March Madness 2017 Predictions: Best Upset Picks for Every Region
Now comes the fun part.
With the 2017 NCAA tournament field unveiled and all of the first-round matchups set, every team is already deep into their preparation for those opening games. The ultimate goal is to win it all, but without being able to get past that first opponent, nothing beyond that can happen.
And it's in that first round when we tend to get the most madness, which is a term used to describe many things associated with the tourney—including upsets. It's going to be hard to top what happened last year, though, when 10 double-digit seeds won in the first round, including No. 15 Middle Tennessee taking out national title contender Michigan State.
The chaos cooled off a bit in the second round, but we still got teams seeded 10th and 11th into the Sweet 16, with one of them (Syracuse) making it all the way to the Final Four.
So, who's in the best position to do similar damage to tourney brackets? We've made our picks, selecting a favorite and honorable mention from each region among teams seeded 11th or lower. There's also a Sweet 16 sleeper pick (different from the first-round choices) seeded eighth or worse that has a shot to get through the first weekend.
At first, you might think we're crazy, but we do our best to justify these selections. Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller nailed a few of his upset picks a year ago, and we're hoping to do as least as well this time around.
East First-Round Honorable Mention: No. 12 UNC-Wilmington
You might not remember UNC-Wilmington's Colonial Athletic Association tournament title run—other than a vague recollection of it wearing some bright uniforms—since it happened so early during conference tourney play, but it's got one of the most potent offenses in the NCAA field. The Seahawks (29-5) average 85.2 points per game, fourth-best among tourney teams, and its adjusted offense ranks 32nd nationally.
What helps is having a player who hardly ever misses. Sophomore forward Devontae Cacok averages 12.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per game and shoots an astounding 79.9 percent from the field, a rate that would blow away the current NCAA record (74.6 percent, by Oregon State's Steve Johnson in 1981).
Cacok only takes 6.6 shots per game, though, leaving the volume shooting to guards C.J. Bryce, Chris Flemmings and Denzel Ingram. That trio combines to take about 38 shots per game with 602 combined three-point attempts (and 225 makes).
In most years UNCW would be a lock to pull one of the 5/12 upsets that happen almost every year, but what's keeping us from making it the favorite in the East is who it's facing: Virginia, the Division I leader in scoring defense (55.6 points per game) that also plays at the slowest pace (60.1 possessions per 40 minutes) in the country.
The Cavaliers frustrate their opponents on defense and then lull them into submission with a patient offense, or at least that's the plan. This year's Virginia team hasn't been as dominant in those areas, particularly on the offensive side, leading to 10 losses after having only 19 losses in the previous three seasons.
East First-Round Upset Favorite: No. 14 New Mexico State
Just as our East Region honorable mention choice was downgraded by who it paired with, the same goes with why we've elevated New Mexico State to favorite status. It's not so much that we're digging what the Aggies did this year in going 28-5 against a pretty easy schedule, but when you consider the recent NCAA tournament failures of Baylor, we can't help but pull the trigger on another early exit for the Bears.
In case you don't forget, Baylor lost as a No. 3 seed to Georgia State in 2015 and then fell to 12th-seeded Yale last season. Each of those Baylor squads was ranked in the top 15 at one point, but they started to slide late in the year and then laid major eggs in those first-round games.
The 2016-17 Bears (25-7) went from unranked in the preseason to No. 1 (for the first time in school history) by Jan. 9. That stay atop the polls lasted one week as Baylor lost by 21 at West Virginia a day after that poll came out. That was the first of seven losses in the past 17 games, including to Kansas State in the first round of the Big 12 tourney.
Baylor is playing not far from home (Tulsa, Oklahoma), but New Mexico State isn't coming from that far away, either. And if this game is close late, the non-Baylor fans—particularly those from fellow Texas-based SMU—will become instant Aggie backers.
We're not going with NMSU entirely because of Baylor, though. The Aggies are one of the top rebounding teams in the country (19th in rebounding rate), and while the Bears are fourth, we can't forget how last season's strong glass-cleaning squad still got wiped on the boards by Yale. That led to Taurean Prince's priceless answer to a clueless reporter's query as to how Baylor was out-rebounded.
East Sweet 16 Sleeper: No. 8 Wisconsin
There's no substitute for experience, particularly the kind that involves knowing what it takes to meander through the NCAA tournament and make a Final Four. Wisconsin did that in 2014 and 2015 and quite a few guys from those runs are still around.
