Ranking the Round of 32 games by watchability

Just like Thursday’s post, but for the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Rankings are based on a combination of quality offense + closeness of the matchup + interesting players + whatever other factors I cook up.

These are not meant to be taken too seriously.

Sunday

Five Basketballs

1. (8) Loyola Chicago vs. (1) Illinois (12:10 PM ET, CBS)
2. (11) Syracuse vs. (3) West Virginia (5:10 PM ET, CBS)
3. (9) Wisconsin vs. (1) Baylor (2:40 PM ET, CBS)

This is flawless scheduling by Turner; the three best games of the day are all on the network everyone has and will all be over by about 7:30 PM ET, meaning early Monday risers probably won’t have to fret about missing an instant classic. Loyola is the second-highest rated sub-2 seed in the field behind USC and will give Illinois all they want for 40 minutes. Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim is the hottest shooter left in the Tournament and could single-handedly burn West Virginia down. Wisconsin/Baylor is a game that sounds unappetizing on paper but is quietly a matchup of #4 vs. #12 in KenPom. Again, worth remembering just how brutal a path Baylor has even with Ohio State out of the field.

Four Basketballs

4. (6) Texas Tech vs. (3) Arkansas (6:10 PM ET, TNT)
5. (10) Rutgers vs. (2) Houston (7:10 PM ET, TBS)

Both of these are pretty good games, but neither quite have the firepower to be must-watches. The first half of Texas Tech’s game on Friday was absolutely miserable to watch, and the 26-23 halftime score felt generous. Arkansas looked a lot better in the second half against Colgate, but they were similarly brutal for a solid 15-20 minutes. Worth noting that this is the single closest projected scoring margin (~0.2 points) of this round, though, so you’re pretty likely to get some sort of a good finish. Meanwhile, Rutgers is not a fun team to watch, but Rutgers has some good storylines that helped push them to this level. Houston may also be without a great player in Dejon Jarreau, so this could be closer than expected. I’m hoping not.

Three Basketballs

6. (15) Oral Roberts vs. (7) Florida (7:45 PM ET, TruTV)
7. (13) North Texas vs. (5) Villanova (8:45 PM ET, TNT)
8. (12) Oregon State vs. (4) Oklahoma State (9:40 PM ET, TBS)

Again, brilliant decision-making by Turner; the three least-interesting games of the day are all slammed together at the end when not many people will be watching. Oral Roberts/Florida is the best of the three for the obvious reason of everyone rooting for a 15 seed to make the Sweet Sixteen. North Texas/Villanova has a similar factor to it, but I don’t know that people can rally behind UNT the same way they did Oral Roberts. Critically, Oral Roberts simply plays a much more fun style of basketball. Lastly, I think only fans of both teams will be terribly invested in Oregon State/Oklahoma State. It’s a three-basketball affair because of Cade Cunningham alone; if it had been Virginia or Purdue in this game instead, I would have considered a one-basketball rating.

Monday

Five Basketballs

1. (8) LSU vs. (1) Michigan (7:10 PM ET, CBS)
2. (5) Colorado vs. (4) Florida State (7:45 PM ET, TBS)
3. (7) Oregon vs. (2) Iowa (12:10 PM ET, CBS)

Three bangers. LSU/Michigan is the most important game of Monday because LSU is finally appearing interested on defense at the most critical time of the season. If they’re willing to invest in that for a full 40 minutes, Michigan is in serious trouble. Colorado/Florida State is just your garden-variety excellent game between a pair of very good basketball teams. Oregon/Iowa features two top 15 offenses and, strangely, an Oregon team that will be playing its very first game of the Tournament. All three are must-watches.

Four Basketballs

4. (14) Abilene Christian vs. (11) UCLA (5:15 PM ET, TBS)
5. (13) Ohio vs. (5) Creighton (6:10 PM ET, TNT)
6. (6) USC vs. (3) Kansas (9:40 PM ET, CBS)
7. (10) Maryland vs. (2) Alabama (8:45 PM ET, TNT)
8. (8) Oklahoma vs. (1) Gonzaga (2:40 PM ET, CBS)

Monday just has much more interesting action than Sunday, which isn’t the fault of the Sunday participants at all. It’s just that pretty much all of these games worked out in really good fashion. Abilene/UCLA is fascinating; the Wildcats shot horrendously against Texas but won because they forced 22 turnovers and got a zillion offensive rebounds. Ohio/Creighton is another garden-variety fun fixture between two good offenses that features multiple unique storylines. USC is the highest-rated sub-2 seed in the entire field at #8 on KenPom and is quickly closing in on actual 2-seed Iowa to be the second-highest rated team in their region. Maryland/Alabama would have been a better game with UConn in it, but it’s still pretty good. Lastly, Oklahoma/Gonzaga being the worst game of the day tells you how good this day is. Oklahoma beat four Top 10 teams this year, and Gonzaga has the very best team in the sport, but someone had to be last.

Show Me My NCAA Tournament Opponent: Oregon State

Seven years ago today, Tennessee made some memories that will last a lifetime. The Vols drew the Iowa Hawkeyes in Dayton for the First Four, back when they actually played the NCAA Tournament at different sites in non-pandemic times. For the majority of the game, the Vols lagged behind by anywhere from 2-10 points; it was as if Iowa knew exactly when to stop Vol runs and force their way back out in front.

Down by five with about ten minutes left, Josh Richardson received a pass on the perimeter and drove to the basket. What he did next is etched in my memory forever:

Objectively, what this is is a two-point play to take the game from five to three points. Subjectively, both teams’ attitudes changed from that point forward. Tennessee took the lead and later went to overtime, where they won by 13 points; they used this to springboard a Sweet Sixteen run that came up just shy of the second-ever Elite Eight. I don’t remember any play from either of the two actual NCAA Tournament wins. What I remember is Josh Richardson driving the lane, determined to deliver Tennessee to the field of 64 even if he was the only guy doing it.

In a somewhat similar fashion, the 2020-21 Volunteers have a golden opportunity today to redeem some of the frustration caused by inconsistent play. They’re facing a very vulnerable 12 seed that plays a lot like they do. If Tennessee plays it correctly, they’re going to get the opportunity to deliver a lot of beautiful March moments. As a fan, I’m rooting for the chance to see it.

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: KenPom #84 Oregon State (17-12, Pac-12 champion).
  • THE TIME: 4:30 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: TNT.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Spero Dedes (PBP), Brendan Haywood (analyst), and Lauren Shehadi (analyst).
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -8.5.

To click ahead to the section of your dreams, go here.

NEXT PAGE: Beaver beaver beaver

Ranking the Round of 64 (and First Four) games by watchability

Do you have a finite amount of time or control over the remote this weekend? If so, this might be the perfect list for you. Or perhaps it won’t be. I can’t predict how you feel!

Game watchability is assigned on a very arbitrary scale, but is essentially a mash-up of how close the game will be + how many points you should see. Close games are fun, but 51-49 games really aren’t. They’re sloppy.

Tiers are on a scale of 1 to 5 basketballs. There are no half-basketballs, and none of this is very serious.

First Four

Five Basketballs

  1. (11) UCLA vs. (11) Michigan State (9:57 PM ET, TBS)
  2. (11) Drake vs. (11) Wichita State (6:27 PM ET, TBS)

I’m being lenient here, but the NCAA Tournament is back for the first time in two years. Why wouldn’t you watch both of these games? As a bonus, UCLA/Michigan State single-handedly decides a pick in my bracket, so I’m really looking forward to that one. Drake/Wichita is also pretty intriguing, particularly now that it appears Drake will be closer to full strength than they’ve been in six weeks.

