Ten Predictions for the 2011 MLB Season

April 4, 2011

Four days into the season and I finally am getting around to writing a prediction column for the upcoming/ongoing MLB season. I had grand plans for long division previews for each division, but decided to go a different route when I realized that there is not really anything I could write that hasn’t already been written by someone else already. So instead here are ten, somewhat bold predictions for the year:

1. The Yankees will win the AL East.

I made fun of the Yankees’ train wreck of an offseason in this fun post back in February. I stand by that: it was an absolute mess of an offseason.

They will still win the AL East.

The Yankees’ batting order is fine. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are getting older and figure to keep slipping. But Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are due for huge bounce back seasons. Their one good offseason move landed them Russell Martin – only one of the best catchers in the league up until two years ago and someone they can easily replace with Jorge Posada if he does not pan out.

Pitching is weak after C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes. A.J. Burnett is a 50/50 proposition. Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova round out the starting rotation…but does anyone actually think those two (and Burnett, if he struggles) will be in the rotation after the trade deadline? Not a chance – they will make a trade for one or two starters. Their pitching will be fine too.

Meanwhile, 45 of 45 ESPN.com experts picked the Red Sox to win the division. 33 of 45 picked them to win the World Series.

Um, what?

Lost in the shuffle of all the news of the high profile acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez is the fact that the Red Sox weren’t really all that good last season. Granted, injuries were a problem, but at no point did they seriously contend for a playoff spot.

Crawford is a great pick up for the Red Sox – he will make the team appreciably better. Gonzalez is a great player and the Red Sox made the right move to pick him up. But I fail to see how Gonzalez makes the Red Sox that much better. Offense and defense considered, is Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis really that big of a step up from Adrian Beltre and Youkilis? I guess a lot of that depends on how well Gonzalez hits in Fenway and how well Youkilis plays third, but I just don’t think they will be that much better.

As good as Crawford and Gonzalez are, acquiring both didn’t really address their biggest problem: pitching. After Jon Lester, is any Red Sox fan really thrilled about John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Dice-K? I know I wouldn’t be.

Looking at their roster, I see a very good team. I do not see a team so good that they should be a unanimous pick to win the AL East and a runaway favorite to win the World Series.

The Red Sox will falter under the heightened expectations and the Yankees will win the division.

2. The Rays will be better than people think…or not.

Speaking of the AL East, the Rays are by far the most confusing team in the league. They could win 100 games or lose 90 games and I wouldn’t really be surprised. For the record, I think they will be a lot closer to 100 wins than to 70 wins.

The general consensus seems to be that the Rays’ time has passed, until they rebuild through their farm system. Only four of the 45 ESPN experts picked the Rays to win the wild card. Like most small market teams, the thinking goes that they had a three year window where they were dynamic, but now they are doomed to irrelevancy because they cannot afford to keep all their players.

Their offseason was even weirder than the Yankees. Their two big moves consisted of signing Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon (combined age: 114) to one-year deals. Those would have been bizarre moves for any team, let alone the perpetually young Rays. Their roster looks like a bizarre Kansas City Royal-like experiment: two superstars (Price and Longoria), two participants in the 1979 All-Star Game* (Damon and Ramirez), one very good, but incredibly inconsistent player (B.J. Upton), and a bunch of random role players.

* Citation needed.

But here’s the thing: that lineup isn’t really that different than the 96-win AL East winning team from last year. They will miss Carl Crawford in left and their bullpen could easily be the worst in the league. Besides that, their team is pretty much the same. Reid Brignac replaces Jason Bartlett at shortstop – can’t imagine anyone will notice. Dan Johnson replaces Carlos Pena at first, but that can’t be a big step back either, since Pena batted .196 and finished 20th of 22nd in OPS among qualifying first basemen in the majors last season. If the Rays get anything out of ManRam and Damon, they can’t possibly be that much worse than last season.

Then they go out and get swept by the Orioles at home in the opening series. This could be a fun roller coaster ride.

3. The AL Central will again be the worst division in the majors.

I wanted to write something about the Twins winning the division, but I think that would make me a homer. To be honest, I think they had a terrible offseason. I disagreed with every single move they made other than re-signing Jim Thome. Seriously, every move. In what might be a first, I even disagreed with every single trade rumor they were involved with.

The best thing that the Twins have going for them is that the Tigers and White Sox don’t impress me either. The Royals are still a year away (although they might surprise some people if their prospects move up fast).* The Indians might be historically bad both on the field and in the stands (they drew a ridiculous 9,800 in their second game of the season – even the Marlins are embarrassed).

* Soon, the Royals might dominate the Central division. They have five of Baseball America’s top 19 prospects and a record-setting nine of the top 100. Most of them will start to hit the big leagues in 2012. They might be very, very good, very soon. The counter to that argument is that they are the Royals. So who knows?

The AL Central has not won a playoff series since 2007. That will continue this year – the division winner takes the division with a 84-78 record, good for seventh best in the AL, and are promptly dispatched in three games by the #2 seeded Yankees.

4. The Rangers will be really, really good.

The #2 Yankees, eh? That’s right – the Rangers finish with the best record in the American League and become only the third AL team since 2005 (2008 Angels, 2009 Yankees) to win 100 games.

Everyone is making too big of a deal about the Rangers not re-signing Cliff Lee. These people do realize that they didn’t get Lee until the trade deadline, and they had already essentially locked up the AL West at that point, right? The loss of Lee will hurt come playoff time, but the Rangers pitching staff was the toast of the league last season well before they traded for Lee. If they come up with anything close to last year’s performance, the Rangers will be dominant.

The real story shouldn’t have been Lee, but the fact that they got BETTER this offseason.

Joe Posnanski helpfully pointed out this week that five of the last 15 AL MVPs have played with the Rangers, a team that was pretty terrible up until last season. He was nicer about it than I was, but there is only one conclusion to draw from that: the writers are too stupid to realize that the Rangers’ offensive stats are ridiculously inflated in Arlington.

With that said, Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli are huge pickups for Texas. Those guys are going to mash the ball. Mostly because of these two guys, the already potent Rangers offense will be even better this season.

And we haven’t even mentioned the quietest offseason pickup in the entire league. The Rangers snagged Brandon Webb after he missed the last two seasons with shoulder problems. If he gives the Rangers anything close to his Cy Young winning-form of a few years ago, that will be a major coup, especially in an offseason in which neither the Red Sox or the Rangers added to their starting pitching staffs.

5. Indians and Pirates battle for the worst record in the majors; the Rust Belt weeps.

Hard to imagine that the Indians were only one game away from the World Series just four years ago. They got really terrible, really quickly. I seem to recall that they had a lot of really good young players. Now…well…

Their third baseman was the worst position player in the majors early last season for the Mariners before he was cut at the end of May. The Mariners, by the way, finished with the worst record in the AL.

