College Basketball Nation: Field Notes Vol. 2

Still agonizing over your bracket? Field Notes, Vol. 2 (word to 2011's Vol. 1) is one college hoops writer’s attempt to guide you through the process as the Thursday deadline looms. Note: Said writer may or may not have a horrendous recent tourney history, which is why he’ll rely so much on advice from others in this series. Consider it a thinking fan’s guide to the bracket.

(And speaking of the bracket, be sure to join our College Basketball Nation Tournament Challenge group, wherein you can test your bracketing skills against yours truly and the rest of the ESPN.com college hoops writing staff. Imagine the bragging rights. So many bragging rights, you guys.)

Part 1 of the stats-based portion of the proceedings is available here. Now, in the final installment of the advanced lesson: How you can use tempo-free and other rankings systems to find value in your bracket -- and why you should.

As you know, conventional rankings like the AP and ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll can be deceiving. They're meant as snapshots of a season, but they're scattershot at best for anything else. (Murray State, for all its wins, is not the ninth-best team in the country. To name just one example.) But besides the KenPom rankings (which are best used as an in-depth stylistic scouting tool), there are other systems that rank and sort teams based on their statistical performances throughout the season. In no particular order, here are the three of the most important:
  • The BPI: Developed by aforementioned O.G. Dean Oliver (who now works as ESPN's head of analytics, which is pretty awesome) and his team, the Basketball Power Index is a ranking system that counts among its missions discovering which teams should be selected for the tournament, as opposed to the ones that are. It is an attempt to provide an advanced rankings system alternative to the RPI, which the NCAA still uses to calculate the measure of teams throughout the season, which is how you end up with Southern Miss as a No. 9 seed.
  • LRMC: Developed by engineers at Georgia Tech, the LRMC "is a college basketball ranking system designed to use only basic scoreboard data: which two teams played, whose court they played on, and what the margin of victory was. LRMC stands for 'Logistic Regression/Markov Chain', the two primary mathematical techniques that were a part of our system. We've subsequently added a Bayesian component as well." Does that last sentence make any sense to you? Me neither. I took a collegiate pre-calculus class pass-fail in college, enough to get me in the journalism school, and subsequently waved farewell to math forever. Best decision of my life. But we'll explain why you don't need to know what that means below.
  • Jeff Sagarin Ratings: Sagarin's ratings are based on the Elo rating system, a mathematical method originally "designed to determine the relative skill levels of players in two-player games such as chess." It also happens to do pretty well for basketball, too, and if you're familiar with college sports at all, you're probably already familiar with Jeff Sagarin.

There are even more complicated ways to break these ratings down. For example, SI's Luke Winn recently built a weighted ranking system comprised of all three of the above plus KenPom, which he used to rank a handful of tournament contenders. (News flash: Kentucky is really, really good.) You should also look at New York Times electoral analyst Nate Silver's methodology, which combines many of these statistical systems (and other factors) into one big list of tournament odds.

You don't have to go that far, of course. But you should take a gander at each of these rankings, because they're a great way to figure out which teams are likely overrated and underrated.

This is where you find value, and value is exactly you need.

Why finding value in the bracket matters so much. If you've played a tournament challenge game before, you already know: Because while at the end of the day, you want to get picks right, you also want to get picks right where other players are wrong. If you pick all four No. 1 seeds to go to the Final Four, there's a pretty good chance that if you're right, lots of other people will be right, too. If you pick all chalk in your bracket, you'll probably be in good shape. But you won't separate yourself from your competition, because a lot of people in your bracket will be doing the very same.

Again, this is simple stuff. So how do you avoid it?

