Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Monk's Guide to the Brackets

I promised more to come when I rang in with my initial reaction to the brackets on Sunday night. And here it is: The Monk's Guide to the 2005 NCAA Tourney.

Remember, you have until Noon EST tomorrow to get your picks in (or thereabouts).

Some notes first: I've hit the whole Final Four twice, 1991 and 2001. I've been close recently: last year I went 3/4 and came in third in the pool I played in. Wongdoer came in second and he bases much of his picking on my advice (if only I'd picked GTech for the Final Four . . .).

As for the Tourney: some tips for you and some history to note.

First, general tips and impressions:

(a) I think the SEC is incredibly weak this year. Alabama and Florida are the only teams that have really rang up impressive wins against a stiff conference. Don't just play out the seeds with the SEC: there will be first round upsets, early exits, etc.

(b) West Coast basketball: it's getting a lot of publicity and is more a style than a geographical characteristic, but it tends to be iffy -- lack of defense, too much run-and-gun style that is not conducive to beating physical teams that can handle the ball. One paradigm West Coast team, despite its location, is UAB. And you can take a lesson from how it beat Kentucky (shaky point guards, lack of interior bulk) and got drilled by Kansas (top PG, Wayne Simian = interior bulk). Washington, Arizona and Nevada basically fit this mold. Gonzaga and Wake are semi-West Coast teams -- they actually have some interior bulk and do not press full court, but they don't play good defense either.

(c) The Big East: I am unsure about this conference. Pitt looked like worldbeaters for much of February, then took a dive; BC was solid for 2/3 of the season, but took a beating at home from Pitt and a thrashing from West Virginia; UConn is overseeded by at least one spot, probably two, but has the talent to win the tournament (it won't); Syracuse took six losses against top competition that exposed its soft frontline, then adjusted to bring in the bangers and won the Big East Tournament, only to get underseeded in Austin; West Va. is a streak team; Villanova got a bad matchup in the first round. The committee did the Big East no favors.

(d) ACC 1985? This is a popular pick, that the ACC will become the second conference to ever have three Final Four teams, replicating the feat that the Big East accomplished in 1985. Since then, there have been 19 NCAA Tournaments and 14 that had two teams from the same conference in the Final Four (ACC 4 times, Big Ten 4, Big 12/Big Eight 3, SEC 2, Big East 1), but no conference has had three in the Final Four. The likelihood this year is pretty good because Wake, the weakest of the three main ACC Final Four contenders, has such an easy bracket and the other two, Duke/UNC, are the No. 1 in their regional. Still, you heard it here, three ACC teams in the Final Four won't happen.

(e) Curious factoids: (i) only three NCAA Tournaments since 1985 have not had an ACC team in the Final Four, each time Syracuse won its regional (1987, 1996, 2003); (ii) Duke has not failed to reach the Sweet 16 since 1997; (iii) three #1 seeds have reached the Final Four only three times since the seeding system started in 1979 (1993, 1997, 1999), by contrast three non-#1 seeds have reached the Final Four in three of the past five years (2000, 2003, 2004) and six times since the first 3-#1 Final Four in 1993 (1994, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2004); (iv) the Big 12 has placed 5 teams in the last three Final Fours, from four schools: Kansas, Oklahoma, Ok. State and Texas; (v) only four No. 15 seeds have ever beaten a #2, no #1 seed has ever lost a first round game and only Arizona and South Carolina have lost first round games as a #2 and #3 seed in consecutive years; (vi) the last Ivy League team to win a first-round game was Princeton in 1998 but it was a #5 seed, the last lower-seeded Ivy to win a first-round game was Princeton in 1996 -- it then lost badly in the second round.

(1) Chicago Regional -- formerly known as the Midwest Regional (I liked the geographic names better), this is really the Fighting Illini invitational. The nation's top team gets to play in the largest city in its home state, and gets to play in front of a nice recruiting base. Can't beat that. Oklahoma State is Final Four quality in any other bracket, not this one.

Some notes: (a) I think the most likely upset here is UAB to beat LSU. I'm not sold on the Tigers -- they lost to a very average Kentucky team by 31 and UAB has played tough against some good teams (Louisville, Ok. State). (b) Don't take Penn -- this team has been outclassed by top competition and BC, for all its faults, qualifies in that category. (c) Arizona is the best bet to beat Illinois, but Ok. State will probably beat Zona. (d) My Sweet 16 entrants from this region: Illinois-Bama-Zona-OSU.

