Ranking the Upset Chances of Every 13-15 Seed
© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
The hook of the NCAA Tournament is the Cinderella run. Everyone wants to see Mercer beat Duke. Everyone wants to see Lehigh beat Duke. Honestly, everyone wants to see anyone beat Duke, but it’s that much sweeter when it’s a stunning upset.
Below, I ranked every No. 13, 14 and 15 seed in order of least likely to the most likely to pull off a first-round stunner. (I think three of the No. 12 seeds can win straight-up this year as well, but more on that throughout the week.) Let’s see which team could potentially be this year’s Norfolk State or Hampton. Hopefully a few of the nuggets contained below can help you look like a genius in your bracket contest or help you hit a nice moneyline payout.
12. Cal State Fullerton (#15) over Purdue (#2)
Current line: CS Fullerton +20.5
The Titans are completely overmatched. CSUF relies on getting to the line to generate offense (it owns the highest free-throw rate in the country), which won’t work against a Purdue team that rarely fouls. Plus, Fullerton struggles to defend in the post, which spells disaster against center Isaac Haas and company. The Boilers should score at will at the rim and steamroll into the second round.
11. Lipscomb (#15) over North Carolina (#2)
Current line: Lipscomb +19.5
The Bisons have oddly shot the ball poorly all year (268th nationally from 3), partially because starting point guard Nate Moran has missed the entire season. That said, Lipscomb turned it on late and mollywhopped Florida Gulf Coast (a team modeled after the Tar Heels) in the Atlantic Sun Tournament championship to punch a ticket to the dance. If the shots are falling (as they did vs. Dunk City) against UNC’s sagging perimeter defense, Lipscomb could stick around for a half or more. However, UNC’s athletic advantage will eventually overwhelm the Bisons.
10. Iona (#15) over Duke (#2)
Current line: Iona +19.5
The Gaels do have an excellent zone offense, but they haven’t seen a zone defense with Duke’s size. Coach Tim Cluess’ Iona squad is no stranger to the dance, so they won’t be intimidated by the mystique of Coach K and the Blue Devils. That said, the Gaels will ultimately be overwhelmed by Duke bigs Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter in the frontcourt.
9. Montana (#14) over Michigan (#3)
Current line: Montana +12
Tough matchup for the Grizzlies, who don’t have the frontcourt mobility to defend Michigan forward Moe Wagner in pick-and-roll. Also, Michigan guard Zavier Simpson has developed into an excellent on-ball defender. He should help keep Montana guard Mike Oguine out of the paint. Containing Oguine’s penetration and keeping the Grizz off the line (Michigan only commits 15.7 fouls per game, 24th-lowest nationally) is the formula for shutting down the Montana offense.
8. Georgia State (#15) over Cincinnati (#2)
Current line: Georgia State +14.5
This game should be incredibly ugly and worth an under look. Georgia State’s aggressive, morphing matchup 1-3-1 zone could give Cincy fits. (The Bearcats have struggled in zone offense all season.) Having said that, I don’t see how GSU finds enough points to pull off the upset. The Panthers are incredibly reliant on D’Marcus Simonds creating offense in pick-and-roll, but Bearcats coach Mick Cronin has the country’s best switching defense, as Cincy has length and versatility at every position.
7. UNC Greensboro (#13) over Gonzaga (#4)
Current line: UNC Greensboro +12.5
UNCG is a preparation headache. It uses a 1-2-2 zone press, extending full-court pressure at the second-highest rate in the country. The Spartans also have a dominant rim protector in big man James Dickey (an under-the-radar NBA prospect) and run a constantly screening offense that attempts to free up sharpshooter Francis Alonso at all times. Having said that, Gonzaga has an excellent press offense, mobile bigs to move Dickey around, and it defends in screens well. However, in the unlikely event that Mark Few doesn’t have his team fully prepared or if the Zags look past the Spartans, this could turn into a thriller. Alonso is the type of shooter who can single-handedly keep this close. Everyone remembers another Southern team (Wofford) winning at North Carolina, but don’t forget UNCG won at N.C. State earlier this season.
