It is never too early to start preparing for your office NCAA bracket pool. Those who do their homework in November and December will have exactly the same chance as the girl in your office who likes the colors of North Carolina but wonders what do those little numbers mean next to the school names (true story). WAIT, I mean doing your homework now is what will separate you from your friends, family and co-workers who don't know the difference between a Tar Heel and a Banana Slug.
I am a self proclaimed NCAA Bracket Bust-ologist (my credentials can be found at the bottom) and am willing to share my sage wisdom so you can begin your quest to win this year's office pool.
1. North Carolina will win this year's NCAA Tournament.
I know I'm starting with the low hanging fruit here, but find a blank bracket, put UNC in one of the #1 first round slots and write them down as the winner in every round including the championsihp game. I have never before been so convinced this early in the year that one team is heads and shoulders above the rest of the field. UConn is very good, Gonzaga, Duke, a couple Big East teams are all good as well but nobody is at the same level as UNC.
Let me offer up a quick comparison with the top Big Ten teams vs. some of the top teams in the country. First, UConn played Wisconsin Nov. 24, on a neutral court. The final was of course a UConn win by a comfortable 19 point margin, take a look at the widget below which shows the scoring flow and most importantly look at the "lead safeness" line on the graph.
Second example is Duke at Purdue in this week's ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Purdue is a very athletic team that many think has a chance to make a Final Four run. Surely with a home game against Duke this would be a chance to make a statement that they are a serious contender. Most of us know that Duke controlled the game, never trailed and cruised to a 16 point win. Below is the game flow.
Next lets look at this weeks game between Michigan State and North Carolina. Michigan State was technically at home, ranked in the top 15 and like Purdue believe they are talented and athletic enough to make Final Four run which just happens to be in their home state. This would once again be an opportunity to show the college basketball world that they are legit and can at the very least compete with the likes of North Carolina. The didn't and were blown out by 35!
Duke and UConn controlled their games against a couple of the Big Ten's best, but it was nothing like the total domination by North Carolina over Michigan State. Look again at the lead safeness. UConn reached a 100% safeness with 1:54, Duke hit 100% at the 1:40 mark, but North Carolina's lead over Michigan State was considered 100% save with 10:13 left in the game. With over 25% of the game remaining the Tarheels were up 30 points on a top 15 team that many think has the pieces to get to the Final Four. Michigan State IS a good team but North Carolina is incredible.
It goes beyond the box score as this team is balanced, deep, experienced, athletic and coached by the best coach in college basketball. They have a great post player, a dynamic back court and McDonald's All-American's at every other position starting and coming off the bench.
Often times teams that return all or nearly all of their roster from the previous year fail to live up to expectations. Personalities of teams change from year to year even with the same roster, sometimes teams coast and expect to get better because they are a year older. But this team obviously worked in the offseason to make them more than a very good team with a chance to win it all, they are a great team with a chance to be one of the all-time great teams. Upsets happen, injuries happen and this team isn't unbeatable; but the only team that has a prayer of beating UNC is UNC.
That was the easy part, let's move on to #2.
2. Don't over think the champion.
This one will be quick. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, go with the theory that everybody is going to pick UNC so you'll pick UConn (or Duke or North Carolina) and win when UNC loses. First of all you are right, everyone will pick UNC, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. If you pick North Carolina (like everybody else) and North Carolina somehow loses, then you are no worse off than everybody else. If you choose to put all of your eggs in the other #1 seed basket and that team loses? You are done and standing all alone as the guy who is done.
The plan this year is to go with the herd on North Carolina and beat them elsewhere. Here is how you will beat them.
AFTER THE BREAK!...
3. Find this year's George Mason/Davidson/Gonzaga
It took me until point #3 before this requires any work on your part. Now is when you have to do your homework and study the mid-majors who have a chance to make a run. This step is critical and must be done now, in fact it may already be too late. In a month all of the mid-majors will be playing other mid-majors which will make judegement difficult. But now teams like Butler, Illinois State, Virginia Commonwealth, Cleveland State, etc are playing other teams who may eventually be in the NCAA tournament.
Looking at box scores is not enough, you need to see them play. This will help you to actually remember them in March and despite losses you may come to realize that this tema is actually talented enough to win come March. A year ago Davison lost to North Carolina by 4, Duke beat them by 6 and UCLA beat them by 12. By the time March madness hit all anybody saw was that they lost. But if you had done your homework you may have seen the greatness that was/is Stephen Curry or that this team had other pieces which would make them a viable NCAA tournament team.
It won't matter what else you do with your first round picks or Final Four team, if you can pick the team who makes an Elite Eight run that nobody else saw coming you will get a great boost in points. Picking a first round upset is nice, but is only worth a point or two. Picking the team who wins 3 games is exponentially more important.
But like I said, you have to do your homework. Teams like Gonzaga and Memphis don't count (click that link, it is worth it!) and really neither does Davidson this year. Everybody who is paying attention knows these teams are good and can make a run. You have to find the mid-major that is flying under the radar and will remain there until everybody thinks how did we miss this team?
Do your homework and do it now. Take notes if you have to (if it will help type them on The Daily Gopher so I can reference your notes in March). Some games to set your TiVo to record...
