Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Really, Really, Ridiculously Early March Madness Preview

This will be a dual article covering NCAA tournament pool strategy combined with a recap of the craziest party week of my life. As always, if you aren't interested in my adventures, skip down to the sports related content!

ESPN The Weekend

Between last Thursday and yesterday I got the opportunity to ride in a NASCAR race car going 140mph, I met Greg Jennings and his family in my hotel elevator (he was staying on my floor), I got Charlie Sheen drunk with Herm Edwards, and I ate and drank the sort of food and booze that Bill Gates would serve at his wedding . . . all on ESPN's dime.

If that wasn't enough, on Friday night, a Ghananian boxer's cornermen somehow found out I was a soccer fan, so I told them I was a fan of Michael Essien's (he is Ghana's version of Michael Jordan), and forgave their country for knocking the U.S. out of the World Cup. They proceeded to allow me to carry the Ghanan flag to the ring, let me wave it through the fight (all the while chanting GHANA GHANA GHANA!!!!!), and gave me the title belt (yes, that's it above) to take pictures with when the fighter won.

ESPN also had a luxury suite for us at a Spring Training game (Mets/Braves) where SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn was the guest (we sat in the suite and drank rather than watch the game, and didn't say much to Linda, although we did put our friend on the phone with her to show him how accessible the ESPN personalities were).

I can honestly say that this was, without a doubt, the craziest party experience of my entire life, and if you know me, I tend to have a lot of crazy adventures. I feel really grateful to ESPN for putting on such a lavish event (Steve and I consumed at least 100 alcoholic beverages each during the 4 days on the trip . . . no exaggeration).

The actual ESPN the Weekend events themselves were nothing to write home about, and I didn't get any Packer players autographs (the events were littered with autograph dealers so the players weren't generally signing), but I know I probably will never get to do anything as cool again, so the experience was really amazing, and well worth sharing. I have a newfound appreciation for ESPN as a company, they really know how to make memorable events for their guests.

March Madness Strategy and New Format Primer

Time to get you all thinking about filling out your brackets on Sunday. As you will see below, depending on your tournament bookie, contest promoter, or office pool manager, you may have 4 games to make selections for on Tuesday morning. Since I would hate to see you do anything to damage your chances to win your pool (unless you are playing against me for money), I looked into the format change this week, rather than waiting until Sunday.

For those that don't know, there are now technically 68 teams in the tournament. Teams ranked 64-68 by the selection committee (low mid-major conference champions or upset winners of conference tournaments) play each other (one game Tuesday, one Wednesday) to get us our final two 16 seeds. Additionally, the last four at-large teams (11 or 12 seeds depending on the breakdown of conference tournament "upsets") play each other (again, one game Tuesday, one Wednesday) to earn the last two at-large spots in the tournament.

The official rules of the ESPN.com tournament challenge and Yahoo! Sports bracket manager (the most popular tournament "contest" providers in the U.S.) do not count the 4 play-in games as part of their bracket challenge. Thus, you can take solice in the fact that you can still turn in (or modify) your bracket at 11:59 eastern time on Thursday morning.

While writing this article I realized that I've been "competing" in bracket challenge contests for 20 straight years now. My first was 1991, when I was 11 years old. I'll never forget watching UNLV blow its perfect 1990-1991 season to Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, and Mike Krzyzewski in the national semifinal. That loss literally cost me the shot at $30.00 (we collected that much with our lunch money) when the guy that randomly picked North Carolina to win it all caught me in points by winning his semifinal game.

Nevertheless, I vowed never to lose again in the bracket pool and have put in the time every year to be able to say I knew everything I could know to put myself in position to be successful in the bracket challenge. Suffice to say, I haven't won every year, but I've done pretty well.

I love the tournament, love helping people win their pool, and am always happy to field questions. Let's just say that my uncle teaching me about fantasy sports, NCAA tournament pools, and Texas Hold 'Em poker when I was in my pre-teen years provided me with both a skill and was the birth of an addiction.

The disclaimer to the advice I'm about to give is that everything in March is fluid. No sport is more influenced by psyche (or stress) than college basketball. These are still kids playing a game that millions of people are betting on. That is part of what makes these games so fun to watch.

As a thanks to my readers for sticking with this [still] hungover mess of an article, I'm going to give you four pieces of invaluable advice for making your picks. Although they aren't the "secret," (FYI there is a secret and I'm not going to give it to you because the "secret" has been my tournament pool advantage for 10 of the 20 years I've been doing this), and these tips are available if you are doing your homework or watch a lot of college basketball, the following is a condensed way to [almost certainly] perform well in your pool.

Keep in mind, even though you have the tips, you still need to figure out the information. I'll give you some of it next week when we have the field, but it takes a lot of time and effort to sift through the data . . . you also need to know where to look (which shouldn't be that hard in the age of the internet).

The tips (not necessarily in order of importance):

1) Teams that shoot a below average free throw percentage when compared with other teams in the field will not win the NCAA tournament. This is tried, true, tested, and unequivocal. The best example of this was Memphis in 2008. That year, Memphis shot 67.3% from the line. Going into that tournament this was not given enough press because Memphis looked really really good, had the best player in the country on its team (Derrick Rose), and was 38-1 going into the tournament.

