Teams on Upset Alert in Day 3 of 2014 NCAA Tournament

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 18, 2014

Teams on Upset Alert in Day 3 of 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    Upsets provide the madness for March Madness. Shocking early-round results are almost inevitable, and they make the NCAA tournament the fascinating event it has become.

    Three times in the past two NCAA tournaments a No. 15 seed has taken out a No. 2 seed: Lehigh beat Duke and Norfolk State eliminated Missouri in 2012, and and Florida Gulf Coast knocked out Georgetown last year. A No. 14 seed, Harvard, ousted No. 3-seeded New Mexico last year as well.

    The opportunity for a little-known college to eliminate a powerhouse begins on Thursday's Day 3 of the tournament, when the frenetic round of 64 gets underway.

    This year, the prospects are better than ever that high seeds will crash in their first games.  Seven teams look vulnerable in their opening games on Day 3, putting them on Upset Alert.

Ohio State

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    No. 6 seed Ohio State vs. No. 11 seed Dayton (South Region)

    Ohio State is an outstanding defensive team, but it has offensive limitations that could show up against a team like Dayton. The Buckeyes obviously are not as good as their 15-0 start suggested. They have played pretty well lately, but their two losses to Penn State indicate that they are vulnerable against just about anyone.

    Dayton suffered through a midseason slump when it lost four in a row, but it has played its best basketball lately. The Flyers have won 10 of their last 13 games, including a road win over Saint Louis in that stretch.

    Dayton does not have an individual star, but it does have good depth and balance. It has enough offensive firepower to outscore the Buckeyes, who don't shoot three-pointers particularly well and whose only reliable offensive threat recently has been LaQuinton Ross.

    This game could come down to the last possession, giving Dayton a shot at an upset.


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    No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 North Dakota State (West Region)

    If you put any stock in the RPI rankings, this game should be close. Oklahoma is No. 26 in the RPI rankings, and North Dakota State is No. 35.

    More significant is that Oklahoma seems to be seeded too high and that the Bison are better than people realize.

    The Sooners score a lot of points and finished alone in second place in the Big 12, probably the best conference in the country. But they really did not do anything spectacular in the process. They are not very good defensively and rely on three-point shooting on offense.

    The Sooners will have to shoot well to beat the Bison, a consistent team that takes few chances but makes few mistakes. North Dakota State leads the nation in field-goal percentage, which should play well against Oklahoma's shaky defense, and it commits few turnovers.

    North Dakota State's Taylor Braun is a 6'7" point guard who does a little bit of everything and will be a handful for Oklahoma. He provides what his team needs when it needs it.

    The Bison are strong enough and consistent enough to make Oklahoma work for everything. If the Sooners are just a bit off in their three-point shooting, they could be eliminated early.


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    No. 5 seed Cincinnati vs. No. 12 seed Harvard (East Region)

    Cincinnati is a tough, defensive-minded team that boasts one of the best offensive players in the country in Sean Kilpatrick. But the Bearcats have few offensive weapons besides Kilpatrick, who must be outstanding for the Bearcats to survive against Harvard.

    The Crimson have much the same team they had last year when, as a No. 14 seed, they upset No. 3-seeded New Mexico in their opening game of the NCAA tournament. Point guard Siyani Chambers, swingman Wesley Saunders and captain Laurent Rivard all played critical roles in Harvard's success against New Mexico, and all three are back.

    Harvard is an experienced, talented team that is better than its 2012-2013 version and is riding an eight-game winning streak. The Crimson are comfortable playing in a low-scoring game, which a matchup against Cincinnati promises to be.

    The one common opponent is Connecticut. Cincinnati lost two of three matchups against the Huskies, and Harvard lost at UConn by five points.

    Harvard's success last year will prevent Cincinnati from overlooking the Crimson, but unless Kilpatrick gets some offensive assistance, Harvard may win anyway.

Saint Louis

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    No. 5 Saint Louis vs. No. 12 North Carolina State (Midwest Region)

    This is about momentum.