Their Opening Day starter gave up ten runs in three innings, and no one was even a little bit surprised.

They have Adam Everett and Orlando Cabrera on their roster. I couldn’t decide on just one joke, so I’ll just go with this. Combined age: 70. Combined teams since 2007: 11.

On the bright side, Carlos Santana is one of the top young catching prospects in the league. So there’s that. It won’t be enough – the Indians finish an AL worst 61-101.

As for the Pirates? They have been one of the three worst teams in the NL every year since 2005. The other teams that periodically join them in the cellar (Nationals, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Cubs) all tend to make concerted efforts to get better. The Pirates do not. They again finish with the worst record in the NL at 59-103.

6. The Phillies will be the best team in the majors.

When I wrote my NFL prediction review column a few months ago, I pointed out that there tended to be a groupthink thing going on with NFL experts. The analysts seemed to make the same picks over and over, and my theory was that they were all scared to look stupid at the end of the season. Turns out they did all look stupid for the most part, but at least they looked stupid together.

The same thing went on with the Red Sox and the Phillies. When the Phillies shocked the majors by picking up Cliff Lee this offseason, they were quickly anointed World Series favorites. Then at some point this spring every analyst talked themselves out of the Phillies. We heard many arguments for why the Phillies wouldn’t be as good as people thought. Pitchers won’t stay healthy, Chase Utley is on the DL with a mysterious injury, Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez are getting older, and so on.

My response to that: Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels.

Yeah, let’s not overthink this one. They are going to be historically good.

7. Five teams will be within eight games of the NL Central title. Nobody will care.

In the aforementioned ESPN.com article, only the Pirates weren’t selected by at least one expert to win the NL Central title. No other division even had four teams picked to win the division.

That can only mean one thing – mediocrity will rule in the NL Central.

I actually applaud the experts for this one. Judging by their track record, I would have expected all of the experts to pick one team and all go with that team. They didn’t, and that was the right move. I can’t really differentiate between any of these teams either.

When in doubt, go with the best players. The Cardinals have two of the three best players in the division in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. The Cardinals win by being the slightly better than the rest of the teams in the division.

8. The Giants won’t make the playoffs.

I think the Giants will be very good for a long time. They have the best young pitcher in the league (Tim Lincecum) and the best young hitter (Buster Posey). They will contend for a playoff spot for as long as they can afford to keep their current lineup intact.

Yet I see this team as a clone of the 2009 Rays. In 2008, the young Rays surprised everyone by coming out of nowhere to capture the AL pennant. In 2009, expectations were too high in and the Yankees and Red Sox were too good. The Rays came up short of the playoffs before making it back in 2010.

That should remind you of this season’s Giant team. Buoyed by young stars Lincecum and Posey, they came out of nowhere to win the World Series title. Expectations are extremely high coming into this season. The Rockies and Dodgers are both very good teams in the NL West.

I actually like the Dodgers to pull the minor upset and win the division. I have no rational reason for this – on paper the Rockies and the Giants are better teams by far. Just call it a hunch.

9. The Phillies and the Rangers meet in the World Series.

Every single person that watches MLB knows that the playoffs are a crapshoot. After 162 games, the league decides its champion by a best-of-five series followed by two best-of-seven series. The system has pros and cons (more cons, in my opinion), but we accept it.

So why in the world would 42 of ESPN’s experts pick the Red Sox to win the AL pennant? It is one thing to pick them to win the AL East. After 162 games, the best team will almost always win the division thanks to the law of averages. If you really think the Red Sox are the best team in the AL East, by all means, pick them.

But we know going in that each team has a roughly 25% chance of winning the championship series after they make the playoffs. Since the wild card era began in 1995, the team with the best regular season record has won only seven of 16 AL pennants – and three of those were the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even if the Red Sox do have the best record in the AL, they have less than a 50% chance of making it to the World Series…and only three people on ESPN.com picked a different team to make the World Series.

I suppose if no one else will step out on a limb, I will. The Rangers will become the first team since the Yankees’ 1998-2001 run to win back-to-back AL pennants. Last season, they proved that they could win in the playoffs. I think they are going to be even better this season. To top that off, I think they are probably the safest bet to make the playoffs. The AL Central is a mess and only two of the Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox can make it.

My prediction for the AL: #1 Rangers over WC Red Sox, 3 games to 2; #2 Yankees over #3 Twins, 3 games to 0. Rangers over Yankees 4 games to 2.

And yes, I realized afterwards that if you replace the Red Sox with the Rays you get last season’s playoffs. Whatever. I’m still going with it.


I already gave my National League pennant winner away with my discussion on the Phillies’ pitching staff. I look at that team and can’t figure out how any team will be able to beat them in the playoffs. You can argue that injuries and age will catch up with them in the regular season but, assuming they make the playoffs, how can they lose?

In 2001, the Diamondbacks rode Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to the title. This season’s Phillies have four pitchers they can ride to the title. What happens if they scale down to a three-man rotation for the playoffs? Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, with Roy Oswalt the first one out of the bullpen? Wow.

The Braves and Rockies are trendy picks in the National League. I don’t like picking the trendy teams, but even with my division winners, one of these teams has to make it as a wild card almost by default. I’ll go with the Rockies for the same logic as I used with the Giants above. The Braves are a very good young team, but will face some pressure after they surprisingly qualified for the playoffs last season. The Rockies were in that position last season after they were the 2009 wild card. They put it together and make it in.

My predictions: #1 Phillies over WC Rockies, 3 games to 1; #3 Cardinals over #2 Dodgers, 3 games to 1. #1 Phillies over #3 Cardinals, 4 games to 1.

Did I just pick two #1 teams to make the World Series after typing how stupid that is several paragraphs ago? Yes, yes I did. Hey, I never claimed that I was very good at following my own advice.

10. The Phillies win the World Series.

The poor Rangers make it back and meet a buzzsaw. No team has lost back-to-back World Series since the Atlanta Braves in 1991 and 1992. It will happen again this year after the Phillies’ pitchers mow the Rangers down, especially after the NL wins home-field advantage with their second consecutive All-Star Game victory. Phillies take the Series, 4 games to 1.

Bonus: Award winners.

Just for kicks, here are my picks for award winners. I suspect none of these will be anywhere close to correct at the end of the season; I will consider it a victory if any of these players picks up votes for their respective awards.

AL MVP: Mark Teixeira, Yankees
NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
AL Cy Young: CC Sabathia, Yankees
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
AL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Rays
NL Manager of the Year: Don Mattingly, Dodgers
AL Rookie of the Year: Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays
NL Rookie of the Year: Brandon Belt, Giants


Opening Day

March 31, 2011

“Ray, people will come Ray.

