Formation | Community | Culture

The Definitive Guide to March Madness

Photo by the Columbia Missourian

Photo by the Columbia Missourian


“4.8 seconds remain.
UCLA, the top-ranked team in the country, number one in the West, trailing by a point. Julian Winfield, sat out most of the half in foul trouble, scored the go-ahead basket. One last try by the Bruins of UCLA to get into the Sweet Sixteen.
Edney going the distance…” 

March 19, 1995
NCAA West Regional
Boise, Idaho


We pulled over on the side of the highway. My dad, a 1971 Mizzou grad, climbed through the front seats and sat on the floor between the captain’s chairs in the second row.

For some reason, my family drove my grandparents’ baby blue striped Ford Econoline (the full size diesel engine van with curtains in the back) for several years while I was in middle school—the absolute worst time for your parents to drive an Econoline. But as much as I hated it, it was one of the first vans to have a standard TV inside, mounted right behind the driver’s head with about a four inch rounded screen.

Mizzou was having a solid year and had landed an 8 seed. The year before, 1993-94, we had swept the Big 8, going 14-0 behind star guard Anthony Peeler, but fizzled out in the NCAA tournament. 1994-95 was an average year, and the window of Norm Stewart’s tenure was closing fast. The Tigers were led by guards Paul O’Linney (whose black and gold #23 jersey I was wearing in the van) and Jason Sutherland, a rugged, three-point bomber that I would later spend years guarding in rec leagues around Columbia, Mo.; forwards Julian Winfield (an undersized but high-flying wingman and my favorite player on the team that year), a 6’10” power forward Derek Grimm, and one of the seven-foot Haley twins. Emerging stars Kelley Thames and Monte Harge were still on the bench, waiting for their moments of glory. It was not our best team ever, but Saint Norm had developed a hard-nosed, team-first, well-balanced team once again.

Going up against #1 ranked UCLA, led by point guard Tyus Edney and player of the year Ed O’Bannon, seemed like an automatic bounce from the second round. But as I recall, we hung around and kept the game within a few points into the final minute. Down by one point with 15 or 20 seconds remaining, we pulled to the shoulder of the Kansas City freeway. As the seconds ticked away, my dad made it back in time to see O’Linney’s jumper bounce off the rim and be tipped back in by my hero Winfield. We went ecstatic in the car! We could taste the victory, and it was sweet. The greatest program in history, Wooden’s own UCLA Bruins, the number one team in the land with only one loss all year, pressed to defeat against upstart Mizzou! The headlines would write themselves. There was only one problem: there were still 4.8 seconds left.

UCLA called a timeout and wrote up a play. They were inbounding under their own basket, meaning they had 94 feet to go in less than 5 seconds. Rather than bombing the ball down court a la Laettner, they simply passed it into Edney about 70 feet from the basket and let him race up the court against a single defender, while the other Bruins stayed as far out of the way as possible. I will literally never forget the images, the announcer’s words and my own staggering shock of utter defeat. Edney went behind his back just after crossing half-court, creating space against his defender, then raced to the right elbow of the key before any Mizzou defender would challenge him. Grimm met him there, all 6’10” of him stretched straight up to the sky (knowing not to foul but arriving a half-moment too late). But Edney’s floater breezed over Grimm’s finger by a millmeter and dropped into the basket as the final buzzer sounded. Ballgame. Season over. Dagger, heart; heart, dagger.


The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the purest sporting event ever created by God.

One month. One bracket. One winner. One shining moment. Let’s begin with The Five Rules of the Bracket.

1. Choose Your Champion First

An old proverb says something like, “The fool begins with the first round; he who is wise considers his ways—he chooses his champion first.” Before the bracket even comes out on Selection Sunday, pick your winner and convince yourself that this team will win, no matter what region they end up in and who they’ll face. This is your team. Stick with them.

