Ten Teams You’ll Want to Get to Know Before Selection Sunday

Leave a comment

Anyone could tell you that either Duke, Kansas, or Ohio State is probably going to win the national title. However, the key to winning your office pool is pinpointing sleepers. These ten teams are going to break a lot of brackets. Stick with me and they won’t break yours.

Four Potential First Round Upsets

It’s been a decade since a 2-seed lost in the first round, and any one of these teams could be lacing up their glass slippers to break that streak if they end up receiving a 15-seed.

Belmont

The Bruins went on the road this past weekend and beat ETSU by double digits in what should be their biggest test in 2011; unless they receive a tough draw on Bracket Busters Weekend. There’s an outside chance that they finish the regular season with a 29-3 record with those two losses coming @ Vanderbilt and @ Tennessee (twice), each of which was a single digit loss. It’s unlikely that they would fail to win their conference tournament, but if they did, with the new 68 team bracket, it’ll be tough to argue that a 30+ win team shouldn’t make it to the big dance, regardless of their strength of schedule.

Anyway, what I love about this Belmont team is that they don’t rely too heavily on any individual player: no one on the team averages 25 minutes per game, and yet they’re the 10th highest scoring team in the nation. Eleven guys on the team are averaging at least ten minutes per game, which means a lot of guys are getting experience and a lot of guys are staying rested for the long haul. They recently made it to the tourney thrice (2006-2008), and while only two current players were even on the roster for any of those games, it’s safe to say head coach Rick Byrd gained from the experience, as each game ended up being more competitive than the last, culminating in the Duke/Belmont 71-70 nail biter in 2008. Next on Byrd’s agenda is a post-season victory.

Bucknell

Northern Colorado

Of the 346 teams in Division I basketball, only two shoot better than 76% from the free throw line and better than 40% from the three point line: Bucknell and Northern Colorado. Neither of them has anything else particularly intriguing on their resume, and with seven losses apiece and a lack of competitiveness in their games against tournament-caliber teams, there’s no chance either of them receives an at-large invitation if they fail to win their respective conference tournaments; but if either of these teams can make it to the tournament, what’s more crucial to pulling off an upset in March than clutch free throw and three point shooting?

Coastal Carolina

Maybe that free throw / three point percentage stat didn’t impress you enough to pick Bucknell or Northern Colorado, but this next one should blow your mind. There are four teams in the nation currently ranked in the top 30 in assists per game, rebounds per game, points per game, and field goal percentage: Kansas, Pittsburgh, Washington…and Coastal Carolina. I’m apparently the only person outside of Myrtle Beach who has noticed what the Chanticleers are up to, because despite a current 16 game winning streak which has given them a record of 18-2, they only received 2 points in the latest AP poll. Lunardi currently has Coastal as a 15-seed, pitted against Villanova in the first round in Washington DC. If that actually happens, I’ll make sure I’m in attendance for that potential upset.

Three Underperforming Teams No One Wants To Face

Every year in every sport there are a handful of teams that were too highly touted in the pre-season, and by mid-season it’s beyond evident that they didn’t deserve the respect they were given. In some cases, such as with Butler, Gonzaga, and Memphis this year, teams are basically ranked based upon rosters they used to have. In the other cases, we’re dealing with teams who haven’t quite put it together even though they have all the necessary pieces. Any one of these three teams could easily still get a 4-seed if they’re able to start doing what everyone expected them to do from the beginning. At the same time, any or all of these teams could very well play themselves out of the tournament altogether, despite opening the season ranked in the top ten. Trust me, there are at least 68 other teams who would strongly prefer that these teams never begin to gel, because with the head coaches that they have, anything is possible.

Kansas State

When you consider Frank Martin is the most terrifying coach since Bobby Knight’s heyday, what’s so dumbfounding about this team is how incredibly undisciplined they are. They turn the ball over more than 291 other teams in the nation. There are only nine teams who have a lower team free throw percentage than Kansas State. They literally miss an average of ten free throws per game.

