March Madness Upsets: Win Probability Tools For NCAA Tournament First-Round Picks & Predictions

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Written By Brett Gibbons | Last Updated
march madness upsets

The unpredictable nature of March Madness – especially in the first two days – makes it so lovable. Teams like 16-seed UMBC and 15-seed Saint Peter’s Elite Eight run forever etched their name in the history books. Those March Madness upsets were almost impossible predictions, but other Cinderellas are more predictable. So, let’s get a leg up on our office pools and take a look at some of the lower-seeded teams that have the highest expected win probability, according to NCAA Tournament odds.

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Use PoolGenius’ bracket predictor tool below to quickly compare potential upset picks. Click on the school logo to select each team and see how they stack up with a single glance.

Potential March Madness Upsets By The Odds

This year’s bracket features a litany of lower-seeded teams with high expected win rates. So, let’s break them into tiers of plausibility. (Note: I’m removing 8 vs. 9 seed matchups from the list, as No. 9 seeds actually hold a 78-74 advantage over No. 8 seeds since 1985.)

Lower Seeds With More Than 50% Implied Win Rate

TeamML OddsWin RateOpponent
No. 11 New Mexico-13457.3%No. 6 Clemson
No. 10 Nevada-11052.4%No. 7 Dayton
No. 10 Drake-10851.9%No. 7 Washington State
No. 11 Oregon-10350.7%No. 6 South Carolina

The New Mexico Lobos (26-9) captured a Mountain West Tournament title just days ago, but fell out of favor with the NCAA Selection Committee. In fact, almost the entire MWC fell out of favor. The league is well-represented, but all at lower seeds than expected. Oddsmakers don’t carry the same opinion, as they align more with Haslametrics‘ assessment, favoring New Mexico. However, the Lobos face a tough first-round draw in Clemson.

The remaining teams aren’t favored, but still have higher than a 50% expected win rate. The Nevada Wolfpack (26-7) and Dayton both drew -110s at open while Drake (28-6) and Oregon (23-11) drew odds shorter than even. The Ducks ran the table and captured the final Pac-12 Tournament title, upending Arizona in the semifinals. When it comes to March, momentum matters and Oregon has all of it. They go against South Carolina, who ranks No. 2 in the country in Luck according to KenPom.

Good Potential Leverage Picks

TeamML OddsWin RateOpponent
No. 12 James Madison+17037%No. 5 Wisconsin
No. 12 Grand Canyon+17037%No. 5 Saint Mary’s
No. 11 NC State+19034.5%No. 6 Texas Tech

Leverage is an excellent tool when taking on large March Madness contest pools. Comparing pool pick rate to expected win rate can help you locate some upsets (or, in college football bowl pool terms, “contrarian picks”) to give you the leg-up. Typically, the ESPN Tournament Challenge and NCAA March Madness Live bracket challenge will display pick percentages.

The upper half of the South Region features a murderer’s row. The No. 12 seed James Madison Dukes (31-3) are tied for the best odds to beat their first-round opponent (No. 5 Wisconsin) of any 12-seed. With a 37% implied win rate, all it takes is Wisconsin to be selected in 66% of brackets to become a good contrarian pick. The Dukes won 30 games this year – one of just four teams nationally to do so – but those came against the 293rd-ranked schedule, per KenPom.

The Grand Canyon Antelopes (29-4) also come in with a 37% expected win rate over No. 5 Saint Mary’s. GCU is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament, appearing in three of the last four brackets. The No. 11 seed NC State Wolfpack (22-14) won the ACC Tournament with a shocking tear through the postseason. That momentum helped set their odds at +190 at open, even though they fall behind in ratings systems.

Longer Shots Worth A Look

TeamML OddsWin RateOpponent
No. 12 UAB+21531.8%No. 5 San Diego State
No. 12 McNeese+22031.3%No. 5 Gonzaga
No. 13 Samford+25028.6%No. 4 Kansas

During the Selection Sunday show, CBS dubbed the McNeese State Cowboys “the team no one wants to play.” At 30-3, McNeese sits in rarified air nationally. Oddsmakers agree, lining the Cowboys with nearly a one-in-three probability to take down Gonzaga in Round 1. For large pools filled with the general population, McNeese likely makes an excellent upset pick – though some will see the 30 wins and advance them, many more likely to recognize the Gonzaga brand and push them through without much thought.

The No. 12 UAB Blazers (23-11) present an interesting Round 1 case against defending runner-up San Diego State. In stark contrast to the Aztecs, the Blazers like to get out and run a hot pace, have plenty of momentum on their side after winning the AAC Tournament, and have proven to be a dangerous team outside of Birmingham. Like with the previous example, many people in large pools will push SDSU through, recalling last year’s run. Especially given UAB’s ho-hum record, the Blazers may turn into one of the best Round 1 upsets on the March Madness bracket.

Rather than Samford jumping ahead, its expected win rate comes from Kansas dealing with injuries, most notably to star Hunter Dickenson.

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