12/13 - Butler @ Ohio State
12/17 - Sienna @ Pitt
12/17 - Ark Little-Rock @ Memphis
12/23 - Butler @ Xavier (two birds, one stone)
12/20 - Xavier vs. Duke
There are many others but in 5 min of research that is what I would recommend.
4. Think Sweet 16.
I know I said that picking this year's Cinderella is what will most quickly separate your from the pack, but don't ignore the first couple rounds. When you have the bracket in front of you you need to focus on getting as many teams as possible into the Sweet 16. In other years you could afford to only get 11/16 or so and then make it up by picking the champion. But as previously stated, that is not going to separate you this year so you need to get in the lead as quickly as possible.
For this to happen you need to be judicious in your upset picks, be selective and be accurate. I know this is easier said than done but to get this right I'm going to ask you to watch more basketball! This time you need to watch the good but not great teams in the power conferences. Teams like Ohio State, Arizona State, Miami, Wisconsin, Kansas, USC, 2/3 of the Big East, Baylor, Wake Forest, Clemson, etc. These are the teams that will be playing the mid-majors and fighting to make it to the second weekend before they face a top two or three seed.
You can spread out your viewing as researching these teams can be put off until they get into their conference season. Watching Arizona State vs. Pepperdine is meaningless. You need to see them against other BCS caliber teams and watch them closely. Where are they vulnerable? If they are vulnerable to a hot outside shooting team and they play Davidson early, the look out. Or if they are thin in the middle then that will change what kind of team can beat them come March/April.
Stats can be helpful and seeing them play is easier as they are on TV more, but don't let your wife make you watch Desperate Housewives, research is important.
5. Avoid sentimentality.
Way back in the 1998-99 season I was cramming for the NCAA tournament and watching some mid-major conference tournaments. While watching the WCC conference championship game I said to myself, "Self, remember Gonzaga they look like they could make a great tourney run. They will be your upset special." Turns out I was 100% correct as they made it to the Elite Eight and lost a heartbreaker to UConn. Did I have them on my bracket going that far? NO, I had them losing in the first round because they were playing my U of Minn Golden Gophers. I can't pick against MN in the first round.
Don't be like me, it is occasionally a sad exhistence.
6. Stats can be misleading but use the right stats!
Bookmark this now...www.kenpom.com. Efficiency stats should be your Bible. This is no joke, somehow you need to use numbers to compare and evaluate teams. Stats you can get from a box score are misleading at best and usually not helpful. Efficiency stats are catching on so you may not get the same advantage you would have had over the last few years. If you are unfamiliar the KenPomery site linked above has detailed explanations, but in a nutshell it reduces everybody's stats down to the possession level. How many points do they score per possession, what % of rebounds does team X get for every shot missed, etc. These stats are great and here are a few that you really need to watch come tourney time.
I believe that you need to be good in three areas to win any particular game. Shooting%, turnovers and rebounding. Typically if you win two of the three you will win the game. Efficiency stats really help to get a firm grasp on just how good teams are in those areas. In addition to those you should also pay very close attention to the differential between a team's points per possession and points allowed per possession.
- Point per possession Differential - generally teams with a +0.200 differential are the teams to look out for. 2008 Kansas led the nation in possession scoring differential and right behind them were Memphis, UCLA and UNC. And the teams in the championship game had a decided much larger differential than the other final four teams. Think that stat had some weight?
Kansas - 0.2776
Memphis - 0.2624
UCLA - 0.2210
UNC - 0.2158
Last year was pretty cut and dry for the Final Four, but this stat is a big indicator. 14 of the top 21 teams in this category were in the Sweet 16. Six of the top 10 teams ended up in the Elite Eight. Georgetown and Duke were top 10 teams in differential who lost before Sweet 16 but they lost to other teams with great differentials.
- Turnover % - Good teams will generally have a TO% less than 18 or 19 % of the time.
- Off Reb % - 37% is a good number here
- Def Reb % - actually listed as % of off rebounds you allow so anything under 30% is good.
eFG% - FG% with a boost for making threes! Kansas was fourth in the nation last year. A good number is anything over 53.5%.
These numbers are great idicators but of course not 100% predictors, use with caution but they do receive the official Gopher Nation endorsment.
7. Lying and cheating is OK.
Most of you know who is going to be in your office pool. Start feeding people mis-information now. Tell them how incredible UConn is, how vulnerable North Carolina is or pick some mid-major and start pumping them up as this year's Davidson. It is easy to do.
Take what you have read here from PJS. Surely he can't be serious about Miami. Clearly that was meant to mislead you and while you are trying to figure out if Miami is any good, he's researching George Mason. Or maybe someone here at The Daily Gopher would tell you that North Carolina is absolutely unbeatable knowing full well that they couldn't hope to slow down UConn (your head is spinning now, isn't it).
Ultimately there are two methods to winning your office pool. The first is know absolutely nothing, guess and hope you get lucky (this is surprisingly effective). The second is do as much research as humanly possible (without ruining relationships). If you are somewhere in between you probably know just enough to appear competent but not nearly enough to be a serious contender. Heed this advice and you will be successful.
(Ed Note: You should know that each and every year I acquire as much knowledge of the tourney teams as humanly possible. I develope complicated systems to aide in my selection process. I have coached at the college level and consider myself to have a better than average grasp of talent evaluation and what it takes to win. With that said I have never won an office pool, never have come all that close and probably never will. This year, I think I'll base my picks on team colors and mascots!)