March Madness would just be March without the upsets.
The NCAA tournament captures the attention of the nation for three weeks every year largely because of the Cinderella stories and the high seeds that knock off the traditional favorites. There seems to be at least a couple of darling underdogs that make noise each season, and 2016 will be no different.
They may ruin your bracket, but you will surely fall in love with them as they play the role of David to the various Goliaths.
With that in mind, here is a look at a couple of upset picks to watch in the first round of this year’s tournament.
UNC Wilmington over Duke
If you haven’t watched much college basketball this season and are doing some last-minute cramming for March Madness, this season’s Duke team does not resemble the one that cut down the nets as the 2014-15 national champions.
The Blue Devils struggle to defend and have also proven to be vulnerable on the boards in recent efforts. According to Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defense efficiency rankings, Mike Krzyzewski’s squad is an abysmal 110th in the nation on that end of the court, as of Sunday.
The lackluster defense is a primary reason Duke was inconsistent down the stretch with a 3-4 record in its final seven games. What’s more, it allowed more than 70 points and was outrebounded in all four of the losses (Louisville, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Notre Dame) during that span.
Perhaps the worst effort in those last seven contests came in the rebounding department against North Carolina when the archrival Tar Heels tallied 64 boards compared to the Blue Devils’ 29.
Duke simply doesn’t have the pieces down low to compete for a title right now with big man Amile Jefferson out with injury. There aren’t many reliable options behind Mason Plumlee, which makes the defending champions a risky pick in the one-and-done tournament if he gets in foul trouble.
As for UNC Wilmington, its players likely spend plenty of time hearing and reading about how great the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels are every season inside the state of North Carolina. If the NCAA tournament doesn’t provide enough motivation for the Seahawks, they will likely love the chance to knock off one of the in-state bullies.
CollegeBasketballTalk saw this matchup as a potential upset and harkened to another shocker when the backcourt-led No. 11 seed VCU Rams upset No. 6 seed Duke in 2007:
The Seahawks won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament title game with an 80-73 victory over Hofstra in overtime, and Rodger Sherman of SB Nation pointed to those guards as a possible cause for Duke concern:
The Seahawks play some serious small ball. Although they do have a 7-footer, CJ Gettys, on the roster, he only plays 15 minutes a game. Five players play over half of the Seahawks' minutes, and all five are 6’5” or smaller.
The flip side of that equation is that this makes UNCW a great defensive team on the perimeter. They prevent teams from shooting a lot of threes (their opposing 3PA/FGA ratio is 28.9, 11th-lowest in college basketball) and teams only shoot 34.1 percent on those few threes they manage. However, the Seahawks really struggle inside.
Fortunately for the Seahawks, Duke is not a team that is built to exploit any interior weaknesses.
Chris Flemmings gives UNC Wilmington a go-to scorer on the outside who can carry his team and convert on critical buckets with the contest on the line. As of Sunday, he was averaging 16.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, per ESPN.com. He also shot 36.7 percent from three-point range, an impressive 51.3 percent from the field and 80.9 percent from the charity stripe.
With Flemmings scoring in a variety of ways and Duke unable to take advantage of the underdogs inside with their own worries on the block, UNC Wilmington will pull off the bracket-busting upset in the first round.
Temple over Iowa
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To the slumping Iowa Hawkeyes, the Blue Devils’ 3-4 mark in the past seven games would be an improvement.
Including their stunning Big Ten tournament loss to Illinois, the Hawkeyes finished 2-6 in their final eight games heading into the NCAA tournament. That is a far cry from a squad that was competing for a Big Ten title and a potential No. 1 seed in the Big Dance when it was 19-4 overall and a sparkling 10-1 in the conference.
As a result, Iowa is a mediocre No. 7 seed in the South Region and primed for a first-round upset.
It’s not just that Iowa struggled down the stretch but who it lost to during that span. Illinois (15-19 on the campaign) and Penn State (16-16) were nowhere near NCAA tournament-quality opponents, while Ohio State failed to live up to the typical standards in Columbus and missed the Big Dance as well.
Any lingering crises in confidence for the Hawkeyes could prove costly under the bright lights of March.
Guard Peter Jok tried to maintain a positive attitude with the tournament looming, per Don Doxsie of the Quad-City Times (via the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier):
I feel like we don’t want to be negative. We have to stay positive. When we start pointing fingers, that’s when the team goes down. It’s March now and it’s win or go home so we just need to stay positive and regroup ourselves individually and as a team, and just get ready for the next game.
The Owls hung with Utah (six-point loss) and Butler (five-point loss) this season and also beat Cincinnati twice, won at Connecticut and knocked off SMU. They will not be intimidated by their Big Ten opponent with those efforts on the resume and come into the game with some momentum on their side.
Temple won four of its final five contests and has a balanced scoring attack that features three players who average double-digit points per night in Quenton DeCosey (15.6), Obi Enechionyia (11.2) and Jaylen Bond (10.2).
DeCosey is a guard who can hit from the outside and get involved on the boards (six rebounds a game), while Enechionyia and Bond are forwards who bring different skills to the court. Bond is solid on the glass (8.3 rebounds a game), while Enechionyia can stretch the defense (39.4 percent from downtown) when it collapses on DeCosey.
Between a Temple squad that features a number of different players who can hurt the Hawkeyes in various areas and a struggling Iowa team that could be suffering through confidence shortages heading into the tournament, the South Region has the perfect recipe for an upset.