If Mike Singletary’s failure in San Francisco didn’t teach you that ruling with an iron fist no longer works in sports, learn it from Frank Martin. I thought he was going to remove Jacob Pullen’s head from his body during last night’s game against Baylor…and they were winning by eight at the time. Dear Frank, next time one of your guys pisses you off, instead of making him run wind sprints, make him shoot 500 free throws. You’re never going to make it to the tournament by giving away ten points per game at the charity stripe.

Michigan State

I’ll never understand how to calculate SOS, but I guarantee the Spartans have had one of the five toughest schedules thus far, and they still have to play games in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio State. Nevertheless, you would think the pre-season #2 team would be able to win at least a couple of the seven games they’ve lost thus far. Unless they completely shit the bed down the stretch, they’ll probably get into the tournament as a severely battle tested 7-seed with 11 or 12 losses.

They’re a much better team than they’ve demonstrated thus far. I think it’s only a matter of time before they hit their stride. Once they do, we’ll be reminded that Tom Izzo is 35-12 in the NCAA Tournament since 1998. When it’s time to fill out your bracket, just remember the Michigan State Corollary: unless they lose in the first round, they always win at least one more game than anyone expects them to win.

North Carolina

As an unabashed Duke supporter, this one concerns me the most: All they need is for one perimeter threat to emerge and, along with the Barnes/Henson/Zeller three-headed monster, they will become a force to be reckoned with.

As is the case with most teams with an already shaky backcourt, their weakness is playing on the road. At home, the Tar Heels are 9-0, including a big win over Kentucky. Away from home, they are 4-5, including a jaw-dropping twenty point loss at Georgia Tech.

Similarly to Michigan State, at the rate they’re going, they’d probably get into the tournament as a 6-seed, and with Roy Williams at the helm, there’s no telling what they could do from there.

Two Non-BCS Schools Who Could Do Some Damage

Utah State

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a Utah State team with little more than a close loss to BYU just cracked the Top 25 and is gaining popularity around the nation as a potential Cinderella. Sounds a lot like the 2008-09 season in which they lost a first round heartbreaker to Marquette, doesn’t it? The only difference is that this year they have seven guys averaging more than ten minutes per game, and all of them are juniors and seniors who won’t merely be satisfied with another great regular season after two straight disappointing postseason showings.

Beware the Aggies with the chip on their shoulder. For either winning the WAC or getting in as an at-large, there’s no way they’ll be seeded lower than a 13; but no matter where they end up, you can already take a first round win to the bank, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them make a Davidson-type run to the Elite Eight.

BYU

Speaking of Davidson, if your 2008 bracket didn’t love Stephen Curry, you can make up for it in 2011 by riding Jimmer Fredette to the top of your office pool. If you haven’t had a chance to see him in action, set your DVRs for Wednesday night at 10PM ET when BYU hosts San Diego State in what’s quietly shaping up to be one of the ten greatest games of the regular season. It should be an interesting battle since SDSU is holding opponents to 59 points per game, but then again, UNLV is holding opponents to 61 points per game, and Jimmer dropped 39 on them three weeks ago.

What makes the Cougars so deadly is that they’re more than just Jimmer and a quartet of mediocre mid-major cheerleaders. Jackson Emery is one hell of a second fiddle, and Hartsock and Davies are more than capable enough to make an opponent pay for doubling Fredette.

Kemba Walker and UConn are getting more publicity and favoritism in the polls since they’re a Big East team, but if UConn and BYU faced off in the tournament, I would take the Cougars in a heartbeat. If there’s a team out there this year that’s going to pull off a deep run in the tournament a la Gonzaga, Davidson, or Butler, it’s BYU.

Dark Horse To Win It All

Washington

I’ve been on the Washington bandwagon since the Maui Invitational; frequently betting the over in their games because Vegas is apparently unaware that they average 95.7 points per game at home. The problem with picking them very far in the tourney is that they only average 75.1 points per game away from home. They aren’t particularly reliable from the free throw line either, currently tied for 261st in the country (with Pittsburgh for what that’s worth). I also liked them a lot more before Abdul Gaddy tore his ACL, but even without him, they definitely have the pieces to put together a six game winning streak in March.

