A year ago today, I published what became one of the most popular posts on this website, about how 20+ years of data accumulated from KenPom and Bart Torvik could tell you what might happen in March. Whether or not it was useful in any real way is frankly up to the reader, I guess. It got two of the four Final Four picks right, including the #1 value pick of the entire NCAA Tournament, Houston. However, it missed on five Elite Eight teams and seven Sweet Sixteen sides. However, it did go 27-5 in the first round, the best record I have ever posted in a bracket I’ve submitted to a bracket pool.
I’m going to be frank. The level of care I have for submitting brackets at this point is pretty low; I am doing this more because a lot of people really like it than because I personally desired to write this. But: there is some sort of enjoyment in sharing a relatively unique perspective of current statistics and previous history to attempt to inform your bracket.
For whenever this gets picked up by people who don’t normally read this website, many of these picks will be wrong. Even the very best brackets miss on an average of 13-15 picks out of 63 total a year. If I missed on 15 total picks, I would be beyond thrilled. I missed 22 last year; maybe that can get below 20 this year. Who knows. I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds.
As a reminder, here’s how all of this works: What this is is simply a game-by-game projection of the field of 68 based on a document I’ve put together since 2018. Bart Torvik has an amazing page on his site with detailed historical KenPom projections of each game over the last 20 years of postseason play. Using that, I’ve accumulated enough data to make informed, quality guesses on how the NCAA Tournament may go.
Along with that, this year’s projections will factor in heavily to provide a baseline of measurements. KenPom’s numbers expect about 5.04 Round of 64 upsets, the highest number I’ve seen in a projection in a few years; Torvik sits at 4.75, a little lower, but still in that 5 upset range. I’ll share the five upsets these numbers would most incline you to pick. Author’s note: many stats were also brought in from this amazing guide to the NCAAT I found on Reddit.
Round of 64
(1) Gonzaga over (16) Georgia State. Well, obviously.
(9) Memphis over (8) Boise State. KenPom actually has Boise as a tiny favorite, but Torvik and EvanMiya have Memphis as a favorite. Either pick is fine because I don’t think either team is beating Gonzaga (more later), but the favorite in these 8/9 games over the last 21 years is 58-26.
(5) Connecticut over (12) New Mexico State. The metrics average here has UConn at about 71.5% to win; 5 seeds at 70% or better are 28-6.
(13) Vermont over (4) Arkansas. This is probably wild if you’re an SEC fan, but, again, riding the metrics. 4 seeds at 70% or worse to win since 2000 are 7-10. This is also a play against Arkansas going deep; teams at 40% or worse to make the Sweet Sixteen (Arkansas is at 38%) are 2 for 29 in doing so. Catamounts!
(11) Notre Dame over (6) Alabama…or (6) Alabama over (11) Rutgers. Precisely what you needed: a game that you have to wait until Wednesday at midnight to pick. Notre Dame would be at 42.1% to beat Alabama if they played; 11 seeds at 37% or better are 29-21 since 2000 in winning. Rutgers, however, would be at 34%, which is below that 37% threshold. 11 seeds below 37%: 7-27. I don’t know that I really like picking either, frankly, but again, a situation where either winner would be out in my Round of 32.
(3) Texas Tech over (14) Montana State. At 91.1%, Texas Tech is merely one of the eight largest 3-seed favorites since 2000. No 3 seed at 85% or better has lost their Round of 64 game, a perfect 36-0.
(7) Michigan State over (10) Davidson. Utterly disgusting. But: Michigan State, in the metrics average, is at 52.2% to win. The favorite in 7/10 games is 65-19.
(2) Duke over (15) Cal State Fullerton. The general threshold for “oh?” 2/15 games is about a 10% chance of winning for the 15 seed. Fullerton is at 7.6%. I’d love to see it, but.
(1) Arizona over (16) First Four Winner. No need to elaborate.
(9) TCU over (8) Seton Hall. Either pick is fine here. TCU is favored by Torvik; Seton Hall by KenPom. Tiebreaker goes to the better team as of late: TCU.
(5) Houston over (12) UAB. What a huge bummer UAB couldn’t be matched up elsewhere; I wanted to see them make a run. I guess they technically could. But: at 80.9% to win, Houston is one of the largest 5-seed favorites in modern Tournament history. No 5 seed at 76% or better has lost (17-0). This reminds me strongly of Villanova/Winthrop a year ago.
