DENVER — Picking the upsets in your NCAA Tournament bracket is throwing darts at a moving target while your buddy blasts you with a firehose.
At Night. Wearing a blindfold.
Other than that it’s pretty easy.
“The formula for an upset?” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said over the phone, as if I had requested a cure for a head cold.
OK, so I hit the Mountain West coach — whose history in tournament upsets (and upsets avoided) makes Edwards a perfect professor for this project — with an impossible question to answer. Truth is, there is no formula for choosing the lower seeds that will surprise the higher seeds starting Thursday.
Let’s give it the ol’ college try anyway.
“Confidence is No. 1,” Edwards said.
Welp, I’m up a river. I saw roughly 1,000 games of college basketball this season for several reasons, in particular: the talent level in the college game is as deep as we’ve seen in at least a decade; my alma mater, Gonzaga, hit the highest mark on the entertainment scale; West Coast hoops rarely has been better, with Arizona, UCLA and Oregon earning top-three seeds out of a robust Pac-12 and Saint Mary’s and Nevada looking (to me) like potential Sweet 16 teams.
Listening to Bill Walton’s wacky rants came in fourth. Still, I have zero confidence in my picks.
“No, (I mean) confidence on the team,” Edwards said.
Gotcha. We must look for confident teams. So let’s dig deeper: Edwards is the guy for this venture because he’s been on both sides. As a 6-foot-5 guard at Kentucky in the mid-1990s, he advanced to three consecutive NCAA championship games, winning two. They were the hunted. Later on, as an assistant coach in 2007, he helped Virginia Commonwealth to a classic upset of Duke. They were the hunters.
(This is where you boo Duke.)
We’ll focus on the latter, the hunters, since everyone loves an underdog. And with a bunch of power conference teams who aren’t that good paired against a bunch of mid-majors who are pretty much the same, this tournament bracket is jam-packed with capable underdogs.
“I think when you go into a game in the tournament you’ve got to figure out what you need to do to win the game,” Edwards said. “When I look at that Duke game, tempo was big for us.”
Rule No. 1 in picking an upset: Divergent styles of play. VCU beat Duke, 79-77, by playing a wild-and-crazy pace that forced the Blue Devils into 17 turnovers. Duke wasn’t ready for it.
“We had to heat them up, take them out of how they wanted to play,” Edwards said.
Rule No. 2: Players. Simple, right? VCU entered its game against Duke with the best player on the court, guard Eric Maynor, a future NBA player. For our exercise, we must identify which lower-seeded teams have a player or two who are better than the opponent’s best.
“What surprised us that year was we didn’t know how good Eric Maynor was going to be. Maybe a week or two into practice everybody kept coming back to the office: ‘Oh my God,’” Edwards said. “We saw that Duke matchup and the talent level wasn’t that different.”
The NCAA Tournament selection committee did a fine job for a change. It’s the fairest bracket in years. Don’t listen to the talking heads bemoaning Wichita State’s No. 10 seed (the Shox got a sweet draw in return), the omission of Syracuse (leave New York before the New Year, then we’ll talk) or Illinois State staying home (even if the Redbirds have an honest gripe).
With the rules in mind, here are my upsets (not Edwards’, since we spoke before the bracket release Sunday): 12-seed Nevada will represent the Mountain West with a win against 5-seed Iowa State before throwing a scare into Purdue; 10-seed Wichita State will win two, beating Dayton and Kentucky; 12-seed Middle Tennessee State scoots past 5-seed Minnesota; 11-seed Rhode Island will survive 6-seed Creighton. Bracket accordingly.
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