Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Manifesto's Guide to March Madness 2012

This year, the NCAA Tournament committee is finally disclosing its "Seed List", in which it ranks every team that made the tourney from 1 through 68. In terms of generating Internet traffic, this won't exactly be the Starr Report or casting news from The Hunger Games, but it's still guaranteed to get thousands of basketball nerds salivating. Yet the mere acknowledgement that such a list even exists reveals a grave problem with postseason collegiate basketball: March Madness is deeply unfair.

Look, I love March Madness – it's unequivocally my favorite sporting event of the year. And in terms of amateur athletics, I probably shouldn't be griping about basketball's system given that college football could have a Planet-of-the-Apes-level uprising on its hands at any moment. But that doesn't change the fact that the current bracketing system, while numerically satisfying and visually sexy, is prone to wildly illogical results.

Consider: On Sunday's selection show, committee chair Jeff Hathaway confirmed that, of the four #2 seeds, Kansas was actually the highest-ranked, meaning the Jayhawks were fifth overall on the master list and just missed out on a #1 seed. Yet the committee placed Kansas in the same region as North Carolina for geographical purposes. Meanwhile, the committee ranked Missouri eighth overall, meaning it was last among the four #2 seeds ... yet the Tigers find themselves opposite Michigan State, which was ranked last among all #1 seeds, meaning Missouri theoretically has the easiest path to the Final Four of all four #2 seeds.

I'm simplifying a little, but the question remains: If you're Kansas coach Bill Self, would you rather play your regional final against North Carolina in St. Louis or against Michigan State in Phoenix? That question isn't necessarily rhetorical – perhaps Kansas would actually prefer to hold a decided home-court advantage even if it meant facing a superior opponent (though I'm fairly certain that if Hathaway called Self and said, "Sorry, the hackers from Anonymous got bored terrorizing the PlayStation Network and wreaked havoc on our computer system instead, you're actually playing in Michigan State's region," Self wouldn't complain). But here's the thing: Because it was ranked three spots higher than Missouri, Kansas shouldn't be at the mercy of the committee's own value judgments regarding location versus competition; rather, Kansas should have the choice.

Which leads to the Manifesto's revolutionary idea that will not only fix the inequities currently inherent in March Madness but also result in one of the greatest television events of the year: turning the selection show into a draft.

The idea is simple. The committee's job should remain the same: to rank every team in the tournament (and to determine which 68 clubs make the cut in the first place). Then, however, rather than the committee placing every team in its specific spot on the bracket, the highest-ranked team can choose its first-round opponent, as well as the pod and region it wants to play in. So, Kentucky would presumably want to remain in the Louisville pod, but perhaps the Wildcats would rather play Vermont than a Western Kentucky team that is going to have ridiculous crowd support playing in Louisville. The choices would then trickle down, and the field would essentially seed itself (meaning Kansas would have the opportunity to select which #1 seed it's paired against).

And here's the kicker: The entire event would be televised. Look, we already televise the NBA Draft Lottery in primetime, and that's just an old white guy opening 14 envelopes. CBS pays a ridiculous amount for exclusive rights to the selection show, and that's just a bunch of computerized brackets appearing on your screen. We're not exactly talking about the Apollo moon landing. American audiences have exhibited an astonishing level of interest in tuning in for events that are intrinsically boring and generally lacking in suspense.

By comparison, the March Madness Draft would be utterly riveting. Are you telling me you wouldn't want to watch John Calipari stride to the podium and sneer, "For our first-round opponent, we select ... Norfolk State!"? Not only would the atmosphere be electric, but the strategy involved would be utterly fascinating (and place a premium on scouting as well). And let's not forget the vendettas. Can you imagine what would happen if Rick Pitino intentionally placed Louisville in the #8 slot just below Kentucky so that he'd have an opportunity to face his former team in the second round? There's a 30% chance that the Internet would explode.