    Saint Louis looked like a threat to go deep into the NCAA tournament when it was riding a 19-game winning streak which earned it a No. 10 national ranking in late February. However, the Billikens lost four of their last five games, including losses to mediocre St. Bonaventure and Duquesne.

    Saint Louis does not have many individual stars, relying on excellent passing and teamwork from its five senior starters to be better than the sum of its parts.  When that cohesiveness breaks down, the Billikens are an ordinary team, which is what they look like at the moment. Point guard Jordair Jett sets the tempo for the Billikens, but he has nearly as many turnovers (17) as assists (19) over the past five games and is 0-of-5 on three-pointers in that span.

    Meanwhile, North Carolina State is coming off a win over Xavier that will provide a confidence boost, and it has an offensive star capable of carrying its team.

    The Wolfpack are playing with a devil-may-care attitude, because they feel fortunate to be in the tournament at all. It beat Syracuse in the ACC tournament and has one of the top scorers in the country in guard T.J. Warren, the ACC Player of the Year.


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    No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 14 seed Western Michigan (South Region)

    The talent gap between Syracuse and Western Michigan is huge, but the Orange's recent performances make them look vulnerable. After starting the season 25-0, Syracuse has lost five of its last seven games. Even the two wins in that stretch were less than convincing. Trevor Cooney, the team's only reliable three-point shooter, is in a shooting slump at the worst time, going 10-of-51 (19.6 percent) during that seven-game tailspin.

    Syracuse cannot be a confident team at this point, and if Western Michigan can keep the game close until the closing minutes, it has a chance to steal a win.

    Unlike Syracuse, Western Michigan is brimming with confidence at the moment, having won 12 of its last 13 games. Broncos guard David Brown, a tough, aggressive fifth-year senior, may be able to penetrate the Syracuse zone, score points and get the Orange in foul trouble.

    If this game had been played two months ago, Syracuse would win in a breeze. Now, there are some doubts.

San Diego State

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    No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 13 New Mexico State (West Region)

    San Diego State is an outstanding defensive team that rebounds well, but its offensive limitations prevent the Aztecs from overwhelming anyone.

    The Aztecs lost the Mountain West tournament title game to New Mexico, which was beaten by New Mexico State on the Lobos' home floor in December. New Mexico State is an efficient offensive team that shoots 49.1 percent from the floor, ninth best in the country.

    The Aggies also have a point guard, Daniel Mullins, who can offset San Diego State star Xavier Thames. Both were their conference's players of the year, and their numbers are strikingly similar. Both averaged 16.8 points per game, while Thames averaged 3.2 assists and 1.7 steals compared with Mullins' 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals.

    The Aggies also feature 7'5", 360-pound Sim Bhullar, who is by no means a star but offers a challenge the Aztecs have not encountered before. He averages 3.4 blocks a game.


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    No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 15 Milwaukee (East Region)

    Villanova is apt to blow Milwaukee off the court, but a few factors suggest that, if things go Milwaukee's way, the Panthers could score a big-time upset.

    For one thing, Villanova is coming off a humbling loss to Seton Hall, which could have shaken the Wildcats' confidence just a bit.

    Second, Villanova relies heavily on its three-point shooting, with 44.6 percent of its shots coming from beyond the arc. Such dependence on the perimeter game can lead to disaster when the outside shot is not falling. Villanova's leading scorer, James Bell, is 2-of-15 on three-point shots over the past four games, and if he continues his shooting slump, things could get dicey.

    Milwaukee could be the perfect foil, because it plays excellent perimeter defense, allowing opponents to hit just 31.5 percent of their three-point shots. The Panthers also take a lot of three-pointers, and if they are hitting them, they could stay close. Their two primary outside threats, Jordan Aaron and Austin Arians, were a combined 12-of-26 (46.2 percent) from three-point range in their final two games.

    Although Milwaukee finished only fifth in the Horizon League, it is riding a five-game winning streak that included its second victory of the year over Green Bay, a quality team that beat Virginia this season.