For the most part, picking favorites in the NCAA tournament is a smart play. But that doesn't mean you should be content picking chalk. Everyone loves March Madness because of its upsets and its Cinderellas, because all 68 teams have a chance to pull off something memorable on a national stage. And nothing beats making a correct upset pick in your own bracket.
No, a 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1, but it'll happen one day, and recent history has told us that 15 seeds -- and every other double-digit seed -- stand a chance. With that in mind, let's go through every matchup scheduled for Thursday and Friday -- two of the best sports days of the year -- and rank them in order of upset probability. Keep in mind that we're going strictly by seeds, so here a nine beating an eight technically qualifies.
1. (9) Pittsburgh vs. (8) Colorado
In reality, this qualifies as an upset in terms of seeding only. Pitt may be the nine, but kenpom.com's ratings give it a wide gap over Colorado, ranking the Panthers 18th and the Buffaloes 64th. Pitt does just about everything well, crashing the offensive glass and protecting the ball, and nearly all of its losses have been close and to quality opponents, with only one by double digits. Meanwhile, Colorado has lost nine games by double digits and has played the last two months without leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie, who tore his ACL.
2. (11) Tennessee/Iowa vs. (6) Massachusetts
UMass is a great story, with Derek Kellogg leading the Minutemen to their first tournament since the Amherst glory days of the '90s, but regardless of the result in Dayton, they're in for a tough draw and really have no business being a six seed. OK, so Iowa has crumbled down the stretch, losing six of its last seven to nearly knock itself out of the tournament, but Tennessee at least poses a big-time threat. While the Vols had a mediocre 11-7 record in the SEC, they're efficient on both ends of the floor and are strong on the offensive glass behind Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes.
3. (9) Oklahoma State vs. (8) Gonzaga
If anyone can say this, the Cowboys will be the most popular pick to pull a Wichita State and get to the Final Four as a nine seed, and for good reason. Yes, they had plenty of problems this season, but this is still a talented team that was highly regarded in the preseason for a reason too. Up until now, things haven't gone the way they'd like, but the Marcus Smart-led core that also includes Markel Brown, Le'Bryan Nash and Phil Forte makes the Cowboys capable of righting their regular-season wrongs and, at minimum, pushing top seed Arizona to the brink in the next round.
4. (9) George Washington vs. (8) Memphis
Perhaps the least appealing of the 8/9 games because neither team has stood out and neither seeding is a surprise, although prediction-wise, it's pretty close to a toss-up and provides some conference-level intrigue, with the selection committee loving GW's Atlantic 10, but apparently hating the first year of Memphis' American Athletic.
5. (10) Arizona State vs. (7) Texas
Rick Barnes may have saved his job, but it doesn't mean Texas will make it to the first weekend of the tournament. Of course, the Sun Devils have hardly been impressive lately, with only two wins out of seven games since their Feb. 14 win over Arizona, but the combination of guards Jahii Carson and Jermaine Marshall and 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski could easily propel the Sun Devils to a win.
6. (9) Kansas State vs. (8) Kentucky
At least Kentucky got in this year, and losing to Kansas State in the NCAA tournament would be far less embarrassing than falling to Robert Morris in the NIT. Despite its lackluster season, Kentucky remains loaded with talent and potential and even nearly pulled off a comeback on Sunday in the SEC title game against Florida.
7. (11) Nebraska vs. (6) Baylor
Everyone loves Nebrasketball, and Tim Miles' club managed to keep itself in the tournament despite blowing an 18-point lead in the Big Ten quarterfinals to Ohio State. It's the Cornhuskers' first time dancing since 1998, and now they run into a Baylor team that's had a similar season: a bunch of losses early in conference play, then a second-half surge to solidify its tournament standing. The Bears have won 10 of 12, behind a balanced and efficient offense that does everything well around Cory Jefferson, Brady Heslip, Kenny Chery and Isaiah Austin.
8. (12) Xavier/N.C. State vs. (5) Saint Louis
N.C. State was the last team in, using its ACC quarterfinal win over Syracuse as a springboard to Dayton, where we get an interesting duel between the always entertaining T.J. Warren and Xavier's Semaj Christon. Whichever team wins draws a favorable 12/5 matchup again the Billikens, who have imploded in the last few weeks with losses in four of their last five, including to St. Bonaventure, after opening the season 25-2.
9. (10) Stanford vs. (7) New Mexico
The Lobos are on a strong run lately, beating San Diego State to take the Mountain West tournament, and losing only to UNLV, Boise State and San Diego State in league play by a total of seven points. Congrats to Johnny Dawkins for finally get the Cardinal into the tournament, but Cameron Bairstow and the Lobos might make getting any further a difficult task.
