It’s the age-old question every March Madness as you’re filling out your bracket: Which upsets should I choose? It’s a question that lingers not just as you survey the first round, but also when deciding which lower-seeded teams to advance to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
Have no fear—with fewer than 48 hours left to fill out your men’s NCAA tournament bracket, we’re here to help. We asked five of our college hoops writers five questions relating to upsets and bold predictions, ranging from the first round to the Final Four. Who are we confident will win? Who are we confident won’t win? Read on for our insight and advice—and follow it if you wish.
1. First-round upset I feel good about
Pat Forde: Winthrop over Villanova is only obvious because it makes so much sense. Winthrop is very good; Villanova is without one of its two most important players (Collin Gillespie) and has another starter hobbling (Justin Moore). And while Jay Wright's rotation is essentially down to six reliable players, Winthrop will throw 10 or more into the mix and should be able to press at a withering pace.
Molly Geary: UC Santa Barbara over Creighton. I picked all of the Gauchos, Ohio and Winthrop to win in the first round, but this might be the one I have the most faith in, matchup-wise. UCSB does an excellent job taking the perimeter away from opponents, owning the lowest defensive three-point rate in the field. The three-ball is a major part of the Bluejays’ offense, so this will be an intriguing chess match to watch. Creighton has been susceptible to an off game against lesser competition this year, and it will need to be fully locked in for this one.
Jeremy Woo: Winthrop over Villanova. The Wildcats sans Colin Gillespie seem a bit rudderless, and there may not be anything Jay Wright can do about it. They turned to Ryan Arcidiacono's younger brother, Chris, as their starting point guard the last two games despite the fact he'd previously played just 16 minutes this season. Winthrop hasn't played a tough schedule, but its program has been competitive year after year in the Big South, and it’s going to try to run and force turnovers. There are several spicy 12 and 13 seeds this year, but this is the upset that seems most likely.
Jason Jordan: Ohio over Virginia. Virginia has been on a COVID-19 pause since last week, when it had to drop out of the ACC tournament after a positive test; conventional wisdom tells me that won’t help it be the sharpest group out of the gate. That won’t bode well for the Cavs when they’re facing a Bobcats team with balance and NBA talent at the point. Jason Preston is a 6' 5", all-everything floor general who is averaging 17.1 points (53.6% overall and 41.3% from three), 6.9 assists and 6.7 rebounds a game. Four other players average in double figures, and the Bobcats are posting 80.9 points per game. The Cavs are known for their defense, but this Bobcats team has too many weapons to consistently account for.
Kevin Sweeney: Ohio over Virginia. Even if Virginia wasn't dealing with COVID-19 issues that have created a disjointed week of preparation, I'd like the Bobcats here. The Cavs haven't had a vintage Tony Bennett defense this season, and we saw UVA struggle mightily with a pair of mid-majors with ball-screen-heavy offenses in San Francisco and Kent State earlier this season. Ohio point guard Jason Preston can take over a game, and he'll pick apart the Virginia defense to lead the Bobcats to the second round.
2. First-round upset that goes out on a limb
Forde: The last time Bob Huggins had a No. 3 NCAA tournament seed, his West Virginia team was bounced by No. 14 Stephen F. Austin. Here we are again, with Morehead State in the dangerous underdog role. The Eagles have a better-than-OVC-level talent in freshman big man Joni Broome, and he could pose a problem for West Virginia center Derek Culver if Culver isn't engaged. Preston Spradlin is a coach on the rise at Morehead. It's not likely, but it's not out of the question.
Geary: For the record, I don’t think this is very likely to happen, but if you’re looking to make a particularly bold move, I view Ohio State–Oral Roberts as easily the most eye-raising 2–15 matchup. These are two teams that make their bones on the offensive end, take care of the ball and shoot the three well. Neither has anyone taller than 6' 8" in the rotation. The Golden Eagles have the third-highest three-point rate in the field of 68 (and shoot it at the fifth-best clip) and the nation’s leading scorer, Max Abmas. The Buckeyes should be able to shred Oral Roberts’s defense, but if this turns into a shootout, who knows?
Woo: Abilene Christian over Texas. I'm buying what Abilene Christian is selling: an excellent, high-pressure defense; quality three-point shooting; and an unselfish, ball-movement-focused attack. Texas has been tested plenty and has won five straight, but for an experienced backcourt, its consistency leaves a lot to be desired. There's groundwork for a stunner here.
