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Tourney By The Numbers

   by Larry Ness - 03/16/2010

The NCAA selection committee announced its 65-team field late Sunday afternoon. The NIT followed (32 teams), then the CBI (in its third season) and CollegeInsider.com Tournament also filled out their brackets with 16 teams apiece. That means 129 of 347 Division I schools will be playing over the next three weeks (37.2 percent). Compare that to the 68 of 120 football schools which competed in last season's 34 bowl games (56.7 percent). Note that 110 schools won 20 or more games (31.7 percent). As usual there was plenty of debate over which schools got left out.


However, unlike in the past couple of years, it was Illinois, Miss St and Va Tech from the so-called "power conferences," not schools from the mid-majors, which were claiming 'foul!' Virginia Tech (23-8) and Mississippi State (23-11) join last year's Florida team (23-10 pre-postseason) as one of those very rare power conference schools to win 23 games and not make the NCAA field. It was a bitter pill for the Hokies to swallow, as Tech became the first team to win 10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and get passed over by the committee (the fact that 9-7 Wake and 7-9 Ga Tech made it, although Va Tech went 2-0 vs those schools this year, didn't help).


It seems like the committee is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. At-large bids were plentiful from schools outside of the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10 and SEC in 2003 (10) and 2004 (12). Although that number fell to nine in 2005 and eight in 2006 there was not much concern. However, at-large bids outside of the six power conferences fell to just six in both 2007 and 2008, then to just four last year. However, eight at-large bids were extended to non-power conference teams this year. The MWC placed four schools in the NCAA tourney field for the first time ever (three at-large bids for BYU, New Mexico and UNLV), joined by two at-large schools from the A-10 (Richmond and Xavier), Gonzaga (WCC), Utah St (WAC) and UTEP (C-USA). While mid-majors got eight at-large bids, a check of the top-16 seeds (four in each region) reveals that only New Mexico (No. 3 in the East) comes from a non-power conference.


There was no real surprise when it came to the four No. 1 seeds, although West Va seemed to think it was 'robbed.' Kansas was the overall No. 1 seed and with Arizona failing to make the field this year after 25 consecutive appearances, the Jayhawks' 21 straight appearances is now the longest active streak of any school. Kentucky earned its 10th No. 1 seed (Calipari became the first head coach to earn No. 1 seeds with three different schools, U Mass and Memphis being the other two), Duke its 11th (second-most to North Carolina's 13) and Syracuse its second-ever No. 1 seed (last came way back in 1980).


The final AP poll was released on Monday and Kansas (a No. 1 seed for a ninth time), the nation's preseason No. 1, enters the tournament as an unanimous No. 1, getting all 65 first-place votes. As I mentioned last week, being No. 1 in the final AP poll is not a good indicator of ultimate success in the Big Dance. Since Bob Knight’s 1975-76 team, the last to finish a season unbeaten at 32-0, entered that year’s tourney as No. 1 and won the title, just five schools have finished No. 1 in the AP’s final regular poll and gone on to win the title. The list includes UCLA (1995), Duke (1992), North Carolina (1982), Kentucky (1978) and Duke (2001). Doing the math, that’s just five in 33 years or 15.2 percent, not exactly a confidence-builder if you have a 'ticket' on Kansas to win it all.


Kansas and Kentucky each enter the tourney at 32-2 and both have a chance at matching the NCAA single-season record of 38 wins by "winning it all" (takes six games). Memphis went 38-2 in the 2007-08 season to set that record, although the NCAA stripped the Tigers of that record in August of 2009 because Memphis fielded an ineligible player (Derrick Rose). Five previous teams have won 37 games in a single season, starting with Duke in 1986 (37-3), UNLV in 1987 (37-2), Duke in 1999 (37-2), Illinois in 2005 (37-2) and Kansas in 2008 (37-3). Note that only Kansas won a championship in its 37-win season.


Seeding began back in 1979 and over the last 31 tourneys, a No. 1 seed has gone on the win the title 17 times, a No. 2 seed six times and a No. 3 seed four times. Two No. 6 seeds have won it all (Kansas in 1988 and NC State in 1983), Arizona won it as a No. 4 seed in 1997 and in the first year of the 64-team field, Villanova famously beat Georgetown as a No. 8 seed in 1985, the longest shot to capture the NCAA title since the tourney began seeding teams. You'll notice that no No. 5 or No. 7 seeds have ever won. Two No. 5 seeds have lost in the title game (Florida in 2000 and Indiana in 2002), while the furthest any No. 7 seed has gotten is the Ralph Sampson-led Virginia Cavaliers in 1984 (lost in the national semifinals to 49-47 in OT to Houston).


Those results seem to make all the talk about which were the last teams in and which teams were "unfairly" left out seem moot. Just four No. 8 seeds have ever made it to the Final 4 (UCLA in 1980, Villanova in 1985, North Carolina and Wisconsin, both in 2000). Penn reached the Final 4 in 1979 as a No. 9 seed and two No. 11 seeds have gotten that far. LSU was the first to do it back in 1986 and recently, 'Cinderella' George Mason Mason made a Final 4 appearance in 2006. Villanova is the only one of the schools to win and UCLA in 1980 is the only other to even make the championship game (lost to Louisville).