10. (10) Saint Joseph's vs. (7) Connecticut
St. Joe's dropped its final two regular-season games to put its tournament status in jeopardy, then turned around and won the A-10's automatic bid anyway, collecting wins over NCAA tournament teams Dayton and VCU in the process. Three of UConn's eight losses have come to Louisville, and given the draw, it wouldn't be too surprising to see Shabazz Napier lead the Huskies as far as the Elite Eight.
11. (12) Harvard vs. (5) Cincinnati
For a 5/12 matchup, these two are awfully close, with Harvard (33) only eight spots below Cincinnati in the kenpom.com rankings. The Crimson pulled off a 3/14 upset over New Mexico last year and bring good outside shooting and stellar defense to the table against the Bearcats, who are one of the nation's best defensive teams and boast a premier scorer in guard Sean Kilpatrick.
12. (12) Stephen F. Austin vs. (5) VCU
When operating at its peak, nothing is more fun to watch in college basketball than VCU's Havoc, with Briante Weber harassing opposing ball handlers and Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic cleaning up on the boards. VCU is a great defensive team, and it may take all that effort to out-match the Lumberjacks, who haven't lost since November and are great on the offensive glass and know how to protect the ball on offense -- but also play an aggressive, turnover-forcing style of defense too. This could be one of the most entertaining games of the opening weekend, if you like attacking defense.
13. (11) Dayton vs. (6) Ohio State
The selection committee managed two interesting moves around Dayton: One, it kept the Flyers away from the play-in games -- and thus their home court. Two, it created an in-state battle between teams that have played sparingly, the last meeting coming in the 2008 NIT. Ohio State has certainly done some weird things, like losing to Penn State twice, and Dayton -- whose three losses since Jan. 25 have all come against St. Joe's -- has the outside shooting and rebounding ability to push its big brothers from Columbus.
14. (10) BYU vs. (7) Oregon
The Cougars were a rather surprising choice as a 10 seed, and it doesn't help that they're now without wing Kyle Collinsworth, who tore his ACL in the WCC title game. They still have one of the nation's top scorers in Tyler Haws, but Oregon has escaped from midseason disaster, winning eight in a row until losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament. Its talented offense, led by Joseph Young, Mike Moser and Jason Calliste, is enough to out-duel Haws.
15. (11) Providence vs. (6) North Carolina
The Tar Heels entering the tournament having dropped their last two, but they previously rattled off 12 in a row in the ACC. Providence is sort of the opposite, going 5-6 in its final 11 regular-season games before going on a surprising run to beat Creighton and win the Big East tournament. Providence's Bryce Cotton vs. North Carolina's Marcus Paige makes for one of the best individual matchups of the tournament at point guard, but Paige has more help around him.
16. (12) North Dakota State vs. (5) Oklahoma
Oklahoma seems like one of the most anonymous good teams in recent history, and thus it makes a perfect candidate for the popular 5/12 upset pick. It helps that North Dakota State is a terrific offensive team led by versatile 6-foot-7 win Taylor Braun, who leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and three-point percentage.
17. (13) New Mexico State vs. (4) San Diego State
Two of the Aztecs' four losses this season have come to New Mexico, who acually lost to instate rival New Mexico State in December. The Aggies are most known for the presence of 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar, who averages 10.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game. They can score, but the Aztecs own one of the nation's best defenses.
18. (13) Tulsa vs. (4) UCLA
The Bruins' first season under Steve Alford has hardly been flawless, but they're a potent offensive team led by star guard Jordan Adams. Tulsa was dreadful early in the season, going 4-9 before New Year's, but the Golden Hurricane has been on a roll lately, winning 11 in a row to take the Conference USA title, including a win over a strong Louisiana Tech team. Danny Manning's squad doesn't shoot from the outside or rebound well, though, which will make it quite difficult to keep pace with the Bruins.
19. (14) North Carolina Central vs. (3) Iowa State
Iowa State capitalized on the absence of Kansas' Joel Embiid to make a run to a Big 12 championship, and it has a potent scoring trio in Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang and DeAndre Kane. The Cyclones are dangerous enough to make a run to Dallas, but the Eagles are also the type of sleeper who could sneak up on them thanks to their stellar defense and ability to force turnovers.
20. (14) Western Michigan vs. (3) Syracuse
It wasn't so long ago that Syracuse was the toast of college basketball at 25-0; now it's reeling with losses in five of seven, including an early exit from the ACC tournament in the quarterfinals against N.C. State. Still, the Broncos hardly have the look of an upset-capable team, struggling to shoot from three-point range and turning the all over too much while not being particularly impressive on the offensive glass.
