I love NCAA basketball, and the NCAA tournament is the greatest sports event in the world. But, it wasn’t the most entertaining first round. We only had 12 first round games decided by single digits. For what it’s worth, the average this decade is 14.2 single-digit decisions in the first round. The first six years of the decade were a particularly glorious time, with nearly half of the games in the opening round ending in a single-digit margin.
But, why is this? My thought is that there were simply too many incorrectly seeded teams, leading to lopsided margins and bizarre outcomes. I projected the field very well this year (earning 5th out of 195 on the Bracket Matrix), but that is because after a great rookie campaign in 2016 followed by two so-so years, I feel that I gained a solid understanding of how seeding is generated. I’ll put that theory to the test again next year, but for now, let me have my moment, OK?
Anyway, while I projected well, I did not agree with many of the seedings. That said, of course we expect blowouts in 1-16 matchups (though I’m sure Virginia fans were really, really nervous early on yesterday before their team took control after halftime) and 2-15 matchups.
But, even the traditionally competitive 7-10 and 8-9 pairings weren’t so close this year. In the 8-9 pairings, Oklahoma dismantled Ole Miss by the score of 95-72, Washington defeated Utah State 78-61 in a game that was briefly close late but generally a double-digit margin, and UCF wrecked VCU 73-58 in a game that was never competitive. In fact, VCU went over 10 minutes without scoring at one point.
In the 7-10 matchups, Wofford beat Seton Hall 84-68. This was a bizarre game, in which Wofford led by 16 late in the first half and saw that trimmed to 1 at about the 4 minute mark. But, the finish was indicative of Wofford’s superiority over Seton Hall, in my opinion.
Remember on Wednesday, I opined that Wofford was drastically under-seeded, having the profile of a 4 seed. It’s true that they had no wins over any at-large qualifiers, but it’s also true that they ranked 13 in NET, suffered no losses outside of Quadrant 1, and that they beat a UNC-Greensboro team 3 times that was among the First Four Out (and was probably more deserving of a bid than St. John’s, Arizona State, or Temple).
Elsewhere, the 10 seed Minnesota beat the 7 seed Louisville 86-76. This isn’t a blowout, but it wasn’t particularly close late. Louisville was a team who I stated was falling and looking more like a 9 seed coming into the tournament. In hindsight, Minnesota was under-seeded (I had them as a 9 in my projection on Sunday but didn’t comment on this on Wednesday). So it goes.
To reiterate, this was my list of over- or under-seeded teams on Wednesday. Of course, a 1 can’t really be under-seeded, so the teams on that line in this list are included because of outstanding recent performance, which is a measure I use when making picks.
Rising and/or Under-Seeded Teams: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Michigan State, Houston, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech*, Auburn, Buffalo, Wofford, Utah State, St. Mary’s, Belmont, Oregon, Murray State, UC-Irvine, Yale.
Falling and/or Over-Seeded Teams: Michigan, Kansas, Kansas State*, Marquette, Maryland, Louisville, Ole Miss, Syracuse, VCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, Iowa, Ohio State, Arizona State, St. John’s.
Let’s look at how these teams fared. We will exclude teams on the 1-3 lines or 14-16 lines, because I don’t pick upsets in those pairings in my brackets, as they are simply too infrequent to justify the risk. So, looking at teams between the 4-13 lines and excluding matchups in which both teams were “falling” (Syracuse vs. Baylor, Oklahoma vs. Ole Miss, and the First Four matchup of Arizona State vs. St. John’s), we get the following records.
Rising teams: 7-3 in the first round
Falling teams: 4-5 in the first round (including Arizona State’s loss to Buffalo yesterday)
These are admittedly very small sample sizes, but we might be on to something here. I have never tracked these records before, but I will do so over the next couple years.
Also, I said I was taking the following upsets in most of my brackets (I am invited to several pools each year that accept two entries per player, so I try to mix it up some):
First Round: (11) Belmont over (6) Maryland, (12) Murray State over (5) Marquette, and (13) UC-Irvine over (4) Kansas State. I’m also taking (12) Oregon over (5) Wisconsin, (11) St. Mary’s over (6) Villanova, (10) Minnesota over (7) Louisville, and (9) UCF over (8) VCU (not really an upset, as 8-9 games are a coin flip, but still a lower seed).
Second Round: (11) Belmont over (3) LSU and (7) Nevada over (2) Michigan are my main upsets over the weekend. I’m also taking Oregon over Cal-Irvine in the 12-13 matchup I picked.
Those first round picks went 5-2, with 4 winning fairly easily and the 2 losses coming down to the last minute. Both second round picks are out, but I actually ended up retracting the Nevada over Michigan pick in almost every bracket. Why? Because as I looked closer, Nevada should have been on the over-seeded list. They played an easy schedule and faded down the stretch, two criteria that are predictive of underperformance in March.
For what it’s worth, I went with these lower seeds often in the second round: (12) Oregon (over the 13 UC Irvine, but a 12 in the Sweet 16 is uncommon regardless), (5) Auburn over (4) Kansas, and (7) Wofford over (2) Kentucky.
I’d give Kentucky the edge in this last matchup, but Wofford is a value pick here. They are a very good team and Kentucky is one that tends to be overvalued by the public. When we are making picks, whether for our brackets or for other purposes, we always want to look at as many factors as time permits; one should be whether a team’s odds are inflated by positive public perception. Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas always fall into this category. (Click that last part if you want to see detail on that I wrote on Wednesday night.)
With all that said (and that was a lot!), it’s time to get your hopes up. The second round is more exciting than the first most of the time. The past two years, we’ve had nearly as many single-digit decisions in the second round as we’ve had in the first (with, obviously, half the number of games in the second round). To be precise, that’s 20 second-round games decided by 9 points or fewer, with 25 first round games decided in the same range. So, here’s to some real March Madness this weekend!