Why is March Madness my favorite time of year? It's the week a giant puzzle called a bracket is thrust in front of almost every casual sports fan in America. A student at heart, I have put in a lot of long hours studying trends and statistics, hanging on to old brackets to see what I got wrong, and refining a system that uses 80% numbers and 20% intuition to pick winners and losers. It is with this history of modest success that I present these 5 simple tips to finish at the top of your office pool. Good luck!
RULE 1: Defense Wins Championships - It sounds like a cliche, but no maxim is truer in March. Teams face new types of adversity in the tourney including opponents they're not used to playing in arenas (and football stadiums) far from home. Shooting droughts, jitters, and lower scoring games are not uncommon. As a result, those teams who have relied on their defense throughout the year rather than shooting have a distinct advantage. In fact, only one team in the past eight years has played in the championship game with a defensive efficiency ranked lower than 15 and that was North Carolina. They ranked 16 (and number 1 in offensive efficiency).
This year three number 1 seeds have kenpom defensive efficiency rankings in the top ten - Kansas, Duke, and Ohio State. Two number 2 seeds have defenses ranked in the top 10 - San Diego State and North Carolina. That means defensively challenged Notre Dame and Florida are good candidates to be upset early.
RULE 2: Free Throws Count (especially in the later rounds) - Just ask Memphis. They blew a huge lead to Kansas three years ago in the NCAA Finals because they couldn't sink several crucial free throws down the stretch. When two teams have similar offense and defense efficiency numbers, free throws are likely to be the difference. Pick against teams with a glaring weakness at the charity stripe. This year, the worst highly ranked teams for FT% include Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Kansas State, and Syracuse.
RULE 3: Pay Attention to Home Court Advantage - It's not going to matter as much when there is a huge disparity in ranking and/or seeding, but in a close matchup it can be the difference maker. It's no coincidence that Michigan State won their title playing the Final Four in Detroit. Butler was given a boost (and almost stole the entire tourney) by playing a few miles from home in Indianapolis last year. Likewise, Texas made it to the Elite Eight twice by playing their regionals in Texas. This year the four regionals will be played in San Antonio, Anaheim, Newark, and New Orleans. Pay attention to who plays closest to home.
RULE 4: Don't Pick Too Many Upsets - You will be tempted to try and pick several Cinderellas, usually seeded 11, 12, or 13. It's human nature. Taking the chalk is boring. Any idiot can look at the seedings and put four number one seeds in the Final Four. Even the president. But you know what, taking the chalk ensures you more favorable odds to earn points, especially in the early rounds. Pick the wrong upset and you end up losing the easy points that everyone else is getting from a highly seeded team that keeps advancing. It's statistically stupid to eliminate any number 1 seed before the Elite Eight and at least 13 of your Sweet 16 teams should be seeded 5 or better. I usually throw one 11 or 12 seed in using kenpom to determine the most underrated team in the tourney, but it has its risks.
This year's most underrated/underseeded team in my opinion is #12 Utah State (30-3). They get a favorable matchup in the first round against a very inconsistent and overseeded #5 Kansas State (22-10) which is actually ranked lower in the coach's poll than Utah State. They would then would face a Wisconsin team with a porous defense. By the way, Utah State's defensive efficiency ranks number 7 according to kenpom. This team has senior leadership and reminds me of the George Mason team that made a surprise run to the Final Four a few years ago.
RULE 5: Fill out your bracket from the inside-out - Pick the championship first, then the Final Four, Elite Eight, Sweet 16, etc. That way you start with the strongest teams and slowly eliminate the weak. Otherwise, if you go matchup by matchup from the round of 32 to the round of 16 to the round of 8, you might be tempted to put a 6 seed or worse in the Final Four. There's no point in losing potential points no one else is losing by taking an unnecessary risk unless you are playing for pure fun and feel the need to take your alma mater all the way.
FACETWITCH POWER RANKINGS 2011:
Sure, anomalies happen but statistics say the two teams who meet in the championship will be from this elite group (the only teams with a top 15 defensive ranking and top 20 for offensive efficiency):
2. Ohio State
6. San Diego St.
Oddly enough, Duke, Texas, and San Diego St. are seeded 1, 2, and 4 respectively in the same region (with UConn at number 3) making the West Regional the toughest of the tournament. Of these, Duke measures up best statistically. Meanwhile, none of these elite teams are in the Southeast, making it the easiest region.
The above group makes up teams with offensive and defensive rankings in the top 20. They have decent odds of making the Final Four, but slim odds to win it all.
Finally, we have teams with top 15 defenses or top 15 offenses who also have defense/offense efficiency rankings in the top 40. They have a good chance of advancing to the Elite Eight, but advancing further will take some luck:
10. North Carolina
My gut tells me Florida is the most overrated team and won't survive long. The winner of the UCLA/Michigan State game could give Florida fits and even if they advance to the Sweet 16, St. Johns or BYU could also upset the Gators.
Sleepers: Utah State, Richmond, Clemson, St. Johns, Gonzaga, Washington
My Final Four: Duke, Purdue, Pitt, Ohio State (champ)