This is not a drill. I repeat. Not. A. Drill.
You wouldn't start prepping for the SAT the day before the exam, would you? How about making Valentine's Day reservations the night of the 14th? Or run for the first time in months and expect to complete a marathon later that week? No. No you wouldn't.
So why would you wait until the excitement of Selection Sunday to start thinking about your bracket? If you don't like success, then by all means. But if you want a fighting chance, it helps to prepare, and with the countdown clock at one month, now is as good a time as any.
OK, before I present the picks as of Feb. 19 for you to tear apart, a little background. I have a formula that summarizes and weighs the primary statistical categories that I value to spit something I call a "Final Four Score." From strength of schedule to efficiency, shooting accuracy to rebounding tenacity, my process is an expanded version of Dean Oliver's Four Factors of Basketball Success, with each of my categories weighed based on its impact over the past three seasons on win rate. Long story short, the idea is to continually advance the team with the edge, counting on this metric to determine not which is the best team, but which is best fit to run through the bracket.
I've worked with these numbers over time and generally abide by the ranks as they combine win probability and the stats I buy as impactful, but I don't mind veering off course if I think a team is an exception to the rules I've created. OK, enough babbling. Below are my current power ranks in terms of Final Four Score (it's golf style, low score wins) and what my bracket would look like if the tournament started today. Remember that these rankings are fluid, as every game played will result in a tweak ... but I've been waiting since November to fill out a bracket and I refuse to wait any longer!
How do those ranks apply to the bracket as it currently stands, per Joe Lunardi's ESPN Bracketology? I've filled out the bracket as it currently stands and I'm here to defend every selection.
Ready for some #MarchMadness talk? Or at least a completed bracket? Here is where I'm at based on our latest projection. Article is up on @espn detailing every single section! pic.twitter.com/99w1X0449Y— Kyle Soppe (@KyleSoppeESPN) February 19, 2020
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Saint Peter's
There is still plenty to be learned about the Bears, but their tenacity on the offensive glass and stingy defense eliminate any threat of them becoming the second 1-seed to fall in the first round. The Peacocks grade out as the 64th-ranked team in this field, both in terms of statistical résumé and nickname.
No. 8 LSU vs. No. 9 Saint Mary's
A 30-point loss at home against the Zags is a bad look, but that's really the only gripe I have with Saint Mary's, and you know what? Gonzaga is really good. The Gaels turn the ball over on only 13.8% of their offensive plays (13th lowest in the nation) and rank among the elite in KenPom's continuity metric. A pair of upperclassman in Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts account for almost 40 points a night, a level of offensive potency that makes this team a tough out.
No. 5 Colorado vs. No. 12 East Tennessee State
I have this game being decided by four points, so if you're itching to pick a 12-seed, this isn't a bad spot. That said, I do favor Colorado's edge at the free throw line, both in terms of converting and limiting its opponent's attempts, enough to think they advance in a close one.
No. 4 Creighton vs No. 13 Stephen F. Austin
The past month has been littered with impressive Creighton performances, so I'm willing to overlook the egg the Bluejays laid on Feb. 5 at Providence. The rebound rate will need to improve if they want to reach what I believe is their ceiling (keep reading), but in this field, they are top 15 in every other metric I measure and that positions them for a potential long run.
No. 6 Butler vs No. 11 Virginia
The defending champions have rebounded nicely after losing four times in less than two weeks, but let's not kid ourselves here: If you pick them, you are picking the name and not the current roster. This Butler team has held its own throughout the grueling Big East season and at the same methodical pace that Virginia does. It wouldn't be an entertaining game, but the Bulldogs are the play.
No. 3 Penn State vs. No. 14 Hofstra
I have my questions about the Nittany Lions and they rank only in the middle of the pack in this region for me, but their strong assist-to-turnover rate puts them in a great spot to blow out a Hofstra team that ranks in the bottom half of D-I in defensive efficiency.
No. 7 Michigan vs No. 10 Northern Iowa
I have Northern Iowa ranked as the clear-cut top 10 in this bracket and among my favorite upset teams overall, but Michigan's elite passing makes it the better pick should this game come down to the wire as I suspect. It has been a bumpy road for the Wolverines, but with Isaiah Livers back, this is not a 7-seed. Tough break for the Panthers in this practice run, but keep an eye on them.
