- What's the best upset pick in this year's NCAA tournament? Which popular one should you avoid? What about those historical trends? Before submitting your March Madness bracket, take some advice from SI's experts.
It's getting to be that time: You have less than 24 hours left to complete your March Madness bracket. Since the 2018 NCAA tournament field was released, you've likely spent time studying up on expert picks, scientific strategies and insider info on the best teams in the country. But there is always one lingering question that consumes every bracket-filler: Which upsets should I choose?
There are endless ways to make your picks, from analyzing matchups using sophisticated stats to selecting the winners with a coin flip or based on jersey colors. Should you follow historical trends and go with a No. 12 beating a No. 5? What about that guaranteed upset in the first round everyone is talking about?
To assist you in the final hours before the bracket submission deadline, a panel of Sports Illustrated writers and editors provided some insight into how they're approaching bracket-filling, including possible upsets, trends and more.
First-round upset I feel good about
Greene: Loyola-Chicago over Miami. The Ramblers' only eye-catching win was at Florida in early December, but they're the third most efficient double-digit seed in the field (behind Butler and Texas). And by the same measure the Hurricanes are the bracket's weakest No. 6. Miami's D is so-so and Loyola shoots 40.0% from three as a team, plus plays at a pace that will slow the game down and minimize possessions. That sounds like the formula for an upset to me.
Geary: Loyola-Chicago over Miami. First, I believe the Hurricanes are discreetly overseeded. They were 22nd on the overall seed list, but check in much lower on several analytics sites: 37th on kenpom, 35th on BPI, 39th on T-rank and 32nd on Sagarin. The only first-round non-underdog seed with a larger average disparity is Rhode Island. Meanwhile, the Ramblers have characteristics that make them a good upset pick: they’re a great three-point shooting team (40%, 13th nationally) and are strong inside the arc as well (56.5%, 14th nationally). The Ramblers also have a top-25 efficient defense and previously beat Florida in Gainesville back in December. Loyola-Chicago’s high turnover rate is concerning, and it’s among the country’s worst in offensive rebounding, but Miami has a glaring flaw of its own: its below-average free-throw rate, and even worse team free-throw percentage of 66.3%, which is 324th nationally. Finally, at least two No. 11 seeds have won in the first round in each of the last four tournaments, and the last time there wasn’t at least one 6–11 upset was 2004. This one feels like a good bet to keep the streak going.
Single: No. 12 Murray State over No. 5 West Virginia. The Mountaineers may be one of only two teams to beat top-seeded Virginia this year, but at times their aggressive playing style has shown cracks against offenses that aren’t afraid to take games into the 80s, and I think we’ve seen their ceiling. The Racers bring the nation’s longest winning streak (13 in a row) into the tournament and are led by one high-scoring senior in the backcourt (Jonathan Stark, 21.8 points per game) and one versatile senior in the frontcourt (Terrell Miller Jr., 14.7 points and 8.3 assists per game). Stark may be able to channel Thomas Walkup, who dragged Stephen F. Austin to an upset of the Mountaineers on his own two years ago.
Johnson: No. 11 Loyola Chicago over No. 6 Miami. The Ramblers went into Gainesville to upend Florida in early December. Their task on Thursday is considerably easier: beating a worse team from the Sunshine State on a neutral court (American Airlines Center in Dallas). Miami won’t have potential first-round NBA draft pick Bruce Brown available for this matchup as he continues to recover from surgery he underwent in January to address a foot injury. While fellow projected first-rounder Lonnie Walker IV has the scoring chops to lift the Hurricanes to a comfortable victory, they don’t shoot the ball well enough to compromise Loyola Chicago’s defense. The Ramblers rank 25th in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency.
Woo: Loyola-Chicago over Miami. I’m rolling with the only team from my native state and city—at least for one round—and am buying their wealth of effective scorers and the playmaking skills of Clayton Custer. (He just sounds like a tournament hero, right?) He’s been slumping late in the season, but the Ramblers have been winning anyway, and will be positioned to take advantage against Miami’s smallish bunch of perimeter players. They shoot 40% from three as a team and hold opponents to a 47.3% effective field goal percentage. I’m buying the résumé, which includes a road win over Florida.
The Hurricanes have a favorable seed, but the only team on the entire ACC slate they beat by double-digits was Pitt, which barely counts. They looked uninspired at the ACC tournament and lack a truly bankable scorer on their roster—Lonnie Walker is talented but still green, and there are like six versions of Ja’Quan Newton that can show up on a given day. I’m banking on Loyola keeping things close and hitting enough threes to seal the deal.
