Picking favorites in the NCAA tournament is the smart play, but it’s the upsets and Cinderella teams that make it memorable … and help you get the edge needed to win your bracket pool and earn the accompanying bragging rights.
We can be confident an early upset won’t befall a No.1 seed. Since 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams, the top four teams are 124-0 in the first round. And while a No. 9 seed beating the No. 8 seed in the first round is technically an upset, we are going to focus on the true underdogs: those that are at least three seeds below the favorite they are facing.
Past upsets do shine a light on the hallmarks of a victorious underdog, starting with creating extra possessions through turnovers and rebounds.
“That’s always very, very significant,” said Chris Mooney, coach at the University of Richmond, who helped orchestrate the Spiders’ upset over Vanderbilt in the round of 64 during the 2011 tournament. “In some way the more talented team is going to get more opportunities, either on the backboard, turnovers or free throws. Turnovers are probably the one you have the most control over, so if you can take care of the ball and get a good shot every time that puts pressure on the more talented team.”
“No question,” said Brad Underwood, coach of the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, who sent Virginia Commonwealth University home early in 2014. “I think the lower seeded teams, the teams that pull off upsets, are teams that can guard. They have the ability to create turnovers and have the ability to steal an extra possession.”
The No. 14-seeded Lumberjacks could do it again this year against the No. 3 West Virginia Mountaineers.
Stephen F. Austin created 6.2 extra possessions per game from turnovers this season and ranked 12th in the league for effective field goal percentage (55.5 percent), hitting 37.5 percent from three-point range. The Mountaineers’ offense ranks near the bottom of the league in offensive turnover percentage (19.6 out of every 100 possessions) and their defense puts teams on the free throw line more than any other team in the country, allowing them to take 54.8 percent of their field goals from the charity stripe.
That could lead to a shocking upset in this year’s first round. Here are two other upsets you can bet your bracket on.
No. 10 VCU over No. 7 Oregon State
According to the 2016 Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings, VCU is ranked 35th, while Oregon State is ranked 60th, giving the Rams a 58.8 percent chance of beating the Beavers. Plus, VCU will also be able to generate extra possessions through rebounding. This season, the Rams netted 2.8 more offensive rebounds than their opponents. Oregon State was out-rebounded on the offensive glass by almost one per game during the regular season.
VCU also created four more possessions per game for themselves via turnover differential. The Rams forced 15.5 turnovers per game, while only coughing up the ball 11.4 times themselves on average.
No. 11 Gonzaga over No. 6 Seton Hall
Gonzaga has two factors in its favor when it takes on the Big East Tournament champs. The first is that Kevin Willard, the coach of Seton Hall, has never coached in the NCAA tournament. Rookie head coaches tend to lose almost a half of a game more (minus-0.40) than an average team with the same seed. giving Gonzaga an edge. Mark Few, in comparison, will be coaching his 17th tournament team.
Plus, Gonzaga has outscored opponents by 13.5 points per game, which is historically more in line with what we have seen from the average No. 2 seed (plus-12.4 net points per game) than a No. 11 (plus-7.6 net points per game).
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