Jordan: UNC Greensboro over Florida State. The Seminoles are big and lengthy and have a handful of likely future NBA players to go with one of the game’s top coaches in Leonard Hamilton, but they’ve been the ultimate Dr. Jekyll–Mr. Hyde team this season. The Spartans have a budding coaching star in Wes Miller, whose teams have reeled off 20 or more wins in each of the last five years with two trips to the NCAA tournament in that span. They’re not afraid of the moment. The Spartans are led by talented senior guard Isaiah Miller, who averages 19.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, four assists and 2.57 steals a game. They believe that they can win and approach games with that level of expectancy.
Sweeney: Abilene Christian over Texas. If you're looking for a 14-over-3 or wilder upset in the field, I think it's this one. No team in the nation turns its opponents over at a higher rate than Abilene Christian, and the Wildcats put a scare into fellow Big 12 squad Texas Tech early in the season. ACU is elite defensively, and Texas has had issues with turnovers throughout this season. If the Wildcats can stay out of foul trouble on the interior against Texas’s deep stable of bigs, they could be in this one late.
3. Don't fall for this popular upset pick
Forde: Michigan State to the round of 32 or further. Everyone knows that Tom Izzo is a great NCAA tournament coach, but he doesn't have a great team and people are disrespecting West Coast Conference product BYU. The Spartans first have to beat UCLA (I think they will, but it won't be easy), then have to beat the Cougars. I don't see both those things happening. Michigan State doesn't make enough shots.
Geary: Virginia Tech over Florida. The Hokies are getting the highest percentage of picks (45.9%) of any No. 10 seed in the ESPN Men’s Tournament Challenge, but the fact that Virginia Tech has played only three games since Feb. 7 is a concern. The Hokies are the lowest-rated No. 10 seed on KenPom (No. 50 overall) and rely a lot on Keve Aluma offensively. Both teams can shoot the three, but Florida has the better perimeter defense and led the SEC in two-point shooting during league play. I’m sticking with the Gators.
Woo: Colgate is a quality team in the context of the Patriot League, but I worry that its combination of fast tempo, minimal turnovers and a league-only schedule is a recipe for disaster against Arkansas. The Razorbacks have a quality defense and a much, much more athletic team, and I'm not sure how Colgate will get enough stops to survive. I'm not sure whether this constitutes a popular upset, but it's not one I'd pick.
Jordan: Colgate over Arkansas. Stop. Just stop. Yes, Colgate is the second-highest scoring team in the country averaging 86.3 points a game, and, sure, Raiders guard Jordan Burns (17 ppg) is talented, but Colgate managed all of this against only Patriot League opponents. Most people leave that part out, but it’s the only thing that matters to me. Arkansas has six Quad 1 wins, it’s played in the grueling SEC and it’s got a star guard of its own in Moses Moody (17.1 ppg). The Razorbacks are also one of the best defensive teams in the country, checking in at No. 14 in defensive efficiency per KenPom. Don’t take the bait.
Sweeney: UCSB over Creighton. I really like this Santa Barbara roster, but Creighton has too much firepower to lose this one despite it being a popular 12-over-5 pick. Blowout loss in the Big East championship game notwithstanding, Creighton has played well of late, and point guard Marcus Zegarowski is one of the best in the country. This is also the first time all season that the Gauchos will play a high-major team, and the Bluejays are capable of matching UCSB's athleticism and positional size.
4. Lower-seeded team with the best chance of advancing past the first weekend
Forde: Plenty of options here, but I'm going with San Diego State. The No. 6 Aztecs haven't lost in more than two months, which tells you about their will to win and preparation for every game. They aren't quite as good offensively as last year's 30–2 squad, but Matt Mitchell is a versatile lead dog and Brian Dutcher has some quality supporting players to go alongside him. Syracuse brings that zone mojo into the tourney, but this isn't a very good zone. West Virginia could be vulnerable as well. And No. 2 Houston may not be around by the Sweet 16. Aztecs to the final eight.
Geary: No. 6 USC. I like the Trojans’ chances of getting past either Drake or Wichita State (though from my end, the Bulldogs are the bigger threat), and if No. 3 Kansas also advances in that pod, it might be playing its second straight game without Jalen Wilson (who reportedly did not travel to Indianapolis) and possibly big man David McCormack (who missed the Big 12 tournament). That would be a major absence, especially with the talented Evan Mobley patrolling the paint for the Trojans.
