Why you should care
Because the month of March is for college basketball.
It should have been a cakewalk for Michigan State — at least to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In fact, many reasonable people expected the Spartans to win the whole enchilada; after all, they had won the Big 10 championship, had made it to the Final Four the year before and had three of their senior starters coming back.
But there’s a reason it’s called March Madness, as No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee showed when it stomped all over the Spartans that night. The upsets can strike at any moment. Some of the millions of people who fill out brackets this month will go crazy with the upsets, while others stick to the “chalk” formula, almost exclusively picking lower seeds. If you want to win your bracket, the secret is somewhere in the middle.
Since 1985, the year the bracket went to 64-plus teams …
There have been an average of 8.25 upsets in the first round.
Where’s the best place to look for these upsets? Start in the First Four. Since these play-in games were introduced in 2011, a team that has emerged from the First Four has won at least one additional game in the tournament, with 11-seed Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) reaching the Final Four in 2011. Check out those 11-seeds, too. The 11-6 upset has actually been the most common over the past 12 years — even more frequent than the ever-popular 12-5 upset. An 11-seed has won in the first round every year since 2005, and in eight of those tournaments, multiple 11-seeds knocked off six-seeds. Check out teams with recent tournament experience, says Chris Dobbertean, bracketologist at SBNation. On top of that, focus on teams with good guards, strong defense and the ability to shoot. “The perimeter is the equalizer,” Dobbertean says.
College basketball is more upset-heavy than any other sport, and the tournament is the perfect example why. With a single-elimination format, teams must be at the top of their game to compete. All it takes is some hot shooting or a few ill-timed turnovers and a giant goes down early. Bucknell University broadcaster Justin Antweil believes the one-and-done nature of the NCAA Tournament makes it a unique experience — and he’s no stranger to upsets. The Bison, who are back in the tournament this year, shocked the world in 2005 when, as a No. 14 seed, they beat highly touted Kansas.
There’s plenty to consider when filling out your bracket, but don’t take it all too seriously. We’ll always have outliers like last season, which saw a whopping 13 higher seeds win in the tournament. Or like in 2015, when only five higher-seeded teams pulled off an upset. Hovering around eight will pay off more times than not, though.
With all that in mind, our top upset picks are:
Middle Tennessee (12) over Minnesota (5)
The Blue Raiders average 1.18 points in transition, and most of their roster that upset Michigan State last year is returning.
Rhode Island (11) over Creighton (6)
The Rams are hot after winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament, while the Bluejays are below .500 since losing senior Maurice Watson Jr. to injury.
UNC Wilmington (12) over Virginia (5)
UNC Wilmington turns the ball over fewer times per possession than any other team in Division I, and they hit nearly 37 percent of their threes. That should be enough against a Virginia team that has struggled to score most of this season.
Good luck filling out your bracket. After all, there’s no better feeling than nailing an upset pick. Well, maybe knocking down the game-winning shot — but this is pretty close.