Skip to main content

Don't underestimate the potential dominance of tourney's top seeds

Fortunately, March Madness is recession-proof. Put together a bracket, roll out the ball and you're going to get drama, as we saw throughout conference tourney week. From Kemba Walker's ridiculous five-game run to Jimmer Fredette's 52-point explosion, from Tyler Zeller's game-winning layup to Derwin Kitchen's waved-off game-winner, right up through Isaiah Thomas and Doug Davis' title-clinching buzzer-beaters, this March feels no less satisfying than any other.

If anything, the spell of mediocrity that befell much of college basketball this season could work in favor of the NCAA tournament. Take a look at your freshly printed bracket. Pore over the teams seeded roughly between third and 10th. The fact is, there's very little separating any of the teams. Which could make for a messy early few rounds.

There will be upsets mainly because, in many cases, they'll hardly qualify as upsets. Will anyone really be stunned if No. 13 seed Belmont beats No. 4 seed Wisconsin after the Badgers scored 33 points in their last game? Give UConn all the credit for its historic Big East tournament title, which helped boost the Huskies to a No. 3 seed, but they were still a 9-9 team in conference play that could easily lose to yet another Big East foe, Cincinnati, in the second round.

But lest we get carried away, this also seems like a year when order will be restored by the time we get to Houston. For most of the season, talking heads, bloggers and columnists alike have repeated the mantra that "there are no great teams in college basketball this season." Not true.

Ohio State finished the regular season 32-2, its only losses coming on the road to two teams (Wisconsin and Purdue) that went undefeated at home. The Buckeyes have all the elements you could hope for in a national-title contender: a veteran nucleus, an elite post player (Jared Sullinger), lethal perimeter shooters (Jon Diebler, William Buford and David Lighty). What's not to like?

Kansas enters the tournament 32-2 as well, having avenged its sole home loss by annihilating Texas in Saturday's Big 12 tourney final. The Jayhawks are the rare team to field two dominant big men (Marcus and Markieff Morris), and all but three of their 14 regular-season conference wins were by 12 points or more. That's pretty dominant.

Pittsburgh went 15-3 in a conference that produced 11 tournament teams, winning the regular season title. The Panthers start three seniors (Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee) and two juniors (Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson) that have played in a combined 36 career tourney games. A whole bunch of teams would kill for that level of experience.

And Duke, lest we forget, is the defending national champion, led by a sure-fire first team All-America (Nolan Smith). The Blue Devils' every misstep is inevitably magnified due to their national spotlight, but they just finished 30-4, clobbering rival North Carolina in their ACC championship rubber match. And heaven help the rest of the West region if Irving makes a much-rumored return.

These teams might not to be "great" in a historical context -- i.e. they're not dripping with lottery picks like the Joakim Noah/Al Horford-led Florida teams of 2006-'07 or the Jay Williams-Shane Battier-Carlos Boozer Duke teams from a decade ago. But the 2011 Blue Devils don't have to beat the 2001 Blue Devils to win this year's title. Nor does Ohio State, Kansas or Pitt. The tourney's top seeds just have to beat this year's field, which drops off quickly after the No. 1 and 2 seeds, and which most agree is the weakest of the modern era. Illinois, 19-13 and 9-9 in the Big Ten, didn't just make the field, it garnered a No. 9 seed. Enough said.

The good news for those trying to make sense of all the clutter is there are more people compiling smart, advanced college basketball metrics than ever before. When filling out your bracket, one no longer need rely on vague, outdated March platitudes like picking "the teams with the best guard play" or the ones Digger Phelps says are "tough on the glass.".

Definitely peruse Ken Pomeroy's efficiency ratings and tempo stats when assessing certain matchups. You'll find, for example, that No. 2 seed North Carolina and No. 7 seed Washington -- potential Round of 32 opponents -- are almost equally efficient and play nearly an identical pace.

If it hasn't already, Basketball Prospectus will soon publish Pomeroy's log5 probabilities for all 68 teams. They proved more prophetic than actual seeds during this week's conference tournaments.

And noted political statistician Nate Silver of TheNew York Times has recently focused on the NCAA tournament with two pristinely researched pieces from last week about the tourney fates of teams that greatly exceed preseason expectations (summation: Notre Dame's probably not going to the Final Four) and the advantages for teams playing closer to home.

Or, you can just turn to my more rudimentary, off-the-cuff reaction to Sunday night's bracket.

Now for the important stuff ...

