Karl Cochran, Glenn Robinson IIIAP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsKarl Cochran and Wofford (shown here in last year's NCAA tournament) are worth watching.
Here’s what we have found by combing through potential Giant Killers this year: In 2015, there are very few teams likely to earn low seeds with genuinely outstanding Killer traits, like Tennessee last season, Minnesota in 2013 or VCU in 2011. But there’s an unusually large group with a puncher’s chance -- say, 5 percent to 15 percent -- to knock out a Giant. Basically, these teams aren’t good enough to be 11- or 12-seeds, but would make very interesting 15s or 16s.

So this time around, we are extending our analysis of deep sleepers. On Wednesday, we looked at the top 10 mid-major conferences by Killer candidates, and Friday we examine the next 10, with a couple of bonus comments to cover just about the entire country.
Stephen F. Austin LumberjacksChristopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsWill this NCAA tournament scene repeat itself for Brad Underwood and Stephen F. Austin?
With conference tournaments getting underway, we have a very specific focus here at GK Central: We’re rooting for the teams that can go on to inflict maximum damage as Giant Killers in NCAA brackets later this month. So here’s a rundown of the mid-majors with the best Cinderella candidates, in order of their upset potential.

We have included three conferences that will probably send Giants to the Big Dance, but where Killers could still force their way into the field with conference-tournament runs. We’ll get to deeper underdogs (who could turn into surprisingly strong 15- and 16-seeds) on Friday. And we will cover conferences that could send both Giants and Killers (such as the American Athletic Conference and Atlantic 10) as their tournaments evolve. For the moment, if you like upsets, get to know these teams -- and get behind them as autobids.


Southland Conference



Best Killer: Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (Giant Killer rating: 31.7, on a scale of zero to 100)

Key stats: Forcing turnovers on 24.9 percent of opponent possessions (ranking seventh in the NCAA); offensive rebounds on 37.7 percent of missed shots (ranking 13th); effective field goal percentage of 56 percent (ranking 10th)

Our take: We’ll keep this brief, because we have already made the case for Stephen F. Austin here. The Lumberjacks have played better than last season, and against a tougher schedule, to the point where they would be a legitimate at-large NCAA tournament team. And their basic strength is amped substantially (7.7 points per 100 possessions) by their outstanding Killer characteristics, including improved 3-point shooting. Matchups always matter, but SFA has a chance to be the next VCU.

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Inline: Playbook Wooden 02George Frey/Getty ImagesCan Tyler Haws lift the BYU Cougars to the NCAA tourney?
It’s Bracket Builder week at ESPN, meaning teams are putting final touches on their tourney résumés, while Joe Lunardi is locked in a dungeon somewhere, trying to make sense of it all. Well, we here at GK Central are nothing if not helpful, so we’re offering Joe -- and you, dear readers -- our own take on the bubble.

What if we were to ditch comparative tools like quality road wins or schedule strength and focus, instead, on one simple idea: Which teams have the best chance at upsetting a high seed? That’s what our model is for, and we set it loose on Lunardi’s bubble teams. Below, we’ve rearranged his 16 teams on the fringe of the tourney, sorting them into his typical categories (from “Last Four Byes” to “Next Four Out”) by virtue of our model’s Giant Killer rating. It certainly leads to a different look -- and a more entertaining opening round.

Last Four Byes



BYU Cougars (23.5 Giant Killer Rating on a 100-point scale.)

The Cougars dug themselves a serious hole early in conference play, and if they don’t make the tourney, they can blame it on Pepperdine, which swept their season series. But if you like upsets, you should root for BYU to find its way into the bracket, because the Cougars are dangerous.

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Bob Huggins, Jonathan Holton, Devin Williams, Jaysean PaigeAP Photo/Mike StoneBob Huggins and West Virginia have been one of the nation's tougher teams to figure out.
From a conventional standpoint, you could say West Virginia is having a nice bounce-back season. After missing the NCAA tournament for two straight years, Bob Huggins decided to turn up the defensive pressure, and on Monday, the Mountaineers upset Kansas for their 20th win.

Actually, something much more exciting is brewing in Morgantown: West Virginia has improved drastically in precisely the statistical categories that are most important in a Giant Killer matchup.

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Five Giant Killers to watch 

February, 12, 2015
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Stephen F. Austin LumberjacksChristopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsThe Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks were a Giant Killer last season, and are dangerous again.
For once in your life, don’t wait until the last minute. Don’t put off the inevitable. Don’t cram. Instead of spending the days after Selection Sunday feverishly trying to learn all you can about small schools whose mere existence might surprise you, start boning up now. There are more games televised than ever before, more data readily available and more Giant Killers, baby.

For the next month, we’ll guide you by the hand through the wilderness of mid-major hoops so that by the time the bracket is set, you can break down the differences between St. Francis (N.Y.) and St. Francis (Pa.).

To start your training, we offer up five of the top potential Giant Killers currently hiding outside of the power conferences. As always, their GK Rating is expressed on a 100-point scale representing their likelihood of upsetting an average Giant.

