The Selection Committee ranked the 1 seeds Kansas, Kentucky, Duke then Syracuse. Yet if I was to rate the most difficult paths to the Final Four for 1 seeds, I'd rate them Kansas, Kentucky, Duke then Syracuse. Some will argue that Syracuse has it easier than Duke, but without question those two teams have it much easier than Kansas and Kentucky. And without question Kansas is in the toughest region. I'm dumbfounded as to why the Selection Committee would do that. In fact, they even gave the Play-In game winner to Duke. So if Kansas doesn't get the Play-In game winner, and they get the toughest bracket, what exactly did they get for being named the #1 overall seed? The West region, more than any other, should be full of upsets. Knock yourself out, because there's no chance that this region goes anywhere close to chalk.
1. Syracuse over 16. Vermont
9. Florida State over 8. Gonzaga
12. UTEP over 5. Butler
4. Vanderbilt over 13. Murray State
11. Minnesota over 6. Xavier
3. Pittsburgh over 14. Oakland
7. BYU over 10. Florida
2. Kansas State over 15. North Texas
Once again the 1, 2 and 3 seeds will win easily. Although I have fond memories of that Syracuse/Vermont battle from a few years back. I picked Vermont to win that game, which was one of my proudest bracket predictions. But that said, this year's Syracuse team is slightly better than that one, but more importantly this year's Vermont team is not remotely in the same class as that one.
The 4/13 and 5/12 match-ups are both interesting, however. In fact, if there's one region where a 12 or 13 makes the Sweet 16, I'd definitely pick the West. I'm going to go with UTEP over Butler for three reasons. First of all, as I said, mid-major 5 seeds are very vulnerable, and since I've been warning people to pick against mid-major 5 seeds back in 2006 those teams have gone 1-3 in first round games. That one win was Butler, back in 2007, but that doesn't outweigh the stats. The second reason is that UTEP is arguably better than Butler. The Sagarin PREDICTOR puts Butler 31st and UTEP 34th, while Pomeroy puts Butler 26th and UTEP 34th. So both computers agree that Butler is no more than slightly better than UTEP, and that is more than outweighed by the psychological advantage of being the 12 seed. And the third reason is that Butler becomes a very small team when Matt Howard gets in foul trouble, which he tends to do, collecting four or more fouls in 18 of 34 games this season. And not only is Derrick Caracter a force inside, but Arnett Moultrie also is a handful. Both players average drawing 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes played, which is outstanding for players who get extended minutes. The odds are that Matt Howard ends up on the bench, and a UTEP team that likes to score most of its points in the paint will have a field day.
The 4/13 match-up is also a good upset pick. Vandy is arguably the weakest 4 seed (it's either them or Purdue), and Murray State is always a pesky NCAA Tournament opponent. But that said, Vanderbilt has been surprisingly strong away from home this season, and I just don't think they're a good match-up for Murray State. Murray State is very sloppy and inefficient offensively, and relies on turnovers. They force 10.0 steals per game, which puts them in a tie for fifth best in the nation. But they've feasted on teams unable to prepare for them properly (Kevin Stallings is better at preparing a team than any coach Murray State faces in the Ohio Valley), and Vandy has done a good job of avoiding turnovers against more fearsome trapping defenses than Murray State brings. If you can handle John Wall, you can handle Murray State. That's not to say Murray State still isn't a good upset pick - they are - I'm just leaning toward Vandy here.
The 6/11 match-up is another difficult pick, because Xavier is actually a fairly strong 6 seed, with a Sagarin PREDICTOR of 19th and a Pomeroy rating of 22nd. Tennessee is the only stronger 6 seed. But that said, the best upsets to pick in the NCAA Tournament are always when you have a mid-major playing a BCS conference team where the BCS team is the worse seed. In addition, Minnesota is a very good team that is better than their resume. They have a Sagarin ELO_CHESS of 59th, and a PREDICTOR of 21st. Their Pomeroy LUCK rating is 294th. The biggest reason for those numbers was out of conference, where Minnesota had three games decided by five points or less and lost all of them. When you throw in a nine point win over Butler, and no losses in any out of conference games other than those three heartbreakers, followed by a 12-10 Big Ten record (if you include Big Ten tournament games) then that's a pretty good season. And when you consider that they struggled early because of off-the-court strife but seem to be pulling things together late in the season, they're the perfect upset pick.
The 8/9 game is another interesting game, because of the teams involved. But that said, Gonzaga has not been nearly as good as they've been in previous years. They are a very young team that is talented, but has struggled to create offense against good teams. They have played seven games against RPI Top 50 teams and averaged only 1.00 points per possession. If you take out their games against Saint Mary's it's even worse (0.92 points per possession). Considering that Florida State probably has the best defense in the nation, and that they have athletes of the type that Gonzaga hasn't seen all season, Gonzaga could find it really difficult to score. Considering that both Sagarin and Pomeroy consider Florida State significantly better than Gonzaga, and that over the last decade that Gonzaga has been a national power they have played much better as the lower seed than as the better seed, and that historically 9 seeds have won 54% of games over 8 seeds, I really can't think of any good reason to take Gonzaga here.
