Picking the Perfect Bracket, First Round

While there are only two teams with an AdjEM over 30, the middle of this tournament is stacked.


Now that the bracket has been revealed, let’s apply the past analysis and pick the perfect bracket.  However, this is probably the worst year to try to do so.  A record number of teams have an adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM) of 23 or higher (17), 22 or higher (24), and 20 or higher (26).  While there are only two teams with an AdjEM over 30, the middle of this tournament is stacked.

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite matchup: the 5 v. 12 seed.  Each of the four matchups are mid-major underdogs versus power favorites, which you may recall means a 28% success rate.  So we need to find and pick just one 5-12 upset this year.  While I was ready to pen UNC Wilmington into the second round, their draw with Virginia is brutal.  While the game is set to be played in Florida, a known hotspot for 5/12 seed upsets, over 800 miles away from the Virginia campus, a win by the Seahawks would be a record-setting upset.  No 12 seed has ever defeated a 5 seed with more than a 15 point differential between defenses.  UNC-W has an 18 point differential in defense.  Iowa St. is better than Nevada in both offense and defense so we go chalk there.

I see good arguments for both Princeton and Middle Tennessee.  Princeton has a location advantage, with Notre Dame traveling 440 miles and into a huge winter storm.  Princeton has a better defense but there is a significant 9 point difference in offense.  However, this would not be a unique upset. Nine 12 seed upsets had a better defense and over an eight point difference on offense.  So, it can be done if Notre Dame starts cold.  Middle Tennessee, on the other hand, has a better offense than the favorite, which over half of 12 seed upsets had.  And the difference on defense is only four points.  Working against the Blue Raiders is the location: Minnesota only has to travel 334 miles.  Only one other 5 seed lost closer to home since 2002.  Middle Tennessee also has the advantage of winning last year against a harder opponent with a weaker team.  Let’s side with Kermit Davis Jr. and see which new job he ends up at next year.

Moving on to possibly bigger upsets, we have 13, 14, and 15 seeds that’ll need to be unbalanced offense vs. defense against other unbalanced teams with an AdjEM over 5.5, over rank 105, in a relatively good conference, and with a defense ranking better than 145.  The defense qualifier removes Troy, Jacksonville St., Northern Kentucky, and Florida Gulf Coast.  The AdjEM qualifier takes care of North Dakota, Kent St., Winthrop (despite temptation to overlook this qualifier), and Iona.  Vermont is balanced playing a balanced Purdue (let alone that it is a terrible matchup considering that Vermont beats people inside, which Purdue has an incredible counter for) and Bucknell is balanced as well.

That leaves us with New Mexico St. and East Tennessee St.  Even though Bucknell and Vermont are better teams than NM St., they don’t meet the unbalanced profile that has historically succeeded.  Unfortunately for NM St., their opponent may be too balanced as Baylor only has a 8 rank difference between offense and defense.  On the other side of E Tenn St. is… an unbalanced Florida!  All qualifications are met for this matchup.  Just under half of all tournaments in the kenpom era have had either zero or one 13, 14, or 15 seed upsets.  So I feel confident in sticking with only one major upset, especially considering how good the top 26 teams in this tournament are.

On to 11 seeds.  6-11 games have proven tough to predict in the past.  Most 6 seed losers also had a loss over to a team ranked over 100 in kenpom on their resume.  Maryland meets that criteria (loss to 107th ranked Nebraska at home) and will be under-ranked against Xavier.  Easy choice there.  Creighton’s worst loss was to a team ranked 68.  After Maurice Watson’s injury, the Bluejays could be a trendy pick against a preseason top 25 Rhode Island team.  But Creighton has still played well and I don’t like Rhode Island’s weak 3 point and free throw shooting.  USC and Providence will have a nice game in the First Four but either of them winning would be one of the worst 11 seeds to win.  Kansas St. and Wake Forest are very intriguing options.  However, Wake Forest would have the worst defense of any 11 seed victor in the past decade and Cincinnati would set a new standard for a 6 seed losing in the first round with their worst regular season loss to a team ranked 67.

Now for 7-10 and 8-9 matchups, we should err on the side of the better team in adjusted efficiency margin (71% correct).  Look for AdjEM upsets in 7-10 matchups where the difference in rank is less than 8 and there is a match with the favorite on offense or defense.  8-9 upsets can be a bit more dramatic but are usually because the underdog is better in offense or defense.

Saint Mary’s and Wichita St. are easy favorites.  South Carolina is all defense and Marquette is underranked and all offense.  We’ll go with the AdjEM favorite but 10 seed Marquette.  The last 7-10 is Michigan versus Oklahoma St.  Here, we see an underdog matching the favorite in offense and only three ranks separating the teams.  We’ll go with the upset Oklahoma St., which will also provide us with a tournament champion losing to go with a recent trend and an overall AdjEM upset.