They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.

Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

People will come Ray.

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

–Terence Mann

How to Pick a Winning Bracket

March 28, 2011

After the college football bowl season, I typed up a list of lessons that I learned from bowls in hopes that I would actually remember them come next year. The logic behind them was fairly sound, although I am quite certain that I will make the same mistakes again.

I thought about doing the same for March Madness this season, but I learned one lesson and one lesson only: unless you are in a pool with ten people or less, pick a unique team to win the tournament. That seems fairly simple…but it’s actually the opposite of how most people pick their brackets. We’ll get to that a bit later though. First, you get to read a story.

Every year I enter into a March Madness pool that has upwards of 500 people in it. I have never won it (and won’t this year either). The closest I came was in 2006, otherwise known as the year of George Mason. I couldn’t fully enjoy the Patriots’ run though, since they knocked off Connecticut in the regional final.

That year I went with the traditional formula for bracket selection. I picked several upsets in the first few rounds but picked a favorite to win the tournament. Almost all of my upset picks hit. I literally nailed everything. I hit seven of eight Elite Eight picks, only missing the aforementioned George Mason, which virtually no one picked to even win a game. My Final Four consisted of LSU, UCLA, Florida, and Connecticut. The first three all got there.

Then UConn happened. I picked them to win the tournament that year, but didn’t even need them to win. There were about 430 people in the pool, but I was so far ahead that all I needed was UConn to beat George Mason to lock up the title. I had the Huskies beating UCLA in the final. Because of that, no one that picked UCLA to win the title could pass me and no one that picked Florida to win the title could catch me if I got the seven points for UConn’s supposedly inevitable Elite Eight victory (and no one picked LSU to reach the title game at all).

Imagine – the $1200 or so first place prize locked up before the Final Four even began. We all know that the sports gods are cruel though. The Huskies blew it in overtime, I received no more points, and the handful of people that picked Florida to win the next two games (11 points for the semifinal and 16 points for the final) passed me. I finished in sixth place, five points behind the overall winner.

You would think the epiphany would have happened then. I really liked UCLA and Florida, but instead of picking either one of them to win the title, I went with the consensus favorite Connecticut. I would imagine that 30% of the people picked UConn to win it that year. I followed all of them and where did it get me? Sixth place. I think I won something like $50.

And for what? The sixteen points obviously wouldn’t have done me a whole lot of good, since everybody else picked them. Sure, had the Huskies won it all, I would have needed to pick them at least to the finals to hold the rest of the pack that did pick them. But I should have just taken my chances. Although I finished sixth, I ruined an amazing year of picks.

Had I picked Florida over UConn in the Final Four, I would have won something like $1500 between two pools. Had I done so and UConn actually did win, I would have probably won $0. I think I did win about $75 between the pools, but I would gladly (duh!) exchange that for picking Florida, a team I really liked.

Fast forward to this year. Finally, I went with an off-the-wall team to win the tournament. This time, I went with Kentucky almost completely by accident. I liked the Wildcats to do well in the tournament because they really came together at the end of the season, capped off by the dominant SEC tournament run. I didn’t like number one seeds Ohio State and Duke on that side of the bracket, so it was wide open. I also kept hearing about all the parity this year, so I figured why not take my chances with a #4 seed that is playing well.

Eventually I picked Kentucky to make it to the final, where they would lose to Kansas. Then I remembered my track record with Kansas. The last two times I picked them (2006 and 2010), they went out on the first weekend. I quickly erased Kansas and had them go down in the Sweet Sixteen. I ended up with Pitt in the title game for reasons that remain unclear to me. I don’t actually like Pitt, so I picked Kentucky to beat them in the title game.

Other than that, this was my worst year ever. That is not an exaggeration. My ENTIRE Elite Eight on the right side of the bracket was done by Saturday night on the first weekend. When the dust settled, Kentucky was the only team that made the Elite Eight that I got right. To put that in perspective, only four of the 490 people in my pool missed all Elite Eight teams…and you know that includes at least 40 women that picked based on name alone (my wife was one of them, and she performed far better than me). Of 490 people, I finished better than four people on Elite Eight picks.

The early rounds weren’t much better. I picked Florida State to reach the Sweet Sixteen in an upset pick. I picked Richmond to beat Vandy. And that’s it for picks that panned out. Michigan State and Louisville, both Elite Eight picks, went down in the first round. Pitt and Purdue, both Final Four picks, went down in the second. After the first weekend of play, I sat in 423rd place. After the second, I sit in 348th place.

But it turns out almost none of that matters, thanks to Kentucky. If Kentucky ends up winning the title, I will finish in fourth place. I only picked one Elite Eight team correctly, and I still have a legitimate shot to finish fourth in a 490 person pool.

All that time spent looking at first and second round upsets got me nowhere. Sure, I can be proud of my Seminole Sweet Sixteen pick. That got me a whopping three points. I would have had to do that with at least three more Sweet Sixteen picks to finish in first. The three people that would finish ahead of me are the only other three people that picked Kentucky to win.

So that’s my lesson. If you are in a pool with ten people or less, by all means follow the standard route. Pick a favorite to win and try to pick off enough points in the early rounds to win the pool. It is fairly unlikely that anybody will have any team lower than a two seed winning the tournament anyway.

But if you are in a big pool, like I am, you HAVE to go with an underdog to win the title. Don’t go crazy – no team lower than a four seed has won since #6 Kansas in 1988. And of course your #3 or #4 seeded pick actually winning the tournament is still an extreme longshot.

Yet the one strategic question I missed was this: what are the odds that I do well enough in the sixty pre-tournament games that I build up enough of a lead to top the 100 or so other people in the pool that picked the same favorite I did to win the tournament? Turns out quite a bit less than picking a significant underdog to win the title.

I understand that if UConn would have won just one more game in 2006, I would have still won the pool while picking the runaway favorite to win. That took a great deal of luck and magic to get me in that spot, and I seriously doubt I will end up in that position again. The larger point remains: even the biggest favorite to win the tournament will have less than a twenty percent chance to win. Why not roll the dice on a unique team to win the tourney and take my chances?

The lesson is simple yet a bit counterintuitive. I have picked NCAA brackets every year since I was a four-year old in 1989 (that is not an exaggeration). In my best ever year, I picked the runaway favorite to win the title and finished in sixth place. In my worst ever year, I picked an underdog to win the title and have a very realistic shot at finishing fourth place.

I like those odds. And go Kentucky!

