Filling out your bracket? I’m here to help. (Updated 3/18)

3/18 Update: I’ve modified a few picks with the news that Ty Lawson may not be able to go tomorrow because of the injury to his toe. This news casts serious doubt about just how healthy he can get over the next three weeks, and I no longer see North Carolina as a Final Four team. I have modified my picks so that North Carolina loses to Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen. I project the Bulldogs to go on and beat Syracuse in the Elite Eight, which means that Gonzaga is now one of my Final Four teams. (I know, I can’t believe it either.)

This column is dedicated to the millions of Americans that will be filling out their March Madness brackets over the next few days.

You might be thinking — why should I bother listening to this joker?

Well, this is the third time that I’ve written this column and in the previous two seasons (2007, 2008), I successfully picked the winner both times.*

* Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

I’m still tweaking my method, but the crux of it is simple: Start with Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings and go from there. Over the past two seasons, teams that had a 2+ point advantage in Sagarin’s “Predictor” category went a combined 82-15 (85%). That’s a good place to start. Even when the teams are closely seeded (within 1-3 seeds), Sagarin’s ratings are solid. Last year, in games that were closely seeded, teams with a 2+ point Sagarin advantage went 14-2 (88%). In 2007, they went 8-4 (67%). So over the last two seasons, that’s a combined 22-6 (79%). Not bad.


Last year, there were five games where tight (< 2 point) Sagarin matchups were won by teams with a distinct location advantage. Davidson beat Gonzaga in Raleigh, Mississipi State beat Oregon in Little Rock, Kansas State beat USC in Omaha, Stanford beat Marquette in Anaheim and Texas beat Stanford in Houston. In fact, there weren’t any tight matchups that were won by the team that was at a distinct geographical disadvantage. This year, I am going to make this my first tiebraker for tight Sagarin matchups.


Seed differential is also a consideration, as teams with a four- to nine-seed advantage win at about a 75% clip. The data for the previous 16 seasons was compiled by BostonSportsHub, but since they are no longer updating their site, I added the seed records for the 2008 tournament. Here is a summary of the 17 years worth of data.

So if Sagarin calculates that the teams are within two points, and there are no geographical considerations, then the next thing I look at is seed. If the differential is four or more, I am going with the better-seeded team barring some overriding factor. In 2008, this methodology was 2-1, winning the Oklahoma/St. Joseph and Purdue/Baylor matchups, while losing the USC/Kansas St. matchup. (Interestingly, all three winners had a slight advantage according to Sagarin, even #11-seed KSU.) Had I gone with KSU’s location advantage, this part of the system would have gone 2-0.


Last season, I used Points Per Shot (PPS) to pick seven games and went 3-4. I still believe that PPS is a vital stat, but it doesn’t take into account turnovers, which is key when trying to determine just how good a team is. Ken Pomeroy has offensive and defensive efficiency stats that take into account pace and strength of schedule, and those are compiled to calculate his Pythagorean Winning Percentage.

Here’s how the last few winners were ranked at the end of the tournament in this statistic: Kansas (1), Florida (2), Florida (1), North Carolina (1) and Connecticut (2). Clearly, when picking the overall winner, we don’t want to stray too far from this ranking.

Let’s take a look at the Final Four participants for the last five years and see how they finished, keeping in mind that their final ranking does take into account how they performed during the tournament.

2008: Kansas (1), Memphis (2), UCLA (3), North Carolina (4)
2007: Florida (2), Ohio St. (4), Georgetown (5), UCLA (6)
2006: Florida (1), UCLA (3), LSU (10), George Mason (23)
2005: North Carolina (1), Illinois (2), Louisville (5), Michigan State (7)
2004: UConn (2), Georgia Tech (7), Duke (1), Oklahoma St. (3)

So, excluding the outlier (George Mason), the average Pythagorean ranking for Final Four teams over the last five years has been 3.6. I wish the site showed the pre-tourney rankings, because it would be helpful to know where these teams were ranked when they started the tournament. Since all we have to go by is where they stand now, it would seem unwise to pick a team outside of the top 10 to reach the Final Four.