First-round upset pick that’s a little crazy
Greene: Montana over Michigan. The Wolverines are red hot after their Big Ten tournament win—or at least they were a week ago, when that tournament ended. How fresh will they be after the extended layoff? The Grizzlies take care of the ball and force turnovers well enough that they could make even a protective and disciplined Michigan team cough it up. But first Montana will need to make some jumpers, which is not its strength.
Single: O.K., it’s a lot crazy, but give me No. 16 Texas Southern over No. 1 Xavier. We all know that a No. 16-seed has never beaten a No. 1-seed, but we need to accept that when that day eventually comes, it’s not going to be something that “makes sense” within the realm of traditional basketball outcomes—or else it would have happened already. If anyone has the makeup to pull it off this year, it’s Texas Southern, which opened the season on a 13-game barnstorming tour of some of the best programs in the nation, losing all 13 but putting a scare into a handful. The goal, according to head coach Mike Davis, was to challenge his players at a level well beyond what they’d face in SWAC play. Fast-forward to today, and despite being the tourney’s only sub-.500 team, Texas Southern has won seven straight, including double-digit victories in all three of its SWAC tournament games.
The Tigers play fast and loose: Guards Demontrae Jefferson and Donte Clark average 42 points (and 5.9 turnovers) per game between them. Auburn transfer Trayvon Reed is a 7’2” space-eater patrolling the middle. And they won’t be star-struck by the scoring capabilities of Trevon Blueitt and J.P. Macura.
From a more rational, bracket-theory perspective: Xavier is lined up to get a stiff challenge in every game from the second round on if seeds hold, from Missouri and Michael Porter Jr. to Gonzaga (which knocked the Musketeers out last year) to defending national champion North Carolina. It seems like almost everybody is shorting Xavier at some point before the Final Four—why not do away with the half-measures and commit to the principle?
Geary: Davidson over Kentucky. O.K., a No. 12-seed beating a No. 5-seed isn’t exactly crazy (though in the last three years, No. 12-seeds have won just three of 12 matchups), but a John Calipari-led Wildcats team has never lost in the first round. And this year’s young squad seems like it may finally be peaking, fresh off an SEC tourney title. So why still pick the upset? Davidson may be peaking at the right time as well. It took out two tournament teams to win the A-10 championship, is top-10 in offensive turnover rate, two-point shooting and free-throw shooting, is a strong three-point shooting team (39.1%) that loves to bomb away, has a go-to guy in Peyton Aldridge and holds its own on the defensive boards. All of those things are a good formula for a potential upset.
Johnson: No. 16 Penn over No. 1 Kansas. OK, so this is a lot crazy. You’re probably aware that a No. 16 has never beaten a No. 1 before, but the Quakers are far and away the best team on the No. 16 line in this year’s field, and they’re particularly adept at taking away something the Jayhawks do well. Kansas has gotten 37.4% of its points from behind the three-point arc this season, the largest share among Big 12 teams. Good looks from distance may not be readily available, however, against a Quakers squad that has allowed opponents to launch only 32.8% of their field goal attempts from long range, which ranks 37th in Division I.
Woo: Stephen F. Austin over Texas Tech. This is a hunch, but it feels like this could be a fast-paced, sloppy game that swings late. Both the Lumberjacks and Red Raiders love to force mistakes with pressure defense (SFA is tops in the country in defensive turnover rate) and can both be turnover-prone. Neither team relies heavily on the three-ball, and if SFA can junk things up, it’ll be hard for their opponents to pull away. They rely on five upperclassmen and if they limit Texas Tech’s free throws, this will be closer than you think.
Texas Tech is obviously the better team, but they’ve lost five of their last seven and Keenan Evans has been banged up the last couple weeks. They have yet to take a bad loss this season, to be fair. But if SFA can keep the ball away from Evans, the Red Raiders’ only true playmaker, the pressure falls on freshmen Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith—Texas Tech’s second and third-leading scorers—to make big offensive contributions. If the pace of this game plays as fast as it should, Stephen F. Austin will have a great opportunity to bust brackets.
