Game Time: Your March Madness Preview, Complete With WARNING LABEL
That was a post I had on Twitter, dated and time stamped 10:29 PM on November 17. Kansas was the top-ranked team in the country at the time, and they were plodding their way through a hideous 57-55 win over what turned out to be a very average Memphis team in some nondescript preseason tournament. Here we are about four months and a few thousand games later, and in a way, we're back where we started -- Kansas is a clear-cut number one and everything after that is pretty balanced and, frankly, pretty messy.
Go back and look at the rankings from the first week of the season and in addition to Kansas, you'll see two of the other number-one seeds in this year's tournament getting healthy respect (Kentucky and Duke, both in the top eight), the other number one (Syracuse) almost totally off the radar, and the other teams that are in the team picture as national-title contenders sort of hanging around (Villanova, West Virginia, Ohio State).
What the pundits (and frankly all of us non-pundits) didn't see was the NIT becoming a de facto "Basketball Program Legends Tour" with North Carolina and Connecticut headlining, although just watching both (especially UNC) made those who wager on the games very thankful that it took Vegas so long to catch up with them. Thank you, Coach Williams and Coach Calhoun!
And that brings me to my March Madness "Warning Label" -- a lot of you are getting ready to fill out brackets without having watched a lick of college basketball all year, or perhaps you've been dialed in on only the Big XII and have not taken the time to watch Gonzaga or St. Mary's in the WCC. You wouldn't know Omar Samhan from Omar Little. (Point of clarification -- Samhan is the somewhat flabby, but surprisingly athletic big man for 10th-seeded St. Mary's; Little is the somewhat psychotic, surprisingly gay drug dealer killer from The Wire.)
Because you haven't taken in much college hoops this season, either from indifference or having a life, you will rely on the opinions of those whom you perceive to be in the know so that you can fill out a somewhat educated bracket and sound reasonably intelligent in defending your requisite upset picks, mostly because you don't want to be the guy using the same methodology as your company's receptionist in filling out your bracket. Those assumed "hoops connaisseurs" will include people you hear on sports talk radio.
Here is my warning to you -- ninety five percent of the people in my industry are just like you when it comes to college basketball; they've watched virtually ZERO college hoops all year. Yet they will still try and pass themselves off as experts in the field, when in fact they are experts at two things -- staying employed and looking like a finalist in a Peter Griffin lookalike contest.
So how do you sniff out a March Madness Phony? Well, quite simply, you ask questions. You grill the so-called sports expert like he is interviewing to be the nanny for your children and you're leaving the country for six months, because it's just that important. As questions go, there are really two important ones --
1.) Is your name Rich Lord? If the answer is yes, hang up and go ask your company's receptionist if you can copy her bracket. Your chances of success just doubled.
2.) Do you wager on college basketball during the season? Why is this important? Well, I'll let Gordon Gekko explain....
One of the five most transcendent, era-appropriate soliloquies of all time, and frankly it gets me a tad too fired up for the upcoming Wall Street sequel. The key phrase in the speech? "Greed clarifies." It does. Other than the people who follow college basketball exclusively for a living (Mike DeCourcy, Andy Katz, Jay Bilas, etc.), the people in the sports talk/page/blog world who will have the most extensive experiential, CLEAR mental data on these 65 teams will be those who have wagered on those teams regularly throughout the season.
Is it degenerate? Maybe. But if you're trying to win your March Madness bracket pool, you won't judge. You'll merely sit back, heed my words and know that they are marinated in the blood of hundreds of dead eight-team parlays, backdoor covers, and f-bomb-laced tirades at Jon Scheyer.
Indeed, greed clarifies. Let's be friends for these next three weeks, shall we? Good.
Now, with that in mind, let's start with Kansas. They're the number-one overall seed, and the darling of this year's tournament. Literally every talking head on ESPN's Bracketology panel picked them to win the whole thing (except for Dick Vitale who managed to get off a "Kentucky" pick literally in the last second before the selection show ended last night, which if anything is further evidence Kansas will win). Kansas is the favorite for good reason -- they have a coach who has a recent championship skin on the wall, an experienced/difference-making point guard, an athletic seven-footer who blocks shots, and a bench that goes eight deep and can play multiple styles.
That last part is the key for me -- at some point along the way, even the really good teams will get a challenge because their opponent imposes a certain style on them. If a team is comfortable playing multiple styles (slow-down, speed-up, physical, versus zone, versus man-to-man, etc.), that is huge to me.
