Monday, March 13, 2017

The Place To Be

There will be eight cities hosting six games each starting Thursday. Which cities have the best slate of games?

"Best" can mean different things to different people. As someone who goes to the games whenever it comes to town, I don't care who we get, but I admit that some slates have more appeal than others.

Personally, I don't really like it when we get a 1 or 2 in town. Not much drama. Yeah, it's cool to see a national title contender at work, and occasionally an 8 will pull an upset in the second round, but more often the 8 or 9 gets pounded. I love getting the 3/6 or 4/5 teams... upset potential (on both games), yet still quality teams if it gets chalky. I saw VCU get national attention when they upset Duke in a 6/11 then take (3) Pitt to overtime ten years ago and it was incredible. Dayton did much the same from the 11 spot in 2014 in Buffalo, knocking off the Buckeyes and then the Orange on their way to the Elite Eight.

So here's the eight cities, ranked by how much drama I think we'll see there. Your mileage may vary. By the way, I'd take the worst of these any day of the week.

Michigan/OKST, Louisville/Jac St
Dayton/Wichita St, Kentucky/NOKY
For a pair of pods headlined by 2 seeds, this actually looks very competitive. Michigan will be a dangerous team for the Cardinals, and underseeded Wichita won't be a pushover to the Wildcats. KY's on a serious roll, but Louisville isn't and we might have some drama if they play the Wolverines.

Nova vs 16's, Badgers or Hokies...
Notre Dame/Princeton, WV/Bucknell
I love these matchups. Underseeded Wisconsin will give Nova (who I think is the best team in the tournament) a game, and both ND and WV are upset candidates or will have a heck of a game against each other on Saturday. Really looking forward to ND-Princeton.

Iowa St/Nevada, Purdue/Vermont
Butler/Winthrop, Minnesota/MTSU
Bracket Buster Central looks to be in Milwaukee this year. All four of those lower seeded teams could certainly pull upsets. Iowa State is playing great now but I think the other three are more vulnerable. There's not a true final four threat here but lots of potential for a double digit seed to get through to the sweet 16, especially MTSU.

Salt Lake City:
Zags/Jackrabbits, NW/Vandy
VCU/St Mary's,  AZ/NoDak
Who's not excited to see NW play their first tourney game? And Vandy is playing better lately, though I think they're a little overseeded for a team with 15 losses. Gonzaga's quest for its first final four makes this interesting. And compare St. Mary's-VCU to SC-Marquette as a 7/10 game. No comparison-the winner will give Arizona a fight. For a site headlined by a 1 and a 2, lots of drama here.

Baylor/NMST, SMU/Prov/USC
Kansas/16, 'Canes or Spartans
If a 6 surviving the first weekend is an upset, then Tulsa might have some excitement. Just not seeing the Bears getting through. Unless Tom Izzo can get his overseeded Spartans in gear, Kansas should roll.

Maryland/Xavier, FSU/FGCU
Not feeling it from Dunk City this year, but Trimble would be great fun to see, and while I think UVA ought to win, I think Florida is vulnerable. Pretty unlikely that anyone but UVA and FSU get out of here alive, and that's not very dramatic.

UCLA/Kent, Cincy/KST/WF
URI/Creighton vs Oregon/Iona
This slate doesn't excite me at all, except for the chance to see Lonzo Ball and Dillon Brooks. I see a lot of chalk in these games despite Oregon's injury loss, though I could see the Rams knocking off Creighton. I guess UCLA's a serious Final Four threat, at least, and UCLA v Cincy would be an interesting contrast in style.

UNC/TxSo - Ark/Seton Hall
Duke/Troy - South Carolina/Marquette
A stinker, though with three teams from the Carolinas involved I'm sure the locals will love it. It'd be exciting to see two seriously talented title contenders and their HoF coaches. SC/Marquette seems like a really weak 7/10 game and neither should threaten Duke. Why is SC even playing in SC as a 7?? I don't see the 8/9 teams giving UNC any trouble, though that might be an interesting game to see who gets thrashed in the second round. There might be two competitive games, but there will be four blowouts.

So I'm excited for the Buffalo games (which I will be at), and would only consider trading them for the Indy games which I think combine really good 7/10 matchups with a true title contender at the top who could plow through them all... or get Shocked (by either team) on Sunday.

