Abilene Christian
(Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY)

March Madness has certainly lived up to its name so far. The 2021 NCAA Tournament has featured numerous double-digit upsets. One of the more remarkable of these games was No. 14 Abilene Christian (24-4, 13-2 Southland) defeating No. 3 Texas (19-8, 11-6 Big 12) via a final score of 53-52.

Quick Observations

There are a few surface-level observations that make this upset extremely unlikely. For one, the seed discrepancy. Including Saturday night, No. 14 seeds are 22-122 all-time versus No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. That’s a 15.2% winning percentage. Abilene Christian became the first No. 14 seed to win an NCAA Tournament game since 2016 when Thomas Walkup led Stephen F. Austin to a 70-56 win over West Virginia.

Also, Texas was the 2021 Big 12 Tournament Champions with Shaka Smart as their head coach. Shaka Smart has a Final Four pedigree, and the Longhorns had piled up quality wins in conference play this season. Based on their resume up to this point, most people considered Texas to be a surefire second weekend team. Personally, I had them in the Final Four. Just goes to show that ‘college basketball expertise’ is almost worthless in March Madness.

Statistical Unlikelihood

Looking into the box score of this game shows just how unlikely Abilene Christian’s victory was. The Wildcats were held to 30% from the field and 17% from three. They trailed by as many as nine points in the second half and had their shots blocked nine times. They did not make a field goal for upwards of four minutes to end the game.

Texas, on the other hand, shot 45% from the field and 35% from three. And they lost. It’s not often you will see such a disparity in shooting numbers in favor of the team that ends up losing the game.

How Did Abilene Christian Pull Off the Upset?

In a word? Turnovers. The Wildcats entered the game as the nation’s best team in turnover margin, which caused many astute observers to recognize this as a terrible matchup for Texas in the first round. (Astute observers other than me, I guess. You can’t win ’em all.) Abilene went on to pressure Texas into committing 23 turnovers. The Longhorns were already pretty unimpressive as far as ball security was concerned, averaging over 14 giveaways per contest.

ACU also had 27 more field goal attempts than their opponents, which is why they were able to get away with such abysmal percentages. Another important factor: the Wildcats won the rebounding battle and pulled in 18 offensive boards to Texas’ five.

The turnovers and rebounding turned into a fatal recipe for Texas and Shaka Smart. As for Abilene Christian, they came away with the first NCAA Tournament win in program history, upending many brackets (including mine) in the process.

Abilene Christian will continue their 2021 March Madness run on Monday, March 22 when they face UCLA in the Round of 32. The game will be broadcast at 5:15 PM on TBS.

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