It’s finally here, everyone’s favorite time of year: March Madness!
Whether you’ve got 20 bucks riding on your office bracket pool (not that I do that sort of thing), or you just fill out a bracket for fun, here are a few things you should know about the tournament that will help you when making your picks.
First off, don’t let yourself get caught up in all the hoopla; keep in mind that chalk, far more often than not, tends to prevail in the NCAA tournament. Everyone loves the story of a Cinderella team (cough.. Dunk City.. cough) that gets hot and makes a run deep into March, but trying to identify that team in your bracket is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Out of 63 total tournament games last season (excluding the first four play-in games), 39 (61.9%) were won by the team with the higher seed. That means that nearly two out of every three games will be won by the favored team. That doesn’t mean you should be afraid to make your bracket interesting and pick one or two double-digit seeds to knock off a high seed in the first round, but if you have UC Irvine going to the Final Four, you may want to reconsider.
Now that we got that disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk specifically about this year’s field. My biggest tip this year seems obvious, but unfortunately it still needs to be said. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT bet against Kentucky. This team is a machine and there’s a reason that they enter the tournament at 34-0, looking to become the first team since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers finished 32-0 1976.
People think about offense when they hear about the Wildcats successes this season, but their undefeated record stems from being the best defensive team in the country. According to the current defensive efficiency ratings, Kentucky gives up three fewer points (81.3) per 100 possessions than any other team in the nation. In addition the Wildcats are second in the nation in blocks with 6.9 per game.
A lot of that has to do with Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein in the middle, anchoring the Wildcats on defense. The size and athleticism that those two guys possess make it extremely difficult for almost any team to match up with them physically.
I’ve got UK going all the way in my bracket because I just can’t find a team that I legitimately feel can knock off the Wildcats. Please, do something you’ll thank yourself for later and stick with UK.
Next, don’t be surprised to see an 11 seed ‘First Four’ team knock off a six seed in the first round.
My pick to make that happen is the Dayton Flyers, a team that made a miraculous run to the elite eight last year as, you guessed it, an 11 seed. Archie Miller is a fantastic coach and the Flyers always show up for big games, so don’t be surprised if they win the play-in on their home court and go on to sting Providence in the round of 64.
On the other side of the bracket, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Ole Miss take out Xavier either.
The Rebels gave Kentucky a scare on their home floor earlier this season, but the Wildcats prevailed by three points in overtime. There’s nothing spectacular about Ole Miss but they’ve shown that they’re capable of getting up for big games and playing with anybody. With last night’s 94-90 win over BYU in the first four round, The Rebels have shown that they have it in them to come out strong and send Xavier home early.
Lastly, despite what I said about sticking with chalk and ignoring the feel-good underdog stories, don’t sleep on Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks lead the country with a whopping 17.8 assists per game this season and their scoring attack is incredibly balanced.
If you look past their already-impressive 29-4 record, you’ll quickly find out that SFA has won 28 of their last 29 games with 25 of those victories by double-digits. The Lumberjacks knocked off VCU in last year’s tournament and return all but three players from last season, including four of their top six scorers.
I have Stephen F. Austin in my sweet sixteen currently, and while I do genuinely like them against Utah, the victory in the round of 32 has more to do with Georgetown’s tendency to flounder out in March than it does with the Lumberjacks.
Regardless of whether you’re filling out brackets for money or just like to watch the tournament’s storylines unfold, this is a time of year we can all enjoy. Good luck to those of us that are in it to win it, but remember the rules; always have fun and never, ever let your bracket ruin your day.
See Mramer’s Bracket: