Although millions of Americans do it, filling out a March Madness tournament bracket and seeing it hold up to the results of the tourney is one of the most difficult challenges you will take on in your life, perhaps the greatest.
The nature of a single-elimination tournament is one that encourages chaos, successful underdogs, and general mayhem. Projecting how a seemingly random series of events will play out when there are so many variables at play seems impossible.
But unlike some great challenges in life, this one is pretty fun so we like to try it anyways.
To help you undertake this great endeavor we’ve brought aboard basketball writer Jonathan Tjarks to parse through all the brackets, teams, and match-ups to help visualize the shining moments that will occur over the next few weeks.
Tjarks writes on college and pro basketball for Real GM, the Cauldron, and at his own site “The Pattern of basketball.” He authored an ebook by that same title on how college players adapt to the NBA along with specific comments about the main prospects in the 2014 draft.
With his intuitive understanding of how basketball works and detailed knowledge of the main actors in the Madness play about to unfold for our viewing pleasure, he’s a fantastic resource for learning how to discern what will ultimately determine the order of events in the NCAA tournament. We’ve asked him a few questions to help you share in his knowledge and perhaps finally win a bracket pool.
You often hear that the tournament often comes down to “seeding” or “guard play” but what do think are the dominant factors that dictate what happens in the tourney?
Tjarks: The Tournament is really a test of how good a basketball team you are and how quickly your coach can think on his feet. It’s like the NBA playoffs but in fast forward because there’s only one game so you have to make adjustments on the fly. A good example of that is the NCAA championship game between UConn and Kentucky last year – Kevin Ollie and John Calipari adjusted their line-ups 3-4x over the course of the game in order to match up with each other. What each coach is trying to do is find the line-up that can work on offense and on defense against the other team and what that comes down too is the composition of their roster.
Guard play is important but so is what happens on the wings and in the post. It’s all connected. As a rule, the best teams are going to have good players at all 5 positions. People want to point at Shabazz Napier as putting the team on his back last season but they don’t win a title without Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Amidah Brimah. All those guys played huge roles on that team. So the first thing you are looking for with all these NCAA teams is whether they have holes at any position. That usually comes down to size and speed – do you have a center who can guard 6’10 guys? A PF who can guard 6’8 guys? A SF who can guard 6’6 guys? Etc. If you don’t, you are eventually going to run into one of those kind of players in the Tourney.
Where coaching comes into play is in how you structure your team to minimize your weaknesses and maximize your opponents. One of the things that Kevin Ollie did really effectively is slide DeAndre Daniels around over the course of the Tourney. If he was going up against a team that didn’t have a big C, he’d slide Daniels to the 5 and open up the floor for everyone else. If he was going up against a team with a ton of size, he could bring in big men and move him to the 3. There are some coaches who aren’t as flexible – guys like Rick Barnes and Jim Boeheim – and they don’t tend to do as well in the Tourney.
Of course, all that said, UConn had to survive an OT game against St. Joe’s in the first round. If the ball had bounced a few different ways in that game, we’d be telling a very different story about the Tourney. Most champions can usually point back to one or two games where luck was on their side. The domino effect is what makes the Tourney so unpredictable – once you miss a prediction in the first round it cascades through the rest of your bracket. There’s usually somewhere between 5-10 teams with a realistic shot at winning it all. However, each of those teams usually has flaws that could be exposed if they face the wrong type of match-up. That’s where seeding comes into play.
The thing to remember is that while there’s some element of luck in every team’s season there are still a lot of general trends that tend to play out over the course of the Tourney. The teams with more size upfront and more speed on the perimeter are going to advance. The smaller conferences are going to be lucky to get 1-2 teams through to the 2nd weekend. Anyone who isn’t a national power from a major conference is unlikely to make it to the 3rd. The Tourney is a really fascinating combination of game theory and basketball played out in real time and it’s easily my favorite thing in sports.
Based on those factors, which teams are best set up to go deep in the 2015 tournament?
Tjarks: It’s all about Kentucky this season. I don’t think John Calipari gets nearly enough credit for the type of program that he has built at Lexington. He likes to pretend that he is just rolling the ball on the floor and letting his superior talent win out but he’s really a sophisticated operator who knows exactly what he is doing. Calipari is a lot like Kevin Ollie in that he’s an NBA coach at the NCAA level. What that means is he’s thinking personnel first. He’s not trying to out scheme you so much as out personnel you because that’s a way more effective way to win.
If you look at his five teams in Lexington, with the notable exception of the NIT team in 2013, they are all really well put together rosters. It’s not quite as simple as gathering as many 5-stars as you can. You need guys whose games fit together. Kentucky tends to have size and athleticism at every position, enough shooting to space the floor and 1-on-1 scorers at interior positions – DeMarcus Cousins in 2010, Terrence Jones in 2011, Julius Randle in 2013, Karl Towns in 2014. Cal is the ultimate combination – he’s a great GM and a flexible coach. That’s why he has gone 18-3 in the NCAA Tournament at Kentucky.
As crazy as it sounds, this year’s team is even more talented and more well put together than its predecessors. They have two elite 7’0 who will go in the lottery – Karl Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein. Then they have two elite shooters on the perimeter in Ulis and Booker to spread the floor and a whole grab bag of McDonald’s All-Americans they can throw into the 5th spot, depending on the match-ups. Upront, they are bigger, faster and more skilled than any frontcourt duo Cal has ever had and that includes DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson in 2010 and Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones in 2012.
There’s just no real way to match up with a team with that type of size, athleticism and shooting ability. That’s why they are 34-0. If they can go undefeated, they are going to go down as one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport. You can’t really compare them with the Runnin Rebels of the early 90’s and the UCLA teams of the early 60’s because they are so much younger, but being the first team to do something in 40 years speaks for itself. All that said, I could see a scenario where they lose. It should be really fun to watch them although it doesn’t seem like they could get a major push until the Elite Eight or the Final 4.
