How Did College Basketball Experts Fare with their 2010-11 Predictions?

April 12, 2011

My most popular post of all-time  (by far) was this post from last January in which I rated each NFL expert on how well they projected the season.

95% of the hits on that article came because two ESPN writers – Paul Kuharsky and Pat Yasinskas – stumbled upon the post and plugged it on Twitter and the NFC South blog. Sadly, it still would have been my most viewed blog simply because of all the Google searches. People apparently just want to know how experts did with their predictions.

As expected, most of the experts weren’t anywhere close (although Green Bay was the most popular Super Bowl pick). I noticed that the spectacular failures tended to be the same picks across the board and theorized that the experts were simply scared to deviate from the norm. At the end of the season, they will look silly if anyone bothered to check, but no one expert will stand out from the rest.

I made it a point to write a similar article after every major sports season. After all, I gotta give the people what they want. Unfortunately, the college basketball season doesn’t really lend itself too well to a points system like I used for the NFL. So instead I have a bunch of random thoughts about the experts’ predictions, organized in some vague order.

For this article, I looked at the ten experts on ESPN.com (Jay Bilas, Eamonn Brennan, Pat Forde, Fran Franschilla, Doug Gottlieb, Andy Katz, Diamond Leung, Joe Lunardi, Dana O’Neill, and Dick Vitale), the three on CNNSI.com (Seth Davis, Doug Winn, and Andy Glockner) and the two on CBSSports.com (Gary Parrish and Jerry Palm).

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Once again, bold predictions weren’t the strong suit of the experts. Unfortunately for them, this year required bold picks: not a single expert picked UConn, Kentucky, Butler or VCU to reach the Final Four.*

* Jerry Palm does get the award for most amusing selection. He picked #4 seed Butler and #13 seed VCU to meet in the first round of the Southwest Region. At least he had the right idea.

We will give most of these guys the benefit of the doubt. As we saw this year, the tournament is a crapshoot; picking a Final Four team at the start of the year is an even bigger crapshoot. So I’ll dish out points for experts whose Final Four picks received #1 seeds in the tournament.

All four #1 seeds – Fran Franschilla

Franschilla wins this year’s contest going away. His Final Four teams – Kansas, Duke, Ohio State, and Michigan State – all earned #1 seeds in the tournament. Well done.

Three #1 seeds – Gary Parrish (Duke, Ohio State, and Pitt)

Only one other expert even managed to correctly predict three #1 seeds. The Michigan State bandwagon (see below) stopped Parrish from getting all four picks correct.

The frustrating part for Parrish is that we can see the rest of his bracket, unlike the experts on ESPN and CNNSI. I would assume that he would just prefer to have us put out hand on the screen to block out his #2 seed for Villanova, #3 seeds for Baylor and Memphis, and his #12 seed for Notre Dame. But whatever – Parrish still gets credit for picking three of four #1 seeds.

Two #1 seeds – Seth Davis, Luke Winn, and Jay Bilas (Duke and Kansas); Pat Forde, Andy Katz, and Diamond Leung (Duke and Pitt); Eamonn Brennan and Dick Vitale (Duke and Ohio State)

And now we get to the groupthink. None of these guys bothered to think independently of one another. Fifteen experts times four Final Four teams equal sixty potential teams. Here is the distribution:

Duke – 14 picks
Michigan State – 13 picks
Kansas State – 7 picks
Ohio State – 5 picks
Pittsburgh – 5 picks
Kansas – 4 picks
Gonzaga – 3 picks
Syracuse – 3 picks
Florida – 2 picks
Illinois – 2 picks
Villanova – 2 picks

Live a little guys! Coming into the season, there certainly were more than eleven teams in the running for #1 seeds. And that’s not even considering the fact that 13 of these 15 guys were picking Final Four teams rather than #1 seeds.

I’m also a little bitter about this whole Michigan State thing. Prior to the season, I bought a small amount of this Spartan hype. This was inadvertent, because I tend to despise all Big Ten teams, but it didn’t stop me from stupidly picking the Spartans to reach the Elite Eight as a #10 seed this year.

I get the idea on the preseason predictions – they were a Final Four team in 2010 and returned the majority of their lineup for this season. The reality is that they were a #5 seed last season and received a ridiculously favorable draw to reach the Final Four. They beat the #12, #4, #9, and #6 seeds in their region by a combined 13 points. They simply were not that good last year and they were even worse this year.

Ditto for Kansas State. At least the Wildcats at times showed they belonged after their surprise Final Four run in 2010.

Hard to tell where the experts that picked Illinois and Villanova got their intel from. Maybe  Gottlieb and Glocker (Illinois) and Vitale and Glockner again (Villanova) saw something the rest of us didn’t in those teams. The rest of us saw historically underachieving teams that were bound to underachieve again. Of course, this being a groupthink situation, at least they had each other’s predictions to fall back on.

