2022 NCAA Tournament: First Round Upset Best Bets

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Final-Duke vs Virginia Tech
Mar 12, 2022; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies forward David N’Guessan (1) celebrates with center Lynn Kidd (15) and guard Hunter Cattoor (0) after defeating the Duke Blue Devils 82-67 in the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament final at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The brackets for the 2022 NCAA Tournament have been finalized, and the madness is just days away. Millions of people across the country from experienced bettors to casual sports fans are filling out brackets and entering both local and national challenges. It’s one of the country’s favorite sporting events, and a big part of that is the propensity for shocking upsets.

However, aside from just making the NCAA tournament a fan-favorite, upsets are crucial to winning your bracket pools. Since the beginning of the 64-team field in 1985, just under 13 upsets happen per year when any lower-seed defeats a higher-seed. The most we’ve ever seen was the 2019 tournament when there were 19 upsets, so the best strategy is often not to litter your bracket with upsets, but picking the right underdog team to advance can often be the most important differentiator between doing well and winning money.

While the 13 per year stat categorizes an “upset” as any time a lower-seed defeats a higher-seed, we’re going to change the qualifications a bit for this article and say that, in order for a win to be an “upset,” there must be at least five seeds of difference between the teams, so an 11-seed beating a 6-seed would be the starting point. The reason for this is simply that the matchups between the 8-9 seeds and 7-10 seeds are often so evenly matched that it’s hard to call one team the true underdog. The other reason for this is that the winner of those games takes on one of the top eight teams in the tournament, which often leads to a second-round loss. Since I don’t currently see any of those number one or two seeds losing that early, we’ll keep with our new parameters and dive in.

 

Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-seed) *has a play-in game

vs Alabama (6-seed) West Region

Friday, March 18th at 4:15 PM on TNT

Record 18-13
RPI 91st
KenPom Off 107th
KenPom Def 43rd
FT% 232nd
3 PT% 194th
TOPG (Offense)  67th

As of now, Rutgers actually isn’t even in the field of 64 since they have to play Notre Dame on Tuesday night in Dayton just to earn the right to face Alabama in the first round. We covered that game here and believe that Rutgers is a good bet to advance into the “main draw” of the NCAA tournament. As our table above indicates, the things that often make for good upset picks are strong defense, free-throw shooting, strong turnover rates, and the ability to hit from deep. Lower-seeded teams usually don’t have all four but the right combination against a vulnerable favorite can make for a ripe opportunity for an upset.

For Rutgers, their strength is on their defense, where they rank in the top-50 in defensive efficiency and feature the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in Caleb McConnell plus an elite rim protector in Clifford Omoruyi. They’re an incredibly physical team that can wear down opponents, which is bad news for an Alabama team that ranks 280th in offensive rebounding rate allowed and turns the ball over on 19.8% of their possessions. If Rutgers is able to slow the pace down and play bully ball against Alabama, they could certainly move on; however, as you can see above, Rutgers is not a great scoring or shooting team, so if they’re unable to control the pace, it’s not likely they can take down the Crimson Tide.

Upset Likelihood: Toss Up

 

Michigan Wolverines (11-seed)

vs Colorado State (6-seed) South Region

Thursday, March 17th at 12:15 PM on CBS

Record 17-14
RPI 49th
KenPom Off 19th
KenPom Def 91st
FT% 80th
3 PT% 165th
TOPG (Offense) 75th

If you read almost any upset prediction article, you’ll see that Michigan is the most likely team to secure an upset. That’s likely because the Wolverines are an incredibly high-profile team with a tremendous amount of raw talent that could never seem to find a consistent identity. In fact, they alternated wins and losses over the last ten games, securing huge wins over Purdue and Michigan State, but also losing bad games like blowing a 17-point second-half lead against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament.

Michigan’s tournament run will likely rest on the shoulders of Hunter Dickinson, the 7’1″ center who averages 18.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks a game on 56.3% shooting. He’s also shooting 31.6% from deep, which is a new wrinkle in his game. Colorado State just doesn’t have the size to match up as their two biggest players, Dischon Thomas (6’9″) and James Moors (6’10”), each play under 16 minutes a game on average. If Dickinson can stay out of foul trouble, then Michigan will likely run their offense through him, which is good news since they have been a poor three-point shooting team this year, which will prevent them from winning in a shootout.

The other positive for Michigan there is that Colorado State likes to play slow, has plenty of low-scoring games, and is not a really strong rebounding team, while the Wolverines allow the 14th-fewest rebounds to opponents. Michigan has the 6th-hardest strength of schedule in the nation according to KenPom, so they don’t seem likely to be phased by this Rams team that’s ranked 31st by KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric (AdjEM) but also ranks as the 6th-luckiest team in the nation. That might not likely to cut it against a Michigan that had a good KenPom ranking as well, finishing 33rd.