Finally, I actually think that the 7/10 game is another easy call. If there was one team that shouldn't have been in the bracket it was Florida, and for them to get a 10 seed is fairly inexplicable. In addition, BYU is a very dangerous 7 seed. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate them as one of the ten best teams in the nation. And if Jimmer Fredette hadn't gotten ill before the New Mexico game BYU would have probably won the Mountain West outright and would have been a 4 or 5 seed. Not only that but BYU has all of the qualities you want in a Tournament team: they take care of the ball (they turn the ball over on 16.1% of possessions, which is ninth fewest in the nation), and they are possibly the best shooting team we've seen in years. Their 79.6% free throw shooting is by far the best in the nation, and their 41.6% three-point shooting is third best in the nation, and the best from a conference as good as the Mountain West. Add in the fact that Jimmer Fredette looks to be a great candidate for the breakout star of this Tournament (since everybody already knows who John Wall, Evan Turner and Sherron Collins are), and I don't see any way to pick an extremely mediocre Florida team over them.
1. Syracuse over 9. Florida State
4. Vanderbilt over 12. UTEP
3. Pittsburgh over 11. Minnesota
7. BYU over 2. Kansas State
Florida State is a good team, but they are horrendous offensively. They are a horrid passing team, and the only way to break down the Syracuse zone is with passing (see: Louisville, Georgetown, Pittsburgh). In addition, Florida State committed turnovers on 24.6% of possessions, which is 335th best in the nation, which means that Syracuse is going to have a layup line. And Florida State's outstanding halfcourt defense almost doesn't matter because Syracuse rarely scores in the halfcourt anyway, and when they do it comes on things like Andy Rautins three pointers, or on offensive rebounds (Florida State is shockingly bad at defensive rebounding considering how good they are on the offensive boards, because of how undisciplined they are). Syracuse will score so many points off of FSU turnovers that they won't need much in the halfcourt to overcome the 50 points that Florida State will probably score. FSU's only chance is for Arinze Onuaku to not play (there is talk he could miss the entire first weekend) and for them to get Rick Jackson in foul trouble, making it an extremely thin bench, and also a relatively small team. The Syracuse zone relies on having at least one of Jackson and Onuaku down there at all times, to cover for some of their perimeter defenders that are not that good (Wes Johnson in particular is very overrated as a one-on-one defender).
Picking the second round game in the 4/5/12/13 pod is very difficult, because any of the four teams are equally capable of getting out of there. You really can't go wrong with anybody. I'm going with Vanderbilt just because I think they're the best team. Also, the fact that they're efficient at getting the ball inside and scoring in there means that they are always in games, and will never fall way behind. And they're good at the free throw line, which is one of the big reasons why they've won a disproportionate amount of close games this season.
The Pittsburgh game will be interesting because they're really a very overrated 3 seed. Their Sagarin PREDICTOR is 32nd and their Pomeroy rating is 30th. They got this high seed because they finished second in the Big East, but I have no idea how that happened. They just snuck up on everybody, and the way they did it was by never losing to bad teams, and stealing an upset or two. They did have that inexplicable loss to Indiana back in early December, but they were missing two of their key players for the first half of the season, and since getting them back have not lost a game to a team outside the RPI Top 45. Both Xavier and Minnesota have the ability to beat them, but I just think Pitt will continue taking care of business against non-elite teams.
There's no chance that Florida would beat Kansas State, but you'd have to be nuts to even have them in this game. So I just want to talk about BYU versus Kansas State, where all of what I said about how BYU is an elite team that shoots well and takes care of the ball still holds. In addition, I'm just not sold on this Kansas State team. I know that all of their computer numbers are good, but they seem to be very vulnerable to teams that execute well. Kansas State is the opposite of BYU in that they are very sloppy with the ball (second worst in the Big 12 this season in turnovers, committing one on 20.5% of possessions). They do have a very good offensive backcourt with Dennis Clemente and Jacob Pullen combining for 35.1 points per game, but they're mediocre defensively And as a team Kansas State is horrible at keeping opponents off of the free throw line, which is a very bad thing to be against the best free throw shooting team in the nation not only this season, but the best of any NCAA Tournament team since the 2004-05 UTEP team.
