I love upsets. You love upsets. Together, we're an upset-loving family. With a great big h—whoops. Almost got lost in an entire Barney theme song parody based on the NCAA tournament. My apologies.
Beyond our depraved love of children's programing, though (I'm assuming only those who miss the simple days of Barney stuck around), those first two sentences ring true. The magical, beautiful, exciting, horrible, frustrating and mind-numbingly angering thing about March Madness is its upsets. The underdog spirit is a culturally ingrained phenomenon we see throughout all popular culture, and the first weekend of the NCAA tournament is easily the best true reality show in sports.
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The angering thing is finding the right upsets when filling out your bracket. Because of the ridiculous amount of tournament content on the web—including no fewer than 10,000-plus words already from this guy—it's impossible to get a straight answer. On one hand, some talking head on a terrible, shouty sports program is telling you Oklahoma State is Final Four-bound. On the next segment, Talking Head 2.0 is saying Gonzaga is being undervalued as an No. 8 seed.
The reality here is that no one actually knows what they're talking about. Even the great Nate Silver says there's no team with better than 15 percent odds of winning it all this year. Again, that's where the greatness and fun and unpredictability comes in.
But when filling out your bracket, there are good and bad strategies. The randomness might tempt you to take a No. 16 or No. 15 seed to defeat their elite counterparts, but history says that's a losing battle. Florida Gulf Coast was a fluke for a reason. Likewise, there are a few popular underdogs getting pushed that don't have a significant enough chance to make them worth selecting.
Here's a look at a few of the most prominent.
No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (South Region)
The logic here is pretty understandable. Stephen F. Austin heads into the NCAA tournament winners of 28 straight games. The Lumberjacks play a unique, attacking style, pressing ball-handlers well beyond the three-point line and trying to cause turnovers. Only Louisville and VCU cause turnovers at a higher rate, and their elite offensive rebounding numbers make for a promising giant killer.
Hell, there have already been columns calling them "this year's Florida Gulf Coast." Even the players are ready to start pounding their chests, as the previously linked article from
"The teams, they had better be aware that we are coming," said senior Desmond Haymon. "We're coming. I don't want to sound cocky. I want to be confident. I don't think anyone can beat us when we play our basketball."
One noteworthy issue: VCU is very, very good at basketball. Shaka Smart and his group of under-appreciated, under-recruited players continue to play the "havoc" defense that has confounded opposing teams since the coach's arrival. The Commodores rank as the nation's second-most efficient defense, turn opposing teams over more often than anyone and play one of the 10 quickest tempos among tournament teams.
Just as Stephen F. Austin may be a nightmare matchup for certain teams, VCU arguably takes even more preparation. Plus, Smart is no longer coaching a member of a baby-bottle conference. The Atlantic 10 has six NCAA tournament teams, tied for the second most among conferences. Ken Pomeroy's Pythagorean ratings finished with VCU as the No. 12 team in the country, thanks in large part to the intraconference gauntlet.
That last point, though, is particularly salient. The Commodores are far and away the best No. 5 seed. They are 12 spots ahead of any other No. 5 on Pomeroy's rankings, and every publicly released algorithm has VCU as the least likely No. 5 seed to go down.
Moreover, while Stephen F. Austin is a good defensive team when causing turnovers, things melt down pretty quickly when opposing teams can actually get into their half-court sets. Despite their grind-it-out offensive tempo and ability to generate turnovers, the Lumberjacks rank only 95th in defensive efficiency.
VCU has its own problems on the offensive end, but let's not kid ourselves. There's a real discrepancy here from a talent standpoint.
No. 11 Dayton (South Region)
The Atlantic 10 giveth, the Atlantic 10 taketh away. Though they're rarely spoken about in the same breath as the No. 12 vs. No. 5 matchups, No. 11 seeds are just as historically likely to pull off a round of 64 upset. Massachusetts isn't winning a game on any of my brackets, and North Carolina and Baylor are each at least relatively prone to being knocked out early.
Ohio State? Not so much.
