During my exhaustive research on this year’s NCAA Tournament, it came to my attention that there are people known as “bracket scientists.”
Seriously, I came across a couple while combing the websites for reasons to justify some of my more outrageous upset picks.
Bracket Science. Maybe they’ll start offering it at our overpriced colleges and universities. Learn to win your tournament pools and get three course credits besides! Marginal athletes could take it to pad their grade-point averages and keep their teams eligible for the postseason.
I’m all for it. Like a plumber or electrician, you can never find a good bracket scientist when you need one.
But really, filling out a bracket isn’t rocket science. It’s madness, a sporting pathology. There’s no truly scientific way to navigate the madhouse that is the men’s NCAA Tournament. And why anguish over it? Half the fun is looking behind the door and under the bed for the next VCU, Butler or George Mason.
Science? Which genius predicted that Lehigh or Norfolk State would pull upsets as 15 seeds last year? I’ll tell you: Nobody. I’d rather take a stab at an obscure mid-major than be one of those so-called (is there any other kind?) experts who fills in all the favorites.
Jay Bilas picked his Sweet 16 for ESPN.com. He didn’t pick a single team seeded lower than fifth to get that far. Really, Jay? You need a Duke degree to come up with that? President Obama is another one who goes with mostly all favorites. Prez, why not go out on a limb and take Harvard?
What was it Luther Ingram sang back in 1972 (the year Florida State went from the play-in round to the title game)? “If loving long shots is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”
That’s my theme.
The fact is, we’re in an age of increasing parity in college hoops. There are no great teams this year. That’s why the No. 1 ranking seemed to change every week. The gap between the top teams and the middle has narrowed. As recent tournament results show, the gap in the middle has really closed.
At least one No. 4 seed has lost its opener in the last five tournaments. Ohio stunned Michigan last year. A year earlier, it was Morehead State over Louisville. Vanderbilt lost as a 4 seed two years in a row. Cleveland State bumped off Wake Forest in ’09, San Diego surprised Connecticut in ’08.
Going back to 2001, the No. 5 seeds are 28-20 against the 12s in the first round. Last year, two 12s pulled upsets: VCU over Wichita State and South Florida over Temple.
The No. 6 seeds have been even more endangered. Over the last four years, the No. 11 seeds are 8-8. Two years ago, three of the 11s pulled first-round upsets. That included VCU, which won a play-in game and beat teams from five separate BCS leagues en route to the Final Four.
So can you blame me for picking all the 11 seeds this year? Saint Mary’s made the Sweet 16 a few years ago. Bucknell has history. Minnesota has Tubby Smith. Butler has gone to the Dance five times in seven years without winning. I saw them lose by one to Duke as a 15 seed. It’s not scientific, but I’m thinking this is their year. If loving them is wrong …
In the end, I’m a sucker for a great story. Maybe Belmont becomes the new Butler. At almost the very moment I was picking them to go to the Final Four, Ryan Fitzpatrick signed with the Titans. They play in Nashville, just like Belmont. Tell me that’s not an omen.
Saint Louis? They caught fire about the time former coach Rick Majerus died. Majerus was a defensive genius, one of the best coaches of his time. The Billikens play great defense, protect the ball and win close games. They beat Butler three times this season, giving up 56, 58 and 61 points.
Majerus was a great friend to the media. He thought nothing of calling writers at 2 a.m. to talk about the game. I remember him holding court with the writers for two hours on the Friday before the 1998 Final Four.
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “Hey, this is one day, and I think I have something to say about some things.”
Jim Larranaga taking Miami to the Final Four would be a great story. Larranaga became the hero of the mid-majors when he led George Mason to the Final Four in ’06. Like Majerus, he hung around after practice the day before the national semifinals, reminiscing. We talked about his days at Providence, when he was a star and I was a wide-eyed P.C. fan as a kid.
It would be a great story if John Thompson III got Georgetown to the Final Four in the final year before the sad breakup of the Big East. His father gave this tournament some of its lasting memories during his time as head man at Georgetown. You don’t need to consult a bracket scientist to pull for Larranaga, Thompson or Belmont’s Rick Byrd. Or Davidson, Bucknell, Creighton or Saint Mary’s. I’ll admit, there’s a sentimental side to this. I’d like to imagine Rick Majerus smiling down on his plucky Billikens.
The idea is to have fun. Here’s my latest foray into the bracket madhouse. Keep in mind, when I say “sleeper,” I mean a team seeded fifth or lower with a chance to make a Final Four run. Over the last 19 years, only 11 of 76 Final Four teams have been seeded worse than fourth.
Game to watch: Creighton-Cincinnati. A classic clash of styles, pitting a finesse shooting team against a relentless, physical squad that specializes in winning ugly. Creighton leads the nation in three-point shooting. Doug McDermott, a candidate for national player of the year, makes 51 percent of his threes and averages 23.4 points a game. Cincinnati, which considers 60 points a shootout, is seventh in the country in blocked shots and 15th in rebound margin. I picked the Bluejays to make the Final Four last year, so they owe me a good show. Duke-Creighton would be fun in the next round.
