NCAA tourney winners are unpredictable, but that doesn’t stop fans from trying

By Bill Felber

The question has vexed college basketball fans for decades: Exactly what is the correct strategy for filling out an NCAA tournament bracket?

With tonight’s announcement of the 68-team field, thousands of Manhattanites will join millions of compatriots around the country in addressing the 2012 version of that question. The systems employed for separating winners from losers vary almost as much as the entrants themselves, although the vast majority have at least one thing in common: They rarely work.

Somebody, of course, will get lucky over the next few weeks. My wife did last year. She won the 2011 house pool by bypassing all the top seeds in favor of the school representing her home state, in the process ignoring the fact that her selection entered the tournament with nine losses. She’s from Connecticut.

The Mercury’s 2011 office pool was won by a very sweet front desk employee, but it is impossible for me to ask her what system she employed because she has since retired. (This may be an appropriate time to assure the IRS that any relationship between her winning the office pool and retiring is coincidental.)

Some people, or course, don’t enter the office pool because they can’t handle getting beat by the front desk help. Josh Kinder, our sports editor, is one of those. Kinder probably knows as much about each team in the field as anyone, which may explain why he gets more than a little frustrated when — as happens every year — a VCU or a Butler comes out of nowhere to make hash of the brackets. Even so, Kinder does have a system. It’s the mascot system. “Which animal would beat the other animal in a fight?” he asks. This may explain how K-State (the Wildcats) beat Utah State (the Aggies) last year before losing to Wisconsin (the Badgers.) As Youtube has since made clear, there is nothing tougher than a badger. (Although one then wonders how the Badgers managed to turn around and lose to Butler (the Bulldogs) a few days later.

Cole Manbeck, who covers K-State sports for The Mercury, has his own theory, and it involves avoiding the two Missouri Valley teams in the field, Wichita State and Creighton. The flaws in this theory will be illustrated a few paragraphs hence, but Manbeck feels strongly about it. “Any Missouri Valley team; get them out,” he advises. The MVC only put one team in the 2011 tournament field, Indiana State, and the Sycamores were buried by 17 points in the first round.

Kinder basically concurs, although his reasons relate back to his mascot theory. “Wichita State—it’s a shock of wheat,” he notes. “Wheat isn’t tougher than anything.”

Kate Wartell looks past the guys in the uniforms to the uniforms themselves. As Wartell sees it, black is the power color. This theory pumps up the chances of Missouri or Wichita State — at least when they’re wearing black — and also of teams such as K-State that use black as an alternative road color.

Bryan Richardson was champion of our regular season rotisserie league this year, and, I might add, he is not retiring on his winnings. Richardson describes his post-season approach as ”more of the Moneyball-type, using statistics to help guide my decisions.” No, he adds, that doesn’t always work.

“I’ve failed in previous years using strategies ranging from wins to fewest points allowed to most points scored. I realized I only skimmed the surface, so I’m going deeper this year.” Deeper, in this case, means graduation rates … or lack of same.

Richardson’s plan is to pick teams based on their failure to graduate players, the idea being that you want kids who are really there to play basketball as opposed to ancillary reasons such as chemistry class. So he plans to tap in to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports,, which publishes rates for all NCAA schools.

Richardson notes that Connecticut (31 percent graduation rate) won last year, beating Butler (83 percent) in the finals. Also, Arizona (20 percent) beat Duke (83 percent), Florida (44 percent) beat BYU (100 percent), Kentucky (44 percent) beat North Carolina (88 percent) and VCU (56 percent) beat Kansas (80 percent).

“Based on its recent history of one-and-done players, I like Kentucky to go all the way,” Richardson said.

Paul Harris applies a method I will best describe as “needle in a haystack.” His goal, he says, is not to pick the best team but rather the team that is going to screw the entire bracket up. “You pick that team and you are well on your way to top-3 finish in the bracket pool,” he figures. At the same time, Harris acknowledges that finding that specific team is, his words, “darn near impossible.”

In best guess mode, Harris looks for specific parts to what he thinks of as a “giant killer’s anatomy,” those being athleticism, senior leadership, tough schedule, and the ability to play at different paces. Precisely which teams fit that description? Harris likes four: Wichita State, Southern Mississippi,  UNLV and Detroit-Mercy. “The Horizon champ has gone to the championship game the last two years; third time’s the charm,” Harris asserts.

Burk Krohe, our city hall reporter and regular season rotisserie league runner-up, claims no particular basketball expertise. By his own admission, he is more of a hockey guy. Like Richardson, however, he is somewhat stat-reliant. “One of the first things I look at are teams’ road records,” Krohe said. “The majority of the schools in the tournament will not be playing near their home court. If they can only play at home, it’s definitely something to consider.” He also looks at performance in conference tournaments. “They give you an early indication of how teams deal with a tournament environment — albeit on a smaller scale,” he said.

Krohe also likes to look at field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage, two numbers that dovetail into my own personal theory. It hinges on the principle that most basketball games are essentially shooting contests. The most likely winner is the team with the largest differential between its normal shooting percentage and its opponent’s normal shooting percentage.

But that theory has one qualifier, and it involves teams that rely on the three-pointer as a weapon. Three-point shots are, obviously, worth 50 percent more than two-point shots. So I look at a new and largely unknown stat called “effective field goal percentage.” You calculate it by adding half of a team’s made three-pointers back into its total number of made shots, and refiguring its field goal percentage on that basis. Do the same on defense, subtract the second figure from the first and you have every team’s effective field goal margin.

K-State’s effective field goal percentage this season, for example, was 49.2—not especially good, by the way. But its opponents’ effective field goal percentage was only 45.2, a very good figure, so the Wildcats’ margin was 4.0. By the standards of the tournament field, that’s decent, although it hardly marks K-State as a sleeper.

Based on effective field goal margin, the teams my bracket will be touting this year are Kentucky and Kansas along with Wichita State and Creighton. Take that, Cole. With an effective field goal differential of +12.5, Kentucky is the prohibitive tournament favorite.

But Wichita, with an effective field goal percentage of 54.6 and a defensive percentage of 44.6 (a difference of +10.0), is a strong darkhorse pick. Kansas, +9.9 in effective field goal margin, is my third favorite, followed by Creighton, at +9.0.

Those figures are notably better than some higher ranked teams. Syracuse is likely to be a No 1 seed, but the Orange’s +8.1 effective field goal margin isn’t strong enough to stand with the elite. Neither is the fourth likely No. 1 seed, North Carolina (+5.7). That marks the Tar Heels as an early out.

Looking for sleepers, unheralded teams that won’t win but might pick up first and second round victories? Try Belmont. The Bulldogs have an effective field goal percentage of 48.4, while their opponents were 42.4, a 6.0 margin. BYU, with a +5.4 differential, may be another.

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