Doug Gottlieb, Joe Lunardi, and Seth Davis all picked Gonzaga to make it to the Final Four. Gonzaga is an enigma. They set the standard for all mid-majors in their one run to the Elite Eight as a #10 seed in 1999. Since then, they have qualified for the tournament every season but have yet to make it out of the Sweet Sixteen again. They have actually been upset by a team seeded three spots or lower four times in that span and own an average 13-12 tournament record.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, Gonzaga is always a popular sleeper pick. This is bizarre. I’m not knocking on the Zags: they are a very good mid-major program, and virtually every other mid-major team not named Butler would kill to own a 13-12 record while qualifying for 13 straight tournaments. But I can’t seem to figure out why they are a sleeper Final Four team every year. Imagine if VCU was picked by three experts to qualify for the 2024 Final Four. I don’t even have to look into a crystal ball to find that ridiculous.

One #1 seed – Jerry Palm, Andy Glockner, Dana O’Neill, Doug Gottlieb (Duke); Joe Lunardi (Ohio State)

Now we get to the whipping boys and the award for worst picks of the college basketball preseason.

I’ll let Palm off easy – he picked an entire bracket before the season. Although his seedings were a bit of a mess, he generally got most of the teams that made the tournament, so we gets somewhat of a pass.

Gottlieb picked the stellar threesome of Kansas State, Illinois, and Gonzaga to reach the Final Four. I’ve pointed out his incompetence before though. And that was before his cell phone went off in the middle of a live SportsCenter. I assume that just putting his pants on every day is a victory for Gottlieb, so picking one #1 seed was far better than we could have expected.

O’Neill picked Duke and Michigan State like everyone else, but his other two Final Four picks were Kansas State and Syracuse. Not nearly the train wreck as some of the other experts in this group, so we can’t give him the award either.

That leaves Joe Lunardi and Andy Glockner.

In a close battle, the award for worst picks goes to Lunardi. As much as I like Lunardi’s Bracketology column, his predicting skills leave something to be desired.

Glockner shouldn’t feel bad though. Despite a potentially record-setting Final Four train wreck of Duke, Michigan State, Villanova, and Illinois, he had two things working against him. First, I’ve never heard of him, so I can’t set the bar too high. For all I know, he could be a random guy with a blog like me. Second, CNNSI had their experts predict a few other categories; Glockner picked UNLV as a surprise team, Virginia Tech as a flop, and Butler as the best mid-major team. Not a bad track record…enough to pull him out of the cellar.

Lunardi’s Final Four was Ohio State, Florida, Michigan State, Gonzaga. I give him props for being the only expert to buck the trend of Duke as a #1 seed. Of course with that said, if you were going to follow the pack with any team, shouldn’t it be the defending champion who returned most of their players and picked up one of the most heralded high school recruits (Kyrie Irving) in the country?

And Gonzaga over Michigan State in the final…well there’s just no defense for that.

UPDATE: Andy Glockner e-mailed me after this was published with “a link to his full predictions. He deserves more credit than I originally gave him credit for: he nailed much more of the bracket than I gave him credit for. As a mid-major fan, I’m impressed that he nailed the multiple bids for the Atlantic Ten, Colonial, and Mountain West (though less so that he whiffed on my alma mater Creighton). And he was quite nice on the e-mail, even though I came off like a dick in my original post.

So it’s all you Lunardi. At least you have something to work on this offseason.

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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!


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.


Doug Gottlieb shows us how not to make an argument

February 28, 2011

I normally don’t like to make fun of announcers and TV analysts – partly because I think I can do their job (when I really would be awful) and partly because it is too easy. But I was watching College Basketball Final on ESPN yesterday and Doug Gottlieb made a series of preposterous arguments on why Texas should be a #1 seed over BYU. I’m not saying that Texas shouldn’t be a #1 seed over BYU; I’m only saying that Gottlieb wasn’t even in the ballpark of anything close to a rational argument.

Unfortunately, I could not find the original video on ESPN.com. He made a refined version of the same argument today in a panel discussion with Joe Lunardi, which is at this link. I highly recommend watching it. It is marginally better than his original argument, but he makes the same terrible points. For your convenience, I’ve broken down these arguments:

1. The #1 seed is a reward for what you do on the road.

Gottlieb immediately rebuts his own argument, saying that Lunardi will come back with “BYU’s road numbers.” Oh those pesky stats. I hate when they get in the way of a perfectly fine argument. By the way, BYU’s road record is 10-2 and neutral court record is 2-0. Texas’s road record is 7-3 and netural record is 1-1.

2. The #1 seed is a reward for what you do in your non-conference schedule.

I have never heard this argument before. Maybe the #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is in fact a reward for a strong non-conference schedule…but it’s definitely the first time I have ever heard anyone advance this argument.

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that a #1 seed is a reward for a strong non-conference schedule. Texas played five teams in their non-conference schedule that are currently in Lunardi’s field of 68 – Illinois, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, UConn, and Michigan State. They went 3-2 in those games. BYU played four teams currently in Lunardi’s field – Arizona, UCLA, Utah State, and St. Mary’s. They went 3-1 in those games. Apparently that extra loss is worth a reward in Gottlieb’s mind.