I picked them to lose in the elite 8. I was wrong, but I had the right idea. Memphis made the title game, but once they got there they missed a TON of free throws and let Kansas back in the game. Eventually Mario Chalmers hit a 3 point shot that sunk the Tigers . . . which leads me to my next two tips;

2) Teams that play good defense beat teams with good offense. Sounds simple? It's not so simple when you aren't watching teams like George Mason on a regular basis (hint: George Mason plays really really good defense). You make your money in the second round. Anyone can flip a coin and pick 8 seeded Mason over 9 seeded Illinois (I use this kind of example because people often go for the smaller school in what appear to be "toss-up" matchups like the 8/9).

However, when you are going for the big knockout in the second round because you think Ohio State is the weakest number 1 seed (for whatever reason), wouldn't you rather know that the team you are picking actually has a shot to pull off something that has been done only 13 times in the past you'd rather be in position to pull this off by having a team that plays good defense, has a good coach, and shoots a high percentage from the line?

3) Never underestimate the effect a bad coach can have on a team's chances to make a deep tournament run. A lot of people think John Calipari and Bruce Pearl are good coaches. They aren't. What they are is good recruiters (for whatever rea$on that may be $$$).

In addition to the speculation that Cal and Pearl coach the best teams money can buy, both guys are willing to recruit anyone, even from jail
(Bob Huggins at Cincy was another guy like this), if the player has athletic talent and helps them look good on paper. The problem with that strategy is you end up with guys who care about scoring (and not fundamentals like playing defense and shooting free throws).

Bottom line, some of the best recruiters aren't the best coaches. Good coaches are guys like Mark Few at Gonzaga, Tom Izzo at Michigan State (not this year), coach K, and Bo Ryan at Wisconsin. They may or may not have won a title, but all 4 are good coaches that have the ability to get the most out of their teams (and help you win your pool by accumulating points). Although those guys aren't the only good coaches, it's safest to pick teams with guys who are thought of as members of the "good motivators" fraternity;

4) Good guard play beats good frontcourt play in college basketball. This one is crucial when you are trying to predict a first-round upset. Why is this one so important? It's huge because a lot of big upsets happen when a trailing underdog mounts a furious comeback. How do big comebacks happen in college basketball? At the free-throw line and behind the three-point line. Thus, finding out who has the best guards could make you a lot of money in the first round.

There you have it. Do your homework, employ my methods, and you'll have a recipe for having a pretty fun next month rather than a fun first weekend of the tournament. Also remember that the end of the tournament is the beginning of baseball season.

See you next Thursday morning when I'll post my predictions for the first round. We'll see if this entire article gets blown up (the last time it failed was 2005). I remember so many good teams getting knocked out in the first round that year.

Best of luck not having 2011 be your 2005.


Juicelaw said...

Let me start by saying I wouldn't have believed your story without the picture. WOW.

Second, if that was a work related trip in any way, I know two certain writers on this blog who a) would be available to move to LA immediately, or b)just got a little more depressed.

Third, anyone that says they are NCAA bracket experts are not in fact experts. I'm just sayin.

UCSB616 said...

It was amazing. I have pics of it all. Nothing to do with work. It was the grand prize in the ESPN Los Angeles fantasy football championship.

I did get several espn execs to read some stuff off this site (mostly mine, sorry i was drunkenly self-promoting, but did show some of yours) during down time and on shuttle busses, and I showed my super bowl article to Herm Edwards when I was telling him how Logan was born on super bowl Sunday. He liked it a lot (thanks Herm if you read this), so although I can't promise we will be back there together, I can't totally rule it out either (I'm actually serious too).

Re: the bracket thing, I've bombed out plenty, we all have. However, I'm a firm believer that the bracket requires a significant amount of made luck, and that the trends I pointed out have helped me have way above average success over the years.

I'm no Nostradamus, but I don't half ass things either. By doing the homework and employing and sticking to my methods I've cashed in a lot of brackets in 20 years and the same people ask me for advice every year. That may not make me an "expert," but the people asking for my help have never filed suit for "tournament malpractice" either.

UCSB616 said...

Just for the hell of it (and because youve bruised my ego irreparably by calling me out) I wanted to see how I did in Bear's pool 2 years ago (didnt get it done in time last year I don't think).

Obviously this search was just to see if I could talk shit to you, and in no way proves the existence of any nonexistent "expertise," but the result from my yahoo fantasy archive was interesting in my only head to head appearance vs juicelaw:

Tournament Pick'em 2009 1 of 16 Duck Commander 09 Gophers didn't deserve it

Since I'm almost positive we will do this in 2011 we HAVE to do some preview writing next week, then do a back and forth re results and talk shit, et. over the blog. Could make for a lot of fun if/when I finish last and that column gets destroyed and makes me look like an idiot and you a genius!

Juicelaw said...

I'm down. Even though tax season has made free time pretty scarce, its not like I won't fill out a bracket. Sunday night I will devote some time to it.

I do a tremendous amount of statistical research as well, and I've found that it tends to help a little, but I'm convinced it is blind luck.

How large of a league was that ESPN LA? That is CRAZY.

UCSB616 said...

No doubt luck plays a huge role in it, if it didn't everyone would just do that for a living and Vegas would be out of business. Last I checked they are doing well. My point is that in an office pool you are playing against people, not Vegas. By using trends that have held up throughout the history of the tournament im arguing that you can put yourself at a distinct (not at all infallible) advantage over the lady who picks based on color or mascot. I'm even arguing you can put yourself at a distinct advantage over buddies who watch a hell of a lot of sports. Same goes for fantasy football.

Btw, espn la thing was 100 teams, 10 leagues of 10. One prize to the team with the most overall points (adjusted for league strength). No matter how "good" you are, that on involved an enormous amount of luck. Almost blew it twice in the playoffs. Kick ass prize though no doubt.