Today SI’s Grant Wahl published his annual January synopsis of the eight teams that he feels have sufficient chops to win the national title in April. He likes to point out that in the eight previous years of doing this article, he’s been correct in seven of them (the one miss: 2003 with Syracuse). FYI, here is a spreadsheet of his Magic Eight picks for each year since its inception. Looking at the document with the caveat that we generally like Wahl’s work, in the last eight years the only true “gotcha!” champion was that Cuse team, which raises the question of just how difficult it is to pick eight top-tier teams in the hopes that one of the group cuts the nets down.
The short answer is not very. Had Wahl simply chosen the top eight teams in the AP poll for the correlating January week, he would have nailed six of the eight champions during this period. The only other team he would have missed (besides 2003 Syracuse) would have been 2000 Michigan State, and Wahl would be the first to tell you that the reason for MSU’s relatively low ranking at that point in the 2000 season was completely because of Mateen Cleaves’ foot injury that kept him out of the lineup until conference play. After all, MSU was the preseason #1 team in America that year.
What we think is considerably harder to do is to pick Final Four teams three months ahead of time. The truly elite teams (champions) almost always rise to the top, but with the knowledge that there will inevitably be upsets and great-looking in January will be off the map by March, we figure that if you can consistently pick half of the F4 that far ahead of time, then you’re probably doing something right. Well, it turns out that in the eight years of Wahl’s M8, he’s nailed sixteen of the thirty-two F4 teams for a success rate of exactly 50%. Using our AP ranking measurement mentioned above, he would have gotten fifteen right (47%) by sticking with the poll. So at least he’s beating the chalk.
Which brings us to our analysis of his M8 teams for this season. Here are his eight selections:
Perhaps getting a bit full of his record (or taking a huge gamble in an attempt to look really smart on April 7), this year’s selections omitted the UNC Tar Heels, who are currently 17-0 and the #1 team in both major media polls (#2 in the blogpoll). We can’t figure this one out.
Grant, what are you thinking?
Does Wahl really believe that Xavier (or Dayton, as he claims he almost chose) has a better chance of cutting down the nets than UNC? Is he willfully encouraging hordes of Carolina-blue hatemail upon his inbox? Is he simply trying to up his hit page stats ? We have no idea, but let’s see what his justification is for leaving off one of the four teams that has shown itself to be head & shoulders above the rest of the country this year, and quite possibly a juggernaut.
Carolina just doesn’t defend as well as the other three.
That’s it? While he’s right (they don’t), there is still time for significant improvement on that measure, and it’s not like they’re piss-poor (#31 nationally as of today). But more importantly, the Heels also are one of the very best offensive teams in the country, and that alone should indicate they’re worth a look as one of the eight teams most likely to win the national championship. We just don’t understand his reasoning here. If you don’t think they’ll win it all, that’s fine; but to make a claim that they’re not one of the eight most likely to do so… that’s just criminal. Moving on…
As for his 2008 selections, no Wazzu, no Michigan St., no Duke and no Texas A&M is fine – each of those teams has a major flaw or two. Had we produced a M8, we would have definitely taken UNC over Xavier and probably replaced Tennessee with Michigan St. We may have also left Louisville off because we don’t know where their outside shooting is coming from and who will be injured next, but we’re not sure who we think is a marginally better choice, so we’d probably end up leaving them. But really, no major beefs other than the UNC omission.
FWIW, since it’d be fairly disingenuous to rip Wahl’s picks without providing our own for review, we’re sticking with the F4 selections we made for STF at the beginning of the season – UNC, Indiana, UCLA, Gonzaga. The only one we’re currently nervous about is Gonzaga, simply because they haven’t taken off with the return of Josh Heytvelt like we thought they would. There’s still time, though.
Update: we sent this link to Wahl, and he responded in an email that he thought we had mischaracterized his article in the sense that he never claimed to be picking the eight teams most likely to win the national championship. He said that if that were the case, UNC would have been #4 on his list; however, his intent was to eliminate one of the “Big Four,” so as to make things interesting and avoid the appearance of playing it safe. We thought the intent of the M8 was to create a pool of teams from which he “guarantees” the champ will come – if that’s the case, we still don’t really understand the UNC omission.