Anyone could tell you that either Duke, Kansas, or Ohio State is probably going to win the national title. However, the key to winning your office pool is pinpointing sleepers. These ten teams are going to break a lot of brackets. Stick with me and they won’t break yours.

Four Potential First Round Upsets

It’s been a decade since a 2-seed lost in the first round, and any one of these teams could be lacing up their glass slippers to break that streak if they end up receiving a 15-seed.

Belmont

The Bruins went on the road this past weekend and beat ETSU by double digits in what should be their biggest test in 2011; unless they receive a tough draw on Bracket Busters Weekend. There’s an outside chance that they finish the regular season with a 29-3 record with those two losses coming @ Vanderbilt and @ Tennessee (twice), each of which was a single digit loss. It’s unlikely that they would fail to win their conference tournament, but if they did, with the new 68 team bracket, it’ll be tough to argue that a 30+ win team shouldn’t make it to the big dance, regardless of their strength of schedule.

Anyway, what I love about this Belmont team is that they don’t rely too heavily on any individual player: no one on the team averages 25 minutes per game, and yet they’re the 10th highest scoring team in the nation. Eleven guys on the team are averaging at least ten minutes per game, which means a lot of guys are getting experience and a lot of guys are staying rested for the long haul. They recently made it to the tourney thrice (2006-2008), and while only two current players were even on the roster for any of those games, it’s safe to say head coach Rick Byrd gained from the experience, as each game ended up being more competitive than the last, culminating in the Duke/Belmont 71-70 nail biter in 2008. Next on Byrd’s agenda is a post-season victory.

Bucknell

Northern Colorado

Of the 346 teams in Division I basketball, only two shoot better than 76% from the free throw line and better than 40% from the three point line: Bucknell and Northern Colorado. Neither of them has anything else particularly intriguing on their resume, and with seven losses apiece and a lack of competitiveness in their games against tournament-caliber teams, there’s no chance either of them receives an at-large invitation if they fail to win their respective conference tournaments; but if either of these teams can make it to the tournament, what’s more crucial to pulling off an upset in March than clutch free throw and three point shooting?

Coastal Carolina

Maybe that free throw / three point percentage stat didn’t impress you enough to pick Bucknell or Northern Colorado, but this next one should blow your mind. There are four teams in the nation currently ranked in the top 30 in assists per game, rebounds per game, points per game, and field goal percentage: Kansas, Pittsburgh, Washington…and Coastal Carolina. I’m apparently the only person outside of Myrtle Beach who has noticed what the Chanticleers are up to, because despite a current 16 game winning streak which has given them a record of 18-2, they only received 2 points in the latest AP poll. Lunardi currently has Coastal as a 15-seed, pitted against Villanova in the first round in Washington DC. If that actually happens, I’ll make sure I’m in attendance for that potential upset.

Three Underperforming Teams No One Wants To Face

Every year in every sport there are a handful of teams that were too highly touted in the pre-season, and by mid-season it’s beyond evident that they didn’t deserve the respect they were given. In some cases, such as with Butler, Gonzaga, and Memphis this year, teams are basically ranked based upon rosters they used to have. In the other cases, we’re dealing with teams who haven’t quite put it together even though they have all the necessary pieces. Any one of these three teams could easily still get a 4-seed if they’re able to start doing what everyone expected them to do from the beginning. At the same time, any or all of these teams could very well play themselves out of the tournament altogether, despite opening the season ranked in the top ten. Trust me, there are at least 68 other teams who would strongly prefer that these teams never begin to gel, because with the head coaches that they have, anything is possible.

Kansas State

When you consider Frank Martin is the most terrifying coach since Bobby Knight’s heyday, what’s so dumbfounding about this team is how incredibly undisciplined they are. They turn the ball over more than 291 other teams in the nation. There are only nine teams who have a lower team free throw percentage than Kansas State. They literally miss an average of ten free throws per game.

If Mike Singletary’s failure in San Francisco didn’t teach you that ruling with an iron fist no longer works in sports, learn it from Frank Martin. I thought he was going to remove Jacob Pullen’s head from his body during last night’s game against Baylor…and they were winning by eight at the time. Dear Frank, next time one of your guys pisses you off, instead of making him run wind sprints, make him shoot 500 free throws. You’re never going to make it to the tournament by giving away ten points per game at the charity stripe.

Michigan State

I’ll never understand how to calculate SOS, but I guarantee the Spartans have had one of the five toughest schedules thus far, and they still have to play games in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio State. Nevertheless, you would think the pre-season #2 team would be able to win at least a couple of the seven games they’ve lost thus far. Unless they completely shit the bed down the stretch, they’ll probably get into the tournament as a severely battle tested 7-seed with 11 or 12 losses.

