TIME College Basketball

A Wisconsin-Duke Final Is Just Fine

Quinn Cook #2, Jahlil Okafor #15 and Justise Winslow #12 of the Duke Blue Devils acknowledge fans while walking off the court following their 81-61 win against the Michigan State Spartans during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 4, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Lance King—Getty Images Quinn Cook #2, Jahlil Okafor #15 and Justise Winslow #12 of the Duke Blue Devils acknowledge fans while walking off the court following their 81-61 win against the Michigan State Spartans during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 4, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Without undefeated Kentucky, this year's title game won't be historic. But it's still loaded with intrigue

At the start of the 2014-15 college basketball season, 351 Division I teams had a chance to win the national championship. Going into this weekend, four teams remained: undefeated Kentucky and Wisconsin on one side of the bracket, Duke and Michigan State on the other. Let’s face it: Duke-Kentucky would have been a dandy final. Both programs have a national imprint. Dynastic Duke is the New York Yankees, or Dallas Cowboys, of college hoops. Kentucky is not only a blue blood program, but more recently it’s a factory of future NBA talent led by a divisive coach, master salesman John Calipari. The NCAA had already nullified two Final Four appearances of his prior teams, UMass and Memphis.

Imagine Calipari’s Cats just needing to get by the venerable Coach K, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, to complete the first perfect season in major men’s college basketball since 1976. The good vs. evil narrative, trite as it is, would write itself. The cunning Calipari, the man whose system of shuttling players to the NBA after a year of college is a supposed affront to higher education, on one side, against Coach K, molder of student-athletes at prestigious Duke. That match-up guaranteed a monster TV rating.

Well, it’s not happening. Duke held up its end, as the Blue Devils trounced Michigan State, 81-61. However, Wisconsin gutted out a thrilling 71-64 victory over Kentucky to squash the Wildcats’ dreams of perfection. Plus, the Calipari/Krzyzewski clash is hogwash. If anything, Krzyzewski has copycatted Calipari’s strategy of recruiting NBA-ready players who are only in college because NBA rules require that they spend a year in school before they’re drafted. Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker left Duke after just one year in 2011, 2012 and 2014, respectively; this year, Duke freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow are locks to be high first-round picks. Freshman guard Tyrus Jones could also go pro. So who’s one-and-done U here?

MORE: Here’s Your Final Four Drinking Game

According to the ol’ eye test, the Blue Devils were just too good for Michigan State on Saturday night. They should swarm Wisconsin too. In the first half against Kentucky, the Badgers needed a few crazy shots to go in to stay ahead. In the end, the skills of Wisconsin stars Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker—combined with some sloppy execution by Kentucky, which relied too much on guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison to create scoring chances, rather than give the ball to the big men—made the difference.

On Sunday, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said he got numerous texts from people reminding him that when the Team USA hockey team beat the Soviet Union to complete the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics, the U.S. still had to defeat Finland in the gold medal game. It’s cute to compare Wisconsin’s win over Kentucky to the Miracle on Ice, or even to Duke’s upset of the undefeated UNLV team in the 1991 national semis, but both comparisons are off. That Soviet team was unbeatable, and on paper a bunch of American amateurs had no conceivable shot to win. That UNLV team was not only undefeated, but it crushed everyone all year and had the same nucleus as the team that won the national title in 1990. Kentucky had a few close calls this season, including one just last week against Notre Dame in the regional final. The Wildcats had a perfect season going, but they weren’t a perfect team. It’s not entirely stunning that they lost.

And Duke, I suspect, poses a bigger challenge than the Fins—relatively speaking. If the Badgers are to beat Duke on Monday night, they’ll have to pull off the same feat they did against the Wildcats: make tough shots against a bunch of future pros. That’s difficult to do for two straight games.

One observer’s prognosis: one-and-done U will win the title. Just not the one most people expected.

TIME

Here’s Who Wins March Madness in the Classroom

A complete ranking of the NCAA basketball tournament field by academic success and graduation rates instead of wins and losses

Davidson’s men’s basketball team has won accolades this year for defying expectations on the court, finishing in first place in their inaugural season in the Atlantic 10 after being picked 12th, out of 14 teams, in the preseason poll. The Wildcats run an efficient, aesthetically pleasing offense, a welcome contrast to an otherwise rough college basketball season, where scoring was near all-time lows.

Basketball success is not new to the 1,850 student liberal arts college in North Carolina: Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry is a former Wildcat. Nor is academic achievement: Woodrow Wilson is another prominent alum. Now, the two have come together: Davidson is the academic champion of the 2015 NCAA tournament.

