Get on Kevin Harlan's level, folks! Courtesy of Awful Announcing.
This Minnesota winter seemed like an endless cycle of either barrages of snow or days of 30 below. I, for one, have learned my lesson and will not be relying on that rascal Punxatawney Phil for my long-range weather forecasts in future Februaries. But in what is the surest sign of The Glorious Long Thaw, the dulcet tones of Kevin Harlan, Jim Nantz, and the rest of the CBS play-by-play gang are once again filling the open-concept office spaces and living rooms of the nation.
It's time to once again investigate what you need to know in order to swipe your friends' and co-workers' hard-earned money and hard-won bragging rights, and Dr. Brackets is here to help you separate your bracket from the chatter and the racket.
Here is your annual disclaimer: I am not an actual doctor. I don't save lives, I've never finished a dissertation, and I'm not licensed to practice law in the United States (though if we ever cross paths in Iceland and you've run into some legal troubles, let's talk). But one of my favorite activities every year is the updating of the Warehouse, my collection of thousands of data points from the last 8 years of NCAA tournaments, which has displayed a scary amount of predictive power in recent years.
My statistical model has helped me correctly pick the tourney champ in 3 of the last 4 years! In that 4th year, the model told me to go with Michigan State...the year they lost to Middle Tennessee in the 1st round. (Pay no attention to the Outlier!!!) But in the research I conduct in this week every year, I always uncover a dozen or so tips and tidbits that can help you both scratch out a few more points in those early-round matchups that will help your bracket separate from the crowd and make smart selections deep into your bracket. So what do you need to know this year?
1. You would be forgiven if you found it hard to be (TERRIBLE PUN ALERT) cavalier with how far you advance Virginia this year. Last year's version of the Virginia squad suffered the indignity of being the first #1 seed to fall to a 16-seed in the first round of the tournament.
The good news for this year's Virginia team is they battled to a top-5 ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency, losing only twice to Duke and once to Florida State all season. As I'll mention below, teams that finish the regular season top-10 in both O and D efficiency win an average of 3.7 games in the tournament (last year's Virginia team did not carry this distinction).
But the mark against Virginia is that they plaaaaaay soooooooooo sloooooooooowly. Their pace of play is the slowest of all 353 Division I teams. This can serve, much like it did for Bo Ryan's Wisconsin teams of the previous decade, as a source of frustration when a team seems to only get the ball for 5 seconds of every minute of game time and can't do much with it in their short time in possession. But, as last year, it makes Virginia susceptible to poor shooting nights or opponents who hit a hot streak, as their slow pace really shrinks the number of possessions they're allowed to get back into a game once they trail.
So, the advanced stats suggest Virginia should be poised for a lengthy run. Most of the other top teams in their bracket also play slowly, so they won't have a stylistic advantage, but they are the best in college basketball at playing the way they do. But you may see many of your bracket opponents follow a "once bitten, twice shy" rule with this year's Cavaliers.
2. This year marks an exciting return of powerful mid-majors! If you're naturally drawn toward a good underdog story, you can't help but root for the Woffords and Belmonts of the world. Gonzaga has of course become one of basketball's blue bloods over the past 20 years, even as they continue to dominate the West Coast Conference. But Buffalo, Nevada, and Houston (from the American Conference, which is kind of a high-mid-major but just humor me) all won games last year and bring back stronger squads this year.
Look out for three other mid-major teams as well: 11-seeded Belmont, who vanquished Temple in a First Four game last night, and 12-seeded Murray State, who features a 25 point, 10 assist per game guy you should make sure to catch in Ja Morant. You'll hear Morant's name called alongside a bunch of Dookies in the top-5 picks of this year's NBA draft. And 7-seeded Wofford may make some serious noise in the Midwest bracket. Their only losses are to other tournament teams, and they ran through a stronger-than-usual Southern Conference undefeated. Plus, they hit threes at a fantastic clip, which makes them a Giant Killer-candidate.
3. Every year, an unlucky handful of teams have to try and adapt to injuries to stars and/or key rotation players; often, these teams find it really difficult to make deep tournament runs. It takes time for teams that usually go 8- or 9-deep to settle into new rotations and usage patterns. Injuries can turn title contenders into 2nd-week also-rans, and can take promising mid-high seeds and make them upset fodder.
