Giant Killers: Liberty, Akron and others could surprise in the first round

Can Caleb Homesley (1) lead another Liberty celebration at this year's tournament? Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

Every giant can fall.

If there's any lesson from this college basketball season, that has to be it (San Diego State aside, for now). Waiting in the wings to bust open March Madness brackets, perhaps this season more than ever, are a group of future underdogs seeking to end contenders' tournament dreams early. That's what this space is dedicated toward: the Giant Killers.

It has gone through several iterations through the years, but the idea has long been to use data-driven analysis to identify those Giant Killers, which we define as any team at least five seed lines below its opponent in the tournament that poses a legitimate threat to win. So for the first time in 2020, we're taking a look at the field and trying to answer this question: Who are the early Giant Killer contenders we should be watching?

The current methodology uses our Basketball Power Index (BPI) as a base and then builds on that by considering stylistic advantages between two teams in a given matchup. You can read more about the methodology here in our introduction from 2018.

But back to 2020: Today we're focusing on potential first-round Giant Killers -- projected No. 11 seeds or worse -- that could wreak havoc next month.

Note: All information as of Wednesday.

Liberty Flames

Liberty is well-positioned for a repeat performance as a Giant Killer. Last season the Flames upset No. 5 seed Mississippi State due in large part to a 30-point, 62.5% field goal rate game from Caleb Homesley. Now he and big man Scottie James -- whom we highlighted a year ago -- have Liberty flying toward the tournament again.

Though currently tied for first in the Atlantic Sun, the Flames have an 89% chance to reach the NCAA tournament because they are over eight points per game better than any other team in the conference. And with our model projecting the Flames to earn an average seed of 11.3, they're also on track to have a relatively easy first-round opponent. Liberty has a 13% chance to reach the Sweet 16 -- incredible for a team reliant on its conference championship to earn a tournament bid. That's how bullish our numbers are on this team.

BPI, which adjusts for quality of opponent, considers the Flames the 31st-best defensive team in the nation.

Among reasonably likely Giant Killer matchups -- including teams with at least a 25% chance to reach the tournament and against opponents they face in one of our simulations -- the most likely qualifying upset is Liberty over Oregon (44%), thanks to the Flames' superior defense and 2-point scoring.

Furman Paladins

Furman faces a much tougher path to actually reaching the tournament because it plays in a Southern Conference that is quite strong at the top with East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro and Furman all ranking in BPI's top 70. As a result, Furman has only a 22% chance at winning the conference tournament, though it's at least possible the Paladins could also secure an at-large bid, so BPI gives Furman an overall 35% chance to reach the tournament. As of Wednesday afternoon, Joe Lunardi has Furman as a No. 12 seed in Bracketology.

The Paladins, led by senior guard Jordan Lyons and junior forward Clay Mounce, would be a tough out in the first round. They take a high rate of shots beyond the arc and are ruthlessly efficient when shooting from the field (though less so once we adjust for quality of opponents). While dangerous, Furman isn't as feisty as Liberty; its best potential matchup (also vs. Oregon) yields a 33% chance to win.

Akron Zips

This is all about Loren Cristian Jackson. The Akron guard ranks 12th in the country in our opponent-adjusted win shares metric, one spot ahead of fellow Ohio school star Obi Toppin. He's shooting 45% from 3-point range (including a 48% rate against D-I opponents, per KenPom), which is just part of an exceptionally efficient and voluminous 3-point attack from the Zips as a whole.

That long-range shooting paired with particularly strong free throw shooting is why the Zips will pose a significant threat to many potential opponents in the first round of the NCAA tournament ... should they get there.

Akron almost certainly will have to win the MAC conference tourney to go dancing, but it does have the benefit of being, in BPI's eyes, the best team in the conference. However, with Ball State, Kent State and even Toledo not too far behind, our model only gives the Zips a 38% chance to win the conference title.

Vermont Catamounts

Is it really a Giant Killers story if we don't include Vermont? The Catamounts are regulars here, and this season is no different. They're exceptionally likely to reach the tournament given how much better they are than the rest of the America East again.

BPI likes the Catamounts' strong defense, though our Giant Killers model is a little less bullish on them because their 3-point attempts and efficiency are both lacking. But that defense, which has held opponents to 42% shooting from 2-point range, per KenPom, is scary enough that Vermont will be a tricky foe for a potential No. 5 or No. 6 seed come March.

Northern Colorado Bears

This is a little more of a deep cut, because if the Bears reach the tournament they'll probably be a lower seed than the teams listed above. In BPI simulations in which Northern Colorado reached the tournament, it averaged a seed of 13.7.

But the Bears are better than their 15-8 record and current third-place spot in the Big Sky suggest. In terms of straight net efficiency, the Bears are best in the Big Sky by just over two points per game. But once we factor in an opponent adjustment, that advantage balloons to about 4.5 points. They are the best team in the conference, in our estimation, and as a result are nearly a coin flip (47%) to win their conference tournament and earn a bid.

Senior guard Jonah Radebaugh is the key for the Bears' offense, connecting on 41% of shots from beyond the arc and averaging over six assists per game. Even with a potential No. 14 vs. No. 3 seed matchups against, for example, Florida State or Penn State, the Bears would have a 27% and 24% chance to win, respectively.