(2) Albuquerque Regional -- this is why the geographic names have been dumped: traditionally the West Regional was the outpost of the lowest #1 seed and the easiest of the bunch. This year, the Albuquerque Regional is a host of the parade of the overrateds: Washington, Wake, Gonzaga -- three top teams that play weak defense. Best bet for a first-round upset = George Washington over Ga. Tech; best bet for a second-round upset = Pitt/Pacific over Washington. I think either Washington or Wake will fail to survive this weekend. Does this open up a run for Gonzaga? Yes, but . . . Gonzaga had a weak region last year and failed to do anything with it; plus if West Virginia/Creighton beats Wake, it can beat the Zags. I still have Louisville in this region, Sweet 16 picks (safety over sorrow): Washington, Louisville, Wake, Texas Tech.

(3) Syracuse Regional -- every year there's a Region of Death (the toughest region at the start of the Tournament) and usually the winner of the region does NOT win the Tournament. In 2001, Arizona won the RoD, lost in the Finals; in 2002, Indiana won the toughest region; in 2003, Kansas won the RoD (which was actually the West that year!); in 2004, Ok. State did -- none won the Tourney. The last Region of Death winner to win the whole thing -- Michigan State 2000, helped in large part by playing the Regional Semis and Final in the Silverdome outside of Detroit.

This year's Region of Death also could be the upset bracket on the lower levels: New Mexico lost only 3 games this year with Danny Granger playing, and he's healthy against an up-and-down Villanova team; Bucknell beat Pitt at Pittsburgh earlier this year; Ohio is from the MAC -- a conference better-known for its Tourney shockers than any other, etc. Usually a 5 seed honks against a 12 and this region may have the best bet.

I have North Carolina coming out alive from Syracuse because I think they can take Kansas, and have already beaten UConn in Connecticut (this logic is good, but flawed: see 2003 West Regional Final Kansas-Arizona, 'Zona thumped the J'Hawks in Kansas and lost the rematch). If Keith Langford is healthy, Kansas is an even-money bet here and remember the incentive: the KU players felt betrayed by Roy Williams when he departed for UNC, especially KU all-American center Wayne Simian who, after losing much of 2003 (including the NCAA Tourney) to a dislocated shoulder said "I gave my arm for that man!" Sweet 16 entrants: UNC, KU, UConn, New Mexico. I don't trust Florida. Note that I think UConn is overseeded, but not overrated (Wake, Gonzaga, and Kentucky fall in that bin); just like 2003, when a jump-ball turned their game against #1 seeded Texas, UConn is dangerous team.

(4) Austin Regional -- the repository of my favorite team, Syracuse. So here are some tidbits about Syracuse: (a) since the advent of the seeding system in 1979, SU has lost only two first-round games: the infamous loss to Richmond in 1991 and their quickie exit to Ok. State in 1999 -- a 19-2 record; (b) Syracuse has never (to my knowledge) beaten a Big Ten team in the NCAA, certainly never under Boeheim; (c) Syracuse is 7-11 under Boeheim against higher seeded teams but has won its last four (2003 Regional Final, both games in 2003 Final Four, 2004 second round v. Maryland), each time SU has made the Final Four under Boeheim, it sank a higher seed in the Regional Final; (d) Boeheim has never made the Sweet 16 three years in a row. I think (b) and (d) will be made history in this Tournament, primarily because this group of SU players (Warrick, G-Mac, Pace) have a degree of inner toughness that many past SU teams lacked.

For the rest: I have Duke coming out of this because the potential Duke-SU matchup in the Regional Semis allows Coach K to plan for the SU zone for four days, not one like a Regional Final would; nonetheless, for some reason Duke has had trouble with press defenses in the past two years and SU will press you. I think OU and UK are solid bets, but UK's record the past 2-3 years is more attributable to Tubby Smith's excellent coaching than the quality of players he has procured, which is far below the Pitino-era level. My Sweet 16 entrants: Duke, SU, OU, UK.

Now I know a lot of these picks are "safe" but the fact is you LOSE more from picking upsets that don't happen than you do by picking safe teams. Upsets are like betting specific roulette numbers, the seeds are like picking roulette groups (1-12, 13-24, 25-36; odd, even, red, black, etc.). I will make one prediction without hesitation: if 12+ of the 1-4 seeds make the Sweet 16, you'll hear a lot of chatter about how good the Selection Committee did in configuring the Tournament (see 2003); if not, you'll only hear about the amazing rash of upsets (see 2004) and no criticism.

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