Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Finding A Sleeper

Every year since sixth grade and the vaunted Hardyston Elementary Sports History Club, I've watched the Selection Sunday show and filled out the blank bracket clipped from the Newark Star-Ledger. Then either that night or the day after I would quickly fill up my bracket with what I felt were my "gut" picks to advance. More often than not I'd end up with too many top seeds winning too many games, and later in the week I'd adjust my predictions to include some educated guesses at upsets. I've never won any NCAA pool (for entertainment purposes only) and normally by the first Friday's late games I'm rooting hard for every upset ever, since I'll inevitably have lost a few elite eight teams already.

This year is no different. I look at Duke's bracket (the West) and my "gut" picks had every top seed advancing to the second round. My only regional semifinal team outside the top four is Duke. Outside of the blatant homerism, I don't think the rest of the bracket was too bad: a #1 (Kansas), two #2s (G-town, Wisconsin) and a #3 (Texas A&M) in the Final Four. Since then I've made my usual changes during the week- I'm no longer convinced Wisconsin can beat Florida without Brian Butch. But my Sweet 16 teams have not changed. With that in mind, I'm going to make like a professor during a macroeconomics lecture and find me a sleeper.

There are many definitions for this elusive "sleeper." One is strictly seed-based: if a team seeded eighth or lower wins two games, that's guaranteed narcolepsy. There are a few, however, that defy this defnition, when the mainstream media has annointed its picks for sleepy-head and the higher seeded team comes out and whomps the Cinderella story back to its mid-major roots.

This year the sexy pick is Winthrop, for reasons I'm not sure I understand. I watched exactly one Winthrop game all season, and they were in a tough battle with VMI- the same VMI that is dead last in the nation in scoring defense and defensive efficiency, the same VMI that Winthrop beat 109-96 and 108-76 earlier this season. Judging a team based on one game is dangerous, of course, but many are picking this team to knock off Notre Dame and Oregon. This seems to be based entirely on their strength of schedule, which includes a seven point loss at North Carolina, an eleven point loss at Maryland, a three point loss at Wisconsin, and a twenty point loss at Texas A&M. Kudos to whoever scheduled those games, but in the end you actually have to beat at least one of those teams (the later in the season, the better) to gain my respect. Sure, they shoot the ball well (54.8 eFG) and they grab defensive rebounds well (7th in nation), so anything could happen- but at this point, Notre Dame winning on Friday would be considered an upset to many people. Winthrop is fully awake at this point.

Looking over the other double-digit seeds, Georgia Tech stands out. More semi-homerism, as an ACC fan, but the statistics back me up. Other than Duke (6th seed, 10th overall on Pomeroy), the Yellow Jackets are one of the most underseeded teams according to Pomeroy (10th seed, 14th overall on Pomeroy). Unlike Duke, whose lower seed seems to be the result of streaky performance and godawful defense at the end of the season, Georgia Tech knocked off UNC and Boston College in its final regular season games. There is no overarching trend that suggests that Georgia Tech's Pomeroy rating is inflated due to blowouts early in the season. Once again, any team that shoots like Georgia Tech (54.6 eFG) should not be counted out; unlike Winthrop, Georgia Tech's rebounding strength is on its own glass (41.3 ORB%, 4th in nation). When their defense is clicking (14.1% steal rate, 5th in nation), they can beat anyone. This includes an overrated UNLV team and a wounded Wisconsin.

Yeah, I know. You don't want a BCS conference team to be your Cinderella. You want a George Mason, a Gonzaga circa 1999, a Weber State. Well unfortunately I have some bad news for you in that department: the mid-majors aren't very good this year. They only got six at-large bids from those conferences, a combination of the top teams winning their conference tourneys and the rest of their leagues being awful. Two teams that might get low seeds and surprise people in previous years- Butler and Southern Illinois, were rewarded with high seeds. It will be easier for the Salukis to get past Holy Cross and the VT/Illinois winner than for Butler to get past ODU and Maryland/Davidson.

One pod to perhaps look out for is the one that includes Virignia/Albany and Tennessee/Long Beach State. As Pomeroy pointed out when the brackets were released, no other pod has all four teams so outrageously overseeded. The committee rewarded UVA for its ACC regular season acheivement, but when they said they looked at unbalanced conference schedules, they lied in the Cavaliers' case. UVA played a schedule that was two standard deviations easier than that of Duke and UNC. Tennessee, meanwhile, is your typical underacheiving SEC team. The two lower seeds are two of the worst teams in the tournament. Long Beach State's best wins came in a season sweep over CalTech, ranked 156th overall. Albany wasn't much better, knocking off Bucknell (111th) in its season opener, and then Vermont (151st) in the conference tourney title game, after losing to Vermont twice in the regular season. However, it is entirely possible that one of them upsets a weak UVA or Tennesee team and finds themselves in the sweet sixteen (and a grand old time against Ohio State).

The other media darling I keep hearing about is Oral Roberts. OMG THEY BEAT KANSAS!!!! Yeah. Let's ask Santa Clara's 2005 team what beating a powerhouse (UNC) in November means in the long run. Like Winthrop, their strong strength of schedule is also filled with losses- at Georgetown (73-58), at Arkansas (68-56), at BYU (72-62). Reviewing their Pomeroy stats, I have the following positive things to say about Oral Roberts: they get to the free throw line well (7th in nation, though they only shoot 71% once there), and they avoid getting blocked (5.8% of all offensive possessions, 4th in nation). Well, Washington State (with 6-10/240 Robbie Cowgill) is no Oakland (tallest player- 6-7), so they can expect some blocks in the first round. If you're unconvinced by WSU, perhaps they could sneak by Vanderbilt in the second round, and would probably be favored against a fairly weak GWU.

Getting back to the power conferences, there are some sleepers among the 8-9 teams. Kentucky and Villanova have both been erratic this season, but either of them could take down a strong, yet beatable Kansas team. Arizona is not a team to be counted out of a potential second round matchup with Florida. I can see a lot of brackets going down on Saturday and Sunday night should the top seeds fall- once again, not your typical definition of Sleeper, but they are definitely drowsy, and unexpected.

If I had to make a (vague) prediction, it would be this: of the 16 teams winning both games this weekend, no fewer than 14 will be from BCS conferences. One could come from Maryland's pod, simply because the Terrapins are outnumbered 3-to-1 by mid-majors. After that, SIU has a tough road, and the other mid-majors have two upsets to deal with. Perhaps one could come from the weak UVA pod, or the WSU pod (if the media's enthusiasm of Oral Roberts and George Washington is to be believed) . Still, I would not be surprised if only power conference teams remain after this weekend. So put that in your mid-major pipe and smoke it.

All this sleeper talk makes me want to take a nap.

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