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  • Need some last-minute bracket advice? Here's our upset picks to circle, ones to avoid and some deep sleeper candidates for the Final Four.
By The SI Staff
March 20, 2019

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It's getting to be that time: You have 24 hours left to complete your March Madness bracket. Since the 2019 NCAA tournament field was released, you've likely spent time studying up on expert picks, scientific strategies, historical data and more 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 usual trends and go with a No. 12 beating a No. 5? What about that guaranteed upset in the first round everyone is talking about? Last year, four of our five writers pegged Loyola-Chicago over Miami as the surest bet, and lo and behold, the Ramblers advanced (and more!).

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 which upsets you should believe in—and which to avoid.

First-round upset I feel good about

Dan Greene: Liberty over Mississippi State. The Flames can shoot and play a low-possession style, plus they hung with Alabama, Georgetown, and Vanderbilt in true road games, so I don't think they'll be intimidated by the SEC's sixth-place finisher.

Michael Beller: Since Lagerald Vick left the team for personal reasons, Kansas has had more than its fair share of troubling stretches of offense. Northeastern is efficient on the offensive end of the floor, ranking 14th in the country in three-point percentage, and 11th in two-point percentage. Kansas will want to speed up this game, but Northeastern doesn’t crash the offensive glass, opting instead to send at least two players back to prevent run-outs. It’s hard to say any 4–13 game is a good matchup for the No. 13 seed, but we can say this one is as good as is realistically possible for Northeastern.

Michael Shapiro: Villanova has won two national titles in three years, but even Jay Wright isn’t immune to a first weekend collapse. This Wildcats squad is low on reliable scoring, with some ugly blowout losses on their tournament resume. Saint Mary’s looked impressive against Gonzaga as it stole the WCC tournament on March 12. The Gaels have a good chance to stymie Villanova on Thursday night.

Molly Geary: Saint Mary’s over Villanova. This is a tough draw for the reigning champs. Saint Mary’s is the second-highest rated double-digit seed (and easily the highest No. 11) on kenpom and only five spots below ‘Nova. It has an offense capable of matching the Wildcats and can shoot the three, take care of the ball and hit the offensive glass pretty well, and we all just saw what it did to the nation’s best offense in the WCC final. The two biggest reasons, though, why I’m picking the Gaels are these: 1) these teams play at two of the slowest tempos in the country. That means fewer possessions, and fewer chances for Villanova to do what it loves to do: jack up threes. The ‘Cats have the nation’s third-highest three-point rate, yet only shoot 35% from the arc. That brings me to 2) Saint Mary’s, meanwhile, has the ninth-best defensive three-point rate. It’s one of the best teams in the country at keeping teams off the three-point line, and if ‘Nova is forced inside, it won’t be too comfortable. The Wildcats get a lower percentage of their points from two-pointers than anyone else in the field, per kenpom.

Emily Caron: Seton Hall. Everyone is really high on Wofford right now and for good reason, but the Pirates have gotten scrappy and really rallied when they needed to toward the end of this season. In their last five games they've taken four wins, two over Marquette, one over Georgetown (feel free to disregard) and one of two against Villanova. I'm ready to watch them do it again on Thursday and snap the Terriers' 20-game win streak, which dates back to December.

Jeremy Woo: Murray State over Marquette. Markus Howard is banged up, Marquette has dropped five of six, and it hasn’t faced any individual player as good as Ja Morant. He’s probably going to run wild, as he’s seen just about every coverage possible this season and won’t hesitate to get everyone else involved. When the other Racers make shots, they tend to win. If they can limit their own mistakes, run Marquette off the three-point line and slow down Howard (expect their top defender, Shaq Buchanan, to draw that assignment), this is very doable.

Eric Single: UC Irvine over Kansas State. The Big West champion Anteaters haven't lost in two months, and only one of their last 10 wins was even within single digits. That, along with their nation-leading field goal percentage allowed on two-pointers (40.6%), indicates that K-State is dealing with a team playing beyond the normal level of a No. 13 seed.

First-round upset pick that's a little crazy

Greene: It's crazy enough that I didn't pick it, but UC-Irvine over Kansas State. The Wildcats could be without forward Dean Wade due to a foot injury and the Anteaters come in hot, having not lost in two months.

