By Nick Olig
As much as I’d like to pose as a sports sage capable of guiding indecisive minds to workplace-pool glory, the truth is that predicting the outcome of a 64 (plus) team tournament is awfully difficult. Concerning March Madness, I’m a fan—not an expert. Last season I picked one of the Big East’s standout teams, the Georgetown Hoyas, to win the title, and they wound up getting crushed in the first round by Florida Gulf Coast University—an obscure college whose basketball program was made eligible for Division-1 play in 2012. On just the second day of the tournament, FGCU effectively destroyed the $25 I had saved for gambling purposes in a dizzying flash of alley-oop dunks in transition.
I didn’t see that coming—and that’s the reality of March Madness. Prognosticators won’t foresee everything that happens. Those who choose to get involved in the Big Dance racket just have to hope the outcomes they don’t see coming will only hurt rather than kill their chances of winning a little cash and then bragging about it to anyone who will listen.
That’s the ideal outcome. But my favorite March Madness tale is one of failure. A few years ago, a friend of mine had Louisville, a four-seed, circled triumphantly in the center of his bracket. The Cardinals were upset in the first-round by—get this—MOREHEAD STATE. The Cardinals missed what would have been a game-winning shot. We watched the time expire on his $25 entry fee. He bellowed a primitive grunt and balled up his doomed bracket. He took hasty aim at the trashcan ten feet away and launched the wadded paper. It bounced off the rim. Doink! It was the perfect sequence of human imperfection. And this and every March there will be a whole lot of human imperfection—not only from unseasoned amateur athletes coping with intense pressure but from fans like you and me, too.
Measures can be taken to minimize your chances of squandering your hard-earned dollars, though. (Aside from, you know, not betting on the tourney.) There are even some certainties. For starters, basketball teams at both the college and pro level are sure to jack up oodles of threes. We are in an era that widely accepts that high-risk, high-reward brand of basketball. Some early upsets will occur mostly because a less-talented team will dupe a favored team into a shooting contest and prevail from long-range. Shooting three-pointers excessively has its charms, but it’s an inconsistent and unsustainable formula for victory. The best teams invariably pose an inside-outside threat on offense.
In the past decade, a 1-seed has won the tournament seven times. Two 3-seeds and a 2-seed have also prevailed within that time-frame. On rare occasions, Cinderella bracket-busters like 2011’s Virginia Commonwealth have advanced to the Final Four, but by and large, the champions and the Final Four are comprised of teams that are expected to make deep runs. Upsets undoubtedly happen along the way, but it’s unwise to foresee a Final Four appearance for any team seeded worse than a 5. The moral of this paragraph is that a gambler should never try to out-think the basic odds.
Owing to excellent coaching paired with perennial talent, Michigan State and defending champ Louisville have both made three Final Fours in the past decade. Florida, Duke, and Syracuse are likewise bolstered by coaching, athleticism, and history. These teams are much safer bets than most to win their regions.
To help quell the chaos of the first-round, know that a 9-seed is statistically likelier to defeat an 8-seed. A 5-seed has lost to a 12-seed about 36% of the time, which is a relatively high upset-rate we should be wary of. Top-seeded juggernauts remain undefeated against their bottom-ranked opponents. A 4-seed has, however, been stymied in the first-round 25 times, whereas 2 and 3-seeds have COMBINED to lose just 24 of said match-ups. Detecting the flaky and vulnerable 4 and 5-seeds is crucial.
With all that preface and historical context covered, let’s quickly consider the top contenders to prevail in this year’s Big Dance.
Despite losing Michael Carter-Williams to the NBA, Syracuse has restocked and maintained their status as a true powerhouse. Coach Jim Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone-defense has been mastered by the likes of C.J. Fair and Trevor Cooney, who can both score in bunches as well. Point-guard Tyler Ennis can pass, score, and create turnovers. Another Final Four run for the Orange Men will be widely expected.
The Florida Gators are led by seasoned seniors hungry for a National Championship. Center Patric Young and forward Casey Prather can block shots, crash the boards and score with remarkable efficiency. Michael Frazier II provides a threat from behind the arc. This team is loaded. They’re my pick.
Wisconsin’s very own Sophomore Sam Dekker continues to develop his great potential; by next year he could truly be among the best players at the collegiate level. At their best, the Badgers are three-point assassins (such as Ben Brust) who can defend and score in bunches. Their downfall could be the suspect ball-handling Traevon Jackson; the sophomore point-guard has been culpable for too many turnovers, which can kill a team in tightly contested tourney games.
Freshmen phenoms Jabari Parker of Duke and Andrew Wiggins of Kansas have been the source of much hype. Parker’s teammate Rodney Hood could be the alpha-dog on most other teams, but Duke’s lack of a low-post threat could be an issue. Kansas’ second-best player, Perry Ellis, scores plenty of hoops near the hoop, but the Jayhawks lack three-point shooting. Accordingly, I don’t foresee either team making the Final Four (even though Parker and Wiggins are undeniably awesome).
Wichita State has become a confident and dangerous mid-major team. The Shockers made the Final Four last season and they’re probably better this season.
Every March, the Michigan State Spartans seem to emerge as National Title contenders. They play unselfishly, with high-energy on defense, and they have been making shots at a high success-rate in 2014. The left wrist of Senior guard Keith Appling is a red-flag to monitor, though. If the injury persists, or worsens, Appling could be the difference between dominance and despair for the 2014 Spartans.
On the subject of injuries, the Arizona Wildcats are unlikely to fully overcome the loss of sophomore forward Brandon Ashley—inasmuch as they shouldn’t be considered among the favorites to win it all now that Ashley is out for the season. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has emerged as an exciting player, but there’s no way the Wildcats are better having lost one of their best players.
As for those portentous Cinderella’s, take note of VCU (still coached by feisty mastermind Shaka Smart), George Washington (they beat Creighton, at least), and OF COURSE my arch-nemesis Florida Gulf Coast University.
I’m writing in this in mid-February, by the way, so I really hope FGCU returns to the Big Dance. Like Smooth Jimmy Apollo from The Simpsons, I claim to be right 52% of the time. I’d hate to bump that down to 51%.