Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Just Gimme a Chance: Dr. Brackets' 2024 NCAA Tourney Tips & Tricks


CBS' post-bracket reveal show may be good, BUT ESPN'S GOT JAY BILAS!
from ESPN's Youtube channel.

Late on Selection Sunday every year – after the bracket has been announced, after the kids have been put to bed – I like to turn on a couple of the big sports networks’ “bracketology” shows, where experts and former players interview coaches, talk about whether they agree with the selection committee’s decisions, and make their predictions on who will win each match-up in the tourney.

Now, I know these folks are working on coming up with info nuggets essentially on the fly since the bracket isn’t revealed until 5-6pm central time, and these shows typically start shortly after. It’s tough to basically wing it on live TV on these shows that have a lot of moving parts.

But to a large extent, college basketball followers have a pretty good idea of who ~60 of the 68 tournament teams will be at least a day in advance. And I am always blown away by the number of match-up predictions where the analysis offered up is almost literally something like, “I like Alabama, BUT GONZAGA HAS DREW TIMME, I’m going with the Zags.”

And I’m like, “……so, is this a good match-up for Timme? Why is that? Does Alabama have a weakness that Timme can exploit? Does Gonzaga do something with their offense that makes Timme particularly notable? Is Gonzaga favored simply because a certain person exists?”

In recent years, these broadcasts have added more voices like CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander, who are capable of adding a lot more substance to their diagnoses of “this team better than that team” as these shows’ run times progress. But every year, I am struck by how seemingly smart analysts who are paid to be ready to talk about college basketball…just aren’t all that ready to give cogent analyses at this time!

PICTURED: Matt Norlander's chin, suit and laptop.
From USA Today.

This is even more of a problem for the mid-major, double-digit seed teams who are often barely mentioned as these broadcasters absent-mindedly swipe high seeds into the 2nd round without giving much insight into, like, why Morehead State could threaten Illinois (or why they probably won’t!). Part of the reason for this is that, there’s just too many Division-I teams for even analysts paid to follow the sport to have a quickly accessible working knowledge of how teams match up with one another in a context they’ve never met in before.

But this brings me to the title of this year’s article: mid-major teams – especially ones that experts think have a chance of being really good before a season starts – are getting fewer and fewer opportunities to show they can beat high-major teams early in the college basketball season. Sports journalist Joe Sheehan noted this last year when he tweeted, “Every March we get reminded that so very much of the perceived difference between the top and middle tier of college basketball is one cohort never plays the other away from home.” I would maybe even remove the “away from home” part of that quote, but that’s definitely true, too.

The Clemsons and the Texas A&Ms of the world don’t want the potential red flag on their resume of a loss to a team like Charleson or James Madison – two mid-majors who were very good last year and presumed to be very good again this year. So they load up their non-conference schedules with games against other high majors that they think are of a similar caliber to themselves and, like, a few tune-ups against Prairie View A&M and Houston Christian.

That’s how you end up at tournament time with teams like JMU and Grand Canyon with a combined 4 opportunities to play anybody from the most powerful conferences all year to this point.

So it comes to now, to tournament time, and even folks who follow the sport closely for a living have to do quite a bit of digging to figure out just how much we should value that JMU win over Michigan State back in November. And you end up with experts, on Sunday, immediately post-bracket reveal, bleating out, “McNeese has that gaudy record, BUT GONZAGA’S GOT RYAN NEMBHARD” or whatever.

OK, but like...Ryan Nembhard is actually pretty good.
From Gonzaga University Athletics.

The catch-22 they run into now is, should these good mid-majors knock off a team or 2 in the tournament and raise their profile further, it may help their recruiting and bring the school a nice share of those tournament revenue bucks, but they run the risk of being even more unattractive for high-major teams to add to their schedules next year.

I guess my plea here is simple: Give these guys a chance, Clemsons and Texas A&Ms and – yes – the Gophers of the world. It’ll make for better and more varied viewing opportunities for the fan in those early stages of the season, and it’ll give us all more to talk about and break down as we get ready to enjoy the best 3 weeks of the year in March and April.

Now, onto the stuff you came here for!