2. Pick Your Top 5 and Top 10

Again, before the bracket is even released, carefully pick and rank your top ten to twelve teams. Then when the bracket comes out, you should automatically be able to fill in your winner, runner-up, Final Four and Elite 8 teams in a moment. The saying is trustworthy and worthy of your full acceptance: start in the center and work out. If you forget everything else you read here, on Sunday night, just start at the center.

3. Do Your Homework

Now, when you’re picking your top ten to twelve, you’re going to need to do your homework. It’s not that no one has ever won without doing extensive research, but is that really how you want to win? As an old Chiefs coached once screamed, “You play to win the game!”

Here’s where you need The 90 Percent Rule: Make 90% of all decisions with your mind. Be objective. Don’t pick Syracuse because you like orange; pick them because they have veteran coaching, a strong 2-3 zone and reliable guard play. Do your homework and make 90 percent of your decisions with the brain God gave you for filling out brackets.

4. Recognize the Crowd Factor

The three most underestimated factors in choosing teams in the first two rounds? Location, location, location. You don’t really like Michigan State but they’re playing a coastal team in Detroit? Now, this is less and less true as the tournament goes on, because fans are far more likely to travel to a Final Four game than a first round game, and the tickets are distributed evenly. But in rounds one and two, recognize the crowd factor.

5. Live Bravely

Not surprisingly, the 90 Percent Rule leaves us with 10 Percent Rule. Here it is: make 10% of all your decisions with your gut. Your gut is where your soul meets the chicken wings you eat when filling out a bracket. Your gut is not to be 100% trusted, but you can’t ignore it either. Convinced your alma mater is a sleeper this year, poised for a big run? Go for it. You get 10% of your bracket to get stupid with.

The bigger your bracket pool, the more risks you need to take. If you and your spouse are going 1-on-1 for dishes duty (as Jessie and I do each March), the safer your picks are, the better chance you have of winning. But if you’re trying to win a large work pool, or Warren Buffet’s billion dollars, the winner will have an absolutely audacious bracket with 14-seeds knocking off 3-seeds and such. In a pool of 8-20 people, like most of us will join, the 90 / 10 Percent Rules will serve you well. But at the end of the day, you only get one bracket, so you might as well Live Bravely.


I mentioned doing your homework, but what if you don’t have a massive store of basketball strategy and history at your disposal? Then you only need to know The Three Ingredients of Championship Basketball: Coaching, Defense and Guard Play.

In my somewhat accurate Definitive Guide to the Super Bowl a couple months ago, I made the point that a niche team can win a lot of games, but they can’t win a championship. A niche team occurs when an organization tries to take a shortcut to success; they go out and find some one-trick pony, whether a stud coach, player or scheme, and they ride it past well-balanced teams. The Broncos were the niche team of the 2013-14 NFL season: they’re entire organization rested on Peyton Manning and the passing offense, and it came at the cost of the rest of their team and office. It was fun to watch for five or six months. And then they got destroyed. The talking-heads were shocked, but not the well-balanced, running-and-defense-first Seahawks. (Neither was the staff here at Formation & Fidelity.)

Even in college basketball, where a 16-year old phenom putting on your team’s hat can change the face of a program in an instant, you can’t win with a niche. You can’t win with one phenomenal player, even if his name is Pistol Pete Maravich. You need an entire university and athletic department committed to the success of the entire team. This means hiring the right coach, right head of player development, building the right arena for fan participation and noise, securing not just the best recruits but the ones that will make the best team, and then actually building a program with March in mind. There’s a lot that goes into it. The entire program has to be bought in. There has to be a sense of history and transcendence.

More than anything, though, you need The Three Ingredients.


There are several types of coaches: Recruiters, Motivators, Team Builders and Program Builders. Kentucky’s Calipari is the consummate Recruiter, and the sleaze king Bill Self, of kansas, are on the high end of this category, and South Carolina’s Frank Martin is on the bottom. Motivators include guys who get a little bit of success on the recruiting trail and on the court, but fizzle out under the big lights. Most coaches fit into this category—Arkansas’ Mike Anderson and Mizzou’s Frank Haith come immediately to mind. These guys bounce from school to school, winning 20-25 games, but rarely get into the Sweet Sixteen. My suspicion is that the Motivators, not totally unlike the Recruiters, don’t really love basketball as much as they love being the head coach of a major program with heavy media exposure.