Performances of Mid-Major At-Large Teams in the NCAA Tournament

March 24, 2011

I am endlessly fascinated with the performances of teams in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. This isn’t too surprising – I’ve already written about how I came to love sports by spending hours staring at statistics in the sports section of my local newspaper.

March Madness is the only popular event in which you hear about things like bubble teams, RPI rankings, and the like. So it makes perfect sense that I just spent hours researching how mid-major at-large teams have performed against comparable major conference at-large teams. I used to do stuff like this all the time (what did I do before the Internets!). Now that I have a blog, I figured that I might as well share it with the rest of my readers.

So here are the mid-major at-large selections since 2004 (because it was becoming too much of a pain to track down at-large teams from years earlier than that) and how they performed compared to teams that shared their same seeding:

2004 –
#1 St. Joseph’s – 3–1. Other #1 seeds went 4–1 (Duke) and 1–1 (Kentucky and Stanford).
#7 Memphis – 1–1. Other #7 seeds went 3–1 (tournament champion Xavier) and 0–1 (Michigan State).
#7 DePaul – 1–1.
#9 Charlotte – 0–1. The other #9 seed went 0–1 (Arizona).
#9 UAB – 2–1.
#9 Southern Illinois – 0–1.
#10 Louisville – 0–1. Other #10 seeds went 2–1 (tournament champ Nevada) and 0–1 (South Carolina)
#10 Dayton – 0–1.
#11 Richmond – 0–1. Other #11 seeds each went 0–1 (tournament champs Western Michigan and Utah).
#11 Air Force – 0–1.
#12 BYU – 0–1. Other #12 seeds went 1–1 (tournament champs Manhattan and Pacific) and 0–1 (tournament champion Murray State)
#13 UTEP – 0–1. Other #13 seeds all went 0–1 (tournament champs VCU, UIC, and East Tennessee State)

A huge year for mid-major at-large teams – twelve in all. I can only imagine that Doug Gottlieb and Billy Packer had aneurysms. Unfortunately we don’t have much to compare the teams to. Other than #1 seed St. Joseph’s, the best at-large team was UAB at 2–1, and we don’t have much to compare them to, since two of the other three #9 seeds were also mid-major at-large teams.

Two interesting thoughts when I pulled this up. First, I forgot how relevant Conference USA was in basketball before the Big East raided them for their basketball teams – a whopping six C-USA teams (Memphis, UAB, Charlotte, Louisville, Cincinnati, and DePaul) made the NCAA Tournament. Yet reading about this, all I can think about is how badly the Big East whiffed with not selecting Memphis. Instead they went with DePaul for the lucrative Chicago market (I’m sure that worked out well) and South Florida (they were good for that one half season of football, I guess).

Second, the last at-large team was 13th seeded UTEP. They were seeded BEHIND tournament champions Murray State, Manhattan, and Pacific. When the NCAA powers-that-be were thinking about expanding the tournament to 96 teams, they should have been forced to stare at that bracket for hours.

2005 –
#6 Utah – 2–1. Other #6 seeds went 3–1 (Wisconsin), 2–1 (Texas Tech), and 0–1 (LSU)
#7 Cincinnati – 1–1. The other #7 seed went 3–1 (West Virginia)
#7 Southern Illinois – 1–1
#7 Charlotte – 0–1
#8 Pacific – 1–1. Other #8 seeds went 0–1 (Minnesota, Stanford, and Texas)
#9 Nevada – 1–1. Other #9 seeds went 1–1 (Iowa St. and Mississippi St.) and 0–1 (Pitt)
#10 St. Mary’s – 0–1. Other #10 seeds went 2-1 (NC State) and 0–1 (tournament champ Creighton and Iowa)
#11 UAB – 1–1. Other #11 seeds went 0–1 (tournament champ UTEP and UCLA)
#11 Northern Iowa – 0–1

Nine mid-major at-larges were selected this year in what was certainly a backlash against the proliferation of mid-majors the previous year. The lower number of mid-major at-larges actually gives us a few more comparisons. Score one for Pacific against the major conference #8 seeds, but the three #7 seeds couldn’t combine for the number of wins that West Virginia had that year. That might not be exactly fair though, since the Mountaineers’ run spawned the phrase “What Would Mike Gansey Do?” that has been going strong for six years in the in-laws household. Hopefully I just sent you to Wikipedia to figure that one out.

2006 –
#7 Wichita State – 2–1. Other #7 seeds went 2–1 (Georgetown) and 0–1 (Marquette and Cal)
#8 George Washington – 1–1. Other #8 seeds went 1–1 (Kentucky and Arizona) and 0–1 (Arkansas)
#10 UAB – 0–1. Other #10 seeds went 1–1 (Alabama and NC State)
#10 Northern Iowa – 0–1.
#11 George Mason – 4–1. Other #11 seeds went 1–1 (tournament champ Milwaukee) and 0–1 (tournament champs San Diego State and Southern Illinois)
#12 Utah State – 0–1. Other #12 seeds went 1–1 (tournament champ Montana and Texas A&M) and 0–1 (tournament champ Kent State)
#13 Air Force – 0–1. Other #13 seeds went 0–1 (tournament champs Iona and Pacific)
#13 Bradley – 2–1.

Ironic that this tournament is remembered as the year of the mid-majors…but they were hosed pretty bad by the selection committee. Only eight berths, six of which made them an underdog based on seeding. And one of those (UAB at #10) was forced to play another underrated at-large team (#7 Wichita State) in the first round.

Led by Final Four participant George Mason, the mid-major at large teams went 9–8, despite not receiving a single seed higher than #8. Strangely, the other #11 seeds were all tournament champions. It seems that this practice has gone out of favor in recent years. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see a whole lot of mid-major tournament champions getting seeds higher than other at-large teams recently. Could be a coincidence or a small sample size though.

2007 –
#4 Southern Illinois – 2–1. Other #4 seeds all went 1–1 (Texas, Virginia, and Maryland)
#5 Butler – 2–1. Other #5 seeds went 2–1 (Tennessee and USC) and 1–1 (Virginia Tech)
#7 Nevada – 1–1. Other #7 seeds went 2–1 (tournament champ UNLV) and 1–1 (Indiana and Boston College)
#8 BYU – 1–1. Other #8 seeds went 1–1 (Kentucky) and 0–1 (Marquette and Arizona)
#9 Xavier – 1–1. Other #9 seeds went 1–1 (Michigan State and Purdue) and 0–1 (Villanova)
#12 Old Dominion – Other #12 seeds all went 0–1 (Illinois, Arkansas, and tournament champ Long Beach State)

And now we see the backlash from George Mason’s run to the Final Four in 2006. Had Butler and Xavier won their respective conference tournaments, we could have seen as little as four mid-major at-large selections. Not only that, but they matched up Butler/ODU and BYU/Xavier against each other. Tough to defend these selections.

