Everyone knows the best two days of the NCAA tournament are the first two. We get to watch a ton of games, sometimes as many as four at once, and the tournament’s most memorable upsets, and sometimes most memorable moments, happen then. Louisville won the title last year, but just as many people remember Dunk City. Just as much as we remember Kentucky’s run to the 2012 title, we remember twin 15 seeds, Norfolk State and Lehigh, taking out Missouri and Duke in the first round.
This year looks like it could be a rough one for Cinderella thanks to some conference tournament upsets, but there are a few that everyone is circling:
West – (12) North Dakota State over (5) Oklahoma
This has been the most popular upset pick that I have seen. Oklahoma is favored by 4 points over the Bison in KenPom, but the Summit League champions match up very well with the Sooners. To start, Oklahoma struggled with rim protectiont this year, allowing opponents to shoot over 58% at the rim. NDSU is one of the better inside shooting teams in the country, ranking 4th in 2 pt%. Taylor Braun gets a lot of the credit, and deservedly so, but Senior Marshall Bjorklund has been great as well. He is 19th nationally in effective field goal percentage (62.8%) and should really be able to frustrate the Sooners inside. Braun shoots a high percentage as well, making 51% of his twos and leading the Bison in three point%, shooting 42% from beyond the arc.
A couple potential pitfalls to the upset: 1, NDSU doesn’t shoot a lot of threes, nor do they shoot them well, so if they fall behind early it could be a long haul to catch up. Secondly, they are not very deep. Obviously this won’t hurt in terms of fatigue, but if a couple guys get in foul trouble NDSU has a lack of good options off the bench.
The pick: NDSU is experienced and has two star players. The Sooners have had a great year under Lon Kruger, but I am going to pick the Bison to spring the upset.
East – (12) Harvard over (5) Cincinnati
Another 12/5 matchup pits Harvard, who won in the first round last year, against Cincinnati, who features possible all American Sean Kilpatrick. Both teams play fairly slow, and both are better on the defensive end than offense. Cincinnati is a less efficient version of recent Pitt teams, in that they rely heavily on the offensive rebound to score. Harvard has been an OK rebounding team, but foturnately won’t give up a lot of size to a Cincinnati team whose tallest major contributor measures 6’9″. If Harvard can limit the Bearcats to one look they’l have a great chance at the upset.
Offensively, Harvard runs a fairly balanced offense. When Kyle Casey is in the game he takes the lion’s share of the shots, but he has only played a little over 20 mpg this year. Siyani Chambers will be under a lot of pressure to equal out Kilpatrick, and Cincinnati won’t be able to help off Laurent Rivard, who has made 43% of his 173 threes this year. Harvard doesn’t take a lot of shots behind the arc, but they’ve made 39% of them.
The pick: Harvard has experience, they have a tournament win from a year ago under their belt, and a balanced attack that’s good enough to give Cincinnati a game. I think the Bearcats will just squeak this one out, but I wouldn’t be surprised either way.
South – (11) Dayton over (6) Ohio State
The Buckeyes had a nice run to the Big 10 semifinals, but have struggled to score all season long. They rank just 122nd in adjusted efficiency, and even though the Big 10 has been a defensive league, they finished just middle of the pack offensively.
What they do have is an exceptional defense, leading the Big 10 in PPP allowed, and ranking 4th nationally in adjusted PPP allowed. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott provide one of the best defensive duos in the backcourt, each ranking top 15 in steal rate, and the Buckeyes were one of the best teams at forcing turnovers all season. They don’t have as much luck inside, as they allowed teams to shoot almost 49% from two in Big 10 play, and ranked 8th in defensive rebounding. Dayton, meanwhile, struggled to score inside, ranking 7th in the Atlantic 10 in 2 pt%, but they were able to effectively pound the offensive glass this year.
No discussion of Ohio State can be complete without a discussion of Aaron Craft. Craft has been great as usual on the defensive end this year, but he’s struggled offensively. He has the highest assist rate of his career (27%) but he’s turning it over almost that much (24%). He also hasn’t shot well from outside, but he is getting to the rim a decent amount and shooting 51% from two. Since everyone apparently has to have a sweeping opinion on Aaron Craft, mine is thus: He isn’t a great player whom a team should rely on to win them a game, but he won’t kill a team either.
The pick: If you think the fact that Ohio State has repeatedly ducked Dayton scheduling wise means something, then I would take the Flyers. I don’t think it means a lot, so I am going to take the Buckeyes.
South – (15) Eastern Kentucky over (2) Kansas
This is my upset special for the first round. I don’t necessarily think it will happen, but Eastern Kentucky is the best 15 seed, and they’re playing Kansas without Joel Embiid. Further, the Colonels have the type of profile that will give a higher seeded team fits. They force a ton of turnovers (4th nationally) and the Jayhawks haven’t exactly taken care of the ball this year, turning it over on 19% of their possessions.
What really worries me as a Kansas fan, though, is this: Eastern Kentucky takes the 11th most threes in the country, and they make 38.6% of them. That is very dangerous. Obviously the flipside of that coin is they probably need to take a ton of threes and make that many or even more to spring the upset, but they have the ability to. They also have the luxury, if threes aren’t falling, to dump it down to Eric Stutz, who shoots 66% from inside the arc.
The pick: KenPom gives Kansas an 88% chance to win on Friday, but Eastern Kentucky has a lot of guys who can shoot it and it won’t be an easy win for the Jayhawks, if they manage to do so at all.
Midwest – (14) Mercer over (3) Duke
The Midwest is a minefield at the top, but the bottom of the bracket is a bit more straightforward. It could clear out a bit more for 2nd seeded Michigan if the Atlantic Sun can pull off an upset for the second straight year, however.
Mercer doesn’t have great size (135th in effective height) but they have enough to bother Duke. Daniel Coursey has shot the ball well inside, and should give Jabari Parker or Marshall Plumlee some trouble, while Langston Hall is a 6’4″ point guard who can trouble a lot of backcourts.
The obvious problem for Mercer will be stopping Jabari Parker, but just as much it will be stopping Duke’s three point attack, as the Blue Devils shoot a ton of threes, and make 39% of them.
The pick: Mercer allowed Atlantic Sun opponents to shoot almost 40% of their shots behind the arc. Duke isn’t exactly an Atlantic Sun team out there, so unless they were just doing that because they knew they could in Atlantic Sun play, Mercer could have their hands full with an explosive Duke team.