If you are anything like me, last year, you spent the days leading up to March Madness constantly thinking about your bracket and trying to decide which upsets to pick. Loyola-Chicago? Buffalo? Syracuse? Then, after all the thinking, you picked none of them and picked Virginia to win before they were knocked out by UMBC. Well, this year, just like any other, will be filled with upsets. While upsets, like everything else in March, are far from an exact science, this article should be at least something to consider while making your bracket (before you lose to your friend who picked winners based on jerseys).
The “Is it an Upset if Everybody Picks it?” Upset: #12 Murray State over #5 Marquette
This is most likely going to be the most popular 12-over-5 pick in the tournament, and this is for one (very good) reason: Ja Morant. Morant is a sophomore point guard and one of the nation’s premier players, averaging 24.6 points per game, 10.0 assists per game, and 5.5 rebounds per game. He is projected to be one of the runaway Top-3 picks in the NBA draft and has been giving opponent coaches and players fits all season long. He should do the same for Marquette, which is on a downturn following a loss to Seton Hall. He can jump out of the gym, get to the rim and finish, find the open man and do just about anything his team calls on him to do on the floor. Do yourself a favor and look up his highlights, and you will probably be sold on this pick as well.
However, basketball is a lot more than just highlights and one-man shows. Even with Morant, Murray State has problems to overcome in this game. The rest of Morant’s surrounding team is not the most consistent squad. They do not shoot very well from outside, and this include’s Morant, who only shoots 33% from three. Marquette has had solid wins this season over Villanova and Wisconsin, for example, while the Racers’ biggest win was against Belmont. The NCAA tournament may be no stranger to one-man shows (such as Kemba Walker in 2009 or Shabazz Napier in 2014), but the Racers certainly are a high-risk, high-reward pick to make in your bracket.
The “Depends on the Play-In Game” Upset: #11 Belmont over #6 Maryland
Belmont is one of the tournament’s biggest sleepers, having won 14 consectutive games prior to their loss to Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference final. The Bruins are the second-highest scoring offense in the country, averaging 87.4 PPG. The team is led by senior guard Dylan Windler, who averages 21.4 points per game and pulls in 10.7 rebounds per game. He is supported by two more fantastic scorers in Kevin McClain and Nick Muszynski, who average 16.3 and 14.9 PPG, respectively. Maryland has only surpassed Belmont’s scoring averages twice all season, and if the Bruins scorers get going, they’ll be hard to stop.
However, there is an obstacle in the way of this upset; the play-in game. Belmont must face the Temple Owls on March 19th in one of the tournament’s four play-in games, and this is far from a guaranteed win for Belmont. If their scorers can’t get going against Temple, then this will hurt them just as much as it would against Maryland. If the Owls do move on, they are not as much of a threat to the Terrapins as the Bruins would be. Picking the “BEL/TEM” slot to move on against Maryland is likely assuming that the Bruins win, which, like everything else in the tournament, is not a given.
The “This Team is Hot” Upset: #12 Oregon over #5 Wisconsin
The Ducks are, without a doubt, on fire, having won their last eight games, including the Pac-12 championship, with a massive 68-48 win over Washington. They have a balanced scoring attack, with three players scoring more than 10 points a game and two more scoring more than 6 a game. They are one of the country’s top defensive teams, with a top 20 defense which holds opponents to only 62.9 PPG and a 29.4 3P%. On top of it all, they are a matchup nightmare with four starters standing 6’9” or above. Even with solid big men in Ethan Happ and Nate Reuvers, Wisconsin should fear Oregon’s attack in the paint.
However, there are certainly reasons not to pick Oregon. First of all, their 8-game win streak is entirely out of Pac-12 teams and the Pac-12 has been by far the worst major conference (arguably, they’ve barely performed at the level of a major conference) this season. So, these wins have not come against great opponents. In addition, they are themselves inconsistent as well. Since losing the highly-recruited Bol Bol to injury in December, they have been on a tumble up until their last eight games. Before their last eight, they were 9-10 since losing Bol Bol. Oregon may be dangerous to Wisconsin, but they are also a dangerous pick to make. It’s your choice if you take that risk.
The “The Higher Seed is Inconsistent” Upset: #13 Saint Louis over #4 Virginia Tech
Saint Louis’s strength is undoubtedly their perimeter defense, led by guards Jordan Goodwin and Javon Bess and forward Hasahn French. Travis Ford’s 1-3-1 zone defense helped the Billikens grind out close wins against St. Bonaventure, Davidson and Dayton by holding them to under 60 points. The Hokies have lost five of their last eleven (including a loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament which saw them shoot only 21% from three) and could have a tough time against Saint Louis’s defense. Tech can also crash and burn pretty hard, such as in their win against NC State where they only scored 47 points and shot only 36% from the field.
They live and die on the three, and if they are off like last time we saw them, they certainly could struggle. But if they are on, they have real potential to not only win this round but also make a deep run. They have had big wins this season when they catch fire from the field, such as their 77-72 win over Duke or their 89-83 win over Purdue. They lead the country in three-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage, so if they make their shots and get to the line, it looks good for the Hokies. But if you think defense wins championships, look to take the Billikens here.
Bonus: The “I’m About to be the Least Popular Person on Campus” Upset: Saint Mary’s over Villanova
Okay. Hear me out. Put the pitchforks away. I am not saying I pick St. Mary’s over Villanova. However, I do think it is important to consider it as a possibility. The Gaels won the WCC with an upset victory over 1-seed Gonzaga, which alone is a factor to consider. However, it is also important to consider St. Mary’s’ skills as a team. They play at a slow pace which makes teams uncomfortable and they score 72.9 PPG on that slow pace. St. Mary’s plays great perimeter defense, limiting their opponents to 31.8% shooting from 3-point land. Nearly 43% of Villanova’s scoring comes from beyond the 3-point line, and as we’ve seen all year in games against Michigan and Furman for example, when the ‘Cats are off they are very off. While I’m not saying you should pick Saint Mary’s, (I still think Villanova will pull this one out) you should certainly consider picking St Mary’s if only for the points in their bracket group.
If your bracket group scores based on possible points, then this is definitely an upset you should think about picking if you are not confident about your bracket-making skills. If your bracket group is filled with a bunch of other Villanova students, you will likely see a lot of them pick Villanova for Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, or even Final Four runs. However, if you bet on the chance upset for Saint Mary’s and it comes to fruition, you’ll have a nearly insurmountable lead over your Wildcat contemporaries. Even if it means all your friends will hate you if you’re right.