6. Bucknell (#14) over Michigan State (#3)
Current line: Bucknell +14.5
Expect the veteran Bison to be prepared mentally after getting tourney experience last year. (Bucknell lost 86-80 as a No. 13 seed against West Virginia.) With center Nana Foulland on the block, Bucknell runs offense through the post at the second-highest rate in the country. Michigan State, however, owns the country’s best 2PT% defense. Sparty’s biggest issue all year has been turnovers, but Bucknell doesn’t gamble defensively. Bison leading scorer Zach Thomas has also played with a mask after breaking his nose in the Patriot League quarterfinals. His offensive game has clearly suffered, as he has turned in back-to-back single-digit scoring games after failing to reach double digits only three times in the past two seasons.
5. Buffalo (#13) over Arizona (#4)
Current line: Buffalo +9.5
I’ve never seen a Sean Miller-coached team defend as poorly against dribble penetration as this Arizona squad. That could be problematic against Buffalo, which has high-major athleticism at nearly every position and puts three ballhandlers on the floor at all times. The Bulls also tested themselves against a difficult nonconference schedule (Cincinnati, Texas A&M, Syracuse, St. Bonaventure, South Dakota State), which should pay dividends in the tourney. Unfortunately for coach Nate Oats’ squad, 7-foot-1 freak Deandre Ayton is still playing for Arizona, and the Bulls have been roasted in the post by far lesser talents.
4. Stephen F. Austin (#14) over Texas Tech (#3)
Current line: Stephen F. Austin +11.5
The Lumberjacks should be a household name in mid-major circles by now, especially considering they sprung a first-round upset as a No. 14 seed just two years ago. (They also won as a No. 12 seed over VCU in 2014.) Coach Brad Underwood is gone, but Kyle Keller has maintained the same denial, pressure-heavy defense, as the Jacks turn teams over at the highest rate in the country. SFA actually runs a very similar spread motion offense as Texas Tech, so expect it to be fully prepared for the Red Raider offense. SFA’s foul rate and turnover rate (it also leads the country in turnovers on the offensive end) probably keep this one from becoming a reality, but don’t forget the Jacks almost went 3-0 against the SEC this year (won by one at LSU, lost by one at Missouri and lost by five at Mississippi State). Expect a slew of SFA fans, who travel well, to flood Dallas for this in-state matchup.
3. Wright State (#14) over Tennessee (#3)
Current line: Wright State +13
Tennessee runs a lot of offense through the post, which Wright State excels at defending. (The Raiders grade out in the 97th percentile nationally in post defense, per Synergy.) Wright State’s guards will likely be overwhelmed by the Vols, but coach Scott Nagy is an outstanding game-planner. He previously took South Dakota State to the NCAA Tournament three times. Nagy might just have something up his sleeve.
2. Charleston (#13) over Auburn (#4)
Current line: Charleston +10.5
The Cougars don’t have the size in the frontcourt to give Auburn trouble, but they do have a deep and talented backcourt led by Joe Chealey (pictured above) and Grant Riller. Charleston also has one of the better zone offenses in the field, which will render Bruce Pearl’s matchup zone ineffective. Additionally, its veteran backcourt won’t get rattled by the Auburn pressure. Lastly, Charleston plays elite transition defense, which is key against break-heavy Auburn.
1. Marshall (#13) over Wichita State (#4)
Current line: Marshall +12
Wichita State had trouble defending in pick-and-roll and in transition this year. Few teams are as reliant on pick-and-roll and transition offense as the Herd. Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni is an offensive guru (it apparently runs in the genes) and has an outstanding point guard in Jon Elmore running the show. Elmore could very well be the best point guard on the floor in this game, not Landry Shamet. The Shockers struggled to defend a similarly constructed Oklahoma offense and even transition-heavy Arkansas State gave Wichita State trouble.
Photo credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports