Tips for picking the right Cinderella on your bracket
Posted: Monday March 14, 2005 12:31PM; Updated: Monday March 14, 2005 4:55PM
Taylor Coppenrath and his Vermont teammates could be this year's trendy upset pick.
Admit it. Even more than that manila envelope stuffed with your co-workers' wrinkled greenbacks, you want the privilege of shouting -- without lying -- every NCAA tournament poolster's ultimate four-word phrase on Thursday and Friday:
I called the upset.
When the next Hampton slays the next Iowa State, and the players are moshing at center court, and some forward whose name you never knew and never will know is holding aloft his tiny coach, who is kicking his legs and screaming like a drunken leprechaun on St. Patty's Day, and a CBS announcer is saying over the chaos, "The slipper fits!" ... you want to be a part of the celebration. You want to be able to hold up your bracket and proclaim to anyone within 10 cubicles or, preferably, barstools, that you foretold the coming of Cinderella.
To make this publicly pathetic, yet personally gratifying moment a reality -- and still be a contender in your pool -- you must be judicious in picking first-round upsets. Craft a roster of four to seven teams seeded No. 10 or lower that will advance. Don't be the guy who sides with a horde of underdogs, in order to take credit every time a giant falls -- not only annoying, but a recipe for an early pool knockout.
1. Beware of the trendy upset pick. It's liable to backfire.
If you're an aspiring pool winner, I'm sure you've been trolling through mid-major standings since February, looking for that low-profile Horizon, Mid-American, Missouri Valley, or West Coast conference team that fits the Cinderella mold. And you've no doubt tried to keep that squad a secret from your friends. But that can lead to the kind of problem witnessed last year when 95 percent of enlightened hoopheads had the same secret: "My bracket's upset special is Western Michigan."
This was reasonable thinking: The Broncos, with a 26-4 record entering the dance, and an inside-outside scoring duo in guard Ben Reed and forward Mike Williams, had earned a reputation as the baddest mid-major on the block.
When the '04 bracket was announced, with No. 11-seeded WMU pitted against No. 6 Vanderbilt -- an afterthought in the Kentucky- and Mississippi State- dominated SEC -- the Broncos' bandwagon was already overflowing by 8 p.m. Selection Sunday. So many bettors had latched onto WMU in Vegas that the Broncos officially became the favorite. (Every expert bracket on SI.com -- mine included -- also had WMU winning). Irked Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said at the time, "From what you read and what you hear, it sounds like we should've been invited to the women's tournament."
The Commodores weren't living in a vacuum; Stallings printed out brackets and quotes from non-believers in the media and gave them to his players. "It lit a fire under us," forward Corey Smith said, and Vandy went out and convincingly beat the Broncos, 71-58. WMU assistant Clayton Bates recalled that after the game, "We were leaving our press conference, and hearing Vanderbilt talking about not getting any respect."
Vandy wasn't disrespected by its opponent; it was disrespected by the public. But the snub, regardless of its source, had an impact on the game.
Applying the lesson: Pinpoint this year's trendier upset picks. No. 13 Vermont -- America's small-school darlings -- over No. 4 Syracuse, for starters. The Orange were overshadowed by Boston College and UConn in the Big East, while the Catamounts are the lovable little guys -- but 'Cuse isn't going to be an easy first-round out. Do you think it's smart to pick against Gerry McNamara -- the tourney's top big-game gunner, a fierce competitor -- right off the bat?
And what about No. 12 Old Dominion over No. 5 Michigan State? The Spartans have been a target for criticism this year, and the Monarchs have a blinding 28-5 record -- but the reality is that ODU plays at the same speed of most of MSU's Big Ten opponents (an average, halfcourt pace) and the Spartans are superior offensively. Be wary of what's popular, and think for yourself.