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.



College Basketball Power Rankings

Selection Sunday is only eight days away! For all of the complaining that casual fans have about college basketball – too slow, not enough scoring, too many timeouts, etc – there’s no question that March Madness is one of the best times of the year for sports. So without further ado, let’s dig into the second to last power rankings before the tourney starts.

12. Iowa State
Iowa State just beat Oklahoma the other day, capping off the game with a 49-22 run. That’s right – the Cyclones were getting blown out at home, and then casually dropped 59 points on the 7th ranked defense in the country. I haven’t been buying Iowa State’s chances in the tournament all year. They have one of the highest powered offenses in the country, and Fred Hoiberg is one of the best coaches in America, but they don’t guard. For most of the season, their defense has hardly cracked the top 100. Last year, Duke and Michigan were two notable teams that had top 5 offenses and sub-100 offenses – Duke was knocked out in the first round and Michigan fell to Kentucky in the Elite 8. So, it’s not like porous defense always dooms you in the tournament, but it leaves you especially susceptible to a poor night shooting night. It’s hard to stay hot shooting the ball for six straight games in the tournament. Having said all that, I’m not sure if any other team outside the top 10 has as much upside as Iowa State. When they came back to beat Oklahoma the other night, they scored 59 points in the second half, but they also won with their defense, limiting Oklahoma to 22 points in the second half. If Iowa State plays defense, they have Final Four ability.  Continue reading

SMU Loses Top-Ranked Point Guard In Country, Who Decides To Play Overseas Instead

During the entire 2013 NCAA basketball season, whenever experts talked about SMU’s sudden rise under Larry Brown, they talked about what 2014 would look like. Ranked at various points throughout the season last year, SMU was somewhat shockingly snubbed from the tournament due to a weak non-conference schedule. But that didn’t matter because in 2014 they were bringing in top five recruit Emmanuel Mudiay.

What? A top five recruit in the ENTIRE COUNTRY picked SMU? OVER KENTUCKY?!? 

Larry Brown was doing things in in SMU that had never been done. Basketball was relevant and with Mudiay, even as a one-and-done, SMU had a chance to maybe the reach the Final 4. That was the grand hope at least. And who’s to say it was unrealistic? I mean, if Mudiay really was as good as people said he was–a future NBA lottery pick–then making a very deep run in the tournament seemed entirely plausible. They were certainly going to be in everyone’s preseason top 25.

Continue reading