It's one of the bracket questions that everyone asks when the smoke clears.
As Selection Sunday gives way to Bracket Evaluation Monday in office spaces across America, the hot topic is always the bracketbuster, the team that will become the darling of the nation for 48 hours and create a bit of "little guy magic" before the big boys take over in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four.
The great secret to picking the NCAA tournament is not to "pick upsets." No, that's much too simplistic a view. The key is to pick the right upsets, to identify where the upsets come from. Higher seeds generally work their way up the bracket — it's not as though you should be picking a 12 seed to play a 7 in two regional finals and a 6 against a 5 in the other two. No, you need to pick your spots with upsets. Here are the five best recommendations on the board:
5 – STEPHEN F. AUSTIN OVER VCU (SOUTH REGION)
The best round-of-64 game on the board is also the most attractive 12-over-5 upset pick. You might immediately say that VCU, as a 5 seed, crushed Akron last year in the round of 64 and that the Rams will be ready to play this game. Fair enough. Moreover, when you're picking an upset, that means you're not picking the team that's expected to win. VCU is indeed expected to win this contest, a reality that's actually reinforced (not diluted) by the fact that the Rams lost the Atlantic 10 Tournament final to Saint Joseph's. If anything, VCU's focus will probably be sharpened by that loss. Losing is often the best teacher at this time of year, and VCU might make the kinds of adjustments that will enable it to play with more effectiveness.
Why pick Stephen F. Austin, then? The Lumberjacks are just the kind of team that can be kryptonite for VCU and Shaka Smart's "HAVOC" project.
Ask any college basketball observer, anyone who studies this sport for a living, about VCU's great weakness. Go on ahead. Do it.
You'll get this reply in almost every instance: If VCU can't force turnovers with its extended defensive pressure, it becomes a very ordinary and vulnerable team. VCU needs its defense to rattle the opponent on the other side of the court. If it doesn't, the Rams are not imposing in halfcourt situations. They don't get the easy baskets they depend upon. They don't establish the tempo they prefer.
Stephen F. Austin, ladies and gentlemen of the bracket-evaluation jury, is eighth in the United States in assists per game, with 16.6. The Lumberjacks are in the top 70 in turnovers committed per game, with 11. If you saw any of SFA's Southland Conference Tournament final on Saturday night against Sam Houston State, you saw how structured this team's halfcourt offense really is. You saw the backcuts, floor spacing, and constant flow. If you wanted to identify a team that can solve the VCU puzzle, this is it.
4 – TENNESSEE/IOWA WINNER OVER MASSACHUSETTS (MIDWEST REGION)
The notion of an upset also stems from a realization that in the present moment, an outcome just doesn't seem likely.
Indeed, what would make a rational person think that Iowa — the loser of six of its last seven games — can get off the deck and beat Massachusetts?
What would make an intelligent human being think that Tennessee — the team that got swept by Texas A&M and failed to beat the other two NCAA tournament teams from the SEC (Florida and Kentucky) in four bites at the apple — could find the resources needed to usher the Minutemen out of the Dance hall?
This is part of the NCAA tournament's strange but always fascinating powers.
Remember that Wichita State did not enter the 2013 NCAA Tournament with a full head of steam. The Shockers lost in the 2013 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and were not a trendy upset pick. They created their momentum from scratch, winning once in the Dance and then using that sweet taste of success against Pittsburgh to then carry them forward.
One larger reason why the NCAA tournament is such a special sporting event is that in the first week of the event, the breadth of competition — encompassing 68 teams — is simply too great to confine various outcomes to certain patterns or categories. You will rarely if ever see only one kind of team thrive in the first week. In the East Region, you might see the hot team — the winner of a conference tournament — pick up where it left off. However, in the South Region, you'll see an underachieving high major catch fire and tap into the talent it always had all along. One section of a bracket over here will be calm and peaceful, with no surprises. Another section of the bracket over there will bust wide open and put a 12 versus a 13 seed in the round of 32 on Sunday evening. The variety of outcomes and success stories in the first week lends the Dance such marvelous diversity, giving the tournament the eternal power to surprise the human mind.
So… for all the ways in which Iowa and Tennessee have underachieved this season, the fact that the Hawkeyes and Volunteers are meeting each other in the First Four will give the winner a chance to enter the round of 64 with great confidence. You could see an emotional change in the Iowa-Tennessee winner, a transformation that could promptly unlock so much of the talent those two teams have squandered over the past two months. When you then realize that Massachusetts — after a blazing-hot start to the season — is just 8-7 in its last 15 games, it becomes apparent that this 6-11 game will feel like a contest in which seeds really don't matter. There are a lot of those games to be found in this and every NCAA tournament.
Tennessee and Iowa aren't good very now. However, the winner could immediately snap out of its funk and be inspired enough to recapture a better, older version of itself. Tennessee beat top-seeded Virginia by 35 points. Iowa beat second-seeded Michigan by 18. If those versions of the Vols or Hawkeyes show up against UMass, the Minutemen will be outgunned.