Beller: Georgia State plays fast and makes threes, with three different players—Malik Benlevi, Jeff Thomas and Devin Mitchell—all shooting better than 40% from behind the arc on at least 167 attempts. Houston wants to play a grinding pace, and doesn’t have much experience this year against teams that want to get up and down the floor. The Cougars did beat LSU, but that was a home game and they needed to rally from a 15-point second-half deficit to get the win. If Georgia State can make this a track meet and connect on, say, 10 threes, it will be right in this game.

Shapiro: Yale upset No. 5 Baylor in 2016, and the Bulldogs could be in for some more tournament magic behind a pair of veteran guards against LSU. California products Miye Oni and Alex Copeland lead the NCAA’s No. 24 scoring offense, and Yale shot 49.8% from the field in 29 games. LSU could be vulnerable, especially in light of losing head coach Will Wade amid an NCAA corruption scandal. The Ivy League could threaten to make the tourney’s second weekend for the first time since Cornell sprinted to the Sweet 16 in 2010.

Geary: UC Irvine over Kansas State. It’s unclear whether Dean Wade will suit up for the Wildcats in this one, but even if he does, hear me out: K-State is the weakest of the No. 4 seeds on both kenpom and the NET, and if Wade doesn’t play, that will further complicate things. The Wildcats have one of the weaker offenses in the field and prefer to grind teams down, and low-possession games in tournament settings leave more room for the underdog to stick around. The Anteaters are going to have a tough time cracking Kansas State’s very strong defense, but they have a big thing in their favor with their own D: opponents shoot worse on two-pointers and at the rim against UC Irvine than any other team in the country. If this game turns into a rock fight, Irvine just may be able to spring the upset.

Caron: No. 13 Northeastern over No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks stole a No. 4 seed somehow and will face a Northeastern team with strengths that pretty starkly contrast their own. Kansas is a better defensive team this year, while the Huskies are absolutely not. Northeastern's offense, on the other hand, has improved enough down the stretch that it could come out and shock Bill Self.

Woo: Northeastern over Kansas. I’m taking this one in my brackets because I don’t trust Kansas, but also because Northeastern shoots the crap out of the ball, rarely turns it over and has a good deal of experience in its rotation. While the Jayhawks have been a solid defensive team, they’re just average in forcing mistakes and defending the three, and they rely heavily on their freshman guards to make threes. If Northeastern can swarm Dedric Lawson, make him play in a crowd and force everyone else to step up, they’ll at least keep it close. The Huskies have the firepower to pull this off.

Single: Saint Louis over Virginia Tech. The Billikens rank 352nd out of the 353 teams in Division I in free throw percentage, and they're almost equally bad shooters from the floor, sitting 322nd in effective field goal percentage. Meanwhile, the Hokies are getting star Justin Robinson back from an injury that cost him the second half of ACC play. But sometimes not every injury return goes as seamlessly as Zion Williamson's, and only a few other teams in the tournament rebound like Saint Louis does. If the shots aren't falling early in San Jose, this could end up right where SLU wants it.

Don't fall for this popular upset pick

Greene: Yale over LSU. Yes, the Bulldogs can play and James Jones can coach. And yes, the Tigers are dealing with the mess of their coach being on leave due to the findings of an FBI wiretap. But LSU will have too much talent on the floor to fall prey to the first-round upset.

Beller: I asked the editors if I was allowed to say Oregon over Wisconsin, considering the Ducks are now the betting line favorite, and they said it was okay. Oregon being the overwhelming consensus as the best 12-over-5 pick is an absolute joke. Yes, I understand that the Ducks’ season took a turn when they inserted Francis Okoro in the starting lineup. Still, if you look at Wisconsin’s schedule, you’ll notice that the teams that beat them are either A) better at playing their version of basketball (such as Virginia and Michigan) or ruthlessly efficient or explosive on offense (such as Michigan State, Purdue and Marquette). Oregon is, without question, neither of these things. Forget about the upset. Wisconsin will win this one comfortably.

Shapiro: The New Mexico State train is filling up fast, and Bruce Pearl’s résumé at Auburn isn’t stellar, with just one tournament win in four years. But the Tigers seem to have found their groove of late. They’ve won eight straight and dominated Tennessee in the SEC tournament final. Auburn will move on, and Kansas will be in significant danger of a round of 32 exit on Saturday.