Four of the Badgers' top five scorers were on the 2014 squad, and seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig were both starters on the 2015 team that lost to Duke in the national championship game. Ethan Happ was there, too, but as a redshirt.
All of that experience is why Wisconsin (25-9) was the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten this year, and for a while, it looked to be a landslide. The Badgers were 21-3 and 10-1 in league play before hitting a major wall, losing five of six at one point before rebounding to win their regular-season finale. They got to the conference final, where they lost to red-hot Michigan on Sunday.
Happ's productivity dip was a big part of the skid as the 6'8” forward became more foul-prone and less accurate at the same time. He got back on track during the Big Ten tourney, and if he returns to his old stat-stuffing form, the Badgers are primed to make a run.
That would mean having to knock off defending national champ Villanova in the second round, though, assuming Wisconsin can get past a Virginia Tech team that's going to push its defense to the limit. The Badgers would match up well with Villanova and could have an advantage on the interior, but only if Hayes camps out in the paint alongside Happ instead of stretching to the perimeter and fruitlessly try to hit threes.
Villanova is built to repeat as champs, but the pressure to do so will be enormous. And since Florida won two straight titles in 2006-07, no defending titlist has advanced further than the Sweet 16.
South First-Round Honorable Mention: No. 11 First Four Winner
Trivia time: Since the NCAA tourney expanded to 68 teams in 2011, the at-large portion of the play-in games (known officially as the First Four) has had at least one participant get to at least the round of 32. Three of them got to the Sweet 16, including VCU, which in 2011 went from being one of the last four teams in to the Final Four.
Of the two First Four games not involving small-conference automatic qualifiers, the matchup between Kansas State and Wake Forest has the most potential to send its winner through to at least the second round. No offense to Providence or USC, but neither looks capable of beating SMU in Tulsa (even though USC did so at home in December).
K-State and Wake Forest are polar opposites when it comes to their makeup. The Wildcats (20-13) operate at a slow pace and put their stamp on defense, allowing 66.9 points per game by packing the paint and forcing threes. Wake (19-13) is far more uptempo, scoring 82.7 points per game and giving up 77.9. The Demon Deacons love to shoot the three but are strong going to the rim, too, but their defense leaves a lot to be desired.
If Wake wins, that will mean its offense was able to solve K-State's defense and that would bode well for facing an even stronger defense from Cincinnati (60.8 points allowed per game). If K-State advances, it will make for a rock fight of a first-round game with the Bearcats, where the momentum of having already won a tourney game could prove quite valuable.
South First-Round Upset Favorite: No. 12 Middle Tennessee
This one was a little too easy to pick.
When a 2016 Cinderella, Middle Tennessee, was paired up with Minnesota, the social media reactions were pretty uniform: The 12th-seeded Blue Raiders (30-4) are going to be an overwhelming upset pick against the fifth-seeded Golden Gophers (24-9).
And 75 million people have now picked Middle Tennessee over Minnesota https://t.co/S4p2y5VmGn— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) March 12, 2017
The 5/12 matchup has produced at least one upset in every tourney but one since 2008, and MTSU over Minnesota feels like one of the safest bets in years. And the reasons are twofold, leaning more toward MTSU's prowess than the Gophers' vulnerability.
The Blue Raiders were relatively unknown a year ago when they shocked No. 2 Michigan State, but few mid-major teams have been as closely followed this season. Their nonconference wins over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt put them on the radar early and they stayed there, with many bracketologists thinking they'd get an at-large bid if they didn't win Conference USA's tournament.
MTSU has three veteran scorers in guard Giddy Pitts and forwards Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams as well as a defense that yields 63.3 points per game.
Minnesota (24-9) is a great story in its own right, a team that was 8-23 a year ago whose coach (Richard Pitino, son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino) was starting to feel warmth on his seat. The Gophers tied for second in the Big Ten and the No. 5 seed is their best since the 1997 squad that made the Final Four as a No. 1 seed.
That sudden turnaround often makes a team ripe for upset in the postseason, and adding to the conditions is the loss of top three-point shooter Akeem Springs to a season-ending injury during the Big Ten tourney.
South Sweet 16 Sleeper: No. 10 Wichita State
With no bid stealers going on a run in conference tournaments and most bubble teams playing their way out of contention this past week, there wasn't much suspense as to which teams would make the field. But there was no shortage of post-bracket-unveiling debate related to seeding, with Wichita State's placement drawing the most attention.
