March Madness bracket advice - Five pretty safe upset/Cinderella picks

The only thing more exciting than seeing an upset in the NCAA Tournament is seeing it AND having it in your bracket. It's the ultimate bracket street cred. I'm pretty sure everyone who took George Mason, Wichita State or VCU to the Final Four immediately received jobs forecasting the stock market on Warren Buffet's staff.

Upsets are inevitable. There's a Cinderella story every year. Question is just how many, what seeds, how far will they go.

In 2016, there were 10 teams ranked No. 10 seed or higher that pulled off an upset in the First Round. That was one of the higher years. For comparison, there were only five in 2015. Seven in 2014.

One thing to keep in mind: double digit seeds rarely get to the Sweet 16 or further. In 2016, only three of those 10 teams made it to the Sweet 16. In 2015 it was just one, 2014 had three as well.

Medium Rare advice - Have fun in the first round, but end the party there. You don't want to pick 20 of these things but, at the same time, go out and live a little bit. Not picking any upsets is like sitting with your arms crossed at a wedding, refusing to get on the dance floor for Black Eyed Peas I've got a feeling. Come on, you know you want to!

Here are the five pretty safe upset/Cinderella picks. The numbers next to the teams are my overall ranking, which will make more sense with more posts to come. And for a refresher, if you go here and here these were my pre-tournament "Baskets of de Plausibles" rankings.

25. Middle Tennessee State

This is my criteria for weighing out upset picks:

  1. How good is the double-digit seed
  2. How good is the favorite
  3. How many wins could the favorite have in this tournament?

How good is MTSU? Middle Tennessee State was the No. 15 that took down Michigan State in last year's NCAA tournament. This year's team returns a good core of those guys plus the addition of a star transfer player.

How good is Minnesota? A weird No. 5 seeding. I think the Selection Committee should have flipped Minnesota and Wisconsin. Especially because Minnesota lost their starting guard Akeem Springs in the Big 10 tournament (main reason why I'm anti-conference tournament. Take the thing off, get rest, go into the tournament healthy). Springs was averaging 9.6 ppg.

A No. 12 over a No. 5 has become a brand for the NCAA Tournament. They've got to keep that alive. Part of me feels like the Selection Committee put Minnesota on this line as a lamb heading to the slaughter.

An important site to bookmark for injuries is right here. Oregon and Florida both suffered a major late season injury too, more on that later.

How many wins could Minnesota have in this tournament? I definitely think Minnesota could have the inspired "let's win for Akeem!" game, or maybe two, but I can't see them ever getting past No. 1 seed North Carolina. Truthfully, I have a hard time seeing them getting past Butler in Round 2. Guard play is so important in the tournament, I can't see Minnesota going very far without one of their top perimeter guys.

Verdict: I'm taking Middle Tennessee State past Minnesota and past Butler too. (Butler fans - never fear, I've got the counter-argument coming in a couple days. Butler is my No. 10 team overall, near the top of my "Eight That Could Beat Anyone" basket.)

26. Rhode Island

How good is Rhode Island? Finished third in the A-10 conference, only two games out of first place. 24-9 overall. Ranked in the pre-season top 25 and stayed there until tough back-to-back losses in late November/early December @ Valparaiso and @ Providence. Neither are bad losses. Providence is a tournament team, Valparaiso won the regular season crown for the Horizon league.

Their other out-of-conference losses were against Duke (no shame in that) and Houston (bubble/last four out team). They beat Cincinnati and Belmont who, like Valparaiso, won their regular season conference title (why do we keep awarding the conference tournament winners instead?).

The Rams battled injuries during the middle of the season and now finish the year at full strength. Rhode Island enters the tournament on an eight game winning streak, two of those wins coming over tournament bound VCU.

How good is Creighton? They were great at the beginning of the season. Legitimate Final Four contenders. Then their star point guard Mo Watson Jr. went out for the season with a brutal knee injury on January 17th.

Creighton was 18-1 with Mo. They've gone 7-8 without him. And it's not just the injury, Watson finds himself in serious legal trouble. At the end of February came a report that "Creighton point guard Maurice Watson Jr., who was issued a felony arrest warrant for first-degree sexual assault, has turned himself in." Has that/will that be a distraction for the coach and players? Possibly.

How many wins could Creighton have? I think they are a Round of 32 ceiling. I don't see them beating Oregon in the next round. I would almost put Rhode Island as the favorite in this game. Especially recent history with 11 seeds. In the words of Will Ferrell's Mugatu character from Zoolander, "Eleven seeds are so hot right now."

Verdict: I almost took Rhode Island two games. They get Creighton without Mo then Oregon without Chris Boucher. I chose to go safe with Oregon in the next round and something tells me I'm going to regret this decision.

