March Madness Handicapping: the Aftermath of Kansas Upset
by Trevor Whenham - 3/23/2010
Northern Iowa did more than just pull off a miracle on Saturday night - they also exploded a stunning number of March Madness brackets. The stats are beyond belief - 98 percent of the 4.8 million people who filled in a bracket on ESPN.com had Kansas in the Sweet 16, almost 60 percent had them in the Final Four, and more than 40 percent had them winning it all. There just aren't many, if any, precedents for a team with this much support falling this early. No. 1 seeds fall in the second round, but rarely ones so dominant and widely respected. The disposal of Kansas creates at least two big questions, and each one has a big impact on the handicapping of the rest of the tournament - who does this help most, and how can we avoid overreacting? Let's look at each in turn:
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Who Does It Help Most?
Michigan State - This one is the most obvious. If the Jayhawks were in the tournament then the Spartans had likely reached the end of the line - especially without Kalin Lucas. Northern Iowa is obviously no pushover, but they are going to be far easier to manage than Kansas - especially with a full week to prepare for them. The odds suggest that this game is very close, but with all due respect to the Panthers there is a big class difference in this one, and sooner or later class is going to catch up to Northern Iowa.
Ohio State - With Kansas in the Midwest Evan Turner and company were going to be a significant underdog in the Elite Eight. They just don't have the depth or athleticism to match Kansas if both teams are at their best - even if they do have the best player on the court. Now the Buckeyes are the significant favorite to win the region. That's a gift for the Buckeyes, and for fans as well - it makes the possibility of an Evan Turner-John Wall showdown much more likely.
Syracuse/Butler - You could obviously throw Kansas State or Xavier in here, too, because all four teams are capable of winning the West and meeting the winner of the Midwest in the Final Four. I picked the two I did, though, because I think that Sweet 16 game is where the ultimate winner will come from. Both of those teams match up with one of the Big Ten teams or even Tennessee better than they would ave with Kansas. The West hasn't been a particularly popular source of winners for the tournament in most eyes, but this sure helps.
Kentucky - When you analyze the tournament you have to start by looking at how teams match up when they are both at their best. When I did that before the tournament started the only team I didn't think was a particularly good matchup for the Wildcats was the Jayhawks. With Kansas out of the way Kentucky is now deeper, more explosive, and more athletic than any team in the tournament. That doesn't mean that they are guaranteed to win - they have maturity issues to deal with - but it is certainly easier for them now than it was going to be.
How Do We Avoid Overreacting?
Don't panic - This doesn't really change too much. Kansas was the most likely winner and the clear favorite, but they are far from the only team that had the potential to win it. All three remaining No. 1 teams are still very viable winners. So are the three No. 2 teams. Purdue and Michigan State have obvious flaws, but tremendous skills as well, and could get lucky. Butler could play the Final Four at home. In short, Kansas wasn't the only horse in the race, so their departure doesn't throw the whole thing into chaos - it just opens things up. If Syracuse or Duke had been the No. 1 that was upset then there wouldn't be nearly as much angst as Kansas, so worrying about this one just doesn't make too much sense.
Don't overvalue Northern Iowa - The Panthers deserve an incredible amount of credit for what they have done. They outplayed Kansas from the start, they strangely seemed to want it more, and they stood up under a massive amount of pressure. They are still Northern Iowa, though. In their first two rounds they have won by shooting well, playing sturdy defense, and hitting big shots when it mattered most. They don't have the skill or the depth that the rest of the teams in their region do, and they don't have the experience of playing against teams of the caliber that the other squads do. They also have to find a way to carry their momentum over almost a full week, and step up against a team that has had all that time to prepare for them. Northern Iowa could certainly win a game or two more, but assuming that they are more than they are because they beat Kansas is very dangerous.
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Don't count out the region - The Midwest is the region that doesn't have a No. 1, so it would be easy to assume that it's the one that won't produce a winner. Remember, though, that going into the tournament it was widely said that Kansas had drawn the toughest region in the field. They still have the best No. 2, battle-tested Michigan State, impressive Tennessee, and the ultimate Cinderella. Kansas' departure does not make this group irrelevant.