The 8-9 games feature two matchups with defensive minded teams (Vanderbilt-Northwestern, and Miami-Michigan St.).  We’ll look to the other two matchups for upsets.  Seton Hall played well in a tough Big East while Arkansas thrived in a sub-par SEC.  More importantly, Seton Hall is a tough, defensive team against an opposite focus, offensive Arkansas.  Lastly is Wisconsin versus Virginia Tech.  Wisconsin is ranked 21 spots better and only three 8-9, 7-10 matchups included a victory by an underdog worse than 20 spots.  However, the Badgers struggle defending the three and the Hokies shoot 40.3%, 9th best in the nation from three.

That gives us nine underdog wins by seed and by AdjEM.  It may be a good idea to consider some variance with Bucknell, New Mexico St., Princeton, Kansas St., and Rhode Island.  Picking all of them would equal 14 upsets by AdjEM and would match last year’s total, although that was two higher upsets than any other year.  Nine would be on the low end but is tied for the most likely number of upsets by AdjEM.


How Sweet It Is

Picking the top four teams to the Sweet 16 has only been right 7 times.

Picking the top four teams to the Sweet 16 has only been right 7 times, just over 10% of tournament regions since 2002.  Only about half of the top 25 kenpom teams and those teams with an adjusted efficiency margin over 25 survive the first weekend.

But if you are looking for major upsets, you should focus on the bottom half of each region.  1 seeds have only lost to eight 8/9 seeds since 2002.  Only two 12 seeds have beaten a 4 seed.  It is much more sensible to focus on a 2 seed and a 3 seed to fall early.

Indeed, in the last seven tournaments, seven 2 seeds and seven 3 seeds have lost in the second round.  2 seeds typically are those teams who did not win their power conference regular season title but won the conference tournament or vice versa.  They are the almost-perfects, the elite but not the best.

In preparing for this post and this entire exercise of making a perfect bracket, nothing was as shocking as this factoid.  In the last 15 years, there have been 14 2-seeds that won a power conference tournament – not a single one lost a second round game.  Now, obviously, 2012 Missouri and 2016 Michigan St., conference tournament winners in their own right, lost in the first round in unexpected fashion.  But if you see a conference tournament winner, pen them into the Sweet 16.

Conversely, 7-10 upsets have come from mid-major conference tournament winners or teams that lost in their conference’s semis or finals.  Only two 7-10 upsets came from a team that lost earlier than the semis since 2002: 2011 Florida St., which lost in the quarters by 1, and 2016 Wisconsin, which lost its first game and won over Xavier on a buzzer beater.

3 seeds versus 6 or 11 seeds are a bit more unpredictable.  Some 3 seeds seem so vulnerable, it feels like they should lose, but they don’t: like 2013 Florida, which went 1-7 in “A” rated games according to kenpom, or 2015 Oklahoma, which had two losses to teams that finished the year ranked 80th or worse in adjusted efficiency margin.  Other 3 seeds seem so strong, they should not lose but did: 2014 Creighton which had no bad or “B” rated losses.  Only about 62% of 3-6 matchups since 2002 resulted in the better team on kenpom winning.  Add in 11 seeds and that percentage barely rises to 67%.  Good, but we need more data.

The only consistent trend that I can see comes from a smaller sample size.  Of the last seven 3 seeds to have fallen, only one lost to defensively focused opponent – an over-ranked 2012 Florida St. team.

Next up is the seemingly trickier 4-5 matchup.  In looking at the data, picking the favorite in kenpom works more often than not and when it doesn’t, it has usually been because the underdog’s defense or offense was better (numbers favor defense slightly more).  Very rarely did I see an underdog 4 or 5 beat a similarly composited opponent.  Beyond that, it becomes tough call.  However, keep in mind that about half of all regions since 2002 have involved a second round matchup that wasn’t a 4-5 seed affair.  Selecting a 12 or 13 seed to win the first round game should make this second round choice easier.

Finally, we have 1’s versus 8’s and 9’s.  As stated near the top of this post, this type of upset is pretty rare but it used to be rarer.  Five 8/9-1 seed upsets have occurred since 2010.  Compare that to 2005-2009 when there were four straight tournaments without a second round upset of a 1 seed.  Three of recent upset winners were mid-majors, three offensive-focused, four out of five were in their conference tournament final, all five ranked in the top 45 teams, all five played an opponent rated 7th overall or better with a top 15 offense in kenpom, and all five had at least eight “A” or “B” ranked wins.  So while it is unlikely that a 1 seed will fall, it has been happening consistently as of late.  Another loss in the second round this year would solidify this type of upset as something that has to be included in a perfect bracket attempt going forward.