The best (and worst) value picks for the 2021 NCAA Tournament

No fancy intro here – just big, dumb stats stuff.

The values below are based off of the traditional bracket scoring of 1 point per Round of 64 win, 2 per Round of 32, 4 per Sweet Sixteen, 8 per Elite Eight, 16 per Final Four, and 32 for getting the champion right.

Round of 64

As a reminder, picks in this round are just one team against another; if one team is a great value pick, their opponent is a bad one. Pretty simple.

Best Values

(9) St. Bonaventure over (8) LSU (50.1% to advance/31.9% ESPN picks/+.182 expected points added). Only 31.9% of the public have picked the Bonnies, but St. Bonaventure is the KenPom favorite and, in my combined metrics, a 50.1% likely winner. Is this a safe pick? No, but it could be a huge first-round swing pick.

(11) Utah State over (6) Texas Tech (39.7% to advance/22% ESPN/+.177 EPA).

(13) North Texas over (4) Purdue (28.6% to advance/11% ESPN/+.176 EPA).

(10) Rutgers over (7) Clemson (53.6% to advance/39.3% ESPN/.143 EPA). I assume that this is some sort of weird college football residual affection for Clemson?

Worthy Moon Shots

(14) Eastern Washington over (3) Kansas (23.5% to advance/7.1% ESPN/+.164 EPA). No team in this bracket has less value than Kansas, to be honest, though I see this being more of an issue in the Round of 32 than here.

(14) Abilene Christian over (3) Texas (23.2% to advance/7.3% ESPN/+.159 EPA).

(13) Liberty over (4) Oklahoma State (26.1% to advance/14% ESPN/+.121 EPA).

(14) Colgate over (3) Arkansas (25.3% to advance/13.9% ESPN/+.114 EPA).

Round of 32

Best Values

(6) USC over either (3) Kansas or (14) Eastern Washington (44.6% to advance/24.9% ESPN/+.394 EPA). USC is well-rated in the metrics, would be a neutral-court favorite over both teams, and both were true before Kansas announced a starter would be out for at least the first weekend. As mentioned above, Kansas may be the single-worst value pick in this Tournament.

(6) BYU to the Sweet Sixteen (34.8% to advance/18.9% ESPN/+.318 EPA). I really do not like this pick, for the record. BYU is going to be very vulnerable in the first round. This is more of an anti-Texas pick, which will be explained later.

(8) Loyola Chicago over (1) Illinois (21.3% to advance/6.5% ESPN/+.296 EPA). Explained yesterday.

Teams to Avoid

(3) Kansas (36.8% to advance/68.2% ESPN/-.628 EPA). If you add Jalen Wilson back to these projections, Kansas is still the lowest-value pick of the first two rounds. They haven’t gotten above 19th in KenPom since Tennessee blew them out in late January, and the last time they actually played like a 3 seed (AKA, being ranked 9th-12th in KenPom) was January 9.

(3) Texas (41.9% to advance/70% ESPN/-.562 EPA). Texas has a really tough Round of 64 matchup and would either face BYU or a very good 11 seed in the next round. The Big 12 wasn’t quite as good this year as it has been the last several, and I think in general, the league’s being overvalued this March.

(4) Oklahoma State (38.2% to advance/59.4% ESPN/-.424 EPA). I promise this wasn’t all that intentional, but again, another Big 12 team to avoid. Oklahoma State never got higher than 30th in KenPom, which is the range for 8 seeds traditionally.

Sweet Sixteen

Best Values

This round isn’t quite as ripe as the others, to be honest. This is more of a round to avoid certain teams than to go all-in on some.

(6) USC (18.6% to advance/7.6% ESPN/+.44 EPA). Not a great value, to be honest, but it’s #1.

(8) Loyola Chicago (13% to advance/3% ESPN/+.389 EPA). 

(7) Connecticut (15.8% to advance/6.2% ESPN/+.384 EPA). I actually like this one, for what it’s worth.

(6) BYU (15.6% to advance/6.4% ESPN/+.367 EPA).

Teams to Avoid

(1) Baylor (50% to advance/70.1% ESPN/-.806 EPA). Baylor has to go through a really good 8/9 seed combo and either Purdue or Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen. Let me put it in perspective: Gonzaga actually does have 70% odds to advance. Baylor does not.

(1) Michigan (44% to advance/63.7% ESPN/-.79 EPA). This hurts, but no Livers is a real killer. If you haven’t watched them, Livers would pretty easily be the best player on Tennessee, for example.

(1) Illinois (51.1% to advance/69.1% ESPN/-.719 EPA). 

