Giant Killers: The Anatomy Of A Hoops Upset

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Over the next couple of weeks, if you hear an occasional, loud thud — don't worry — it's probably just the Lilliputians out-shooting Gulliver from beyond the arc — or David posterizing Goliath with a windmill jam. In preparation for March Madness upsets, Bill Littlefield spoke with Peter Keating and Jordan Brenner, who write the Giant Killers Blog for

[sidebar title="Potential Giant Killer?" width="330" align="right"]Mercer University is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1985.[/sidebar]BL: Peter, let's start with the basic ground rules you and Jordan have laid out. What does a team have to do to qualify as a "Giant Killer?"

PK: It's very simple, Bill. They have to beat an NCAA tournament opponent seeded at least five spots higher.

BL: Jordan, on the page explaining your blog, it says, "Giant Killers succeed by playing a high-risk, high-reward game." Tell us what that means and how it improves their chances. 

JB: Playing a high-risk style means doing things like taking a lot of three-pointers, pressing for turnovers, crashing for offensive rebounds, doing things that generate extra possessions so you're not fighting conventional warfare, if you will. So, if you happen to catch fire from three-point range in a given game, you can overcome a lot of that deficit in talent.

[Giant killers are] taking a lot of three-pointers, pressing for turnovers, crashing for offensive rebounds ... that generate extra possessions so you’re not fighting conventional warfare.

Jordan Brenner,

PK: Well, they have to shut down the chance that an underdog can catch them on a bad night. So, if they grab as many extra possessions as they can through strong rebounding, and if they cut down on their own turnovers, that really limits the chance that an inferior team will be able to sneak up on them.

BL: Jordan, we just spoke with Bob Hoffman, the head coach of Mercer University. His Bears have earned their first NCAA tournament bid in 29 years. Do you see them as a good candidate to become Giant Killers?

JB: This is actually a bit of a weaker field this year for potential killers. Mercer doesn't exactly excite our statistical model.

PK: I will say though that Mercer has a whole bunch of guys who are really good at three-point shooting. And that can make things exciting.

JB: They're one of those teams that could pull of an upset or lose by 40.

BL: [Laughing] A gambler's nightmare, I would imagine.

JB: [Laughs] Exactly.

BL: In NCAA history, the only time a 16-seed has ever beated a No. 1 seed was in 1998 when the Harvard women's team upset Stanford. Will we ever see that in the men's game?

JB: The law of averages suggests we will see it at some point. Last year there were a lot of really good killers. Then a whole bunch of them lost in their conference tournaments. We've had five 15-seeds beat 2-seeds, so it's only a matter of time.

BL: The final seedings haven't been announced, of course, but are there some teams you can already see as primed to deliver upsets this year? 

[sidebar title="Dean Smith's Struggles With Dementia" width="330" align="right"]Once one of mainstays of March Madness, legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith has lost most of his memory to Alzheimer's Disease.[/sidebar]JB: Well, there are a number of teams from the traditional power conferences that actually fit the profile. Oklahoma State was a top-10 team to start the season. They're likely to be anywhere from a 9 to 11-seed in the tournament. Pittsburgh, along the same lines from the ACC, our computer model rates them as a better team than maybe the NCAA will when the put them in a bracket.

PK: Yeah, we have called those teams "wounded assassins." So they've fallen in the bracketological projections, but they're still lethal enough to take down good teams.

BL: Do you guys find that as the tournament goes on and the 16 and 15 and 14-seeds fade away, you begin to lose interest?

PK: Oh my goodness, I do. After we spend all these weeks studying St. Mary's and St. Bonaventure and Dayton, by the time it gets down to Louisville and Duke, I don't even know who's playing anymore. I think Jordan, who covers this on a more regular basis, probably has a different answer, but half the time I don't even know who won the national championship after a year.

JB: Yeah, I have a very different answer. It's really exciting for the first weekend, and then when you look up and there's a whole bunch of 12 and 14-seeds in the second weekend of the tournament, you're kind of longing for a Kentucky against [North] Carolina game. It's a double-edged sword. It's really fun to see upsets early, but then I kind of want to see the best teams play late.

PK: I disagree. I think when a team like VCU in 2011 or Wichita State last year takes these giant-killing techniques and goes on a run, I think that's very exciting.

This segment aired on March 15, 2014.


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