Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Potential Final Four Matchups

Now that there's 16 teams left and most of the pretenders (and even a few "sure things") have been sent packing, we can take a look at some Final Four matchups that are actually, you know, possible. Lots of ways to group these guys.

1. The Cinderella Final Four
By Cinderella, I mean "teams you almost never see anywhere near a Final Four", not just the lowest seed. In the South there's three, but we'll default to the Loyola-Chicago/Nevada winner since K-State has made some Elite 8's. In the East it's got to be Texas Tech, since Purdue and West Virginia have made the Final Four in my lifetime and Tech's not your average "hoops school". The Midwest's entrant has to be Clemson, as 11-seed Syracuse is a traditional powerhouse. And out West, either Florida State or Texas A&M could play Cinderella equally well (in basketball, anyway). So...
Loyola-Chicago vs Texas A&M; Clemson vs Texas Tech

2. The Football Playoff
Just what we need, football infecting college hoops again. Clemson again wins the Midwest. West Virginia takes the East, as they're a more consistently good football program than TTU. In the South, K-State takes a weak bracket (in that regard). And out west, I'll take Florida State just to balance the bracket: two Big-12 teams and two ACC teams.
FSU vs K-State; Clemson vs West Virginia

3. The Bluebloods
A shame three bluebloods are clogging the Midwest region. We can only pick one and that one will be Duke. Villanova is the closest thing to hoops royalty in the East. Down South, you know it's Kentucky. And out west, there's no true hoops blueblood, but Michigan gets my nod over Gonzaga due to longevity - they have been a consistently strong hoops program for decades.
Michigan vs Kentucky; Villanova vs Duke

4. Defensive Showdown (per KenPom.com)
This goes by straight-up defensive efficiency rankings in KenPom. Michigan would win the West and Texas Tech the East. Syracuse snags the Midwest, and the South would go to Kansas State. Kansas state, really?
Michigan vs Kansas State; Syracuse vs Texas Tech

5. Offensive Showdown (again per KenPom.com)
Personally I'd rather see some scoring. So... Villanova barely ekes out Purdue here, which was only surprising in that they're 1-2! They'd take on Duke, who ekes out Kansas. Nevada blows away the South, and Gonzaga would win out West.
Gonzaga vs Nevada; Villanova vs Duke

6. Geographically True Regional Winners (per a map)
If we're calling the West the West, then Gonzaga is the farthest west so they'd win. The South... well, technically K-State and maybe Nevada are farther south than Kentucky, but Kentucky is a more "southern" state (and they do play in the SOUTHeastern Conference). Villanova rightfully wins the East, and Kansas is certainly the most "midwest" of those teams.
Kansas vs Villanova; Gonzaga vs Kentucky

7. My Gut
Of all of these Final Four combos, my own picks here are probably the least likely to come about. But here goes.
South: Kentucky. It's not novel but they're the best team remaining in this group. They are better than K-State, they won't allow a Nevada comeback, and Loyola hasn't played a team this good and playing this well. Second choice: Nevada.
West: Gonzaga. Not an easy choice. They're not as good as last year, but neither is this region. They ought to handle Florida State, and while Michigan and A&M both would pose defensive challenges I think their experience will see them through. Second choice: Michigan for sure.
Midwest: Duke. The team best able to overcome the Syracuse Zone also has more talent and less likelihood of a meltdown than Kansas. It's just hard to see them losing this weekend. Second choice: Kansas
East: Villanova. Like Duke vs Syracuse, Nova is uniquely suited to counter their opponent's (West Virginia) unique defense. And a battle-tested Nova team will be able to beat a dinged up Purdue team or a "wow, we're in the second weekend" TTU team. Second choice: Purdue

I know, kinda chalky. Even my second choices are the next highest seeds. Not very "gut"sy I admit.  But Kentucky's so much above their region in KenPom.com analytics. I trust Duke over Kansas in crunch time. I trust Villanova's and Gonzaga's experience. And I just think that there are fewer upsets in the second weekend (usually). Talent and coaching wins out and this final four would feature Calipari, K, Wright and Few, some of the greatest coaches of our time. And my "second choices" include Self and Huggins and Bielein, no slouches themselves. Which is why they're here.

Let's see what happens.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Final Bracket Thoughts

So now the rubber hits the road and the games get played. Spreadsheets, rankings, ratings, and rants no longer matter. It now gets settled on the court.

On my brackets, I usually have some pretty consistent selections. Here's some of my lines of thinking that were consistent on all (or nearly all) of the brackets I filled out this season:

SOUTH
1. Loyola-Chicago over Miami. This isn't original, I know. BPI has this more clearly favoring Miami, but KenPom sees a more even matchup and I tend to agree. You don't finish third in the ACC without being a good team, but I think they can and will be beat this year.

