Friday, March 10, 2006

How to fill out a bracket 2: Electric Boogaloo

(First of all, welcome, readers of MGoBlog!)

So yeah. This was posted last year, as an experiment in time-wasting and seeing what an idiot I can be. I've taken everything from last year and updated it, taking into account the results of last year's tournament. Also, one of the introductory paragraphs remains (and probably always will remain) extremely relevant to the purpose of this post, and to provide some much-needed context. Also, I'm taking the MPRE tomorrow and I want to kill myself. Anywho, here we go...

Now, to start with, it bears iterating that winning NCAA tournament pools takes about 25% analysis and 75% luck. Dids and I can give you no advice on how to be lucky (advice on how to get lucky, on the other hand, consists solely of this: 1. go to Evan’s doorstep, and 2. enter Evan’s apartment, preferably while saying some sort of double-entendre, one that works on exactly two levels. You’ll be fighting him off like the dickens. If you want to, that is), we can give you some advice on how to screw up, uh, less. Probably. Maybe. If our plans work, maybe they can make you a little money. If they don’t, you’re welcome to laugh at us and call us idiots. Because, I mean, let’s face it, we are. Well, Todd is. So, culled from various other sources, from which I liberally stole, I present unto you:


1. Pick out your final four teams

You know, upsets are what make watching the tournament fun, but when we're talking about actually filling out a good bracket, the final four is where the points is at, and you’re rarely going to see legitimate surprises here. I’m talking Southern Illinois-level surprises, not Georgia Tech-level surprises. Because of that, the final four is a place to get kind of conservative. I’m not saying go with the chalk, necessarily, but years like 2000 - when two 8-seeds made the final four – are few and far between. And, generally, 1- and 2-seeds get to the final four an awful lot.

So, the way I see it, your best bet is to pool together the top 8 seeds in the tournament (the top-2 in each region), and put two or three of those 8 teams in the final four. So you’ve got a final four of 2 or 3 teams, none of whom is lower than a 2-seed. Now, there has never been a final four consisting entirely of 1- and 2-seeds, and someone gets hot every year and makes a big, somewhat-unexpected run deep into the tourney. So, fill the remaining spot(s) from the remaining region(s) with a team or two who is seeded 3-through-6. If you’re following me, that means if you have filled three final four spots with 1- or 2-seeds, then take one team seeded 3-6 from the remaining region. If you’ve taken two 1- or 2-seeds, take two 3-through-6-seeds to fill out the final four.

Bizarre tourney fact: Only once in the last thirteen years has the combined sum of the four seed-numbers in the final four exceeded 11 (though last year, the sum was 11).

2. Fill in your title game and national champion

Once again, for all the madness that goes on, there are going to be great teams here, teams that you probably thought had a good shot of getting to the final four before the tourney even started. And, as with the previous step, you really have to go with your gut when filling in this part of the bracket. Still, it's important - how you fare on that Saturday and Monday of the tournament go a long way in determining how good your bracket looks on Tuesday morning. Also, when filling this part out, you should bear in mind the "general guidelines" for picking teams, listed below.

Bizarre Tourney Fact: Fourteen of the last sixteen national champs have been either a 1- or 2-seed.

Bizarre Tourney Fact: Not since 1979 have two teams met in the title game having never been there before.

3. Fill in the rest of your bracket

You can do this backward or forward, but make sure you have your final four teams actually, you know, getting there. To help with this part, I've inserted a Dids-esque section of general guidelines and tips for picking the early rounds (note that these should also be kept in mind when filling out the last 2 rounds as well, in terms of matchups):

UPSETS ARE OVERRATED - Yes, we all love them. They're the funnest parts of the tourney to watch, and when you correctly pick one, you feel like Al Frickin' Einstein. But upsets don't win you pools - barring some bizarre scoring system in your pool - so you have to go easy on them, and pick and choose them wisely (note that this is mainly for the early part of the tournament: picking a 3-seed to beat a 2-seed in the sweet sixteen is NOT an upset). One national writer put it better than I can: after describing how fantastic he felt to correctly pick Kent State to the elite eight in 2002, he said "but for every Kent State on my resume, there are about 40 Michigan States, a #10-seed I thought would make a deep run in that same 2002 tourney, but ended up being out of the tournament by 2:30 on the first day." It happens all too often. Kids, be careful out there.