Aside from possibly Will Buford and Jared Sullinger, Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning are arguably the best inside-outside duo in the nation. Wilcox, Suggs, and Holiday are each shooting better than 41% from beyond the arc, and they’ve each taken their fair share of shots in the process. If they’re able to start getting some 2009-10 numbers out of Venoy Overton, I don’t know how anyone other than Washington can stop Washington. They’re already the third highest scoring team in the nation, and they haven’t allowed an opponent to score 80 points in a game yet this season.

Every March, I end up doing at least a dozen different brackets based on new statistical ideas that I come up with, and of course, I always have one bracket based entirely on gut feeling. For the past seven years, the same stat-based bracket has done better than any of the others: Average Margin of Victory times Conference RPI. Not only does that bracket always win, but in four of the past seven seasons, it had the correct Final Four and National Champion.

Relevance? If things remain relatively the same as they are now, with the exception of the Big East beating itself up as always, Washington would have the 4th highest rating in that bracket behind Ohio State, Kansas, and Duke. Sounds like a pretty realistic Final Four to me.

Will I actually pick them to win it all? Highly doubt it. Would I be surprised if they’re still playing in April? Not at all.

Advertisements

NFL Playoff Predictions

Leave a comment

And Then There Were Eight

Aside from the fact that my Chiefs lost, Wild Card Weekend featured a phenomenal slew of games, and I expect more of the same starting this Saturday in Pittsburgh. I went 3-1 last weekend, and probably would have gone 4-0 if the refs had whistled that blatant defensive pass interference against the Jets at the four yard line late in the 4th quarter. My dreams of going 11-0 in the playoffs have ended yet again, but I’ll take a ten win post-season. Here’s who I’m taking this weekend and why:

Baltimore @ Pittsburgh (-3)

Why 2010 says Pittsburgh will win this game:

These teams are virtually mirror images of each other, so I don’t have much aside from a theory that something is wrong with Flacco. I can’t remember him throwing a deep ball in the past month. Just fewer than 50% of his passing yards in the past five games have gone to tight ends, running backs, and fullbacks; and more often than not, you can’t dink and dunk your way to a win over the Steelers. Flacco has taken 34 sacks in the past ten weeks and Pittsburgh is the last team you want to face when you’re already battered and bruised.

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger seems to get stronger with each injury he takes. He’s averaging 285+ yards per game with an 11/2 TD/INT ratio in the past eight weeks, and has even rushed for two TDs during that span of time. Combine Ben’s resurgence with Flacco’s drop off and the fact that the Steelers both rush the ball and stop the rush much better than the Ravens, and it just feels like the Steelers are bound to win this grudge match.

Why history says Baltimore will lose this game:

– Since expanding to eight divisions in 2002, there have been ten occurrences of division rivals facing off in the playoffs. The home/road split is 50/50, but the Steelers are 3-0 in those games.

– 27 of the past 32 teams to compete for a conference championship finished the regular season 16th or better in the “sacks recorded” category. Baltimore finished the season tied for 27th in sacks.

– 31 of the past 32 teams to make it past the divisional round forced at least 24 turnovers during the regular season. Baltimore only forced 22 this season.

Everything about this game screams Steelers by one possession, so unless you can get great odds on the Steelers winning by exactly three points, your gambling dollars would probably be better off elsewhere. Final prediction: Steelers 20-14.

Seattle @ Chicago (-10)

Why 2010 says Chicago will win this game:

Before you overlook the season the Seahawks had and just assume they’re riding a “nobody believed in us!” wave in light of last week’s game against the Saints, there are a lot of things you need to consider.

First of all, the Bears are a much better team than they were in October when they lost three out of four games, including a game against Seattle. Since their Week 8 bye when Lovie Smith mixed up the offensive line to finally provide a small amount of pass protection for Cutler, the Bears have gone 7-2, with those two losses coming against likely Super Bowl candidates (Green Bay and New England). In October, Cutler was taking 6.3 sacks per game. Since then, he’s taking 2.7 sacks per game, and it’s not as if the Seahawks’ front four has been shutting down opposing quarterbacks.

The Seahawks were 2-6 on the road this season. Yes, one of those two wins came at Chicago three months ago, but that was when Chicago was at the lowest point of their season, and it was the game following the Seahawks’ bye week.