2. I've read in multiple places this year about making "value" picks - not taking the favorites all the time so you can zig when the rest zagged. Between this line of thinking (which has worked or nearly worked for me in the past) and Virginia's recent injury to their sixth man, I'm not taking Virginia to make the Final Four. Which is rough - I think they'd be a very worthy champion.

3. An article in FiveThirtyEight.com tells me I should take Buffalo over Arizona. Not happening. I have all respect for that site but I simply can't go against a preseason title favorite with a national player of the year favorite who just won their conference AND tourney in favor of a team whose best victory was, who, Toledo?

4. But the winner of the Arizona-Kentucky game will beat Virginia and ultimately lose to Cincy.

WEST
1. Michigan is the key team here for me. If their layoff throws them off, Montana or Houston could pull upsets. Montana's a good 14 seed, and I'm not afraid to take Houston over Michigan in a 3/6 game. But I believe if Michigan escapes this weekend, they can beat UNC and X or the Zags and make the Final Four.

2. I have Gonzaga vs UNC in the Elite 8 and was trying to figure out why it'd be any different than last year's final.

3. Xavier is really getting very little love. Taking them would be going against the grain despite it being "chalk". And it's not like they're not a really strong team. But Missouri and Gonzaga will be tough challenges and I don't see them beating Michigan or UNC. I think they're the first 1 to go down, maybe to Missouri.

4. I will take the winner of the Michigan/UNC game (or the lower half of that region) to make the Final Four.

MIDWEST
1. I at first thought Kansas was in trouble with Michigan State and Duke in their region. But really, nobody is going to stop them (except themselves) before the Elite 8. So it comes down to that game, for me.

2. I love my Orange and they can beat TCU, but they're not beating the Spartans. We're definitely getting a Duke-MSU Sweet 16 game. And I think Sparty takes it.

3. Again, it's not original but I think New Mexico State takes down Clemson. The Tigers just aren't playing as well lately. I also think they beat Auburn. None of these three teams is a match for Kansas though.

4. Michigan State is my team to beat in this region. Duke comes out a touch ahead in BPI and KenPom, and has done well against a tough schedule. But they have their lapses too, and I just think the Spartans are going all the way.

EAST
1. To get it out of the way, Villanova's the pick here. The 8, 4 and 5 seeds aren't that intimidating.

2. Referring back to that FiveThirtyEight article, they picked Murray State as the most likely upset, which is funny because I figured WV was a pretty safe pick here. I'm not taking the Racers here, mostly because I felt WV was closer to a 3 than a 5 and deserved a 4-seed (probably over Gonzaga, though it's a tough call).

3. I'm not at all sold on Texas Tech but Florida's inconsistency (or a Bona upset!) should help TTU get to the Sweet 16. I'm having trouble going against Purdue, though I think Butler will give them a real scare in the second round. But neither of these teams should stop Villanova, despite Nova's recent history of early exits.

4. Virginia Tech vs Alabama is a big 8/9 mismatch. Tech should win that one big.

So my final four looks like Villanova vs Michigan State and Cincinnati vs North Carolina, and I'll take the Spartans over the Tar Heels (in their third straight final!).

My advice is to NOT do the same!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Bracket Matrix Submission Review

In 2014 I took Joe Lunardi's Bracketology Certificate course (and I got to meet Joe that same season when he came with St. Joe's to the tournament games in Buffalo, which was cool). It took me a couple years to get the nerve (and find the time) to start this blog, but last year I finally did it. I probably wouldn't have done it without the motivation of the Bracket Matrix, which I took to be a collection of amateur and professional bracketologists not too different from me who all love to try and figure this stuff out. Last year was my first year in the Matrix, and my goal was to finish in the top half of the 1st and 2nd year entries. And I did it, barely... I was about the 51st percentile among those brackets, and about the 42nd overall.

So my goal this year was to improve on that, to try and get into the top third (I take the advice of Richard Dreyfus's psychologist character in What About Bob? - baby steps!). My oldest son, who's 17, usually sat in while I worked on it and gave me a hand looking up information.

And the projections took a major step forward. This year's "final exam" (as I think of it) finished tied for 24th (out of 187) overall, not just among the 1st and 2nd year folks. Ironically, we made the decision to leave out our favorite team, Syracuse, and it backfired, costing us six points and the chance to finish in the top 10. Still, I'll take it.

