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March 19, 2014

Statistics the best guide to filling in your NCAA bracket

The NCAA Tournament is a great event because fans get heavily involved in trying to pick the winners. They invest time and money in trying to make sense of 67 games.

Nobody gets them all right – Warren Buffet didn’t make his billions by placing sucker bets – but selecting the survivor of three weeks of play can be done.

There is no guaranteed way of picking winners. Some like going with the coolest mascot or neatest uniforms. Analyzing records and statistics may be a better option.

Here’s a valuable nugget: Nine of the past 11 champions entered the field as a No. 1 seed. That means this year’s beauty pageant comes down to Virginia, Florida, Wichita State and Arizona.

Another way to predict the eventual champion is looking at one phase of the game: Nine of the past 11 national champions ranked among the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to college basketball statistics guru Ken Pomeroy. That’s an assessment of how many points a team scores, on average, per possession. Among the top seeds, Wichita State comes in 8th and Florida 16th. Creighton, a third seed, is tops in the country.

As one would expect, tough defense is another key. Using the same adjusted factor for limiting the opposition’s ability to score, Pomeroy finds Arizona at 1st, Virginia at 3rd, Florida 5th, Louisville 6th and Wichita State at 10th.

Winning the championship means rolling off six victories over three weeks, generally against good-to-tough competition. This requires a balance of depth and star talent.

Strength of schedule offers a glimpse of how well teams are prepared. None of the top seeds could be accused of burdening itself with an unbearable schedule. Arizona’s ranked 13th toughest, according to Pomeroy, with Wichita State’s coming in at 128th. Of the teams voted into the tournament, Kansas’ schedule was the toughest. Wisconsin's was 3rd and Michigan's was 5th.

It’s imperative to have a star player when time is running out and points are in high demand. Creighton’s Doug McDermott gives the No. 3 seed the top offensive player in the country. Duke’s Jabari Parker is only a freshman who is likely making his first and only NCAA tournament appearance.

Russ Smith, a senior, is back leading Louisville to a possible repeat championship. Cincinnati plays games close but Sean Kilpatrick has scored more than 2,000 career points, and Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier leads the Huskies in points, rebounds and assists.

Others certainly to excel are Arizona’s Nick Johnson, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, Wichita State’s Fred Van Vleet, Michigan’s Nick Stauskas and New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow, to name a few.

A team’s health is an uncontrollable factor. In 2000, Cincinnati looked like a possible champ until consensus player-of-the-year Kenyon Martin went down with a broken leg in the opening minutes of the conference tournament, and the nation’s No. 1 ranked team saw its dreams die.

It was the same thing in 1975 when Indiana entered the tournament unbeaten but Scott May, who had suffered a broken arm just weeks earlier, was ineffective and the Hoosiers got bounced by Kentucky.

Kansas, which comes into the tournament with a 24-9 record and a No. 2 seed in the South Region, might feel more secure if the Jayhawks were certain that 7-foot center Joel Embiid would play. A back injury is likely to sideline him during the first weekend of the tournament. Taking out a player who shoots 62 percent and grabs more than 8 rebounds a game is a huge disadvantage.

Coaching is a major plus, and that’s where Florida enhances the chances of another Gator championship. Billy Donovan has won two national championships and coached Florida to an unbeaten record in the Southeastern Conference this year.

Of the three other top-seeded teams, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Arizona’s Sean Miller and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall have racked up a combined 18 tournament appearances. Only Marshall has coached a team to the Final Four, though.

Add these factors together and Florida looks to be the best pick. Now it’s time for the fun part – watch the games and find out.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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