In the short time between Selection Sunday and the Thursday tipoff of the NCAA tournament, there’s only a brief window when you can get up to speed on all things March Madness and make the best possible picks for your bracket. In that time, you’re going to hear a lot of opinions paraded around as facts. But here’s the thing about facts: there’s only one version.
So don’t fall for the spin or any “alternative facts” around some of these NCAA tournament teams, don’t let your bracket die in darkness! Instead, let Fancy Stats shine the righteous light of statistical truth on your tourney picks. Here are five talking points you shouldn’t buy into with your bracket.
Gonzaga is weak due to playing in the West Coast Conference
Gonzaga earned the top seed in the West after finishing the regular season with a 32-1 record, including a 74-56 win over St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference championship game, giving the Bulldogs their fifth straight WCC tournament title. But it is because they play in the WCC — just the 11th toughest in the nation, per Ken Pomeroy — that many will discount their NCAA tournament chances.
Less than half of participants (34.7 percent) in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge have Gonzaga moving on to the Final Four and they are the sixth choice in that pool to win it all.
Steering clear of Gonzaga because of their conference is a mistake. The Bulldogs led the nation in adjusted efficiency, outscoring opponents by 33.0 net points per 100 possessions after factoring in strength of schedule. That’s also the fourth-highest mark since 2002, the first year Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency data is available. The three teams ahead of them on the all-time list all went at least as far as the Final Four, with Kansas winning it all in 2008. Four of the six teams behind them made it to the Elite Eight or beyond.
Plus, Gonzaga, along with No. 1 North Carolina, has the easiest path to the Final Four, making them a good value pick for your bracket.
“Dunk City” is due for another upset
Florida Gulf Coast put its program on the map during the 2013 NCAA tournament, beating No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State before losing to No. 3 Florida 62-50, ending the greatest run of a No. 15 seed in March Madness history.
This year, the Eagles are a No. 14 seed, a slot that has beaten a No. 3 in four straight NCAA tournaments, but it is unlikely the streak extends to five.
This year’s Florida Gulf Coast squad plays at a slower pace (64.8 possessions per 40 minutes compared to 68.9 in 2013) and their three-point shooting — a key ingredient of their ’13 upsets — is not at the level you would expect from a team poised for an upset (34 percent).
According to Pomeroy’s rankings, Florida Gulf Coast has just a 14 percent chance at beating Florida State in the round of 64, slightly lower than the 18.2 percent of ESPN participants who have them penciled in for the upset.
Duke deserved a No. 1 seed
The Blue Devils have more top-25 RPI wins, more top-50 RPI wins and a 2-1 head-to-head record against No. 1 North Carolina, but got the No. 2 seed in the East along with the top team in the tournament, Villanova.
But this is where Duke belongs. According to the 68 rankings compiled by the Massey Ratings, Duke was the consensus No. 6 team in the country. Pomeroy had its adjusted efficiency (plus-25) as the 13th best in the nation, behind No. 3 Baylor and No. 6 SMU and slightly ahead of No. 7 Saint Mary’s.
Pomeroy rankings aren’t the end-all be-all of metrics, but it did predict future wins 70.8 percent of the time this season, seventh-best of all 68 rankings compiled by Massey. Duke’s a good team, but not clearly one of the top four in the field. Don’t feel compelled to put them in the Final Four.
Maryland is a first-round favorite
The Terrapins dropped seven of their final 11 games and enter the tournament with a plus-14.9 adjusted efficiency margin, the 43rd highest mark in the country. Seventeen teams with lower seeds had a higher adjusted efficiency this season, including No. 11 Wake Forest (plus-16.9), who had to win a First Four game (they didn’t) just to get into the field of 64.
The Terps’ efficiency ranking is also lower than that of the Musketeers. As a result, Xavier is the second-most likely double digit seed to make the round of 32 (49 percent), trailing only No. 10 Wichita State (69 percent).
Rookie coaches are bad bets
First-time jitters are to be expected, but research shows rookie coaches can be counted on in the NCAA tournament.
Since 2011, the first year the tournament expanded to a 68-team field, “legendary” coaches, those with more than 10 trips to the big dance and more than four runs to the Sweet 16 in their career, win the most games (0.489 per coach, per year) over expectations. Rookie coaches are the second best-performing group relative to expectations. Don’t be bashful about rolling with the rookies.