As the Bracket(s) Turn(s)

First, some theme music …

… that signifies it’s time for the three weeks of March Madness. (Which actually started with the “first-round” games in Dayton, Ohio, Tuesday and Wednesday, but never mind that.)

For those who have managed to miss the brackets, here’s one for your own use:


I have tried various systems over the years. You may be familiar with the Blue Jersey Theory, which holds that a team that wears blue jerseys will defeat a non-blue team. Given that the list of traditional basketball powers includes Duke, North Carolina and UCLA, it’s not a bad theory. Indeed, number-one seeds Arizona, Florida and Virginia are all blue schools, as are number-two seeds Michigan, Villanova and Kansas. (What you do if two blues face each other? Good question. And what do you do if two not-blues face each other? Is green blue? Is purple blue? What about black?)

There’s also the Favorite, or Most Fierce, Mascot Theory, in which teams are picked because of their mascots. That in some cases is about as sophisticated as rock/paper/scissors. (What is more fierce — a badger or a wolverine?)

The one rule I have applied over the years is to discount Big Ten teams because the Big Ten is overrated as a basketball conference. Big Ten teams have been the victims of some of the most unbelievable upsets over the years, including Illinois’ loss to Austin Peay (“Let’s go Peay!”) and Indiana’s loss to Cleveland State. It may be heresy to say this, but I think the quality of Big Ten coaching is worse than it used to be. Does anyone seriously think Tom Crean is a better coach than Bob(by) Knight was?

Truth be told, the only year I get the picks mostly right is when an absolutely obvious team — Kentucky in 2012, for instance — wins the national championship. In such situations, everyone picks the same national champion, so I will win no pool.

The fun part is trying to figure out where the jaw-dropping upsets will be. (To wit: 2000 after Wisconsin won its first NCAA team. I guarantee you that no one predicted Wisconsin to play in the Final Four that year.) I have picked a 15-over-2 upset, a 14-over-3 upset, and a few 13-over-4 and 12-over-5 upsets. The problem with those is (1) by nature, upsets are unpredictable, and (2) if you pick one and you’re wrong, you’ve lost not only the next round, but however many rounds the non-upset team goes.

For that reason, it’s considerably easier to pick games by round than to start from today and pick every game. If you pick a team to win the national championship that loses in the regional semifinal (as Duke did one season), well, you can kiss your entry fee goodbye.

This year features, once again, Wisconsin, as well as UW–Milwaukee. It does not include UW-Green Bay, though the Phoenix probably should have been picked, and it doesn’t include Marquette, which also failed to get a National Invitational Tournament and then declined a College Basketball Invitational berth. (As did Indiana, current employer of former Marquette coach Tom Crean.)

The Badgers are perfect under coach Bo Ryan in getting into the NCAAs, unlike the previous decades under Ryan’s predecessors. Once they’re in, well, they haven’t gotten farther than the regional final, and at that just once, 2005. They have five first-round punchouts, including last year to Ole Miss, which ended a two-season streak of getting through the regional semifinal, and a six-season streak of winning at least one tournament game.

The Badgers appear to be an early favorite, at least in the minds of some at ESPN, according to Jeff Potrykus:

If you watched Sunday night as ESPN’s analysts dissected the 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament field, you were left with the impression Wisconsin has a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four.

“I love Wisconsin’s draw here,” Jay Bilas said. “I think as a two seed they got a fabulous draw.”

UW, seeded No. 2 in the West Regional, opens Thursday at the Bradley Center against No. 15 American University of the Patriot League.

The winner gets either No. 7 Oregon or No. 10 BYU.

Bilas believes UW is the best defensive team of the four.

“What is the best ball-control, defensive team there?” he asked. “Wisconsin, they haven’t protected the lane as well as they have in the past. But I think they’re the best defensive team out of this group.

“Wisconsin is better offensively than they are defensively but they’re better defensively than anybody else there.”

Bilas, Jay Williams, Digger Phelps, Seth Greenberg and Dick Vitale offered their views on the 68-team field.

Of that quintet, Bilas and Williams picked UW to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2000 and the first time ever under Bo Ryan.

Bilas sees UW defeating No. 4 San Diego State in the regional final but losing to defending champion Louisville, which must fight through the loaded Midwest Regional, in the national semifinals.

“I think this is the Badgers’ year,” he said, referring to a Final Four berth. “They’ve had better teams but I like their draw.”

Bilas likes Louisville better.

“Louisville was mis-seeded in this tournament,” he said. “I think they are playing exceptional basketball right now.”

