NCAA Tournament First Weekend Observations

1. Talent prevails.
For all the madness in the first round of the tournament, there are few surprises in the Sweet 16. Of the remaining 16 teams, 12 were ranked in the preseason, and as I wrote last week, the preseason poll is one of the best indicators of talent. Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Gonzaga might seem like surprises, but they were all ranked inside the top 20 before the year. The only teams in the Sweet 16 that weren’t ranked before the year are Oregon, Texas A&M, Miami, and Syracuse – of which, only Syracuse failed to garner any votes for preseason poll.

2. The ACC has 6 teams in the Sweet 16, but only one truly impressive win.
Everyone wants to crown the ACC but look at the draws its teams faced. North Carolina and Virginia were one seeds, so getting to the Sweet 16 for them meant merely meeting their seed expectation. Syracuse, a 10 seed, faced arguably the field’s weakest 7 seed Dayton, before playing the biggest shock of the tournament, 15th seeded Middle Tennessee State. Duke, Maryland, and Notre Dame were all able to reach the Sweet 16 without playing a single digit seed because Yale, Hawaii, and Stephen F. Austin pulled upsets respectively. And for Notre Dame, it took a miracle buzzer-beating tip-in, as well as two dubious calls in the final minute or so, to scrape by Stephen F. Austin.  That leaves us with Miami, who also didn’t have to play a single digit seed, yet was the slight underdog against Wichita State. Miami’s win over Wichita State was the ACC’s only win that was truly impressive. We will see just how dominant the ACC is in the Sweet 16.

3. This might be the year Gonzaga finally makes the Final 4.
For over a decade, people have been waiting for Gonzaga to make a run all the way to the Final 4, from when they had Adam Morrison to when they had Kelly Olynyk. But Mark Few might have his best player ever in Domantas Sabonis, who somehow stayed under the radar all season long, before dominating future top 10 NBA pick Jacob Poeltl of Utah in the 2nd round of the tournament. If the Zags were ever going to make the Final 4, this is the type of year it would happen. There are few stars in this year’s tournament and there is a case to be made that Sabonis is the best big man left in the entire tournament. Kevin Willard called Sabonis the toughest matchup Seton Hall faced all year. Syracuse is as generous a Sweet 16 draw as the Zags could hope for, and neither Virginia nor Iowa State would be as tough as it was facing eventual champ Duke in last year’s Elite 8.

4. Offense, not defense, wins in the NCAA Tournament.
Offense wins games; defense wins championships. At least that’s how the saying goes. But of the remaining Sweet 16 teams, the average offensive efficiency is 14th and the average defensive efficiency is 40th, going by the KenPom numbers. Duke and Notre Dame have sub-100 defenses, and Iowa State’s defense is not much better at 94th in the country. But they have all top 10 offenses to make up for their defensive woes. None of this is to say defense is unimportant or that an elite offense will always carry a poor defense. After all, Michigan State and Kentucky bowed out early, despite being ranked 1st and 3rd respectively in offensive efficiency. However, those are the only two teams with top 10 offenses that are not still playing. Whoever wins it all will probably have a blend of strong offense and defense, but if I had to pick or the other, I’m going with offense.

5. I’m not sold on any of the one seeds.
Every one seed advanced to the Sweet 16, but can anyone remember another time when the top seeds were so deprived of NBA talent? Going by Chad Ford’s top 100 prospects, there might be two future NBA first round picks on this year’s crop of one seeds. He has UNC’s Brice Johnson ranked 29th and UVA’s Malcolm Brogdon 30th. Taking a look back on recent years, that is a very low number. Below is a list of the one seeds by year and what future 1st round picks they had.

