For college basketball enthusiasts, tournament upsets are the equivalent of a sugar-starved child swimming in a pool of Pixie Sticks.
From Bryce Drew's unforgettable 23-foot buzzer beater against Mississippi in '98, Harold "The Show" Arceneaux's net-blazing 36-point destruction of North Carolina in '99 and George Mason's giant-toppling path to the Final Four three years ago, when Cinderella is dressed to the nines our collective attention is undivided and unwavering.
Whether you're a casual or devoted college basketball follower, fascination with unpredictability is the true reason worker productivity suffers every March.
This explains why Davidson's spectacular run to the Elite 8 last year will be forever cherished by fans outside Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin.
Pioneered by Stephen Curry's string of legendary performances, the Wildcats, a No. 10 seed, captivated the attention and simultaneously destroyed the brackets of hoop heads everywhere. Despite the carnage, hardwood fans relished every riveting moment.
A jubilant, green-jacketed mob could again swarm North Dakota State's Ben Woodside this week
Unfortunately, Davidson's magical run also diluted reality.
The Wildcats' miraculous journey mistakenly portrayed last year's tourney as upset laden. That just wasn't the case. Yes, the SoCon representatives weren't the only marquee underdog to emerge victorious – two No. 12 seeds (Villanova and Western Kentucky) advanced to the Sweet 16 and seven double-digit seeds survived the opening round. But, compared to the entire 24-year history of the expanded bracket, 2008's supposed madness was relatively sane. In fact, per BracketScience.com, 10-plus upsets (games involving teams separated by at least four seeds) have happened just once (2006) over the past six seasons and seven times since 1985.
But this year, David is prepared to sling a barrage of rocks at Goliath.
Although it may sound cliché, parity has dominated the college hardwood this season. Five different teams have sat atop the AP/Coach's polls. Unlike previous seasons, no team appears indestructible. Ask any expert and they'll undoubtedly tell you thoughts of uncertainty are more prevalent this year than in any previous season. Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings offer supportive evidence:
Teams (offensive, defensive efficiency rank)
UConn (4, 5), Duke (12, 4), St. Joe's (11, 10), Oklahoma St. (5, 12), Wisconsin (13, 8)
Villnova (12, 4), North Carolina (1, 5), Illinois (3, 11), Florida (13, 9), Duke (15, 1), Louisville (7, 14)
Florida (2, 5), Texas (4, 10), Duke (5, 13)
North Carolina (3, 4), Texas A&M (6, 10), Florida (1, 12), Ohio St. (4, 15)
Kansas (2, 1), UCLA (7, 3), Memphis (4, 4), Duke (11, 9)
Gonzaga (5, 10), Duke (11, 14)
For those with selective memories, 2006, the year of the Mason, was this decade's most underdog-heavy tournament with 12 bracket busters. That year, only three teams entering the tournament ranked in the top 15 in offensive and defensive efficiency. The chart totals may seem negligible, but based on a similar lack of well-balanced paramount clubs, 2009 could be even wilder. Of course, other factors (i.e. shrinking talent pool and underwhelming freshmen class) have also caused evenness in the game. Simply put: due to the general mediocrity that currently exists – the scrum of clubs that hovered around .500 in the ACC and Big Ten is more proof – this year's tournament is going to foster several "mad" memories.
Don't go bonkers with the upsets – select Radford over North Carolina and large, sweaty men will forcibly carry you away to a mental institution – but don't pick by the book either.