We now have 25 years of history to look at since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams (65 since 2001). I doubt anyone is unaware that a No. 1 seed has never lost an opening round game, going a perfect 100-0 vs the No. 16 seeds. In fact, just five No. 1 vs No. 16 matchups have been decided by five points or less, the first coming in 1985 (Michigan edged Fairleigh Dickinson 59-55) and the most recent coming in 1996 (Purdue 73-71 over Western Carolina). The most famous near-upset of a No. 1 seed by a 16-seed came when Princeton almost toppled Georgetown in 1989, falling 50-49. Somewhat forgotten is that another No. 1 seed barely escaped the first round that very same year, as Oklahoma edged East Tennessee St 72-71.


No. 2 seeds are 96-4 vs No. 15 seeds in the first round with Richmond upsetting Syracuse 73-69 back in 1991 marking the first occasion and Hampton beating Iowa State 58-57 in 2001 being the most recent occurrence. No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are each 32-0 SU these past eight years, with No. 1 teams going 15-16-1 ATS and No. 2 seeds going 13-18-1. However, both top-seeds have been fairly profitable lately, with No. 1 seeds going 8-4 ATS and No. 2 seeds 7-4-1 the last three years (be careful taking those big points).


The TV talking heads love to rave about the 5 vs 12 matchups, as if No. 12 seeds regularly knock off No. 5 seeds. A check of the record book shows that No. 12 seeds are just 32-68 against No. 5 seeds all-time, a winning percentage of only .320. No. 12 seeds are 14-18 SU but 18-14 ATS vs No. 5 seeds the last eight years. In fact, the only lower seed with a winning record against a higher seed is No. 9 over No. 8, which should come as much of a surprise and could hardly be considered much of an upset. No. 9 seeds are 54-46 all-time vs No. 8 seeds, going 15-17 SU and 15-16-1 ATS these last eight years (talk about 'kissing your sister!').


The official NCAA Record Book defines an upset as being a win by a team seeded five or more places lower that the team it defeated. The very first year of the 64-team field (1985) saw 11 "upsets," as did the 2002 and 2006 (George Mason's year) tournaments. However, the "mother-lode" of upsets came in 1986, when LSU made its Final 4 run, as the Tigers pulled off a single-tourney record four upsets, accounting for one-third of the 12 upsets that year. There were only four upsets in last year's tourney but that wasn't the fewest. That came in 2007, when just three upsets occurred. Two No. 11s won in the first round that year (Winthrop over Notre Dame and VCU over Duke) and then No. 7 UNLV beat No. 2 Wisconsin in the second round.


Kentucky is looking for its eighth title and Calipari is looking to join Pitino as the only head coach to lead three different schools to a Final 4. Both Duke and Kansas are looking for their fourth titles, which would either school with the fifth-most championships of all time (UCLA has 11, Kentucky 7 plus Indiana and North Carolina five each). Coach K has made 10 Final 4 appearances (only Wooden with 12 and Smith with 11 own more) and with three titles (same as Bob Knight), only Rupp (four) and Wooden (10) have won more often. Kansas and Bill Self are looking for their second title in three years and a championship would make Self the ninth head coach with two NCAA titles (the most recent addition to that list was Billy Donovan of Florida, who did it in back-to-back seasons in 2006 and '07).


While the above schools are looking to become part of the NCAA history books, other schools in this year's tourney are just looking for a win (any win). Arkansas-Pine Bluff plays Winthrop in Tuesday's play-in game, participating in the school's first-ever NCAA tournament (Golden Lions opened the season 0-11 but enter their game with Winthrop having won 17 of their last 21). Joining Pine Bluff as an NCAA 'virgin' in 2010 is Wofford of the Southern Conference. The Terriers joined Division I in 1995-96 and their first winning season (16-14) came just last season. However, this year's team takes a 26-8 record and a No. 13-seed into its first-round game with Wisconsin.


Robert Morris is back in the Big Dance for the second straight year representing the Northeast Conference but no NEC school has won anything in the NCAAs other than a play-in game or a game held to determine the last-seeded team in a region. Murray State of the OVC is making its 14th NCAA appearance in its history. At 30-4, the Racers may be the only other school in this year's field other than Kansas and Duke with 30 wins but they are also hoping to break a 20-year NCAA losing streak for the conference. Murray State's upset of North Carolina St (a No. 3 seed) in 1988 was the OVC's last NCAA win and also marks the school's lone win in its 14 appearances.


Illinois owns 38 NCAA wins but has never won a championship, giving the Illini the unwanted title of school with the most wins without a championship. Oklahoma's 35 wins makes the Sooners second on that list but like the Illini, the Sooners failed to make this year's NCAA field. Texas is third on the list with 33 wins but the way the Longhorns have collapsed, they may not add to that record in this year's tourney. Texas opened the 2009-10 season 17-0 and achieved the school's first-ever No. 1 ranking on Jan 11 (two weeks). However, Texas has lost nine of its last 16 games and became the fifth school in NCAA history to hold the No. 1 ranking and then drop out of the poll in the same season (Longhorns fell out on March 1 and never returned).


Boston College owns the most wins (22) without ever reaching a Final 4 but the Eagles are not in this year's field. However, Missouri with 21 wins, is. BYU is making its 25th NCAA appearance and the Cougars own the distinction of most appearances without reaching a Final 4. Missouri is not far behind (23rd appearance) with Xavier (21st appearance) ranking third on the list. Getting back to BYU, the Cougars have not won an NCAA game since 1993, going 0-7 since 1995. The 'madness' begins Tuesday night and as I mentioned at the top, there are three other tourneys to keep us busy the next three weeks, as well.


Good luck, Larry

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