- Jordan Brenner, ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
Attention! Attention, please! Before we bring you the 2013-14 season's inaugural Giant Killer rankings, we must first make two very important announcements.
First, after seven years here at GK Central, we have finally changed the foundation of our project in a major way. In the past, we have exempted schools from the six traditional power conferences, plus certain other top programs (like Gonzaga and Butler) from GK status. But due to the blurring lines between conferences -- a consequence of realignment and parity -- those exemptions no longer exist. From now on, any team can be a Giant Killer, provided it beats a tourney foe seeded at least five spots better. That's right, this season we will rank Kentucky and North Carolina on the same list as Bucknell and Davidson. Embrace it, baby. There will be no more arbitrary exceptions, and as a result there will be more help for more of your bracket.
That latter factor will also be enhanced thanks to the efforts of Insider contributor Neil Paine, who took the lead in building a more advanced, deeper model. The result is a system of projecting upsets that we couldn't have dreamed possible back in 2006, when we hitched our wagon to George Mason and, admittedly, got a little lucky. Now, not only do we have more accurate ratings for both Giant Killers and Vulnerable Giants, we also have a system that can pit two teams against each other and predict the likelihood of an upset. We can't wait to break out that new toy in March.
For now, though, we'll give you a first look at 10 teams from outside the power conferences you should be getting to know over the next three weeks. While the likes of Missouri, Illinois, Cincinnati and Iowa State have ratings high enough to qualify, they could end up seeded high enough to be Giants or fall out of the tournament entirely on Selection Sunday. Keep those teams in your thoughts going forward, though.
Check out our ranking of the 10 highest-rated Giant Killers from outside the power conferences. These are the teams that our model projects as being most likely to be able to pull off upsets in the 2013 NCAA tournament.
(Note: You can see several of these teams in action during ESPN's BracketBusters games this weekend.)
GK rating: 83.6
Chew on this for a moment. VCU's 83.6 rating means that 83.6 percent of the time, the Rams will beat a generic Giant (defined by our model as the average of all Giants since 2007).
Think about that. Not only is a VCU win over an average Giant not an upset, it is to be expected this season. Our model computed GK ratings for every team in the country and only Florida (89.2) came out better. In other words, VCU is more suited to be a Giant Killer than if Indiana, Miami, Michigan State or any other top-ranked team ended up with, say, an 11-seed. That's staggering.
How do we explain it? Well, there is an incredibly strong link between steals and GK success, and no one in the country swipes the ball better than the Rams do. They come up with 7.6 more steals per 100 possessions (weighted for strength of schedule, as all further references will be) than the average Division I team. The Rams, as usual, hoist up a ton of 3-pointers (36.9 percent of their attempts), another GK indicator. And this season they have added offensive rebounding to the mix, a new wrinkle for Shaka Smart that has them grabbing 9.3 more offensive boards than the average team per 100 possessions, 12th in the country.
VCU, in other words, is almost like some fictional Giant Killing machine dreamt up by our model. The only thing stopping the Rams from wreaking more of their signature "Havoc" this March could be their seeding. Joe Lunardi has them as a 7-seed right now, which could make them a formidable Round of 32 threat.
GK rating: 59.0
Perhaps the greatest testament to VCU's résumé is the vast margin between the Rams and the second-place Golden Eagles. But don't let that fact obscure Southern Miss' potential. The Golden Eagles might as well have bathed in our secret sauce. They do an even better job than VCU on the offensive glass (plus-11 per 100 possessions) and steal the ball at the third-highest rate in the country.
Southern Miss also plays at an average pace. One of our model's new revelations is that slower is better, which makes sense: A game with more possessions should favor the better team, just as a seven-game series would lead to fewer upsets. The Golden Eagles still have a lot of work to do to make the tourney -- Lunardi has them in his "next four out" -- but if they get there, they could stick around longer than expected.
GK rating: 49.1
The Gaels are a perennial favorite of our model, so it's no surprise to see them back in the mix. Currently a 12-seed in Lunardi's latest bracket, they have the type of upset ability that could land them in the Sweet 16.
Our model loves the Gaels' 3-point shooting, which not only occurs at a high volume (38.5 percent of their shots), but at an accurate rate (38.8 percent). They buffer that long-distance ability with surprising success on the offensive boards, grabbing their own rebounds on 36 percent of missed shots. Add in their slow-ish pace (two fewer possessions per 100 below average) and Saint Mary's could be poised for another strong tourney showing.
See them in BracketBusters: Saint Mary's hosts Creighton on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
GK rating: 47.6
There's slow and then there's Denver, which produces the second-fewest possessions per game in the country. That's not really a surprise, since the Pioneers are coached by Joe Scott, a Princeton disciple. And given the Pioneers' use of the Princeton offense, they're also extremely trey-reliant, shooting 3-pointers on 45.1 percent of their attempts, fourth in the country.