1. Syracuse over 4. Vanderbilt
7. BYU over 3. Pittsburgh
Syracuse should actually be better in the second week than the first week, because even if Onuaku does play in the first week he'll be limited. Either of the four teams Syracuse can get here will fairly beatable. Syracuse is by far the most likely 1 seed to see a 12 or 13 seed in this game, and they'll destroy teams that are so limited athletically. Remember that Vanderbilt is actually a weak 4 seed, with a Sagarin PREDICTOR of 30th, and a Pomeroy rating of 36th. I only put them into the Sweet 16 because I thought that their opponents were weak, but there's definitely a high likelihood that we'll see someone else here. But none of the teams Syracuse can play in the Sweet 16 are among the Top 25 according to either Sagarin or Pomeroy. And none match up particularly well with the type of basketball that Syracuse likes to play either. I'd say that Syracuse is the safest Elite 8 team in this entire Tournament other than perhaps West Virginia.
The BYU game is not even really an upset. Both Pomeroy and Sagarin rate BYU as a significantly better team than Pitt. And even BYU's resume is probably better than Pitt's, as they were under-seeded and Pitt was over-seeded. Pitt only got a 3 seed because the Selection Committee couldn't fathom giving the second placed team in the Big East worse than a 3 seed (this was why I projected them to get a 3 seed on Selection Sunday, despite the weaknesses in their resume). In addition, Pitt will have trouble keeping up on offense. They are actually pretty inefficient on offense: they're among the worst shooting teams in the Big East. And since they never force turnovers their only offense comes from offensive rebounds, but BYU is second in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. It takes athleticism and hustle to offensive rebound, but defensive rebounding is just about playing fundamental basketball, and no team in the Tournament plays better fundamental basketball than BYU.
That said, Pitt would do better against Kansas State. If you have those teams playing the Sweet 16 then I think you have to like their chances of dominating the boards against a Kansas State team where no player taller than 6'8" gets more than 15 minutes per game. And not only is Kansas State sloppy with the ball, they're also not used to playing teams as physical as Pitt. I'm not sure if Pitt would have the defensive answer to Kansas State's backcourt, so this game would be something of a toss-up, but Pitt fans should definitely prefer playing Kansas State over BYU.
7. BYU over 1. Syracuse
This is a risky pick because you're going out on a limb here. Most people in your bracket pool are going to pen Syracuse right into the Final Four, and so if that happens you're screwed. But if BYU makes a run, I haven't seen anybody else picking them, so unless you're in the same pool as me you're in good shape. More importantly, BYU is the exact type of team you want to pick to make a Tournament run. They're considered by the computers to be one of the ten best teams in the nation, and they would probably have been no worse than a 4 seed if Jimmer Fredette hadn't gotten sick. And Fredette just seems like this year's answer to Glen Rice, who scored more than 30 points per game in that amazing 1989 Tournament run. The players have similar games, although Fredette might actually be more capable of creating his own shot.
And there are three other things to keep in mind here. For one, Syracuse could still be suffering from that Onuaku injury. If he misses the entire first weekend then he'll still be working his way back into the lineup by the time they play their Elite 8 game. You never want to be working in a rusty player at this point in the Tournament. Second, Syracuse will play a zone 100% of the time no matter what, and the zone is most vulnerable to three-point shooting. If BYU starts getting hot behind the arc, which they tend to do (41.6% as a team on the season), they will just be killing Syracuse over the top of the zone.
And most importantly, remember how dependent Syracuse is on turnovers. The only team from a BCS conference that had more steals per game this season was Missouri. When Syracuse is playing well they have a layup line going, like they did in that beat down of Villanova a couple of weeks ago. Syracuse is very average offensively in the halfcourt, particularly when Andy Rautins isn't shooting well, and they have struggled all season against teams that took care of the ball (Louisville, Georgetown and Pittsburgh). When Syracuse isn't getting turnovers, their offense tends to come from offensive putbacks, but you don't know if Onuaku will be his normal self, and in addition BYU is 2nd in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. If you can limit Syracuse to a single shot per possession, in a slowed down half court set, they will not score a lot of points. I just love this match-up for BYU.
Of course, if you've got Syracuse playing Pitt or Kansas State then you don't care about that analysis. Syracuse should definitely prefer to play Kansas State than Pitt. Pitt is a team that can bang with the Syracuse bigs (particularly if Onuaku is not 100%), and they've already beaten Syracuse at the Carrier Dome this season. Syracuse is a better team than Pitt, and I'd favor them in a re-match with the Panthers, but it will be a close game and you wouldn't be making a poor pick to go with the upset. Kansas State, on the other hand, just matches up horribly with Syracuse. They have no players taller than 6'8" getting more than 15 minutes per game, and were 9th in the Big 12 in defensive rebounding percentage. They're also very sloppy with the ball (11th in the Big 12 in offensive turnover percentage). In other words, they're worst at dealing with what Syracuse is best at: easy baskets. I'd be shocked if Kansas State beat Syracuse.