NCAA Tourney Primer
March 18, 2009
By Andy Iskoe
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With Morehead State having defeated Alabama State in Dayton on Tuesday night, we now have the 64-team field that will begin play on Thursday at four sites around the country to begin the chase to crowning the national champion on Monday, April 6 in Detroit.
In looking over the field for this season's Tournament and in trying to fill out brackets, it's always easiest to make a case for the top-seeded teams -- those seeded 1 or 2 -- to advance deep into the Tourney.
But last season marked the first time that all four # 1 seeds made it to the Final Four in the 24 years that there have been fields of 64 teams. In fact, prior to last seaon the last time as many as 3 # 1 seeds made the Final Four was in 1999. In the 8 Tournaments in between 2 # 1 seeds made the Final Four 4 times, only 1 # 1 seed made it 3 times and once, in 2006, NO # 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four.
Of the 96 teams that have made the Final Four since 1985, 42 of those teams (44 %) have been # 1 seeds and 54 of those teams (56%) were other than # 1 seeds (21 were # 2 seeds, 12 # 3, 9 # 4, 4 # 5, 3 # 6, 0 # 7, 3 # 8, 0 # 9, 0 # 10, 2 # 11, 0 # 12 or higher).
Even looking short term -- the lst 4 Tournaments -- of the 16 teams to make the Final Four there have been 8 # 1's (including the 4 last season), 3 # 2's, 1 # 3, 2 # 4's, 1 # 5 amd 1 # 11.
So using history as a guide the most likely scenario calls for two # 1 seeds to make this season's Final Four. There is a good chance that either a # 2 and a # 3 seed will fill out the final four or a # 2/# 3 seed and a team seeded # 4 or lower will fill out the Final Four.
Tomorrow I shall be sending out 3 sets of brackets. One will take an "aggressive" approach that will focus on picking upsets, especially in the early rounds, with a couple of those early upset teams making a deep run into the Tournament. My second set will take a "moderate" approach that will focus on a number of early upsets but with form holding true later in the Tournament. My third set will take a "conservative" approach that limits the number of "major" upsets but still calls for other than all # 1 seeds to advance to the Final Four.
Many of you participate in Office Pools and might find one or all of the Brackets helpful in making your selections as some pools reward risk takers who correctly forecast upsets while others are more geared to just picking the most number of winners while yet others use a hybrid approach that rewards not just picking the most winners but weighting the value of the winner so that correctly picking a # 5 seed to win a game is worth more than correctly picking a # 1 seed to win a game.
Of course all brackets rely on how successful you are in picking winners in the first round of the Tournament as more than half of all games -- 32 of the total 63 -- are played over the opening Thursday and Friday.
Here's where history becomes important. On average 75% of the higher seeded teams (i.e. the "better" team) win their opening round game. Since 1985 there have been 768 opening round games and the higher/better seeded team has won 580 of those games, 75.5 %.
The most formful opening round occured in 2000 when the higher/better seed won 29 of 32 games. The least formful opening round was a year later, in 2001, when the higher/better seed won just 19 opening round games with the lower/weaker seed winning 13 of them.
Since those 2 "extreme" seasons of 2000 & 2001, from 2002 through 2008 a total of 7 Tournaments have been played, involving 224 opening round games. The higher/better seed has won 175 games (78 %) and the lower/weaker seeded team has won 49 games (22 %).
Of the four # 1 seeds this season, Louisville has been made the overall # 1 seed and they do appear to be the strongest team in the field based on overall accomplishments. The Cardinals won both the regular season title and the Big East Conference Tournament. But 2 of their 5 losses came to teams that did not make the NCAA Tournament (UNLV and Notre Dame) and their most recent loss was a 33 point loss at Notre Dame in mid February. None of the 3 other top seeds lost a game by more than 14 points and of UConn's 4 losses, Pitt's 4 losses and North Carolina's 4 losses the only losses to non-NCAA Tournament teams were Pitt's 8 point loss at Providence and UConn's 11 point loss at home to Georgetown in their opening conference game.
Both Connecticut and North Carolina have injury concerns.
UConn's loss of Jeome Dyson for the balance of the season on February 11 has been felt as 3 of their 4 losses have come following his injury and the Huskies are just 4-3 without him, including a first game loss in the Big East Tournament (that incredible 6 overtime game with Syracuse).
North Carolina's injury concerns are less of a factor as G Ty Lawson may be unable to play in the Tar Heels' opener against Radford, but should be back for their second round game against either Butler or LSU and almost certainly for any Sweet 16 game. Whether or not he will be close to 100 percent or fully effective is subject to conjecture.
Pittsburgh has the nation's # 2 RPI (second only to Duke by just .0007) and tied with Memphis for the most wins by more than 10 points all season, 24. Only 4 other teams had at least 20 wins by 11 points or more (Gonzaga with 20, Davidon and Missouri with 21 each, North Carolina with 22). It can be argued that of this six pack Pitt played the most demanding schedule (slighty tougher than Carolina's according to RPI).
