Don't overthink it, stop picking upsets, and other advice
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Kentucky and North Carolina look like NBA farm teams. Syracuse and Michigan State are formidable. The pairings are set, the pods aligned, the madness upon us. It's that time of year again—time to flop harder than Rick Perry behind a debate podium in your NCAA men's basketball tournament office pool.
Face it: you won't win. Can't win. No matter how hard you crunch the KenPom efficiency ratings—the elegant, more civilized lightsaber to the RPI's crude blaster—or study the team cheat sheet capsules in USA Today. According to some oddsmakers, a No. 16 seed has a 384-million-to-one shot at winning the whole tournament. Your odds of filling out a winning bracket are roughly equivalent. After all, March Madness defies March Methodology; college basketball knowledge is inversely proportional to bracket-picking proficiency; year after bitter year, the guy in your office who likes Butler because, you know, he has a bulldog calendar on his desk, and really, aren't they just adorable? walks away with your $20 entrance fee.
As such, I have a suggestion. A plea, really. Bracket America, stop trying so hard. Unlearn what you have learned. Don't pretend to be a bracket wiseguy.
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Instead, get stupid. Have fun. Use one of the following to make your picks:
Mascot Fight Club: Simple. Which school's mascot would win in a street brawl, and/or on Animal Planet? (Note: if Syracuse meets Harvard, choose your favorite color.)
Celebrity Alumni: You already read US Weekly. Put that knowledge to use! Kansas (Don Johnson) is a perennial favorite; NC State (John Tesh) could be a dark horse. As for Arizona, the alma mater of Craig T. Nelson and Geraldo? There's a reason the Wildcats are playing in the NIT.
Inverse Graduation Rate: A few years back, the back cover of the official NCAA Tournament record book proclaimed a commitment to quality education and student-athletes; meanwhile, the book itself did not contain a single grade point average or degree announcement. Moreover, no Ivy League school has reached the Final Four since Penn in 1979. And MIT doesn't even have a team! Do the math.
Coach Height: According to scientific studies, tall men earn more, have more children and are considered "significantly more attractive" by the opposite sex. The book "Too Tall, Too Small" reports that in the 21 presidential elections from 1904 to 1984, the taller candidate won 80 percent of the time. Speaking of Washington, towering former coach John Thompson once led Georgetown to three straight Final Fours. This is not a coincidence.
Go Chalk: An Indiana University study found that as an overall bracket strategy, picking upsets is not only dumb, but the special kind of human dumb that comes from outsmarting ourselves. After looking at the average performance of individuals in ESPN.com's bracket challenge over a two-year period, researchers concluded that people: (a) pick too many upsets, thereby faring worse than the tournament seeding and no better than random chance; (b) can't help but pick too many upsets, because they're acutely aware that upsets happen.
"The bottom line is that we think we can do better than the seedings," Ed Hirt, one of the study's authors and a professor in Indiana's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, told me. "We know more and can figure out who is hot, who is overconfident or a choker in the tournament. But all the information we have is likely already accounted for in the seedings anyway, so our illusory belief that we can do better actually hurts our performance."
There it is: either be creative—read: ridiculous—or just pick the higher-seeded teams. Jake, are you with me? Or are you actually going to deploy some legitimate basketball knowledge en route to your inevitable bracket meltdown?
You're right about one thing, Patrick—we can't win. Tournament pools are the bastion of the idiot savants of the world, which means we're out of luck (though by the end of this week we'll all look like idiots, I'm sure). On the other hand, I did surprisingly well with my Oscar picks for the same reason.
I agree that chalk is the smartest way to go. Picking Iona to reach the Sweet 16 doesn't make you an inspired, outside-the-box thinker—it makes you a moron, and almost certainly a loser in your pool.
Since I routinely lose to people with little to no sports knowledge every year, I can only offer a best guess for beating the bracket: Pick chalk, along with one or two sleeper picks. Unless we get a repeat of the mechanical 2007 Big Dance (Elite Eight of four one seeds, three two seeds and a three seed) there will be at least one bracket where a mid-level seed makes a run and even reaches the Final Four.
Generally, look for teams with tournament experience who are seeded between, say, three and seven (Michigan State's recent Final Four runs are the best example of this). Beyond that, here are a few bona fide sleepers:
Louisville: A no. 4 seed in the West, the Cardinals will be dangerous if they can get by New Mexico in a virtual away game in the Round of 32 in Portland. The Cardinals win ugly (they beat Cincy 50-44 in the Big East championship game) and they can frustrate no. 1 seed Michigan State and no. 2 seed Missouri by slowing the game down. Also, Peyton Siva is a legit star in the making.
Gonzaga: A tired sleeper pick, I know. But as the no. 7 seed in the East, they likely draw an Ohio State team in the Round of 32 that is prone to coming up small in March Madness. And the Zags can shoot as well as ever. They could easily end up in the Sweet 16.
Florida State: After watching them beat Duke and UNC on consecutive days this weekend, I'm a believer. As a no. 3 seed in the East, they would benefit from a Gonzaga upset of Ohio State and appear too athletic to be bothered by no. 1 seed Syracuse's zone defense. It would not be at all surprising to see the Seminoles in the Final Four.
NC State: This is a Rip Van Winkle-level sleeper pick, as the Wolfpack are a no. 11 seed in the Midwest. But VCU showed last year that an 11 seed can make the Final Four (as George Mason did in '06) and NC State will be playing with a chip on its shoulder after a 69-67 loss to UNC in the ACC tourney semifinals, which many thought was marred by questionable late-game officiating. An NC State-Georgetown Round of 32 matchup would be scintillating, an NC State-Kansas Sweet 16 game even more so.
Do you believe in the power of sleepers, Hampton? Or is chalk (as in Rock Chalk Jayhawk) more appealing to you?
The tournament confounds everybody. That's the beauty of it. But while admitting the utter senselessness of trying to predict this craziness, let me throw in three more tips for those facing an empty bracket.
First, look for the homecourt advantages.
The NCAA emphasizes having teams play as close to their campus as possible, so fans can travel to the games. Especially with the college game's more easily swayed referees, nothing can have a bigger impact on the outcome on games than even a semi-home-court advantage. Kansas, for instance. (You knew that was coming.) KU might have blown a top-seed by losing early in the Big 12 tourney to Baylor. But being a no. 1 seed might also have meant getting shipped off to the West Region. Staying home in the Midwest as two-seed means KU gets to play in nearby Omaha and—should they advance—almost-as-nearby St. Louis. Both towns figure to have stands filled with Jayhawk fans.
Secondly don't pick any Big Ten team not coached by Tom Izzo.
Self-explanatory, really. You can count on whatever lumbering, low-scoring club comes from Wisconsin or Ohio State to take a tumble early, but not Michigan State. Unranked at the start of the the season, Tom Izzo's mighty Spartans won themselves a No. 1 seed in the West, and tip off Friday afternoon against cute, little Long Island University-Brooklyn. Three times, Tom T-to-the Izzo's club has gone into the tournament as a top-seed. Three times, the Spartans have made the Final Foul.
Finally, number three: Ignore Patrick's theory about tall men and success. Tom Izzo is 5'7'', and Roy Williams is slightly shorter than Huckleberry Hound.
It's clearly pointless to bring any sort of method to this March Madness. But that's not stopping me from trying.