Finding upsets by mismatched seeds

Updated: March 18, 2013, 5:26 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

Which team will be this year's Ohio Bobcats? How can we tell if a Cinderella is about to be fitted for that magical glass slipper?

The most important round in your NCAA tournament bracket is the one that takes place on the first Thursday and Friday. Because there are 32 games, there will always be a few upsets. 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 incorrect predictions of demise of the eventual Final Four teams, you've got a huge leg up on the rest of the competition.

Alas, basketball is not an exact science, and Valparaiso, Cleveland State and Austin Peay didn't exactly leap off the page when the brackets were printed in the years of their upsets. Few people, if any, put much faith on the George Mason and Butler teams when they made their marches to the Final Four. 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 exactly which teams will be in the field, as happened Sunday with Ole Miss playing in the SEC title game, which may well have kept 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 St. Mary's, which is currently ranked 25th in the coaches poll, still was relegated to a First Four game in Dayton. 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.

[+] EnlargeKerron Johnson
AP Photo/Wade PayneKerron Johnson and Belmont may be better than the 11 seed they got.

So, as I do every year at this time, I've taken all the teams that 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 things such as strength of overall schedule, 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 received seeds 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 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. Northwestern State may well be more worthy of an 11-seed than a 14-seed, but we're still not picking it to beat Florida, for example.

Keep in mind, we're in no way suggesting that the committee should have seeded Davidson ahead of Wisconsin. 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 the sleepers can awaken.

In last year's dance only 11 of the 16 top seeds made the Sweet 16 and only a single No. 1 seed made it to the Final Four. Ten lower-ranked teams ended up coming out on top, surviving and advancing to the first weekend of the tournament, including VCU, one of our money teams, and NC State, Colorado and Xavier, who all squared up against one of our red-alert squads. The warning signals, in these cases, were there.

Even when the results don't go our way, it doesn't mean we were wrong to have believed. After all, few people would have picked Norfolk State to upset Missouri or Lehigh to send Duke packing -- and neither did I -- but that's just what these 15-seeds both accomplished last year. That's what puts the madness into March: The fact that sometimes results that make no sense actually do happen.

And even though we missed on several of our upset picks last year, 83 percent of our air balls at least held their higher-ranked foe to a single-digit scoring margin. A few balls bounce in the other direction and suddenly we're whistling "One Shining Moment" all the way to the bank. There are no guarantees and even if we fully stand behind the claim that we've correctly identified the most likely candidates for an early upset, that is no guarantee that all of them will occur, or that favorites not on our list won't go by the wayside.

With that said, let's look to the 2013 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:

Midwest Regional

This portion of the bracket is the most difficult of the four, an assessment made real by the fact there are no seeds that have a tough enough opening game to warrant predicting an upset. Yes, New Mexico State and Valparaiso are likely seeded a bit lower than they should be, but not by enough to assume they'll be busting up the bracket this year. If you're opposed to chalk, then a matchup between Middle Tennessee State and Memphis might be that one game to look to for chaos. The unfortunate reality is that of our 10 "money teams," three of them -- those two and St. Mary's -- all ended up falling together. Any other team but Memphis and we'd be singing the Blue Raiders' praises.

West Regional

Notre Dame is our loudest "red alert" team, but I guess the "luck of the Irish" really came through on St. Patrick's Day as they got paired up with Iowa State, another of our "keep away" squads. Any other opponent and we might have pulled the trigger on the upset, but as it stands, we'll reluctantly pass. Wisconsin is another team that could be a bit vulnerable down the line, and one we're not picking to get to the Sweet 16, although Ole Miss leaves a bad taste in my mouth with that matchup. We will, however, kick off our upset specials with two games in this portion of the bracket:

No. 11 Belmont over No. 6 Arizona: The Wildcats' strength this year has been their defensive rebounding, but the Bruins are a top-5 shooting team nationally. There won't be enough rebounds to tip the scales in favor of the Pac-12 squad that couldn't rein in those other Bruins (we're talking UCLA) in any of their three meetings this season. Arizona probably deserved a little more respect from the committee and perhaps as high as a No. 4 seed, but Belmont's talent is going to be equal to the task here.

No. 9 Wichita State over No. 8 Pittsburgh: The first team to 60 points is likely to win this game featuring two top-50 scoring defenses. The Panthers like to play an aggressive style that wears the opposition down. That may work against many teams, but won't have as big an impact against a Shockers squad that typically rotates 10 players to keep the team from wearing down at the end of close games.

