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March Madness ’21: More Upsets, Less Upsetting
For 80 years, the phrase “March Madness” referred to the start of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Division I basketball tournaments. In March 2020, however, the idiom took on a different meaning as the COVID-19 pandemic erupted across the United States. The first domino in the world of sports fell on March 11 when the NBA suspended its season until further notice. This announcement followed the news that Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus. The next day, one-by-one, college basketball conferences cancelled their respective tournaments. At 4:16 p.m. EST, the NCAA announced that it would cancel all remaining winter and spring championships as well, including March Madness itself.
In the months that followed, the world of professional sports slowly regained a semblance of normalcy. Unfortunately, the college basketball world has not recovered as quickly or efficiently. Despite these setbacks, the NCAA tournament will indeed be played in 2021. Similar to what the NBA did for their 2020 playoffs, the 2021 NCAA Tournament will be held in a “bubble” in downtown Indianapolis. The games begin on March 18, with 8 teams battling for the last 4 spots in the 64-team tournament. Keep reading for tips to help keep your bracket alive through the madness (which is thankfully less mad than last year!).
Who’s In, Who’s Out:
The NCAA Tournament has consistently featured appearances from college basketball powerhouses Duke and Kentucky. However, for the first time since 1976, neither team will be participating this year. Kentucky last missed the tournament in 2013, a year after winning the National Championship. The last time that Duke missed the tournament was in 1995, three years after Christian Laettner won the Blue Devils back-to-back championships. Despite a rough season, Duke still had a chance to make the NCAA Tournament if they were able to win the ACC Tournament. Unfortunately, a positive COVID-19 test from a player forced them to withdraw.
Because of scheduling issues and postponements due to COVID-19, some teams were able to play more games than others. The effects were certainly felt amongst teams during the season, with teams forced to fight for health and consistency. The discrepancy in scheduling also led to one of the most complicated Selection Sundays in history, with the NCAA Selection Committee forced to analyze and rank team strengths despite different sample sizes.
As it stands, the #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament are Baylor, Illinois, Michigan, and of course Gonzaga, who went undefeated in the regular season. The Gonzaga Bulldogs are currently the favorite to win the National Championship with odds most recently at 2/1, courtesy of VegasInsider.com. If you’re new to Bracketology and looking for a safe pick, the Bulldogs are a solid choice. Having defeated the #2, #3, and #4 seeds in their region during the regular season, Gonzaga should at least make it to the Final Four. Remember though, the beauty of March Madness is its unpredictability, hence the name. Which brings us to…
General Advice for Picking Upsets:
The NCAA tournament field grew to 64 teams in 1985. Since then, only one #16 seed has ever defeated a #1 seed in the first round (UMBC over Virginia in 2018). Our advice? Don’t bet against a record of 139-1. If you’re looking for upsets, try focusing on seeds #10-#12. Stats from the NCAA show that there is roughly a 35%-40% chance each year that an upset will occur for each of those seeds. As for the #8 and #9 seeds, the NCAA doesn’t even consider any one seed difference an upset; in other words, play the matchup and not the seed.
Using the NCAA definition of an upset, the annual average amount of upsets is 12.2 per tournament. Out of the past 35 tournaments, 28 have included between 10 and 16 upsets overall. A good strategy might be to pick around 6 upsets in the first round, 3 in the second, 2 in the Sweet Sixteen, and 1 in the Elite Eight. Though taking risks based on seed number is a good strategy, it’s also important to choose them wisely. We’ve analyzed a few games that have high upset chances and listed them below.
Upset Games to Watch:
#4 Oklahoma State vs. #13 Liberty (Midwest Region)
Key Player: Cade Cunningham – Guard, OSU
This year, the consensus among mock draft writers is that Cade Cunningham from Oklahoma State University will be the #1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft. Though having the best individual player may not always guarantee a National Championship win, the 19-year-old Freshman will look to solidify his draft position with a strong tournament showing.
In 2019, the #1 seeded Duke Blue Devils were led by a trio of Freshman including Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish. The talented team lasted until the Elite Eight, where they were then bested by Michigan State. In the 2019 NBA Draft, Williamson was drafted #1 overall, with Barrett and Reddish going #3 and #10, respectively. The year before, DeAndre Ayton led his Arizona Wildcats to a #4 seed in the 2018 March Madness Tournament. Despite later being selected #1 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, Ayton and the Wildcats were upset in the very first round by the #13 seeded Buffalo Bulls. In fact, over the last 20 years, only one #1 overall pick in the NBA draft has led his team all the way to a National Championship—Anthony Davis of the Kentucky Wildcats in 2012.
What does this mean for Cunningham and the Oklahoma State Cowboys in 2021? According to VegasInsider.com, the Cowboys have 16/1 odds to win the National Championship; that’s tied for 5th best alongside Alabama, Iowa, and Ohio State. However, the Cowboys have a tough matchup slated in the first round against #13 seed Liberty University. The Liberty Flames finished 23-5 this year and hit 39.1% of their three-point attempts—6th best in the country. On the other side, Oklahoma State’s defense has been excellent at stopping the three-ball, limiting opponents to just 31.8% from deep. Despite Cunningham’s prowess and Oklahoma State’s defense, VegasInsider.com has the Cowboys as just 7.5 point favorites over the Flames. If your bracket rewards upsets, this may be a game to look at closely. If Oklahoma State can pull out an early win, they have a chance to make a deep run in this tournament.
