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Andy Wittry | | March 18, 2021

The NCAA tournament bracket picks to make if you feel like throwing caution to the wind

Andy Katz shares his picks for teams with upset potential

OK, maybe you are one of the 2.1 percent of brackets who picked No. 16 seed UMBC to upset No. 1 seed Virginia. If you were, nice pick! You can probably stop reading here. 

If you weren't, we're here to help you correctly pick the next big March Madness upset or that double-digit seed that makes a Cinderella run. Maybe it requires you filling out 20 or 50 or 100 brackets and devoting a few to wild upsets and brackets that are busted by the most unlikely of candidates. identified long-shot NCAA tournament picks that can be defended in advance by some statistics and a little bit of blind faith. The good news is that if you're right, you can brag about these picks to your friends and colleagues, and if you're wrong, no one ever has to know about them.

Sound good? Let's dive right in.

Oregon to make the Sweet 16, if not further

Did you know that Oregon has won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of its last six appearances?

That includes two Sweet 16 runs as a No. 12 seed (2019 and 2013), a Final Four run in 2017, an Elite Eight appearance in 2016 and one win in both 2014 and 2015.

Oregon won the Pac-12 regular season title this season after going 14-4 in conference play and the Ducks have had winning streaks of eight, six and five games this season, despite rarely having its full complement of players.

This is a team with six 3-point shooters who have made at least 35 percent of their attempts, while making more than 10 threes this season, and that has helped fuel a top-15 offense that makes nearly 38 percent of its threes and almost 53 percent of its twos. If Oregon can defeat No. 10 seed VCU in the first round, it will likely face No. 2 seed Iowa in the second round, where the Ducks could match Iowa's 3-point shooting and they might have the athleticism to give the Hawkeyes problems.

Iowa hasn't made the Sweet 16 since 1999 and the last time there was an NCAA tournament, we watched Oregon make an unexpected Sweet 16 run, so if you feel the need to eliminate one of the top-seeded teams in the 2021 NCAA tournament, Oregon can be your rationale for sending home No. 2 seed Iowa.

You should either pick Illinois to lose by the Elite Eight or win the entire tournament. Here's why

Gonzaga is the clear favorite to win the 2021 NCAA tournament, according to data from the Bracket Challenge Game. As of Thursday morning, roughly 38 percent of completed bracket entries selected Gonzaga as their national champion. So if you're looking to differentiate your bracket from your friends, coworkers and the public, then you probably shouldn't pick the Zags, as good as they are.

Meanwhile, Illinois, which is arguably the second-best team in the country entering the NCAA tournament, given that Michigan isn't at full strength, has been picked to win it all in roughly 15 percent of brackets. So there's potentially incredible value in picking Illinois, even as a No. 1 seed.

However, the Illini do have a challenging path to the Sweet 16, much less the national title. They potentially face No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago in the second round and the Ramblers have the No. 1 defense in the country. A potential Illinois-Loyola Chicago matchup brings back some memories of No. 9 seed Wichita State upsetting No. 1 seed Pitt in 2013, or the next year, when undefeated No. 1 seed Wichita State was upset by No. 8 seed Kentucky in the second round in 2014 — when a No. 1 seed faced a perhaps uniquely talented No. 8 or No. 9 seed.

Illinois also potentially has a Sweet 16 matchup with No. 4 seed Oklahoma State and All-American point guard Cade Cunningham, who might be the most talented player in the entire NCAA tournament. There will be countless brackets that pick Illinois to lose in the national championship game (about 17 percent of Bracket Challenge Game entries, as of Thursday morning) or in the Final Four (about 22 percent), so there's potential value in either picking Illinois to win it all or to lose earlier than expected.

Here's how to handle the pod with Arkansas, Texas Tech, Utah State and Colgate

One of the most potentially perplexing four-team pods is in the South region, where No. 3 seed Arkansas will face No. 14 seed Colgate and No. 7 seed Texas Tech takes on No. 10 seed Utah State. There's a lot of intrigue here. In the last NCAA tournament, Texas Tech made a run to the national championship game, where it lost to Virginia in overtime. For diehard college basketball fans, Texas Tech could be a dark-horse pick because of that run and its Elite Eight appearance the year before.