According to new rankings generated by the New America, a non-partisan Washington, D.C. think tank, for all 68 teams in the tournament–and shared exclusively with TIME — Davidson cuts down the proverbial nets. Here’s how: we matched teams up in the classroom, using the tournament brackets to determine the games. If the on-court bracket results mimicked academic performance, the Final Four would look like this: Davidson wins the South, Maryland comes out of the Midwest, Baylor takes the West and Dayton wins the East. Davidson knocks off Baylor in one national semifinal. Maryland knocks off Dayton in the other semi, with Davidson taking the title game.

The full bracket is below.

 

The formula for New America’s March Madness mimics that of its College Football Playoff rankings released in December (TCU won that title). The base measure is a school’s most recent men’s basketball “Graduation Success Rate,” a figure measured by the NCAA that doesn’t dock schools for having players who transfer or go pro before graduating–as long as those players leave in good academic standing. The higher the school’s graduation success rate, the higher they start out in New America’s rankings. New America, however, did subtract points from schools that graduate men’s basketball players at a much different rate than the overall men’s graduation rate at the school. To compare students to athletes, New America used federal graduation rates, which take a cohort of students from 2004-2007, and measured if they graduated within six years. Even if a school graduated basketball players at higher rates than the overall male student population, the difference was counted as a penalty against schools that have low overall male graduation rates.

One important note: Harvard, the Ivy League champion, was excluded from the rankings because the Ivy League does not report federal graduation rates for athletes. So the University of North Carolina, Harvard’s first round opponent, moves on. Harvard was one of 13 schools, including Davidson, Maryland, Notre Dame, Butler and Dayton, that reported a perfect graduation success rate for basketball players.

Indiana was the easiest out, finishing last in New America’s rankings. Hoosier basketball players graduated at an 8% federal rate, according to the most recent numbers, fare below the overall male student graduation rate of 72%. That discrepancy killed their score. Indiana basketball spokesman J.D. Campbell points out that current coach Tom Crean was hired in April 2008, after the 2004-2007 cohort captured by the federal rate enrolled in the school. Indiana’s men’s basketball team does have a perfect Academic Progress Rate, an NCAA metric that measures the academic eligibility of current players, and Campbell says that every Crean recruit that hasn’t transferred or left early for the NBA has graduated (one of Indiana’s three early entries to the NBA, Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic, graduated in three years).

To see how the whole field stacks up, check out these rankings.

Read next: The Simple Free Hack to Watch NCAA March Madness Without a Cable Bill

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TIME College Basketball

College Basketball Has Lost Its Soul

Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament - VCU v Richmond
Alex Goodlett—Getty Images The Richmond Spiders play the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during a quarterfinal game in the 2015 Men's Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 13, 2015 in Brooklyn.

Attendance and ratings are down. Scoring is at historic lows. Arenas are antiseptic. Why is the sport so troubled?

What are we doing here?

It’s Friday afternoon in Brooklyn, just days before the annual “Selection Sunday” that will decide the layout of the NCAA tournament. The Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, is hosting the conference tournament quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10, a hoop-centric group of schools whose core geographical imprint stretches from Philadelphia, through Washington, D.C. down to Richmond, Virginia, while hitting a few places in the midwest: Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dayton. Yet the Atlantic 10 hosts its conference tournament in New York City, home to Fordham University—one of the league’s northern outliers and worst basketball teams.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and the University of Richmond, two schools separated by five miles in the Virginia capital, are playing a tight, tough game, which VCU will eventually win, 70-67. But the whole thing still feels a bit out of place. The Atlantic 10 moved its tournament to Brooklyn back in 2013 because, more than anything, college athletic conferences have become marketing entities. Let’s bring the show to the big city, baby, no matter the convenience for the “student-athletes,” whose time spent traveling extra miles could be spent, you know, studying.

This rivalry game sparked some electricity. Fans of VCU, which made a surprising run to the Final Four back in 2011, travel well, and as VCU finishes off the Spiders, the place is loud and moderately rocking. Still, the building is only a little more than a third full, according to the official attendance figures. Empty seats dot prime areas behind the basket. Most of the fans are wearing yellow (for VCU) or red (for Richmond), but very few locals seem to be there. The Big Apple hasn’t exactly caught A-10 fever.

