It’s go time. I’m taking a last look at my picks here in the next hour or so before I lock them in. Them I’m going outside and setting $20 on fire, which is the grand total I’m wagering on pools this year. Or perhaps I should take that $20 and hand it to a homeless person when I’m downtown for the St. Patrick’s parade tomorrow. That’s how much faith I have in my picks.
My choices seem awfully safe. I don’t have too many major upsets early, only have one or two surprise teams making the second weekend, and my Final Four will look pretty familiar to a large chunk of the picking population.
This doesn’t feel like a year that’s wide open, but it does feel like a year where no team is without serious flaws. And when the flaws are so common across teams, I seem to have reverted to generally taking the favorites. Probably a good thing I’m not taking these picks to Vegas.
I had some problems with the teams that made the tournament. I thought Oklahoma State should have gotten in over Oklahoma. I thought Middle Tennessee and/or St. Mary’s could have easily been in last night’s 11 v. 11 game instead of Arizona State and Syracuse. But I didn’t lose sleep over any of that.
If we’ve learned one thing over the years it is that putting together the 68-team field is incredibly complex. The selection committee has a number of powerful tools with which they can suss out who deserves an at-large bid and how the brackets should be filled. Many of those tools are flawed, and when the committee leans one way or another they always get ripped by proponents of other tools.
I think the biggest problem with the brackets, every year, is that the committee does not have a single, clearly stated, easily understood philosophy behind selecting teams. Are they selecting the best teams over the course of the entire season? Are they selecting the best teams at the moment the bracket is released? Does the eighth best team in a power conference really deserve a big over a mid-major team that did everything the committee asked of them for four months and then got upset in their conference tournament?
Every year there are calls to expand the tournament, which are mostly ignored. I’m starting to come around to those arguments ever so slightly. I don’t think there needs to be great expansion of the tournament; we shouldn’t let everyone in nor should the tournament jump to 128 teams. But I would be open to considering an expansion of the First Four. I would take, say, the top 16 Power 5 conference teams that did not finish in the top half of their conference standings and force them to play their way into the big bracket. This would, in theory, open up more at large spots for non-Power 5 schools. It would, also, make late-season games in big conferences even more interesting as two teams fighting for fifth vs sixth place in the Big 12 would also be fighting to avoid the play-in games to the NCAA tournament should they be selected.
I just came up with this idea, so I’m sure there are obvious flaws that haven’t occurred to me yet.
I’d be more for abolishing conference tournaments and expanding the tournament by another 12/16/20 teams. But the conferences are never giving up their tournaments so that ain’t happening.
We spend way too much time worrying about these teams on the back half of the draw anyway. They make the tournament more interesting by making people talk and argue about who got in over who didn’t, provide some upsets early, but despite the VCU/George Mason/LSU examples, these teams rarely play a role in determining a champion.
Anyway, here are some of my picks:
Final Four: Arizona, Michigan, Villanova, Michigan State
Arizona over Villanova.
I’m mostly doing this so I can feel good when my national champ gets beat. And for the potential of the NCAA having to vacate a title just a few months after they forced Louisville to vacate their 2013 title.
I’m still wavering on Michigan State. I feel like they have more untapped potential than Duke, but Duke’s perimeter players are better and could be the difference. I have a couple hours to decide.
Big 12 teams: KU in Elite 8, Texas Tech and West Virginia in Sweet 16, Texas and TCU both win one game.
As for KU, it’s been a wild mood swing week. Monday I was feeling good about the draw, thinking if they were healthy and played smart, they should make the Elite 8. Tuesday and Wednesday was when everyone started jumping on the “Penn can beat Kansas!” idea, which annoyed me. Folks keep pumping out the stat that Penn is one of the best teams in the country guarding the 3-point line. But only one national analyst looked deeper into those numbers. CBS’ Kevin Flaherty pointed out that Penn has played just three teams this season who ranked in the Top 50 in 3-point shooting percentage. In those three games Penn’s opponents shot a combined 48.1%. KU is ranked #12 in 3-point shooting percentage.
That doesn’t mean Penn won’t lock down KU’s shooters, or KU won’t pick the first round for the annual “Hey guys, let’s shoot terribly in March!” game. But it does show that Penn’s prowess guarding the three may have been built on playing teams that don’t shoot the 3 well, and they struggle when they do face a good shooting team.
And then there was the Udoka saga. I have a friend who insists that Doke didn’t hurt himself as badly as KU has suggested, and Bill Self just rested him last weekend in hopes of getting Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa to play better before the NCAAs. That seems kind of diabolical to me. Self looked way to excited at the end of the West Virginia game for a guy who wasn’t interested in the results of the weekend’s games.
But as Udoka’s health has dramatically improved, that theory is seeming a little less crazy.
Earlier in the week there was concern over whether Udoka would be able to play this weekend at all. It was starting to feel like March 2014 when every day brought different news about Joel Embiid’s health. By last night Udoka had been upgraded to “game time decision” for the Penn game. I guess we’ll find out at 2:00 eastern.
KU should be able to beat Penn without a healthy Doke. Getting through the second round will be very tough. I say sit him today unless absolutely needed and then hope he’s healthy enough Saturday to play without being a liability. Survive, advance, and hope he’s close to normal for the trip to Omaha next weekend.
I guess I’m reasonably optimistic he’ll be back this weekend. But I also have that Embiid thing in my head and I’m mentally adding things to my Netflix queue in case KU’s season ends this weekend.