March Madness History Lessons — Midwest
It’s March, and you’re looking for any advantage you can find to fill out the perfect bracket. Gone are the days when just knowing the magic word KenPom was enough to give you a leg up in your bracket pool.
Everyone knows about the Four Factors, and even ESPN articles and shows are digging into the numbers that matter now. The future is here, and there are a thousand advanced statistics right there at everyone’s fingertips.
This series of articles will look at each region through the lens of the past. History doesn’t always repeat itself- after all, it’s called March Madness for a reason- but it does give a lot of good predictable measures. Be sure to check out this South article for the methodology to the Madness.
Let’s get started…
Top seeded Virginia is 14–14 in the modern tournament. As a top 3 seed, they are 3–2 in a pair of appearances- of course both of those appearances coming in the last two seasons where they underperformed their seed with a loss each year to Michigan State. And hey, look who looms as the 2 seed below.
Coach Tony Bennett is 6–5 in his career and a definite underperformer in the tournament. He has now coached a 1, 2, 3, and 4 seed into the tournament and has seen his 1, 2, and 3 seeds all go out too early- all by less than four points. By seed, Bennett should probably have almost twice as many wins. He and his teams have the profile of a troubling March team. Bennett teams overachieve in the regular season with smart veteran play and tough defense but have a penchant for coming up dry when they need a bucket. They are a team built to win until, well, someone else does instead.
Virginia is absolutely a deserving 1 seed, but they’re not a team to build your strategy around. The coach leaves you wanting, and so does the offense. There’s the Michigan State bugaboo and a few other annoying opponents in the way. Even the location was a screw job. They got the 1 seed but face a potential third round Chicago match-up against nearby Purdue or Iowa State before another local-ish team Michigan State from there. There are just too many reasons to doubt Virginia to put much stock in them.
Could “someone else” be 16 seed Hampton? You know the drill with the 1–16 match-up. You could do worse than the MEAC though. They’re effectively with a trio of 15 seed upsets- Norfolk State over Missouri in 2012, Coppin State over South Carolina in 1997, and this Hampton team’s iconic lift of coach Steve Merfeld over Iowa State in 2001. A 15 seed has only won 7 first round games ever, so the MEAC has 3 of the 7 biggest upsets of all time. Virginia can go cold at times, and low scoring games are more likely upsets. You should pick Virginia. You should. But if you want to take a shot…
Texas Tech and Butler is an interesting 8–9 match-up and a game you may be able to make up a valuable point on most of your pool. What’s your instinct say? That Tech never wins anything and Butler is always reliable, right? Butler is just 2–3 as a 7+ seed outside of their Final Four run, and Chris Holtmann is no Brad Stevens. His team was 1–1 as a 6 seed last year and did just fine, but this is not Grandma’s Butler squad.
And Texas Tech has indeed not done much ever, just 5–8. They’re right about at expectations, with or without Bobby Knight, and they just don’t have much history. But that was before Tubby Smith. Tubby is an impressive 30–16, though take away his top 5 seed Kentucky teams and he’s 9–8. But that’s 9–8 from teams seeded 6+ meaning he averages at least a win each.
Tubby does something special his first tournament at a new school. In 1994 at Tulsa, his 12 seed team beat a 4 and a 5 to make the Sweet 16. Two years later his 8 Georgia team won twice including a win over 1 Purdue. And two years after that, his first Kentucky tourney team was a 2 seed that won the national title. The magic didn’t continue at Minnesota but there’s some history. Tubby is also 14–3 in the first round, including an impressive 5–2 as an 8+ seed in coin-flip or worse games. He has a history of early tournament overperformance before his teams drop off. Take Tubby in the 8–9 game and then think long and hard about the 8–1 shocker over UVa in round 2 too.
The 4–5 Midwest sectional is another mess of interesting teams. Purdue has performed at expectation as a 3–6 seed in the past. The school has just two Elite 8s and no Final Four, and they’ve never beaten a 1- so just making this Elite 8 might be the greatest program run ever. Matt Painter’s teams have been about at expectation, though it’s fair to point out that this Purdue team might be a bit overseeded with their Big 10 tourney run boosted by not having to play Big Ten winner Indiana- a team they share the 5 seed line with now. This is more of a 6 or 7 seed team but a good fundamental squad.
Purdue faces an interesting Arkansas-Little Rock squad with one tournament win as a 14 seed in 1986 and a rookie head coach Chris Beard. Their 29–4 record is certainly impressive but does it mean much? The Sun Belt has been pretty good of late. The conference is 5–18 this century including a pair of Western Kentucky 12–5 upsets and last year’s 14 Georgia State win. And when Sun Belt teams get a respectable 7–12 range seed they do even better with an 11–21 record. This game is not far from a coin flip.
Iona is a super fun high paced team, but they’re 0–7 in tourney history, still awaiting that first win. The MAAC is 5–31 in the tournament, not counting play-ins, with 12–5 and two 13–4 upsets. They’ll face Iowa State, who you probably remember choking as a 3 seed last year to 14 UAB and the year before to 7 UConn. New coach Steve Prohm has coached in one tournament with that memorable 32–2 Murray State team that went 1–1 as a 6 seed.
