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How First Four winners have pulled off NCAA Tournament upsets, and what that means for Maryland

The Terps will look to avoid being the reason an eight-year streak continues.

Big Ten Tournament Maryland basketball Bruno Fernando vs Nebraska
Lila Bromberg-Testudo Times

Two years ago, Maryland basketball was a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and was upset by a No. 11 seed in Xavier. In 2019, there’s a chance the same thing could happen again. While the 6-11 matchup is the most common tournament upset, this year the Terps have an extra wrinkle to overcome by playing the winner of the First Four game between Belmont and Temple.

Since the First Four was added to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, one team from the First Four has won a Round of 64 game every year. Six of those eight teams have been No. 11 seeds, with VCU advancing to the Final Four back in 2011.

With Maryland matching up with a First Four winner, here’s a look at how some of those teams have pulled off the upset.

Play defense

VCU and Syracuse are still both known for their defense, and both used it to set off on unlikely tournament runs.

Shaka Smart introduced the nation to the Rams’ “Havoc” defense in 2011, forcing 19 turnovers in a 74-56 rout over No. 6 seed Georgetown to kick off a memorable run. VCU finished the year 78th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency and 65th in opponent turnover percentage, but the Hoyas had no answers for VCU’s defense. It also helped that the Rams hit 12-of-25 three-pointers compared to 5-for-26 for Georgetown, which I’ll get to later.

While the Rams have been running Havoc for a decade, Jim Boeheim has been using a 2-3 zone for more than 40 years. It’s allowed the Orange to make unexpected runs in the NCAA Tournament in recent years, including trips to the Final Four in 2013 and 2016. Last year was no different, with Syracuse being shipped to Dayton after spending much of the season on the bubble.

The zone was as effective as ever last year, with the Orange ranking in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and block percentage. Against a TCU team making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998, Syracuse turned the game into a rock fight. Both teams shot under 40 percent from the field and combined to go 6-for-31 from beyond the arc, but the zone defense made the difference. The Horned Frogs turned the ball over 13 times compared to the Orange’s seven in a 57-52 Syracuse win.

Get hot from three

This isn’t just a key for NCAA Tournament upsets. It’s a difference maker for any NCAA Tournament game.

Nowhere was this a bigger factor than the first two years. VCU was strong on defense in its upset of Georgetown, but also got hot from the perimeter while the Hoyas went cold. Even more backbreaking was the fact that Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark, Georgetown’s three leading scorers, went a combined 0-for-16 from beyond the arc.

The same thing happened a year later. No. 12-seed South Florida went 8-for-17 on three-pointers in a 58-44 win over Temple, compared to just 2-for-16 for the Owls. The Bulls advanced to the Round of 32, almost solely on three-point shooting. They shot nearly 50 percent on three’s, compared to 27 percent on two-point attempts.

Get to the foul line

As with three-point shooting, a lot of tournament games can come down to who executes better at the charity stripe. That was the case for both No. 13-seed La Salle in 2013 and No. 11-seed Dayton in 2015, who both used opportunities at the foul line to preserve their upsets. The Explorers opened up a 19-point lead over Kansas State at halftime, only to watch the Wildcats pull ahead with 1:03 to go. But La Salle’s foul shooting made the difference, as it went 14-for-16 from the foul line compared to just 9-for-17 for Kansas State. The Explorers’ Jerrell Wright made three in the final 30 seconds to seal the victory.

The 2015 Dayton Flyers were not a good free-throw shooting team, but were incredibly effective at getting to the foul line. In a 66-55 first-round upset of Providence, Dayton shot 30 free throws, 23 three-pointers and 19 two-pointers. Although the Friars had 17 more attempts from the field, the Flyers’ 23-for-30 free throw performance blew away Providence’s 5-for-7 mark.

Be underseeded

The RPI’s formula could sometimes cause it to disagree with other metrics, and that led to some very good teams being placed in the First Four in 2014 and 2016. Tennessee and Wichita State entered their First Four games as the No. 11 and 12 teams in KenPom, respectively, but were just No. 41 and 47 in RPI. Both teams lacked wins against the RPI top 50, and the 2014 Volunteers had four losses against teams outside the RPI top 100.

Both teams won their First Four games and went on to dominate their respective first-round opponents. Tennessee jumped ahead by 19 at halftime against UMass, cruising to an 86-67 win. The Shockers led by 24 in the second half against perennial sleeper disappointment Arizona before knocking off the Wildcats, 65-55. Both teams played to their respective strengths in the matchup as well, with Tennessee pounding the ball inside and Wichita State using its pressure defense to force 19 turnovers.

What does this mean for Maryland?

Well, the biggest takeaway is that there are multiple ways to pull off the upset. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since many teams can play to their strengths, or just show up hot on a day when the supposed favorite doesn’t. If Temple and Belmont had to fit into one of the four categories above, the Owls are more defensive-oriented while the Bruins could get hot from outside.

Temple doesn’t look like a great team on paper, but the Owls don’t turn the ball over and have the 11th-best steal percentage according to KenPom. That could be a problem for a Terps team that struggled with turnovers until recently (and still loses nearly every turnover battle because it rarely forces them).

Belmont, meanwhile, is an excellent offensive team that likes to push the tempo, so Maryland’s inconsistent transition defense will need to be ready if the Bruins win in Dayton. The Terps crushed an up-tempo Marshall team in December, but the Thundering Herd didn’t have a player who can cause as many problems as guard Dylan Windler. The 6’8 senior averages 21.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 43.4 percent on three-pointers.

With Maryland ending the season trending in the wrong direction and both its potential opponents being more consistent than Arizona State and St. John’s (the other first four matchup), the Terps have become a popular upset pick. They’re still the higher seed and the favorite by most metrics, but the NCAA Tournament has shown all that hardly matters. Every team should be prepared for a tough game, as all 68 are playing for the same thing once the ball is tipped.