I haven’t had much time to think about my March Madness predictions yet, but I have a few thoughts on the bracket selection. This is fantastic, because if my predictions ring true that I can take credit for them. If not, I can say I hadn’t had time to think about it yet. A win-win situation!
1. VCU and UAB?
These two teams were the story of Selection Sunday after they slipped in ahead of BCS conference at-large hopefuls Alabama, Virginia Tech, Colorado, and Boston College. Both VCU and UAB were surprising selections to the new First Four round – UAB was the fourth team out and VCU was the seventh team out in the usually spot-on Joe Lunardi’s final bracket.
I admit that I said “whoa” when I saw those two teams and briefly showed a minuscule amount of outrage. Then the ESPN talking heads went on TV and…well…let’s just say that they were displeased to say the least. By displeased, I mean that a viewer that couldn’t speak English and watched Hubert Davis talk would have thought that the apocalypse was upon us by his tone of voice and mannerisms.
So my reaction went from mild surprise at the selection committee to extreme annoyance at the analysts on TV. Sure I could make a stronger argument for Colorado and Virginia Tech than UAB and VCU. But is this field really going to miss Colorado and Virginia Tech? Were either of those teams even a threat to win more than one game? The field now consists of 68 teams, 37 of which are at-large teams. Even Buffalo and Hokie supporters couldn’t possibly come up with an argument to put either team even as high as a 32 or 33 ranking among tournament teams. Neither team took care of business so it is really hard to muster up the outrage at the Selection Committee.
I’ll cut the analysts some slack because this is the NCAA equivalent of the anger that follows each league’s All-Star selections. Just like the MLB All-Star Game and Pro Bowl, there will be outrage for about 24 hours and then no one will care. In the long run, the only thing this talk will accomplish is motivating UAB and VCU.
2. The First Four is a terrible idea
Texas-San Antonio vs. Alabama State! UAB vs. Clemson! USC vs. Virginia Commonwealth! UNC Asheville vs. Arkansas-Little Rock! It’s March Madness time!
I don’t know if you could tell by the exclamation points, but that was sarcastic.
3. Richmond over Vanderbilt is the easiest 12 vs. 5 upset pick ever
That sentence in itself is scary, since this pick seems far too easy. Everyone knows the general rule: at least one #12 seed beats a #5 seed each year. The hard part is picking which one will win.
Richmond had an interesting route into the tournament. Coming into today, the general consensus was that bubble teams were rooting for Richmond to win the Atlantic Ten tournament, since it seemed to be a given that they would make the field. Yet judging by the seedings, Richmond actually needed to win the tournament for an at-large berth.
In Lunardi’s final bracket, he had Richmond as a ten seed. Not only are the Spiders seeded too low, they are ranked #7 in ESPN’s Giant Killer rankings for teams most likely to knock off a “giant.” To top that off, Vanderbilt is by far the #1 team most likely to be upset – they score a whopping 75.9 on the 100-point vulnerability scale. And in an admittedly small sample size, I watched Richmond the past two days (they are very good) and saw Vandy a few times earlier this year (I was decidedly unimpressed).
Every year there is one #12 seed that look like the obvious pick. Most of the time that isn’t the #12 seed that actually wins. Maybe the best thing Richmond has going for it is that they aren’t the obvious #12 over #5 pick. That title is reserved for….
#4. Utah State over Kansas State?
Twelve seeds beat five seeds for a variety of reasons. The most obvious of these is that #5 seeds are often underachieving major teams and #12 seeds are overachieving mid-major teams. This one fits that bill.
Kansas State was a trendy championship pick at the start of the season. After last season’s Final Four run, they began the year ranked #3. They fell all the way out of the rankings for a while before a brief run towards the end of the season earned them the #5 seed in the Southeast Region after Lunardi projected them as a #6 seed.
Meanwhile, 30-3 Utah State absolutely got hosed with their seedings. Watching the team’s reaction on the CBS’s selection show was extremely awkward. The Aggies are currently ranked #17 in the coaches poll (six spots ahead of Kansas State). They expected a little better than the twelve seed. Lunardi had them projected as a #8 seed for the tournament. Motivated won’t even begin to describe their attitude coming into this game.
This has all the hallmarks of a #12 seed over a #5 seed upset. I’m a bit scared because it seems SO obvious but looking at the Aggies’ side of the bracket, they certainly feel like a Sweet Sixteen team.
5. Weirdest matchup: #6 Cincinnati vs. #11 Missouri
How did this happen? Is Cincinnati even going to be a favorite in this game? I suppose it’s a bit of a moot point because UConn will put a beating on whichever team wins this game.
6. Fun upset pick: #13 Belmont over #4 Wisconsin
Belmont finished 30-4 and rank #1 in ESPN’s Giant Killers rankings. They have the all-important senior leadership from two players that were there for the 2008 NCAA Tournament, when they nearly knocked off Duke as a #15 seed before falling 71-70. They won’t fall into the “happy to be there” trap.
The Bruins got Wisconsin in a not great, but not terrible draw. On one hand, the Badgers’ slow-it-down Big Ten style usually doesn’t lend itself to upsets. On the other, they just lost to Penn State by the I-shit-you-not score of 36-33. So there’s that.
My rule of thumb on these games is that I pick the fun upset if I don’t think a team can advance very far. In their last two games, the Badgers lost by 28 to Ohio State and only scored 33 against Penn State. I don’t think they are going very far. Belmont is the pick here. Which leads me to…
7. Funner upset pick: #13 Oakland over #4 Texas
Another rule of thumb come March Madness time: never, ever, ever trust a Rick Barnes-coached team. Barnes is a great regular season coach. He has led the Longhorns to 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments. That’s impressive.
But guess how many times Texas has overachieved their seed in Barnes’ tenure? Once – way back in 2002 when they reached the Sweet Sixteen as a #6 seed. They actually received a favorable draw with a potential matchup versus the not particularly good #5 Arizona in the second round. But they absolutely will not make it past the Sweet Sixteen. Don’t even think about picking them to reach the Elite Eight.
Instead have some fun. Go with Oakland over Texas in the first round. You won’t lose more than three points and the bragging rights could be huge.
8. None of this really matters
That was all fun talk…but it was pre-NCAA Tournament talk for sure. For all the fun it is picking upsets in the first two rounds, none of that really matters in pools. You have to pick the winner and probably a few Final Four teams to win a pool.
For that I need to keep thinking. And also maybe wait until brackets are due, lest people try to copy my picks.