Need help filling out your March Madness bracket?

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Hundreds of writers will write hundreds of columns/articles/posts about the 2010 NCAA Tournament, so you may be wondering, why should I listen to this clown?

In 2007, I picked the winner (Florida) along with one other Final Four team (#2 seed Georgetown). In 2008, I picked the winner (Kansas) along with two other Final Four teams (#1-seed UCLA and #1-seed North Carolina). That was enough to line my pocket with a little cash from a pool each year.

2009 was another story. Even though I am on record saying that if Ty Lawson’s toe were 90-95% healthy that North Carolina would have been my pick, I ultimately didn’t have enough confidence in Lawson’s health — special thanks Dick Vitale for calling it “cartoonishly” swollen, stoking my fears — to pick the Tar Heels last season. I picked only one Final Four team (#1-seed UConn) and my winner (Pitt) lost in the Elite Eight to Villanova.

Still, there is a method to March Madness. First, I pull in Jeff Sagarin’s regular season rankings. I also consider Ken Pomeroy’s offensive and defensive efficiency stats, along with his Pythagorean win percentage.

Over the last three years, teams with a 3+ point advantage in Sagarin’s “predictor” rating have won 116 of 141 games (82.3%). In 2009, if a team had at least a 65% expected win rate according to Pomeroy’s Pythagorean calculation, they won 33 of 40 games (82.5%). So I won’t stray too far from these two indicators if they both agree that a certain team is going to win.

But not every game is so clear cut. Over the last three years, if there were 141 games that had a Sagarin favorite of at least three points, that means that there were 48 games that did not. My research has found that a Sagarin advantage of 0-2 points yields a 17-21 record and an advantage of 2-3 points yields a 5-5 record, so if the Sagarin advantage is fewer than three points, the game is basically a toss up.

For these games, I’ll look at other factors, like location of the game, offensive and defensive efficiencies, matchups, injuries, current play, and how each team fits the Giant Killers profile. In short, if a game is a toss up, it pays to go with the underdog because most people are going to go with the favorite.

So enough with the preamble, let’s dive right in.

FIRST ROUND

Of the 32 first round games, 21 have clear Sagarin (+3) favorites. I’m going to outline the 11 games that are too close to call plus a few others that merit more attention:

UNLV/Northern Iowa
Sagarin shows the Runnin’ Rebels as 0.7-point favorites while Pomeroy says that Northern Iowa has a 53% chance of winning. The game is in Oklahoma City, so location shouldn’t be much of a factor. Over the past 10 years, #8 seeds are 21-19 in first round games, which is not statistically significant. UNLV just beat BYU in the MWC semis, so I’ll go with the Runnin’ Rebels.

Tennessee/SDSU
Tennessee is a 2.5-point Sagarin favorite and Pomeroy says that Tennessee has about a 52% chance of winning. SDSU is coming off an impressive MWC championship where they beat #8 New Mexico in the semis and host team UNLV in the finals. Normally, I’d be a little concerned about a West Coast team traveling East on a quick turnaround. But the game is scheduled for 9:45 PM, so the Aztecs internal clocks will think it’s three hours earlier. The game-time might be an advantage for SDSU, because Tennessee isn’t used to tipping off at almost 10 PM. Since this game is essentially a statistical toss up, I’m going with the Aztecs due to their recent play and the fact that most people will go with the Vols.

Oklahoma State/Georgia Tech
Sagarin shows the Yellow Jackets are a 2.2-point favorite, and Pomeroy says Georgia Tech has a 60% chance of winning (plus a 2.6-point advantage in adjusted efficiency). The game is in Milwaukee on Friday, so location and fatigue shouldn’t make much of a difference. I’m going with Georgia Tech due to Derrick Favors’ emergence (16-10 over the last seven games) and this little nugget from ESPN:

But don’t be shy about double-digit seeds from the ACC: Since 1985, there have been seven ACC teams seeded 10th or worse, and five of them pulled off first-round upsets, including Maryland last year. This year, Georgia Tech gets its shot to do the same.

Gonzaga/Florida St.
Efficiency-wise, FSU is the top defensive team in the country and even though Gonzaga is a strong offensive team, great defense usually wins out. Sagarin pegs the Seminoles as 3.3-point favorites, Pomeroy puts their chances of winning at 68%, and the game is in Buffalo at 7:10 PM, so the Zags’ internal clocks might be a little out of sorts. That’s good enough for me.

Butler/UTEP
Sagarin shows Butler as a 0.5-point favorite and Pomeroy gives the Bulldogs a 55% chance of winning. Moreover, Butler is riding a 20-game win streak into the tourney. As for UTEP, they’re coming off a loss to Houston in the C-USA final, which snapped a 16-game win streak. Butler is more battle-tested, going 2-1 against top 25 Sagarin teams and 2-3 against the top 50. UTEP is 0-1 and 0-2, respectively. Both teams played at UAB — Butler lost by 10 and UTEP won in OT. Normally, with a game this close, I’d go with the underdog, but I can’t ignore Butler’s win streak. The Bulldogs are rolling.

