Bracket Breakers 2023: Why VCU might break some brackets plus 6 other teams to watch

Back in 2005, St. Joseph’s finished with the Atlantic 10’s best record but lost in the conference tournament to George Washington and wound up in the NIT. That was the last time the A-10 received only one bid to the NCAA Tournament. But the way things look, with just 10 days until Selection Sunday, the A-10 could be in a similar position this March.

And that’s bad news for VCU.

The Rams lead the conference by two games at 14-3 and boast a 23-7 overall record. But they’re just 68th in the NET rankings, and most bracketologists don’t view them as a likely at-large team if they slip up in the conference tournament in Brooklyn. Even our model views them as a slightly lesser team than Dayton (albeit the better potential killer).

In the past, that résumé might have been enough to get VCU into the NCAA tourney. But conference realignment has centralized even more tourney bids in the hands of the mighty few. It wasn’t long ago that leagues such as the A-10 or American could expect three or even four teams to reach the NCAA tournament. Now, they are fighting for fewer available slots and have less of a chance to prove themselves. Why? Power conferences have increased, meaning they play more league games. Add in early-season tournaments and events like the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and there is less incentive for those schools to schedule their few remaining games against challenging mid-major programs like VCU.

“It’s the hardest part of this job, and it’s the one thing that’s changed the most,” says VCU head coach Mike Rhoades. “(Executive Director of Men’s Basketball Operations) Jimmy Martelli is in charge of that. If I showed you his notebooks – because he writes everything down – and how hard we try to get games, and even neutral games, it’s just really difficult. We’re not the only ones in this boat, so I’m not crying over spilled milk. It’s the reality. We didn’t win enough out of conference this year, but now that is drastically magnified because we don’t have as many opportunities.”

But if VCU runs the table in Brooklyn or somehow finds its way into an at-large bid?

Look out.

VCU is no stranger to tourney upsets and remains a patron saint of giant killing because of its continued emphasis on pressing and trapping to force bundles of turnovers. The Rams rank fourth in the nation in defensive turnover rate (24.8%), the fifth year in a row they’ve had a top-10 outfit and the eighth time in the past 12 seasons they’ve hit that mark. And unlike in Shaka Smart’s version of Havoc (when Rhoades served as an assistant coach), the pressure continues even after the opponent crosses midcourt.

“I think the difference from the past to now is that when we sit down in halfcourt defense, we get turnovers,” Rhoades says. “That’s where we’re better; that’s where we’re different. Even if we don’t get steals in the backcourt, we can still get steals in the frontcourt. We’re more aggressive and more sound in the halfcourt.”

That’s a big reason why our model gives the Rams a 16.2% chance of beating a generic team seeded at least five spots higher. And if recent developments are predictive of future results, Slingshot may be underselling the Rams’ chances. Taking (and making) lots of threes is typically a key factor in producing upsets. VCU falls short in that area in their season numbers: The Rams rank 297th nationally in 3-point frequency (33.1%) and only make 33.7% of them. But David Shriver is changing that calculus.

The 6-foot-6 transfer from Hartford has been scorching nets lately. In conference play, he is knocking down 46.8% of his threes and changing how teams defend the Rams.

“Him just being out on the court has gotten guys shots and made lanes to score even wider,” Rhoades says. “We played the last two games and guys scored layups because they’re on the same side of the court as Shrive.”

Throw in a big, athletic frontline that relentlessly attacks the rim and a slick point guard in Ace Baldwin, and the Rams have the firepower necessary for a March surprise.

They just have to get there first.

Who else might be in a similar situation to VCU – a natural-born killer whose conference might deny them entry into the Big Dance? Slingshot has its sights set on a few such squads from the 12 non-major conferences that will hold their tournaments during the second week in March.

Breaking down that dozen the way we looked at earlier tournaments, we find one — the West Coast Conference — that almost certainly will not be sending any teams to the bottom half of the field of 68 this year. Our model shows two more — the MEAC and SWAC — where the best underdog has a Killer Rating of less than 5, meaning chances of less than 5 percent of beating an average tournament opponent seeded at least five slots higher. And in another two conferences, the best longshot is also the best team and does have a Killer Rating of at least 5: Iona (8.9) in the MAAC, Kent State (19.3) in the MAC. We’ve seen from your comments that the Golden Flashes have caught the attention of some readers; Slingshot approves.

