March Madness is here, which means I will be going region-by-region and previewing the NCAA Tournament from a bracket pool and betting perspective.
Up first was the Midwest Region (the Region of DEATH).
Next? The East region. If you’re having trouble locating it, find a compass and direct yourself to the Southwest portion of your bracket.
Who’s gonna make the Final Four?
I already analyzed each region’s Final Four odds, but here they are in case you missed it.
No. 4 Michigan State (+229): 25.48% implied chance, according to the betting market, picked by 44.9% of people on ESPN
No. 1 Virginia (+325): 19.73% chance, picked by 23.4% of people
No. 2 Villanova (+369): 17.88% chance, picked by 9.4% of people
No. 3 Iowa State (+733): 10.06% chance, picked by 12% of people
No. 7 Connecticut (+1408): 5.56% chance, picked by 1.4% of people
No. 6 North Carolina (+1526): 5.16% chance, picked by 4.6% of people
No. 5 Cincinnati (+2133): 3.75% chance, picked by 1.7% of people
No. 8 Memphis (+2702):2.99% chance, picked by 0.6% of people
No. 12 Harvard (+3729): 2.19% chance, picked by 0.3% of people
No. 9 George Washington (+5396): 1.53% chance, picked by 0.2% of people
No. 10 St. Joseph’s (+6397): 1.29% chance, picked by 0.3% of people
No. 11 Providence (+6396): 1.29% chance, picked by 0.3% of people
No. 16 Coastal Carolina (+10639): 0.78% chance, picked by 0.1% of people
No. 13 Delaware (+10780): 0.77% chance, picked by 0.1% of people
No. 14 North Carolina Central (+10780): 0.77% chance, picked by 0.1% of people
No. 15 Milwaukee (+10780): 0.77% chance, picked by 0.2% of people
Who’s everyone in your pool gonna pick?
I personally think it’s dumb to pick Michigan State, even though I do agree that they are the best team in this region by a very slight margin. They are being way overhyped, in my humble, semi-biased Wolverine-fan opinion.
To elucidate my point: How many “experts” would be picking Michigan State if they had lost to Michigan in the Big Ten title game? Yes, they played incredible and dominated, but I don’t think everyone on ESPN would have picked them if they lost that game. People say they’re “finally healthy and playing to their potential.” They played two dominant, impressive games games in a row (beating Wisconsin and Michigan). That’s it. In their final 12 regular season games, they went 5-7, including a neutral-court loss to non-tourney-team Georgetown. They lost to Nebraska and Illinois at home. Ew. Their only good wins in that stretch were vs. Iowa and at Iowa.
If you adjust for injuries, they’re probably on the edges of the top 5 of KenPom. But Virginia is No. 4 and Villanova is No. 6 and this region is strong. Don’t get carried away.
Strengths and Weaknesses:
Michigan State: Michigan State is very balanced, and if you watch any of their games, you’ll undoubtedly hear that they have “probably the best starting five in the country.” It’s pretty damn good.
That said, they have weaknesses. They’re mediocre at offensive rebounding, which is strange for a Tom Izzo team. They also give up a ton of 3-pointers (308th in the nation in opponent 3PA/FGA). That was their problem in Big Ten play, where they ranked just sixth in the conference in opponent’s EFG%. Yes, they were hurt somewhat by injuries, but I think that’s exaggerated, and their defense was mediocre in conference play. Their only other potential weaknesses are that they rely a lot on threes on offense (but they’re good at them), they turned the ball over a lot in B1G play (9th in TO rate), they rarely get to the free throw line and don’t shoot free throws well (69.3%), and they don’t force a ton of turnovers. Wait, that’s actually a lot of weaknesses.
I am nitpicking. They are excellent. But it’s clear they’re overrated.
Villanova: If you simply look at numbers and balance, you might come up with Villanova as your champion. They’re No. 6 in KenPom, 16th in offense and 14th in defense. Their only weakness is giving up a good amount of 3-pointers, and their opponents making a lot of them (most of which is probably bad luck).
