My bracket strategy changes from year to year. Sometimes, I spend a little time looking at stats and previous results and try to make educated guesses. Other times, I go by instinct and mental association ("Indiana State vs. Syracuse...the Sycamores...that's a damn big tree...a damn big tree...you couldn't cut down a full grown Sycamore with four of the sharpest axes in Syracuse...do they even have axes in Syracuse?...I'm not an old man, but I been around 28 years and never heard a single story about a Syracuse axe...Tons of axe stories about other cities...Seattle, now there's a city with some good axe stories...you can't wake up and turn on the tv in the morning without hearing a Seattle axe story...I could call, but I bet they don't have a single axe in Syracuse...even the fire department just probably uses oversized knives...then again, what is an axe but an oversized knife?...anyway, a Sycamore is mother nature, and humans have been burned more than once underestimating mother nature...this one reeks of upset...).
I've had very, very limited success. One of the trademarks of my bracket is that I always pick Duke to win the title. Last year was a low point; despite nailing the eventual champion, the rest of my bracket was so poor that I finished 5th, out of the money.
It's time for things to change. This year, I have a new weapon: Ken Pomeroy. His collection of advanced team statistics will give me the added insight necessary to overcome years of inadequacy and failure.
This year, I am going to pick a perfect bracket.
And I don't just mean that I'm going to pick all the winners. I'm also going to pick the correct score and the correct play-by-play of how each team reached their final total. Let's begin:
Wisconsin 114, Belmont 107
19:57: Wisconsin wins the tip. Jon Leuer dribbles to half court, points at the nearest television camera, winks, and unleashes a sky hook. It sails over the backboard, at which point Leuer and his teammates start break dancing on the floor. This is going to be the best game ever!
Enough of that. Let's get serious. Here are my picks for the Southeast Region, along with some rationale:
UNC-Asheville over Arkansas Little-Rock
Only two things come Arkansas: Cliff Lee and annoying basketball teams. And these boys ain't screwed over the Yankees 8 times this decade. Also, didn't UNC-Asheville used to have a guy that was like 7'9" or something? That has to count for something. (Sorry, there's no way I'm delving into the stats for this game. I'm already angry that it's happening at all.)
Pittsburgh over UNC-A
Until a 16 beats a 1 (and one of the great unanswerable questions in sports is: will it happen in the next 50 years, assuming the format remains the same?), it's not worth taking these picks seriously either.
Butler over Old Dominion
I'm pretty excited for this game. My analysis here will inevitably be clouded by my man crush on Brad Stevens, who I think is the greatest young coach in the game. But I'm trying look beyond. Butler's usual trademark strength, defense, isn't so hot this year. They're 77th in efficiency in the country (for comparison, they ended up 5th last season). They're still very strong on the defensive glass (11th), but they don't force turnovers and teams have been able to score on them in the paint. That being said, they've improved; no team has put up 70 on the Bulldogs since late January. In the Horizon League championship, they held UW-M to 44 points.
Old Dominion is the Colonial Conference darling, seeded incredibly high for a mid-major at 9. They play strong defense (46th in the country), and their main strength is rebounding. They pull down 72.5% of all defensive boards (15th), and they lead the country in offensive rebounding rate at 45.2%. They're a big team, even at the guard positions, and they've won 9 in a row since falling to George Mason 62-45 in February.
On paper, it looks like a toss-up. Here's the difference for me; while ODU excels on defense, they can be held in check on offense. Both teams have won 9 straight, but Butler's streak is a bit more impressive since their opening stretch was fairly painful. I look at two results that show the change: on January 23rd, they lost at home to UW-M 86-80. Last week, they beat them on a neutral floor 59-44. And then we come back to Brad Stevens; in four seasons as a head coach, he's lost in the first round just once (by 4 to Louisiana State in 2009). Many of the guys on this year's team still have that title game run experience. In a game that looks like a toss-up, I go with experience and coaching. Butler wins by 7.
Utah State over Kansas State
It is very, very inadvisable to pick against an elite defense in the first round. When the pressure's on, scoring becomes difficult, but a team can always rely on a great defense. Those skills don't erode in tense situations, which is why we always see at least one team like Michigan State make the Final 4. And Utah St. has an elite defense. They're 6th in the country in efficiency, they hold opposing teams to the 6th-lowest effective field goal percentage (equally strong inside and outside the arc), and they get defensive boards at the 2nd-best rate in the country. These guys are for real.
KenPom actually has them favored to win this game, and I think it's an open-and-shut upset case. Kansas St. has certainly improved, and they have that nice home over Kansas in their back pocket, but against elite teams they usually don't score many points, even in wins. Their defense is also strong, but their main strength, offensive boards, should be nullified by Utah State's lineup. The Wildcats are also relatively poor in 2-point field goal % (227th in the country). It's easy to see them being pushed farther and farther outside as Utah St. asserts itself in the interior. Lastly, Utah State is very good at scoring inside and getting to the line. That looks real scary for Kansas State. The only danger here is that if USU gets down early, they're not great from 3.
Wisconsin over Belmont
Everyone loves this upset. Wisconsin seems like they can't score, and it's easy to hate their style of play. It would be wonderful if Belmont won. But sometimes the bad guy comes through. And here's the thing about Wisconsin; they actually have the second most efficient offense in Division 1. They limit possessions on both sides of the floor, so their PPG is fairly low, but in terms of scoring, they're stellar. You could call their offense "mind-numbingly effective."
Nobody turns them over (#1 in the country). Nobody steals the ball (4th) or blocks their shots (2nd). They shoot free throws better than anyone. They play very good, efficient defense. They clean up on the defensive boards (12th). They keep other teams off the line, though they can't get there themselves. Overall, this is a strong, quality team. Much as I hate to admit it.
Belmont plays nice defense (19th) and they can score points too (32nd). But their offense will suffer, I guarantee you, by Wisconsin's slow-down style. Forget about finding a rhythm; it won't happen. Their defense is excellent at forcing turnovers, but they're going against exactly the wrong team in that regard. In fact, this match-up is highly unfortunate for Belmont; they'd look real good against any of the other 4-seeds, particularly Texas. The question you have to ask is this: can they grind out a win against one of the grinding-est teams in college basketball under extreme pressure? Their high field goal percentage and ability on the offensive boards gives them a fighting chance, but Wisconsin excels at pulling out tight games. I have to give this one to the Badgers.
Gonzaga over St. John's
Such a tough game to call. St. John's has some really strong home wins this year (Duke, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, UConn), and it's tempting to think of them as an elite team. But they're not; they finished the season with a limp, losing to Seton Hall, escaping Rutgers, and falling to Syracuse. Add DJ Kennedy's late injury to the mix, and this team is in real trouble. They can't shoot 3s, they let other teams shoot a high effective field goal percentage, and they were already so-so on rebounding before Kennedy went down. The mid-February peak is in the past, and we have to seem as they exist today; a group of seniors who couldn't make an impact on their home floor in the Big East tourney.
Gonzaga's defensive strength (26th nationally) pushes this one over the edge for me. They're best at holding teams to a low percentage from 2-point range (8th in the country), and that's essentially all St. John's can do. Their offense matches up fortuitously inside on St. John's, and they rebound equally well on both ends of the floor. Unlike the faltering Johnnies, they've also won 6 in a row. Finally, the game is out west in Colorado. Maybe St. John's can keep it close, and maybe they can even win, but deep down I'm feeling a blow-out upset here.
BYU over Wofford
BYU is incredibly vulnerable, but the question is, when will they go down? I had high hopes for Wofford, but after seeing their stats it's become abundantly clear that this isn't the team. They're an offense-first, defense-second squad who are ill-suited to holding Jimmer Fredette down. And it's not just that their defense isn't excellent; it's actually poor. They're 192nd in efficiency, and the effective field goal rate of their opposition is sky-high at 50%. Teams get to the line against them at an extremely high rate, and they allow a lot of offensive boards.
BYU would have lost to a team like Belmont or Utah State, but not to Wofford. In fact, the entire side of their draw is incredible. The committee really gave them a break, and that's quite annoying.
Michigan State over UCLA
Another impossible game to pick, but I'm going with Izzo and his slightly superior offense in this one.
Look how close the stats are here. MSU's defensive efficiency is 34th. UCLA's is 32nd. MSU's offensive efficiency is 67th. UCLA's is 88th. Neither team forces turnovers. However, Michigan State doesn't turn the ball over themselves, while it's one of UCLA's worst stats (283rd nationally at keeping possession). UCLA also can't hit 3s (247th), and they don't even try (293rd in 3-point attempts as a function of shot distribution). The Bruins are good inside both offensively and defensively, while the Spartans only match them on the defensive end. There's no distinct edge in rebounding, though you'd expect MSU to have more second chances on offense.
Since they don't shoot threes, UCLA will have to grind out points inside on Michigan State. That's Izzo's specialty; they're essentially playing into his hands. I expect this game to be pretty close, but MSU's late wins over Purdue and Iowa show they're not as bad as they seemed at various points throughout the year. One win seems in the cards.