27. UNC Wilmington

How good is UNC Wilmington? I love this UNC Wilmington squad. They are one of the highest scoring teams in the country, low turnovers, great assist to turnover ratio. Three guys right around 15 ppg (6'5'' Bryce, 6'5'' Flemmings, 6'0'' Ingram). Went 29-5 on the season winning both the regular season and postseason Colonial Athletic conference. For what it's worth, remember the Northeastern upset of Michigan State earlier in the season? Northeastern finished sixth in UNC Wilmington's conference

How good is Virginia? This is where the upset pick gets difficult. Virginia is a really good team. Creighton and Minnesota aren't getting to the Final Four, but there's a case to be made UVA could. They took Villanova down to the wire, @ Villanova (61-59), and although they lost to Duke they still held the Blue Devils to 65 points. Their end of February win over North Carolina they held a top three offense to 43 points. So any argument in favor of UNC Wilmington saying, "Virginia's defense is great, but they won't be able to stop a top offense" isn't rock solid.

How many wins could Virginia have? Got into it a little bit above, but Virginia has a small outside shot at a Final Four.

Verdict: Rolling with UNC Wilmington one game then calling it there.

28. Marquette

How good is Marquette? They can be awesome... for 10-20 minute spurts. Like when they were up 41-25 at the half against Butler. I took notice thinking this could be a great Elite 8 sleeper pick. Marquette ended up losing the game 88-80.

They are the only team other than Butler to have beaten Villanova this year. They've got a Coach K disciple as their head coach. Number 1 in the country in 3-pt field goal percentage.

How good is South Carolina? South Carolina probably should have come in as a No. 10 seed. They had nice out-of-conference wins against Monmouth, Michigan and Syracuse, but in conference they went 1-4 against Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. They went 12-6 in conference but didn't have to play Kentucky, Arkansas or Vanderbilt a second time. They have lost five of their last seven games.

The positives? Head coach Frank Martin is cut from that old school Bobby Knight drill sergeant cloth. This is a gritty team and shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell can score with the best of them (20.1 ppg, 7 rpg). He put up 44 of the team's 86 in an epic 4OT loss vs. Alabama.

How many wins could South Carolina have? Round of 32 ceiling. They're not getting past Duke.

Verdict: I'm going with Marquette. I'm putting a little too much value on that 4OT game. Losing to a non-tournament team, on your home court, when your star puts up 44 just seems like a bad sign to me.

29. Xavier 

How good is Xavier? This marks the point in the post where I'm taking things a little off road. If you don't have a Jeep, if you're not a fan of high risk picks, just roll with the four above and call it a day. The next post about the three high risk/high reward we will be way off trail.

You may have heard the line going into the Big East Tournament that, "Xavier has won three games since February 8th, all three over DePaul." And no offense to Chicago's team, but that's not a great sign. I even railed against Joe Lunardi couple weeks back for having Xavier in his field.

Similar to Creighton, this is another injury bug situation. Early season Xavier was ready to contend with Villanova for the Big East title. Great guard play with Trevon Bluiett, Edmond Sumner, J.P. Macura. But Sumner went down January 30th. They've gone 6-7 since.

BUT they got that win over Butler in the Big East tournament. That was a "win you're in, lose you're out" game and says a lot about this team that they were able to knock out what I think is the No. 10 team in the country.

How good is Maryland? I think Maryland is South Carolina of the Big 10; hovered right around No. 22 - 25 all season but benefited from scheduling and didn't pick up many signature wins.

Played Michigan once. Michigan State once. Wisconsin once. Purdue once. Northwestern once in the regular season then a loss their second game in the conference tournament. When you put that into consideration, the 25-9 record isn't all that impressive (but what is impressive is the Athletic Director's ability to schedule around those teams!)

The Terapins are 155th in PPG. 184th in Free Throw percentage. 114 in 3-pt percentage.

How far could Maryland go? Positive side: Mark Turgeon's a great coach and they've still got Melo Trimble who is capable of a 30+ point game. Their potential Round of 32 matchup is interesting too if Florida Gulf Coast upsets Florida State. If it's Florida State, I don't see Maryland winning.

Verdict: Taking Xavier past Maryland then losing to Florida State.

These are the safe five, my next post will have three more upset picks that are definitely very high risk, but equally high reward. They are so high risk that I'm only taking two of the three in my own bracket. Keep an eye out for that. I'll be continuing the ranking of the top 24 teams in the field with an avalanche of posts like the snow I'm seeing outside right now. See you again soon and thanks for stopping by!

Also, I'm running a 3-day free promotion of my basketball e-book "Taking the Charge: A Medium Rare Plan to Solve Basketball's problems." It argues for NCAA Basketball to become the NBA's new D-League. Let's take the top 16 teams and just start paying the players. Again, it's free today through Thursday. No strings attached. Seriously. I mean by not getting it you are essentially walking by the free chicken teriyaki toothpick at the mall. 

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