Three Basketballs

3. (16) Appalachian State vs. (16) Norfolk State (8:40 PM ET, TruTV)
4. (16) Texas Southern vs. (16) Mount St. Mary’s (5:10 PM ET, TruTV)

I do feel bad for these teams. In a normal year, they would’ve gotten timeslots to themselves and a chance to tell the country who they are. Instead, they’re sort of the simultaneous undercard to games people would much rather watch. If you have to pick one of these to see a few minutes of, App/Norfolk is better. Norfolk is a very good deep-shooting team, while App’s defense has been fairly spicy lately. TXSO/MSM is useful because it’s the very first game of the Tournament and you can see how many offensive rebounds both teams get, as they both rank in the top 60 of OREB%.

Friday

Early Afternoon

Five Basketballs

  1. (3) Arkansas vs. (14) Colgate (12:45 PM ET, TruTV)

Colgate is a total mystery; a team that only played five teams this year but dominated almost every single game they participated in. Arkansas is a tad overrated, per the metrics, and could be in trouble against a Colgate team that averages more points per game than any team not named Gonzaga. If nothing else, I fully think both teams are scoring 80+.

Four Basketballs

2. (6) Texas Tech vs. (11) Utah State (1:45 PM ET, TNT)
3. (7) Florida vs. (10) Virginia Tech (12:15 PM ET, CBS)

Texas Tech/Utah State is the most boring 6/11 matchup on the board, which means it’s still a good game. Neither team ranks higher than 180th in eFG%, and both teams have top-25 defenses, meaning this could be a game with <120 combined points. Florida/VA Tech is the first game of the tournament and features a pair of teams that have either looked fantastic or awful offensively depending on which game you’ve watched.

Three Basketballs

4. (1) Illinois vs. (16) Drexel (1:15 PM ET, TBS)

Rare is the 1/16 game I actually think is worth watching, but I could include this one in said group. Drexel is easily the best 16 seed this year, and while I can’t really fathom them beating Illinois, it’s the only 1/16 that I could see being close at halftime. Drexel is an excellent shooting team that ranks top 50 in both 2PT% and 3PT% and plays very, very slowly, which is a really good recipe for keeping things close. Unfortunately, they also don’t force any turnovers and are a middling offensive rebounding squad. Still, the path is there to keep this within ten.

Late Afternoon

Five Basketballs

1. (8) Loyola Chicago vs. (9) Georgia Tech (4 PM ET, TBS)

This still stands even with Georgia Tech’s first or second-best player out in Moses Wright. Loyola is one of the three highest-rated 8 seeds in the last 20 years, and they play an entrancing style of basketball that essentially chokes opponents out slowly for 40 minutes. Alright, I didn’t sell it very well. Anyway, both teams here are very good, and you get to see the most unusual elite basketball player in the sport in Cameron Krutwig.

Three Basketballs

2. (5) Tennessee vs. (12) Oregon State (4:30 PM ET, TNT)
3. (2) Ohio State vs. (15) Oral Roberts (3 PM ET, CBS)

Tennessee/Oregon State is the most boring 5/12 game, which, again, still means it’s somewhat watchable. The Vols do have two likely first-round picks in Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, while Oregon State’s backcourt of Ethan Thompson and Jarod Lucas is also good. That being said, I can almost guarantee there will be a three-minute stretch where neither team scores. Ohio State/Oral Roberts would be higher if ORU were better. Oral Roberts has the leading scorer in basketball in Max Abmas, but they’re atrocious defensively and seem very likely to give up 90+. Worth watching if you like 92-74 final scores.

Two Basketballs

4. (1) Baylor vs. (16) Hartford (3:30 PM ET, TruTV)

Least interesting game of the day.

Early Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (8) North Carolina vs. (9) Wisconsin (7:10 PM ET, CBS)
2. (4) Oklahoma State vs. (13) Liberty (6:25 PM ET, TBS)

That’s right! TWO five-ball games. UNC/Wisconsin features a hot UNC squad and a Wisconsin team that’s in the top 15 on most metrics sites. Will there be many points scored? Not likely. But it’s two very good teams that both could push Baylor hard in the next round. Oklahoma State/Liberty features Cade Cunningham, which is all you need to know.

Four Basketballs

3. (4) Purdue vs. (13) North Texas (7:25 PM ET, TNT)

Normally a low-and-slow game wouldn’t be that intriguing, but I do think this one is. Purdue/UNT feels unlikely to even crack 65 possessions and will more likely be in the 58-62 range, which is a great recipe for a 13-over-4 upset. And everyone likes upsets.

Two Basketballs

4. (2) Houston vs. (15) Cleveland State (7:15 PM ET, TruTV)

Houston is simply far, far better than a Cleveland State team that had a great season. Houston has the best eFG% defense in the nation, blocks 14.5% of twos, and is going to demolish the boards in this one. Houston ranks #2 nationally in OREB%; Cleveland State, #302 in DREB%. It’s a bad recipe.

Late Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (6) San Diego State vs. (11) Syracuse (9:40 PM ET, CBS)
2. (5) Villanova vs. (12) Winthrop (9:57 PM ET, TNT)

Everyone loves a plucky underdog! Those 11 and 12 seeds that come from small conferences to play with the big boys and are…somehow still coached by Jim Boeheim. Every year Syracuse gets in the field as a 9-11 seed, and every year, they pull an upset. I don’t expect this to go any differently. Meanwhile, Winthrop gets a Villanova team without Collin Gillespie, but Villanova still has a lot of firepower and can run with the Eagles if they so choose.

Three Basketballs

3. (7) Clemson vs. (10) Rutgers (9:20 PM ET, TBS)
4. (3) West Virginia vs. (14) Morehead State (9:50 PM ET, TruTV)

Clemson/Rutgers is an awful offensive matchup, but it should be fairly close and it’s quite nice to see Rutgers finally make the NCAA Tournament without it being cancelled. Meanwhile, both Morehead and West Virginia play moderately exciting styles of basketball, which seems pretty likely to result in West Virginia winning by 15 points.

Saturday

Early Afternoon

Five Basketballs

1. (8) LSU vs. (9) St. Bonaventure (1:45 PM ET, TNT)

Could have a ton of points scored in this one, and it’s a coin-flip game. Either team could win, likely by a score of 79-78. Both teams were underseeded, and it seems like either will have at least some amount of a shot to beat Michigan in the next round. Very much worth watching.

Four Basketballs

2. (5) Colorado vs. (12) Georgetown (12:15 PM ET, CBS)

Everyone’s favorite upset pick this year, which actually makes more sense if you remember how much of an advantage Colorado loses when it plays away from home. Colorado’s home court advantage, per KenPom, is the best in all of college basketball. They went 11-1 at home this year. When they’re on the road or at a neutral site, though, this evaporates. They went 11-7 away from home this year, still good but not nearly as dominant. Georgetown’s going to have a very good shot.

Three Basketballs

3. (3) Kansas vs. (14) Eastern Washington (1:15 PM ET, TBS)

Eastern Washington plays a fun brand of basketball and has a uniquely talented center in Tanner Groves. The issue here is more with Kansas, who looks lost offensively from time to time and had their worst offense in Bill Self’s entire tenure this year. A Kansas win doesn’t feel exciting.

Two Basketballs

4. (4) Florida State vs. (13) UNC Greensboro (12:45 PM ET, TruTV)

Isaiah Miller alone should’ve pushed this to three basketballs, but the gap between FSU (the best 4 seed in the field) and UNCG (the worst 13) is simply too large to make this a higher-rated game. A UNCG upset would probably be more surprising than a 15 seed winning, to be honest.

