Two things I love about the NCAA Tournament. As a kid I was aware, I enjoyed filling out brackets and I've always loved basketball...but in my middle school years is when different events happened that solidified to me that this is the best four days of the entire year. As I got into college I passed this passion on to my group of friends. As a father I am passing it on to my children. But it was two things that drew me in...
1 - Nicknames. This is where I developed my affinity for college mascots. It probably started before become a brack-aholic, when occasionally the Tulane Green Wave were on TV and their basketball court was covered with a giant green wave. "SO COOL!" I thought. Then I started getting into the NCAA Tournament and I starting learning about Banana Slugs and Catamounts and the Rajin Cajuns!
Then the Gophers, in back-to-back tournaments (remember when they made it in back-to-back years?), played the Salukis and the Billikens. I was hooked. Now I take great pride in knowing the vast majority of the 350 NCAA D1 mascots.
2 - The upsets. 1993 was when this became a real thing for me. It was a bunch of floppy-haired surfers from Santa Clara (Broncos) who earned a huge win over #2 Arizona. Some pimple-faced Canadian named Steve Nash (like he'd ever amount to anything at the next level) leads the Broncos over a legit title contender. I was participating in an after-school activity, sneaking away to the one room that had a TV and secretly watching
A few years later is when I would pay attention in earnest during the mid-major conference tournaments to start my research for potential upset teams. 1999 I identified the perfect upset-minded mid-major. The Gonzaga Bulldogs were going to be my secret pick to win a game or maybe even two and I'd wow my friends with my elite basketball mind. Then the Bulldogs got their first round match-up...against my Golden Gophers. I couldn't pick against Clem and Quincy and Joel Przybilla and JB Bickerstaff, etc. So my identification of Gonzaga being Gonzaga lives on only in my own mind because of the unfortunate seeding that year.
I have been running a friends/family bracket pool for many years and because of my affinity for the first round upsets my bracket has a unique feature. In my bracket you are required to pick your Guaranteed Upset Special (GUS). You get the difference in seeding as bonus points and those points often come into play for who finishes in the money so it is very important.
And that brings me to today's topic (only took nearly 450 words). Let's talk about some potential first round upsets to keep in mind for your bracket.
14 - Stephen F. Austin vs. 3 - West Virginia
This is a match-up, much like the 99 Gopher/Bulldog game where the higher seeded opponent is also one I really like. I think West Virginia is a team capable of a Final Four run and that sucks for the Lumberjacks. I would pick them over Utah or Miami for sure and possibly even over Texas A&M (the other three 3-seeds). This SF Austin team is severely underseeded compared to their KenPom rank (a metric I very much utilize for my bracket). The Lumberjacks lead the nation in forcing turnovers and they turn those bonus possessions into points by being 12th nationally in eFG%. Unfortunately I think that the Mountaineers are also underseeded, they also force a ton of turnovers as their calling card and lead the nation in offensive rebounding.
Prediction? I can't quite call this an upset, but I'm bummed by this matchup for the Lumberjacks (great nickname btw). Were they facing Utah, the Lumberjacks would be my GUS and I wouldn't blink an eye.
10 - VCU vs. 7 - Oregon State
Beavers and Rams where the 10-seed might even be favored. 10/7 matchups are not really "upsets" at least not in a dramatic way. VCU gets it down with defense, holding teams to a low defensive efficiency and they force plenty of turnovers. They also control rebounding quite well which is a huge bonus for teams that also are known for turnovers. They have three-point shooters and they rebound very well with their under-sized forwards. Good balance. Here is what scares me though...P5 teams who are told that they are probably the underdog...they tend to show up and play rather well for a game.
The Beavers are led by Gary Payton Jr. who leads the team in scoring and rebounding(!).
Prediction? I'm going with VCU here, mostly because Tres Trickle, the Beaver's 2nd leading scorer and rebounder, is likely not playing. An upset, but nothing that's going to make headlines. KenPom actually has the Rams as a favorite anyway.
13 - Iona vs. 4 - Iowa State
Iona toppled the mid-major darlings, Monmouth in the MAA conference tourney, and in fact they took 2 of 3 from the Hawks. Now they get to face the Cyclones in the first round as a 13-seed. And to tell you the truth, they have a real shot here. I'll give you one good reason.
First, they are a three-point shooting team, led by an upper-classman guard who has some NBA bloodlines and won't be shy of the stage. A.J. English is the son of Alex English and he averaged 22.4 points per game with some huge games throughout the season (including 13 threes in one game!!!). In this tournament only Oklahoma and MIchigna get more of their total points from three than the Gaels. If they start hitting shots, they can absolutely win this game.
