Before we look at the NCAA tournament through the lens of the RotoViz March Madness Simulator, a couple of quick notes:
1) As Frank points out in his int roduction to the app, college basketball is high variance. All predictions should be understood in that light and represent a great reason to experiment with the app itself.
2) Before breaking down the region using the Simulator, I’ve included a summary of competitive teams by Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings. These rankings are far more predictive than the seeds and help provide a framework for understanding the app’s projections.
3) There won’t be much discussion of 13-16 seeds because the app doesn’t like their chances. That doesn’t mean they can’t win or that they won’t eventually generate the best storylines of the tournament.
4) When I refer to measures of efficiency, I’m also referring to Pomeroy’s pace-neutral stats on offense, defense, tempo, and luck.
5) The app seems to favor offensively-oriented teams. This applies to both efficiency and tempo. And that means history tends to favor those teams. Regardless of one’s personal aesthetics, dominant strategies tend to work better. As Bill Walton loves to say, “offense wins championships.”
West squads in Top 50
(5) Ohio State
(17) New Mexico
(31) Notre Dame
(33) Wichita State
(34) Ole Miss
(37) Iowa State
The West is probably the most intriguing region. Among No. 1 seeds, Gonzaga’s resume is the most opaque due to a 96th ranked schedule. They’ve only really faced three elite teams all season, finishing with losses to Illinois and Butler, while escaping with a one-point win against Oklahoma State. The two losses now look even worse after those opponents collapsed down the stretch. A brutal draw contributes to their difficulties. The Zags should face off with Pomeroy’s seventh-ranked team in the Round of 32 and his ninth-ranked squad in the Sweet Sixteen. Logic says they’ll fall short of the Final Four.
The March Madness App sees things differently. Gonzaga spent the season crushing most opponents so convincingly that their statistical profile holds up even after adjusting for schedule. While their tilt with Pittsburgh projects to be closer than most 1 v. 8 matchups, the Zags hold a slim edge. The same is true of their game with Wisconsin.
Gonzaga may be the tournament’s most compelling storyline, but the bottom half of the West bracket is where the real craziness takes place. Ohio State finished the season on fire. After getting hammered by Wisconsin on February 17th, the Buckeyes won their final seven, a streak that culminated with a Big 10 tournament title. They may have to be content with that conference championship.
Iowa State holds the tiniest of margins against Notre Dame in a toss-up game between 7 and 10 seeds. Ohio State should be rooting for the Cyclones to escape in that one, because they own less than a half point advantage over Notre Dame.
Should Fred Hoiberg and company advance, Ohio State’s vaunted perimeter defense could face their toughest test ever. The Cyclones’ top six players have all attempted at least 62 three-pointers and all shoot 32% or better behind the line. Iowa State leads the nation in three-pointers made per game by a wide margin. They’ve also been one of the country’s most snakebitten teams, ranking 286th in luck. Anyone who watched either regular season game against Kansas understands just how unlucky they’ve been. The Mayor may not yet be the country’s best coach – though he’s on his way – but he’s definitely the coolest.
New Mexico may have ascended to No. 2 by RPI, but the shortcomings of that metric are exposed here. Steve Alford’s squad is a definitive underdog in the second round against Arizona. The Wildcats struggled against mediocre Pac-12 competition, but their overall resume is still solid. A miracle victory against Florida and a 19-point waltz over Miami tend balance their more recent foibles. Arizona’s early season success owed a lot to luck at the end of games, but that’s been balanced out more recently by a defense that ranked 276th in 3Pt% defense. Since defense against three-pointers is random, that shouldn’t be a factor in the tournament.
Somewhat entertainingly, Arizona has a solid advantage against Notre Dame, a razor thin margin against Ohio St., but would be expected to lose to Iowa State.
Pace seems to factor into these apparently bizarre projections. Iowa State, Ole Miss, and North Carolina are the only three schools to rank in the top 35 of both adjusted tempo and adjusted offensive efficiency. The app likes all three to be feistier than their seeds – and Pomeroy rankings – indicate.
Of course, if Iowa State does make a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, they’re expected to crash and burn against Gonzaga or Pittsburgh. Again, this is the bracket where the app shows the most variety in its projections based on matchup. I strongly advocate using it to experiment with the West field.
Upset Specials: Arizona over New Mexico, Iowa State over New Mexico/Arizona, Arizona over Ohio State
Final Four Cinderella: Pittsburgh
Final Four Pick: Gonzaga