March Madness 2021: Predicting first-round NCAA Tournament upsets

Upsets are the most exciting part of March Madness. Here are the ones most likely to occur in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

The NCAA Tournament has earned the nickname March Madness for a reason. It’s not “March Just As Expected” or “Regular March.” It’s March Madness because the only thing you can expect is that the unexpected will happen.

Upsets are going to happen in the NCAA Tournament. It’s an inevitability. That said, identifying the correct upsets isn’t always the easiest task. The 12-over-5 upset has occurred most often in NCAA history, but we see No. 11 and No. 13 seeds advance almost every year as well, with the occasional No. 14 or No. 15 seed doing the same (or that one time UMBC became legendary as a No. 16 seed).

So, which games should you be looking at for potential upsets this time around? Here are eight double-digit seeds that I expect to win their first round matchup.

Under-seeded and over-seeded March Madness teams
Printable 2021 March Madness bracket
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West Region

(13) Ohio over (4) Virginia

Let’s get things started with a bang, shall we? Ohio is the lowest-seeded team I have pulling an upset for a number of reasons. The Bobcats have a legitimate star in Jason Preston who is capable of winning any game by himself. Preston outplayed Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu as Ohio nearly upset Illinois in Champaign earlier this season. He also averaged 22.3 points, 5.3 assists, and 5 rebounds per game while leading the No. 5-seeded Bobcats to the MAC Tournament title, headlined by 27 points in an upset over top-seeded Toledo.

Ohio has a good team around him, too, ranking 29th nationally in offensive efficiency and 13th in effective field goal percentage.

I also have concerns about Virginia. Their defense has not been anywhere near the level we expect from Tony Bennett-coached teams. During a recent three-game losing streak to Florida State, Duke, and NC State, the Cavaliers showed real offensive problems as well. This group has only scored at least 70 points once in the last month, and they’ll have to do at least that to beat Ohio.

There’s also the unfortunate factor of UVA’s COVID situation. Virginia had to pull out of the ACC Tournament due to a positive test and are currently quarantining in hopes of having enough players able to play in this game. If so, they will fly to Indianapolis on Friday for the game on Saturday. We know Virginia won’t have their full complement of players, and we don’t know how ready they will be to play, which isn’t a good combination when facing a dangerous team like Ohio.

(12) UC Santa Barbara over (5) Creighton

UC Santa Barbara and Ohio are in the same pod, so upsets by both teams would mean they would play each other in the second round, and I think that will happen.

Creighton has been up and down all year as they’re very dependent on their three-point shooting. That’s somewhat by design but unlike last year, the Bluejays don’t have other areas to carry them when the triple isn’t falling. Santa Barbara, meanwhile, excels at limiting the amount of three-pointers their opponent takes (15th in opponent’s 3PA/FGA), which should help them in this matchup.

The Gauchos are also on a roll, having only lost once this calendar year. They also have a legitimate star in senior guard JaQuori McLaughlin, who is capable of going toe-to-toe with Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski.

(10) VCU over (7) Oregon

I know picking a No. 10 over a No. 7 isn’t a huge upset — there’s a chance Vegas may actually favor VCU in this game — but it counts for these purposes, so we’re rolling with it.

VCU has ridden their stellar defense to another successful season. The Rams rank 12th in adjusted defensive efficiency largely thanks to their aggressive, pressing style. They’re third in steal rate, fourth in block rate, and ninth in turnover rate. Head coach Mike Rhoades’ squad attacks their opponent from the opening tip and never relents.

Oregon, meanwhile, has struggled when facing quality competition. The Ducks are 2-5 against NCAA Tournament teams with one of those victories coming against an Oregon State team that also beat them twice. They have solid players but are not a reliable defensive team. Expect VCU star Bones Hyland to have a big game in this one.

South Region

(12) Winthrop over (5) Villanova

This feels like the perfect storm for an upset. Winthrop is one of the best mid-major teams in the country and have only lost one game all season. They have power conference-level size and the nation’s leader in triple-doubles in point guard Chandler Vaudrin.

On the flip side, Villanova is reeling after losing star Collin Gillespie to a knee injury a couple of weeks ago. Their second best player, Justin Moore, has also been out with an ankle sprain that will limit him even if he is able to play in the NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats are 0-2 since the Gillespie injury with losses to Providence and Georgetown. Look for Winthrop to take advantage of a Villanova team limping to the finish line.

(11) Utah State over (6) Texas Tech

Texas Tech seemingly cannot get over the hump this year. The Red Raiders have lost 10 games this season, six of which came by six points or fewer. All 10 losses were against top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament, mind you, but they have been unable to consistently pull out close victories against the better teams they’ve played.

Utah State is a good team. They have the nation’s eighth-best defense led by star big man Neemias Queta, who many thought would be playing in the NBA by now. He is fifth in the country in block rate and is a big reason why Utah State’s interior defense and rebounding numbers are so good. Texas Tech gives up a lot of offensive rebounds and gets a vast majority of their offense inside the arc (304th in threes attempted). Their weaknesses play into Utah State’s strengths, so give me the Aggies.

Midwest Region

(10) Rutgers over (7) Clemson

Both Rutgers and Clemson are limping into the NCAA Tournament, so it’s probably a good thing for each that they were matched up with each other. The Scarlet Knights are 4-5 in their last nine games with one of those losses coming to lowly Nebraska, while the Tigers have lost two of their last three, including their ACC Tournament opener to a bad Miami team.

These two also play a similar style with elite defenses (Rutgers is 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency; Clemson is 20th) carrying offenses that aren’t all that great (Rutgers is 75th; Clemson is 99th).

Because of that, I think this is a great matchup for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have more reliable scoring options, more experience, and better guards than Clemson, all of which will be important in a game expected to be this close.

East Region

(12) Georgetown over (5) Colorado

The Hoyas surprisingly won the Big East Tournament after closing the regular season with a 9-12 overall record, but they are rolling right now. Patrick Ewing’s squad has won eight of their last 10 games with their only losses coming against a UConn team that simply matches up well against them. In the Big East final, Georgetown flexed their muscle with a 73-48 win over Creighton, another No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The emergence of freshman point guard Dante Harris is something to keep an eye on.

Colorado is a vulnerable team that can struggle with turnovers and doesn’t do anything overly well besides shoot free throws, yet the Buffs are 216th in free throw rate. Their inconsistent play has caused some clunkers, which led to losses to bad teams like Washington, Cal, and Utah.

(11) Michigan State over (6) BYU

This will technically be “Michigan State/UCLA” over BYU when filling out your bracket, but I’m a firm believer in picking every game (First Four games are NCAA Tournament games, too!). So, we’re going with the Spartans over UCLA and then BYU.

As silly as the phrase “January, February, Izzo, April” sounds, there is no denying the success Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has had in March. The Spartans already knocked off two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed over the last three weeks (Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan) and are playing their best basketball of the season. Their defense has improved tremendously, and junior Aaron Henry is now the go-to guy this team needed on the offensive end.

BYU is not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, but Michigan State has the size to neutralize BYU’s frontcourt — Sparty did face Purdue transfer and current Cougars center Matt Haarms for years — and their perimeter defense should keep Alex Barcello in check.

Brian Rauf
Brian Rauf

Heat Check CBB Lead National Writer