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.