do a lot of damage in the NCAA Tournament, but at the end of the day point guard play usually dictates the final result. As Texas fans, you should be painfully aware of that point this year.
The lack of a truly elite team this year would make one think we’re in for a lot of craziness, and in the early rounds that’s definitely possible. That being said, I have a pretty fair amount of chalk in my Elite Eight and an even higher percentage in my Final Four. I have Villanova, Gonzaga, UNC, and Louisville making it to the final weekend, with Villanova beating Louisville for the title. As much as I would love to see a major underdog make a run to the Final Four, the big dogs are big dogs for a reason and Villanova especially has been humming along all year without much in the way of hiccups. They’re in the top-12 in AdjO & AdjD, they have fantastic guard play, and they boast the Pomeroy Player of the Year in Josh Hart who somehow managed to get better after last year. It’s not stepping out on much of a limb to call for them to repeat, though they could potentially beat five of the teams in my tables to hoist the trophy so it’s not like they have an easy path to the top.
My bracket, for those interested.
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