Sports

Upsets That Won’t Upset You

How to pick March Madness Cinderellas.

Jahvon Blair of the Georgetown Hoyas celebrates making a three point shot.
Looks like a Cinderella. Elsa/Getty Images

Every NCAA Tournament has upsets, but not all upsets are created equal. Failing to understand the different kinds of upsets the tournament produces leads a lot of bracket pickers astray.

Most tournaments have a small number of big surprises and a heaping handful of middling “upsets” that aren’t that hard to call out ahead of time. But these more boring non-upset “upsets” are where real value lies in a bracket pool, because, again, there are a lot of them. If you pick a No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 seed and you’re right, then great! But that won’t usually happen, and even if you do land such a whale, you won’t win your pool unless you get a lot more games right.

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Your path to upset-picking salvation is to be disciplined about the types of upsets you predict—to limit how much you’re risking on the long shots and really get after it in areas of the bracket where the favorites are more vulnerable. I’ve followed that formula for years, and it’s served me pretty well. I’ve won two of the last five bracket pools in my friend group, which I consider a good showing given that March Madness is such a crapshoot.

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So, let’s take a walk. Here are nine upset picks I like, grouped by likelihood. I’m not advising you to take every single game on this board, but I am telling you that you could find good value by picking and choosing from this buffet of games.

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Group 1: UINOs (upsets in name only)

If a No. 9 seed beats a No. 8, that doesn’t count as an upset. Everything beyond that counts, but let’s acknowledge that certain upsets are fringe cases. A few possibilities here:

• No. 10 Maryland (a 2.5-point underdog) beating No. 7 UConn, East Region. Maryland is hit-or-miss this season, and the “misses” are usually against teams that can overwhelm them near the basket. Maybe Maryland should have thought about this before entering the season without a single big man who’d see minutes on a serious contender. The Huskies are much bigger than the Terps, but their bigs are not dominant interior scorers. If Maryland’s defensive rebounding holds up against that UConn front-court, the Terps should win via their superior guard play. If not? Hey, that’s why I’m giving you a bunch of games to choose from.

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• No. 10 Rutgers (a 1-point favorite) beating No. 7 Clemson, Midwest. If you believe in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency ratings or Vegas spreads (I do), then Rutgers is the better of these teams and is seeded lower only because the Scarlet Knights (like Maryland) had to go through the wringer of a conference schedule in the nine-bid Big Ten. If you believe in more sentimental ways of picking teams, well, Rutgers is appearing in its first men’s March Madness since 1991. You can pretend that will be inspiring to all the players who arrived sometime after 2016.

• No. 11 Utah State (a 4.5-point underdog) over No. 6 Texas Tech, South. The underdog Aggies are eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency overall, fifth in defensive rebounding rate, fourth in two-point field goal rate against, and seventh in blocked-shot percentage. All of that paints a conclusive picture: USU is hard to score against, especially inside. 7-foot center Neemias Queta does the bulk of the shot-blocking and is also the featured talent when the Aggies have the ball. This is not an ideal matchup for Tech, which relies heavily on shots from inside the arc. Just 31.4 percent of the Red Raiders’ shots from the field this year were 3-pointers, ranking them 304th in Division I in three-point frequency. Now they’re facing a team whose identity is built around interior defense. Not great!

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Group 2: Real upsets

These results would be surprising, but not world-stunners. It would be a genuine shock if none of the underdogs in this band got to the round of 32, or if all of them did.

• No. 12 Winthrop (a 6.5-point underdog) beating No. 5 Villanova, South. The Eagles are an old-fashioned CHAOS TEAM: They play fast (they’re eighth in Division I in average possession length at 14.9 seconds), and they crash the offensive glass with vigor (their 35.7 percent offensive board rate is 12th). They’re also in the top 60 in steal rate on defense. A team like this can be a bear when it gets hot, or when its opponent loses its poise. You wouldn’t normally expect a Jay Wright Villanova team to be overwhelmed by such an opponent, but this one’s lost three of its last four and has really struggled since point guard Collin Gillespie went out with a season-ending knee injury.

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• No. 12 Georgetown (a 5-point underdog) beating No. 5 Colorado, East. Every team that won its conference tournament has the hot hand at the moment, and narratives about coming into March hot don’t really hold up when you break down the NCAA tournament results. However, Georgetown is a slightly different case, having flipped a switch around mid-February. After starting 5-10, they won eight of their last 10, including four in the Big East Tournament, and only a few of those wins were all that close. While Patrick Ewing has his alma mater playing very well, the Buffs have won six of their last seven. But Colorado doesn’t seem built to exploit Georgetown’s biggest weaknesses: lots of giveaways and lousy two-point shooting. The Buffaloes are 254th in defensive steal rate and aren’t big themselves, with just one rotation player (bench center Dllas Walton) over 6-foot-8.

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• No. 13 Liberty (a 9.5-point underdog) beating No. 4 Oklahoma State, Midwest. Few teams swing more wildly between great and bad than the Cowboys, who’ve beaten No. 1 seed Baylor and also lost twice to sub-.500 TCU. The Pokes’ fast pace puts them in danger of falling into a deep hole if they start cold from the field while the opponent makes shots. And Liberty’s deliberate half-court offense and great shooting (a 57.4 effective field goal percentage, fourth in the country) create precisely that risk.

Group 3: Enormous upsets

A No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 is a once-in-forever event, and UMBC doing it to Virginia in 2018 means we might not see it again in our lifetimes. (I don’t know.) But 14 and 15 seeds used to win reasonably often. From 2010 to 2016, six No. 14s won in the round of 64, along with four No. 15s. At the time, most tournaments had at least one true shocker in the first round. Then the trail went cold, and nobody from those two seed lines has won since 2016. If we’re overdue for another—and please ignore that logical fallacy—here are the two best bets.

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• No. 14 Eastern Washington (an 11-point underdog) beating No. 3 Kansas, West. Eastern moves with urgency and crams a lot of possessions into each game. The Eagles are 30th in average possession length and 28th in Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo. They’re also a solidly above-average shooting team, especially at the foul line, where they’re sixth in Division I at an excellent 79.9 percent. This is not a top-tier Kansas team, and the Jayhawks withdrew from the Big 12 Tournament after returning a positive COVID test. That makes Kansas a big medical question mark in a tournament that’s itself a big medical question mark.

• No. 15 Grand Canyon (a 14.5-point underdog) beating No. 2 Iowa, West. Grand Canyon is the best pick on the board this year if you’re looking to make for a big, big swing. The Antelopes are 108th in adjusted efficiency, 43 and 44 spots ahead of the next-highest-rated No. 15 seeds, Cleveland State and Oral Roberts. Plus, the Antelopes (74th) are only 24 spots lower than Iowa (50th) in defensive efficiency. The Hawkeyes should win with ease, because Grand Canyon shouldn’t have an answer for stud big man Luka Garza. But this one feels like it could get interesting (though it probably won’t).

Group 4: Your rival school’s overrated, entitled snobs against unheralded but classy warrior-scholars

This is for Michigan State fans who might talk themselves into No. 1 Michigan losing to Mount St. Mary’s or Texas Southern in the round of 64. Good luck!

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