Despite being in the top 10 by several computer ratings—Ken Pomeroy had the Shockers eighth—and 30 victories and a scoring margin of 19.3 (second-best in the country), they're once again going to have to face a much tougher road than they deserved.
This is nothing new for Wichita, which had to play in the First Four last year (and ended up making the round of 32). Even when it made the tourney unbeaten in 2014, its path as a No. 1 seed included getting stuck with Kentucky as its second-round opponent.
So that makes having to get by a scrappy Dayton team in the first round in Indianapolis and then a rematch with Kentucky two days later just par for the course. The Shockers don't deserve to be a No. 10 seed, and because they are, that could mean a much-earlier-than-expected departure. At the same time, it also means teams like Dayton and Kentucky might have a bone to pick with the selection committee if they get knocked off.
Midwest First-Round Honorable Mention: No. 11 Rhode Island
Rhode Island (24-9) is in the tourney for the first time since 1999 by virtue of winning the Atlantic 10 tournament on Sunday. Based on its seed, it's quite possible the Rams might have missed out on a bid altogether had they lost to VCU and, at the very least, would have been in the First Four.
Had the Rams been sent to Dayton for that play-in game, though, at least they wouldn't have had to then jump on a plane right afterward (assuming a win) to play in Sacramento, California.
While Rhody isn't the only team having to go a long way for the first round—it's not even the only one in its pod, as No. 14 Iona is coming from the same region to play Oregon—it does mean it's not likely to have a large crowd traveling to support it. The same won't be the case for opponent Creighton, whose fanbase travels quite well.
But don't be surprised if everyone not cheering for Creighton doesn't start to back the Rams, especially the Oregon fans who will hope for a lower-seeded second-round opponent.
Rhode Island can't bank on that, though, so it will have to rely on its game as well as the momentum gained from having to treat its final regular-season games as well as the A-10 tourney like elimination games. Its eight-game win streak is tied for the ninth-longest active streak in the country.
Creighton (25-9) made the Big East final, but it's just not the same team it was before senior point guard Maurice Watson Jr. tore his ACL in mid-January. The Blue Jays were 18-1 at the time, but without Watson, they've had six of their 10 highest turnover tallies.
Midwest First-Round Upset Favorite: No. 12 Nevada
Twenty years ago a former NBA head coach led South Alabama to its first NCAA appearance in six years and nearly upset eventual national champion Arizona in a 5/12 game. That coach was Bill Musselman, whose son Eric is hoping to one-up dad with Nevada.
Eric Musselman took over the Wolf Pack (28-6) in 2015 after a few unsuccessful attempts at coaching in the pros. His first team won 24 games and the College Basketball Invitational postseason title, and this one steered through the unpredictable Mountain West for the program's first NCAA bid since 2007.
Nevada is working with a super-short roster, with its starters logging nearly 82 percent of the minutes, yet neither fatigue or foul trouble has been an issue. This approach is strikingly similar to how opponent Iowa State (23-10) has been the last few years, with the current Cyclones squad getting a little more helping from the bench.
This should be an up-and-down game between two of the most careful teams in the country, each in the top 20 nationally in turnover percentage. Iowa State should have a distinct edge because of its postseason experience, recent Big 12 tournament title and having career assist-to-turnover ratio leader Monte Morris at its disposal, but there's something to be said for youthful exuberance and being able to dive in blindly without any undue expectations.
Midwest Sweet 16 Sleeper: No. 9 Michigan State
January, February, Izzo.
That's how they count the months in East Lansing in honor of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who regardless of how the regular season has gone always seems to have his teams playing their best at this time of year. Well, except for last March, when the second-seeded Spartans were sent packing in the first round by Middle Tennessee.
Before that, though, MSU had won at least one NCAA game in four straight tourneys and 15 of 19 appearances. The 20th straight qualifier is a different story, though, with the Spartans (19-14) limping into the field having lost three of four, including to Minnesota in the Big Ten quarterfinals. MSU's longest win streak is four, and it hasn't won more than two straight since early January.
But two is all it takes to get to the Sweet 16, so hope isn't lost. If Izzo can whip up some of his magic to turn his youngest team ever into a battle-tested unit (instead of one that looks beaten down by so much adversity), then it won't matter who the Spartans have to go through to get to the second weekend.