Geary: Seton Hall over Wofford. Only 53.5% of people in ESPN’s Bracket Challenge are picking the Terriers to beat the Pirates in their 7–10 matchup, while on Yahoo people see it as a toss-up. Would it surprise you, then, to learn that on kenpom, Wofford has the highest percent chance of winning its first-round game of any of the No. 7 seeds? It seems to be suffering from the fact that people are unfamiliar with the Terriers, while Seton Hall is a safe name that just went to the Big East tournament final. The Big East, though, just had one of its worst seasons in recent memory, and the Pirates only went .500 in conference play. No matter what metric you use—kenpom, NET, RPI, ESPN BPI, T-rank—this is Wofford’s game to lose. That doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to win (this is March, after all), but it’s a safer bet than many may think.

Caron: Yale over LSU. The Tigers being without Will Wade doesn't mean all the talent on their team has just evaporated. Sure, they got upset by Florida in the SEC tournament...but it was by three points in a really good game. Naz Reid can hang with the best of them, as can Tremont Waters and Javonte Smart. They're young but they're good enough to rally without a coach for at least a round or two.

Woo: UC Irvine over Kansas State. Yes, this game is in San Jose, and no K-State probably won’t have Dean Wade available, but the Wildcats are a team with a concrete identity and know how to win without him (recall last year’s Elite Eight run). Yes, the Anteaters won 30 games, but recall that the Wildcats won 71–49 in Manhattan when the two teams met last season, and brought back their entire team. There’s a chance this game is ugly and it’ll probably be close, but Barry Brown is someone I want to put my chips on in March. If K-State makes free throws and locks down defensively, it will survive this test.

Single: Yale-LSU. It feels like everyone's out on the Tigers now that it's clear suspended coach Will Wade won't rejoin the team this postseason amid his standoff with the school. But the roster itself is back at full strength with Javonte Smart returning to action, and the versatile front line of 6'10" Naz Reid and 6'11" Kavell Bigby-Williams pose a challenge the Bulldogs don't see often in the Ivy League.

Lower-seeded team with the best chance of advancing past the first weekend

Greene: As a No. 6 seed, Iowa State would likely need an "upset" over No. 3 Houston to reach the Sweet 16, but the Cyclones are good enough to beat anybody and wouldn't be a surprise at all to reach Kansas City.

Beller: Belmont ranks 20th in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency, third in effective field goal percentage, and 18th in turnover rate. They’re second in two-point percentage, and connect on nearly 75% of their free throws. They have the size to handle Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, and the offense to stick with Tremont Waters, Naz Reid and the rest of the LSU Tigers. The Bruins may have been one of the last four teams into the field, but they’ll also be one of the last 16 alive.

Shapiro: I’ll consider lower-seeded anything in double digits, so how about Iowa advancing past Cincinnati and likely Tennessee. Both opponents are among the tournament’s top defensive squads, but the Hawkeyes are kenpom’s No. 15 offense, armed with a pair of perimeter threats. A hot weekend from Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp could send Fran McCaffery to his first Sweet 16.

Geary: No. 7 seed Cincinnati. Full disclosure: I didn’t pick the Bearcats to beat Iowa in the first round in my bracket, but I believe it’s plenty possible of happening. Should Cincy advance and face No. 2 seed Tennessee, it would present an interesting contrast. The Vols love to score inside the arc—either via easy buckets or two-point jumpers—while the Bearcats love to let their opponents shoot threes while closing off the inside. Tennessee can shoot the three but doesn’t like to take a lot of them, and four of its five losses this year came when it attempted 22 or more.

Caron: Villanova has proven it's a tournament team, it's got veteran leaders and a good enough coach to get it past St. Mary’s and then Purdue or Old Dominion. The Boilermakers could get upset in the first round, which would make the ’Cats path to the Sweet 16 a little easier.

Woo: Belmont. The Bruins are well-coached and have some real talent on the roster, but I say this more out of concern for Maryland (which looked awful in the Big Ten tournament and lacks trustworthy guards) and LSU (which doesn’t have Will Wade, can be inconsistent and is in a bit of a rough emotional patch). I think two upsets are possible here if Dylan Windler is hitting from outside and freshman center Nick Muszynski comes back strong from injury. It’s a relatively ripe opportunity.

