Every year, millions of people fill out millions of brackets. The aim for most of those brackets: beat their office-mates. Beat their husbands and/or wives. Win the pool you entered for readers of your favorite website.
But me? For the last several years, I’ve had one goal in mind: setting myself up for life. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, a perfect bracket has for a while been worth at least 1 or 2 million dollars on the right sites. This year, the Fanhouse has upped the ante by offering nine million dollars for correctly picking all 63 games. So, yeah, don’t stick any team seeded lower than fifth in your Sweet 16. I’ll just be over here, minding my own business … winning enough money to buy and sell your whole bracket-impaired extended family. Suckas.
Smack aside, I’m well aware my odds of picking up $9 million would be better playing that Superball thing. But it’s worth trying, right? Right. Which is why–speaking of the lottery–every year I play the same bracket principles, based on the seeding results of the 25 64-team tourneys that have come before. Eventually, the thinking goes, my numbers will come up.
What are those principles? I’m glad you asked:
PICK TWO 1’s, ONE 2, and ONE SLEEPER IN YOUR FINAL FOUR
There are variations–two sleepers, three 1’s, George Mason–but the mode for Final Fours has been 1-1-2-X from the very beginning; the first three tourneys all followed that pattern, as did the most recent one (for the first time in a couple of years). If you want to fiddle, replace the second 1 with a 2 or the 2 with a sleeper, but don’t pick three 1’s (only happened three times) or all 1’s and 2’s (three times, albeit with two of these years coming in 2007-2008).
We’ll start with Kansas. The Jayhawks are seemingly everyone’s national title favorite and shouldn’t face a truly serious challenge until the Elite 8, when they’ll likely face an Ohio St team that wheezed past Michigan and Illinois just a week ago (while Kansas as coasting past Kansas St.) or a Georgetown team that lost to Rutgers not that long ago; they’ll be fine. Before picking a second 1, though, we need to find that sleeper. It could come out of any of the other three regions: BYU has serious statistical beef and will have a massive home-court advantage if they can make it to Salt Lake; Duke being Duke, anyone from Cal to Texas A&M to Baylor to Richmond to even Utah St. could squeeze out of the South; and while Kentucky and West Virginia are a fearsome pair at 1-2, Wisconsin and Temple are both good enough to survive matchups with both.
And that’s where I’m looking. 1 seeds are an unfathomable 36-0 through the first three rounds of the last three tournaments. Would you expect even the best teams to beat second-round, Sweet 16-quality teams 25-30 straight times? No. We’re due for a Sweet 16 upset of a top seed–or earlier, and I’m worried that badly underseeded Cal will take down the Dukies in Round 2. (Well, not worried, really; more like “giddy.”) But as iffy as they looked in the ACC Tournament, I think Duke’s just good enough to get by the Bears. So instead, let’s go with Wisconsin to upset Kentucky. The Badgers are the nation’s No. 1 defensive rebounding team, rarely foul, and force a low percentage from inside the arc … and how does Kentucky score? Offensive rebounds, free throws, and two-point shots. Kentucky’s FG defense is outstanding, but they rarely force turnovers and Wisconsin never gives them up. As the Wildcats’ young bucks grow more and more frustrated by Wisconsin’s snail pace the turnover battle should swing more and more in the Badgers’ favor. Yeah, I like them here. And given that the Mountaineers are even more dependent on offensive rebounds than Kentucky, I like them against WVU, too. There’s your sleeper.
As for the other two regions, we need a 2 somewhere, and Villanova’s not good enough; Kansas St. is the choice by process of elimination. That leaves Duke to come out of the South. I don’t like it any more than you, and Coach K’s track record over the past couple of years makes me nervous as hell. (Or, again, “delighted.”) But the Devils are Kenpom’s No. 1 and second in adjusted scoring margin for a reason.
PICK A HANDFUL OF FIRST-ROUND UPSETS EVEN IF THEY SEEM DERANGED
As I mentioned earlier today*: we’ve never gone four years without an upset on the 14 or 15 lines. To my way of thinking, it’s safer to assume we’ll get one somewhere than to assume we’ll see yet another–and currently unprecedented sweep from the 3’s and 2’s. So Montana is the pick. Picking both a 14 and a 13 seed to win is, truthfully, probably overkill … but I happen to like Murray State too much not to pull the trigger.
On the 11 and 12 lines, we usually see somewhere between two to four combined upsets; after four last year, I’m thinking three this year. Old Dominion is one. Washington boasts a tremendous perimeter defense and is facing a Marquette team that relies on its three-point shooting and will be much, much further away from home than the Huskies; that’s two. And as much it pains me–crushes me–to say it, UTEP is No. 3. I hope Butler proves me wrong and runs all the way to the Final Four, but facing a team with UTEP’s all-over-the-court athleticism and raw muscle inside is Butler’s worst nightmare.