Which comes as no shock. Across the country, people seem to be falling out of love with college basketball. Attendance for Division I men’s games has fallen for seven straight seasons, according to the Associated Press. TV ratings for CBS and ESPN are down.

A well-documented drop in scoring, which is near historically low levels, has been blamed for college basketball’s struggles. Ugly play has certainly contributed. Controlling coaches drain the fun and flow out of the game. Players are stronger—and more physical, which tends to hurt, more than help, offense. Technology has made scouting an opponent’s tendencies easier. When you know what your foe is about to do, he’s easier to defend.

These trends have surely contributed to college basketball’s struggles. So have some forces beyond the sport’s control. More than ever, Americans want appointment television, whether it’s a must-see football game or even an international soccer game we can all chirp about on Twitter, or a favorite show on the DVR. We have so many entertainment options: Our investment in a two-hour regular season college basketball game better pay off. Too often, it doesn’t.

In football, the regular season games really matter. In baseball, a fraction of the teams make the post-season, so even the early April games have something at stake. In college basketball, if teams struggle in the regular season, they can earn a March Madness spot by doing well in a conference tournament. Does any one regular season game really matter that much?

True, you can say the same thing about NBA regular season games. But if you like basketball, and can choose between watching the best players in the world in the NBA, or a bunch of college kids throwing up bricks and college coaches calling a million timeouts, and calling for a million fouls at the end of close games… it’s an easy call.

When pitted against football, college hoops is almost helpless. College football is a juggernaut, and college basketball starts its season in mid-November—just as the playoff and bowl chases are coming down the stretch. Into December and through the Super Bowl, the NFL is going strong. Even the NFL off-season overshadows college hoops. This past week, major free agent moves—and in particular, coach Chip Kelly’s casino gambling with the future of the Philadelphia Eagles—stole tons of attention from conference basketball tournaments.

College basketball is in danger of becoming a one-month sport, capturing buzz only during March Madness. The sport’s relevance problem even sparked Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich to propose on SI.com that the start of the regular season be pushed back to mid-December, and the Final Four to take place in early May—to help college basketball escape football’s shadow.

Officials can tinker with the game. But some of the optics of this week’s conference tournaments also suggest that, because schools have been chasing the lushest revenue streams, the sport has also just lost its way. On Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City, for example, Butler, from Indianapolis, and Xavier, from Cincinnati, met in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. Why are schools from two Midwestern cities, connected by I-74 through Indiana, playing in New York? As part of something with “East” in the name?

All the conference reshuffling of the past few years destroyed many regional rivalries. Out of this rubble rose a new entity called American Athletic Conference (AAC). ESPN showed highlights from an exciting AAC quarterfinal game between East Carolina and the University of Central Florida that went into overtime. East Carolina won 81-80. The game was played in Hartford, Conn. On TV, the stands looked empty.

College hoops is still thriving in many places. And as we gear up for Sunday night’s selection show, a drab regular season will be forgotten. We’ll fill out our March Madness brackets, root for Cinderella, see if Kentucky can become the first team to finish undefeated in almost 40 years. It’ll be a blast.

But the question is still worth asking: What are we doing here?

Read next: The Case for Sports Gambling in America

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MONEY gambling

6 Ways to Win Your March Madness Office Pool

Aaron Harrison #2 of the Kentucky Wildcats dunks the ball during the game against the Florida Gators at Rupp Arena on March 7, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky.
Andy Lyons—Getty Images Bet against the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats at your peril.

You can't pick the perfect bracket (ask Warren Buffett). But you might be able to edge out your co-workers with these tips.

You would have to be crazy to think you can master the betting process for the NCAA’s annual college basketball tournament. That’s part of why it’s called March Madness.

The odds of picking all the winners among the 68 teams in this year’s men’s tournament is an insane 1 in 9.2 quintillion, according to a DePaul University math professor. That is roughly equivalent to winning the Mega Millions lottery jackpot twice in a row.

No wonder famed investor Warren Buffett felt so comfortable offering a $1 billion for a perfect bracket in last year’s NCAA tournament. (No one won.)

But to pick up a few bucks winning your own March Madness office pool, which draws an estimated 50 million Americans a year, you do not have to be perfect. You just have to be good enough to beat your friends. What is at stake is some of the $12 billion that will be bet worldwide on this year’s March Madness tournament, according to the website Pregame.com.

And if you actually win a little cash? According to the Internal Revenue Service, all gambling winnings are taxable—although it’s highly unlikely your podunk office pool will be reported to any authorities, and Uncle Sam has never bothered with them in the past.

