You might have heard about Warren Buffett’s billion-dollar offer. The one that made you sit up a little bit straighter while you were watching Sportscenter at the gym. The one that made you reappraise your usual March Madness strategy of “the school with the coolest mascot wins” or “I’m an alum, I have to make my school go all the way.”
In case you missed it, Buffett’s prize offer is for a perfect March Madness bracket. Perfect meaning no mistakes, starting with the first round all the way to the Final Four. The odds, according to DePaul math professor Jeff Bergen, hover somewhere around 1:9.2 quintillion. Or, as they say, a nine with 18 digits after it. (Like this: 9,200,000,000,000,000,000.) In Bergen’s words, if you’re just guessing, you essentially have no chance at all. The odds if you know basketball, though, are much better:
They’re still not great odds, mind you, but channel your inner Han Solo and remember that you didn’t ask for the odds anyway — you’re looking for some teams that are poised to win when they shouldn’t and others that are going to be prone to upsets. Besides, who needs math when we’ve got luck and infallible hoops knowledge? Past performance is no indication of prior success, but expert knowledge is forever.
1. Kansas Jayhawks: They’ll go further than you think
After that first page, all you get is that the Jayhawks are looking to make some noise? Obvious, but hang tight: The Hawks might actually be underrated right now, which is some blatant absurdity that could pay serious, serious dividends. Kansas is currently listed at No. 7 in the AP power rankings, No. 8 in the Fox standings and all the way at No. 9 in the ESPN rankings. For a team with some starters who are all but guaranteed to go in the top three in the 2014 NBA draft, that seems low.
Why are they ranked that low? Mostly because they’ve lost a couple of games (bringing their record to 18-6) and because one of those starters is hurting right now. Seven-foot center Joel Embiid, who has drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon and otherwise driven NBA scouts into a frenzy, is currently suffering from knee and back injuries he’s accumulated over the past month. His lack of playing time, coupled with some losses (especially a “big one” to Kansas State), have the power rankers down on them.
On the flip side, they’re still 18-6, and they still have Andrew Wiggins, aka Maple Jordan. We don’t care about power rankings, we care about March Madness. Kansas coach Bill Self has responded to Embiid’s injuries by shutting him down until he’s healthy enough to play, a good sign for their tournament stock. And Wiggins, when he’s on, is still the best player in college hoops. Even through the purists often talk of preferring college to the NBA “because of the emphasis on team play, rather than a game dictated superstars,” the fact remains that the team with the best players wins most of the time.
Provided Embiid and Wiggins are playing close to full strength, it would be a shock if Kansas didn’t do some steamrolling. Pencil them in to make the Final Four.
2. Syracuse: Going to fold early
Put down the pitchforks. Right now, Syracuse is undefeated. Because they’re undefeated, they’re languishing atop everyone’s power rankings like Caligula. (A Caligula that likes dressing like a road cone almost as much as eating grapes.) As for being undefeated, having a painfully easy schedule and hanging on to your perfect record on miracles like Tyler Ennis’s contested three* just don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence.
Folding early is a vague term, though, and should probably be clarified. Since the Orange last won a title with Carmelo Anthony in 2003, ‘Cuse has made it to the Final Four once, the Elite Eight once, the Sweet 16 twice, and has been knocked out in the second round once. If it’s fair to say that if an appearance in the Final Four is expected for the “best team” in the NCAA, then early would be being bounced in the Sweet Sixteen or the Elite Eight. Smart money says the Elite Eight, since Syracuse’s famous zone defense should be able to cover the team for three games, including the first round.
* Even if that three was pretty sweet:
3. Duke: Speaking of star power…
Basketball knowledge can transcend the typical metrics used to show how good a team is. Like how Syracuse is undefeated, but only because of that buzzer-beater. Duke, hovering down around the 10-spot in all the power rankings, has an edge in March Madness that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. It’s Coach K, also known as Mike Krzyzewski.
OK, well, some of his greatness shows up in the stat sheet. He’s the winningest Division I coach of all time, breaking noted chair hurler Bob Knight’s record of 902 wins in January. Not to mention that no player on any of Coach K’s teams, at Duke or anywhere else (he’s also the coach for the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team), has ever been called for a blocking foul (these data remain unconfirmed). If anyone gets a facsimile of the Jordan rules in the college game, it’s Coach K. And that’s before you get to Jabari Parker.
Parker is the best scorer in the NCAA, full stop. He struggles to do much else, and his defensive deficiencies have been documented and dissected by a legion of fans at the college and the professional level, since he’s a favorite to go in the top three of the draft, along with Wiggins and Embiid. Between Parker and Coach K, Duke is going to get approximately 99.9 percent of the calls this March, and as a result, they’ll Duke their way to the Final Four. Yes, Duke is a verb. Everyone that’s ever seen a Duke fan preen about their team knows exactly what it means. Still, they’re bound for the Final Four.
4. Wichita State: Suffering from Syracuse symptoms?
Here’s the thing: When Syracuse’s unbeaten streak is brought up, no one gives much mind to Wichita State, the other team that has yet to lose a game this year. The Shockers, by most accounts, just aren’t as good as their record. They’ve won enough games by the skin of their teeth that everyone’s looking at them askance, and to top it off, they play in an awful conference.
How awful? So bad that only one other team has a record over .500. That’s Indiana. The Missouri Valley Conference is not good. Not good at all. On the other hand, an undefeated team is still an undefeated team, so when the brackets are being assembled, more weight could be given to Wichita State by someone who’s giving lip service to, you know, actually watching the games.
Don’t be that bracketeer. We want you to win Buffet’s billion. Sorry Shockers, but Wichita’s very unlikely to make much noise in even the Sweet Sixteen, let alone later rounds in the tournament.
5. Last year’s Florida Gulf Coast University team
Last year’s team? Why should anyone care about last year’s team? Especially a flash in the pan, novelty team that went on an upset run by doing nothing but dunking? There’s no way they’ll replicate that success again this year.
Exactly. But Cinderella stories are as essential to March Madness as filling out brackets, and watching for teams that have the potential to go on an FGCU-type run is a fun way to gun for that one-in-9-quintillion spot. The best prospect? The Creighton Bluejays, who have created “the craziest, deadliest offense in the country.” With a heavy emphasis on bombing threes, the Bluejays could plausibly get hot and chuck themselves all the way to the Elite Eight.
They could just as easily flame out in the first round, of course, but would you want to be on the wrong side of that call? Not only would you avoid the $1 billion, you wouldn’t be able to cheer for one of the most fun offenses in the tournament. And that’s a mistake no one should make. Bluejays go all the way.