March Madness is one of America's most beloved sporting events because it is one of the few championships that is truly an equal-opportunity provider. While tiny 15 and 16 seeds do not harbor real championship aspirations, even a win or two can vault a previously anonymous school like Florida Gulf Coast into a national phenomenon like "Dunk City."
Everyone likes a good Cinderella when filling out their brackets. The parity at the top of college basketball means the higher seeds are more vulnerable than usual, providing a golden opportunity for some of the smaller overlooked schools to spring an upset.
With that in mind, here are a few of the upsets most likely to occur in the Round of 64.
(12) Harvard Over (5) Cincinnati
The Crimson are no strangers to March, as they are making their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. Harvard busted plenty of brackets last year by toppling third-seeded New Mexico and look poised to reach the Round of 32 once again:
Very difficult opening game for Cincinnati. Harvard is patient, poised, + an excellent passing team. Bearcats are in for a fight - as usual.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 17, 2014
The Ivy League champs are a balanced team, with the 55th-ranked offensive efficiency and 33rd-ranked defensive efficiency. As Matt Brown of SportsonEarth.com notes, the Crimson and Bearcats are actually much closer than their seedings would suggest:
For a 5/12 matchup, these two are awfully close, with Harvard (33) only eight spots below Cincinnati in the kenpom.com rankings. The Crimson pulled off a 3/14 upset over New Mexico last year and bring good outside shooting and stellar defense to the table against the Bearcats, who are one of the nation's best defensive teams and boast a premier scorer in guard Sean Kilpatrick.
The key to victory will be Harvard's defensive rebounding, as Cincinnati ranks as one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. If they can clean up the glass and bait guard Sean Kilpatrick into trying to carry the Bearcats offense, the Crimson should be able to hold down the fort long enough to steal another opening round win.
(12) North Dakota State Over (5) Oklahoma
Oklahoma was one of the best teams in the Big 12, which had more tournament teams than any other conference with seven. And yet, Summit League champ North Dakota State has emerged as one of the trendiest upset picks in the bracket:
No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 @NDSU. This has upset pick written all over it.— Sporting News (@sportingnews) March 16, 2014
The Bison are a terrific offensive squad, with a 114.7 points per 100 possessions mark that ranks 20th in Division I. Led by jack-of-all-trades forward Taylor Braun, North Dakota State is well-equipped to take down Oklahoma, as USA Today's Steven Ruiz explains:
For the Sooners, North Dakota State are not an ideal matchup. Oklahoma struggles inside the paint defensively and blocked just 8.4 percent of opponents shots, which ranked 243rd in the country. The Bison are shooting an excellent 56 percent from inside the arch and are only blocked on five percent of their attempts, the best mark in the country. Oklahoma boasts a high-powered offense, as well, but they can be over-reliant on three-point shots. If the Sooners’ shot aren’t falling from deep, they could be sent packing early.
(13) Tulsa Over (4) UCLA
Despite winning the Pac-12 tournament, UCLA ranks as one of the more vulnerable top-four seeds. As ESPN.com's Jordan Brenner illustrates (subscription required), the Bruins defense away from Pauley Pavilion could be their undoing:
The interesting thing is that the Bruins are a good team. Our model ranks them 21st, which makes them completely deserving of Lunardi’s projected No. 6 seed. But they make for a lousy Giant. Most of that is due to a defense that doesn’t seem to believe in traveling too far from home. UCLA pretty much stops guarding teams beyond the arc: 41.8 of their opponents’ shots come from 3-point range, which is the fourth-highest mark in the country. That’s like giving a [Giant Killer] a whole extra bag of rocks for its slingshot.
Which of these upsets is likeliest to occur?
Tulsa is not a particularly great outside shooting team, so UCLA's biggest defensive weakness might not crop up early. However, the Bruins are also a poor shooting team themselves, and one with a poor rebounding rate.
The Golden Hurricane were a dreadful team at the beginning of the year, but have won 11 in a row en route to the Conference USA championship. UCLA may have good vibes headed into the tournament, yet it remains one of the top-four seeds most likely to see its runs end in the Round of 64.
*All stats via KenPom.com.