It’s time for arguably the most exciting event in all of sports; March Madness.
There’s something about the days filled with multiple basketball games as each team looks to claim the National Championship.
What makes March Madness what it is is the potential for upsets, both large and small.
Each year we see the emergence of some school we never heard of led by players that aren’t household names.
These teams and players win over the hearts of millions of viewers as we all become fans of these teams for a few weeks.
Along with the upsets comes the bragging rights of those who called them correctly in their March Madness bracket pools.
Just being able to go on social media and put it out there that you are a basketball genius in calling the upset, even if the rest of your bracket had already been busted.
Each year I develop a statistics based model to help me not only fill out my bracket but to find what teams are most likely in line for an upset.
In this article I will highlight the handful of first round matchups that I believe are in line to see such an upset.
I too will highlight a team at the end which I believe could be this year’s Cinderella story and can make a deep run into the tournament.
Without further ado, let's get into these March Madness potential upsets!
(12) College of Charleston Cougars vs. (5) San Diego State Aztecs
If you’re of the understanding of basic geography, you know that the College of Charleston is in Charleston, South Carolina. Easy enough. Beyond that, you probably know little about the school or its basketball program. I’ll admit, before diving into my research for this article, I too knew little about this program. College of Charleston has made the tournament just five times in program history. The last time being in 2018 where they were a 13 seed and lost their first round matchup to Auburn by four points. Back in 1997 the team won its one and only NCAA Tournament game as a 12 seed. They took down five seed Maryland that year. If history is to repeat itself, it’s this year as they are a 12 seed for the first time since 1997.
San Diego State won the Mountain West Conference Tournament over Utah State on Saturday and is now on potential upset alert in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. If we take a look at how these two teams lineup, Charleston gets the edge in all but two statistical categories we took into consideration. Of the 68 teams in the tournament, Charleston ranks ninth in rebounding differential, sixth in margin of victory, seventh in defensive efficiency, 16th in offensive efficiency, 53rd in three-point percentage, second in bench points, 38th in turnovers, 23rd in free throw percentage and 55th in strength of schedule.
They’re a deep team that’s bench is only outscored by Florida Atlantic among the teams in this tournament. They’re also top ten in margin of victory, defensive efficiency and rebounding.
The Cougars bring five guys into the tournament who average double-digits points-per-game. They’re led by guard Dalton Bolon who averages 12.3. Guard play is crucial in the NCAA Tournament and four of the Cougar’s top five scorers are guards.
San Diego State ranks 20th in my model which isn’t that bad at all. It’s just that Charleston is ranked higher. San Diego State too has a deep bench, ranking fifth in bench points. Beyond that, they’re 18th in rebounding, 27th in margin of victory, 16th in defensive efficiency, 43rd in offensive efficiency, 41st in three-point percentage, 32nd in turnovers, 31st in free throw percentage and 39th in strength of schedule.
Historically speaking, the 12-5 matchups are the most upset prone. These 12 seeds are typically the mid-level programs led by upperclassmen who can push these bigger name programs. Watch for the Cougars to make some noise come Thursday.
(13) Furman Paladins vs. (4) Virginia Cavaliers
In the matchup in which the winner would face the winner of the aforementioned College of Charleston vs. San Diego State game, we get another potential upset. Unlike the College of Charleston, without previous knowledge or a wild guess, you probably don’t even know where Furman is located. Furman too is located in South Carolina, a mere three hours north of Charleston. To go along with the fact that this school is unheard of by the average sports fan, the last time they made the NCAA Tournament was 1980, 43 years ago. This will be the school’s seventh appearance in the tournament, although the previous six took place prior to 1980.
Virginia lost the ACC Championship Tournament Final to Duke. Now they get a tough opening round game against a very offensively efficient Furman team. Among the 68 teams in the field, Furman ranks third in offensive efficiency. They also rank 36th in rebounding, 17th in margin of victory, 61st in defensive efficiency, 41st in three-point percentage, 24th in bench points, 20th in turnovers, 32nd in free-throw percentage and 54th in strength of schedule. The way they play the game offensively will prove to cause the slow pace of Virginia’s offense problems, especially if they get down early.
Furman is led by guard Mike Bothwell who comes into the tournament averaging 18 points-per-game. They also have two other guards, JP Pegues and Marcus Foster, who average 12 and 10.6 points-per-game respectively with forward Jalen Slawson adding 15.7 points.
Virginia’s biggest hole on their team is rebounding and free throw percentage where they rank 56th and 55th respectively. Poor rebounding teams that too can’t convert their free throws don’t fare too well in this tournament. What Virginia does right is their low turnover numbers. They’re actually the best team in the entire tournament in turnovers-per-game. Additionally they rank 26th in margin of victory, 24th in defensive efficiency, 42nd in offensive efficiency, 30th in three-point percentage, 48th in bench points and 32nd in strength of schedule. There just isn’t a lot to like about this Virginia team and that’s what puts them on upset alert in the first round.
