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Memphis a trendy pick for an upset

Josh Pastner

Memphis head coach Josh Pastner watches the action in the first half of a semifinal round NCAA basketball game against Central Florida at the Conference USA tournament on Friday, March 9, 2012, in Memphis, Tenn. Memphis won 83-52 and is to face Marshall in the championship game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)


As I look at more and more brackets it’s apparent that Memphis (an 8-seed) is becoming a popular pick to knock the first No. 1 seed out of this Tournament. Heck, I picked them, as did two other CBT writers. So why is this? Sure, they steamrolled the Conference-USA Tournament, but Michigan State is hardly the C-USA. Memphis has suffered eight losses this year, including one to a bad UTEP team just over three weeks ago.

So what’s the deal?

The answer is buried in advanced statistics. Looking at the popular website run by Ken Pomeroy, the Memphis Tigers are the 9th rated team in the nation (ironically, Memphis is paired with by far the most difficult 9-seed). Of course, Pomeroy doesn’t hand rank his teams. Instead it’s just a statistical calculation.

If you question the accuracy of his rating compared to the AP or Coaches Polls, note that hardcore gamblers have a more nuanced understanding of his ratings than do most casual college basketball fans.

According to Pomeroy the next best 8-seed is Kansas State which checks in at 22nd. Iowa State is 30th, and Creighton is 34th.

If you’re a Michigan State fan and you’re versed in tempo free data, then you’re probably not real excited about the front end of your bracket.

Looking a little deeper at the Tigers’ resume, they lost to Georgetown in overtime, lost to Murray State by four, at Louisville by eight, at UCF by one and at Southern Miss by three. All of these games had close margins. And the RPI and most voters don’t care about margin of victory. Herein lies one key difference. To them a loss is a loss. To Pomeroy and data geeks, how a team lost is critical

The Tigers have the 19th best offense in the nation (determined by how many points they score per possession) and the 11th best defense. Only seven other programs are in the top-20 in both categories. Those seven schools are four 1-seeds, 2 2-seeds, and a 5-seed.

None of this means they’ll be favored against Michigan State. But if Memphis gets past St. Louis, I’ll wager that the line iin Vegas will be closer in that game than any of the other 1 vs 8/9s.