Single: Seton Hall. They're going to have to work for it, opening against an excellent Wofford team with Kentucky likely waiting in the wings, but the Pirates seem to be the Big East team best suited for tournament street fights, and junior Myles Powell is one of the bracket's most cold-blooded shooters. Seton Hall already beat the Wildcats in a mid-December neutral-site game, and John Calipari's team hasn't gotten much better at defending the three. This week's P.J. Washington walking-boot scare is unsettling at best.

A No. 7 seed or lower has made the Final Four six years in a row. Who is this year's best bet to continue that streak?

Greene: The best team on the No. 7 seed line or below is probably Wofford, but given that their road could include Kentucky and North Carolina, that seems unlikely. A team set up a bit better is Cincinnati, a grinding team who will be practically at home in Columbus for the first weekend and figuratively at home in a region filled with slow-paced teams, meaning the Bearcats should be able to play comfortably at their normal speed. They're also in a group where the No. 1 (Virginia) famously struggles in March, which could open the door to a surprise winner of the South.

Beller: Saint Mary’s upset Gonzaga in the WCC championship by taking the air out of the ball and slowing the game down to a snail’s pace. Is there a team in Gonzaga’s pod capable of repeating that script? Why yes, there is. Syracuse can control pace with the best of them, and won’t be cowed by the big stage. The Orange also have the size to make Gonzaga’s perimeter stars uncomfortable. If they get past Gonzaga, chalk would have them playing Florida State in the Sweet 16 and Michigan in the Elite Eight. Given the styles played by the Seminoles and Wolverines, those would also be winnable games. I think the streak ends this year, but if I had to bet on one team continuing it, the Orange would be my pick.

Shapiro: Nevada came within one point of the Elite Eight in 2018. Now, in an unpredictable West Region, Eric Mussleman and Co. could steal the region from Gonzaga. The Wolf Pack are talented and filled with veteran scorers, led by Cody and Caleb Martin. Don’t let a middling tournament résumé distract you. The West should be on notice for Nevada.

Geary: I picked Wofford to reach the Elite Eight in my expert bracket, so why not go a step further? The Terriers are pretty boom-or-bust given their reliance on threes and questionable defense, but being in second nationally in outside shooting (41.6%) makes it not-entirely-crazy to see them getting hot. A potential second-round date with Kentucky, a team that could eat the Terriers alive on the interior, is a big obstacle. But the Wildcats don’t take many threes at all, and if Wofford’s triples are falling, it could be the great equalizer. If it gets past the ‘Cats and meets No. 3 Houston, it will be happy to try to beat the paint-protecting Cougars from the outside. Get to the Elite Eight, and anything could happen.

Caron: Cincinnati. An upset over No. 2 seed Tennessee is imaginable for the Bearcats. Seventh-seeded Cincinnati excelled at limiting Houston in the AAC championship and could do it again when it faces the Vols. After that it could handle either Purdue or Villanova, both with just enough underwhelming performances this season to see them on the wrong side of an upset, en route to a clash with Virginia. The Bearcats have got a solid defense and a few legit offensive weapons so while I still think this year's lower seeds aren't as strong as they have been in recent editions of the madness, I'd roll with Cincinnati if I had to.

Woo: It’s going to take some good fortune,and it’s not likely, but I don’t hate Cincinnati’s chances after being sorted into a weak region and getting to play its first two games in Columbus. If the Bearcats handle Iowa, they’ll have to grind it out against Tennessee. The Vols have had some issues scoring in the halfcourt of late, and if Cincy can slow Grant Williams in what’s ostensibly a home game, it might get to another favorable site in the regional in Louisville. If it gets there, it will end up with a winnable game against whoever comes out of Purdue’s pod. And if it makes it to the Elite Eight, it will either get Virginia (which may be the No. 1 seed most in danger of being upset) or an eminently beatable team. I wouldn’t go all-in on this one, but I don’t think it’s a brutal route to Minneapolis, either.

Single: Nevada may have been a victim of the preseason expectations its Sweet 16 run last March weighed the 2018–19 team down with. The Wolf Pack are loaded with rangy, battle-tested seniors who know what it's like to reach the second weekend as a No. 7 seed. If Michigan's offense doesn't make the trip to Des Moines—it didn't make it to Iowa City in a 74–59 loss to Iowa on Feb. 1—the second-seeded Wolverines could easily cede their spot in Anaheim to Eric Musselman's energetic group.

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