I used the Pythagorean method back in 2007, and through the second round of the tournament, it had picked 37 of 48 winners. I stopped using it at that point, and I’m not sure why. This year, I’ll keep track of its accuracy throughout the end of the tourney, though I think it’s important to use the static, pre-tourney rankings because that’s all we have to go by when we fill out our bracket.

We’ll see how much I use this statistic as we dig into the bracket.

So, without further ado…


Of the 32 first round games, there is a team with a 2+ point Sagarin advantage in all but three of the games, and that includes one upset, USC over Boston College. I’m also going to overrule the Sagarin pick in one game where there is a significant injury…

Marquette / Utah State

The Golden Eagles have a 4.3-point Sagarin advantage, but they are just 1-5 since they lost Dominic James for the season with a broken foot. James played 31.9 minutes averaging 11.4 points and a team-leading 5.1 assists. Granted, Marquette has faced terribly difficult competition over that span. James broke his foot against UConn, then they lost at Louisville and at Pittsburgh before losing the regular season finale at home to Syracuse. They beat St. John’s in the tournament and then lost to a good Villanova team in the quarterfinals. For the most part, Maurice Acker has taken over James’ minutes, and he’s averaging just 6.3 points and 3.3 assists in 32.0 minutes per game.

Throw in the fact that the game is in Idaho, and I have to give Utah State the edge. The Aggies already have 30 victories on the season and they won the WAC title in pretty convincing fashion (though they only beat New Mexico State in the semifinal by a point). Marquette definitely has a solid chance to win this game, but I think it’s worthwhile to go with the underdog here since most people will be going with the favorite.

Oklahoma St. / Tennessee

By the numbers, this game is ridiculously close. The Vols have a 0.2-point Sagarin advantage and the Pomeroy calculation puts this game at exactly 50/50. OSU has a 0.3-point offensive efficiency advantage, but the Vols have a 0.3-point defensive efficiency advantage. It is essentially a toss up. The game is in Dayton, so there is no location advantage for either team. So we have to dig deeper to make a pick.

The Vols are 6-4 in their last 10 while the Cowboys are 8-2, so Oklahoma State is a bit hotter. Tennessee’s road/neutral record is 11-6 while the Cowboys’ road/neutral record is 8-9. Both teams have played brutal schedules and are battle tested.

I’m going to go with the team that is playing better right now, and that’s the Cowboys. Their two losses over the last 10 games were to Oklahoma and Missouri, a #2- and #3-seed, respectively. Moreover, the Cowboys’ top five scorers are guards, and backcourt play usually trumps frontcourt play in the NCAA tournament.

Florida St. / Wisconsin

The Badgers are a 1.3-point Sagarin favorite and a 6.1% Pomeroy favorite, but this game is essentially a toss up. The game is in Idaho, so there isn’t a geographical advantage. The next criterion is seed, so we should go with the Seminoles.

Truth be told, I like Florida St. in this game. They are far more athletic than the Badgers, but Wisconsin has a way of countering that disadvantage by playing sound, fundamental defense and taking care of the ball. Wisconsin is 6-9 on away/neutral courts, while the Seminoles are 12-5. Florida St. played well in the ACC tournament and I think Leonard Hamilton will have them ready to go.

It’s tough to pick against my former coach, but I don’t like this matchup for Bo’s Badgers.

LSU / Butler

Like the Tennessee/Oklahoma St. game, this matchup is razor thin. The Bulldogs are a 0.1-point Sagarin favorite and a 1.2% Pomeroy favorite. The overall offensive/defensive efficiency advantage is 0.1 points for Butler.

This game might come down to how the Tigers defend the three-point line. Of all the teams in the tourney, the Bulldogs get the third-highest percentage of their points (35.5%) from behind the arc, while LSU is 36th in the country in opponent’s three-point percentage.

