… Bracket Breakers model anticipates a battle between Arkansas and Kansas
The first round of the NCAA Tournament was so insanely fun that we have no choice but to keep going. Slingshot woke up this morning and couldn’t remember how all the numbers in its spreadsheets turned to Furman purple.
Here’s our game-by-game look at the potential for upsets in Saturday’s contests.
A few reminders: We study opponents separated by at least five seeds. Our analysis adjusts teams’ basic strengths according to how closely they statistically resemble overdogs and longshots from past tournaments and, where appropriate, by style matchups. And we can’t tell you exactly how to bet — that depends on how richly your pool rewards deep upsets and your risk tolerance.
And always remember, keep an extinguisher handy for when your brackets catch fire!
Second Round – Saturday
No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. No. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks
Upset Chance: 32.1%
Arkansas is talented, frustrating, frenetic and inconsistent. In other words, the Razorbacks are a classic Wounded Assassin. They may not be as good as their preseason top-10 ranking (losing Trevon Brazile will do that to you), but the Hogs can play.
And Kansas had better be ready.
Want the case for an upset? Start with this: Our model’s basic power rankings component thinks Kansas is only about 4.6 points per 100 possessions better than Arkansas. That’s consistent with KenPom, which ranks Kansas ninth in the country, Arkansas 21st, and gives Arkansas an even greater chance of winning than Slingshot does (38%).
Why the difference? Arkansas doesn’t play like a traditional Killer. The Razorbacks rarely shoot threes (27.9% of shots), play a fast tempo and are only slightly above-average offensive rebounders. And Kansas does a lot of the things a Giant needs to do to survive. In particular, the Jayhawks force turnovers (20.4% of opponents’ possessions) and limit teams from beyond the arc (31.2% 3-point percentage allowed).
But Arkansas – even without Brazile – is talented. The Razorbacks have three freshmen who were top-15 national recruits to go with Ricky Council and Davonte Davis. They won’t back down. So even though they’ve lost 13 games and consistently fallen to the best teams they played (Alabama twice, Tennessee, Texas A&M twice, Baylor, etc), there is a path to an upset here.
No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 8 Maryland Terrapins
Upset Chance: 24.4%
The Crimson Tide rolled in the first round, never letting Texas A&M-Corpus Christi lead for even a moment. More interesting was their SEC tournament semifinal against Missouri: The Tigers, whom Slingshot rates as a potent underdog, threw everything they could at Alabama. They had 10 steals, and forced a total of 17 turnovers. They took 11 more shots from the field than Alabama. They held the Crimson Tide to just 8-27 shooting (29.6%) on threes. Alabama still beat them by double digits. That’s what can happen when you create openings for effective inside shooting and hold opponents to just 89 adjusted points per 100 possessions, the third-lowest rate in the country.
Our statistical model sees Alabama as the second-strongest team in the country (behind only Houston) and an effective overdog. Key stat: 33.8% offensive rebounding percentage, ranking 30th. They play fast, and find value in bucketloads of threes. For bracket-breaking purposes, it’s just too bad Nate Oats had to take his analytical talents from Buffalo and the MAC to such an overdog.
Maryland is just above-average enough in everything — shooting, forcing turnovers, rebounding at both ends — to have the 29th-most efficient offense in the NCAA and a defense that ranks 32nd. On Thursday, the Terps beat West Virginia by 2 points in a game marred by bizarre officiating, which doesn’t exactly scream “sustainability.”
Alabama has to be concerned about Brandon Miller’s groin injury. But its chances of losing this game essentially come down to “stuff happens.” With an average possession length on defense of 19 seconds (ranking 362nd), Maryland does force opponents to play at a crawl. And when opponents separated by 15 or 20 spots in overall power rankings wind up in a slugfest, sometimes the Bell curves of their scoring will overlap. Wisconsin beat Xavier in the second round of 2016. West Virginia knocked off Duke in 2008.
It’s just not that likely.
No. 2 UCLA Bruins vs. No. 7 Northwestern Wildcats
Upset Chance: 20.9%
Sometimes, you get weird underdog scenarios in the tourney – like when Kentucky was an 8-seed and faced top-seeded Wichita State.
The Shockerswere the “Giant” in that matchup, but come on.