South Regional

[+] EnlargeNate Wolters
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsNate Wolters' South Dakota State team may be better than a 13 seed, and could give 4-seed Michigan a tough battle in the round of 64.

Akron would have been a slam dunk pick to upset most teams if not for the suspension of point guard Alex Abreu. Even though the Zips earned a bid by winning the MAC championship without him, their chances of pulling off an upset have to be lowered a bit without their floor general. An upset still might take place here but, based on recent history, we're not picking VCU and Shaka Smart to go down so early. With that game off the board, we'll look elsewhere for our upsets. Northwestern State and Florida Gulf Coast are both being disrespected a bit in the seedings here, but not enough for us to look their way against the likes of Florida or Georgetown. But we do have some lower seeds we do like to win:

No. 13 South Dakota State over No. 4 Michigan: Senior Nate Wolters is the kind of player who can take a team on his back and has done so in the past, like when he and the Jackrabbits went to Albuquerque and handed New Mexico its first loss of the season -- with a bad ankle no less. The Wolverines have no such senior leadership and the easiest way to get them frustrated is to send them to the free throw line, where the clanking starts to ring in their ears as their confidence goes south.

No. 10 Oklahoma over No. 7 San Diego State: Neither of these two teams shoots the outside jumper all that effectively, so this one is going to be a battle in the paint. To that end, the Aztecs drew a tough matchup as Jamaal Franklin is not going to be able to have his way with the Sooners. Plus, Lon Kruger is already aware of how San Diego State likes to play given his past as UNLV head coach.

East Regional

There's Indiana and there's Miami and then there's everybody else in this quadrant of the bracket. There's always one region that gets blown up completely and this is the one that screams out for at least one double-digit seed to make a deep run. I'm going to advance the top two seeds, along with Illinois, although, if our opinion of Colorado was a bit higher, we'd pull the trigger there, as well. As for the rest of the "favorites"? Read it and weep:

No. 9 Temple over No. 8 NC State: This game could legitimately go either way, but it comes down to the Owls' defensive prowess usually finding a way to take the opponent out of its rhythm and the Wolfpack's propensity to look quite ordinary when they struggle out of the gate. It's hard to call any 8-9 game that goes to the lower seed a shocker, but with NC State's Richard Howell a bit banged up, it might be a little less surprising.

No. 12 California over No. 5 UNLV: This is a rematch of a game played earlier this season, one in which UNLV beat Cal by a single point. Plus it's a de facto home game for the Bears, with the San Jose crowd cheering them on. Don't get me started about how easily that could have been avoided simply by sending Cal to play Memphis instead. It is what it is and if Allen Crabbe avoids the foul trouble that plagued him the first time these teams met, the result could easily go the other way.

[+] EnlargeMike Muscala
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonCould Mike Muscala lead 11-seed Bucknell to an upset of perennial tournament darling Butler?

No. 13 Montana over No. 4 Syracuse: The one thing that can beat the Orange is a team that can shoot lights out as soon as it steps over half court. That's why the Grizzlies are the worst kind of opponent for Syracuse. There's no doubt that if Jim Boeheim's team plays its A-game, it can make a run all the way to the Final Four. It's just that all too often they go cold -- see the second half against Louisville or either regular-season game against Georgetown.

No. 14 Davidson over No. 3 Marquette: The Wildcats have won 17 in a row and feature an uptempo, run-and-gun, shoot-the-3 style that can quickly turn a close game into a huge lead. The Golden Eagles are strong defenders once opponents get into a half-court offense, but how effective can that be if Davidson has already buried one from behind the arc before that man-to-man can take shape?

No. 11 Bucknell over No. 6 Butler: The Bulldogs have beaten two of this year's No. 1 seeds -- Indiana and Gonzaga -- this season. But Bucknell can use center Mike Muscala to neutralize and perhaps even outshine Andrew Smith down low, keeping this game from getting out of reach. Truth be told, because they've been battle-tested, we probably still like Butler's chances to come out ahead here, but the chance of an upset is legitimate. Given we're already throwing this region into chaos, what's one more monkey wrench in the mix?

So there you have it: nine games where the numbers say you should take a chance on the underdog, courtesy of the committee's rushed seeding process. Nobody is suggesting you have to pick them all, but if you were already leaning in the direction of the upset in any of these matchups, don't be afraid to pull the trigger. By this time next week, we'll know for sure if the process produced results again in 2013, but either way, we're going to have lots of fun seeing how this madness plays itself out.

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