Prediction: The Cowboys fan the Flames and OSU advances to the second round.
#5 Villanova vs. #12 Winthrop (South Region)
Key Player: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl – Forward, Villanova
Three years removed from their 2018 National Championship, the Villanova University Wildcats began the 2020-2021 season ranked #3 on the AP Top 25 College Basketball Rankings. Despite a slight dip, they made their way back to #3 by the beginning of February. Why then are some pundits calling them the “upset lock of the region”?
Following losses to two unranked teams (St. John’s and Butler) and a loss to a #19 ranked Creighton during the regular season, Villanova dropped to #10 overall by March 1. With two games left, the Wildcats still looked to be in position to win another division title and set their sights on their third championship in five years. However, on March 3, during their rematch against Creighton, senior point guard and team captain Collin Gillespie suffered a torn MCL that will keep him out of the NCAA Tournament. Gillespie played a key role off the bench for Villanova in their 2018 National Championship run. Though Villanova was able to get revenge against Creighton and ultimately win the division title, they dropped their next game against unranked Providence 54-52 and finished 11-4 in their division. Despite having secured the #1 seed in the Big East Tournament, Villanova lost 72-71 to #8 seed Georgetown in the quarterfinals. Now, Villanova heads into the NCAA Tournament without their floor leader. The latest AP Poll dropped their rank to #18 overall, consistent with their #5 seed ranking. Once thought to be a favorite to win it all, Villanova will face an uphill battle just trying to survive the first round.
The matchup for Villanova comes against #12 seed Winthrop University, who finished their season 23-1. The Winthrop Eagles didn’t have a chance to play any ranked opponents, but their record speaks for itself. VegasInsider.com lists the Wildcats as just 6.5 point favorites over Winthrop. The question comes down to whether Villanova truly lost the heart of their team when Gillespie went down. The Wildcats’ coach Jay Wright was just announced as one of 14 finalists for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Having won two titles in the past five years, Coach Wright knows something about success in the NCAA Tournament. Despite ultimately losing to Georgetown, Villanova forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl put up 26 points for the Wildcats and is averaging 15.7 on the year. For us, this one comes down to whether Coach Wright can game-plan against a Winthrop team that’s 1-10 lifetime in the NCAA Tournament.
Prediction: Villanova takes this one from Winthrop, but they won’t be advancing past the Sweet Sixteen.
#4 Virginia vs. #13 Ohio University (West Region)
Key Player: Jason Preston – Guard, Ohio
Speaking of National Champions, the Virginia Cavaliers were the last team to win the NCAA Tournament following a win over Texas Tech in 2019. Ranked as a #1 seed in the tournament, the win earned Virginia its first ever National Championship, just one year after being the first #1 seed ever to lose in the first round. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cavaliers didn’t have a chance to defend their title in 2020.
Like Villanova, Virginia started the 2020-2021 season highly ranked in the AP Top 25, coming in at #4 overall. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers suffered a similar slide and dropped to #21 overall at the end of the regular season. During the season, Virginia lost two games to unranked opponents (Duke and NC State). After finishing the season with 2 wins, Virginia entered the ACC tournament as the #1 seed and claimed a close 72-69 victory over #8 seeded Syracuse. Unfortunately, Virginia was forced to withdraw from the ACC Tournament following a positive COVID-19 test. According to coach Tony Bennett, a majority of the team was forced to quarantine due to contact tracing, but only one player actually tested positive. Data suggests that teams who were forced to pause their schedules due to COVID-19 are not fairing as well as expected upon their returns. Thus, the debate is whether it is the lack of consistency or the health of the players that is affecting performance. Though Virginia’s game against Syracuse came as recently as March 11, we know that the unnamed Cavalier who tested positive played in that game. Could it be a star player who is forced to sit out the first round? It’s worth noting though that the Cavaliers had already faced a pause due to Covid-19 in December. That pause ended with them crushing William & Mary 76-40 when they returned.
Virginia is set to face the #13 seed Ohio University Bobcats. VegasInsider.com has the Cavaliers as just 7.5 point favorites, which seems rather low for the defending champions. Though Virginia’s health may be contributing to the low spread, it’s this Bobcats squad that has people whispering of a possible upset. Ohio is led by Jason Preston, a 6’4” junior who is averaging 16.6 points per game and shooting over 40% from three. On November 27, 2020, the Bobcats squared off against then #8 ranked Illinois. Preston dropped 31 points, and the Bobcats lost a nail biter 77-75. The latest AP Poll now ranks that same Illinois team as #2 overall in the country, which secured them a #1 seed in the tournament. Though his point production dipped somewhat over the season, Preston recently came alive in the MAC Tournament, putting up 19, 27, and 22 points over his last three games. If he can put together the type of performance he had against Illinois, this Virginia team could be making another first round exit. However, the Bobcats also lost to teams like Toledo and Kent State, so there’s certainly room for doubt.
Prediction: Preston impresses, and Virginia is upset in the first round (again).