One of the most important things to know about Iowa State, though, is how good they were supposed to be this year. These Cyclones were a preseason top 7 team but had some early bumps, to be expected with a veteran team adjusting to a new coach. They took some losses but also beat both Kansas and Oklahoma. This isn’t quite the team folks expected, with senior Nazareth Mitrou-Long out for the season injured, but Georges Niang is a star and Iowa State could be a post-hype sleeper. There’s no sure thing in this little sectional, but Iowa State could easily run as far as the Elite 8.
The other teams in the Denver sectional are in the Utah region. Keep an eye on the Denver area. The altitude is sure to be an issue, and deeper teams should have an advantage so that could hurt the underdogs. Look for favorites to pull away late as thin teams tire in the thin Denver air.
Seton Hall and Gonzaga are in the 6–11 game, and this game is the easiest upset pick in the first round. The seeds should basically be reversed by the eye test, but that’s not how the season played out. Seton Hall was a “bad loss” for Xavier just a week ago and now they won the Big East and are a 6. Watch out for a team that already won its biggest game of the season and could come out a bit tired and emotionally hungover. Seton Hall had a great run in 1989–93 under PJ Carlesimo, but they’re 4–5 otherwise, not much to go on.
Gonzaga was a preseason top 10 pick with star senior Kyle Wiltjer, a former Kentucky transfer. Gonzaga is 12–12 as a 6+ seed, way overperforming expectations with around double the wins they should have. They’ve racked up 11–6, 12–5, 10–7, 10–7, 10–6, and 10–2 upsets, six times as a double digit seed. And unlike most smaller programs, coach Mark Few has stuck around. He’s 13–3 in the first round with Gonzaga including 6–1 as an underdog or in 8–9 match-ups. His teams slip quickly after that, just 5–8 in the second round (with a lot of double digit seeds that already overperformed) and just 1–5 after the first weekend. Don’t pick Gonzaga to go too far, but take them once and maybe twice. And don’t forget the advantage they get in Denver vs their New Jersey opponent.
Utah as a top 5 seed is 16–8, though most of that was under Rick Majerus. They’re 2–2 in that role since he left, and coach Larry Krystkowiak is 3–3 in the tourney with last year’s Sweet 16 run here plus a 12–5 upset with Montana. Utah used to be in the WAC, that Montana team upset another WAC team, and now Utah faces another former WAC team in Fresno State. Fresno is the lone MWC representative this year, the worst seed ever for a conference that does not exactly have great history as a low seed. The MWC is just 1–18 as a double digit seed- ouch! But these are old WAC rivals, and Fresno is close enough to bring some fans, so this one could get interesting.
Dayton has been a hot tourney team of late. They’re 7–8 in their history, especially impressive considering this is only the second game they’ve ever been the seed favorite in. Dayton has won 5 games in the last two years with one of the game’s best young coaches Archie Miller. They disappointed down the stretch but were in the top 25 early this year and are a dangerous team.
This 10 seed is the worst ever for Syracuse. The Orange are just 2–3 as a 7+ seed all last century, so there’s not much to go from there. Coach Jim Boeheim is of course known for his stingy 2–3 defense. His teams are 27–13 in odd rounds with a full week to prepare and 18–10 with one day. The second set of opponents is always tougher, so those stats show that Boeheim may do worse against teams that have a week to prepare for the 2–3 zone.
And then there is Sparty. Michigan State is the safest best pick on your bracket, and the numbers simply don’t lie.
Izzo’s MSU is 46–17, a full 10 wins above expectation, including Final Four runs in ‘99, ‘00, ‘01, ‘05, ‘09, ‘10, and ‘15, three of those times as a 5+ seed. As a top two seed, Izzo’s teams are even better at 21–4 and they simply don’t get upset; the four losses have come against 1, 1, 2, and 4 seeds. A 21–4 record implies that a top two MSU team averages a Final Four berth.
Izzo is 25–13 with a week to prepare- that’s pretty good- but he is an absurd 21–4 against coaches that have just a day to prep. And remember, those are tougher opponents in later rounds. So don’t pick against MSU in the first round, and don’t pick against them round 2 or 4. Are you really going with Utah or Gonzaga over them? This isn’t that hard.
Best coach. Best player. Put them in the Final Four. Just fill it in.
One note: Izzo is 0–1 against John Calipari and 0–3 against Roy Williams in the tourney, and those losses are by an average of 16 points. Perhaps in the Final Four is where you ought to pick against them?
This is an interesting region with a lot up in the air. Gonzaga is a great sleeper team, and Texas Tech could be too. Iowa State could be a nice Elite 8 pick if you like them. Virginia is a not a great team to put all your money on, and Michigan State is. Let’s put it this way- there’s no one in the Midwest you’d even consider taking against Michigan State in a best of three series. They could lose, but will they? Don’t be a hero. Be on the side of history.
If you like this article, please comment below or share it with your friends- either now or after you use it to beat them in your pool. Be sure to check out the companion pieces on the South, East, and West. Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, humor, pop culture, and life musings.