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The top 10 bets for NCAA tourney upsets

3/10/2011

Without any further ado, here are the top 10 potential Giant Killers, based on our statistical model's ratings. Some already have tickets to the Big Dance, while others are still working their way through conference championships. In the latter cases, you'll know whom to root for over the next few days if you like watching NCAA tournament upsets.

Please note that these teams' actual chances for beating Giants will depend greatly (in fact, we'd say by about 50 percent) on their opponents. We'll get to head-to-head odds once we get tournament seedings. Also, we're going into more detail here with these teams than we're going to go into with the Giants. You probably know quite a bit about the BYU Cougars and North Carolina Tar Heels already. Here's your chance to begin delving into lesser-known assassins. Happy hunting!

1. Belmont Bruins (57.8 percent chance of pulling an upset)

We're trying to think of a calm, subtle, non-panic-inducing way to put this: If they get anything that even resembles a favorable first-round matchup, go bet the ranch on the Bruins. Most Giant Killers generate extra possessions by either crashing the boards inside or engaging in pesky, risky guard play on the outside, but very few have the personnel to do both. The Bruins do: they rank 13th in the NCAA in offensive rebounding (ORs on 37.9 percent of misses) and second in generating turnovers (a whopping 27.6 percent of opponent possessions). Add in the fact they can shoot from anywhere (52.4 percent on 2-point FGs, 38.1 percent on 3s), and Belmont has the third-highest GK score of any team since our data sample started in 2004.

It's true that most Giants won't lose sleep over having to face the champion of the Atlantic Sun Conference. But it's also true that Belmont scores a hefty 35.2 percent of its points from behind the arc, while its opponents are unusually reliant on free throws (25.3 percent of scoring, 22nd in the NCAA). That's a recipe for the kind of scoring pattern that lets underdogs catch better teams.

Keep a particular eye on sophomore guard Kerron Johnson. Belmont gives substantial minutes to so many players that everyone's numbers are diminished on traditional stat sheets, but Johnson leads the entire country with 6.3 steals per 100 opponent possessions. When a player carries that kind of dynamite, like Cedric Jackson of the Cleveland State Vikings did in 2009, he can blow up a Giant all by himself.

2. UNLV Rebels (50.1)

Yes, they're a Killer, not a Giant; the Runnin' Rebels' last national championship was more than 20 years ago, and they've played precisely one NCAA tournament game over the past two years. But that total should shoot upward in 2011, if our model has anything to say about things. UNLV perfectly follows the Giant Killing blueprint for teams looking to maximize their number of possessions: They protect the ball, giving up steals on just 7.4 percent of plays (15th best in the NCAA) and blocks on only 6.4 percent of 2-point shots (ninth best). And they generate turnovers on 24.5 percent of opponent possessions (12th best). In fact, the gap between turnovers gained and lost by the Rebs is a ginormous 5.7 per 100 possessions (second only to Belmont among all potential Killers).

UNLV has maintained a stifling defense all season, allowing opponents to score just 89.1 points per 100 possessions (14th best in the NCAA). But in recent weeks, the Runnin' Rebels have also seen G Tre'Von Willis, their top scorer, come back from injury, and upped the minutes played by rebounding beast Quintrell Thomas (offensive rebounds on 15.7 percent of misses). In other words, at the moment, they're playing even better than their overall numbers.

3. Old Dominion Monarchs (39.6)

The Monarchs' Giant Killing case is simple: Statistics show that piling up offensive rebounds, thereby creating more chances to score, is one of the most important things a team can do to build its odds of pulling off a March upset, and Old Dominion hits the boards better than any team in the country (offensive rebounds on 42.4 percent of misses, No. 1 in the NCAA). 2010 All-GK Team member and monster rebounding F Frank Hassell is back, fresh off using his elbows as lethal weapons against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams in the Colonial tournament. And G-F Kent Bazemore adds a different dimension, stealing the ball on 4.8 percent of opponent possessions (12th in the NCAA). This is a Killer built to hog the ball.

4. George Mason Patriots (36.2)

The numbers say the Patriots are almost exactly as good as when they went on their magical run in 2006: now, as then, George Mason is a top-30 squad with a scoring margin (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of just about 20 points per 100 possessions. But the Patriots' odds of pulling off a big upset are actually a little higher than they were five years ago, thanks largely to outstanding 3-point shooting (39.7 percent, 14th best in the country). The Patriots also do a great job protecting the ball (turnovers on just 16.7 percent of possessions, 14th in the NCAA) and generating steals (10.3 percent of opponent possessions, 98th). In other words, they've kept their basic Killer recipe and added a heaping dose of Cam Long (15 points per game, 43 percent from deep).

5. UAB Blazers (35.4)

You could never tell just from watching them play, because the Blazers crawl along at just 62.6 possessions per game (323rd in the country), but UAB's offense as well as its defense ranks in the top 20 percent of the NCAA. That's thanks to their mid- and long-range sharpshooting: UAB scores 109.2 points per 100 possessions while hardly ever getting to the foul line. The Blazers shoot just 29.4 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts, ranking 331st in the country -- and that's a big plus for pulling upsets at this time of year.