(3) Kansas (12.7% to advance/28.3% ESPN/-.626 EPA).

This team is actually lower than some others, but they required a shoutout: (2) Ohio State (43.7% to advance/57.6% ESPN/-.554 EPA). 

As well as this one: (2) Alabama (35.5% to advance/47.1% ESPN/-.462 EPA).

Elite Eight

Best Values

(2) Houston (31.3% to advance/15.3% ESPN/+1.28 EPA). This is our first >1 point value add of the Tournament and one of just four the entire way through. Two of the other three? Also Houston. I cannot believe the Cougars can be had at this “price,” if you will; they were in KenPom’s top 7 for basically the entire season and never wavered. There isn’t a realistic reason for Illinois to be receiving 53.9% of Final Four picks from this region when Houston would only be a one-point underdog on a neutral court.

(2) Iowa (20.9% to advance/14% ESPN/+.552 EPA). Iowa is up here simply because everyone is taking Gonzaga to the Final Four and further. Gonzaga has received an astounding 67.2% of ESPN user picks in this region, a full 13% higher than any other team in the field. I’m taking Gonzaga there myself, but there is real value in giving Iowa a shot if you’re in a bracket group of, say, 50+ people.

Teams to Avoid

(1) Illinois (31.7% to advance/53.9% ESPN/-1.773 EPA). Because Illinois has gotten hot at the right time, they’ve received the second-highest percentage of Final Four picks in the field. This is a lot for a team that has a negative turnover margin, ranks 235th in FT%, and has been the serious beneficiary of an opponent cold streak from three over their seven-game win streak (expected 3PT% 35.7%; actual, 29.7%). Illinois is a wonderful team, but they aren’t a lock to even get to the Sweet Sixteen given that they may be playing the ninth-ranked team in KenPom in the Round of 32.

(1) Baylor (33.6% to advance/50.1% ESPN/-1.32 EPA). Baylor’s struggles as of recent are probably overblown, but they kind of quietly received a real bummer of a draw. In the Round of 32, the Bears either have to face KenPom’s #10 team (Wisconsin) or the #28 team (North Carolina) that’s risen 14 spots in the last three weeks. The Sweet Sixteen opponent is likely either Purdue (#13 KenPom) or Villanova (#12). Lastly, they’d likely have to get past #7 Ohio State to make the Final Four. That’s as many as three Top 12 opponents in four games, which is a huge ask for pretty much any team. It’s like having to beat a 3 seed three straight times despite playing an 8, a 5, and a 2.

(1) Michigan (28.3% to advance/42% ESPN/-1.093 EPA). This is entirely based on the Livers injury. If he were available, Michigan would actually be the best value pick of any 1 seed.

(3) Texas (7.8% to advance/15.1% ESPN/-.583 EPA). Lowest value pick of any non-1 seed.

Final Four

Best Values

(2) Houston (19% to advance/7% ESPN/+1.919 EPA). The second-highest value by any team in any round.

(2) Iowa (13.1% to advance/7.6% ESPN+.879 EPA).

Teams to Avoid

(1) Illinois (19.8% to advance/30.6% ESPN/-1.722 EPA). 

(1) Baylor (19.4% to advance/29.6% ESPN/-1.629 EPA).

Champions

Best Values

(2) Houston (9.5% to win/2.5% ESPN/+2.229 EPA).

(2) Iowa (7.9% to win/3.4% ESPN/+1.426 EPA).

Way down the board, but still worthy of consideration in, say, 150+ person bracket groups: (2) Ohio State (4.7% to win/3.4% ESPN/+0.41 EPA).

Teams to Avoid

(1) Illinois (10.2% to win/14.9% ESPN/-1.516 EPA). Perhaps call this the anti-hot hand.

(1) Gonzaga (32.6% to win/37% ESPN/-1.415 EPA). Gonzaga has the best chance to win the NCAA Tournament of any team since 2000-01 Duke, and truth be told, they are a perfectly fine pick. If you’re in a 100-person bracket group, on average, 37 people will pick Gonzaga. If you’re one of those 37, you have to nail the earlier rounds to scratch out an advantage. That’s why Gonzaga is both the smartest pick in the field and one of the worst.

Thanks for tagging along! One final ranking is below.

Teams with the most total added points value in the field:

  1. Houston +5.514 expected points added
  2. Iowa +2.588
  3. Loyola Chicago +1.702
  4. USC +1.5
  5. Wisconsin +1.482

Teams with the lowest added points values:

  1. Illinois -6.136
  2. Baylor -4.741
  3. Gonzaga -3.339
  4. Michigan -3.112
  5. Kansas -2.656

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s