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Upset Watch: Which NCAA Tournament Favorites Should Be On Alert?


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The NCAA Tournament bracket is now available in full and from the moment the 68-team field came to light, the attention of the country turned to what might happen on the court over the next few weeks. If nothing else, most sports fans will fill out a bracket of predictions in the next few days and, even if a lot of attention will be paid to which teams could make the Final Four in Minneapolis, some of the fun is trying to unearth a few sleepers.

Almost without fail, a couple of double-digit seeds make noise on the first weekend of the tournament, and in 2019 there are a few interesting candidates. In order for that to happen, though, a higher-seeded team has to fall and, in this space, we will be putting some squads on full-fledged upset alert for their first round contests.

Let’s roll through the teams that should have their guard up, and we’ll do so in chronological order.

No. 3 LSU vs. No. 14 Yale (12:40 pm ET, Thursday)

LSU is a lot more talented than Yale. The underdog does have a legitimate NBA prospect on the roster in Miye Oni but, in short, no one would willingly take Yale’s collective group against an LSU team that has big-time recruits all over the place. With that said, there are weird circumstances in play, with LSU functioning without head coach Will Wade and a team that shoots only 32.3 percent from three-point range this season. LSU is still nearly a double-digit favorite for a reason and they should take care of business, but Yale’s offense is legitimately potent and it only takes one hot performance.

No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Northeastern (4:00 pm ET, Thursday)

Northeastern can really, really shoot it. They are 5th in the country (per KenPom) in effective field goal percentage and that goes along with a top-15 national mark in three-point shooting. When you’re looking for an upset, that isn’t a bad place to start, especially with the random nature of a single 40-minute basketball game. Then, you throw in the fact that the Huskies run great offense and, perhaps more importantly, Kansas looks extremely vulnerable. The Jayhawks do have some very good wins on their resume but, in the same breath, this isn’t the same roster that was playing in November and Kansas just hasn’t been scary away from Allen Fieldhouse with their current roster.

No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Murray State (4:30 pm ET, Thursday)

This is going to be a popular upset pick and that isn’t a crazy thought. First, 5-12 games often get (very) weird and Marquette doesn’t have a national trust level despite the heroics of Markus Howard this season. On top of that, Murray State has the best player on the floor in Ja Morant, who is a projected top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. It goes beyond the presence of Morant, though, as Marquette has some structural issues when it comes to turning the ball over and they are a vulnerable club on nights when Howard isn’t superhuman. It’s almost too obvious but the Racers are more than capable of winning here.

No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 11 St. Mary’s (7:20 pm ET, Thursday)

One year after unleashing an offense for the ages, Villanova is still very good on that end of the floor. They aren’t uber-elite this time around, though, and the Wildcats have laid a few eggs along the way. In addition, St. Mary’s is a vastly underrated team nationally (even after a win over Gonzaga on a neutral court) and this is also a battle of teams that play at a glacial pace. That makes for an increase in variance (just ask Virginia) but, more than that, Villanova just isn’t that much better than St. Mary’s. KenPom makes this a one-point game on paper and, even with the Wildcats favored by more than that in Las Vegas, no one should be surprised if the reigning champs go down in round one.

No. 4 Kansas State vs. No. 13 UC-Irvine (2:00 pm ET, Friday)

A lot of the formula for this game is uncertain and it might swing on the availability of Kansas State’s Dean Wade. The Wildcats are just a different team when he plays but, if he doesn’t, the floodgates could open. UC-Irvine is an anonymous team by national standards but they lead the country in two-point percentage defense and the Anteaters haven’t lost a basketball game for more than two months. Are they favored to win this game? Absolutely not, but Kansas State’s offense is entirely underwhelming (especially without Wade) and anything can happen in a rock fight where the over/under is less than 120 points. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be betting on the Wildcats if you’re playing in a “confidence pool” bracket.

No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 Liberty (7:00 pm ET, Friday)

I was ready to place even more emphasis on Mississippi State as an upset candidate… and they drew Liberty. The Bulldogs can still lose, to be sure, but Mississippi State is over-seeded as a No. 5 and they should have been more vulnerable than they actually are. Fortunately for Ben Howland, Liberty is also over-seeded, as they are No. 63 in KenPom and likely worthy of a No. 14 seed under normal circumstances. Still, MSU shows up on this list because they turn the ball over too much and Liberty is a top-15 team nationally when it comes to efficient shooting.

No. 3 Houston vs. No. 14 Georgia State (7:20 pm ET, Friday)

Houston deserves more love for what they were able to do this season, finishing 31-3 and posting a top-15 profile at KenPom. With that said, the Cougars weren’t exactly lights-out in the AAC Tournament and they draw an interesting matchup in Georgia State. It should be noted that Houston is a bigger favorite than any team we’ve highlighted thus far and, quite frankly, they should be. Still, the Panthers won’t be scared by Houston’s overwhelming talent advantage in a way that some No. 14 seeds would be, and Georgia State shoots it well (38 percent) from beyond the three-point arc. That’s a nice start, especially with a No. 1 option as talented as D’Marcus Simonds.

No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 13 Saint Louis (9:57 pm ET, Friday)

If you simply look at the profile of Saint Louis, you would wonder how the Billikens are even in the tournament, much less included here. They are outside the top 100 in KenPom and a 12-loss team from the Atlantic 10 isn’t scaring anyone. On the flip side, Saint Louis was the most talented team in the A-10 this season and, frankly, it was bizarre that they scuffled as much as they did. Still, Virginia Tech is (much) better than Saint Louis and this comes down to a situation in which the Hokies really need to scuffle to make this interesting. Out of respect for the upside of Saint Louis when they have it rolling, we’ll include them but it does feel like a long-shot.

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