After one of the most unpredictable college basketball seasons in recent history, filling out your bracket will be one tough and exciting task. Let’s admit it: anything can happen in March on a neutral floor with college kids playing in the biggest games of their life.
Two 15 seeds knocked off 2 seeds in their first game last year, so naturally everyone is looking for similar upset specials as the chaos of Thursday and Friday draws closer and closer. No matter how much research and analysis you do, it seems like you always miss that one X-factor that leads an unheralded mid-major over a national powerhouse. So for your informational benefit, here is a region-by-region look at some upsets that you can expect, and why.
(12) Oregon vs (5) Oklahoma State
You all know the statistic about 12s beating 5s, and this game will continue that trend (for the record, Oregon was originally an 11, but was moved down in the bracketing process). No doubt the selection committee rewarded Oregon for winning the Pac-12 tournament by slotting them in San Jose for the first weekend, which should provide a decent crowd advantage for the Ducks. Before Dominic Artis went down with an injury earlier this season with a foot injury, Oregon was a top-10 team. With him back in the line-up, expect them to return to that form as they did in the Pac-12 tournament and take down Freshman of the Year candidate Marcus Smart and the Cowboys. If this game was at a more neutral location it would be a coin flip, but it’s hard to ignore the close proximity Eugene (8 hour drive). The Ducks are a much better team than their seed indicates now that Artis is back and will pull off the upset.
(10) Cincinnati vs (7) Creighton
This is an upset only when it comes to seeding, not in pure talent. Creighton won the Missouri Valley in a down year with Doug McDermott having another Player of the Year caliber season. Cincinnati lost to Georgetown in the Big East Tournament. So what makes this upset so clear? Creighton has one huge problem: no balance on the offensive end. McDermott is the only player averaging double figures. Additionally, the Blue Jays lost at home earlier this year to Boise State, a team who relies heavily on its guards. Cincinnati is a more physical version of Boise in that they also rely heavily on guards in Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright, and JaQuon Parker. McDermott can’t do it all by himself, and the Bearcats will be a matchup nightmare for their mid-major counterparts. Ultimately Cincinnati is the best team on the floor in this match-up regardless of what the seeds say.
(10) Iowa State vs (7) Notre Dame
If you saw the game earlier this year when Iowa State got hosed at home by the officials against Kansas, you know they can play ball. Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones play hard all 40 minutes and have a ton of talent in the backcourt with senior guards Korie Lucious and dynamic scorer Will Clyburn. Notre Dame is a rare breed in college basketball starting two true big men in Jack Cooley and Tom Knight. The Fighting Irish get consistent play out of their guards, but have some startling losses to teams like Connecticut, St. Johns, and Providence in conference. The Cyclones will spread out the Irish and contain their big men enough inside to pull off the victory.
(11) Belmont vs (6) Arizona
One of the more popular upset picks in this year’s field, Ohio Valley champion Belmont brings an exciting small-ball style out to Salt Lake City to face sputtering Arizona. The Wildcats were ranked in the top 5 for much of the season, but fell off track as they entered Pac-12 play. They have tons of talent in Mark Lyons, Nick Johnson, and Brandon Ashley. If they can take advantage of their size, they can avoid the upset. However, their track record this year shows they struggle against quicker teams like Belmont with losses to UCLA and Oregon, as well as to California who is very guard-heavy. Belmont scores a lot of points (rank 15th in the country) and shoots a high percentage (4th best in the country) presenting a huge challenge for the Arizona defense. Look for a balanced Bruins attack to take down the Wildcats in what should be an exciting game.
(11) Minnesota vs (6) UCLA
It’s hard to trust a team to win when a coach (UCLA’s Ben Howland) admits their best player (Shabazz Muhammad) has one foot out the door. UCLA has a short but talented rotation that has shown flashes of brilliance this year through the Wear twins, Kyle Anderson, and Larry Drew II. The major question is whether or not they will be completely focused coming into this game, and how much will their stars with one eye on the NBA really care if they win or lose? Minnesota lost a heartbreaker to Illinois on a buzzer-beater in the Big Ten tournament and will be highly motivated to get past their first game in the Big Dance. They have struggled since their win over #1 Indiana on February 26, but Trevor Mbakwe has a lot to prove as a senior who has not played up to his potential and should step up and lead the Gophers along with guards Andre and Austin Hollins (no relation).
(13) South Dakota State vs (4) Michigan
South Dakota State’s win at New Mexico earlier this year may have been a fluke, but it did show something important: They can win in a hostile environment against a good team. The crowd at The Pit was exponentially louder than whatever they will face in Auburn Hills on Friday, not to mention the altitude factor. They have a star guard in senior Nate Wolters (look up his stats, they are insane) with three other upperclassmen averaging double-figure scoring. Based on talent, location, and conference affiliation, Michigan should win this game. However, as good as Trey Burke has been this season, he disappeared at times when they needed him the most and that can’t happen when you run the show for your team. It’s not a lock, but don’t be surprised if the Wolverines get caught looking ahead to a potential match-up against Virginia Commonwealth and exit the tournament early.
(13) Montana vs (4) Syracuse
The Montana Grizzlies are an interesting match-up for Syracuse. They are a small team that relies on three guards for the majority of their points, and lacks an established inside scoring presence. If this game wasn’t a cross-country trip away from New York, the Orange would be the obvious choice, but it’s in San Jose. Montana has played a lot of tough teams this year, coming up short several times, but may have the proper formula to crack Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. More importantly, their guards have the potential to wreak havoc on Michael Carter-Williams and the Syracuse backcourt. However, if the Cuse can lock down the Grizzlies’ guards and they get caught settling for too many outside shots, this game could be ugly the other way as well. The main factor will be how the travel impacts the Orange and how they handle playing in the Pacific Time zone.
(11) Bucknell vs (6) Butler
The last time Butler had a seed this good, they made it to the Final Four as a 5 seed. They are used to being on the Cinderella end of March upsets, but this time they may be the victims. Bucknell’s star player is center Mike Muscala, the best big man you’ve probably never heard of. He dominates both ends of the floor with his inside scoring and shot-blocking abilities that are as good as anyone not named Nerlins Noel. He’s not a one man show though with three other players averaging double-figures. Their schedule has some impressive victories and close losses on the road at Missouri and Penn State. Butler also has some big wins, but they have not been the same down the stretch as they were earlier this season when they beat Indiana and Gonzaga. Senior center Andrew Smith is back after missing some time with an injury, and will be a key part of trying to slow down Muscala on both ends. He has to stay out of foul trouble if Butler has any chance of winning. In the end, Muscala patrolling the paint on defense and the balanced Bison offense will be too much for the Bulldogs who won’t have any March magic this time around.
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