(4) Illinois over (13) Chattanooga. Technically, this meets our criteria for a 13 over 4. UTC has a 31.2% shot to win per KenPom; we’re focusing on 13 seeds at 30% or better this year. Unfortunately, Torvik has them at just under 23%, and the average takes them out of full consideration. I would not be surprised at all to see UTC win this, though; Illinois is not a strong 4 seed.
(11) Michigan over (6) Colorado State. About once every Tournament, a 6 seed will be at 54% or worse to win their first game. Those 6 seeds are 4-16 in the Round of 64 since 2000. Colorado State is at 50.4% on KenPom and a hilarious 41.7% on Torvik. Absolutely amazing draw for Michigan, at least for one game.
(3) Tennessee over (14) Longwood. Refer back to the Texas Tech stat: No 3 seed at 85% or better has lost their Round of 64 game, a perfect 36-0. Tennessee is at 92%. Feels like the Wright State game all over again.
(10) Loyola Chicago over (7) Ohio State. A tricky one: Loyola is at 54.3% to win per KenPom, but 47.3% on Torvik. Loyola wins both the averaging out and is the better team in their last 10 games.
(2) Villanova over (15) Delaware. So: remember the note about 2/15 games needing to be at that 10% threshold to be generally pretty interesting? Villanova sits at 89.4% to win by KenPom, 90.8% on Torvik. They’re the only 2 seed on either site to dip below 90% to win. Do I think Delaware wins this game? No. But 15 seeds at 10% or better to win, despite being 4-24, have an average margin of defeat a few points shorter than those worse than 10%. I think this one could be worth tracking.
(1) Kansas over (16) First Four. Again, not expecting much. Similar to how the 2/15 games have a threshold, 1/16 games sit at 5% or above for interest and curiosity. This one is consistently at 3.6%. Skippable, especially since it’s the final game of Thursday. That being said: Texas Southern, if they win their First Four game, has the best defense of any 16 seed this year at 108th overall and did beat Florida in December.
(8) San Diego State over (9) Creighton. FINALLY! An 8/9 game that doesn’t require a coin-flip. San Diego State is at 62.2% to win; 8/9 seeds at 55% or better are 37-6. I would be very surprised to lose this one.
(5) Iowa over (12) Richmond. Iowa is at 82.5% to win; refer back to the “no 5 seed at 76% or higher has lost” stat.
(13) South Dakota State over (4) Providence. Apparently the Giant Killers system hates this pick, but whatever. Providence is at just 57.2% to win. Not only is this the third-lowest mark for a 4-seed ever, I had to institute a new part of the study for it: teams at 65% or worse are 3-7 in the Round of 64 all time, with none of them breaching the Sweet Sixteen.
(6) LSU over (11) Iowa State. Disgusting. Sickening. Makes me want to barf in a bag and pour it on my laptop. Unfortunately, someone must win this game. LSU sits at 62.2% to win, the highest of any 6 seed this tournament, unless Rutgers plays Alabama. As much as I’d like to see all four 6 seeds lose, one of them probably has to win. Even better: as you’ll see in the Round of 32, one of these two may be in the Sweet Sixteen.
(3) Wisconsin over (14) Colgate. Which is because the committee placed KenPom #34 at a 3 seed, the lowest-seeded 3 since 2011 New Mexico (#39), who got ransacked in the Round of 32 by an 11 seed and nearly lost to 14-seed Montana. Wisconsin sits at 75.5% to win on KenPom and 81.4% on Torvik. I would not blame you if you feel compelled to pick Colgate, because 3 seeds at 80% or worse are 21-6 at winning. Still, that’s 21-6. I know that I’m personally rooting for Colgate, because presumably, most ESPN users have Wisconsin at least in the Sweet Sixteen.
(7) USC over (10) Miami (FL). Neither one of these teams is very good, and both are the lowest-rated teams at their respective seedlines. Congratulations to Auburn on the Sweet Sixteen bid. USC is at a combined 51.9% average to win, and 10 seeds ranked 50th or worse on KenPom are 3-13 since 2006. Nasty, nasty game. Nasty!
