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March Madness predictions 2019: Duke is our bracketologist’s title pick

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Plus, he offers some NET-focused tips for picking your bracket.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Florida State vs Duke
Might more trophies be in Zion Williamson’s future?
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, my bracket picks performed better than in the recent. I pegged three of the Final Four correctly and went 40-23 in my post-First Four selections, good for a winning percentage of 63.5. Unfortunately, I went 0-for-3 once the focus of the college basketball world switched to San Antonio, thanks to my ill-advised selection of an Arizona Wildcats-Kansas Jayhawks title game, with a Wildcats’ victory. Oops.

Hopefully, my bracket won’t be completely busted before the final weekend in 2019. But before I quickly make my picks, I want to share some thoughts on filling out your bracket that build off my Monday analysis of the Selection Committee’s new tool, the NET, and its final seed list.

Potential first-round upsets

For many fans, including myself, the first two days of the NCAA tournament are superior to all of the others, thanks both to the constant action and the maximum potential for drama. So, I examined each of the eight matchup groupings to determine what might be the most intriguing options for upsets, based on the NET ratings of the opponents.

  • Even though we’re coming off a historic tournament in terms of upsets, don’t expect another 16-over-1 stunner or even a 15-over-2. The differences in NET between the top and bottom seeds range from 172 places (with the Virginia Cavaliers facing the highest-ranked 16, the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs) to potentially 299 (the Duke Blue Devils and their crosstown rivals the NC Central Eagles). On seed line No. 2, the Michigan State Spartans rank 168 spots higher than the Bradley Braves, while the Michigan Wolverines face the most difficult matchup, in theory, against a Montana Grizzlies team that is merely 115 places lower.
  • Things start to get interesting with the 3-vs.-14 games. Sure, the Houston Cougars are ranked 117 spots higher than the Georgia State Panthers and the Texas Tech Red Raiders are 105 places above the Northern Kentucky Norse, but the gap drops to below 90 for both the Purdue Boilermakers and LSU Tigers — with the SEC regular-season champs just 72 places above the Yale Bulldogs. The Ivy League champs should have probably been a 13 seed, and the Committee’s error could make things tricky for the Tigers.
  • There’s a fairly wide spread in the 4-vs.-13 matchups, which results in a potential upset pick at the low end. I’m definitely not referring to the Virginia Tech Hokies’ 92-place spread over the Saint Louis Billikens, who probably should have been on the 14 line instead of Yale. That gap is larger than two of the 3/14 games. However, the other three 4/13 games all have differences of fewer than 60 places. In fact, the 44-spot distance on the NET table between the 24th-ranked Kansas State Wildcats and 68th-ranked UC Irvine Anteaters can also be found in a 7-vs.-10 contest this season.
  • In 2018, there were no 12-over-5 upsets for the first time since 2015 and only the fifth time since the field expanded to 64 in 1985. Therefore, history tells us to not expect a repeat. Based on the NET, the Mississippi State Bulldogs (39 spots higher than the Liberty Flames) and Wisconsin Badgers (34 places above the Pac-12 tournament champion Oregon Ducks) look to be worse bets than the Auburn Tigers, who are 22 spots above the New Mexico State Aggies, and the Marquette Golden Eagles. The Murray State Racers ended the season 44th in the NET, while the Golden Eagles’ late struggles saw them tumble to 28th, a mere 16 places better.
  • You will definitely want to pick a minimum of one 11-over-6 upset this season, if not more. Over the past five NCAA tournaments, 11s have won exactly half of their first round games. You will also want to pick at least one of the two 11th-seeded First Four winners to advance, as at least one at-large team forced to play in Dayton has won in the main draw in every tournament since the additional games were added in 2011. In terms of the NET gaps, while three of the four 6/11 matchups have NET gaps of between 24.5 and 34 spots, the Villanova Wildcats only outrank the Saint Mary’s Gaels by six (26 vs. 32).
  • Unusually, half of the 7-vs.-10 matchups have NET differentials larger than those found among the 6/11 and 5/12 contests. The Louisville Cardinals and Wofford Terriers outrank their 10th-seeded opponents by 39 spots or more! So, the Cincinnati Bearcats, 18 spots higher than the Iowa Hawkeyes, and Nevada Wolf Pack, a mere eight places above the Florida Gators, find themselves in potentially closer matchups.
  • Finally, while you’d expect every 8-vs.-9 game to be close, just three of this season’s matchups feature teams separated by single-digit margins in the rankings. The Ole Miss Rebels and Oklahoma Sooners feature in the biggest toss-up on the board, as they’re next to each other in the NET. Two No. 9 seeds, the Baylor Bears (three spots above the Syracuse Orange) and VCU Rams (four places ahead of the UCF Knights), actually outrank their eighth-seeded opponents. As for the fourth-game, the No. 8 seed in the Midwest, the Mountain West tournament champion Utah State Aggies, is 16 spots up on the Pac-12 regular-season champs, the Washington Huskies. The Aggies might be one eight seed you want to stick with.