Late Afternoon

Five Basketballs

1. (6) USC vs. (11) Drake (4:30 PM ET, TNT)
2. (5) Creighton vs. (12) UC Santa Barbara (3:30 PM ET, TruTV)

Drake’s got to beat Wichita to get here first, but if they do, it’s an utterly fascinating matchup with the best USC squad since O.J. Mayo was in town. Drake simply is a more interesting athletic match with the Trojans, who are pretty likely to beat either opponent but would face a greater point-for-point battle with Drake. Meanwhile, UCSB is the most enjoyable 12-seed this year and does an excellent job of doing all the little things that lead to upsets.

Two Basketballs

3. (2) Alabama vs. (15) Iona (4 PM ET, TBS)

Yes, a lot of points are going to be scored in this game. Iona doesn’t play as fast as they used to, though, and they commit a ton of turnovers. The Rick Pitino storyline is obviously hilarious, but if you don’t like watching top 10 teams beat overwhelmed opponents by 20 points in December, why would you now?

One Basketball

4. (1) Michigan vs. (16) Mount St. Mary’s or Texas Southern (3 PM ET, CBS)

The two worst 16 seeds in the field versus a 1 seed missing its best shooter. Pass.

Early Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (4) Virginia vs. (13) Ohio (7:15 PM ET, TruTV)
2. (7) Connecticut vs. (10) Maryland (7:10 PM ET, CBS)

How could you not be utterly fascinated by the Virginia Quarantine storyline? No one knows which UVA players will be available for Saturday’s game yet, and that’s before you get into Ohio being a fairly strong 13 seed who plays the right brand of basketball to pull an upset. Meanwhile, there’s also a UConn team that’s in the top 15-20 of every metric but somehow got a 7 seed.

Four Basketballs

3. (2) Iowa vs. (15) Grand Canyon (6:25 PM ET, TBS)
4. (8) Oklahoma vs. (9) Missouri (7:25 PM ET, TNT)

Grand Canyon doesn’t exactly have a wonderful offense (it’s the 10th-worst in the field), but the question for the entire season has been this: can Iowa’s defense figure it out in time to help their offense out? The Hawkeye defense has climbed all the way to 50th after being at 130th on February 7th. That’s terrific; I’m also quite skeptical. Since the Ohio State loss on February 4, opponents have shot just 32.4% from downtown despite getting off an astounding 24.1 three-point attempts per game. Iowa doesn’t guard these particularly fiercely; a Grand Canyon team that makes 55.4% of their twos and will be taking 40% or more of their shots from deep could reasonably exploit this. Still a likely 10-14 point win for Iowa.

Oklahoma/Missouri was more intriguing before a key Oklahoma player was ruled out, but it’s still worth keeping track of.

Late Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (6) BYU vs. (11) UCLA (9:40 PM ET, CBS)
2. (3) Texas vs. (14) Abilene Christian (9:50 PM ET, TruTV)

UCLA over BYU is the most likely 11-over-6 upset…but it requires UCLA to actually win in the First Four, which won’t be easy. That’s why I haven’t completed my bracket yet, as a Sweet Sixteen spot quite literally depends on that outcome. Texas/Abilene Christian is the most must-watch 3/14 game since West Virginia/Stephen F. Austin, simply because no 3/14 game has had this level of a turnover delta since. Texas averages a -2.3 turnover margin per 100 possessions; Abilene Christian is the second-best in all of basketball at +7.3. Averaged out to a 70-possession game, that’s almost seven extra possessions for Abilene. Can Texas make up for that? I’m excited to find out.

Three Basketballs

3. (7) Oregon vs. (10) VCU (9:57 PM ET, TNT)

I’m not sure I have a single thought either way on this game. It’s like the exact picture I have in my head of “replacement-level Round of 64 game.”

One Basketball

4. (1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Norfolk State or Appalachian State (9:20 PM ET, TBS)

I have Gonzaga as roughly a 28-29 point favorite in this game, regardless of who they play.

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

How high or low can Tennessee be seeded in the NCAA Tournament?

Somehow, after 17 years of COVID-19 (citation needed), the SEC Tournament will be taking place later this week. Regardless of how everything shakes out, it will simply be great to watch a conference tournament be played again. The sensation of watching a school pull an upset (as long as it’s not against your school) is just about unbeatable.

Tennessee will open their SEC Tournament experience on Friday against one of Florida, Texas A&M, or Vanderbilt. Both KenPom and Bart Torvik agree that it’s around 80% likely to be Florida, but that does leave open the 20% chance that it’s someone else. As such, that leaves open a lot of potential scenarios for Tennessee to work their way through this upcoming weekend. All of these scenarios have serious NCAA Tournament implications, and using Bart Torvik’s amazing TeamCast tool, I’ve tried to work my way through all of the mostly-useful scenarios I could think of.

We’ll go through each scenario one-by-one. I have elected to restrain myself from covering a couple, such as playing a 12/13 seed in the quarterfinals then an 8/9 in the semifinals simply because the odds are so low. (Roughly 2%.) As of this morning, Tennessee ranks out as the top 6 seed (21st overall) on Bracket Matrix while ranking as the second 5 seed (18th overall) on Torvik. It’s only a three-slot difference, and if you feel like adjusting downward using the Matrix average, feel free to. (I’ll include it in parentheses alongside the Torvik projection, simply as a rough approximation of what it would look like by consensus ranking.)

In the meantime, I’m trying to perfect this video step-by-step:

  1. 0-1, quarterfinals loss to either Texas A&M or Vanderbilt

Average outcome, per Bart Torvik’s TeamCast: 6 seed, 24th on seed list (7 seed, 27th on Matrix)

This would obviously be a disaster. Losing to either of these teams is really embarrassing and opens the door for Tennessee to have a really bad seeding outcome. I’ve no interest in falling out of what I’d call the Upset Range (being a 6 seed or better), and finding a way to lose to either the 95th or 129th-ranked team by KenPom would be awful. It’s like losing a home game in non-conference play to Tulsa or someone. Let’s avoid talking about it.

2. 0-1, quarterfinals loss to Florida

Average outcome: 6 seed, 21st on seed list (6 seed, 24th on Matrix)

Also not ideal, though this is much more realistic. Despite playing Florida twice already, Tennessee still hasn’t played a full-strength Florida team, and for 56 of the 80 minutes they’ve played the Gators, they’ve gotten rocked. However, the final 24 minutes of Sunday’s game were the most promising minutes Tennessee’s showed in a game since they defeated Kansas. You’d hope they can build off of that and simply avoid disaster.

3. 1-1, win over Florida, loss to Alabama in semifinals

Average outcome: 5 seed, 17th on seed list (5 seed, 20th on Matrix)

I admit I’m surprised that this would actually boost Tennessee, considering they’re likely to be seeded higher than Florida anyway. That said, gaining a win over a team that will be around a 7-9 seed is never a bad thing, particularly if it’s not a home game. Losing a second time to Alabama would be disappointing, but they are the best team in the SEC, so it’s not like it would be stunning. If Tennessee only gets one win this weekend, this is the best scenario you can dream up. The average outcome is probably a 4 or 5 seed, and it would be hard to see Tennessee falling past a 6 seed.

4. 1-1, win over Texas A&M or Vanderbilt, loss to Alabama in semifinals

Average outcome: 5 seed, 18th on seed list (6 seed, 21st on Matrix)

While it would be nice to avoid Florida, it might not be the best move for Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament seeding. Per Torvik’s simulator, losing to Florida is almost the same as beating a bad Vandy team then losing to Alabama. The win over Vanderbilt does nothing to boost Tennessee’s resume; it’s like having not played a game at all. I’d somewhat rather play Vanderbilt because I greatly enjoy watching Florida lose basketball games, but it might be a bad thing for Tennessee if that happened.

