Right near the top of anyone’s list for why they love the NCAA Tournament is inevitable upsets that happen every year. Some years upsets are plentiful. Other years, like last year, chalk reigns more often than not.
While there is no perfect way to predict where upsets will come from (this is why they are considered upsets, after all) there are specific criteria you can look for when trying to locate which matchups are more favorable for upsets than others.
In this post, I’ll explain the criteria I use to pick upsets, then break down the 5-12 matchups, which is where most upsets come from, as well as analyze this year’s other potential bracket busters.
Criteria for Picking Upsets
First, it is important to understand the historical winning % by seed. Courtesy of ListAfterList.com, here is a breakdown:
- The #1 seed has beaten the #16 seed all 88 times (100%).
- The #2 seed has beaten the #15 seed 84 times (95%).
- The #3 seed has beaten the #14 seed 73 times (83%).
- The #4 team has beaten the #13 seed 70 times (80%).
- The #5 seed has beaten the #12 seed 59 times (67%).
- The #6 seed has beaten the #11 seed 61 times (69%).
- The #7 team has beaten the #10 seed 53 times (60%).
- The #8 team has beaten the #9 seed 41 times (47%).
As you can see, it is a very dicey proposition picking a #1 or a #2 seed to lose in the first round. You’re better off picking the top seeds and being pleasantly surprised by an upset.
The same is typically true of the #3 and #4 seeds as well, both of which still win 80% of the time or better. Only if there is a matchup that you really like would I pick an upset here.
You know, like this one…
Once we get to the #5 and #6 line, however, things get a little more favorable upsets.
Interestingly, #6 seeds are two percentage points better than #5 seeds in first round matchups. Theoretically, this shouldn’t happen. In reality though, #12 seeds are often one of two types of teams: 1) a team from a major conference with talent that underachieved throughout the year, or 2) an at-large mid-major that very well could be seeded too low (think Cornell this year). A #12 seed always knocks off a #5 seed in the tournament, so this is where you want to take an educated chance.
The takeaway here is that your best bet is to stay away from the top line upsets during Round 1. 10s, 11s, and 12s, however, have a much better shot of beating their higher seeded opponents.
But how do you know which ones to trust?
If you’ve read my 2010 NCAA Tournament bracket predictions post already you know the criteria I look for when picking teams to advance in the tournament (follow the link to view the stat breakdown spreadsheet). I like teams that have experienced backcourts that do not turn the ball over, that rebound well and make it difficult for their opponent to shoot, and that have had success winning close games this year.
With that being seed, let’s analyze this year’s 5-12 matchups and potential bracket busting upsets.
Breaking Down the 5-12 Seed Matchups
- #5 Texas A&M v #12 Utah State
- #5 Butler v #12 UTEP
- #5 Michigan State v #12 New Mexico State
- #5 Temple v #12 Cornell
If you watched ESPN last night, you might be surprised by where I have the Temple-Cornell game listed. Jay Bilas apparently thinks that Cornell is a contender for the National Championship. While I think the Big Red are good, and I obviously want to see Randy Wittman’s kid do well, I agree with Doug Gottlieb who said that Temple is the most underseeded team in the field.
This is going to be a great game, but I don’t think an upset. Temple holds opponents to 37.7% field goal shooting and turns the ball over on less than 14% of their possessions. Those are among the best of those stats in the entire field.
As for Michigan State, a first round exit would not shock me only because this year’s Spartans team has had such obvious chemistry and consistency issues. Still, they are supremely talented and Tom Izzo always seems to have his troops ready for March. I’ll trust Sparty to at least make it to the Round of the 32 on the strength of their rebounding and experience.
The other two 5-12 matchups are ones that I predicted to be upsets, but neither is a slam dunk by any means.
UTEP gets the slight edge over Butler because their backcourt is a little bit more experienced and because they hold opponents to under 40% from the field. The Miners are also perfect in close games this year and have an impressive point margin of 11.6. Butler’s numbers are close in every category, but UTEP came out on top in everything but rebounding. This one could go either way, but I like UTEP to squeak by. (I anxiously await Ari’s rebuttal to this one.)
In the final 5-12 matchup, I like Utah State over Texas A&M in the battle of the Aggies because Utah State is supreme on the glass (6.1 margin to 2.7) and takes care of the ball very well (13.9% turnover percentage). This is another very close game, and I would not be shocked at all to see Texas A&M win (especially considering Utah State’s .200 success rate in close games) but I consider it to be the most likely 5-12 upset.
Breaking Down the Other Potential Bracket Busters
Now let’s take a look at some other games that are being commonly discussed as possible upsets, as well as all of the upsets I picked in my bracket.