Chris Wilson reprises a column about this very topic each year at Slate. As Wilson notes, the data available in Internet-based bracket games (like ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge) is incredibly valuable, because it gives you a great look at exactly how most people are viewing the bracket going forward:
Your overall strategy should be to look for situations where the national bracket values a team much higher than the objective statistics. For example, at the moment only 4 percent of all the participants in ESPN's Tournament Challenge have picked Ohio State to win the tournament—the right-most column on this table. Pomeroy's log5 analysis of the tournament, by contrast, gives the Buckeyes an 18.7 percent chance of winning it all, making them the second favorite in the field behind Kentucky. This makes Ohio State a fantastic bargain—while cold-blooded, numerical analysis gives Ohio State a roughly 1-in-5 shot at the title, only one in 25 people have picked them to win. As such, the Buckeyes are the most undervalued asset in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

You also want to rate your upset risk carefully. Again, from Wilson:
Biostatistician Bradley Carlin, who co-authored a 2005 paper (PDF) on contrarian strategies in NCAA brackets, suggests a "champion-only" technique. While most people spend a lot of time puzzling over potential first-round upsets, the mathematical reality is that it's difficult to win a pool without securing those boffo championship game points. The payoff for risk-taking also increases in later rounds. Consider the first round game between 14-seed St. Bonaventure and three-seed Florida State. Less than 4 percent of ESPN players predict that the Bonnies will pull off the big upset, while Pomeroy gives St. Bonaventure a 33.8 percent chance of knocking off the Seminoles. On paper, that differential looks like a great bargain. But consider that this upset will reward the lucky St. Bonaventure backer with a mere one extra point in a standard office pool. If Florida State wins, you're suddenly missing an important player in the bracket.

This is how you build a bracket. You don't have to take a radical view. You don't have to bet against Kentucky, especially if you think the Wildcats -- which are rightly viewed as the best team in the country -- are going to win it all. But you can weigh the costs and benefits of each championship pick, and you can weigh the costs and benefits of each of those first-round upsets. Is a one-point win and a small chance to scream "I had the Bonnies!" with delight worth losing FSU if the Seminoles advance? Probably not.

Is it a lot of fun? Oh yeah. So don't dismiss it out of hand. But if you're picking your bracket with anything remotely close to a data-driven, probabilistic approach, it's important to identify value in teams that everyone isn't going to pick. It's a risk, sure. But it's a risk that could take you to the top.

A few other tips and tricks worth knowing:
  • Las Vegas lines. This is pretty obvious, of course, but it is useful, if only to get you past the psychological difficulty of picking your bracket with the seeds next to each name. Does Vegas have a particularly tight line in a No. 2 vs. No. 15 game? Why or why not?
  • Don't overrate recent performance. This tidbit comes from L. Jon Wertheim and Tobias J. Moskowitz, the authors of "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences of How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won," and it's a good one: "Almost half of the last 48 Final Four teams won their conference championship, but don't be completely seduced by recent performance, both good and bad. Just as investors can get burned "chasing returns," don't put too much stock in how a team has played over the last few games (Unless there's an obvious factor: a major injury, a star player returning, etc.). The bigger the sample size, the better our ability to forecast performance."
  • Look hard at the No. 12 seeds. You've probably heard this before: The No. 12 seeds always seem to come through with upsets. But here's some information -- again from Wertheim and Moskowitz -- that backs up the general consensus: "Pick a 12 seed. Or pick all four 12 seeds if you're so inclined. For whatever reason, there's a real payoff here. Almost one-third of the time -- and in 19 of the last 22 tournaments -- at least one 12 seed has advanced to the second round. (Last year it was Richmond beating Vanderbilt.) What's more, historically, 12 seeds have beaten 5 seeds more often than 11 seeds have beaten 6 seeds. Nail this pick and it's a nice gain; miss it and your bracket isn't likely to combust."
  • Geography matters: From Nate Silver, former Baseball Prospectus editor, current New York Times Five Thirty Eight electoral maestro, and all-around statistical authority: "Since 2003, for instance, teams playing an N.C.A.A. tournament game within 50 miles of their campus are a remarkable 24-2. One of the two losses came in last year’s championship game, when Butler — playing just miles from its campus in Indianapolis — came within 2 points of defeating a heavily favored Duke team. By contrast, teams travelling at least 1,000 miles to play their game are 121-174, having won just 41 percent of the time." If you heard Gonzaga fans wail and gnash their teeth after hearing they, as a No. 7-seed, would be traveling across the country to play No. 10-seeded West Virginia in Pittsburgh, well, that's why. It's hard to win that far away from home. It doesn't guarantee defeat, but it's one more factor to take into consideration.
  • Check out the preseason poll. I know what you're thinking: "You said polls were garbage? What the --?!" Polls are garbage. Good listening skills, guys. But here's the thing: The preseason poll, believe it or not, actually has some value as it pertains to evaluating teams over the long haul. Click here to find out why.

