The 2016 NCAA Tournament field has been announced, and that means it's time to fill out a bracket. You're not going to pick straight chalk, right? But which upsets to pick? Well, you could just pick based on cool mascots or team names, or you could actually put thought into your decision!
Let me get something straight: Would I pick any of these straight up, with money on the line? No. I think the favored team is better in each of these games. However, compared to the other matchups in the bracket, these are the games where I feel the big underdog has the best probability of winning. Not only are these four underdogs good teams, I feel each matchup works stylistically in their favor. Ken Pomeroy's rating system gives the underdogs in these games between a 28 and 31 percent chance of winning. That means, according to his ratings, it would be more probable for one of these teams to win than for all four to lose.
Below is one upset pick from each region. Don't blame me if the favored team ends up winning, please give me all the credit if some of these turn out right.
No. 12 Arkansas Little Rock > No. 5 Purdue (29 percent)
The Trojans were dominant in the Sun Belt, going 17-3 in league play. They have wins over one tournament team in Tulsa and a near-tournament team in San Diego State, and there are a lot of things stylistically that make them a strong upset possibility. They slow the game down, 345th of 351 Division I teams in tempo, and they drill threes, hitting 38.7 percent from deep. Even their big men, Liz Shoshi and Mareik Isom, can drill threes. That could mess with a Purdue team that depends on interior dominance.
Little Rock also has a great story, as Chris Beard has completely transformed this program in his first season as a Division I coach. He's was coaching a semipro team in 2012, but spent a few years as a Division II coach and this year took over a struggling program that went 13-18 last year. He has them play a style that actually fits them, and now they're dancing for the second time in the past 25 years.
The Trojans will probably struggle inside a Purdue team with several star big men, but if they can limit possessions and hit threes on those possessions, they've still got a chance of winning. If I had to pick one upset in the field, this would be it.
No. 13 Hawaii > No. 4 Cal (31 percent)
You know you want to root for Hawai'i, right? It's the Rainbow Warriors first tournament since 2002, and they need to make the most of it. The team's last coach, Gib Arnold, left in a blaze of scandal that earned the team a postseason ban for the 2016-17 season. Eran Ganot was a crazy person to take over a job in such turmoil, but crazy people can be great coaches.
Just because they come from a small league like the Big West doesn't mean they lack major conference power. The team is led by Stefan Jankovic, a 6'11 Mizzou transfer.
Cal's fine, but their strength is the interior play of a few star freshman in Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown. The Golden Bears allow opponents to shoot a measly 40.9 percent from inside the arc, the best in college basketball. But Jankovic and Hawai'i have experience -- they start entirely juniors and seniors -- and an interior attack that's great at scoring inside (54.6 2-point percentage, 16th in college hoops) and getting to the line (46.3 FGA/FTA ratio, sixth-best.)
We know the Rainbow Warriors can play head-to-head with a top team: They lost to Oklahoma by just three points back in November. If their experienced players can fluster the precocious freshmen of Cal by scoring inside and drawing fouls, Hawai'i can pull the upset.
No. 14 Stephen F. Austin > No. 3 West Virginia (30 percent)
Remember the Lumberjacks from two years ago when they upset VCU? Well, they're back! And they're pretty similar. In the past three years, Stephen F. Austin has gone a whopping 59-1 in Southland regular season and conference tournament play. This year, they went 18-0 and won the conference championship game by 22 points. This team has dominated their opponents so thoroughly, it's a bit baffling how they're a No. 14 seed.
This is an incredible stylistic matchup. The Jacks are No. 1 in college basketball at forcing turnovers, getting the ball on 25.9 percent of opposing possessions. No. 2? West Virginia! The Mountaineers bank on creating havoc with a full-court press, but aren't great at defending if the ball actually makes it across court. Thomas Walkup, a 6'4 senior who played a big role in 2014, will go to town inside if the Jacks can successfully get the ball across halfcourt.
I'm a little bit worried about the way the Jacks performed in non-conference play -- they got blown out by 42 against Baylor, a team that's similar to West Virginia in a lot of ways -- but the way they abused their league competition makes me confident.
No. 13 UNC-Wilmington vs. No. 4 Duke (28 percent)
Not only were they good enough to win one of America's best mid-major conferences, they're a great story, too. We've already written about how the Seahawks are a fascinating team transformed by a young first-time coach and led by a player nobody thought was worth a Division I scholarship.
Another thing you have to take into consideration is that Duke can abso-LUTELY go to hell. Sometimes you have to spend weeks cogently analyzing mid-major teams for strengths and weaknesses. But right now, I'm choosing with my heart to pick against Duke because Duke is Duke and Grayson Allen has a stupid face and acts like a punk.
Okay, back to actual thinking: Duke is really good, but this is one of their weakest teams in recent memory, and Wilmington is pretty good.
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Potential Cinderella: Northern Iowa is cruising after a remarkable turnaround
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