We’re less than two weeks away from Selection Sunday, when the real March Madness kicks in. Some of you are already doing your homework, plotting your strategy who to ride with in what has been one of the strangest college basketball seasons in years.
If you listen to the pundits, they’ll tell you there’s 15 to 20 teams that can cut down the nets in Atlanta come April 6. Of course, they say that every year. But this time around, they may be right.
From what I’ve seen, there’s no one team that says “Stick out” or “Lock.” Every team has flaws of some kind, even San Diego State, which has built a good chunk of its resume in the below-average Mountain West.
Mind you, I’m no expert when it comes to prognosticating. I stopped filling out a bracket years ago when I was covering UNLV for the Review-Journal and I finished up the track while the HR director won the contest. But I do know that certain things come into play to give you a better chance of having success, whether it’s filling out a bracket, betting a team to win a first- or second-round game or making an in-game wager.
Here’s my primer for March Madness. Pay heed at your own peril.
Experience counts — You can have the greatest assemblage of freshman talent anywhere, but the NCAA Tournament is a different animal. You want guys who are battled-tested, who understand the magnitude of the event and who can handle the pressure.
Look for teams that are primarily comprised of upperclassmen. Dayton, which is ranked No. 3 in the country and leads the Atlantic 10, plays three juniors, two seniors and a sophomore in its top six. Penn State, which is nationally ranked (No. 20) and contending in the Big Ten, starts three seniors, a junior and a sophomore.
Coaching matters — Look at the teams that get to the Final Four every year and see who’s on the bench running the show.
You want someone who knows how to handle the game, how to adjust at halftime, someone who understands that an NCAA Tournament game may be 40 minutes but it’s actually a lot longer with the extended TV timeouts.
Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Texas Tech’s Chris Beard, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Villanova’s Jay Wright and Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton have a proven track record of success in the postseason. Don’t be afraid to back their teams.
Make your free throws — NCAA Tournament games tend to be called tight and the more whistles, the more chances to go to the foul line.
This season, the best team in college basketball at the free-throw line has been Northeastern at 80 percent. The median average is 70.6 percent. A team like Kentucky, which makes 79.5 percent of its attempts at the stripe, is worth keeping an eye on.
Conversely, Saint Louis, which is tied for third in the A-10 and hoping to go dancing, shoots 58.4 percent. Rutgers, which is likely headed to the NCAAs, shoots 65 percent from the line. Do you want to roll the dice with those teams in a tight game?
Live and Die with the trey — Everyone enjoys seeing teams make 3-point shots all over the floor. Virginia used the trey to help it win the national championship last year. But 3-point shooting percentages are down this year thanks to moving back the line and teams that are erratic when it comes to jacking up 3-pointers aren’t to be trusted.
The WCC has three of the nation’s top six when it comes to 3-point field goal percentage — No. 1 BYU (42 percent). No. 3 Saint Mary’s (40.2 percent) and No. 6 Gonzaga (39 percent). So you can trust them when they start launching.
On the flip side, West Virginia makes just 28.3 percent of its 3’s and the Mountaineers take an average of nearly 18 a game. That’s a lot of death stares from Bob Huggins over the course of 40 minutes.