March Madness 2021: 5 upset picks to make during opening weekend

Five NCAA Tournament upset picks to make during opening weekend originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

First and Second Round upsets are what make March Madness so great.

Seeing some team that no one expected to win knock off a Power 5 team is why everyone loves this time of year. In some ways, it’s the iconic David vs. Goliath. Picking these upsets is a different conversation though. Everyone wants to be the expert that gets to say “I saw this upset coming.” They are hard to predict, another reason why we love it.

First-round upset picks aren’t going to win you a bracket pool, but they certainly can lose you a bracket pool. Early round upsets need to be strategic, you can’t have a Final Four team bowing out in the opening weekend. 

Every year there are some upsets that percolate to the top of the water cooler talk. With near certainty, there’s always a No. 12 seed upsetting a No. 5 seed, recently we’ve seen some No. 13 seeds knocking off No. 4s. 

This list should help in narrowing down which upset picks should be made this year.

First Round Upsets

No. 12 Winthrop over No. 5 Villanova

You never should bet against Jay Wright in the NCAA Tournament, but this may be the exception. Already the Winthrop Eagles came into March Madness with the label of a team that is bound to deliver a first-round upset. 

Normally, going against one of the elites of the sport could put a wrinkle on that. But this year has been anything ordinary for the Villanova Wildcats. Throughout the season, Villanova has battled coronavirus pauses missing games left and right. They are one of the few at-large programs that received an at-large bid playing less than the 23-game average of the NCAA. 

On top of that, they lost their most important player in Collin Gillespie. A knee injury has ended his season, leaving the Wildcats without their primary offensive playmaker. They still have projected lottery pick Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore is back from his stinger, but they lose a lot with Gillespie. 

Even fully loaded, this year wasn’t what one has come to expect from Villanova. 

Winthrop nearly ran through their season with a perfect record. KenPom has them as the 11th-best team in adjusted tempo. They spread out the ball and are efficient shooting from deep. 

Throughout the season, the Eagles have been consistent and it’s rare to see them let up. Villanova will be in a rock-fight win or lose in the first round. 

No. 11 Utah State over No. 6 Texas Tech

Texas Tech is one of the tougher teams to gauge this March Madness. Playing in one of the toughest conferences in the sport, the Red Raiders had a moderate season. Yet, throughout the year they stole the headlines and had major moments lead SportsCenter.

Mac McClung brings the electricity to their offense. He’s delivered clutch play after clutch play all year. But once opposing defenses began keying in on him, he began to lose an edge. A handful of duds ended their season, where he averaged 9.5 points in the final four games and was benched in several pivotal moments. 

Utah State will be bringing in one of the best defenses in the tournament. Posting the 15th-best scoring defense in the NCAA, they’re going to bring some added ball-pressure to a Texas Tech team that has wilted in pressure. 

According to KenPom, the Aggies defense is ranked eighth, Barttovik ranks them ninth. They’re elite. 

It will likely be a game of who can get out and run the earliest.

No. 13 Ohio over No. 4 Virginia

It may not have the magnitude of Virginia-UMBC, but it may end up being a similar result. The fact of the matter is, Virginia is currently dealing with COVID-19 issues. The program won’t be in Indianapolis until the day before their scheduled game against Ohio and won’t have any full-team practices before then either. 

With Ohio bringing in an offense that scores 80.9 points a game, it could spell trouble for Virginia. Three seasons ago it was seen that for as good as the defense was (it still is elite), the offense didn’t compliment it as well. The lack of scoring cost them in a huge way. 

A team off for a week certainly won’t have their offense running in full form. It definitely won’t be able to keep up with the Bobcats. 

And while normally they can rely on their defense to bail them out in these types of matchups, that’s not the case this season. Tony Bennett said just three weeks ago he doesn’t think the defense is tough enough to win them games on its own. 

No. 10 VCU over No. 7 Oregon

Here’s a case where the defense is likely to win out over the offense. Both Oregon’s offense and VCU’s defense are two of the best units in the sport. VCU, still using the patented ‘havoc’ defense, looks to wreck the Ducks in what should be one of the best matchups of the first round. 

But it could also be a bad matchup for Oregon. The Ducks play a smaller lineup which will work out in the Rams’ favor. All season long VCU has thrived in being able to shut down teams without a true big-man.

The Rams will attempt to get out and run over Oregon, capitalizing on turnovers and applying elite ball-pressure on the top scorers. Not only that, but VCU is a deep team that often goes with 10 or 11 players per game. They’ll be unrelenting.

And there have been moments this year for top defenses were able to completely control Oregon. If it’s an off-shooting night, it could even go as far as a blowout. 

Second Round Upsets

No. 6 USC over No. 3 Kansas

USC is a dark horse in this tournament with one of the best starting fives in the country. Kansas is having an off-year and going through their own COVID-19 issues leading up to the tournament. 

Like Virginia, limited practice time will affect the Jayhawks but by how much? Even if slow from the jump, they should be able to handle Eastern Washington. But against USC, the Trojans are too well-rounded to gift Kansas a win unless the Jayhawks are on their A-game. 

Projected lottery pick Evan Mobley has ended his season on a heater. The forward has fully taken over as the leading figure on his team and without question, he’s one of the best post players in the sport.

Kansas is good, but nowhere near the expectations everyone has for one of the pillars of the sport. Before their virus issue at the Big 12 Tournament, they were already without starter David McCormack. It’s unknown if he’ll be able to play in the first round (which will go a huge way into slowing down Mobley). There are also two more players that won’t make the initial trip to Indy, but could return later in the tournament. 

USC could very well win this game if the Jayhawks were at full-strength. With so much unknown, they should be another popular upset pick. 

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