No. 2 Dayton vs. No. 15 Bowling Green
This is a mismatch of the highest order. If this game took place today, I would not just feel good about advancing the Flyers, I'd swallow just about whatever number Vegas posted as the spread. Dayton's offense is real and it's spectacular when things are run through Obi Toppin.
Baylor vs. Saint Mary's
The Bears' offense profiles as one that has worked in past tournaments and that should allow them to score with an offensively gifted Gaels squad. Assuming that is the case, I'd like them to pull away in the second half of this game as their defense locks in and slows the Ford/Fitts tandem that accounts for over 49% of St. Mary's production.
Colorado vs. Creighton
The four-line is a valuable spot to be and with Creighton hitting its stride, it can play with anyone. Tyler Bey alone could make this game interesting with his ability to pound the glass, but at the end of the day, I don't trust the Buffaloes to manufacture consistent good looks enough to pick them here.
Butler vs. Penn State
I've had my eye on Butler for a while now and while the uneven past two months worry me, I think the Bulldogs match up well here. I love what Penn State has been able to do this season, but in a close game, I want rebounds and free throw shooting, two boxes checked in Butler's favor.
Michigan vs. Dayton
You know what Dayton has that Michigan doesn't? Consistency. I think this game could be an instant classic if both teams are playing at the peak of their powers, but the numbers skew in the Flyers' favor due to their ability to repeat. Fortunately for Michigan, the Wolverines still have a month to add to their résumé and with a more favorable draw, they could be a bracket buster.
Baylor vs. Creighton
You want to leverage the field in your March Madness pool? I've got you covered, as this looks much like the Duke/VCU spot that I narrowly missed on last season. Is Baylor good? Of course, but the value in picking against the Bears in this spot would far exceed advancing them. Strip away the team names ... what if I told you that a team that fouls less, shoots better when at the stripe and generally is more efficient on the offensive end would be the underdog? Now, Baylor does excel on the defensive end, but I've seen enough from Creighton since the new year on the defensive end to convince me that the Jays can hold their own. I say Creighton holds its own on the glass and sends Baylor home thanks to its offensive efficiency.
Butler vs. Dayton
Dayton isn't a team I'd call up-tempo, but the Flyers play much faster than Butler and I think that would play a big role in them advancing to the Elite Eight. When it comes to shot selection, the Flyers hold a significant edge (Kamar Baldwin is great, but streaky), so if the possession count exceeds Butler's norm, this one could turn ugly. Butler excels at limiting easy buckets (top 20 in opponent 2P%), but there isn't a player or a scheme I trust to slow Toppin. A nice battle of stars in this one, but I'm taking Dayton every time.
Creighton vs. Dayton
In a Dr. Seuss special, we get two very similar teams that I could both see making the Final Four in a different draw. Anyone can offer analysis of a fictitious matchup, few can rhyme it ...
We are in the era of math
One that favors the unleashing of offensive wrath
Maximize shots and possessions they say
3P% and ball security, both traits of a true Bluejay
One team is battle tested, one team less so
Experiences that hold weight, something we know
Call it an upset, call it a hot take
I don't really care, for this March money I will make.
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Austin Peay
If you forced me to label the best team in the country in the middle of December: Kansas. January: Kansas. February: Kansas. I don't think it's a runaway, but the Jayhawks aren't losing to one of the 10 shortest rosters in the land. Nope.
No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Rhode Island
It's close, but Rhode Island comes in as the team I fear least in this region. Wisconsin isn't a team without flaws, but the Badgers have shown me enough on the defensive end (top 20 in adjusted efficiency) to think they can slow Fatts Russell (20.2 points per game). Wisconsin advances to be a sacrificial lamb in the round of 32.
No. 5 Oregon vs. No. 12 Vermont
Anthony Lamb can flat out ball (16.4 points per game during his four years as a Catamount), but in today's game, I'll happily take the guard-oriented team when styles clash. Payton Pritchard is on the short list of players I trust with the ball late in games and the fact that the top four scorers on this Ducks team are all reliable shooters has me loving their potential both in this matchup and this March as a whole.