Upset Likelihood: Strong lean

Feb 8, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Michigan Wolverines center Hunter Dickinson (1) shoots the ball as Penn State Nittany Lions forward John Harrar (21) defends during the second half at the Bryce Jordan Center. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Tech Hokies (11-Seed)

vs Texas (6-seed) East Region

Friday, March 18th at 4:30 PM on TBS

Record 23-12
RPI 55th
KenPom Off 18th
KenPom Def 55th
FT% 90th
3 PT% 3rd
TOPG (Offense) 37th

Virginia Tech finished the season on a 12-2 run and then ran through the ACC tournament, beating Duke 82-67 in the final, but still only got an 11-seed, which likely means they wouldn’t even have made the tournament if they had fallen short against the Blue Devils. It’s fortunate we avoided that fate because the Hokies are a great upset pick and the 23rd ranked school in the nation according to KenPom’s adjEM.

They are one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, as you can see from the chart above, and also take really good care of the ball, two things that are important in locking in an upset. However, Virginia Tech is also a deep offense, with five players who can score regularly, led by Keve Aluma, who averages 15.8 points per game and has really come into his own of late, scoring almost 20 points per game in the four-game run through the ACC tournament.

Texas is also a higher seed we want to pick on. Chris Beard was tremendous as the coach of Texas Tech and has led the Longhorns to a great defensive season, but the offense is just bland. They shoot it well from the free-throw line and don’t turn the ball over, which means that they have the advantage in a close game, but they don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Hokies if the underdog is able to connect from deep throughout the game. As a result, I think we can lean with the team that’s on a heater and playing the best basketball of their season.

Upset Likelihood: Slight lean 

 

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Iowa State Cyclones (11-Seed)

vs LSU (6-Seed) Midwest Region

Friday, March 18th at 7:20 PM on TBS

Record 20-12
RPI 71st
KenPom Off 151st
KenPom Def 10th
FT% 285th
3 PT% 260th
TO Margin 16.62 (16th)

The twleve losses may turn you off of the Cyclones, but Iowa State played the 12th-most difficult schedule by KenPom rankings, so even though their record isn’t flashy, they racked up nine wings against quadrant one schools and were ranked as high as 8th in the nation during the season. KenPom has them ranked 48th in adjEM, so this is a team that can compete with most schools in the tournament.

The Cylclones are another team that plays slow and tries to grind you down. They rank just 232nd in adjusted tempo and, as you can see above, have a stout defense. They rank 20th in the country in 3-point defense and do a decent job on the glass, ranking 103rd in offensive rebounds allowed. They’re going up against an LSU team that also prides itself on defense and gets most of its scoring done in the paint, ranking 242nd in three-point attempts per game while only shooting 31.9% form deep.

Where LSU is most dangerous is in the turnover game. They force the most steals per game of any team in the country, but Iowa State, as you can see from the table, has done a good job with limiting turnovers all season. As a result, it’s hard to see this game being a blowout, which gives Iowa State a chance to pull this one out if they can maintain their composure despite being a team that went 2-22 last year and is under a first year ahead coach.

Upset Likelihood: Slight Avoid

Jan 1, 2022; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State’s Izaiah Brockington shoots the ball during the Iowa State men’s basketball game against No. 1 Baylor, on Saturday Jan. 1, 2022, at Hilton Coliseum, in Ames. The Cyclones fell to the Bears 77-72. Mandatory Credit: Kelsey Kremer-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Hoosiers (12-Seed) *has a play-in game

vs Saint Mary’s (5-seed) East Region

Thursday, March 17th at 7:20 PM on TBS

Record 20-13
RPI 70th
KenPom Off 91st
KenPom Def 21st
FT% 237th
3 PT% 178th
TOPG (Offense) 108th

We covered Indiana’s profile a bit when we looked at a preview of their Tuesday night showdown against Wyoming. As you can see from the metrics above, Indiana is a fairly balanced team, ranking 36th in the nation in KenPom’s adjEM, but they truly shine on defense. They’re 8th in the nation in 2-point field goal defense and 15th in blocks, which makes it difficult for teams to score on them in the paint.

They’re also another one of our potential upset picks who plays at a relatively slow pace, ranking 184th in adjusted tempo. Considering they don’t shoot the three particularly well, they will try and make this game a slow grind. Working in their favor is the fact that St. Mary’s plays even slower, ranking 338th in adjusted tempo, so the Gaels are certainly not going to try and speed the Hoosiers up. St. Mary’s is also one of the worst rebounding teams in the tournament, ranking 258th in rebounds per game (although part of that is connected to their slower pace), so it’s possible that a slow game favors Indiana.