5. 1-1, win over Florida, loss to Kentucky or Mississippi State in semifinals

Average outcome: 5 seed, 18th on seed list (6 seed, 21st on Matrix)

I think this would be the absolute dumbest and most infuriating outcome on the board by a mile. Imagine finally getting to beat full-strength Florida right after watching the SEC’s best team lose to a Kentucky or Mississippi State team that isn’t making the NCAA Tournament. Then, the next day, you lose to that exact team. I think I’d have to log off for a week. And yet: it doesn’t actually appear to be that disastrous? Kentucky and Miss State both would be Q2 losses, which is better than Q3 or Q4. (It would make Tennessee’s Q2 record an incredibly embarrassing 2-3, though.) This exact scenario screams 6 seed to me; it yells “you will be playing VCU on Friday afternoon.”

6. 2-1, wins over Florida and Alabama, loss to Arkansas…

Average outcome: 3 seed, 11th on seed list (4 seed, 14th on Matrix)

Oh my. If you’ve got to lose a game this weekend, this is the path. I have to be honest and say it’s really hard for me to imagine Tennessee getting a 3 seed without winning the SEC Tournament, but this clearly opens the path to a 4 seed and probably no worse than a 5. With this, you’d add a pair of Quad 1 wins, beat a near-certain 2 seed, and your loss would be to the hottest team in the SEC who’s on track for a 2 or 3 seed. It’s not that bad of an outcome…but this would be Tennessee’s third straight loss in the SEC Tournament championship. It would hurt, badly.

…or LSU…

Average outcome: 3 seed, 11th on seed list (4 seed, 14th on Matrix)

LSU seems destined for an 8 or 9 seed, but as we saw a few weeks back, they can get hot at any time and it’s very, very hard to slow their offense down. (Alabama is the only school to consistently do this all season.) I’d still have a hard time seeing Tennessee come out of this scenario at something worse than a 5 seed.

…or a lower seed 

Average outcome: 4 seed, 14th on seed list (5 seed, 17th on Matrix)

I chose both Ole Miss and Missouri for this example; they’re the 6 and 7 seeds, and the 10 and 11 seeds (Georgia and South Carolina) have a combined 2.5% chance of making the title game. This is the most annoying possible outcome out of the “make it to the SEC Championship Game” scenarios, obviously. A loss to either Ole Miss or Missouri probably opens the door back to potentially being a 6 seed, and it definitely eliminates the chance of Tennessee getting any higher than a 4. There’s only a 28.5% chance of one of these teams being in the title game, so it’s unlikely, but if it happens, Tennessee simply has to win.

7. Win the whole freaking thing

Average outcome: 3 seed, 9th on seed list (3 seed, 12th on Matrix)

For this, I used the average among all potential opponents, weighted towards each opponent’s likelihood of making the title game. Using all of these, Tennessee came closest to being the highest 3 seed, and in some scenarios (particularly any scenario involving beating both Florida and Alabama), Tennessee was the lowest 2 seed on Torvik’s TeamCast. This would be amazing for several reasons – being the 4 seed and making it this far; the first SEC Tournament championship since 1979; the reclamation of the last two months of frustrating basketball. Which is why I simply can’t allow myself to believe this is a possibility.

So, yes, Tennessee still could end up as a 3 seed. Or, alternately, a 7 seed is on the table. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and we’ll simply have to wait and find out what it is.

The best college basketball players you haven’t heard of (yet)

Firstly, happy March. The best month of the season for college basketball fans has finally arrived!

Secondly, this post is not really meant as much beyond an appreciation for some of the more overlooked talents of this strange sport. Every March, a good collection of players get their respective chances to make their March moments. Unfortunately, this means that many, many more don’t. Less than 20% of all college basketball teams will make this year’s NCAA Tournament, and in the post you’re going to see below, only one player belongs to a team that’s a lock to make the Field of 68. While you can likely expect two or three of the below ten to make some sort of March Madness appearance, a lot of these players won’t get their shot.

That’s why I’m writing it. Several of these players are having fabulous, historically impressive seasons that have largely gone unnoticed. They’ve racked up KenPom MVPs left and right while barely scratching the national surface if they have at all. That’s what I’m looking for: players who most college basketball fans likely haven’t heard of who deserve the recognition that would come with an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Beside each player and team is the current likelihood that said team will make the field of 68, per Bart Torvik’s site. These players are in no real order, as will be evident shortly. They’re simply ten college basketball players that are stuffing boxscores every night and are of serious interest to stats nerds like me.

Max Abmas (Oral Roberts)

Current odds of making the NCAA Tournament: 15%

Abmas stands as the nation’s leading scorer at 24.8 points per game, which somehow still undersells just how uniquely efficient he is. Abmas is one of two players in the nation (the other being Drew Timme) with a Usage Rate above 25% and an Offensive Rating above 125, and he’s a significantly more deadly shooter than Timme. Abmas is 84-for-182 (46.2%) from three this season and has scored 40+ twice:

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Abmas is that he’s doing this in a season filled with back-to-backs and rarely, if ever, sees the bench. Oral Roberts has played 20 games against Division I competition; Abmas has gone the full 40 minutes in 12 of them, including nine of their last 11 games. Again, this is in a season where every single Oral Roberts conference game but one has been part of a weekend back-to-back. Out of seven weekend series, Abmas has played every single minute in four of them.

Oral Roberts finished as the four seed in the Summit League despite Abmas’ insane heroics, mostly in part to having the 298th-ranked defense on KenPom. Objectively, they are no better than the third-best team in their own conference. And yet: the idea of seeing Max Abmas versus a 1 or 2 seed is one of those things I can’t help but root for.

Gaige Prim (Missouri State)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 9.1%

Prim’s odds of seeing March glory, along with a few others on this list, are quite slim. Missouri State did finish the year third in the MVC, but when the top two teams in the league are Loyola Chicago (11th in KenPom) and Drake (started the season 18-0), your chances of beating both are not terribly high. (Unsurprisingly, Missouri State went 0-4 against both schools, with only the Drake fixtures being somewhat close.) So this is more of a “let’s appreciate what Gaige Prim has done” post.

KenPom has 18 categories that he measures national rankings for. Prim is in the top 250 (of 2,132 eligible players) in ELEVEN of them and in the top 500 for an additional two more. Few players have ever had a season as well-rounded as his. Prim ranks 65th in eFG% at 61.7%, 32nd in OREB% at 13.8%, 216th in Assist Rate at 24.4%, top 500 in both Block and Steal Rates, and, just for fun, draws 5.2 fouls per game, which ranks 194th. In Bart Torvik’s database, which dates back to the 2007-08 season, Prim is the only player ever with a Usage Rate of 25% or more, an eFG% of 60% or greater, an OREB% and DREB% of 10% and 20%, and an Assist Rate of 20%.

Quite literally, there has not been a player in modern college basketball like Gaige Prim. Appreciate him while you still can, as it seems likely that this upcoming MVC Tournament —

YES!!!!!! Alright, you have a full extra year to appreciate what’s going on here. But also, just watch Missouri State this weekend.

JaQuori McLaughlin (UC Santa Barbara)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 41.2%

Add JaQuori McLaughlin to the “players who make college basketball special” pile. McLaughlin is one of just eight players in the last 14 years to hold the following distinctions:

  • Usage Rate of 25% or higher
  • Offensive Rating of 120 or higher
  • eFG% of 55% or higher
  • Assist Rate of 30% or better

Some of the players on this list are fellow college basketball luminaries: Payton Pritchard of Oregon in 2019-20; Denzel Valentine of Michigan State in 2015-16; Thomas Walkup of Stephen F. Austin in 2015-16. McLaughlin belongs on that list. He only averages 15.9 points per game, but it’s his remarkable efficiency at all three levels of the floor (40.8% on threes, 45.2% on long twos, 62.7% at the rim) and solid defense that has elevated UCSB to its best season since 2001-02 if not further back. March needs McLaughlin.

