Beware the Ides of March. But embrace the Madness, baby. The NCAA Tournament kicks off in earnest this Thursday at noon Eastern. Sure, there are technically the "First Four" games Tuesday and Wednesday night in Dayton, but only losers pick those games. (I pick those games, because I am a loser.) This year, as with every other year, the only thing we can predict about the tournament is that it will be unpredictable. There will be upsets, last-second heroics, catastrophic losses and program-changing wins. Bottom line: If you're going to win your office's bracket pool, you'll need to include a healthy dose of chaos. That's where these first round upsets come into play.
Headlining things is the classic 12-5 upset. In the past dozen tournaments, a No. 12 seed has defeated a No. 5 seed 19 times in 48 matchups. That is almost a 40% clip. It may be tough to predict which No. 12 is going to pull it off, but you'd be wise to include at least one of the 12s making it to the second round in your bracket
Which less-heralded but more-exciting matchups should you look out for? No. 13 vs. No. 4. Since 1985, 31 No. 13 seeds have pulled out wins against No. 4 seeds.
And while we've only seen a No. 15 seed beat a No. 2 seed 10 times in tournament history, it's happened two years in a row. Oral Roberts shocked Ohio State in 2021 with a 75-72 victory, and St. Peter's thoroughly outplayed Kentucky last year en route to a 6-point victory -- the first chapter of its historic run to the Elite Eight.
Here are some potential upsets to pencil in before you finalize your bracket, win your pool and bring honor to your family name.
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As tradition dictates, let's start in the upper-left-hand quadrant of the bracket, the South Region.
The first matchup that jumps out is No. 5 San Diego State versus No. 12 College of Charleston. Charleston boasts an impressive 31-3 record on the season. It ran through the Colonial Athletic Association (also known as the other CAA) and will be a trendy pick to pull off a first-round upset. The Cougars sport a balanced scoring attack, with five players averaging at least 10 points per game on the season. If Charleston was matched up against a power conference school, this would be a no-brainer. There's something about a mid-major knocking off a Big Ten or Big 12 team that feels very March.
But San Diego State plays in the Mountain West Conference. It's definitely more competitive than the CAA but not quite at the level of a power conference. The Aztecs have lost in the first round in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments. According to KenPom, the Aztecs have the 10th best defense in the country this season. This year, I think they lean on that defense to stave off the upset, send College of Charleston home, and ironically break a lot of brackets in the process. Can the Aztecs cover the 5.5-point spread while they're at it? Unclear.
No. 13 Furman can score the ball. They've averaged over 80 points per game this season, good for 11th in the country. Six-foot-3 senior guard Mike Bothwell averages over 18 points per contest, and he profiles as the type of dude who hits a back-breaking bucket in a tight game in the tourney. Also, their nickname is the Paladins -- which is some righteous, medieval D&D stuff.
do you think the Furman Paladins considered going with "PALS" before putting "DINS" on their jerseys pic.twitter.com/gFWhROrubZ
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) March 5, 2023
The Paladins face No. 4 Virginia in the first round. This is an ultimate clash in styles. Virginia wins on the strength of its defense. Tony Bennett's teams excel at taking the air out of the ball, slowing things down and grinding out wins. It's a recipe that's worked very well for UVA in the regular season but has been a decidedly mixed bag in the postseason. The Cavaliers won the 2019 national championship. The year before, they became the first No. 1 seed in the men's tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed when they got blown out by the UMBC Golden Retrievers.
Also -- what's a cavalier? A supporter of King George I during the English Civil War. This is an anti-monarchy space. Furman pulls off the upset.
No. 14 UC Santa Barbara versus No. 3 Baylor is another potentially spicy matchup in the South. The Gauchos of UCSB won the Big West this season behind sophomore guard Ajay Mitchell's 16 points per game and a balanced team defense. Baylor has become a juggernaut in recent seasons, winning the national championship in 2021, but they did fall as a No. 1 seed in the second round a year ago. The Bears likely hold on, but I don't think they cover the 11.5-point spread.
Finally, can Princeton make things interesting against Arizona? The Wildcats just won the Pac-12 Tournament, defeating UCLA in a tight and thrilling contest. Could we see a little bit of a title game hangover on Thursday?
Moving down from the South to the East Region -- because NCAA geography makes no sense -- No. 5 Duke comes in at 6.5-point favorites over the No. 12 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles. The Blue Devils are coming off a somewhat surprising title run in the ACC Tournament. After falling out of the AP Top 25 for most of January and all of February, first-year head coach Jon Scheyer's squad seems to be clicking at the right time.
Not only is Oral Roberts a tough matchup on the court, their fans are not to be messed with either.
— Ryan Lommen (@TheDukeNation) March 14, 2023
Unfortunately for the Dukies, this is about as rough of a first round draw as you can get. ORU has tourney experience. Its star, 6-foot-1 senior guard Max Abmas, is averaging over 22 points per game this season and is unafraid to shoot from anywhere on the court. And while most mid-majors lack size down low, the Golden Eagles have 7-foot-5 senior Connor Vanover manning the middle. The big man from Little Rock is on his third college team and has found his stride in Tulsa this season.
