Predicting the 8 biggest upsets in the first round of the NCAA Tournament
March Madness is upon us.
The First Four whets the appetite, with the main event tipping off Thursday.
As immortal as Final Four teams become, March Madness didn’t become the greatest event in the American sporting landscape because of what happens the first weekend of April. No, it’s the universal appeal of Cinderella that captures the collective imagination and stirs the soul every year. Do we remember that Auburn made its first Final Four in 2019? Of course. Do we remember Kentucky’s run at perfection in 2015? You bet. Do we remember Florida being the last program to go back-to-back in 2006 and 2007? Unquestionably.
But it’s the first weekend, and more specifically, the thrills of Thursday and Friday, that dominate our conversations throughout March and keep us coming back for more. These two days are the best two days in American sports because they provide the “Where were you when?” moments — plural — that encapsulate in human form the reason we love sports.
Where were you when Bryce Drew ended Ole Miss?
The Bryce Drew shot never gets old 👏
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 13, 2023
Where were you when Mike Miller hit his runner in the lane to birth Billy Donovan’s SEC powerhouse?
— RobSoundsGood (@RobSoundsGood) December 4, 2020
Where were you when Ali Farokhmanesh made the sickest “shooters shoot” shot in the history of the game of basketball?
Never forget this big balls 3-pointer by Ali Farokhmanesh as #9 Northern Iowa beat #1 Kansas 69-67
— Barstool College Basketball (@StoolCBB) March 15, 2021
Where were you when UMBC did the unthinkable?
#16 UMBC over #1 Virginia is still one of the craziest March Madness games ever… pic.twitter.com/ywO8kzLZ6H
— SLAM University (@slam_university) March 14, 2023
This is why we watch.
This will happen again this March, and part of the fun is finding out where and when.
Here’s our look at the 8 most likely upsets in the first round. We’ve ranked them in our order or likelihood, for your bracket-buster convenience. Just don’t share with the office secretary. He or she doesn’t need any help to win the bracket after not watching a game all season.
1. (12) Charleston Cougars vs. (5) San Diego State Aztecs
When and Where: South Region, Thursday, Orlando, 3 PM (TruTV)
Why the Cougars can win: Charleston won 31 games this season behind a deep 9-man rotation of players who all play 15 minutes or more. Charleston plays fast, ranking 29th in average possession length, and they love to take the first shot, so as to not let a defense get set. This could be advantageous against the Aztecs, one of the nation’s better defensive outfits in the halfcourt but a bit more vulnerable in transition. Charleston also controls the glass, ranking 17th in the country in offensive rebounding rate, the best among mid-majors in the NCAA Tournament. San Diego State’s largest weakness? Rebounding. They ranked just 7th in the Mountain West in rebounding rate on the defensive glass. San Diego State can also struggle when they don’t control tempo, and Brian Dutcher’s teams prefer to play slow and limit possessions (348th in tempo!). Styles make fights, and the Cougars’ style should give San Diego State problems. The Aztecs have gone to 4 NCAA Tournaments in 6 years under Brian Dutcher, and that number would be 5 but for COVID depriving San Diego State of what would have been a high seed (1 or 2) in 2020. But they haven’t won a game, mostly because they don’t score consistently enough to outgun an opponent that gets hot. Charleston can do that, and that may lead to an upset.
2. (12) Virginia Commonwealth Rams vs. (5) Saint Mary’s Gaels
When and Where: West Region, Friday, Albany, NY, 1:50 PM (TBS)
Why the Rams can win: Saint Mary’s limped into the NCAA Tournament, routed twice by rival Gonzaga down the stretch. The second loss, a 26 point beatdown in the WCC final, exposed the problem with the Gaels for all to see: they just don’t score consistently enough. VCU’s specialty? Getting stops. The Rams rank 17th in the nation in KenPom defensive efficiency, and combine tremendous interior defense (34th in the country in 2-point percentage against) with an electric turnover rate (6th in the nation in producing turnovers) to suffocate opponents and turn offense into defense. The Rams aren’t skilled offensively, but Adrian “Ace” Baldwin Jr. is a legitimately great guard, averaging 12.7 points and 6 assists a game to go along with his Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year ability as a steals merchant. In a slow game (both teams are methodical, but the Gaels simply don’t get sped up), VCU’s ability to get steals and points off turnovers could be the difference.