Terry Taylor (Austin Peay)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 5.9%

Terry Taylor is perhaps this list’s Career Achievement Award recipient. None of Taylor’s Austin Peay teams have come close to making the NCAA Tournament, and this year’s group appears to have a similar future of falling out in the Ohio Valley semifinal. I don’t think it’s Taylor’s fault by any means. He has an extra year of eligibility if he wants it, and I don’t know if he’d spent it at Austin Peay or not, but his stats are so special that it requires a full breakdown.

  • 2,488 career points scored.
  • 1,232 rebounds secured, 508 of them offensive.
  • Averaged a double-double in both his junior and senior year, with nearly the exact same averages (21.8 PPG vs. 21.7 PPG; 11.0 RPG both seasons).
  • Averaged 5.1 offensive rebounds PER GAME this season.
  • In the last 14 seasons of college basketball, 28 players have posted the following collection of stats in a season of play: 110+ Offensive Rating, 20%+ Usage Rate, 10%+ OREB%, <15% TO%, 2.5%+ Block%, 90+ made free throws, and 20+ made threes.
    • Only two players have done it in multiple seasons. Luka Garza did it last year and this year. Terry Taylor did it in every season of his college career.

I would like to note two things here: TERRY TAYLOR IS 6’5” AND GETS ELEVEN REBOUNDS PER GAME. That really does require all capitals. Also, he and Luka Garza may be the only players ever to do this exact thing. It’s just Terry and the almost-certain National Player of the Year. No big deal.

Kendric Davis (SMU)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 28%

Davis and SMU are sort of on the periphery of the NCAA Tournament as of now; Bracket Matrix has them as the fourth team out of the field at the time of writing. I’ve been greatly disheartened by the Michigan State and Duke surges of late, because 1. Those don’t interest me whatsoever; 2. They dwindle down the spots available to extremely weird cases like SMU. SMU only got to play 15 games this season and went 0-2 against Houston, but they do own three KenPom Top 100 wins, rank higher than Michigan State in KenPom, and, most importantly, have Kendric Davis.

Davis is a TCU transfer that’s averaging 17.7 a game, which probably doesn’t sound all that notable at first. However, he’s one of just three players this season averaging at least 16 points and seven assists a game, and he’s easily the player that’s closest to making the field of 68. Davis is a fabulous passer, with 45.9% of SMU possessions when he’s on the court resulting in a Davis assist. He’s also the only way the SMU offense becomes watchable, as it’s 16 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court.

Tyson Etienne (Wichita State)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 15.2%

Etienne is the other AAC representative on this list. This has been a surprisingly good year for Wichita State, which goes to show just how low expectations felt after Gregg Marshall was rightfully fired before the season started. The team has banded around now-permanent head coach Isaac Brown, with Etienne as their leader. It’s been Etienne’s phenomenal shooting and overall smart play that’s helped the Shockers overachieve.

Etienne is 45-for-114 (39.5%) from three and has one of the lowest turnover rates in all of America at just 6.8%. He makes a ton of smart decisions with the ball, and it’s been his ability to stay on the court (1.6 fouls committed per 40 minutes) that helps Wichita be Wichita. Their sample size is very small thanks to multiple COVID pauses (17 total games played), but after luck and schedule adjustments, the Shockers go from a team ranking in the 120s to a team in the 40s when Etienne is off versus on the court. He’s the main reason they have at least a shot at being in the field two weeks from now.

Alex Barcello (BYU)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 100%; projected 7 seed on Bracket Matrix

This BYU season caught a lot of people by surprise. The Cougars’ moment was supposed to be last year, when they had one of the best offenses in America and a roster loaded with seniors. Instead, most of their best players departed, and a new group was expected to pick up the slack. All the Cougars have done is go 19-5, be the second-best team in the WCC, and become an NCAA Tournament lock once again. A lot of this is due to Mark Pope being one of the most underrated coaches out there, but one would obviously be remiss to not give significant credit to BYU’s best player, Alex Barcello.

Barcello is an astounding 43-for-89 (48.3%) from three, which would be pretty notable on its own, but he’s also converted 54.7% of his twos and has become a deadly mid-range shooter, making 47.3% of his attempts there. Barcello has also stepped it up against his toughest competition: 23 in a win over Utah State, 22 against San Diego State, and 20 in BYU’s most recent outing against Gonzaga. I want to see what he can do in March, given that BYU is well overdue to show what they’re made of.

DeVante Jones (Coastal Carolina)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 13.3%

Two things of note here: yes, Cliff Ellis still coaches Coastal Carolina somehow, and yes, they are pretty unlikely to make the field of 68, even in the strangest Sun Belt season of all time. (Some teams have played 17 conference games, others have played 12, no team ranks higher than 148th in KenPom, and everyone has at least three in-conference losses.) What Coastal mainly has going for them is the sheer excitement that shooting guard DeVante Jones brings to the table.

Remember the 18 KenPom categories from earlier? Jones ranks in the top 500 in 13 of them and in the top 300 in nine. Jones is one of eight players this year to have a Usage Rate of 25% or above and an Offensive Rating of 120 or better. When you’re on the same list as Luka Garza and Drew Timme, you’re doing something correctly. (Abmas, Prim, and McLaughlin are all on this list, too.) Jones is really special, and I hope he gets his March moment somehow.

Loren Cristian Jackson (Akron)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 8.3%

I have posted about my infatuation with Loren Cristian Jackson, Akron’s 5’8” point guard, many times before. I even did it pretty recently! So why post about him again? Two reasons. Firstly, Akron’s NCAA Tournament hopes are very slim. They did get to 12-6 in MAC play, but that was only enough to make them the fourth-best team in the league. 

Secondly, Loren Cristian Jackson is a senior and has yet to say if he’ll come back for a fifth year or not. I can’t blame anyone for choosing either side of the possible coin here; you can either get paid or you can hope things get better in a non-COVID year. Still, there’s only so much time left to appreciate little LCJ, and he’s really made the most of it lately. Over Akron’s last eight games, Jackson has averaged 23.4 points per game and took a hilarious 28 shots against Buffalo in an 80-78 loss. He’s playing like he’s racing against the clock, which somehow only makes him more thrilling.

Obadiah Noel (UMass Lowell)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 4.1%

UMass Lowell is in an America East semifinal for the first time ever Saturday, where they’ll take on UMBC as a somewhat-heavy underdog. Lowell has done their thing in the middle-pack of the AE for years now after coming up from Division II. As stated above, they only have a 4.1% chance of making the NCAA Tournament, which is not high. And yet: I’m pretty fascinated by foul-drawer extraordinaire Obadiah Noel.

Noel isn’t extremely efficient, but he’s extremely unique: a backcourt player that draws 8 fouls per 40 minutes. Those are Sharife Cooper numbers, and I can almost guarantee Noel doesn’t get quite the same calls and/or respect from officials that Cooper has received. (Not complaining here, just stating a fact.) Noel was out with an injury for Lowell’s final four conference games, where they went 1-3 in his absence. He’s come back for the America East conference tournament, and through two games, he’s dropped 51 points on 33 shots and pretty much single-handedly led them to their win over New Hampshire. I don’t know how it’ll end up for him, but he’s quite a fun curiosity to keep track of as a 20.5 PPG scorer.

