Upsets! We Got Upsets!
Giants and Killers fit into clans--and knowing them could predict the next Harvard-Style shocker.

IT SEEMS LIKE YESTERDAY that George Mason popped out of our primitive Cinderella-spotting spreadsheets, but The Mag's Giant Killers project has been predicting tourney upsets for a decade. That bodes well for your bracket when the tournament starts March 17. Last year our model correctly pegged Harvard and Stephen F. Austin as lethal underdogs. Now, after analyzing tourney games dating to '07, we found that Giants and Killers cluster into families that share statistical profiles. And upsets are more likely to follow from certain clans clashing than others. Baylor, for example, plays more like North Carolina than Virginia-- and that makes the Bears more likely to fall to Old Dominion than New Mexico State. Consider this our anniversary gift to you.


Above all else, Giants looking to ward off Killers need to win the battle of the ball. But there are different ways to build extra possessions, and they involve trade-offs that can leave top seeds vulnerable to underdogs taking risks of their own. Gambling Giants, for instance, pressure the perimeter, forcing oodles of turnovers, but they're prone to upsets by Slow Killers, who operate at a crawl and focus on limiting opponents' looks. Think Harvard upending Cincinnati last year.
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When strength meets strength, it makes sense that a Giant should prevail. In 15 matchups between the Power Giants family of top seeds and High-Possession Killers since 2007, the Killer has prevailed just once. Why? The Killers' offensive rebounding edge disappears; Giants overwhelmingly have the superior OR rate. Even in the lone upset, San Diego over Connecticut in 2008, the underdog got worked on the offensive boards. In a brawl under the basket, trust the big(ger) boys.
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Slow Killers, like their High-Possession siblings, love offensive boards. But they work at a snail's pace, focusing on holding down opponents' shooting efficiency. That's toxic for Gambling Giants, who pressure the perimeter at the expense of defensive rebounds. Slow Killers have won five of 11 matchups since 2007, like this 13-seed shocker from 2011:
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Pack-Line Giants don't stack up well against High-Possession and Perimeter Killers (falling in 19 percent of games, versus 9 percent of other matchups). Georgetown has been victim to both types, allowing underdogs to play their preferred styles. In 2011, the Hoyas were crushed by VCU, an 11-seed Perimeter Killer fueled by treys and steals. The next year, they were edged out by another 11-seed, High-Possession Killer NC State.
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Generic Giants, top seeds who don't stand out in rebounding or turnovers, have lost a whopping 41 percent of games against Killers of all types. Of those upsets, many have been born from Killers with specific traits, like 10-seed Davidson in 2008, where Steph Curry shot 44 percent on 3s, or 11-seed Old Dominion in 2010, when it led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. So don't let high seeds from bland Giants like Notre Dame fool you.
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