Welcome, basketball fans, to the year of the upset.
With the craters of falling giants dotting the college hoops landscape all year long, filling out the office bracket has become something like playing the foreign-currency market — both in terms of risk and in planning around the notorious butterfly effect.
Like, for example, if Louisville’s Rick Pitino passes out drunk the night before playing Georgia Tech, and two days later Washington helmsman Lorenzo Romar wakes up with the hangover — that’s the butterfly effect. It’s what makes tourney time fun and grabbing the big upset all the more critical. Perhaps, then, it’s all the more appropriate that this year’s tourney kicks off on St. Patrick’s Day. After all, luck has almost become as great a commodity as, say, an All-American point guard.
On that note, listed below is one man’s opinion of the teams prepped to shock the world this weekend if dealt a lucky hand. Keep in mind none of these upsets should come to pass; the stage is merely set. For the well-laid plans of any of these potential shockers to materialize, it will require at least one marquee performance, all-around clean execution and a little luck of the Irish.
5. Wisconsin-Milwaukee over Alabama
This one would turn fewer heads in Wisconsin than the rest of the country. Bringing to the table a solid press defense and a fast-break mentality, the Panthers possess enough offensive firepower to roll with any SEC team, excluding Florida. Unfortunately for head coach Bruce Pearl and his squad, siphoning turnovers off the Tide won’t prove as simple a task as doing so against the riffraff of the Horizon League.
To overcome a lack of breakaway opportunities, the Panthers will need to penetrate early and draw fouls to exploit Alabama’s lack of depth inside. From a defensive perspective, Pearl will attempt to garrison the perimeter and pray guard Kennedy Winston doesn’t catch a hot hand.
If all goes according to plan for Pearl, look for Alabama to take a quick lead before foul trouble among its bigs opens the floodgates for explosive Panther scorers Ed McCants and Joah Tucker.
4. Pittsburgh over Washington
If the Pittsburgh Panthers manage to survive past mid-major powerhouse Pacific, the weakest one-seed in the nation awaits them in round two. Granted, the Panthers dropped four of their last six, but considering the current shape of several of their conquerors (West Virginia, Connecticut and Villanova, twice), spare them a little bit of credit — they did absolutely crush Boston College.
Putting bread on the Pittsburgh table, forwards Chevon Troutman and Chris Taft constitute a powerful force inside. Pointman Carl Krauser can also wreak havoc on the dribble penetration but feeds balls to the defense almost as often as he feeds the post. Krauser shelled out 15 assists in one game this year and then committed seven turnovers three days later — sadly, not his season high.
The X-factor in this matchup is undoubtedly Washington’s backcourt, which is superb. However, outside shooters often miss and they won’t receive too many second chances with Troutman and Taft prowling the post. This could turn into the finest 9-1 battle of our young century.
3. Vermont over Syracuse
I’m sure most Hoops America readers already know the name Hakim Warrick, but remember this one as well: Taylor Coppenrath.
Both are seniors, both rock the post and one of the two, in one night, will likely dictate the course of the tournament’s weakest bracket. As off-kilter as it sounds to assuredly endorse an underdog the magnitude of Vermont after the favorite just won the Big East tournament, bank on Coppenrath. This Cat is the real deal.
Grab on to something. In Vermont’s last five games, all wins, Coppenrath has scored in excess of 30 points, including a 39-11 double-double registered in a blowout of New Hampshire. Yet the wildest thing about Coppenrath is how remarkably well he crashes the weak-side glass. In fact, he often records more offensive than defensive boards — making Warrick the rebounder more important than Warrick the scoring threat. Strange.
The rub is — while Syracuse can’t beat Coppenrath — he can beat himself. Turnovers on the kickout or on the post feed can cripple the Catamount standout’s effectiveness.
2. N.C. State over Connecticut
Finally, a UCONN squad playing like it should.
After a year of perpetual ups and downs — with several of those downs burning this columnist in Hoops America picks — in February, the Huskies busted out of the kennel snapping. In its final month of the season, Connecticut tallied a 7-1 record en route to securing a two seed in the Syracuse bracket.
Still, recent success aside, it’s difficult to forget the numerous times this season the Huskies fell prey to a hungry underdog. And N.C. State is as ravenous a 10 seed as can exist in the Big Dance. By staging an “upset” of falling seven seed Charlotte, the Wolfpack would earn the right to face UCONN, barring a notable catastrophe from the other end.
Ready to take advantage of any faltering by the young and talented Huskies, senior forward Julius Hodge — the wise man of the ACC — wants desperately to go out on a Sweet note.
The key to this matchup is UCONN one-guard Marcus Williams. He can reel off assists and he can dish out turnovers, often both. How Williams runs the point will correlate to a sputtering or unstoppable Husky offense.
1. Southern Illinois over Oklahoma State
Call it extremely unlikely, but if it happens, call it a monumental victory for sound, fundamental basketball.
In the event of a Southern Illinois passage to the round of 32, the heralded Saluki defense will face its greatest challenge in Oklahoma State. The Cowboys feature a bevy of talented scoring threats, and the list begins and ends with senior guard John Lucas. Boasting a 43.7 percent mark from beyond the arc, the pint-sized Lucas brings new meaning to the word “clutch.”
While Lucas rarely errs at the point, he can be contained, as Texas and Colorado recently proved. Anything defensively a Big 12 team can do, so can Southern Illinois. The main issue, however, is whether the Salukis can muster any offense at all. Oddly enough, the man likely charged with guarding Lucas — point guard Darren Brooks — is also Southern Illinois’ principle scoring threat. What a colossal burden.
It’s fairly simple, really. Lucas hasn’t shot over 50 percent yet in the month of March. If these shades remain unchanged, a great many Cowboys might be singing a sad, sad song.