The 31 teams I’d most like to see in the NCAA Tournament

I do this every year, but seeing as I’m desperate for the NCAA Tournament, it seems like a good enough idea to do this exactly one month from the start date of the First Four. It’s been 22 long months since we last saw an NCAA Tournament game, and even longer since we saw the joys of conference tournament week and Selection Sunday. We won’t have that same carefree spirit this year, probably, but it’ll simply be nice to have some of these things back.

When I did this post last year, I tried to focus on teams that played fast-paced, fun offense. This year, my focus is more on the extremes the sport provides. What team in a conference does one particular thing really well? Is there a team that generates a ton of points from the post in the least post-friendly time in college basketball history? What about a team that leads the nation in turnover margin? Or a team that forces the most off-balance jumpers defensively? All of these things can lead to success in March, but even if they don’t, these are all teams I’m pretty curious about and hope to see more of next month.

There is only one rule for this post: on Bart Torvik’s site, the team selected must have at least a 10% chance of making the field. This narrowed it to 124 eligible teams, which means we picked 25% of this group. It worked out well.

I’ve arranged all 31 teams in alphabetical order by conference, meaning the first team you’ll see in this post is from the America East Conference and the final team is from the Western Athletic Conference. There are 10 conferences on each of the next two pages with 11 on the final page. I’ve got at least one GIF lined up for all 31 teams, minus the most obvious pick in this entire post, Gonzaga. They are above GIFs at this point.

Click below to get to the section of your choice.

Exploring somewhat-sane proposals for the 346-team NCAA Tournament

Like a bolt of lightning in the dead late-summer air came this tweet across my timeline:

Content! Beautiful content. The ACC has achieved what the most daydream-prone among us have hoped for: pure, uncontrollable chaos. Nothing about a 346-team NCAA Tournament (11 of Division I’s 357 programs are ineligible for this year’s Tournament for various reasons) is normal at all, and all it can bring is something wild. Imagine the takes if 1 seed Villanova loses to 346 seed Mississippi Valley State in the shocker of a lifetime!

Of course, that exact scenario takes numerous leaps of logic to achieve. A straight 346-team tournament isn’t possible without either a laundry list of byes or play-in rounds. Everyone knows the NCAA Tournament loves money, and such a massive loss to a star team would be a monetary dent in terms of viewership and advertising dollars, both of which the NCAA needs in droves (apparently!) after the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. That’s why I’d offer The Will Warren Somewhat Sane Solution. It is not the Everyone’s Easy Solution That Just Adds a Couple Extra Games.

(Quick aside: you can just turn the Field of 64 into the Field of 256 by having one play-in round for teams seeded 167 through 346, protecting the top 166. It’s not a bad idea, but forcing the top teams to win eight straight games instead of six both seems a little nuts and seems like it could massively overwhelm host cities. We’re assuming no/limited crowds for the purpose of this experiment, and having even 16 teams podded up in one city probably means at least a couple of hotels at full capacity. I went to school for English, not Hotel Management, so maybe this is actually fine, but who knows.)

Here is the Official guide to a plan I cooked up yesterday afternoon, along with questions I still have to answer:

1. A ladder system that protects the top 32 teams.

In order to ensure that proper respect is paid to teams that have a lot of success during the conference-only regular season (another assumption that I’m running with), I’ve instituted a system that gives the 32 best* teams a free run to the Field of 64. It’s how it would work in a normal season, so it seems fair to keep this part. What this means is that 32 teams out of the remaining 314 will have to play their way into the Field of 64 by way of our 1-to-346 seeded ladder system.

What’s a ladder system? Think of it the way they run it in the Korean Baseball League.

  • The fifth-seeded team plays the fourth-seeded team.
  • The winner plays the third-seeded team.
  • That winner plays the second seed…
  • And finally, that winner gets to play the first seed.

It’s a testament to how well you can sustain your success if you make it all the way up the ladder, and it rewards those who’ve had full-season success as opposed to those who get hot for a few games. How does our ladder system work?

2. Six play-in rounds, spread out over 10-14 days at neutral sites, that slowly whittle the field from 346 to 64 teams.

Bear with me here. This is pretty nuts, I’ll admit, but so’s the idea of a 346-team college basketball tournament in a sport ripe with variance. Anything can happen in any one game, which is why we’re introducing this ladder system as opposed to the 166-team protection. This enables full-season success to matter, while allowing a team to run their way from the bottom to the big time if they’re hot. It attempts to simulate Conference Championship Week in some form, though with more rounds than any individual conference championship.

Here’s how it works. Teams are reseeded by round; i.e., if the #334 team wins in the first round but no team below them wins, they will play the #212 seed in the second, and so on.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • Now, we could go right into a 256-team field and stop here. If we don’t, we have a third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The fifth round features the teams seeded 33-64 and the fourth-round winners for a total of 48 games being played, eliminating 48 teams to get to 80.
  • Now – finally – our final play-in round allows for teams seeded 49-80 to play each other for the right to be in the field of 64.

This is very much silly, but it also works. Teams are forced to climb their way up the ladder system to earn their spot in the NCAA Tournament in a system that somewhat simulates conference tournaments with much less structure and more chaos. You like chaos, right?

3. Alternately, the same plan, but with four play-in rounds and a 128-team field.

This allows for a shorter time period and is less complicated. Again, teams are reseeded after reach relevant round; if #340 beats #263 but no other team below them wins, they would play #212 in the next round.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • A third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The Tournament is then seeded where 1 plays 128, 2 plays 127, and so on, with aims at ensuring region vs. region play.

Question: What about automatic qualifiers from non-Big Six conferences? We’ll have to work that out. Ostensibly, we could turn the Top 32 into the 32 conference champions/standings leaders at season’s end and it would work out just as well. Then, the final 32 spots are made up of the 32 teams that survive our ladder/play-in system. However…doesn’t it feel kind of weird to have a field where, say, 272nd-ranked-in-KenPom North Carolina Central is guaranteed a spot but 3rd-ranked Baylor isn’t? To be determined, folks. Though if you’re the third-best team in college basketball, you should be able to win against whoever you draw no matter what.

Question: How do we ensure smaller, lower-seeded schools can actually play each other? There’s a clear issue here, and I’m not totally sure how to resolve it under this format. For instance, what if Albany (in New York) draws Florida A&M (very much not in New York) in the first round? That’s a lot of travel costs we’d have to work out, and it likely isn’t worth it for Florida A&M. The best thing we can do is have one city be the host to as many games as possible, similar to the actual Field of 64. Perhaps for this specific example, the two teams could play in Washington D.C. at a neutral site. Someone smarter than me probably has an idea on how to do pods for this, and obviously, the 256-team field is much easier to work out. But it’s also not nearly as protective of those who’ve earned the right to be there.

Question: How long would both plans take? For the six play-in round structure, I think it could be accomplished over the course of 10-14 days – AKA, how long conference championship “week” usually takes – at multiple neutral court sites. We’d have to stuff 314 teams in no more than four cities, but I’d say it’s at least somewhat doable. For the four-round structure, we could realistically accomplish this in anywhere from 6-10 days. Again, this stuffs a lot of teams in no more than four bubble cities, but it also cuts the number of play-in teams from 314 to 218. However, it creates much more variance.

Question: Maybe a 96-team field? Sure! The in-between plan, which the NCAA almost implemented ten years ago. Just take the four-round plan listed above and add a fifth-round between teams seeded 65-128.

The 64 best NCAA Tournament games of all time (sort of)

Obviously, this sucks. It’s going to suck for a while, and it’s going to be much worse before it gets better. That said: if we are all going to be isolated from each other, we can still enjoy each other’s company digitally.