Even tougher when you consider that every mid-major at-large team performed at least as well as their similarly seeded counterparts. Southern Illinois was the only #4 seed to even make the Sweet Sixteen this year. Butler was one of three #5 seeds to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, but none advanced further. Only fellow mid-major UNLV outperformed Nevada at the #7 seed, and the Rebels were assured of an at-large bid even without winning their conference tournament. BYU and Xavier canceled each other out in the #8/#9 game, but Xavier actually took eventual finalist Ohio State to overtime in the second round.

Finally, Old Dominion joined the other #12 seeds in the rare tournament without a 12 over a 5 upset. I distinctly recall picking three 12s to win this year – ODU, Illinois, and Long Beach State. I always tragically underrate Butler (I picked them to lose in the first round each of the last two seasons); I thought Virginia Tech sucked (they did, but Illinois sucked more); and Long Beach State gave up a ridiculous 121 points to Tennessee (which doesn’t even seem possible in college basketball – that’s more than three points per minute).

2008 –
#3 Xavier – 3–1. Other #3 seeds went 3–1 (Louisville) and 2–1 (Wisconsin and Stanford)
#7 Gonzaga – 0–1. Other #7 seeds went 2–1 (West Virginia) and 1–1 (tournament champ Butler and Miami (FL)
#8 BYU – 0–1. Other #8 seeds went 1–1 (Mississippi State and tournament champ UNLV) and 0–1 (Indiana)
#10 South Alabama – 0–1. Other #10 seeds went 3–1 (tournament champ Davidson) and 0–1 (Arizona)
#10 St. Mary’s – 0–1.
#11 St. Joseph’s – 0–1. Other #11 seeds went 1–1 (Kansas State) and 0–1 (Kentucky and Baylor)

Another swing and a miss for mid-majors. Only six teams got in for the second year in a row. The selection committee continued to stick mid-majors against each other. Including tournament champions from mid-major conferences, the first round saw Drake/Western Kentucky, Gonzaga/Davidson, UNLV/Kent State, and Butler/South Alabama. Maybe this was the fair way to do things…but the NCAA Tournament is a fan spectacle and the fun comes from Cinderellas beating Giants, not Cinderellas beating Cinderellas.

Xavier is actually the biggest mid-major supporter of them all: although they have won five consecutive Atlantic Ten championships, they have yet to win a single conference tournament during that time. In every year but 2010, the winner of the A-10 tournament would not otherwise have gotten in.

This was another huge year for mid-majors, it’s just that several of the teams that made deep runs qualified automatically. Stephen Curry’s Davidson squad made a dramatic run to the Elite Eight, Western Kentucky made it to the Sweet Sixteen, and #13 seeds Siena and San Diego each won their first round games.

2009 –
#4 Xavier – 2–1. Other #4 seeds were 2–1 (tournament champ Gonzaga), 1–1 (Washington), and 0–1 (Wake Forest)
#8 BYU – 0–1. Other #8 seeds went 1–1 (LSU and Oklahoma State) and 0–1 (Ohio State)
#9 Butler – 0–1. Other #9 seeds went 1–1 (tournament champ Siena and Texas A&M) and 0–1 (Tennessee)
#11 Dayton – 1–1. Other #11 seeds all went 0–1 (tournament champs VCU, Temple, and Utah State)

Yikes. Rock bottom for mid-majors. Had Butler and Xavier or Dayton won their conference tournaments, we could have seen as few as two mid-major at-large selections. Of course, part of the problem in the first place was that so many solid mid-major teams actually did win their conference tournaments – Memphis, Siena, Gonzaga, and Utah were all locks and Utah State and VCU were bubble teams.

In completely related news, this was the most boring tournament in recent memory. Each of the top four seeds advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the East and South Regions. In the West and Midwest Regions, only #5 Purdue and #12 Arizona made it to the Sweet Sixteen. I don’t know what the cause and effect relationship was here. Maybe the NCAA was just that top-heavy that year. But I can’t help but think that the lack of mid-majors might have done fans a disservice.

The Final Four did turn out pretty appetizing this year: Michigan State, Connecticut, Villanova, and eventual champion North Carolina. It was just lacking in the middle section. A perfect tournament has three or four Cinderellas make it to the Sweet Sixteen and then the exciting powerhouses make it to the Final Four. This tournament only had the second part.

2010 –
#3 New Mexico – 1–1. Other #3 seeds went 3–1 (Baylor), 1–1 (Pitt), and 0–1 (Georgetown)
#7 BYU – 1–1. Other #7 seeds went 0–1 (Oklahoma State and Clemson)
#7 Richmond – 0–1.
#8 Gonzaga – 1–1. Other #8 seeds went 1–1 (Cal) and 0–1 (Texas)
#8 UNLV – 0–1.
#12 UTEP – 0–1. Other #12 seeds went 2–1 (tournament champ Cornell) and 0–1 (tournament champ New Mexico State)
#12 Utah State – 0–1.

We learned two things from this year’s tournament. First, we learned that the selection committee likes to over-compensate. The number of at-larges (seven) isn’t out of sync with past years, but the seedings certainly are. New Mexico was waaayy overseeded as a #3, #7 Richmond probably should have been a #9 or #10, and #12 UTEP was a strange selection to make the tournament at all.

The second thing that we learned is that mid-majors can do some serious, serious damage if given the opportunity. In many ways, this was the best year for mid-majors ever. Not counting the scandal-plagued Memphis program’s runner-up finish in 2008, Butler became the first real mid-major team to have a legitimate shot at a national title in decades. Northern Iowa, Cornell, and St. Mary’s joined the Bulldogs in the Sweet Sixteen. And Gonzaga, Murray State, BYU, Old Dominion, Ohio, and New Mexico all won games. A ridiculous eleven conferences were represented in the Sweet Sixteen.

You would think that the Selection Committee would take note – the 2010 tournament was by far the most exciting in recent history. Not only that, but this tournament almost single-handedly allowed the NCAA to expand to 68 teams and add three more money-making games to their slate. I don’t remember anyone ever talking about expansion until the 2010 tourney happened. Seriously, look back at 2009; there is no way they could have expanded after that season without a ridiculous uproar.

