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ESPN Expert 2016 NCAA Tournament Picks Out: MSU the favorite, Virginia bizarrely undervalued

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Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

After a wild season of college basketball, during which the AP Top 10 combined for 74 losses, more than any other year, ESPN's expert picks for the 2016 NCAA Tournament are startlingly uniform.

Of the 27 experts on ESPN's panel, 17 picked Michigan State to cut down the nets in Houston, with 9 opting for Kansas and just one, Jeff Goodman, picking Kentucky.

The group also submitted picks for the Final Four. Generally, these were a little more diverse; 20% of the selections were teams seeded third or lower. The open thinking ended in the Midwest region, where 26 of 27 experts picked Michigan State to advance to the Final Four, and only Cory Alexander, who played college basketball at UVA, picked Virginia.

Frankly, this is bizarre. Michigan State is obviously an elite team that is playing great basketball and is led by one of the best coaches in the nation.  And picking the Spartans is more than reasonable, especially considering their strong NCAA Tournament history.  But, with computer models giving MSU and UVA essentially even odds, we'd expect a little more diversity of opinion. After all, more than 1 expert made Xavier, Miami, or Maryland their Final Four selection.

FiveThirtyEight posted tournament odds for all 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament, and forecasted that the Spartans had a 34% chance of a Final Four berth followed by UVA at 30%. (It actually gives the Hoos a slightly higher probability of winning it all, but MSU gets a boost in the Midwest region from their relatively easy path).  FiveThirtyEight is no outlier either. Vegas has UVA and MSU at essentially even odds to move on as well.

As shown on the table below, no team in the nation is as undervalued by ESPN's panel as Virginia. (The final column is simply the % of ESPN picks divided by the team's 538 odds of a Final Four. It's relatively simplistic, but numbers below 1 imply that ESPN undervalues the team, numbers above 1 mean they overvalue it, and close to 1 mean they are about right.)

2016 NCAA Final Four Predictions: ESPN Picks vs. 538

Virginia is the most under-picked team compared to FiveThirtyEight's model, followed by Villanova; Kentucky and Michigan state are the most over-valued.

So, what's going on here? A few thoughts:

While any individual pick of Michigan State is more than reasonable, there seems to be some "groupthink" at work. Michigan State has conformed into such a consensus pick that it's hard for anyone to break the mold.

The Spartans have a variety of strengths that even a diverse panel can point to. For those who love the "eye test," Michigan State's strong finish and Big Ten title make them a good pick. For the more analytically minded, the Spartans do have the slightly higher odds, as shown on the table above.

Finally, I would postulate that if UVA was a #2 seed and Michigan State the #1, more would be inclined to pick the underdog. Nobody likes picking chalk, and considering the strength of Kansas and UNC atop their regions, this would be the obvious place to go more "contrarian"...even if the contrarian pick is actually the one everyone else has.