Hindsight being 20/20...

So here's some observations from building this final bracket...

1. I read a lot of Twitter ink about how Duke, Kentucky, and/or Arizona would be more worthy 1-seeds than UNC and/or Gonzaga. When I took a closer look, UK and AZ didn't quite have the numbers of the other 5, and while the Zags' SOS was lower, just about every other metric I looked at pointed toward them. So I stuck with them over Duke. An argument certainly could be made for any of them (UK and AZ won conference title AND tourney titles AND are very good teams, and Duke of course was the preseason favorite and finished strong). But I think the committee did the right thing.

2. I was not (deliberately) being a Syracuse homer when putting them in the field. I really thought that Syracuse's higher highs in beating UVA, Duke and FSU (even though all were at home) could've outweighed USC's superior record overall. I'd almost say the committee rewarded USC for an unspectacular but clean schedule and punished SU for having too many Louisville's and UNC's on their schedule. And SU did beat Wake this year AND finished ahead of them in a tough conference. So an argument can be made that 'Cuse deserved to be in ahead of two teams... but I'm not going to complain. Few 14-loss teams really deserve an at-large spot, and Syracuse blew their own chances:
- by losing to BC, they gave the committee (and most of Twitter) a stick to beat them with
- by not quite pulling out the OT win against Louisville, they lost a fourth win against a top 5 seed
- by not beating Miami on a neutral floor they both denied themselves a needed road/neutral win AND a crack at UNC. I have no illusions on how THAT would've gone, but it's hard to get in with just 2 road wins.
So it's not so much that I believed them truly worthy of a bid. They and USC were literally my last-in/first-out teams, and that means that no tears (and little internet ink) should be shed for my Orange.

3. And I hated leaving out Illinois State. The numbers just weren't there, but there needs to be a way to get a team like that in somehow. I guess it depends on your definition of "mid-major" (which is a term not everyone likes anyway), but to me it's schools outside the following group: SEC, ACC, B10, B12, P12, Big East. I personally put the American and A-10 in there too. If you do, there is just one mid-major at-large teams: St. Mary's. Is this a result of the mids being a weaker pool this year? Are the selection criteria, the committee itself, or the process biased against them? You can tell by the seedings that even teams like MTSU and UNCW were not going to be at-large teams, and URI might not have made it had they lost to VCU yesterday.

I have a theory that partially covers that issue. Look at some of the teams that are in. Butler and Creighton and VCU are among the teams that are no longer in "mid-major conferences". They jumped ship, leaving that many fewer strong programs at that level. Davidson also climbed the ladder, though they weren't in contention for a bid this year. With teams like that changing their conference addresses (and therefore upgrading their scheduling opportunities), it both expands the Big East's and A-10's likely tourney teams while leaving fewer upper echelon programs for the mid-conferences AND soaking up bids that might've gone toward the mids. I think this trend is going to continue. Those three teams getting in every year will make us not notice for awhile since I still think of them as mids... but they're not, not anymore, and I think it's sort of a shame.

Now that the brackets are in, just a couple thoughts things I plan to look more closely at to understand the committee's decisions better:

1. I am struggling with understanding the seeds for Dayton and Wichita State (two of my favorite teams, incidentally). Dayton won a so-so A-10, but also lost their last two games to lesser teams. I was sure they'd get an 8. Wichita State, on the other hand, is sky-high on so many metrics (8th in KenPom, 31 in RPI, 15 in BPI) that I can't believe they're a 10. I had them a 7, and could've understood an 8, but 10 seems awfully low. Normally I'd complain that they're playing each other and not getting a crack at a power conference school (much like VCU playing St. Mary's), but of the four only St. Mary's is still a mid.

2. I was surprised at how little they thought of Wisconsin as well. Wisconsin's SOS was low, but they were second in a league that had 7 tournament teams, they made their tourney final, and I'm relieved I didn't nudge them up to a 5 like I was thinking when they made B10 final. I guess I'm less surprised by the "8" than by the fact that they slid behind both Minnesota and Maryland. I'm glad I'll be seeing them live in Buffalo though.