(Intermission #1: Depressing Mizzou History, Part II. My beloved Missouri Tigers have been a niche program since Stormin’ Norm Stewart’s retirement when I was a teenager. Haith’s niche is getting high-profile guards to transfer in, score 15-20 points a game, and not win squat in the Big Dance. Anderson’s niche was the 6’1” speedy guard who could run, play full court defense and somehow manage to miss 20 shots in a single game—all while achieving a little over squat in the Dance. And then, of course, there was Quin Snyder, who coached during my four years on campus. His niche? Off-the-charts talented shooting guards, screaming till his face turned purple, recruiting violations and smoking pot with cheerleaders. It’s been a rough decade and a half in Columbia, Mo.)

The next category of coaches can be called the Team Builders. Team Builders stick around one program for ten or so years and build a series of good teams. Louisville’s Pitino is a great Team Builder—his players are well-chosen, his teams are balanced and he has managed as much success as almost any other Team Builder in NCAA history, having taken three different programs to the Final Four. Others in this category include Florida’s Billy Donovan, Villanova’s Jay Wright and UNC’s Roy Williams.

The last category is reserved for the giants, the Program Builders. These guys are synonymous with their universities—they have team courts, hospitals and elementary schools named after them while they’re still alive. Duke’s Coach K, Syracuse’s Boeheim, Michigan State’s Izzo are among the faithful few Program Builders today. Among the all-time greats: Mizzou’s Stewart, UConn’s Calhoun, OK State’s Sutton, Indiana’s Knight, and of course, the greatest coach of any sport ever, UCLA’s Wooden. These guys aren’t just out to win games or even build great teams. These guys commit their whole lives to one program, one town, one university (for complications, see “Paterno, Joe”). They may not win every year, but they embody faithfulness in the little things over a long period of time, and if you can’t tell, that gets you bonus points here.

So which teams have the best coaches in the NCAA this year (of the teams that will most likely be in the final field announced on Sunday)? The top five teams, ranked by their head coach’s career NCAA tournament wins:

1. Duke / Mike Kryzewski (82)
2. North Carolina / Roy Williams (65)
3. Syracuse / Jim Boeheim (50)
4. Louisville / Rick Pitino (38)
5. Michigan State / Tom Izzo (37)


“Offense wins games; defense wins championships.” I’m not who said it, but it’s another well-known basketball proverb. Why is an above-average defense more likely to win a championship than an above-average offense? Because there’s less variation in defensive performance, meaning a team with a certain defensive efficiency or adjusted defensive scoring margin (also called the defensive quotient) won’t see much change in these stats from game to game. Offenses, on the other hand, are hyper-dependent on a shooter’s hot hand and tend to see great variation in efficiency and scoring from game to game. To win a national championship, you have to win six consecutive high-stakes games against the best teams in the league. If you’re primarily an offensive team, it’s unlikely you’ll have six consecutive great games. But a primarily defensive team can afford to only have three or four great offensive games and still win a championship.

Based on a quick look at defensive quotient, the top ten teams are (the team’s RPI as of Friday night are in parentheses):

1. Virginia (12)
2. Arizona (1)
3. Cincinnati (15)
4. Florida (2)
5. San Diego State (14)
6. Ohio State (23)
7. Syracuse (9)
8. Louisville (24)
9. Wichita State (4)
10. Saint Louis (18)

(Intermission #2: Stat Alert. How many teams are ranked in both the top 40 nationally in both defensive quotient and offensive quotient? Only one: Louisville. More on them later.)

Guard Play

The third and final Ingredient of Championship Basketball is the most difficult to quantify. But you absolutely have to have solid guard play to win it all. You’ve got to have at least one solid big man as well, but for the most part, all he has to do is clog up the lane and let the guards and wingmen do their thing (see also: “Bulls, Chicago, 1984-1998”).

