Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Prepare the slingshots!: ranking the mid-major upset chances
It's not the sort of thing that draws attention from the national media horde that can't tell its Akrons from its Buffalos, its Morgan St.'s from its Norfolk St.'s, its Robert Morris's from its Monmouth's ... but the bottom of this year's bracket is loaded. Of the 22 automatic bids that went to mid-major leagues (I don't count the A-10), 18 of them went to teams that were either the top Pomeroy team in the league or the conference's regular season champion (or, of course, both). Of those four remaining bids, two went to Cleveland St., the second-best team in a strong Horizon League that made the bottom of the bracket only tougher, and Portland St., the Big Sky runner-up and 2008 auto-bid winner who knocked off Gonzaga earlier this year.
Your bottom line is that out of those 22 conferences, only two--the SoCon and Ohio Valley--sent on a representative that wasn't at least as dangerous as any other team in the league. The last time the bottom of the bracket was this stacked was 2006--and you remember what happened then, right? Having those 22 conferences send just the one at-large team was pretty disappointing, but I'd like to think they're about to collectively ease that pain a bit.
So here's the JCCW's ranking of the chances of those 22 teams--oops, 21, Gonzaga doesn't count--to pull off a win either Thursday or Friday in the NCAA Tournament's first round.
GOT A GOOD FEELING ABOUT THIS
1. Cleveland St. For maximum effectiveness, the Vikings' defense needs a team that turns the ball over freely and likes to shoot inside the arc. Voila: Wake Forest, one of the five most inside-oriented teams in the country and one with the ninth-highest turnover rate in the ACC. The Vikings also showed a propensity to ratchet up their intensity for big games: they beat Syracuse, led at halftime at West Virginia, and took Butler into the dying seconds all three times they faced them.
2. Portland St. The Vikings (yes, both the top two teams on this list are Vikings) love to shoot threes: only four other teams in the nation get a higher percentage of their points from deep. So here comes Xavier, a team that hasn't played well for a month and makes its living off of ... its two-point defense. Good luck, Muskies.
3. North Dakota St. Kansas has a heck of a team ... but they also defend much better on the interior than outside the arc, and the Bison are another team that can absolutely rain down the threes. Not to mention that NDSU is the waaaaaay more experienced team, has a giant-killing rep dating back years, will be playing (in Minneapolis) only a short drive away from their Fargo home, and that Bill Self has not had great success against mid-majors at Kansas.
COULD TOTALLY HAPPEN
4. Western Kentucky. Illinois is a pretty elite defensive team and Western can get sloppy at times, so I'm a little less certain about this one. But the Illini are also completely reliant on jump shots, so a bad shooting game--one made all the more likely by Chester Frazier's absence--could very easily see the 'Toppers running away with a victory.
5. Utah St. Marquette is overdue for a win after coming close in all five defeats in their season-ending losing streak, but the Aggies do have mid-majordom's most efficient offense and a coach in Stew Morrill who's engineered NCAA upsets before.
6. Stephen F. Austin. The Utah St. equivalent for mid-major defense rather than offense: the Lumberjacks have the third-best defensive eFG in the country. Boeheim has shown a willingness to let his team get bogged down in first-round defensive slogs before, which is just the way SFA likes it.
7. Siena. The Saints should probably rank higher, but I'm just not comfortable with how often Kenny Hasbrouck is shooting the ball, the lack of frontcourt depth, or especially the fact they have to play Ohio St. in freaking Dayton. I'm not seeing it.
8. Morgan St. Oklahoma is far and away the most vulnerable of the 2 seeds--Blake Griffin isn't worth much when his team turns the ball over, and they do that with regularity--and when the MEAC actually manages to send its best team, they show up--Delaware St. and Florida A&M both hung with No. 1 seeds this decade and going back even further, two of the four 15 seeds to ever pull off the upset (Hampton 2001 and Coppin St. 1997) were both MEAC squads. This game is going to be tight.
HEY, YOU NEVER KNOW
9. VCU. Yes, I've got the 15th-seeded MEAC champs ranked above the 11th-seeded Colonial champs. I love the Rams, but I also think this UCLA team is not the right team for them to face at all. They're not going to give Maynor steals, they're one of the best teams in the country at avoiding getting their shots blocked (helping neutralize Sanders), Howland will have a week to come up with a defense to stop Maynor's drives ... VCU is good enough that all of that might not matter, but I'm not optimistic.
10. Akron. As with VCU, if they'd just given the Zips a different opponent--couldn't they have played Washington?--I'd be excited about their chances. They play good D, shoot fairly well, got hot down the stretch and have a solid Pomeory rating. Too bad they're running into what looked like a Zag buzzsaw at the WCC tourney.
11. American. This same bunch of Eagles put up an incredible fight against Tennessee last year and 'Nova does give up a lot of threes--watch for Garrison Carr to keep American in it for a while. But especially in Philly, it's hard to see the 'Cats not outscoring the Eagles down the stretch.
12. Northern Iowa. Another team that would rank higher on a lot of other people's lists like this, but Purdue looked fantastic at the Big 10 tournament and UNI has never struck me as the sort of team that has the athleticism to match up with a power-conference team. The Panthers will have to get white-hot from three (where they shoot only 34.5 percent) to hang with the Boilers. One positive for UNI: Jordan Eglseder should be able to play more minutes with the longer TV timeouts.
13. Robert Morris. Spartans have the great defense and incredible rebounding and yadda yadda yadda, but they also really, really enjoy turning the ball over. And despite what they showed in the hideous final against Mt. St. Mary's, Bobby Mo is actually one of the better three-point shooting teams in the country. Crazier things have happened.
14. East Tennessee St. In Kevin Tiggs, Courtney Pigram, and Mike Smith, ETSU has three guys who can score with just about anybody. The Bucs' inside players will have to have the game of their lives to keep DeJuan Blair from annihilating them on the glass, but if the Bucs' Big 3 get hot--and Pitt's not as good defensively as they used to be--we might just see the Miracle on Wood.
EVEN I CAN'T REALLY SEE IT HAPPENING
15. Radford. The Highlanders needed a team that plays at a slow pace and can't shoot outside, to let Belarussian behemoth Artsiom Parakhouski and Joey Lynch-Floor bang around inside and do their thing. Instead they got North Carolina in Greensboro. (Note that Radford is still miles better than traditional 16 seeds.)
16. Cornell. Ivy Leaguers meeting up with the fastest, best full-court pressure team in the country ... the Big Red can shoot the hell out of some 3's and they've got a nice Pomeroy rating (top 100!) for a team that lost three Ivy games, but this is not going to end well.
17. Binghamton. Like the Bearcats' athleticism and ability to create (and score from) turnovers, not so hot on what Duke's half-court defense is going to do to them.
18. Cal St. Northridge. Why couldn't this team have played Duke? The Matadors have some positive things going for them--inside-outside balance, energetic defense, etc.--but Memphis is a steamroller.
19. Alabama St. Should the Hornets face Louisville, we'll know that ASU took decent teams like Auburn and Ole Miss to the wire and that the Cards can lose to teams at least as weak as Western Kentucky. So ... maybe it'll stay close for a half, a la Florida vs. Jackson St. a couple years back.
20. Chattanooga. Mocs have some athletes, but UConn's got better ones.
21. Morehead St. The Eagles already played Louisville once this year. They're playing a lot better now, but, uh, that 79-41 loss does not inspire a lot of confidence.
That's it. One last note: these rankings are for entertainment purposes only. The way my bracket usually goes, you might want to turn this list upside down.