March Madness is here! The 2021 NCAA Tournament kicks off Thursday night with the play-in games getting underway in Indiana. While those matchups should be fun, the real deal comes on Friday when the field is scaled to 64 teams and we get wall-to-wall college basketball. And the buzzer-beaters and upsets commence.
On the eve of the true madness, here's a look at the best upset picks for this year's tournament.
March Madness Upset Picks
No. 13 Ohio over No. 4 Virginia
Ohio is the 13th seed in the West Region, while Virginia got the four-seed. This is a prime candidate for an upset given Virginia's COVID-19 issues and the styles these two teams play. Ohio finished the season 16-7 but wound up winning the MAC Tournament and has won nine of its last 10 games, with a number of cancellations and postponements mixed in. This is a team rolling when it actually gets on the floor.
Ohio is led by point guard Jason Preston, a do-everything junior averaging 16.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 7.2 assists this season while also hitting 46.8 percent beyond the arc. Preston will be a first-round pick in a few months and will be the best player on the floor in this game. Top players can carry their teams through the first weekend of the tournament, and Preston is that kind of talent.
Tony Bennett's Virginia team is solid, but this isn't one of his better squads. Yes, they play smart, are good defensively and don't turn the ball over, but Ohio surrounds Preston with enough good players to actually expect an upset. The Bobcats rank 13th nationally in effective field goal percentage (55.8), hit 36.6 percent from beyond the arc and rank 11th in 2-point percentage (56.4). They're excellent offensively and should put a ton of pressure on Virginia's pack line defense.
No. 12 Winthrop over No. 5 Villanova
Ah the classic 12 vs. 5 upset in the first round out of the South Region. These 12/5 matchups give us some of the best games every year. In 2021, this should be the first potential upset pick you look at. Winthrop went 23-1 this season, with the team's only loss coming by two against UNC-Asheville. Since then the Eagles have won seven straight and have cruised into the tournament on a roll. They won each game of the Big South Tournament by more than 20 points, with an average margin of victory of 25.7 points.
The real issue here isn't how great Winthrop is, it's how much Villanova is struggling. The Wildcats finished the season 16-6, but have played four games in the last three weeks and have lost three of them. Overall they've lost three of their last six. Even worse, point guard Collin Gillespie suffered a torn MCL in his left knee and is out for the rest of the season. Without him, Villanova is 0-2 and looked lost.
The Eagles are rising while the Wildcats are fading. This is your best bet at a 12/5 upset.
No. 14 Colgate over No. 3 Arkansas
We'll stay in the South Region here and target a pretty huge upset pick that I'm far less confident in, but it feels like a fun one. Colgate only played five teams all year. Yes, five. But the Raiders also happened to beat the hell out of all of them. They went 14-1, with the only loss coming in a 75-73 defeat to Army in the second game of the year -- that was the day after they beat Army in the season opener. Colgate's metrics were really high all year (especially their NET rating) because of how wonky the schedule was, but still this is an interesting squad.
The Raiders have a few things going for them: they play fast and they can shoot. They ranked 25th in adjusted tempo on KenPom, and ranked third in the nation in 3-point shooting, hitting 40.0 percent from beyond the arc as a team. They had three players shoot better than 40 percent from deep, and guard Jack Ferguson hit 50.7 percent (!!!) of his treys. That should translate regardless of who the opponent is. They were excellent across the board offensively, they don't turn it over, ranked fifth nationally in effective field goal percentage (57.0) and ranked first in 3-point shooting defense.
So I've told you all of that and here's why Arkansas is vulnerable: the Razorbacks ranked 108th in the nation at defending the 3-point line. They also ranked 158th in 3-point shooting percentage (33.9) as a team. If Colgate gets hot, it'll be curtains for Eric Musselman's team.
No. 13 North Texas over No. 4 Purdue
A third upset in the South Region? You betcha. Of the 13 seeds in this year's tournament, the analytics love North Texas the most because the Mean Green can shoot the lights out and play defense. They're the college basketball equivalent of mid-career Bruce Bowen. They rank 33rd in the nation in 3-point shooting (37.3 percent), 41st in defensive efficiency and 20th in effective field goal percentage defense (45.7 percent).
North Texas was 5-5 in early January and wound up going 12-4 the rest of the way, currently on a four-game winning streak. The Mean Green are led by senior guard Javion Hamlet, a junior college transfer averaging 15.0 points per game and hitting 36.2 percent from beyond the arc.
As an Indiana alum it pains me to say this but Purdue is a really talented team. The issue is they have a lot of young guys who will be expected to step up on the big stage for the first time. The 18-9 Boilers were inconsistent in big spots this season and despite expecting to be a great shooting team, they ranked 179th in 3-point percentage (33.5 percent) and struggled to shoot free throws well as a team (71.1 percent). Purdue also turns the ball over a ton and, while they have a good defense, have struggled at times on that end.
If Trevion Williams has a big game, Purdue is advancing. If he's off, North Texas is taking this one.