From a compulsory office pool to impressing a new flame, picking the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has become an unavoidable March tradition.
A lot of the picks are easy. I would be willing to wager most of the country, sporty or not, has heard of the phenom that is Zion Williamson. Most know Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia are tournament stalwarts and Michigan residence can at the least ask their neighbor about how the Spartans and Wolverines will fare in the Big Dance.
So, the ACC is covered, the Big 10 is familiar, but what about the SEC? What to do about the Mountain West tournament champion? Does Yale’s assumed high IQ transfer to the basketball court? What on earth is the Ohio Valley Conference and who is Ja Morant? All these questions can throw a wrench into even the most informed expert’s picks. And the best part is? All the chatter, predictions and research will inevitably come out in the wash when the madness begins.
I can’t tell you who to pick, because I have the perfect bracket and I will be the one winning $1 million from ESPN (and the super-secret, very desirable prize for winning the GH Tribune Readers tournament challenge). But, I can give out some tips.
Use easy stats
There are more than enough advanced analytics out there to confuse an innocent consumer. A big deal has been made about the selection committee’s new metric, the N.E.T. rankings, replacing the busted RPI as the main tool for determining the field of 68. The N.E.T. is a composite ranking system made up of many advanced statistics that I don’t understand independently, let alone combined with an algorithm.
Adjusted efficiency ratings are great, but most metrics just describe how a team has played so far, against their familiar conference competition and cannot function as a barometer for the wholly different tournament atmosphere.
When trying to predict what will happen in the madness, go simple. Check out team’s scoring habits. Are they hitting from deep? Dominating the post? Do they frequently have players ripping down double-digit rebounds? Are they terrible at free throws? What’s their typical margin of victory?
If you see a team that frequently loses close games and has a sub-par free-throw percentage, those two stats are likely correlated. Don’t pick them in a tournament where last-second lead changes outnumber blowout victories. For example, LSU got themselves wrapped up in seven overtime games this season. Do you trust them to put motivated teams away in crunch time?
If a team hits a huge percentage of their shots from 3-point land, Google their schedule and check out their losses (most tournament teams only have a few). How did they fare from deep on their worst days? Living by the 3 is great for the tournament, but it always takes a dive at some point. Wofford has won 20 games in a row shooting 42 percent from behind the arc. Can that kind of streak survive the pace of the tournament?
Ole Miss shoots 78.3 percent from the free-throw line as a team. A good pick.
Michigan averages just 8.8 turnovers per game, on average 3.1 better than their opponents. Don’t over complicate things, use some logic.
Pick some creative upsets
Death, taxes and Cinderellas. Despite you picking a few higher seeds, the one who runs to the Sweet 16 is never on the list. The key to winning a bracket competition isn’t necessarily to get the big Cinderella run right. If Duke falls in the first round, everyone is missing those points. If they don’t, which they won’t, then you picking the 16 over 1 upset is costly. Don’t gamble on the big ones.
In regions with a dominant team nearby, pick upsets under their umbrella, play the odds and take a gamble. If you are right, the Cinderella run is ending with Duke. If you’re wrong, whoever upset your upset will end with Duke.
That said, everyone knows about the tired 12 over 5 seed numbers. A 12 seed has beaten a 5 seed in all but five tournaments since 1988. Pump the brakes. Two of those five odd years have come in the last four tournaments.
The wired upset pick is close by, though. A 13 has beaten a 4 seed in 24 of 34 March Madness tournaments. Last year, it happened twice. Take that to the bank.
Continuing the bizarre-seed deep dive, 11 seeds have won all but four matchups with 6 seeds in the last three years. Don’t limit your picks to the seeds. Anyone can pull off an upset.
Players, players, players
The rhythm of the NCAA tournament, particularly the opening weekend, is unlike any other time in basketball – except for the conference tournaments! Which just happened! Take a look at those.
Individual players, particularly point guards, have a huge impact on the tournament. Establishing a rhythm for their team with passing or taking over in tight spots with scoring ability are key and with so many games in so few days, players can get into a zone unlike any other time.
Check out teams with dominant point guards. Michigan State’s Cassius Winston comes to mind. Murray State’s Ja Morant leads the country in scoring and averages 10 assists per game. Think that is useful in the second of back-to-back playing days when the big men start to get tired?
Speaking of big men, UCF’s Taco Fall is 7-foot-6. He leads the country in field goal percentage, making 76 percent of his shots. For the fourth straight year, he has more blocked shots than missed shots. He’s making his first tournament appearance as a senior. Take that as you will.
At the end of the day, enjoy these few days of sports. Relish the upsets and pull for your favorites. Embrace the magic in the madness.
Think you can beat Duncan?
Once you have your bracket perfected, head to ESPN.com’s NCAA Tournament page and enter their bracket competition. After you fill out your bracket, you’ll be given the option to join a group. Search for “GH Tribune Readers” and enter your bracket to compete against several members of the Tribune staff as well as many others from around the area. The winner will take home bragging rights, and a very exciting prize as well.