The most likely teams to pull upsets
March, 5, 2012
By Peter Keating | ESPN Insider
Paul Abell/US PresswireThe Belmont Bruins are the first strong Giant Killer in the field. But are they the best?We have briefed you on our forensic methods, and we have whetted your appetite for the blood of Goliaths. Now it's time to break out the spreadsheets and see which teams actually rate as the likeliest Davids in this year's NCAA field.
Here are the top 10 potential Giant Killers, rated on a scale from 0 to 100 by our 2012 statistical model. These are the highest scores among all eligible teams, whether they are already in the NCAA tournament, working their way through conference championships or awaiting word about their bids. We will get to actual head-to-head odds once we know tournament seedings. Also, this is a lot more detail than we're going to go into for Giants. You probably know a thing or seven about Syracuse and Kentucky already. This is your chance to keep diving into what could make less famous teams Killer material -- and to figure out which schools to root for in the week leading up to Selection Sunday.
Saint Louis Billikens (38.4): The Billikens stand astride the widest fault line in college hoops analytics today. Many bracektologists, reflecting the thinking of the NCAA and mainstream media types, just can't see a second-place team in a mid-major conference as elite, and have Saint Louis pegged as something like a 9- or 10-seed, while advanced metrics view Rick Majerus' squad as one of the best teams in the country. (The BPI ranks SLU 12th in the nation.) That mismatch would offer a worthwhile value play even if Saint Louis weren't built like a Killer, but it is. The Billikens are extraordinarily efficient on the defensive end, holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of just 44.2 percent. They shoot 37.1 percent on 3-pointers, and they turn the ball over on just 17.9 percent of possessions. Crawl, keep the ball, let the bombs fall: That's a tasty recipe for baking upsets.
Their path forward: The Billikens are seeded second (behind Temple) in this week's Atlantic 10 tournament, with a bye in the first round. A win probably makes them an NCAA lock. A win or two plus a loss probably keeps them seeded low enough to be a potential Killer.
Virginia Commonwealth Rams (37.7): The Shaka Smart Experience lost three senior starters from the squad that went to the Final Four in 2011 but hasn't missed a beat in about two months. (VCU's only defeat since Jan. 8 was a one-point road loss to George Mason on Valentine's Day.) Amping up a defense that proved last season it could mix and match assignments by specific opponents and sparked by freshman Briante Weber, the Rams now lead the country in steals (16.2 percent of opponent possessions) and generating turnovers (27.3 percent), and are limiting opponents to shooting just 31.4 percent on 3-point attempts. VCU isn't shooting as well as it did last season (effective field goal percentage of just 47.6 percent, 234th in the NCAA), but with its avoidance of turnovers (only 17.6 percent of possessions) and a newfound commitment to offensive rebounding (34.4 percent of misses), it makes possessions count, generating 106.2 points per 100 possessions (81st in the country).
Their path forward: Maybe it's just us, but when it comes to bubble cases, why wouldn't you want to favor mid-majors with coaches such as Smart who have demonstrated Cinderella performance, not to mention incredibly dynamic but little-known players such as Weber? South Florida is ranked nine spots below the Rams in the BPI (65th versus 56th). Do we really need to see the Bulls, who rank 302nd in the country in turnover percentage and who, despite their height, couldn't stop my mother from blocking their shots, instead of the Rams? Unfortunately, wide swaths of the basketball-loving population do not consider this a rhetorical question. Which makes Monday night's Colonial tournament final between VCU and Drexel the most important game of the week for Giant Killers. The Dragons might make the Big Dance no matter what happens, but the Rams probably need a win to "steal" a bid.
AP Photo/Luis M. AlvarezShaka Smart is one win away from getting back to the NCAA tournament.