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Anatomy of the Upset – Sweet 16

Last week, before the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, we previewed some likely characteristics of potential Cinderella stories.

We warned of overlooked high-majors, teams that played at either unusually high or unusually low tempos, and those that were capable of getting hot from behind the three-point line.

Then we watched Syracuse win three games in the week playing at a snail’s pace, UMBC and Buffalo both shoot 50% from behind the three-point in upset wins over Virginia and Arizona respectively, and Kansas State march to an unexpected second weekend by holding their opponents to a combined 102 points over the course of two games.

So with only 16 games remaining, how can the few Cinderella’s left keep dancing for as long as possible?

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Kansas State

It’s going to continue to be all about defense for Bruce Weber’s squad but the competition is getting much steeper as they’ll square off with Kentucky. The Wildcats were one of the top defensive teams in the country this year because they do a number of things well – they force turnovers, they defend the three-point line, and they remain efficient (20th best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country per KenPom.com). That’s an unusual blend as teams that gamble for steals are often left more vulnerable, but K-State manages to walk that fine line. Where they struggle though is on the defensive glass and this is a Kentucky team, ripe with positional size across the line-up, that could potentially take advantage of that.

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Eric Musselman’s team had an epic comeback win over second seeded Cincinnati and now they’re actually the favorite against another Cinderella, 11th seeded Loyola-Chicago. The Wolf Pack’s key to success all season long is their ability to take care of the basketball. In fact, they led the entire country in turnover percentage and were an extremely efficient offensive team as a result. That recipe should be enough to get them by Loyola, but if they face Kentucky in the Elite 8 they’ll likely need to shoot it at a high level as well in order to compensate for their lack of size up front. Add to that one of the slowest defensive tempos and you have a recipe for an upset – limit the number of possessions in the game, prevent turnovers and consequent run-outs for the opponent, and then drill some shots from deep.

Florida State

The Seminoles already knocked off top-seeded Xavier and will face Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and potentially the winner of Michigan/Texas A&M in the Elite 8. They also change the tempo of the game, but they do it while speeding the game up versus slowing it down. Leonard Hamilton’s club ranks in the top 15% of the country in terms of average offensive possession length. What’s unusual is the efficiency they play with for an up-tempo team. They’re above average in terms of turnovers committed but an excellent shooting team from inside the arc, in large part because they don’t rely on any one player to carry them and have a variety of players who can attack the paint, especially in transition. Their interior size is again a factor defensively as their ability to defend the paint and block shots makes them very difficult to score on inside.


The 5th seed in the Midwest may have the most daunting path left to the Ball beginning with Kansas and then Duke (should they get past Syracuse). Clemson is very efficient on both ends of the ball but true to Brad Brownell’s pedigree, they are truly elite on the defensive end of the floor, which is why they’ve been able to overcome the loss of Donte Grantham on the offensive end. The Tigers absolutely grind opponents out on the defensive end. They aren’t looking to turn you over but to make you work for every single point by protecting the paint, forcing tough two-point shots, not fouling, and not giving up any offensive rebounders. The key for the Tigers is whether they’ll get enough offensive output to knock off a pair of Blue Bloods.

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