During the 2006-07 season, Butler and Southern Illinois figured prominently in the national polls all season, and each ended up taking a trip to the Sweet 16.
Many were flummoxed as to how either could have succeeded. Butler was tragically undersized, often outrebounded by double digits, and was prone to horrible shooting nights. SIU built its reputation on defense, yet had trouble managing 40 percent shooting from the floor. The Salukis often played a high-stakes game of scrappy basketball, luring opponents into 47-45 games that always seemed to go down to the final possession.
What both teams shared was the unappreciated, secret weapon of successful mid-majors: ball control.
Butler averaged just 9.4 turnovers per game that season (best in the country), and SIU yielded just 13. Teams at this level are nearly always out-recruited by BCS schools for high-scoring and high-rebounding superstars, but can beat those teams by making their possessions count. The big boys can outshoot, outrebound and outshine the little guys, but low turnovers can mean high chances of an upset win.
Who are some of the teams that that are following in the spirit of those two legendary BracketBusters?
Utah State: Last week, ESPN.com looked into the reasons for this team's best-in-the-nation shooting, which currently stands at 52.4 percent. But what makes the Aggies double-dangerous is that they don't run themselves into a lot of empty possessions. The 2008-09 edition has sliced nearly four cough-ups off last year's average, and now yields just 10.9 per game. There are four USU players with assist-to-turnover ratios of 2-to-1 or better.
George Mason: The Final Four Patriots of 2006 were a decent ball-control team, but last year's CAA champions were one of the best in the country at limiting turnovers (16th in Division I with 11.7 per contest). This year, their handle is tightening further, with an 11.3 average that includes a minuscule 9.7 in their first three league games. Emerging sophomore Cameron Long and his 2.3-to-1 assist-to-TO ratio has a lot to do with that. While it's unthinkable that GMU could ever be overlooked again, the team is quietly 10-3, with a perfect 3-0 record so far in CAA play.
Davidson: The biblical David was careful with the rock, and so are the Wildcats. With departed senior Jason Richards at the point last season, Davidson turned it over just 11.6 times a game and made it all the way to the Elite Eight. Of course, that Curry guy had something to do with that run, too. With everyone's All-American running the show at the 1 in 2008-09, the Wildcats' turnover-per-game average has dipped only slightly (11.8). Even if the rest of the team is a bit too reliant on the do-everything star, extra possessions give Davidson a comfortable margin for error.
In nonconference play, there have been some superb examples of mid-major ball control being the ultimate difference. Here are a few:
Virginia Military Institute 111, at Kentucky 103 (Nov. 14) -- The first major upset of the year showed that VMI's high-scoring system has little in common with the high-risk, high-turnover teams that try to increase their chances of winning by charging full-throttle down the court. Kentucky swamped the Keydets on the glass by a massive margin of 21, but VMI turned the ball over just 14 times in 92 possessions, compared with the Wildcats' 25 (in 93 possessions). Everything balanced out, and Duggar Baucom's crew took the same number of shots as the Wildcats (72). As the final score showed, they made enough of them to win.
Illinois-Chicago 74, Vanderbilt 55 (Dec. 3) -- The Horizon League's Flames, who have muddled through four years of mediocrity since a 2004 NCAA bid, shocked the SEC's Commodores on their own raised floor with a blowout win. While UIC's defense kept Vandy to 34 percent shooting, its offense got eight more shots mostly because of a minus-seven margin in turnovers. The Flames coughed it up only nine times, and single digits in that category is a must for any mid-major team that wants to pull a big upset.
Cleveland State 72, at Syracuse 69 (Dec. 15) -- This game will always be remembered for Cedric Jackson's off-balance, 60-foot shot at the buzzer, an inspiring piece of footage that will be played and shared until they stop playing college basketball. But the path to that opportunity is too complex to be distilled into a YouTube clip. Syracuse set the nets on fire that night with a 54 percent average, and the Vikings were able to hang around in the rebounding battle because of excellent positioning and aggressive play. The difference was stingy ball control: Cleveland State turned it over just nine times all game, seven fewer times than the Orange did.