First, as I mention every year, I am, much like the outro bumper says at the end of any episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “Not a doctor.” What I am is a guy who likes stats and gets a kick out of updating the Warehouse, my collection of what is now a decade-plus worth of data points from NCAA tournament teams. Running statistical analyses on this data has uncovered some tasty food for thought that may help you compete in the bracket pools you enter this week. Let's dig into what was revealed in this year's model:


1. Who Everybody’s Got vs. Who’s Elite (KenPom Top 10):

In each of the last 3 years, the top-2 most popular picks for national champ in brackets submitted to ESPN have accounted for 35-40% of all brackets’ champions. That’s the case again this year, with UConn (24%) and Houston  (14%) taking the “national champion” spot on 38% of America’s brackets.

In the smaller bracket pools like many of you play in, those numbers might be even more concentrated, as ESPN’s percentages are likely diluted somewhat by users being able to submit up to 25 brackets – and users likely leveraging that real estate to pick a lot of different champs in those brackets.

Donovan Clingan, tall person.
From Getty/The Athletic.

Combined, the four 1-seeds account for 57% of champion picks – and since 1979, 26 of 44 national champs (59% of them) have come from that seed line. So you would expect people to pick 1-seeds as champs a lot, and you would expect those one-seeds to be truly elite.

So…are they this year? Well, over the past 11 years, there have been 18 teams that entered the tournament with top-10 ratings in both offense and defense at the irreplaceable data site Fourteen of those 18 teams (78%) won at least three games in the tournament.

There is one team who meets this criteria in this year’s bracket.

And it’s a 4-seed. It’s Auburn.

This is crazy. Auburn won the SEC conference tournament, they are ridiculously under-seeded, and in order to join the group of elite teams to win 3 games in the tourney, they’ll likely have to play defending runners-up San Diego State in the 2nd round…AND defending champs UConn in the Sweet 16. UConn, by the way, missed out on this double-top-10 elite distinction this year……by TWO ranking spots (their defensive efficiency is 12th-best in the nation).


2. A Note on Your Defending Champs and #1 Overall Seed:

Most of the top statistical metrics sites have UConn as, at worst, the 2nd-best team overall in the country this year. They are once again really good! But they face strong historical headwinds in their quest to repeat as champs.

Since UCLA won 7 straight titles in the late 60s and early 70s, only two teams have successfully defended a championship: Duke in 1992 and Florida in 2007. That’s not to say they can’t do it! But this data just points to 1. The parity in the modern D-I basketball landscape, and 2. Just how much of a gauntlet the one-and-done tourney format is.


3. 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.

If you’re in a larger bracket pool, often there is value in “zagging” where everyone else zigs in picking their Final Four and Champs. If UConn and Houston are upset, but you have anyone else as your champion, you’re basically guaranteed to finish in the top half of your bracket pool just based on that happening. (If you follow this strategy, just remember that it’s also possible that UConn and Houston play in the final. Which, que sera sera.)

Typically, you're looking for balanced teams who have no trouble scoring points in bunches but who still play D well enough to be able to get some stops when they need them (which roughly equates to being top 45-ish or better in KenPom’s defensive metrics).

Last year’s Final Four was something of a statistical anomaly, with a 4-seed, two 5-seeds and a 9-seed making the national semis. But two of the 4 semifinalists – UConn and 9-seed (!!!) Florida Atlantic – still met these metrics criteria.

These guys did NOT meet the criteria.
From the Palm Beach Post.

The teams who can say they hit these criteria in each region of the bracket this year are:

EAST: 1. UConn and 4. Auburn are the only teams who hit the mark here (#2 Iowa State has the T-1st best defense in the country – tied with Houston – but their offensive marks, while not terrible, still lag behind several other teams in this quadrant).

WEST: 2. Arizona – who is another team who missed being a double-top-10 elite team, and was even closer than UConn was (!!!) with their 11th-ranked defense – is the only team in this region to hit the criteria (#1 North Carolina juuuust misses the mark on the offensive side; #10 Nevada and #11 New Mexico also just missed hitting the criteria on offense).

SOUTH: 1. Houston and 4. Duke are the best teams by the metrics here. #2 Marquette juuuuust misses being among the true elite offenses.  #6 Texas Tech came close in both measures but are dealing with injury concerns, as you’ll read below. In a reversal of what we normally see for #5 Wisconsin, their offense meets the criteria but their defense just misses out.

