I’m posting some thoughts, ATS picks and my official bracket this year. I’ll break the teams down into multiple categories below:
Contenders- I look for teams with a top 20 defensive efficiency according to Kenpom, a team ranking high in opponent effective possession ratio (limiting opponents to minimal scoring chances out of their possessions by forcing turnovers and limiting offensive rebounds), good point guard play and a go to scorer late in ball games.
– Arizona: My favorite to win it all. Arizona fits the bill here in all the categories above as they are #1 in defensive efficiency, #36 in Opp Eff Poss Ratio and have steady PG play with TJ McConnell and a scorer in Nick Johnson. They also posted a 15 pt/game average winning margin so they have the ability to blow teams out. Add that the West region is the easiest region by far and I have Arizona in the Final 4 and winning it all.
– Louisville: Easily the hottest team entering the tournament. Pitino has a history of turning things on at the right time. Last season’s champs even had a 3 game losing streak late in January last year before running the table to a title. The 3 guards cause all sorts of havoc (sorry VCU) with Russ Smith, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier constantly swiping and stealing passes. Louisville is #2 nationally in defensive TO%. The only thing that scares me a little is that they tend to destroy poor competition but struggle against the best teams on their schedule. They are only 5-5 against the 10 best teams on their schedule. Did they just figure things out later in the year and are turning it on now or do certain good teams just handle them? Not sure but I’m willing to bet that style, along with Pitino’s mastery and Russ Smith’s offense, gets them to the Final 4. They also fit my profile above as they rank 6th in Def Efficiency and are actually #2 in Kenpom’s overall ratings.
– Florida: The Gators are very similar to Arizona without a reliable go-to scorer. Obviously a great defensive team ranking 5th in Def Efficiency but I still struggle with who they go to when they need points. I like Scotty Wilbiken but am not sure he is a guy who can consistently score when needed. Senior leadership and that defense will take the Gators far but they are not my favorite to win the title.
– Michigan St: I despise everyone on ESPN picking MSU to win it all. I’m a contrarian by nature so it pains me to even consider the Spartans here. It also doesn’t help that the region probably has the weakest #1 and #2 seeds in the tournament. While they only rank 40th in Def Efficiency, most of that damage occurred with Payne and Dawson out. With Harris, Appling, Payne and Dawson they have the most talented top 4 in the tournament. For contest purposes and diversification of picks I ended up going with UNC in my bracket although truth be told MSU is more likely the smart Final Four pick.
The Darkhorses (seeds 6-11)
– North Carolina: Such a schizophrenic team, the Tar Heels have some of the best wins on a resume from any team in the tourney. They have wins over Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan St and Duke so obviously they can play and beat the big boys. They don’t necessarily do anything great but what I like is the Roy Williams pedigree, an excellent PG in Marcus Paige and a very good offensive rebounding team (19th in off reb%). While they are not a great 3 pt shooting team (208th nationally) they are an aggressive team that goes to the line a lot and scores a large % of their points from 2s. Whereas 3pt% is fairly streaky, being able to consistently get good looks is important. They have a pretty decent draw as the two best opponents in their region will be Iowa St or Villanova most likely. Neither team is great.
– Ohio State: While the Buckeyes have been inconsistent this year, especially on offense, they do have a tremendous defense ranking 4th in def efficiency and 15th in forcing turnovers. They also have great PG play from Aaron Craft and a guy in Laquinton Ross who can be that go to scorer when he is into it. Q came into his own last March and has the ability to carry the Buckeyes deep in the tournament. They can beat Syracuse and in a very low possession game against the Orangemen a close game is most likely to occur.
– Iowa/Tennessee: I bunch these teams together without knowing the outcome but whomever wins can do damage. You could have told me this was a Sweet 16 matchup and I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. The Vols are ranked 11th in Kenpom and Iowa 28th, so much better than your typical play-in matchup. Both have excellent wins on their resumes and would both would be favored over UMass. I also think they can easily beat Duke and Michigan to get to a Final 4. Iowa already proved as much smashing Michigan by 18 a few weeks back and Tennessee destroyed Virginia by 35 in December. Both teams match up very well against Duke (I’ll get to them later) and especially Tennessee can exploit them in the middle with Maymon. If you are looking for a legit double digit darkhorse to get a couple of Ws and maybe a big Final 4 run either of these teams can get there. For my bracket purpose I picked Tennessee over Iowa.