3. (13) Furman Paladins vs. (4) Virginia Cavaliers
When and Where: South Region, Thursday, Orlando, 12:30 PM (TruTV)
Why the Paladins can win: Bob Kelsey runs some of the best offense in the country, which is exactly what you better do if you hope to beat Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense.
Furman is once again playing some of the most beautiful offense in the country, cutting up defences with their five-out Princeton options. These players have such good intelligence and feel and Bob Richey is one of the best when it comes to teaching offense. pic.twitter.com/EGS0wODp0q
— Eric Fawcett (@EricFawcett_) February 19, 2023
The Paladins have 5 guys who can score, and a mismatch problem in wing Jalen Slawson, one of the best midmajor players in the country who averages 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists a night. If Virginia puts its best defender, Reece Beekman, on Slawson, he’ll be giving up 4 inches and size, and it will free up one of Furman’s sharpshooting guards, either JP Pegues or Marcus Foster, from the clutches of one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders. Virginia isn’t built to play from behind, and Furman, a veteran team that doesn’t turn the ball over (40th in turnover rate), can shoot you out of a building quickly, as UMBC did to a better Wahoos team a few seasons ago. Computers still like Virginia, but if the Hoos show up and miss shots, as they did in a 15-point loss to Boston College late last month, Furman will march on.
4. (11) Providence Friars vs. (6) Kentucky Wildcats
When and Where: East Region, Friday, Greensboro, NC (7 PM, CBS)
Why the Friars can win: This isn’t your Dad’s Kentucky. The Wildcats are a vulnerable team that struggles to defend, a stunning statement under John Calipari, whose teams, whatever their offensive flaws, could always hang their hat on getting stops. The biggest problem is ironically the team’s best player, Oscar Tshiebwe, who struggles mightily in ball-screen defense. The 2022 Naismith Award winner is still a menace on the glass and offensively, but you can attack Tshiebwe in ball screens and score frequently, as teams in the SEC did all year, at a 1.1 points per possession clip, per Synergy. Providence grades out as “Very Good” (.98 ppp) attacking screens, per Synergy, and they can exploit that on Friday in Greensboro. Another irony? Providence’s best player, All-Big East wing Bryce Hopkins (17 points, 9 rebounds per game) is a Kentucky transfer. Hopkins leads a Providence offense that ranks 16th nationally in efficiency, per KenPom, and shoots a solid 35% from beyond the arc. If the Friars can get inside-out scoring and hit some 3s, they’ll have a chance to win the game.
5. (13) Kent State Golden Flashes vs. (4) Indiana Hoosiers
When and Where: Midwest Region, Friday, Albany, NY (9:45 PM, TBS)
Why Kent State can win: First, I love this game. Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff was at the center of the 2008 notice of allegations related to Kelvin Sampson at Indiana that gutted the Hoosiers program for several seasons afterward. More bitter Indiana fans would allege that Indiana has never really recovered. In 2023, Senderoff, now in his 12th season at Kent State, has his best team ever in a successful run with the Golden Flashes. Kent State is 28-6 and has played Gonzaga and Houston, two of the top 12 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, within 5 points. The Golden Flashes are stout defensively (38th in KenPom defense), tend to control tempo, and produce a high amount of turnovers (22.6% of opponent possessions, which ranks 20th nationally!). Indiana has stars, namely the great Trayce Jackson-Davis, who might be the best player in America and averaged 21 points and 13 rebounds a game in B1G play. But the Hoosiers don’t rebound well and they do not force many turnovers, which means Mike Woodson’s first-shot offense better be on against a Kent State squad that cleans up the glass and specializes in first-shot stops. Matchups make upsets happen, and this is a bad matchup for Indiana.