(2) Auburn over (15) Jacksonville State. Ever since I saw this tweet:
I was rooting for Auburn to draw the hardest 15 seed imaginable. Of course, they drew one ranked ten spots below Missouri. Auburn is at 91.4% to win; the only upset path I can think of is one where Auburn foolishly attempts 30 threes and misses 24 of them. Wait a minute, that’s actually pretty realistic.
(1) Baylor over (16) Norfolk State. But with a warning: this is the only 1/16 game this year where the 1 is below 95% to win. Baylor is still at 94.7%, so something would have to go wildly wrong for an upset to happen. Still, maybe this one provides some interest at some point.
(8) North Carolina over (9) Marquette. Another easy one: UNC is at 56.1% to win; the KenPom favorite is 57-25 since 2000. Stylistically, Marquette generates almost no second-chances at all, which is a problem against a UNC team ranked #2 nationally in DREB%. This would require Marquette shooting 40% or better from deep to win.
(12) Indiana over (5) Saint Mary’s. I would actually prefer Wyoming win, because Wyoming is subjectively much more fun to watch for me. That being said, they would have about a 31-32% chance to win; while that’s still the best of any 12 seed this year, the hit rate for 12 seeds greatly increases beginning at 33-34%. Indiana would be at 41.2%, easily the best of any 12 seed. If you like upsets, root for Indiana; if you like fun basketball, root for Wyoming.
(4) UCLA over (13) Akron. In general, this is either the worst batch of 4 seeds or the best batch of 13 seeds in a decade. But this game sort of ruins the average on both sides. UCLA is a 2 seed in a 4 seed’s body; Akron is ranked below three teams seeded 14-15. UCLA is at nearly 90% to win; no 4 seed has ever lost above 83%.
(11) Virginia Tech over (6) Texas. I cannot stand picking super-popular upsets like this one. There’s actually more statistical value in taking Texas, because over half of ESPN users have selected VA Tech. The problem is that this upset simply makes a lot of sense. 11 seeds at 41% or better to win since 2000 are 23-12; all others are 13-36. VA Tech is at 44%, the second-best of any 6 seed this year. Considering the stats expectation is that 1.7 of the 6 seeds lose, I would pair this with the Colorado State pick and hope for the best.
(3) Purdue over (14) Yale. An upset would be fun, but Purdue is at 90% to win. Really wish Princeton had won the Ivy.
(10) San Francisco over (7) Murray State. San Francisco is at an impressive 57.6% to win and weirdly isn’t the Vegas favorite. The metrics favorite in 7/10 games is 65-19 over the last 21 tournaments.
(2) Kentucky over (15) Saint Peter’s. Somewhat similarly to Villanova/Delaware, I could see this one maybe being interesting, but it’s unlikely. Kentucky is at 90.7% to win, right near that 10% cutline, because Saint Peter’s is the best of the 15 seeds by some margin and has a legitimate top-40 defense. My guess is more that this is a lower-scoring affair – maybe something like Kentucky 69-56.
Round of 32
(1) Gonzaga over (9) Memphis. The wild thing about this game in particular is that, in theory, it could be Gonzaga’s single toughest game they play prior to the Final Four. Memphis has played like a top-10 team over the last several weeks and is a legitimate threat. Still, Gonzaga sits at 82.9% to make the Sweet Sixteen. No 1 seed at 82.5% or higher has missed it (18 for 18). I’ll believe it when I see it.
(13) Vermont over (5) Connecticut. The risk here is kind of obvious: what if Vermont loses in the first round? Well, then you lose a total of three points out of 192. Big deal. This is more of a three-pronged bet:
- (4) Arkansas sits at 36% to make the Sweet Sixteen, per KenPom. 4 seeds at 40% or worse are 2-for-29 in making the second weekend since 2000. This includes Purdue and Oklahoma State from 2021.
- (5) Connecticut sits consistently at 38-39% to make it on both KenPom and Torvik. 5 seeds at 41% or worse to make the second weekend: 10-for-56. Creighton broke the trend last year, but they did get to play a 13 seed on the way there.
- (13) Vermont is at 13-15% depending where you look. Only ten 13 seeds since 2000 have been at 12% or better to make the second weekend; they’re 3-for-10 in doing it.
The problem is that only three 13 seeds period have made the Sweet Sixteen. If you want to take UConn here, that’s a fine pick, too. Somewhere, though, you have to try and create added value. Vermont has better versus-the-field value than nearly any other 13 seed to take the court before them. It’s worth a try.
