There’s no better way to get an edge in your NCAA tournament bracket pool than correctly identifying first-round upsets. And how do we find these diamonds in the rough? We look for teams that have an advantage in one or more of the four factors of basketball as described by statistical analyst Dean Oliver: shooting (particularly three-point shooting), rebounding, turnovers and free throw shooting. Better shooters produce more points. Effective rebounders and opportunistic defenders create extra possessions that lead to more points. And teams that can get to the line have access to an efficient way of scoring. Plus, if a lower-seeded team is favored in the point spread, it also could be a great pick to advance to the next round, even if it’s not technically an “upset” in Las Vegas.
With that in mind, here are a few possible first-round upsets that can help make your brackets differ from everyone else’s.
(See also our best bets to win it all, our handy cheat sheet and our “perfect bracket.”)
No. 12 Oral Roberts over No. 5 Duke
Led by guard Max Abmas, the tournament’s leading scorer who helped lead Oral Roberts to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed two years ago, the Eagles haven’t lost since Jan. 9 and won their three Summit League tournament games by an average of 18.3 points. Oral Roberts commits a turnover on only 13.2 percent of its possessions, which leads the nation, and Duke isn’t particularly adept at forcing turnovers on defense, ranking 273rd in turnover percentage. Plus, the Eagles have an effective field goal percentage — which takes into account the fact that three-pointers are worth more than two-pointers — of 56.1, which ranks seventh nationally. Oral Roberts may struggle for rebounds against the nation’s tallest team, but if its shots are falling like they normally do, watch out.
No. 12 Drake over No. 5 Miami
The Bulldogs and Hurricanes are separated by only 26 spots in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, the smallest difference of the 5-12 matchups in this year’s tournament and a smaller difference than one of the 7-10 games (Missouri and Utah State are 33 spots apart, with No. 7 seed Missouri actually the lower team) and possibly three of the 6-11 matchups (Creighton and North Carolina State are 42 spots apart, Iowa State and Pittsburgh would be 54 spots apart if the Panthers win their play-in game, and TCU and Arizona State would be 41 spots apart if the Sun Devils win their play-in game). Drake’s opponents grab rebounds on only 22.4 percent of their missed shots, a percentage exceeded by only two teams this season. Miami could be without starting forward Norchad Omier, who injured his ankle in the Hurricanes’ ACC tournament semifinal loss to Duke. Omier averages 13.6 points and a team-high 9.7 rebounds, and his absence would be devastating to a Miami team that does not otherwise have a particularly strong inside presence.
No. 10 Boise State over No. 7 Northwestern
This would be an upset in terms of seeding only, because the point spread in this one is pretty slim (the Wildcats were favored by 1.5 points as of Monday afternoon after lingering as a pick ’em in the immediate aftermath of Selection Sunday). Plus, the Broncos are ranked higher than the Wildcats in Pomeroy’s rankings. Northwestern is a poor shooting team, making just 32.1 percent of its three-point attempts this season, and Boise State ranks 32nd nationally in opponents’ three-point percentage (31 percent). And when opponents miss their shots, the Broncos usually are right there to corral the rebound, ranking 16th in terms of opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage.
No. 13 Furman over No. 4 Virginia
Furman’s relative lack of athleticism won’t be tested too much against Virginia, which operates at the slowest pace of any NCAA tournament team (61.6 possessions per 40 minutes). Plus, the key to beating the Cavaliers’ pack-line defense is to shoot over the top of it, and the Paladins won’t be shy about that: They average 27.5 three-point attempts per game (12th nationally) and make 9.5 (19th). Virginia is only middling at defending the three-point shot and, on the other side of the ball, is not a particularly good offensive rebounding team, and Furman has the size to clean up the Cavaliers’ misses.