Then there is this little tidbit that Lunardi rebuts Gottlieb with: BYU’s non-conference schedule is ranked 14th in the nation; Texas’s non-conference schedule is ranked 73rd. BYU went 14-1 in those 15 games; Texas went 12-3. Oh those pesky numbers again.

3. Even if the numbers don’t work in Texas’s favor, the Longhorns “schedule up” and challenge themselves.

Gottlieb admits that BYU had a decent non-conference schedule, but he isn’t quite done with this point yet. Texas deserves credit for constantly challenging themselves in their non-conference schedule. In order, he cites the following games:

A 2-point loss to Pittsburgh at the Madison Square Garden in November. I’ll grant Gottlieb that playing a team as good as Pittsburgh to a two-point loss at a neutral site is a plus. But Texas didn’t schedule Pitt – they met in the final of the 16-team 2K Sports Classic. I’m guessing they got a pretty good sum of money just for appearing in the tournament. I’m also guessing that BYU would gladly have played in the tournament if they were invited.

A 2-point win over North Carolina in December at a “neutral” site location in Greensboro. Nothing wrong here – that’s a very good win, even if the Tar Heels were only 7-3 at the time.

A 12-point win at Michigan State. Now Gottlieb is stretching because the Spartans kinda suck. He argues that the Spartans were a preseason Top Ten team, which would be fine except that Texas played them on December 22, after the Spartans had already started to fall apart. Since then, Sparty has continued their nosedive and are barely hanging on to a NCAA Tournament spot.

A 17-point loss on the road at USC. Whoa. The Trojans currently sit at 17-12. They are not a good team. I have absolutely no idea how this could in any way be considered a plus on an NCAA Tournament resume. As best as I can tell, Gottlieb’s only argument is that “the same thing would have happened to BYU.” Well then.

4. Texas’s conference schedule is better because they had to go to Lawrence to play Kansas

I am not sure what Gottlieb is going for here. He says that Texas doesn’t get the benefit of having Kansas coming to Austin to play. Instead, the Longhorns had to go to Lawrence and picked up a monster win over Kansas. I agree with the second sentence, but I’m not sure what the first sentence has to do with anything. That’s just the way the Big 12 conference schedule is set up. Next season they will in fact have the “luxury” of having Kansas come to Austin. Will that make Kansas a #1 seed if the Jayhawks win? My head is spinning.

Five other Big 12 teams besides Texas are projected to make the tournament field. The Big 12 schedule gave Texas a home-and-home with Texas A&M and Baylor, sent the Longhorns to Kansas, and sent Missouri and Kansas State to Austin for one game. So this “luxury” that apparently hurts Texas has actually helped them.

In his original appearance, Gottlieb hammered home that Texas’s best win was over Kansas and BYU’s was over San Diego State. His exact words were: “Where is it harder to win? At Kansas or at San Diego State? I arrest my case.” Stunning logic. I like Lunardi’s response: “If it was close, I would absolutely take Texas and their win at Kansas, putting Texas to the top line, but it’s really not close.”

The interesting part is that Gottlieb is almost certainly right: Texas’s conference schedule is more difficult than BYU’s conference schedule. But if we only used the logic that he took to get there, we could actually make a better argument for BYU than Texas.

5. They have a chance to win versus Kansas State and at Baylor.

At first I wasn’t sure that this was an actual point that Gottlieb used to support his case. After watching it a second time, it is clear that he is actually using wins that haven’t happened yet to support his argument. In his words, “I still think Texas is the #1 seed, especially since they have a chance to win at Baylor, Kansas State at home tonight.” How does one even argue with that?

6. Texas has more pure wins than BYU does.

Again, I might argue this, but I have no idea what a pure win is. Either Gottlieb is thinking on another level than the rest of us mere mortals, or he just made up an NCAA tournament qualification on the spot.

7. Texas’s recent 1-2 stretch is okay because of their far more difficult schedule.

Lunardi points out that those that draw up the NCAA Tournament field like the “what have you done for me lately factor.” Texas hasn’t delivered, losing to Nebraska and Colorado and beating last place Iowa State. Gottlieb thinks this is justified because Nebraska and Colorado are on the bubble…never mind that neither team was actually on the bubble until they beat Texas.

For the Cougars’ part, they are 7-0 in their last seven games, with a home win over tournament bound UNLV, a road win over potential #2 seed San Diego State, and a home win over bubble team Colorado State. And Texas’s schedule was better how?

8. Eight of BYU’s ten road wins came over a team with an RPI higher than 100.

Gottlieb is a total failure. BYU has actually beaten four top 100 teams on the road – San Diego State  (#4), UNLV (#26), Colorado State (#47), and Air Force (#96). Then he goes on to dismiss the UNLV and Colorado State WINS because they are bubble teams…never mind that not more than ten seconds previously he justified Texas’s LOSSES over bubble teams Nebraska and Colorado.

Now I am rooting for BYU to get a #1 seed, if for no other reason that we can all laugh at Doug Gottlieb’s shaky logic in a few weeks.