March Madness is upon us. For these few weeks each spring, even the most casual sports fans around the country become transfixed with college basketball.
Part of what makes filling out tournament brackets so much fun is that nobody has any idea what’s going to happen. On the other hand, this can also be quite annoying for more serious hoops fans–your cousin who picks Oregon because she likes the color green and thinks ducks are cute is just as likely to win your family pool as you are.
Take a look at some examples of the NCAA tournament’s complete unpredictability so far this decade:
2010 – A young and unheralded coach named Brad Stevens guided the Horizon League’s Butler Bulldogs all the way to the national championship game, coming within inches of upsetting Duke on a near-miraculous half-court shot by Gordon Hayward.
2011 – Stevens’ no-name squad astonishingly made it back to the title game, as a No. 8 seed, no less (defeating an even bigger surprise, 11th seeded VCU, in the Final Four). Butler fell to Connecticut, which was an incredible Cinderella story in its own right that season. Before the tourney began, UConn finished the regular season in a three-way tie for ninth place in the Big East Conference.
Now consider this: Somebody out there undoubtedly won a pool in 2011 simply by being a dog lover who chose Huskies over Bulldogs.
2012 – For the first time ever, a pair of No. 15 seeds upset No. 2 seeds in Round 1–Norfolk State out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and Lehigh from the Patriot League, who stunned 2010 champ Duke.
2013 – Wichita State, a No. 9 seed from the Missouri Valley Conference, reached the Final Four.
2014 – UConn again took home the title, but this time as a No. 7 seed.
2015 – Contrary to the dog-friendly 2011, betting on cats seemed like the wise move heading into the 2015 tournament. Top-ranked Kentucky was 32-0, Villanova (32-2) was ranked 2nd and Arizona (31-3) was No. 4–with all three nicknamed “Wildcats.”
Who won? Duke.
Villanova’s Wildcats cut down the nets in Houston last spring, and as a No. 1 seed, they’re sure to be a popular selection again this year.
Regardless of who you bet on, it’s a crap shoot. And as much as the so-called experts on TV pretend to know exactly what they’re talking about, they don’t have a clue either. With that in mind, let me make a suggestion based on what WHOOP has learned by analyzing athletes’ physiological data: Whenever possible, choose teams that don’t have to travel very far.
Historically, “home-court advantage” has been viewed as a reflection of the impact fans in attendance on the game. However, simply avoiding travel may be just as significant a factor.
A study conducted by WHOOP and Major League Baseball in 2016 found that athletes slept roughly 40-45 fewer minutes per night following travel. In turn, their average Recoveries the next morning were also lower. A second WHOOP case study linked crossing time zones with decreased next-day Recovery as well. On the basketball court, we’ve also seen direct correlations between higher WHOOP Recovery and increased shooting percentages.
What does all of this mean? I wouldn’t suggest picking 15th-seeded Northern Kentucky over No. 2 Kentucky just because the Norse (their mascot is Victor E. Viking) have a shorter bus ride to Indianapolis. However, it is safe to assume that teams facing minimal travel will be better rested and recovered and may have a slight edge in games between fairly evenly matched squads.
The tournament committee makes an effort to put higher seeds close to home. But since the venues are predetermined, some schools have better luck than others. In Round 1, all four No. 7 seeds can take advantage:
South Carolina (7) over Marquette (10) in Greenville, SC.
Saint Mary’s (7) over VCU (10) in Salt Lake City, UT.
Michigan (7) over Oklahoma State (10) in Indianapolis, IN.
Dayton (7) over Wichita State (10) in Indianapolis, IN.
Last year’s study also found that players tend to return to their Recovery baselines after about two days, so it doesn’t make sense to factor in travel for the second set of games played each weekend in the same locations (Rounds 2 and 4).
Jumping ahead to Round 3 the following weekend, several of the No. 2s can benefit from minimal travel: Arizona in San Jose, CA, Kentucky in Memphis, TN, and Louisville in Kansas City, MO.
The Final Four will be played in Phoenix, AZ so there’s one obvious choice among the likely contenders: Arizona. Also, they’re Wildcats. As I said before, it’s anybody’s guess.