Monday, March 16, 2009

First impressions on the NCAA brackets

For the first time since the NCAA began seeding teams, one conference has three No. 1 seeds -- The Big East. Louisville, the regular season and conference tourney champ (overall record in Big East games 19-2) is the #1 overall seed for the Tournament. The #4 overall is Connecticut. CBS indicated Pitt is the #2 overall, but based upon the arrangement of the brackets, it looks like UNC is #2 and Pitt #3, as I'll explain below.

The seeding is done on an S-curve. The Tournament Committee sets each of the regions side by side, puts the teams 1-4 in the #1 slots, then reverses the bracket fill-in for teams 5-8 in the #2 seeds. Thus, the overall #4 team gets the #5 overall team as the #2 in its bracket; the top overall seed gets the #8 as the 2-seed in its bracket and then they reverse again such that the #9 team overall is the 3-seed in the top team's bracket, the #13 team is the 4-seed in the last 1-seed's bracket.

Memphis is the #5 overall and the top 2-seed -- it's the 2-seed in Connecticut's region. Michigan State is the #8 team overall and the last 2-seed because it's the 2-seed in Louisville's bracket. Pitt has ACC Tourney champ Duke as its 2-seed; UNC has Oklahoma as its 2-seed. Because Duke would be higher ranked than Oklahoma, it is likely the #6 overall team. That means Syracuse is a higher 3-seed than Villanova -- a surprise because 'Nova beat the Orange twice this year.

And this shows just how much a good run in a top conference tournament will boost a seeding for a team that may have been in the middle of the top tier in its conference (ask the 2006 SU team that went from bubble-sitter to a 5-seed after winning the 2006 Big East tourney; ditto 2004 Maryland, which won the 2004 ACC tourney after entering it needing to win two games to even get an NCAA bid and landed a 4-seed). Those conference tournament runs will boost RPI ratings dramatically: SU was projected as a 6-seed or borderline 5-seed entering the Big East tourney this year. A win over UConn, win over W. Va. and tough neutral-court loss to Louisville meant a nice promotion.

This year's selection committee also seemed to value the full season of each team more than prior committees. That explains why Arizona (early wins over Gonzaga and Kansas) is in the field even though it lost five of its last six games. It also supports SU's 3-seed -- the Orange beat Kansas in Kansas City and Memphis at Memphis earlier this season. During the course of KU and Memphis' conference seasons (both won their conference regular season titles), SU's RPI went up and up.

And this committee seems to have somewhat devalued intraleague upsets. Penn State (10-8 conference) beat Illinois twice, Purdue once, and Michigan State on the road, but played a bunch of stiffs outside the Big T(elev)en and lost at home to the only decent non-conference team it played, Temple. Florida (9-7 SEC) won 23 games, but beat only Washington outside of a weak SEC and lost to SU and FSU. The lesson: play a decent nonconference schedule even if you're a major conference team because a decent conference record won't guarantee you a spot in the Tournament.

The plethora of conference quarterfinal chokers among top teams (KU, OU, UConn, Pitt, Wake) also makes picking regional winners more difficult. In 2003, Texas won a weak regional after getting dumped in the Big 12 quarters, but that's a rarity. Just ask 2006 UConn, which choked against George Mason in the regional finals in the same year Syracuse shocked the Huskies in the Big East quarters.

On first blush, The Monk's national title match is Louisville-North Carolina. Louisville has an easy region that should net Coach Pitino another Final Four team (it would be his sixth = 1987 Providence; 1993, '96, '97 Kentucky; and 2005 Louisville). In the East, Pitt has a history as a serial underachiever in the Tournament (it has never defeated a team seeded higher than 5), Duke is still Duke, Villanova is explosive, and both Xavier and FSU have enough players to beat Pitt. In the West, UConn has no challenges until it would have to face Memphis in the regional final. Memphis' road is only slightly tougher because it has Mizzou, but Missouri is a paper tiger (or Tigers).

As a Syracuse fan, little could repay SU for that horrendous snub it had in 2007. That said, the Orange has its best draw since 2004 (the year after it won the national title -- a weak 4-seed, and a terrible 1-seed blocked SU's path to the regional final and a probable loss to UConn; SU bonked in the Sweet 16 against upstart 8-seed Alabama, which took a beatdown from UConn two days later) because 2-seed Oklahoma has had trouble playing consistently since probable National Player of the Year Blake Griffin had a concussion a couple of weeks ago and SU should be able to get past its second round opponent, either Arizona State or Temple (it doesn't even need repeating that SU should win its first-round game). And as for the 2006 exhaustion factor where SU seemed worn out after a four-game/four-day run through the Big East tournament -- unlike 2006, SU has a Friday first round game, not a Thursday matchup, and there have been no reports that Jonny Flynn played on a stress fracture like Gerry McNamara did three years ago.

[Stat of the night: ESPN flashed that SU is 8-2 as a 3-seed. Whoopie! Take out the 2003 title run, and that means SU is 2-2 as a 3-seed -- 1-1 in 1984 (Sweet 16 loss to upstart Virginia) and 1-1 in 1988 (second round loss to Rhode Island)].

Fuller predictions later after more analysis. My early Final Eight is Louisville-MSU; UConn-Memphis, UNC-Syracuse/Oklahoma, and Duke-Xavier.

UPDATE: Seth Davis is barking. WAKE in the Final Four? Seriously? One key predictor of Final Four teams is offensive efficiency -- the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions. Ken Pomeroy analyzes this extensively and his calculations account for FG%, FT%, rebounding, turnovers, etc. Wake, an up-tempo team that plays specifically to maximize offensive possessions, is #40 in offensive efficiency this year. That means it is a better bet as an upset victim than a Final Four team.

Basketball is ultimately an offensive game. There are no shutouts and if you can't score when you must, you cannot win. All four Final Four teams last year were in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. Three of the Final Four from '07 were in the top 10 that year (UCLA was not, and Florida creamed it in the national semis). In 2005, all four Final Four teams were top 10 in offensive efficiency; in 2004, three of the Final Four. And of the last five years, only in 2006 has a Final Four had a team outside the top 30 in offensive efficiency made the Final Four. Note that 2006 was a complete freak year in the NCAA Tournament and the lone Final Four team in the top 10 in offensive efficiency, Florida, drubbed both of its Final Four opponents to win the national title.

And Davis also picked Pitt. That's a trend pick and very dicey considering Pitt's history. Then again . . . I ripped Florida in 2006 as a serial choker.

Finally three comments regarding Jay Bilas. First, all this "warrior" and "courage" talk is a bit much when describing college basketball players perservering through a multi-overtime game. I'm as big of an SU apologist as just about anyone, but to call the kids courageous for fighting out back-to-back overtime wins is bad hyperbole. Men born 4-8 years before PaMonk stormed the beaches at Normandy and Sicily at the same age of these kids who are playing basketball on scholarship and are revered, feted and protected on campus. Who's courageous again?

Second, kudos to Bilas for being direct. Saturday night, as he and Dan Schulman discussed Syracuse's fatigue as Louisville turned the Big East title game in its favor, Bilas said, "Let's be clear, Louisville's the better team but Syracuse has had opportunities that it has not capitalized upon." That's a good comment.

Third, good for Bilas for standing his ground against Dickie V and Doug Gottlieb on the alleged "snub" of St. Mary's by the tournament committee. Bilas took on the biggest bloviator's appeal to morality and fairness, and Gottlieb's more pointed criticisms discussing how it wasn't St. Mary's fault its schedule was so weak.

UPDATE II: I'd love it if Dan Wetzel is right and Syracuse makes the Final Four. But I'll only be betting my TARP bailout on it.

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