A top-five team for almost the entire first two months of the season, the Buckeyes' offensive woes came back to haunt them in conference play. They rank outside the top 100 nationally in offensive efficiency, which led to two bad losses to Penn State and frustratingly close contests against the bottom rung of the Big Ten.
Luckily, the Buckeyes started to regather some momentum prior to the dance. They beat Michigan State at home to close out the regular season, then got critical wins over Purdue and Nebraska before falling to Michigan in the semifinals of the Big Ten tourney.
LaQuinton Ross has scored no fewer than 19 points in almost a full month. It was Ross' 19 points and 15 rebounds against Purdue and 26 points and 13 rebounds against Nebraska that helped un-stagnate the Buckeyes offense. Relying on Aaron Craft to create reliably as a primary ball-handler is always an issue, but his spirit and tenacity (gag) lead one of the nation's five best defenses.
The Buckeyes could give Syracuse some real trouble in the round of 32. They're both utterly painful teams to watch offensively, but Lawler's Law may turn into the first to 60—a battle Ohio State is perfectly fine with.
If there was one A10 team probably better left on the committee's final cutting board, it's probably the Flyers. Dayton finished a shaky 10-6 within the conference and didn't inspire much confidence in its nonconference schedule. Nabbing a win over Gonzaga in November is a fine result, but the Zags are a No. 8 seed—they're not Florida.
And if you enjoy tit for tat equivalencies, losing to Illinois State pretty much cancels out any of those positive vibes from the Gonzaga win. The Flyers had only the 203rd-toughest nonconference schedule in the nation. Coupled with their issues on defense and lack of star primary scorer, this is actually an ideal opening matchup for Ohio State.
Silver gives the Buckeyes a 75 percent shot at advancing. Accuscore agrees, albeit with a slightly lower 73 percent success rate. Historically, No. 11 seeds have won more than a third of their matchups, per Bracket Science.
No. 11 Nebraska (West Region)
I'm fully expecting hate mail for not embracing #Nebrasketball, and Baylor is certainly vulnerable. The Bears are prone to terrible defensive lapses and were directly on the bubble about a month ago after starting their Big 12 schedule 2-8. Backing a team that relies heavily on Isaiah Austin? Also not the most comforting thing.
That said, Baylor's late-season run coupled with some nice bracket luck makes it a potentially major sleeper in its own right. Ranking seventh in the nation in offensive efficiency, you couldn't pick two better top seeds for the Bears than Creighton and Wisconsin. The Bluejays rank No. 127 nationally in defensive efficiency, and for all the credit Bo Ryan receives as a defense-first coach, his Badgers' problems this year were entirely defense-related.
An Elite Eight run is far from out of the question. Baylor has an elite floor-spacer in Brady Heslip, two lanky bigs in Cory Jefferson and Austin and a patient disposition that makes for a tough matchup. Wisconsin and Creighton better hope Nebraska is able to advance.
The Cornhuskers are going to need a good amount of luck, though. Tim Miles has done an admirable job rebuilding Nebraska into a tournament team in just two seasons, but it's just...not there. Terran Petteway going off against a weak Baylor perimeter is a possibility and perhaps Nebraska's best shot of pulling off the upset. Petteway had 26 points against Wisconsin in what was likely a berth-clinching win, and the transfer forward has shown zero fear of the moment down the stretch.
In many ways, Baylor and Nebraska mirror trajectories. The Huskers began conference play with four straight losses and dropped five of their first six before closing out 11-7 in the Big Ten. They have an identity, but it's one that almost entirely lacks the type of ball movement that's killed Baylor this season. Only Delaware, Coastal Carolina and San Diego State have a lower assist rate than Nebraska among tournament teams.
That lack of movement should help the Bears get set in their half-court defense. I suspect Baylor will look as close to passable as its been all season on that end. Ranking as one of the worst major-conference offenses in this event, a potential run should start for Scott Drew and Co. Friday.
Advanced metrics via Kenpom unless otherwise cited.
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