Heading into the 2013 NCAA Tournament festivities, one of the overarching themes this season has been the disappointing performance of top-ranked teams.
Throughout the regular season, it seemed parity reigned supreme atop the college basketball landscape—but it was mostly massive inconsistencies. Top-Five teams made a habit out of losing to unranked schools, which at one point happened on three consecutive nights.
There is no Kentucky this season, a team so great that it felt like every other team was merely playing for second place. While that doesn’t necessarily mean March Madness will hit its height of mania this season, it certainly makes it feel more likely—especially among ranked teams.
Note that just because a team is mentioned does not automatically mean they will lose in the first round. Basketball is a matchup-driven sport, and Selection Sunday will be what ultimately determines the likeliest top seeds to get sent packing.
What’s more, not all upsets are created equal. Mentioning a fifth-seeded team certainly means that squad is susceptible early, but the same cannot be said for projected No. 1 seeds. An upset in the Sweet 16 isn’t as catastrophic as on the first Friday or Saturday, but it is no less noteworthy.
With caveat out of the way, here is a complete breakdown of a few teams that will be susceptible shocking upsets at this year’s Big Dance.
It’s very hard to find fault with the job Bruce Weber has done in his first season at Kansas State. The longtime Illinois head man took over the job from the departed Frank Martin last March and has improved the Wildcats in just about every facet of the game.
Expected to sink a bit in the first year under a new regime, Kansas State has soared to a 27-6 record heading into the Big 12 tournament final versus Kansas. Leading scorer Rodney McGruder leads a team-wide attack that has five players scoring eight or more points per contest.
Overall, it’s a nice story for Webber and the Wildcats. But it’s one that seems very possible to end after their first game in the Big Dance. Kansas State’s matchup obviously matters—ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has them as a No. 4 seed, taking on Bucknell as of now—but this is a squad that looks pretty susceptible to an upset on paper.
Heading into the Big 12 tournament, the Wildcats had only a 7-6 record against teams inside the RPI Top 100. They have an 18-0 record versus everyone else. It’s a pretty fair statement to say Kansas State has beaten up on relatively weak competition—especially in the non-conference—and been a mediocre squad against more talented squads.
While a victory over Oklahoma State certainly changed that perception a bit, season-long sample sizes hold more weight than a one-game ascent.
Kansas State is also disconcerting team according to advanced metrics. Weber’s squad ranks outside the Top 100 in effective field goal percentage on both ends of the floor, and give up a concerning amount of offensive rebounds and free-throw attempts. The latter two areas are critical in March.
If the Wildcats see a dominating interior presence like Bucknell’s Mike Muscala, they very well could be in trouble early.
Brad Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs have developed a reputation of doing more with less than perhaps any other program in the nation. Visions of Butler’s back-to-back runs to the Final Four in 2010 and 2011 still emanate around college basketball. So does the team’s victory over Gonzaga this season, where the Bulldogs became one of just two teams to take down Mark Few's top-ranked bunch.
That said, the 2012-13 Butler team is filled with plenty of exploitable holes if it gets matched up against a smart first-round opponent.
First and foremost, the Bulldogs’ reliance on a slipping Rotnei Clarke cannot go understated. The Arkansas transfer was at the crux of Butler’s victory over Indiana, knocking down five three-pointers and hitting critical shots in the overtime contest. However, ever since Clarke returned from a scary head and neck injury on Jan. 26, he has not nearly been the same type of consistent force.
Thursday’s victory over Dayton in the Atlantic 10 tournament was the first time in nine games Clarke had hit more than half of his shots and just the third instance since returning from that injury. While it’s arguable that Clarke has always been a bit of a up-and-down player, his recent streak has been almost all down with little up.
One bad game from Clarke in the NCAA Tournament and the Bulldogs may go down hard. They are a thoroughly middling team in just about every metric you can find, ranking 55th in offensive efficiency and 53rd in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. One could theoretically justify that by saying the Bulldogs aren't bad at anything. On the flip side, their middling metrics say they don't excel in one particular area, either.
That’s understandable considering much of this core was playing in the CBI last season. But with plenty of people envisioning more sugarplums and fairies for the Bulldogs in March, they may be in for a rude awakening—possibly in the first round.
From a pure talent perspective, it’s very possible that Michigan makes the Final Four. Point guard Trey Burke is arguably the best player in the country, an upcoming NBA lottery pick who may well hoist the Wooden Award at season’s end. He’s a human offensive juggernaut and has been one of the more efficient players in the nation to boot.
According to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced measurements, Burke is the most efficient offensive force in the nation among guys who use 28 percent or more of their team’s possessions.