To cope with this from a basketball standpoint, I’ve decided to create my personal list of the 64 best NCAA Tournament games of all time. What this means is the following:

  • Each round, I’ll be showing off what I believe are the best games, split by seed line. For the Round of 64, that means there’s four 1 vs. 16 games, four 2 vs. 15s, four 3 vs. 14s, etc. Round of 32: two 1/16 vs. 8/9s, etc.
  • This will follow round-by-round. Starting in the Sweet Sixteen, there will be no seed limitations, as by then, there’s too many possibilities, but across the first two rounds, all games will be given out to seed lines to the best of my ability.
  • I can’t promise these are, uh, comprehensive. I’m 26 and the first NCAA Tournament I can remember watching in earnest is either 2001 (title game only) or 2002 (Sweet Sixteen onward). If you like a different game more than the one posted, tell me!
  • I based my selections on two criteria: was this game great and is the full version (or at least extended highlights) available on YouTube. That cut out some phenomenal games, but they were necessary sacrifices. We’ve got to use as much of this free time as possible.

As an introduction – and to get us to 64 games – here is the best First Four game ever: Western Kentucky-Mississippi Valley State, 2012.

Here’s the Round of 64. I hope you enjoy.

Round of 64

1 vs. 16

UMBC-Virginia, 2018.

I think this is a pretty obvious one, as it will now be the only 16-over-1 upset for another year.

Georgetown-Princeton, 1989.

For a long time, this held the standard as the preeminent Close Call. Princeton maybe/maybe didn’t get fouled on the final play of the game; watch and make the call.

Oklahoma-East Tennessee State, 1989. 

But this one is somehow forgotten. ETSU has a wild Tournament history; entering the 1989 Tournament at 20-11 and fourth in the SoCon only to lead 1 SEED OKLAHOMA BY 17 POINTS in the first half seems like it tops the list.

Gonzaga-Southern, 2012. 

There’s a very specific moment in this game – for me, when Southern cuts it to 54-52 – where I really did think I was about to see a 16 seed finally do it.

2 vs. 15

Duke-Lehigh, 2012.

It’s Duke. I can’t not put this on here, man.

Georgetown-Florida Gulf Coast, 2013.

Despite being a worse game, this one beat out both Hampton-Iowa State and Norfolk State-Missouri for mere shock value. It’s one thing when a 15 seed wins; it’s another when a 15 seed totally, systematically demolishes their opponent. I had never seen anything like it since I’d started watching the Tournament.

Robert Morris-Villanova, 2010. 

It sucked not getting this one, to be honest. Robert Morris led almost the entire way, led by eight points with nine minutes to play, and just couldn’t pull it off. Villanova would lose two days later, blunting the impact of this one down the road, but as a game, it beats the pants off of several of the actual upsets.

Tennessee-Winthrop, 2006.

Same with this one. It was a very good game made better by the presence of a buzzer-beater. Winthrop was coached by a dude named Gregg Marshall – heard of him? – and this was Bruce Pearl’s first year at Tennessee. Again, Tennessee lost two days later, but the tension of this game over the final five minutes is sky-high.

3 vs. 14

North Carolina-Weber State, 1999.

Harold Arceneaux is the exact type of small-school player every high seed fears in March.

Baylor-Georgia State, 2015.

For 37 minutes, this was a pretty boring game. However: the final three minutes are delirious.

Marquette-Davidson, 2013.

This one has sadly been lost to time in terms of a full game upload, but the ending is all you really need. 14 seed Davidson came out and owned the game for 39 minutes; unfortunately, you play 40.

Michigan-Pepperdine, 1994.

Not a ton to work with here; the number of great 3/14 games aren’t very high. But this one gets unfairly looked over. Minus Chris Webber, this is Fab Five-era Michigan needing overtime to get past a 14 seed. It’s worth a look.

4 vs. 13

UCLA-Princeton, 1996.

Had Belmont completed the backdoor play last March, it would’ve felt the exact same way as this did for basketball nerds in 1996.

Ole Miss-Valparaiso, 1998.

You see the final play every year, obviously. But did you know it was a four-point game at halftime and within five points for basically the entire second half? Tense!

Louisville-Morehead State, 2011.

Annoyingly, this is all that’s on YouTube…..but that shot is worth inclusion alone.

Syracuse-Vermont, 2005.

On any list of “Greatest Gus Johnson Exclamations in American History,” the part where he starts to say T.J. Sorrentine’s name and just goes “SssssssssssssOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” is #1.

5 vs. 12

Florida-Creighton, 2002.

This game is secretly one of the five best of this first round.

  1. Double overtime!
  2. KYLE KORVER!
  3. A BUZZER BEATER!
  4. One-point final margin!
  5. Udonis Haslem!
  6. Also, the play where Florida deflected the ball out of bounds and the Creighton player holds him back….probably a foul now, yeah?

Drake-Western Kentucky, 2008.

Here’s the thing. If it’s just that buzzer-beater in an otherwise forgettable game, it’s still a good game, because there’s a buzzer-beater. But when you factor in that Drake’s best team ever made a 17-point second half comeback to force overtime, the final score was 101-99, and the guy who made the shot was an otherwise-unnotable four-year Western Kentucky player, it’s basically all of what March Madness is supposed to be. I think this is my personal favorite game of the first 32.

Saint Louis-NC State, 2014.

I picked NC State in this game and still get chest pains every time I see a Wolfpack player step to the line in the final seconds.

Auburn-New Mexico State, 2019.

I had Auburn in the Final Four because I thought it was a very good value pick. It made me look really smart for 39 minutes or so and made me want to die for one. The final 30 seconds or so of this game are genuinely unbelievable.

6 vs. 11

Duke-VCU, 2007.

If you were 16 years or younger in 2007 you thought Eric Maynor was going to be what DeMar DeRozan ended up being.

Miami (FL)-Loyola Chicago, 2018.

Pretty much a perfect finish. The team vying for the upset hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 1985, let alone won a game; the team on top has the head coach of maybe the most famous 11 seed to ever make the Final Four. And the final shot, from the logo…genuinely, had Loyola not defeated Tennessee in the next round, I would have been able to watch this a much happier man.

Iowa-George Washington, 1996.

Not one anyone remembers (I had to do some research on it myself), but a phenomenal game. Iowa comes back from 17 points down in the final eight minutes to win in regulation. Iowa would relive this from the other side of the ball against Northwestern State exactly ten years later.

Maryland-Belmont, 2019.

Watching this and not rooting for Belmont should have been a crime.

7 vs. 10

Nevada-Texas, 2018.

Sometimes I like thinking about how Nevada overcame a 14-point deficit and a 22-point deficit in the span of 48 hours or so to make the Sweet Sixteen.

Michigan-Oklahoma State, 2017.

This was a very rare game: a non-marquee matchup that received a lot of hype and fully lived up to it. It was two of the best offenses in basketball and two very, very good teams that were underseeded. Arguably Derrick Walton’s finest performance. Also arguably the game that got DJ Wilson drafted in the first round.

Gonzaga-Davidson, 2008.

An unfortunate thing about the Stephen Curry Elite Eight run is that, after the first two rounds, the Sweet Sixteen game was over with ten minutes left and the Elite Eight game was a brickfest. That left this game or the Georgetown comeback, and I think this one’s just straight-up better.

Connecticut-St. Joseph’s, 2014.

I still genuinely cannot process that a team that had to go to overtime with a 10 seed on the first day of the NCAA Tournament won the whole thing.

8 vs. 9

Ohio State-Siena, 2009.