Fast stats: In games in which Matt Forte has 75 or more yards from scrimmage, the Bears are 8-1. In the Bears’ final three games, Forte averaged 139.3 yards from scrimmage per game. The Seahawks allowed just under 120 rushing yards per game during the regular season. On the road, the Seahawks allowed 29.3 points and 395.8 yards per game to their opponents, each of which would be good for worst in the league if they had had the same porous defense at home.

Why history says Seattle will lose this game:

– Going back as far as 1997 before growing weary of digging up old stats, only six teams in the past 14 years have made the playoffs while allowing more points than they’ve scored, and all six of those teams failed to make it to the conference championship game. Not only did the Seahawks get outscored by their opponents this season, but they were outscored by 97 points.

– 31 of the past 32 teams to make it past the divisional round forced at least 24 turnovers during the regular season. Seattle only forced 21 this season.

– The Seahawks have lost seven consecutive road playoff games.

If this game were being played in Seattle or if it were being played three months ago, maybe this is a different story, but the Bears have grown into a legitimate Super Bowl contender over the course of their past nine games, and should have no problem in this one. Final prediction: Bears 34-13.

New York @ New England (-9)

Why 2010 says New England will win this game:

Have you seen them play?! Since losing to Cleveland in Week 9, they’ve won eight straight and have scored at least 31 points in each of those games. They’re winning those games by an average of three touchdowns. In those eight games, they forced 24 turnovers and had more defensive touchdowns (four) than their offense had turnovers (one). Meanwhile, the Jets have barely looked like a playoff team since the 2010 calendar flipped to December. I don’t even need to be reminded that the Patriots beat the Jets by 42 in Foxboro to know that they are the vastly superior team.

Why History says New York will lose this game:

– The NFL MVP has played on Conference Championship Weekend in 19 of the past 23 years. Is anyone still arguing for Vick, Manning, or Rivers over Brady for MVP? Didn’t think so.

– Five of the past eight teams to lead the NFL in scoring during the regular season made it at least as far as the “final four,” and New England outscored every other team by at least 11 touchdowns.

– Teams that spend more time talking shit in the media and on twitter than they spend preparing for the task at hand end up losing the game at least 125% of the time. It’s a scientific fact.

The only real question is whether or not you should lay the points with the Pats. I would. Final prediction: New England 31-20.

Green Bay (+2.5) @ Atlanta

Why 2010 says Green Bay will win this game:

The whole “Matt Ryan is a Greek God at home” angle is being blown completely out of proportion. Four of the Falcons home games this season were against San Francisco, Cincinnati, Arizona, and Carolina, so let’s go ahead and throw those games out to leave Atlanta at 3-1 at home against legitimate competition.

Their one loss came to New Orleans. If LeGarrette Blount doesn’t get stuffed four straight times, Atlanta loses the game against Tampa Bay. If the Falcons don’t get the benefit of three calls on a last minute game-winning drive necessary to come back against a team that had all of about 17 yards in the first half, Atlanta loses the game against Baltimore. That leaves the three point win over Green Bay, and if you think Rodgers and company haven’t been improving since that game, you’re out of your mind.

Keep in mind that going into the season, Green Bay was one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl (please ignore the fact that Dallas was also one of these so-called favorites.) They are peaking right now and are about as healthy as they have been since the pre-season. This game should be a shootout, and in my opinion, Aaron Rodgers is more well-groomed for that type of game than Matt Ryan.

Why History says Atlanta will lose this game:

– In four of the past five years, at least two home teams have lost in the divisional round, and six seeds have won four of the past five games against one seeds. It’s like the 12 seed corollary in March Madness. More often than not, at least one 12 seed ends up winning, and more often than not, at least one team that played on Wild Card weekend ends up playing for a conference championship. If you’re with me on the first three picks, this is the de facto upset game.

– 27 of the past 32 teams to compete for a conference championship finished the regular season 16th or better in the “sacks recorded” category. Atlanta finished the season tied for 20th in sacks.

– Face it, Green Bay @ Chicago is the game Roger Goodell wants to see. Chicago @ Atlanta has about as much allure as San Francisco Giants vs. Texas Rangers did.

Not only does my gut say Green Bay will win this game, but I think it will be a route. My gambling spidey sense says this game is staying at Atl -2.5 just to convince people to put the Falcons in a three team tease at +7.5 with Chicago (pick) and New England (+1.5)…and the obvious three team teasers always fail. Final prediction: Green Bay 41-24.