Look, I'm not denying that there aren't a few wrinkles to be ironed out (for instance, I'm currently ignoring the complicating factor of play-in games). But the potential of this idea is Kyrie Irving-level high, and it's hardly infeasible. Christ, if the NCAA can create incomprehensible evaluative metrics that weigh strength of schedule, home-court advantage, opponents' opponents' win percentage, jersey color, and thread count on the netting of each basket, it can find a way to make this work. Just remember that the Manifesto had it first when, in, 2035 you're watching Syracuse choose to play Princeton in the first round in an effort to avenge a century's worth of agonizing lacrosse defeats.

On to the picks. Here's a blank bracket so you can follow along.

SOUTH (aka "The Charade")
Overall thoughts: Media pundits will slurp up this region searching for subplots while ignoring the master plot. The subplots: Can Uconn defend its title even though its best player often looks as though he's filming a hostage video? Can VCU return to the Final Four? Can Indiana leverage Christian Watford's insane December buzzer-beater against Kentucky in a potential Sweet 16 rematch? Will Duke receive an edge with the regional final being played in Atlanta? Will Baylor coach Scott Drew break down crying on the sideline as Perry Jones III watches a rebound sail over his head while thinking to himself, "I wonder if I should play Nike and Adidas against each other when I'm negotiating my shoe deal"? Admittedly, those are all relatively interesting subplots, but they're wholly irrelevant to the master plot, which is ...

The top seed: Kentucky is going to win this region in a walk. Look, as Vanderbilt proved in the SEC final, the Wildcats aren't invincible. They don't shoot that well from the perimeter (with the exception of Doron Lamb), their point guard (Marquis Teague) has all of Brandon Knight's flaws (poor shooter, questionable decision-maker, shaky on the free-throw line) and none of his savvy, and their third-best player (Terrence Jones) is locked in a dead heat with his long-lost brother Perry Jones for the "Most Mercurial Player of the Year" award.

That said, this team is good. They defend like motherfuckers (leading the country in both blocked shots and field-goal-percentage defense), they're very well-disciplined for such a young team (credit has to go to Calipari), and they have a terrifying penchant for ripping off back-breaking 12-0 runs. This is what happens when a collegiate team fields five future NBA players in its starting lineup. And let's not forget Anthony Davis, who's currently somewhere between an in-his-prime Marcus Camby and a past-his-prime Kevin Garnett with the way he can affect a game on both ends. They're not losing a regional game unless Jeremy Lamb or Perry Jones III says to himself, "Fuck it, I'm the most talented player on the court, I'm taking over". And if you've watched either of those players this year, you know that the odds of that happening are roughly equivalent to the odds of Calipari headlining a "Stay in School" charity show.

The pale echo: It's only fair to pay attention to Uconn, given that the Huskies are defending the title. That said, any discussion of how a potential second-round matchup between Kentucky and Uconn must make Kentucky nervous is patently absurd. Have you watched this team play? Shabazz Napier shoots 39% from the floor, and he's second on the team in shot attempts. They are a mess. Of course, last year's team was a mess too, but last year's team had Kemba Walker. This year's team has Jeremy Lamb, a phenomenal talent who has as much chance of becoming the next Tim Thomas as he does the next Rip Hamilton. And I'm supposed to believe that he and Andre Drummond (who shoots a spectacular 29% from the line) are going to beat the best team in the country in Louisville? No thanks.

The fractured fairytale: VCU pulled its Cinderella act last year by doing two things extraordinarily well: playing pressure defense and shooting the three. This year's squad has the first part down pat. The second? Not so much. Not only does the team shoot just 34% from three-point range (which ranks 197th in the country), but three of their regulars shoot below 30% from deep. If you don't have inside scoring – and VCU doesn't – you need to make jumpshots consistently. Sorry, Shaka. On the plus side, you're going to kill it for Illinois next season.

