Picking first-round upsets can be tricky and can also get your bracket in a lot of trouble if you are wrong. But oh what a feeling when you actually get one right and the game plays out just the way you pictured. So let’s take a look at 5 first round upsets from seeds 11 or higher that are very possible and what needs to happen for each one.
I really really wanted to include Penn on this list as they are by far the best 16 seed there has ever been in the tourney and I would love to see Kansas be the first #1 seed to lose to a 16. Penn is only a 13 point underdog (the second lowest spread for a 1/16 matchup) and they come from a conference that seems to pull a first upset every few years. I do like Penn to keep this close but they just don’t have the athletes to compete. Penn does play the best 3 pt defense in the Ivy and will try and slow this game down but in the end, Kansas will probably squeak this out.
Loyola-Chicago +2, +110
To be able to pull an upset in the tourney you need to be able to play good half-court offense and have at least a few good athletes. Porter Mosher is a fantastic coach who is a Rick Majerus disciple and the Ramblers run great half-court offense. This is a great article about the relationship between Porter and Rick from the Chicago Tribune. Porter Moser carries lessons from the late Rick Majerus on Loyola’s NCAA tournament quest.
If Loyola had been matched up against Clemson, Auburn or even Kentucky I would like this pick a whole lot more. But Miami is pretty athletic and Jim Larranaga is also a fantastic coach. One trend worth noting is that Larranaga is 6-24-2 in first half bets across all postseason games and 2-7 in the NCAA tournament. I see this game coming down to the wire with the Ramblers having every opportunity to pull it out.
Charleston +9.5, +400
This one is as much about Auburn as it is College of Charleston. Auburn really struggled down the stretch in SEC play losing 3 of their last 5 after the Anthony McLemore injury on Feb 17. Conversely, the Cougars have only lost once since the middle of January. Bruce Pearl’s team loves to get out and run and if you can slow them down in transition then you can be successful. Well, it just so happens that Charleston plays great transition defense. Charleston also plays a good zone offense so the matchup zone defense that the Tigers use will not be very effective. Add in a veteran backcourt that won’t be rattled and they only committed 8.6 turnovers per game during the CAA tournament.
Davidson +5.5, +200
Kentucky is playing great basketball right now and peaking at the right time. I really liked them before the field of 68 was announced but they have a very hard first round opponent and then they get to play Arizona in the second round before having to potentially play Virginia in the Sweet 16. Head coach Bob McKillop (6-3 ATS in the NCAA Tournament) has Davidson playing great as well right now as he usually does in March. He is just one of the more undervalued coaches we have in college basketball. He runs a motion offense and has switched to a 2-3 zone defense this year which will be perfect against a young Kentucky team and difficult for Calipari to prepare for on a few days.
Davidson just beat St Bonaventure and Rhode Island in the A-10 tourney and is a team that ranks #10 in the country in 3-pt made at 10.7 per game at 39%. They also rank #1 in the country I assist-turnover ratio. The kids from Lexington may pull this one out but they will have their hand full in the process.
New Mexico St +4.5, +178
This one seems to be really trendy but that is not always a bad thing. Stephen F Austin and North Dakota St have also been trendy over the last couple years and those upsets did hit. I have not been a fan all year of NMSU and I had my eye on other mid-majors but the tournament is all about who you are matched up with and this is a good one for the Aggies. I really wanted to pick Murray St before the field was announced but West Virginia is just an awful matchup for them so I can’t pick them and I actually really like WV -10 in that game.
So why is this a bad matchup for the Tigers? Clemson runs a pick and roll offense and New Mexico St runs a great pick and roll defense. Clemson is a small team and has struggled all year against teams with big guards. Well, the Aggie have a couple of those in 6-4 Zach Lofton and Jemrrio Jones, who is 6-5. Speaking of Jones, he is the kind of player that can take over games and his 13.2 rebounds per game have helped the Aggies to be ranked #4 in the country in rebounding at 41.2 per game. This is just a bad matchup for Clemson and there is a reason it is trendy.
Oh, and did I mention that New Mexico St already has 2 wins over tournament teams? In the Diamond Head Classic earlier this season, they beat Davidson 69-68 and also No. 6 Miami 63-54. Don’t be afraid to put the Aggies in the sweet 16 either as I think they can beat Auburn or Charleston in the second round.
Lipscomb +19.5, +2000
I know I know this one is a little wacky but every year there is one of these head-scratchers where we have no idea how that beat won. This game is my pick this year for that head-scratcher. North Carolina is the worst 3-pt defensive team in the field allowing opponents to shoot 38.3% and Garrison Mathews from Lipscomb averages 22 points per game and 38% from 3-pt range. Lipscomb did not shoot the ball great all year but have turned it on late and scored 108 on FGCU in the ASUN title game.
The Bison from Lipscomb run the same offense as Belmont (must be a Nashville thing) and we have seen Belmont come really to pulling some upsets in March. Yes UNC is much bigger and more athletic but Lipscomb is used to playing the Tar Heels style as FGCU was patterned after North Carolina and the Bison just demolished them. I will gladly take the points here and hope the shots are falling for Lipscomb.