Every year, millions of people fill out NCAA Tournament brackets hoping to cash-in on an office pool or amongst friends. Chances are, you’ve already received an e-invite at work, or from some friends, to fill out a bracket on popular sites like ESPN.com, CBS Sportsline, or even Facebook. This phenomenon has become so popular, it actually spurred the creation of a new word – “Bracketology” – the science of filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket.
According to the consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an estimated 50 million Americans will participate in March Madness office pools. This mass participation costs companies at least $1.2 billion for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the tournament. On the flip side, billionaire investor Warren Buffet has offered a $1 billion prize to anyone that correctly picks all 63 games in this year’s tournament. As part of filling out a bracket, experts and fans alike search the tournament teams for potential upsets where the lower seeded team beats their higher ranked counterpart. These winners, or “Cinderella’s,” become immediate, overnight darlings, gaining national notoriety for their schools, which is worth millions in free advertising and exposure.
Who will be this year’s under-the-radar team to wear that glass slipper? Enter, stage right, North Dakota State. NDSU is a trendy pick by college basketball experts to make a run into the tournament’s second weekend and wreak plenty of havoc in office pools across the land. The Bison enter the tournament as a No. 12 seed and play No. 5 seed Oklahoma this Thursday in Spokane, Wash in the West Region.
If NDSU beats Oklahoma, they’ll play the winner of the No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 13 New Mexico State game on Saturday for a shot at the Sweet 16. ESPN puts the odds of the Bison making the Sweet 16 at approximately 10 percent. So what do the Bison need to do to win and make a name for themselves this March?
5. Matchups. A common theme in tournament upsets is matchups. Some team’s style of play and personnel are more favorable than others. In recent years, Summit League teams have drawn tough matchups against much bigger and physical teams like Michigan, Baylor, Pittsburg and Texas. The Bison are no stranger to playing major competition. NDSU upset Notre Dame earlier this year, an ACC team, but was handled by Ohio State, a much bigger and physical team from the Big Ten.
NDSU drew a favorable matchup in Oklahoma. For starters, having a No. 12 seed keeps the Bison from playing national Top 10 teams like Duke, Wisconsin, Kansas, or Villanova. How do the Sooners stack up? While Oklahoma is seventh in the nation in scoring, averaging 82.2 points per game, they are a perimeter team. Three of their top five scorers are guards. The Sooners take, on average, 23 three-point shots per game, but are 51st nationally in three-point percentage at 37.8 percent. If NDSU can hold Oklahoma’s perimeter play in check, the Bison will have a good chance at beating the Sooners.
Even ESPN’s experts are getting on the Bison bandwagon and predicting an upset. Digger Phelps, a former college basketball coach and long-time ESPN analyst, likes NDSU. “As good as Oklahoma is, North Dakota State, to me, is a very big, challenging team that can score and they know how to defend,” explained Phelps. “I don’t think they [Oklahoma] understand how big, strong and how defensive-minded this North Dakota State team is. It would not surprise me to see North Dakota State knock off Oklahoma.”
4. Bench play. NDSU needs big minutes from Jordan Aaberg, Mike Felt, and Chris Kading, their biggest contributors off the bench. Felt struggled through January and into February, seeing his minutes reduced significantly. Notwithstanding, Felt is capable of burying three’s in a hurry and has played better of late. Aaberg and Kading combined to play 23 big minutes in the Summit League championship game and allow Bison head coach Saul Phillips to rest all-conference first teamer Marshall Bjorklund if he gets in foul trouble. It also allows Phillips to rest Bjorklund without worrying about things getting out of hand down low. If either Felt or Aaberg chips in 8 to 10 points, NDSU will be in great shape.
3. Lock-down defense. The Bison can fly above the rim, but Phillips will tell you he built this team to win with defense. After being dismantled in the Summit League semifinals, Denver head coach Joe Scott stressed NDSU’s perimeter defense as a key factor in the 83 – 48 Bison win. “They’ve got Alexander, Braun, Brown, and they can really defend the perimeter.” NDSU’s perimeter defense will be one of biggest factors in whether the Bison come away with the win.
2. Taylor Braun. Many college basketball outlets have Braun as a player to watch in the NCAA Tournament. Yahoo Sports posted a video Saturday touting Braun as a playmaker that could become a household name this March. They’re right to have him on that list. Braun is capable of taking over a game, much like his summer workout partner and former Bison great, Ben Woodside. Woodside scored 37 points against Kansas at the Metrodome in NDSU’s only other tournament appearance in 2009. If Braun breaks 30, which he’s done four times this season, the Bison will beat the Sooners.
1. Playing their game. The Bison are capable of winning games in the tournament if they play their game. NDSU has already beat fellow NCAA Tournament teams Delaware and Western Michigan. The Bison also beat Notre Dame, WAC regular season champion Utah Valley, and dropped a one-point loss against Southern Mississippi, who tied for the Conference USA regular season title. What’s NDSU’s game? Strong defense. Taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers, coupled with a strong inside-outside game featuring heavy doses of Braun, Bjorklund, and Wright. With Braun, Bjorklund and Wright hitting on all cylinders, the Bison are a serious threat to reach the Sweet 16.
Swany’s bold prediction is that the Bison will reach the Sweet 16, defeating Oklahoma and moving on to beat the winner of the San Diego State/New Mexico State matchup, wrecking millions of brackets across the country in the process … except those from Fargo.