Thursday, March 20, 2014

NCAA Tournament: Day 1 Preview

The tournament kicks off today - who are the favorites?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

The NCAA Tournament technically started Tuesday night with the first two play-in games. But those games really don't matter. Even after VCU advanced to the Final Four as a play-in winner in 2011. The odds of that happening again (if only because the odds of winning five games in a row as a No. 11 or No. 12 seed as opposed to four in a row) are astronomically low. Especially this year when the play-in teams are, well, not very good. But I digress.

The NCAA Tournament REALLY starts today. There are 16 games, with each region and each seed represented. A few games have upset potential, a few games have blowout potential. Let's start to break them down:

Most Likely To Be An Upset (11 Seed or Higher):

1. Harvard over Cincinnati
2. Dayton over Ohio State
3. North Dakota State over Oklahoma

Harvard over Cincinnati seems to be a popular pick. Other than Wichita State from the Missouri Valley Conference on the No. 1 line, Harvard is the highest-ranked team from any conference with only one representative, meaning they're better than the usual low-seed automatic-qualifier fodder like Coastal Carolina (Big South), American (Patriot League), or Cal Poly (Big West). Meanwhile, Cincinnati comes from the weakest of the "power conferences," the American Athletic Conference, which finished closer in cumulative SRS ratings to the Mountain West Conference than to the Big XII. On top of that, Harvard pulled an upset in Round 1 last year, beating New Mexico.

Ohio State might be the most vulnerable team seeded 4-6 in Round 1, losing to Penn State and Indiana in the last week of the regular season, then barely squeezing by Purdue and Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament, so they get lumped in by proxy. Dayton probably isn't the team to take them down, but keep an eye out.

North Dakota State has also been a popular upset pick, but it's mostly been because of the alleged over-seeding of Oklahoma. Even though the Sooners finished second in the Big XII during the regular season, they're seen as not being quite as good as Iowa State, Baylor, or Oklahoma State, and there is some argument there - even though Oklahoma out-performed them in the regular season, those three teams have higher ceilings with more NBA talent, which could be a harbinger for tournament success. If you think Oklahoma doesn't deserve their No. 5 seed, you might pick against them.

Most Likely To Be a Blowout:

1. Florida over Albany
2. Michigan over Wofford
3. Louisville over Manhattan

The first two are obvious choices - No. 1 seeds have an average margin of victory in Round 1 over 20 points, and No. seeds aren't too far behind them.

Louisville isn't a top seed, but they should be. SRS ranks them as the best overall team in the country despite a strength of schedule that leaves something to be desired. Manhattan, meanwhile, despite having been a sleeper upset pick before the bracket was released (and had they been slotted against a different No. 4 seed, like UCLA or San Diego State, might have been a popular upset pick), ranks just 95th in the country in SRS, some 20 points worse than Louisville.

Players to Watch:

1. Gary Harris, Michigan State
2. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
3. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida

Harris is the only one with real NBA potential (Napier is projected as a late second-round pick, Wilbekin won't get drafted unless he has an insane tournament run), but all three are game-changers at the college level. Napier, like Kemba Walker before him, has the potential to lead his team deeper into the tournament than any expected simply by converting ridiculous shots at opportune moments. Harris is the best player of the group, and serves as the fulcrum for an elite team that is finally healthy and playing at their best. Wilbekin has the least raw talent of the three, but he's a senior, incredibly smart, and is Florida's only player capable of creating a good shot late in the clock. If Florida is going to make the Final Four, Wilbekin will need to get them there. 

Today's Picks:

12:15 PM: (6) Ohio State over (11) Dayton
12:40 PM: (2) Wisconsin over (15) American
1:40 PM: (9) Pittsburgh over (8) Colorado
2:10 PM: (12) Harvard over (5) Cincinnati
2:45 PM: (3) Syracuse over (14) Western Michigan
3:10 PM: (7) Oregon over (10) BYU
4:10 PM: (1) Florida over (16) Albany
4:40 PM: (4) Michigan State over (13) Delaware
6:55 PM: (7) Connecticut over (10) St. Joseph's
7:10 PM: (2) Michigan over (15) Wofford
7:20 PM: (5) St. Louis over (12) NC State
7:27 PM: (5) Oklahoma over (12) North Dakota State
9:25 PM: (2) Villanova over (15) Milwaukee
9:40 PM: (7) Texas over (10) Arizona State
9:50 PM: (4) Louisville over (13) Manhattan
9:57 PM: (4) San Diego State over (13) New Mexico State

Full Picks

Just so I have them on record, here are all of my picks

Round of 32:

Florida, Pittsburgh, Stephen F. Austin, UCLA, Ohio State, Syracuse, New Mexico, Kansas (South Region), Virginia, Memphis, Harvard, Michigan State, Providence, Iowa State, Connecticut, Villanova (East Region), Arizona, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, San Diego State, Baylor, Creighton, Oregon, Wisconsin (West Region), Wichita State, Kentucky, St. Louis, Louisville, Tennessee, Duke, Texas, Michigan (Midwest Region)

Sweet 16: 

Florida, UCLA, Syracuse, Kansas, Virginia, Michigan State, Iowa State, Connecticut, Arizona, Oklahoma, Creighton, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Louisville, Duke, Michigan

Elite Eight: 

Florida, Kansas, Michigan State, Iowa State, Arizona, Creighton, Louisville, Duke

Final Four:

Florida over Michigan State
Louisville over Arizona

Louisville over Florida

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