3. Speaking of teams that made their tourney finals, I need to look closer at FL and ND. I had them flipping their spots, partly on the basis of their tourney results, with FL's early exit and ND beating UVA and Louisville. I'd have thought that the 3rd place team in the ACC would be seeded ahead of the 2nd place team in this year's SEC. It's just a couple spots on the S-curve but still.

Hopefully I'll post about the regions and some predictions later today or tomorrow. Comment on Twitter at @chris17thseed.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Final Bracket Matrix Submission

Below is my Bracket Matrix final submission, my final projected bracket. I'd love to comment on it, but I won't have time til after we see the results on the Selection Show. I've learned a lot, and had a lot of fun. I'll post some comments later on.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

March 7 Bracket Update

Not much new today. As a MAAC fan, I'm not surprised to see Monmouth, Iona and Siena among the final four at their tourney. My only disappointment is that Monmouth would've gotten and deserved a better seed (and deserved a bid last year). Iona is likely a 14 barring any upsets of the teams ahead of them.

Also reinserted East Tennessee State as the Southern Conference entry, replacing UNC Greensboro. We have ETSU and MTSU... is there a WTSU?

Checked in on the NCAA selection committee chat on Facebook today. I wasn't surprised that they didn't criticize having 16 seeds in the play-in game, but I was happy to see that I wasn't the only one there who thought it should be addressed. One of them (I forget which) made a rather silly statement that 16's feel like "we got in, we'll go play anywhere." That might or might not be true, and maybe some like the idea that they can claim to have won a tournament game with a play-in win. But I think it totally misses the point about fairness, and about having earned a tournament bid then having to jump through another hoop to get to Thursday/Friday.

They brought up another point: the last 12 games don't matter to them. That's long been a consideration but they said it's not on their radar. I was a little surprised until I looked at the bubble... the only bubble teams with more than 8 wins in their last 12 are the mid-majors that are about to get left behind, so clearly that doesn't mean squat. I didn't get to hear the whole thing but I think it was great that they took questions and hope they'll do this next year too.

Here's the update:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

March 6 Bracket Update

Not a lot of movement at the top of the bracket this week. Hard to penalize Duke for losing at UNC. My first problem came at the 4-line, where WV, Florida and FSU all split their games while Purdue and Virginia swept theirs. Despite the committee seeming to think less of the Big 10 this year, I put Purdue in the last 4-spot over Virginia, but I suppose it could go either way. I guess whatever the numbers say, a power conference champ should get a protected seed before a team that finished tied for fifth. The Big 10 DOES have 7 tournament quality teams, after all.

I was ready to bump Dayton to a 7 (probably at Creighton's expense) before they lost their finale. Miami might've fallen some but their losses were to tournament teams, and the teams around them also lost.

I have what're probably two semi-controversial teams in the field. Rhode Island is my last team in. The bubble teams did themselves no favors, and URI just keeps taking care of their business. I also kept Illinois State in. I think both of these teams will fall out by next Sunday night, unfortunately, but today I think they deserve to be in. Poor Xavier. Their win vs DePaul may have stopped their skid, but I think the teams I put in ahead of them are more deserving... today. Xavier should beat DePaul again in the BET opening round, but I'm not seeing them beat Butler. Not sure that's enough to get them in. Xavier and Illinois State have similar RPI. X has 7 top 100 wins, I-state just 2. Somehow I think that'll sway the committee. It worked for Syracuse last year and probably will again this year.

This week will be tough. It's hard not to overreact on moving teams up and down the S-curve as they win or lose conference tournament games. One thing I've heard said over and over is that nothing happens in a vacuum. That's why, for instance, I left Miami an 8 despite two losses. Neither of their losses were bad (or unexpected), and the teams near them all lost, so they held their ground. But down on the bubble, Cal and other teams played their way out, at least in my book.

I think the 1's are all locked unless UNC suffers an early ACC loss AND Oregon wins the Pac 12 tournament. If that happens, I think Oregon will slip by them. Not seeing Louisville or Baylor or Kentucky getting a 1. I also think (and my final bracket will reflect it) that the committee will make Gonzaga the 4th #1 seed, even if Oregon passes UNC, so they are not a lock for San Jose. They may be sent to Memphis.

