Most of the fun and excitement in the NCAA tournament comes about because this is the chance for the little guy to jump up and knock out the bully on the block.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some key ingredients underdogs use to pull first-round upsets (we’re talking at least a five-seed difference here, and we’re not including any “Big Six” conference teams among the “underdogs”). With an eye toward the brackets this season, we’ve included teams that have some of the necessary ingredients to pull those upsets this season.
Remember, though, that there’s a reason these teams are seeded where they are. While they may be great from 3-point range, for instance, they may get crushed on the boards or not play defense.
The buzz: The great equalizer in college basketball is the 3-point shot. Not everybody has big-time talent at each position, but a lot of teams have numerous guys who can fill it up from beyond the arc. Remember that shooting 38 percent from 3-point range is the equivalent to shooting 57 percent on 2-pointers and shooting 41 percent from 3-point range is the equivalent to 61.5 percent on 2-pointers.
Fitting the profile this season: Arkansas-Little Rock (39.8 percent), Belmont (38.1 percent), Bucknell (40.2 percent), Northern Colorado (38.7 percent), Oakland (37.9 percent), Richmond (39.9 percent), UC Santa Barbara (37.5 percent), Wofford (40.7 percent).
APPLY THE PRESSURE
The buzz: Games can turn on defense, and an underdog who can stay close – through whatever means – eventually will get the crowd on its side. Whether it’s applying constant pressure, throwing a funky press at an unsuspecting opponent or playing a tough match-up zone, teams that can play defense often hang around longer than expected.
Fitting the profile this season: Alabama State (40.3 field-goal percentage defense, 4.7 blocks per game, force 15.6 turnovers per game), Belmont (40.7 field-goal percentage defense, 9.7 steals per game, force 19.2 turnovers per game), Boston U. (39.6 field-goal percentage defense), Bucknell (39.2 field-goal percentage defense), Hampton (37.9 field-goal percentage defense, 5.8 blocks per game, force 15.8 turnovers per game), Morehead State (8.6 steals per game), Oakland (5.6 blocks per game), Richmond (40.1 field-goal percentage defense), Saint Peter’s (37.4 field-goal percentage defense, 4.6 blocks per game), UNC Asheville (9.3 steals per game, 4.5 blocks per game, force 17.6 turnovers per game), Utah State (38.3 field-goal percentage defense), VCU (8.5 steals per game).
The buzz: Think back at the lower seeds that have pulled big upsets in the NCAA tourney; each had a go-to guy who came up large. Navy’s David Robinson in 1985. Arkansas-Little Rock’s Pete Myers in 1986. Chattanooga’s Johnny Taylor in 1997. Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew in 1998. Weber State’s Harold “The Show” Arceneaux in 1999. Kent State’s Antonio Gates in 2002. UW Milwaukee’s Joah Tucker in 2005. VCU’s Eric Maynor in 2007. If there’s an upset this season, chances are one guy is going to have a 20-points-plus game, and these teams have to like their chances because of their star players.
Fitting the profile this season: Northern Colorado G Devon Beitzel (21.4 ppg), Oakland C Keith Benson (18.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.6 bpg), Wofford F Noah Dahlman (21.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Boston U. F/G John Holland (19.2 ppg), Morehead State F Kenneth Faried (17.6 ppg, 14.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg, 2.0 spg), UC Santa Barbara G Orlando Johnson (21.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.2 spg).
DON’T GET RATTLED
The buzz: Senior leadership is important throughout the season, but never more than in March. When a coach can count on veteran players, it eases some concerns, both when a team is preparing for a game and when it is on the court.
Fitting the profile this season: Hampton (three junior starters and two senior starters), Northern Colorado (four senior starters and one sophomore starter), Richmond (four senior starters and one sophomore starter), UC Santa Barbara (three junior starters and two seniors starters, plus two juniors and a senior off the bench), UNC Asheville (four junior starters and one senior starter), Utah State (four senior starters and one junior starter), Wofford (four senior starters and one junior starter).
WE’VE DONE THIS BEFORE
The buzz: A lot of these schools are on the national stage for the first time this season – and maybe forever. Thus, the intimidation factor can be huge. But some lesser-known teams are more battle-tested than others. They’ve already gone out this season and beaten “bigger” teams; those teams have to be confident they can handle most anything thrown at them.
The buzz: It’s always easier for a double-digit seed to pull an upset when the big-time opponent doesn’t have a roster filled with a plethora of big guys. Even when the favorite has a big guy or two, there are reasons not to be that worried about those big guys. And there are times when a “smaller” school’s big guys are the best big guys on the floor.
HOW ABOUT SOME STRATEGY
The buzz: If you watch a lot of college basketball, you know that there are a lot of excellent coaches toiling in “lesser” leagues. This is the time for a lot of those guys to shine. No, they don’t have the facilities or talent of their big-school brethren. But they do have the acumen to draw Xs and Os with anybody, and this is their chance to show off.
Fitting the profile this season: Eddie Biedenbach (UNC Asheville), Rick Byrd (Belmont), Jim Ferry (Long Island), Stew Morrill (Utah State), Dave Paulsen (Bucknell), Bob Williams (UC Santa Barbara).