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.


If the Shoe Fits…

11 seed upsets are becoming more frequent and are enjoying greater success.

While 12-5 upset picks are chic first round affairs, picking an 11 seed to make it beyond the second round is starting to become a trend.  George Mason kicked off the party with a Final Four run to remember in 2006, followed by VCU’s improbable 2011 campaign, and Dayton’s 2014 Elite 8 appearance that elevated Archie Miller to “coach rumored for every job opening” status.  Still, only 19 have made it to the Sweet 16 and 46 out of 128 (35.9%) have won a first round game.  However, eight 11 seeds have made it to the Sweet 16 since 2010, one more appearance than 6 seeds, and more than half (15 of 28) won first round games.  So 11 seed upsets are becoming more frequent and are enjoying greater success.

So let’s analyze the 11 seed in greater detail and try to figure out which teams are thriving in this position.  Since 2010, seven power conference teams won from the 11 slot while eight mid-majors won.  It should be noted that most mid-major winners were teams that found past success in the tournament (Gonzaga, VCU, Dayton, Wichita St., and Northern Iowa).  Yet, of the eight 11 seeds that advanced to the Sweet 16, five were power teams.

There is very little consistency  when looking at advanced stats.  Offensive-focused teams (like Marquette 2011 and Gonzaga 2016) are just as likely as defensive teams (see Old Dominion 2010 and Wichita St. 2016) to win.  And against opponents, there is a lot of noise with no clear trends in a particular type of 6 seed that is susceptible to upsets.  Unless you look at the schedule.

Of the 15 11-6 upsets since 2010, all but three occurred against a 6 seed with a bad loss on their resume.  These bad losses include those against a team ranked post-tourney in kenpom over 100 in adjusted efficiency margin. All three that did not have such a loss did lose against teams ranked post-tourney at 69, 73, and 80.  One of those was an SMU team that should have won on a blown call at the buzzer, an Ohio St. shocked by pesky, in-state combatant, Dayton, and Arizona team destroyed by a grossly under-seeded Wichita St.  12 of 15 upsets with a trend is good news for our perfect bracket efforts, and we can add in some x-factor to account for the others.

Finally, there is something else unique about the 11 seed in recent years.  The First Four has provided seven 11 seeds with a warm-up game to get tournament anxiety out of the way.  More than half (VCU, Tennessee, Dayton, and Wichita St.) won their first round game.  While the sample size is small, the early returns require careful consideration of an 11 seed fresh off a First Four victory.

Although their matchups with 6 seeds seem unpredictable and there is admittedly some “gut” feeling that needs to be applied, 11 seeds can and have found their way with 6 seeds who were victims of bad losses in the regular season.

As to the second round, six 11 seeds have defeated 3 seeds and two 11 seeds defeated 14 seeds en route to the Sweet 16 since 2010.  Of the victories against 3 seeds, Gonzaga and Washington were underrated and started the tournament with a better adjusted efficiency margin rank than their second round opponents; and Dayton, NC State, Marquette, and VCU were  offensive teams playing defense-first 3’s.

Going further to the Sweet 16, an 11 seed has only won six times ever.  Since 1990, an 11 seed victory has only occurred because of other upsets that left them playing a 7 or 10 seed.  A perfect bracket will likely not include an 11 seed to the elite 8 considering how unlikely and uncommon it is.  But if other factors lead one to choosing between an 11 and a 7/10, then maybe it is time for Cinderella to put on her slippers again.