And if the injuries occur late enough in the season, the advanced analytics haven’t been allowed to gather enough data to effectively “price in” a key player’s absence to his team’s route through the tournament. Here's a list of the injuries you should know about this year, and keep in mind: injuries to point guards and big men often hurt the most in March. (Number denotes team's seed)
2) Michigan State - Joshua Langford (2nd-leading scorer) AND Kyle Ahrens (key bench big) both out
2) Kentucky - PJ Washington (Leading scorer, 15ppg/8rpg) QUESTIONABLE for round 1, appeared during Selection Sunday, mysteriously, in a walking boot
4) Kansas State - Dean Wade (2nd-leading scorer, best 3pt shooter) out - he suffered an injury right before last year's tourney, too. Poor Dean.
4) Kansas - Lagerald Vick (2nd leading scorer, 14ppg/4rpg) out for personal reasons, Udoka Azubuike (#3 scorer, 13ppg/7rpg) out
5) Mississippi State - Nick Weatherspoon (5th-leading scorer) suspended
8) Syracuse - Tyus Battle (Leading scorer) QUESTIONABLE for round 1 with back injury
8) VCU - Marcus Evans (Leading scorer, 13ppg/3apg) QUESTIONABLE with bone bruise
9) Baylor - Tristan Clark (Leading scorer, 15ppg/6rpg) out with a knee injury
10) Florida - Keith Clark (Key bench big, 6ppg/4rpg) tore his ACL
Zion Willamson: A man whose biceps are wider than my gut. Courtesy Getty Images.
4. For the first time in the history of this column, we get to transition from the downer "injury bug" item into a more positive jam: Players that are recovering from recent injuries and are expected to bring a lift to their teams this week!
As you might expect, the teams listed here may be undervalued relative to their seed, since the analytics likely show a version of the injured players' teams playing at a reduced capacity for at least a portion of the year. Here are the players looking to make returns and spur their teams to better outcomes than you might expect:
1) Duke - Zion Williamson (Likely National Player of the Year award winner, he's a freak, he's awesome, watch all his games) back after missing 5 games with a knee injury when his shoe exploded early in a game against North Carolina.
1) North Carolina - Rechon "Leaky" Black (key bench ballhandler, missed 13 games) expected back for the tourney.
1) Gonzaga - Killian Tillie (key bench big, 3pt shooter, missed 22 games) and Geno Crandall (key ballhandler and LOCAL MINNESOTA KID, missed 9 games) both back in rotation.
2) Michigan - Charles Matthews (starting wing, missed 3 games) back in starting lineup.
2) Kentucky - Reid Travis (starting big man and LOCAL MINNESOTA KID, missed 5 games) back after knee sprain.
4) Auburn - Austin Wiley (starting center, missed 11 games) back in lineup for SEC tourney.
11) Belmont - Nick Muszynski (starting center, conference freshman of the year) was back in Belmont's lineup after missing conference tournament, looked great against Temple last night.
11) Ohio State - Kaleb Wesson (leading scorer, missed 3 games while suspended) gave Ohio State a boost in the Big Ten tourney after being reinstated to the team.
5. The presence of a steady ball handler often means a longer presence for your team at the tournament. Over the past 7 years, if your team has a "floor general" who averages at least 3.8 assists per game, you win 0.6 games more than teams who don't. And 24 of the past 28 Final Four teams have had a floor general toting the rock up the court. So having a capable point guard (or point forward! This a non-discrimination-against-big-guys-with-handles zone.) helps both the mid-seeds get a win or 2, and the top teams achieve long runs.
I usually bring this up to pinpoint which teams lack this resource as candidates for early exits. This year's pack of notable floor general-less teams includes: Texas Tech, Kansas, Kansas State, Buffalo, ALL of the 8- and 9-seeds except Central Florida and Utah State, and...gulp...the Gophers.
Pictured: Will Wade. Not pictured: Will Wade on the sideline coaching LSU during the tournament. Courtesy Sporting News.
6. The deja vu of LSU: The 3-seeded Tigers are experiencing the weird reality of being without their head coach for the tournament. Will Wade has been suspended indefinitely by the school, as he's been ensnared in the same FBI sting operation around illegally paying to recruit star players that befell Arizona before last year's 4-seed was upset by Buffalo in the first round in 2018.