MIDWEST: 1. Purdue, 3. Creighton and 5. Gonzaga all meet the criteria in both categories. #2 Tennessee has a great defense but their O just falls short. #4 Kansas is kind of a mess (again, see the injuries section below.)


4. The Lil’ Conference Tournament Fun Fact:

So, above we have 8 different teams that have “the goods” to make a nice long run into April. But 2 of these 8 have a historical obstacle to navigate due to poor performance in their conference tournaments last week.

No team has ever won the national championship after losing its first game in their conference tournament. Now, that doesn’t mean Creighton (3-seed) and Duke (4) can’t make a good lil’ run in their regions. But think twice before clicking “submit” on a bracket that has either of these two teams as your champ.


5. Who NOT to Pick to Make Deep Runs:

So, there’s a look at the teams most likely to make deep runs in each region. Who might we expect to NOT live up to expectations and potentially crash out early?

One thing I’ve pinpointed the past couple years are lopsided teams – that is, teams that are really good at one of offense or defense…but are pretty bad at the other (sub-100th ranking in D-I metrics). Over the past ~12 years, there have been 57 teams who fit this criteria, including some pretty high seeds, like #3 Baylor last year, who were beaten by #6 Creighton in the 2nd round.

These teams average about 1 tournament win per team; last year, the 14 teams who met this criteria managed 10 total victories. Four of those were secured by Miami, who made the Final Four, becoming just the 3rd of these 57 teams to do so in the past 11 years (none have made the National Championship game).

This year, there are only 4 such lopsided teams.

But the teams that skew toward good O/bad D are big ones: Kentucky (3-seed), Alabama (4), Florida Atlantic (8 – they were a MUCH better team defensively last year).

Reed Sheppard is great, but his team is a bunch of turnstiles on D.
From Bleacher Report.

Another few teams - including 3-seed Illinois, #7 Florida, and #7 Dayton – all come verrry close to meeting these criteria with their sub-84th ranked defenses.

And there’s only one bad O/good D team this year: Duquesne (11-seed).


6. The impact of Floor Generals:

I almost dropped the Floor Generals stat from the article this year – for the first time since I’ve started compiling the data warehouse, only 1 out of the 4 Final Four teams had a “floor general” last year (it was a weird year, see here). But in a typical tournament year, if you've got a steady presence as your point guard/primary ball handler, your team may be in for a longer stay at the tourney.

Over the past 11 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 35 of the past 44 Final Four teams (this stat was more impressive when it was 34 out of 40 last year, haha) have had a floor general toting the rock up the court. So having a capable ball handler 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 come into the tourney without a floor general, 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: Arizona, Illinois, Auburn (what in the world do we do with these guys!), San Diego State, Clemson, Dayton, Nebraska, Florida Atlantic, TCU, Mississippi State, Boise State, Drake, Oregon, NC State, and James Madison.


7. This Year’s Cinderellas:

The other way you win your bracket pool is a little dash of Fairy Godmother-style luck in picking which double-digit seeds can poke the right holes in everyone else’ brackets except yours. Here are the double-digit seeds that my model is pointing to as stronger than the typical team for their seed line. Some of these have tastier 1st-round match-ups than others.

11. New Mexico, coached by former Gophers head man Richard Pitino and with former Gopher Jamal Mashburn Jr. as one of their stars – is one of the highest-ranked 11-seeds I’ve ever seen in my model. Their conference, the Mountain West, received 6 bids this year, all at relatively low seeds except for San Diego State’s 5. And before last night’s Colorado State win over Virginia, Mountain West teams other than SDSU had gone 0-11 in the tournament the past 5 years. So there’s some trepidation in moving MW teams forward. But New Mexico, at least statistically, is a stud of an 11.

Richard Pitino has defeated this many ACC teams in the NCAA tourney before.
From Yahoo.

(I’ll also note Oregon here, who – while not blowing me away in my model – just got injured pieces of their rotation back in the last few weeks. They blitzed through the Pac-12 conference tournament to clinch their tourney bid, beating Arizona by 8 and Colorado by 7 in the process. Something to note.)

12. Three different 12-seeds were absolute juggernauts in their mid-major conferences this year: Grand Canyon, James Madison, and McNeese State. And all 3 perform better than average for 12-seeds in my model. GCU beat San Diego State early this season and hung tough at South Carolina. James Madison kicked off their season with a 3-point win at Michigan State. And McNeese State won at both VCU and Michigan by 11 apiece, AND beat the 4th 12-seed in the bracket, UAB, by 21 points early in the season.