Other times, the narrative is perfect. That’s the case for this game, which features the all-time leader in NCAA championships against a school that is in the tournament for only the second time ever. Northwestern is a true underdog – and it’s a good one. Chris Collins and Co. are masters of generating extra possessions through a huge edge in turnovers. The Wildcats force opponents to cough the ball up on 21.5% of possessions (31st in the nation) and only turn it over 14.7% of the time they have the ball (12th). They play at an extremely slow pace (309th in the country) and take 41.1% of their shots from 3-point range (78th in the nation). So, to recap: They limit the total number of possessions in a game through pace, create more shot attempts than their opponent through a massive turnover differential, and maximize their offensive possession by launching tons of threes. If our model had hands, it would applaud.
UCLA’s defense is top-notch and the Bruins were impressive in dismantling UNC Asheville. But we still haven’t seen the full effects of Jaylen Clark’s absence. At the very least, the Wildcats are a live dog.
No. 2 Texas Longhorns vs. No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions
Upset Chance: 19.1%
Ask Penn State fans what their team needs to do to keep their tournament success going, and you’re likely to get some version of this answer: “Stay hot from the field.” Unfortunately, that’s just about the worst recipe possible for an underdog. Strike one: Unusual performances usually regress to the mean. The Nittany Lions shot an incredible 59.1% on 3-point attempts in their Thursday night win over Texas A&M. But for the season, they’re at 39% (still good enough to rank fifth in the country), and hit just 34.4% in four Big Ten conference tournament games.
Strike two: Opponents change. The Aggies allowed foes to take more than 45% of their shots from behind the arc this season, a strategy that doomed them when their perimeter defense collapsed on Thursday night. But next up is Texas, which just demolished Colgate, the best 3-point-shooting team in the country. The Longhorns held the Raiders to 3-for-15 from downtown and never let them establish any longshot hopes. That’s how you kill a giant-killer. Indeed, at the moment, we’re inclined to give Sir’Jabari Rice (7-10 on 3PA, 3 OR, 2 steals in 28 minutes) our annual Mongoose award, earned by the player who most effectively stomps out the hopes of a slithery underdog hoping to sneak up and strike down a superior foe.
Strike three: Penn State is one of the five worst teams in the country at both grabbing their own missed shots and forcing turnovers — meaning its style is the opposite typically deployed by Cinderellas, which take extra risks to build possessions. The Nittany Lions had 31 offensive rebounds and 12 steals in the Big Ten tournament. Slingshot thinks an underdog will need more ball-hogging than that to threaten Texas, which it sees as the sixth-best team in the nation.
We’ll say this: Our research into pace of play indicates that favorites that are weak offensive rebounders, like Texas, are particularly vulnerable to underdogs that keep things extremely slow on defense, like Penn State. If there’s a path for the Nittany Lions, it probably lies in limiting the Longhorns’ chances, first as well as second. not hoping for another dozen bombs to land.
No. 7 Missouri Tigers vs. No. 15 Princeton Tigers
Upset Chance: 17.8%
Underdogs usually have to play over their heads in some way to pull off a tournament victory, but the truth about Thursday’s biggest upset is that Princeton didn’t win so much as Arizona lost. The Tigers shot 4-25 (16%!) on threes. Meanwhile, the Wildcats missed 33 shots, but grabbed just seven offensive rebounds. They found themselves outblocked, 6-1. They threw bounce passes into the middle of the Princeton defense, and committed 13 turnovers, at least half a dozen of which came in the final stretch of the second half. We haven’t seen (what was supposed to be) a very good team handle a big game that poorly since … well, since Virginia earlier the same day, but you get the point.
So we should expect better play from both Princeton and its opponent in the second round. Thing is, Missouri plays a style that’s like Princeton on steroids. Which makes sense: Dennis Gates (who as a child used to draw diagrams of the Chicago Bulls’ triangle offense) has always wanted to implement the Princeton style while adding speed, and now he’s getting his chance. Missouri pushes the ball, makes smart passes and takes lots of threes. Missouri’s Tigers are better than Princeton’s in each category, especially brilliant at forcing live-ball turnovers that jump-start new attacks. Led by D’Moi Hodge, last seen on the wall of your local post office for stealing balls on 7.4% of opponent possessions, Missouri ranks second in the country at thefts (behind only Merrimack). Princeton, in contrast, ranks 348th in D-I in generating turnovers. Overall, Slingshot admires Missouri’s giant traits and dislikes Princeton as a killer.