(10) Utah State Aggies vs. (7) Missouri Tigers
I guess this pick here depends on what you deem to be an upset. Although the two teams are just separated by three seeding placements, it’s still a double-digit seeded team versus a single seeded team. Unlike the previously two mentioned teams, Utah State is a known school and program. Utah State has been in the NCAA Tournament 23 different times. Most recently they appeared in 2021 where they lost in the first round to Texas Tech.
Utah State made a run in the Mountain West Conference Tournament where they lost in the final to San Diego State. They’re a deep team that relies on the deep ball as they rank fifth in the tournament in three-point percentage. The Aggies are also a deep team as they rank seventh in bench points and they too take advantage of their free throws, ranking seventh. Beyond that Utah State ranks 22nd in rebounding, 23rd in margin of victory, 45th in defensive efficiency, 17th in offensive efficiency, 41st in turnovers and 44th in strength of schedule. We’ve seen it time and time again, great three-point shooting teams getting hot and knocking off higher ranked teams. I think that’s what will happen here.
The Aggies are led by guard Steven Ashworth who averages 16.3 points-per-game and shoots the deep fall extremely well at a clip of 44.3-percent.
Missouri’s strongest point is their depth where they rank fourth in bench points. Beyond that there isn’t much to love about this program. I guess you could consider a 13th ranking in free throw percentage and 15th in offensive efficiency as decent assets. What really needs to be mentioned here is that Missouri ranks last among teams in this tournament in rebounding. They also rank 66th in defensive efficiency. On top of not being able to rebound, the team is rather poor defensively. You simply can’t win games if you aren’t winning on the boards. Missouri also ranks 55th in margin of victory, 22nd in three-point percentage, 23rd in turnovers and 30th in strength of schedule.
Watch out for Utah State when filling out your brackets.
(12) Drake Bulldogs vs. (5) Miami Hurricanes
Drake is a name we may be familiar with as they were a sixth seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Before that they appeared in the tournament in 2008 and then just three times between 1969 and 1971. Like Furman, the average fan probably doesn’t know where Drake is based out of. They call Des Moines, Iowa home. Who would have thought.
This is one of the potential upsets that I’m on the fence about. Drake models better than Miami but not by much. Miami is very efficient offensively as they rank sixth in the tournament in that category. They too are excellent from the line, ranking fourth. Defensively however, Miami is not good at all. They rank 64th in defensive efficiency. They just aren’t a deep team as well (60th in bench depth.) Now I know bench depth plays a bigger role in the later rounds, but it still does play a role in the first round. Miami also ranks 26th in rebounding, 29th in margin of victory, 17th in three-point percentage, 23rd in turnovers and 38th in strength of schedule.
Drake is a very well rounded team that converts from the free throw line. The Bulldogs rank fifth in free throw percentage among those teams in the tournament. They rank in the top 20 in five of the statistical categories we’re taking into consideration as well. They rank 14th in margin of victory, 14th in defensive efficiency, 18th in three-point percentage, 12th in turnovers and of course, fifth in free throw percentage. They also rank 26th in rebounding, 38th in offensive efficiency, 40th in bench scoring and 48th in strength of schedule.
Drake is led by guard Tucker DeVries who averages 19 points-per-game coming into the tournament. Their second leading scorer too is a guard, Roman Penn, who averages 12.6 points-per-game. We’ve talked about it already, guard play is key.
With the poor defense and lack of depth Miami has, be on the lookout for Drake.
(12) Oral Roberts Golden Eagles vs. (5) Duke Blue Devils
Surprise, another 12-5 matchup on upset watch. This is the third 12-5 matchup we’re highlighting in this article and this is the one I’m the most hesitant about. This isn’t the Duke team we’re used to seeing but they are the defending ACC Tournament Champions. If you had to guess where Oral Roberts is from, would you guess Tulsa, Oklahoma? Me either. Either way, they’re making their seventh appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The last time they made the event was 2021 where they made a run to the Sweet Sixteen before falling to the third seed Arkansas Razorbacks. They were part of one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history, knocking off the second seeded Ohio State Buckeyes as a 15 seed. They then went on to defeat the seventh seeded Florida Gators in the round of 32.
Oral Roberts is a very efficiently run offense as they rank second to just Gonzaga in offensive efficiency. They too don’t turn the ball over as they had the third fewest turnovers-per-game and convert at the free throw line as they too rank third in free throw percentage. Oral Roberts is also ninth in margin of victory among teams in the tournament. Additionally they rank 54th in rebounding, 35th in defensive efficiency, 14th in three-point percentage, 25th in bench points and 56th in strength of schedule. They’re led by guard Max Abmas who averaged a staggering 22.2 points-per-game on the season
Duke is one of the best rebounding teams in the field as they rank fourth. What brings them down is their 52nd placement in three-point shooting percentage. Additionally, outside of rebounding, there isn’t one thing this Duke team does extremely well. The Blue Devils rank 20th in margin of victory, 26th in defensive efficiency, 26th in offensive efficiency, 29th in bench points, 40th in turnovers and 28th in strength of schedule.
