The Final Four is at its best when the actual best teams in the bracket avoid upsets and make it to the national semifinals. We love the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, however, because of the nonstop possibility of upsets, of mid-majors coming from nowhere to take down powerful foes and throw some chaos into the bracket.
The fun of upsets is that they're unpredictable, sometimes happening in places nobody saw coming. Of course, part of the fun of filling out NCAA Tournament brackets every year is attempting to get a bit lucky and make correct upset calls. So which matchups offer the best chance for upsets in the first round on Thursday and Friday? We ranked all 32 games by upset possibility. (Keep in mind that for the purposes of this article, upsets refer to the team with the worse seed winning.)
1. (10) Wichita State vs. (7) Dayton
Wichita State appears to be the unanimous choice for most underseeded team, and thus this is in no way an upset pick … except based on seed, which is what this article is about. It's not hard to see why the Shockers are only a 10: They have two RPI top-50 wins, both of which are against Illinois State. The committee wasn't exactly enamored with the Missouri Valley Conference, and Wichita State lost in nonconference play to Louisville, Oklahoma State and Michigan State. With that said, the Shockers won 30 games. They've won 15 in a row. Statistics say they're good at almost everything, and KenPom.com has them ranked No. 8 nationally, thus illustrating a massive disparity between performance and résumé. Yes, they lost stars Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, but this is a balanced, fairly deep team led by Markis McDuffie, Landry Shamet and Darral Willis, one clearly improved since nonconference play. None of which is to take much away from Dayton, the regular-season Atlantic 10 champion with a veteran core and a great coach in Archie Miller. But the Flyers are coming off back-to-back losses to George Washington and Davidson and simply haven't played at as high of a level as Wichita State. Dayton is certainly capable of winning, but these feels like seeds that should be flipped.
2. (10) Oklahoma State vs. (7) Michigan
Give all the credit in the world to Michigan, which rebounded from a runway plane crash that forced it to arrive on the morning of its first Big Ten tournament game and won the whole event, rattling off four wins in a row -- including Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Wolverines have found a rhythm offensively and are dangerous. Of course, so is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys don't defend well (Michigan isn't elite defensively, either), but they rank No. 1 in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency. Get ready for a great point guard matchup between Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans and Michigan's Derrick Walton. This looks like an even game that could be among the most entertaining in the first round.
3. (9) Vanderbilt vs. (8) Northwestern
Thursday, Salt Lake City
Here's the type of NCAA Tournament matchup you never thought you'd see: a 15-loss SEC team that was under .500 until Feb. 16, playing against Northwestern. That's right, Northwestern, the team that has never been in the tournament. This is the first time ever that we're discussing the Wildcats and their chances of advancing in the bracket. They certainly have a good chance of taking care of business to advance to meet Gonzaga; after all, we already mentioned that Vandy has 15 losses. Can Northwestern survive the intense spotlight? Vandy has improved during coach Bryce Drew's first season, winning seven of its past nine games with a three-game sweep of Florida and a win over Iowa State.
4. (10) Marquette vs. (7) South Carolina
It's a huge clash of styles, as Marquette leans heavily toward its offense and South Carolina is all about defense. Neither of these teams is complete. South Carolina has not been the same team late in the season, as it started 19-4 but lost six of its past nine games. Marquette has recent wins over Xavier and Creighton, and really, the result is a matter of which wins out: The Golden Eagles' fantastic 3-point shooting, or the Gamecocks' terrific 3-point defense.
5. (11) Rhode Island vs. (6) Creighton
Creighton has been playing without point guard Maurice Watson since mid-January and isn't the same team it was in the first half of the season. The Bluejays are still dangerous offensively, but they're beatable. Rhode Island, meanwhile, has been on the opposite trajectory: The Rams have won eight in a row, capturing the Atlantic 10 title to move off the bubble and into the Big Dance with an automatic bid. URI defends well and could contain the Watson-less Bluejays.
6. (9) Virginia Tech vs. (8) Wisconsin
It's a strange game to evaluate. Wisconsin is making its 19th straight NCAA Tournament appearance and plummeted to a No. 8 seed despite starting the season 21-3. Virginia Tech is in the field for only the third time since 1986 and has been missing guard Chris Clarke since mid-February because of a torn ACL. The Badgers have underwhelmed despite having a lot of familiar faces in the lineup, including Ethan Happ, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. But they also lost five of their last seven regular-season games and lost to Michigan by 15 in the Big Ten final. It might be a tough matchup for Virginia Tech, which has been lackluster defensively, but Wisconsin has been nowhere near as strong as expected.
