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9 NCAA tournament upset picks for 2019, grouped by plausibility

To the extent that anybody can predict anything, here are some upsets to consider.

Murray State v Eastern Kentucky
Murray State guard Ja Morant.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The NCAA tournament bracket is here. At least one team is going to ruin your bracket, but more likely, a bunch of teams will, and your picks will be a total mess by the weekend.

In recognition of the fact that nobody really knows anything — but seeking to make some educated guesses based on the teams involved — here are some upsets that could be worth zeroing in on as you fill out your bracket. I’m not picking them outright, because, like you, I’ll miss plenty. But think of this as a catalog of upset picks to browse. The lines associated with these picks are opening numbers from BetOnline, subject to move around a bit.

Category 1: At least one of these is happening, and two or three wouldn’t be surprising

Let’s not count games between 8 and 9 seeds, because those aren’t upsets. And let’s avoid 7-10 games unless they’re really glaring, because those aren’t big upsets either.

No. 10 Florida (-2) over No. 7 Nevada, West Region

I said we’d try to avoid 7-10 games, but let’s make an exception off the hop for a tossup game that even has the lower seed as the single-game betting favorite. It’s not an upset from that perspective, but it’s nominally an upset from a bracket-building standpoint.

Nevada’s about a half-point better per game than Florida, per Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency, and I’m skeptical the difference is even that big, in context.

Their game is in Des Moines, but Florida could have a mild home-court advantage just because it’s an infinitely bigger program with more fans. Nevada hasn’t beaten a tournament-caliber team since the day after New Year’s, when it beat Utah State, which later got revenge on the Wolf Pack. The Pack just lost comfortably San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament while UF finished three points shy of eventual SEC champion Auburn.

No. 11 Saint Mary’s (+5) over No. 6 Villanova, South Region

Nova’s one of the great programs in the sport, but this is not the kind of national championship-contending team that Jay Wright has fielded so often in the last five years (and, really, beyond). The Wildcats have just a so-so defense, and they’re not nearly the three-point-shooting masters they’ve been in the recent past. Saint Mary’s remains second fiddle to Gonzaga in the WCC, even though the Gaels beat the Zags in the league tournament (after losing to them twice) this year. But it’s not clear they’re much worse than Nova.

No. 12 Murray State (+4) over No. 5 Marquette, West Region

The Racers have Ja Morant, a likely top-five pick and the most prolific playmaker in college hoops. That’s a hell of a good starting point against a Marquette that’s lost five of its last six, even if most of those were close. Also, Murray State’s not all Morant. In guards Shaq Buchanan and Tevin Brown and forwards Darnell Cowart and KJ Williams, the Racers have some efficient talent behind their star. The Ohio Valley champs are unproven against power-conference competition, but there’s plenty reason to like them.

No. 13 UC Irvine (+6.5) over No. 4 Kansas State, South Region

Irvine seems to me like the best upset pick beyond the 12th seeds. The Anteaters haven’t lost since Jan. 16, and while you could fairly point out that they haven’t played anyone of note, I could in turn point out that Kansas State has a lousy offense and doesn’t make a lot of shots. Irvine’s a decent shooting team, and if the Anteaters get hot, it doesn’t take much imagination to see a bad K-State shooting game leading the Wildcats to big problems.

Either No. 8 Ole Miss or No. 9 Oklahoma vs. No. 1 Virginia, South Region

Plenty of people, unaware that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, will pick No. 1 UVA to lose to a 16 seed (Gardner-Webb) for the second year in a row. Do not be one of those people, because it’s not going to happen again. But could the Hoos get bitten by the same things that have bitten them in past tournaments — discomfort playing with pace on offense, bad luck with other teams making tons of shots against them, and a weirdly terribly shooting night when they’re on offense — again? It’s possible, sure.

Category 2: A strong upset candidate

No. 11 Belmont over No. 6 Maryland

This pick requires Belmont to beat Temple in the First Four. But the Bruins (-3 in that game) should do that, and then they’d face a talented but untrustworthy Maryland team that’s laid eggs in recent weeks against bad teams like Penn State and Nebraska. I’d have put this game in the first group if not for Belmont needing to clear a hurdle before facing the Terps.

Category 3: Long shots, but clearly possible

No. 14 Yale (+7.5) over No. 3 LSU, East Region

James Jones’ Bulldogs have had a bit of recent tournament success, beating No. 5 Baylor as a 12th seed in 2016. But that’s not why they’re on this list. They’re here because:

a) They can shoot the hell out of the ball. They’re 11th in the country in effective field goal percentage, and there are few better candidates to just get hot.

b) They’re playing an LSU program that just suspended its head coach, Will Wade, amid the federal government’s investigation into college hoops corruption. Distractions are an overrated thing in sports, but LSU’s playing without the guy who made them good.

The Tigers have a lot to contend with internally and they’re playing a team that can shoot. As 3-14 games go, this one’s a great pick.

No. 13 Northeastern (+8) over No. 4 Kansas, Midwest Region

The Huskies have had good shooting teams for years under head coach Bill Coen, and this is their sharpest-shooting squad yet. They almost beat No. 3 seed Notre Dame in the first round of the 2015 tournament, before the Jerian Grant-led Irish almost made the Final Four. This year’s team is constructed similarly but better on offense, and it’s facing the most watered-down version of KU in many years. It seems clear this is not the Jayhawks’ year, so why not pick the nation’s No. 5 team in eFG% to knock them out?

Category 4: Nearly the longest shot, but conceivable

No. 15 Colgate (+17.5) over No. 2 Tennessee, South Region

Colgate hasn’t lost since Feb. 2. Colgate’s one of the 15 best shooting teams in the country by eFG%. Colgate has kind of a team of destiny feel to it, having gone from 8-22 in coach Matt Langel’s first year (2011-12) to now playing in its third tournament ever and first since 1996. Tennessee is excellent and has no big holes, but has followed a 19-game win streak by losing four of its last 10. I’m only telling you to keep an eye on this game.