6. (12) Drake Bulldogs vs. (5) Miami Hurricanes
When and Where: Midwest Region, Friday, Albany, NY (7:!5 PM, TBS)
Why Drake can win: Norchad Omier’s ankle, mainly. The Hurricanes are a veteran team with the best backcourt in the NCAA Tournament in ACC Coaches Player of the Year Isaiah Wong, Kansas State transfer Nijel Pack, and jack-of-all trades Jordan Miller. But it is Omier, the big man in the middle who averages 14 points and 10 rebounds a game, that makes the Hurricanes better than last year’s Elite 8 outfit. Omier injured his ankle in the first minute of the ACC Tournament semifinal last Friday night against Duke. If he can’t play or is compromised, Drake has the balance and rebounding edge and as a veteran squad itself, could give the Canes fits. Drake also has a star of its own too match the great Isaiah Wong of Miami. Tucker DeVries, who averages 19 points per game, is one of the best players in the field most folks have never heard about. He has multiple 30-point games this year, hit 87 3-pointers in the regular season, and will force the Canes to put their best defender, Jordan Miller, on the perimeter. Moving him away from the hoop in a world where Omier is limited could hurt Miami, who will also lose a great offensive rebounder who gets a guard-heavy team plenty of second-chances on the glass– the one thing Drake is vulnerable to that the Hurricanes typically could exploit. It’s hard to pick against a team that knows how to win like Miami, but injuries matter in March.
7. (14) Kennesaw State Owls vs. (3) Xavier Musketeers
When and Where: Midwest Region, Friday, Greensboro, NC (12:30 PM, TruTV)
Why Kennesaw State can pull the Tournament’s biggest upset: It’s so strange that this game isn’t being talked about more. Kennesaw State is one of the NCAA Tournament’s best stories. In head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim’s first season at the Cobb County commuter school in 2019-2020, the Owls went 1-28. This year? The Owls went 26-8, playing the likes of Florida, VCU, and Indiana close on the road in the process. Kennesaw State can really shoot: They make 37% of their 3s, good for 29th nationally, and wing Chris Youngblood is a future pro, with a 40% 3-point percentage and an effective field goal percentage of 56%, which ranks in the top 200 nationally. Xavier has been shaky since losing glue guy Zach Freemantle on Jan. 28 (8-5 in that stretch), and they rely heavily on getting to the basket for easy 2s (they rank 2nd nationally in two-point field goals made and make 54% of those attempts (38th nationally). The Owls will need to offset Souley Boom and Co.’s efficiency at the basket by taking more 3s than usual. Kennesaw State takes 3s on only 37.9% of attempts, among the bottom half of the country. But they make a bunch at a high clip, as noted, and if they take and make more, this game has the trimmings of a stunner.
8. (13) Iona Gaels vs. (4) UConn Huskies
When and Where: West Region, Friday, Albany, NY, 4:20 PM (CBS)
Why the Gaels can win: If only there were a mid-major team playing close to home with a Hall-of-Fame coach and a huge winning streak entering the tournament that played a funky style that could give a blue-blood fits in this tournament. Oh, wait. Rick Pitino’s team isn’t as talented as UConn, of course, but they have won 14 games in a row entering the tournament and their defensive, pressing style is unique in modern basketball. That style gave Pitino’s Louisville teams an advantage every March and Iona is only slightly different: It is one thing to prepare for pressing basketball and another to see it in person. Iona also isn’t small: they start two 6-9 players and have a 7-footer at their disposal on the bench, meaning the UConn monsters inside, led by Adama Sanogo (6-9) and Donovan Clingan (7-2), won’t necessarily feast. That matchup will define the game, too, because Iona ranks 8th in the country defending the three, a solid formula against a Huskies team that scores 34% of its points off the three. It’s a stretch, but not out of the question. Remember, no one thought Saint Peter’s, from the same conference as Iona, would fell Kentucky a year ago.