The great Giant Killer irony

Teams best suited for upsets aren't built to make the tourney

Updated: October 3, 2013, 9:52 AM ET
By Jordan Brenner and Peter Keating | ESPN Insider

Joe Scott G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty ImagesJoe Scott's Denver team was a favorite of the Giant Killers model last season.

There was nothing Denver could do. Even now, as Pioneers head coach Joe Scott looks back to last March, there is a tone of helplessness to his voice.

On the afternoon of March 14, Scott's Pioneers were positioned well to earn their first NCAA tournament berth. They entered the WAC tourney as the No. 2 seed, winners of eight straight and 17 of 18 and one of the 50 best teams in the country, according to KenPom.com. They were facing an 11-21 Texas State squad that ranked 250th.

Denver had swept the Bobcats by a combined 26 points in the regular season, but, on that night in Vegas, the dice seemed loaded. Possession after possession, Texas State would hold the ball, look to penetrate late in the shot clock, and throw up a floater or a runner or a pull-up with a hand in the shooter's face. And they almost all went in. The Bobcats would finish the game shooting 23-for-35; forward Joel Wright would go 9-for-10 from the field and 14-of-16 at the line.

"It'll even out," Scott would tell his troops during timeouts. "It will come back to the norm, and they'll miss."

But it never did. And just like that, Denver was done.

Back at Giant Killers Central, we took the loss hard. Our statistical model had identified Denver as one of the best potential Giant Killers (teams capable of pulling upsets in the NCAA tournament) in the country. The Pioneers had a rating of 51.8, meaning they would have entered the NCAA tourney with a better-than-average chance of knocking off a generic Giant. Their statistical profile was flush with hallmarks of traditional GKs: They took and made tons of 3-pointers (36.4 percent of their total points, 15th in the country); they were ball hawks (15.0 steal percentage, third in the nation); they held on to the ball (18.6 turnover percentage, 96th); and they did it all at a plodding pace (58.8 adjusted tempo, 346th).

The trouble with Denver, though, was one potential Giant Killers often struggle to overcome. We call it the double-edged slingshot. The very qualities that help produce NCAA tournament upsets also can prevent top underdogs from ever reaching a stage where they can display those abilities.

Jordan Brenner | email

ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
Brenner writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider. He covers the NBA and college basketball.
Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.