By Chad Horner
It’s official, the bracket has been revealed, and now it’s time to start looking for those 1st round upsets! Here we’ve laid out some of the first round matchups that look particularly enticing as an upset pick.
Before we get to the picks, Princeton Sports Analytics invites you to challenge us in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge! See how you do against those of us who will be writing about these games for the next few weeks. Here is the link to the group; pick your best entry and join!
Now, on with the picks:
(11) Belmont Bruins over (6) Arizona Wildcats
For the past two years, the Belmont Bruins have come into the tournament as a popular upset pick, and for the past two years, they’ve been soundly defeated. But this is Belmont’s best chance yet. Arizona boasts the country’s 274th-ranked 3-pt defense, and the Bruins are 33rd in the country in 3-pt shooting. The Wildcats have only faced on team all year who is better than Belmont at shooting the 3: Florida. Yes, they defeated Florida, but the Gators controlled the entire game – well, the first 39 minutes – and they were 10/18 from behind the 3-point line. I like Belmont to knock off the Wildcats.
(11) Minnesota Golden Gophers over (6) UCLA Bruins
At first glance, this seems like an obvious pick based off of the way the teams will match up inside – the Gophers are first in the country in offensive rebound rate, while the Bruins are 267th in the country in defensive rebound rate. Tons of second chances for Minnesota right!? Well, yes. Unfortunately that doesn’t always seem to matter. The Golden Gophers have played 3 teams this season – Florida State, Illinois, and Northwestern – who do a worse job than UCLA of preventing their opponents from getting offensive rebounds, and yet they are only 3-3 against these teams. So why pick them anyway? Well, all of that aside, they’ve just played better than UCLA has this season, and the Bruins just lost Jordan Adams, who has been their best offensive player this season (sorry Shabazz), for the rest of the season.
(11) Bucknell Bison over (6) Butler Bulldogs
Butler is incredibly overrated. Yes, they are one of only two teams in the field who has defeated 2 of the #1 seeds – Illinois being the other (they each beat both Indiana and Gonzaga) – but the metrics don’t back up their lofty seeding. They are an above average team, offensively and defensively, but they don’t do anything incredibly well – there isn’t one statistic, or player, that makes you say “Wow”. Bucknell, on the other hand, is fourth in the nation in effective field goal defense, and second in defensive rebound rate. They also have Mike Muscala. If you haven’t heard of Muscala, he’s almost definitely the best player you’ve never heard of. He is first in the country in defensive rebound rate, and also ranks in the top 100 in Kenpom’s Offensive Rating, turnover rate, block rate, and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. He does everything well, and it will be up to him to lead Bucknell to victory. They’re bigger than Butler, and come Thursday, I expect the Bison to be better than them too.
(14) Davidson Wildcats over (3) Marquette Golden Eagles
This is certainly the least likely upset among those that I’ve listed here, but it isn’t as unlikely as it may seem. First off, Marquette is not one of the 12 best teams in the country, as their seed would lead you to believe. They’re 25th in Kenpom’s ratings, 23rd in Sagarin’s, and 20th in ESPN’s BPI. Second, the Golden Eagles have only played 5 teams this year with an offense ranked better than Davidson’s, as per Kenpom’s efficiency ratings, and they are 3-3 against those teams. Now, those teams are all better than Davidson on the defensive end, but the Wildcats are peaking at the right time – their Kenpom ranking has been on an upward trend since the end of January. If we’re looking for the high seed who is most likely to go down early, I think it has to be Marquette.
As a bonus, I expect whichever team comes out of the Saint Mary’s/Middle Tennessee State matchup to be a good pick to upset a Memphis team that turns the ball over far too often. Also, keep an eye on Kansas State, facing off against either Boise State or La Salle, as one more potential loser. They’re another team whose elite seed isn’t backed up by the metrics (30th in overall efficiency as per Kenpom, 26th in Sagarin)