Picking the second weekend

If you want to win your bracket pool, Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight success is paramount. And with most of your upset picks likely to be swept aside by the time second round Sunday ends, you need to know which of the higher seeds could face a trickier path to picking up the two second weekend victories needed to make it to Minneapolis. For these two rounds, I compared the placement of the top four seeds in each region on both the Committee’s seed list and in the Selection Sunday NET table.

NCAA Tournament regions by the seed list and NET

Region Total of Regional Seeds by NET Total of Top 4 Seeds by Seed List Total of Top 4 Seeds by NET
Region Total of Regional Seeds by NET Total of Top 4 Seeds by Seed List Total of Top 4 Seeds by NET
Midwest 870 32 37
East 965.5 34 36
South 782 34 43
West 841 36 37

Yesterday, I wrote that the East was the weakest region by far, as the total and average of its participants’ NET rankings were far higher than the others. However, much of that was driven by seeds five through 16. Looking at only the total NET ranking of the region’s top four seeds, the East (Duke, Michigan State, LSU and Virginia Tech) ends up as the strongest, edging the Midwest and West. So, you might expect the No. 1 overall seed, the Blue Devils to have the most difficult path to the Final Four.

On the other hand, the South, the strongest region overall, has the weakest top four seed total (43, compared to the East’s 36 and Midwest/West’s 36), no doubt driven by the presence of Kansas State. They’re 24th in the NET, which is the lowest ranking of any of the bracket’s top 16 teams — four spots below Kansas. So maybe Virginia’s road to Minneapolis won’t be quite as difficult as anticipated.

Totaling the top four teams in each region as they appear in the Selection Committee’s official seed list provides a different perspective, In this case, North Carolina’s Midwest rates as the most difficult, with Gonzaga’s West being slightly easier than either Duke’s East or Virginia’s South.

Picks!

Now it’s time to actually share my selections. I’ll limit my commentary from this point forward, since much of my analysis has led to these decisions, for better or worse. Remember that if you use my picks, you do so at your own risk! We’ll go with the left side of the bracket first (East and West), then the right (South and Midwest), with the Final Four at the end. This bracket seems top heavy, but there’s room for chaos, particularly away from the top two seed lines.

East

First Four winners: NC Central to set up the crosstown matchup with Duke and Temple over Belmont, since I always pick any team I didn’t project into the bracket to win at least one.

First round winners: 1. Duke, 9. UCF, 5. Mississippi State, 4. Virginia Tech, 11. Temple, 14. Yale, 7. Louisville, 2. Michigan State

Off to D.C.: 1. Duke, 4. Virginia Tech, 11. Temple, 2. Michigan State

Regional final: 1. Duke over 2. Michigan State

West

First Four winners: Prairie View A&M and Arizona State

First Round winners: 1. Gonzaga, 8. Syracuse, 12. Murray State, 4. Florida State, 6. Buffalo, 3. Texas Tech, 10. Florida, 2. Michigan

Traveling to Anaheim: 1. Gonzaga, 4. Florida State, 6. Buffalo, 2. Michigan

Regional final: 1. Gonzaga over 6. Buffalo

South

First round winners: 1. Virginia, 9. Oklahoma, 12. Oregon, 13. UC Irvine, 11. Saint Mary’s, 3. Purdue, 7. Cincinnati, 2. Tennessee

Bound for Louisville: 1. Virginia, 12. Oregon, 11. Saint Mary’s, 2. Tennessee

Regional final: 2. Tennessee over 1. Virginia

Midwest

First round winners: 1. North Carolina, 8. Utah State, 5. Auburn, 13. Northeastern, 6. Iowa State, 3. Houston, 10. Seton Hall, 2. Kentucky

Going to Kansas City: 1. North Carolina, 5. Auburn, 6. Iowa State, 2. Kentucky

Regional final: 1. North Carolina over 2. Kentucky

Final Four

National semifinals: East 1. Duke over West 1. Gonzaga in a Maui rematch and Midwest No. 1 UNC over South No. 2 Tennessee

National final: Duke tops UNC in their unprecedented fourth meeting of the season, 74-72.