8 Teams Built to Bust 2014 NCAA Brackets
With financial titan Warren Buffett set to pony up a cool billion dollars for a perfect set of NCAA tournament picks, March Madness just got real. The incentive for bracket trackers to get out ahead of the game in regards to picking sleepers has never been greater.
We've all cursed that double-digit seed that rose up and demolished one of our potential Final Four participants (personal experience: Norfolk State over Missouri, 2012). On the flip side, we've all had that Sweet 16 Cinderella pick that actually came to fruition (like, say, Richmond 2011).
Upsets seem to be happening more frequently, and getting out in front of the next trend is difficult. The following eight teams—presented alphabetically—have some of the characteristics bracket-watchers look for in their Cinderella selections. The lone prerequisite is an average seed of No. 9 or greater on BracketMatrix.com.
Some teams are better equipped to pull off a miracle, and these squads—provided they make the field, naturally—could turn into sexy selections or maddening anomalies that will decide your office pool.
Stats, rankings and BM seedings accurate through games of March 10. All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription.
BM Average: 14.51
The newly minted Ohio Valley Conference champions from Eastern Kentucky are a diminutive team, making them a more literal David against some of college basketball's Goliaths. Forward Eric Stutz is the only Colonel taller than 6'8", while 6'7" senior Jeff Johnson (251 lbs) is the only player heavier than 225.
Teams this small have to make their living by picking off steals and hitting three-pointers. The Colonels do both very well, ranking among Ken Pomeroy's national top 30 in both three-point shooting and steal percentage. Five members of the EKU rotation shoot better than 39 percent from long range.
Senior point guard Glenn Cosey (pictured) dished 4.2 assists per game while coughing up only 1.9 turnovers a night. Backcourt mate Corey Walden ranks 15th in the nation with 73 steals, and he's actually forced more turnovers than he's committed (69).
As a team, EKU ranks fifth nationally in defensive turnover percentage and 35th on the offensive end, giving it a great advantage in the possession battle.
Could EKU be the new Florida Gulf Coast? Minus the procession of highlight-reel dunks, it's possible. Most bracketologists have the Colonels seeded in the No. 13 to 15 range.
BM Average: 13.82
Opponents who make their living off of turnovers, both forcing the opposition's and limiting their own, will have a difficult time with the Georgia State Panthers. GSU forces turnovers on 20.8 percent of opponents' possessions, good for 40th in the nation, per Pomeroy. Even more impressive: The offense is tops in the nation with a 12.3 percent turnover rate of its own.
While the Panthers aren't a big team—only one rotation player stands taller than 6'7"—they still manage to get points both inside and outside the arc. Their 51.2 percent two-point shooting and 38.7 percent from three combine to form a 53.6 effective field-goal percentage, one of the top 30 in the country.
Guards Ryan Harrow and Devonta White form a potent dual point guard attack, with each averaging 4.4 assists per game. Wings R.J. Hunter (pictured) and Manny Atkins combine for more than 31 points per game and 42.3 percent from beyond the arc. It all adds up to an offense with more weapons than most opponents have been able to guard.
All four of the above players average at least 1.2 steals per game, and they can afford to gamble because 6'9" post man Curtis Washington is a vicious shot-blocker at 2.4 per game.
If there's a knock on GSU, it's that it hasn't exactly been battle-tested this season. Alabama and Southern Miss are the only teams on its entire schedule that rank in Pomeroy's top 100. Still, Southern Miss needed overtime to escape a mauling by the Panthers.
BM Average: 11.74
We're not surprised to see Harvard in the tournament. After all, the Crimson were drawing Top 25 votes when the season began. What may be most surprising is that it took until March 7 for Harvard to clinch the Ivy League title.
Where most of the teams in this list don't have much in the way of NCAA tournament experience, Harvard returned much of the nucleus from last year's team. That 14th-seeded team knocked out a third-seeded New Mexico squad that some were touting as a No. 1 seed—and some weren't.
Six Crimson players average at least 9.3 points per game, and only one shoots less than 44 percent from the floor in doing so. Shot selection is key for coach Tommy Amaker's squad. Harvard shoots 39 percent from long range, among the top 25 success rates in America, but Pomeroy has it near 300th in the nation in percentage of shots coming from three.
Harvard's defense lives on big plays, ranking in the top 30 nationwide in turnover, steal and block percentages. Point guards Brandyn Curry and Siyani Chambers, along with wing Wesley Saunders, each average at least 1.3 steals per game.
Some brackets have Harvard seeded as high as No. 8, which would make them a challenging out for a flawed top seed like Villanova. More likely, though, the Crimson's path to the Sweet 16 should go through a No. 5 or 6. That's an easier ask than last season's No. 3, and the team is still more than equipped to make it happen.
BM Average: 12.23
Only about half of the BracketMatrix entries have Louisiana Tech even in the field, as Conference USA has a logjam of potential champions. If the league wants to make some noise in the tournament, however, it would be best represented by coach Michael White's Bulldogs.
While Tech isn't a good three-point shooting team, it gets enough transition opportunities to make up for it. According to Hoop-Math.com, more than a full third of the Bulldogs' shots come within the first 10 seconds of a possession. The team plays at the 21st-fastest tempo in the nation, per Pomeroy.
Point guard Kenneth "Speedy" Smith isn't the slightest bit concerned about getting his own shot, spending his time setting up teammates and harassing opponents. His 7.9 assists per game rank second in the country, and he stands seventh at 2.6 steals per night. Northwestern State's Jalan West is the only other player ranking in the top 10 in both categories.
