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Monday, March 14, 2011
Sowing the seeds for upsets

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

Which team will be this year's Cornell? How can we tell if a sleeper is about to awaken?

The most important round in your tournament bracket is what is now called the second round. Because there are 32 games, there always will be a few upsets. (Yes, technically, now there are 36 games, with the two doubleheaders on Tuesday and Wednesday, and what was the "first round" in years past is now called the "second round" but the point remains the same.) If you pick the right lower seeds to advance -- and perhaps more importantly, ones that the rest of your pool fails to select -- while at the same time avoiding any erroneous predictions of demise of the eventual Final Four teams, you've got a huge leg up on the rest of the competition.

Tai Wesley
Tai Wesley and Utah State appear to deserve far better than a 12-seed, given the Aggies have lost just twice all season.

Alas, basketball is not an exact science, and Valparaiso, Cleveland State and Austin Peay didn't exactly leap off the brackets during the years they pulled off their upsets. Still, there must be a way to red-flag certain teams that may be primed 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, despite all the preparation that goes into the process, the seeding of the NCAA tournament often ends up looking like a hot mess. 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, which is what happened Sunday with Penn State and Dayton playing in their respective title games, keeping the fate of many a bubble team in limbo well into the late afternoon.

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 deserved far higher, much sooner. A team like Utah State, which is currently ranked 17th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, still was given only a 12-seed. If the name on the front of the jerseys read D-U-K-E for a team with the same résumé, that team probably would be staring at no worse than a 4-seed.

But that's OK. It is exactly instances such as these, 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.

So, as I do every year at this time, I've taken all the teams who were invited to the NCAA tournament and ranked them according to a statistical formula that takes into account the very same categories that the committee says it used to select the at-large teams in the first place. These categories include: strength of overall schedule, record in the last 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 first 11 teams listed 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 last 12 teams listed are the "teams on red alert": teams that should have received seeds at least three spots lower than they were given by the committee.

If any upsets happen, they likely will be in the games that involve these teams. This doesn't mean we're actually going to pick all the money teams to win, nor will we necessarily go with all the teams on alert to lose. LIU may well be more worthy of a 10-seed than a 15-seed, but we're still not picking it to beat North Carolina, for example.

Keep in mind: We're in no way suggesting that the committee should have seeded Old Dominion ahead of Pittsburgh. All we are 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 very qualities that were responsible for getting them invited to the tournament in the first place. That's where Cinderella is born.

Last year's dance was a crazy affair, with only eight of the 16 top seeds making the Sweet 16 in 2010. Our system identified eight potential first-round upsets, successfully predicting Washington over Marquette, Old Dominion over Notre Dame and Murray State over Vanderbilt, while three other targeted underdogs lost by four points or fewer. Additionally, three teams we red-flagged in this process (Wisconsin, Pitt and Texas A&M) -- though they avoided a first-round embarrassment -- also failed to make it to the Sweet 16. In other words, by taking a leap of faith and going against these favorites, our brackets were not hurt in the long term.

Enough about the past! Let's look to the current bracket. This year, our careful examination of all of the first- and second-round matchups has given us the following possible upsets you might want to consider including on your own sheets of integrity:

East Regional

If you're picking the first round, then go with UAB over Clemson, since it is the least deserving team to have snuck into the dance through this year's new "backdoor bids." Usually, 8-9 games are a toss-up, but in this case the numbers suggest that hot George Mason should handle sliding Villanova quite handily. Princeton has an outside chance at keeping it close enough with Kentucky to make John Calipari sweat a bit, but -- at least for starters -- we're going to go upset-free in the East Regional.

West Regional

Hampton deserved better than a date with Duke, but no historic 16-1 upset is in the offing here. Tennessee should be able to advance to face the Blue Devils after overthrowing No. 8 seed Michigan. Cincinnati would be an upset lock against nearly any other team in the tournament, but gets lucky to draw another overseeded competitor in Missouri. As a result, we'll see them through, but by the skin of their Bearcat teeth. We will, however, be picking two upsets in this portion of the bracket:

Bucknell over Connecticut: Not only are we fearful of a hangover after the Huskies completed the grueling five wins in five games in five days marathon that was the Big East tournament, but also we recognized that the Bison are a pretty good team in their own right. Bucknell has won 19 of 20 games, and despite losing to both Villanova and Marquette early this season, the flash of a Big East opponent will not intimidate this crew.

Keith Benson
Oakland has played five ranked teams during its nonconference schedule, winning at Tennessee in December.

Oakland over Texas: By all rights, the Longhorns could well have made an argument for being a No. 1 seed if not for the loss to Kansas on Saturday. Still, they could not have drawn a worse opponent in Oakland. Although Texas is one of the best defenses in the land in terms of field goal efficiency, if the Golden Grizzlies came onto the court wearing the Jayhawks' jerseys, we're not sure anyone would notice much difference.

Southwest Regional

Georgetown seems to be getting the Fast Pass to the Sweet 16, with a game against a "play-in" team to kick off its dance card. Chris Wright is expected to play, so expect the Hoyas to meet Notre Dame when they get there, as neither Texas A&M nor Florida State should be able to offer up much resistance to the Irish. In the other half of the Southwest bracket, we'll call for one upset special:

Richmond over Vanderbilt: The Spiders don't look all that impressive to watch, but they're terrific shooters from the outside and rarely turn the ball over. Additionally, this is a team that beat Purdue by 11 points back in November. If the Spiders can slow the tempo down -- and I think they can -- then they have a legitimate chance to win.

Southeast Regional

So where are all the upsets? Fear not! There are glass slippers a-plenty here in the Southeast, so fasten your seat belts and get ready for a rocky road. Why wasn't Gus Johnson sent courtside for the following tilts, I wonder:

Old Dominion over Butler: It's a shame the committee saw fit to match up last year's mid-major darling against the most appealing of all the sleeper candidates to bust up the status quo in this tournament. Whichever team wins the battle on the boards will come out ahead, and I think it will be the Monarchs. Pittsburgh best watch out if that pick comes to fruition, because ODU won't be content to stop at just one victory.

Utah State over Kansas State: Kansas State lost three times to snubbed Colorado this season, while Utah State beat nearly everybody it faced. Defensively, the Aggies have few equals in the nation, and the Wildcats often treat the basketball as if it were a flaming porcupine. Really, if you had swapped out these two and placed Utah State on the 5-line instead of Kansas State, it would have made a lot more sense.

Belmont over Wisconsin: Belmont is a team that has routinely put up scores in the 80s, while Wisconsin is coming off a game where it lost 36-33. Obviously that was an aberration, but you can't help but wonder how much of a carry-over that disaster will have, especially if the Bruins hit a few quick 3s and build up an early double-digit lead.

So there you have it: seven games in which the numbers say you should roll the dice, courtesy of the committee's rushed seeding process. Only time will tell whether or not the madness has caused me to see things that simply aren't there, or whether the seeds have once again sown some sweet-tasting fruit. Either way, I can't wait to see what happens.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.