7. (9) Michigan State vs. (8) Miami
Michigan State is making its 20th straight tournament appearance. This is only the fourth time in that span that it has been in the bottom half of the seeding and therefore the "underdog" in the first round. It has lost twice as a No. 10 seed, and it lost in the second round as a No. 9 seed. It's a No. 9 again this time, somehow hoping to advance a round past last year's national title favorite, was knocked out in the first round by No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee. The Spartans are young and mistake-prone, and they'll lean on freshman Miles Bridges to try to get past a solid Miami team that doesn't shoot particularly well but plays tough defense.
8. (9) Seton Hall vs. (8) Arkansas
Seton Hall-Arkansas is the type of 8-9 matchup that could be highly competitive but is mostly ignored, because nobody expects either team to beat North Carolina in the second round. These are teams expected to be quickly forgotten, regardless of who wins. Seton Hall's only two losses in its past eight games were to Villanova. Arkansas' only two losses in its past 10 games were to Kentucky and Florida. So, both of these teams have played well recently, giving this a chance to be a good game, although the Razorbacks have a decisive edge offensively.
9. (11) Kansas State/Wake Forest vs. (6) Cincinnati
Cincinnati has been an underappreciated team all season, stuck in what's been a down year overall for the American -- which struggles to attract attention and respect when both UConn and Memphis are down. The Bearcats are experienced and tough defensively. It could be a tough matchup for Kansas State, which relies on forcing turnovers but may struggle to do so against the Bearcats' veteran guards. Cincinnati also defends well in the post, making it an interesting matchup for Wake Forest, an offense-first team that revolves around star 6-foot-10 sophomore John Collins.
10. (11) Xavier vs. (6) Maryland
This would be an entirely different matchup earlier in the season. Xavier, however, lost guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending injury, and it struggled late in the year with six straight losses to end up 9-9 in Big East play. Maryland, meanwhile, is 4-6 in its past 10 games after a misleading 20-2 start. It's hard to know what to expect from either team in the NCAA Tournament, but there are a couple stars here in Xavier's Trevon Bluiett and Maryland's Melo Trimble.
11. (10) VCU vs. (7) Saint Mary's
Thursday, Salt Lake City
This is the kind of matchup that can be infuriating, two non-power conference teams stuck together instead of trying to take down more powerful programs. VCU has been a mainstay of bracket conversations but has struggled to recapture anything close to the magic of its Final Four run. Saint Mary's has been excellent all year, but it's trying to actually prove it against someone of note. It has four losses, three of which were against Gonzaga. The Gaels are the more efficient team, led by a star 6-foot-11 center in Jock Landale.
12. (11) Providence/USC vs. (6) SMU
SMU has lost just one game -- by three points to Cincinnati -- since November. Tim Jankovich has done a terrific job, with the team built around Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye. The Mustangs have climbed to No. 11 in the KenPom ratings, while Providence is 56th and USC is 61st. Providence has wins over Butler, Xavier, Marquette and Creighton, and USC has wins over UCLA and … SMU. So the Trojans have already shown they can get it done. Still, SMU was retooling early in the year and looks like a different team now.
13. (12) Middle Tennessee vs. (5) Minnesota
Last year, Middle Tennessee shocked the world by beating a Big Ten team. It was a No. 15 seed, making its win over No. 2 Michigan State one of the biggest NCAA Tournament upsets ever. This year? Beating Minnesota would hardly be viewed as a monumental upset. The Golden Gophers are the better team, but they're No. 33 in the KenPom ratings; Middle Tennessee is 48th. The Blue Raiders rely heavily on scoring on the inside, led by JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw, and they'll be faced with a tough Golden Gophers interior defense led by Big Ten defensive player of the year Reggie Lynch, so the matchup isn't necessarily favorable, even if Middle Tennessee looks like the type of team that would pull off a 12 over 5 upset.
14. (12) UNC Wilmington vs. (5) Virginia
UNC Wilmington is the trendy mid-major that everyone wants to pick. Virginia is the incredibly slow-paced prehistoric team that a lot of people hate to watch. Thus, there will be plenty of Seahawks fans on Thursday, especially after they scored 85 in an upset attempt that fell short against Duke last March. If Virginia can control the flow of the game, the Seahawks are going to have a difficult time overcoming an excellent defense and a Cavs offense that should be able to generate the good shots it wants in this matchup. Still, UNC Wilmington is an exciting offensive team capable of giving anybody a scare, particularly one that has limited options on offense.
