Going with chalk in the NCAA tournament is a solid strategy to rack up points in your bracket pool, but you will need to find some upsets and Cinderella teams to get the edge you need to take first place. Through our new metric DAViD, the Data-Assisted Victory Detector for the NCAA tournament (click here for the full explanation of the method), we show which of these first-round upsets are not only the most likely to occur, but also which will provide the most value by differentiating your picks from the pool.
We do this using an upset scale to show which upset picks are smart and which aren’t worth the risk. Any DAViD score over 100 highlights a team that is expected to win more often than if we based their chances on seed matchup alone.
|0-50||Not a great upset pick|
|51-100||Below-average chance to upset/poor value|
|101 to 125||Above-average chance to upset/good value|
|126+||Potential bracket buster|
As we decipher which upset picks look like the smartest plays in Round 1, we are going to focus on the true underdogs — a No. 9 seed beating a No. 8 is technically an upset, but those winners at least three seeds below the favorite is where the true value lies.
One upset we won’t be picking is a No. 16 seed over a No. 1 seed. Since 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams, the top four teams are 128-0 in the first round. Move on and save your brain cells for the closer games.
It is tempting to choose a No. 12 seed to knock off one of the No. 5 seeds early, since they, historically, have been the most popular choice for upsets, but the No. 10 seeds offer more value this year.
With that in mind, here are the upsets you want to have on your bracket in the first round, listed in order of chance of upset.
No. 10 Butler vs. No. 7 Arkansas
Chance at upset: 57 percent, DAViD score: 152
Butler, 20-13, earned an at-large bid in part due to victories over Villanova and Ohio State.
The Bulldogs can shoot (effective field goal rate of 54 percent, 65th in the nation) and prevent opponents from grabbing offensive rebounds (24.7 percent against, 30th), which limits second-chance offense.
Senior forward Kelan Martin will be a handful for an Arkansas defense that ranked 103rd in Pomeroy’s rankings. He can score either as a spot-up shooter, in isolation or as the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll, often finding his way to the rim where he scored 1.06 points per possession, good enough to put him in the top 10 percent of collegiate players this season.
No. 10 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Rhode Island
Chance at upset: 51 percent, DAViD score: 133
The Sooners rose as high as No. 4 in the top 25 rankings before losing 11 of their last 15 games, including a first-round flameout to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament. But with Trae Young on the court, anything is possible.
The 6-foot-2 freshman is coming off a historic season in which he earned comparisons to Stephen Curry and became the first player ever to lead the nation in points (27.5) and assists (8.9) per game.
Rhode Island’s defense is good, allowing just 97.3 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for opponent (38th best mark nationally), but it will be hard for Coach Dan Hurley’s kids to guard a dynamic payer such as Young, especially in isolation, where Young shines. And if the Rams are able to bottle him up, he has proven capable of finding either a spot-up shooter (1.04 points per possession) or a player cutting to the rim (1.28 points per possession).
No. 12 New Mexico State vs. No. 5 Clemson
Chance at upset: 47 percent, DAViD score: 104
The Aggies, the 19th best defensive team in the nation per Pomeroy’s rankings, created four extra possessions per game during the regular season by crashing the offensive boards and preventing their opponents from doing the same, giving them efficient chances in transition (1.1 points per possession, top 17 percent of college teams in 2017-18).
Clemson’s transition defense is good — less than one point per possession, putting them in the top 30 percent — but they often give up good looks from long range (36 percent against, 205th out of 351 teams). Those are the looks New Mexico State limits, allowing opponents to shoot just 31 percent from behind the arc, the eighth best three-point defense this season.
No. 10 Texas vs. No. 7 Nevada
Chance at upset: 42 percent, DAViD score: 111
Texas has the 10th best defense this season overall, allowing just 94 points per 100 possessions. The Longhorns don’t foul much (26 percent free throw-to-field goal rate, 25th best) nor do they give up much near the rim: opponents shoot just 52 percent around the basket, which places them in the top 16 percent of teams. They also limit jump shots (31 percent from the field, top 3 percent) and opportunities off the catch-and-shoot (32 percent, top 4 percent), forcing Nevada to get creative to put points on the board — more than half of their shot attempts in the half court are from jumpers (56 percent).
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