Everyone has an opinion on the NCAA Tournament. But instead of listening to Uncle Louie or Aunt Ruth to fill out your bracket, maybe it’s a better bet to appeal to authority. Here’s a roundup of the early selections from people in a position to know.
Let’s start with the home team. Marc Tracy and Zach Schonbrun of The New York Times are offering up some upsets. They include No. 12 Princeton over Notre Dame, No. 12 Middle Tennessee State over Minnesota, No. 12 UNC-Wilmington over Virginia, No. 10 Marquette over South Carolina and, most daringly, No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast over Florida and No. 14 Iona over Oregon.
“Oregon was a trendy pick as a possible No. 1 seed. But all that changed when Chris Boucher, who led the Pac-12 in blocks, tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Cal. A tight loss to Arizona in the tournament championship a day later only added to the emotional toll. The Ducks’ shallow depth will be tested against the quick-paced Gaels, who had seven different players score 20 points or more this season.”
Jay Bilas on ESPN had a few early thoughts: He sees Wisconsin as a potential problem for Villanova in the second round, and Miami as a difficult game for Kansas. He also thinks Butler could beat North Carolina in the round of 16.
In contrast, Duke got a good draw, he said.
“A really good draw for Duke because in that 7-10 game, you’ve got South Carolina, a team that can really defend but can’t score against a team in Marquette, that can really score but can’t defend.”
Picking likely winners is one way of filling in a bracket. Another is identifying likely losers. Mike Hume of The Washington Post sees three 3 seeds as being vulnerable: Oregon, Florida State and UCLA. But he also picks top-seeded Kansas as a team to avoid:
“KU does not defend the 3-point line particularly well. Opponents are shooting 35.7 percent against the Jayhawks from long-range this year, which ranks 212th in the nation. This was a key point in their losses to Indiana and Iowa State this season. Even worse, they’re allowing opponents to snag 30.4 percent of available offensive rebounds and get the ball stolen at an alarming rate — almost once every 10 possessions, placing them 294th out of 351 teams (the fourth-worst mark of any team in the tournament).”
Nate Silver of Fivethirtyeight.com is the go-to guy for political predictions, but his sports picks tend to be dead-on, too. His site’s formula does not forecast too many upsets this year: No. 9 Vanderbilt over Northwestern and Wichita State are the only two in the first round. Second-seeded Kentucky is the only Final Four upset.
But though the formula picks Villanova to win it all, it gives the Wildcats only a 15 percent chance, followed by Gonzaga at 14 and Kansas at 10. Teams as far down as sixth-seeded SMU and seventh-seeded St. Mary’s have at least a 1 percent chance of winning it all.
“There’s as much parity in the tournament as there’s ever been — not necessarily from the very top of the field to the very bottom, but certainly among a group of No. 1 and No. 2 seeds that aren’t all that easy to distinguish from one another. Meanwhile, the blue bloods have to navigate a minefield of underseeded teams such as Wichita State and SMU, with some having more perilous paths than others.
“The one team that potentially stood out from the pack — defending national champion and No. 1 overall seed Villanova — has been undermined by a difficult draw.”
More upsets specials from Alex Kirshner of SB Nation. He likes 11th-seeded Xavier and Rhode Island, 12th-seeded UNC Wilmington and Princeton and 13th-seeded Winthrop. But 10th-seeded Wichita State is his best bet.
“The Shockers are badly under-seeded, as they often have been during Gregg Marshall’s brilliant run in Wichita. This might be the best 10th seed in tournament history.”
Avoid up-tempo teams like UCLA says Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report and instead pick lots of ACC teams. He counsels avoiding Kentucky:
“Kentucky is fast, athletic and exciting. Don’t let all the flash suck you in this year. With the way this team is built, the Wildcats will be vulnerable in a do-or-die setting. They rely heavily on freshman Malik Monk, who leans a ton on jumpers. What happens if he has an off game?
“Kentucky has been able to get by weaker teams on those nights when Monk goes cold. But he struggled during the team’s last four losses (combined 27.5 percent from 3), and the rest of the lineup couldn’t back him up with enough offense.”
Many people have already filled out their brackets, and the early birds at Yahoo’s pool can give us a look at what the general public is thinking. If you believe in the wisdom of crowds, or at least crowds of random college basketball fans, here it is.
Yahoo users are picking several first-round upsets. In order of likelihood: 10th-seeded Wichita State, 10th-seeded Marquette, ninth-seeded Michigan State and ninth-seeded Seton Hall.
In the second round, they like No. 5 Notre Dame to beat No. 4 West Virginia. In the round of 16, No. 3 UCLA is tabbed to top No. 2 Kentucky. They like No. 2 Arizona to make the Final Four over Gonzaga. And they like a national final of Villanova vs. Kansas. The champ? A Villanova repeat.
The most popular winners after Villanova, in order, are 1 seeds North Carolina and Kansas, then 2 seed Duke and 3 seed UCLA. The fourth No. 1 seed, Gonzaga, is only sixth.
Ryan Fagan of The Sporting News is also on the Villanova bandwagon. North Carolina, Arizona and Louisville round out his Final Four. His biggest first-round upsets are No. 12 UNC Wilmington, 12 Middle Tennessee State, 13 East Tennessee State and 13 Winthrop. (He has Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee making the last 16 as well.)
“When I started filling out my quick-reaction bracket for March Madness, I didn’t plan to wind up with the first rematch in the NCAA Tournament title game since 1962. But here I am, with North Carolina (No. 1 seed in the South) playing Villanova (No. 1 seed in the East) facing off in the championship game. Villanova is the most complete team in college basketball. I’ve thought that for a long time. The potential Elite Eight matchup against East Region No. 2 seed Duke has to be slightly terrifying for Wildcats fans. It might be the single best game of the tournament.”
Computers often dispassionately come up with different selections than humans do. Ken Pomeroy’s data shows Gonzaga with the best chance to win the tournament, nearly double that of Villanova. He also loves 10th-seeded Wichita State, giving them the eighth-best chance to win the whole event. Jeff Sagarin’s computer also has Gonzaga on top.
Every year, bookies generally have a few lower seeds as the betting favorites. Not so much this year. Early lines posted by Bookmaker.eu have only two lower seeded teams as favorites: No. 9 Vanderbilt by 1 1/2 points over Northwestern, and yes, Wichita State by a full 6 points over Dayton.
There are plenty of opinions out there to sort through. But it sure sounds like Wichita State should be the first team you write into your bracket.