It would be of no surprise to see the Blue Devils to make an early exit out of this year’s tournament.
(10) Boise State Broncos vs. (7) Northwestern Wildcats
Again, as previously mentioned in the discussion about the Utah State vs. Missouri game, this one too is dependent on your definition of an upset. Again, you have a double-digit seed against a single seed team. This one is more so about how much I don’t like Northwestern than more about how much I like Boise State (even as a Boise State fan.)
Northwestern is a very poor rebounding, offensive efficiency and three point shooting team. They rank 65th in offensive efficiency, 60th in rebounding and 60th in three-point percentage. When a team can’t rebound the ball on top of not being efficient on offense, it’s hard to imagine them winning a basketball game of this magnitude. Despite those statistical numbers, the team doesn’t turn the ball over as they rank sixth in turnovers-per-game. Additionally Northwestern is a competent defensive team as they rank 12th in defensive efficiency. They too are competent from the line as they rank 16th in free throw percentage. Additionally Northwestern ranks 51st in margin of victory, 51st in bench points and 27th in strength of schedule.
Boise State doesn’t do one thing extremely well but is a rather all-around team. They rank 24th in rebounding, 34th in margin of victory, 19th in defensive efficiency, 50th in offensive efficiency, 23rd in three-point percentage, 23rd in turnovers, 26th in free throw percentage and 42nd in strength of schedule. Boise State is not a deep team at all as they rank last among teams in the tournament in bench points.
The Broncos come in with five players averaging double digits points-per-game. They’re led offensively by forward Tyson Degenhart who averaged 14.3 points-per-game on the season.
If they are able to get past Northwestern, their run will likely be cut short in the second round as they would be required to play two games of this level in a span of three days.
(11) Pittsburgh Panthers vs. (6) Iowa State Cyclones
This one is a what if. Pittsburgh will have to get past Mississippi State in one of the four playoff games first. If they’re able to do that, as my model suggests, I believe Iowa State would be on upset alert.
Iowa State did play one of the hardest schedules of any team in the tournament as they rank fifth in strength of schedule and that plays a part in hindering their team statistics. Either way, Iowa State is a turnover-pron team as they rank 60th in turnovers. They too are a poor free throw shooting team as they rank 63rd in free throw percentage. On top of turning the ball over and the inability to convert from the free throw line, the Cyclones rank 62nd in offensive efficiency. Their biggest asset is their defense where they rank 11th in defensive efficiency. Additionally the Cyclones rank 35th in rebounding, 46th in margin of victory, 48th in three-point percentage and 45th in bench points.
Pittsburgh is a poor defensive team and that may be their downfall in even the play-in game, let alone this matchup in the round of 64. The Panthers rank 62nd in defensive efficiency. On the flip side, the Panthers are quality from the free throw line ranking 11th and run an efficient offense as they rank 18th. They also rank 32nd in rebounding, 46th in margin of victory, 23rd in three-point percentage, 22nd in turnovers and 43rd in strength of schedule.
Pittsburgh is led by the duo of Jamarius Burton and Blake Hinson who both average over 15 points-per-game coming into the tournament.
Of course, as previously mentioned, Pittsburgh will have to win their play-in game and historically speaking, those teams don’t fare well in the round of 64. Tread with caution.
(9) Florida Atlantic Owls
Now I promised I would mention my lower-seeded favorite to make a run in this year’s tournament and that just so happens to be the Florida Atlantic Owls. This team finished the season ranked 25th and went on to essentially steam roll their way through the Conference USA Tournament.
There really isn’t a glaring weakness with the Owls. Their lowest placement in any of the statistical categories we’ve mentioned in this article is free throw percentage where they rank 40th among qualifying teams. They place in the top four in five of the categories and top 15 in six of them.
They’re the deepest team in the field, coming in first in bench scoring. As the tournament progresses and the wear and tear of this grueling event drags on, the Owls are set up like no other team to keep legs fresh and use their bench as their strongest asset.
They also come in seventh in margin of victory, tenth in defensive efficiency, tenth in three-point percentage, 12th in offensive efficiency and 14th in rebounding. The owls are as good defensively as they are offensively and too make waves on the boards.
The rest of the statistical categories we’ve highlighted thus far in this article round out for the Owls as 29th in turnovers, 40th in free throw percentage and 47th in strength of schedule.
Guard play is arguably the most important of the positions when it comes to the NCAA Tournament and the Owls are led by Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin who both average over 13 points-per-game. Five of their top six scorers on the season have been guards.
The Owls are a nine seed in the East and get the (8) Memphis Tigers in their opening matchup. From there they will have to get past the (1) Purdue Boilermakers who are the second highest ranked one-seed in our model. Florida Atlantic actually ranks higher than them in this model.
This team is poised to make a run and everything's adding up for them to do so.