Hoping to post some updates during the week, including which Bubble teams have the best chance to get some needed wins. I'll have my "final exam" bracket submitted to the Matrix late Sunday afternoon. Constructive criticism welcome on Twitter at @chris17thseed.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Make the Play-In Games for Bubble Teams Only!

I've long disliked the play-in games. I liked them less when they were "first round" games, but I don't like them much more now. 64 teams was perfect symmetry. But the PiGs are here to stay, so we have to make the best of them. Dayton's a great venue, that's for sure.

If we have to have the PiGs, then they ought to be an opportunity, not a penalty. And it IS a penalty, for the four 16-seeds that have to play in them. It's also an opportunity for the four bubble teams. Personally, what I'd want to do is eliminate the two 16-seed play-in games, which penalize those teams, and make all the play-in games involve bubble teams fighting for seeding at the 10-11-12 seed level. Again, this isn't an original idea, but it's right for several reasons:

1. It's right because it's wrong to force the 16's to stop at Dayton for a game before getting into the field of 64. They earned their dance ticket by winning their conference tourney, and they should automatically get a game against a 1-seed on Thursday or Friday. Those kids have earned that moment in the spotlight.
2. Think about this too: without the 16-seed play-in games, two of those 16's would be 15's. Two of those 15's would be 14's. Two of the 14's would be 13's. You get the idea. While 16's still can't get off the schneid, 15's will pull upsets periodically (see "MTSU vs the Spartans" and "Dunk City", among others), and your odds get better as you move up the ladder. Half of the lower quarter of the bracket is receiving mathematically tougher odds just because of the PiG.
3. It's right because, unlike those 16's (on up to the 13's and 12's too), all those bubble teams have earned exactly nothing. They haven't won a tourney, won a conference title, or sometimes even finished .500 in their conference (I have some thoughts on that for another day). Make a team earn their way in.
4. It's right because it's fair. The differences between most bubble teams are usually minor... a few rungs on the RPI or SOS ladder, a big win here or embarrassing loss there. But I bet the difference between, say, the first couple 10's and the last couple 12's is fairly clear-cut. So pick the final 8 teams and make them earn their way in, for the right to play against a 5 or 6 seed. The first couple teams out will have even less to squawk about than they do now (not that it'll stop the "who got shafted" talk on Selection Sunday...admit it, if you're reading this it's one of your favorite parts of March Madness).

I'd add one twist though: at least two or three of these final 8 spots have to go to teams outside the power six conferences (the "BCS" schools plus the Big East).  I don't know about you, but I felt for Monmouth and Bonaventure last year (even if it was my favorite team that cut them in line and made a run to the final four). Take this year for instance. I'd like to see MTSU, UNC Wilmington, Illinois State and maybe even UT Arlington get an at-large if they don't win their tourney. I'd like to see Rhode Island or even Houston get in. It's a down year for mid's in general, but isn't an upset bid by Monmouth or Akron more compelling than one by Wake Forest or Cal (other than to students and alumni of those schools, of course)? I think the teams in the power conferences have plenty of opportunities but the lower tier and even some in the middle... their windows are all too often fewer and farther between.

If you combine the two scenarios, the bottom of (my 2/28 version) bracket looks like this:
16's: New Orleans, UC Davis, Mt. St. Mary's, NC Central (all are currently in my PiG).
15's: North Dakota, Texas Southern, South Dakota, E Tennessee State
14's: Bucknell, FL Gulf Coast, Princeton, Winthrop
13's: CS Bakersfield, Belmont, Valpo, Vermont
12's: Monmouth, Akron, Nevada, UT Arlington
11's: NC Wilmington, MTSU, two PiG winners (Seton Hall v Ill State, Rhode Island/Vandy)
10's: Two PiG winners (Syracuse/Houston, Providence/Marquette), Northwestern, Arkansas

Think about it: half those teams moved up a seed line and get a (somewhat) more beatable opponent. I'd be furious if I were one of those conference presidents. And few of those play-in teams are consensus tournament teams. I admit, Houston especially is something of a fringe bubbler now, but in many years there'll be some real quality mids to pick from, and if one of those 12's lose in their conference final, well, maybe they replace Houston.

In the end, the tournament will be fun no matter who the "last four in" are. But that doesn't mean it can't be improved.