Last week, we explored the statistical qualities of lowly seeded teams who pull upsets in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. While I recommend reading the full analysis here, the short version is: Intuitively, one might think that some combination of fixed strengths and variable luck contribute to most first round upsets. The first and easiest metrics that fit the bill are height and experience – two things teams either possess or don’t – and good three point shooting – an important variable that can change games or neutralize opponent strengths. I argue that recent Cinderella teams actually exhibit two tempo-free metrics, defensive turnover percentage, and steal percentage more reliably than they do height, experience, and good 3-point shooting.
With this theory in mind, we might actually be able to predict the most likely mid-major teams to pull significant upsets in the first round of this year’s tournament. To do so, I compiled a list of teams near the top of their conferences likely to receive a 10-or-lower seed should they make the tournament. I studied their team pages on KenPom.com, and awarded them “Slippers” based on their seasons to this point. I awarded Zero Slippers to teams least likely to score an upset, One Slipper to teams I think might bust brackets based on their matchup, and Two Slippers to teams ready to make their mark in March.
Iona – The Gaels have been a popular upset pick in recent years. Coach Tim Cluess ranks consistently in the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, and his teams play very quickly. To this point, Iona shoots the three with an amazing 40% accuracy, and they already clinched the regular season MAAC Title. Other than their 3-point percentage, though, the Gaels don’t show many signs of a team capable of winning tournament games. With their pace and shooting, they could get lucky, but I won’t count on it. One Slipper
Eastern Washington – EWU turned heads early this season winning in Assembly Hall against Indiana and taking Washington to the wire. Should they make the tournament, pundits and observers will point to these games as the early signs of a Cinderella run. I just don’t see it happening. The Eagles play very poor defense, and they don’t do enough well on offense to compensate. Even with a strong three-point shooting backcourt, opponent size affects their offense drastically. Zero Slippers
Stephen F. Austin – The Lumberjacks return four starters from last season’s Cinderella team. While they recently lost their first conference game in nearly two calendar years, they have displayed every characteristic of a team likely to win at least one game in March. Future major conference coach Brad Underwood has himself a top-20 offense, and while their defense struggles overall, they rank 7th nationally in defensive turnover percentage and 46th overall in steal percentage. With a win at Memphis, and overtime loss to Northern Iowa, we know the Lumberjacks can compete with anyone. Two Slippers
Georgia State – Georgia State hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the legendary Lefty Driesell led them to a first round upset over Wisconsin in 2001. Last season, the Panthers went 17-1 in the Sun Belt before dropping a championship game heartbreaker to Louisiana-Lafayette. The 2015 Panthers return a wealth of talent from that squad, averaging 2.22 years of experience, and they play a smart brand of basketball. They have an absurdly low number of shots blocked and balls stolen on offense. Conversely, their quick-hands defense causes turnovers on 23.3% of opponent possessions, and they rank 7th nationally in steal percentage. I expect something closer to a 12 or 11 seed for Georgia State, and a great shot to win a game. Two Slippers
North Carolina Central – NC Central is a favorite to make their second consecutive tournament appearance. The Eagles have the most experienced team in the country and only one loss to a team ranked 100 or lower on KenPom. They play really impressive shooting defense, ranking in the top 10 in both 2-point and 3-point percentage defense. While you can say plenty of kind things about this team, “tournament game winner” won’t be one of them. The committee rarely seeds teams from Historically Black conferences (SWAC and MEAC) higher than 15. In fact, the play-in game seems to have a spot reserved every year for at least one HBCU. NC Central is unlikely to play a winnable game and even less likely to pull an upset. Zero Slippers
UC-Davis – This team embodies the unpredictability of March Madness. The Aggies field one of the best offenses in college basketball. They make an otherworldly 45.7% (!!!) of their 3 point shots, and Arizona State transfer Corey Hawkins might be the best shooter in the nation. The highest rated team Davis has played all year, however, is 105th ranked UC-Irvine (a road win for the Aggies), so we have almost no idea how well they can play against stiff competition. I do think they will capture a Big West Title and make their first ever tournament. I’m not convinced they can replicate Florida Gulf Coast’s magical tournament run. One Slipper
The opening round games, particularly the unexpected wins, make the NCAA Tournament the most exciting post season in sports. Cinderellas of years past, Bryce Drew and Valpo, George Mason, Dunk City, may only win one or two games, but their legacies and their pop culture relevance lasts in video clips, SportsCenter Top 10 lists, and in basketball fans’ memories for decades. There will never be a magic formula to predict which team shocks the world, but there are signs that some teams will have better luck than others.