Kentucky: Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein
Wisconsin: Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker
Duke: Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones
Villanova: None

Arizona: Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Florida: None
Virginia: Justin Anderson
Wichita State: None

Louisville: Gorgui Dieng
Indiana, Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo
Gonzaga: Kelly Olynyk
Kansas: Ben McLemore

Kentucky: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrance Jones, Marquis Teague
Michigan State: Draymond Green
Syracuse: Dion Waiters, Fab Melo (yes, he was a 1st rounder!)
North Carolina: Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, P.J. Hairston, Kendall Marshall

Ohio State: Jared Sullinger
Kansas: Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Thomas Robinson
Pittsburgh: None
Duke: Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith, Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee

Glancing at the past five seasons, 2014 comes closest in terms of the lack of NBA players on the top seeds. And remember: that year, the championship game was a 7 seed versus an 8 seed. Just because you aren’t loaded with future 1st round picks doesn’t mean you can’t be a very good college team, but in every Sweet 16 matchup featuring a top seed this weekend, you could make the argument that the one seeds are facing more talented teams.

6. How a team does in its conference tournament has no bearing on how it will fare in the NCAA Tournament.
There is a longstanding belief that the conference tournaments are important for teams to build momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament. Think of the 2011 Kemba Walker UConn team. Conversely, we have seen teams in the past who seem to wear themselves out by winning their conference tournament, like the 2006 Gerry McNamara Syracuse team.

Seton Hall entered the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country with a player in Isaiah Whitehead, who was playing as well as anyone. Yet, Seton Hall got waxed by Gonzaga and Whitehead had the worst performance of any player in the first round. Meanwhile, Indiana and Wisconsin lost in the first round of the Big 10 Tournament and have a chance to advance to the Elite 8 this weekend.

NCAA Tournament Thoughts

Where’s all the chaos?
It’s cliché to say the bracket feels harder to pick every year, but can anyone remember a year that seemed so wide open? Last year there were four or five dominant teams, one of which was a historically good team in Kentucky that entered the tournament undefeated. This year it seems like fifteen different teams could go all the way because no team has separated itself from the pack. And yet, almost everybody is picking Michigan State or Kansas. Why, after such a chaotic season, is everyone so bullish on those two teams?

Michigan State is understandable. There is no one better to bet on in March than Tom Izzo. Michigan State almost always outperforms its seed expectation. Either the selection committee habitually underseeds the Spartans – if anything, you would expect the opposite – or Tom Izzo is a March magician. And this year, Izzo has the country’s best player, do-it-all swingman Denzel Valentine, as well as Bryn Forbes who is one of the best shooters in the country. Michigan State is the most popular pick and for good reason.

But Kansas, despite its 30-4 record, is not invincible by any means. We’ve seen Bill Self teams with way more talent breeze through regular season only to stumble early in the tournament. Remember Ali Farokhmanesh? He was the guy from Northern Iowa raining 3s against Kansas in 2010 when they were the top overall seed. That Kansas team was 32-2 entering the tournament and had four future NBA players. No one considered the possibility of that 2010 Kansas team bowing out early. People are treating this year’s Kansas team the same way. Is the rest of the field that weak? Bill Self has had some immensely talented teams but this is not one of them. Their best player Perry Ellis probably will never play in the NBA. They lost by 19 earlier in the year to an Oklahoma State team that finished 12-20.

Beware of the overachievers
When filling out your bracket, there’s a tendency to overemphasize what just happened in the conference tournaments. It’s what is known as recency bias – we assume that what just happened will continue to happen. It’s actually a better idea to take a look at the first poll of the season, not the last. The preseason poll? Yep, that’s the one. It may seem counterintuitive to take more stock in the poll from right after Halloween than the one from a week ago, but the preseason poll is a strong indication of raw talent. It has its flaws, but at its core, it’s the coaches selecting who they think are the 25 most talented teams in the country. Throughout the season, things happen. Players get hurt, teams go through funks, and the poll changes. But that initial marker of talent at the start of the year is still helpful.

What you’ll often see is a team that was ranked highly in the preseason and then struggling in the regular season, only to make what is considered a surprising run in the tournament. Remember Kentucky a few years back? They were ranked first preseason and only earned an 8 seed, but then upset top-seeded undefeated Wichita State on their way to the championship game that they lost to UConn. It’s the case of a massively talented team that underachieved over the course of the year and figured things out right in time for the tournament.

The reverse is just as useful when looking for teams to stay away from. If a team is unranked before the season starts and climbs all the way to a high seed in the tournament, proceed with caution. On the surface it doesn’t make sense because we’re saying: This team won more games than people expected it to during the regular season, so will probably win fewer games than people expect it to in the tournament. The numbers bear this out: Since 2002, only four teams made the Final 4 after entering the season unranked.

This season, several highly seeded teams came out of nowhere. Top seeded Oregon, two seed Xavier, and three seeds West Virginia and Texas A&M all entered the season outside the top 25.



Differentiating Yourself in Large Tournaments

I have yet to write about daily fantasy sports, so bear with me as I put down some thoughts to paper here…

When there a fewer games, as is the case in the playoffs, it is harder to create a unique lineup. But to succeed in a large tournament, it’s necessary to separate yourself from the masses. That can be especially difficult if you do not want to entirely fade the chalk plays. For example, in the Wild Card round Antonio Brown was owned by more than half of the field, but given the ugly slate of low scoring games, it was almost impossible not to play Brown. Let’s get into some of the ways you can give your team a different look.

Playing Two Tight Ends
This strategy was incredibly profitable last week. Anyone who rostered Jordan Reed and Travis Kelce had a significant leg up on the competition. Most players flex a running back or wide receiver, so by simply rostering a tight end, you separate yourself. The same type of roster construction could pay dividends this weekend, with both Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen available. Both players will probably be highly owned, Olsen more than Gronkowski I would bet, but the ownership of them together will be much smaller.  Continue reading

Fantasy Football: Week 13 Recap

The final week of the fantasy regular season can be a cruel and cold reminder of how little control we really have. You can do all your homework and make informed decisions and still stand no chance. Sometimes, there really is nothing you can do. For some of you, Eddie Lacy’s no-show on Thursday night ended your season. But how were you supposed to know he missed curfew the night before the game? What about Richard Rodgers. He had as many yards, thanks to a Hail Mary, on Thursday, as he had in the previous six games combined. What are you supposed to do if that’s what keeps you from the playoffs?

Some of you went up against the Eagles defense this weekend. Even with the Patriots being decimated by injuries, they are the Patriots: they have Brady and Belichick, and anyone who bets against those guys is insane. The Eagles defense had negative points the past two weeks. But against the Patriots, they had 24 points because they had a punt return for a touchdown, a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, and a pick six. Or you started Jarvis Landry against a bottom five pass defense and he gave you zero standard points… You made the right decision. You just got really unlucky.

I could go on. The point is, there’s only so much you can do. Sometimes you can make every right decision, and it still doesn’t matter.  Continue reading

Fantasy Football: Week 12 Recap

Week 12 is always one of the funnest weeks in the fantasy calendar. The week’s slate begins on Thanksgiving, which is one of the best football days of the year, and it is the second to last week of the regular season (for most leagues), so some games end up being de-facto playoff games.

Lions 45, Eagles 14
The highest scoring game of Turkey Day featured season-best games from Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson, and the entire Lions offense as a whole. Stafford tossed 5 touchdowns, three of which went to Megatron, along with 337 yards. It was a creampuff matchup for Calvin against the Eagles, who came into the game conceding the second most fantasy points to wide receivers. Also, Calvin came into the game with the most receiving touchdowns on Thanksgiving in league history (of course, the Lions play on Thanksgiving every year). The other two scores went to reception magnets Golden Tate and Theo Riddick, who had 7 catches for 50 yards and 5 catches for 62 yards respectively. Rookie running back Ameer Abdullah had a career game, finishing with 16 carries for 63 yards, both career highs. Also out of the backfield, Joique Bell had 82 total yards and a score late in the game.