Williams believes UW will oust Arizona in the regional final. Coincidentally, No. 8 UW upset No. 1 Arizona in the second round of the 2000 NCAA tournament en route to winning the West Regional.

“I love the way this Wisconsin team passes the ball,” Williams said. “The Badgers, with their veteran guards and Frank Kaminsky down low is going to be a handful.”

Alas, UW fans, Williams sees the Badgers falling to Louisville in the national semifinals.

“Louisville is able to change pace,” he said. “They can (turn) Wisconsin over. Montrezl Harrell can be the difference in that ball game down low.”

Phelps and Vitale picked UW to reach the regional final in Anaheim.

Phelps expects sophomore guard Marcus Smart will lead No. 9 Oklahoma State past No. 1 Arizona in the third round and then past UW in the regional final.

“Oklahoma State is the team that’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Phelps said.

Vitale picked Arizona to end UW’s season in the regional final.

“I like their defense,” he said. “I think too much for Wisconsin.”

Greenberg was the only analyst who didn’t pick UW to reach the Sweet 16. He picked No. 7 Oregon to upset UW in the third round in Milwaukee.

All five analysts picked Big Ten tournament champion Michigan State, seeded No. 4 in the East, to win the title.

Call me skeptical (“You’re skeptical!” “No, I’m Steve”), but I’m not on the Badger bandwagon. The last time UW played in Milwaukee, 2004, the Badgers lost to third-seed Pittsburgh at the supposedly friendly Bradley Center. (Truth is, UW plays there only once every other year, against Marquette.) More to the point, I see Saturday opponent Oregon giving Wisconsin problems with its tempo, which is a problem when UW is not a good defensive team by usual Dick Bennett/Bo Ryan standards. Which is too bad, since this team is an order of magnitude better on offense than usually seen with Slow Bo.

Having said all this, I remind Badger fans that we are in an era of unprecedented Badger basketball success. The regular NCAA appointments started in 1994 under Stu Jackson, and picked up in earnest when Dick Bennett arrived in 1997. Before Jackson, the Badgers last played in the NCAA in 1947. My parents were in grade school at the time. In my five years at UW, the Badgers got to .500 exactly once. We thought that might be enough to get an NIT berth. It didn’t happen.

A couple years ago, I did a bracket based on Ken Pomeroy‘s efficiency rankings. Efficiency is an interesting concept, because it tries to create, through statistics whether team A might beat team B based on something other than offensive points per game and defensive points per game.

This year, I decided to do three of those — first based only on offensive efficiency …

offensive efficiency bracket

… which has what would be a remarkable result — Creighton defeating Kansas to win the national championship.

Another bracket is based on defensive efficiency …

defensive efficiency bracket

… with Arizona defeating Virginia Commonwealth (coached by Oregon native Shaka Smart) winning the national title.

Bracket number three is where the most efficient team — offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency — wins.

net efficiency bracketThis bracket has fourth-seed Louisville winning the national championship over Florida. This is not out of the realm of reality, given that at least the CBS Sports selection show experts thought the Cardinals got a ridiculously low seed.

Truth be told, I’m not sure I buy any of those brackets, even though I’m interested in the efficiency concept. It’s true that Wisconsin isn’t exactly a stellar defensive team under Ryan’s usual standards, but do you really think 15th-seed American is going to beat them? Creighton has, as Sports Illustrated will tell you, one player of note — Doug McDermott (son of coach Greg), currently averaging 26.9 points per game. I’m not sure very many NCAA tournament games are won by one player, unless McDermott has Danny Manning-style performances every night, when you know whoever the Bluejays play will be working overtime figuring out how to stop McDermott.

I started to do a bracket that took each team’s offensive and defensive efficiency and figured offense vs. defense for each team, but it came up with 16th-seed Weber State beating number-one-seed Arizona, and stopped. Some year a 16th seed will defeat a number one seed, but not this year.

The problem is that statistics as they currently exist are better explainers than predictors. They can show how a team did over an entire season or a stretch of games. They can’t really predict what happens if the star player gets into foul trouble, or the team suddenly goes cold from the field, or someone gets hurt. Statistics cannot predict intangibles, and intangibles often win games between relatively even teams.

What wins in the NCAAs, I’d argue, is coaching. Which is why I’m picking Louisville, despite its fourth seed, to win another national title over Florida, whose coach Billy Donovan has won two national titles, which is as many as Louisville coach Rick Pitino (former coach of player Donovan).

ESPN bracket

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