Denver does other things to win the possession war, too. The Pioneers defend the arc as aggressively as they hunt long-range shots on offense. They clean the defensive glass, somewhat making up for an offense that grabs its own misses about as often as the Pioneers appear on national TV. And most importantly, they pressure the heck out of the basketball, a stat that is obscured by their slow pace. They come up with steals on 15.1 percent of possessions, which is fourth in the country and a reason why the Pioneers have more than a shooter's chance if they make the field of 68.
See them in BracketBusters: Denver plays at Northern Iowa on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN3)
GK rating: 47.1
The Shockers are still in contention for Giant status, should they finish the season strongly. But if they end up as a GK, they will wear those clothes comfortably.
Wichita State is solid across the board. The Shockers are one of the country's better offensive rebounding teams (37.3 percent of possessions) and are even better on the defensive boards (25.3 percent, sixth in the country). The latter isn't part of the model's GK secret sauce, but it does affect Wichita State's base power rating, which is better than that of a projected No. 10 seed. Given that Wichita State is also above-average in forcing steals and attempting 3s, and also plays at a slower-than-average pace, the team has a lot of ways to beat favorites in the tourney.
See them in BracketBusters: Wichita State hosts Detroit on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
GK rating: 43.2
It wouldn't be Giant Killers without Belmont landing high in our rankings. And one of these years, the Bruins are going to finish the job. This season, they are a team of discrepancies in the eyes of our model. They play faster than average and do a poor job on the offensive glass, but they more than offset that with a 3-heavy offense (40 percent of their field-goal attempts) and by forcing tons of steals (14.1 percent of possessions, 10th in the country).
Led by Ian Clark, the Bruins don't just shoot a lot of 3s; they make them at a very high rate (38.8 percent). That's what you want to see out of a low seed trying to advance in a one-and-done format.
See them in BracketBusters: Belmont hosts Ohio on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
GK rating: 37.4
At first glance, the Titans don't seem like Giant Killers at all. They play fast (3.3 more possessions than the average team.) They only grab 0.8 more offensive rebounds per 100 possessions than the average team. And their base power rating is only 62nd in the country, so they aren't likely to be underseeded. But weighted for schedule strength, they are plus-2.0 in steals and plus-3.2 in 3PA/FGA.
And they also get to the line more than average, which is a warning sign for a Giant but good news for a Killer. For Detroit, then, it's about doing a lot of things pretty well rather than standing out in one particular category.
See them in BracketBusters: Detroit plays at Wichita State on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
GK rating: 36.9
The Bluejays continue to play their way from Giant status into GK territory. And if they're not careful, they could find themselves firmly on the bubble come Selection Sunday. They do present a compelling GK test case, though.
First, our model sees Creighton as a strong team despite its recent slide. In fact, the Bluejays basically have the same power rating as Arizona. Then, from a GK perspective, they are armed with a major weapon: 3-point shooting. The Bluejays take a whopping 7.2 more 3s per 100 shot attempts compared to the average team, and they also knock them down at a 42.6 percent clip. They'd be a much stronger GK candidate, in fact, if not for their abysmal steal rate and weakness on the offensive glass. Still, that long-distance prowess cannot be ignored.
See them in BracketBusters: Creighton plays at Saint Mary's on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
GK rating: 34.9
If our model had a jaw, it would drop at the sight of Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels' base power rating is brutal -- 120th in the country -- which helps explain why they are a long shot to make the tournament. But only three teams have a stronger "secret sauce" rating, which speaks to their special GK characteristics.
In fact, they were almost engineered to be Giant Killers. The Colonels shoot a ton of 3s -- 44 percent of possessions. Their defense is horribly inefficient, except for the fact that they steal the ball 12.5 percent of the time, which earns them more GK bonus points. They also play slower than average. Chances are, we won't even see Eastern Kentucky in the final bracket. But until that day comes, this is a team to watch.
10. Akron Zips
GK rating: 32.1
At 21-4, riding 17 straight wins, Akron may be an even better team than a Giant Killer. Our model notices that, too: A large proportion of the Zips' overall GK score comes from their power rating, rather than the secret GK sauce. That said, there are other reasons they are one of our top 10 potential Giant Killers.
Chief among them is offensive rebounding: The Zips grab 38.3 percent of their own misses. They also shoot plenty of 3s, which combined with the offensive rebounding allows them to maximize their possessions. The Zips fell to Notre Dame in the first round two seasons ago, but look better prepared this time around.
See them in BracketBusters: Akron hosts North Dakota State on Friday at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
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