2011 –
#3 BYU – 2–1. Other #3 seeds are 3–0 (UConn) and 1–1 (Syracuse and Purdue)
#6 Xavier – 0–1. Other #6 seeds went 1-1 (Cincinnati) and 0–1 (Georgetown and St. John’s)
#7 Temple – 1–1. Other #7 seeds went 1–1 (Washington and UCLA) and 0–1 (Texas A&M)
#8 George Mason – 1–1. Other #8 seeds are 2–0 and 1–1 (Michigan)
#8 UNLV – 0–1.
#11 VCU – 3–0 and still alive. Other #11 teams are 2–0 (Marquette), 1–1 (Gonzaga) and 0–1 (Missouri)
#12 UAB – 0–1. Other #12 teams went 2–0 and counting (tournament champ Richmond), 1–1 (Clemson), and 0–1 (tournament winners Memphis and Utah State)

Lost in the shuffle of the outrage over UAB and VCU’s selections and the runs that mid-majors have gone on this year is the fact that the at-large squads kinda got screwed again. I have written about this in earlier posts, so no real need to recap it here, but it is pretty clear that we are doing something wrong with our selections. I mean, it’s not just that VCU was better than USC, Georgetown, and Purdue, it’s that they are FAR better.

I know I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a breakthrough performance for the rest of the tournament. And that’s what I mean by the fun of the tournament – you gotta believe!

Sixteen Teams, Sixteen Thoughts

March 22, 2011

Unfortunately I didn’t get a bracket prediction up in time last week, as I was way busier than I wanted to be. You’ll just have to trust me that my bracket is perfect so far.

I’ll do my best to make up for the lack of a post with a rambling post loosely based on the sixteen remaining teams in the NCAA Tournament:

1. Ohio State was the only high seed that looked like a national champion last weekend. They were flat-out unstoppable in a fairly impressive 75-46 victory over Texas San Antonio and an incredibly impressive 98-66 victory over George Mason. The 98 points shattered the record for most points by a Big Ten team in NCAA history, previously held by Michigan, which scored 81 points in a triple overtime game against Coastal Carolina back in 1983 [citation needed].

The bad news for the remaining 15 NCAA teams is that if the Buckeyes play like they did against George Mason they will beat every team by double digits en route to the most dominant run in March Madness history. The good news is that they can’t possibly play that good for the rest of the tournament. The Buckeyes fell behind 11-2 early in the game before they proceeded to outscore the Patriots by forty-seven points over the next thirty minutes. That would be unsustainable against Division II competition, let alone the remaining Sweet Sixteen teams. But still, they were the most impressive team over the first weekend – that has to make them feel confident heading into next weekend’s games.

2. I picked Kentucky to win the National Championship in my bracket…and that wasn’t even close to my most questionable decision. Things got carried away pretty fast. In possibly related news, I am currently sitting in 419th place out of 494 teams in my pool.

Anyway, Kentucky showed the toughness that was missing from last year’s more talented team with a gutty last-second win over Princeton in the first round and a win over West Virginia in the second round after trailing by eight at the half. I actually like the Wildcats’ chances if they can somehow get past the Buckeye buzzsaw because the rest of that half of the bracket looks so unimpressive. Unfortunately, I don’t like the Wildcats’ chances against the Buckeye buzzsaw.

3. Raise your hand if you had Marquette as one of the last two Big East teams standing. Not that the Golden Eagles were all that impressive – it just turns out that the Big East kinda sucks. I am actually a bit annoyed by this. Going into the tournament, I assumed along with everyone else that the Big East was good because they got eleven teams into the dance. They were not. Looking back, most of their quality wins came against each other. Ironically, the Big East’s only two teams into the Sweet Sixteen got there by beating other Big East teams.

St. John’s couldn’t slow down Gonzaga. Notre Dame couldn’t score on Notre Dame. Pittsburgh and Louisville were baffled by the likes of Butler and Morehead State. Just an embarrassing, embarrassing weekend.

4. North Carolina might beat Marquette but they will lose to the winner of Ohio State and Kentucky. I know this because I watched the last three seconds of the Tar Heels’ win over Washington. In those three seconds, North Carolina forward John Henson managed to make two of the stupidest plays I have ever seen. After the Huskies’ Venoy Overton decided to shoot the ball from half court down three with four seconds still on the clock, Henson touched the ball as it went out of bounds for reasons that remain unclear.* Then, Henson came oh-so-close to goaltending on Isaiah Thomas’s desperation shot as time expired. Turns out that it didn’t matter, since Thomas actually took the shot with a foot over the three-point line, but still…why would he even jump at the ball? Maybe it’s unfair to generalize based on two plays, but I’ve seen enough: UNC is bound for disappointment.

* Overton’s shot was so far off line that Henson was actually credited with a steal and a turnover when he touched the ball before it hit out of bounds.

5. Speaking of highly ranked ACC teams that won’t win the tournament, we come to Duke. The Blue Devils will not repeat as champions. Unlike last year’s team, this year’s squad is prone to lapses in judgment. For proof of this, look no further than Sunday’s narrow victory over eighth-seeded Michigan in a game that the Wolverines had no business being in. The Wolverines were one inch away from sending the game to overtime despite trailing for double digits for much of the second half.

Which brings me to my next point: if you are Michigan, don’t you have to go for the three-pointer and the win on that last possession? I feel like that is the equivalent of a major underdog going for a two-point conversion in the closing seconds of a football game rather than going to overtime. If you have the chance to knock off Goliath, you take it, right? You don’t keep trading blows with a better team. Maybe I’m just bitter because a last second three-pointer is far more exciting than a short shot to send the game to overtime.

6. Prior to the tournament I wrote that Rick Barnes was not a good tournament coach and Texas will go down early. I couldn’t even follow my own advice on this one and picked the Longhorns to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. I do not know why. I do know that in typical Rick Barnes fashion, a poor decision by a player cost the Longhorns a win on Sunday.

I also know that the Big 12 did not help the case of Colorado, which was widely viewed as the selection committee’s biggest snub. The committee clearly was not impressed by Colorado’s three wins over Kansas State, one win over Missouri, and one win over Texas, which were pretty much the entire basis of the Buffaloes’ case. Turns out they were right – the Big 12 had the most embarrassing performance of any conference this side of the Big East. Five teams made it in and only #1 seed Kansas made it to the Sweet Sixteen. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the tournament didn’t really miss the sixth best team in the Big 12.

This paragraph was supposed to be about Arizona. I remember a time not so long ago when Pac-10 basketball mattered. This season, I don’t know a thing about the Wildcats even after watching both of their tournament games. Seriously, I have no opinion on this team and I’m not even entirely sure how they won two games by three total points. And that’s the BEST team in the Pac-10. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

7. Connecticut was the only other Big East team to make the Sweet Sixteen. The Huskies are one of the easiest teams to figure out in the tournament. As Kemba Walker goes, so goes Connecticut. End of story. They could cruise to the National Championship or lose by twenty points to San Diego State in their next game and I would not be surprised.

Probably not a good sign for the Big East that I wouldn’t be surprised if the conference’s sole remaining title threat lost by twenty in the Sweet Sixteen. Not exactly a banner year.