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Rondae Hollis-JeffersonColin Prenger/J and L Photography/Getty Images Offensive rebounding could be the Wildcats' ultimate downfall.
Read their tea leaves correctly, or at least their tempo-free statistics, and you can divine not only which top-notch teams deserve NCAA tournament berths but also which squads are likely to advance or trip in March. That’s the promise of our Giant Killers project. For 10 years, we have refined a statistical model to identify traits common to deep underdogs that pull off big tournament upsets and to heavy favorites that topple. And we can already glean which Giants are shaping up as vulnerable.

For details about how our annual metrics-based forecast works, you can check this out. But here are the definitions you need to get started: A Giant is a team that plays an NCAA tournament opponent seeded at least five spots lower in any round; a Giant Killer is a team that beats a Giant; and a team’s Giant Rating is our estimate of its percentage chance of defeating an average Killer, based on data from 2007 to 2014. Over the years, we have found that successful Killers tend to play high-risk, high-reward styles, increasing the variability of their scoring. Giants need to snuff out opponents’ chance-taking to ward them off.

So who could make it to the Big Dance only to be upstaged by Cinderella? Without further ado, five Giants whose slips are showing.

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Aaron Harrison, Josh GasserKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsAaron Harrison's clutch shooting earned his team a title shot.
It's time for one of our greatest annual traditions: naming the fifth annual Donell and Ronell Taylor All-Giant Killers Team.

As loyal readers will surely remember, the Taylor twins played for UAB a decade ago, when the Blazers became the first Killers to slay Giants in back-to-back seasons. In 2004, UAB, a 9-seed, upset top-seeded Kentucky, and then returned to take down LSU in an 11-6 matchup in 2005. Those Blazers out-stole their opponents by an incredible margin of almost two to one, and you can see them here, where a leaping Ronnell forced a turnover and heaved a nearly telepathic, two-handed, 60-foot pass over the back of his head to Donnell. In honor of their Killertastic play, we named the All-GK Team after the Taylors in 2011.

With so many players stepping up at key moments in upsets this year, we are naming first- and second-team All-GK squads. As always, we have tried to cover all the schools involved. And while All-GK teams are usually heavy on guards -- Omar Samhans are few and far between -- we've tried to stock various positions, too.

First Team

SG Aaron Harrison, Kentucky: When you hit game-winning bombs against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in three straight games, you not only make the All-GK team, you get to be captain.

PG Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: You may have heard a little about him by now. He's shooting 47.1 percent on 3s (16-for-34) in the tournament.

SG Desmond Haymon, Stephen F. Austin: "I shot it with confidence, [JeQuan] Lewis closed on me kind of hard, and I stayed there with my follow-through and he knocked me down." That's how Haymon described the 3-point shot that turned into a game-tying four-point play against VCU.

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Shabazz NapierKevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsCan Shabazz Napier and the Huskies pull off a second Giant Killing?
After two weeks, 60 games and 11 Giant Killer upsets, one thing is clear: If our model had a head, it would have exploded by now. And that’s before even getting to a Final Four that features not one but two GK matchups. A Final Four with two different possibilities for a championship game with GK implications. A Final Four in which those Giant Killing teams are somehow named Connecticut and Kentucky.

Even by March’s typically zany standards, this has been a wild ride. And it’s not over yet. So our peerless team of Furman professors dove into their spreadsheets once more, mixed in the latest tourney results and whipped up a fresh new batch of numbers in anticipation of Saturday night’s games in Dallas ... errr ... North Texas. Final Four games aren’t typically evaluated through a Giant Killers prism, but as we’ve already explained, this is far from a typical tourney. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers and see if Kentucky and Connecticut can keep their title drives alive.

Can Kentucky take down Wisconsin?

Not surprisingly, Kentucky has significantly better odds than UConn does to advance to the national championship game.

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James YoungScott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsJames Young (14.1 points per game) has led Kentucky to within one game of the Final Four.
In a competition as steeped in plot twists as the NCAA tournament, it is only fitting that the one regional final with Giant Killer implications features the preseason No. 1 team. As the Killer.

The Kentucky Wildcats have adapted comfortably to an unfamiliar role, already knocking off the top-seeded Wichita State Shockers before defeating the Louisville Cardinals in a non-GK game that still resonates as an impressive upset. Now, the Wildcats must slay one more power program to reach the Final Four. And, not surprisingly, our esteemed statistical model gives them an excellent shot at beating the Michigan Wolverines.

The official odds for Kentucky are 42.8 percent, which is slightly better than the 42.5 percent chance it had to beat Wichita State. And that number might even slightly underestimate the Wildcats’ upset potential.

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MillerRich Graessle/Icon SMIArchie Miller and the Flyers face a formidable foe in the Gators.
The Flyers' lopsided Sweet 16 win shouldn't be a surprise. Strange but true: The world should have expected Dayton -- after pulling off two big tournament upsets by a total of three points -- to have a much easier time making the Elite Eight. The reason, of course, is that Stanford (18.0 points per 100 possessions better than an average NCAA team, according to our basic power rankings) was a considerably weaker opponent than either Syracuse (22.4) or Ohio State (25.1). Guess what happened ...

