Yesterday was of the great days on the sports calendar: Selection Sunday. It’s our Easter here at Fidelity Sports.
Drama unleashed. Hearts broken. Coaches ensuring million-dollar promotions. It’s all there. (I’m writing most of this before the actual Selection Show, and will finish it on Monday-ish once the bracket is set.) Remember, this is part of a 4-week series, so catch up with last week’s regular season recap, player awards, and conference previews, check back next weekend for a Sweet 16 preview, and then set your calendars for a Final Four and championship preview the first week of April.
This week, now that you’ve got your blank bracket in front of you, I’m going to do you a solid. I’m going to (re)introduce you to the Rules of the Bracket, then give you essential stats and commentary on the 1- and 2-seeds, followed by regional overviews, and of course, fearless predictions. But know this: I am not giving away my championship pick, just my regional winners and this big teaser—I am not picking Kentucky to win it all. (But who? Who!? Who could it be?!?) Let’s get started with…
The Five Rules of the Bracket
(1) Choose Your Champion First
(2) Pick Your Top 5 and Top 10
Start at the center and work out to the edges. In fact, before the bracket drops, the shrewd sports fan drafts his/her winner, top five, and top ten teams. Regardless of seedings and pairings by the Committee, you should be able to fill in your Final Four and Elite Eight. Forget the first and second rounds: unless you’re in a million-person online challenge, you’re going to win a tournament of 50 or less people if you get your winner right and six of eight Elite teams.
(3) Do Your Homework
My ’90 Percent Rule’ says that you need to make almost all of your decisions with your mind. If a team’s defense is ranked above 50, they’re not going to make the Final Four. If their best player is injured, forget about it. If they can’t make free throws, you don’t want them in March. Do your homework.
(4) Recognize the Crowd Factor
The three rules of real estate (location, location, location) apply here, except in the case of kansas, who made a deal with the devil decades ago to receive a #2 seed every year in Kansas City, so that they can make their annual 7/10 loss in style. kU notwithstanding, you can recognize the crowd factor and note where games (especially in the regional finals) are being played.
(5) Live Bravely
The ’90 Percent Rule’ leaves you with 10% for your heart/gut. As I alluded to above, in a mid-sized (12-50 people) bracket challenge, it’s essential to get the top teams right, so you don’t want to pick an 7-seed to win it all, unless you are absolutely sure. But the bigger the bracket pool, the more risks you want to take. So, live wisely says the 90 percent; live bravely says the ten.
Why Some Teams Succeed in March, and Others Fail
I fully developed this truth in last year’s preview, but just know that there are Three Ingredients to College Hoops Greatness: Coaching, Defense, and Guard Play. Make sure you’re familiar with the four types of college coaches (recruiters, motivators, team builders and program builders), your teams’ defensive quotient (below, I list top teams by their adjusted defensive scoring rankings), and the recent history of championship guards—further proving my hypothesis was last year’s championship game, UConn’s Napier and Boatright vs Kentucky’s Harrison twins.
How to Beat Kentucky
ASM* Rank: 1
Offensive Rank: 18
Defensive Rank: 2
Niche: If USA fielded an ‘Under 19’ team in the Olympics
*ASM stands for Adjusted Scoring Margin, my single favorite stat for measuring a team’s true likelihood of winning, based on its season-long performance of scoring, defense, and strength of schedule. Offensive and Defensive Ranks are generated by the same measure and are elsewhere called a team’s “offensive/defensive quotient.”
Let me ask you this: What type of team has the most potential to beat UK? A strong defensive team? Skilled big men? Here’s what we’ve learned from the only three close games that UK won—it’s remarkable that only three of UK’s 34 games so far have come within a single possession (vs Ole Miss 89-86 in 2OT, at Texas A&M 70-64 in OT, and at LSU 71-69). First, it is possible to score a lot against Kentucky, so a fast-paced, high-scoring team can keep up with them. Second, a great shooting team will negate UK’s interior size advantage—Ole Miss shot 49%, 9-for-17 3PT, with 19-22 FT. Third, any team that wants to beat the Cats will have be aggressive offensively and defensively—a much weaker Texas A&M team got to the FT line 30 times and held UK to 28% shooting.
So who, then, has the best chance against Kentucky? It’s the team that can score 75 points, hit a bunch of three’s, and play above-average D. So that rules out the defensive specialists (Virginia, Wisconsin, Louisville). This isn’t football: defense is not going to win this championship. Instead, these are teams with an offense better than Kentucky’s (top 17)… and a top 50 defense (thus ruling out Duke, UNC, Iowa St, and Notre Dame).
Gonzaga (11th ranked offense)
Ohio State (15th)
These are the teams that could give UK fits. Spoiler alert: one of these four teams is my surprise champion. Now, let’s get to the rest of the one seeds.
