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Picking an NCAA Bracket with pythag and upset profiling

Earlier today, we looked at a straight pythag-only bracket and wondered what to do about the inevitable upsets. Picking upsets, of course, is really the name of the game when it comes to your bracket, and if anyone truly has a system that is more reliable than a hunch, that person is probably living on a beach somewhere killing himself with sun instead of stress. Regardless, discussing potential upsets is interesting, and this article from CBS's Peter Tiernan is particularly thought-provoking.

Tiernan says that he's crunched the numbers from 1985 through last year's tournament and identified the attributes common to upset victors and victims. Go read the whole thing for details of those characteristics. From that, Tiernan examined this year's field and targeted several teams and games as fitting the upset profile. His findings:

  • First round potential upset victors include Washington, Cornell, Utah State, and Murray State.
  • First round potential upset victims include Temple, Vanderbilt, and Maryland (although he says Maryland's seed is too high to really expect an upset).
  • Second round potential upset victors include Oklahoma State, Clemson (although he warns that Oliver Purnell is a classic underachiever), Minnesota, and Washington.
  • Underachivers in the top three seeds include 1-seeds Syracuse and Duke, 2-seeds Villanova and West Virginia, and all three 3-seeds (Georgetown, Baylor, New Mexico, and Pitt).

Note the following Tiernan definitions:

  • An "upset" is a win by a team seeded at least four positions below the team it beats.
  • "Underachieving" for a 1-seed is failing to reach the Final Four, for a 2-seed is failing to reach the Elite Eight, and for a 3-seed is failing to reach the Sweet Sixteen.

Okay, so how does all of that impact our straight pythag-only bracket? Let's see. Green is for upset victor and red is for upset victim or underachiever.


There are four potential upset victors in the first round: Murray State, Cornell, Washington, and Utah State. Murray State and Cornell also happen to be paired with potential upset victims Vanderbilt and Temple, so we're moving them into the win column despite the contrary pythag. We're also moving Washington into the win column despite Marquette not showing signs of victim status because those two teams' pythags are very close, and pythag had already picked the upset in the Utah State/Texas A&M game, so we're leaving that. Picking Houston over Maryland is a bit too much of a stretch, so we're leaving that one alone.

There are also four potential upset victors in the second round: Oklahoma State, Minnesota, Washington, and Clemson. Minnesota goes against underachieving 3-seed Pitt, so the Golden Gophers get the nod. Ditto Washington over New Mexico. Clemson goes against underachieving 2-seed, so we advance the Tigers. Oklahoma State goes against Ohio State, which is way out ahead in pythag and has no upset vulnerabilities, but we move the Cowboys ahead anyway. Baylor is an underachieving 3-seed, so we have them losing to Old Dominion.

That leaves us with underachieving 2-seed Villanova unable to get to the Elite Eight and underachieving 1-seeds Syracuse and Duke unable to get to the Final Four. Following the pythags from there, we have the fairly wacky Elite Eight of Kansas, Tennessee, Syracuse, BYU, Wisconsin, Clemson, Duke, and Old Dominion, and a Final Four of Kansas, BYU, Wisconsin, and Old Dominion. The Champ is then Kansas instead of Duke.

Putting the trusty old eyeballs back in their sockets, I have a hard time believing Oklahoma State is going to beat Ohio State, that Tennessee will advance past the Sweet Sixteen, and that Old Dominion's going to make that kind of a run. Still, these are the things Tiernan says to watch out for, and when combining his upset profiling with straight pythag, it makes for a pretty interesting bracket.