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Giant Killers — Liberty, Akron and others could surprise in the first round

Every giant can fall.

If there’s any lesson from this college basketball season, that has to be it (San Diego State aside, for now). Waiting in the wings to bust open March Madness brackets, perhaps this season more than ever, are a group of future underdogs seeking to end contenders’ tournament dreams early. That’s what this space is dedicated toward: the Giant Killers.

It has gone through several iterations through the years, but the idea has long been to use data-driven analysis to identify those Giant Killers, which we define as any team at least five seed lines below its opponent in the tournament that poses a legitimate threat to win. So for the first time in 2020, we’re taking a look at the field and trying to answer this question: Who are the early Giant Killer contenders we should be watching?

The current methodology uses our Basketball Power Index (BPI) as a base and then builds on that by considering stylistic advantages between two teams in a given matchup. You can read more about the methodology here in our introduction from 2018.

But back to 2020: Today we’re focusing on potential first-round Giant Killers — projected No. 11 seeds or worse — that could wreak havoc next month.

Note: All information as of Wednesday.

Liberty Flames

Liberty is well-positioned for a repeat performance as a Giant Killer. Last season the Flames upset No. 5 seed Mississippi State due in large part to a 30-point, 62.5% field goal rate game from Caleb Homesley. Now he and big man Scottie James — whom we highlighted a year ago — have Liberty flying toward the tournament again.

Though currently tied for first in the Atlantic Sun, the Flames have an 89% chance to reach the NCAA tournament because they are over eight points per game better than any other team in the conference. And with our model projecting the Flames to earn an average seed of 11.3, they’re also on track to have a relatively easy first-round opponent. Liberty has a 13% chance to reach the Sweet 16 — incredible for a team reliant on its conference championship to earn a tournament bid. That’s how bullish our numbers are on this team.

BPI, which adjusts for quality of opponent, considers the Flames the 31st-best defensive team in the nation.

Among reasonably likely Giant Killer matchups — including teams with at least a 25% chance to reach the tournament and against opponents they face in one of our simulations — the most likely qualifying upset is Liberty over Oregon (44%), thanks to the Flames’ superior defense and 2-point scoring.

Furman Paladins

Furman faces a much tougher path to actually reaching the tournament because it plays in a Southern Conference that is quite strong at the top with East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro and Furman all ranking in BPI’s top 70. As a result, Furman has only a 22% chance at winning the conference tournament, though it’s at least possible the Paladins could also secure an at-large bid, so BPI gives Furman an overall 35% chance to reach the tournament. As of Wednesday afternoon, Joe Lunardi has Furman as a No. 12 seed in Bracketology.

The Paladins, led by senior guard Jordan Lyons and junior forward Clay Mounce, would be a tough out in the first round. They take a high rate of shots beyond the arc and are ruthlessly efficient when shooting from the field (though less so once we adjust for quality of opponents). While dangerous, Furman isn’t as feisty as Liberty; its best potential matchup (also vs. Oregon) yields a 33% chance to win.

Akron Zips

This is all about Loren Cristian Jackson. The Akron guard ranks 12th in the country in our opponent-adjusted win shares metric, one spot ahead of fellow Ohio school star Obi Toppin. He’s shooting 45% from 3-point range (including a 48% rate against D-I opponents, per KenPom), which is just part of an exceptionally efficient and voluminous 3-point attack from the Zips as a whole.

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