Guard Kenyon McNeail is the primary shooting threat, knocking down 38.6 percent from the arc. Junior Raheem Appleby was a 40 percent shooter as a freshman, but he's regressed since then. If he recaptures his stroke, the Tech transition game will have another weapon for opponents to fear.
Opponents wilt under Tech's pressure defense, as six players average at least one steal per game. The defense is 10th in the nation in turnover percentage, and the offense doesn't reciprocate. Tech's offense has the 31st-best turnover rate in Division I.
If Tech runs across a deliberate offensive team with an inexperienced point guard (Michigan? Cincinnati?), think long and hard about who you pencil in on that next line.
BM Average: 13.15
Most of BracketMatrix's contributors haven't updated since Manhattan won the MAAC tournament over Iona. Only 13 brackets had Manhattan even in the field. Now that it's officially in, prospective opponents at least know which talented Metro Atlantic team they need to fear.
The Jaspers are coached by Steve Masiello, a former Kentucky player and assistant coach under Rick Pitino. Masiello's charges play a Louisville-style pressure defense, designed to either get turnovers or funnel opponents to rim protectors Rhamel Brown (3.7 blocks per game, third in America) and Ashton Pankey, a 6'10" ex-Maryland Terrapin.
Manhattan also puts pressure on opponents on the offensive end. The Jaspers' 55.9 FTA/FGA ratio is second-best in the nation, per Pomeroy. While they're not a good foul-shooting team, there's still a lot of value in putting opponents in serious foul trouble.
Three Jaspers shoot better than 37 percent from the arc, but the offense isn't predicated on jumpers. All-MAAC guard George Beamon (19.2 PPG) dominates the offense inside and out, and he's the team's only really deadly foul shooter at 82 percent.
Where Manhattan will run into problems is foul trouble of its own. Brown and Pankey are prone to difficulties as an effect of going for so many blocks. Masiello mitigates these difficulties by running players in and out constantly. A whopping 10 Jaspers average at least 12 minutes per game, and Beamon is the only one playing more than 25.
BM Average: 9.15
It's been a wild season for Oklahoma State, so topsy-turvy that the Cowboys could go from top 10 in the polls to a 10-seed in the tournament. With Marcus Smart back in the fold and balling out of his mind, however, the Pokes need to make even the hottest No. 1 or No. 2 seed afraid.
Since Smart returned from his three-game suspension for shoving a Texas Tech fan, he's crushed opponents to the tune of 19.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 4.4 steals in five games. Backcourt mate Phil Forte has put up three 20-point games of his own in that span, making a total of 15 three-pointers in those outings.
The Pokes don't attack the rim at an extreme rate, taking only 38.4 percent of their shots at close range, according to Hoop-Math. Still, they draw a ton of free throws, nearly one for every two field-goal attempts. Smart, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash have made 424 foul shots between them, only 26 fewer than Cornell's entire team has attempted.
Forte and Brown make a combined 42.3 percent from the arc, and even the frequently scattershot Smart has made 37.5 percent from deep since his return.
OSU's defensive turnover percentage is the best in the Big 12, and the offense ranks third, according to StatSheet.com. Opponents will be relentlessly pressured by a motivated Smart as he seeks to repair any damage that may have been done to his NBA draft stock after the Texas Tech incident.
One caveat: The Cowboys have no reliable bench help aside from Forte. If anyone gets in foul trouble, the burden on Smart only increases. Still, Oklahoma State may be a very tough out, even if it runs into a No. 1 seed in the round of 32.
BM Average: 9.35
SMU coach Larry Brown's epic reclamation project has reached an unexpected endgame on the back of a top-flight defense. Pomeroy ranks the Mustangs defense in the national top 30 in a host of categories, including overall efficiency, turnover percentage and effective field-goal percentage.
Part of the secret is good length across the board, as 5'9" point guard Nic Moore (pictured) is the only rotation player shorter than 6'4". That size and the athletic ability needed to recover and contest shots make life difficult for SMU's opponents. They only shoot 41.4 percent on two-point shots, the seventh-lowest percentage in the nation.
The Mustangs' defensive pressure can last all night, as 10 different players average at least 12 minutes per game.
Offensively, the Ponies could run into problems if they can't hang on to the ball. Seven different players average at least one turnover per game, although Moore is solid. He's also the team's most dangerous three-point threat at better than 45 percent. Former McDonald's All-American Keith Frazier (36.7 percent) is the only other shooter making more than one triple per game in an offense that avoids the three.
When SMU does miss shots, it frequently gets another look. More than 15 percent of the team's close-range baskets come on putbacks, according to Hoop-Math.
A good run in the American Athletic Conference tournament could see SMU rise as high as a No. 6 seed. That would only make them a true bracket-buster if they reach the Elite Eight or beyond. Don't discount that possibility altogether, though.
BM Average: 11.67
Consider this the super long-shot pick. Utah won a very solid nine games in the Pac-12, but a pathetic nonconference schedule sabotaged the Utes' RPI, meaning that they likely need to win the Pac-12 tournament to even make the Big Dance.
If they're chosen for the field of 68, junior point guard Delon Wright (pictured) will get to showcase his highly versatile game. The 6'5" Wright has put up a sparkling stat line of 16.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.3 blocks while shooting a ludicrous 58.4 percent from the floor and 78.7 percent from the foul line. He's in the Pac-12's top 15 in all those categories.
Guards Brandon Taylor and Dakarai Tucker and wing Jordan Loveridge aren't prolific shooters, making fewer than five three-pointers per game combined, but they make a combined 36 percent from the arc.
There isn't a ton else to recommend the Utes as a major tournament threat, but there's always the possibility that Wright can strap his team to his back for one transcendent game against a No. 5 or 6 seed.
For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his new podcast, check out The Back Iron.