(3) Texas Tech over any of (6) Alabama, (11) Notre Dame, or (11) Rutgers. This one is drama-free. Tech is at 66.2% to advance; 3 seeds at 57% or better are 20-for-26. If you really want to narrow it down, 3 seeds at 64% or better are 8-for-8.
(2) Duke over (7) Michigan State. Otherwise known as THE MOST INSUFFERABLE GAME IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND. Unfortunately, Duke is at 63.6% to advance on KenPom and a bizarrely-high 69.8% on Torvik; 2 seeds at 63% or better are 32-for-42. If we’re lucky, this is Davidson vs. Cal State Fullerton instead.
(1) Arizona over (9) TCU. Same with Seton Hall. Arizona is at 76.3% on KenPom and 71.9% on Torvik; 1 seeds at 70% or higher are 51-for-57.
(5) Houston over (4) Illinois. With ya, Ken:
I just…don’t get it? Even if you like Illinois in this specific matchup, they’re at just 28.2% to touch the Sweet Sixteen. No 4 seed at 34% or worse has ever made the Sweet Sixteen (0-for-13). I guess Illinois could make it 1-for-14, but I’m not sure what about them is trustworthy.
(3) Tennessee over (11) Michigan. If you are a reader of this blog, you know that this will be a nightmare game for me. The good-ish news is that it doesn’t feel terribly dramatic. Tennessee is at 66.3% to touch the second weekend; refer back to the Tech stat for why those are absurdly good odds for a 3 seed.
(10) Loyola Chicago over (2) Villanova. Here is the thing: in a one-off affair, Villanova would be favored by four points or so. That still means Villanova is the most likely Sweet 16 squad. They’re at 58.8% to make it, per KenPom. And I know Tennessee fans probably want no part of another Sister Jean run. But whatever. I’m showing my work:
- 2 seeds at 63% or worse to make the Sweet Sixteen are 19-for-42 in doing so. Villanova is the only 2 seed below 63% this season on KenPom. (Duke is at 63.6%, for the record.)
- 2 seeds at 60% or worse, per Torvik’s database, sit at 14-for-35 in making the second weekend, just a 40% success rate.
- 2 seeds with a spot differential of 20 or lower in KenPom are 16-12 since 2006. Loyola Chicago is 13 spots behind Villanova, while Ohio State is also pretty close at 21.
- 2 seeds favored by 5 or fewer points, since 2006: 9-11. Villanova, per KenPom, would be favored by 4.08 points.
- Loyola sits at 22.2% to make the Sweet Sixteen, per KenPom. 10 seeds at 17% or higher to make the Sweet Sixteen are 11 for 28 in doing so; all others are 2 for 56. (For what it’s worth, San Francisco and Davidson also meet this. Go 10s!) 20% or higher: 9 for 20.
- Even if this is Ohio State instead, it’s still worth rooting for, but Ohio State is below the 20% threshold for 7 seeds to make the second weekend. (Below: 5-for-46. Above: 14-for-38.)
To win a bracket pool, you have to swing for the fences on a couple of picks. Just like last year, I’m hoping Loyola repays the faith. All of this over a two-point pick. Why do I do this?
(8) San Diego State over (1) Kansas. This pick was originally Kansas over SDSU. This one is absurdly tough, and it’s one where I have to go against my first instinct, which is to pass on the upset. Kansas is the only 1 seed below 70% on KenPom to make the Sweet Sixteen, and there is real value to be had in betting against them. The problem is two-fold: 1. San Diego State’s offense, which ranks 157th on KenPom; 2. Since 2006, 1 seeds playing 8/9 seeds with offenses ranked worse than 50th are 23-2.
The odds of all four 1 seeds making the Sweet Sixteen are just 31%. This is fully an odds play; I am trusting that San Diego State will overcome their offense to go deep. They are the best 8 seed on the board by some distance, and their odds are significantly better than those of 8 seed counterpart UNC. Gotta swing for it.
(5) Iowa over (13) South Dakota State. Even if Providence wins, this is very easy: Iowa is at 60.4% to make the Sweet Sixteen, and 5 seeds at 45% or better are 13-for-16 in advancing. Quick sidebar: Iowa’s 60.4% Sweet Sixteen odds are the highest ever for a 5 seed.
