Looking for a national champ pick that makes sense? Go with Kentucky. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
When filling out your brackets this week, these are the big questions that matter:
1. Do you believe in Kentucky after watching them lose to Vanderbilt on Sunday, and then get placed in what most knee-jerk reactions considered the bracket's toughest region?
What happens in the NCAA tournament does not always make sense; in fact it often makes no sense at all. I cannot give you a reasonable statistical explanation of why we should have expected VCU's run to the Final Four last year, or even Butler's return to the title game. UConn was not the best team in the nation in 2010-11, but it was the last one left standing. As North Carolina coach Roy Williams put it this preseason, "When a tournament plays out like that, there's a chance for someone to steal a national championship."
You're welcome to fill out a chaos bracket with a title thief, and if you do, it's best to follow your whims rather than some guiding principle. But if you're looking for a national champ pick that makes sense, like Florida in 2007, Kansas in 2008 or Carolina in 2009, you're best off going with Kentucky. The Wildcats pass the pro talent test, the eye test and -- most important to me -- the numbers test. Of the four ranking services I believe have merit (kenpom.com, LRMC, Sagarin and BPI), Kentucky is No. 1 in all of them. Using Sunday morning's numbers, I created a composite index of the four, which yielded this top 16:
Kentucky's South Region contains five of the composite top 13, but is it truly "loaded" when it has the worst No. 2 seed in the bracket? Duke is statistically weaker than two four seeds, a five (Wichita State) and an eight (Memphis), due to the Blue Devils' struggles on defense. From top to bottom, yes, the South is stacked, but if you're a No. 1 seed, would you rather face Ohio State, Kansas or Missouri in the Elite Eight instead? No way.
More numbers support the pro-Wildcats argument: They're the best team in the country at defending the paint (giving up just 38.8 percent), and while you could fill the Superdome with all the drool expectorated by announcers over the Wildcats' defense, their offense actually ranks higher in efficiency (second) than does their D (sixth). UK's scoring isn't dependent on being locked in from the 3-point line, either: its percentage pf points coming on threes is just 22.4, which ranks 298th nationally.
You're more than welcome not to believe in Kentucky, especially if what you saw on Sunday reinforced any of your preexisting doubts about this team: that it's too young to stay composed in a tourney environment, that freshman point guard Marquis Teague, who went 0-for-7 from the field against Vandy, hasn't developed into a championship-caliber floor leader; that the Wildcats aren't playing their best basketball heading into the dance; or that John Calipari-led teams have a way of choking in their biggest moments. In that case you have other championship options, the best two being Michigan State or North Carolina. They just aren't as sensible.
2. Can the all-offense teams defy the odds?
It's my belief that you need a defense ranked in the top-25 range in efficiency to have a great shot at the Final Four or any real shot at winning a title. Historically, high-seeded teams with great offense/mediocre defense efficiency profiles -- the last two Adam Morrison Gonzaga squads, Chris Paul's last Wake Forest team, and more recently, 2008 Drake, 2010 New Mexico and 2011 Notre Dame -- have failed to make deep tourney runs. This is relevant to the 2012 bracket because we have four top-five seeds who fit that profile:
None of those teams have a deeply troubling defense, like, say, 8th-seeded Creighton, which ranks 183rd in defensive efficiency and has been carried all year by its scoring. But history says they don't guard well enough to get to New Orleans. Do you believe they can defy it?
Missouri is the team that matters most here, and it's worth considering that their high-octane offense could run into two excellent defenses in Marquette and Michigan State, should all of them make it to Phoenix. The Tigers pass the eye test and have the backcourt experience that's usually required to make a deep tourney run, but their profile raises a red flag.
Missouri has the backcourt experience to make a deep run in the tournament. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
3. How much do you believe in Big Ten defense?
We all know that the Big Ten did not fare well in last year's tournament: Ohio State, one of the favorites to win the national title, lost in the Sweet 16 (to Kentucky), as did efficiency masters Wisconsin (to Butler), and a Purdue team with multiple draft picks was upset in the round of 32 by VCU. But in 2011-12 the league has produced three defensive monsters in Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, who all rank ahead of Kentucky in points allowed per possession. In the grinder atmosphere of the NCAA tournament, all three will be tough outs, and Wisconsin and Ohio State could stand in the way of Syracuse making it to New Orleans.
If you believe that the Big Ten's defensive numbers are a real reflection of the quality of the league, then you should consider putting two Big Ten teams in the Final Four. If you're in the Big Ten-is-overrated camp, then you might knock Ohio State out in the Elite Eight, Michigan State out to Memphis or Marquette, and Wisconsin out to Vanderbilt in the third round.
