Determining bracket busters has become a way of life for those filling out their NCAA tournament selections. And with the constant state of flux around college basketball during the 2012-13 season, this season's Big Dance may come with more surprises than ever.
However, just because there will be upsets, that doesn't mean we'll see the Lehighs and Norfolk States take down the Dukes and Missouris of the world on the regular.
The problem is that most folks spend far too much time looking at the positives of these underdogs. Despite the hysterics surrounding the event, these are still basketball games when things are all said and done. Underdog X could be a fantastic, underrated team that can compete with the big dogs, but that matters not if they find themselves against a high-ranked team that can mitigate those positives.
That said, there is an opposite side to that coin—one far more interesting than "good teams win." Finding the correct matchups to exploit, the vulnerable top-seeded teams, is arguably even more important than picking your favorite mid-major—especially as the tournament goes along.
So keep that in mind as we take a look at these bracket-killing teams. Not all of the good bracket busters are going to lose in the first round. But if your favorite No. 1 seed is going to lose in the Sweet 16, that will break your bracket far more than the latest No. 12 over No. 5 upset.
We're looking at the whole tournament here, not just one round. So with that caveat out of the way, let's take a complete look at the squads likeliest to bust your bracket this March.
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First Opponent: No. 6 Arizona Wildcats
Why Belmont Will Kill Your Bracket: They will defeat Arizona in the round of 64.
Belmont may have needed some late-game heroics from Kerron Johnson to dispatch of Murray State, but the Ohio Valley Conference tournament champs have all the makings of your prototypical bracket buster. Led by head coach Rick Byrd, the Bruins are making their third straight tournament appearance with this core of players. Though the first two ended in heartbreak, there is plenty of reason for optimism this time around.
That optimism starts with star guard Ian Clark. The senior averaged 18.1 points per game this season and has been among the most efficient deadeye shooters in the nation. Clark boasts a 54.1 field-goal percentage and knocks down 46.3 percent of his shots from beyond the arc on a shade under seven attempts per game.
Clark's surrounding stars aren't too shabby, either. Trevor Noack and J.J. Mann are both top-notch outside shooters, which has helped Belmont become an astoundingly efficient offense. Ken Pomeroy ranks them second in effective field-goal percentage heading into the tournament, and they are scoring 77.2 points per game.
The shots (obviously) have to keep falling against Arizona—a team that can be none too happy about its low seeding—for the good times to keep rolling. Luckily, the Wildcats have shown a propensity for laissez-faire defense this season, so don't be surprised when the Bruins are celebrating at midcourt this year.
First Opponent: No. 9 Wichita State Shockers
Why Pittsburgh Will Kill Your Bracket: They will lose to Wichita State.
Though they contend on just about a yearly basis, Jamie Dixon's teams have developed an underperforming reputation in the NCAA tournament. While usually I would take this time to give evidence of how unfair that is, that Dixon's teams lost more due to circumstance than "choking," it's actually hard to argue in favor of the Panthers' March Madness resume.
In Dixon's nine seasons prior to 2012-13, Pittsburgh has made it to the second weekend just three time. They made it to a fourth game just once, in 2009, where the Panthers narrowly missed the Final Four thanks to some heroics from Villanova's Scottie Reynolds.
Here is where you say that making the Sweet 16 every three years isn't bad. And that's true in a vacuum. But Dixon's squads have invariably had so much success in the regular season that their postseason failures become all the more noteworthy. The Panthers have lost four times to lower-seeded opponents during Dixon's tenure, most recently as a No. 1 seed versus No. 8 seed Butler in 2011.
On the flip side, a Dixon-led Pittsburgh team has never defeated a higher-seeded opponent.
Every season is not created equal, and the Panthers do have some reason for optimism. The team goes 10 deep in the rotation with a strong mix of players young and old. Tray Woodall has seemingly been around since the Clinton administration and continues to be a veteran leader, and Steven Adams is one of the more intriguing prospects in the nation.
Nonetheless, Pittsburgh remains a "prove it" team. There is no go-to scorer on the entire roster, and eventually we have to start looking at Dixon's history as more than an anomaly. This year, the benefactor will be Wichita State.