(6) LSU over (3) Wisconsin. LOL. But I can defend this. LSU has the best odds of anyone in this quadrant to advance at 40.2%; 6 seeds at 34% or better are 11-for-23 in advancing. This is more a bet against Wisconsin, who sits at 34.5% to advance. 3 seeds at 42% or worse are 2-for-11 in making it. What an awful quadrant. This could just as easily be Iowa State/Colgate, frankly.
(2) Auburn over (7) USC. As funny as an Auburn loss would be, it seems unlikely. Auburn sits at 69.5% to advance; 2 seeds at 63% or better are 32-for-42 in making it.
(1) Baylor over (8) North Carolina. This is the toughest one in the entire bracket for me.
Do I like this pick all that much? Frankly, no. I don’t like either Baylor or Kansas to go far at all, really. But this came down to two things:
- Significantly more people are picking UNC than San Diego State despite SDSU having the better upset odds;
- In a larger bracket pool, that makes San Diego State the superior value pick over UNC.
I believe that one of the 1 seeds will be going home before the Sweet Sixteen, based on the numbers that show me 1.02 are expected to go home. I think that it will either be Baylor or Kansas. I just simply think Kansas may have the worse matchup.
(4) UCLA over (5)/(12) Doesn’t Matter. UCLA is at 58.2% to advance per KenPom and 58.1% per Torvik; both are well above the standard 53% rate that I normally look at for obvious 4-seed advancements. 53% or better: 15-for-17 making S16. I suppose I’m rooting for the 12 seed to win so UCLA’s path is better.
(11) Virginia Tech over (3) Purdue. Slightly over half of all 3 seeds make the Sweet Sixteen: 48-for-84 since 2000, or 57%. We all expect 3 seeds to make it every year, particularly when their paired 6 seeds lose over 50% of the time in the first round since 2011. That’s just not the case. 3 seeds that actually make the Sweet Sixteen have insane win rates – 50% in the next round! – but getting there is a struggle.
Anyway, Purdue is at 50.5% to advance, per KenPom. 3 seeds at 52% or lower to make the next round are just 19-for-48; all others are 29-for-36. Even if you bump that up to 57% or lower, it’s still just 27-for-58, or a 46.5% shot at getting through. The other numbers are this: Ken’s numbers expect about 2.36 10+ seeds in the Sweet Sixteen. Torvik’s: 2.13. EvanMiya: about 1.96. The message is that at least two 10+ seeds should make the Sweet Sixteen. Three may be aggressive, but in 13 straight NCAA Tournaments, at least one 10+ seed has made the second weekend. The most common number of 10+ seeds in the Sweet Sixteen: three, which has happened 13 times in 36 tries. Try, try again.
(2) Kentucky over (10) San Francisco. This one is sad to say no to. Kentucky comes close to meeting the metrics for a two-seed loss, but at 64.9%, I can’t pull the trigger. Also, this is the nation’s #1 rim FG% offense going up against a team that ranked 90th-best in a significantly worse conference. For the record, I think Murray State would be an even less optimal matchup. The best possible single-game matchup here among the 7/10s may have been USC or Loyola.
(1) Gonzaga over (13) Vermont. Nice and calm. Gonzaga is at 70.8% to make the Elite Eight. Not only are those insanely high odds, but no 1 seed at 65% or better has missed the Elite Eight (13-for-13).
(3) Texas Tech over (2) Duke. You may have to wait until the second weekend to blissfully rid yourselves of the Retirement Tour™, but when it happens, I think it comes at the hands of this scary Texas Tech team. Not only would Tech currently be favored on a neutral court, they have superior Elite Eight odds to Duke (38.2% vs. 35.5%). 3 seeds at 31% or better: 16-for-24. All others: 8-for-60. 2 seeds at 40% or lower: 12-for-47. All others: 24-for-37.
(1) Arizona over (5) Houston. This one was a tough one to say no to. Both of these teams are utterly terrific, and the fact that KenPom’s #2 and #4 teams are forced to play each other in the Sweet Sixteen is an insanity that only European football’s seeding system can match. Again, this is a numbers game we’re playing. The numbers say this: Arizona has the second-best Elite Eight odds of the 1 seeds. 1.97 of the four 1 seeds are expected to get there, per KenPom. We need to drop two of them.
