If you’re like me and you’re still finishing up your brackets, you might be asking if Duke or Gonzaga is a better pick to reach the championship game and cut down the nets in this year’s NCAA tournament. You might also be wondering if another team is worth a serious look.
Earlier today, I posted about how some helpful strategies are looking at a team’s good wins and bad losses over the season, their road record, and closely examining their recent play. When we’re comparing two teams on the 1 line, we shouldn’t find a big difference. So how about another method? Let’s look at who is in each team’s path to the Final Four, along with who is being picked most often.
First, here are the teams I feel are rising or falling.
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. (I noted earlier that Virginia Tech belongs on this list because of the return of Justin Robinson.)
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. (Kansas State is on this list because their star player, Dean Wade, is doubtful for the tournament.)
Let’s ignore the first-round matchups for Duke and Gonzaga. I’m going to go out on a limb and say we won’t see a 16-1 upset for the second year in a row. Let’s look at each team in turn from the second round on.
Duke: A second round matchup against either VCU or UCF shouldn’t be too difficult. But Virginia Tech (on the “hot” list) could be looming in the Sweet Sixteen. After that, Michigan State, the strongest of the 2 seeds, could be next up in the Elite Eight.
Gonzaga: Both possible second round opponents, Syracuse and Baylor, are on the “cold” list. Not only that, but Frank Howard, one of Syracuse’s key players, is suspended indefinitely as of tonight. So don’t worry about this game. The Sweet 16 could present an intriguing Murray State team, but 12-1 upsets are so rare as to render it pointless to think about (remember, you want to go for upsets that aren’t totally crazy). Otherwise, the opponent is likely to be Marquette, who has really faded lately, or Florida State, who plays great defense but may not have the pieces to take out the Zags.
So, Gonzaga should make the Elite Eight. The biggest threat in the other half of their bracket is Texas Tech. That said, I’d give the Zags a bigger edge over Tech than I would give Duke over Michigan State.
Now, let’s also look at this: computer models on various sites put Duke’s odds of winning the national championship around 18%, with Gonzaga at 15%. So here’s a nugget we can’t overlook: on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge right now, Duke is the national champion in 37.5% of entries, compared to only 8.6% for Gonzaga! In other words, Duke is being considerably overvalued compared to the Zags (and the rest of the field).
So, if you’re looking to win a bigger pool, consider Gonzaga. They have reasonable odds of winning it all and are being undervalued. Yet another team to look at is Virginia. Are you afraid to take them because of what happened last year? I can’t blame you, but consider these two facts. First, Virginia is much better on offense this year. They are the only team in the nation who ranks in the top five in Ken Pom’s adjusted offense and defense metrics.
Second, it’s a common fallacy to believe that because something has happened before, it is a given that it will happen again. Virginia has a recent history of underperforming their seed expectations, even before last year’s infamous collapse. But you know who else did before 2016? Villanova. Twice in the early years of the decade, Nova lost in the second round as a 1 seed. Another time saw them lose in the same round as a 2 seed. Suddenly, they’ve won 2 of the past 3 titles. Things can change. And Virginia looks like they might be ready to turn that corner.
Let me add, Virginia is given about a 16% chance to win it all in the various computer models but like the Zags, only about 8% of players are taking them. Yet another reason to give them a serious look.
One more team to consider is Michigan State. As I said earlier, they’re the strongest 2 seed. I’ve seen their computerized odds anywhere from 7 to 10 percent, but they’re being picked by only 5% of the population.
Finally, it appears that North Carolina is a team to avoid. In addition to being in a region rife with teams who are peaking at the right time, UNC gets about a 10% chance to win it all in the computer simulations, but is being taken by about 16% of players so far.
Alright, I really have to fill out those brackets, and you probably do too if you’re reading this right now. Hopefully, these strategies work. When we’re looking to win pools, especially bigger ones, it is helpful to take a champion on the top 2 lines who is being undervalued. Teams lower than that win it all too infrequently to justify the risk, as far as I’m concerned.
So now, something crazy will happen, like a 10 seed winning it all. That’s why we love March. Enjoy the Madness!