FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

Sports

By The Numbers, The Best Upsets To Pick For Your NCAA Tournament Bracket

Looking for NCAA Tournament Cinderellas? Advanced metrics suggest Yale, Gonzaga, Vanderbilt, Wichita State, Hawaii and Northern Iowa have the greatest upset potential.
March 14, 2016, 3:20pm
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA Tournament bracket is set, which means it's time to be wrong, mostly, but also to speculate on this year's crop of Cinderellas. The NCAA's selection method and subsequent seeding all but guarantees some upsets that will look surprising based on brand and seeds, but which will likely be less so if you dig a bit deeper into the underlying numbers.

The tournament selection committee teams based off their "resumes" and the extremely faulty RPI formula, meaning teams are rewarded more for winning certain games than for their overall strength. In turn, this means teams that simply got lucky during the regular season can be seeded too high and, conversely, that teams that lost a high proportion of close, statistically random games can be seeded too low.

Read More: How Ken Pomeroy Became College Basketball's Favorite Number-Cruncher

By using advanced metrics, or even intuitive less-advanced ones like margin of victory, we can more accurately determine which teams are under-seeded, and so more likely to outperform the committee's expectations.

As such, here are the five best Cinderella candidates, defined as teams that are seeded No. 11 or worse.

Advanced stats suggest this year's NCAA Tournament may leave Arizona coach Sean Miller feeling more perturbed than usual. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

No. 11 Vanderbilt or No. 11 Wichita State vs. No. 6 Arizona

If you're going to feel bad for anyone in the NCAA Tournament, it should be Arizona. The Wildcats have gotten unlucky this year—88 percent of their losses have been within two possessions—and now they play one of two very underseeded No. 11 seeds.

Vanderbilt and Wichita State were two of the last four teams in the bracket, and their reward is a play-in game in Dayton. But according to KenPom.com's rankings, which take into account margin of victory and overall team strength, both were criminally underseeded.

Advertisement

Vanderbilt ranks just 11 spots—or, three seed lines—below Arizona in KenPom. Meanwhile, Wichita State actually ranks ahead of the Wildcats.

In a just world, Wichita State would be a No. 3 seed, while Vanderbilt would be a No. 7 seed.

Wichita State is the most underseeded team, per — Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)March 14, 2016

If you're looking for a No. 11 seed to not only pull a first-round upset, but also advance deep into the tournament, strongly consider the winner of this game.

No. 11 Northern Iowa vs. No. 6 Texas

Northern Iowa is a mystery. The Panthers don't have a great advanced statistical rating—No. 76 nationally—and they have some bad losses, including eight losses to teams ranked outside the top 100 in KenPom.

However, they also have a surprising number of top wins. So far this year, UNI has knocked off three teams ranked in the KenPom top 20—No. 4 North Carolina, No. 11 Wichita State (twice) and No. 18 Iowa State, with only one of those victories coming at home.

There are two types of No. 11-seeds: schools that have a lot of good wins combined with a lot of good losses, and those that are consistently "meh." Neither profile suggests a long run through the bracket, but in a one-off game, but the former's high performance ceiling is far more terrifying.

UNI is the king of the hot/cold No. 11 seeds. The Panthers also have finished strong, having lost just one game since the end of January. If Bad UNI shows up, Texas has little to worry about; if the good Panthers emerge, the Longhorns could be one-and-out.

When Northern Iowa is good, the Panthers are pretty great. Photo by Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

No. 13 Hawaii vs. No. 4 Cal

Hawaii has came out of nowhere to dominate the Big West and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Under new coach Eran Ganot, the Warriors went 27-5, but perhaps the most telling metric of the team's strength has been its performance against other tournament teams.

Hawaii played just three regular games against schools included in the 64-team bracket—not coincidentally, those happened to be the three best teams the Warriors played. And in all three, Hawaii held its own.

Look again: The Warriors handed Northern Iowa its worst loss of the season—a 16-point drubbing. They came within three points of knocking off No. 2 seed Oklahoma, and lost to eight-seed Texas Tech by eight.

Since the tournament selection committee doesn't take into account margin of victory, it doesn't know convincing Hawaii looked in those games, or how dangerous the Warriors can be—even against a surging Cal squad that features two probable NBA Draft Lottery picks in freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb.

No. 12 Yale vs. No. 5 Baylor

Everyone loves picking a No. 5 seed-No. 12 seed upset, and by advanced stats, this is the best-looking selection of the 2016 bracket. Yale ranks No. 38 in KenPom, while Baylor ranks No. 24. That's not a wide margin for a 5-12 game. And while I think Yale's rating is a bit inflated due to an overrated Ivy League and team captain Jack Montague having left the school in connection with a sexual misconduct accusation, the Bulldogs have a key advantage: They're essentially playing at home.

Only the top four seeds are protected by a geographical advantage. Since No. 5-seed Baylor gets no such protection, it has to play Yale in Providence, Rhode Island, which is all of an hour-and-a-half from the Yale campus.

Advertisement

KenPom has Baylor beating Yale by three points in a typical neutral site scenario, but this game figures to be anything but. If you want to play the percentages to outsmart office colleagues who just see the team names, this is the game for you.

True fact: Yale University has a basketball team that is playing in the NCAA Division I Men's Championship Tournament. Photo by Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

No. 11 Gonzaga vs. No. 6 Seton Hall

There's a clear argument to be made against Gonzaga's seeding, at least by NCAA standards. The Bulldogs' best wins are against UConn and Saint Mary's, and they didn't play a particularly tough schedule.

However, Gonzaga is actually far better than its seed suggests. Of the Bulldogs' seven losses, six were by two possessions or fewer, and none were by more than 10 points. In other words, the Zags suffered a lot of bad luck, and if they played those games again, it's unlikely they would have gone 1-6.

Close losses are why Gonzaga is ranked No. 28 in KenPom, just two spots behind No. 6-seed Seton Hall. The Pirates are a solid team and are playing their best basketball recently; they just won the Big East Tournament, and looked very good doing it. But this is essentially a toss-up, which is not something that can be said about the typical 6-11 matchup.