The issue is this: I just think Houston > Arizona is a taller mental gymnastics task than Iowa > Kansas. (Spoiler.) Teams with 44% or worse odds to make the Elite Eight are just 7-for-19; Baylor is at 43.3% on KenPom, while Kansas sits at 44.3%, right on the cutline. Arizona being at 47.2% was enough to push them just over the edge. Houston would have the on-paper shot volume edge, but Arizona would win in the foul department with relative ease and should out-shoot Houston. Tough, but fair.
(3) Tennessee over (10) Loyola Chicago. I would also take Tennessee over Villanova, for the record, as they’re the higher-rated team on both KP and Torvik. I promise this makes some pretty good sense, though, and not just out of homerism. Tennessee’s 39.2% Elite Eight odds are the eighth-highest ever for a 3 seed, per Torvik. The seven teams all ahead of them: Elite Eight entrants. Alternately, just refer back to the Texas Tech stat. There are two terrific 3 seeds this year and two meh ones; ride the two terrific ones.
(5) Iowa over (8) San Diego State. Even if this is Kansas instead, Iowa is actually ranked ahead of Kansas on Haslametrics right now, and it genuinely may be defensible. Since January 15th – two months ago today – Iowa has played at the level of the 4th-best team in America, per Torvik. Kansas is third, but it’s a virtual tie. Frankly, it just comes back to the numbers: Iowa has the HIGHEST ELITE EIGHT ODDS EVER for a 5 seed at 31.4%. If not now, when? I shudder to think of the Fran McCaffery takes I’ll have to delete.
(2) Auburn over (6) LSU. Unfortunately, this one is straight forward: Auburn is at 48% to make the Elite Eight; 2 seeds at 40% or better are 24-for-37 (12-for-47 all others) and they very nearly crack the 50% super-safe barrier. Here’s hoping for an upset somewhere along the line. Jacksonville State?
(4) UCLA over (1) Baylor. 4 seeds at 25% or better to make the Elite Eight are 6-for-15, and UCLA sits at about 31-32%. Baylor is at just 43.3% to reach the Elite Eight, the lowest of any 1 seed. With the knowledge that 1 seeds at 44% or worse to make the Elite Eight are 7-for-19 in doing so, I am simply playing the odds.
(2) Kentucky over (11) Virginia Tech. Again, hoping for an upset, but I imagine the miracle VA Tech run ends here if it gets that far. Kentucky is *just* above that 40% barrier to crack the Elite Eight at 41.3%. Statistically, we can expect 0.73 10+ seeds to make the Elite Eight. I feel fairly confident that Virginia Tech is the most likely team to make it happen. Go Hokies?
(1) Gonzaga over (3) Texas Tech. Gonzaga is at an astounding 53.7% to make the Final Four. Only 16 1 seeds have ever cracked 46%, and they’re at a collective 15-for-16. Gonzaga did it last year; I bet they do it again this time out, too.
This should go over well.
(3) Tennessee over (1) Arizona. Again: I’m merely playing the numbers. This is not a homer pick. If I could pick against Tennessee, I would, because doing this makes me nauseous. But I want to show you a couple of things.
These are the current odds on KenPom and Torvik. Arizona sits at 29.1% to make the Final Four on one site and 21% on the other. I think Torvik’s number is a little wild, but bear with me. 1 seeds with 33% or lower odds to make the Final Four are 4 of 40 in doing so (all others 28 of 44). Only one 1 seed this year is better than 33%: Gonzaga. The expected number of Final Four teams that are 1 seeds: 1.36 per KenPom, 1.29 per Torvik. That’s not two. That’s one.
Tennessee’s odds, for a 3 seed, are consistently at 20% to make the Final Four. Those are the seventh-highest odds for any 3 seed since 2000. They’re 5% higher than Texas Tech’s in 2019. 7% higher than Michigan’s in 2018. They are 1.7% higher than Florida in 2006. What I am telling you is this: it is okay to believe that the chance is real. If you don’t know, it was probably even harder to believe Tennessee would win the SEC Tournament, a tournament they had a 20.4% chance of winning.
The chance is there. Tennessee has a 53% chance of playing someone other than Arizona if they can make the Elite Eight. We’ll see if it happens.