15. (12) Nevada vs. (5) Iowa State
Iowa State looked vulnerable for a while, with a 14-9 record barely more than a month ago. However, it has rattled off nine wins in 10 games and won the Big 12 tournament title, showcasing a dangerous offense led by senior point guard Monte Morris. As usual, the Cyclones are better offensively than defensively, and they'll face a Nevada team built similarly. Both shoot well from the outside. Both avoid turnovers. Iowa State, however, is coming out of a rugged Big 12. Nevada won the Mountain West in a lousy year for the conference and didn't prove much in nonconference play.
16. (13) East Tennessee State vs. (4) Florida
East Tennessee may become a trendy choice to beat the Gators, given that Florida lost center John Egbunu to a season-ending injury and it's lost three of their past four games (two to Vandy, one to Kentucky). The Buccaneers are a rock-solid mid-major that plays stingy defense and did play Tennessee close in December. Florida is one of the nation's best defensive teams, though, and East Tennessee State doesn't take care of the ball well enough.
17. (13) Winthrop vs. (4) Butler
Ten years ago, Winthrop pulled off an 11 vs. 6 upset of Notre Dame under the direction of Gregg Marshall. Now, it's back in the tournament under Pat Kelsey against a team known for its Cinderella ability before becoming a Big East member. This Winthrop team isn't as strong as the one 10 years ago, but it won at Illinois and is 29-6. Of course, it also lost to teams like Radford and High Point. If 5-foot-7 guard Keon Johnson gets hot -- he averages 22.5 points per game and shoots over 40 percent from 3-point range -- Butler certainly can't get complacent.
18. (12) Princeton vs. (5) Notre Dame
Princeton hasn't lost since Dec. 20 against Monmouth, going a perfect 16-0 against Ivy League competition. It is sound defensively, and it also beat Patriot League champion Bucknell. However, the Tigers lost by double digits to VCU and Cal, in addition to falling to Saint Joe's, BYU, Lehigh and Monmouth. They've had an excellent season, but it's hard to know if they can truly hang around with an efficient offense like Notre Dame and a machine on both ends of the floor like Bonzie Colson. Princeton has a chance, given its propensity for getting hot from 3-point range, but of Notre Dame's nine losses, only one has come to a team (Georgia Tech) outside the KenPom top 20.
19. (14) New Mexico State vs. (3) Baylor
Baylor has yet to lose a nonconference game, going 13-0 with wins over seven teams that are in the NCAA Tournament. The Bears did, however, stumble late in Big 12 play, beating West Virginia but still going just 5-6 in their past 11 games. New Mexico State does have a power conference win (Arizona State) and has lost just five times all season. It's just unlikely to be able to handle Baylor star Johnathan Motley in the post.
20. (13) Vermont vs. (4) Purdue
Vermont was pushed to the end by Albany on its home floor in the America East title game, but it survived to win its 21st straight game. NCAA Tournament enthusiasts also probably remember the time the Catamounts won as a No. 13 seed in 2005, shocking Syracuse in overtime. Vermont now has its first 13 vs. 4 matchup since then, and it will try to continue its long winning streak in a difficult matchup against Purdue, which boasts terrific outside shooting and one of the nation's best players in 6-foot-9 powerhouse Caleb Swanigan, who's good for a double-double just about every game.
21. (13) Bucknell vs. (4) West Virginia
Both schools are familiar with upsets. Bucknell famously shocked Kansas as a No. 14 seed in 2005. West Virginia lost to No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin last year. Can the Bison get it done? They might actually be even more dangerous next year with nearly everyone set to return, led by 6-foot-7 junior Zach Thomas and 6-foot-9 junior Nana Foulland. Bucknell shoots well from everywhere, but the key against West Virginia is protecting the ball. Unfortunately, the Bison rank 200th in offensive turnover percentage, and they'll meet the Press Virginia defense that ranks first in defensive turnover percentage. If they can protect the ball and get hot from 3-point range, then they'd have a chance, but West Virginia is not going to collapse again in the first round.
22. (14) Florida Gulf Coast vs. (3) Florida State
With the spectacular memories of Dunk City still alive and well, Florida Gulf Coast is going to be a popular upset pick every time it makes the NCAA Tournament. It was a 15 seed when it went to the Sweet 16 in 2013, while it lost by 14 to North Carolina as a No. 16 last year. This year's team lost by single digits to Baylor and Michigan State but fell by 21 in the season-opener against Florida. Now, they meet a talented and athletic Florida State team that has had some trouble away from home but has too much firepower -- led by Jonathan Isaac and Dwayne Bacon -- for Florida Gulf Coast's lackluster defense to handle.