13. Samford and Yale projected as slightly above average 13-seeds; of the two, Samford definitely has the more appealing match-up against injury-plagued Kansas.

14. Akron isn’t quite as good as some of the Mid-American Conference teams we’ve seen make the tourney in the past 5 or so years, but they’re still above average for a 14-seed.

15. Western Kentucky has a coach with tournament experience, a fast-paced style that Marquette could have some problems with if their top-tier point guard Tyler Kolek isn’t completely over his late-February injury.


8. Injuries + Suspensions:

The late-season injury/left-the-team bug is often something that the tournament selection committee takes more into account than the advanced metrics can, given teams may not have played many games without players that get hurt late in the regular season or in their conference tournaments. For these injuries, advanced analytics haven’t yet adjusted to fully “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 either aren’t on their teams’ rosters or can't get cleared in time for their tip-offs. Here's a list of the injuries and other departures 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. Marquette – Tyler Kolek (All-American level point guard, 15ppg/5rpg/7.6apg) ON THE PROBABLE SIDE OF QUESTIONABLE for 1st round of tournament, coming back from an oblique injury.

Marquette is being opaque about Tyler Kolek's oblique. How unique!
From the AP.

Also – Oso Ighodaro (leading rebounder, 14ppg/7rpg/3apg) QUESTIONABLE, nursing a knee injury.

3. Baylor – Langston Love (key depth wing, 11ppg/3rpg) QUESTIONABLE for start of tournament;  managing an ankle injury.

4. Duke – Caleb Foster (6th man, 7.7ppg/2.4rpg/2apg) OUT indefinitely with a foot injury.

4. Kansas – Kevin McCullar Jr (wing & leading scorer, 18ppg/6rpg/4apg) OUT for tournament with a bone bruise injury he suffered 6 weeks ago and tried to come back and play with 2 weeks ago.

Also – Hunter Dickinson (star center, 18ppg/11rpg) QUESTIONABLE for 1st round, coming back from a dislocated shoulder.

5. St. Mary’s – Joshua Jefferson (starting forward, 10ppg/6.5rpg) OUT for the tourney with left knee injury.

6. Texas Tech – Warren Washington (starting big man and best defender, 10ppg/7.4rpg) QUESTIONABLE for round 1 with a foot injury.

6. South Carolina – Myles Stute (starting wing, 8.5ppg/3rpg) ON THE PROBABLE SIDE OF QUESTIONABLE for 1st round with a hip injury.

7. Florida – Micah Handlogten (starting center, 5ppg/7rpg) OUT for the year, broke his leg in a fall during the SEC tournament.

9. Northwestern – Ty Berry (starting wing, 11.6ppg/4rpg) OUT for the year with a torn meniscus.

Also – Matthew Nicholson (one of their two bigs, 5ppg/4rpg) OUT for the tourney with leg injury.

10. Colorado – Julian Hammond III (6th man, 7.5ppg/2.5rpg) likely OUT with a knee injury.

10. Nevada – Hunter McIntosh (6th man wing, 6ppg) QUESTIONABLE for 1st round with knee soreness.

13. Vermont – Matt Veretto (starting big man, 9ppg/3rpg) OUT indefinitely with a shoulder injury.


9. Round 1 Best Bets:

Here in Minnesota, bills to legalize sports gambling in some form or fashion continue to be bandied about the state legislature, but nothing has yet been passed into law. So for the 3rd year in a row, I offer up some betting lines for you to consider should you find yourself in a betting state or situation, but for your humble author, these remain more of a “Boy, would I!” than a money-making venture (also, in the last two years, these picks have been 9-7 combined, so…profit, ROI, things of that nature. Make of that what you will.)

BYU -9.5 over Duquesne

Oregon +1 over South Carolina

McNeese State +6.5 over Gonzaga

St. Peter’s +21.5 over Tennessee

Texas A&M pick’em over Nebraska

Houston -24 over Longwood

TCU -4 over Utah State

Grand Canyon +5.5 over St. Mary’s




That’ll do it for this year’s installment, everyone. Have a great 1st weekend of the tournament, and may Kevin Harlan narrate your every good dream from now until tourney’s end.

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