3 – NORTH CAROLINA STATE OVER SAINT LOUIS (MIDWEST REGION)
The Wolfpack fit perfectly into a very specific category at NCAA tournament time: Coach Mark Gottfried's team is that unlikely at-large selection, the team that sneaks into the field with the last bubble bid and throws the biggest Selection Sunday celebration you've ever seen. This kind of team is supremely motivated to show the selection committee that its decision was wise and appropriate. With the nation questioning its inclusion in the bracket, N.C. State — like any other team in such a position — wants to answer the doubters and silence the haters with an authoritative performance on the big stage. This in itself is reason enough to pick the Wolfpack over Xavier in the First Four, and then over Saint Louis in the round of 64.
There's an even better reason to tab the Wolfpack as a winner over Saint Louis if this matchup does indeed emerge: The Billikens' pilot light is out, as Marty Schottenheimer would say.
Saint Louis did once author a 19-game winning streak, a surge that carried into late February. That streak ended three weeks ago, but it might as well be three months ago. The SLU crew that has taken the court the past few weeks has looked tired and sluggish. It is just not reacting as well on defense, for one thing — Dayton hit 47 percent of its shots while winning in Saint Louis. (That game got Dayton into the field of 68, by the way.) In the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, Saint Bonaventure hit 51 percent of its field goal attempts.
When Saint Louis can't defend, it has no safe place to turn to; defense is the rock upon which the Billikens' church of basketball stands. A fellow named T.J. Warren should be able to get the shots he wants against SLU, and if that does indeed happen, it will once again be the case that seeds… won't… matter. The 12 will look like the 5, and the 5 will look like the 12.
2 – PROVIDENCE OVER NORTH CAROLINA (EAST REGION)
The North Carolina Tar Heels are another kind of team that can easily be spotted a mile away at this time of year. UNC can either catch fire and make a deep run, or it can flame out in the round of 64. The Tar Heels have the potential to be great, but they can just as easily collapse. North Carolina's regular season shows this. Coach Roy Williams guided his team to wins over Michigan State and Louisville, both away from home. Yet, Carolina also lost to UAB and (at home) to Belmont. The Tar Heels played Duke on fairly even terms in two games, but they also lost to Wake Forest and Miami.
Will Good North Carolina or Bad North Carolina show up? If it's the latter version, Bryce Cotton (pictured above after winning the Big East Tournament on Saturday) can definitely power Providence past the Tar Heels. The Friars' energy on the glass is what enabled them to fend off Creighton in New York, and if James Michael McAdoo does not get out of the right side of the bed for Carolina — he needs to be great for his team to be great — the Tar Heels will head home early.
1 – HARVARD OVER CINCINNATI (EAST REGION)
It's quite true that the American Athletic Conference was not treated well at all on Selection Sunday. Every team in the league with NCAA tournament aspirations was either underseeded (four of the five) or left out of the field (SMU, the fifth team in that group). Cincinnati earned a 4 seed more than UCLA did over the course of the full season. Getting a 5 represents a raw deal for Mick Cronin's team. The Bearcats are better than the number in parentheses on the bracket sheet you're passing around the office. If Cincinnati does lose to Harvard, it would represent a bigger upset than any of the other ones previously mentioned in this piece.
Yet, it could very realistically happen.
How did Harvard upset New Mexico last season? The Crimson used a multi-pronged formula, but the heart of the Ivy League's great triumph last March was that New Mexico missed a lot of shots, particularly from three-point range (11 misses in 14 attempts).
You're thinking to yourself, "Whoa — a team missing a lot of shots. Now there's a bit of brain-busting analysis that I couldn't find anywhere else."
Yes, analysts often say the most obvious things — that's a pet peeve of mine when I'm watching games on television. Yet, some games are simply "make-or-miss" games — not all or even most of them, but some of them. A "make-or-miss game" emerges when a team gets a reasonably good shot on a fairly consistent basis but can't hit that (quality) shot often enough to matter. New Mexico had this problem against Harvard, and Cincinnati is the kind of team that can fall victim to this dynamic against Harvard as well.
Cincinnati has one reliable offensive player, Sean Kilpatrick, one of the most prolific and decorated scorers in the proud history of the same program that produced one Oscar Robertson. Yet, Cincinnati's weakness is not just found in the fact that Kilpatrick lacks a secondary scoring option on his team, one that can dependably remove pressure from his shoulders. No, it's a little deeper than that. Kilpatrick frequently scores by driving pell-mell to the basket and earning foul shots. If Harvard can defend Kilpatrick without fouling too much, the Bearcats will have to do one of two things:
1) Someone on the UC roster will need to hit an appreciably high percentage of jump shots. That's not a team strength.
2) The Bearcats will have to chase missed shots on the glass and put them in the basket. This route — the putback route — is the more likely path to victory for Cincinnati.
If Harvard can box out, though, and make Cincy a "one-and-done" team at the offensive end of the floor, the Crimson can also make Cincy a "one-and-done" team in that much larger sense: one game and out at the 2014 NCAA Tournament.