Friday, March 14, 2008

Bracketology: Your guide to the madness

It’s that wonderful event that will slow production in the workplace and send employees searching the web for live updates. It sends housewives sniveling, as their daily CBS soaps are bumped from the schedule and the network is hijacked by a hoop. It’s the madness that keeps us waiting, selecting and hoping. It’s been called “bracketology”, that single sheet of paper in your possession that contains all the winners. On selection Sunday, you are the genius, confident in each pick. But by Thursday, you’re already cursing the imperfection. Is there a reliable formula to break it all down, as to come out on top? Let’s take a look.

Everything you should know when making your selections

1. The play-in game: The NCAA recently expanded the tournament field to 65 teams, and for no logical reason. Two of the worst teams in the country, which happened to qualify with automatic conference bids, will play to decide who will get blown out by one of the best teams in the country.

The bracket will have both teams listed on the same line, already telling you that one or the other holds no significance. If anyone honestly thought either had a chance, they wouldn’t post any team on the line until the play-in was complete. A top seeded tournament team has never lost to a 16 seed, and the play in winner is the absolute worst of the bottom seeds.

2. Selecting with the heart: The easiest way to kill an entire region of the bracket is to select based on favoritism or homerism, without facing the reality that your team actually stinks. To put it another way, just because you attend Cornell University doesn’t make it sensible to pencil them in as your national champion.

3. All brackets are imperfect: There is no such thing as a perfect bracket, which is why you have a plethora of sites giving away big money prizes for achieving it. In Vegas, it would be equivalent to a 63 game parlay, and what kind of odds would Sin City give you on that one? All it takes is one loss, in 63 games, and perfection is over.

As much as you would like to get every game right, you don’t have to. You can lose plenty in a region, and it won’t matter. What matters most is to have your regional champion advance and keep it alive. The more regional champions you can move forward, the better your odds of winning.

4. Beware the Ball Busters: Cinderella is always looking to crash a party, and though the 16 seeds have played to perfection, other lower seeds have pulled upsets. A 2 seed losing to a 15 seed occurs about once every 5 years, but the one to watch is the 5 vs. 12 match up. In the past 6 tournaments, the 5 seed is just 15-9 against their lower seeded opponent.

*Only two 10 seeds have ever won the tournament ( Indiana ’87, UConn ’99)

*Only two 11 seeds have ever made it to the final four (LSU upset top seeded Kentucky in ’86, George Mason upset top seeded UConn in ‘06)

Two of my early Cinderella favorites are from the WCC, in San Diego and Saint Marys, providing they are selected to the tournament field.

5. Changing Of The Guard: Guard play dominates the NCAA tournament. A team can travel deeper into the tournament if the guard play is excellent. You can be stacked with height, but if you have no one to distribute, it negates your strength. Take into consideration that UCLA (Collinson), Indiana (Gordon), Memphis (Rose), and USC (Mayo) feature point guards that can take over the game. You have to assist a big man, before he can take over the court, and packed in zones often disallow it. It’s the free wheeling point guard with the most opportunity to carry his team on his back. Also note the struggles of North Carolina when point guard Ty Lawson was forced to sit out with an ankle injury. Despite having Hansbrough, one of the best post players in the game, the team looked anything but dominant.

6. Experience: The best college players often jump quickly to the NBA ranks, and what is left behind is parity. The tournament will feature great teams, but the gap between themselves and their opponents has narrowed in comparison to the great teams of the 80s and 90s against their competitors. The back to back defending champion Florida Gators were a team that stayed together and played together. Dangerous teams are those with starting line ups loaded with Seniors and juniors.

7. Ignore the analysts: The media is guessing, the same as you. When you look at Vitale, Phelps, Lavin, etc, keep in mind that it was ESPN’s female sideline reporter (Erin Andrews) that correctly selected the past two national champions. If the media had pinpoint accuracy, we would just take the top two teams in the final AP poll or RPI rankings and have them play for the national championship. Sounds a lot like the BCS, doesn’t it?

8. Power rankings: When undecided, avoid selecting according to conference. Conference power rankings are just like any other ranking, meaning it’s garbage. In 2007, the ACC topped the power rankings, and despite sending 7 teams to the tournament, only one made the field of 16. In comparison, the Pac 10 and SEC delivered 3 teams each to the sweet 16, and each had a representative in the final 4. The match ups aren’t the same against every team, just as Virginia Commonwealth provided a poor match up for Duke in last year's tournament.

9. Streakers: Teams rolling into the tournament on a hot streak tend to remain on fire. Not saying they can roll all the way into the final game, but such teams have created havoc for bigger tournament names in early rounds.

10. Lady luck: Luck is the most important element to bracketology. Sometimes getting the right bounce, roll, or call can be a difference between winning and losing. 2 of the past 5 pools I’ve entered were won by females that knew nothing about the game. One chose teams based on how “cute” their logos were. That same girl, in another pool, once picked only 3 winners after the first round of play. The odds of getting only 3 right of 32 games is equally as difficult as a perfect bracket.

Each game holds importance to someone in your pool, which is what keeps us glued with excitement about advancements, eliminations, and scores. It’s a one of a kind, and unrivaled playoff system that allows the hearts of fans to share in the madness. I wish you luck, and enjoy the games.

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