Butler marching to the championship game…twice. VCU and Wichita State making it all the way to the Final Four. None of college basketball’s so-called experts predicted these mid-major schools making the runs that they did. If the experts continually get confounded by the underdog, then, how can the normal fan have any hope of putting together a solid bracket without running into the same problem? Knowing which Cinderella has the right size foot to fit the championship slipper is probably the hardest part of bracketology.
Of course there is no fool-proof method to picking these spoilers, but one great rule of thumb is to find the lower seeded teams that have a history of beating top tier opponents. This is where the likes Butler, Creighton and Gonzaga, for instance, have lived in years past. If a program has proven in the regular season and even in recent tournaments the last couple of years that they can beat highly ranked teams, then there is no reason to think that they will not continue this success in the Big Dance.
Using this train of thought, this year’s tournament looks like it will have an abundance of spoiler-worthy teams with this type of pedigree. One such team is Baylor. Bracketology experts say that after winning five straight, the Bears are a lock to earn an at-large bid to the tournament. Coach Scott Drew’s 23-10 squad finished with a 9-9 conference record in the Big 12, but in their nine victories the Bears have handled the likes of No. 16 Iowa State and 20-game winner Kansas State. Just as impressive, though, is that Baylor took care of No.17 Oklahoma in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday. This victory was the Bears’ fifth straight and their ninth in the last 10 games.
Nebraska is another program that began the season uneven, but since has steadily righted the ship and knocked off some highly touted teams in the process. The 19-11 Cornhuskers have won 10 of their last 12 games, and that includes victories over Big 10 powers Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The victory over the No. 12 Badgers (25-6) closed out the regular season for Nebraska on a high note.
Knowing which Cinderella team fits the spoiler slipper is a somewhat calculated, somewhat lucky endeavor in the science of Bracketology. Along with finding the teams that have a proven track record against elite competition, it is also wise to look for teams that have NBA-caliber talent leading them that can carry their respective teams on their backs during crunch time. One such team is N.C. State. The 20-12 Wolfpack are led by ACC player of the year T.J. Warren. The sophomore forward leads the ACC with an average of 24.8 points per game on over 53 percent shooting. He is also in the top 10 in the conference in steals and rebounds.
Another team that has a proven leader is Providence. At 21-11, the Friars are still on the bubble and they have some more work to do in the Big East tournament before they can punch their tickets for the Big Dance. With senior guard Bryce Cotton leading the way, however, the Friars appear to be in good hands. With averages of 21.4 points and 5.8 assists per game, Cotton has Providence on the cusp of an NCAA at-large bid. The Friars disposed of Big East rival St. Johns in the conference tournament quarterfinals. If they can get by 17-16 Seton Hall, a possible championship showdown with Creighton and player of the year Doug McDermott, whose off-the-charts play has overshadowed Cotton in the Big East, looms large.
Of course there is no proven method for picking the winners and losers for the Big Dance, but seeing which teams have beaten elite competition as well as which squads are led by top-level talent can go a long way in keeping a bracket in tact well into April. Knowing which Cinderella programs have the potential to fit the slipper is perhaps the most important aspect of bracketology. Once it is mastered, the rest is simple.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika