Thursday, March 18, 2021

Now, Where Were We? Dr. Brackets' Tips and Tricks for Your 2021 NCAA Tournament Bracket

Pictured: An American hero. From WSYX.

The man you see above is Gregg Nigl, a now-42-year-old neuropsychologist from Columbus, Ohio. Gregg went to bed on the night of Wednesday, March 20, 2019 a mild-mannered and regular guy.

About 100 hours later, Gregg Nigl had become a living legend.

In 2019, the last time the men's NCAA basketball tournament was played, Gregg made history by becoming the first person to pick every game correctly in the first two rounds. 48 for his first 48. He actually hit on the 49th pick, too, before Tennessee lost to Purdue in the second game of the Sweet 16.

How unlikely was this feat? It depends on how you do the math. If you treated the odds of picking an individual game correctly at 50-50 (Note: DO NOT DO THIS. There is not a 50% chance that Drexel will beat Illinois in the Round of 64 this year.), the odds of someone picking every game correctly in the first 2 rounds are roughly 1 in 281 trillion. Because some of those 48 picks were virtual certainties, the probability of what Nigl accomplished was probably closer to 1 in 13 or 14 million, as estimated by the website Book of Odds.

Nigl described himself as a pretty big basketball fan and said he watched quite a bit of Big Ten hoops. But he admitted he still got really lucky on a few of his picks. He said he picked 13-seed UC Irvine to upset 4-seed Kansas State because he had a friend who went to school at Irvine. He also didn't know where Liberty University was, but thought the 12-seed beating Mississippi State seemed like a good pick.

I love this part of Nigl's story, because it's the perfect encapsulation of my philosophy on how to pick a great NCAA tournament bracket. I watch a bunch of games, crunch thousands of data points a year and keep up to date on all the college basketball news I can to determine what feel like smart picks. But I always try to emphasize how fun the process and the act of being in a bracket pool should be, too. These are my favorite 3 weeks of the year, and a year's worth of living in a world full of COVID showed us that you really can't take anything - even a silly little basketball picking contest - for granted.

To paraphrase Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, "Enjoy the (post)season."


Now, on to what you need to know about the teams and match-ups in this year's tournament. Here is where I always post a disclaimer: Dr. Brackets is just a moniker. I am not a medical doctor, a doctor of philosophy, or even a hypothetical one. But one of my favorite activities every year is the updating of the Warehouse, my collection of scores of data points from what is now up to nearly a decade of NCAA tournaments. Running statistical analyses on this data has uncovered some nuggets of wisdom that may help push you to the top of your bracket pool. Let's dig into what was revealed in this year's model:

"Gonzaga has a family photo...where they're aaaaaall looking slightly to the left!" -Mitch Hedberg (RIP). From Sports Illustrated.

1. It's really hard to not recommend you just move Gonzaga all the way to the "Champion" slot on your bracket. In a typical year, the most popular choice to win a big bracket challenge like ESPN's usually commands about 20% of the total champion selections; Gonzaga might be the choice of 35%+ of those brackets this year. They're undefeated, and they're awesome.

The one knock on them is that their conference is relatively weak, so they haven't played any elite teams since the start of the new year. But they handily beat every opponent in their non-conference schedule - including Iowa, Kansas and Virginia, who are, weirdly, the 2-, 3-, and 4-seeds in Gonzaga's quarter of the bracket this year.

2. It's also really hard to avoid talking about the impact COVID is going to have on some teams here at the onset of the tournament. Several teams (including Virginia and Kansas) had to pull out of their conference tournaments because of players receiving positive tests in the middle of the tourneys.

(Pour one out for poor North Carolina A&T, who were the top-seeded team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. They had to forfeit and pull out of the tourney - and their only opportunity to make the Big Dance - because of an assistant coach getting what was likely a false positive test result.)

Dozens of teams had to take "COVID pauses" and postpone/cancel games during this season because of COVID outbreaks. And because teams were naturally barred from practicing or gathering for film sessions while quarantined, those teams usually looked pretty rusty in their first game or 2 back on the court.

