Let me start this article off with full disclosure: March Madness is by most accounts, a full-on crapshoot. Successful brackets have been picked based upon mascots, color schemes, amount of syllables and occasionally have even been picked by animals themselves.
However, that is not to say that it is impossible to make smart picks and discover trends that could put you ahead of the crowd. While it may not be a surefire way to pick a perfect bracket, it might be just enough to secure an edge in an office bracket pool or give you bragging rights within your fraternity (or sorority — March Madness doesn’t discriminate!)
Recently, I decided to personally look into some previous tournament data from the past eight years, which I considered to be part of the “one-and-done” era of college basketball that we are currently a part of, and determine if there were any factors that stood out as indicators of strong tournament teams. After a quick compilation of data, a couple hours of data entry, and a few regression analyses, it was clear that a few key factors played a key role in tournament success: strength of schedule, offensive and defensive efficiency in away games, and the presence of a Wooden All-American or Wooden Award Finalist.
While I won’t bore you with the exact math behind these variables, I think it is important to note how all of these factors seem to make sense intuitively. It makes logical sense that teams who challenge themselves during the season, play well regardless of location, and have a go-to player would perform well in the tournament.
Obviously, there was a bit more analysis put into this work than explained above, so if there are any questions about my method, please feel free to reach out to my e-mail address at the bottom of the column. That being said, without further ado, I would like to reveal my seven favorite “sleeper” picks for the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
- Middle Tennessee State (12-seed, South region)
This ranking is based almost as much on Middle Tennessee’s matchup as it is on Middle Tennessee itself. MTSU is paired up against a No. 5 seed Minnesota team that has floundered on offense this season on the road, and hasn’t played exceptionally well at home either. MTSU is a scrappy team out of the C-USA that has depth, shooting, and experience in playing role of “Cinderella” as evidenced in its upset of No. 2 seed Michigan State last year.
- Rhode Island (11-seed, Midwest region)
Rhode Island is absolutely one of the hottest teams going into the tournament. URI played itself off the bubble and into the tournament by soundly winning the Atlantic-10 and securing a matchup with No. 6 seed Creighton. While Creighton is far from a pushover, URI’s strong performance in road games and recent success are indicators that they will be the next Atlantic-10 team to make a run in the tournament.
- Vanderbilt (9-seed, West region)
In all honesty, this sleeper is based more on a combination of intuition and math than it is on math alone. As the first team to ever make the tournament with 15 losses, Vandy has become a source of outrage for many of the Selection Committee’s critics. However, three wins against Florida, two hard-fought losses to Kentucky and a win over South Carolina have proven that this team is a legitimate threat. This upset pick is more centered around Vandy’s second round matchup with Gonzaga. Gonzaga is a solid No. 1 seed, and a team that analytics love, but they may be susceptible to the giant-killing Commodores.
- Wake Forest/Kansas State (11-seeds, South region)
These two teams will meet in Dayton for the First Four on Tuesday, and I believe that the winner of this game will be an upset threat to No. 6 seed Cincinnati, regardless of the outcome. Wake Forest solidified its tournament resume by knocking off a very solid Louisville team at home and was a pesky thorn in the side of multiple ACC teams this year. Kansas State started the year as one of the top teams in the nation, went on a severe skid, but steadied its roll recently, securing a victory over Baylor and playing a very close game against West Virginia. Both teams should be difficult matchups for the offensively-challenged Cincinnati Bearcats once they advance.
My other potential sleeper teams to keep an eye on include:
- Oklahoma State: In my opinion, the Cowboys were severely under-seeded as a No. 10 seed against Michigan and have a run-and-gun style of offense that can be lethal in March.
- UNC-Wilmington: The Seahawks can shoot the lights out of the gym and would be my favorite upset bid if not for a brutal matchup against a very, very good Virginia team.
- Florida Gulf Coast: Everyone’s favorite Cinderella team from a few years ago is back and has a winnable matchup against an over-seeded Florida State team. This is a fun matchup that you should keep an eye on.
As its name would seem to indicate, March Madness is, indeed, a bit “mad,” so there is a strong chance that putting your faith entirely in my picks could sink your brackets. I would recommend taking a look at other sources and even analyzing some data yourself to see what trends you discover too. All in all, I wish you all the best of luck with your 2017 brackets (unless you’re competing against me), and may the best, or luckiest, bracket win!
Questions, comments, accusations that I am biased against your favorite team? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org