11 NCAA tournament upset picks, grouped by plausibility

Keep an eye on New Mexico State, which plays Clemson in the first round.

These won’t all happen. But some will.

The NCAA tournament is upon us. Some teams that aren’t supposed to win their first-round games are going to go ahead and win their first-round games.

We’re all mostly guessing who those teams will be. But some distinct profiles have emerged over time that can help us pick our Cinderellas. Here’s one stab at 2018, with point spreads attached for a heaping handful of first-round games that may or may not be upsets:

Category 1: These are barely even upsets.

1. No. 10 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Rhode Island (-2.5), Midwest Region. The Sooners have lost eight of their last 10 games, many of those in blowouts. They looked awful in an 11-point loss to Oklahoma State, a non-NCAA tournament team, in their lone Big 12 tourney appearance. All of that’s true. Also true is that OU has the National Player of the Year in Trae Young. He could win the game by himself, and OU’s breakneck pace could cause the Rams problems, because it could cause any team problems. The Sooners have played and beaten teams far better than the Rams, like Kansas and Texas Tech earlier in the season.

2. No. 10 Texas vs. No. 7 Nevada (even), South Region. The Longhorns are a lot more talented than the Wolfpack. Like Oklahoma, they’re accustomed to a higher level of competition than the team they’re playing. Nevada doesn’t have a rotation player over 6’8, and it feels like UT big man Mohamed Bamba (who’s 6’11) could have a massive game.

3. No. 10 Providence vs. No. 7 Texas A&M (-3.5), West Region. The Friars have a couple of gruesome losses to teams like Minnesota, UMass, and DePaul. But a team that beat Xavier twice and finished north of .500 in the Big East in 2018 is worth being afraid of. A&M’s defense is great, and it’s worth wondering if Providence can score enough. The Friars have been such an up-and-down bunch that no outcome could be surprising.

4. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 6 Miami (-2.5), South Region. The Ramblers have two critical things going for them. One is a solid defense, which kept Florida to 59 points in a win a couple of months ago. Another is consistently great shooting. They won the Missouri Valley by burying teams with a barrage of made shots, and they’ve been similarly accurate from inside and outside the arc. The Canes have a big frontcourt, but the Ramblers have the outside marksmanship and team defense to give them significant problems.

Category 2: At least one is happening. Probably two.

5. No. 12 Davidson vs. No. 5 Kentucky (-6), South Region. In a battle of two teams called the Wildcats, Kentucky is the infinitely more talented bunch. And you shouldn’t pick Davidson because you have fond memories of Stephen Curry’s tournament run there in 2008. Consider Davidson because it’s an elite shooting team. Among tournament teams, DU is eighth in effective field goal percentage and 18th in opponent-adjusted points per 100 possessions. Kentucky is way worse at shooting. John Calipari’s team might get hot, or it might win by crashing the offensive boards until they shatter. But it’s not hard to see Davidson’s path to victory, which involves nothing more than sinking tons of jumpers.

6. No. 11 San Diego State vs. No. 6 Houston (-4), West Region. The Aztecs don’t do any one thing incredibly well, but they’re one of the more solid teams in the field, top to bottom. Their defense is their best asset, particularly the way they seal off the paint with a pair of 6’10 frontcourt players, Malik Pope and Jalen McDaniels. Houston’s own defense is great, and the Cougars would win the majority of the meetings between these teams. But the Aztecs aren’t likely to get routed, and they should have an opportunity at the end.

7. No. 12 New Mexico State vs. No. 5 Clemson (-5.5), Midwest Region. NMSU has played suffocating defense all year. The Aggies are sixth nationally in opponent effective field goal percentage and 14th in opponent-adjusted scoring. Clemson’s defense is even better, and that’s an issue. But this will be a low-scoring game, especially if the Tigers play at their usual plodding pace on offense. That means it should be close late.

8. No. 12 Murray State vs. No. 5 West Virginia (-10). The Mountaineers are meant to eat up big, slow teams that turn the ball over. The Racers are not one of those teams. They’re good shooters (No. 25 in effective field goal percentage), and they do a decent job limiting turnovers (No. 100 in turnover rate, but remember there are 351 Division I teams). They don’t usually get mauled on the defensive glass. Those are good counters to all of WVU’s key strengths. Plus, Murray plays at a slower pace than Bob Huggins would prefer. If the Racers can play the game at something resembling their speed, they’ll be in it.

(It’s not original to suggest a bunch of 11th and 12th seeds could pull off upsets. Obviously. But this year’s crop seems especially upset-friendly to me.)

Category 3: These are longer shots but possible.

9. No. 13 Marshall vs. No. 4 Wichita State (-12), East Region. The Thundering Herd are a potential CHAOS TEAM, because they turn every game they play into a track meet. The Herd are No. 6 nationally in opponent-adjusted possessions per 40 minutes. Their average offensive possession lasts a hilarious 14 seconds. Wichita State’s machine-like offense is probably good enough to overcome any conditioning challenges brought on by Marshall, but the Shockers are a little worse than they’ve been the last few years.

10. No. 13 College of Charleston vs. No. 4 Auburn (-10.5), Midwest Region. The Tigers are good, for sure. But they just played their worst offensive game of the season in an SEC Tournament clunker against Alabama. C of C moves incredibly slowly on offense, and we should expect the Cougars to keep the score low by holding down possessions. They’re worse than Auburn in every way, but they might be just frustrating enough to win. C of C also hasn’t been in the tournament since 1999, which means almost nothing but makes this game more exciting. The Cougs should be incredibly hopped up by tipoff.

Category 4: It’s possible. Don’t laugh

11. No. 15 Lipscomb vs. No. 2 North Carolina, West Region. A 15 seed beats a 2 about once every two or three years. The last was Middle Tennessee against Michigan State in 2016, and we’re coming due for another shock soon. Lipscomb — from the same Atlantic Sun that spawned Sweet 16 No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 — is another potential CHAOS TEAM. The Bisons love to run, and they enter the tournament ranked No. 5 nationally in adjusted tempo. They haven’t played anyone like North Carolina, obviously, but another Lipscomb strength has been defensive rebounding. Given that the Heels’ best strength is their offensive rebounding, this one’s worth monitoring.

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