If you’re playing in a fantasy playoff scramble, here are the players I see as the 4 best options at each position this week (from best to worst, left to right):

QB: Rodgers, Brady, Roethlisberger, Cutler

RB: Turner, Forte, Mendenhall, Green-Ellis

WR: W. Welker, M. Wallace, G. Jennings, M. Williams

TE: T. Heap, H. Miller, R. Gronkowski, T. Gonzalez

Def: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Baltimore, New England

 

Let the Real Fun Begin

Leave a comment

Prepare For a Wild Wild Card Weekend

After a roller coaster of a season, we’ve reached the part of the year which makes 99% of would-be prognosticators hang their heads in shame: looking back on pre-season NFL predictions. I’ve discovered that if I had just repeated my 2009 pre-season NFL predictions as my 2010 pre-season NFL predictions, I would have gotten eight of the twelve playoff teams correct, including five of the division winners.

Instead, I went and made new predictions at the beginning of this season and got seven of the twelve playoff teams correct, only two of which were the correct division winners (Indianapolis and Kansas City). Of the teams that received a first round bye, New England was the only one I even had making the playoffs, and I had them as a wild card team behind the Jets. I could still technically get my Super Bowl prediction right (Green Bay over Indianapolis), but it doesn’t look promising. What an embarrassment. Good thing I don’t have to stick with the picks I made in August, because it’s going to be difficult for Dallas to make it to the NFC Championship game.

Every year, I have lofty aspirations of going 11-0 against the spread in the playoffs. If memory serves correctly, I’ve never even made it through Wild Card weekend unscathed. Last season, I lost the first game of the playoffs, even though I had Bengals (-3) over Jets pegged as my lock of the weekend. Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot since last January, and I’m ready to start this year off with four winners.

Saturday 4:30 ET: Seattle (+10.5) vs. New Orleans

In 4 of the past 5 seasons, there has been at least one division winner generally perceived as un-deserving of a home game against a superior team that ended up winning that game. In 2006, a 12-4 Jacksonville team went into 10-6 New England and got slaughtered. In 2007, Dallas went into Seattle and Romo’s career as a holder for field goals abruptly ended. In 2009, Saturday proved to be quite a shocker as 9-7 Arizona and 8-8 San Diego held serve at home against 11-5 Atlanta and 12-4 Indianapolis, respectively. And last year, the Cardinals did it again with a somewhat surprising home win over Green Bay. Statistically, none of these games made any sense, and comparatively, this potential upset makes less sense than any of them, but I’m confidently filing this pick under “crazy shit always happens on wild card weekend.”

Score: NO 24-21.

Saturday 8:00 ET: Indianapolis (-2.5) vs. New York

I’m going to throw a lot of stats at you, but here’s the point: the key to the Jets’ success is getting pressure on the quarterback and keeping pressure off of Sanchez.

1) In the four games this season in which they’ve allowed 21+ points (2-2 record), the Jets have averaged just two sacks per game and allowed 2.5 passing TDs per game.

2) Peyton Manning was only sacked once every 43 passing attempts, best among starting QBs, and only trailed Tom Brady in terms of passing TDs this season.

3) Prior to Week 17’s game against Brian Brohm and Levi Brown, the not-as-good-as-advertised Jets pass defense had been allowing three pass TDs for every ball it intercepted.

4) Since starting the season on fire, Mark Sanchez has had a TD/INT ratio of 8/13; and those numbers would be significantly worse if he hadn’t had the luxury of facing the Texans in Week 11.

5) Among the 31 starting quarterbacks who qualified, Mark Sanchez had the 27th best passer rating. Even I don’t know how to calculate passer rating, but when you’re sandwiched between guys like Chad Henne, Matt Hasselbeck, Derek Anderson, and Jimmy Clausen, it can’t be a good thing.

6) The Jets allowed 13.4 points per game at home, but allowed 24.6 points per game on the road.

I could go on, but the moral of the story is that the Jets defense has been over-rated since the day it signed Antonio Cromartie, it has been over-matched on the road, it struggles against QBs who don’t take sacks, and it doesn’t have a quarterback competent enough to make up for its shortcomings. Also, you never bet against Peyton Manning

Score: IND 31-17.