Their real achilles heel, it seems, is that they take the 7th-highest percentage of 3-pointers in the nation. But in conference play they made 39% of them. They are an excellent shooting team. If they get cold, they could be in trouble. Other than that, they look tough to beat. They beat both Kansas and Iowa on neutral floors. Creighton annihilated them twice (with insane shooting nights) and Syracuse killed them at home, also largely due to hot shooting.
They have a pretty similar profile to Michigan State… except that fewer people are picking them.
Virginia: Slow-paced teams are perenially underrated by the public. Virginia is No. 4 in KenPom, but they play at the 345th slowest pace in the nation. There are 351 teams in college basketball.
Their strength is defense. They had the best defense in the ACC.
They have some weird in-conference statistics. They were much better shooting threes in conference play (39.5% vs. 36.5% for the whole year, including conference play). But they don’t shoot a lot of threes, nor is their 2PT% high. They rely on taking care of the ball and offensive rebounding for offense. They are bad at free throws (66.3%).
They’re your classic underwhelming yet incredibly well-coached team. Which means you think they’d beat the teams they should, but lose to great teams that overwhelm them.
That was sort of the case this year. They started out 0-4 vs. KenPom Top-15 teams. But then they wound up beating (struggling) Syracuse and (poor defensive team) Duke in March. I still think that’s the knock on them, but they did recently buck that trend.
I don’t think they’re a bad pick, but I think it’s smart to fade them vs. a top team.
Iowa State: Iowa State plays ridiculously fast (6th-quickest possessions in the nation), chucks up a lot of threes (60th-most, percentage-wise), but somehow takes incredible care of the ball. They are a strange team. They have 3-point shooting talent, but made just 31.8% (ew) in Big 12 play. If that continues, they probably won’t go far.
On defense, they’re susceptible to the three and don’t force turnovers, but they play solid 2PT defense. Most of their success came at home, but they bucked their regular-season trends and got hot from 3-point land in the Big 12 tourney and won the whole thing, impressively taking out Kansas St., Baylor and Kansas.
If they make their threes, they could easily make it out of this bracket. Given that I just mentioned Michigan State and Villanova’s susceptibility to threes, you never know. Then again, those teams can attack the Cyclones’ identical weakness.
They’re an interesting longshot pick, but they’re a longshot pick.
Recommended Pick: Villanova
Safe Pick: Michigan State
Ballsy Pick: Iowa State
Don’t Pick: Virginia
First Round Upsets?
First-round upsets are mainly important for bragging rights, unless your pool awards points for upsets, which is dumb.
DON’T PICK: Delaware, St. Joseph’s.
If you pick Delaware in the first round, you better be real damn sure about it, because there’s a good chance your entire bracket pool will have Michigan State coming out of this region. You’ll lose a bajillion points if that happens. It’s not worth it.
As for St. Joseph’s, they could easily win in round 1, but I don’t think they match up well with Villanova, and I think UConn does. I don’t see them going more than one round. I could see UConn doing that, so I think they’re the smarter pick. (Then again, if you’re gonna pick ‘Nova anyway, I guess it’s not horrible to pick St. Joseph’s. But… just saying.)
OBVIOUS PICK: Harvard.
I’m not personally picking Harvard, but they are an obvious and smart upset pick. They’re just 3-point underdogs and they’re quite good. Also, Cincy will be still be a relatively big underdog to Michigan State, so whiffing on the upset likely won’t hurt you in later rounds.
BALLSY PICK: NC Central.
I’m not picking them, because I think Iowa State is a threat to go deep in the tournament and I think this is a horrible matchup for NC Central. But they have some crazy defensive numbers (5th in EFG% defense and 5th in opponent TO%), so they’re capable of scaring a team. (The Cyclones are unlikely to be that team unless they take their opponent for granted.)
My ballsiest pick here is picking no upsets, which does occasionally happen.
Picks Against The Spread
I am picking every NCAA Tournament game against the spread, because why not and because you can make fun of me when I prove how hard it is to pick lots of sports matches. (I am not betting on all of these games, though, because I’m not a moron.)
Iowa State -8.5
The region of chalk, I say!
Any actual bets? Probably not putting my money where my mouth is here.
Disagree? Let’s discuss.