- Jordan Brenner, ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
Your eyes aren't deceiving you. It's only October and college basketball hasn't even started. Regardless, we're already writing about potential NCAA tournament Giant Killers.
Over the years, we've learned plenty of lessons about how a Giant Killer is built. For example, a team that plays a high-risk, high-reward style -- which maximizes its possessions through areas such as 3-point shooting, turnovers and offensive rebounds -- tends to have a better chance of pulling off a March shocker. It figures, then, that teams that had a high Giant Killer rating last season should again put themselves in position to knock off the big boys this season, assuming they feature the same scheme and similar personnel.
And though you are probably familiar with our definitions and methodology, chances are that you haven't met this year's top underdogs. So allow us to introduce five candidates that may become this season's Cinderella teams and cause upsets in the 2013 NCAA tournament.
Be sure to study up on these teams and keep an eye on them early this season when they challenge power teams outside of their conferences. Chances are that you'll learn a few other lessons that could matter in March.
When last we saw the Bruins, they were still searching for a stop in a 15-point tourney loss to Georgetown. In the process, they made our model look foolish for the second straight year, after it assigned them a 29.6 percent chance of pulling off the upset.
So why are we still high on coach Rick Byrd's squad?
Well, Belmont consistently displays all of the hallmarks of a top-notch Giant Killer, even if it hasn't delivered a fatal blow yet. The Bruins are heavily reliant on 3-pointers and efficient from that range, win both the turnover and offensive rebounding battles by healthy margins and pressure the ball well on defense. Normally, the loss of three key players (Drew Hanlen, Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth) would be cause for concern, but Belmont returns six others who averaged double-digit minutes, including point guard Kerron Johnson, the team's key cog. The Bruins will be tested more in the Ohio Valley Conference than in the Atlantic Sun; however, if they find their way back into the NCAA tourney for a third straight season, they should be more battle-tested. Perhaps that will get them over the hump.
Key games: Stanford (Nov. 18); VCU (Dec. 1); Kansas (Dec. 15)
Davidson's biggest problem might be its inability to qualify as a Giant Killer. This year's squad has Top-25 potential, thanks to the return of all five starters and the top eight scorers following a 25-8 season. The model gave the Wildcats a legit shot (29.1 percent) to topple Louisville last season, and they gave the Final Four-bound Cardinals all they could handle before losing 69-62.
There's plenty to like about Davidson this season, starting with the Southern Conference's Preseason Player of the Year, forward De'Mon Brooks (15.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Inside-outside threat Jake Cohen (6-foot-10) and guard Nik Cochran are also preseason first-team all-conference picks, but individuals don't move our model's needle. However, Davidson's efficiency does: The Wildcats averaged 110.4 points per 100 possessions last season, rarely turned it over (17.1 percent of possessions) and kept foes off the offensive glass. With another year of experience, Davidson should be even better.
Key games: New Mexico (Nov. 12); Vanderbilt (Nov. 22 in the Old Spice Classic); Duke (Jan. 2)
This squad had all of the hallmarks of a potential Giant Killer last season. The Blue Raiders were efficient and effective in compiling a 14-2 conference record and the top seed in the Sun Belt tournament, only to suffer a shocking loss to Arkansas State in the quarterfinals. The Blue Raiders did go on to beat Marshall and Tennessee in the NIT before losing to Minnesota. This might be the season that Middle Tennessee finally gets to showcase its talent on the big stage.
Only one starter is gone, although he's a key loss -- 6-9 LaRon Dendy led the team in scoring and rebounding. But Middle Tennessee, which beat UCLA by 20, Mississippi by 12 and Belmont by three points last season, has plenty of reasons for optimism. Eight of the team's top nine scorers return. The Blue Raiders were adept at forcing turnovers (22.3 percent of possessions) and grabbing offensive boards (34.8 percent) a season ago, leading to a significant advantage in possessions. And Marcos Knight, a 6-2 guard, is just the type of all-around threat who shines in Giant Killer games. However, his one weakness is the same one that could hold Middle Tennessee down: The Blue Raiders simply don't launch enough 3-pointers (19.6 percent of their points, 330th in the country), even though they shoot it well (36.6 percent).
If MTSU can find its range, and junior college transfers Trantell Knight (Marcos' brother) and Neiko Hunter provide the team with more depth and versatility, this season's squad should be even more dangerous.
Key games: Florida (Nov. 18); Ole Miss (Dec. 8); Vanderbilt (Dec. 21)
The Billikens were a stat geek's dream team last season, ranking as high as 14th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings. Apparently that wasn't good enough for the selection committee, which awarded them a No. 9 seed. Regardless, they promptly beat Memphis and took top-seeded Michigan State to the wire. Our model gave Saint Louis a 22.9 percent chance of pulling off that upset, and the Billikens had every opportunity to steal that game before losing 65-61.
Granted, Saint Louis will be without coach Rick Majerus, who is taking a health-related leave of absence. But seven of the team's top nine players return, and what they do in concert with one another, especially on defense, is extremely impressive. The Billikens ranked 10th in the country in defensive efficiency last season, and that wasn't built on any single strength. Not only did they force turnovers at a high rate (23 percent of possessions), they also cleaned up the defensive glass -- those two areas are usually a trade-off for most teams. Saint Louis locked down teams both outside the arc (31.6 percent 3-point shooting) and inside (44.4 percent from 2-point range). And their offensive prowess was cloaked by a plodding pace; the Billikens were 36th in the nation in offensive efficiency.
Yes, leading scorer Brian Conklin (13.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) will be missed and the Billikens will be without point guard Kwamain Mitchell indefinitely after he had surgery to fix a fracture in his left foot. Luckily, they have point guard Keith Carter, a highly touted freshmen who not only will hold the fort until Mitchell returns, but gives St. Louis a different look playing alongside the veteran. In other words, Saint Louis should be every bit as tough again this season.
Key games: Texas A&M and Kansas or Washington State (Nov. 19-20, CBE Hall of Fame Classic); Washington (Nov. 28)
Yep, it's these guys again. We have marveled at Shaka Smart's innate understanding of Giant Killer philosophy, and how he has molded his
game plan to emphasize different Giant Killer characteristics against different opponents. The transition from VCU's 2011 Final Four run to last season's upset of Wichita State (and near-toppling of Indiana) was remarkable, especially given the turnover in personnel. Now the Rams head to the Atlantic 10, where they will face stiffer competition but will go to battle with plenty of returning talent.
In fact, no player may represent his team's style better than guard Briante Weber. As a freshman, he led the nation in steal percentage and, not coincidentally, VCU was better than everyone else in the country at forcing turnovers (27.3 percent of possessions). You can count on VCU to apply as much pressure as ever this season. And without the departed Bradford Burgess, Weber could see even more time. He'll compete for minutes with four returning starters -- a group that also helped VCU score 39.2 percent of its points from 3-point range (another recipe for Giant Killer success).
And considering that last season's squad has an additional year of experience and that its returners will be joined by a top-100 recruit in 6-3 guard Melvin Johnson, one thing is clear: VCU will be back in the NCAA tourney.
Key games: Wichita State (Nov. 13); Memphis and Duke or Minnesota (Nov. 22-24, Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament); Alabama (Dec. 15)
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