Then there’s VCU and would-be killers from six other conferences who have work to do. You need these teams to root into the big dance so they can lay waste to bracket normalcy. We will list them in order of their Killer Ratings:

Western Athletic Conference | Killer Rating: 30.2

Let’s hang some details on the excitement we have already expressed about the Bearkats: Sam Houston State plays at a disruptively slow tempo (64.5 possessions per game, ranking 324th in the country) and gives up just 96 adjusted points per 100 possessions, the 28th-lowest total in the NCAA. They’re led by senior PG Qua Grant, who excels at sneaking into passing lanes, nabs steals on 4.1 percent of opponent possessions and sparks their transition game. Coach Jason Hooten deploys a very deep rotation, with 10 Bearkats averaging at least 10 minutes per game and bench players accounting for 38.7% of total playing time (ranking 18th). That’s one reason they have enough energy to pressure opponents continuously while also hitting the boards at both ends (31.2% offensive rebounding percentage, ranking 92nd).

As you might expect — and as our model loves — that all means Sam Houston State really piles up possessions, even against very good opponents. In their season opener, the Bearkats had 64 field-goal attempts vs. just 43 for Oklahoma, and eked out a 1-point victory. Later in November, they hauled in 14 offensive rebounds and forced 16 turnovers against Utah, and, honestly, when they won in Salt Lake City, it didn’t even feel like an upset. And while their fleet of undersized guards don’t shoot well from inside, they have a secret weapon: F Cameron Huefner leads the entire nation in 3-point shooting percentage (51.2%), and the Bearkats as a team rank eighth (39%). Sam Houston State barely cracks the top 200 in 3PA/FGA, but a smart team can turn that into a plus in the NCAA Tournament by extending its efficiency over more attempts when shots matter most. We call such teams chameleons. Classic example: Harvard vs. New Mexico in 2013.

At 12-4, Sam Houston State trails Utah Valley by one game in the WAC, with two left for each to play. And if our model could raise its arms, you’d see it waving red flags furiously right now. The Wolverines are only a couple of points weaker than the Bearkats in our model’s basic power ratings, but they’re the worst underdog in the WAC: Utah Valley doesn’t rebound well at either end, or force turnovers, or protect the ball, or shoot, or make threes. Last week, they allowed 60 FGA, grabbed just 8 of 35 missed shots and committed 19 turnovers — against Tarleton State. Uh, good luck against UConn?

Bottom line: If you love NCAA upsets, the difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in this conference is the biggest.

Conference USA | Killer Rating: 29.6

Slingshot loves itself some Grant McCasland. After all, he was the first-ever guest on the Underdogs podcast, and fully embraces advanced theories in giant-killing. After knocking off Purdue in the 2021 tourney, we never got to see an encore, as the Mean Green fell to Louisiana Tech in a disgusting 42-36 conference tourney game last year, costing them an NCAA bid.

This year’s version may be an even better underdog, though. They check all the main boxes that produce upsets. North Texas ranks:
-28th in the country in offensive rebounding (33.7%).
-71st in forcing turnovers (20.3%)
-89th in 3-point frequency (40.7% – and they make 36.2% of them)
-363rd in adjusted tempo (58.5 possessions per game)

In other words, the Mean Green maximize a small number of possessions – the perfect recipe for a team that faces a talent gap. Not that North Texas is untalented. Tylor Perry, their 5-foot-11 leading scorer, is shooting 44% from three. Rubin Jones ranks 61st in the nation with a 3.7% steal rate. Abou Ousmane, at 6-foot-10, ranks 49th in offensive rebound rate and chips in with 11.5 points and 1.2 blocks per game. If Kai Huntsberry (12.3 ppg on only 31.4% three-point shooting) can find his stroke (he knocked down 41% of his threes last year at the University of Mary), North Texas could reach another level.

The problem, of course, is that they’re not currently the best team in C-USA. That would be the 26-3 Florida Atlantic Owls, a strong killer in their own right (22.9 rating). The Owls would be a fine representative of the conference, but while they take more than 44% of their shots from 3-point range, they don’t fully embrace a high-risk, high-reward style the way North Texas does. If only there were a way to get both teams in. Alas, in the current college basketball landscape, that’s not an option.

UCF coach Johnny Dawkins instructs his team during a game in the first half against the Wichita State Shockers. (Peter G Aiken / Getty Images)

American Athletic Conference | Killer Rating: 28.8

The general thinking is that the AAC will get two teams into the tourney – top-ranked Houston and Memphis. Meanwhile, UCF isn’t near the at-large conversation, sitting in seventh place in the conference (16-12, 7-9). But weird things happen in conference tournaments, and perhaps Johnny Dawkins’ squad is ready to make an unlikely run. Slingshot certainly thinks they have the tools to do so.