Here are five teams poised to don a glass slipper:
9 – Midwest
Starting Five: G – Ronald Moore (8.8 ppg, 6.3 apg), G – Kenny Hasbrouck (14.8 ppg, 2.0 spg), G – Edwin Ubiles (14.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg), F – Alex Franklin (13.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg), F – Ryan Rossiter (10.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
Key Wins: Cornell (18), Buffalo (11), at St. Joe's (1), Northern Iowa (6)
Key Losses: Tennessee (N) (12), Oklahoma St. (N) (9), at Pittsburgh (13), at Kansas (7), at Niagara (15)
Why they surprise: Canonized last year for their first-round obliteration of Vanderbilt, the experienced Saints are in prime position to topple a high-major tower again. Fourth-year skipper Fran McCaffery did an excellent job preparing his team to compete against top-flight competition. Out of conference, Siena clashed with Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Kansas. With the exception of the seven-point loss in Lawrence, most were lopsided defeats, but the experience gained should not be underestimated. Backcourt rainmakers Edwin Ubiles and Kenny Hasbrouck are superb scorers and ball-handlers who rarely commit turnovers. However, Hasbrouck, who's shot an atrocious 35.3 percent in his last five games, will need to score with more efficiency for the Saints to pull the upset. Siena's team-wide free-throw illness (66.2 percent, 253rd nationally) could also handcuff it in close contests. Still, because they are careful with the rock and coax ample turnovers (49th in TO% defense), the Metro champs could slide into Cinderella's glass slipper with one well-rounded offensive performance. But garnering a No. 9 seed means another chance at sweetness would have to go through powerhouse Louisville.
11 – East
Starting Five: G – Eric Maynor (22.4 ppg, 6.2 apg), G – Joey Rodriguez (9.4 ppg, 2.5 apg), G – Bradford Burgess (7.4 ppg, 42.2 3PT%), F – Kirill Pishchalnikov (5.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg), F – Larry Sanders (11.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg)
Key Wins: New Mexico (12), George Mason (5), George Mason (N) (21)
Key Losses: at Rhode Island (6), at East Carolina (3), at Vanderbilt (5), at Oklahoma (11), at Delaware (2), at UNC Wilmington (9)
Why they shock: The legendary career of Eric Maynor could write a new chapter this tournament season. Two years ago, the then sophomore plunged a sword into the heart of Duke, nailing a last-second jumper to eliminate the mighty ACC powerhouse. After an NIT berth last season, the lethal guard has his club primed for another thrilling upset. When clicking on all cylinders, the Rams are a fruitful offensive unit. Maynor's fearlessness driving through the lane combined with the soft touch of postman Larry Sanders has been very effective. The duo accounted for 59 percent of VCU's offense in the Colonial tournament. But hard-nosed defense is where the Rams truly earn their golden fleece. They rank 28th nationally in effective field-goal percentage D, limiting opponents to just 42.6 percent inside the arc and 33.4 percent beyond. Larger teams will outmuscle them in the paint, but Maynor's heroics should make him a household name when the sun rises after Round 1. Remember, this is a team that pummeled New Mexico in a neutral setting by 12 in late November. Based on this team's strengths, you have to like its odds against UCLA.
10 – Midwest
Starting Five: G – Daniel Hackett (12.5 ppg, 4.7 apg), G – Dwight Lewis (14.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg), F – Taj Gibson (14.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg), F – DeMar DeRozan (13.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg), F – Leonard Washington (6.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
Key Wins: Arizona St. (12), California (11), UCLA (N) (10), Arizona St. (N) (3)
Key Losses: Seton Hall (N) (2), at Oklahoma (1), at Oregon St. (4), at Stanford (12), at UCLA (16)
Why they shock: Immature for much of the season, Tim Floyd's ultra-talented Trojans greatly underachieved. But when pressed against the wall, they finally tapped into their massive potential, running off three straight wins against Cal, UCLA and Arizona St. to earn the Pac-10 automatic bid. USC is an aggressive, smothering defense, especially inside, limiting opponents to just 0.91 points per possession, the 19th-best mark in college basketball. It also ranks 24th nationally in block percentage. On the other side of the court, the Trojans have been mysterious to say the least. Self-inflicted wounds, especially turnovers (223rd in offensive TO%), have confounded them. A paint-centered club, USC excels slashing to the bucket, but has hit only 32.9 percent from three, one of the poorest marks in the nation. Still, if this team carries over the 1.12 points per possession it averaged during its stirring Pac-10 tourney run, it will knock off a marquee team. If super frosh DeMar DeRozan continues to thrive (19.6 ppg in last five), watch out.
