College basketball really became dramatic when the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Now anyone who could read and count had a neat, perfectly intelligible blank bracket to fill out. In the ensuing 33 years, memorable events have created a number of truisms about what transpires in the tournament. Many are counterintuitive, suggesting you should favour the upsets and surprising teams we hold so dear.
But most of these truisms are false. Generally speaking, the supposedly unpredictable tournament is a lot more predictable than many think. As you fill out your bracket, consider these rules of thumb you may follow — and then consider not following them.
One-and-done rosters fail
Tell this to 2012 Kentucky and 2015 Duke. Both teams counted three freshmen who left school after a single season as their biggest stars and won it all. Two teams may not sound like a lot, but the one-and-done era is barely a decade old, and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and other notable coaches have begun recruiting these kinds of players in recent years. This year’s prime one-and-done team is, no surprise, Duke.
Beware of the chalk
We focus on the Cinderella stories. We remember early upsets. We consider tough matchups in the Elite Eight. Picking a No. 1 seed to defeat all comers in its quadrant seems like a bad idea. It’s not. Top seeds have made 42 per cent of all Final Four teams since 1985. There were only two years when none made it. In 2008, all four top seeds made the Final Four. Fortune may favour the bold, but maybe don’t be too bold.
No. 12s beat No. 5s
This is the most celebrated first-round upset because it nearly always happens once: only twice since 2000 has a No. 5 seed not lost to a No. 12 seed. But overall, since 1985, the No. 5 seeds have won nearly two-thirds of their opening-round games. If you are picking all four No. 12s to win, you are probably doing it wrong. The numbers say pick one or two at most. Slightly more No. 11s have beaten No. 6s. The No. 13 seed has beaten a No. 4 in the first round just 20 per cent of the time. And most famously: no 16th-seeded team has yet beaten a No. 1.
Defence wins championships
A good defence can get you far. But top defensive teams have tended to fall short lately. Last year, Gonzaga had the best defence, per KenPom.com, and lost the championship game to North Carolina, a strong defensive team that was stronger on offence. Other teams with highly rated defences and offences include the 2016 champion, Villanova; Duke’s winning teams in 2015 and 2010; and the 2012 champ, Kentucky. This year, the best-balanced teams are Michigan State and Duke.
Be down on the Big Ten
The conference has a reputation for falling short in the tournament. A Big Ten team hasn’t won since Michigan State in 2000, a drought exceeded among power conferences only by the Pacific-12, which hasn’t won since 1997. Since 2000, 14 Big Ten teams have made the Final Four, which puts the Big Ten in a first-place tie with the Atlantic Coast Conference in that category, and seven have played in the title game, including some extremely close ones. It’s OK to have faith in Purdue, Michigan or the Spartans.
It’s never the one you expect
Too many people anticipate the champion will be a team most people don’t expect. If you are competing in a big pool, it is may be a sly strategy to pick a dark horse. But the ultimate winner is usually a pretty likely suspect. North Carolina was third on the selection committee’s overall ratings heading into last year’s tournament. Villanova was seventh the year before, when it won. Duke was third the year before that. Louisville and Kentucky were both the top-ranked teams the years they won it all.
January, February, Izzo
That is what a famous T-shirt says, referring to the commonplace theory that Tom Izzo, Michigan State’s coach of 23 seasons, is a wizard of March who knows how to win tournament games. Izzo is a Hall of Fame coach, and the Spartans’ 21-year consecutive appearance streak is the fifth-longest in history. But there is little evidence that Izzo particularly turns it on in March.
Izzo won his only national title when Michigan State was the top overall seed. Michigan State has exited in the first round five times, three times in an upset. The Spartans once reached the Final Four while playing teams seeded 16th, ninth, 12th and 11th; another time, they did so against teams seeded 12th, fourth, ninth and sixth. They also suffered one of the worst upsets in tournament history two years ago, when, as the highest-ranked No. 2 seed, they lost to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State in the first round.
Even when Izzo took higher-seeded teams to the Final Four in 2005, 2009 and 2015, there is evidence they were mis-seeded. The 2005 squad, for instance, was a No. 5 seed even though it ended the season as the fifth-best team overall in KenPom.com’s advanced ratings. Izzo’s teams tend to advance far because they tend to be good at playing basketball, not because of what the calendar says.
Cinderella always shows up
Except when she doesn’t. The upstarts provide the most lasting memories, but there have just not been many lately. We were perhaps spoiled by that great run recently, with Virginia Commonwealth and Butler (twice) and George Mason. Last year featured an 11-seed in the Elite Eight, but it was Xavier, a recognized Big East power. The highest seeds to advance far two years ago were second-weekend mainstays Gonzaga and Syracuse. The last true Cinderella may have been 11-seed Dayton, which made the Elite Eight four years ago.
For various reasons (the hardening of the one-and-done era, fewer at-large bids to mid-majors), the Age of the Cinderella may be waning.
Duke exits early, in shame
Everyone knows the names Lehigh and Mercer because everyone remembers them, as No. 15 and No. 14 seeds in 2012 and 2014, upsetting Duke in the first round. Now it seems as if everyone eagerly awaits another such defeat. Don’t hold your breath.
Yes, Duke did really lose those games (great, right?). But Duke is the most successful team in the current era of college basketball. The Blue Devils have made the tournament all but one year since 1985, in which time they’ve been to 12 Final Fours (more than one third of them) and won five titles. They’ve had only two other first-round exits. So go ahead and hope for another Duke embarrassment. Just don’t count on one.
This world is flat
College football has an entrenched aristocracy that gobbles up all the national titles: the last time a team there won it all for the first time was Florida in 1996. By contrast, college basketball, with its freewheeling tournament, is much more open, right? Not really. Butler came close, twice, but the last time a basketball team won this tournament for the first time was in 2006 (Florida again). Before that, it was Connecticut in 1999.
This year, Xavier and Gonzaga, a perennial contender, will be on the hunt for their first titles. The favourites will be Duke, Michigan State, Villanova and North Carolina. The one exception is Virginia, which received the No. 1 overall seed, and has never won the title. Be careful there.