23. (14) Iona vs. (3) Oregon
The Gaels are still searching for their first NCAA Tournament win since beating Holy Cross in 1980. They draw an Oregon team trying to recover from the loss of 6-foot-10 senior Chris Boucher, who tore his ACL on Friday. This is far from Iona's best team its had during its recent successful run under Tim Cluess, and the Gaels have lost to five sub-200 KenPom teams. They're particularly weak defensively, and it's hard to imagine them getting enough stops against Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey and this Oregon offense to pull off the upset.
24. (15) North Dakota vs. (2) Arizona
Thursday, Salt Lake City
North Dakota has been a Division I team for less than a decade and is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance. It will do so against a former national champion that has been a national power for three decades. Arizona beat UCLA and Oregon back-to-back to win the Pac-12 tournament, and while it lost to Gonzaga and Butler in nonconference play, it did so without Allonzo Trier. Trier is back and playing at a high level now, and Arizona's length and versatility -- including 7-foot 3-point ace Lauri Markkanen -- mean all sorts of trouble for North Dakota.
25. (14) Kent State vs. (3) UCLA
Kent State was a surprise MAC champion, upsetting top-seeded Akron in the tournament final to get the NCAA bid. The Golden Flashes beat Texas earlier in the year and have won nine of their past 10 games. Teams capable of upsets in the NCAA Tournament often do it by getting hot from 3-point range, though, and few teams are worse at outside shooting than Kent State. That's not a good recipe for attempting to keep pace with Lonzo Ball and the relentless UCLA offense.
26. (15) Jacksonville State vs. (2) Louisville
Jacksonville State did earn a solid win over Ohio Valley favorite Belmont in the conference tournament, but ultimately it finished 20-14 overall and 9-7 in its conference. Now, it has to face a No. 2 seed coming out off arguably the nation's best conference. The Gamecocks turn the ball over a ton, and they're facing a fantastic Louisville defense. While the Cardinals have slipped defensively lately, it's not enough to make this upset realistic.
27. (15) Troy vs. (2) Duke
Hey, it's not like Duke hasn't lost to a 15 seed before. Then again, Troy doesn't have a lottery pick like Lehigh did in C.J. McCollum. Troy struggles defensively, and while Duke hasn't always clicked offensively, it has Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum playing at a high level right now, as shown in the run to the ACC tournament title. The Blue Devils are still an enigmatic team despite their high ceiling, but they have far too much talent to lose to a team that was the No. 6 seed in the Sun Belt tournament.
28. (16) South Dakota State vs. (1) Gonzaga
Thursday, Salt Lake City
Gonzaga is 32-1, losing only to BYU, and it's having the best season in school history as it makes its 19th straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Zags do just about everything well, and while skeptics would love to see them become the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16, the odds are much, much better that they'll become the first Gonzaga team to make the Final Four. They just have to find a way to properly contain South Dakota State's 6-foot-9 star Mike Daum, who averages 25.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
29. (15) Northern Kentucky vs. (2) Kentucky
The in-state "rivals" have actually met once in Northern Kentucky's five Division I seasons, a 93-63 Kentucky win in 2013. The Norse have done an impressive job attaining a tournament bid so early into their Division I life … but now they have to defend Malik Monk, De'Aron Fox and Bam Adebayo. Kentucky has destroyed every non-major team it has faced.
30. (16) Texas Southern vs. (1) North Carolina
Way back in 1995, Texas Southern lost by only one point as a No. 15 seed to defending national champion Arkansas. In the Tigers' three most recent tourney appearances, however, they've lost twice in Dayton and been blown out by No. 2 seed Arizona. They do get to avoid Dayton again, but their reward is North Carolina. Texas Southern has already lost by 22 to Arizona, 31 to Louisville, 38 to Cincinnati, 37 to TCU and 26 to Baylor. Expect more of the same.
31. (16) North Carolina Central/UC Davis vs. (1) Kansas
The Jayhawks have hardly been immune from earlier-than-expected NCAA Tournament exits under Bill Self, and they are coming off a surprise one-and-done performance in the Big 12 tournament with Josh Jackson suspended against TCU. However, it's a rather safe bet that neither the Eagles nor the Aggies is capable of doing enough on offense to outlast Jackson, Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham.
32. (16) Mount St. Mary's/New Orleans vs. (1) Villanova
Villanova will begin its NCAA Tournament title defense as the No. 1 seed against the winner of a matchup in Dayton between a Mount St. Mary's team that started the season 1-11 and a New Orleans team that ranks third-to-last nationally in offensive turnover percentage and can't shoot 3-pointers. Plenty of time for Nova to start preparing for the winner of Wisconsin-Virginia Tech instead.