Upset city: Saint Mary’s over Memphis. A terrific matchup of mid-major powers. Memphis went unbeaten in Conference USA. St. Mary’s, an 11 seed which won Tuesday’s play-in game against Middle Tennessee, would have run the table in the West Coast if not for Gonzaga. The Gaels haen’t lost to anyone but the Zags since before Christmas. They are experienced and have a big-time scorer in Australian senior guard Matthew Dellavedova. You might recall Dellavedova from the Saint Mary’s team that shocked Villanova on its way to the Sweet 16 three years ago.
Sleeper: A month ago, I would have said Saint Louis. Then they went on a roll, won the A-10, and became everyone’s sleeper. We’re back to Creighton, which was ranked for much of the season and could surprise in the most competitive region.
And one: This is the 16th consecutive NCAA Tournament for Michigan State and coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans have made it to six Final Fours and five other times lost to a team that made it to the Final Four.
Sweet 16: Louisville, Saint Louis, Michigan State, Creighton.
Game to watch: Wisconsin-Mississippi. Andy Kennedy, the Ole Miss coach, calls this matchup “as contrasting as night is to day.” Dull Wisconsin is 10th in scoring defense, Ole Miss 10th in scoring. Keep your eye on Marshall Henderson, the nation’s 14th-leading scorer, who led Ole Miss to its first SEC title since 1981. Henderson is at his fourth college in four years. He served 25 days in jail for a probation violation involving marijuana and counterfeit money (Marshall law, anyone?). He loves to jaw at opposing crowds and even talks to cheerleaders. After the SEC title game, Henderson was asked about his goals in the Big Dance. “Make a name for myself, so I can get the money,” he said. Legitimate money, let’s hope.
Upset city: Belmont over Arizona: Rick Byrd has built a mid-major dynasty in Nashville. This makes six NCAA trips in eight years for the Bruins, called the best program never to win a game in the Dance. This could be the year. They’re a balanced, veteran group that led the nation in two-point field goal percentage and was fifth in steals. Belmont, which dominated in its first year in the Ohio Valley, played an aggressive non-conference schedule and won’t be cowed by the big stage. Arizona had an uninspiring year in a down season for the Pac-12.
Sleeper: Uh, it looks like I have Ole Miss and Belmont meeting in the regional final. Take your pick. Go ahead, shoot me. Raise your hand if you had Butler and VCU in the Final Four two years ago. Remember, the idea is having fun and, as Henderson reminds us, money.
And one: There are no teams from the state of Texas in the NCAA tourney. It’s the first time the Lone Star State has been shut out since 1977, when the field was only 32 teams.
Sweet 16: Belmont, Mississippi, Gonzaga, Ohio State.
Game to watch: Florida vs. Northwestern State. Florida is third in the country in scoring defense at 53.7 ppg. Northwestern is No. 1 in scoring at 81.0 a game. It’s enough to make you think the selection committee creates these matchups on purpose. Northwestern did lose to Niagara. But I recall watching the Demons upset Iowa as a No. 14 seed in 2006. They’re from Natchitoches, La., by the way. I just love typing “Natchitoches.”
Upset city: Western Kentucky over Kansas. Hey, it has to happen some day. Kansas has four seniors and a super freshman in Ben McLemore, who will be a top five NBA draft pick. But the Jayhawks are hardly infallible. Under Bill Self, they’ve lost to Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU in the NCAAs. Western Kentucky is an odd team. Two years in a row, they’ve slogged through the regular season, then come alive to win the Sun Belt. These Hilltoppers love the big moment, and they have a strong mid-major tradition. Let’s face it, this could easily have been a 3-14 matchup.
Sleeper: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are very hot and dangerous as a No. 8 seed in a down year for the ACC. Roy Williams will have them well-prepared and motivated as the underdog who gets no respect. The last five times the Heels made the tournament, they advanced to the regional finals (and lost four of them). They’re good enough to do it again.
And one: James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina’s leading scorer, is the second cousin of former Buffalo Braves great Bob McAdoo. James calls Bob “uncle”.
Sweet 16: North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, Georgetown.
Game to watch: Syracuse-Montana. You never know what you’ll get from the Orange in March. If Michael Carter-Williams is on his game, they can beat anyone. They’re also capable of confouding meltdowns, as we saw in the Big East final against Louisville. Montana has a fine senior point guard in Will Cherry. The Grizzlies are fifth in the country in free-throw shooting, so we know who has the edge there. There are whispers of a Jim Boeheim retirement. Oh, the Cuse was a No. 4 when it lost to Vermont in 2005.
Upset city: Davidson over Marquette. The Big East was overrated in its final year. The Golden Eagles are an pretty ordinary No. 3 seed. Davidson, riding a national-best 17-game win streak, has all the ingredients for an upset: Momentum; a balanced, veteran team; a very good coach in Bob McKillop; great free-throw shooting (No. 1 in the country), and an opponent that is overly reliant on scoring from its guards.
Sleeper: North Carolina State. The Wolfpack underachieved after sneaking into the Sweet 16 as an 11 seed last year. But they beat Duke and North Carolina and have a solid core of veteran scorers, led by 6-9 forward C.J.Leslie. Indiana is waiting if they get past Temple.
And one: Shane Larkin, Miami’s sensational sophomore point guard, is the son of Barry Larkin, the Hall of Fame shortstop. His uncle, Byron Larkin, is the career scoring leader at Xavier (Ohio). Byron helped 13th-seeded Xavier to an upset over Missouri in the 1987 NCAA tourney.
Sweet 16: Miami, Bucknell, California, Indiana.