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April 13, 2011
When Brackets Collapse
What Did 2011 Mean?

by John Gasaway


If you had the misfortune of modeling your NCAA tournament picks on my personal bracket, you know that there were almost 900,000 people in the ESPN Tournament Challenge who beat us both to a pulp.

True, one can look at this glass as half-full. After all, you and I did finish ahead of five million other people, up to and including Dick Vitale, Bill Simmons, Michelle Beadle, and Snoop Dogg. Mark my words, if any of the above try to talk some trash to me, I'm ready for them. Otherwise, I can't help feeling that my bracket this year did not perform to my usual standards. In fact it was quite simply the worst one I've ever done.

So that got me thinking: Am I looking at this whole March Madness thing all wrong? What can I be doing better?

Let's start with the current practice of college basketball analysis, walk our way through what exactly happened in the 2011 NCAA tournament, and see what if anything we have learned as we look ahead toward 2012 and beyond.

My own belief is that, mascot preferences and team-color-based systems notwithstanding, pretty much the entire world makes their bracket picks the exact same way: Everyone bases their predictions on past performance. But of course different people place different interpretations on past performance. Some people like to look at the entire season. Some prefer to focus on conference play. Still others think that a team that enters the NCAA tournament "on a roll" is poised for great things. And, naturally, some people think that past NCAA tournaments hold the key to the future, and that certain teams and coaches simply "know how to win" in March.

There's value in all of these approaches, certainly, and so in the past I've tended to draw bits and pieces from each of them. But one aspect of a team's past performance that definitely catches my eye is how well they do on a possession-by-possession basis during conference play.

For a while, keeping close tabs on conference play worked great. Teams that outscored their major conference by 0.10 points per possession or more had a realistic shot at reaching the Final Four. And teams that didn't achieve that number were, to be blunt, doomed. When you have a nice round number like 0.10 that's worked well in the past, you want it to keep working. Indeed, it wasn't so very long ago when you could still find me in print espousing the predictive wonders of this magic number.

But what we've seen over the past three tournaments has been the utter destruction of 0.10 as a useful boundary line. Villanova in 2009 (0.09) and Michigan State last year (0.08) wounded the old girl, and then this year Connecticut (0.01) rather emphatically and ruthlessly sent her to the morgue.

Is the problem here as simple as looking at a team's past performance as one big undifferentiated lump of possessions? Maybe we'd do better to evaluate match-ups. How have teams performed against particular schemes (e.g., man vs. zone), team types (long vs. not-so), and styles (fast vs. slow)?

Mark me down as favoring precisely this kind of awareness. In terms of explaining specifically what the heck happened in the 2011 tournament, however, I'm not sure a due sensitivity for match-ups can explain the totality of the miracle -- at least not all by itself. After all, the incredible thing about UConn's run to the title was that they beat all comers. Their opponents came in all shapes and sizes. Jim Calhoun and the Huskies beat the excellent defensive team (San Diego State), the outstanding offense powered by the sure-thing NBA star of the future (Arizona and Derrick Williams), the high-powered perimeter-oriented offense (Kentucky), and the slow-paced fundamentally sound opponent that wouldn't beat themselves (Butler).

One thing that 2011 has definitely taught me is to respect the power of the turnaround. Before this year I was fairly skeptical of teams that had to do things like smash old videos of their games or burn entire pages from the calendar. But look who made it to Houston: Connecticut, Butler, Kentucky, and VCU. All four of those teams were more (Butler and VCU) or less (Connecticut and Kentucky) written off at some point this season. Yet all four played their way to Reliant Stadium. From now on when I see a team playing at a very high level in March, I'll be a little less concerned about how poorly they performed in January.

My other take-away? A healthy level of respect for the inherent mischief in a sport that makes me really happy. If I don't have a bracket that embarrasses me every now and again, it means college basketball has become too predictable. Between the extremes of knowing beforehand who's going to win every national championship and seeing no relationship at all between the regular season and the postseason, there's a sweet spot where the "best" teams often win but surprises do happen. I think college hoops has found that sweet spot.

Hooray for the sweet spot. Now, about that bracket of mine this year. I printed it out and burned it, so now I'm poised for a turnaround in the 2012 Tournament Challenge. You've been warned.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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Making the Picks (04/12)
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Every Play Counts (04/13)

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