The enigma: Baylor is a scary team. They have impressive size (led by the intermittently ferocious Quincy Acy), reliable shooting (led by absolute marksman Brady Heslip, who could be the next Steve Novak if he were 10 inches taller), a clutch point guard who loves to perform in big spots (Pierre Jackson), and a versatile freshman who could probably make the All-Big 12 Team next year except that he's going to declare for the draft (Quincy Miller). Oh, and they have Perry Jones III, a 6'11" specimen who combines Gerald Green's athleticism, Glenn Robinson's shooting touch, and Eddy Curry's motivation. They scare me.

But not nearly as much as they must scare coach Scott Drew. He just has no idea what to do with them, which is why they're the most unpredictable team in the tournament. They could beat Duke by 25 and then take Kentucky to overtime, or they could fall behind early to South Dakota State and just give up. There's really no floor or ceiling with them. And that's the exact scouting report that's going to be applied to Jones this summer before the Wizards take him third overall and their entire fan base collectively throws up.

The quavering hope: I want to believe in this Duke team. I can even make a halfway-convincing case that they're Final Four-caliber. They won 27 games despite playing a monstrous schedule, including neutral-site wins against Michigan State, Michigan, and Kansas. They shoot the three relatively well (four players at 37% or higher). If stretch power forward Ryan Kelly is healthy, they can cause matchup nightmares for traditional defenses. They have a true talent in Austin Rivers. And they've shown an impossible knack for rallying to win close games (most memorably personified in their preposterous comeback against NC State, when they were down 20 with 11:30 remaining).

But that's all just a smokescreen. Krzyzewski's Duke teams are typically built on twin pillars of defensive pressure (to force turnovers) and offensive penetration (to drive-and-kick to open shooters), and this year's squad is a failure in both. Defensively, they allow opponents to shoot 43.3% (165th in the country) and force just 12.8 turnovers per game (194th). Offensively, they average just 12.5 assists as a team (182nd), meaning their assist/turnover ratio barely exceeds 1.0. Making matters worse, they shoot just 70% from the free-throw line, an atypical weakness that is guaranteed to kill them in close games (and already did in infamous fashion against Miami). They've occasionally shown flashes when they play inside-out through the Plumlees, but the brothers are too turnover-prone to be offensive focal points. Instead, Duke's really at its best when it relies on Rivers' creativity, and that can be fine – the kid can play, and he's the only guy on the team who can create his own shot. But against quality defenses, they suddenly find themselves passing the ball around the perimeter for 30 seconds until Tyler Thornton throws up a three. And that's not going to get it done.

(I will now watch the following video 10 times in a row in an effort to make myself feel better.)

The Picks
Play-in game: Western Kentucky over Mississippi Valley State.

Sweet 16: Kentucky over Uconn, Wichita State over Indiana, Baylor over UNLV, Duke over Xavier.

Regional final: KENTUCKY over Baylor.

WEST (aka "The Afterthought")
Overall thoughts: I'm not particularly numerologically inclined, but I tend to like the even-numbered seeds in this region, whereas I find the odd-numbered seeds completely underwhelming. I doubt that means anything, but it's the only thing I find remotely interesting about a region that is otherwise a gigantic snooze.

The top seed: This year's Michigan State squad is the quintessential Tom Izzo team. They give eight guys significant minutes (although that's been pared down to seven now that Branden Dawson is hurt), they play at a comfortable pace, they rebound (third in the country in rebound rate), they defend (second in field-goal-percentage defense) ... and they don't have a single NBA-caliber talent. Draymond Green is a terrific college player, and he invariably keeps the Spartans in games even when he isn't scoring, but can you really rely on him to manufacture his own shot in crunch-time against a quality defense? Would you rather rely on point guard Keith Appling, who shoots 24% from three and didn't even crack four assists per game? It's a credit to Izzo that the Spartans won as many games as they did. They won't win more than two the rest of the way.