Along with Tim Hardaway Jr., Burke leads a flurry of up-and-comers that should keep the Wolverines well inside the title picture for the next few seasons. There may be no team in the nation with a deeper, more varied talent base.
However, Michigan has become increasingly prone to lapses as the season has gone along—especially on the defensive end. The nation’s second-best offensive team, per Pomeroy, the Wolverines are a very middling 51st defensively. They don’t force turnovers whatsoever, could be exploited by big teams on the inside and have only been intermittently effective in zone of late.
Since starting the season 20-1, Michigan is 6-6—thanks mostly to its sieve-like defense. While all but one of those defeats came at the hands of a ranked opponent, the one that did not stands out as potentially threatening. Playing against a Penn State team with exactly zero wins in the Big Ten Conference, Michigan allowed a team with the 320th-ranked effective field goal percentage to score 81 points.
Call it playing down to their competition or what have you, but Michigan also played through unnecessarily close games against the Nittany Lions (again) and Purdue during this recent downturn. And they also proved that the defensive problems aren't a thing of the past in the Big Ten tournament, giving up 51 points in the second half against a Wisconsin team that was offensive roadkill.
Burke and Co. are talented enough to go on a championship run. But they’ve proven down the stretch that they are also very capable of faltering against even the nation’s lowliest of teams.
Heading into the Big East tournament, Syracuse looked like the most obvious upset possibility in the country. The Orange finished their last regular-season as a member school with three losses in their last four games, including an utterly embarrassing 39-point effort versus Georgetown to close down the campaign.
The swoon led many to view this squad as a possible one-and-done candidate in the Big East tournament—let alone what they thought about Jim Boeheim’s chances of hoisting a second banner.
Then the Orange arrived at Madison Square Garden and suddenly everything changed. They weren’t an offensive juggernaut overnight—still very far from it—but the efficiency returned enough to get critical victories over Seton Hall and Pittsburgh. Michael Carter-Williams dropped an astounding 14 dimes against Seton Hall, with James Southerland being on the receiving end of many as he re-emerges as a top-notch outside threat.
Syracuse is now projected as a No. 4 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest look at the bracket, with the possibility of going even higher with a Big East tournament championship. The Orange even avenged that loss to Georgetown, defeating the Hoyas in a thrilling overtime victory on Friday.
I hate to say it, folks, but this very well could be fool’s gold. Syracuse has improved somewhat as an offensive club, but is still exceedingly turnover prone with bad habits that can strike at any moment. While you can say that about any team in the country, the Orange are one of a select few teams that are score-39-points-in-an-entire-game bad. When Syracuse is having a bad game, it has the potential to get so far off the rails that there is no point of return.
One-game sample sizes almost always trend toward consistent teams. The Orange have righted the ship lately, but that has the potential to change in an instant depending on their matchup and offensive state of mind.
Following last season’s shocking loss to 15-seed Lehigh, schadenfreudian folks can probably hold off on buying the celebratory bubbly during the first round in 2013. The Blue Devils are likely a No. 1 seed for this year’s tournament and Mike Krzyzewski’s career is full of historical moments—but not like that.
Duke is way too talented, disciplined and well-coached to remotely sniff a loss to a 16-seed this season. In fact, the Blue Devils are good enough to win the national championship this season, and it wouldn’t be a shock if they did.
When every star in the rotation is playing, the Blue Devils are arguably the best team in the country. Seth Curry is one of the most dynamic scorers in the nation, seemingly ready to go off at any minute, and Mason Plumlee has an ultra-rare size and athleticism that gives opposing teams night terrors.
They were undefeated this season with Ryan Kelly in the lineup before losing to Maryland in the ACC tournament, spacing the floor well and knocking down shots at a staggering rate. That led many to view Kelly as the most underrated player in the nation. Those benefits, specifically the shooting, fell apart against the Terrapins but we're not going to succumb to recency bias.
Here is the actual problem with the Blue Devils: They are only great when everything is going right. One of the thinnest top-ranked teams in the country, Duke could become very susceptible to upsets if the team suffers an injury or a star gets into foul trouble—especially as the tournament goes along.
That fact was evident when Kelly was out of the lineup. Just one loss with him on the floor, Duke is also the rough equivalent to a 21-10 team without him in the lineup—a record they would likely share if any of the top dogs went down.
Foul trouble is the inescapable beast of March. Every team that makes it deep has at least one game where a star player usually finds himself on the bench for long stretches. Duke more susceptible to losing in that scenario—especially if the player hurt or in foul trouble is Kelly or Plumlee.
While it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Blue Devils don’t make the second weekend, don’t be even remotely surprised if Duke gets upset in the Sweet 16 because of those depth problems.