STILL, UPSETS ALWAYS HAPPEN - I'm not saying don't pick any. Because only once in the last 21 years have at least two 12- or higher seeds failed to advance to the second round, and that was in weird-ass 2000, when there were only 3 "upsets" in the first round, and they were by two 10-seeds and an 11. In fact, the vast majority of the time, there will be at least three first-round upsets by teams seeded 12- or higher. Speaking of those 12s, as we all know, they're a great starting place when you're hunting for possible upsets. Since 1989, at least one 12-seed has won its first round game in every year but one (the aforementioned 2000, when black was white, up was down, and Mark Vershaw was playing in the final four). Having the bias toward the midwest that everyone here cultivates, we are aware of the power of the MAC. They're great for potential upsets: since 1995, the MAC is 7-7 in first round games, and Ohio gave Florida all they could handle last year, before that jackass dribbled the ball off his leg and blew their chance at a tie.

"But you said this was about the first couple rounds," you say? Okay, what about double-digit-seeds winning second round games? This always happens (every season but one in the last 20 years), but they're extremely tough to pick out. A great place to start: 10-seeds. They're often underachieving-but-dangerous major conference teams, and they have a remarkable success rate: thirteen of them have made the sweet sixteen since 1997, including at least one in every single tournament (Last year? NC State.). On the other hand, 7-, 8-, and 9-seeds have just eleven sweet sixteen appearances combined during that same span (but hey, one was our beloved Fightin Pittsnogles last year). And those pesky 12-seeds rear their beautiful, gorgeous heads again in the recent history, as at least one has made the sweet sixteen in five of the last seven tourneys.

THEM'S THE ONES - In ten of the last 14 tourneys, a 1-seed has emerged with the trophy. You'd be stupid not to pick one to win it this year.

BUT NOT THE #1 – However, only three teams in the past 23 years finished the regular season ranked #1 in the polls and then went on to win the title. So don’t automatically pencil "TEAM X" (Duke or Villanova or whoever ends up the top-ranked team on Sunday -- UConn losing yesterday effed everything up) into the champion slot quite yet. Still, though: 10 out of 14. If you don’t pick a 1-seed to win it all, you’d better have a VERY good reason for it. Like...

THE PROHIBITIVE FAVORITE WINS MORE OFTEN THAN YOU THINK - Illinois was the overall #1 last year, but more people were actually picking Carolina to win it (Still, they probably don't count as a "prohibitive" favorite ... although you could make the argument that getting approximately 40% of the bracket-fillers to pick you makes you such a "favorite," and EVERYONE was picking Carolina or Illinois last year, so...). And yes, UConn was a 2-seed in 2004, but they were picked to win the whole thing by more than 50% of the entrants in that year's tournament challenge. And guess what? They won. Past prohibitive favorites that proved to be worth the adulation include Maryland in 2002, Duke in 2001, and Michigan State in 2000.

DON'T PICK SOUTHERN ILLINOIS, OR... - Don’t read too much into the conference tournaments. It’s moderately fashionable in the media to say that teams who win their conference tourneys are coming in to the big dance "hot" or "on a roll," and it’s equally trendy to question the mental state of teams that lost early in their conference tourney. Resist the urge to follow suit. I learned this lesson in 1991, when Duke was obliterated by 30 in their conference title game, then beat the holy hell out of their first four NCAA tourney opponents, eventually upsetting UNLV and winning it all. I mean, just look at Maryland in '04: they got hot and won the ACC tourney out of nowhere, then went into the tournament and almost lost their first round game to friggin' UTEP. Further cementing this idea is the fact that, although UConn won it all that year after winning the Big East conference championship, five of the other six top conference tourney champions didn't even make it to the sweet sixteen. Last year Syracuse won the Big East tourney and got bounced by Vermont in the first round. Getting "hot" in the conference tournament doesn't necessarily mean you'll stay hot.