The lurker: I honestly don't know what to make of Louisville. On the one hand, they're ruthless defensively (third in the country in field-goal-percentage defense, seventh in steals), they're absurdly balanced on offense (six different players average at least nine points), and they're led by one of the greatest college coaches ever (don't deny it). On the other hand, they're horrendously undisciplined (175th in assist/turnover ratio), and their best playmaker (Peyton Siva) is historically incapable of making the right pass at the right time. Worse, they're absolutely horrible from the perimeter, making just 31% of their threes (Siva himself shoots a putrid 24%) – that ranks 294th in the nation, good for third-worst among all tournament teams behind Detroit and Western Kentucky (a #15 seed and #16 seed, respectively). Yet if they speed you up and get you into a transition game, you will be outmatched. Which is exactly what I can see happening if they make it to a Sweet 16 matchup against Michigan State. Yikes.

The great mid-major hope: Unless you're a Colorado State fan like my friend Luke, you should be rooting for Murray State to make the Final Four. Not only would it be exciting for college basketball fans to see as much of Isaiah Canaan as possible, but it would also throw it in the committee's face that a 30-win team with victories at Memphis and at home against Dayton and St. Mary's probably deserves better than a freaking six seed. With most of the major conferences currently being realigned like two nine-year-olds swapping properties in a Monopoly game, it would be gratifying to see a team from the Ohio Valley make a stand in the tourney. These are the kinds of stories that we want to see play out during March Madness. But do the Racers have the horses to compete against the firepower of Missouri? I doubt it. But I hope I'm wrong.

The junkyard dog: Marquette plays hard. I'm not denying that. They win through superior hustle, energy, pressure, and pretty much every other adjective that could be applied to Brian Scalabrine. What they don't appear to have is skill or anything resembling "an offense". That style works fine in a scrappy conference like the Big East, but it doesn't work in March.

The rule: I don't deny that three-point shooting is critical in the tournament, but when you rely so extensively on the three that you attempt over 25 per game (third-most in the country), you're just begging for one of those games when four-fifths of your shots rim in-and-out and ultimately Erving Walker starts dribbling around like he's imitating an old Pistol Pete video before heaving 30-footers every possession. Thanks for playing, Florida.

The eye candy: I love watching Missouri play. They feature four guards, all of whom can shoot, especially Kim English (47% from three). Their best player, Marcus Denmon, is a bona fide shot-maker who shoots 90% from the line and loves making back-breaking threes. And their point guard, Phil Pressey, has can't-teach-that court vision and is one of the smoothest guards in the country. (The less said about reserve gunner Michael Dixon, the better.) Here's what they don't do: defend (220th in field-goal-percentage defense) or rebound (149th in rebound rate). They win with speed, ball movement, and sheer offensive firepower, all of which is the perfect recipe against a traditional, well-disciplined team such as Michigan State. But if they wind up stuck in a run-and-gun contest against Louisville in the regional final ...

The Picks
Play-in game: Iona over BYU.

Sweet 16: Michigan State over Memphis, Louisville over Long Beach State, Murray State over Marquette, Missouri over Florida.

Regional final: LOUISVILLE over Missouri.

(Jesus, did I really just pick Peyton Siva to make the Final Four? I hate this region.)

EAST (aka "The Intrigue")
Overall thoughts: Lots of fun stuff to chew on here. Which Syracuse (and which Dion Waiters) will show up? After a 66-year absence, can Harvard cause a stir? Is Gonzaga finally ready to do some damage again? Is Ohio State preening even though it's a #2 seed? Can Florida State manage to win a game without properly executing a single offensive possession? Will Wisconsin-Montana become the lowest-rated game in tournament history? Should be fun.

The top seed: At this point, you know what you're getting from Syracuse: the most disciplined 2-3 zone in the country, a ton of blocked shots and forced turnovers, relentless attack in transition, the occasional spectacular play from Waiters, and – once the game slows down and the pressure rises – no semblance of a half-court offense whatsoever. Force them into a grind-it-out contest in which they can't push the ball, and the Orange can be brutal to watch. Throw in their inability to take care of the glass (they rank a staggering 331st in defensive rebound percentage), and this Syracuse team is exceedingly vulnerable. Which isn't to say that they can't run their opponent out of the gym in the proper environment. But put them up against a well-coached team that can shoot the three, like, say ...