Woo: USC. I can't say I'm super confident in the Trojans, but their pathway is relatively attractive and makes sense on paper, considering Kansas is dealing with COVID-19 fallout and a long layoff. Evan Mobley's ability to stabilize their defense, as well as his recent scoring aggressiveness, bodes well for USC's chances of avoiding an early upset, then knocking off a better opponent.
Jordan: No. 8 North Carolina. It’s been a down year for bluebloods to say the least, but the Tar Heels have been trending upward in the last couple of weeks. The North Carolina front line of Day’Ron Sharpe, Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot and Walker Kessler has given it a plus-10.7 rebounding advantage over opponents this season, and they’re particularly adept at cleaning the offensive glass. That bodes well for shooters like Kerwin Walton, who the Tar Heels will need to step up and fire away early and often. A second-round matchup with top-seeded Baylor won’t be fun, but where the Bears have the edge in the backcourt, the Tar Heels get the nod in the frontcourt. If their young guards—R.J. Davis and Caleb Love—can stay solid, the Tar Heels will have a chance.
Sweeney: San Diego State. The Aztecs got an excellent draw that sets themselves up well for a deep run, and SDSU has played as well as anyone in the last two months. San Diego State’s personnel matches up very well to play against the Syracuse 2–3 zone, thanks to the presence of bruising combo forward Matt Mitchell and plenty of shooters around him, and the Aztecs have been one of the best defensive teams in the nation in recent weeks. A second-round matchup with West Virginia won't be easy, but the Mountaineers have struggled of late. Expect to see SDSU in the Sweet 16.
5. In six of the last seven tournaments, a No. 7 seed or lower made the Final Four. Who is this year's best bet?
Forde: The 8/9 seeds are loaded with threats: LSU, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Loyola Chicago, Wisconsin. Of that group, I'd go with LSU for the following reasons: The No. 1 seed in that region, Michigan, is vulnerable if Isaiah Livers doesn't play, and the Tigers have three pro-level talents in Cameron Thomas, Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart. If LSU decides to guard anyone (not a given), it has the firepower to hang with anyone.
Geary: No. 7 UConn. The East Region was the toughest to figure out in my bracket, and if it descends into chaos, the underseeded Huskies could take advantage. They need to first get past Maryland before they can dream about taking down No. 2 Alabama, but if the Huskies can find enough offense, their defense looks fairly well-equipped against the Tide (UConn’s D both at the rim and on the perimeter—the two places Alabama almost exclusively shoots—is solid). If they can pull off that upset, the Final Four looks a lot more realistic.
Woo: UConn. Based on how the brackets shook out, I don't think it's likely we’ll see that type of run this year, but the Huskies play extremely hard and are not going to be outworked or caught by surprise. James Bouknight has not looked like himself of late, but he's had a week of rest and should be locked in. UConn sits in the messiest region of the bracket, and if it can edge past Maryland and upset Alabama (yes, this is glossing over a lot of adversity), I have no idea who it’ll see next, but the potential for Texas and Michigan to go down early does create a sliver of possibility if you squint a little. A healthy Bouknight changes the equation.
Jordan: No. 8 LSU. The Tigers will face an ailing Michigan squad in the second round without its top shooter, defender and glue guy Isaiah Livers (13.1 ppg), who is out indefinitely with a stress injury in his foot. That makes the Wolverines the most vulnerable No. 1 seed in the tournament, and the Tigers have offensive weapons that can capitalize. Cameron Thomas is the top-scoring freshman in the country, averaging 22.6 points per game. Trendon Watford (16.7 ppg) is coming off of a career-high 30 points in the SEC title game and provides a matchup disadvantage with his size (6' 9", 240 pounds). Versatility and Javonte Smart (15.9 ppg) and Darius Days (11.7 ppg) are capable threats. The Tigers feel like they’ve underachieved this season and are motivated to surpass the hype with a spirited run in the tournament.
Sweeney: UConn. With a healthy James Bouknight, the Huskies are strongly underseeded relative to their talent level. In the 14 games that Bouknight has played in this season, UConn is 11–3. Without him? Just 4–4. What's more, since Bouknight's return from midseason elbow surgery in mid-February, the Huskies have been the fourth-best team in the country, per T-Rank. Add in the fact that this region features the most vulnerable No. 1 seed (Michigan), and it's easy to find a path back to the Final Four for Dan Hurley's club.
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