No. 4 Kentucky vs No. 13 New Mexico State
Believe it or not, I have this as a coin-flip game and would lean the other way if not for Kentucky's bracket-best free throw shooting. It's not an accident that the Aggies haven't lost in over two months, as they have a trio of players averaging over 11 points and at least five boards. They haven't seen a player like the much-improved Nick Richards and I think they ultimately come up short, but don't overlook them in a month if they match up with a team about which you have reservations.
No. 6 BYU vs No. 11 Cincinnati
BYU has seven losses this season and five of them came either in overtime or by five or fewer points. How much differently would we view the Cougars if a bounce or two turns three of those losses into wins? Yoeli Childs has true game-breaking potential for an offense that won't beat itself (1.59 in assist-to-turnover rate this season, third best in D-I).
No. 3 Louisville vs. No. 14 UC Irvine
Louisville's Jordan Nwora has the potential to make a Kemba Walker-like run if he is clicking on all cylinders, and while his inconsistencies scare me, I don't see it being an issue in this spot.
No. 7 Texas Tech vs No. 10 Xavier
Despite similar strength-of-schedule grades, the Raiders have been superior on both ends of the court. Don't get this Tech team confused with last season's runner-up squad, but this team boasts four double-digit scorers and shares the ball at an elite level.
No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 15 Arkansas Little Rock
The Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith tandem is a handful for any team, let alone an overmatched Little Rock team. The Terps have had a player score at least 18 points in over 70% of their conference games, something that gives them too high a scoring floor for me to think they don't reach the second week of play.
Kansas vs. Wisconsin
Bully ball. As much as basketball, in general, is trending toward athletes in space, KU can bludgeon most teams and this is a specifically strong matchup given that Wisconsin ranks among the 10 worst rebounding teams in this field. Some top seeds are threatened before the Sweet 16 ... Kansas is not "some" top seed.
Oregon vs. Kentucky
Two points are more than one. Yep, good thing you came to the researcher for the analysis. The Ducks own the 15th-best eFG% among teams in this field, so I'll take my chances in their strength resulting in more points than the Wildcats' previously mentioned accuracy from the stripe, especially when you consider that UK ranks 302nd in the nation in opponent turnover percentage. Yikes.
BYU vs. Louisville
BYU is more than capable of earning a trip to the Sweet 16, the Cougars just catch a tough break here in a total mismatch on the glass. The perimeter-oriented Cougars would need to shoot the lights out, something they are capable of doing, but not something I'm comfortable in projecting. The Cardinals' top four scorers all grab over 5.5 boards a game and their interior duo of Steven Enoch and Malik Williams is, on paper, far too much for BYU to handle for 40 minutes.
Texas Tech vs. Maryland
This profiles as a coin-toss game for me, but with Maryland trending up, I'd back them if this game took place today. Smith has been a rebounding machine in conference play and I don't think Texas Tech would have an answer for him down the stretch of a close game.
Kansas vs. Oregon
This is just a dream draw for the Jayhawks, as they get another team they should physically dominate on the glass. Kansas is just too well-rounded, too well-coached to fall to a team that relies so heavily on guard play. KU is the only team to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency while also boasting a top-20 rebound rate. I love Oregon, but the Ducks would need a lot to go right to pull this off.
Louisville vs. Maryland
If I'm being honest, this bottom half of the region is as tough as it gets. I like Louisville in this spot because the Cardinals have the player I most trust on the court and they are more reliable from 3 (12th in 3P% compared to Maryland's 235th). I'm not in love with either team at the moment (both outside of my top 15 power ranks), making it possible that neither team advances this far if not for facing each other.
Kansas vs. Louisville
Kansas could finally be challenged in the second weekend, as Louisville is capable of banging with the Jayhawks in the paint. That said, the fact that they won in West Virginia (Feb. 12) on a night when Devon Dotson had only two assists and missed nine of 13 shots is downright terrifying. The Jayhawks can win with a variety of styles and that plays well this time of year.