Consider the last five champions. All had some of the best guards in the nation:

2013: Louisville (Russ Smith & Peyton Siva)
2012: Kentucky (Doron Lamb & Michael Kidd-Gilchrest)
2011: UConn (Kemba Walker)
2010: Duke (Jon Scheyer & Nolan Smith)
2009: North Carolina (Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington & Danny Green)

So who has the best guards in this tournament? It’s mostly a matter of opinion (and in my opinion, the best guards are at Mizzou and they will absolutely DOMINATE the NIT!!!) so, if you’re doing your homework, make sure you’re picking appropriately. You can win a few games with one or two Ingredients, but if you want to cut down the nets, you’re going to need a healthy sampling of all three.


In every tournament, there are Four Types of Teams: the Favorites, the Insiders, the Outsiders and the Long-Shots. For each team, I’ll also list Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings for offense and defense (not to be confused with their offensive and defensive quotients):

The Favorites

The favorites are usually 1 or 2 seeds with a long history of winning in March. After a few losses this weekend, I think there are four main favorites: Florida, Arizona, Duke and Louisville.

Florida Gators
RPI: 2
Record: 30-2
Offense: 10
Defense Rank: 9

Arizona Wildcats
RPI: 1
Record: 29-3
Offense: 34
Defense: 1

Duke Blue Devils
RPI: 7
Record: 24-7
Offense: 2
Defense: 76

Louisville Cardinals
RPI: 24
Record: 28-5
Offense: 13
Defense: 5

Florida is just downright good. They’re not flashy on offense, but they have a proven Team Builder for a coach, a top 10 efficient defense, four key seniors and solid guard play. They’re the prototype for a balanced NCAA program, and this isn’t their first rodeo. Plus, they absolutely destroyed Mizzou in the last 12 minutes of today’s game.

Our local heroes were written off after Chane Behanan was kicked off the team, and now they’re headed for a 1 seed. As always, Louisville’s well-coached, balanced, super-experienced, even though their schedule hasn’t been the most demanding (hence a poor RPI). Arizona has been solid all year, and the Pac-12 was better than expected. It never hurts to lead the nation in defensive efficiency, but they are fighting key injuries and loaded with freshmen and sophomores. Duke has the best coach in the game and the best freshman in Jabari Parker, but their defensive efficiency is concerning. Overall, I’d say there’s about a 60 percent chance one of these four teams will still be watching for “One Shining Moment.”

The Insiders

The Insiders are elite programs seeded 2-4, and present legitimate threats to the Favorites. I see at least four: Syracuse, Villanova, Wisconsin and Michigan. I suppose you could add kansas to this list, but since this is my site and I can do what I want, I’m leaving them off altogether. I’ll consider adding them next year if they add Mizzou back to their schedule and admit they would have left the Big Texas Conference too if they had the academics for it.

Syracuse Orangemen
RPI: 9
Record: 27-5
Offense: 28
Defense: 16

Villanova Wildcats
RPI: 6
Record: 28-4
Offense: 14
Defense: 14

Wisconsin Badgers
RPI: 5
Record: 26-6
Offense: 5
Defense: 49

Michigan Wolverines
RPI: 11
Record: 25-7
Offense: 3
Defense: 100

Syracuse was the top-ranked team for most of the year, but they’ve tanked recently. Villanova is great on paper but lost yesterday to a nobody and got beat by Creighton, which I think is a Catholic seminary in Iowa, not once but twice… and not just twice but twice by at least 20 points!!! Lastly, the Badgers, or the “buzzcuts” as they’re known (for having a ton of 6’11” heavy-set white guys with fading military haircuts), are always tough at this point in the season. Come to think of it, even their coach is a huge white guy with a buzzcut. Lastly, Michigan’s offense is surprisingly efficient, but their defense is, to quote Charles Barkley, turrrble, so I’m mostly ruling them out. All four teams are well-coached and have plenty of NCAA experience, so in all likelihood, one of these eight teams are your best bets for a national champion.