I whiffed on USC (and the Orange), and in hindsight I was sucked in by their 2nd place Pac-12 finish and their being the runners-up in the Pac-12 Tourney. Syracuse had better wins and a tougher schedule. But I must admit, I had Arizona State as my last team in, so I'd still have lost those points, I guess.

In seeding, I have some excuses for the three I missed on by more than one line. It seems that many agree that Penn was way under-seeded as a 16, and I had them as a 14. I'd do that again. Creighton showed up on mine as a 10, but they were downgraded from a 9 only because I had Villanova and Xavier as 1's and Providence and Butler both as 9's (but ahead of Creighton) and I couldn't put Creighton in 'Nova's or X's regions. That cost me a point. And I'll just admit that I wasn't entirely sure where to put SD State, and I underestimated them a bit too much.

I'm sorta proud that I got the 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 teams in the South correct. The fun part of this process for us is building the bracket and assigning the teams to cities and seeing the potential matchups. I also had Xavier, Gonzaga and Michigan all in the LA region, though the Zags' seed was off.

All in all I had 67/68 teams correct, 45 teams correctly seeded, and another 19 off by one line, three off by two lines, and one team that didn't get in. Last year I also had 67/68 teams correct, but with 26 teams one line off and three off by two or more lines. So I'm getting a little better with the seeding.

Lots of fun this year.


Monday, March 12, 2018

No At Large Bids for Mids

Historically, since 2002, more than three of every four at-large bids go to a team in one of the six power conferences. This means that, out of 36 at-large bids, on average 27 will go to teams in the power six, leaving 9 for, well, everyone else. By "everyone else" I include some fairly tough conferences like the Atlantic 10, the American, and the Mountain West.

I bring this up because over the past four years this disparity is only increasing. Since 2014, when "just" 72% went to the big six, the percentage has not gone below 81%. In 2017 it was 89% and this year 86%. So out of 72 at-large bids handed out over the last two years, only 9 went to teams outside of the big six.

Looking at the last 17 or so years, it seems that this number fluctuates some. Just 70% went to the big six conferences in 2012, and it held steady at 72% in the next two after that. But I don't see the recent trend of the power conferences hogging the at-larges changing, for a few reasons.

First, realignment and other defections gutted some of the stronger mid major conferences. Conference USA lost four programs to the Big East in the mid '00s, and we've seen teams move up from the Colonial, Horizon and Missouri Valley. As the power conferences grew, they took some of the best teams from the stronger mid major schools.

Also, the very criteria the committee must use to choose teams clearly puts mid majors at a disadvantage. They want to see a strong schedule and wins against good teams. Yet they tell the power schools the same thing, so the power schools schedule against each other (for the most part) and the mids are usually left with scraps. St. Mary's is a great example. Their only really strong opponent, in or out of conference, was Gonzaga. I don't know if this was by design or not. Some schools do deliberately schedule lighter, but doing so at St. Mary's level will get you an NIT bid unless you just about win out.

I'd argue that the new quadrant system (which definitely has its merits) helps to create a feedback loop that helps the weaker-link teams in the stronger conferences. Baylor and Oklahoma State, Syracuse and Louisville and Notre Dame all played in the two strongest conferences. Granted, only 'Cuse got in from that group. But they all got large shares of "Quadrant 1" or "Quadrant 1 and 2" games, which put them solidly in front of teams like St. Mary's and MTSU (and nearly helped them knock St. Bonaventure out as well!). 

The Atlantic 10 still pretty reliably gets 2-3 at-large bids, as does the American. The Mountain West has its moments, but even that conference only had one at-large bid over the last three years. Conferences do have down times, both mids and majors. The Pac 12 got just one at-large twice in three years in the early part of this decade.

But some are vanishing from the at-large discussion all together. Conference USA couldn't get one despite Middle Tennessee's great season. The WAC hasn't received one since 2010, the Horizon since 2009, and the Colonial since 2011. We're getting to the point where the A-10 and the American will get a couple and maybe the MW or WCC can snag one, but nobody else is even in the discussion. Monmouth had back to back great seasons in the MAAC and even had a couple of quality wins in there, but didn't get a sniff for a bid.

Can anything be done? Maybe the question should be "SHOULD" anything be done. Teams that play tough schedules either in or out of conference (or both) should be rewarded. But how do you reward a team that does that and goes 4-9 against those teams, vs a team that didn't (or couldn't) but won 27 games against the teams it DID play? I realize that ten years ago we had a run where over a three year period just 16 out of 102 at-large bids went outside the power six... so this has happened before and we've seen it bounce back.