Still, I’m going with Butler due to the Bulldogs’ 11-3 road/neutral court record. Plus, the SEC just hasn’t impressed me this season and the Tigers have lost three of their last four games, so they’re sort of backing into the tournament.

Complete list of first round picks: Louisville, Ohio State, Utah, Wake Forest, West Virginia, Kansas, USC, Michigan State, UConn, BYU, Purdue, Washington, Utah State, Missouri, California, Memphis, Pitt, Oklahoma State, Florida State, Xavier, UCLA, Villanova, Texas, Duke, North Carolina, Butler, Illinois, Gonzaga, Arizona State, Syracuse, Clemson, Oklahoma


Of the 16 second round games, there are 12 that have a team with a 2+ point Sagarin advantage. I’m going to overrule one pick (UCLA over Villanova) because I can’t pick against the Wildcats in Philly. That means four games require a closer look.

Kansas / West Virginia

The Mountaineers are a 1.3-point Sagarin favorite and a 12.9% Pomeroy favorite. WVU also has a 2.1-point advantage in overall efficiency. The game is in Minneapolis, so there shouldn’t be a home court advantage for either team (though I’d expect the Kansas fans to travel better).

Coming out of the Big East, West Virginia is battle tested and is playing well. Their three recent losses were against Syracuse, Louisville and Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Kansas has lost to Baylor, Texas Tech and Missouri in the last 10 games.

My gut says to go with West Virginia, but my head is saying Kansas, because of Sherron Collins. I’m going to go with my gut. Five of the Mountaineers’ 10 losses have come to Pitt, UConn and Louisville. I simply have more confidence in West Virginia than I do Kansas at this point.

This is arguably the toughest call of the first two rounds, and it’s pretty important as well because the winner will be a live pick in the next round against a vulnerable Michigan State team. I’m in two pools and I’m going to go with WVU in one and Kansas in the other.

Washington / Purdue

The Huskies are a 0.2-point Sagarin favorite, but Pomeroy has the Boilermakers as a 1.8% favorite. The overall efficiency advantage is 0.1 points to the Huskies. So this game is a toss up. But it’s being played in Portland, which is a whole hell of a lot closer to Washington than it is to Indiana. I’m going with the Huskies and their location advantage.

Syracuse/Arizona St.

The Sun Devils have a slight advantage in Sagarin (0.9) and Pomeroy (4.6%), but this game is essentially a toss up, and I’m going with the hot point guard (Jonny Flynn) and the Orangemen. Fatigue shouldn’t be an issue since Syracuse plays so much zone, and I think that zone defense should be able to limit James Harden.

Oklahoma / Clemson

The Sooners have a 1.0-point Sagarin and a 5.5% Pomeroy advantage. Oklahoma has been a little shaky of late, losing four of their last six, but in two of those losses, the Sooners were without POY candidate Blake Griffin. And it’s not like Clemson is playing great ball right now, either. They are 1-4 in their last five and could very well lose to Michigan in the first round, so I have a tough time picking them here.

But the reason I’m taking Oklahoma is the location advantage. The game will be played in Kansas City, which is about a five-hour drive from Norman.

Complete list of second round picks: Louisville, Wake Forest, West Virginia, Michigan State, UConn, Washington, Missouri, Memphis, Pitt, Xavier, Villanova, Duke, North Carolina, Gonzaga, Syracuse, Oklahoma


Sagarin ratings provide strong favorites in seven of the eight Sweet Sixteen games, but I’m going to discuss two games – one toss up and one with a significant injury.

North Carolina / Gonzaga

3/18 Update: Ty Lawson may not play in the first round of the tourney, and that casts serious doubt about his health for the entire tourney. I no longer see UNC as a Final Four team, so I am going to pick Gonzaga in this matchup. The two teams are close enough in the Sagarin rating (2.3 points) to justify taking the Bulldogs assuming Lawson is hobbled.

