Why you should care
Because it’s best to be informed about the money you’re losing.
If you’re hoping to destroy the handful of meaningful relationships you still have left by wagering money you don’t have on games you know nothing about, listen up: We’re here to help. Some 40 million Americans will fill out NCAA Tournament brackets this year, wagering in excess of $9 billion, according to the American Gaming Association. And let’s be honest, most of that money would be better spent on scratch-off lottery tickets.
Because it’s going up in smoke.
Lucky for you, we took the time to crunch the numbers — using kenpom.com, readily available statistical data and OZY staffers — and analyze each first-round “upset” since 2010. In trying to determine why low-seeded teams have had success against their highly seeded opponents, we considered a variety of factors, including strength of schedule (SOS), roster experience, offensive rating (points per 100 possessions), defensive rating (points conceded per 100 possessions) and record in last 10 games.
Now, if filling out a winning bracket was as simple as borderline basic data analysis, everyone at last week’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference would be lining their pockets each March. We’ve gone a few extra miles to give you a competitive edge. Here are our calls for five first-round upsets that just might happen.
No. 13 IONA over No. 4 IOWA STATE
Historical Odds of Advancement: 19.5%
If you throw out the schedules, Iona and Iowa State stack up as statistical mirrors; both teams are highly experienced and score in volume, and each is middling defensively. But SOS plays a huge role in tournament seeding, and thus Iona’s upset odds hinge on something less obvious.
After winning the MAAC Tournament championship, the Gaels come into the first round white-hot, racking up nine wins in their last 10 games. Iowa State, meanwhile, stumbled to a 5–5 finish (albeit against tougher teams), compounded by the indefinite suspension of rim protector Jameel McKay, who started all 22 games for the Cyclones before head coach Steve Prohm suspended him for practice-related reasons.
What’s more, Iona’s A.J. English is a future NBA wing and boasts the fourth highest offensive rating among high-usage players in the entire tournament (114.9), while his teammate, Jordan Washington, is putting up nearly 14 points per game in under 19 minutes of action — prorated over 40 minutes, he’s among the top scorers in college basketball. All of which points to the fact that the talent gap in this one is far narrower than in a typical 4 vs. 13 matchup.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, 64 percent of the upsets since 2010 were won by teams who entered the tournament with the hotter hand.
No. 10 SYRACUSE over No. 7 DAYTON
Historical Odds of Advancement: 39.2%
The only statistical justification for Syracuse’s inclusion in this year’s 64-team field lies in its impressive SOS (29), which ranks some 55 places higher than Dayton’s. In fact, the Orange did all they could to play themselves out of the tournament, going 1–5 in their last six. Yet we’re still picking them — primarily because of Syracuse’s length in a 2–3 zone that has undone teams more talented than the Flyers. And because of the guy they call Boeheim.
Looking across the table, Dayton has tournament experience up and down the roster, but the Flyers don’t shoot the three particularly well. They’ll need to rely on a high post receiver, probably Kendall Pollard, to catch, face and make good passing decisions in tight spaces against heavy pressure. If the Flyers can’t knock down perimeter shots early — or if their post players struggle helping to generate those open looks — the Syracuse zone won’t be forced to extend, and the Flyers will be faced with a long bus ride home to Ohio.
No. 10 TEMPLE over No. 7 IOWA
Historical Odds of Advancement: 39.2%
Temple comes in 7–3 in the last 10 against a Hawkeye outfit that fell off a cliff in January. If the regular season were two weeks longer, Iowa might have played itself out of the field entirely.
Both teams have formidable roster experience and coaches who’ve been through the March gauntlet. Jarrod Uthoff, once a candidate for conference player of the year, has seen his field goal percentage plummet since a hot start, and the Iowa offense has declined with him. Outside of Uthoff and wing Peter Jok, the Hawkeyes can’t create their own looks, facing a Temple team built to slow tempo and limit possessions.
The Owls will likely look to bleed the clock and play a power game through senior Quenton DeCosey. Given Iowa’s shooting issues coming in, their recent form overall and lack of off-the-dribble creators to score against the shot clock, we fear for Herky.
No. 12 YALE over No. 5 BAYLOR
Historical Odds of Advancement: 32.6%
Yale’s rolled to a 9–1 finish, claiming the Ivy title for the first time since 1962, and sports an offensive/defensive ratings split among the highest in the tournament (43 and 14, respectively). Those numbers came against an Ivy no longer a rec league for Hotchkiss scrubs, as Harvard’s recent successes in the tournament and on the recruiting trail have demonstrated.
The Bears, meanwhile, will bring athleticism, relying on Taurean Waller-Prince and Rico Gathers to fill the stat sheet and dominate the boards. The only problem is that Waller-Prince isn’t a reliable go-to scorer and Gathers, for all his bulk, is short for a big man (reportedly 6′7″ without shoes).
Ultimately, this one’s a matchup of strength against strength (Yale comes in second nationally in rebound margin; Baylor is 14th). The Bulldogs lost narrowly at SMU and USC but won’t be intimidated by a Bears team that, for all of Waller-Prince’s skills, lacks a true lead scorer.
No. 14 STEPHEN F. AUSTIN over No. 3 WEST VIRGINIA
Historical Odds of Advancement: 16.1%
Stephen F. Austin is a ridiculous 53–1 in the Southland Conference since 2014 and enters the tournament on a 20-game winning streak. They lead the entire country in scoring margin, and if we’re limiting the discussion to numbers, the Lumberjacks’ closest data comp is Michigan State.
So West Virginia will rely on physicality to bully the Jacks. At 6′9″, Devin Williams is a force and leading proponent of a Bob Huggins approach 30 years in the making: Foul everywhere; the officials won’t call them all. The Mountaineers run a full-court press that generates the second highest turnover percentage (25.5%) in America, trailing only … wait for it … Stephen F. Austin.
Much of the discussion leading up to this game has focused on whether SFA will be able to break West Virginia’s press and rebound against a taller Mountaineers squad (the Jacks lack front court size). But we’re more interested in the opposite: Will WVA be able to handle the ball against the Lumberjacks? The wild card here lies in the officiating — a loosely called game favors the more physical Mountaineers, but don’t think SFA isn’t capable of shooting its way out of an ugly game, either.