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Prepare the slingshot! : ranking mid-major upset chances

No, no Auburn content in this one. (Well … a tiny bit.) But it’s mid-majors and the NCAA Tournament. Auburn’s my thing … but this is also my thing.

Ivan Aska and Murray St.: beware, 'Dores, beware.

Not counting the Atlantic-10, C-USA, or–puke–the Mountain West, there’s 24 (true) mid-majors in this year’s NCAA Tournament bracket. 20 of them are seeded 11th or lower, and I watched all 20 of them in their respective conference championship games. (Well, OK, 19 of them since the Ivy doesn’t play a tournament. And, OK, 18, since I only saw bits and pieces of the SWAC final. The MAC championship was way too good to click away from.)

So: here’s one EXPERT’s verdict on all 20 of those teams’ chances of pulling a major upset in the NCAA’s first round this Thursday and Friday, ranked from most to least likely. Last year‘s No. 1 and No. 4 got pulled 0ff. Enjoy.


1. Murray State. (vs. Vanderbilt).You want stats? The Racers are No. 57 in the Pomeroy ratings–unheard of for an Ohio Valley team, and one spot behind Gonzaga–and have the superior adjusted scoring margin, ranking 25th to Vandy’s 33rd. This ESPN Giant Killers modeling thing loves them. On the flip side, Vandy is a relatively meh 36th and has been specifically cited as a team whose conference scoring margin shouldn’t have been strong enough to garner the record they did. Translation: the ‘Dores are good (and better than they were two years ago when Siena ran them off the floor), but they ain’t that good.

Subjectively, the Racers are athletic as all get out and have four players 6-6 or taller in the rotation, led by leading scorer, 6-7 F/C Tony Easley. (He’s from Auburn, by the way. Think Lebo could have used him?) But “leading scorer” is a bit of a misnomer for a team with six players averaging–get this–between 9 and 11 points. Four of those six are juniors or seniors, including Easley. The Racers are also a killer matchup for the ‘Dores: they rebound like maniacs on the offensive glass (where Vandy is weak), block shots like crazy (another Vandy problem), and force a boatload of turnovers.

So they’re No. 1.*

2. Old Dominion (vs. Notre Dame). Oh, so many reasons: the Monarchs were the double-champions out of a loaded CAA, easily the strongest the conference has been since a certain other 11th-seeded Colonial team did that thing you may have heard about; the stoutest defense in all of mid-majordom; that the Monarchs have already taken on a slow-paced offensive Big East team once this season already, and took down Georgetown on their floor; that Notre Dame just isn’t that good and for all the world looks to me like an overseeded team that already played their best basketball in New York. The bottom line is that this is an elite offensive team against an elite defensive team … and the offense is due for an off-game.


3a.3b. Montana (vs. New Mexico) / Sam Houston St. (vs. Baylor). Truth: last year marked the first time since the tournament went to 64 teams that we’d gone three years without a single upset on the 14 or 15 lines. Do you really think we’re going to make it four?

The problem: these are the only two legitimate opportunities. I’m confident one of them is going to come through. But which one? Both teams shoot 3’s really well, both teams have explosive guards, both are facing an opponent with some defensive deficiencies. I’d been planning for weeks to take Sam Houston and they’d be in the category above if they’d drawn Pitt or New Mexico … but Baylor is so good offensively I worry about the Bearkats going down in a hail of Bear threes. Still: SHSU is going to get their points, and if they can find any answer for Ekpe Udoh, look out. Board the “Baylor i nthe Final Four!” bandwagon at your own risk.

But I think Montana’s the team to make it happen. The Big Sky has a great tradition of giant-slaying–hell, Montana won as a 12 just a few years back–and New Mexico is the fraudiest bunch of frauds that ever frauded. I get Albuquerque local TV and can tell you, they are beyond proud at what the Lobos have already done. They see themselves as a legit national power that doesn’t have to worry about a team like Montana … even though the Grizzlies have size, rebounding, shooting, and Anthony Johnson and the Lobos can’t even crack the Kenpom top 45. The Lobos could not be riper for a fall, and I’m guessing it comes as soon as Round 1.

5. Utah St. (vs. Texas A&M). Aaaaarrrrggggghhhh. Stew Morrill’s Aggies (the good guys in this Aggie-on-Aggie matchup) could have breezed to the Sweet 16 with the right matchups … and if they can get past A&M, that’s exactly what they’ll do. But man alive, I do not like Mark Turgeon’s NCAA history, record against Utah teams (remember that horse-whipping they laid on BYU in last year’s first round?), A&M’s precision with the ball, their massive athletic advantage … I’m not really seeing it.

But State is so good, so well-coached, so experienced, that all that may not matter–particularly if their 3’s are falling and Tai Wesley can stay out of foul trouble. We’ll see.

