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For most of March - and even before the bracket is released on Selection Sunday - sports fans often hear the same clichés from analysts on television and in the national media about certain teams in the field. If you’ve been following college basketball long enough, you likely know what they are, and you might have developed your own opinions on which ones matter and which ones don’t. Not to shame anyone’s opinion, but we wanted to try to quantify some of these heading into the Big Dance. Now, without further adieu, let's take a stroll down narrative street and break down which to buy - and fade - come tourney time:
Narrative: "You need good guards to win in March"
Analysis: Kyle Guy, Jalen Brunson, Justin Jackson, Josh Hart, Jahlil Okafor, Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith, Anthony Davis, Kemba Walker and Jon Scheyer - and the list goes on. So what do these 10 individuals have in common? They would be the last 10 leading scorers on each NCAA national championship team - and seven of them were guards. It makes sense to me, too - if your best player is a big and you need a bucket late, your opponent could always deny him the ball on an entry pass. Guards are often the players good teams are running their offenses through, so they have the ball in their hands more often. Then consider the recent analytical surge in basketball, which has translated to more three-point shots in both the college game and the NBA, and it’s a no-brainer that you have to be good in the backcourt.
Verdict: Mostly true. Players like Okafor, Davis - and currently Iowa’s Luka Garza - were still dominant college players on the low block, and the bigs that can stretch the floor are even more valuable today, so we can’t ignore how good those guys are. But a perimeter presence that teams can hand the ball to and say “Go get me a bucket,” whether it be a drive to the hoop or an outside shot, is almost a necessity.
Narrative: "You need experience to win in March"
Analysis: ESPN often shows a college hoops-themed "30 for 30" after its bracket breakdown analysis on Selection Sunday concludes, and after their analysts have picked their national champions. One of these years they’re all going to pick a team with all juniors/seniors in its starting lineup, stress said team’s experience, and the ensuing 30 for 30 is going to be The Fab Five. Of course that cast of characters didn’t win a title at Michigan, but you get the irony nonetheless. Jokes aside, both Davis and Okafor were the only two players in the aforementioned list of leading scorers - and on recent national champions - that weren’t at least juniors. Remember that Kentucky team in 2015 that got all the way to the Final Four undefeated and how young they were? Remember the seasoned veterans on the Wisconsin team that took them down? Remember Virginia winning the National Championship one year after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, with an almost identical roster? How about the Butler Bulldogs getting to the title game in both 2010 and 2011. You think they were filled with one-and-dones?
Verdict: True. I don’t want to speak in absolutes, simply because it is March Madness and at the end of the day, the only thing we can be so sure of is that none of us know anything. But there’s also a degree of common sense that goes into this one. While the tournament will have the eyes of the entire sports world for the next three weeks, let’s not forget that we’re all about to be fixated on 18-to-23 year-old kids. A lot of these players are still teenagers, and these are undoubtedly the biggest basketball games they’ll have played so far in their lives. Who can blame them if they get a little tight on the big stage? Of course, there are those super special talents who are so confident in themselves that their age is secondary, but isn’t it obvious that programs with players who have been in these big spots are more likely to pull through?
Narrative: "You need to come into tournament playing your best basketball this time of the year."
Analysis: Of course, “best basketball” is more of an eye-test term, but I’m going to define it as having won your conference tournament heading into the NCAA Tournament. We’ll continue to use the last 10 national champions as our historical point of reference here - only four of those 10 teams won their conference tournament. Virginia, the most recent national champion (2019), is a good illustration of dispelling this narrative. The Cavaliers only won one game in the ACC Tournament in 2019 before being bounced in the semifinals by Florida State. As a No. 1 seed again, they trailed at halftime against Gardner Webb in their first game just one year after their historic loss against UMBC. They slid past Oregon in the Sweet 16, not covering in a 53-49 win. Their overtime win against Purdue in the Elite 8 and one-point victory against Auburn in the Final Four were the definitions of 'survive and advance.' There’s the old baseball analogy that momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher, and I believe that applies to the NCAA tournament as well. In a one-and-done playoff format, a team can run into a bad matchup or go cold from the outside and get bounced. That same type of team could survive, however, despite not having its best one night and look like the best team in the country the next game. It's truly "one game at a time" here.
Verdict: False. Remember, there’s still close to a full week for most teams in between the end of the power conference tournaments and the start of the NCAA Tournament. Who’s to say that some of these high-major automatic qualifiers don’t get a little fat and happy and get upset in the first weekend of March Madness? Conversely, it might be easy to look away from teams that might have peaked earlier in the year. That’s especially true for No. 1 seeds in Michigan and Baylor this March, as both the Wolverines and Bears lost in their conference tournament semifinals. But would we really be shocked if either team rekindled the magic? Moral of the story - don’t fall victim to recency bias, for better or for worse.
Narrative: "You must pick a 12 to beat a 5 in the first round"
Analysis: It’s happened 50 times in the last 40 NCAA Tournaments. That should be enough by itself, right? At 56.9% against the spread, the 12 seeds are the most profitable bet in the round of 64 dating back to the Big Dance of 2005. So what’s the explanation for this? My best guess would be that the common thread lies within the way the selection committee chooses the teams that fill these 5/12 seeds. Often times, 12 seeds are some of the better low and mid-major automatic qualifiers in the field. We don’t always know how these teams would fair against high-major competition because they typically don’t play those kinds of teams in the regular season. But that doesn’t mean these 12 seeds are bad, and usually they’re good enough to at least throw a scare into the 5 seed (and often beat them outright). As for the teams that often earn the 5 seeds? They’re usually high-major, at-large schools that are decent teams but never had anything to worry about as far as making the tournament and being on the bubble. These typical 5 seeds have also showed vulnerabilities at times during the year. Two of the 5's this year, Creighton and Colorado, allowed Georgetown and Oregon State to steal bids in the Big East and Pac 12 championship games. So when you pit a very solid mid-major program up against a good-but-not-great high-major, you get a close game more often than not. And ICYMI: Sleepy J has broken down this year's 5 vs 12 matchups here.
Verdict: True. This is the narrative I feel most strongly about. The seeds are just numbers in front of the names of the schools. In 2017, we saw a No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee State go off as a short favorite against the No. 5 seed in its region, Minnesota. I’m not saying to take a 12 seed to the Final Four, but there are plenty of mid-majors that are better than the double-digit seed number that gets thrown in front of them by the committee. Conversely, there are also plenty of high-majors that aren’t consistent enough to trust, and these two types of teams seem to get matched up pretty frequently in the 5-12 games.