The Pretenders (seeds 1-3 who can lose early)
– Duke: This list begins with the biggest potential flopper in Duke. The Blue Devils are littered with characteristics of a team that can go down early. They are a very poor defensive team ranking 101st in defensive efficiency, are 218th in defensive rebounding% and rank 348th in points allowed from 2pt shots. As some of those numbers suggest, Duke is susceptible to teams that can pound them inside. Offensively Duke can get hot with their 3pt shooting where they rank 10th nationally but the fact that 1/3rd of their points come from beyond the arc is scary. Teams that rely so heavily on the 3pt shot can get streaky and win a few games but the odds of winning 4+ games to get to the Final Four are much lower than a team like UNC that can consistently score from inside the arc. Once that 3pt shooting goes cold then what? They have zero inside presence and have to fully rely on Jabari Parker. Could he get hot and make a Danny Manning like run? It’s possible but their defensive weaknesses are so glaring I don’t believe he can make up for it. This team is ripe for a first or second round upset and if they can get by Mercer, yes “get by”, either Tennessee or Iowa is built to beat them. I won’t be picking Duke anywhere near my Final Four.
– Wisconsin: The typically efficient Badgers are actually a much better offensive team this year as compared to the past. The problem is that they are not nearly as good on defense where they rank 58th. In addition, a sign of a highly ranked team that typically falters early is one that has a scoring margin on the season <10pts/game and is not good at limiting opponents offensive possessions (Opp Off Effective Ratio). Wisconsin’s average scoring margin sits at 9 pts/gm and they only rank 254th in Opp Eff Ratio. Not only does American have a chance to keep the game close in round one but I believe Oregon is too athletic and can outscore the Badgers to get to the Sweet 16.
Big Upset Potential Rd 1 (>12 seed)
– NC Central over Iowa St: NC Central is a good team. They rank 60th in defensive efficiency and went into NC State and beat them by 10 back in November and had respectable showings losing by 13 at Cincinnati and 11 at Wichita St. Guard Jeremy Ingram is a stud and put up 27 v Cincinnati, 37 v Wichita St and 29 v NC St. If he gets hot look out, especially if Iowa St gets cold from 3pt range.
– Mercer over Duke: Mercer ironically comes from the same conference as last year’s darlings, Florida Gulf Coast. Mercer is a solid team and showed well in non conference action, losing to Texas on the road by 3 after leading at the half and they also beat Seton Hall and Mississippi. They do a nice job defending the 3pt line, ranking 21st nationally in 3pt defensive %. Mercer is also very experienced, ranking 5th in terms of experience from the core of their team.
Best ATS Picks
NC Central +9 vs Iowa St: Above
Mercer +13 vs Duke: Above
Kentucky -5 vs Kansas St: Kentucky does a few things well including leading the nation in offensive rebound % while KSU ranks 257th in defensive rebound %. Also Kansas St has been terrible on the road. Against Kenpom top 100 teams on the road or neutral sites, Kansas St went 1-9 losing by an average of 12 pts per game. As long as Kentucky doesn’t look ahead to a potential round 2 matchup against Wichita, I like a comfortable win by Kentucky.
SF Austin +6.5 vs VCU: An intriguing game between two similar teams. SFA is on a 27 gm win streak, albeit against bad competition. VCU won’t be able to turn over SFA as often as they’d like, seeing as how SFA does a nice job taking care of the ball (72nd in TO%). Also, VCU missing Guard Melvin Johnson due to injury is a big deal as he is the team’s leading 3pt shooter. For a team that is not great offensively already and rely on turnovers to score, not having Johnson hurts.
My 2014 Bracket