No. 1 San Diego State vs. No. 16 North Florida
If I had to pick a 16-seed to pull off the upset, the Ospreys and their nation-leading 44.4% of points that come via the triple would be it due to their offensive ceiling (UMBC was plus-24 from 3 in their 2018 upset of top-ranked Virginia) but ... no thanks. San Diego State is all sorts of legit and I expect the Aztecs to prove as much during the first week of action.
No. 8 Rutgers vs. No. 9 Oklahoma
In close games, the number of easy points is amplified. Well, the Sooners profile as the type of team I'll happily take in a coin-toss game not only because they rank 12th in the nation in free throw percentage, but also because they commit fouls at the second-lowest rate. Don't underestimate this team because of the big number in the loss column.
No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Yale
You came for the 12-5 upset, so I'll give you the 12-5 upset! While the schedule Yale plays is significantly less daunting than that of Marquette, I don't think the Bulldogs' strong efficiency metrics are a mirage. A trio of upperclassmen account for nearly 60% of their offense and I'd rather bet on an offensive attack spread three ways like that than the Marquette attack that relies far too much on Markus Howard at times.
No. 4 Auburn vs No. 13 Wright State
Auburn can be a real threat. Can be. The Tigers have that sort of talent, but a lack of consistent perimeter shooting makes them a threat to bow out to just about anyone. At the end of the day, I think they are too good in the paint to lose this game, but I think it's tight down the stretch and that is always scary. Auburn is probably a team that creates separation in brackets this season (for better or worse).
No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Arizona State
This Buckeyed team doesn't much resemble the squad that lost six of seven at the beginning of conference play and it should easily advance through the first round. I think playmaking on the offensive side will be an issue in time, but Arizona State is a fringe tourney team that I don't believe ends up getting the nod come Selection Sunday.
No. 3 Seton Hall vs. No. 14 Colgate
Another first-round game that I think would be closer than most, as Seton Hall is the type of foul-prone team that could sink your bracket in the wrong matchup. That said, Myles Powell has game-breaking potential and Colgate is going to have a hard time checking him. Very hard. Seton Hall advances but not without a sweat.
No. 7 Iowa vs. No. 10 Wichita State
Iowa is one of the more maddening teams in the hunt this season, as the Hawkeyes' range of outcomes is off the charts. I buy their offensive chops in a "if-they-get-rolling-they-can-win-the-whole-darn-thing" sort of way on the broad shoulders of Luka Garza, but this "defense" could be the iceberg to the Hawkeye's Titanic. In this opening-round matchup, a half of good basketball should be enough to survive and advance.
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Montana
Nice of Montana for playing. Vernon Carey & Co. are just way too much on the glass in this spot and Duke seems to have recovered from its consecutive losses in mid-January. This Blue Devils team isn't flawless, but their good is as good as any team in the country.
San Diego State vs. Oklahoma
I understand that Oklahoma has faced far more high-end teams than San Diego State, but the difference in eFG% (over six percentage points) is simply too much to overlook here. Malachi Flynn is a special player with a well-rounded skill set that should have the Aztecs faithful thinking about much more than an invite to the second week of games.
Yale vs. Auburn
Did someone say eFG%? Yale ranks 11th in this field and Auburn ranks 46th, and that could well pave the way for a bracket-shaking result. We are dealing with a quick turnaround (one day of prep) and efficiency has proven very critical in those spots recently. Last season, that meant free throw shooting and in 2018 eFG% reigned supreme. How much so? Consider these numbers:
• In the first round of 2019, the better FT% team was 13-3 in the second round.
• In the first round of 2018, the better eFG% team was 12-4 in the second round.
Shooting efficiency is something to chase on short rest and I'm taking full advantage in this spot. The kids from Yale not only will rule our world, they also rule the day and move on to the Sweet 16.
Ohio State vs. Seton Hall
Opponents are making just 41.5% of their 2-point field goals against the Buckeyes this season (fourth-best in the country), making them capable of beating anyone that has an off night from distance. It's difficult to trust Seton Hall from distance (211th in the nation at 32.4%) and if this game is played at Ohio State's pace, I like the Buckeyes in a low-scoring result.
