Now that the Final Four are set and only one of my four picks has made it, you’re probably thinking that I have no idea what I’m talking about and that my rating system is completely bogus. You’re probably not too far off the mark, either, considering picking strictly by ASM (for more about adjusted scoring margin, click here) would have earned you a mark of 44-16 so far – and that’s assuming you get to reset your picks after each round. My bracket has just 40 correct picks in it, and that’s where it’s going to stay, since I predicted Kansas over Kentucky in the final.
So why do I insist on defending a system that has completely embarrassed me this year? Because this year has definitely been the exception, rather than the rule. We’ve seen a historic amount of upsets this year. Going solely by seeding (so including “minor” upsets where a 9 beats an 8 or a 5 beats a 4), we’ve seen 20 upsets out of 60 games. That’s a full third of the games played ending in an upset. The combined seed total of our Final Four teams (1 Duke, 2 West Virginia, 5 Butler, and 5 Michigan State) is 13, tying it for the fourth-highest total since the tournament field was expanded to 64 back in 1985. Only 1986 (15), 2000 (22), and 2006 (20) were higher, and two of those years featured 11 seeds crashing the Final Four. It’s safe to say that we’ve seen an unusual degree of chaos this year.
Most of that can be traced to the format of the tournament. Most professional sports use a best of seven format for their playoffs to ensure that the best team advances. College sports can’t do that since their athletes (theoretically) are supposed to be primarily students, so they use a winner-take-all format. You only need to be hot for one game to advance to the next round.
Even if we saw best of three rounds, you’d see the number of upsets fall dramatically. Northern Iowa played a fantastic game against Kansas, but I doubt the Jayhawks would have played that flat again. Ohio and Cornell shot the lights out in their early games, but quickly fell back to earth. If Temple, Wisconsin, and Georgetown were given a second chance, I imagine they could have righted the ship pretty quickly and advanced to the next round.
But that’s not how it works in March. The best teams don’t always advance simply because you only get one crack at it. If you have one off game, you’re done. You go home. The NCAA Tournament, then, doesn’t measure which team is the best or most talented so much as which team was the hottest over a six-game stretch.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the tournament. The chaos and unpredictability are what make it so enjoyable, in fact. But it does explain why we’ve seen such improbable results.
|Final Four Teams|
The last four teams standing in the tournament are not, as you might have expected, the four teams with the highest ASM ratings. In fact, they aren’t even close. Duke would have made the cut at #2, but the next highest is West Virginia at #18 (putting them just beneath Murray State and UTEP). Butler and Michigan State check in at #25 and #32, respectively. Just by looking at the numbers, they don’t appear to belong. We should have seen a Final Four of #1 Kansas, #2 Duke, #3 Syracuse, and #5 Kentucky (#4 BYU misses out by virtue of having to play Syracuse in the regional final).
And as great as those games would have been, they also would have made for and extremely boring tournament. No one wants to see Goliath win all the time. It’s why we hate the Yankees. It’s why we hate Duke. It’s why we hate the Lakers. We like to see the little guy win. That’s what makes March Madness so great. It’s chaotic, unpredictable, and supremely entertaining.
It’s also why I don’t expect you to take either of these picks seriously, because I have no way of knowing for sure how these games are going to play out.
5 MICHIGAN STATE (7.4 ASM, #32) VS. 5 BUTLER (8.0 ASM, #25)
You know what? I’m done picking against Butler. My bracket had them losing in the first round to UTEP, and ASM has had them losing every game they’ve played since (against #17 UTEP, #16 Murray State, #3 Syracuse, and #12 Kansas State). The Bulldogs have consistently defied the odds, and to boot, they’re playing a virtual home game in the Final Four. That said, I feel like I’d be just as foolish picking against the Spartans. This is virtually the same group that made a run to the title game against UNC last year. They aren’t going to be rattled under the bright lights. So who do you pick here? My gut tells me to go with Butler, and fortunately, the numbers back that up. I feel like this will be a close game for Butler, which means Michigan State probably wins in a blowout. I dunno. I give up.
2 WEST VIRGINIA (8.7 ASM, #18) VS. 1 DUKE (15.0 ASM, #2)
I think it’s interesting that of all the top seeds in the tournament, the one we felt was the weakest is the only one left standing in the Final Four. Duke has looked extremely impressive in dispatching its opponents so far. Even when Baylor made its run at the end of last night’s game (in front of a virtual home crowd), Duke remained calm and poised and held them off. That’s the mark of a champion to me. Of course, West Virginia stayed calm when Kentucky made their run, too. I just feel like Duke has too many weapons to fall here. That, and they nearly have the Mountaineers’ ASM doubled up. It’s really hard to pick against a team like that. The Blue Devils move on here and continue to prove the doubters wrong.
As much as is possible, I offer in-game commentary on all of the tournament games via Twitter at @TheRealSamOrme, so if you’re into that sort of thing, feel free to follow along. You can also heckle me over the complete collapse of my bracket via our bracket challenge group at ESPN.com.