Don’t fall for this popular upset pick
Single: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago over No. 6 Miami. The Hurricanes went one-and-done at the ACC tournament, then got to spend the first half of this week reading everyone’s “Watch Out For Loyola-Chicago” pieces (including the excellent ones written by my colleagues). They won’t have sophomore guard Bruce Brown back from a stress fracture in his right foot, but they won’t be taken by surprise when the Ramblers take the court as equals—head coach Jim Larrañaga, who led George Mason to the Final Four as an No. 11-seed, will make sure of that.
Woo: Oklahoma over Rhode Island. These are two solid teams, and it would likely be an upset in seeding only, but you’re not alone if you feel like banking on a Trae Young renaissance in the tourney. Don’t do it. The Rams have the nation’s fifth-best forced turnover rate, don’t make many slip-ups of their own, and play four-guard lineups to space the floor and pressure the ball. They’ll force Young to give it up, and the non-Trae Youngs will have to make shots. Jared Terrell, E.C. Matthews and Jeff Dowtin are a strong trio that should make Rhode Island a tough out. Resist the temptation.
Johnson: No. 12 South Dakota State over No. 5 Ohio State.The presence of a mid-major standout with an awesome nickname on a team with an unusual mascot—along with the instinctual impulse to pick at least one 12-5 upset—makes tabbing South Dakota State to shock Ohio State in the West region an enticing proposition. Don’t go for it. Mike Daum, the Dauminator, and the Jackrabbits are the worst No. 12 in the bracket, and the team they’ll be facing is led by a head coach, Chris Holtmann, who’s won at least one tourney game in each of his three previous appearances. (They all came with his previous employer, Butler.) Plus, the Buckeyes have their own star in Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop.
Geary: Stephen F. Austin over Texas Tech. Full disclosure: I picked this upset in my SI.com bracket, but after digging deeper into my original justification I realized I don’t actually believe it will happen. Yes, the Lumberjacks, now under Kyle Keller instead of Brad Underwood, still have the pressure defense that beat No. 3-seed West Virginia at its own game back in 2016, and there’s temptation to believe they can do it again. Like that team, they again lead the country in defensive turnover rate and are once again facing a team also strong in that area.
But the key difference back in 2016 was that the Lumberjacks took care of the ball against the pressure and West Virginia didn’t. In that matchup, WVU was the team that came in with a poor offensive turnover rate; this time, it’s the Lumberjacks, who rank 311th nationally, per kenpom. The Southland conference is full of teams that force miscues, and while winning the league, SFA struggled to deal with that. Also a key difference? The 2016 Stephen F. Austin team was underseeded, entering the tournament ranked 45th on kenpom with a top 50 defense. This year it’s ranked 111th with a top 70 defense. This game likely won’t be a pretty one offensively, and the Red Raiders haven’t always been great taking care of the ball themselves, but they should have enough to avoid a stunner.
Greene: South Dakota State over Ohio State. This is more of a strategic move than a basketball-based one, since Mike Daum and company are certainly a strong candidate to pull this off. But because so many people (including me... I think) seem to be picking the Jackrabbits as this year's 12-5 upset special, you might be best served to look elsewhere. You could even gain ground on some people by simply picking the Buckeyes, the 15th-best country in the team by efficiency, to win their first game.
One historical trend that won't help your bracket
Geary: Picking a team seeded seventh or lower to make the Final Four. The last five years have all seen such a team make the final weekend, but when it comes to your bracket, think about it: what are the odds that even if it happens again, you’re going to accurately identify that team? Who saw South Carolina coming last season? Or Syracuse in 2016? It’s very hard to predict that sort of thing, unless you’re a fan supremely confident in your squad. So while you might be tempted to send No. 8 Missouri to the Final Four because Michael Porter Jr. is back, or No. 8 Virginia Tech because it beat Duke, UNC and Virginia in the regular season, don’t. Those things may not be impossible, but there’s a much higher chance picking one will end up busting your bracket.
Johnson: The First Four streak: every year in the seven years since the advent of the First Four, exactly one participating team has made it to the second round. The streak could well end in 2018. Let’s set aside the No. 16 seeds playing on Tuesday and Wednesday night in Dayton. (See above to understand why Penn is your best bet if you want to take a chance on a No. 1 seed getting bounced in the first round.) In the Midwest, No. 6 seed Texas Christian should be able to handle whoever emerges from Wednesday night’s matchup between No. 11 Arizona State and No. 11 Syracuse, and in the East, No. 6 Florida won’t be fazed by No. 11, Jaylen Adams-led St. Bonaventure.