4. Is turnover creation a title forumula?
It's good to force turnovers. But can a team win a national title if its defensive success is too heavily reliant on forcing turnovers, rather than say, defending the paint? Of the 1-4 seeds from the past nine NCAA tournaments (2003-present), these were the two teams, each year, that ranked the highest in percertage of possesions on which turnovers were forced (with national ranking in parentheses):
2011: No. 1 Ohio State (27) and No. 4 Louisville (30)
2010: No. 4 Purdue (23) and No. 2 Kansas State (24)
2009: No. 3 Missouri (10) and No. 2 Duke (30)
2008: No. 2 Duke (17) and No. 2 Tennessee (21)
2007: No. 4 Southern Illinois (22) and No. 1 Kansas (42)
2006: No. 2 Tennessee (29) and No. 4 Kansas (42)
2005: No. 2 Kentucky (13) and No. 1 Washington (35)
2004: No. 1 Duke (24) and No. 1 St. Joe's (35)
2003: No. 3 Duke (29) and No. 1 Kentucky (48)
Only one team from that list, 2004 Duke, made the Final Four, and many of them woefully underperformed their seeding. What I'm suggesting here is not that these were bad defensive teams; it's that we might have had overinflated opinions of them based on turnover numbers they couldn't replicate in an NCAA tournament setting. The top 1-4 seeds in that category this year are East No. 1 Syracuse (6) and West No. 3 Marquette (23). Does that make you wary of picking the Orange to win it all?
Toughest Path for a No. 1 seed: Syracuse. I know this goes against all the South-is-Loaded chatter on Twitter, but I'm basing this on who the No. 1 seeds might actually have to play, not how top-to-bottom stacked their region is. The Orange get a pass in the third round with Kansas State, but in Boston, they could face a Vanderbilt team with more NBA talent and a lot of end-of-season momentum, and then either Ohio State or Florida State, who have two of the best defenses in the nation. That's no easy road to New Orleans.
Weakest Path for a No. 1 seed: Kentucky. What?!? Hear me out: I have no belief in UConn as a third-round threat, even with its wealth of talent; Indiana just lost its senior point guard with an ACL tear; and while Wichita State is strong, would you rather play the Shockers or Vandy in the Sweet 16? The likely Elite Eight matchups for the Wildcats -- Baylor or Duke -- are not exactly threatening. I don't see anyone stopping the Wildcats.
Best Second-Round Matchup: No. 5 Wichita State vs. No. 12 VCU in Portland. If you thought last year's VCU team liked to apply pressure, this one takes it to another level. They'll try to drive the Shockers' backcourt nuts ... and the Shockers should be willing to run the score up into the 80s.
Best Potential Third-Round Matchup: No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 6 UNLV in Albuquerque. The Rebels lost some of their shine when they dropped five games in the Mountain West, but they'll be playing in a familiar arena (the Pit) against a Bears team that has not been as dominant as its talent level would suggest. Mike Moser and Chace Stanback against Perry Jones and Quincy Miller could be a serious battle of athletic forwards.
Best Potential Sweet 16 Matchup: No. 2 Missouri vs. No. 3 Marquette in Phoenix. This should be an epic running game in which the Golden Eagles' size issues won't be a problem against the similarly challenged Tigers. Buzz Williams' team outperformed its seed last season, and I suspect they'll do it again in 2012.
Best Potential Elite Eight Matchup: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kansas in St. Louis. The Tar Heels are on the top line of the bracket, but the Jayhawks will have the geographical (read: crowd) advantage, and their front line of Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey should engage in an epic battle with Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
MY FIRST-LOOK PICKS:
South: Kentucky. As if it weren't obvious enough already.
West: Michigan State. A dominant rebounding team with the best senior leader in the bracket and the best tournament coach isn't going home before New Orleans.
East: Florida State. In a region wth two seismic Sweet 16 upsets -- Vanderbilt over Syracuse and the 'Noles over Ohio State -- the 'Noles will be the last ones standing.
Midwest: Kansas. North Carolina will make it to the Elite Eight, where Tyshawn Taylor will play the game of his life and lead the shorthanded Jayhawks to the Final Four.
Champ: Kentucky over Kansas.
When they met in the Champion's Classic at Madison Square Garden in November, the Wildcats won by 10 and shut down Robinson. This one will be closer -- Jeff Withey's emergence will prevent T-Rob from getting double-teamed on every possession -- but UK will prevail. To answer the question I posed earlier: I believe in the Wildcats.