Thus my ranking of the # 1 seeds in terms of likelihood to make the Final Four would be Pitt, North Carolina and Connecticut, with North Carolina holding only the slightest of edges over North Carolina, although Pitt has the worst NCAA Tournament historical profile of the four, thereby leaving EACH of the # 1 seeds with significant vulnerabilities.
Of the four # 2 seeds -- Duke, Kansas, Oklahoma and Memphis -- Memphis rates the highest and has the best current form but also plays in the weakest conference. Both Memphis and Kansas, the team that defeated Memphis for last season's National Title, have lost a lot of talent from last season's teams, making their march into this season's Tournament even the more impressive. Oklahoma arguably has the best player in the Tournament (Blake Griffin). Oklahoma is one of just 4 teams to have not lost any game this season by double digits (Butler, Memphis and North Carolina are the others).
In looking for potential "dark horse" teams to make a deep run in the Tournament I like to focus on teams held at odds of 25-1 or higher (to reach the Elite 8) and teams at odds of 35-1 or higher (to reach the Sweet Sixteen) when the possibility of "hedging" enters the picture.
This usually permits evaluation of all but the top 10 to 12 teams as the odds are highly stacked in favor of the teams seeded 1, 2 and often 3.
For example, at the Las Vegas Hilton North Carolina is favored at 4-1 with Louisville at 5-1, Pitt at 7-1 and UConn also at 7-1. The # 2 seeds are slightly better priced with Memphis at 12-1 and Duke, Michigan State and Oklahoma each at 15-1. Only 1 other team, Syracuse (a # 3 seed) opened at less than 25-1 with the Orange offerred at 15-1.
The Hilton offers 50 wagering options for the team to win it all with 49 individual teams having listed odds and the field (comprised of the lowest seeds, generally 13, 14, 15 and 16) offered at 200-1.
Thus aside from the field there are 40 teams listed at odds of from 25-1 to 1000-1.
As mentioned above my approach has been to look for teams that have a reasonable chance of winning their first two games and advance to the Sweet 16 to provide hedging chances with odds of 35-1 or greater and/or for teams I think can make it to the Elite 8 with odds of 25-1 or higher.
Although I may have made some plays at attractive odds during the regular season (usually picking out a few teams in mid January that have shown signs of being solid contenders at what are then long odds but with a chance for a top 3 seed) the process starts anew once the Brackets are announced and each team's path to the Final Four is outlined.
To make it to the Sweet 16 a team needs to only win its first two games.
To make it to the Elite 8 -- the Regional Finals -- a teams must win 3 games. Note that in order to make it to the Elite 8 a team will have had to defeat a team seeded 1, 2, 3 or 4 or knock off a team that has already defeated a 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed. The most likely scenario for this is when a # 2 or # 3 seed faces a team that has already upset a # 2 or # 3 seed (ie. a 3 seed facing a 7 seed that upset a 2 seed in the second round or a 2 seed facing a 6 seed that upset a 3 seed in the second round). Thus the key here is to find a 6 or 7 seed capable of stepping up in class. Such teams will thus have to pull off a pair of upsets to reach the Elite 8 before ending their run often against a # 1 seed.
As indicated earlier of the 96 teams to make the Final Four since 1985, 84 of them have been seeded at # 4 or higher (87.5 %). Only 12 teams seeded # 5 or lower have reached the Final Four -- or about 1 every 2 years. With 4 # 1's making the Final Four last season and 2 #1's and # 2's making it a year earlier this may be the year we see a team seeded # 5 or lower make that deep run.
Three seasons ago, in 2006, when # 11 seed George Mason made the Final Four they were joined by a # 2, a # 3 and a # 4, making it just 1 teams seeded # 5 or lower out of the last 12 and just 2 such teams out of the last 16.
There could be two ways to interpret this phenomenon. Either we are due for some more "Cinderellas" to make the Final Four or there has been some sort of fundamental change in the game that has created enough of a gap between the top 15-20 teams in the nation and the rest of college basketball. In line with this second possibility is the Selection Committee's continued reduction of at large bids given to so-called mid majors in favor of inviting middle of the pack teams from the major conferences who have already shown -- by their middle of the pack ranking -- that they are incapable of knocking off 4 straight teams, at least 2 of which would represent a stepping up in class.
My impression is that we are due for another lower seeded team to make the Final Four given the great amount of talent that is spread throughout college basketball. It would not surprise me at all if one or more of the 5 teams I've listed above as "long shots" makes the Final Four, 4 of which (Gonzaga, Purdue, UCLA and West Virginia) are seeded below a # 4.
A quartet of teams that are well coached and have Tournament experience in recent seasons that are highly priced and might be poised to make a run include Texas (100-1), Xavier (100-1), Ohio State (200-1) and Wisconsin (100-1). Even just a 20 dollar play on these teams would return 4 figures if they went all the way, meaning plenty of hedge room should that team make it through the first two rounds.
Best of luck and enjoy the Tournament!
Editor's note: Bettors can purchase picks from Andy Iskoe in NCAABK, the NBA and the NHL. In addition, you can purchase Andy's completed bracket right here!