6. Cornell (vs. Temple). Second verse, same as the first. I don’t have a gripe with the Big Red’s seed–they didn’t have a single top-50 win despite the close call against Kansas–but why oh why did the Committee have to drop Temple this low? The Owls are a monstrous defensive team that never turns the ball over and are just too good to be playing as a 5 seed. Gimme Cornell in a heartbeat against three out of four 4 seeds, Michigan St., any of the 6 seeds … but I can’t take them against Temple.

Doesn’t mean it won’t happen, of course–any team that shoots threes as well as the Big Red does always has a shot, as Kansas found out. I’m thinking I’m probably too negative about the chances of either USU or Cornell and one of them will pull the upset, but my gut tells me “no” on both.

7. Siena (vs. Purdue). Again with the bad feeling: maybe Purdue doesn’t have Robbie Hummel, but after hearing a ton this week about how they can’t win without him, I’m thinking they pull it together for one good game before bowing out in the Round of 16. Add in that the Saints never looked to be at the top of their game at the MAAC tourney and have even less frontcourt depth than they’ve had the last couple of years in the event Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter get in foul trouble, and it’s easy for me to see the Boilers pulling away with this one.

Then again: no mid-major team in this tournament has more NCAA experience or success than this Siena team. They’ve all been there, done that, against equally long odds against Ohio St. in Dayton last year. I didn’t expect them to win that game, either, and not only did they win it but they pushed Louisville to the brink immediately afterward. Wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them do it again.


8. New Mexico St. (vs. Michigan St.). Aggies have the horses to run with Michigan St. and the Spartans turn the ball over often enough that things could be close. But NMSU doesn’t have many shooters and probably peaked in Reno.

9. Ohio (vs. Georgetown). There’s nothing in the stats that suggests the Bobcats should be able to remotely hang with Hoyas … but if they play the way they did in the MAC tournament, Georgetown will have reason to worry. Ohio has enough size (particularly in impressive 6-8 junior DeVaughn Washington) to hold their own inside, and their pesky backcourt of Indiana transfer Armon Bassett and cat-quick freshman D.J Cooper could cause the Hoyas some problems.

10. Oakland (vs. Pitt). Golden Grizzlies have boatloads of experience and a force inside in Keith Benson. And I think Pitt isn’t nearly so good as their seed. But Oakland also doesn’t get a lot of love from the stats guys, really struggled against power-conference teams, and doesn’t shoot 3’s. Having senior point guard Johnathon Jones around will keep things close for a while, but man, I wish Pitt had drawn any of the other 14 seeds.

11. Vermont (vs. Syracuse). Jim Boeheim was the first coach ever to lose a first-round game as a 2-seed, so why not as a 1? Catamounts will have to catch fire from outside, but they looked much better beyond the arc than their stats suggested in the A-East title game, and they won’t get annihilated inside. Marqus Blakeley will see to that. ‘Cuse will also have to deal with the sudden absence of Arinze Onuaku. Trust me: crazier things really have happened.

12. Morgan St. (vs. West Virginia). With a year of tourney experience under their belt, some dynamite athletes (freshman Dewayne Jackson is going to be a monster), and a stunning amount of size for a MEAC team, Bears could have caused somebody some problems. West Virginia is probably not that somebody. Then again: two of the four 15 seeds to have won a game were MEAC representatives playing way over their heads, so anything’s possible.


13. Wofford (vs. Wisconsin). Maybe the Badgers have a terrible game shooting, Wofford’s outstanding defense turns it into a total 43-42-type slog, and the Terriers luck into enough baskets to keep it close. But more likely is that the offensively-challenged Terriers simply never score against one the nation’s best defenses. It’ll be like playing a supercharged, gigantic version of themselves.

14. North Texas (vs. Kansas St.). North Texas draws a metric ton of fouls and K-St. fouls all the time, so the Mean Green should get plenty of looks at the charity stripe. That’s about all they’ve got going for them, unfortunately.

15. East Tennessee St. (vs. Kentucky). ETSU coach Murray Bartow’s got plenty of seasoning at this NCAA gig by now, and the unlucky Bucs are better than their record indicates; Kenpom has them one spot behind Oakland and several ahead of Morgan St. Don’t be surprised if they keep it close for the first 10-15 minutes. If they keep it close longer than that, then you can be surprised. (By the by: this is the first time I genuinely feel better about two of the 16 seeds than two of the 15s. It’s the worst crop of 15’s in years.)

16. Robert Morris (vs. Villanova). Bobby Mo is facing a much weaker No. 2 seed than they did last year, when they sort of hung around Michigan St. for a while. Unfortunately, that bunch of Colonials were a good sight better than this one.

17. UC-Santa Barbara (vs. Ohio St.). For our purposes, would have been much better to see second-seed Pacific emerge out of the Big West tournament. Gauchos have an excellent scorer in Orlando Johnson and some good interior finishers around the rim, but Ohio St. … it’s not happening.

18a. 18b. 18c. Lehigh, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Winthrop. You are all champions. Just play like it, and everything else will be fine. (And hey, Winthrop, you might be able to keep Duke in check for a while with that defense. That’ll be fun.)

*Naturally, Phillip at Save the Shield disagrees, and he’s brought some fascinating backup.

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