Here’s a game that no one remembers but was so, so fun. Siena’s return to the Tournament came after they defeated 4 seed Vanderbilt by 21 points the year before. They faced off against the first post-Greg Oden Ohio State team to get into the Tournament, the game went to double overtime, and you had a phenomenal finish complete with a clutch three-pointer to win it.

Texas-Wake Forest, 2010.

This is the only game on the list that doesn’t have video to go with it, unfortunately. But: it is the game that made me fear Rick Barnes.

Cincinnati-Purdue, 2015.

This game had a buzzer-beater to get to overtime, a near-buzzer-beater that would’ve won it and overtime, and had the incredible storyline of Cincinnati’s coach watching the game from home due to a health scare.

Western Kentucky-Michigan, 1995.

As you’re seeing on this list, one of the easiest ways to ensure you’re watching a great college basketball game in March is to put Western Kentucky in it. I don’t know what it is about this program, but they always bring the goods.

NEXT PAGE: Round of 32 & Sweet Sixteen

How the stats would’ve picked this year’s (theoretical) 2020 NCAA Tournament

BIG OL’ EDITOR’S NOTEEverything you are reading, as follows, is a hypothetical simulation. The 2020 NCAA Tournament obviously did not happen, but I’ve pieced together a field that A. seems realistic and B. helps me waste more time by thinking about it.

So, here we are. I don’t know how much everyone reading this has changed their lives to reflect our global issues, but I do think we all should. The NCAA certainly did, and it’s tough to be rational about it, but we have to. That said, this is our time.

Something I’ve done just about every year since I knew what statistics were was create a mock NCAA Tournament bracket before the real one. This bracket would reflect how I would pick every game when the time came simply because I like being prepared. For the 2019 Tournament, I created a Google Doc that had stats for every seed line. All of this, objectively, would sound purely ridiculous to someone who spends less than ~2 months of the year thinking about college basketball. And yet: I got three of the four Final Four teams right and you didn’t. I’m sorry, that’s a ridiculous brag, but I had to fit it in somewhere.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that in the midst of the NCAA Tournament uncertainty on Thursday, I decided to create a fake bracket on my lunch break at my day job. The Google Doc for this one is titled “Let’s have some fun,” because it should be. Here’s how I made my field of 68:

  • For the most part, I just took the highest-rated conference champion for the Big Six and assumed no bid thieves. Cincinnati technically won the AAC due to the cancellations, so I let them in without a further simulation.
  • For the other 26 conferences, I ran RAND() functions in Excel based on the likelihood that the best team in each conference would win it. This was to reflect that upsets frequently happen in conference tournaments. As such, we ended up with 11 non-first-place conference tournament winners, which is actually a little lower than you’d expect, but makes sense given our restrictions. To save time, every conference that had a team at >50% to win the conference tournament was given a pass into the field. Seemed fair and seemed realistic; I am not God.
  • At-larges made the field on a combination of their Bracket Matrix average seed and Bart Torvik’s projected average seed. This shifted the field a small amount, but 66 of the 68 teams that would’ve made the Matrix’s field of 68 as an at-large made mine. (Xavier and NC State are in my field, while UCLA and Stanford are not. Sorry to all Pac-12 fans; I can create a contingency bracket if you want.)
  • Lastly, the field was seeded 1-68 on said seeding combination. It feels right, and I like how it turned out.

Enough wailing. Here’s your field. Where necessary, I’ve included an asterisk* where the conference champion was someone other than the 1 seed.

The 2020 Will Warren Invitational Field of 68

  • 1 seeds: Kansas, Gonzaga, Baylor, Dayton
  • 2 seeds: San Diego State, Florida State, Villanova, Michigan State
  • 3 seeds: Creighton, Duke, Maryland, Seton Hall
  • 4 seeds: Oregon, Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State
  • 5 seeds: Wisconsin, Butler, BYU, West Virginia
  • 6 seeds: Michigan, Auburn, Penn State, Iowa
  • 7 seeds: Virginia, Illinois, Arizona, Houston
  • 8 seeds: Colorado, St. Mary’s (CA), Providence, Marquette
  • 9 seeds: Rutgers, LSU, Florida, Oklahoma
  • 10 seeds: USC, Texas Tech, Indiana, Arizona State
  • 11 seeds: Utah State, Wichita State/Xavier, Cincinnati, East Tennessee State
  • 12 seeds: Richmond/NC State, Yale, Stephen F. Austin, Liberty
  • 13 seeds: Vermont, New Mexico State, Belmont, Western Kentucky*
  • 14 seeds: Bradley*, Hofstra, Northern Colorado*, North Dakota State*
  • 15 seeds: Texas State*, Winthrop*, Northern Kentucky*, Ohio*
  • 16 seeds: UC Santa Barbara*, Boston University*, Siena/North Carolina Central, Robert Morris/Jackson State*

First four out: Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Mississippi State
Next four out: Northern Iowa, Purdue, Arkansas, Oklahoma State

A quick Q&A session, based on questions I would imagine people asking:

  • Why is Baylor the third overall seed? By Kansas winning the Big 12 Tournament here, we’re assuming Baylor now has four losses on the season, which, in my mind, would elevate Gonzaga to the second overall seed. I don’t know, dude, I just did it because I felt like it.
  • Explain Creighton and Duke as 3 seeds. Creighton was white hot down the stretch of the season; Duke was not, but they are named Duke, so we all rightfully expect them to win the ACC. Again, in our simulation, Florida State won it, so a 3 seed feels accurate. Meanwhile, Creighton did win the Big East in this simulation, but Villanova ranked ahead of them. Why? 1. Ask someone who does this for a living I really don’t know. 2. It actually isn’t that absurd; by Wins Above Bubble, Villanova ranks 7th and Creighton 9th.
  • Kentucky as a 4??? Hater! Correct! I do not like Kentucky. Anyway, this is a team that didn’t crack the KenPom top 20 after January and closed the season 12th in WAB. I’m gonna guess that the teams in actual good conferences would’ve gotten the nod ahead of them. Everyone really undersold how awful it was to watch SEC basketball this season.
  • Explain the Last Four In. Again, not God, but a very white guy who’s drinking coffee out of a Charleston Rainbow Row cup as I type. Anyway:
    • Wichita State ranked 31st in WAB, had good metrics across Torvik and KenPom, and, in our simulation, wins at least one AAC Tournament game.
    • Xavier only ranked 46th, but they had no true bad losses (16-2 against Qs 2-4) and had a true marquee win: their 74-62 road victory over Seton Hall in early February.
    • Richmond: 38th in WAB, made the A10 championship game in our simulation. Xavier got the 11 seed nod only because they were in a significantly stronger conference.
    • NC State: On first run, this was Stanford, but then Stanford totally blew it to Cal in their lone Pac-12 Tournament game…which pushed NCSU just over the edge. They ranked almost exactly the same in metrics averages, but NCSU had a slightly better WAB with one additional Q1&Q2 win. I don’t like either team, to be honest.
  • Explain those who got left out. Just discussed Stanford. UCLA had a worse WAB than any of the four who got in and farted around for half the season. Texas did have a good-enough WAB at 39th but left an awful impression on the committee with a Big 12 quarterfinals loss to Texas Tech, another bubble team. Mississippi State lost to Florida in the SEC quarterfinals and had a worse WAB than the four who got in. The only team in Next Four Out that had a realistic case to me was Northern Iowa, who ranked 41st in WAB, but I simply couldn’t imagine a committee rewarding a blowout MVC quarters loss to Drake with even a First Four Out nod, sadly.

Okay! That’s a lot of words! You came here for a bracket.

The Will Warren 2020 Invitational Bracket

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NEXT PAGE: Bracket breakdowns