Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Looking for a March Madness upset?


So you're filling out your bracket for the men's NCAA basketball tournament and you're itching to pick some upsets.

Hey, we understand. We're here to help.

To better understand upsets, and to find the best way to predict them, The Wall Street Journal looked at the 40 biggest NCAA tournament upsets since 2004—the games where the surprise winner was seeded at least five spots below the favorite.

For each upset, we compared the teams involved by their performance in two dozen categories. The majority of these comparisons were based on how the teams matched up—for instance, how well one team shot three-pointers during the season and how well their opponents defended against them. The same head-to-head comparisons were made for factors like rebounding and steals.

In the end, we found a few strong similarities between all of these matchups. But there was only one unequivocal theme: the importance of turnovers.

In 30 of the 40 games, the underdog "David" team had been better all season at protecting the ball and avoiding turnovers than the "Goliath" team had been at forcing them. Getting steals also is critical.

So what does all this research say about this year's tournament? Look for Murray State, a No. 13-seed that feasts on turnovers, to upset Vanderbilt. According to statistics compiled by basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, Vanderbilt is decent at protecting the ball. But the Racers are one of the best at taking it away: Murray State forces turnovers on 24.6% of its opponents' possessions, a mark that places them No. 11 in the country among Division I teams.

Another team to watch is Richmond, a No. 7 seed with strong guard play, which could possibly win twice. The South Regional may have the most upsets of all: In the first round, fifth-seeded Texas A&M and sixth-seeded Notre Dame both face tricky matchups in Utah State and Old Dominion.

(By the same token, our research suggests some underdogs aren't going anywhere but home. New Mexico State, a No. 12 seed that has trouble rebounding, and San Diego State, a No. 11 that's often careless with the ball, fall into that camp.)
Five to Think About

Here are some good candidates to score an upset in the tournament.

1. Murray State: Vanderbilt had better be careful with the ball and on the boards against the Racers.

2. Old Dominion: The Monarchs, who beat then-unbeaten Georgetown in December, are a monster on the offensive glass.

3. Utah State: The Aggies nearly managed a first-round upset last year against Marquette.

4. Richmond: The Spiders' soundness with the ball could see them through to the Sweet 16.

5. Louisville: The No. 9 seed is arguably the biggest threat to No. 1 Duke in the so-so South.

A textbook example of the power of turnovers was last season's tournament upset involving Wake Forest and Cleveland State. Despite the difference in the teams' pedigrees—Cleveland State was a No. 13 seed while Wake had been ranked No. 1 earlier in the season—the matchup was perfect for the underdog. Wake Forest's principal weakness was its propensity to give up turnovers, while Cleveland State, an aggressive, pressing team, was one of the nation's best at forcing them.

Cleveland State coach Gary Waters says he initially told his players to slow it down, lest they get run off the floor by the high-scoring Demon Deacons. It wasn't until game night, after he'd watched 11th-seeded Dayton upset No. 6 West Virginia earlier in the day on TV, that he decided to bring the pressure. "Dayton pressed them all over the place," Mr. Waters says. "I thought to myself, 'Why can't we do that?' " Cleveland State did and ended up routing Wake Forest by 15.

Turnovers aren't everything, of course. For teams from smaller conferences that are facing the big guns, belief can be critical. Davidson coach Bob McKillop, whose 2008 team made a surprising run to the Elite Eight, notes that earlier that season the team got invaluable experience through competitive losses to North Carolina, Duke and UCLA. "It showed them that we could at least stay in the game for a significant amount of time," he says.
Five to Worry About

These teams are ripe to be picked off in an early round.

1. Purdue: Obviously. Minus Robbie Hummel, the Boilermakers have been helpless at times on the glass.

2. Georgetown: The Hoyas are prone to inconsistent play.

3. Baylor: The trendy sleeper can be careless with the ball.

4. Butler: First-round opponent UTEP is big and tough defensively.

5. Kentucky: Don't be shocked if a slow-paced opponent keeps the Wildcats from reaching the Final Four.

Along those lines, Utah State and Old Dominion are possible surprises this year. Utah State nearly upset Marquette in the first round last year, and Old Dominion beat Georgetown earlier this season.

The conventional wisdom during March Madness states that teams that shoot a lot of three-pointers are dangerous and that good teams that stumble right before the big dance are vulnerable. In the 40 upsets we examined, however, just 12 of the winning underdogs were ranked among the top 100 nationally in the percentage of total field-goal attempts that were three-pointers. And there's virtually no evidence that teams are affected by how they were playing beforehand.

For every team like Duke in 2007, which lost its last three games before getting upset in the first round by No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth, there's Kansas in 2006, which had won 15 of 16 before Bradley knocked the Jayhawks out in the first round. (This suggests that this year's late struggler, Syracuse, may not be entirely doomed).

Familiarity with the opponent can help, too. During George Mason's shocking run to the Final Four in 2006, the Patriots were uncommonly confident playing Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut.

GMU had played the Spartans close the year before, had an assistant coach who played at Carolina, had beaten Wichita State that same season and had a player, Will Thomas, who had faced UConn star Rudy Gay often before college. "Will told our guys, 'Hey, I was undefeated against him in high school—I'm not about to lose to him now,' " George Mason coach Jim Larranaga says.

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