(5) Iowa over (2) Auburn. I don’t trust anyone in this region at all for a variety of reasons. Kansas’s metrics are very weak for a 1 seed hoping to make the Final Four; they’re out. Wisconsin is one of the weakest 3-seeds ever. Ditto Providence at the 4. 6-seed LSU has good metrics, but questionable motivation after firing their head coach. USC is the weakest 7-seed in the field. Miami is the weakest 10. San Diego State is the best 8, but their offense ranks in the 150s. Creighton lost a starter and is a big underdog in their first game. Iowa State looked great two months ago but appears to have firmly ran out of gas, scoring 41 points in their only Big 12 Tournament game.
That leaves you with Iowa, a team that hasn’t touched the Sweet Sixteen since 1999 or the Elite Eight since 1987. It has never made a Final Four in the 64-team era. It also leaves you with Auburn, a team that was #1 at one point this season. Auburn was great for a while, but they have some extremely obvious shortcomings: 258th in 3PT%, a bad offensive steal rate, and a 5-4 finish to the regular season that included an awful SEC quarterfinals loss. High seeds that lose in the conference tournament quarterfinals rarely make positive history.
However, high seeds that lose in the conference tournament quarterfinals rarely get such an advantageous draw. Think about Baylor, another team that copied Auburn’s result. Baylor’s path to the Elite Eight is likely #28 and #8 in KenPom. Auburn: #42 and #19, if LSU holds it together long enough. The problem with that is that Auburn just got done losing to #43 on a neutral court. Iowa, meanwhile, has lost twice since January 31 and has risen to #13 in KenPom, just three spots behind Auburn.
Frankly, this is not a pick I love. If any region seems destined to have a truly absurd champion, it is the Midwest, a region where teams seeded 5 or worse have a 39% chance of coming out on top. That is insane, especially when you consider the other three regions are at 21.5% (East), 14.2% (West), and 29.7% (South). The South Region reasonably could blow up, sure, but most of that value is generated by Houston with 17.6%. The non-Iowa 5+ seeds are at 20.7%, and Iowa has better Final Four odds than any other 5+ seed out there. Ride the insanity.
(4) UCLA over (2) Kentucky. Enough words. Straight to it: 2 seeds at 25% or worse to make the Final Four are 4-for-62 in getting there. Auburn is the only 2 seed that qualifies to go far enough this year, so maybe I lose it there, but whatever. At 17% to get to New Orleans, UCLA has the sixth-highest odds of any 4 seed since 2000 to do it. I recommend attempting to take advantage of one of the worst selection committee jobs in recent memory.
(1) Gonzaga over (4) UCLA. When you say it like that it does sound pretty crazy: a straight-up Final Four rematch. It’s happened before, and UCLA was even involved in it with Florida, but it’s rare. Still, I just like the value of UCLA enough to take a swing at it. I think it ends against Gonzaga. Everything at this point of the tournament is a pure coin-flip, but Gonzaga sitting at 38.5% to make the title game is pretty good. 1 seeds at 33% or better, per Torvik, are 10-for-12 in getting there.
(3) Tennessee over (5) Iowa. Look, if you’re still reading, I think you know how stupid and insane this game even looks on paper. Tennessee ranks higher on every metrics site but Haslametrics and is one of the best 3 seeds ever. Give it a whirl, see how it feels.
(1) Gonzaga over (3) Tennessee. Whether Tennessee makes it or not is sort of besides the point for this exercise. Gonzaga is at 27.5% to win it all; no other team is above 9%. Even Arizona is the only other team above 6.6%. Baylor entered at 8.2% last year, but those numbers were COVID-dampened. 2019: Virginia, 21.4%. 2018: Villanova, 18.1%. 2017: UNC, 10%. Weird champions happen, but the majority were at least in the double-digits. Only three champions have been below 7% to win it all since 2006: both UConn titles and 2015 Duke. That’s 11 of 14 tournaments where an unsurprising champion came out on top. Barring some sort of serious surprise, your champion this year is either Gonzaga or Arizona. I have Gonzaga as the only one of these in the title game, so there you go.
One final plea: please do not use these picks to bet on games or futures or whatever. These are for fun and are the product of a lot of weird research I feel bizarrely compelled to work on. If you want to win a bracket pool, please do not expect much, because I did not win mine last year and have not since 2010. However, I hope this helps.