This information by itself would not point to LSU being in danger of losing to 14-seeded Yale in this year's first round. But...if you look at the full list of last year's tournament teams, LSU's closest comparable - both stylistically and efficiency-wise - happens to be...Arizona. And, freakily, Yale's closest comp happens to be...Buffalo.
Not sayin', just sayin'.
7. The "20-game win streak" rule: One of my favorite little "probably-doesn't-mean-anything" nuggets in my 8 years of data exploration is this: Every team that was assigned a 12-seed or better that had a 20-game or more win streak during the season has won at least one game in the tournament. That may seem obvious when the subject is highly-ranked teams (of course 1's and 2's are usually going to win a lot of games during the regular season and then win at least once in the tourney!), but this stat has also held true for Cinderellas like 12-seeded Stephen F. Austin in 2014, and mid-majors that earn high seeds, like 6-seeded Murray State in 2012.
This year, two of our plucky mid-major favorites achieved this feat: Gonzaga (a 1-seed, so...yeah) and 7-seeded WOFFORD WOOOOOOOOO!!! So go ahead and move those two teams ahead to at least the 2nd round.
WOFFORD WOOOOOOOOO!!! Courtesy Statesman.com.
8. Overseeded/underseeded: The selection committee did maybe their best job of the decade, both in terms of giving the top seeds to teams who deserved them and picking worthy squads with those 10- and 11-seed teams who were on the bubble before Selection Sunday. As usual, my biggest sticking point was in how they handled some of the better mid-major teams:
Nevada should be a 3 or 4-seed, but got handed a 7-seed.
Wofford deserves to be a 4 or 5, not a 7-seed.
Buffalo should also be a 4 or 5, instead of a 6-seed.
Murray State should be an 8 or 9, but were saddled with a 12-seed.
Also, Cincinnati (not really a mid-major) deserved to be a couple lines higher than the 7-seed they were granted.
In contrast, I only uncovered a few egregious overseedings - all of which, coincidentally, are exacerbated by injuries or extenuating circumstances listed above:
LSU is more of a 4- or 5-seed than a 3-seed.
Kansas State should be a 5- or 6-seed instead of the 4 they received.
Same with Kansas.
Baylor should have been one of the last teams in, but they got a 9-seed.
9. KenPom Top 10s: Ten teams over the past seven years have entered the tournament with top-10 ratings in both offense and defense, per Ken Pomeroy and his seminal site kenpom.com. Nine of those teams won at least three games in the tournament; the one that didn't was last year's Michigan State squad, but they (or Duke, one of the other "dual top 10" teams) had no chance to WIN three games, because they (and Duke) were set to play each other in the Sweet 16 last year! Um...Michigan State actually lost to Syracuse one round before they would have played Duke, but MY POINT STILL STANDS, thank you.
This year, we have the most "dual top 10" teams going into the tournament since 2012: Duke and Michigan State again achieved the feat (and are again positioned in the same region of the bracket), and as mentioned earlier, they've been joined by Virginia in this exclusive club this year.
10. Best Bets for Upsets: So how exactly do you win a bracket pool? You do 2 things:
A. You nail as much of the Final Four as you can.
B. You gain a small advantage early on by picking the right upsets.
How do you accomplish A? Often, especially in pools that a lot of people enter, the highest expected value for your Bracket Buck is to pick a team to win the title that falls outside of the top few favorites that most of your competitors will likely pick. This is a strategy that, 4 years out of 5, may backfire and drop you to the middle of the pack by the end of the tourney. But every once in a while it will pay off and vault you to the top of the standings when things go your way.
But what are the best bets to help you gain that early-round advantage this year? Here are the double-digit seeds that are stronger-than-usual for their seed line this year; whether or not I picked them to steal a game or 2 is entirely match-up dependent:
11) Belmont and St. Mary's
12) Murray State and New Mexico State. A lot of people like Oregon, but they're not very efficient offensively. Wisconsin is stout defensively, the best 5-seed, and a bad match-up for them in Round 1.
13) Vermont and UC Irvine
There you go, folks. I just emptied my pockets for you! Now go forth and prosper. (And when you win your pools, remember to send me 5% of your winnings as per my consultancy fee; please make checks out to "Dr. Brackets, Esq. (Iceland).")
Make sure to get your brackets submitted to your various contests by 11am Thursday morning, and enjoy the best 3 weeks of the year, everyone!