Florida over UCSB
The game's in Florida and UCSB plays inconsistent defense. The only chance for an upset here is if the Gators shoot really, really poorly from 3. UCSB's inside defense is stellar (9th in 2-point FG% against), and awful outside (289th at defending the three). On offense, they turn the ball over a lot. Actually, strike that previous sentiment; they have no chance.
This is the weakest bracket half in the whole tournament. Of all the teams to get easy roads, it had to be BYU and Florida, right?
Pitt over Butler
Pittsburgh is far too good on both ends of the floor. Brad Stevens and Butler may have enough moxy to grease out a first-round win, but that's as far as it goes. Pitt's offense is 6th in the nation in efficiency (in a really, really good conference), and they just destroy on the offensive boards (2nd in the country, thanks to Gary McGhee). They have the bodies to pound Butler inside to the point of submission, and they won't give anything up on the glass. Defensively, their only partial vulnerability is to the three-pointer, and Butler's nothing special there. Otherwise, the Panthers are watertight; 21st in efficiency, 20th, in opponent efg%, 22nd at defending the two, and 65th at keeping opponents off the line. The only thing they don't do is force turnovers, because they have a settled, fall-back style. This game won't be close.
Utah St. over Wisconsin
I think the Aggies have the defense to pull this off. I'll admit there's a certain amount of wishful thinking at play, but it's not too wishful; as mentioned before Utah State's 6th-ranked defense has no weak points. Like Pitt, they settle back, don't go for steals, and seal off all avenues of scoring. Wisconsin's weakness is defense, particularly from 3, and there's no reason USU can't exploit that. Also, the game is in Tucson, so they should have a fair turn-out. This game will come down to whether Wisconisin's very efficient offense can break through USU's very efficient defense. If they can't, Utah has the advantage on the other end, and should be able to win by 8-10.
Gonzaga over BYU
Here we go. This is the team with a good enough defense (26th) to take down the Fightin' Jimmers. BYU isn't the same club without Brandon Davies, and minus his presence on the boards and in the lane, they become even more dependent on the chosen one. Gonzaga is fairly vulnerable to the 3, but they shut down the lane with the best of them. They'll be able to pressure Jimmer wit occasional double teams beyond the arc, and they won't have to worry about conceding easy baskets inside. I'm fairly confident about this result; BYU is a team just waiting to lose.
Florida over Michigan State
How good is Florida, really? I'm legitimately asking; I haven't seen them play once this season. Is the SEC as bad as everyone says? Was their championship loss to Kentucky a small anomaly, or did it expose something terrible?
Kenpom says their offensive efficiency is very good (16th), and their ability to get offensive boards is even better (9th). On defense (40th), they're particularly strong at defending the 3 (42nd) and keeping opponents off the line (8th). How does that match up with the Spartans? Well, Michigan State plays good defense (34th) and can keep teams off the offensive glass (38th). They're not great at scoring inside, and they're only slightly better at hitting 3s. They're pretty poor at defending the 3, another Florida strength, though they do well on the defensive interior.
Confusing game. It's awfully tempting to pick Michigan State, just because of Izzo's track record, but even on a neutral floor this one looks like advantage Florida. The game being played in Tampa sends it over the top.
Pitt over Utah State
I think this is going to be an excellent, very close game. My rationales will have to get shorter since I have to head out soon, but this one doesn't need to be long anyway; despite Utah St.'s excellent defense, Pitt is too big and strong inside. The Aggies won't have faced a team this physical before, and scoring will be extremely difficult. They'll hold their own, especially on defense, but I think Pitt emerges with a 65-61 type win to make the elite 8.
Gonzaga over Florida
Why not? The 26th ranked defense with the 47th ranked offense can't beat the 40th ranked defense with the 16th ranked offense? Even if you look at the averages, Gonzaga rates a 36.5 while Florida rates a 28. That's not a huge difference, and history has taught us that defense is more important anyway. The only thing that will kill this pick is if Florida gets a lot of second chances via the offensive rebound, an area where they excel (9th). I'm taking a chance that Gonzaga's 53rd ranking in defensive boards is enough to hold them off. And I'm also gambling that Florida's loss to Kentucky shows a fatal weakness, and is more than just a rare poor performance at the wrong time.
Pittsburgh over Gonzaga
This is where Pitt's easy bracket finally pays dividends. They're far too big and efficient on both ends of the floor to fall to any team from the lower half. If they're still around in the Elite 8, they're headed to Houston. Gonzaga, in almost every way, is a poor man's Pittsburgh. This game won't be very close.