If it seems silly to think that a late-October poll could help you figure out the tournament in early March, well, you're right. But the NCAA tournament is a fickle beast. We've come a long since the start of the season, and you never know what piece of data might one day to lead to bracket success. The above are a fantastic place to start. You take that knowledge in, you commit it to memory, you look at the bracket, you back up, and all of a sudden you're back in the fold, making picks, deciding games, but doing so with an expanded information toolbox. This is only ever a good thing.

Preparation is key -- in more ways than one. You're prepared, or as prepared as you're going to be. So here's another thing to get prepared for:

Failure.

Chances are, your bracket is going to stink. I hate to break it to you, but it's much easier to pick a really bad bracket than it is to pick a good one. Sometimes -- OK, all the time -- the NCAA tournament makes no sense whatsoever. Crazy things happen. See: 2011. Or 2010. Or any number of other seasons in which top teams fellow to putatively overmatched underdogs. It happens all the time, and there's no way to prepare for that.

The NCAA tournament defies logic. That's why we love it. That's why we try like hell to get it right every year, and that's why we keep coming back. The notion that the archetypal tournament dilettante -- the sweet 80-year-old woman filling out her bracket in a newspaper (a newspaper! can you imagine!) -- can outpick you is absolutely infuriating. Sometimes, and I tell my friends this all the time, it seems just as helpful to go in with absolutely no prior preparation at all.

You're welcome to take that tact if you like. But me? I'll take the knowledge every time. And if you read this far, I'm betting you will, too.
Still agonizing over your bracket? Field Notes, Vol. 2 (word to 2011's Vol. 1) is one college hoops writer’s attempt to guide you through the process as the Thursday deadline looms. Note: Said writer may or may not have a horrendous recent tourney history, which is why he’ll rely so much on advice from others in this series. Consider it a thinking fan’s guide to the bracket.

(And speaking of the bracket, be sure to join our College Basketball Nation Tournament Challenge group, wherein you can test your bracketing skills against yours truly and the rest of the ESPN.com college hoops writing staff. Imagine the bragging rights. So many bragging rights, you guys.)

Now, in Part One of the advanced portion of Field Notes: The stats and metrics you should use to make informed decisions about your bracket. Part Two to come.

Regular readers, college hoops fanatics and stats geeks -- and any combination therein -- are already going to be familiar with this stuff. If you spend all season looking at efficiency margin and adjusted tempo,

The noobs among us will not. There tends to be a lot of noobs around these parts these days, so many it feels like a multiplayer game of Modern Warfare 3. But we don't pwn noobs here. We welcome them. We are all brothers and sisters in arms here, all colleagues in the search for the holy grail: The well-chosen bracket.

Now that we've agreed on terms and established that you should be selecting but one bracket, you can spend a little more time today figuring out exactly how you want to go about doing it. That's good news for you, the noob. Why? There is much to learn.

So sit back, relax, and strap it in: Here are the most important advanced statistical metrics you need to digest and apply before you submit your final bracket Thursday morning. Let's go:

Tempo-free statistics. You've got a lot of information flying at you right now. X State team beat Y A&M back in November, but lost in December, and Z Tech only shoots 67 percent from the free thrown line, and ... yeah. This can get frustrating, quickly, and the tournament's a crapshoot anyway, so whatever. You're just going to slap some picks in your tournament challenge and be done with it. Whatever.