We see this game playing out as a slow, defense-first slugfest. Indiana’s lack of free-throw shooting would seem to put it at a disadvantage, but it might have the game’s best player in Trayce Jackson-Davis and has played the harder strength of schedule, so it won’t be phased by any end of game scenarios.

Upset Likelihood: Slight lean 

 

South Dakota State Jackrabbits (13-Seed)

vs Providence (4-seed) Midwest Region

Thursday, March 17th at 12:40 PM on truTV

Record 30-4
RPI 38th
KenPom Off 12th
KenPom Def 220th
FT% 36th
3 PT% 1st
TOPG (Offense) 43rd

OK, the record stands out immediately. Yes, South Dakota State went undefeated in Summit League play to roll into the tournament, but it also played the 243rd ranked schedule, which is why they are 71st by KenPom adjEM despite their lofty record. However, Providence is just 49th in KenPom’s rankings, so this is a close contest. Another thing working in the Jackrabbit’s favor is that Providence is an incredibly tough team to pin down and was the luckiest team in the country in close games according to KenPom.

This game is also the inverse of many of the other games mentioned so far as the underdog Jackrabbits play at the faster pace, ranking 59th in adjusted tempo while Providence ranks 273rd. The Friars want to slow it down and pound the ball inside to 6’10” senior Nate Watson, while the Jackrabbits rely on guard Baylor Scheierman to push the pace and launch from beyond the arc, where he shoots 47.3%. In fact, three of South Dakota State’s top four scorers shoot over 40% from three, which makes sense considering the are they best three-point shooting team in the country.

While they only rank 232nd in three-point attempts per game, you get the sense that they’re going to need to shoot more often if they plan to knock off the Friars. However, this is also a South Dakota State team that has made the NCAA tournament in four of the last six years, so is unlikely to be bothered by the big stage. That, plus their strong free-throw shooting, could be a deciding factor if this game is close down the stretch.

Upset Likelihood: Toss up 

Mar 8, 2022; Sioux Falls, SD, USA; South Dakota State Jackrabbits forward Douglas Wilson (35) and guard Alex Arians (34) celebrate the win against the North Dakota State Bison at Denny Sanford Premier Center. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Chattanooga Mocs (13-Seed)

vs Illinois (4-seed) South Region

Friday, March 18th at 6:50 PM on TNT

Record 27-7
RPI 37th
KenPom Off 58th
KenPom Def 95th
FT% 62nd
3 PT% 126th
TOPG (Offense) 42nd

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Mocs play slow and attempt 23.1 threes per game, which comes out to just under 40% of their total possessions. They are also led by experienced guard play, which is always a component of teams that make good runs in the NCAA tournament. However, a big factor that separates the Mocs from other mid-major teams is the presence of Silvio de Sousa, a 6’9″ transfer from Kansas. He had 17 points and 14 rebounds in the conference title game, showing that big games are not something he’s going to shy away from.

However, he will have a stiff test in Kofi Cockburn of Illinois. The big man averages 21.1 points and 10.6 rebounds a game and is a handful for anybody. The Illini as a whole are also top-30 in college basketball in both defensive and offensive efficiency, which would seem to make this a tough upset choice, and it is, but the Illini are also a team that can seem out of sorts for stretches, as we saw in their 65-63 loss to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament and their 81-65 loss to Maryland in February. The Illini can shoot themselves in the foot, averaging 12.2 turnovers a game, so if Chattanooga can slow the game down and force Illinois to make mistakes, this could be an uncomfortable game until the final buzzer.

Upset Likelihood: Slight avoid

Vermont Catamounts (13-Seed)

vs Arkansas (4-seed) West Region

Thursday, March 17th at 9:20 PM on TNT

Record 28-5
RPI 48th
KenPom Off 44th
KenPom Def 74th
FT% 75th
3 PT% 51st
TOPG (Offense) 7th

As a general rule, we should pay attention to small schools that continuously dominate their competition and have been in the Big Dance before. The Catamounts have been the regular-season champion of the American East Conference for the last six years, all under coach John Becker, and have three trips to the NCAA tournament in that span. Their current roster features five players who were on that 2019 tournament team, including their two best players, Ben Shungu and Ryan Davis. It’s safe to say that those guys won’t be rattled by the bright lights.

Vermont also likes to play at a slow pace (288th in the country in adjusted tempo) and take the 54th-most threes per game in the nation. As a good defensive team that doesn’t turn the ball over much, there is a path to a Vermont victory that involves them slowing the game down and hitting from deep, especially against an Arkansas team that ranks 313th in the country in 3PT%, and grabbing all the rebounds (they’re 2nd in the country in rebounds allowed to the opposition). However, if Arkansas gets out and runs and doesn’t have to rely on the three, it would make an upset a much taller order.

Upset Likelihood: Toss-Up

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