Iowa vs. Duke
I maintain my thought that Iowa can beat anyone in the country, but the bracket isn't about what could happen, it is about what is most likely to happen, and that's a Duke victory. With Tre Jones directing an efficient offense, and Carey on Garza detail, this is about as bad a matchup for the Hawkeyes as there is.
San Diego State vs. Yale
Yale bows out after a nice showing, as San Diego State pushes the pace and flexes its offensive depth. KJ Feagin has come on of late (15-plus points in three straight games bridging January and February) and I think the quality of scoring options advances the Aztecs into the second weekend.
Ohio State vs. Duke
As of this posting, the Blue Devils lead the ACC and that has proven to be a good omen over the past decade. If OSU makes it this far, the Buckeyes have continued their strong play and, at their best, I think they can give Duke a great game. But over the course of 40 minutes, I'll happily take the team with a much greater production floor on both ends of the court.
San Diego State vs. Duke
Could this be the game of the tournament? I think it's possible. My numbers suggest that this is a 3-point game in either direction, and while the critics will point to us not knowing if SDSU can hang with the big boys because of its schedule, we won't know that for sure until it does. And you know what? It's too late by then, so you need to take a strong stance on the Aztecs: Are you in or are you out? I'm in and I'm going to cite them ranking top 12 in this field in eFG%, FT% and assist-to-turnover rate. Duke doesn't check a single one of those boxes. Yep, we have a San Diego team representing the East Region in Atlanta.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Robert Morris
No. 8 Illinois vs. No. 9 Florida
I have this as a 2-point game in Illinois' favor, so it can truly go either way. These 8-9 spots are brutal, but I'll take the team that ranks top 10 (among this field) in percentage of defensive plays resulting in free throws over a team that is bottom 10 in the metric. Easy points are tough to come by and that distinct of an edge is enough to sway me.
No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 12 Furman
Another 5-12 that should be hotly contested. Furman is flirting with 80 points on a nightly basis thanks to a quartet of double-digit scorers, three of whom are converting more than half of their shots. On the other side, Nico Mannion is capable of taking over a game, but he is also capable of playing the Wildcats out of it. He has struggled lately, but as long as he stays aggressive (18 FTs vs. USC on Feb. 6 was a nice sight), I think he shows up when the lights are brightest.
No. 4 Villanova vs. No. 12 North Texas
For these bigger upsets, you need the favored team to beat itself and leave the door open for the shocking result. I just don't see that happening for a Nova team that ranks ninth best in the country in turnover rate, something I don't see changing against a not-so-mean Mean Green defense.
No. 6 Michigan State vs. No. 11 USC
The Spartans were the top team coming into the season and while they've underachieved in a major way, they still have an elite point guard in Cassius Winston along with a coach who will put this talented group in positions to succeed. Are they as good as we thought they were? No, but neither are most of the teams we hyped up this preseason. Their form will be worth tracking throughout the Big Ten tournament, as a locked-in Xavier Tillman gives them second weekend potential.
No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 South Dakota State
West Virginia is a very limited 3-seed in my opinion. Sure, the Mountaineers can rebound and defend, but I worry about them on the other end of the floor and that could prove costly against a sneaky-efficient South Dakota State team that ranks sixth in this field in eFG%. The Mountaineers struggle from the line, foul too much and turn the ball over on 17.7% of their possessions (bottom 100 in the nation). They are the more talented team, but a matchup like this is scary. Douglas Wilson and the Jackrabbits pull off the shocker.
No. 7 Houston vs. No. 10 Purdue
Does Purdue struggle because it's not a home game or struggle because it's not a road game? College basketball's Schrodinger's Cat experiment probably will depend on the opponent and I think the Boilermakers have a tough draw in Houston, the top rebounding team in the nation. Of course, the competition isn't the same, but I've been underwhelmed with Purdue's work on the glass and with both of these teams boasting similar balance, give me the team that projects for more extra possessions. Houston moves on.