Iowa State is a very good team. Incredibly efficient on offense and interestingly the only teams they have lost to all year are teams that are in the tournament. Their "worst" loss of the year is probably losing to Northern Illinois who just so happens to be the same Panther club who knocked off North Carolina earlier in the year and knocked Wichita State out of the MVC Tourney. So the Cyclones haven't really had any dogs.
Prediction? This is closer than the Cyclones will like and may be the buzzer-beater of the first round.
12 - Yale vs. 5 - Baylor
Of course you have to look at the 5/12 matchups right? This year I don't really love any of them though. I think Indiana has no problems with the Mocs of Chattanooga. I really like Arkansas Little Rock but Purdue is underseeded as a 5 and I think they survive. South Dakota State beat Minnesota who beat Maryland so...nope, the Jackrabbits don't play enough defense to win this one.
If a 12-seed is going to win, it is going to be Yale. The Bulldogs are probably the best rebounding team in the tournament. They are a balanced team and they get to the free throw line fairly often. If they win, I think getting to the line and making some well-timed, key shots will get it done. If they lost it will be due to Baylor forcing too many turnovers and things roll the wrong way for the Bulldogs.
Prediction? I think the 5-seeds win out this year but this game would make a lot of headlines and perpetuate the narrative of what a great story it is that Yale made the Tournament this year.
11 - Wichita State vs. 6 - Arizona
(Guaranteed Upset Special)
I kind of like the Wildcats this year and I picked them to win the Pac-12 Tourney, but Wichita State is tragically underseeded. The Shockers have had an interesting season. They did lose to USC, Alabama and Iowa early in the season; games that certainly could have helped their seeding. But those games were without their best player Fred VanVleet. With VanVleet back they beat Utah (3-seed) by 17 and lost in OT at Seton Hall. But this is a lock-down defense that ranks top-10 nationally in defensive efficiency (#1), defensive effective FG% (5), defensive rebounding % (5) and turnovers forced by % (5).
Arizona is really good as well and also underseeded. Easily the best 6-seed in the bracket and once again this matchup bums me out. I kind of like the fact that the Shockers get to play Vandy to get themselves eased into the Tournament.
CAVEAT: Vandy is also very good and should be higher than an 11-seed. This is a sucky matchup for these teams and it is shocking that they are two of the "last four" teams to get in. The Shockers do not have an easy road here.
Prediction? The Shockers don't shock me and they beat Arizona. Were this against any other 6-seed I'd call this a double-digit win. Their defense is legit and they'd be seeded much higher with a Missouri Valley tournament win had they not gone 2/24 from three against a sneaky good Northern Iowa Panthers.
11 is the new 12. I wouldn't be shocked if you see all four 11-seeds winning this weekend. Northern Iowa could easily beat Texas without too many shockwaves. Michigan vs. Notre Dame (assumption made) may be one the first round games I look forward to the most and the team that is shooting the three-ball best that day will win. And Gonzaga vs. Seton Hall is a very evenly matched game as well. If I had to rank all 10 of the 6 & 11 seeds it would probably look something like this...
- Wichita State (11)
- Arizona (6)
- Vanderbilt (11)
- Seton Hall (6)
- Notre Dame (6)
- Michigan (11)
- Texas (6)
- Gonzaga (11)
- Northern Iowa (11)
- Tulsa (11)
Not a lot of separation amongst those teams. And it does suck that the top 3 (IMO) all are facing each other in round 1.
BIG TEN. I think the Big Ten does very well in the first round. Wisconsin and Iowa may be popular picks to be upset but I think they get it done, although Iowa has been rather bad lately so you never know. Arkansas-Little Rock concerns me a little for Purdue but the Boilermakers are very good.
MAJOR UPSETS. If you are looking for a 14,15,16 seed to make some noise, your two best bets are Stephen F. Austin and Cal-State Bakersfield. I mentioned SFA earlier and how bummed I am that they are facing West Virginia. That team is legit. But after the Lumberjacks, keep an eye on Roadrunners of Cal-State Bakersfield. Very talented defensively and they have the requisite experienced lineup. What they don't have is that gun-slinging, three-point barrage of a team that often wins these David vs. Goliath matchups. But are one of the best teams in the country at scoring 2-pt FGs and they probably do it by producing a lot of turnovers (15th nationally) that become layups (assumption made based on stats because I haven't actually seen them play).
MINNESOTA RELATED. We are all Pitt Panther fans this week and I'm a believer in the Temple Owls as well :). But beyond just the hate in my heart I really want to see Northern Iowa lose so they don't go on a run that then tempts another major college program to throw a ton of money at Ben Jacobson.
That's all I've got. What guaranteed upset did I miss? And note to anyone who is in my bracket pool (Hi Mom!), ignore everything I said above. You should totally pick Holy Cross as your GUS.