Here are the teams that we know are currently dealing with COVID issues on the eve of the tournament:

--Virginia has been in a week-long quarantine since a positive test result knocked them out of the ACC's conference tournament last Thursday. A player tested positive, but it is not known who, and the team won't be able to travel to Indianapolis for their Saturday game against Ohio until Friday morning.
--Kansas has announced freshman star Jalen Wilson (12 ppg / 8 rpg) will not play in their first game against Eastern Washington and may miss their potential 2nd-round game as well due to a positive test. They are also waiting to get starting big man David McCormack and reserve Tristan Enaruna back with the rest of their team - the positive tests from those two players meant Kansas had to bow out of the Big 12's conference tourney.
--Syracuse will be missing a player for their first-round game against San Diego State. A positive test popped up for them after they lost to Virginia in the ACC tournament. It is not known who tested positive, but their coach Jim Boeheim acknowledged it was someone who played in the Virginia game - relevant info, because Syracuse has a thin rotation and really only has 7 guys who play meaningful minutes.
--Oklahoma announced today that they'll be missing 2nd-leading scorer De'Vion Harmon for their first-round match-up with Missouri because of a positive test.
--Georgia Tech announced a positive test of "someone in their traveling party" shortly after they won the ACC Tournament last weekend. Tonight, we learned that, unfortunately, that positive test belonged to freshman phenom and ACC player of the year Moses Wright (17 ppg / 8 rpg / 1.6 bpg). Big loss for another team with a short bench as they go up against criminally underseeded Loyola Chicago.

Moses Wright, in happer times. From Yellow Jacked Up.

Even though the tournament is taking place in a pseudo-bubble, completely in the Indianapolis area this year, there's a possibility that more positive tests emerge after brackets have all been submitted. Brackets will undoubtedly be harmed (and helped!) because of them. Just, y'know...don't bully any kids on the internet or smash a computer over any of this stuff, okay?

3. A handful of other teams are also dealing with significant non-COVID related injuries that occurred in the past couple weeks or in conference tournaments. These are injuries that occurred late enough in the season that the advanced analytics haven’t yet adjusted to effectively “price in” these absences or their potential effect on their teams' journeys through the tournament. 

These are worth knowing about and monitoring, as some of the players on this list are key contributors for their teams, and their absences could tip the scales in favor of their opponents if these players can't get cleared in time for their tip-offs. 
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)

1) Michigan - Isaiah Livers (2nd-leading scorer, 13ppg/6rpg, 43% 3pt shooter) OUT indefinitely with a stress injury to his foot - Michigan has only played one game without him, losing to Ohio State by 1 in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.
2) Alabama - Josh Primo (freshman wing, 6th man, 8ppg/3.5rpg) DOUBTFUL for round 1 with a knee injury.
2) Ohio State - Kyle Young (Starting big man, 8.6ppg/5.5rpg) QUESTIONABLE for round 1, suffered a concussion during the Big Ten conference tournament.
5) Tennessee - John Fulkerson (Starting big man, 9.5ppg/5.5rpg) DOUBTFUL for Tennessee's first game(s) - took a nasty elbow to the face in the SEC conference tourney that required facial surgery and may have caused a concussion.
5) Villanova - Collin Gillespie (starting point guard and 2nd-leading scorer, 14ppg/4.5apg) OUT for the tourney; he tore his MCL in Villanova's last game prior to their conference tourney.
7) UConn - RJ Cole (starting point guard and 2nd-leading scorer, 12ppg/4.4apg) PROBABLE/QUESTIONABLE for round 1; suffered concussion last week but sounds like he's been cleared to practice with team starting Thursday.
10) Virginia Tech - Jalen Cone (sophomore wing, 6th man, 9ppg) OUT for at least the Hokies' first game, still recovering from early February ankle injury.

4. Floor Generals: Hey, that was a lot of depressing stuff you just slogged through, wasn't it? Let's get back to some fun stats n' stuff! Here's one of my favorites that I bring up every year. If you've got a steady
 presence as your primary ball handler, your team may be in for a longer stay at the tourney.