The Outsiders

The Outsiders are highly-ranked mid-majors, or highly-ranked schools that I still consider mid-majors: Wichita State, Virginia, Creighton, Saint Louis and San Diego State.

Wichita State Shockers
RPI: 4
Record: 34-0
Offense: 7
Defense: 11

Virginia Cavaliers
RPI: 12
Record: 26-6
Offense: 23
Defense: 4

Creighton Bluejays
RPI: 8
Record: 25-6
Offense: 1
Defense: 104

Iowa State Cyclones
RPI: 10
Record: 25-7
Offense: 21
Defense: 56

San Diego State Aztecs
RPI: 14
Record: 28-3
Offense: 99
Defense: 6

Yes, I realize Virginia is in the ACC, Iowa State’s in the Big 12 and Creighton is in the Big East, but they’re still Outsiders at heart. San Diego State is the only classic overachieving mid-majors, and you can’t rule out an a Final Four run out of them. But don’t put them dead center in your bracket unless you’re looking for a good laugh. Virginia and Iowa State feel a lot like Villanova to me: great on paper but no actual chance of winning, but that’s just one man’s opinion. One man, that is, who thinks very highly of his own opinions. Creighton’s too much of a niche team to win it all, but I still love them because they’ve got a One Man Niche that I could watch all day—more on McDougie in a moment.

(Intermission #3: Wichita State. The Shockers deserve their own 20-second timeout after finishing the regular season undefeated. So what if they’re in the Valley of Missouri conference? If you’ve ever been in the Missouri Valley, you know that you have to get out as fast as you can before the townsfolk come for you. But still: 34-and-0 is 34-and-0. That doesn’t happen, well, ever. This isn’t women’s college basketball, where dozens of teams go 34-and-0 every year. This is MENS basketball, and Wichita State still went 34-and-0! They’re ranked in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, have a great bit of chemistry and credibility after going to the Final Four as a 9-seed last year, and weathered an entire year of media sabotage. Give them some credit! But then again, I haven’t actually watched them play, because I don’t think even NASA’s satellites get Missouri Valley games, and there’s no way of knowing if they actually went 34-and-0 because I don’t think there are newspapers in Wichita, Ks. Maybe it’s all a conspiracy!!!)

(Intermission #4: Doug McDermott. The Creighton forward is the real deal, even if his college team is coached by his mom and dad. Or is it just dad? I can’t remember. Anyway, McDougie has been a first-team All-American three times, putting him in crazy elite company, and he recently passed the 3,000 career points mark. Now we’re really getting into GOAT—Greatest Of All Time—territory. Where does he rank among the best college basketball players of the last 30 years? I’m glad you asked. Here’s The Definitive List of the Best College Ballers Post 1984:

10. Steph Curry (SG, Davidson, 2006-09)
9. Christian Laettner (PF Duke, 1988-92)
8. Allan Houston (SG, Tennessee, 1989-93)
7. Tyler Hansborough (PF, North Carolina, 2005-09)
6. Shaquille O’Neal (C, LSU, 1989-92)
5. Bobby Hurley (PG, Duke, 1989-93)
4. Doug McDermott (SF, Creighton, 2010-14)
3. David Robinson (C, Navy, 1983-87)
2. Wayman Tisdale (PF, Oklahoma, 1981-85)
1. Tim Duncan (C, Wake Forest, 1993-97)

McDermott intermission over.)

The Long Shots

The Long Shots are the most dangerous teams who will likely be seeded between 6-16. In the past 13 years, only four teams have made the Final Four with a seed of 6+. And none of them have won it all. In fact, the last time a team won a championship from a seed of 4+ was 1988.

So these teams don’t really have a legitimate shot at the title, and if you really want to use your 10 Percent gut decision to put a 6+ seed in the Final Four, here are a few worthwhile options. (Keep in mind that the actual seeding will happen on Sunday night, so I’m just going with teams outside the top 25 RPI.)