You can see their real ace in the hole just from watching them play, and it's not just a function of tempo: the Blazers allow opponents to shoot just 31.1 percent on 3s (25th in the NCAA), severely limiting opportunities for quick comebacks. It's anybody's guess who will emerge from the sure-to-be-wild Conference USA tournament (which runs through Saturday), but this is the conference's best shot at producing a Killer.

6. New Mexico Lobos (33.0)

With three wins after four losses after four wins after three losses, the Lobos are unpredictable. That's usually a good thing for a March underdog, especially at New Mexico's level of quality: they are slightly above average at shooting 3s and stopping 3s, at preventing turnovers and at blocking shots and avoiding blocks. Problem is, all seven of their L's since January 15 have come against Mountain West opponents, who seem to have the Lobos figured out, and they're going to need a MWC tournament run to make the field of 68.

Their signature talent is the stopping offensive rebounds, led by F Drew Gordon (defensive rebounds on a humongous 30.1 percent of opponent misses, third best in the nation), who may have had the single best play this year by any member of a potential Killer. At a minimum, you can catch New Mexico's Thursday game against the Colorado State Rams, who grab offensive rebounds on just 32.9 percent of misses (239th in the NCAA), and enjoy the carnage.

7. Richmond Spiders (31.2)

They're not a lock at this point, but if the Spiders make the tourney, they've got the possession-optimizing tools to really bite a Giant. Their Euro-style offense, led by a pro-bound combo of big man F Justin Harper and little man G Kevin Anderson, features four players who shoot better than 40 percent from downtown, and overall they're seventh in the country in 3-point shooting. Playing out on the perimeter seems to help Richmond avoid losing the ball to steals (7.3 percent of possessions, 14th in the NCAA) or blocks (7.3 percent of possessions, 43rd). And the Spiders' matchup zone limits opponents to shooting just 30.5 percent on 3s. Watch them pass around the arc, and then see if the bombs drop.

8. Saint Mary's Gaels (29.0)

They lost All-GK big man Omar Samhan to graduation (he now plays in Lithuania), but they've still got Honorable Mention G Mickey McConnell, one of the 10 best true shooters in the country, and the Gaels score 116.9 points per 100 possessions, 11th best in the NCAA. They're shooting nearly 40 percent on 3s. And because they never turn the ball over (turnover percentage of just 16.6 percent) and don't let opponents grab offensive rebounds, the Gaels don't give up a lot of 3s, either, even though opponents are shooting a healthy 36.5 percent from downtown.

Result: the Gaels outscore the opposition on 3-pointers by 16.8 points per 100 possessions, a huge plus in our model. Another plus: they don't rely on free throws, which make up just 18.7 percent of their overall points. Even after losing again to its nemesis, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, in the WCC tournament, Saint Mary's isn't likely to fall lower than a No. 10 seed, so it probably won't qualify to be a Killer in the opening round. But if the Gaels get to a second game, they will be hard for any Giant to contain.

9. St. Peter's Peacocks (28.3)

The Peacocks rank a putrid 274th in the country in offensive efficiency, they're likely to be a No. 16 seed and ... they're named the Peacocks. But you can be sure that their first-round opponent will suffer long stretches of chokingly dry spells: harassing opponents inside and out, St. Peter's closes the gates on 2-point shots (just 40.6 percent allowed, second best in the entire NCAA) as well as 3s (30.5 percent allowed, 17th best), and gives up only 90.6 points per 100 possessions, ranking 21st in the country. Its game preparation and visible defensive intensity carried St. Pete's past two higher-seeded opponents in the MAAC tournament -- the run-and-gun Iona Gaels found themselves utterly unable to get either into the lane or open on the perimeter. So the Peacocks do have some plumage to show against bigger birds.

10. Utah State Aggies (28.1)

Some bracketwatchers have downplayed the quality of the Aggies' wins so drastically as to question whether they will nab an at-large bid if they don't win the WAC tournament. That's ridiculous. Ken Pomeroy ranks the Aggies 13th and our friends at Advanced Team Rankings have them at 17th in the entire country. Look at things this way: Maybe Utah State would be 23-8 against better competition instead of 28-3, but their efficiency stats resemble Louisville's exactly.

The Aggies have played at a slug-like tempo for years (63.5 possessions per game in 2011, 310th in the NCAA), disguising an offense that's adept at shooting 3s and grabbing offensive rebounds. In another system, F Tai Wesley would be posting double-doubles routinely. Meanwhile, their defense improved to a whole new level this year, giving up only 88 points per 100 possessions (ninth in the nation) as opponents shot just 42 percent on 2-point FGs (seventh) and 30.6 percent on 3s (18th). In one game against the Fresno State Bulldogs, you could have left your seat, robbed a bank, been sentenced to jail, gotten out on probation and returned to the Spectrum between Bulldog baskets. (Utah State won 52-39.) March's opponents will be tougher. But our model says Utah State will make them sweat.