No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 15 Winthrop
Winthrop isn't a pushover, but Florida State has proven capable of winning in many different styles and has the ability to lock down on the defensive end. It wouldn't be a blowout, but FSU advances without much of a sweat for those backing them.
Gonzaga vs. Illinois
Any time one school owns the most efficient offense and operates at a pace that ranks in the top 10 percentile of D-I, it is going to be a tough out and that is exactly what Mark Few's crew is doing. The Zags have been cruising past 80 points all season and they simply have too many options to think they fall victim to an early upset.
Arizona vs. Villanova
Arizona fouls way too much to think it beats an elite free throw shooting Villanova team. The Collin Gillespie/ Saddiq Bey combination is tough to deal with in terms of their versatility, something I expect to become more and more evident as we approach Selection Sunday.
Michigan State vs. South Dakota State
Winston has my trust and he can single-handedly guide this team to a win over a team ranked outside the top 200 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Houston vs. Florida State
Florida State owns the tallest roster in D-I this season, and while height doesn't always translate to rebounding success, I think it helps FSU limit Houston's primary strength. Assuming that is the case, the Seminoles are simply too efficient on the offensive end to lose here, especially when Devin Vassell is stroking the long ball (and that's most of the time).
Gonzaga vs. Villanova
I'd love to see this game from a scheming standpoint, but unless something changes, I'm just not sure Villanova would have an answer for Petrusev in the middle. His increased aggression over the past month has been a sight to behold and is what makes Gonzaga a true title threat. He can swing the outcomes of games by himself and there's no way I'm betting against him in this spot (Villanova: 122nd in rebound rate).
Michigan State vs. Florida State
Call it an upset if you want because of the seeding, the profile is there. Rocket Watts isn't the most consistent of players, but he certainly has the potential to win a game in March for his team and this could be it against a strong defense that will look to make a secondary option beat it.
Gonzaga vs. Michigan State
Great coaching. Two programs with success all over the past decade-plus. Who wouldn't love this game? Sparty holds a distinct advantage in team FT%, so MSU could pull this off if it's close. I'm just not sure it would be. Gonzaga's front line is simply more consistent and I think that rebounding edge would allow the Zags to dictate tempo. The more possessions there are in this game, the more I like the Zags, so give me the fightin' Mark Fews to advance.
Creighton vs. San Diego State
Did you scroll ahead to see who I had here? Bet this is a jarring set of names. These are two of the top-10 teams in my power ranks and actually have similar profiles, but the level of competition for Creighton is obviously a big bonus. The Bluejays aren't especially deep, but everyone they put on the floor can get a bucket and most of them are willing rebounders. I worry that Flynn relies a little too much on the 3-ball (48% of his shots this season) and a prolonged slump is a major issue against an offense that ranks fourth in the nation in efficiency.
Kansas vs. Gonzaga
Chalk reigns supreme on this half of the bracket and this could be an interesting game with neither team shooting great from the free throw line (both bottom 10 in this field). Both of these squads are capable of winning the whole thing, but I think Bill Self finds a way to slow the tempo, thus forcing Gonzaga to press just a bit ... ball game. This KU team is too talented for a team to try to alter what it does, so give me the Jayhawks in a grind-it-out game that comes down to guard scoring as the bigs cancel each other out.
Creighton vs. Kansas
Monday (Feb. 17) was the first time in more than two months a team replaced Kansas atop my power ranks, but I'm sticking to what has been the case for most of the season and banking on #RockChalk reclaiming the top spot over the next month. The last time the Jayhawks ran the table was 2008, the only season in which all four 1-seeds won their regions and a roster had seven pros on it. I don't think this team is that good, but its efficient offense complements its stingy defense well and makes the Jayhawks my favorite as we sit here one month from tourney time. Kansas cuts down the nets with Dotson proving to be the difference in the second half of a hotly contested game: 76-70.
One month away from March Madness games that count. One month away from the finished product. One month away from the epitome of being a sports fan. Hot takes on the college landscape as we move toward the tournament? Sleeper teams that you want to be on record as liking more than I do? Just want to vent on a team/conference/etc.? I'm @KyleSoppeESPN on Twitter and am always looking to hear your thoughts.