Over the past 7 years, if your team has a "floor general" who averages at least 3.8 assists per game, you win about a half-game more than teams who don't. And 27 of the past 32 Final Four teams have had a floor general toting the rock up the court. So having a capable point guard (or point forward! Let's just go with "point person.") helps both the mid-level 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, because usually, your 1-, 2- and 3-seeds possess a player that fits this criteria. This year's pack of notable floor general-less teams includes: AlabamaVillanova (poor Collin Gillespie)Purdue, KansasOklahoma State, Tennessee, and ALL of the 6-seeds except BYU.

Here's BYU's floor general, Alex Barcello. From Deseret News.

5. Get to Know These Big Guys: There are a LOT more teams than usual in the 11-seed through 14-seed groups this year with statistical profiles that aren't a whole lot worse than the 3-through-6-seeds that they'll be playing in the 1st round. Often, teams from mid-major and low-major conferences lack the bulk and height needed to effectively rebound and establish their offensive sets against bigger and stronger high-major competition.

Not so this year! Here are some teams you may not have heard of whose chances I like in the 1st round, many of whom have a dominant post scorer/rim protector on their rosters:

11) Utah State: Neemias Queta is a Portuguese 7-footer and All-American Honorable Mention who has one of the coolest names in the tourney. He does it all for the Aggies, averaging a double-double along with 3.5 assists, 3 blocks and a steal per game.

12) Georgetown: The Hoyas probably don't belong on a list full of mid-major teams, but, well, I added them here anyway. They were known for churning out a conveyor belt of big men in the 1980s and 90s, and they made an unlikely run through the Big East tournament to swipe the conferences automatic bid thanks in no small part to their Nigerian big man Qudus Wahab, who averages 12.5/8 on 60% shooting from the field.

12) Winthrop: The Eagles went 23-1 and steamrolled through the Big South conference with a balanced attack led not by a big post guy...but rather, by a big point guard. 6-foot-7 Chandler Vaudrin leads the NCAA in triple-doubles this year, with 3.

13) Ohio: Ohio was the last 13-seed to make it to the Sweet 16, back in 2012. This year's version is a turbo-charged offensive machine, powered by a legit NBA prospect at point guard in Jason Preston, a bevy of guys who can shoot the 3, and their 250-pound mass in the middle, Dwight Wilson III.

14) Abilene Christian: ACU has a deep rotation, with 9 guys who average at least 14 minutes a game. Their leading scorer is 7-foot senior Kolton Kohl, who averages a 12ppg/5rpg line in less than 19 minutes per contest - though they may need to stretch him out in a 1st round match-up against the forest of Ents known as Texas.

Kolton Kohl, to the hole! From ACU.

BONUS 15) Grand Canyon: The one thing that occasionally took Iowa's NCAA Player of the Year frontrunner Luka Garza out of his usual dominance this year was having to face a big, aggressive fellow center that would make him work harder than usual in the post. The Antelopes just might have a guy to stymie Garza and keep them in their 2 vs 15 contest in their 7-foot, 270-pound dunkin' Dane Asbjorn Midtgaard, a transfer from Wichita State who averaged a double-double and shot 70% from the field this year.

6. Overseeded/Underseeded: Over the past few years, the tournament selection committee has been more and more reliant on the same sorts of advanced metrics that I use in my model to help them determine who should make the tourney and where they should be seeded. So there aren't as many discrepancies between where I think teams should be seeded and where they actually are seeded as there used to be.

But there's definitely still enough for me to make Over/Under one of the big 10 things to know about the bracket!

USC has a case that they should be a 4-seed, but they are the 6-seed in Gonzaga's quarter.
Loyola Chicago 
should be a 3 or 4-seed, but is stuck as the 8-seed looking at a 2nd-round matchup with Illinois. (Though Cameron "Officer Farva" Krutwig vs. Kofi Cockburn could be the big man battle of the tourney.)
San Diego State deserves to be a 4 or 5 instead of a 6-seed.
LSU and St. Bonaventure both got hosed; my model has them both as worthy of 5-seeds, but they'll play each other in an 8 vs 9 match-up.