21. (14) Louisiana-Lafayette vs. (3) Creighton
Creighton's problems on defense put it in danger of getting into a shootout in any given game, but the good news is the Bluejays' top-ranked offense make them capable of winning any sort of shootout anyway. The Ragin' Cajuns were a surprise late inclusion after knocking off Georgia State in the Sun Belt final on Sunday, and they're no match for Doug McDermott.
22. (14) Mercer vs. (3) Duke
Probably a popular upset pick, but only because everyone hates Duke. Mercer does have a solid win over Ole Miss on its resume and is one of the best outside shooting teams in the country, but if you're a fan of entertaining basketball, you should actually be rooting for more Duke. At their best, led by Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, the Blue Devils own one of the nation's most efficient and entertaining offenses.
23. (15) Eastern Kentucky vs. (2) Kansas
Obviously, losing a potential No. 1 draft pick hurts, so seven-footer Joel Embiid's back injury looms large in the early rounds. Of course, it helps when you have another potential No. 1 overall pick on your roster. The Colonels' three-point ability and ability to protect the ball and force turnovers make them a viable upset threat, but ultimately the Jayhawks still have Andrew Wiggins … plus Perry Ellis ... and Wayne Selden ... and Naadir Tharpe and …
24. (15) American vs. (2) Wisconsin
Wisconsin is no stranger to early exits, but Bo Ryan has built a very efficient squad on both offense and defense, doing nearly everything well on offense especially, while continuing to play at its usual methodical pace. American's shooting can make things interesting, but you can't afford to waste possessions against the Badgers, and the Eagles have the worst turnover percentage among tournament teams.
25. (13) Manhattan vs. (4) Louisville
While Louisville really doesn't have many impressive wins on its résumé, it is surprising to see it all the way down at a No. 4 seed, in addition to being stuck in the most difficult region. Of course, it's possible the Cardinals are the best team in the region too. With Russ Smith and company clicking, the Jaspers face an imposing challenge in trying to keep pace with one of the best all-around teams in the country, as the Cardinals rank in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
26. (15) Milwaukee vs. (2) Villanova
may not have many quality wins, but until the first round of the Big East tournament it avoided losses to bad teams too, thus positioning itself as one of the surprise teams of the season. The Panthers ended up winning the Horizon tournament -- and knocking off a talented Green Bay team -- despite dropping four of their final five regular-season games, including a blowout to 6-25 Illinois-Chicago.
27. (13) Delaware vs. (4) Michigan State
Given Tom Izzo's reputation, the Spartans' newfound good health and their apparent breakout in the Big Ten tournament, where they cruised to the league's auto bid, much of the nation will be rejoining the bandwagon. Who can blame them? Michigan State has advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in five of the last six years, and at full strength, it's capable of beating anyone and stringing together a deep run. Delaware isn't a bad team, having pushed Villanova and Notre Dame early in the season, but it's not going to take down a surging Michigan State.
28. (15) Wofford vs. (2) Michigan
Michigan did go out to 13-seed Ohio two years ago, but this is a much better Michigan team and a much worse Wofford. With only one loss since Feb. 16 -- to red-hot Michigan State in the Big Ten final -- the Wolverines have long since proven they can win without last year's tournament star Mitch McGary.
29. (16) Weber State vs. (1) Arizona
Weber Still will at least always have its shocking wins over a pair of three seeds, North Carolina and Michigan State, in the '90s. Its three-point shooting ability makes it somewhat intriguing, but Arizona leads the nation in kenpom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency.
30. (16) Texas Southern/Cal Poly vs. (1) Wichita State
Texas Southern is kenpom.com's worst team in the tournament at No. 237, while Cal Poly checks in at a somewhat more respectable 173. Either way, while Wichita State's first loss may be likely at some point before the Final Four, given how brutal the Midwest is, it can probably rest easy. Cal Poly went 6-10 in the Big West regular season, and Texas Southern is so bad defensively that it gave up 96 points to the NAIA's Wiley College.
31. (16) Coastal Carolina vs. (1) Virginia
The second-worst team in the tournament at No. 232, according to kenpom.com, Coastal Carolina actually nearly beat Ole Miss in November. But it can't shoot threes, turns the ball over a ton and now must deal with one of the most efficient teams in the country on both offense and defense. Virginia is an unlikely No. 1 seed, but that doesn't mean it stands any chance of succumbing to the most unlikely of tournament fates.
32. (16) Albany/Mount St. Mary's vs. (1) Florida
Florida has plenty of experience against inferior competition after making it through the SEC schedule unscathed, so it should have no problem with whichever 16 it draws as the top overall seed in the tournament.