For plenty of people, this week marks the beginning of the college basketball season. For plenty in ACC country, it’s been going on for almost two weeks now (I’m looking at you, bandwagon fans). For the rest of us, we’re at the moment we’ve all been waiting for since the Super Bowl (you know, we’re not all just college sports fans around here). It’s time for the NCAA tournament, and time for another batch of analysts to tell you what the hell is about to happen.
We’re here to tell you, we really don’t know. If you take these to your office bracket pool, you run the risk of losing whatever you’ve invested. Susan from HR might whoop your ass in the first round alone. However, what we here at AHS can tell you is we’ve done our research, and we have some ideas for you, and some teams to watch.
First Round Games to Watch:
Let’s get this out of the way now: your upset pick will not make it past the Sweet 16. Not gonna happen. It seems like every year there’s a dark horse that makes it that far, a 10, 11, or 12 type seed that beats the odds and rattles off two upsets in a row (e.g. Syracuse last year, Florida Gulf Coast a few years back). But here’s the thing: those first round games aren’t super important to tournament scoring (to keep Susan kinda quiet after that first weekend) and no one is gonna guess them. Definitely not us, and we aren’t gonna try. There are a few teams that (by all the nerd numbers) are underseeded and should fare pretty well in the first round. Teams like Wichita State and Middle Tennessee in the South region are rated higher in a number of overall team measures than their first round opponents, despite their lower seeding. Same deal with Xavier, who’s KenPom ranking is better than their first round opponent Maryland (and let me tell you, nothing would make us happier at AHS than seeing UMD get smacked by an 11 seed in the first round). The next closest option for a “good underdog pick” is URI, who looks to match up well against a slumping Creighton team, but we’re sticking with MTSU, Wichita State, and Xavier as the tough outs for their opponents this year.
Region by Region
This is the part of the story where things get a little dicier, and things break down if you compare stats to history and the eye test.
In the East, you’ve got Villanova – a team that by all accounts would be a favorite by a lot of metrics. It just so happens that in KenPom rankings, they’re likely to face a top 10 type team in the Sweet 16, either Virginia or Florida. If they make it past that, they’ve got an almost certain chance of seeing another highly regarded team – SMU, Duke, and Baylor are all on the other side of the bracket, and any of the three of them would be a tough out in the Elite 8. It still seems like Villanova will make it out of their region, but whoever comes out of here will be banged up from a gauntlet region.
Out in the West region, you’ve got Gonzaga. If you’re going by how their season has gone, they’re the right kind of NCAA team – balanced, experienced, good on offense and defense. If you go by how much they’ve actually been tested – it’s not great but it’s more than plenty of years, and they’ve gone 6-0 against tournament teams, mostly on neutral courts. If you go by how Gonzaga has done historically, though, you’re mostly just seeing this video over and over. Gonzaga has some decent competition in their region, especially if you like high powered offenses like WVU or balanced teams like Saint Mary’s. If you’re not high on the Zags, take a look at someone like Arizona or Florida State, or WVU, who has a proven track record and a good balance of tons of offense with enough defense to be a really tough team. This is the one I’m most timid to pick, but I like Arizona the most here, even though the Zags have a 1-0 record against them this season.
The Midwest region is a little less exciting; there are a lot of good strong offensive teams (Oklahoma State, Michigan, and Iowa State), plenty of strong 3 point shooting squads (Purdue, ISU, OKSt, Creighton, Iona, and Kansas are all in the top 20 three-point shooting teams), and not nearly as much defense (no teams in the top 25 of opponent points per game stats, and only 3 when you look at adjusted defense stats). There are a lot of pretty good teams in this bracket, and not that terribly many that look to hang really tough with Kansas. The more numbers you look at, the more the Midwest looks fairly seeded, so we’re gonna rock chalk and pick the Jayhawks over here.
In the South we differ – Chris’s not so quiet Carolina homerism probably has him draw a different bracket than some of us at AHS. Carolina has a pretty easy region compared to some – that is, until they meet who will likely be Kentucky or UCLA in the Elite 8. Chris probably likes Carolina in either of these games – I’m not as convinced. UCLA has a classic tournament champion look: a high powered, diverse, fun-to watch offense; a blend of young star power and experience; a name brand who’s clawing their way back to being a current powerhouse. I like UCLA in this region, mostly because I think Lonzo Ball can explode for 30 points and 10 assists on any night, just like LaVar Ball can go off for more words than this column on any other night. Chris probably likes Carolina, and is probably shouting “go heels go america” at innocent people on the street right now, I’ll take UCLA, and then neither of us will have bragging rights when Kentucky takes it after all.
In the Final Four, I’ll admit to not having a damn clue – if we’re taking my lines, we’re looking at UCLA vs Kansas and Villanova vs Arizona. I like whoever comes out of the West (Arizona or otherwise) to make the championship, just because the East’s winner will have played some tough damn basketball up to April. On the other side, I’m still high on UCLA as a team to turn it on at the right moment and take care of Kansas – the Jayhawks only lost to high scoring teams this season, and they might not face more of a scoring threat all year than the Bruins. In the final, I’ll take the Bruins again, but mostly because I think Papa Ball could find a way to parlay that into a $10 billion shoe deal requirement, or a new job at UCLA, or some hilarious NCAA investigation allegations in July when the rest of us are just watching baseball and grasping at straws sports news wise.
I just know it’s gonna be a fun few weeks ahead of everyone here at AHS.