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Upset odds for Sunday's games

3/17/2012

When last we left you, we were analyzing a historic win by Norfolk State, rushing to publish the blog entry and planning to settle in for a tranquil night of hoops after a long week of work.

Oops.

First, Norfolk State found a companion in Lehigh. Then our model took a bow when it nailed Ohio over Michigan. Just when we were prepping to see how the Bobcats might match up with Temple, South Florida found its offense and set up a 12 vs. 13 battle, meaning it has no GK significance. Memphis and Saint Louis flip-flopped for the right to wage a GK war with Michigan State. And another comeback left Xavier as a Giant in the next round.

Madness, indeed.

You can read yesterday's blog by clicking here for a preview of Norfolk State and Florida, while we look ahead to three other GK games on Sunday's slate -- and how they came to be.

The 15th-seeded Lehigh Mountain Hawks (Giant Killer rating of less than 2 on a 100-point scale) vs. the No. 10 Xavier Musketeers (40.5 vulnerability rating)

Upset chance: 10.1 percent

Is there such a thing as the GK Jinx? Earlier in the week, we wrote, "We were all set to write about how Duke was more vulnerable than we've seen in ages (its rating is usually close to zero). Then the Blue Devils drew Lehigh. And while we love C.J. McCollum and his knack for both scoring and swiping the ball, Lehigh just doesn't fit the GK profile."

If that didn't tempt fate enough, we went on to say, "Oh, then there's this little fact: In Coach K's tenure at Duke, the team has lost just one game to a Giant Killer (VCU in a 6-11 game in 2007). That's it. In fact, the Blue Devils have lost only one other time to a double-digit seed, but that was a power-conference team (Boston College) all the way back in 1985."

Well, that stat is history -- and so is Duke. How did a game with a 2.9 percent upset chance turn into one of the most shocking results in tourney history? Through non-traditional GK tactics. The Mountain Hawks didn't crash the offensive boards or nail tons of treys, nor did they force a bundle of turnovers. The one area where they limited the battle of possessions was against Duke's 3-point shooters, holding the Blue Devils to 6-of-26 shooting from behind the arc.

But the big difference, which is truly unusual for a Giant Killer, came at the free throw line. Lehigh scored a high percentage of its points (22.1) from the stripe during the season, but that rarely translates against a Giant. But on Friday night, the Mountain Hawks shot a staggering 37 free throws, making 25. The Blue Devils attempted only 23.

The thing is, we're still not sure the model pegged Lehigh particularly wrong as a less-than-dangerous Killer, but it underrated Duke's vulnerability. The Blue Devils' 11.8 rating was high by their standards but didn't account for Ryan Kelly's injury. If we'd done the same analysis we used to examine Syracuse without Fab Melo, we're willing to bet Duke would've been in much worse shape in our projection.

Now Lehigh turns around to face Xavier, which somehow finds itself in the position of being a Giant as a 10-seed. And that's not a great role for the Musketeers, who sport a dangerously high 40.5 vulnerability rating. Like safe Giants, their defense is strong both inside and outside the arc, they take care of the ball on offense and crash the boards on D. But they don't do anything to maximize possessions through turnovers, offensive rebounds and 3-pointers, and they score too many of their points from the free throw line.

Lehigh has plenty to celebrate after an incredible victory, and with an even more vulnerable foe waiting for them, doubling down isn't out of the question.

The No. 9 Saint Louis Billikens (31.7) vs. the No. 1 Michigan State Spartans (28.6)

Upset chance: 22.9 percent

Saint Louis took the battle royale of tempo-free stats Friday night. Memphis and the Billikens have been highly ranked on kenpom.com all season, but it was the methodical Billikens who advanced. Now they'll face Michigan State, and they're armed and dangerous.

The Magical Majeri are absolute stalwarts in the turnover battle, giving it up just 18.1 percent of the time (50th in the country), while forcing mistakes on 23.1 percent of possessions (36th). That coincides with the Spartans' greatest weaknesses, as they're at 19.7 percent (140th) and 19.7 (194th), respectively. (Yes, Michigan State actually has the same turnover percentage on offense and defense.)

Saint Louis also knocks down 36.9 percent of its 3-pointers and holds teams to a 28.6 offensive rebounding rate, meaning there's a great showdown looming, because Michigan State excels in both areas (opponents shoot just 29.7 percent from downtown and Sparty grabs offensive boards 37.2 percent of the time). Those factors will likely determine the outcome of the game. But given Saint Louis' edge in the turnover battle and its overall efficient D (87.9 points per 100 possessions, 10th in the country), the Billikens should be in this one to the final buzzer.

The No. 8 Creighton Bluejays (6.5) vs. the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (3.7)

Upset chance: 2.7 percent

While everyone inhales the Harrison Barnes/Doug McDermott high school reunion storyline over the next two days, get a whiff of this: According to our model, Creighton has only a tiny chance of taking out the Tar Heels. This feels surprising, because the Bluejays have been highly regarded for much of the season. But they're a better team than Killer.

Despite an impressive offense that led the country in effective field goal percentage, Creighton's defense is putrid. The Bluejays saw teams shoot 35.8 percent from 3-point range and 47.5 percent from inside, while forcing turnovers on only 15.5 percent of possessions. Only Colgate and William & Mary had less disruptive defenses this season.

Good luck trying to outscore the Tar Heels then. They are the safest Giant in the field, according to our model, and while they don't shoot as well as you'd expect, their incredibly high offensive rebound rate (40.1 percent, eighth in the country) and low turnover rate (16.1 percent, eight as well) makes the Heels' offense efficient. And they're a far better defensive club than they receive credit for being, ranking 12th in efficiency.

Of course, if John Henson isn't fit to go, that would change the equation a bit -- particularly on defense. But with him in the lineup, our model sees no reason to expect an upset.