But you also don't want this to be the Power Six Invitational, with a handful of power 7 and 8 teams plus a bunch of low-level AQ's, either. Do you? Because we're headed in that direction. Before 2010, 10 different conferences got at least one at-large bid at some point. Since 2014 that's down to 5... and over the last three years, only three non-power conferences received at-large bids each season: the American and A-10 all three years, and the MW, MVC and WCC taking turns. Meanwhile, 30+ schools from the big six are getting the rest of the at-larges. More than half of all power six schools have received either an AQ or at-large bid in each of the past three years. Not that it wasn't pretty close to that before.


Let's take a look at the non-AQ teams in the NIT. There were 21 non-AQ teams. Of whom 6 were outside the power six conferences. A little more than 25% . Two Conference USA and WCC, and one each from the MW and American. So 15 of 21 of these guys are from power conferences. Or in the NIT + NCAA, 46 out of 57 possible at-large berths were given to six power conferences, and combined only 12 out of 32 conferences (including the big 6) received at-large bids. This is what an expanded tournament would look like... maybe also with a few more AQ's for the little guys, which looks great until you see that they have to step on each other to earn the right to play those 1 and 2 seeds.

Should we care? Maybe it's silly to quibble about, what, four or five bids. Maybe we should want to see the best teams from the best conferences go head to head. And the revenue generated is mostly because of those teams at the top, I'm sure. But this is a thing. If you're a mid-major fan, increasingly you know that your team has to win its conference tournament or it's not dancing. The "middle class" that used to comprise maybe 12 or so conferences that occasionally got an at-large has shrunk to 2 or 3. The stronger schools have defected to bolster the shrinking middle or expanding upper class, and the lower class of about 22 or so conferences seems to have no hope of being anything more than a one-bid league. Yes, there's always been several that will always be just that... but there's no reason to expand that club any more than we have to.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Bracket Review

No doubt there's going to be some hand wringing over the inclusion of Syracuse and Arizona State, and the exclusion of (fill in your favorite bubble team here). Since taking Joe Lunardi's bracket class in 2014, I've come to believe that when it comes to bubble teams, there's rarely a cut-and-dried answer. Every bubble team has warts. So all the complaining, besides not really changing anything, is also just a cry to get everyone to think that their team's warts are less damning than the ones of those who actually got into the tournament.

Honestly, though, the inclusion of Syracuse baffled me (and I am a fan). I gave up on them after the BC loss, figuring that a team that lost to all the teams below them in the standings (except, of course, hapless Pitt) didn't deserve serious consideration. I had USC in instead. What surprised me more was the admission by the committee chair that Notre Dame was the team excluded by Davidson's run to the A-10 title. But I really shouldn't have been surprised at all, by any of this. Every team on the bubble had a claim to fame (and a separate claim to infamy). I'm going to look at the committee's last four in (St. Bonaventure, UCLA, Arizona State and Syracuse) and first four out (Notre Dame, Baylor, St. Mary's and USC) and try to figure out why they went the way they did.

I thought St. Bonaventure worthy of about a 10 seed. I figured they'd get penalized for not making their conference final, but I didn't think they'd fall into a play-in. With 25 wins, they have the second most in this group of 8. But some things stick out in their numbers. Their strength of record (which I personally think is one of the better metrics to use) ranking is much higher than anyone else on the list. And their RPI, which the committee has always made serious use of, is by far the best. This overcame their having the group's lowest BPI and second worst SOS, and also overcame the semifinal loss to the Wildcats. They were also 9-3 against Quadrants 1 and 2, though their best win was at home against Rhode Island. We can't ignore three Q-3/4 losses, including a really bad one to Niagara, which is probably why they were put in the PiG.

UCLA is another team that I figured was more safely into the field. With wins over Arizona and Kentucky, and just one Q3 loss, you'd think this team would've been on solid ground. Their 8-10 record vs Q-1/2 is decent, as is their RPI of 37. Their SOR of 54 is solidly in the middle of this group. The more I look at this, the less I understand their placement. 

Not to oversimplify, but I think Arizona State is in because, straight up, they beat two 1-seeds back in November and December - one at a neutral site, and one at the Phog. Without those, they have a pedestrian argument. Their RPI is the worst of the four that got in, and despite those two wins, their SOR is by far the lowest of these 8. I think the committee saw Xavier-N and Kansas-A both in green and that was that. They were my own last team in, so I get that line of thinking. Other than maybe Oklahoma State (who falls outside this study) no bubble team can claim wins of that stature.