First Opponent: No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers
Why Ole Miss Will Kill Your Bracket: They will defeat Wisconsin in the round of 64.
Sitting on the far fringes of the NCAA tournament bubble watch prior to the SEC tournament, Ole Miss had one option: win it all or start punching tickets to the NIT. And somehow, despite taking on two tourney-bound teams in Missouri and Florida, the Rebels pulled it off. Star guard Marshall Henderson led the way, scoring over 20 points in each of the Rebels’ three victories, and remains must-see television whenever he’s playing.
Believing in Ole Miss also means believing in Marshall Henderson—and that’s not exactly what one would call easy. The Rebels star guard has made a name for himself with an in-your-face attitude and a style of play that’s even more controversial. Marshall averages 20 points per game for the season, leading the SEC, but he’s done it while taking nearly 11 three-pointers per game and shooting 38.3 percent from the field.
It’s not a shock to see Henderson go 2-of-10 or 3-of-11 for an entire game from three-point land. He's just as likely to shoot 15 percent for a game as he is 65 percent.
In essence, Marshall and Ole Miss are the polar opposite of the Wisconsin Badgers. Bo Ryan’s “swing” offense, which emphasizes consistent ball movement and low possession totals, remains the calling card of Wisconsin’s program. It’s an extremely criticized strategy—oftentimes categorized as “boring” by some fans—but has been undeniably successful.
The Badgers have won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of the past six seasons, but that streak will end in 2013.
While Ryan’s squads have been slow in the past, they have almost always been at or near the top in offensive efficiency. That’s not the case this season, where Wisconsin ranks 52nd in adjusted offense—the lowest Ken Pomeroy has ever measured for the Badgers.
Slow and steady may win a race, but slow and inefficient gets eliminated.
First Opponent: No. 11 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Why UCLA Will Kill Your Bracket: They will defeat the winner of Florida vs. Northwestern State in the round of 32.
Though one could certainly find fault in the Bruins' uptick in play during their Pac-12 schedule, the fact remains that they are one of the most talented teams in the country. That was the case when they opened the season ranked No. 13 in the country and remains the case heading into the tournament.
UCLA has, for the most part, failed to live up to that billing. A tumultuous early-season swoon sent Ben Howland's squad to the very fringes of relevance, where many wondered whether this team would even make the Big Dance.
But as young teams are prone to do, the Bruins developed into a solid team as the year went along. Shabazz Muhammad rightfully gets most of the press, leading the team in scoring and developing into an underrated rebounder. He put the team on his back to spur a comeback against Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament, a feat that has become something of the norm in Westwood.
Muhammad is also surrounded by an increasingly underrated cast of players.
Larry Drew II has emerged as one of the nation's premier distributors, averaging 7.4 assists a night. While Drew cannot shoot a lick, he's careful with the ball, coughing it up only 2.4 times per game, and provides senior leadership. And while they both have their fair share of deficiencies, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, who had his own moment to shine in the Pac-12 tourney, have both taken leaps and bounds since the season's tipoff.
While Florida is an extremely tough matchup for a third-round contest, look for the Bruins to take their star power all the way to the Sweet 16.
First Opponent: No. 9 Villanova Wildcats
Why North Carolina Will Kill Your Bracket: They will lose to Villanova.
Even as a No. 8 seed, it’s impossible not to be tempted into taking North Carolina deep into the tournament. It’s the same conundrum many will have with every big-name school. Seeing the name on the front of the jersey makes you swoon for past times and almost makes it impossible to have the Tar Heels losing early.
Well, don’t be fooled—especially not by the Tar Heels’ recent surge in their four-guard lineup. By now, everyone has heard the story ad nauseam. Following the team’s embarrassing loss to Miami in February, Roy Williams decided to finally play his five best players regardless of position. The result was an initial close loss to Duke in Durham and then a rip-roaring six-game winning streak that locked up the Tar Heels’ postseason berth.
One problem: There wasn’t a ranked team to be found in those victories. When they finally did match up again versus a ranked opponent, again Duke, the Blue Devils had their feet kicked up and were sipping on Mai Tais by midway through the first half. In fact, North Carolina has just one victory over a Top 25 RPI team and is 2-7 versus teams inside the Top 50.
