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Giant Killers: Likeliest first-round upsets

3/13/2011

Selection Sunday resurrected a couple of Giant Killers and set up a series of early NCAA matchups with exciting potential for deep underdogs. Here's how it went down and a first look at the top five (or six) bets for early upsets in the NCAA tournament, according to our deadly accurate projections.

In the 72 hours since we reintroduced you to Giant Killers, two trends have had us worried here at GK Central:

For one, upsets had roiled mid-major and small-conference championship tournaments, with mostly unhappy results. For another, many of the teams our statistical model says have the best shot at being Giant Killers seemed headed for deadly No. 8 or No. 9 seeds -- thus becoming a part of games in the round of 64 that wouldn't count as Giant Killings and second-round games against one of the top four teams in the country.

Turns out we shouldn't have been quite so worried. The NCAA gave at-large bids to UAB, the regular-season champion of Conference USA, and Virginia Commonwealth, another team whose conference run ended shy of a tournament championship. Each will have to win a first-round game to help whittle the field from 68 teams to 64, but both have good Giant Killing potential, and hey, at least they weren't left behind. Also, with so many new teams flowing into the field this past weekend, a few low-seeded Killers got bumped up, notably Morehead State, which picked up a No. 13 seed.

As for top potential Killers among the mid-majors, they ended up scattered all over the place. Saint Mary's didn't get an invitation at all. UNLV is an 8-seed in the Southwest and George Mason an 8-seed in the East, as we feared. But Old Dominion was seeded into the Southeast at No. 9, setting up the possibility of an intriguing second-round matchup against Pittsburgh. And Utah State dropped to a 12-seed -- not so much fun for the Aggies, but fun for us as we get to watch them as potential Giant Killers from the start of the tournament.

A few other notes: Through no fault of their own -- basically because Memphis won the C-USA tournament and made the NCAA as a 12-seed -- a few Killers were bumped down a seed, most notably Belmont, a 13-seed that now has to face Wisconsin in the first round. A few vulnerable Giants were very fortunate Sunday, especially Florida and UCLA, who won't face tough Killers in the lower half of the Southeast region, where they are seeded No. 2 and No. 7, respectively. And GK fan-fave Oakland (13-seed in the West) must take on an extraordinarily tough opponent: Texas. The Longhorns have the lowest vulnerability score of any Giant facing a Killer seeded No. 14 or higher.

But let's get to some early predictions. We'll offer details on every David versus Goliath contest starting Monday. But it's already clear that Sunday night's seedings have created separation between a group of matchups in which underdogs have a real chance and a group of more fanciful bets. There are six really worth looking at. And since UAB and VCU each have to win a first-round game to get the field to 64 teams, we'll call them half a Giant Killer each, and present you with both among our top five picks for first-round upsets:

Richmond Spiders vs. Vanderbilt Commodores

(No. 12 vs. No. 5 in the Southwest)

PREDICTED CHANCE OF UPSET: 51.7 percent

Utah State Aggies vs. Kansas State Wildcats

(No. 12 vs. No. 5 in the Southeast)

PREDICTED CHANCE OF UPSET: 40.2 percent

Belmont Bruins vs. Wisconsin Badgers

(No. 13 vs. No. 4 in the Southeast)

PREDICTED CHANCE OF UPSET: 30.4 percent

Memphis Tigers vs. Arizona Wildcats

(No. 12 vs. No. 5 in the West)

PREDICTED CHANCE OF UPSET: 27.9 percent

Virginia Commonwealth Rams vs. Georgetown Hoyas

(No. 11 vs. No. 6 in the Southwest)

PREDICTED CHANCE OF UPSET: 26.8 percent

UAB Blazers vs. West Virginia Mountaineers

(No. 12 vs. No. 5 in the East)

PREDICTED CHANCE OF UPSET: 22.9 percent

Stay tuned!