March Madness 2013: Underdogs with Best Chance of Pulling off Sweet 16 Upsets

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2013

Mar 21, 2013; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines guard Trey Burke (3) dribbles the ball in the first half against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits  during the second round of the 2013 NCAA tournament at The Palace. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Not all upsets are created equal, and that's especially the case as the teams continue to dwindle in the 2013 NCAA tournament.

Florida Gulf Coast has captured the nation's attention as the Eagles became the first No. 15 seed to make it to the Sweet 16, and they will continue to have all eyes fixated on them this weekend. 

However, as fun as Andy Enfield's team has been to watch, Florida Gulf Coast's run will end sooner rather than later—likely versus Florida in the Sweet 16. The Eagles' upset of Georgetown and subsequent toppling of San Diego State was fun, but eventually all No. 15 seeds go to NCAA tournament heaven. 

As such, major upsets usually die out right around the second weekend.

What becomes more "normal," as the tournament progresses, are mini upsets. A No. 3 seed will take down a No. 1 seed to make the Final Four, or a No. 6 seed will take down a No. 2 seed en route to the Elite Eight. It's nowhere near as exciting as the Florida Gulf Coasts of the world, but these semi-upsets actually mean more for the actual purpose of the Big Dance. Which, as we seemingly like to forget, is crowning a national champion.

With the Sweet 16 in the offing, here is a complete breakdown of a few underdogs that could topple their favored counterparts on Friday and Saturday.

*All betting information is courtesy of Vegas Insider.


South: No. 4 Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks (-2)

Heading into the NCAA tournament, it was easy to forget Michigan was once the nation's top-ranked team.

The Wolverines finished the regular season 6-6, a rapid descent which included an embarrassing loss to Penn State and two defeats at the hands of both Indiana and Wisconsin. Once a team that had an ascendant offense and a very good defense, Michigan had become a sieve defensively and looked vulnerable to a possible ouster against the right second-round opponent.

Then the madness began and suddenly the Wolverines were a top-flight team again. They survived a shockingly poor performance from Trey Burke in their 71-56 win over South Dakota State in the Round of 64, and then completely eviscerated an in-vogue semi-sleeper in Virginia Commonwealth two days later. 

Perhaps most importantly, Michigan was back to playing good defense. They suffocated South Dakota State's leading scorer Nate Wolters, holding him to just 10 points—less than half of his season average—on 3-of-14 shooting. They did the same to VCU's Troy Daniels and Rob Brandenberg.

The Wolverines will once again need their perimeter defense to be on point versus Kansas. Jayhawks center Jeff Withey will have a distinct advantage in the paint versus freshman Mitch McGary. The senior seven-footer has been having a fantastic tournament thus far, and should skate his way to an easy double-double against the less experienced McGary (who is having a nice tournament in his own right). 

On the opposite side of the coin, Kansas guard Ben McLemore has been nothing short of abysmal during the tournament thus far. He's just 2-of-14 from the field in the Jayhawks' two tourney games and was so off against North Carolina in the Round of 32 that he played only 24 minutes.

While McLemore will undoubtedly come out motivated on Friday, Michigan may have found its correct defensive elixir. If that's the case and the Wolverines continue to frustrate on the perimeter, the burden may wind up being too much on Withey to keep Kansas' national championship dreams alive. 


West: No. 13 La Salle Explorers vs. No. 9 Wichita State Shockers (-4)

In the battle of the two most under-covered Cinderella stories in recent memory, thanks to Florida Gulf Coast, La Salle and Wichita State will do battle to (likely) become the last shocking team remaining.

Both sides have gotten shocking victories, but Wichita State comes in as a strong favorite thanks to its evisceration of Pittsburgh in the Round of 64 and its upset of top-seeded Gonzaga. The Shockers' four-point spread is a strong indication of how impressive they looked during their first two games—especially considering the relatively fine line between a No. 13 seed and a No. 9 seed.

That said, La Salle has two very distinct advantages heading into this contest, and those start with star guard Ramon Galloway. A senior transfer from South Carolina, Galloway has quietly been an ascendant force in the Explorers' three NCAA tournament games thus far. He's averaging 21.3 points while making a shade under 54 percent of his shots and knocking down four three-point field goals per game. 

However, Galloway giveth and he taketh away. He struggled mightily down the stretch when La Salle was looking to lock up its at-large berth—especially against elite teams—and may well be one bad game from shooting the Explorers out of the Big Dance by himself. 

Keeping Galloway in rhythm is absolutely critical, and they may be able to do that via transition buckets. La Salle has been one of the nation's better teams both in terms of keeping possession of the ball and forcing opposing teams into turnovers. Ken Pomeroy measures them as nearly five percent better than the mean when combining both sides of the floor, and the team has kept itself from losing the turnover battle in any of its NCAA tournament games.

That's a critical contrast to Wichita State, which has struggled with turnovers on and off this season. The Shockers have the 158th-ranked turnover rate offensively and 144th-ranked rate defensively, per Pomeroy. Both of those numbers put them near the middle of Division I overall, but are bottom-half numbers among the 16 remaining teams in the NCAA tournament.

So long as La Salle keeps the turnover battle in its favor and doesn't lose the rebounding battle too heavily—where the Shockers have a massive advantage—then this should be a close contest. If Galloway performs the way he has in his first three tourney games, the Explorers have a pretty good shot at keeping their Cinderella run going. 


Midwest: No. 3 Michigan State Spartans vs. No. 2 Duke Blue Devils (-2)

Depending on how much longer they decide to give it a go, this could go down as the final NCAA tournament meeting between two of the greatest March coaches of all time. Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo have a combined 17 Final Four appearances and 31 Sweet 16 appearances between them. They are two historically great coaches who adapt their systems on a yearly basis to the talents on their respective teams.

Therefore, it's only appropriate that these two meet, considering they are heading up two of the more intriguing teams remaining in the Big Dance.

Izzo's Spartans are a bit of an enigma. They are prone to elongated shooting droughts, where they rank 21st in adjusted efficiency but only 79th in effective field goal percentage, per Ken Pomeroy. Their problems begin and end at the guard spots, where Keith Appling and Gary Harris have the ability to both win entire five-game stretches by themselves or shoot Michigan State out of the tournament with a 2-of-20 combined performance.

The Spartans' three-game losing streak toward the end of the season was a perfect example. They lost those contests by a combined 13 points. Appling's combined shooting line in those contests was 5-of-23 from the field, including 0-of-9 from beyond the three-point arc. Had he performed up to par in even two of those games, Michigan State is likely a No. 2 seed and we're not even having this conversation.

Duke, meanwhile, still has exactly one loss with forward Ryan Kelly in the lineup. That loss was a critical one to Maryland in the ACC tournament that cost the Blue Devils a No. 1 seed, but remains singular all the same. 

That being said, they hang on perhaps the tightest of all ropes among championship contenders. Duke is a remarkably shallow team this season, with talent at all five starting positions but little else in terms of reliability. Coach K runs a rotation that gives minutes heavily to six men (the sixth is backup guard Tyler Thornton) and simply hopes that no one gets hurt or gets foul trouble.

The latter point is where Michigan State can glean its highest hopes. Though Duke can ill afford to lose any of its players for long stretches, Kelly and (especially) Mason Plumlee are essential. With Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne both having the ability to draw contact underneath, the Spartans were arguably the Blue Devils' worst matchup nightmare after seeing their draw. 

If both sides play their best games, the Blue Devils probably win. But if Michigan State can force some early foul trouble and keep the game in the low-60s, Izzo may pull off his latest March caper. 

All advanced stats are via unless otherwise noted.

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