The (Other) One Seeds
ASM Rank: 6
Offensive Rank: 16
Defensive Rank: 23
Niche: Well-coached and sneaky good despite little press
ASM Rank: 3
Offensive Rank: 40
Defensive Rank: 3
Niche: Seven foot white guys with buzzcuts that shoot three’s
Duke Blue Devils
ASM Rank: 4
Offensive Rank: 2
Defensive Rank: 89
Niche: The nation’s most talented offense
These three teams show there are (at least) three different ways to build a championship-quality team: (1) all offense, (2) all defense, and (3) something in-between. All three of these teams can make the Final Four, but none of these 1-seeds have the look of a National Champion. Wisconsin has great size and good shooters, but Kentucky has the size and speed to match up with each of their stars with just their second platoon. Villanova is a great, well-rounded team with an established coach, but they’re coming out of a down year for Big East conference and never seem to play to their potential when it counts, so few are giving them a serious title chance. That leaves Duke, and I’m not a big Devils fan, but this is the sort of Duke team that could either win it all… or lose in the second round (wait, that’s every Duke team!).
The Two Seeds
ASM Rank: 2
Offensive Rank: 14
Defensive Rank: 10
Niche: A more talented, West-coast Villanova
ASM Rank: 7
Offensive Rank: 179
Defensive Rank: 1
Niche: Fundamentalists: slow, boring, and effective
ASM Rank: 5
Offensive Rank: 11
Defensive Rank: 25
Niche: Beating Loyola Marymount College by 30
ASM Rank: 17
Offensive Rank: 28
Defensive Rank: 72
Niche: Losing to a 7/10 seed annually
With the exception of the kansas/devil agreement, this is as deep a field of 2 seeds as I’ve ever seen. Virginia is the second best team in the country, and I think their D could carry them all the way to a title game. But you’d have to be a little low on the intelligence spectrum to pick a team with an offensive ranking of 179th to win it all. Gonzaga is a compelling pick: explosive offense, great coaching, underdog “nobody believes in us” chip on their shoulder, and guys named Wiltjer, Pangos, Karnowski, Sabonos, Dranginis, Triano, and Bakamus. So basically the Latvian national team, or the Spurs’ backups. So you know these kids can shoot three’s (forgive the stereotype, eastern Europeans!). If you were going to pick the Zags to knock off UK, I wouldn’t call you crazy. Finally, a very enticing option: the Arizona Wildcats. They’re the only team ranked in the top 15 of offenses and defenses, they’re super talented, and most importantly, they’re young and wreckless. But ‘Zona is coming out of a weak conference, and they lost three games to NIT-caliber teams: UNLV, Oregon State, and Arizona State. One such loss would be bad enough. Three!?
Now that you’re familiar with the supposed top eight teams in the country, meet the rest of the field by region.
Most Talent: Kentucky (1 seed)
Best Coach: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State (7)
Best Offense: Notre Dame (3)
Best Defense: Kentucky (1)
Most Overrated: kU (2)
Sleeper Pick (seeds 5-8): Wichita State (7)
Deep Sleeper (seeds 9-16): Buffalo (12)
I’m not sure that either (10) Indiana or (11) Texas should even have made the tournament; several mid-majors boasted much better RPI and got snubbed for not being a media magnet like IU and UT (same goes for UCLA’s 11 seed in the South). I’m picking (12) Buffalo, coached by Duke hall of famer Bobby Hurley and who led Kentucky at halftime in Rupp Arena early this year, to beat (5) West Virginia and (4) Maryland to make the Sweet Sixteen. But this is Kentucky’s region, and the NCAA did them a solid by giving them the weakest overall region by a longshot. (I’m looking at you, kansas.)
Fidelity Midwest Regional Pick: Kentucky over Notre Dame
Most Talent: Virginia Cavs (2 seed)
Best Coach: Jay Wright, Villanova (1) or Tony Bennett, UVa (2)
Best Offense: Villanova (1)
Best Defense: Virginia (2)
Most Overrated: Oklahoma (3)
Sleeper Pick (seeds 5-8): Michigan State (7)
Deep Sleeper (seeds 9-16): Dayton (11)
This is the best of the four regions. Virginia would be a 1-seed any other year, and even this year if they weren’t in the ACC. 4-seed Louisville is still dangerously good, with one of the best defenses in the country and two of the year’s top ten players in Monty Harrell and “Sweet” Terry Roziey. 5-seed Northern Iowa is the best mid-major of the year, and 6-seed Providence is sneaky good too. And 7-seed Michigan State almost beat Wisconsin yesterday, and would have conceivably been a 4-seed. The East is deeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
Fidelity East Regional Pick: Villanova over Virginia
Most Talent: Duke (1)
Best Coach: Mike Kryskewski (sp?), Duke (1)
Best Offense: Duke (1) and Iowa State (3)
Best Defense: Gonzaga (2)
Most Overrated: Utah (5)
Sleeper Pick (seeds 5-8): SMU (6)
Deep Sleeper (seeds 9-16): Davidson (10)
The South is the tourney’s second-best region, and in an alternate bracket in another universe, I would be able to put Duke, Gonzaga, and Iowa State all in my Final Four. This region boasts two current hall of fame coaches (Coach K at Duke and Larry Brown at SMU) plus two future famers (Mark Few at Gonzaga and Fred Hoiberg, the hero of Ames, Iowa). Whereas the East is the “region of defense,” the South is the “region of offense,” with a handful of teams capable of scoring 100 points in 40 minutes: Duke, Gonzaga, Iowa St, Utah, and Davidson.