It was a brutal day all around for the Eagles. There was no bright spot in the game that those who want Chip Kelly gone will point to at the end of the season. Mark Sanchez threw for a yard short of 200 with 2 touchdowns and a fumble. Brent Celek and Jordan Matthews were the recipients of those touchdowns, with Matthews finding the end zone with three minutes to play, as the Eagles trailed 45-7. DeMarco Murray had one of his weakest games of the year, as game flow prevented the Eagles from running the ball much. Murray had 14 carries for 30 yards and no receiving yards.  Continue reading

Fantasy Football: What Are We Thankful For?

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, so it’s time to start considering what us fantasy degenerates are thankful for. Whether you’ve already secured a playoff berth or you’re relegated to playing spoiler, there is plenty to be thankful for. But this is not to simply highlight who’s had a great season and who’s had a horrible season. You don’t need me to tell you to be thankful for Devonta Freeman and DeAndre Hopkins. So the day before the big feast, let’s get right into it, listing what we are thankful for, beginning with the abstract.

Being Patient
There are many instances where being patient is a slow and steady path to the bottom of the standings. Sometimes, being patient is just a euphemism for being risk-averse and overly cautious. That is not the patience we are celebrating here. Rather, let’s take a look at some players whose early, uninspiring play led owners to panic and cut bait too early. Lamar Miller had 37 carries in the first month of the season, and most owners realized it was Joe Philbin who was the problem. As long as Miller’s workload increased, so too would his value. He was efficient – just way underutilized. Sure enough, the Dolphins canned Philbin after an embarrassing string of losses, the interim coach Dan Campbell committed to running the ball, and Miller never looked back. He’s now a top 5 running back for those who were patient with him. Continue reading

Fantasy Football: Week 11 Recap

This was a rough week in fantasy. A list of some of the guys who flopped this week: Gronk, Devonta (injury), Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, T.Y. Hilton, Chris Ivory, everyone on the Chargers, Lamar Miller (it’s not his fault!), and Charcanderick West (injury). The scores were probably lower in most leagues this week, so let’s see what went wrong.

Jaguars 19, Titans 13
An underwhelming game all around. The Jaguars have been a remarkably consistent fantasy situation this season, but as is often the case, the Thursday night game was sloppy. Blake Bortles had his second straight subpar game, throwing for 242 yards and a touchdown, along with two turnovers. His rest of season schedule is promising enough that he should remain locked in your starting lineup. The Allen Bros – aren’t they great? – curiously saw few targets in the first half. Allen Robinson had 113 yards, but his counterpart Allen Hurns, perhaps limited by his abdomen injury, was held to his worst game of the season with three catches for 19 yards. Hurns only received four targets, which is tied for the least he has gotten all year. The lone score went to Julius Thomas, who could see an uptick in red zone usage, if Hurns’ time on the field is more limited as he plays through injury. Out of the backfield, T.J. Yeldon had 82 total yards. He is nothing if not consistent, and he is reliable to get about 20 touches every game.

Considering the Titans put up a mere 13 points, it’s surprising that there were three usable fantasy performances. Marcus Mariota rushed for a TD and threw for 231 yards. Good for 18 fantasy points. His main target…. Actually his only target, Delanie Walker, had his highest yardage of the year with 109 yards. Because of how weak Tennessee’s receivers are, Walker is one of the more reliable tight ends in fantasy. He is not in the Gronk, Eifert, Olsen, Barnidge tier, but he may be the next best. Yes, better than Kelce. Maybe not more talented than Kelce, but Walker is more consistent. He has seven games over 50 yards this year, and Kelce has just five. The last real contributor to the Titans’ bumbling offense is rookie running back Antonio Andrews, whose high usage keeps him flex-able most weeks.  Continue reading

Power Ranking the NFL QBs

This has been a funky year for quarterbacks. We knew Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers were the class of the league, but what happened to Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson? Luck has dealt with nagging injuries and Wilson’s line is a mess, but still. And Peyton… He looked bad at the end of last year, but did anyone think he’d look this bad? I mean, nine touchdowns and 16 interceptions? What about Andy Dalton and Cam Newton. Did people expect their teams to be undefeated at the season’s midpoint, both firmly entrenched in the MVP race? See! It really has been a mess, so let’s figure out: If you were ranking quarterbacks, according to who you’d want to be leading your team for the rest of the year, how would it go?

