March Madness 2014: Breaking Down Best Round of 64 Upset Picks

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March Madness 2014: Breaking Down Best Round of 64 Upset Picks
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The entire round of 64 bracket isn't even set—First Four games the next two days will determine the final set bracket for the weekend—but the rush to submit a bracket waits for no so-called "first round" games.

For whatever reason (OK, because we're totally impatient), a majority of tournament brackets actually get filled out before those results become final. Never mind the fact that one First Four team has advanced past the round of 64 every year since the NCAA expanded to 68 teams in 2011. 

 

All Your Bracket Essentials

Bleacher Report

Before we even remotely discuss anything else bracket-related, my first piece of advice goes as follows: wait. Don't finalize your bracket until after the final First Four game. These teams, in most cases, aren't going to affect your championship picture—and in the case of No. 16 seeds, won't affect anything—but it's always an advantage to see a team play live in this setting, even though it's really only a pseudo-tournament game.

Do your research and have a structure in play. Just be prepared to make a couple alterations if you see promising signs from North Carolina State, Xavier, Tennessee or Iowa. Odds are, one of those teams will be playing into the weekend.

Beyond that, don't be a hero. Sure, there's a chance that Western Michigan beats Syracuse. A 19 percent chance, to be exact, according to Accuscore (subscription required). Picking upsets should be encouraged, and every good bracket has one or two risks that can make your Thursday and Friday sink or swim. 

However, going out on a limb is only a prudent move when there is reasoning behind it. Florida Gulf Coast was a fluke in the system last year, but the anecdotal evidence of Georgetown's tournament struggles combined with Dunk City's stylistic uniqueness made an upset possible. There are no No. 15 seeds nor No. 16 seeds that are going to move on past their first game. 

When looking at the other double-digit seeds with a good chance of pulling off upsets, though, there are a few that stand out as having a really good chance.

 

No. 12 Harvard (East Region)

The Ivy League representatives have become perhaps the most popular of the patented No. 5 vs. No. 12 upsets, which in some ways is off-putting. When the public starts backing an underdog too much, it sometimes can create a snowball effect that makes it better going against the grain.

Cincinnati is not some patsy. The Bearcats swept Memphis, beat Louisville on the road and knocked off Pittsburgh. Three of their seven regular-season losses came by six points or fewer. Sean Kilpatrick is very, very good at basketball and is one 35-point explosion away from making us question why we ever thought the Zuckerbergs could make it past the round of 64.

That said, the public is pretty spot-on here. According to Ken Pomeroy's Pythagorean ratings system, Harvard is the third-best double-digit seed—behind two teams we'll get to here in a bit.

What's striking with the Crimson is that there are no glaring weaknesses. They rank perfectly fine at No. 55 in offensive efficiency and are 33rd on the defensive end. That strength of schedule would make anyone blanch a bit, but Harvard's road wasn't paved entirely on Cupcake Parkway. Green Bay was one of the last teams left out of the Big Dance, and Colorado will also be playing later this week.

Jessica Hill/Associated Press

The Crimson don't fit the profile of the senior-laden bunch hoping for one last run together. Kyle Casey and Laurent Rivard will be missed, but this team may actually be more dangerous this year. With Casey and Rivard in the lineup, there may be no mid-major that plays a better team style of basketball. Wesley Saunders leads the team in scoring at a solid 14 points per game, and there are six different Harvard players who average at least 9.3 points a night.

Al Behrman/Associated Press

Meanwhile, Cincinnati's offense is almost entirely dependent on Kilpatrick—and it's not that great even when he's playing well. The Bearcats are No. 109 nationally in offensive efficiency, fourth worst among single-digit seeds in this field. They make up for it with an elite defense. With both teams preferring a more slowed-down style, I'd be surprised if either team hit the 70-point mark.

Harvard is a good bet because, statistically speaking, it is more likely than a typical No. 12 seed to win. Since the expansion to a 64-team standard format in 1985, No. 12 seeds have a win expectation of 35 percent in the previously titled first round. Accuscore gives Harvard a 40 percent chance of defeating Cincy, while Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight outfit is even more generous at 42 percent.

Given that it's been more than a half-decade since No. 12 seeds failed to pull off an upset, Harvard is your smartest call.

