NCAA Tournament 2019: Ranking the Most Likely Upsets in Round 1
As we gear up for another exciting NCAA tournament, it's impossible not to wonder which school will be this year's Cinderella story.
Last year, it was Loyola-Chicago.
The Ramblers rode a No. 11 seed all the way to the Final Four, emerging from the wreckage of a South Regional that saw Virginia become the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed.
Every underdog tournament story begins with a first-round upset, and ahead we've ranked the seven most likely to watch for this Thursday and Friday.
For the sake of this discussion, the 8-9 and 7-10 matchups were not considered upset-worthy.
Matchups are ordered from least to most likely to occur.
7. No. 12 Liberty vs. No. 5 Mississippi State
Point Spread: Mississippi State (-6½)
Mississippi State is the best team that Liberty has played all season.
That said, this looks like a group that could be up to the task of toppling a major-conference foe.
The Flames have one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball.
They shoot 49.1 percent overall (12th in NCAA) and 58.5 percent on two-point attempts (fourth in NCAA), and they go as many as nine deep in their rotation, which should help keep them fresh against a more athletic opponent.
The Flames are undersized with Scott James (6'8") as the only real post presence, but they do a good job limiting second chances, and they still outrebounded the opposition 1,113-1,038 on the year despite their size limitations.
The Bulldogs went 6-8 on the year against tournament teams, so while they're experienced, they've also proven beatable.
The Flames have the potential to give them loss No. 9.
6. No. 13 UC-Irvine vs. No. 4 Kansas State
Point Spread: Kansas State (-4½)
There have been 28 times in NCAA tournament history where the No. 13 seed has beaten the No. 4 seed, including two last year when Buffalo and Marshall both won their opening games.
If someone is going to make it 29 this year, UC-Irvine looks like the best bet.
The Anteaters played a tough nonconference schedule and actually beat Saint Mary's on the road back in November, also picking up a quality road win against Texas A&M.
They face one of the best defenses in the country in Kansas State, but they play quality defense as well. The Big West champs ranked 58th in KenPom's efficiency rankings and finished fifth in the nation in opponents' field-goal percentage (38.0) while leading the country in two-point defense (40.4 percent).
With nine guys who play at least 16 minutes per game, they're also as deep as any team in the field, and their lack of reliance on one go-to scorer could actually work in their favor against the Wildcats.
The X-factor here will be the health of senior Dean Wade.
The 6'10" Kansas State forward averaged 12.9 points and shot 41.8 percent from beyond the arc, but he sat out the entire Big 12 tournament with a right foot injury, and his status for the NCAA tournament is still up in the air.
If Wade is out and the Anteaters defense holds up against a major conference opponent, the Wildcats could be headed home early.
5. No. 12 New Mexico State vs. No. 5 Auburn
Point Spread: Auburn (-5½)
Auburn made a statement with a 20-point win over Tennessee in the SEC tournament title game.
However, they could be a ticking time bomb in the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers are extremely reliant on the three-point shot, with roughly 42.7 percent of their offense on the year coming on made threes.
That's a major weapon when those shots are falling, and a major hurdle to overcome when they're not.
Take their last loss on Feb. 23 against Kentucky, for example, when they connected on just 8-of-27 from beyond the arc against a team that ranks 221st in the nation in opponents' three-point percentage and were blown out by 27 points as a result.
New Mexico State might not be good enough to beat Auburn when it's on top of its game, but they're plenty good enough to hang around and seize an opportunity if the Tigers go cold from deep.
The Aggies rank 37th in KenPom's offensive efficiency, and they're playing with the swagger that comes with a 19-game winning streak. They also have tournament experience after grabbing a No. 12 seed last year as well.
This one boils down to whether Auburn plays up to its potential, which has not always happened this year.
4. No. 11 Saint Mary's vs. No. 6 Villanova
Point Spread: Villanova (-4½)
It's been a disappointing season for the Villanova Wildcats.
