No school has dominated college basketball quite like UCLA. Starting in 1964, they won 10 of the next 12 NCAA tournaments under legendary coach John Wooden. The program returned to glory by winning the 1995 tournament, which made them an easy villian to root against as the 1996 tournament began. UCLA faced Princeton in the first round. The Ivy league kids with no athletic scholarships played with the champs all night. Finally, in their last possession, with the game tied, they executed perfectly and made a simple layup. 43-41 Princeton, and people everywhere erupted. This is what makes the first round of the NCAA tournament so special. No other event has the power to make millions of Americans scream so passionately for some priviledged kids from the east coast establishment.
The first round of this year’s tournament will hopefully feature similar excitement. For games with teams seeded higher than 10, The Power Rank predicts that the following games have the highest likelihood of an upset.
Marquette (11) over Xavier (6)
Utah State (12) over Kansas State (5)
Richmond (12) over Vanderbilt (5)
Belmont (13) over Wisconsin (4)
Missouri (11) over Cincinnati (6)
Gonzaga (11) over St. John’s (6)
Ranked 24th in The Power Rank, Marquette is a solid team that somehow ended up with an 11 seed. While we would never tell the selection committee what to do, it seems like a team who plays in a brutally tough Big East conference with 11 teams in the tournament and only lost to tournament teams out of conference should get a higher seed. We predict that Marquette will beat Xavier by 2.6 points. Utah State, ranked 21st in The Power Rank, got a 12 seed because the selection committee didn’t think too highly of their marque win over St. Mary’s, a team that didn’t make the field of 68. Utah State plays an old fashion, pass and look for a good shot style of basketball, and they certainly have the firepower to knock off an erratic Kansas State team. While the remaining 4 teams above aren’t predicted to win, Richmond, Belmont, Missouri and Gonzaga should give their higher seeded opponents all kinds of trouble.
Moving on to the 2nd round, we note that at least one double digit seed wins two games and makes the Sweet Sixteen each year. Who will it be this year? Marquette with their 11 seed is a good bet, as they would likely play Syracuse in the second round. Marquette beat Syracuse by 6 at home during the regular season. We also like odds of a double digit seed coming out of the Tucson region that features both Utah State (12) and Belmont (13). Belmont, a small school in Nashville, Tennessee, will run eleven guys out on the court and fire up threes in their first round game against Wisconsin. A win might result in a second round game with Utah State, which would guarentee a double digit seed in the Sweet Sixteen.
Finally, consider the Michigan State Spartans and coach Tom Izzo, a program that always overachieves in the tournament. After beginning the season highly regarded in the polls, they consistently underachieved and finally hit rock bottom in late January as a key player was suspended for the rest of the season and they lost by 20 at Iowa. However, this is the same team that traveled to Durham and gave Duke all they could handle. The Power Rank sees their first round game with UCLA as a toss up and predicts a close 2.5 point loss to Florida in the second round. That’s a reasonable path to the Sweet Sixteen for the 10th seeded Spartans.
One last word about filling out your brackets. While The Power Rank is a useful tool, picking only the higher ranked teams in every game is unlikely to win your pool. For any pool with more than 10 people, someone is going to get lucky. Maybe your friend’s brother who doesn’t know that a basketball is round but somehow picks an 11th seeded Washington in the Sweet Sixteen because the campus is pretty. So get a little creative in making your picks. Last year, my friend Jeremy Jones picked the higher ranked teams if The Power Rank predicted a margin of victory greater than two. If the point spread was less than two, Jones called the upset. Hmm, Princeton is back in this year’s tournament. In a neutral court playoff against Harvard this Saturday, they hit a buzzer beating shot that lifted them to a one point win. That might be the karma a team needs to win a few games in the tournament.