Let’s get one thing straight and out of the way: You’re not going to pick a perfect bracket. It’s not going to happen, and in fact, it’s impossible. How do I know? You’re mathematical odds are one in nine quintillion. That’s a nine with 18 zeros. Now that I’ve shattered your hopes and dreams to start, I figured I’d give you my preview of this year’s tournament and some tips to at least win your pool, joining me in my yearly success.
First, let’s hit on what tricks I use to pick winners and the all-important upsets. Even though I watch a decent amount of games each year, I’m only human and don’t have access to the MEAC regular season game package. So, what stats are important to me when it comes to the tougher matchups? The first stat I look at is losses, and more importantly, the quality and location of them.
Road wins and losses are a major factor in a team’s tournament success. Even though teams may be in their region, no one is “home” and every game is a road game. Especially telling are the teams that nearly run the table at home but are no more than .500 on the road. Don’t expect those teams to do much, let alone escape Round One Two (stupid round changes with the play-in round now Round One… I digress).
The next area I look at is Points Per Possession (PPP). This is a great way to see how effective a team is with the ball. A team could have the ball 70 times in one game, but if they shoot 40 percent, that’s worse than a team 10 less possessions who shoots 50 percent. To save you the trouble and math in figuring that all out, PPP does it for you. If the road performance and PPP don’t point too strongly towards one team, I follow it with Turnovers and Offensive/Defensive Rebounding. These three stats directly relate to PPP because they will automatically increase the number of possessions. If a team turns the ball over a ton, less chances to score. If they can’t rebound and the other team does well or limits their opponent’s ability to do so, again, less chances to score.
All of these numbers and stats will help you uncover the sleepers and best bets for upsets. Of course, you can always go deeper with three-point percentage, free throw chances/percentage, etc. But if you want the best tools for which to pick your teams without going overboard, these are the ones I recommend. Add to those tools this one trick: If you don’t see a team getting past another in the Round of 32 or even Sweet 16, look for a possible upset early. Why not take the underdog pick and get a leg up on the rest if the team won’t advance far anyway? Even if it doesn’t work out, remember, Second Round picks are the least valuable when it comes to points. You want the teams making the deepest runs.
Now that I’ve given away most of my secrets, I might as well clue you in to what teams are the strongest bets to make a VCU-like run, or at least make a little noise this year.
No one is stopping Kentucky from reaching the Final Four. They are just too talented and deep, and this could easily be John Calipari’s year. Hitting on VCU again, don’t expect anything like last year. They aren’t as talented or good at shooting, and Wichita State is under-ranked. In fact, the Shockers can easily reach the Sweet 16 against Kentucky. Indiana is primed for an upset against a New Mexico State team that matches up well. The Hoosiers can still win, but don’t be shocked to see them one-and-done. I believe the Baylor-UNLV winner could knock out Duke, as the gauntlet Baylor faced in the Big 12 tourney will have them battle tested and UNLV presents matchup problems for the Dookies.
Long Beach State is one of my favorite low-seeded teams. They played a tough out-of-conference schedule and can give New Mexico, Louisville and/or Davidson (who could beat Louisville) a run for their money. Murray State is another undervalued team and has a real chance to take out Marquette. Outside of that small upset and Long Beach State, I don’t see much else in terms of surprises, unless you consider Missouri the pick to win the West a surprise. I certainly don’t, given their impressive talent.
This is easily the most top-heavy region in this year’s tournament. This year, college basketball was top-heavy to begin with and it’s why no bubble teams have any reason to complain. Because of how this region is set up, I see very little in terms of upsets. I tried, but I can’t pick a single lower seed in the Second Round, and the biggest upset I see is Cincy over Florida State. The Seminoles are going to get a lot of love for the Duke and UNC wins, but if you look at the rest of their schedule, they don’t have many impressive wins. The Bearcats have a style that FSU will struggle against, especially since the Seminoles turn the ball over a ton. Syracuse hasn’t advanced past the Second (now Third) Round in years, and I actually like Ohio State to advance here.
Where the East is top-heavy, that’s true here as well, for the No. 1 and 2 seeds – that’s it. This is what I call Upset City. California was jobbed with the play-in game and with being a 12 seed, and they can certainly beat Temple. Michigan lives and dies by the three and Ohio is one of the best at defending it. Don’t be surprised to see Ohio top Michigan and then fall to Cal, setting up a California-UNC Sweet 16 matchup. Continuing with the lower seeds, anyone who saw NC State late in the year knows why they are a solid bet to beat San Diego State, and Belmont seems to make runs every year. Plus, this Belmont team is senior-heavy and Georgetown perennially disappoints. Belmont in the Sweet 16? Watch for it. With all of the upsets and flawed teams here, a Kansas-UNC matchup is nearly a guarantee. Only the Jayhawks could screw it up with a loss to Saint Mary’s, and that’s certainly not a crazy notion.
If you’re smart – and I know you are – you’ve figured out my Final Four picks, but I’m not going to spell them out just in case. I can’t give everything away. That said, I know No. 1 and 2 seeds going deep into the tourney isn’t “fun,” but this year may include the biggest gap from top talent to mediocre teams in a while. I think Calipari’s team is built to give him his first title, but the Tarheels have a load of talent and nearly won the ACC Tourney without John Henson. I’m not giving away my title game, as I have to leave some mystery and work for you.
Enjoy the NCAA Tournament. I’m guaranteed to be wrong along the way, but again, no one is perfect, especially when it comes to brackets. Hopefully, all of our brackets at least have more green than red after the opening weekend… that’s really the ultimate goal.
In addition to covering the NFL, MLB, NBA, and College Football for RotoExperts, Jake Ciely (a.k.a "All In Kid") is also a poker fiend and a Maharishi in the world of sports wagering. Jake was a finalist for the FSWA's 2010 Newcomer of the Year award. You may email Jake @ firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JakeAllinCiely