Commentary

Giant Killers: Predicting NCAA upsets

Which top teams are primed to fall, and who can knock them out? We've got the formula

Originally Published: March 15, 2009
By Jordan Brenner and Peter Keating | ESPN Insider

George MasonWin McNamee/Getty ImagesOur system is here to help you figure out who will be this year's George Mason.

Sure, the Final Four is the preferred destination for every college hoops team, but the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament is where you'll find the real action. Why? Upsets. Pulse-pounding, system-shocking, eternally memorable upsets. Princeton over UCLA. Valpo over Ole Miss. Hampton over Iowa State. For the fourth straight year, we've endeavored to make sense of these seemingly random acts of Madness, attempting to systematically and scientifically identify upsets before they happen.

The goal is to uncover the latest crop of Giant Killers. A Giant Killer is a team that beats a tourney opponent seeded at least five spots higher. Squads from the six BCS conferences are ineligible, as are Butler, Gonzaga, Memphis and Xavier -- they're not sneaking up on anybody. And, obviously, a Slain Giant is a team that loses to a GK. Over the past five seasons, 21 Killers have knocked off 25 Giants (with a handful of GKs claiming multiple victims). So, by our rules, No. 10 Davidson's first-round win over No. 7 Gonzaga wasn't a GK victory this past year, but its subsequent wins against No. 2 Georgetown and No. 3 Wisconsin qualified. Ready to learn the secrets of Giant Killing? Click here.

HERE COMES A SHAMELESS TEASER

From now through the end of the NCAA tournament, we'll continually update our list of wobbly Giants and well-armed Killers. Here's a quick peek inside the numbers -- the percentage listed next to a team indicates its likelihood of becoming a Giant Killer or a Slain Giant.

GIANT OF THE DAY: ILLINOIS (37.4 percent). Illinois' defense is among the very best in the country, with an adjusted efficiency of 86.0 (fourth in the NCAA). But the Illini don't grab offensive rebounds (30.3 percent of possessions, 258th in the country), while the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are monsters on the offensive glass (37.9 percent, 28th in the nation). That could spell trouble for Illinois, which was held under 40 points twice in a three-week span, losing to Minnesota 59-36 and, notoriously, to Penn State 38-33. Teams capable of that level of inefficiency are vulnerable in March.

GIANT KILLER OF THE DAY: TEMPLE (32.6 percent). Temple keeps foes off the offensive glass, doesn't turn the ball over and doesn't rely on free throws to outscore opponents. Also, while our model can't distinguish between dominating scorers who can carry a team through the postseason and those who can be stopped as soon as they run into a good opponent, senior guard Dionte Christmas certainly was the former in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

Click here to see the entire list. Insider

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.