NCAA Tournament Upset Picks: Let Odds Guide First-Round Selections

Upsets won't win your pool, but they'll make you feel smart


Mar 18, 2024

Filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket has never been more difficult, and anyone who says they have the perfect picks for you to win your bets and cut down the nets of your own pool is probably full of it.

The 2024 field is set for The Big Dance after Sunday night’s bracket reveal. By Thursday afternoon, we will all have convinced ourselves we are bracket savants. But if last year’s tournament is any indication, we might as well just throw some darts.

The 2023 tournament was truly bananas. The top seed in the Final Four was the eventual national champion UConn, who went to Houston as the No. 4 team in the West region. Not a single one-seed made the Elite Eight. Purdue, the top seed in the East, became the second No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 in the first round, suffering the biggest upset in the history of the tournament. Princeton, the No. 15 seed in the South region, suffocated Arizona in the first round, sent Missouri packing in the second round and gave Creighton a scare before bowing out in the Sweet 16.

So, yeah. No one has any clue what’s going to happen, but we can at least try to mitigate the damage, especially in the early rounds. If you want to win your pool, you’ll need to hit the Final Four. But if you just want to brag about calling an upset, here are the best odds-based options for each seeding matchup in the tournament.

(Betting lines from FanDuel Sportsbook)

1 vs. 16

South region: Longwood vs. (-23.5) Houston
Probably not going to happen, of course. Statistically, though, Longwood is the best 16-seed in the tournament despite not doing anything really well. Like Houston, the Lancers play at a slow tempo, so the pace won’t be uncomfortable for them.

2 vs. 15

South region: Western Kentucky vs. (-14.5) Marquette
Staying in the South, Marquette is statistically the “worst” No. 2 seed, despite going 25-9 in the Big East. The Golden Eagles struggle from the free-throw line, which can often be the kind of thing that dooms a team looking for a deep run. On the other side, the Hilltoppers can score without having to get hot from 3-point land and are a good rebounding team.

3 vs. 14

East region: Morehead State vs. (-11.5) Illinois
This is where we have to really put the strategy to the test. Based on the point spread, Illinois is the most vulnerable 3-seed. Based on KenPom’s ratings, it’s the best. That’s largely because of Morehead State, a team that is probably slightly better than a 14-seed. The numbers like the Eagles largely because of a really tough out-of-conference schedule. Morehead State played three Big 10 conference games (Purdue, Penn State, Indiana). The formula is simple: defense. Morehead State was a suffocating defensive team, forcing 10.5 turnovers per game and holding opponents to 47% from the field.

4 vs. 13

Midwest region: Samford vs. (-7.5) Kansas
Samford has to just let it fly. The Bulldogs made 10 3-pointers per game, making up nearly 40% of its offense. They can play defense, too, forcing a whole bunch of turnovers, and by just about every metric, they are a top-100 team in the country. Kansas certainly has brand-name awareness, but the Jayhawks come after losing four of their last five games.

5 vs. 12

South region: James Madison vs. (-4.5) Wisconsin
There has been a lot of winning on the James Madison campus this school year with the Dukes hoops team picking up where the football team left off. JMU has 30 wins this season, including a perfect 5-0 record on neutral courts. One of those 30 wins came against Michigan State, its best victory of the season. Wisconsin limped down the stretch, with just three wins in its final 11 games.

6 vs. 11

West region: (-2.5) No. 11 New Mexico over Clemson
This one is almost too obvious and will likely be one of the most popular picks of the tournament. The Lobos are underseeded. New Mexico won 26 games this season and won the Mountain West Conference tournament Sunday with a win over a San Diego State team that got the 5-seed in the East region. New Mexico is a top-25 team in the country based on rankings, easily the highest seed in the top 25. They are 13-1 to win the West region, the seventh-best odds ? for the No. 11 seed. You’ve also heard of their head coach, Richard Pitino, who is a tournament veteran with obviously strong lineage. They’re led on the floor by Jamal Mashburn Jr., whose father also should ring a bell with casual hoops fans. This is very much a team that could make a deep run.

7 vs. 10

West region: (-1.5) Nevada vs. Dayton
On paper, at least, Nevada looks like the better team with the more impressive resume. The Wolfpack had more wins with a tougher schedule in arguably the better conference. KenPom gives the slight edge to Dayton (No. 32), but Nevada isn’t far behind (No. 36). Dayton is another team without a ton of momentum coming into the dance with losses to George Mason, Loyola Chicago and Duquesne (conference tournament) in the last month.

8 vs. 9

Midwest region: (-3.5) TCU vs. Utah State
Calling any 8-9 game an “upset” is a stretch, but No. 9 TCU is the only nine-seed that’s favored, and the Horned Frogs laying 3.5 points is pretty considerable.

Thumbnail photo via Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports Images

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