Loyola's Cam Krutwig. The media guide says he's 22, but...I dunno. From Odessa American.

All of the 3-seeds except Arkansas don't have the statistical profiles that are worthy of such a high seed, according to my model.
Kansas should be a 4 or 5-seed.
Texas should be a 5- or 6-seed.
Most egregiously, West Virginia should be a 7 or 8-seed.
My model also thinks Purdue and Virginia look more like 6-seeds than the 4-seeds they received.

7. KenPom Top 10s: Since 2012, there have been 14
 teams that entered the tournament with top-10 ratings in both offense and defense, per Ken Pomeroy and his OG analytics site Twelve of those 14 teams won at least three games in the tournament; one of the two teams that didn't was 2018's s Michigan State squad, but they would have run up against another "double top 10" team in the Sweet 16 that year in Duke, so one of those two teams would have messed with my awesome stat anyway! Um...Michigan State actually lost to Syracuse in the 2nd round that year, but hey, let's keep things positive around here, alright??? Thank you.

There were 3 such teams in 2019's tournament. Duke and Michigan State were once again placed in the same quarter of the bracket, and both won at least 3 games (Michigan State won their battle in the regional final). The other "double top 10" team in 2019? Your champions: Virginia.

This year, we once again have 3 "double top 10" teams in the tournament, and they make up three of the four #1 seeds: Gonzaga, Michigan, and Illinois

Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, Illinois' dynamic duo. From The News-Gazette.

8. Nailing the Final Four: 
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 my usual strategy, but it's not the strategy I will likely go with this year. Gonzaga's just too good. They enter the tournament as the 2nd-best team by KenPom's adjusted margin metrics in the last 20 years of college basketball. (Though it should be noted: The best team of the last 20 years was Karl-Anthony Towns' 2015 Kentucky squad...a team that didn't win the championship.)

So who should win in the other quarters of the bracket? Typically, you're looking for balanced teams who can score a hefty amount of points but who still play D well enough to be roughly top 30 or better in defensive metrics. The teams who best fit this criteria in each of the non-Gonzaga quadrants are:
SOUTH: 1) Baylor and 3) Arkansas
MIDWEST: 1) Illinois, 2) Houston, 6) San Diego State, and 8) Loyola Chicago 
(who are very efficient on offense but don't put up an insane number of points because of their slow pace)
EAST: 1) Michigan (though this is put a little in doubt by Isaiah Livers' absence), 2) Alabama, 6) BYU and 7) UConn (who are similar to Loyola Chicago in efficiency and pacing)

9. Early Upsets: You may guess some of these based on what I've said about them or their opponents already. But h
ere 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) Drake (provided they beat Wichita State in the "first four" Thursday night) and Utah State
12) Winthrop and UC Santa Barbara. A lot of national analysts are high on the other two 12-seeds, Georgetown and Oregon State, because they just won high-major conference tourneys. I do like Georgetown's match-up vs Colorado, but they just don't profile as an overachieving 12-seed in my model.
13) Ohio
14) Abilene Christian and Colgate
15) Grand Canyon

10. Round 1 Best Bets: Now, betting on sports is not yet legal in my home state of Minnesota. So these are educated guesses made strictly for recreational purposes. Feel free to make these wagers if you plan to be in Vegas or a different gamblin' state in the next couple days, though.

Oral Roberts +16 vs Ohio State
Winthrop +6.5 vs Villanova
Missouri +1 vs Oklahoma
North Carolina -1.5 vs Wisconsin
San Diego State -3 vs Syracuse
Purdue/North Texas under 127


That's all I've got for 2021, folks. Wow, that felt like a lot of writing. Did that take a while to read? Hey, give me a break, I've been waiting to do this article for two years! Happy 1st weekend of March Madness everyone. Enjoy the season.

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