Both the Sagarn and Pomeroy ratings like Gonzaga more than the pollsters. The Bulldogs are a 2.3-point Sagarin underdog and the Tarheels are only a 2.9% favorite in Pomeroy’s ratings. North Carolina has a 1.9-point advantage in combined offensive and defensive efficiencies.

So why is this a close call? In short, because of Ty Lawson’s toe. The ACC POY had to sit out the ACC tournament to allow the swelling to go down. And this wasn’t just any swelling; Dick Vitale said that the toe was “cartoonishly” swollen (and I think he just made that word up). This is obviously a huge concern for North Carolina.

He injured the toe on March 6 and played two days later against Duke, scoring 13 points (on 2 of 7 shooting) and dishing out nine assists. He sat out both of North Carolina’s ACC tournament games, and the Tar Heels lost to Florida State. They aren’t the same team without him.

I think that UNC can get past the first two rounds even if Ty Lawson isn’t 100%. But I’m not sure that they can get by Gonzaga without him playing at a high level. This is probably the biggest “IF” of the entire tournament. If Lawson can play at 90-95%, then the Tar Heels are probably the tournament favorite. If he can’t, then they could easily lose before the Final Four.

So how do we handle this? Well, for the purposes of a single bracket, I’m going to wager that a “cartoonishly” swollen toe isn’t going to be 90-95% healed in time for the tournament. I don’t particularly like Oklahoma or Syracuse to beat them unless Lawson is out or very limited, so I am going to put the Tar Heels through to the Final Four. If I were in two or more brackets, I’d have one where North Carolina loses in the Final Four semis, and one where they lose to Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen. The bottom line is that I’m betting that Lawson’s toe is not good enough for him to play at a high level for six games over the next three weeks.

So, for the purposes of this column, my pick is UNC. But I’d take the Bulldogs in a second bracket.

3/18 Update: My pick is the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Oklahoma / Syracuse

The Sooners have a 0.6-point Sagarin advantage, but the Orangemen are a 5.1% Pomeroy favorite. The game is in Memphis so there is no real geographical advantage, so I’m going with Syracuse, the hotter team that has the better point guard. I suspect the Orangemen will be able to limit Blake Griffin with their zone.

Complete list of Sweet Sixteen picks: Louisville, West Virginia, UConn, Memphis, Pitt, Duke, North Carolina, Gonzaga, Syracuse


Of these four matchups, only one has a team with a 2+ point Sagarin advantage – North Carolina Gonzaga over Syracuse. Again, we’re assuming that Lawson’s toe is “good enough” at this point.

Louisville/West Virginia

The Cardinals have a 0.8-point Sagarin and an 11.1% Pomeroy advantage. I’m picking Louisville for two reasons: 1) the Mountaineers have a much tougher road and are therefore more likely to get knocked off before the Elite Eight and 2) the game is in Indianapolis, so Louisville has a slight geographical advantage.


UConn has three losses on the season – two to Pittsburgh and one in late December to Georgetown. They have a 13-2 road/neutral court record, which is quite the feat in the rugged Big East. Memphis is almost as good (12-2), but they only have two good wins on the season (Gonzaga and Tennessee) compared to the Huskies’ eight (Wisconsin, Gonzaga, West Virginia, Villanova, Louisville, Michigan, Syracuse and Marquette). I thought Memphis was better last year when with Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, and even they couldn’t get it done.

The big unknown is just how good is this Tigers’ defense? Ken Pomeroy says it’s the best in the nation, which is why he says that Memphis has a 64% chance to win this matchup. Jeff Sagarin shows a more conservative 0.7-point advantage for the Tigers.

I just don’t think Memphis can beat a focused UConn squad. The question is – will the Huskies be focused enough to make it this far?

I’m taking UConn and keeping my fingers crossed that I’m right about Memphis.


