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Monday, March 15, 2010
Sowing the Seeds: Picking the upsets

By AJ Mass
Special to ESPN.com

Which team will be this year's Cleveland State? How can we tell if the Cinderella slipper will fit?

The most important round in your tournament bracket is the first round. Because there are 32 games, there always will be a few upsets. If you pick the right ones (the ones nobody else does) and avoid selecting against eventual Final Four teams, you've got a huge leg up on the rest of the competition. But basketball is not an exact science, and No. 15 seeds Hampton, Richmond and Santa Clara didn't exactly leap off the page when the brackets were printed in the years of their upsets. Still, there must be a way to red-flag certain teams that are asking for an unexpected thrashing, and those that are anxiously jumping at the chance to give one. And there is … it's all in the seeds.

Simply put, seeding the NCAA tournament is a very inexact science. Many times, the selection committee severely underestimates or overestimates teams. This is especially true when it needs to wait until the very last minute just to figure out which teams will be in the field, as happened Sunday with Mississippi State failing to take the SEC crown in overtime, likely allowing Utah State to squeak into the field. In addition, the committee has a history of favoring teams from the power conferences at the expense of those from the mid-majors and below. That's why it takes the Gonzagas of the world several years of making the tournament before they get assigned anything higher than a 7-seed, even though they probably deserve far higher. A team like Cornell, which was nationally ranked this season, still was given only a 12-seed. If the name on the front of the jerseys reads D-U-K-E for a team with the same résumé, that team probably would be staring at no worse than a 5-seed. But that's OK. It is instances such as those -- when a 13-seed probably deserved to be an 8-seed, or when a 6-seed looks an awful lot like an 11-seed -- in which the upsets occur. Identifying these irregularities in seeding is the key to filling out a successful bracket.

I have taken the 65 teams in the NCAA tournament and ranked them according to a statistical formula that takes into account many of the same categories that the committee used to select the at-large teams in the first place. These categories include: strength of overall schedule, record in the final third of the season, record in games played on the road and at neutral sites, strength of the out-of-conference schedule and wins against teams in the RPI top 50. By comparing each team's strength in these areas in relation to the other teams in the tournament, we can assign each school a single value, which I call a team's Atomic Mass. The larger the number, the "heavier" a team is, the more it sinks to the bottom of the list, and the closer to 16 we should expect its seed to be.

The teams listed in green below are our "money teams," teams our evaluation process has determined "should have been" seeded at least three spots higher than they were by the committee. Conversely, the teams listed in red are the "teams on red alert," teams that should have been seeded at least three spots lower than they were by the committee. If any upsets happen, they likely will be in the games that involve these teams. This doesn't mean I'm actually going to pick all the money teams to win, nor will I necessarily go with all the teams on alert to lose. UTEP may well be more worthy of an 8-seed than a 12-seed, but I'm still not picking UTEP to beat Butler, for example.

Keep in mind that I'm in no way suggesting that the committee should have Oakland ahead of Texas. All I'm saying is that the committee uses different criteria to decide that Team A deserves to go dancing over Team B than it does to determine where to place the teams in the bracket, and as a result, certain "favorite" teams end up going head-to-head against teams they really aren't "better than," according to the qualities that got them into the tournament in the first place. That's where upsets are born.

In a year that was unusual for going according to "the chalk" -- 14 of the 16 top seeds made the Sweet 16 in 2009 -- our system only predicted seven potential first-round upsets. It successfully predicted Cleveland State over Wake Forest, as well as identifying Utah State over Marquette as a very real possibility. Although the Aggies didn't actually shock the world, they came as close as a team could come without actually pulling off the coup. This year, after a careful examination of all 32 of the first-round matchups, here's a look at some possible upsets to target:

East Regional

Cornell was a team I was eyeballing as a potential sleeper ever since it played Kansas close on the road, but Temple is simply the wrong matchup for the Big Red. I do see two potential trouble spots in Round 1, though:

Washington over Marquette: Pac-10 champs have won six straight games, all away from home, and they face a Marquette team that in late February and March beat Big East second-class citizens Cincinnati, Seton Hall and St. John's (twice) by a combined eight points, with three of those games going to overtime.

Wofford over Wisconsin: Wofford has lost only once this calendar year -- a two-point defeat at College of Charleston -- and lost to Pitt by only three points back in November. They have all the momentum against a Wisconsin team that may have peaked before 2010 got underway.

South Regional

I'll take Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the play-in game, just for grins. Other than that, Villanova might be a bit rusty in its opener, but I expect the Wildcats to win. Saint Mary's is better than advertised, but goes up against equally underrated Richmond. Too bad for the Gaels. We're also not going anywhere near the Purdue-Siena game, since the Robbie Hummel injury makes this one a tad unfair for purposes of analyzing seeding. As for the upsets, I will get on board with:

Utah State over Texas A&M: After starting the season 0-2 in conference play, Utah State ran the table before stumbling against New Mexico State in the WAC championship. Meanwhile, A&M once again proved against Kansas how it often disappears at the end of important games. This game follows a similar script and the westernmost Aggies come out on top.

Old Dominion over Notre Dame: Let's get this one straight … the Irish were barely hanging on to the bubble when Luke Harangody got hurt, and even though he is back and the team won a few games in the Big East tournament, somehow that merits giving them a 6-seed? Meanwhile, the Monarchs managed to beat Georgetown this season. I'm looking their way.

West Regional

We would have liked UTEP against a whole lot of teams, but not Butler, who got dropped a few spots by the committee due to its conference affiliation, even though Butler is clearly on a par with a team like 3-seed Baylor. My upset picks for Round 1:

Oakland over Pittsburgh: The Summit champions are not going to be intimidated by Pitt -- they've played this season at Wisconsin, Kansas and Syracuse. Not only that, but they're actually bigger in the paint than the Panthers. Certainly the longest shot of my potential "world-shockers," but one I wouldn't be surprised to see.

Murray State over Vanderbilt: Talk about a balanced team … the Racers' top five scorers all average between 10.3 and 10.6 points per game. Who do you key on? That's the problem for the Commodores, who won't be able to win if Jermaine Beal gets taken out of the game by Murray State.

Midwest Regional

Could Georgia Tech beat Oklahoma State? Sure. But I'm not too hot on that one. I like Northern Iowa to crush UNLV, but an 8-9 game is never really an upset in my book. Still, there are two games screaming for you to go against the grain in this regional:

New Mexico State over Michigan State: The Aggies are a scoring machine, even more so since they got their roster back at full strength following some early season academic issues. Defensively, they're a bit challenged, but the Spartans prefer games in the mid-60s. That's not going to be enough against the WAC's highest-scoring offense.

San Diego State over Tennessee: The Aztecs are a team with both size and experience under the basket, which is exactly the type of team the Volunteers didn't want to see this early. After all, if Wayne Chism's contributions are minimized, there isn't enough of a supporting cast to make up the difference.

So there you have it. My first-round upset specials, courtesy of the committee's rushed seeding process. Only time will tell whether I'm right, or if the madness has caused me to bow out of the Bracket Challenge before the Dance even gets started. Either way, I can't wait to see what happens.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can follow AJ on Twitter or e-mail him here.