The NCAA tournament won’t begin for another two weeks, but this is my last chance to give you my advice on how to fill out your bracket and win the pool you’re in (of course, by pool I mean a competition featuring no illegal gambling).
You might also realize that we’re a week and a half away from selection Sunday, so nobody (minus Joe Lunardi) has any idea what the matchups will look like or even what teams are in the tournament. Despite this disadvantage, I’m confident that I’ve picked up on some trends that will hold up regardless of how the bracket is designed.
1) Common sense about No. 1 seeds
There are some very well-known facts about No. 1 seeds. Since the tournament expanded to a field of 64, now 65, the top seeds are unbeaten in first-round games against the No. 16 seeds. At the same time, the Final Four has always featured at least one No. 1 seed but never all of them. So, basically you can usually pencil the top seeds in for at least one victory each, but not four.
If I had to pick one No. 1 seed to falter early on, it would have to be St. Joseph’s. The Hawks might very well enter the Tournament with an unblemished record, but their regular season schedule was so weak that they cannot be considered legitimate contenders. By the Sweet Sixteen and maybe as early as the second round, they will be playing the best team they’ve played all year. If St. Joe’s comes across a solid No. 4 or No. 5 seed from a power conference, they may be going home early.
Another thing about unbeatens Stanford and St. Joe’s is the distraction the pursuit of a perfect season will cause. The last team to go undefeated was Indiana in 1976, well before the Big Dance was as wild as it is now. In 1991, UNLV was undefeated with a 45-game win streak in hand before dropping a shocker to Duke in the Final Four. UNLV was an intimidating and a dominating team, and that cannot be said of either the Cardinal or the Hawks. The best thing that could happen to either squad would be to lose a game in a conference tournament to reduce the pressure.
2) The best conferences
In recent years, the Big 12 has probably been the best conference in the country. So, it’s no surprise that there were three Big 12 teams in each of the last two Elite Eights. The ACC is the best conference this year, and I’d expect that a few ACC teams go deep into the tournament. The Big Ten might put five teams in the Big Dance, but I would only pick Wisconsin or maybe Michigan State to advance at all. There are too many good teams from small conferences to pick off the weaklings from the major conferences.
One of the biggest rules that gets neglected is that every year two or three double-digit seeds will advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Last year, it was No. 10 Auburn and No. 12 Butler. In 2002, No. 10 Kent State, No. 11 Southern Illinois and No. 12 Missouri. In 2001, No. 10 Georgetown, No. 11 Temple and No. 12 Gonzaga. You get the picture.
There seems to be a trend in this area. First, there is the top team from a mid-major conference that was disrespected and given a low seed. This year, a number of strong teams from the mid-majors — Utah State, Kent State and Southern Illinois — are very capable of tearing your bracket to shreds.
Then, like No. 12 Missouri in 2002 there is the team from a major conference who never played up to potential and is lucky to make it into the Dance. A possible candidate this season might be Michigan State. The Spartans were a preseason top 5 who got beaten up by a very demanding preconference schedule. But Izzo has a great track record.
4) Home states
In the NCAA Tourney, no team plays on its home court, but there seems to be a decisive advantage for teams playing in their home states. In 2002, the Tourney changed its format by disconnecting host cities for the first two rounds from a particular region. For example, last year Boston was the site for games in both the Midwest and East regions. This format was intended to give the favorites an advantage by easing their travel schedules, but some underdogs have benefited too.
In 2002, No. 11 Southern Illinois and No. 4 Illinois each advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by winning two games in Chicago. No. 6 Texas did the same with victories in Dallas, as did No. 3 Pittsburgh with wins in their home city. Last year, No. 5 Notre Dame was 2-0 in Indianapolis. No. 1 Texas and No. 3 Syracuse won regional semis and final games in Dallas and Buffalo, respectively. The only team I can think of that lost in its own state was Florida in last year’s second round.
5) Final Four and National Champion
Calling upsets is a nice way to impress people, but pools are won by picking the National Champion and Final Four teams. Predictably, there’s no exact formula to help here.
People like to point to experience and senior leadership. In an era where fewer players stick around for four years, seniors should be an advantage. Look at Mateen Cleaves’s 2000 Michigan State, Shane Battier’s 2001 Duke team and Juan Dixon’s 2002 Maryland.
But, last year Syracuse won with a bunch of freshmen. I think the key is not seniors, but star power. Remember last year’s Final Four — T.J. Ford on Texas, Dwyane Wade on Marquette, Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison on Kansas, and of course ‘Melo on Syracuse. Gone are the days of the faceless champs like the 1998 Kentucky Wildcats.
So, with the Final Four, follow the previous rules (Syracuse had a home advantage in Albany) and look for the big name players. If it doesn’t work out, don’t blame me. You’re not putting any money on it anyway, right?