Here are six tips to help you get an edge when bracket seedings and matchups are announced on Selection Sunday, March 15.

1. Don’t Get Carried Away With Cinderella Stories

While highly entertaining, huge upsets do not happen all that often (although the Mercer Bears did knock off the powerhouse Duke Blue Devils just last year).

“For the most part, you want to stick with the favorites—especially as you get deeper into tournament rounds like the Elite Eights and the Final Four,” says Ken Pomeroy, founder of the stats-analysis site KenPom.com.

This year in particular, there is one runaway favorite: the Kentucky Wildcats and their perfect 30-0 record. Bet against them at your peril.

2. Tailor Your Picks to Your Pool

Your optimal bracket will change depending on the size of the pool, notes Brad Null, founder of the site BracketVoodoo.com. It is basic game theory: You are not just picking winners, you are playing against others.

If a pool is only comprised of three or four people, stick largely with the favorites, Null says. The bigger the pool gets, the more risks you should take in order to win the prize. In a pool of 10 or 20 people, for instance, you might want to forgo heavily favored Kentucky in favor of talented but less-probable teams like Virginia, he advises.

Even more bettors and you might want to vary it up even more, by looking at names like Wisconsin, Villanova, or Gonzaga to go deep into the tournament.

3. Get Expert Help

If you do not have an advanced degree in statistics, good news: Experts are happy to do all the number-crunching for you (sometimes for a fee).

For likelihoods of victory in any given match-up, visit sites like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com or TeamRankings.com, advises Doug Drinen, an associate math professor at Tennessee’s Sewanee: The University of the South.

4. Factor in the Scoring System

Every individual pool can feature its own scoring method, and that in turn influences how you should bet. If there is a special bonus awarded for upsets, for instance, pencil in more shockers than you would otherwise.

On the other hand, some pools are heavily weighted toward the eventual victor—awarding only one point for a first-round win, but 32 points for the final game. In that case, go with the heavy favorite, because “it’s almost impossible to win the pool unless you pick the champion,” says Drinen.

5. Avoid Homer Bias

It is only natural to root for your college team. It is not a winning pool strategy.

“If I’m in a pool with a bunch of people who went to college at Stanford, you know half of them are going to pick Stanford to win it all,” says Null. Be a contrarian and go the other way.

6. Think Like a Value Investor

The beauty of March Madness is that you never know who might go on a run—like last year’s champion Connecticut Huskies, who started as humble seven seeds.

“You don’t want to just look at teams who have been successful in the past, but also those who have been down lately,” says Null. “In that way, it’s kind of like picking stocks.”

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Every year, only one team in the NCAA Tournament can walk away with the National Championship, leaving 67 losing squads in its wake. See the pain of a season-ending loss

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The Final Four: 4 Predictions

Getty Images Scottie Wilbekin of the Florida Gators scores against the Dayton Flyers during the Elite 8

Since Obama bombed his bracket, see how the pro predictors are calling the shots

The final rounds of the Big Dance tip off Saturday in Dallas with Florida playing UConn at 6:09pm and Wisconsin taking on Kentucky at 8:49pm. Kentucky’s thrilling upset over Michigan makes the 8-seed one to watch. And while Florida has only lost two games this season, one of those losses was to the team it’s now up against. The other? To Wisconsin. See who the favorites are below.

FiveThirtyEight and Nate Silver
The lead data-cruncher has Florida favored over Connecticut and Wisconsin over Kentucky with Florida winning it all. Silver, who called the 2012 Presidential election correctly, also accurately predicted Louisville as last year’s tournament champ.

Sports Illustrated
The magazine’s new issue might be cursing Kentucky by putting the team on its cover. The issue puts Kentucky and Florida in the finals with the overall estimate that Billy Donovan will bring home his third ring for the Gators.

ESPN’s Top Bracket
ESPN’s current bracket leader mike_opheim24 (who has 10 different brackets) earned a perfect prediction score for the Elite Eight. For this weekend’s match up, he has Florida and Kentucky meeting on Monday ending with the Wildcats cutting down the net.

Warren Buffett Bracket
Though nobody won Warren Buffett’s billion-dollar bracket challenge, the top scorer thus far puts Florida and Kentucky in the finals game, predicting Florida will win 72-64.

TIME March Madness 2014

Tucson Police Pepper Spray Rowdy Fans After Loss

UA Riot
Carlos Herrera—Arizona Daily Star/AP Students clashed against Tucson Police officers on University Avenue Saturday March 29, 2014 in Tucson, Ariz. after Arizona's loss to Wisconsin 64-63 in the West Region NCAA final.

