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March 13, 2012, 12:45 PM ET
First Four Picks

by Kevin Pelton

Ignore the byline–this post brought to you by Drew Cannon. - KP

So, the last time I won a bracket pool, I was about to turn 11. It was 2001. I was a Duke fan, and I picked Duke to win. I won not only my family pool, but also my dad’s office pool.

Since then–and this seems to be a theme as people take college basketball increasingly seriously–my knowledge of the college game has vastly increased, and my success in pools has fallen completely to pieces. So, for my own sanity as much as the public’s help, I decided to at least have a record. That way I can drive myself crazy trying to figure out where I went wrong. (If you want to see what someone far smarter and widely respected than I am has to say on the matter, Jay Bilas also had the nerve to publish his faster.)

Also, I adopted a weird system to make my picks this year. I have a list of all the games that have two teams picked to play in them (e.g., to start with, all the First Four games are on the list along with all the first round games that don’t involve First Four contestants), and then I’m randomly selecting one at a time to pick. In theory, this will make me focus on one game at a time, and not whether I’m picking favorites or upsets or who’s in my Sweet 16 or a million other things that usually concern me. In reality, I’ll probably do all those things anyway.

Finally, I’ll be repeatedly referencing probabilities from Ken Pomeroy and Nate Silver and ESPN’s BPI rankings. If you’re just looking for those, you should probably just click on those links – it’ll be way faster than wading through this article.

On with it. We start with the First Four

16 Mississippi Valley State vs. 16 Western Kentucky

FIRST INSTINCT: Mississippi Valley State.
THE NUMBERS LIKE: Western Kentucky (KP – 67%, Silver – 62%, BPI – Western Kentucky 191, Mississippi Valley State 230)
THOUGHT PROCESS: MVSU’s best win this year is a double-overtime victory over Tennessee State. Which, honestly, is way, way better than their next best wins–at Texas Southern, neutral Texas Southern, home Texas Southern. Western Kentucky may have had a 4-13 stretch this season that included five losses to sub-200 Pomeroy teams, but they beat Middle Tennessee, they beat Denver, and they made Louisville, VCU, Murray State, and MTSU (on the road) sweat a little bit. The Delta Devils (Best nickname in college hoops? In sports?) played Iowa State tough and have since gotten the job done (20-1), even if there have been some close calls to some bad teams along the way. At the end of the day, I’m siding with the Hilltoppers because I trust Derrick Gordon to run a team more than anyone in the entire MEAC.
FINAL PICK: Western Kentucky.

14 BYU vs. 14 Iona

FIRST INSTINCT: BYU.
THE NUMBERS LIKE: BYU (KP – 52%, Silver – 48%, BPI – BYU 47, Iona 52)
THOUGHT PROCESS: Listen, Iona is a really bad defensive team. Their tallest rotation players are Mike Glover and Taaj Ridley, and neither of them can be considered a true interior presence. And that’s unfortunate, because the Cougars are bringing along two really good post scorers in Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock. BYU could match up much worse defensively. Also, the Gaels’ three most impressive performances to date are as follows: 1. A 91-90 neutral court loss to a Purdue team that still had Kelsey Barlow, on opening night. 2. An overtime road win over Denver. 3. A double-overtime home win over St. Joseph’s.
FINAL PICK: BYU.

16 Lamar vs. 16 Vermont

FIRST INSTINCT: Vermont.
THE NUMBERS LIKE: Lamar (KP – 56%, Silver – 53%, BPI – Lamar 116, Vermont 139)
THOUGHT PROCESS: Ken Pomeroy has taken to calling the Cardinals ”arguably the strongest 16 seed in the last decade”, but they’ve really only played one team decently tough, taking Ohio to the wire on the road in November. Vermont, on the other hand, nearly took it to South Florida, Harvard, and Iona and beat Old Dominion. Lamar guard Mike James is probably the best player in this game now, but Vermont guard (and America East Freshman of the Year) Four McGlynn is tracking to make at least little waves nationally by the time he’s done.
FINAL PICK: Vermont.

12 California vs. 12 USF

FIRST INSTINCT: California.
THE NUMBERS LIKE: California (KP – 65%, Silver – 58%, BPI – California 30, South Florida 64)
THOUGHT PROCESS: I still think California’s good and South Florida was extraordinarily fortunate to go, including the tournament (why do people never include the tournament?), 13-7 in the Big East. I don’t trust anyone on the Bulls to score against anyone, and now point guard Anthony Collins has to go up against back-to-back Pac-Something Defensive Player of the Year Jorge Gutierrez? I look at the Bears and I see a lot of talent. I really like the way Harper Kamp understands offense. Allen Crabbe can shoot a basketball like Raylan Givens can shoot a gun. And, statistically, Justin Cobbs probably had the best offensive season on the team this year. When I look at South Florida, I see a team who should be happy to be here. When I look at Cal, I see a good team whose conference prevented us from learning how good in time for the NCAAs.
FINAL PICK: California.

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