The sleeper: Given that it just gave Kentucky its second loss of the entire year, Vanderbilt isn't exactly a sleeper anymore. But given that they're a five seed – and given that I'd tabbed them as my "Team that can do some damage given the right draw" squad a few weeks ago – I'm sticking with the label. Of course, the Commodores have their share of problems – they don't defend all that well, and their talented players (especially Jeffery Taylor) have the annoying tendency to sleepwalk during big moments. But they are talented, and with Taylor, gritty point guard Brad Tinsley, and sweet-shooting guard John Jenkins (leading the country in threes made) all shooting 40% from three or better, they're precisely the type of roster that can give Syracuse fits. You know, assuming they get past Harvard.

The nightmare: Can you imagine watching a regional final between third-seeded Florida State (fourth in field-goal-percentage defense, 104th in scoring) and fourth-seeded Wisconsin (seventh in defense, 253rd in scoring)? It would make last year's Uconn-Butler final look like an offensive bonanza between the T-Wolves and the Warriors. I would rather watch The Tree of Life and Le Quattro Volte back-to-back than watch two defensively stifling, offensively inept teams face each other with a Final Four berth on the line. Fortunately, the NCAA will never let this happen.

(Wait, the NCAA let Butler face VCU in the Final Four last year? Let's stop thinking about this.)

The shame: I like Gonzaga. I always have, ever since Blake Stepp was there. Hell, I like most teams from the WCC (and I still haven't forgiven the committee for shutting out Mickey McConnell and St. Mary's from the field last year). I like Mark Few, and I really like this Kevin Pangos kid who shot 41% from three and has probably ripped his way through four different sorority houses by now. I want them to do well, and I'm completely confident that they'll throttle an overachieving West Virginia team in the first round. The problem is that they then have to play ...

The gauntlet: O.K., Jared Sullinger, it's time for you to put up or shut up. You passed up being a top-five pick in last year's NBA Draft because you wanted to return to Ohio State in order to win a title. Alongside Kansas' Thomas Robinson, you're the only player in the country who actually features a bevy of low-post scoring moves. You play with one of the smartest point guards in the game in Aaron Craft who is practically begging for you to demand the ball on every possession. Yet you invariably disappear for long stretches and commit stupid fouls, and your team winds up relying on William Buford or Deshaun Thomas to make the big play. Enough. It's time for you to don the cloak of the superstar, take center stage, drop 28 and 15 in the regional final, and show NBA scouts why they shouldn't rank you behind Andre Drummond and Arnett Moultrie. This is your chance. Let's see what you've got. (And if you have to hire Jeff Gillooly to slice Thomas' Achilles' tendon in the locker room before the regional final, so be it.)

The Picks
Sweet 16: Syracuse over Kansas State, Vanderbilt over Wisconsin, Florida State over Cincinnati, Ohio State over Gonzaga.

Regional final: VANDERBILT over Ohio State.

WEST (aka "The Showdown")
Overall thoughts: Including the two play-in contests, this region will host 17 games. One will matter.

The top seed: Strangely, this North Carolina team reminds me of the Tar Heels' squad from 2009 – not in terms of talent level or personnel, but circumstances. That team was poised to win the championship before stud point guard Ty Lawson hurt his foot, resulting in a loss in the ACC Tournament to Florida State and causing the entire country to question whether or not Lawson would return to full health and how it would affect the team's tournament chances. (Answer: They won the title.) This year, John Henson sprained his wrist during the ACC Tournament, in which Carolina lost to (you guessed it) Florida State, and now everyone is all aflutter about how that injury will impair the Heels' title chances.