Thursday's game wasn't an actual Giant-Killer matchup because of the seedings involved (the GK model requires a seed-differential of five or more) but it felt utterly like a classic Goliath-thwacking. The Flyers upended and then demolished the Cardinal. Now, can they get past the Gators and into the Final Four?

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Jarnell StokesBob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsJarnell Stokes has averaged 20 points and 15 rebounds in three NCAA tourney games for the Vols.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Tennessee might be sitting in the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed, but truth be told, that number never represented the Volunteers’ true ability.

Heading into the tournament, our statistical model pegged the Vols as the nation’s 22nd-best team. KenPom.com said Tennessee ranked 11th nationally. So when the Vols knocked off a sixth-seeded UMass squad that was as overseeded as they were underseeded and followed that up by dispatching Mercer, they weren’t shocking the world. They were playing to form.

Now, as the Vols prepare to face Michigan on Friday night, it’s evident beyond the computers that Tennessee is for real. With one Giant already brought low, can Tennessee add another notch to its belt?

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Gregg Marshall and Fred VanVleet Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY SportsGregg Marshall, Fred VanVleet and Wichita State face a tough test against Kentucky.
Just typing the words feels strange. Wichita State will face Kentucky in a No. 1 verus No. 8 matchup Sunday. And Wichita State is the Giant. Kentucky is the Killer.

When we started forecasting upsets in 2006 using our statistical model, the purpose was to project the results of matchups just like this one. Only the roles were usually reversed. So nothing quite speaks to the changing landscape of college basketball like the situation we find ourselves in now, as we crunch numbers trying to determine whether Kentucky has the chops to upset the Shockers.

The way our model sees things, the Wildcats indeed have a shot at a bracket-breaking win. But just how strong? That part is surprising.

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Mercer CelebrationRob Kinnan/USA TODAY SportsThe Bears were better than anyone thought they could be in beating Duke.
This is a game our statistical model didn't see coming -- but maybe it should have. And that has implications for Mercer's odds to advance into the Sweet 16 when it meets GK darling Tennessee.

Round of 32 upset odds: It's complicated ... see below.

How they beat the Blue Devils: Let's start with the opponent. Duke had trouble getting stops all season, and the Blue Devils were particularly vulnerable to runs when their own 3-pointers weren't falling and they didn't adjust to working the ball inside. Duke's November game against Vermont, where the Blue Devils surrendered 75.6 percent on 2-point attempts and blew an eight-point halftime lead, offered a blueprint for an upstart opponent (though Duke won that game 91-90), and Mercer followed it perfectly.

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North Dakota StateKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNorth Dakota State's upset over Oklahoma was most peculiar.
Can the North Dakota State Bison do it again?

As unlikely as North Dakota State's win over the Oklahoma Sooners appeared -- both in scope and style -- it sure didn't look like a fluke. But what worked against Oklahoma certainly wouldn't translate against every other Giant. So, as the Bison eye a trip to the Sweet 16, the question is whether San Diego State will fall prey to similar tactics.

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Wesley Saunders, Sean KilpatrickStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesDon't write off Wesley Saunders and the Crimson, even against Michigan State.
With a pair of upsets in the books, the Giant Killers team looks ahead to assess the likelihood the Harvard Crimson and Dayton Flyers can advance to the Sweet 16. Is the Syracuse Orange actually a better matchup for Dayton than OSU was? And can the Crimson survive a date with the Michigan State Spartans? Despite Tom Izzo's squad's position on the short list of title favorites, the Giant Killers sees Harvard with a 1-in-4 shot to topple Michigan State.

Why Crimson can keep rolling

Round of 32 upset odds: 24.0 percent

How they beat the Bearcats: We hate to say we told you so, but ... Aw, who are we trying to kid? We told you so! Here at GK Central, we thought the key to the Cincinnati-Harvard matchup would be whether the Ivy Leaguers would recognize the need to take more risks against top-flight competition, change their style and shoot more 3s. Based on our study of their previous games against nonconference opponents, we expected they would, writing, "This could be the week the chameleon turns crimson." And they did: The Crimson took seven of their first 15 shots from downtown, and 38.6 percent for the game (17-of-44) -- way up from their regular-season proportion of 28.2 percent, which ranked just 287th in the country. They hit on 35.3 percent of those shots, and, just as important, because the Bearcats couldn't help off sharpshooter Laurent Rivard, driving lanes opened up for the Crimson.

Can they do it again?: Harvard didn't even play particularly well in this game. The Crimson committed 12 turnovers, grabbed just nine offensive rebounds against a Cincinnati team that doesn't hit the defensive glass and hit only 17 of 28 free throws (60.7 percent). That is one reason they have a stronger chance than you would probably expect against Michigan State, a team many are picking to win the national championship.

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