The biggest mental block I have about filling out my NCAA tournament bracket every March is getting past the seeds, the little numbers on the side of every team that allegedly tell you how much better one team is than another.
Every time I want to pick upsets, I come back to “Do I really think a No. 13 seed can make it to the Sweet 16? Why am I picking a No. 6 seed to go to the Final Four?”
I start off brazen by picking a lot of upsets, and then usually add chalk back to my brackets before Thursday’s games tip.
But more and more, I’ve tried to incorporate a little bit of research and analytics into making my bracket picks, ever since the main website I use for college basketball statistics, Kenpom.com, led me to pick Tennessee to get to the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed in 2014. It has helped me get past my fear of the seeds.
The key to winning your bracket pool is to pick the right mix of upsets and teams to advance into the later rounds. If you pick a Final Four team or a national title game participant nobody else has, you’re more likely to win your pool. So allow me to introduce a candidate that might help you do that: Gonzaga.
Don’t pay attention to Gonzaga’s No. 4 seed. According to Kenpom.com, which measures how efficient teams are across all sorts of various advanced statistics, Gonzaga is the eighth-best team in the country. But what’s important is that Kenpom.com has Gonzaga, which lost in last season’s title game, ranked higher than the No. 1 seed in its bracket Xavier (No. 14), the No. 3 seed Michigan (No. 10) and just one spot behind the No. 2 seed North Carolina.
Gonzaga is a well-balanced team, boasting the 12th most efficient offense and 15th most efficient defense in the country. It has skilled big man Killian Tillie, who is one of the most efficient scorers in the country. Tillie has an effective field-goal percentage, a metric that accounts for three-pointers having 50 percent more value than two-point shots, of .668, 11th in the country.
Kenpom.com gives Gonzaga an 18.6 percent chance of making the Final Four, higher than Xavier and Kansas, both No. 1 seeds. If you’re looking to make headway in your bracket, Gonzaga is a statistically sound play to make a deep run, especially since other people in your bracket might pick Michigan or North Carolina based on name recognition.
The West region could be full of attrition. Another team Kenpom.com has rated higher than its seed, Houston, is also in the region and could give Michigan a run for its money in a potential Round of 32 matchup.
But I like Gonzaga’s ability to get to the Elite 8 over Ohio State in the Round of 32 and a vulnerable Xavier in the Sweet 16. Should Gonzaga meet North Carolina in the Elite 8, it is set up well to squash how North Carolina generates its offensive efficiency — on the offensive glass.
North Carolina has the second-highest offensive rebounding percentage in the country, but Gonzaga can offset that with the 13th-best defensive rebounding percentage.
Of course, the Bulldogs could crash and burn like any other tournament team. Anything can happen in one game, but Gonzaga seems like a safe bet to make a deep run — and it’s a bet few in your bracket pool are likely to make.