Saint Louis Billikens
RPI: 18
Record: 26-6
Offense: 174
Defense: 8

Harvard Crimson
RPI: 49
Record: 26-4
Offense: 56
Defense: 25

Baylor Bears
RPI: 32
Record: 21-10
Offense: 8
Defense: 108

Oklahoma State Cowboys
RPI: 45
Record: 21-12
Offense: 24
Defense: 33

Tennessee Volunteers
RPI: 42
Record: 21-11
Offense: 20
Defense: 24

All five teams will likely land in 6-11 seeds as first and second round matchup nightmares. (For the record, I refuse to call the four play-in games “the first round.”) Tennessee is far better than their 21-11 record suggests, and they’ve been playing great the last month. Their top 25 efficiencies show this. OK State and Baylor started the season with high rankings and Big 12 title hopes before plummeting to the bubble. But both have the talent of a top seed and could make a serious run. I’m a big Marcus Smart fan, and personally I’d love to see the Cowboys in the Final Four. Saint Louis and Harvard are both long, long shots, but they are well-coached and have great defenses.

And March wouldn’t be Madness if it weren’t for the long, long shots.


Editor’s Note: Parts 5 and 6 were added on Sunday afternoon, March 23.

Before shutting down all social media and essay-writing for a week on Hilton Head Island with my darling wife, I applied my Five Rules, Four Types and Three Ingredients to this year’s bracket.

Here’s what I came up with. (As of this moment, I am in the 92th Percentile of the 11+ million brackets on espn dot com. If the SAT were this easy, I’d be wearing a Jack Donaghey approved Princeton letter jacket right now.)

Top 12 Teams

  1. Florida
  2. Louisville
  3. Arizona
  4. Wichita State
  5. Creighton
  6. Iowa State
  7. Michigan State
  8. Virginia
  9. Wisconsin
  10. Duke
  11. Villanova
  12. Syracuse

I’d hoped to have either Wichita State or Creighton as the Outsider of my Final Four, but the way the brackets played out, say hello to… IOWA STATE!!! After what I said above, that they didn’t have the look of an elite team, they went to the Big 12 Tournament and totally redeemed themselves. So I made them my annual sleeper Final Four pick, and a few days later their second best player broke his foot. So goes the Madness. But if last year’s gruesome Kevin Ware injury taught us anything, it’s that horrifically broken bones bring teams together to win championships.

Elite Eight
South: Florida (1) over Syracuse (3)
East: Iowa State (3) over Michigan State (4)
West: Arizona (1) over Creighton (3)
Midwest: Louisville (4) over Duke (3)

Clearly, I was wrong about Syracuse and Duke. But in my defense, I didn’t want them in the Elite Eight anyway. Just look at my Top 12: I wanted Virginia and the Buzzcuts (Wisconsin). Ah well.

Final Four
Florida over Iowa State
Louisville over Arizona

Prepare to see Florida beat Iowa State by more than ten points. Louisville-Arizona will be a battle, but The Age Before Beauty Principle, loosely based on the balance vs niche principle described above, will be the key to the Cardinals’ third straight Final Four appearance.

National Champion
Florida over Louisville 76-73 (OT)

My lovely wife, who destroyed me on every standardized test that we ever both had to take, who graduated from Mizzou’s prestigious journalism school with honors, who took the LSAT on a whim and scored on the right side of the curve, picked Villanova. Why did she pick Villanova? She had in fact read my essay, and was sure that Villanova was the right pick, because Villanova is in Nashville, and one of her friends did grad school there and said the campus was beautiful. “That’s Vanderbilt, love.” I explained. “Oh then who’s Villanova?” A team that just got eliminated. At least I’ll be winning one bracket challenge this year. Thanks love!


Oh, and one last thing: For those of you who thought I was just a bitter Missouri grad for not putting kansas in my Top 12, I have just two words for you:



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