About that competition: Miami has also lost three of four and will try to keep the pace slow, forcing MSU's young stars to be patient and disciplined. Then comes a clash with top-seeded Kansas, a team that Spartans are very familiar with, having played the Jayhawks in November of the previous two seasons.
It won't be easy and it's not very likely, but knowing Izzo's history in March, it wouldn't be a shock for him to get his 14th Sweet 16 with arguably his least-equipped team.
West First-Round Honorable Mention: No. 16 South Dakota State
Could this be the year? Yeah, probably not.
A No. 16 seed has never upset a No. 1 in the NCAA tournament and there's a reason for that, as these matchups usually pit a title contender with a school from a low-rated one-bid conference that has far less talent and ability.
That's mostly the case with this year's 1-vs.-16 games, the exception being Gonzaga against South Dakota State. Make no mistake, Gonzaga (32-1) is a powerhouse that has no notable weaknesses in either its starting lineup or among its key reserves. But the best overall player in this game might just be wearing blue and gold instead of red, white and navy.
We're referring to Mike Daum, the 6'9", 245-pound sophomore forward who is the heart, soul and main weapon of South Dakota State (18-16). He's the top scorer in the NCAA tournament (and second nationally) at 25.3 points per game, and he's also the Division I leader in free throws (250) and attempts (287).
Those are his overall numbers while the ones he's put up recently are even better. In his past 13 games, Daum is averaging 30.9 points and 8.8 rebounds with 46 of his 77 three-pointers and a 105-of-122 performance at the foul line.
We're 99 percent sure Gonzaga will take care of business and with relative ease, but if Daum gets hot and the Bulldogs play tight—being a No. 1 seed comes with a lot of pressure—things could get interesting. Last time the Zags were a No. 1 seed, in 2013, they were tied with Southern with less than four minutes left before winning 64-58.
West First-Round Upset Favorite: No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast
Dunk City is back, the program that made that nickname famous a while back, is in the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row and third time in five seasons. And as was the case in its debut, Florida Gulf Coast (26-7) has a favorable matchup in the first round.
Florida State (25-8) is in the tournament for the first time since 2012, and its No. 3 seed is tied for the best in program history. The Seminoles overachieved during the regular season and picked up some big wins along the way but most of those were at home, while in road and neutral-site games, they were 7-8 with some of their worst offensive and defensive numbers.
The game is in Orlando, which makes it a glorified home game for a Florida-based team so that means FSU and FGCU should both be well-represented. Fans of Maryland and Xavier, which would get the winner, are also likely to back the Eagles, and thus any homecourt advantage the Seminoles might have hoped for won't exist.
A key to the Seminoles' rise this year has been greater emphasis on the defensive end, but they still like to run. FGCU will gladly comply, as this will enable it to break out the dunk-heavy offense that's worked so well this year and eerily similar to the version the 2013 team used to reach the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed.
West Sweet 16 Sleeper: No. 11 Xavier
Xavier (21-13) spent most of the first month of the 2016-17 ranked in the top 10, winning 13 of 15 before the bottom fell out. A three-game losing streak was followed not long after by the loss of point guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending injury and later the Musketeers dropped six in a row to go from being a sure-fire NCAA tourney team to one dealing with unwanted bubble talk.
Getting to the Big East semifinals proved to be just enough to get them into the field, their No. 41 spot on the overall seed list making them the last at-large team outside of those in the First Four.
Considering Xavier's prolonged slide—as well as the injury issues—it might have been justified to keep it out altogether. Instead it got a new lease on life and, like Syracuse did a year ago, could make the most of it.
Getting past Maryland in the first round may be the toughest part but the Terrapins (24-8) haven't exactly been playing lights out recently. Win that one and, if our prediction of Florida Gulf Coast taking down Florida State comes through that would mean a battle of double-digit seeds fighting for a Sweet 16 spot.
We had that happen in 2016 with No. 15 Syracuse getting past No. 15 Middle Tennessee to survive the first weekend and go all the way to the Final Four. Can Xavier make a similar run? Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller thinks so, listing the Musketeers as a possible "Kemba candidate" (in reference to the 2011 Connecticut team that Kemba Walker carried from the bubble to a championship) prior to conference tourney play.
They looked better in the Big East tournament so the pieces are there to make a run to at least the second weekend.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.