Liberty Could Upset the Big Boys During the 2020 NCAA Tournament

Seth Walder of ESPN opines that when it comes to the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, every giant can fall. But If the giants don’t even make it to the dance, what about the Giant Killers? Defending NCAA men’s champ Virginia is sliding around the bubble, and perennial threat North Carolina won’t even get an invitation this year. With some Goliaths already slain, is this the year David makes a deep run towards Atlanta and March Madness is truly bonkers?

What is a Giant Killer?

A Giant Killer is a team that’s a double-digit seed — No. 10 or lower. They’re usually from a mid-major conference, and the only way to the dance card is to win an automatic bid. These are the teams that aren’t on ESPN twice a week and don’t have a non-conference schedule loaded up with the likes of Michigan and Kentucky. A Giant Killer that gets to the Sweet 16 or further morphs into a Cinderella, but they’ve got to slay a Goliath before they get a glass Nike slipper and a puffy blue dress. 

It’s an unwritten rule of bracketology that your bracket has at least one 12 seed beating a five. That is how the Legend of the Giant Killer got started. Last year, you had a 75% chance of getting it right, since three of the four 12 seeds won. The Liberty University Flames were one of them, upsetting No. 5 seed Mississippi State with a late-game run. Boom — March Madness in full effect.

The Flames are on fire as March Madness begins

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This year, the data-driven Basketball Power Index (BPI) is giving the Flames an inside track towards being this year’s David, slingshotting a higher seed home early. 

The A-Sun holds tourney games at the higher seeds home court, and the Flames have an 82% chance of getting to the championship game at home. They’re led by senior Guard Caleb Homesley, who torched the Bulldogs last year with a career-high 30 points, and senior forward Scottie James, who was granted Giant Killer slingshot-holder status before the 2019 tip-off. 

The details are in the data

The BPI analysis also shows Liberty with a 13% chance of becoming a Cinderella and making it to the Sweet 16. It factors in the overall quality of opponents, and the Flames come in at a surprising 31st in the nation on that score. 

The BPI has the Flames with an 89% chance of getting into the tournament, more than likely an 11 or 12 seed. What’s interesting is that the projection models show them with a “relatively easy” opponent at a No. 5 or 6 seed. That a six is an easy mark for an 11 is why it’s March Madness.

The very best mid-major team is hindered in seeding by the floors of the power conferences. That is either a blessing–if you’re a really strong mid-major team–or a curse if you’re from a big conference and are in the tournament because you had some decent wins against some okay teams. In the BPI model, Liberty beats Oregon (a likely matchup), who would be the 5 or 6 seed. The Pac-12 team is a sitting duck for the Flames and their superior defense and strong 2-point shooting. And voila, the Bracketology voodoo still works. 

The Flames are more of a slow burn

Elijah Cuffee (No. 10) and Myo Baxter-Bell (No. 0) are veteran players who could help Liberty be a storyline during March Madness.
The Liberty University Flames could make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. | Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With that 31st defensive ranking among the Division I teams, the Flames like to keep their games in the 50s, or maybe the 60s if they hit a couple of fast breaks. LSU beat the Flames 74-57 early in the season for their only non-conference loss. Stetson beat them at their own game with a 43-48 slowdown special in conference play. Their their losses this year are rounded out by a loss to second place North Florida, a 71-70 nail-biter. 

Liberty has racked up wins this year against mid-majors like Towson, Morgan State, Akron, and Stetson. The Flames have wins over power schools like Vanderbilt and East Carolina. This could be the year the little university slays some giants and makes its own mark on March Madness.