Vanderbilt/Murray State
The Commodores come in losers of two of their last three, and while Sagarin shows them as a 3.8-point favorite, the Giant Killers blog loves the Racers. Since both teams have to fly West to San Jose — Murray State is in Kentucky, Vanderbilt in Nashville — this matchup feels like it could turn into one of those games where a half-filled arena gets behind the hungry underdog. I’m going with the Racers since this game is closer than the seeds would indicate.

Xavier/Minnesota
Sagarin (Xavier by 0.1 point) and Pomeroy (Xavier 52%) have the Musketeers as slight favorites and Minnesota is coming of four games in the Big 10 tourney. If this game were on Thursday at a more distant location, I would worry about the Gophers’ legs, but it’s on Friday in Milwaukee and Minnesota could have a virtual home court advantage (even though Xavier isn’t too far away, either). I’m going to take Minnesota — they are playing very good basketball right now.

Temple/Cornell
While I like Cornell (and GK loves them), I think Temple was underseeded and they have the third-best three-point defense (28%) in the country. Cornell has a ton of guys who can shoot the long ball, but Temple can defend the arc as well as anyone. I’m going with the Owls.

Marquette/Washington
By the numbers — Sagarin has Marquette as a 0.3-point favorite, Pomeroy 51% — this matchup is very tight. The game is on Thursday in San Jose, so the Huskies would seem to have the geographical/travel advantage. But aside from a blowout loss to Georgetown in the Big East tourney, the Golden Eagles play everyone close, and I’ll take an 11-7 Big East team over an 11-7 Pac-10 team any day.

Clemson/Missouri
This game is a pick ’em according to Sagarin (Missouri 0.1-point favorite) and Pomeroy (Clemson 52%). Clemson has gone 0-2 as first round favorites over the last two seasons, but Missouri is coming off a bad loss to Nebraska in the Big 12 tournament. Aside from a couple of blowouts against Kansas, Mizzou has played the good teams (K-State, A&M, Vanderbilt, Richmond, Baylor, Texas) tough, and since they are the underdog, I’ll roll with Missouri here against a Clemson program that has struggled in NCAA tourney play.

California/Louisville
Sagarin shows Cal as a 2.8-point favorite and Pomeroy says that the Golden Bears have a 64% chance of winning. Neither stat is convincing enough on its own. Louisville has two wins against Syracuse this season but is 0-6 against Sagarin’s other top 25 teams. Cal is 0-4. Ugh. The game is in Jacksonville, so I’m going to give Louisville the geographical advantage, though I’m a little worried about the 9:45 PM tip-off. Let’s go with the Cardinals.

Texas A&M/Utah State
Sagarin and Pomeroy tag this Battle of the Aggies as a pick ’em, and while the Giant Killers blog likes Utah State as a potential GK, they don’t think that A&M is very likely to be upset. The game is in Spokane, which would seem to favor Utah State. But Texas A&M is battle-tested (6-9 against top 50 teams) and played Kansas tough twice. Let’s go with A&M.

Purdue/Siena
Since losing Robbie Hummel, the Boilermakers have lost to Michigan State, beat a bad Indiana team by 19, beat a bad Penn State team by four, beat a mediocre Northwestern team by eight and got blown out by Minnesota. Siena returns five of the top six players from last year’s team that upset Ohio State in the first round and gave #1-seed Louisville a scare in the second. If the Saints can keep it close, they’ll get the Spokane crowd on their side and will have a good chance to pull the upset. I’m going with Siena.

Notre Dame/Old Dominion
This is similar to the A&M/Utah St. game — GK likes Old Dominion, but they don’t think that Notre Dame is likely to be upset. And I tend to agree. Even though Sagarin only has the Irish as 1.0-point favorites (and Pomeroy actually thinks the Monarchs have a 53% chance to win), Notre Dame is playing very good basketball right now as Luke Harangody is rounding back into shape. Before losing (by two) to eventual champion West Virginia, the Irish rattled off six straight wins against Pittsburgh (twice), Georgetown, Seton Hall, Marquette and a UConn team that really needed a win. I like Notre Dame here, though I’m a little nervous about fatigue.

Richmond/St. Mary’s
Sagarin shows the Gaels as 2.0-point favorites and Pomeroy pegs their chances of winning at 53%. To me, neither number overcomes the fact that St. Mary’s has to fly East and play on Thursday at 11:50 AM PT. The Gaels have a good chance to upset, but I think jet lag will kick in. And the Spiders are playing well.

Complete list of first round picks: Kansas, UNLV, Michigan State, Maryland, San Diego State, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, Syracuse, Florida State, Butler, Murray State, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, BYU, Kansas State, Kentucky, Texas, Temple, Wisconsin, Marquette, New Mexico, Missouri, West Virginia, Duke, Louisville, Texas A&M, Siena, Notre Dame, Baylor, Richmond, Villanova

Click here for my second round, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four picks.



Photos from fOTOGLIF

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