8. I like San Diego State. I don’t know why, but something about the Aztecs impresses me. Sure it took double overtime to knock off Temple, but let me make a semi-plausible argument that differentiates between Duke and San Diego State. Duke dominated the Michigan game and still found a way to let the Wolverines come an inch away from sending the game into overtime. The Aztecs, on the other hand, did not come close to playing their best game against Temple. But they got the job done.

Did I just jinx San Diego State? Absolutely. I have no doubt that they will get hammered by UConn in their next game. Just wanted to get it on the record that I picked the Aztecs to reach the Final Four in case I manage to get lucky,

9. Kansas is the runaway favorite to win the tournament. This is partly because they have the easiest road out of a regional of any #1 seed since UNLV in 1990.* Should they make it to the Final Four, they will become the only team to ever make it there without beating a single team higher a #9 seed. Coincidentally, their regional is shaping up uncannily like the Jayhawks’ 2008 title run, when they beat the #16, #8, #12, and #10 seeds to survive the Midwest Regional.

* The Runnin’ Rebels beat #16 seed Arkansas Little Rock, #8 seed Ohio State, #12 seed Ball State, and #11 seed Loyola Marymount en route to the Final Four and eventual championship.

That’s a decent reason to like the Jayhawks, but by far the biggest reason Kansas will win the title is because I didn’t pick them. Last season, I picked them to win it all. They responded by losing to Northern Iowa in the second round. It was my first time back on the Jayhawk train since they burned me in 2005 by losing to Bucknell in the first round. In that season, I was something like 26 of 28 heading into the last games on Friday before my champion pick Kansas ruined that by losing.

When Kansas won the title in 2008, I had them going out in the Elite Eight. Clearly, I have some sort of mystical power over the Jayhawks; there is really no other plausible explanation. This season I drew up my brackets and originally had Kansas winning it all. I was mildly terrified at hitching my bracket to the Jayhawks again, so I quickly changed took Louisville over them in the Sweet Sixteen (that worked out well). Naturally, Kansas will now win the tournament.

10. In 1991, I was only six but I distinctly recall watching Dick Vitale break down Richmond‘s NCAA Tournament chances in a selection show special that year. Richmond, a #15 seed out of the Colonial Athletic Association, squared off against #2 seed Syracuse in the first round. Vitale squealed in his trademark voice, “watch out for them Spiders, baby!” Sure enough, the Spiders became the first #15 seed to win a game in the tournament, knocking off Syracuse 73-69.

Here’s a ridiculous stat. Richmond has made nine tournaments since 1984. Their results based on their seed:

#7 seed: 0–1
#11 seed: 0–1
#12 seed: 4–1
#13 seed: 2–1
#14 seed: 1–2
#15 seed: 1–1

Crazy stuff. In other words, watch out for them Spiders, baby!

11. How predictable was VCU‘s tournament run? Put it this way: I may or may not have made a decent amount of money betting the Rams straight up in their three games (depending on how legal gambling is, of course). VCU is a really good team. They can play any style of basketball. They can slow it down, as they did when they beat USC 59-46 in the first round. They can dominate the inside, as they did when they beat Georgetown 74-56 in the second round. And they have the shooters to win from the outside, as they did when they beat Purdue 94-76 in the third round. None of those games were particularly close. Only USC even hung around for part of the second half against the Rams.

Approximately 14,679 writers that couldn’t come up with a better angle turned in columns on Monday that talked about how VCU vindicated the selection committee. I argued last week that in the big scheme of things, no one really should care that VCU got selected over weak teams like Virginia Tech and Colorado. I stand by that, but I admit that those teams had better resumes than VCU. Yet I saw both of those teams play a couple games each this season. I also saw VCU’s first three games. VCU is a way better team than either of those two teams, plain and simple.

So what are we seeing here? The BCS meets March Madness, that’s what! Virginia Tech and Colorado only have better resumes because they play in tougher conferences. The Hokies’ best non-conference win was over Penn State. The Buffaloes’ only non-conference win over a team with a winning record was in overtime at home against 19-13 Colorado State. These teams simply got more cracks at better teams than VCU. In my mind, the Rams are clearly better than both and I love that the selection committee saw this, rather than just looking at statistical resumes.

12. The Rams’ matchup with Florida State might be the most fascinating of the Sweet Sixteen. VCU looked like the most unstoppable offensive force in the tournament last weekend. Florida State was the best defensive team by far, allowing only 107 points in two games.

I picked the Seminoles to reach the Sweet Sixteen in my only underdog pick that actually came through for the very reason I picked them. In the past several seasons, Florida State has been a great defensive squad but made too many mistakes on offense to advance. I wasn’t sure that they were any better on offense this year (I still have no idea), but I did know that they had favorable matchups in the first two rounds. Texas A&M simply wasn’t good enough to exploit Florida State’s mistake-prone offense in the first round. In the second round, the Seminoles went up against Notre Dame’s burn offense. Coach Mike Brey keeps his guys in motion constantly and shuns the pick and roll. That just wasn’t going to cut it against the athletic Seminole defense.

So what will happen when VCU’s offense meets the Seminoles’ athleticism on defense? No idea, but it should be exciting.

13. If you’ve stuck with my column this long, you know that Butler is next. You surely expect me to talk about the refs in the Butler/Pittsburgh Round of 32 game. But that would be boring since NO ONE has shut up about it. Why does everyone insist on blaming refs for everything without even being consistent about it? On one hand, analysts ripped refs for falling asleep at the end of recent games like UNC/Washington and St. John’s/Rutgers. On the other, analysts rip refs for calling the game tight at the end of the Butler/Pitt game. Which is it?

Of course I already know the answer: we like blaming other people for our own problems. Sometimes our problem is as simple as wanting a great finish to a game that we watched. Refs are the faceless bogeymen that we can blame.

As for the Bulldogs, there isn’t much I can say about them that hasn’t already been said. A Horizon League team puts together a ridiculously magical run to the title game. They lose their best player and still reach the Sweet Sixteen the next season.* Just a ridiculous accomplishment.

* FYI: It took Indiana State twenty-one years to even make it back to the NCAA Tournament after Larry Bird led the Sycamores to the 1979 NCAA title gameThey have won one total tournament game since their title run.

14. Speaking of blaming other people for my own problems, I picked Belmont to beat Wisconsin and Utah State to beat Kansas State in the first round because I drank the Kool-Aid that was ESPN’s Giant Killer blog. Both of these picks failed miserably and I place full blame on the blog. Lucky for them, they already deferred blame to the teams themselves for blowing their chances. Fantastic.

