It would be a major surprise if there weren't at least a handful of notable upsets in the Round of 64. The playing field is pretty level from top to bottom, aside from the truly elite teams. Of course, figuring out which favorites will actually fall is still easier said than done.
Since the difference between teams—especially those on the middle-seed lines—is small, the true upsets don't come into play until the No. 11 or No. 12 seeds. A No. 9 seed beating a No. 8 seed is nothing special, because the squads are so even to begin with this year.
Knowing that, let's check out three double-digit seeds with a golden opportunity to pull off a bracket-altering upset in the first full round of play. The picks are preceded by all of the important bracket information for the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
All Your Bracket Essentials:
- Download the Printable Bracket
- Follow the Latest Bracket Updates Live
- Play the Free Bracket Challenge
No. 12 Harvard (vs. No. 5 Cincinnati)
Cincinnati is a strong defensive squad, but it's not nearly as efficient on the offensive end. The Bearcats lean heavily on Sean Kilpatrick, who averages over 20 points per contest, while only one other player checks in above eight points per game.
By contrast, Harvard features five different players averaging double-digit points and another just below that threshold. That type of balanced scoring gives the Crimson more margin for error than Cincinnati, which will struggle to find any consistency on offense if Kilpatrick isn't having a strong game.
Despite being a popular upset selection, head coach Tommy Amaker is doing his best to keep the pressure from mounting on his players, as illustrated in comments provided by Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe:
What we've always talked about in our program and used this extensively and really believe in this is we are never concerned with whatever the expectation may be. Whether it's good or bad.
We weren't concerned about it a year ago when we weren't considered very good because of the guys that we lost. We'll feel good about whatever happens for our program, our team, and our season.
Along with the balanced scoring, Harvard also sports a pair of rim protectors in Steve Moundou-Missi and Kyle Casey as well as a trio of players dishing out at least three assists per game. The Crimson are a well-rounded group ready to take down Kilpatrick and the Bearcats.
No. 12 North Dakota State (vs. No. 5 Oklahoma)
North Dakota State was a bad draw for Oklahoma. The Sooners are a solid offensive group led by Buddy Hield and Cameron Clark, but the team's defense is suspect. Now, they must try to slow down a Bison offense that leads the nation in field-goal percentage.
The Bisons' top-three scorers (Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund and TrayVonn Wright) are all shooting at least 48 percent from the field. Braun also shoots at a 44 percent clip from beyond the arc.
As a whole, it's this type of sharpshooting that makes the Bison the type of team that can get hot and make a run. Myron Medcalf of ESPN agrees, as he tweeted that they are capable of beating any opponent in their initial section of the bracket:
Watch out for North Dakota State. Can beat every team in that pod.— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) March 16, 2014
The biggest key to beating Oklahoma and potentially starting a Cinderella run—beyond simply continuing to shoot well—is rebounding, which has been a weak point for the Bison (ranking 279th nationally). But as long as they don't give up a constant string of offensive boards, it's a weakness they can certainly overcome.
No. 14 North Carolina Central (vs. No. 3 Iowa State)
N.C. Central is a very dangerous No. 14 seed. It owns a road win over N.C. State, and it lost by just 11 points on the road against undefeated Wichita State in December. The Eagles also haven't suffered a loss since the middle of January, as they enter the tournament on a 20-game winning streak.
What will be lowest seed to win a Round of 64 game?
They are a formidable defensive group, with a good inside-outside scoring duo in Jeremy Ingram and Jordan Parks. Ingram averages over 20 points per game, and Parks shoots 66 percent from the floor, which is the best mark in the country among qualified players.
The Eagles pose an interesting test for Iowa State. The Cyclones are an offense-first squad, with three players averaging more than 16 points, led by Melvin Ejim. But they could find it tough to find open looks against the Eagles, who rank seventh in the nation in points allowed.
In a game of contrasting styles, N.C. Central should do everything in its power to slow the pace of the game and amplify the defensive pressure. If it can get high-scoring Iowa State out of its comfort zone early, all bets are off, and the Eagles could very well pull off the biggest upset of Round 1.