I believe that Syracuse was carried by the rising tide that lifted all the ACC boats. The Clemson win was almost certainly critical here. It was probably the fourth best win among this group (after X, KU and Arizona). Beating Miami on the road was also important. But I don't see how that overcame the losses to Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and BC, all behind them in the ACC standings. And every other top team they played (with the exception of the home loss to UNC) blew them out. Still, 7-11 against Q-1/2 is on par with the teams that got in, and a 41 RPI is well within reason to get a bubble team in.

If I'm an Irish fan, I'm mad that a team we beat - at their house - edged us out. BPI would agree, as Notre Dame is well ahead of the Orange. SOS would also agree. And while RPI decidedly DISagrees, that's not supposed to be the "favored" metric (right?). And to complete the argument, Wichita State as a best win (on a neutral court) seems to be a slightly better win than Clemson (at home). On the other hand, if I'm an Orange fan, I'm pointing out the Ball State and Indiana losses. I'm pointing out two fewer Q-1 wins. With the two teams being this closely matched, could the committee have leaned on the big RPI disparity? That seems to be the biggest thing in Syracuse's favor. I'm not sayin' it's right (I love my Orange but I did not think they were getting in), just that that's the only thing I'm seeing in SU's favor.

I'm almost always pulling for the committee to show some love to mid-majors (for lack of a better term). But this year I can't support St. Mary's despite that gaudy 28-5 record. It's the SOS. Among these 8 teams, theirs is the only one lower than the 80s. The RPI was solid, the BPI made them look like a seriously dangerous team, but when your best win after Gonzaga is BYU, and those are your only Q-1 games, the committee is not going to give you a bid. St. Mary's has earned tournament bids before, and they make the WCC a threat to be a multi-bid conference most years. This year I'm not sure they could've done much more. Essentially, the committee is telling a team like St. Mary's that they needed to go 31-3 with two losses to Gonzaga and one more to Georgia in order to get an at-large. That's a tall order at any level.

Now we're to the team I had in, USC. And as I review their team sheet and numbers again (without the deadline hanging over my head!), I begin to see some stuff I should have considered more strongly. First, their RPI among this group is second best. But their SOR is second worst. Their SOS and BPI are essentially the same as the Sun Devils', which was barely good enough for me to put them in. So does USC have wins comparable to X and the Jayhawks? Not even close. Their Q-1/2 record is better than A-State's, but their best win was Middle Tennessee State (another mid-major that I'm disappointed but  not surprised ended up missing out). They lost head to head vs the Sun Devils. And no team on this list has a loss quite as bad as the home loss to Princeton. My only consolation is that most of the Bracket Matrix agreed that USC should be in, but looking at it now, it was right to leave them out, and this very amateur bracketologist just learned something.

The last team I'll look at is Baylor, a team that beat Kansas and Texas Tech and Creighton (N) and swept Texas (who both the committee and I put in the field). A team that has by far the best SOS of this group. Their RPI was a little light for an at-large, but their BPI and SOR were strong enough as was the quality of those wins which more than counterbalance a loss to Iowa State. I think with Baylor the Committee penalized them just enough for a really weak nonconference schedule. Their Q-1/2 record was 7-13, so they played a LOT of those games, but they just didn't win enough of them. 

So to sum up:
1. Bona deserved their bid, but I may have over-seeded them at 10.
2. I still think UCLA was under-seeded by the Committee.
3. Arizona State is darn lucky they won both those games against the Musketeers and Jayhawks.
4. Since Syracuse and USC were the only teams I whiffed on, in hindsight I think Syracuse clearly deserved a bid over USC (though the play-in was the right spot for them). 
5. ND vs SU is a coin toss and I think the RPI seems to be the deciding factor, fairly or unfairly.
6. St. Mary's had a nearly impossible task with the schedule they had.
7. USC lulled me to sleep by making the Pac 12 final.
8. Baylor may have deserved a little better with the quality of some of their wins, but didn't have enough of them to overcome Syracuse.

I'd really enjoy comments, feedback and constructive criticism.

**BPI, SOS, SOR and RPI are courtesy of  ESPN.com's Power Index. Other data is from the NCAA Committee's Team Sheets.

FINAL Bracket

Ok, here's my final bracket projection of the season, which I submitted to the Bracket Matrix.


Very tough bubble this year, and Davidson added a twist too. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

March 7 Update


Figured I'd better at least update the auto-bid winners. I did a little work on the bottom of the bracket and I think I feel better about this update. Finally figured out that Grambling isn't eligible this year... how embarrassing that I've had them in for awhile. Sorry!

3/8 UPDATE: Thanks to Andrew H for pointing out that Baylor has made my field not once but twice! This means I shorted some sort-of deserving team of an at-large bid. This will be corrected in the next update.