South Region: #4 Purdue v #13 Siena
First, let’s analyze the 4-13 matchup between Purdue and Siena. As mentioned above, #4 seeds win 80% of the time. However, most #4 seeds are not missing their best player and coming off of a game in which they scored 11 points in the first half; and most #13 seeds do not have the successful recent tournament experience that Siena has.
Still, I picked the Boilermakers to win this one. The main reason is the presence of JaJuan Johnson inside. If he comes to play and dominate, motivated by the loss of Hummel and their poor showing this past weekend, he can be the difference. Mix in E’Twuan Moore’s shooting and Chris Kramer’s grit and leadership, and Purdue is not destitute just because Hummel is gone. Purdue takes care of the basketball (sub-14% turnover rate) and wins close games (85.7%), plus they are battle tested from a tough conference schedule.
Siena has experience and is going to push Purdue to the limit, but unlike last year against Ohio State, I see this year’s Big Ten opponent making enough plays to win. BUT…if you’re intent on picking one of the top 16 seeds to lose, this is the one I’d pick.
Other games being discussed as potential upsets that I did not pick include:
- #6 Tennessee v #11 San Diego State – I like the Vols because of their experience and defense
- #4 Vanderbilt v #13 Murray State – This should be a pretty good game, and the Commodores are worrisome away from home, but they take better care of the basketball and have been better in close games.
- #6 Xavier v #11 Minnesota – Xavier is too good on the glass and their young backcourt does a good job of handling the ball.
- #7 BYU v #10 Florida – BYU is a really good team and they dominate Florida in almost every one of the stats I used to break down each matchup.
- #7 Richmond v #10 Saint Mary’s – Don’t sleep on Richmond. They are one of the worst rebounding teams in the tournament, but they have experience, they defend very well, and they win close games. (I actually have the Spiders as my darkhorse to reach the Elite 8.)
- #4 Wisconsin v #13 Wofford – People underestimate Wisconsin because of their plodding style. The Badgers have an experienced backcourt and do what they do very well. In Bo I trust.
Now let’s look at the upsets that I did pick, in addition to the two 5-12 upsets above:
South Region: #11 Old Dominion over #6 Notre Dame
I picked Old Dominion over Notre Dame in large part because ODU is one of the best rebounding teams in the country (8.8 margin) and plays terrific defense (opponent FG% of 40.1%). The Irish are going to pose a stiff challenge, however, as they are experienced and battle tested from playing a Big East schedule. This is no slam dunk, but a decent spot to take a chance if you’re sniffing around for an 11 over a 6. (For the record, I actually pick Old Dominion to make the Sweet 16 after beating Baylor in round 2.)
East Region: #11 Washington over #6 Marquette
Here is another good spot to look at a #11 seed. Washington has guards with successful tourney experience from last year, and while Marquette had to play a Big East schedule that will have them toughened and ready for the NCAAs, this is a guard-dominated team that does not rebound well. Washington did not play teams of Marquette’s caliber on a night-in, night-out in the woeful Pac-10, but guards like Isaiah Thomas have the skills to author upsets. This would not be a big upset by any means, but a Pac-10 team beating a Big East team would surprise some people.
East Region: #10 Missouri over #7 Clemson
Now we get into “upsets” that probably aren’t really upsets. #7 seeds do win 60% of the time, but especially in this case it is hard to call Missouri over Clemson an upset. Clemson had a very nice season, but Missouri returns a lot of experience from their deep tournament run last year. While Mizzou does not rebound very well, they do play good defense and have experienced guards. Clemson turns the ball over on 17.7% of their possessions, which will have to be cleaned up against Missouri’s pressure defense.
Midwest Region: #10 Georgia Tech over #7 Oklahoma State
This could be a very entertaining game with a lot of young talent talent on both sides of the ball that the majority of America does not know about. Georgia Tech holds opponents to 38.3% shooting from the field and does a good job rebounding (4.3 margin) but also turns the ball over on nearly 20% of its possessions. Yesterday against Duke the Yellow Jackets had turnovers on each of their first five possessions. That will need to get cleaned up against Oklahoma State; assuming it does – and Tech still almost beat Duke yesterday despite all the TOs – Georgia Tech’s defense and glass work should be enough to get them the W.
Ultimately, we can analyze every game until we’re blue in the face. The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is that you never know where the upsets and Cinderellas will come from. What makes it exciting is the thrill of watching it all unfold every March and finding the next Stephen Curry or Bryce Drew.
I can’t wait.
* – Bryce Drew photo credit: PrepTicket.com
* – JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore photo credit: SlamOnline.com
* – Jay Bilas photo credit: KentuckySportsRadio.com