Obviously I have no idea how Henson's wrist is actually healing, but it hardly matters – he could pull a Von Miller and play with a giant cast on his hand, and he'll still contribute at least 80% of his normal value (I know he's an improved offensive threat this year, but his primary impact remains on the defensive end). And that's a problem, because with an even moderately healthy Henson in the lineup, Carolina is good. Yes, they only have four high-quality players (McAdoo and Hairston aren't there yet, and I'm not sure Bullock ever will be), but those four players are awfully impressive. Kendall Marshall is the best pure point guard in the country, and while Tyler Zeller is a talented player in his own right, playing alongside Marshall is the dream scenario for someone of his skill set. Meanwhile, even if Harrison Barnes has a little too much Jeremy Lamb in him, he remains one of the silkiest scorers in the country who is capable of utterly dominating a game for short stretches. Yet even with a healthy Henson, the Tar Heels' path to the Final Four is hardly assured, as they'll likely have to play ...

The disrespected: If there's one virtue of the current seeding system, it's that it provides coaches with free motivational ammunition. Hell, the bias is even color-coded (the higher seed always wears white). If Kansas coach Bill Self has any sense of how to fire up collegiate athletes – and I think he does – he'll dust off his Norman Dale impression and milk his team's #2 seed for all it's worth. And if the Jayhawks are motivated, look out. Not only do they defend vigorously (fifth in field-goal-percentage defense, anchored by rising star Jeff Withey), but they also have the country's best player in Thomas Robinson ("He's a monster!" my Dad exclaimed once after Robinson ripped down another offensive rebound and possibly sank his teeth into the defender's neck). Unfortunately, they also have Tyshawn Taylor. Now, to be fair, Taylor has shown shocking flashes of common sense this year, and his playmaking ability has always been undeniable. But his assist/turnover ratio remains a putrid 1.4, and after watching him for four years, I've determined that I will never trust him with the ball in his hands and the game on the line. And I'd say the exact opposite about Kendall Marshall. Bad sign for Kansas.

The fraud: Wait, there are other teams in this region? You can forgive me for overlooking Georgetown, if only because there is hardly anything to overlook. The Hoyas have two good players – freshman forward Otto Porter (a scrappy rebounder who has a nose for the ball and shoots 52%) and senior center Henry Sims (a skilled passing big man who's essentially an extremely poor man's Greg Monroe). Their backcourt, however, is atrocious. They win exclusively via their defense, which is problematic given that they face ...

The shocker: Belmont! Admittedly I'm biased in favor of the Bruins because I saw them play Duke tough in the Blue Devils' first game of the season, but Belmont can score. They're fifth in the country in true shooting percentage and seventh in points from three-pointers (led by Drew Hanlen, who made 91 threes this year at a staggering 48% clip). They're also an experienced tournament team with a veteran coach in Rick Byrd. Oh, and they're playing in Ohio, where Georgetown will undoubtedly be haunted by the ghost of losing to fourteenth-seeded Ohio two years ago. Mark it down. (Also, Seth Davis, please stop stealing the Manifesto's sleeper picks. Thanks.)

The Picks
Play-in games: Lamar over Vermont, South Florida over California.

Sweet 16: North Carolina over Creighton, Temple over Michigan, Belmont over NC State, Kansas over St. Mary's.

Regional final: NORTH CAROLINA over Kansas.

Semifinal #1: Kentucky is arguably the best team in the country. Louisville could arguably lose to Davidson in the first round. I'll take Kentucky.

Semifinal #2: If North Carolina can beat Kansas, it means John Henson is healthy, which means the Tar Heels aren't losing to Vanderbilt ...

Championship: ... or to anyone else. Also, if this matchup actually happens, it's possible that I'll elect to undergo laser eye surgery without anesthesia rather than watch this game.

In any event, the Manifesto is officially picking North Carolina as its 2012 NCAA champion. And with that transparent ploy of reverse psychology firmly in place, it's time to officially fill out my bracket. Happy Madness, everyone.

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