Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Anatomy of a Mid-Major Upset: How Davidson Could Be This Year’s Davidson

The greatest two days of the year are upon us. The first round of March Madness is where seniors play what could be the final game of their collegiate lives, supposedly “great” teams fall victim to stunning upsets, and heroes emerge from nowhere to lead their teams on miracle runs. And never are these qualities more evident than when a “mid-major” team takes down a national powerhouse from one of the “Big 6” conferences.

The term “David over Goliath” is used way too often for my liking, but sometimes there’s no better term for when a team like Bradley takes down Kansas and Pittsburgh in consecutive games. Raise your hand if you know what state Bradley is from? A mid-major is defined as any team not from the ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big 10,  Big East, and Pac 12. Every single year, one of these mid-majors comes from nowhere to win a first round game (and sometimes more) that they have no business winning. 

There is serious money involved in the science of picking brackets, so anyone that can see these upsets coming can become a very rich individual. I’m not here to tell you I have those answers, but there are certain qualities shared by past mid-major Cinderellas that are great predictors of success in the tournament. Any time a team has at least 3 of these to their name, you better think twice before penciling in that #4 seed. And while I’m here, you better belive I’m gonna tell you why Davidson could be this year’s…well, Davidson.

1. "Under the Radar"

Best historical examples: 2005 Bucknell (over Kansas), 2008 Davidson (over Gonzaga, Georgetown, Wisconsin), 2012 Norfolk State (over Missouri)

This is the easiest, and most obvious trait shared by these mid-major teams. Nothing sets up an upset faster than being overlooked and underrespected. I already mentioned Bradley; you think Florida saw Manhattan coming in 2004? Or Syracuse thought twice about playing Vermont in 2005? What about George Mason coming from absolutely freaking nowhere to make the Final Four in 2006? I could go on forever here. Point is, if your opponent thinks your team is a pushover, you’ve already got the advantage.

Does Davidson have it?
I wouldn’t say they are completely under the radar because of what Steph Curry and company did in 2008, but there is no doubt that Davidson is disrespected from playing in the Southern conference. Proof: getting a 14 seed, despite already having beaten Montana, who got a 13 seed in the same region. Put a check in this box.

2. “Bench Scrubs”

Best historical examples: 2005 Bucknell, 2010 Northern Iowa, 2010 Cornell

A lot of times this goes hand in hand with #1. Many of these mid-major teams just don’t look like the they’re in the same league as the teams full of blue chip high school McDonald’s All-Americans and future lottery picks. This can cause a team to get overlooked; sometimes it’s actually a good thing to look like the bench scrubs of Villanova: 

Does Davidson have it?
Hell no – we will probably have 5 first round picks in this year’s NBA draf…ok, on second thought yeah we kinda do.

3. “Blue Chip Head Coach”

Best historical examples: 2002 Southern Illinois (Bruce Weber), 2004 Xavier (Thad Matta), 2005 Wisconsin-Milwaulkee (Bruce Pearl)

Sometimes, these mid-majors are coached by men that are destined for greater things. Having such a guy calling the shots provides the team with smart play calling, but more importantly, a calming presence in big moments. All of these example coaches had a long track record of success in their conferences (and other schools) prior to getting their shot at a Big 6 school.

Does Davidson have it?
We’ve got the silver fox Bob McKillop at the helm of the #4 program in the country. A resounding yes.

4. “Star Power”

Best historical examples: 2008 Davidson (Steph Curry), 2009 Western Kentucky (Courtney Lee), 2010 Butler (Gordan Hayward)

This one is also self-explanatory. High school players slip through the cracks in the recruiting process all the time, and eventually blossom at their cute little mid-major schools into dangerous first round NBA picks. These players have a chip on their shoulder, and they are capable of almost singlehandedly carrying their teams a deep tournament run. 

Does Davidson have it?
They do have the two-time Socon player of the year in Jake Cohen, and last year’s co-player of the year in De’Mon Brooks who is on an absolute tear right now…but none of these guys are getting drafted. Davidson gets its first ‘x’ here.

5. "Dominance"

Best historical examples: 2007 Winthrop (29-5, 14-0 in conference play), 2010 Northern Iowa (30-5), 2010 Butler (33-5, 18-0 in conference)

This last one is probably my favorite. A lot of mid-majors come in on tremendous winning streaks, after spending all year throttling the other teams from their conference. Most people will say, “Who cares, they play in the (insert weak conference here)?” But you look again, and they are just beating teams senseless. They are doing that because they are simply that good of a team; and their record reflects that. Always look for the hot teams when picking a bracket.

Does Davidson have it?
Let’s see…17-1 in conference. 17 game winning streak, longest in the nation. Led Gonzaga by 10. Led Duke at the half. Hung with New Mexico the whole game before being robbed blind by the officiating. I’m done here. 

So, who’s making a run?

By now you’re probably saying, “Ok I’m bored – who do I actually pick?” Based on the criteria above I’ll give you some potential mid-major upsets to look out for – all in convenient table form. I’ve eliminated all 16 seed mid-majors (because there’s no way they will win first round) and Gonzaga (because there’s no way they will lose).

Now don't use this as the end all be all...but for the record, I like Belmont, Bucknell, Davidson, and yes, South Dakota State over Michigan in the first round.

Happy March Madness everyone!

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