The best-seeded team in that pod is Arkansas, which hasn't made the Sweet 16 since 1996 (seriously!), which was just one year after its second consecutive appearance in the national championship game. The Razorbacks' first-round opponent is Colgate, which has spent weeks ranked inside the top 10 of the NET rankings due to the fact that eight  of the 10 teams in the Patriot League didn't play a non-conference schedule, meaning those schools are largely unconnected from the rest of the college basketball universe in some metrics. But nonetheless, the Raiders are ranked in the top five nationally in both effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage, while playing at a top-25 tempo, which means they could run and gun with Arkansas.

If you want a potential edge in your bracket, you should probably pic at least one of Utah State (only 19 percent of Bracket Challenge Game entries have done so, as of Thursday morning) or Colgate (12 percent) to win in the first round

Just five percent of brackets picked Utah State to the Sweet 16, which is actually a smaller percentage than Colgate, which has been picked to go to the Sweet 16 in more than eight percent. So you can actually get value by picking a No. 10 seed to the Sweet 16, because history says a No. 10 seed has roughly a 16-percent chance of doing so, whereas a No. 14 seed only has a one percent chance or so.

Our recommendation: you should consider picking Utah State and Colgate to combine for at least one win in the NCAA tournament, if not more.

Consider taking a flier on Ohio or Eastern Washington

Previously, has analyzed which men's basketball programs have overperformed or underperformed the most last decade, based upon their respective NCAA tournament seeds, and Kansas and Virginia were No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the underperformers category. While acknowledging that's it's more likely for a program that consistently earns strong seeds to underperform than it is for a program that is typically in the No. 8 to No. 12 seed range, the Jayhawks and Cavaliers have not performed up to seed-line expectations enough.

Unfortunately, both programs are also dealing with COVID-19 issues within their programs. No. 13 seed Ohio is ranked higher on than two No. 12 seeds, and No. 14 seed Eastern Washington shoots nearly 80 percent from the stripe and better than 54 percent from 2-point range, while limiting opponents' assists defensively. A No. 13 or No. 14 seed is always unlikely, but given the overall, recent NCAA tournament performances of Kansas and Jayhawks from the last decade, and uncertain rosters, this might be the time to pick Ohio or Eastern Washington.

A dark-horse Final Four pick is a high-risk, high-reward proposition

Did you know that in the last seven NCAA tournaments, at least one team seeded No. 5 or worse has made the Final Four and seven teams seeded No. 7 or worse have made the Final Four in those seven tournaments? Seriously, just take a look:

  • 2019: No. 5  seed Auburn
  • 2018: No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago
  • 2017: No. 7 seed South Carolina
  • 2016: No. 10 seed Syracuse
  • 2015: No. 7 seed Michigan State
  • 2014: No.  7 seed UConn, No. 8 seed Kentucky
  • 2013: No. 9 seed Wichita State

Assuming that a dark-horse team will emerge is the easy part. Correctly predicting which team that will be is much more difficult, but if you can land, say, a No. 7 seed in the Final Four, that's bound to elevate your bracket to one of the best ones out there.

If you're throwing caution to the wind, we recommend picking a team seeded as a No. 5 seed or worse to make the Final Four. Which teams are your best options?

Let's take a look. Using advanced metrics, such as, No. 6 seed USC (No. 14 overall on, No. 7 seed UConn (No. 16), No. 5 seed Colorado (No. 17), No. 6 seed San Diego State (No. 20) are teams whose efficiency margins (how many more points they score than allow, on average) are better than their placement on the 1-to-68 seed list, which was based on their resumes. Note that we ignored teams on the No. 8 and No. 9 seed line. It's not impossible for a No. 8 or No. 9 seed to make the Final Four (note Kentucky and Wichita State in the list above) but teams on those seed lines have to face a relative equal in the first round, then a No. 1 seed in the second round, which makes their path to the second  weekend more difficult.

Our prediction: The East region is the most vulnerable for a dark-horse Final Four candidate.

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