 

Whoever Wins Between No. 11s Tennessee and Iowa (Midwest Region)

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

I realize that I'm breaking my own "just wait" rule, but here it doesn't even matter. Whenever I fill out my final bracket Wednesday evening, Tennessee or Iowa will advance to the round of 32—barring some major injury to a top player on the winning team. 

This game checks just about every possible upset box. Tennessee and Iowa are two teams whose talent far exceeds their records and have to have some level of on-court karmic justice heading their way.

Ken Pomeroy's luck metric, which is the deviation in winning percentage from a team's actual record and their expected record, has Iowa as the unluckiest team in the tournament and fifth unluckiest overall. Tennessee is the third-unluckiest team in the field and had the 11th-worst run-ins this season overall. Only ninth-seeded Oklahoma State separates the two.

What does this mean? Essentially, that the Volunteers and Hawkeyes were more than three wins better than their records indicate. Depending on which games you'd give back to either side, that's the difference essentially from the First Four and being a No. 6 or No. 7 seed. Massachusetts, meanwhile, outperformed its expected win total by a little less than two victories.

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

We cannot accurately use Silver's or Accuscore's win expectation numbers here, simply because the numbers differ from team to team. But Silver gives Massachusetts only a 32 percent chance advancing past the round of 64. Accuscore's simulations have the Minutemen with a 38 win percentage across their simulations.

It's one thing to have a 50-50 shot at an upset. We're looking at nearly a two-thirds likelihood of a double-digit seed advancing. That's almost unheard of. 

Steve Helber/Associated Press

The committee, frankly, overvalued Massachusetts by a pretty significant margin. They received credit for playing a solid nonconference schedule, but the Minutemen played reliably solid teams—not monoliths. When the best win on a team's resume is New Mexico, perhaps it shouldn't be seeded just one spot higher than Louisville. 

While it's a lock I'm selecting either Tennessee or Iowa over UMass, I'd feel more comfortable if it were the Volunteers. They've won six of their last seven games coming into Wednesday's matchup and pushed Florida to the brink in the SEC tournament. Iowa, meanwhile, has cratered to a 1-6 record in its last seven games coming in.

Tennessee also grades out better overall. The Volunteers are quietly No. 13 in Pomeroy's rankings and play with a top-30 efficiency on both ends. Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae are two NBA talents who might wind up in the second round this year (Stokes has a year of eligibility remaining), and there are elite-level athletes all over the floor for this team.

Massachusetts doesn't have the talent to muster up on either end of the floor.

 

Other Teams Worth Considering

The following are a few additional teams with better-than-expected odds of advancing considering their seed, but not ones I wouldn't lock in on every bracket without some caveats.

 

No. 12 North Dakota State (West): This is far more based on trepidation about Oklahoma than any endorsement of North Dakota State, though I'm perfectly OK with finding ways to remember the Dakotas exist. The Sooners were a good team in the nation's best conference, but they're prone to major defensive lapses and have bad losses to West Virginia and Texas Tech this season. North Dakota State's highly efficient offense (No. 20 nationally) is a factor here as well, but the Bison have their own defensive issues. I wouldn't be remotely surprised if both teams shot above 50 percent here, which may spell the end of Oklahoma's tournament.

 

No. 12 Xavier/North Carolina State (Midwest): Again, less of an endorsement of either underdog than concern about the accompanying No. 5 seed. Saint Louis is a bad offensive team, almost dreadfully so at times. The Billikens' No. 175 offensive efficiency ranking is the worst of any at-large team on either end of the floor. Their defensive prowess has helped prop them up this season, but they're vulnerable. If I liked either Xavier or N.C. State more, I'd feel better about endorsing this pick. As it is, they're just kinda...there.

 

No. 10 Arizona State (Midwest): This game is essentially a coin flip. Texas and Arizona State are both mostly mediocre offensive teams that excel with team defense. Jahii Carson and Jermaine Marshall are the propping agents for the Sun Devils offense and are more reliably solid than any of Texas' top scorers. The Longhorns are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the Dance, so they need to get out in transition and create easy buckets. If they don't, they're going to look like the late-season also-ran rather than the ascendant squad they were in early February. This should be one of the closer games of the round of 64, regardless.

 

All efficiency metrics are via KenPom. 

 

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