Even the team's ACC tournament run can be picked apart by Duke's shocking loss against Maryland, which cleared up a path to the championship game. Though Villanova has been inconsistent for much of the season, the Wildcats play stellar defense. They are a top-25 team in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, and are able to play at North Carolina's pace.
It will be a close contest, but anyone who picks the Tar Heels is likely to regret it come the first weekend.
First Opponent: No. 12 Akron Zips
Why VCU Will Kill Your Bracket: They will defeat Michigan and go to the Sweet 16.
In the single-elimination format of the NCAA tournament, teams like VCU are the bane of every opposing coach’s existence. The short time frame between games—especially in the even-numbered rounds—makes preparation nearly impossible.
Shaka Smart’s “havoc” defense is a nightmarish stream of never-ending bodies coming at ball-handlers, and the Rams force a higher turnover percentage than any team in the country. They steal the ball on 17.1 percent of opposing team’s possessions—a rate that dwarfs the national average and is 1.4 percent better than second-place Louisville.
Two years removed from a first-four-to-Final Four rampage, Smart is on the precipice of building a mid-major juggernaut. Packed arguably with the best collection of athletes and well-rounded personnel he’s ever had, VCU may actually be more talented than the squad that made the historic run.
Shooting is usually a problem on an “athletic” team, but that’s not the case for the Rams. They are an above-average shooting team from distance and get 31.1 percent of their points beyond the arc, per Ken Pomeroy. Troy Daniels and Treveon Graham are both plus shooters and are contrasted with inside menace Juvonte Reddic.
The calling card of this team remains its defense (obviously). But with an efficient offense spurring the team to boot, Michigan and Trey Burke are in for a rude awakening in the round of 32.
First Opponent: No. 13 Montana Grizzlies
Why Syracuse Will Kill Your Bracket: They won't make it past the round of 32.
What a difference a week makes. Heading into the Big East tournament, the Orange had been read their last rights and Jim Boeheim looked like he had a foot-and-a-half out the door. They ended the season in embarrassing fashion, scoring 39 points at Georgetown in a game that besmirched the good name of that rivalry.
But it seems one last run in the Big East tournament sparked a renaissance from Boeheim's squad. Syracuse fought to tough victories over Pittsburgh and Georgetown in consecutive days, making a run all the way to the final against Louisville at Madison Square Garden.
Syracuse's problem remains on the offensive end. They are 135th in the country in effective field-goal percentage and make only 33.4 percent of their three-point shots, according to Ken Pomeroy's advanced metrics. And the team still turns the ball over at an alarming rate, ranking 100th in the country in turnover percentage.
Not even during the Orange's Big East tournament run did the offense look fully right. James Southerland was fantastic, setting a tournament record for three-pointers made, but otherwise, the performance looked a whole lot like the end of the regular season. Michael Carter-Williams' jumper is broken, and there isn't enough time to fix it.
The saying is defense wins championships, and the Orange are top-shelf on that end. But, eventually, someone has to make a shot. That someone was Southerland in the Big East tournament; it just remains to be seen if Syracuse can find that secondary shot maker before it's too late.
First Opponent: No. 11 Bucknell Bison
Why Butler Will Kill Your Bracket: They will lose to Bucknell in the round of 64.
The two most notable results of Butler’s season involve defeating two of the nation’s best teams. On Dec. 15, the Bulldogs took then-No. 1 Indiana to overtime and won before a raucous crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. On Jan. 19, they took down a Gonzaga team that would end the season No. 1 in the AP rankings.
With Butler’s flair for the dramatic in the NCAA tournament still stuck in the craw of many, it’s easy to envision another surprising run for Brad Stevens’ squad. Do yourself a favor and Sweet Chin Music that thought out of your mind.
This Bulldogs team shares few similarities with teams of the past. They rely on an inconsistent leading scorer (Rotnei Clarke), don’t excel on either end of the floor (but aren’t terrible, either) and return a young team whose greatest accomplishment was a CBI run last season.