Juxtapose Kansas to the number-two overall seed Kentucky, and you can see why people (including me) like Kansas so much more than the Wildcats. Aside from being incredibly young (only nine teams in Division 1 basketball are younger on average than Kentucky), Kentucky has had trouble adapting when their opponents have thrown a zone defense at them this season, or when they've tried to shorten the game by minimizing overall possessions. Look at Kentucky's bracket, they're staring at a virtual guarantee of an ugly, messy Sweet 16 game against Temple, Cornell, or Wisconsin, and then they likely only get out of the bracket by going through one of two Big East teams (Marquette, or more likely West Virginia). Just a brutal pull for a number two overall seed.
With that in mind, in order of overall bracket strength, I would rate the four regions as follows:
So yes, the top two seeds overall somehow managed to get put into the two strongest regions top to bottom, with the most next-level talent, and the two best and hottest number-two seeds (Ohio State, West Virginia). Not sure what the committee was thinking. And if you think I'm off-base on the talent level being highest in the East and Midwest, just know that the breakdown of 2010 NBA mock draft first rounders (courtesy of www.nbadraft.net) goes like this --
EAST -- 8
MIDWEST -- 7
WEST -- 2
SOUTH -- 1
Even if you take out the first-rounders actually ON those number-one seeds to gauge how truly difficult their respective paths are, it looks like this --
EAST -- 5
MIDWEST -- 5
WEST -- 1
SOUTH -- 1
Just really illogical stuff affecting the most important aspects of the tournament, which are rewarding year-long greatness and overall bracket integrity.
Now, before I give out my "Live" team at each seed ("Live" coming from the gambling term "live dog" which describes an underdog who has some hop in their step and has a good chance of paying off), a few words on the teams who feel as though they got snubbed. As best I can tell, experts seem to be complaining the hardest about Mississippi State, Virginia Tech, and Illinois not getting in. My take on each:
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- This one is the hardest to swallow because you do feel for kids who were literally a tenth of a second away from winning their conference tournament and now are playing an NIT game against Jackson State. That said, box out. Or even better, don't put yourself in a position where you have to run the table to get in. Don't lose to Tennessee at home by 16 in your final regular-season game.
VIRGINIA TECH -- The Hokies had a 10-6 record in the ACC this season, which most years would be an automatic ticket. There's only one problem -- the ACC is an average conference. Add that to Tech's out-of-conference schedule possibly including a couple YMCA league teams, and you get the rest. If you want to get in, Hokies, don't lose to Boston College by 20 in late February, and for the love of God don't lose to 4-12 in conference Miami....TWICE. Good luck against Quinnipiac.
ILLINOIS -- Bruce Weber's team did knock off some quality tournament teams during the season (including Clemson out of conference). That said, if you want in, don't lose 14 games. Don't lose five of six down the stretch of the regular season. Close out against Ohio State, if not in regulation, the in one of the two overtimes you allowed to be played against them. And for the love of all that is sacred, Weber, stop raiding Bruce Pearl's wardrobe! Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, onto my "live" teams at each seed level:
MOST LIVE 16 SEED -- The fact of the matter is that in 25 years of a 64-team field, the number-one seeds are 100-0. A 16-seed has never beaten a top seed. So to identify one here is merely saying that we think this team has a fraction of one percent chance of pulling off the upset, which statistically would be giving them infinitely too much credit. Literally. So that said, I'll go with the Vermont Catamounts, who take on Syracuse in Round One. If those two teams colliding in the same sentence sounds familiar it's because in 2005 a 13-seeded, Taylor Coppenrath-led Vermont team upset Syracuse in the first round. So there is history. Plus, Jim Boeheim is prominently involved, which always helps. FACT: None of Boeheim's three Final Four teams was a number-one seed. Even the Carmelo Anthony version that won the title was a three-seed that caught fire. Make no mistake, this is not a prediction of Vermont beating Syracuse, but let's just say that Vermont has the best chance of all the 16 seeds to not lose by 30. If nothing else, hopefully Marqus Blakely gives us another one of these...
MOST LIVE 15 SEED -- A 15-seed has reached the second round of the tournament four times since the expansion to 64 teams, so we're still talking about something that has very little chance of happening. While going opposite of two-seed Villanova (2-5 down the stretch) and taking Robert Morris as a live 15 play is tempting, I'll go with Morgan State and ousted/disgraced/former Cal coach Todd Bozeman. They've got a senior who can fill it up in Reggie Holmes and a double-double machine in Kevin Thompson. Plus, of the four 15 seeds to win a game, the last two are from the MEAC (Coppin State in 1997, Hampton in 2001), so there's that.