Cleveland State Vikings
13 – Midwest
Starting Five: G – Cedric Jackson (10.5 ppg, 5.7 apg), G – Trevon Harmon (5.2 ppg, 81.1 FT%), G – Norris Cole (12.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg), F – George Tandy (5.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
Key Wins: at Syracuse (3), at Butler (3)
Key Losses: at Washington (16), Kansas St. (10), at West Virginia (10), Butler (2), at Butler (2)
Why they shock: Using battle axes and spiked flails, the Vikings pillaged heavily-favored Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse to dance for the first time in 23 seasons. Former Rutgers bench barker Gary Waters has constructed a stalwart club devoted to unyielding man defense. Save Stephen F. Austin, Cleveland State is clearly the best mid-major defensive team in the tournament. CSU finished the regular season ranked 30th in defensive efficiency, 14th in turnover percentage defense and sixth in steals percentage. Senior guard Cedric Jackson is a two-headed monster averaging three steals per game while dishing out 5.4 assists per contest. The laudable flexibility of forward J'Nathan Bullock and guard Norris Cole makes this team upset viable, especially if it continues to perform admirably on offense. In three Horizon tournament clashes, the Vikes averaged 1.09 points per possession, their second-best three-game stretch of the season. Don't forget, they stunned Syracuse earlier this year at the Carrier Dome on a 60-foot Jackson dagger.
North Dakota State Bison
14 – Midwest
Starting Five: G – Ben Woodside (22.8 ppg, 6.3 apg), G – Mike Nelson (11.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg), F – Brett Winkleman (18.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg), F – Michael Tveidt (9.7 ppg, 45.8 3PT%), C – Lucas Moormann (4.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
Key Wins: at Wisconsin-Milwaukee (8)
Key Losses: at Minnesota (14), at Stephen F. Austin (1), at USC (4)
Why they shock: Flatlands, wheat fields, lunatics who dispose of dudes in a wood-chipper, North Dakota isn't a state known for producing supreme basketball talent. However, that's about to change. After thrashing Division II foes throughout the 90s and early 00s, the Bison was promoted to the big leagues this year. Unfathomably, in their inaugural D-I season, they convincingly won the Summit outright and cut down the nets in Sioux Falls to earn an NCAA berth. A true lion hiding in the savanna, NDSU is an offensive juggernaut. Guard Ben Woodside, who dropped an absurd 60 points on defensive giant Stephen F. Austin earlier this season, is a relentless penetrator and precise ball distributor. Some have compared his game to Gonzaga/Utah Jazz legend John Stockton. Swingman Brett Winkleman is equally efficient, averaging 18.7 points (50.5 FG%) and 7.4 rebounds per game. Impressively, both shoot over 80 percent from the line. Ranked Tenth nationally in three-point percentage (40.2) and 14th in offensive turnover percentage, the Bison squeeze the orange into tight spaces from long distance and preserve it. Unlike most teams on this list, they are not stable defensively but possess more size down low, which should prevent rebounding embarrassment. Challenging USC and Minnesota on the road in non-conference action earlier this year, the Bison are a toxic herd poised to trample over Goliath (i.e. Kansas).
Below are a handful of fast facts to help you construct the ultimate bracket.
No. 12 seeds have upended No. 5 seeds in 36.1 percent of games since 2000. In the second round No. 12s are 16-15 all-time (51.6%).
No 16 seed has every defeated a No. 1 – although Alonzo Mourning still fears all Tigers from Princeton
Since 2000, No. 13 seeds have advanced to run two just 22.2 percent of the time, No. 14 seeds 5.6 percent
No. 11 seeds have a lower win percentage than No. 12s since 2000, winning only 21.2 percent if its contests
Notable mid-major conference win percentages since 2000: Atlantic 10 (45.0%), West Coast (42.3%), WAC (38.4%), Missouri Valley (35.4%), Mountain West (28.5%)