Fidelity South Regional Pick: Gonzaga over Duke
Most Talent: Arizona (2 seed)
Best Coach: Shaka Smart, VCU (7)
Best Offense: Arizona (2)
Best Defense: Wisconsin (1)
Most Overrated: Arkansas (5)
Sleeper Pick (seeds 5-8): VCU (7)
Deep Sleepers (seeds 9-16): Ohio State (10) and Wofford (12)
Oh no! My sleeper and my deep sleeper are playing each other in the first round. Well, this just became the game to watch in the whole first round: VCU and Ohio State. Speaking of schools in Virginia and Ohio, have you noticed that basically no teams in the West region are even remotely close to the Western U.S.? Notwithstanding (2) Arizona, (8) Oregon, and (11) BYU, four “West” teams are in the Midwest, and ten are in the East! Even half of the West region’s first round is being played in Jacksonville, Florida! Does the Western U.S. just not like basketball? Are they too busy hanging out on beaches, surfing, skiing, and playing golf… oh wait, that’s what I’d be doing too! My second 12-seed to make the Sweet Sixteen is Wofford, which is a poetry school in one of the Carolinas that I know nothing about, but they’ve got only Arkansas and UNC in the way. (And yes, I picked VCU’s Smart over UNC’s Roy Williams for Best Coach of the Region; deal with it.)
Fidelity West Regional Pick: Wisconsin over Arizona
So, there you have it, folks. Your Fidelity Sports Official Final Four prediction/promise: Kentucky, Villanova, Gonzaga, and Wisconsin. Followed in the Elite Eight by Notre Dame, Virginia, Duke, and Arizona.
You know what, on second thought… let me go ahead and give you my Final Four picks now. Just don’t tell anyone!
Final Four Predictions
See, here’s the thing. Let’s go back to those four most-likely-to-beat-UK-teams: Villanova, Arizona, Gonzaga, and Ohio State. OSU is a great sleeper pick, but they’ve got an uphill battle as a higher seed. Arizona and Gonzaga are the hope(s) of the Wild Wild West, but neither is going to win it all. Here’s how it will play out.
Kentucky over Wisconsin, 68-58
Villanova over Gonzaga, 77-74
Villanova over Kentucky, 75-70
A super underdog despite its 1-seed… the Villanova Wildcats!!! They’ve got all Three Championship Ingredients: Defense (top 25 in the nation), Coaching (Jay Wright has won 400+ career games), and big, experienced Guard Play (6’6” Durrun Hilliard is a senior with 200+ career 3’s and 1500 career points; 6’3” junior Ryan Arcidiacono has scored 10 pts/game three years in a row, leads the team in assists, and was just named Big East Player of the Year; 6’5” sophomore Josh Hart, who hit 47% of three’s this year, including going 12-for-20 in the past four games; and 6’2” junior Dylan Ennis, who also averages 10 pts/game). Did you catch that? All four guards score 10 points/game, made 50+ three’s this season, and shoot at least 37% from downtown? (Kentucky only had two players hit 50 three’s this season, and one of them, Aaron Harrison, did it on a ranka stank 31% rate.) In total, ‘Nova made over 300 three’s this season—120+ more than UK and more than any other top-level tournament team. Their offensive efficiency in the past eight games? No. 1 nationally!! More than anyone, Villanova has what it takes to beat UK.
But this is not a “live by the three die by the three” team. It will take a balanced team to beat the likes of Louisville, Virginia, and Duke/Gonzaga on the road to Kentucky. But check it: Nova plays tough D, rebounds, has an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio, and they just tore through the third-best conference, going 12-1 against tournament-level teams. They don’t have a single glaring weakness. They play eight deep, and all eight players shoot at least 66% from the FT line (three Kentucky players shot below 66%). Having paid their dues the past few seasons, Super ‘Nova is due for a deep run through March and into April.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014-15 NCAA Hoops Champion:
See you next week, friends. Hopefully Villanova hasn’t lost by then.
The cover image is a $249 custom, hand-sewn basketball from Unofish called “The Tobacco Road.” Feel free to get one for me.