In the annual b-ball-meets-The Hunger Games festival known as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, there is no greater surprise than the fact that people are still surprised by it. We may refer to the 68-team single-elimination tourney as March Madness, but every year the cognoscenti play it safe.
On Monday I took a survey of the experts’ picks from some of the nation’s most highly trafficked sports websites. Of the 19 pundits, only two, Jay Bilas of ESPN and Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com, omitted all four No. 1 seeds from their selections. Most popular among the experts was Michigan State, which, despite being a No. 4 seed, appeared on 16 of the 19 ballots.
There are a number of reasons why the Spartans are the shrewd observer’s pick to advance to Arlington, Texas, and none of them has to do with the fact that 300: Rise of an Empire was the top-grossing movie not targeting children last weekend. First of all, Michigan State has Tom Izzo, the regular-guy coach who has led the school to six Final Fours. Second, the Spartans began the season 18–1 before being ravaged by injuries and losing seven of their next 12 games. The infirm are once again healthy, and Michigan State tore through the Big Ten tournament this weekend.
Finally, the Spartans have the most seductive blend of talent and experience this side of Florida, which is the No. 1 team in the country. Not surprisingly, the Gators garnered the second-highest number of ballots from the pool of experts, 14 out of 19.
So Michigan State and Florida are solid bets to go on a four-game win streak in the second half of this month. Beyond that pair, the field should be wide open. In each of the past four years, a school seeded fourth or lower has advanced to domed stadium play on college basketball’s final weekend: Wichita State last year; Louisville in 2013; Butler, Kentucky and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011; and Butler and Michigan State in 2010. VCU was an 11-seed three years ago, while the Shockers were a 9-seed last spring.
Oh, about Wichita State…its last loss was at last April’s Final Four, to eventual national champion Louisville. The Shockers are 34–0 this season and return their starting backcourt, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, as well as their leading scorer, Cleanthony Early. Wichita State is both David and Goliath, and the tournament selection committee has rewarded the Shockers by putting them in a potential Sweet Sixteen contest against…Louisville.
Not nice, selection committee. Not nice.
Anyway, the point is that if you scan the past dozen years or so, there is actually a higher probability of at least one team that is lower than a No. 3 seed advancing to the Final Four than not. It’s happened seven times since 2002.
And yet in my survey of 19 experts, only two picked even one school that was lower than a No. 5 seed. ESPN’s Digger Phelps, who once coached Notre Dame to a Final Four appearance more than 35 years ago, picked No. 9 seed Oklahoma State to advance, while C.J. Moore of the Bleacher Report took Baylor, a No. 6 seed.
ESPN’s Nate Silver, the designated actuary of sports data, put together on Monday a tournament bracket on his new offshoot site, fivethirtyeight.com, in which he and his staff predicted the percentage odds of each school to advance to the Final Four. Of the 68 teams in the field, Silver afforded only 17 of them a greater than 1 percent chance of advancing to Dallas. That’s 51 schools with a 1 percent—or lower—chance.
Or, as Jim Carrey famously said in Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance? YEAH!”
Is it safer to pick a blend of No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, a smattering of Arizona and Florida and Louisville and Michigan State? Sure, but where is the fun in that? And, as I’ve already noted, the probability of at least one school emerging from outside of the pool of a dozen or so favorites is higher than the obverse.
So take a chance. Do you want to be one of the millions who chalked a quartet of perennial potentates into the middle of your bracket, or do you want to be the one to remind your friends—over the next 100 beers—that you had 12th-seeded North Dakota State all along? That another 12-seed, Stephen F. Austin, and its 28-game win streak was so obvious? That of course you put No. 6 North Carolina into the Final Four—who else has beaten Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State this season?
And if you want to split the difference…if you want to go against the grain and also take a school that the selection committee deemed worthy of a No. 1 seed? Pick Virginia. The Cavaliers are a No. 1 seed in the East, and yet only one of the 19 experts jotted that school’s name down.
Virginia? Yes, Virginia.