Greene: Villanova's early exits. With the exception of their 2016 title run, the Wildcats have lost on the first weekend in four of the last five years, with three of those coming as a No. 1 or 2 seed, including last season when they were the bracket's No. 1 overall. But this Nova team is one to trust. It's got the best offense among the many great ones Jay Wright has coached, and Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are playing sensationally. This is not the top seed to get cute with.
Woo: Entering more than one bracket. Allow me the pulpit for two seconds. This isn’t historic as it pertains to tournament results, but generally speaking, all of your friends will hate you if you fill out multiple tournament permutations out of greed (or whatever else incentivizes your cold, dark soul). It’s not fun not knowing (or caring) which team wins. Nobody really wants to hear about your bracket anyway, much less a second one. And even if you win your pool, nobody will think you’re cool for entering five times just to make it happen. Gordon Hayward didn’t get seven chances to beat Duke on a halfcourt buzzer-beater, and neither should you.
Single: Rick Barnes teams will break your heart. After leading Texas to a Final Four and two Elite Eights over his first 10 years in Austin, Barnes’s Longhorns teams drifted into a March malaise, failing to make it through the first weekend in all six tourney trips from 2008-09 to 2014-15. Barnes needed three seasons to get Tennessee into the field, but now that they’re here the Volunteers look built to battle with anyone thanks to SEC player of the year Grant Williams.
Lower-seeded team with the best chance of advancing past the first weekend
Single: St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies stared down UCLA in a thrilling First Four victory on Tuesday, playing relentless, opportunistic defense and outlasting the Bruins down the stretch on a night when leading scorer Jaylen Adams struggled to find his shot—he was 1-of-15 before draining a go-ahead jumper in the final minutes. If St. Bonaventure can carry over their effort level in Dayton to Dallas and get Adams back on track, Florida and Texas Tech will struggle to meet their level.
Geary: New Mexico State. The Aggies have a fairly favorable path, at least as favorable as you can get for a No. 12 seed. Their first-round matchup is with No. 5 seed Clemson, and while the Tigers have a strong defense, so does NMSU. It could wind up a low-scoring defensive battle, and if possessions are limited, the Aggies may find themselves right in it at the end with a chance to win it. If they get past Clemson, they’ll either get a game with No. 13 Charleston or, more likely, No. 4 Auburn—a team that hasn’t looked quite the same since losing Anfernee McLemore and has currently lost four of six. New Mexico State might be well suited to handle Auburn’s strategy of pushing the pace and shooting threes, as it has the nation’s No. 2 transition defense (per Synergy Sports) and No. 8 perimeter defense (per kenpom).
Johnson: No. 12 New Mexico State, The Aggies had the makings of a trendy upset selection irrespective of who they were slotted to take on in their first two games. They face a favorable matchup in the first round against a Clemson team that lost starting senior forward Donte Grantham to a torn ACL in January. If New Mexico State can handle the Tigers, in the second round it could meet an Auburn squad that hasn’t had ace rim protector Anfernee McLemore since mid-February due to a gruesome injury he suffered in a game against South Carolina. That’s if head coach Bruce Pearl’s group is able to avoid being knocked out in its tourney opener by Colonial Athletic Association champion, College of Charleston.
Woo: New Mexico State. The Aggies are defensively stout, keep opponents off the glass, have some depth up front and aren’t over-reliant on shooting threes, choosing to make life difficult for opponents and funnel big possessions through Zach Lofton (19.8 PPG). Jemerrio Jones is just 6’5”, but statistically he’s the most prolific rebounder in the country. This team beat Miami, Davidson, New Mexico (twice), Colorado State, and Illinois, lost to USC by five and ran through the WAC mostly unscathed. They’re legit.
Standing in the way of a Sweet 16 berth are No. 5-seed Clemson and the winner of Auburn and Charleston. Both sets of major-conference Tigers look underwhelming. Clemson is another defensive-minded team and has lost five of eight games, and Auburn’s undersized group struggles to control the defensive glass. New Mexico State is in great position to play spoiler: there’s not a weaker 4-5 pairing, or a No. 12-seed I feel better about.
Greene: Oklahoma. This is not meant as a criticism of Duke, which lurks in the second round, nor Rhode Island, the Sooners' very good first-round opponent. But if you're going to take a chance on a double-digit seed, why not one that was at one point considered a top-five team and has a talent like Trae Young?