Thursday, March 20, 2014

You know absolutely nothing about the NCAA Tournament

It's that special time of year again where we all become convinced we can do the impossible and actually fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket correctly. At this point, I'm not sure why anyone really ever feels confident and conclusive in their picks. As I explained to a friend last night, the NCAA Tournament is about as random as it gets. You have no control, you have no idea and everything you think you know you actually don't. If you want foolproof evidence of that, just look at pretty much any NCAA Tournament that's ever been played.

The only thing we really know for certain is that Northwestern is not going to be participating.

People can come up with whatever strategies they deem fit in the elusive hunt for the first perfect bracket prediction in human history -- and they have -- but as far as I am concerned there is really only one strategy that makes sense. Sprinkle your first two rounds with a small handful of upsets, mostly stick with the chalk for the late rounds and then pray a teentsy bit. This, really, is the only reasonable strategy you can muster.

And why is that when the Florida-Gulf Coasts and George Masons of the world are lingering in the shadows? Because those guys getting anywhere are super, super rare. In the past nine years we've had two 11 seeds make the Final Four (George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2012), which seems like remarkable evidence that miracles aren't so miraculous, but we must also remember that in those nine years 34 11 seeds didn't make it, and only one other 11 seed has ever reached the Final Four ever in history. Indeed, runs like that, shocking as they might be at the time, are exceedingly rare. Wild giant-killer upsets will happen in the early rounds, but in the end the cream rises to the top nearly every time. The average Final Four features 1.8 No. 1-seeded teams -- almost half -- while even just a cursory glance at all of the past seeds to reach the Final Four shows that perhaps with the extreme outlying example of 2011, the top seeds are almost always the best bet to reach the tournament's last weekend, while high seeds, whatever trendy upset cachet they might have, are generally a terrible, terrible bet to reach the latter stages of March (or really April these days).

This all happens because of two truths no one really wants to openly admit when it comes to generating excitement for the annual March bonanza. 1) High seeds are high seeds for a reason: They're better. 2) Upsets are called upsets for a reason: Lower seeds are worse.

Whoops.

But hey, any given team any given Sunday, blah blah blah. The randomness of a single elimination tournament is what makes March Madness so great and so frustrating at the same time. So if you don't want to raise your blood pressure too much, just take a zen-like approach and realize you're almost certainly not going to get most of your upset picks and you will definitely, absolutely, positively not get a perfect bracket. You won't.

You know nothing. Everything you know is wrong.

So now that I've told you to believe absolutely nothing I can predict, here are some fun predictions from yours truly for the 2014 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament:

-- No. 12 S.F. Austin is my totally-off-the-map pick for a high-seeded Cinderella run to the Sweet Sixteen.
-- No. 12 Harvard will upset No. 5 Cincinnati, somehow convincing us once again that a bunch of people who will get degrees from Harvard University are inspirational underdogs.
-- No. 1 Wichita State will have an impressive run to the Elite Eight despite being totally screwed by the selection committee with a bracket that includes three of last year's Final Four teams, the most talented eighth seed in the tournament (Kentucky), four teams with legitimate championship aspirations (WSU, Michigan, Duke, Louisville) and last year's national champion, which is a No. 4 seed even though it finished the season ranked No. 5 in the country in the AP Poll and No. 3 in the Coaches' Poll (Louisville). All the Shockers did to earn this was be only the third undefeated regular season team in the last 35 years. Whoops.
-- Tom Izzo, because he's the best coach in college basketball by a mile, will take Michigan State to the Final Four for the fifth time in 15 years despite not being loaded with NBA-level talent.
-- Michigan State will be joined by Florida, Arizona and Duke.
-- Not caring if I'm right since I won't be winning Warren Buffett's $1 billion, I will be rooting for Wichita State to win it all regardless.
-- The Florida Gators, in part because they're supremely talented and balanced and in part because they have the easiest road to get there and won't be worn down, will win the 2014 NCAA Men's Division Basketball Championship.
-- Northwestern University's players will be watching all the games from their couches.

Is any of that right? Probably not. But I'm trying not to think about it. I've got other things on my mind like the Geelong's first Premiership Season fixture of the year against Adelaide in the wee hours of this morning, and just how emotionally conflicted I'll feel tonight when I go see Zach Parise return to New Jersey for his first game at the Rock since leaving the Devils as a free agent 20 months ago.

On second thought, I'd rather not think about that second one. Good thing there is plenty of basketball on to distract me. Anyone have any idea who will win?

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