The Panthers have a 0.4-point Sagarin and a 7.9% Pomeroy advantage. Duke is my favorite team and I’ve probably watched 15-20 games this season. But they’re dead in the water if they’re not making a high percentage of their three-pointers.

In their four losses, Pitt allowed 6-16 three-pointers to Louisville, 6-15 to Villanova, 5-12 to Providence, and 4-14 to West Virginia. So it’s not like teams are beating them with the three-ball. What do these losses have in common? DeJuan Blair was in foul trouble. In the four games, Blair averaged 4.8 fouls and played an average of 23 minutes. In Pitt’s 27 wins, Blair averaged 2.5 fouls and played an average of 28 minutes. Duke just doesn’t have the post presence to draw fouls on Blair, so he stays in the game, Pitt limits the Blue Devils’ perimeter attack, and the Panthers win.

So, yes, I picked all four #1 seeds to advance to the Final Four. Sue me.

Complete list of Elite Eight picks: Louisville, UConn, Pitt, North Carolina, Gonzaga


In each of the last two years, there has been a team I really liked to win it all. Florida and Kansas were essentially “no-brainers” given their overall talent levels and Sagarin ratings. Looking at this group that I have advancing to the Final Four, there isn’t a team that I really like to win it all.

If Lawson’s toe were 100%, I would pick the Tar Heels. But I think it’s going to be a problem. Louisville doesn’t have the guard play that is (usually) required to win a national championship. Their guards can defend, but they don’t score very well, and the best teams have a guy that that can create his own shot or break down the defense in crunch time. UConn seems disinterested at times and the Huskies are without their fourth leading scorer, Jerome Dyson (13.2 ppg). Plus, the scatterbrained Huskies are always a threat to lose before they should.

That leaves Pitt. I don’t really have a problem with the Panthers. They have pretty good guard play with Levance Fields. They have a great swingman in Sam Young. And they have a big time post presence in DeJuan Blair.

But let’s start with the other semifinal…


Back in early February, UConn beat Louisville, 68-51, in Louisville. There are two things to note about that game: 1) Jerome Dyson was still in the lineup (scoring 14 points) and 2) Earl Clark had an awful game (2 of 16 from the field). Louisville only had one player (Terrance Williams, 26 points) score in double-digits, and the Cardinals shot 34% from the field.

UConn is a 0.7-point Sagarin favorite and a 0.8% Pomeroy favorite, so the game is essentially a toss up. So who wins?

I have to go with the Huskies. A.J. Price is playing terrific and it’s tough to ignore a 17-point road win.

Pitt/UNC Pitt/Gonzaga

Again, if Ty Lawson comes back strong and plays great the first four games, I’m going to be regretting this pick. But toe injuries can be dicey and I don’t think he’s going to be able to play at a high level. The Tar Heels are a slight favorite when he is healthy, so I think Pitt is the play here.

While I like the Bulldogs, I don’t feel great about having them through to the Final Four, so I just don’t have the wherewithal to pick them over a very solid team like Pitt. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy show this as an even matchup, but I don’t think Gonzaga has anyone that can stop DeJuan Blair down low.



Pittsburgh has already beat Connecticut twice this season, both at home and on the Huskies’ home court. (UConn was without Dyson in both games.) DeJuan Blair completely outplayed Hasheem Thabeet in the first meeting, posting 22 points and 23 rebounds while Thabeet managed just five points and four boards. In the second game, Thabeet played better, but it wasn’t enough. UConn simply didn’t have an answer for Sam Young who had a combined 56 points and 13 rebounds in the two meetings. Undoubtedly, if these teams do meet in the final, UConn will be the “favorite,” and that should give the Panthers something to rally around. I see Pitt winning a tight one.

Feel free to follow my picks or change them up. Or you can make your picks based on team colors, favorite mascots or which schools have the hottest cheerleaders.

That’s better than worrying about Ty Lawson’s toe, right?

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