Picking favorites to advance 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. The teams best built to topple favorites are the ones that have a high scoring margin while creating extra possessions through turnovers and offensive rebounds. Our DAViD metric, the Data-Assisted Victory Detector for the NCAA tournament, debuted last year (click here for the full explanation of the method) and helps highlight 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 rest of the pool.
We do this using an upset scale to show which upset picks are smart and which aren’t worth the risk. For example, a No. 10 seed is picked to upset a No. 7 seed 45 percent of the time but they only win 38 percent of the time, so this year’s No. 10 seeds have to be favored to win at a higher rate than 38 percent to have value. If not, you won’t benefit much from picking them. To highlight which upset picks have the most value we look for a DAViD score over 100, indicating a team that is expected to win more often than if we based its chances on seed matchup alone. The higher the DAViD score, the better value play that team is.
0 to 50
Not a great upset pick
51 to 100
Below-average chance to upset/poor value
101 to 125
Above-average chance to upset/good value
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 the 10-seed line and below is where the true value lies.
One upset we won’t be picking is a No. 16 seed over a No. 1 seed. Sure, No. 16 UMBC pulled off a historic upset of No. 1 Virginia last year, however, don’t expect lightning to strike for a second time any time soon — since 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams, the top four teams are 135-1 in the first round.
With that in mind, here are the upsets you want to have on your bracket in the first round, listed in order of their chances for an upset.
No. 7 Cincinnati vs. No. 10 Iowa
Chance at upset: 52 percent, DAViD score: 128
The Hawkeyes enter the tournament with the 15th best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country (117.2 points per 100 possessions) per Pomeroy’s rankings and are adept at getting themselves to the free throw line — free throw attempts accounted for 42 percent of all Iowa’s field goals, the 14th highest share in the nation. Cincinnati’s defense, by comparison, ranks 114th (31 percent) for putting opponents on the free throw line.
The Bearcats also struggle to slow down spot-up shooters, a strength of Iowa’s. This season, Iowa scored 1.1 points per possession on spot-up attempts, placing them in the 95th percentile on these plays. Cincinnati’s defense against these plays put them in the 78th percentile.
No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 11 Saint Mary’s
Chance at upset: 49 percent, DAViD score: 166
Saint Mary’s, fresh off the upset of No. 1 Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference tournament, does not commit many turnovers (16 percent, 40th) nor do the Gaels allow many steals (8 percent, 43rd). Good ball security limits the number of extra possessions allowed, reducing the chance of a blowout. Plus, Saint Mary’s ability to score in transition (1.3 points per possession, highest in Division I this year) will test a Villanova defense that isn’t good at neutralizing teams on the break (one point per possession allowed, 65th percentile).
Junior guard Jordan Ford, a first-team All-WCC selection for Saint Mary’s, has seen his scoring output soar from 2.4 points per game as a freshman to 21.3 points per game this season, buoyed by a robust 42 percent rate from behind the three-point line. Teammates Tanner Krebs (41 percent) and Malik Fitts (40 percent) are also lethal from behind the arc, giving Villanova a lot to worry about in the first round.
No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Murray State
Chance at upset: 37 percent, DAViD score: 130
Murray State generated 2.1 possessions per game via their offensive rebound and turnover differentials whereas Marquette ceded 2.1 possessions per game to their opponents, a clear indication that Marquette could be in over its head in the first game of the tournament.
The Racers are also an efficient shooting team (55 percent effective field goal rate, 22nd best) that converts an above-average rate of shots near the basket (1.2 points per possession, 59 percent field goal rate) and down low in the post (1.1 points per possessions, 87th percentile).
No. 4 Kansas State vs. No. 13 UC Irvine
Chance at upset: 23 percent, DAViD score: 224
The Anteaters are a terrible draw for Kansas State, and their upset odds are two times better than you would expect for a typical No. 13 seed. The Wildcats take a third of their half-court field goal attempts near the rim and are terrible at those attempts: 51 percent shooting and just one point per possession, putting them in the 8th percentile among all Division I teams. UC Irvine, by comparison, is the best rim-protecting team in the nation, holding opponents to 44 percent shooting and 0.9 points per possession.
Kansas State is also a poor jump shooting team (39th percentile), another defensive strength for UC Irvine (83rd percentile).