Now that CBS and Turner Sports have sucked all the drama out of Selection Sunday, we can only hope the NCAA men’s basketball tournament continues to deliver.
Of course, given the current FBI investigation into college basketball’s seamy underworld of agents, shoe companies and illegal payouts, it might be tough cheering for teams that could vacate their tournament appearances at some point.
But the show must go on, if only so office poolsters have a valid excuse for the decline in their production at work. With that in mind, here are some time-tested tips for filling out your brackets:
Pick no seed worse than a No. 12 in the first round: Don’t touch the No. 16 seeds; they are 0-132 since 1985. Teams seeded 13 through 15 have only 28 opening-game wins in the past 18 years and not a single one advanced last year. Major upsets are fun to pick but extremely hard to predict. If you must, seek out a mid-major team with veteran guards, a potential NBA player or a unique style. A few to keep an eye on are No. 13 Buffalo (Arizona), No. 13 Marshall (Wichita State), No. 14 Montana (Michigan) and, yes, No. 16 Penn (Kansas).
The No. 12 seeds usually outplay the No. 5s: The No. 12s went 1-3 last year, but the underdogs in the 5/12 matchup have won at least two games in 12 of the past 17 years. From 2012 to 2014, the No. 12s were 8-4 in their openers. This year, all four No. 5 seeds look vulnerable, especially Ohio State (South Dakota State) and Clemson (New Mexico State). Also, the No. 11 seeds have become the new No. 12s, winning three of the four first-round games in each of the past two years.
Upsets dominate the first weekend but things return to normal after that: It may not seem like it, but most years only two or three double-digit seeds reach the Sweet 16. Last year, the only one to get that far was No. 11 Xavier. This year, No. 10s Oklahoma and Texas could thrive after escaping the deep Big 12 Conference. No. 12 South Dakota State is a trendy sleeper pick, but it has a tough path to the second weekend. And No. 11 St. Bonaventure, should it survive a play-in game with UCLA, looks particularly dangerous.
At least one No. 2 seed won’t reach the second weekend: For 19 of the past 21 years, a No. 2 seed has failed to reach the Sweet 16, usually losing to a No. 7 seed. Two No. 7s knocked off No. 2s in the second round last year — South Carolina over Duke and Michigan over Louisville. Cincinnati and Purdue are No. 2s that could be headed for early exits, in part because both are overseeded.
All tournament paths are not created equal: Sometimes it’s not who you play but where you play. No. 4 or better seeds staying close to home the first weekend are Kansas in Wichita, Kansas; North Carolina in Charlotte, Michigan State in Detroit, Texas Tech in Dallas and Gonzaga in Boise, Idaho. Should it make the second weekend, Kansas would play in nearby Omaha, Nebraska. The toughest regionals are the South and the Midwest. In the South, No. 1 seed Virginia is one of five teams ranked in the top 13 of the RPI, including blue-bloods Arizona and Kentucky. In the Midwest, No. 1 Kansas will likely have to beat No. 2 Duke or No. 3 Michigan State, both of which have more talent. In the West, Xavier is the weakest of the No. 1 seeds, opening the door for North Carolina, Michigan and Gonzaga. And if Villanova can’t make it through the weak East, it will have only itself to blame.
Conference strength matters: Two teams from the same conference have reached the Final Four 13 times in 19 years. Based on sheer numbers, the best bets this year are the ACC and — this is not a joke — the SEC. The ACC has nine teams in the field, matching the record it set last year. More important, it has No. 1 overall seed Virginia and No. 2 seeds in Duke and North Carolina. The SEC is next with eight teams, though its best-seeded team is Tennessee at No. 3. The Big East has two No. 1 seeds — Villanova and Xavier — but not much else. And while the Big Ten advanced only four teams, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State are all No. 5 seeds or better.
When picking the Final Four, remember the committee often gets it right: Of the 116 spots in the Final Four since 1989, only 12 were filled by teams worse than a No. 5 seed, including No. 7 South Carolina last year. It’s happening more often, though. In the past seven years, three No. 7s, a 9, a 10 and an 11 reached the final weekend. As a rule of thumb, the seeds in the Final Four should add up to single digits or, at most, the low teens.
No. 1 seeds are making a comeback: No. 1 seeds have won eight of the past 11 titles. Indeed, since 1998 only one team seeded lower than a No. 3 — No. 7 UConn in 2014 — has won the title. There have been two or more No. 1 seeds in the Final Four twice in the past three years, something that failed to happen from 2010 to 2014. And bad news for North Carolina, there hasn’t been a repeat champion since Florida in 2006-07. Worse for the Tar Heels, no defending champion has reached the Elite Eight since then.
When picking a champion, think football: Of the past 27 champions, only three — UConn in 1999 and 2014 and Villanova in 2016 — won without being a football-playing member of a power conference at the time. That’s not good news for Villanova, Xavier, Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Wichita State and Houston.
Talent usually prevails: Since 1994, 19 of the 23 champions have had at least four future NBA players. Among the teams in this year’s field, Duke, Michigan State, Arizona and Kentucky will be populating NBA rosters for years. Conspicuously devoid of lottery-type talent this year are North Carolina and Kansas. And for No. 1 seeds, Virginia and Xavier don’t exactly have NBA scouts camped in their gyms.
Efficiency counts for title contenders: In last year’s total efficiency ratings from KenPom.com, Final Four participants Gonzaga (1), North Carolina (3) and Oregon (10) ranked in the top 10. Indeed, of the last 16 champions, only one — UConn in 2014 — came from outside the top 10 and only three came from outside the top three. This year the top 10 total efficiency ratings are, in order, Virginia, Villanova, Duke, Cincinnati, Purdue, Michigan State, North Carolina, Gonzaga, Kansas and Michigan. The only teams ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency are Duke and Michigan State.
Keeping all of that in mind, my picks in the regional finals are Virginia over Tennessee, Villanova over Texas Tech, Michigan State over Seton Hall and Gonzaga over North Carolina. In the semifinals, it will be Virginia over Gonzaga and Michigan State over Villanova, followed two nights later by Michigan State over Virginia.