They’re what keeps the dreams alive for all first-time NCAA tournament bound teams as well as small schools who play in a random conference no one has ever heard of. These stories are what contribute to the magic of March Madness ,but what can also be critical in winning your bracket pool. Anyone can pick four 1-seeds to make it to the Final Four or only take the 9-seeds over the 8-seeds in the first round, but in order to amass bragging rights throughout your office, team, or whatever pool you have joined, you must spot the underdogs that will bust the brackets of everyone else; do not not fall into the trap of picking all the favorites. Excluding the 9-seed vs. 8-seed and 10-seed vs. 7-seed matchups from the 2016 NCAA tournament, there were eight first round upsets out of a possible 24 games. That is, 33% of all legitimate* underdogs won their first round matchup last year, a significant value for games that should be a ‘shoo-in’ for the favorite. That is the single highest number of significant first round upsets in the tournament ever. Yet the numbers of upsets have only been rising. In the last five years, four 15-seeds have upset a 2-seed in the first round; prior to 2012, that had only happened four times since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. In the last ten years, there have also been seven 14 vs 3 upsets, nine 13 vs. 4 upsets, nineteen 12 vs. 5 upsets, and twenty-one 11 vs. 6 upsets.
*I leave out the 16-seed vs 1-seed matchup because it has yet to happen in any tournament. The last time a 16-seed lost by single digits was in 2014 (lost by 9) but not relevant for this piece. Very few people pick this upset, for obvious reasons.
Bottom line: Upsets are bound to happen, so we here at Mad Men Hoops aim to spot them. Maybe this is your year. Maybe you’ll finally beat Matt Jr. Well, probably not (the kid is an oracle,) but at least you’ll probably feel more confident in picking these upsets than if you were to ask your goldfish or throw pencils into the ceiling.
With fewer than three weeks before Selection Sunday, now is a perfect time to scout what look like very favorable upset capable teams. For those who made a bracket last year, I know for a fact this first team busted your bracket, and if you’re not careful, they might just do it again this year.
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders: Currently projected as an 11-seed.
Middle Tennessee in last year’s tournament was a 15-seed out of the Midwest region and was overlooked by nearly everyone; in fact, 97.8% of the 13 million brackets in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge had Michigan State, the opposing 2-seed, advancing to the second round. 1,766 perfect brackets remained entering this 21st game* and only 6 exited blemish free after this incredible upset. The Blue Raiders run ended in the second round however, losing to another upset pick, 10-seed Syracuse, who wound up making it to the Final Four. With only three seniors graduating, Middle Tennessee looked like they could be strong contenders again in Conference USA again this season.
*My proprietary technique was used to predict one of these 1,766 perfect brackets entering that 21st game.
This season, Middle Tennessee boasts an impressive 24-4 record, 14-1 in conference. Their defense has seen great improvements from last year, ranking 39th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. Their offense has also seen notable improvements, ranking 64th in the country. In their four losses, the Blue Raiders have lost by a total of only 24 points; one of these losses came to a very well rounded Virginia Commonwealth team. With a roster of four seniors and four juniors, this veteran squad is not unfamiliar to big games. Last season, Middle Tennessee did not face any top 100 opponents, while this year have faced six and have a 5-1 record to show from it (VCU was the only loss.) Three of these teams, in fact, are in the current projected tournament field. It is not common for a team in Conference USA to have that many wins against good opponents, so the outlook is bright for the Blue Raiders to pull off another upset this tournament.
Vermont Catamounts: Currently projected as a 12-seed.
The Vermont who?? Seriously though, I had to look up the mascot for Vermont. That just goes to show how little impact Vermont has had on the world of college basketball. Vermont is 2-5 all-time in the NCAA tournament, with their last appearance in 2012, losing to North Carolina in the first round — I mean c’mon, that’s just unfair. Vermont’s only stand out tournament win came in the first round in 2005, defeating Syracuse by three. How could their resume this year look so enticing?
This team is red hot. I know, it is fairly surprising as Vermont is hardly known for being a contending basketball team. Vermont’s last loss came at the hands of Butler on December 21, 2016. Since, they have gone 16-0 with an overall record of 24-5, a perfect 14-0 in the America East Conference. Interestingly, Vermont is one of three teams still undefeated in conference play, joining the likes of the AP poll #1 overall team, Gonzaga, as well as Princeton.
The Catamounts trouble their opponents with a very solid offense, coming in at 60th in the country, as well as 93rd defensively. They control the pace of the game, possessing the ball for nearly ⅔ of the shot clock while on offense, and are very good 2-point shooters, making 55.8% of these attempts, 10th best in the country. They also have two very good 3-point shooters coming off the bench, Ernie Duncan and Kurt Steidl, who have made 41.1% and 39.4% of 146 and 127 attempts, respectively. Defensively, Vermont is very smart and does not commit very many fouls, as well as does a very good job limiting their opponents offensive rebounds.
One concern for picking Vermont as a first round upset is their lack of competition during the regular season. Their Strength of Schedule ranks in the bottom ⅓ of all Division I teams, and have not beaten a top 100 opponent this season (losses to Providence, Houston, South Carolina, and Butler who are all in the top 60.) With that being said, Middle Tennessee only faced two top 100 opponents last season, lost both matchups, and beat the 5th best team in the country the first round.
If Vermont continues this run into March and is presented with a favorable matchup in the first round, do not be surprised if the Catamounts become one of this year’s cinderella stories. We will definitely be checking back in with Vermont on Selection Sunday, especially if they remain at that ever-so-dangerous 12-seed line.