There was a time, not too long ago, when picking a No. 12 seed to beat a No. 5 seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament was the thing to do. In a three-tournament stretch from 2012 to 2014, No. 12 seeds went 8-4 against No. 5 seeds, with less-glossy programs such as South Florida, then-relatively unknown VCU, Stephen F. Austin, North Dakota State and Harvard all scoring upsets.
Whether this was a statistical oddity or more the selection committee not paying enough attention to teams that perhaps deserved higher seeds (or lower seeds, in the case of the No. 5s), the 5-12 chaos was short-lived. All four No. 5 seeds won in 2015, and even though Yale and Arkansas-Little Rock scored upsets in 2016, the No. 12 seeds have seen their first-round success rate dwindle: From 2015 through last season’s tournament, they won just three times in 16 games. Only one No. 12 seed has won a game in the past two tournaments, with Middle Tennessee beating Minnesota in 2017. Last year, all four No. 5s won and three of them covered the point spread; the only one that didn’t — Ohio State — pushed as an eight-point favorite against San Diego State.
But upset-seekers need not look far down the seed line to find a pairing that has produced March Madness tumult. In the four tournaments that have been played since 2015, No. 11 seeds have gone 9-7 against No. 6 seeds. Last year, Loyola-Chicago defeated Miami to kick-start its crazy run to the Final Four, and three No. 11s won in both 2017 and 2016.
So what about this year’s 6-11 games? Here’s a look at this year’s schedule, with an eye toward possible upsets:
No. 6 Maryland vs. No. 11 Belmont
Thursday in Jacksonville, approx. 3:10 p.m., truTV
Point spread (as of Thursday): Maryland by 3
Chances of an upset: Pretty good. The Bruins finally got over the hump in Tuesday night’s play-in game against Temple, winning an NCAA tournament contest for the first time in eight appearances, and their high-scoring offense — they ranked second nationally behind Gonzaga at 87.4 points per game — could give the Terrapins a good amount of trouble. Maryland has yet to allow more than 78 points in a game this season, but the Terps lost all three games to the opponents that reached that total (Seton Hall, Illinois and Penn State), and none of those teams have an offense as efficient as Belmont’s. It could come down to turnovers: The Bruins’ offense ranked 18th nationally in turnover rate, Maryland’s defense No. 352 out of 353 teams in forcing them.
No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 11 Saint Mary’s
Thursday in Hartford, 7:20 p.m. Eastern, TBS
Point spread (as of Thursday): Villanova by 4.5
Chances of an upset: Good, bordering on very good. All the Gaels did in the WCC tournament final was hold future No. 1 seed Gonzaga to just 47 points, 20 points below their previous season low. The defending national champion Wildcats are the only team in the tournament that shot more three-pointers than two-pointers this season, but Saint Mary’s finished the season ranked ninth nationally in opponents’ three-point rate (the percentage of total field goals attempted consisting of three-pointers). In other words, it doesn’t allow its opponents to shoot that many of them. Plus, the Gaels’ opponents shot just 31.8 percent from three-point range — ranking 44th nationally — on the comparatively rare occasions when they did shoot them.
No. 6 Buffalo vs. No. 11 Arizona State
Friday in Tulsa, approx. 4 p.m. Eastern, TNT
Point spread (as of Thursday): Buffalo by 6.5
Chances of an upset: Not great. The obvious theme here is Sun Devils Coach Bobby Hurley going against the Bulls team he coached to its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance in 2015. Hurley left Western New York after that milestone to take the Arizona State job but Buffalo has kept chugging along, making the tournament in three of four seasons since under Coach Nate Oats, upsetting Arizona last year and now achieving its first-ever national ranking and highest-ever seeding. Arizona State does not match up particularly well here: The Sun Devils are a pretty average shooting team but the Bulls are above average on defense, holding opponents to 29.8 percent shooting from three-point range (14th nationally).
No. 6 Iowa State vs. No. 11 Ohio State
Friday in Tulsa, approx. 9:50 p.m. Eastern, TBS
Point spread (as of Thursday): Iowa State by 5.5
Chances of an upset: Also not great. As Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch points out, the Buckeyes are 0-9 this season when allowing their opponent to have an offensive efficiency rating better than 105.1, and the Cyclones have topped that number in 25 of their 34 games. Iowa State entered the Big 12 tournament amid reports of team disharmony and lost six of their past eight regular season games, but it rebounded to beat NCAA tournament teams Baylor, Kansas State and Kansas to win the conference crown. As a whole, the Cyclones have very little NCAA tournament experience, but not guard Marial Shayok: The first-team all-Big 12 selection went to three NCAA tournaments with Virginia before transferring to Iowa State.