Who’s your favorite cinderella pick to make unexpected noise in this tournament?
Tjarks: I generally try to catch most of the Championship Week games in order to get a rough feel for possible Cinderellas. What I’m looking for more than anything else is the composition of the roster. Does this team have the size to compete with the big boys? The shooting to stretch the floor? The perimeter playmaking to trade buckets with high-level scorers on the other team? The team defense to corral an elite player and prevent him from taking over a game? Very rarely are you going to see a mid-major or a low-major team hit all those checkmarks but you want to see them hit as many as possible and then you wait to see what type of match-up they got in the first round.
One team that jumped out to me over the weekend was Buffalo. They won a tight MAC championship game against Central Michigan in one of the more entertaining games of the week. Both those teams had size, athleticism and shooting and they knew how to play basketball. You can’t convince me it was all that less competitive than what was going on in the Missouri Valley Conference. The difference is that the MAC is way more competitive so teams can’t compile gaudy won loss records like Wichita and Northern Iowa. I’m not saying Buffalo is better than those teams but I’m not sure they are worse either.
What you have to remember about all these team statistical profiles is that teams carefully massage their schedules to make themselves look better than they really are. A team from the MAC has almost no chance of getting a home game against anyone from a high-major conference and they aren’t usually invited to the big-time non-conference tourneys – so how are they going to rack up the RPI points that boost up the rest of their conference? The MAC is the type of conference that only gets one bid regardless of whether or not they deserve multiple ones.
Buffalo’s first round opponent is West Virginia, which is a perfect example of a high-major team that may not be all its billed up too. All of West VA’s best wins came in Morgantown because every team in the Big 12 had to go through there. If all those teams had to play at Buffalo, Buffalo might have some signature wins too. West VA didn’t play all that well on the road because they aren’t all that talented this season and they can’t dictate tempo without their raucous home crowd and the way it influences the officials.
They are probably still more talented but my guess is the gap is smaller than most assume. There’s not really any NBA prospects on West VA – maybe Juwan Staten and he’s been hurt for most of the season. Buffalo’s big men go 6’7 240 and 6’7 210 so they shouldn’t get pushed around. Their guards are 6’3 – 6’3 – 6’1 but they have shooting, handling and passing in that bunch and West VA’s guards aren’t super tall either. Overachieving high-major teams without a lot of elite NBA talent are always threats to get upset early.
Who’s the most likely candidate to give Kentucky difficulty and challenge for the title?
Tjarks: I think the game of the Tourney would probably be Arizona vs. Kentucky in the Final 4, but Arizona will have a pretty tough road to get there. It feels like the West is by far the toughest of the regionals b/c I would have picked Arizona and Wisconsin to get through either of the two regionals on the right side of the bracket. Baylor, the 3 seed in that region, could give Arizona trouble because they have a ton of size upfront and they play a match-up zone which could expose the Wildcats iffy 3-point shooting. Sean Miller should still be able to figure something out and I don’t trust Scott Drew in a high-level chess match so that sets up a rematch of one of the best games of last year’s Tourney – Wisconsin’s Elite 8 win over Arizona.
The difference for Arizona this time around should be the presence of Brandon Ashley, who was out with a foot injury last season. He’s a stretch 4 who opens up the floor and allows their elite athletes – RHJ, Stanley Johnson – to try and take Wisconsin’s perimeter guys off the dribble. The ideal situation for Arizona would be repeatedly attacking Kaminsky at the rim and getting him in foul trouble. This is where Wisconsin would need to have a big game from Sam Dekker, whose had a somewhat underwhelming season as a junior and is their only guy who can run with RHJ and Johnson. Kaminsky did wreck Tarczewski in their match-up last year and that would be the main thing you were hanging your hat on if you were Wisconsin.
Where that would get them in trouble is if they had a rematch with Kentucky in the Final 4. It went down to the wire that year but that was with Kaminsky getting shut down by the Kentucky bigs. He doesn’t present any mismatch problems against Cauley-Stein and Towns so that takes away a huge portion of Wisconsin’s offense. Given how much better Kentucky is at shooting and taking care of the basketball this season, I don’t think the Kaminsky problem bodes well for Wisconsin in a rematch. Where Arizona has a chance is that the strength of their team is RHJ and Stanley Johnson at the wings because Kentucky isn’t that great on the perimeter.
Kentucky’s best SF is Trey Lyles, whose a 6’10 converted PF. He’s really good, but I’m not sure how he would do in a 1-on-1 match-up with guys like Stanley and RHJ. If you are drawing up the upset, it’s those two guys dominating the game athletically, speeding up the tempo and beating Kentucky in the open court. Think of it like an NCAA version of LeBron and Wade speeding up an NCAA version of the Memphis Grizzlies with two elite big men. Where I think Kentucky would still have the advantage is how skilled their size is. Arizona has big men, but they got no one who can handle Karl Towns.
If Kentucky gets by the Arizona-Wisconsin winner, I don’t think any of the other teams on the right side of the bracket can match up with them. I don’t think Villanova and Virginia have enough size and athleticism. I don’t trust Duke’s guards to defend well enough and I think Gonzaga’s big men would have the Kaminsky problem if they faced Kentucky. Kyle Wiltjer might be a Wooden Award candidate at Gonzaga but he’s a Kentucky transfer and he probably wouldn’t have seen the floor if he had stayed at Lexington. I always like the chances of a team with dominant big men and that’s what I think it’s going to come down too. No one really has the size to deal with Kentucky. A lot of NBA teams don’t. This is a special team and it’s going to be fun to watch them over the next few weeks.