44. Jimmy Clausen

43. Zach Mettenberger
42. Ryan Mallett
No matter how you judge a QB, these guys finish last. Winning? The three of them are a combined 3-23 as starters (Clausen is 1-11, Mettenberger, and Mallett would be worse than 2-4 if his alarm clock worked). Stats? Not one of them has thrown for more TDs than INTs in his career. Personality? If anything separates these guys from the rest of the bad QBs in the NFL, it’s that they generally rub you the wrong way. For Clausen and Mettenberger, they just look annoying. Mallett does too, but he takes it a step further with the type of toxic behavior usually sapped out of most perennial clipboard-holders. The only reason to be excited if these guys are on the field is if you’re starting the opposing defense in fantasy.

41. E.J. Manuel
40. Geno Smith
Neither of the first two QBs taken in the 2013 Draft is a legitimate NFL starter. Through 2.5 years in the league, both guys have been benched by their respective teams. In the NFL, once a young QB gets the starting gig, he usually only has two years to prove his worth. After that, if you haven’t shown that you’re definitely a starter in the league, your team will start looking elsewhere. And in both cases, even before that two year window was over, we knew who they were: guys, who cannot be counted on to win games in the NFL. Neither QB has ever had a winning season. Geno is 11-18 as a starter, and Manuel is 6-10. Their starting days in the NFL are over – seriously, can you imagine any starting QB in the NFL getting sucker punched by a teammate? – and it is crystal clear that Manuel and Smith were busts. Continue reading

Fantasy Football: Week 10 Recap

Let’s run down some of the big stories in week 10. Julian Edelman broke his foot. The Packers couldn’t score the ball at home against the Lions. The Bears put up 37 points with no help from Alshon Jeffery or Martellus Bennett. Adrian Peterson rushed for over 200 yards. The Redskins scored 47 points. Kirk Cousins had a perfect passer rating. Peyton Manning had a perfectly horrible passer rating. Literally, a 0.0 passer rating. The Cardinals dropped 39 in Seattle. These are just some of the headlines in week 10…

Bills 22, Jets 17
As expected, Thursday night’s matchup was a slugfest throughout. Both teams mostly traded three-and-outs for the first half, with the lone TD coming off a kickoff fumble recovery. The Bills led 12-3 at half – the missing point coming off a missed PAT by Bills kicker Dan Carpenter. The game picked up in the second half, as Karlos Williams capped off the Bills’ opening drive of the half with a 26-yard TD reception. That means Williams continued his now record-tying streak of six straight games with a TD. Though, it was LeSean McCoy who got the bulk of the work in the backfield. For the second straight week, McCoy put up 112 rushing yards, and he also added 47 receiving yards. Those couple of weeks he sat out to get his health right are paying dividends in the home stretch of the fantasy season. The Bill struggled to get much going in the air, as Tyrod Taylor only threw for 158 yards, with the lone TD that went to Williams. That’s partly due to Darrelle Revis blanketing Sammy Watkins all night, holding Watkins to a meager 3 catches for 14 yards. Charles Clay led the way for the Bills in the air, though he only had 52 yards.