To be sure, we love Tosan Evbuomwan. We are expecting a fun game. About two teams called the Tigers meeting in the second round, reader Tony T. says: “They’re grrreat!” And Princeton knows how to execute. But so does Missouri — which is often trying to do the same thing, and achieving it more efficiently.
No. 1 Houston Cougars vs. No. 9 Auburn Tigers
Upset Chance: 17.6%*
First, props to Northern Kentucky, probably the most out-of-left-field killer favored by our model to actually make it into the first round. Did we really think the Norse could fly up and down the court with Houston? Let’s just say the evidence was scanty-navian. But Northern Kentucky played to their own giant-killing strengths exceptionally well: They launched 33 threes and grabbed 18 offensive rebounds, taking as many chances as anyone could have hoped against a team Slingshot sees as the best in the country. And they gave the Cougars all they could handle until very late into their Thursday night game.
Moving forward, the key question is how much Houston was shaking off opening-night sluggishness and how much the Cougars were adversely affected by injuries to key players. Hence the asterisk on our estimate.
We probably don’t have to tell you how important Marcus Sasser’s burst is to everything Houston does at both ends, and he’s still dealing with a strained groin. Or that Jamal Shead, who has a hyperextended knee, leads the team in minutes. After Thursday night’s game, Kelvin Sampson seemed concerned about both players and how Houston’s next game will be against Auburn in Birmingham, about a two-hour drive from the Tigers’ campus.
At full strength, Houston is more than a great team; they’re a dominant overdog. The Cougars pile up offensive rebounds on offense. And defensively, they generate turnovers while pushing teams to the perimeter, where they are the second-best team in the country at defending threes, but still allow opponents to shoot just 43% from inside (ranking fourth). As we have noted in earlier previews, however, gambling giants who are used to having their way with weaker opponents can get frustrated by a class of underdogs we call “slow killers.” And Bruce Pearl has been delivering master classes in coaching that style since his days in Milwaukee, where he took the Panthers to the Sweet 16 as a 12-seed.
This year’s Auburn squad isn’t the best exemplar, but it fits: slow pace on defense, very low 3-point shooting percentage allowed (28.7%, ranking fourth), effective on the offensive boards. We’ve said before that this isn’t a very analytical opinion, but slow killers often just seem smart on the court, and can cause opponents to look like they’re tripping over their own feet. It’s happened against Auburn to Arkansas and Missouri this season — and relatively speaking, to Iowa, too, on Thursday night, if you consider the Hawkeyes were averaging more than 120 adjusted points per 100 possessions before the Tigers held them to a 75-point game.
Slingshot thinks the clash of these teams’ styles wouldn’t matter much if Houston had everyone on board. But start subtracting handfuls of points from the gap between them for Sasser, Shead and a home-court advantage, and you’ll head toward this: When teams from these families of favorites and longshots have met in the tournament, 36% of the matchups have ended in upsets — caveat emptor, based on health.
No. 5 San Diego State Aztecs vs. No. 13 Furman Paladins
Upset Chance: 15.8%
Slingshot is not petty. But it took a little extra pride Thursday afternoon as it watched its creators’ university take down the school whose fans whined about being disrespected by the model’s calculations. It was close. It wasn’t easy. But Slingshot prevailed. And in true Belichickian fashion, now it’s on to San Diego State.
Unfortunately for Furman – and its math department – Slingshot is not nearly as bullish on the Paladins’ chances against San Diego State. It gives them only about a 16% chance of pulling off a second-straight upset. Of the 10 most similar Bracket Breaker games in our model, only one ended in an upset (VCUvs. Purdue, 2011).
The Aztecs didn’t play great in the first round but withstood a statistically tougher Killer (Charleston). Their performance is a blueprint for how to stop Furman. Charleston lives from the arc, but San Diego State contested virtually every shot, forcing them into 5-for-24 3-point shooting. Furman, too, takes tons of threes (12th in the country in percentage of attempts), and the Paladins will be just as challenged to find clean looks against a squad that allows just 28.9% shooting from deep.
The Aztecs are bigger and better on the boards, which limits other ways for Furman to generate extra possessions. The Paladins will have to succeed where the Cougars failed – hunting (and making) – open threes. Otherwise, their run will end on Saturday.
By Peter Keating and Jordan Brenner
Thanks to John Harris, Kevin Hutson and Liz Bouzarth of, that’s right, Furman University for research assistance.
(Top photo: Jamie Sabau / NCAA Photos via Getty Images; Photo of Kelvin Sampson: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)
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