PICK A CINDERELLA
Not only is it fun, it’s smart; only 6 out of 25 tournaments have seen a Sweet 16 without a double-digit seeded mid-major, and only once–1995 and 1996–have we gone two straight years without one.
So we should have one this year. Candidates per the above include Murray St., Old Dominion, Montana, and St. Mary’s if they can get past Richmond … which they’re certainly capable of. But I don’t like how well the Spiders defend the 3 and the Gaels’ poor tournament history, so it’s either the Racers, Monarchs, or Grizzlies … and since Baylor has had absolute fits this season trying to beat slower, defensive-minded teams like ODU–see Alabama, who the Bears lost to back in December–I’m going with Old Dominion. (A p.s.: UTEP is not a mid-major.)
PICK ENOUGH SECOND ROUND UPSETS
The reason no ESPN expert will ever pick a Million Dollar Bracket is simple: not enough second-round surprises. If it was ever going to happen, it was going to happen last year, when a record two protected seeds (i.e. 1-4) failed to make the Sweet 16. That number usually hangs around somewhere between five and seven; the all-time average lands dead-on 6. (Well, OK: 6.04.) So that’s how many we’re going with, despite the fact that we haven’t seen that many since 2006; I think we’re due.
We’ve already eliminated New Mexico, Vanderbilt, and Baylor . With no 1 seeds gone in the second round–Duke is the only serious candidate, though Florida St.’s defense may be able to give Syracuse some trouble–we’ll start on the 2 line, where in 2009 all four teams advanced to the second weekend for only the third time, and first since 1996. So we have to pick one, and I like Villanova to take the fall against Richmond; the Spiders have the backcourt quickness to hound Scottie Reynolds into an off-day. (Even if they face St. Mary’s, the Gaels have the three-point bombers to take advantage of ‘Nova’s (relatively) soft perimeter D.)
Two more: Purdue is an easy call, since even if I think they can summon enough sans-Hummel pride to see off Siena, beating Texas A&M will be a different story; and Pitt just isn’t that good and will lose to Xavier (or Minnesota, if it comes to it).
FILL IN AND PICK AN ELITE 8
So, what have we got after all of that? In the Midwest, Kansas over well-seasoned, first-round victor Northern Iowa; Maryland over turnover-prone Michigan St.; Georgetown over offensively-challenged Tennessee; and Ohio St. over Oklahoma St. (who has better coaching than Georgia Tech). The Jayhawks then take care of business against Maryland while Ohio St. edges Georgetown by the skinniest of margins.
In the West, I like Florida St.’s defense to push them past Gonzaga before they fall to Syracuse; UTEP to out-athlete Murray; and Florida to oust BYU right off the bat in one of those upsets, a la Dayton over West Virginia, that makes no sense according to the various stat rankings but makes sense considering the coaching matchup. From there Syracuse gets past the Miners before falling to Kansas St.
In the East, Texas should be able to get past Wake Forest before losing to Kentucky; as described above, Wisconsin will eliminate Temple by the hair of their chinny-chin-chins; Washington will cruise past Montana before losing to West Virginia, vanquishers of Missouri, vanquishers of perennial NCAA no-shows Clemson.
And down South*, Duke’s Sweet 16 opponent will be Purdue-eliminators Texas A&M, who’ll give the Dukies fits before narrowly falling. Their Elite 8 opponent? Richmond, who’ll take advantage of Old Dominion’s Sweet 16 appearance to become the biggest sleeper in the quarterfinals. (Fun fact: until 2007, no Elite 8 had ever lacked at least one team seeded fifth or lower. Now after 2009 it’s happened twice in three years. Bah. Still: find a 5 or worse to win three games.)
PICK A CHAMPION
Given that Kansas St. didn’t even really challenge Kansas in the Big 12 tournament, I’m not seeing an upset in that semifinal. Duke-Wisconsin is a rematch, too; the Badgers won 73-69 at home on Dec. 2. On a neutral court I think Duke actually prevails–the matchup is much better for them than the Wildcats or ‘Eers–and gets utterly annihilated by Kansas in the national championship game.
*For all the haranguing over it, the South could end up being the most fun region of all. It’s not hard at all to see Cal, Utah St., Old Dominion, and St. Mary’s fighting it out in Houston for the Final Four berth. Yes, the protected seeds here were kind of pathetic. But that’s what makes it fun.