Much like North Texas, the Knights play as if an AI program run by Slingshot created them. They rank 27th nationally in forcing turnovers, 22nd in offensive rebounding and 58th in 3-point frequency. Of course, they also turn the ball over a ton (19.8%) and give up offensive rebounds (31.3% opponent rate). That’s why they’ve lost 12 games. But here at Bracket Breaker Central, we’re interested in the upside, so we’ll keep a close eye on these Knights should they run at the Ford Center.

UNLV Runnin’ Rebels

Mountain West Conference | Killer Rating: 23.2

Speaking of teams that would have to make an unlikely conference tourney run to reach the Big Dance, we give you UNLV. The Rebels are just 6-10 in the Mountain West, but like UCF, they are geared to beat more talented teams (or lose by 30 to them). That’s the beauty of a high-risk, high-reward system.

UNLV wins by forcing turnovers. Its 25.3% rate ranks third in the country, led by guards Luis Rodriguez and Keshon Gilbert (1.9 steals per game each). In a one-and-done scenario, that’s the type of team that can rattle a heavy favorite. Of course, UNLV does give up a 31.4% offensive rebounding rate to opponents and only shoots 33.8% from beyond the arc. But if you’re looking for a fun angle (and an unlikely story) to follow in the Mountain West, check out UNLV.

Ivy League | Killer Rating: 20.4

We fell in love with Cornell early here at Bracket Breaker Central. The Big Red got off to a 14-4 start this season, efficiently demolishing one opponent after another, albeit at the level of Lehigh and Monmouth. The Big Red take a whopping 47.9% of their shots from downtown (sixth-most in the country), and we couldn’t help but think of the sharpshooting 2010 squad that went 29-5 and beat two giants in the NCAA tournament.

But Ivy League foes couldn’t handle that team, while it might be a wee understatement to say the conference has figured out how to dismantle Cornell this season. This month, opponents have shot over 60% from inside and nearly 40% from outside against them! Our model doesn’t look too deeply at assists, but over the same stretch, conference foes have assists on almost two-thirds of their field goals. Teams are just moving the ball around on Cornell at will, which was especially evident in the spankings they just got from Harvard and Yale.

The Big Red do take enough threes to make any giant nervous in a one-and-done scenario. But winning any conference tournament becomes a very tall order if you allow an effective goal percentage of 55.6% — only seven D-I teams are worse.

Big West Conference | Killer Rating: 6.5

UCSB’s decent-but-not-special stat lines fairly represent the Gauchos’ talent level and their longshot odds. Slingshot pegs them as the 116th-best team in the country and the 111th-best underdog.

They’re still the Big West’s best bet at the Big Dance because rival UC Irvine has collapsed in our Killer Ratings over the past four years. Specifically, the Anteaters rank 221st in the country in offensive rebounding, seizing 27.4% of their own missed shots, continuing a slide that began in 2021. And we’re pretty sure we know why.

In 2016, UC Irvine won 28 games but ranked just 195th in OR%. Then coach Russell Turner hired a particular assistant, and the Anteaters’ offensive rebounding percentage jumped from 29% to 31.9% to 32.3% to 33.7% to 34.1%. The Anteaters won the Big West, pulled a 13-4 upset against Kansas State in 2019, and led the conference again in the pandemic year of 2020. Then the assistant stepped down to have ankle and knee surgery, and the team’s numbers on the offensive boards have fallen yearly.

This wizard of glass? That’s right: Blaine Taylor, who we have been writing about forever but probably won’t have the chance to salute again. From 2001 to 2013, Taylor coached teams at Old Dominion whose work on the boards was just staggering. In 2010, his Monarchs led the country in offensive rebounding and scored a memorable giant-killing against Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. In 2011, Old Dominion had the 64th-best offense in the nation even though they ranked 200th in eFG% — because they grabbed an eye-popping 44.9% (!) of their own missed shots.

Last week, reader Daniel G. asked a good question: “If you win a mid-major league primarily by overwhelming less athletic teams on the boards, can you still expect to rely on offensive rebounding variance to help you pull off an upset against the big boys?” The answer would be no if offensive rebounding were only about size and strength. But it turns out it’s also about smart positioning and hard work. Longshots usually have to take more risks than literal giants to secure themselves extra possessions, but when they succeed, history shows they become NCAA Tournament threats. Blaine Taylor proved that in the CAA, then again in the Big West.

Taylor had problems with alcohol, and his tenure at Old Dominion ended disastrously. After his successful comeback with the Anteaters, he returned to ODU as a fundraiser for the athletic program. We wish him well. And we can’t really blame UC Irvine for letting him leave. But Slingshot sure does notice that he’s missing. The importance of offensive rebounding, to turnarounds and giant-killing, notable in Taylor’s presence as well as his absence, should be his on-court legacy.

(Top photo of VCU’s Nick Kern Jr: Erica Denhoff / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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