This is probably not a horrible strategy, all things considered. But if you do want some valuable information, information that not only a) won't overwhelm you but b) has the benefit of being incisive and revealing, much more revealing than counting stats, you need to look at tempo-free statistics.

What are tempo-free statistics? Exactly what they sound like. Tempo-free stats strip the speed at which teams play -- their tempo or pace -- from the equation. Instead, they measure how teams perform on any given possession. Pace distorts statistics. It is not remotely accurate to look at North Carolina's offense (the ninth-fastest in Division I hoops) and Wisconsin's offense (the second-slowest in the country) and compare the two without accounting for the fact that each team plays at radically different speeds. One team gets a lot of possessions by choice. The other intentionally grinds the game to a halt. Of course North Carolina averages more points per game than the Badgers. What matters is how often each team converts on the possessions they do have, and how often they stop opponents on the possessions they don't.

This is the statistical backbone upon which nearly all advanced analysis systems are built. How many points do you score per trip? How many do you allow? It's simple, elegant, and it comes with the original blessing of none other than Dean Smith, who realized long ago -- long before the rest of us caught up -- just how important it was to make the most of every opportunity in a 40-minute game.

To that end, there is no guide as simultaneously indispensable and readily digestible than John Gasaway's Tuesday Truths. The ESPN.com and Basketball Prospectus writer tracks points scored and allowed per possession throughout each conference season. By the end of the season, Gasaway's data has the benefit a large, comparative sample size among teams who played roughly the same schedules throughout league play. Again, it's incredibly simple stuff. But it's also incredibly revealing, and if you're looking for a quick glance at just how good some of these teams really were this season, there's no better place to start than here.

Adjusted tempo-free statistics and rankings. So, you're all good on the concept: What teams do on each specific possession is the best way to figure out how good they are. Got it. Now you want to dig in.

This is the part where you head over to KenPom.com and get down to business. Ken Pomeroy's site is a must-follow for the reasons listed above: It tracks how teams perform on a per-possession basis, and it ranks them accordingly. It also adjusts rankings for opponent, taking into account the ability of each teams' opponents. It also -- and this is the most important part here -- tracks how each team performs in what O.G. (original guru) Dean Oliver dubbed the "four factors," or the most important and predictive areas of a team's basketball success: Shooting, offensive rebounding, turnover percentage, and how often they go to the line.

KenPom has all that stuff, and so much more (including figures for experience, height, defensive and offensive styles, three-point field goal rate, as well as individual player statistics and usage ratings. Viewing a team profile on KenPom -- something that costs you a well-worth-it $20-per-year subscription -- is equivalent to seeing a team's season right in front of you, quantified and organized. Laid bare.

Because basketball isn't just about raw offense and defense. You know that much. It's about matchups -- about the ways teams interact for 40 minutes -- and knowing how well a team rebounds the ball, or how often it allows opponents to go to the free throw line, matters just as much when you're trying to figure out your early-round upsets. You know the top seeds are good. But you want to know what makes them so good, and you want to know if any of their impending opponents just so happen to be perfectly suited to eliminating that advantage. When you combine all of this information together, this is how you do it.

Again, it's a subscription service, but it should be, and if you're willing to plunk a few bucks down for a year's worth of incredible basketball content, you'd be joining every forward-thinking college hoops coach (and writer, and analyst) in the country -- including Brad Stevens, who just scouted and worked his Horizon League team into two straight national finals, as well as Buzz Williams, Sean Miller and Coach K himself -- in doing so.

Next in Part Two: How you can use tempo-free and other rankings systems to find value in your bracket. And why you should.
Still agonizing over your bracket? Field Notes, Vol. 2 (word to 2011's Vol. 1) is one college hoops writer’s attempt to guide you through the process as the Thursday deadline looms. Note: Said writer may or may not have a horrendous recent tourney history, which is why he’ll rely so much on advice from others in this series. Consider it a thinking fan’s guide to the bracket.

