Every-Thing Sports

An amateur's guide to picking your NCAA brackets

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Every year around Christmas, ESPN has their commercials for bowl season. One of the jingles says "it's the most wonderful time of the year." It's a play on the Christmas song of the same name. I beg to differ. There is a period of time in the fall when we have NFL and NCAA football in full swing, NBA regular season kicks off, and MLB is in the midst of crowning a new World Series champion. THAT is the most wonderful time of the year!

If there was any time of year that could rival that period of sports awesomeness in the fall, it would be Spring. While NCAA football has spring games that may not be as exciting to anyone outside of hardcore fans of those schools, the NFL has the combine, free agency, then the draft to keep our football taste buds satisfied. MLB is about to kick off its six to seven month quest also. But the real star is the NCAA basketball tournament.

March Madness, as it's commonly referred to, is responsible for billions of dollars of lost production from the American workforce every year. That number continues to grow as more people are growing up in the technology age in which we can stream tournament games, place bets, and pick brackets on our phones.

Most of you will make a bracket to see how you do. Some of you will fill out several brackets in attempts to win a prize or money. I've even seen my wife fill out brackets in a friendly office challenge every year and she doesn't watch NCAA basketball at all! She, like most of you, will go into the process with very little, if any, type of strategy (she literally picked by color one year). I'm going to lay out a part of my strategy and hopefully help you guys win something this year:

Strength of Schedule

Strength of schedule is the most important factor when considering your selections. Iron sharpens iron. Teams that have been battled tested are often able to withstand a huge swings of momentum and battle back to win. They also are ready for high levels of competition. This is why these teams are often selected as higher seeds.

Points Per Game

Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships. A good indicator is how many points per game a team gives up and/or scores. Teams that can play good lockdown defense and can score at a decent clip are more apt to advance in the tournament. Pay closer attention to their conference and higher profile non-conference games because those are the best indicators as to how well that team scores/defends against better competition.

Efficiency Ratings

I was listening to The Blitz as I was formulating my ideas for this article and AJ Hoffman made a point of talking about team efficiency ratings. He specifically cited the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings as a source he uses when looking into these type of stats. I vaguely remember stumbling upon this site one night about a year or so ago when looking for help in determining who should I pick. Analytics are either the devil or a revelation, depending on who you ask. In this case, I find them to be quite the tool in helping pick that one game where you get stuck.

Put it all together

Now of course I use more than just these three factors in my selection process, but these are the ones that are perhaps most critical. I've talked to a few people over the years and they have agreed. Strength of schedule was first because it is widely accepted as the strongest indicator. Scoring offense and defense tells you how well a team can score and/or defend. If they fall short in one area, they're prone to being beat (see #1 seed Virginia last year not being able to score and being upset by #16 seed UMBC). Efficiency ratings will help you when some other indicators may have hidden truths. For example: if a team is 28-3, has a strong strength of schedule, scores 80+ a game and holds opponents to less than 70 a game, but is only a #4 seed or lower, there's a reason for that. This was written to help people who have no clue what they're doing. If you want serious help making picks or winning real money, you should probably follow AJ on his Twitter and his pregame.com pages.

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Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

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Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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