I think Oral Roberts makes this a tight game and ultimately pulls it out on an Abmas game-winner.
My bias toward Providence notwithstanding, the No. 11 Friars versus No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats should be a fun matchup. Last year, Kentucky was unceremoniously bounced in the first round by little St. Peter's and will not want to go down to another Catholic school. Six-foot-9 senior Oscar Tshiebwe is not the most skilled big man in the country, but he's one of the best rebounders in college basketball, with a motor that never stops. He could destroy Providence on the offensive glass. Freshman phenom Cason Wallace could be a difference-maker for Kentucky. If he plays up to his first-round NBA Draft pick pedigree, it could be a big win for Kentucky.
Bryce Hopkins Revenge Game?
— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 12, 2023
On the other side of things, this is a bit of a revenge game for Providence forward Bryce Hopkins. Hopkins was recruited by coach John Calipari and played his freshman year at Kentucky. He only averaged 6.5 minutes a game in 28 appearances last season and bolted for PC last summer. This year, he's been the Friars' best player, averaging over 16 points and eight rebounds per contest.
Providence has been on a skid in the past few weeks. Smart money says it continues the skid and Kentucky wins this one going away. But March Madness is not about smart money, baby. It's about heart and guts and grit and drama. Hopkins sticks it to his old school, and the Friars move on to the second round.
The 7-10 matchup is not really a massive upset, and in this part of the bracket, No. 7 Michigan State is only favored by a point and a half over USC. Still, an upset is an upset, and both of these teams know upsets. USC was upset by Arizona State in the Pac-12 Tournament. Michigan State was upset by Ohio State. I'm upset by writing the word upset so many times!
The Ohio State loss was more embarrassing -- ergo, the Trojans pull ahead of the Spartans in a battle for ancient Greek supremacy.
Lotta spiciness surrounding No. 5 Miami vs. No. 12 Drake. As noted, it's almost a lock to have at least one upset out of the four 12 seed vs 5 seed matchups. And for many amateur bracketologists, this may be the choice. Drake has some tournament experience, as they qualified as an 11 seed two seasons ago.
They are a senior-laden team, and as any self-respecting hack pundit will tell you, experience goes a long way come March. After coming in second place in the Missouri Valley Conference this season, Drake blew the doors off Bradley University in the conference tournament final, securing their place in the tournament. What's that tell us? They know how to win when it counts.
tucker devries was rolling tonight
and this is one of the most satisfying ways for a three to go down... no net movement and that deadened sound
usually a sign that youre way locked tf in pic.twitter.com/9uSEgpCsmz
— J. Kyle Mann (@jkylemann) March 4, 2023
Drake is led by 6-foot-7 sophomore Tucker DeVries, who scores from deep, scores from the midrange, and scores from the post. He just scores. He's exactly the type of guy who could get hot for a weekend and lead Drake to a Sweet Sixteen.
On the other side, Coach Jim Larrañaga's Miami Hurricanes finished in first place in the ACC this season, but fell to Duke in the tournament semifinal. The Canes have had their share of tournament success over the years, reaching two Sweet Sixteens and one Elite Eight over the last decade. This year's team features three recent transfers in their core rotation, but is led by veteran guard Isaiah Wong.
Miami is a narrow 2.5 favorite. But something about this just smells like a classic mid-major upset. Drake is from The 6. There are two teams on a basketball court. 6x2 = 12, which is Drake's seed. Numbers don't lie. Take Drake.
Colgate - Not Just a Toothpaste
I'm probably not going to do it, but I'm just saying that if you were thinking about picking a 15 seed to upset a 2 seed, you could look at No. 15 Colgate vs. No. 2 Texas.
"But Texas just stomped Kansas in the Big 12 Final, you dummy!" you yell at your computer screen. And you're right! Texas is a really good basketball team! They're experienced, they're deep, and they've adjusted well to the adversity of losing their coach back in December. No one will look at you twice if you pick Texas to make a run to the Final Four.
But...just take a peak at Colgate. Five guys who average double figures. Four seniors, and one freshman. Gotta like that chemistry. They cruised through the Patriot League, averaging over 78 points per game this year. Last March, they were a tough out for No. 3 seed Wisconsin, losing by just 7 points to the Badgers in the NCAA Tournament.
Right now, the vibes in Texas are pretty great. They're playing their best basketball of the season, they're confident and ready to make a deep run in March. So what could go wrong? I don't know - maybe a lights out shooting night from the Raiders that leaves Texas fans sad, angry, and confused.
Like Matt Damon said in that weird commercial for some crypto company that's probably out of business by now: fortune favors the brave. Take a chance on Colgate.
A Flash In The Pan? Or A Golden Flash?
Sincere Carry deserves all the MVP chants. 35 points in an OT win for @KentStMBB.
The #MACtion was good tonight, folks. Fun times with @t_oglesby22.