One of Ken Pomeroy's most interesting metrics is "luck." What it measures is the deviation in winning percentage between a team’s actual record and their expected record using the correlated gaussian method, according to Rawbw.com. It's the college basketball equivalent to the Pythagorean expectation in football.
If a team over-performs its expected winning percentage, it is deemed "lucky." According to Pomeroy's measurements, Butler was the seventh-luckiest team in the nation this season and the luckiest among tournament teams.
What that means in the macro is up for debate. Could a "lucky" team continue its luck through the NCAA tournament? Sure. But reversion to the mean remains the likeliest scenario, and with Butler taking on an interesting Bucknell squad, the luck will run out on Thursday.
Even if the Bulldogs avoid being upset, any remotely nostalgic thought of Butler's storybook runs to the Final Four in 2010 and 2011 should be left in the past.
First Opponent: No. 9 Missouri Tigers
Why Colorado State Will Kill Your Bracket: They have a better shot of beating Louisville than any team in the Midwest.
The term “underrated” gets thrown with such nonchalance that it’s almost lost it’s meeting. Your favorite restaurant on the corner of West and Fifth is so underrated. Your eighth-round pick in fantasy baseball? Underrated. Any and everything is underrated or overrated—the in between has been lost.
Well, that’s a shame because Colorado State may well be the proper definition of underrated. The Rams, coming into Selection Sunday with a 25-8 record and RPI of 24, were given a No. 8 seed by the committee. That will make it a historical anomaly for the Rams to make it past their second game, especially against a great opponent like Louisville.
Nevertheless, if there's any No. 8 seed that is talented and well-rounded enough to make it happen, it's Colorado State.
Equipped with one of the nation’s most experienced rosters—Ken Pomeroy measures them as the third-most experienced team in the nation—Larry Eustachy has built a strong all-around team. Colorado State runs a smart, efficient offense that ranks seventh in the country, per Pomeroy, and avoids turnovers at a top-20 level.
But what makes the Rams truly dangerous is their innate ability to crash the boards. They rank second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and first in defensive rebounding rate. Colton Iverson and Pierce Hornung are both narrowly under double-digit rebounds per night, and Iverson may be able to overpower any big in the nation.
Rebounding is always vital, but its importance gets exemplified in March. Teams slow down, possessions become fewer and second chances—both getting them for yourself and keeping the opposing team from them—oftentimes decide close games.
Colorado State will walk into its second game (assuming it advances) with a talent disadvantage. Louisville is arguably the deepest team in the nation, runs a defensive system that is just impossible to deal with and boasts a star-level talent in Russ Smith.
But considering all the shooting woes the Cardinals have gone through this season, the Rams may well shock the world.
First Opponent: No. 11 St. Mary's Gaels (for right to play No. 6 Memphis)
Why Middle Tennessee Will Kill Your Bracket: They will make the Sweet 16.
Heading into the NCAA tournament, Middle Tennessee comes up against history. Only one team in the "first four" format has ever won its opening-round matchup and then come back two days later to win in the round of 64 (Virginia Commonwealth in 2011).
The reasoning for that is understandable. These teams have to travel to Dayton to play in their first-round matchups and then, in the case of Middle Tennessee, will have to hit Detroit and play a more talented team 48 hours later. Not only are they bus-lagged, jet-lagged or what have you, but they are also tasked with defeating a team that's better on paper.
The Blue Raiders will prove to be the exception.
Like that VCU team from two years ago, Middle Tennessee is not as susceptible to those fatigue woes as most teams because it does not adhere to normal rotational law. Led by Kermit Davis, the Blue Raiders run their rotation 10 players deep, with each playing 9.8 minutes or more per game but no more than 26.4 minutes.
Of course, those short minutes are necessary because of Davis' intense defensive schemes. Pressuring the ball with a relentless tenacity, Middle Tennessee forces turnovers at will and suffocates teams in both full-court and half-court sets. They are one of the most difficult teams in the country to prepare for.
With two teams to study for instead of one, it will be Memphis that winds up at a disadvantage come Thursday. And though predicting the Blue Raiders to defeat the winner of Michigan State-Valparaiso is a leap of faith, it's one worth taking with this top-shelf bunch of players.