Police arrested 15 unruly fans and shot pepper spray at crowds after Arizona's overtime loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament. Authorities who arrived on the scene were met with flying beer bottles, cans and firecrackers from the crowd

Tuscon police arrested 15 people and used pepper spray on rowdy fans following the Arizona Wildcats’ NCAA tournament loss, police said.

Arizona lost in overtime to the Wisconsin Badgers 64-63 in the West Region final Saturday in Anaheim. Crowds leaving Tuscon bars and restaurants after watching their team’s narrow defeat didn’t disperse from the area despite police orders to do so, the Associated Press reports.

Police cruisers and baton-wielding officers that arrived on the scene were soon met with flying beer bottles, cans and firecrackers from the crowd.

Of the 15 people arrested in the fracas, 14 have been released.

[AP]

TIME

Kentucky Congressmen Bet Bourbon on Big Bluegrass Basketball Rivalry

Andy Barr and John Yarmuth are betting some home-state product on Friday night's big game

Kentuckians know they have two world-class products: bourbon and basketball. So it’s only fitting that freshman Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican who represents Lexington, and Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat who represents Louisville, bet several bottles of bourbon on Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup between the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville.

The in-state rivalry between the two hard-court titans was cemented in 1983 when the “Dream Game”—an epic, Elite 8 overtime clash in which Louisville beat Kentucky—drove the state general assembly to mandate a non-conference matchup each and every year. Since then, the game has forged Bluegrass bragging rights, pumped up over the past few years with a Kentucky championship in 2012 and a Louisville championship last year.

“College basketball is king to the commonwealth of Kentucky,” Barr tells TIME. “Even [Louisville and former Kentucky] Coach [Rick] Pitino once said that the University of Kentucky is the Roman empire of college basketball.”

Both members have considerable knowledge of the game, common for the towns in which they grew up in and now represent.

“A lot is on the line here in the Sweet 16, but I like Kentucky’s chances based on our size, our talent, and the way we’ve been playing recently,” Barr says. “Julius Randle is absolutely unstoppable,” he adds, referring to the 6’9, 250-pound freshman who is considered by many analysts to be one of the top players in the 2013 class. “He is a force. I don’t care if he is double teamed or triple teamed, you can’t stop Julius Randle. You can only hope to contain him.”

Yarmuth, who will attend the game on behalf of his former employer Louisville, understands that his team, which lost to Kentucky in December, has some challenges despite being the favorite. “It’s a huge size disadvantage,” Yarmuth tells TIME. “It’s not a great matchup for us.”

But he believes his team can still pull out the victory. “We have to hit a reasonable percentage of three pointers to win,” Yarmuth says, putting on his ESPN commentator cap. “You’ve got senior leadership,” he adds. “We lead the country in margin of victory, turnover margin—we’re at the top in both offense and defense efficiency. We beat Connecticut three times pretty easily, and Connecticut is still in the tournament.”

Yarmuth says that Coach Pitino can give the Cardinals the edge. “Give him five days to prepare—particularly for a [Kentucky] team that’s very inexperienced and doesn’t really have much of an offense,” Yarmuth says. “We can really cause them fits.”

Whoever wins will be a happy man, and the recipient of several bottles of Kentucky’s finest bourbon—including Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve (Yarmuth’s “default bourbon”), Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Town Branch, Barrel House and Jim Beam.

The game starts at 9:45 p.m. EST on Friday.

While the two lawmakers have clear biases, Sente Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who was student body president at Louisville as an undergrad and president of the Student Bar association while at Kentucky’s law school—has had some difficulty choosing sides. “You know, I didn’t get this far in my line of work by answering questions like that,” McConnell said Tuesday of the rivalry, with a soft chuckle. “That is the hottest issue in our state.”

McConnell had an embarrassing flub when his campaign released an ad this week—he is in a fiercely contested election battle with Kentucky’s Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes—that accidentally included a clip of Duke’s 2010 championship instead of Kentucky’s. Matt Bevin, McConnell’s primary challenger, has poked fun at the mistake, releasing an ad on Thursday showing McConnell in a Duke uniform.

“Most folks in Kentucky are either Louisville or Kentucky fans—there are not a lot of Kentuckians who are both,” says Barr, who calls himself a “diehard member of the Big Blue nation. … But it is a source of pride for even Kentucky fans to know that we’ve got two great national powerhouse basketball teams.”

 

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