— Connor Onion (@ConnorOnion) March 4, 2023
Call me crazy, but the upset picks that kinda jump off the page at you are the ones where the lower seed has way more wins than the higher seed. That's the case for No. 13 Kent State vs. No. 4 Indiana. Obviously, Indiana plays a way tougher schedule than Kent State. The Hoosiers play in the vaunted Big Ten, while the Golden Flashes play in the less than vaunted MAC. That stands for the Mid-American Conference, which is such an incredibly bland name for a conference.
Head Coach Mike Woodson has Indiana basketball back on track. Senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis led the Hoosiers to a second place finish in the Big Ten and a 22-11 record overall. Things are looking up in Bloomington, which is great news for college basketball.
But Kent State is 28-6 on the season. Their scoring attack is led by 6-foot-1 senior guard Sincere Carry, who excels at attacking the rim in transition. And frankly, I've always thought the Big Ten was a tad overrated.
Sincere Carry's name is made for March. Kent State and Indiana are the second to last scheduled game of the first round, slated to tip off at 9:55PM Friday night. Spero Dedes is on the call. Tell me if you close your eyes and put yourself three or four beers deep Friday night at midnight that you can't hear Dedes yelling "Sincere is TRUE from deep!" or "Sincerely yours, Carry with the tough finish!" or "Sincere is sincerely awesome and the Golden Flashes will play on Sunday!"
That's all the analysis I need to put Kent State through to the second round.
Finally, we head to the bottom right of the bracket, which is the West, because as we've already covered - the NCAA truly does not understand geography.
Let's take a moment to thank the NCAA for gifting us with No. 4 Uconn vs. No. 13 Iona. A battle of two absolute cartoonishly loud and aggressive coaches.
On UConn's sideline, Dan Hurley cajoles, yells, and gesticulates as wildly as any coach in the nation. He's a walking barrel of spittle and energy, liable to pick up a technical foul or get punched in the face by his own players at any moment.
And coaching Iona? None other than legendary hardo Rick Pitino! Doesn't matter where Pitino coaches - Providence, the Boston Celtics, Kentucky, Louisville, Greece! - he yells. It's honestly remarkable that the 70-year old Pitino still has the vocal stamina to make it through 40 minutes.
On the court, Pitino's Gaels play tough defense. They are bigger than the average mid-major team; starting junior forward and leading rebounder Nelly Junior Joseph checks in at 6-foot-9, 230 pounds while his frontcourt mate Osborn Shema stands at 7-foot-1.
Nelly Junior Joseph ?? (01) has been a key-player for Iona since his frosh year. Long, strong & light on his feet, the 6'9 NBA Global Academy product is a post finisher by trade who can run the floor, clean the glass & defend in space #MAAChoops #GaelNation #CBBGlobal pic.twitter.com/PtWvf0n6km
— MaceoBaller (@MaceoBaller16) March 7, 2023
They'll need to rely on that size and defensive prowess against UConn. The Huskies have had a roller coaster season; they started out 14-0, lost 6 of 8 from December 31 through January 25, and have been 9-2 since. When they get rolling, they can look unstoppable for stretches, with Adama Sanogo punishing opponent down low while Jordan Hawkins torches you from the outside. Then they'll bring in a few random guys off the bench who all seem to shoot 50% from three-point range.
But Hurley's team is coming off back-to-back first round upset exits in the NCAA Tournament. Can the Huskies make a deep run this March? Or will the Gaels make it a trifecta of sadness for the Huskies?
Give me Ricky P and the Gaels in a nailbiter.
Buckin' Broncos and Agitating Antelopes?
Boise State is DANCING! ?#MarchMadness @BroncoSportsMBB pic.twitter.com/nh1aLgNjjL
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 12, 2023
Elsewhere in the West, take a look at No. 10 Boise State against No. 7 Northwestern. The Northwestern media mafia will be out in full force to pull for their Wildcats. And senior 6-foot-2 guard Boo Buie has the game - and the name - to take Northwestern on a nice little run.
But Boise State sports a balanced scoring attack, with five players averaging over 10 points per game on the season. The Broncos enter this tournament with 24 wins on the season, three more than Northwestern's 21. Once again - maybe it's bad analysis, but there's something to be said for the teams that just win a lot of games!
Another overrated Big Ten team goes down in the First Round as Boise State pulls off the upset.
Finally, let's briefly consider No. 3 Gonzaga and No. 14 Grand Canyon University.
Look, I'm not telling you to pick Grand Canyon. That would be silly. Gonzaga are 15.5 point favorites, and to be honest, could be poised to make a deep run in this year's tournament.
But just take a look at the Grand Canyon student section.
GCU is located in Phoenix, AZ and their game against the Zags is in Denver, CO. How much is a flight from Phoenix to Denver? NOT A LOT! Let's get the Antelope student section decked out in purple, taking over the arena in Denver.
And then let's still take Gonzaga because they're a way better basketball team.
MORE: The Ten Worst Plays In NCAA Tournament History Still Hurt to Watch
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