You always hear a lot of cliches during the week leading up to the NCAA Tournament, you know, lines like “Expect the unexpected” or “The only thing predictable about the tournament is that it’s unpredictable.” While such sayings are trite, they’re also true. There are going to be first round upsets because there are always first round upsets. One or two of these results will be stunning, although maybe not to the level of No. 16 seed UMBC’s 20-point thrashing of top seed Virginia last year, while others may be more mild. The point is that we know upsets are lurking out there, patiently waiting to blow up your bracket and prove false everything you currently think you know about college basketball, but where are they and how do we identify them when doing our March Madness betting? Let’s run through five games that jump off the page as potential first round upsets.
For those of you in New Jersey, here’s our list of the best NJ sportsbooks for March Madness.
No. 12 Murray State over No. 5 Marquette
The Golden Eagles spent much of the regular season looking like the most dangerous team in the Big East, and then, well, they looked like perhaps the worst. Ranked high as No. 10 in the AP Top 25 poll in late February, Marquette slumped down the stretch, dropping five of its last six games, including an 81-79 loss in the Big East Tournament semifinal. Now, they get a Murray State team fresh off blazing its way through the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament that features likely Top 5 NBA lottery pick Ja Morant. The sophomore guard averages 24.6 points and led the country with 10 assists per game this season. He’s most certainly kept Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski up at night this week. Also working against Marquette is that No. 5 seeds favored by 5 points or less over No. 12 seeds are only 12-12 straight up since 2005.
No. 12 Oregon over No. 5 Wisconsin
The Ducks underwhelmed during stretches of the regular season, but have been on fire down the stretch, winning their final eight games. Oregon was particularly impressive in the Pac-12 title game on its way to blowing the doors off an overmatched Washington team. Also of note is that is that since 2005, only two No. 12 seeds have been favored over a No. 5 seed. It happened in 2017 when Middle Tennessee State was favored over Minnesota and in 2006 when Texas A&M was favored over Syracuse. Relevant details because both No. 12’s won outright.
No. 13 UC Irvine over No. 4 Kansas State
UC Irvine is a matchup problem for Kansas State. The Wildcats like to shoot near the rim, but are inefficient when doing so, while the Anteaters are the best rim-protecting team in the country, holding opponents to a 44% conversion rate on such attempts. Moreover, the No. 13 seed has won two of the last three times it was an underdog of 5 or 5.5 points, which UC Irvine opened as here. That’s a small sample, but when you stretch the spread range between 5-7 points, No. 4 seeds are still an unimpressive 7-5 straight up when you consider that a No. 13/4 game is supposed to be an overwhelming mismatch.
No. 11 Ohio State over No. 6 Iowa State
This is a weird one for me because the Cyclones probably have enough talent to make a run in the Midwest Region. That talent was on display in their throttling of Kansas during the Big 12 Tournament title game. Still, I think the Buckeyes, despite a fairly underwhelming season, can pull this one out. Since 2005, No. 6 seeds are only 7-6 straight up against No. 11 seeds when favored between 5-7 points. The historical trend over a decade-plus indicates Ohio State will hang around. I’m probably more inclined to take the points and play this against the spread, but if you’re looking for an against-the-grain upset pick, this is a good one to try.
No. 10 Florida over No. 7 Nevada
I have a few issues with the Wolfpack entering this game. Nevada, a team ranked as high as No. 6 earlier this season, boasts a ton of experience and made a nice tournament run last season, but it hasn’t seemed right since losing its grip on sole possession of the Mountain West Conference regular season title in a tough loss a few weeks ago at Utah State. There’s also this: No. 7 seeds that are favored by two points are less are only 9-7 straight up over No. 10 seeds since 2005. Florida showed it’s a dangerous team when it surged past a talented LSU squad in the SEC Tournament last Friday, and I think they show it once again.