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt's Kevin Stallings and John Jenkins
Chuck Cook/US PRESSWIRENo matter how many NCAA tournament brackets you fill out, stick to one set of picks and feel the joy when that big upset comes through.
(And speaking of the bracket, be sure to join our College Basketball Nation Tournament Challenge group, wherein you can test your bracketing skills against yours truly and the rest of the ESPN.com college hoops writing staff. Imagine the bragging rights. So many bragging rights, you guys.)

Now: On why you should pick one, and only one, NCAA tournament bracket.

Forget red states versus blue. Forget urban versus rural. Forget iOS versus Android. Forget "people who find Karl Welzein hilarious" versus "people who say they don't get it."

The great cultural divide of our generation supersedes them all. On one side: People who pick multiple combinations of brackets. On the other: Those who live by a simple principle -- that the only way to truly enjoy the highs and lows of the NCAA tournament is to make one set of picks and stick to it.

I fall into the latter category, and I think you should too.

Why? I've made these reasons abundantly clear before -- I do this every year -- but in case you haven't heard this argument before, or you need more convincing, or you're entirely new to the blog (or to this whole college basketball thing in general, which seems unlikely, but you never know), let's review:

First, the standard disclaimer. Don't get me wrong: You can totally do whatever you want with your bracket. Your NCAA tournament experience is yours and yours alone, just like anything else. If you want to spend hours on end playing Angry Birds (I will never understand why people like this game, but clearly I'm in the minority) instead of an actual, real video game (say, Mass Effect 3) that's your deal. Do your thing.

That said, you should totally pick one master bracket and stick to it in all of your pools. And here's why:

Because it's more fun.

Again, this is a subjective, qualitative thing, and your mileage might vary. But I doubt it will vary all that much. The rationale for picking multiple brackets and spreading them out across your various tournament challenges and office pools is really pretty simple: You're trying to win. You're hedging your bets. You're betting jelly beans and you want to win as many jelly beans as possible. Or you want bragging rights. But this calculus reduces the bracket to a stock portfolio. You become an investment manager. You're spreading risk around. You're a bean counter. You are, no offense, boring.

Say you play 10 totally diverse and risk-averse brackets in 10 different bracket competitions. Maybe you win twice. Maybe you win four times. You worked out a way to kind of-sort of beat the system. As Ron Swanson would say: Bully for you.

The alternative is so much more appealing. You make one set of picks. You know these picks by heart, because you agonized over them. You don't have to constantly check your various brackets. Even better, when that glorious upset you picked comes through, you get to say, "I picked that upset!" Full stop. There's no, "well, I had it one bracket, but the other I had the favorite going to the Final Four," and so on and so forth. You made the pick. It came through. You get to enjoy it in full.

There's nothing quite like the euphoric joy of a well-chosen, well-executed bracket. There's nothing like the despair and malaise of a set of picks that destroys your chances on Thursday afternoon. But this too is part of the fun -- the defining part, I'd wager.

Set aside your rationality. You can be rational the other 11 months of the year. Set aside a blind desire to win. You can win at Angry Birds whenever you want. Set aside the desire to get a return on your jelly bean investment. The stock market is always available to you.

Instead, spend the next day and a half sitting down and making your picks with convincing gusto and self-avowed faith. Carry that faith with you. Good things will happen. Or they won't. But at least you didn't defeat your own whims and kill the sheer, unbridled emotion that makes these next three weeks the year's most wild and wonderful.

Even if your picks crash and burn, you're still a winner for that.

Next up in Field Notes: How stats can help your picks.
Still agonizing over your bracket? Field Notes, Vol. 2 (word to 2011's Vol. 1) is one college hoops writer’s attempt to guide you through the process as the Thursday deadline looms. Note: Said writer may or may not have a horrendous recent tourney history, which is why he’ll rely so much on advice from others in this series. Consider it a thinking fan’s guide to the bracket.