Committee thumbs-up

Contrary to certain apoplectic television analysts, no bubble team was "snubbed" this year, because the committee was basically sifting through a bunch of equally undeserving teams. In fact, they should be commended for continuing to reward those that schedule tough out-of-conference games, like USC (victories over Texas and Tennessee) and VCU (UCLA and Wichita State), at the expense of those that don't. Colorado, one of the purportedly "shocking" exclusions, went 8-8 in the Big 12 and played the nation's 325th toughest non-conference schedule. Alabama's was 284th -- and still the Tide only went 8-6 in those games. There will be no tears shed here.

Committee thumbs-down

Despite their continued insistence otherwise, the committee's over-reliance on the simplistic RPI ratings (as opposed to a more advanced system like Pomeroy's) reared its head yet again. It's the only explanation why a team like Kansas State (23rd) would garner a No. 5 seed, and Clemson (57th), which finished without an RPI Top 50 win, would be a No. 12 seed, when it would probably be a Vegas pick 'em if the two teams met. The committee also undervalued late bloomers Kentucky and Louisville as No. 4 seeds, which shouldn't tick the Wildcats and Cardinals off as much as the No. 1 seeds (Ohio State and Kansas, respectively) that might now draw them in the Sweet 16.

Obligatory condolences to ... Virginia Tech

Not that we didn't see this coming, and not that the Hokies (21-11, 9-7 ACC) were overly deserving, but that's just cruel to Malcolm Delaney, Seth Greenberg and Co. Especially if you're going to put RPI-darling UAB in their place.

Best draw: Pittsburgh

If Jamie Dixon can't make the Final Four this year, he can't blame the committee. No. 2 seed Florida, No. 3 BYU (which hasn't been the same without suspended starter Brandon Davies) and No. 5 Kansas State are all at least a spot higher than should probably merit. The trickiest obstacle might be the second round: Butler or Old Dominion.

Worst draw: Duke

There should be no accusations of protecting the Blue Devils this time. Tennessee, should it beat Michigan, is a sneaky second-round foe. Texas, one of the best defensive teams in the country, or overlooked Pac-10 champ Arizona could await in the Sweet 16, and, if the seeds hold, Duke could be facing San Diego State -- that of the rabid student section -- in Anaheim.

Jet lag alert: USC

Congrats on your First Four selection, USC. You get to fly 2,200 miles to Dayton on Monday, play VCU on Wednesday night, then, if you win, go to Chicago and play again two days later. That's three time zones in five days.

Best Round of 64 matchup: St. John's-Gonzaga

Steve Lavin makes his return to the Dance with a veteran team that will be down one key player, injured forward D.J. Kennedy, when it meets Robert Sacre and the Zags, winners of their last nine.

Runner-up: Xavier-Marquette

Best potential Round of 32 matchup: North Carolina-Washington

It's not even close. Two run-and-gun teams (though UNC is more deliberate than in past years) with two dynamic point guards -- UW's Isaiah Thomas and Heels freshman Kendall Marshall.

Runner-up: Arizona-Texas

Best potential Sweet 16 matchup: Ohio State-Kentucky

Wow. John Calipari's young Wildcats are scary right now, and they're probably more talented across the board than the Buckeyes -- but the experience gap is substantial.

Runner-up: North Carolina-Syracuse

Best potential Elite 8 matchup: Duke-Connecticut

Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Calhoun staged epic Final Four matchups in 1999 and 2004, and we'd welcome a Nolan Smith vs. Kemba Walker edition.

Runner-up: Ohio State-North Carolina

East: Kentucky

In nearly any other draw, Ohio State would be the pick. But Calipari's team is loaded, peaking at just the right time and actually seems more poised than last year's John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins edition.

West: Duke

Smith is the kind of player that wins championships, and he's getting nice support from Kyle Singler and Seth Curry. While the Blue Devils' road isn't easy, they're more tested than the Aztecs and more complete than anyone else.

Southwest: Kansas

The Jayhawks are the most under-the-radar 32-2 team in human history. No one in their region has the size to match up with the Morris brothers, though Purdue's JaJuan Johnson could certainly make it interesting.

Southeast: Florida

Sorry -- just don't have faith in Pitt. Billy Donovan knows a thing or two about Final Fours, and his team has been exceptional away from home.

Final Four

Kentucky's run ends in the semis, sending preseason favorite Duke to the title game after all. But this Kansas team looks an awful lot like Bill Self's 2008 title team -- deep, fast, explosive and confident. The Jayhawks get another One Shining Moment.