Despite losing Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman from last year's national championship roster, they still began the season at No. 9 in the AP poll.
Non-conference losses to Furman and Penn knocked them out of the rankings entirely heading into conference play, and a 13-5 record in Big East play showed they were not the same dominant force. In other words, this is a much more beatable Villanova squad than we've seen in recent years.
Saint Mary's provides a tough challenge, as both teams play a similarly slow pace. The Gaels rank 347th in KenPom's adjusted tempo, while the Wildcats check in at 333rd.
It could come down to whether a Gales defense that ranks 55th in KenPom's defensive efficiency can keep the Wildcats from getting hot from beyond the arc.
Villanova finished fourth in the nation in three-point attempts (1,023), but they didn't always fall at a great clip, with their 35.3 percent rate good for 128th in the country.
With junior guard Jordan Ford (21.5 PPG, 42.3 3PT%) leading the way for an offense that ranks 21st in KenPom's efficiency, Saint Mary's has plenty of offensive firepower. So it will come down to defense.
3. No. 12 Murray State vs. No. 5 Marquette
Point Spread: Marquette (-4)
The Marquette and Murray State matchup is an interesting clash of offensive styles.
The Golden Eagles shot 39.3 percent from behind the three-point line, good for 10th in the nation.
The Racers shot 58.7 percent from inside the arc, good for sixth in the nation.
The three ball can be a fickle thing, and it's a big reason why Marquette has lost five of their last six games, as it went cold from beyond the arc down the stretch.
On the other hand, Murray State has the basket-attacking ability of future NBA lottery pick Ja Morant. He is a consistent weapon and put up 36 points in the OVC championship game against Belmont.
Both teams rank in the top 50 in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency, and both lean heavily on star players, with junior guard Markus Howard averaging 25.0 points per game for the Golden Eagles.
As long as Morant is on his game and the Golden Eagles don't suddenly turn it on from deep—which is not out of the question given the bevy of shooters at their disposal—the Racers have a great chance of moving on to the weekend.
2. No. 11. Belmont vs. No. 6 Maryland
Point Spread: Maryland (-3½)
Belmont looked like a team that should be taken seriously Tuesday night when it notched a convincing 81-70 win over Temple in the First Four.
The Bruins survived despite a quiet night from star Dylan Windler, who averaged 21.4 points per game during the regular season. The 6'8" senior scored only five points on 2-of-7 shooting against Temple, although he did pull down 14 rebounds.
Kevin McClain led the way for Belmont with 29 points, while freshman big man Nick Muszynski returned from a foot injury that sidelined him for the Ohio Valley Conference title game to tally 16 points on 8-of-12 shooting. It wasn't surprising to see other players take over offensively for a team that finished second in the nation with 87.4 points per game and ranked 20th in KenPom's offensive efficiency.
If the Bruins can slow down 6'10" Maryland sophomore Bruno Fernando (13.7 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 1.9 BPG) and take advantage of a Terrapins team that can get careless with the ball at times, they'll be in great shape.
This Belmont team could be eyeing a Sweet 16 run or more.
1. No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 5 Wisconsin
Point Spread: Wisconsin (-2)
One of Wisconsin's biggest strengths is its ability to slow opponents down.
That won't phase an Oregon team that ranks 328th in KenPom's adjusted tempo—just ahead of the Badgers, who are 332nd.
The Ducks have rallied from losing freshman star Bol Bol for the season to win eight in a row, including a surprising run through the Pac-12 tournament as the No. 6 seed to steal the automatic bid.
Point guard Payton Pritchard averaged 19.3 points and 6.7 assists over the final three games of the conference tournament, and he'll be tasked with leading the offensive attack in the half-court against the Badgers.
If the Ducks can find a way to slow down Wisconsin star Ethan Happ with a defense that ranked 18th in KenPom's adjusted efficiency, the Badgers lack a reliable second scoring option to pick up the slack.
The fact that the point spread on this game is essentially a push speaks volumes to what an even matchup this is, despite the seeding difference.