The real reason I missed Wisconsin is because they are impossible to pick. Just complete guesswork. Here are their results in the NCAA Tournament since 2000:

2000: #8 seed – lost in Final Four
2001: #6 seed – lost in First Round
2002: #8 seed – lost in Second Round
2003: #5 seed – lost in Sweet Sixteen
2004: #6 seed – lost in Second Round
2005: #6 seed – lost in Elite Eight
2006: #9 seed – lost in First Round
2007: #2 seed – lost in Second Round
2008: #3 seed – lost in Sweet Sixteen
2009: #12 seed – lost in Second Round
2010: #4 seed – lost in Second Round

Eleven chances and they have only done what they were supposed to do four times. Three times they over- or under-achieved by two whole rounds. Apparently they either outperform expectations or do not perform to expectations. On the plus side for them, that bodes well for their chances against Butler this weekend.

15. A few weeks ago I ripped on Doug Gottlieb for how quickly he dismissed BYU as a legitimate contender while lauding Texas as a potential favorite to win the national title. A big swing and a miss for Doug on that one. The funny part is that I get several hits a day with some combination of the words “doug gottlieb hates byu.” I don’t think I was alone in laughing at Doug this weekend when BYU dominated and yet another Rick Barnes-coached team came up short in the tournament.

Rooting for the Cougars is the right move here because we need to stretch out Jimmer-mania as long as possible. In ten years, when Jimmer is dominating the Turkish League, we will look back fondly on the 2011 March Madness and the dazzling array of finger rolls that would get knocked into the fifteenth row in the NBA. Long live the Jimmer!

16. Last but maybe not least is Florida. Like Duke, the Gators slipped by into the Sweet Sixteen after they hung on to beat a team (UCLA) that had no business being in the game at all. I tried to come up with a reason why they weren’t a less talented Duke. I failed.

The one thing the Gators have going for them is the bracket. As unimpressive as the Gators are, BYU and the Wisconsin/Butler winner aren’t exactly the best remaining competition. They are one upset of Kansas away from one of the easier roads to the final in recent memory. So there’s that. But looking at Florida’s schedule, I can’t fathom how they are even a #2 seed, let alone a true contender.

Note to bettors: it’s probably a good idea to put some money on the Gators.

UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg Predictions Part III

March 14, 2011

Quick and dirty UEFA Champions League predictions for this week. A bit busy studying for March Madness picks (dorky I know, but give me a break…it comes around only once per year), so this won’t be a long post. Still, I figured you gambling readers out there would want to know who not to pick for the Champions League this week. Judging by my track record, the easiest way to make money this week is simply to pick the opposite of who I pick.

Marseille at Manchester United (teams tied 0-0 in first leg)

One prediction that I can confidently make this week: this game won’t be anywhere near as boring as their first game.

The first leg between these two teams featured a pretty rare event – the home team (Marseille) feeling great about a 0-0 draw. Maybe Manchester United is pleased with the result. After all, Sir Alex loves his 4-5-1 formation for road games. But you get the feeling that the 0-0 draw is exactly what Marseille wanted.

Just ask Man U fans about this. They have been here before. Last season against Bayern Munich, they jumped out to a 3-0 lead in their second leg home game just 41 minutes in to open a commanding 4-2 total goal lead. Two stunning goals later and Bayern moved on to the next round on the away goals rule. Then there was eventual champion Porto’s stunning 90th minute goal at Old Trafford back in the 2004 Round of 16 when Man U looked certain to move on.

Sure, it’s more likely than not that Man U advances with ease. There is no doubt that they are the better team. But Marseille also knows this. They were pleased with the 0-0 draw at home because now they are one fluke goal away and some solid defense away from advancing. If the French squad somehow gets a goal, they will love their chances. You can’t blame them for that, as I certainly wouldn’t trust Man U to put up two goals against a defensive-minded squad given their recent form.

I think Man United wins this one…but not before making their fans sweat with painful flashbacks a little bit. They move on 1-0.

Inter at Bayern Munich (Bayern leads 1-0)

Dead team walking alert!

The best news of the past month is that I finally got a job. With that job, I was able to purchase the expanded sports package on cable, which includes the Fox Soccer Channel. And it’s fantastic.

Having Fox Soccer Channel meant that I watched the Inter/Brescia game last weekend. One game might not be a strong sample size but Inter doesn’t look anywhere near as good as they were last season. Last season, they seemingly could attack from everywhere with Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o up front, Mario Balotelli on the wings, Wesley Sneijder in the middle, and even Maicon from the back. This season, Balotelli has moved on and Milito, Sneijder, and Maicon have all been completely unable to stay on the pitch. They just seem out of sync with each other and Eto’o seems to be the only one capable of scoring.

I pointed out in my first leg previews that Bayern has become more multi-dimensional than they were last season’s final, when their offense consisted entirely of Arjen Robben trying to weave through an average of 2.3 defenders at a time. Bayern has gained weapons and Inter has lost them. With that said, Eto’o is certainly good enough to single-handedly put in a goal or two and send Inter on. I don’t think that will happen, just covering my bases. Bayern wins 2-1.

Copenhagen at Chelsea (Chelsea won first leg 2-0)

Copenhagen had a golden chance at home in facing a slumping Chelsea squad that seemed incapable of scoring in the weeks heading into the first leg. Instead of taking advantage, they lost 2-0. Talk about demoralizing.

Chelsea figures to play at least some members of their second team with advancement already assured. Even with the second team in, it is hard to envision any way that the floodgates aren’t completely open for the Blues. Chelsea will score as many as they want to. Bodog isn’t even taking odds on Chelsea to advance. Let’s just move on: Chelsea wins 3-0.

Lyon at Real Madrid (teams tied 1-1 in first leg)

Last post, I pointed out that Real Madrid was the more talented team by far. It is really not even particularly close. Yet for some reason Lyon has Real Madrid’s number in the Champions League. Real has been knocked out in the Round of 16 for six consecutive years. Lyon plays the role of bogeyman for Real fans, with good reason, as they are unbeaten in six games against the Spanish side.

This season it looked like Real was finally ready to get the monkey off their back when they jumped out to a 1-0 second half lead in France. Then seven minutes from full time Lyon pulled back within 1-1. Real still has the advantage…but that last goal has to make them doubt themselves a little bit. You don’t lose in the Round of 16 six straight seasons without that doubt creeping in, and nothing is more demoralizing than giving up a late goal in a two-leg total goal series.

I’m going to stick with the heart this time instead of the head. Lyon scores another late goal to tie 1-1, the game eventually goes to penalties, and Cristiano Ronaldo hits the post to send the French side through. Real fans are again devastated and the rest of the football world laughs.

Hey, a man can dream, right?

March Madness: Initial Thoughts

March 13, 2011

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.