(And speaking of the bracket, be sure to join our College Basketball Nation Tournament Challenge group, wherein you can test your bracketing skills against yours truly and the rest of the ESPN.com college hoops writing staff. Imagine the bragging rights. So many bragging rights, you guys.)

Much of 2012's Field Notes will be similar to 2011's version, but that's OK: The advice is universal, the dictums not restricted by temporality. In other words, what made sense last season mostly still makes sense this season. Mostly.

This is the first edition in the series, and it's a warm-up rant. I just need to get this off my chest.

The round of 32 is the second round. If you disagree, we can't be friends.

Last season, as it worked to negotiate a massive new television contract with CBS and Turner Sports, the NCAA expanded its marquee event. Contrary to apocalyptic scenarios divined the world over, this expansion did not enlarge the tournament to 96 teams. No doubt buoyed by said massive TV deal (a 14-year, $11 billion rights agreement that increased the NCAA's average yearly revenues from the $500 million range to $771 million) signed without the inclusion of another 31 at-large teams that no one wants to watch play postseason basketball anyway, the NCAA settled on a modest expansion: three whole teams.

What it did with those three teams was most interesting. In an effort to gin up interest for the previously bereft play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, the NCAA formatted the Dayton games to include the last four at-large teams in the field, as well as four low-seeded automatic bids from the nation's smallest conferences. This was a reasonable and altogether fair solution.

But what the NCAA did next, while understandable, has become one of most annoying things about the NCAA tournament: It decided to call the play-in games the "first round." Throughout its materials, the round of 64 -- the artist formerly known colloquially as "the first round" -- became the second round, and the round of 32 -- the former second round -- became the third.

[+] EnlargeDave Rose, BYU
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireIf coach Dave Rose and BYU are practicing for an NCAA first-round game in Dayton, that means 60 teams are getting a first-round bye in the tourney.
This was a sneaky little trick, a flash of modern branding, a convenient way to get people to stop calling the events in Dayton "play-in games."

I refuse to play along.

This was as much of an issue last season, when most seemed to patently reject the idea. But I've seen the new terminology creeping into use more and more in the new format's second year. As such, I fear we college hoops fans are becoming the proverbial frog in the gradually boiling water: Before we know it, we'll forget the old way ever existed, a relic of history lost forever to the memory hole.

Obviously -- obviously! -- I'm exaggerating for effect. At the end of the day, who cares what we call the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament? Big deal, right? And I can understand why the NCAA wants to brand the tournament this way: When you call the Dayton games play-ins, the implication -- or at least the implication the NCAA fears -- is that those teams aren't actually in the tournament. That would devalue those teams' accomplishments, and quite possibly hurt their feelings. And gosh, we don't want that.

But as noted proud NCAA tweaker Jay Bilas said on the broadcast Sunday night -- and has tweeted since -- calling the Dayton games the "first round" is essentially saying that every team that isn't in Dayton (so, like, all of them) gets a first-round bye. That's just patently ridiculous.

What's more, it's confusing. I want to be able write about the tournament and to talk to my buddies without everyone getting all confused about which round is first and which is second. We need to all be on the same page. And that page is not, in this case, the NCAA's.

Join with me, college hoops fans. Scream it from the mountaintops. Make signs. Occupy the bracket. Contact your local congressman. (Ha, just kidding, don't do that, they don't read their email anyway.) The first round is the first round. Call Dayton whatever you want. It doesn't have to be "play-in." Let's just call them the Dayton games! It doesn't matter! As long as we can all agree that the round of 64 -- the first round for as long as the tournament has existed -- remains the first round, then we'll have established some measure of rhetorical consistency and some measure of sanity in this deal.

This is not a very important thing to be bothered about. I realize that. But I can't help it. It drives me nuts.

As my podcast producer Jay Soderberg (aka PodVader) might say, enough with this ridiculousness.

Next in Field Notes: On the merits of bracket loyalty.

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