Sunday 1:00 ET: Kansas City (+3) vs. Baltimore

As a Chiefs fan, this is the match-up I was hoping for. Lest you think I’m full of shit and have only in the past few hours talked myself into this pick, here’s the twitter dialogue I had going on December 26th with the only other Chiefs fan I know in the world:

Alex: @kerrancejames for some strange reason, I have a really good feeling about us in the playoffs. Unlike ’03 when we got blasted

Me: @ppbbww I think our best path to the Super Bowl is as a 4 seed against BLT in 1st round and NE in the semis. We can’t run on PIT or NYJ.

Me: @ppbbww But we definitely have some 2007-08 Arizona Cardinals “why not us?!” potential going on. No one will be giving us any chance.

Alex: @kerrancejames if pit is w/o Troy I wouldn’t mind them, but I agree. #chiefswill

Me: @ppbbww there’s no way Troy won’t go in the playoffs, especially if they get a first round bye. I think they’re the best of the AFC 6. #gag

I only added that last tweet as foreshadowing for next week when I pick the Steelers over the Colts regardless of the line.

I like the Chiefs for four major reasons:

1) In games against teams in the top half of the league in rushing yards, the Ravens have allowed over 100 yards per game. Only one of those teams ranked in the top six in rushing (NYJ – 116 rush yards vs. BAL in Week 1), and the Chiefs had the top rushing offense in the NFL by a somewhat considerable margin.

2) Despite getting smoked by Oakland in Week 17, the Chiefs finished the regular season with a home record of 7-1 and an average score of 24 – 14.75. Despite getting to play @ Carolina, the Ravens finished the regular season with a road record of 5-3 and an average score of 21.1 – 17.25.

3) He’s had a great passer rating since starting out the season with a TD/INT ratio of 1/5, but if he’s been on your fantasy team or you live within 50 miles of Baltimore and have been forced to watch all their games, you’ve probably noticed that Flacco hasn’t been as good as his numbers and has taken a lot of sacks leading up to a game against the AFC’s sack leader, Tamba Hali.

4) ESPN will undoubtedly try to sell you on the fact that Cassel has never played in the playoffs and that Flacco has won three road playoff games in his brief career, but he certainly wasn’t responsible for any of those wins. In five career games in the playoffs (all on the road), Flacco’s numbers are 57 completions on 120 attempts (47.5%) for 660 yards, 1 TD, and 6 INT.

Ray Rice has had two amazing games this season and a whole slew of mediocre performances. If the front four can hold him in check, the Chiefs should be able to win a game that may very well have 70+ rush attempts and fewer than 40 pass attempts.

Score: KC 20-17.

Sunday 4:30 ET: Green Bay (+3) @ Philadelphia

After all the stats I’ve been throwing around, this one is just a gut call. I really think it should be a PK, so I’m taking the points. Just for good measure, I’ll add one stat that makes me lean towards Green Bay: Since Week 8, despite losing three games, the Packers have an average margin of victory of 13 points per game, and have held opponents to just 11.6 points per game. Of course, only one of those games was against a team that can score in bunches like the Eagles (New England), but I think the Packers pass D is good enough and opposing teams have been figuring out Michael Vick well enough that they’ll be able to stay in this game just long enough for Aaron Rodgers to do something horribly un-clutch, such as his OT sack/fumble last year in the playoffs.

Score: PHI 28-27.

Fantasy Suggestions

In case you’re doing a playoff scramble (Gridiron Playoff Challenge with ESPN), I’ll let you know who I see as the 5 best options at each position for Wild Card Weekend.

In order from best to “worst”

QB: P. Manning, D. Brees, M. Vick, A. Rodgers, M. Cassel

RB: P. Thomas, J. Charles, L. McCoy, L. Tomlinson, R. Rice

WR: G. Jennings, P. Garcon (Wayne on Revis Island), M. Colston, S. Holmes, D. Bowe

TE: J. Tamme, J. Graham, T. Moeaki, T. Heap, D. Keller

DEF: New Orleans, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Baltimore, Kansas City