Chris Ivory, who finished with 135 total yards, lost a fumble on the second drive of the second half, resulting in a field goal that put the Bills ahead 22-3 early in the third quarter. After pulling Ryan Fitzpatrick’s beard for good luck, Brandon Marshall punctuated the Jets’ next series with a 14-yard TD, off of a pick play in the red zone. That play wound up salvaging an otherwise disappointing night from Marshall, who only had three catches for 23 yards. Fitzpatrick struggled for much of the night, throwing two picks, but he still managed an okay final line, with 193 passing yards, 30 rushing yards, and two passing TDs. The only thing more inevitable than Karlos Williams scoring a TD is Eric Decker giving his typical solid yardage and a score. As usual, Decker gave reliable WR2 numbers . In eight games, Decker has 7 TDs. His touchdown cut the Bills lead to 22-17, but that proved to be the last score of the night. Continue reading

Fantasy Football: Week 9 Recap

Between all of the injuries last week and the fact that week 9 is the heaviest bye week of the season, lots of owners were put behind the eight ball this weekend. And if you weren’t before, maybe you are now, after Ben Roethlisberger, LeSean Mccoy, Dion Lewis, and Latavius Murray went down with injuries. Whatever the case may be, another week brought even more craziness. Don’t believe me? Blaine Gabbert outplayed Matt Ryan. The Titans scored 35 points. Antonio Brown had 284 yards! Eddie Lacy resorted to eating teams’ fantasy points! OK, OK, just kidding. Let’s get into all of week 9’s madness.

Bengals 31, Browns 10
Anyone still expecting Andy Dalton to revert to last year’s form should accept the fact that he is one of the top QBs this season. Against the Browns, he added 3 TDs (and zero INTs) to his season total. Much of Dalton’s success seems connected to the emergence of TE Tyler Eifert, who caught all 3 of Dalton’s TD tosses. Eifert leads the league with 9 receiving TDs, and according to Adam Schefter, Eifert’s 9 red zone TDs are the most through the first half of a season in the past 15 years. Think of Eifert like Denver Julius Thomas: the yardage is not eye-popping, but he is a TD machine, who specializes inside the 20s. Just one more interesting bit about Eifert: According to Pro Football Focus, Eifert has the highest run blocking grade of any TE – I know that isn’t rewarded in fantasy, but that only makes him harder to guard, as it isn’t always clear when he’ll get the ball, compared to a TE to only comes in for passing plays.

Unfortunately for the rest of the offense, Eifert’s large share of the red zone pie eats into everyone else’s production. Most noticeably, A.J. Green has struggled to find any consistency. He finished the game with 53 yards, and through 8 games, and he now only has two games over 100 yards. It was actually Marvin Jones who led the Bengals in receiving yards with 78 yards, while third WR Mohamed Sanu scored off a 25 yard reverse. Despite not producing noteworthy numbers, it’s worth keeping tabs on Jeremy Hill, who has at least 15 rushes in three straight games now. The Bengals are not giving up on Hill. They have not abandoned Hill, and he could be a sneaky guy to target before the trade deadline. Meanwhile, backfield counterpart Gio Bernard contributed 84 total yards. This is a loaded offense, and the diffusion of productivity can be frustrating at times, but it’s a good idea to have Bengals shares heading into the fantasy playoffs.

I wish there was as much to say about the Browns as there is for the Bengals. But really, there are only a few guys worth highlighting. Travis Benjamin had a tremendous first third of the season, but his regression is well in motion. For three consecutive weeks now, he has failed to tally 50 yards. Star TE Gary Barnidge also had a disappointing week with just 35 yards to account for, and both Barnidge’s and Benjamin’s low totals are at least partly attributable to Johnny Manziel playing, as Josh McCown sat with a rib injury. Manziel looked good on the Browns lone scoring drive, right before halftime, but he finished the game having completed less than half of his passes. The Browns ground game is completely nonexistent, as I’m sure Isaiah Crowell are well aware by now. But, RB Duke Johnson is intriguing in PPR leagues. The only RBs with more receptions than Johnson are Theo Riddick, Devonta Freeman, and Danny Woodhead. In leagues rewarding receptions, Johnson is a good starter. Continue reading