They’re a much better team than they’ve demonstrated thus far. I think it’s only a matter of time before they hit their stride. Once they do, we’ll be reminded that Tom Izzo is 35-12 in the NCAA Tournament since 1998. When it’s time to fill out your bracket, just remember the Michigan State Corollary: unless they lose in the first round, they always win at least one more game than anyone expects them to win.

North Carolina

As an unabashed Duke supporter, this one concerns me the most: All they need is for one perimeter threat to emerge and, along with the Barnes/Henson/Zeller three-headed monster, they will become a force to be reckoned with.

As is the case with most teams with an already shaky backcourt, their weakness is playing on the road. At home, the Tar Heels are 9-0, including a big win over Kentucky. Away from home, they are 4-5, including a jaw-dropping twenty point loss at Georgia Tech.

Similarly to Michigan State, at the rate they’re going, they’d probably get into the tournament as a 6-seed, and with Roy Williams at the helm, there’s no telling what they could do from there.

Two Non-BCS Schools Who Could Do Some Damage

Utah State

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a Utah State team with little more than a close loss to BYU just cracked the Top 25 and is gaining popularity around the nation as a potential Cinderella. Sounds a lot like the 2008-09 season in which they lost a first round heartbreaker to Marquette, doesn’t it? The only difference is that this year they have seven guys averaging more than ten minutes per game, and all of them are juniors and seniors who won’t merely be satisfied with another great regular season after two straight disappointing postseason showings.

Beware the Aggies with the chip on their shoulder. For either winning the WAC or getting in as an at-large, there’s no way they’ll be seeded lower than a 13; but no matter where they end up, you can already take a first round win to the bank, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them make a Davidson-type run to the Elite Eight.

BYU

Speaking of Davidson, if your 2008 bracket didn’t love Stephen Curry, you can make up for it in 2011 by riding Jimmer Fredette to the top of your office pool. If you haven’t had a chance to see him in action, set your DVRs for Wednesday night at 10PM ET when BYU hosts San Diego State in what’s quietly shaping up to be one of the ten greatest games of the regular season. It should be an interesting battle since SDSU is holding opponents to 59 points per game, but then again, UNLV is holding opponents to 61 points per game, and Jimmer dropped 39 on them three weeks ago.

What makes the Cougars so deadly is that they’re more than just Jimmer and a quartet of mediocre mid-major cheerleaders. Jackson Emery is one hell of a second fiddle, and Hartsock and Davies are more than capable enough to make an opponent pay for doubling Fredette.

Kemba Walker and UConn are getting more publicity and favoritism in the polls since they’re a Big East team, but if UConn and BYU faced off in the tournament, I would take the Cougars in a heartbeat. If there’s a team out there this year that’s going to pull off a deep run in the tournament a la Gonzaga, Davidson, or Butler, it’s BYU.

Dark Horse To Win It All

Washington

I’ve been on the Washington bandwagon since the Maui Invitational; frequently betting the over in their games because Vegas is apparently unaware that they average 95.7 points per game at home. The problem with picking them very far in the tourney is that they only average 75.1 points per game away from home. They aren’t particularly reliable from the free throw line either, currently tied for 261st in the country (with Pittsburgh for what that’s worth). I also liked them a lot more before Abdul Gaddy tore his ACL, but even without him, they definitely have the pieces to put together a six game winning streak in March.

Aside from possibly Will Buford and Jared Sullinger, Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning are arguably the best inside-outside duo in the nation. Wilcox, Suggs, and Holiday are each shooting better than 41% from beyond the arc, and they’ve each taken their fair share of shots in the process. If they’re able to start getting some 2009-10 numbers out of Venoy Overton, I don’t know how anyone other than Washington can stop Washington. They’re already the third highest scoring team in the nation, and they haven’t allowed an opponent to score 80 points in a game yet this season.

Every March, I end up doing at least a dozen different brackets based on new statistical ideas that I come up with, and of course, I always have one bracket based entirely on gut feeling. For the past seven years, the same stat-based bracket has done better than any of the others: Average Margin of Victory times Conference RPI. Not only does that bracket always win, but in four of the past seven seasons, it had the correct Final Four and National Champion.

Relevance? If things remain relatively the same as they are now, with the exception of the Big East beating itself up as always, Washington would have the 4th highest rating in that bracket behind Ohio State, Kansas, and Duke. Sounds like a pretty realistic Final Four to me.

Will I actually pick them to win it all? Highly doubt it. Would I be surprised if they’re still playing in April? Not at all.

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