THINGS TO LOOK FOR IN TEAMS - These apply both to scouting early-round upsets AND to selecting teams you think can make final four runs and/or win it all. The most positive indicators include:

  • Consistency - Recent play is nice, but you want to find teams that consistently played good competition and performed well in those games. Equally as important in this regard is a lack of glaringly bad losses. Avoid hitching your wagon to those "they could beat anybody, but dammit, they could lose to anybody, too" teams. Suspicious teams: Pitt, Boston College, Florida State (if they make it)
  • Playing well away from home - Try to steer clear of teams that were fantastic at home, but struggled on the road and at neutral-court sites. There are no home games in the NCAA tournament. Teams'll have to play on unfamiliar courts, sleep in hotel rooms, and deal with hostile fans ... not to mention the fact that they won't be getting the home cookin' they're accustomed to from the refs. Your job is to find teams that performed well under these conditions during the season. Suspicious teams: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Oklahoma
  • Experience - Less talented, but more experienced teams tend to beat more talented, but less experienced teams, especially in March. And although I don't mean "experience" in the "age" sense exclusively (experience in front of big crowds or on national T.V. is also immensely useful), teams full of juniors and seniors are historically the ones that pull upsets and/or advance far in the tourney. That's just the way it is.

DON'T PICK TEXAS TECH - Bobby Knight hadn't seen the sweet sixteen since 1994. He fucked up this rule last year, and I am furious. Luckily, barring a miracle, his squad won't even make the Dance, so let's move on.

PICK THREE OF THE FOUR 1-SEEDS TO GET TO THE ELITE EIGHT - Quite simply, they tend to get there. The last two years have been mild aberrations, as each year only two have made it there (although last year, both 1-seeds that lost in the Sweet Sixteen lost to eventual Final Four teams). But in 2003 all four 1-seeds saw the round of 8, to go along with three in 2002, four in 2001, one in 2000, three in 1999, and three in 1998. Of course, use your best judgment, especially if one of the other guidelines conflict with this one.

WATCH CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK - There's no better way to get a feel for smaller-conference teams that could serve as potential upset picks than to watch Championship Week on ESPN. No amount of stats you look up can substitute for watching a team play and getting a feel for their style, what they do well, and what their weaknesses are. In 2001, while watching the Big West championship, Dids told me that Utah State was either going to beat whoever they played in the first round, or come damn close. Unfortunately for us, they drew Ohio State. And yes, they beat us, in overtime.

IGNORE DICKIE V. AND DIGGER PHELPS AND ANDY KATZ - These people are idiots. Vitale is a Duke and ACC slapdick, a thumbs-up from Digger is practically a death omen, and Andy Katz is Andy Katz. Last year, when Digger said he thought OSU would make some noise in the Big Ten tournament, I felt a chill down my spine, and immediately assumed we'd lose to lowly Penn State. It goes without saying that we, you know, almost did. This year, he seems to REALLY love our team, and I'm contemplating performing some kind of exorcism before the tournament to counteract all that bad joo-joo. Yuck. So the moral: stay away from these jackasses. Clark Kellogg and Jay Bilas, however, can generally be trusted.

MY VAGINA'S CONFERENCE IS POWERFUL - Fun Facts to know and tell: In the past six tourneys, one conference has put two teams in the final four. In five of the last six tourneys, one conference has has put three teams in the elite eight. In eight of the last eleven tourneys, one conference has put four teams in the sweet sixteen. For some reason, one conference always seems to whip ass in the tourney. If you feel confident about it, it's not a bad idea to pick a bad-ass conference and ride them through the tournament. (And if you don't get the joke of that title ... then you just can't be my friend. Okay, maybe.)

IF YOU JUST CAN'T DECIDE WHO'LL WIN A PARTICULAR GAME - It never hurts to steal a few economics-like strategies. To wit:

  • Buck conventional wisdom - If everyone thinks one team (let’s say Boston College) has no shot of making it past the second round, then what will it hurt to be the only guy in your pool who picks them to go a round or two past that? If you get lucky, that can lead to a big payoff for you. This method is especially useful if picking them to go that far doesn’t conflict with advancing any of your final four teams.
  • When in doubt, go with the team you like less - If the game involves a team you're actually rooting for, this will help you avoid the dreaded double-whammy. If it involves a team you loathe, then at least you can prosper from their success. Or, if they lose, you might feel like you jinxed them. Always a good feeling.
  • When there's a guaruntee, go with an upset - This can best be illustrated by an example from 2004. Let's say you were 100% certain that Wake was going to make the sweet sixteen, regardless of who they played in the second round. Well, why not go for the upset in the game opposite, then, and take Manhattan over Florida? If you think whoever wins that game is gonna lose to Wake anyway, then it hurts nothing to put the Jaspers forward. Incidentally, such a strategy would have paid off in that particular example, and I hate myself for not doing it. It also would have worked last year if you were 100% certain that neither Syracuse nor Vermont could beat MSU (but if you had thought that going into last year's tournament, you were either an idiot or an MSU fan. Or, I guess, both).
  • Look at the freee throw stats - It's not a bullshit econ offshoot, but lots of close tourney games come down to free throws. It's a good idea t avoid teams that shoot them poorly, or have primary ballhandlers who shoot them poorly. Last year, Kansas's point guard, Keith Langford, was a 61% free throw shooter. Guess what? They lost by 1 in the first round.
  • Look at the coaches - Again, non-econ-related, but important. Just imagine one of those splitscreen shots, with each panel showing one of the two coaches involved in the game. Would you be able to look at that if you picked Duke to get upset early? Would you be able to look at that splitscreen and think "I picked this douche who looks like a used car salesman to beat Coach K"? I mean, without vomiting? Me neither.

STUPID STATS ABOUT THE TOURNEY - Duke, Marquette, Syracuse, Stanford, and Louisville are the only non-state named schools to make the final four since 1992 (so if your Final Four is Syracuse, Gonzaga, Monmouth, and Duke, you probably want to go back and fix that); an 8-seed has won a national title, but no 7-seed has EVER made the final four; since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 2-seeds are only 18-20 in elite eight games, and 9-seeds are 50-34 against 8-seeds; there has never been a final four in which the names of all the teams began with a vowel.

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE MATCHUPS - The importance of this can not be overstated. Nothing is bigger than the draw teams get. A mediocre team can advance because they faced a weak draw, and a great team can bow out early because they got stuck playing a better team. In 2004, I was all ready to put a fantastic Wisky team in the elite eight almost automatically. Then the brackets came out, and I saw that the Badgers were not only criminally placed at a 6-seed, but, consequently, that they would have to face a damn good Pitt team in the second round, a Pitt team that did all the same things as Wisky, but did them a little bit better. So I chucked my ealrier plan and correctly picked that fantastic Badger team to lose in the second round. Matchups are everything in March.


Do NOT be the guy who gets pissed off because an awesome upset fucked up his bracket. I don't give a shit if you have UConn or Duke winning the whole thing - if they're losing to Fairleigh Dickinson at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday night, you are goddamn well gonna be rooting for the upset. Upsets are what make the tournament fantastic, and the joy of watching a phenomenal upset that culminated with an improbable buzzer-beater will last far longer than a sigh of relief that your tourney favorite survived a scare and your bracket is still intact. Root for the goddamn upset. THIS IS NOT NEGOTIABLE.

There you go, kiddies. Of course, we will have a bracket challenge for all readers, up as soon as the tourney brackets are set. Or maybe before that. Fuck, I don't know.


At 8:49 PM, March 10, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Completely unrelated to this post...long ago the greatest compilation ablum of all time was stolen from me. That album was SMOKE THE HERB:Reggae's Biggest Blunts. The thief not only ripped the cd player out of my dashboard, but my heart from my chest as well. As such, I was more than enthused to see that iTunes offers both Beenie Man and Silver Cat's CHRONIC as well as Don Yute & Wayne Wonder's SENSI RIDE. There is but one person in the world that could possibly understand how incredibly important this moment is. As I now sit here at work pumping CHRONIC through the hallowed 10th floor hallways of ABC, catching more than a view extremely odd looks, I am whole again.

Break of Dawn

At 6:39 PM, March 11, 2006, Blogger Jack Fu said...

Yeah, I totally used the good old-time illegal Napster to download "Chronic" and put it on a CD. Then I demanded that it be played at our house parties back at 85 Norwich. I love that song. I get a stupid smile on my face just thinking about it. I had completely forgotten about Sensi Ride, though. Good thing you were able to recover them.


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