In today’s exercise, we search our new best friends – the data-driven websites LRMC and KenPom.com – for NCAA tournament first-round upset candidates. Understand that these are not predictions: There’s no team seeded 11th or lower that either site ranks above the team it’s playing. These are possibilities. Our goal was to find lower seeds than came within a semi-reasonable number of rating slots of their first-round opponents. Here are five:
No. 12 South Dakota State versus No. 5 Maryland: LRMC shows a separation of 42 rating spots; KenPom has a spread of 57. That might seem a broad gulf, but consider: In last year’s NCAA tournament, KenPom had Baylor at 17 and Georgia State at 66; it had North Carolina at 16 and Harvard at 73. (The Panthers won; the Crimson nearly did.) We’re not looking for locks. We’re looking for what might happen. This might happen.
No. 12 Yale versus No. 5 Baylor: LRMC shows a separation of 50 spots; KenPom has it much close, showing a spread of 13. Some analysts have deemed this an upset pick to avoid, believing that the Bears will overwhelm the Bears underneath. I’d note that an even higher-seeded Baylor team outrebounded Georgia State 40-22 last March and still lost. I didn’t pick many upsets in this year’s tournament. I did pick Yale over Baylor.
No. 11 Northern Iowa versus No. 5 Texas: LRMC shows a separation of 29 spots; KenPom has a spread of 43. But those seeking to pick this as upset will surely stumble over this bit of reality: Texas is coached by Shaka Smart, who with VCU in 2011 upset teams seeded No. 6 (Georgetown), No. 3 (Purdue) and No. 1 (Kansas) in becoming the first-and-so-far-only First Four participant to reach the Final Four.
No. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock versus No. 5 Purdue: LRMC shows a separation of 30 spots; KenPom has a spread of 33. That’s the closest thing to a numerical agreement between the two sites, which makes this the second-most likely major upset – at least going by advanced analytics – on the board. UALR won both the Sun Belt’s regular-season and tournament titles. Georgia State did the same last year and upset Baylor.
No. 11 Wichita State versus No. 6 Arizona: LRMC shows a separation of 10 spots, having the Shockers at 20 and the Wildcats at 10; this is the one upset KenPom actually forecasts, seeing No. 8 Wichita as superior to No. 16 Arizona. But we have to ask: Can anything the Shockers do be considered an upset? They made the Final Four in 2013. They were an undefeated No. 1 seed in 2014. They destroyed Vanderbilt in Tuesday’s First Four play-in. According to Vegas, they’re a one-point underdog. KenPom has them winning 68-67.
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