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Orlin Wagner/Associated Press
For some very obvious reasons, this has been a topsy-turvy 2020-21 men’s college basketball campaign, and given what we saw during Conference Championship Week, the chaos shows no signs of disappearing any time soon. With teams like Georgetown and Oregon State beating extremely long odds to make it to the Big Dance, virtually anything seems possible over the next few weeks, even more so than usual.
The first full day of the NCAA tournament is in the books, and most online websites have closed their bracket predicting features accordingly. However, if you either want to bet on individual matchups or just find the most likely upsets to watch, we’ve got you covered today.
On this second day of the first round, there are several higher seeds dealing with various degrees of turmoil—whether they be injuries, off-court scandal, or just a plain cold streak—and are ripe to be picked off by plucky underdogs.
Let’s run through some of the teams most likely to go home disappointed on this Saturday.
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Young Kwak/Associated Press
Opponent: No. 11 UCLA (18-9)
Money Line: BYU (-186)
UCLA’s First Four victory over Michigan State snapped a four-game losing streak, while BYU is currently undefeated against non-Gonzaga foes since Jan. 27. These two facts suggest an open-and-shut win for the higher-seeded Cougars, but dig somewhat deeper and the case for an upset becomes pretty convincing.
On BYU before the tournament, B/R’s Kerry Miller stated: “The overall defensive efficiency numbers look good, but is the defense actually good? BYU played five games against top-40 offenses, allowing at least 82 points in each game against Gonzaga, [a] 79-point game for USC and then a 74-68 win over St. John’s”
If we accept this line of reasoning as fair, then UCLA and its top-20 attack should give the Cougars fits. Five healthy Bruins average at least ten points per game, and the team racked up 80 points on seven occasions entering the tournament. The biggest strike against Mick Cronin’s club is that it didn’t play tournament-caliber teams well at all, but BYU’s strength of schedule wasn’t terribly strong either outside of its losses to Gonzaga and an admittedly nice victory over San Diego State, so it’s hard to say whether that will be a factor in this matchup.
With BYU also claiming a top-30 offense nationwide, expect this game to close Saturday’s slate with a bang, and clear your schedule for it.
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John Locher/Associated Press
Opponent: No. 12 Georgetown (13-12)
Money Line: Colorado (-250)
The unstoppable force meets the immovable object in this first-round matchup. Both Colorado and Georgetown have won six of their last seven games, with the former losing in the Pac-12 title game and the latter winning the Big East Conference Tournament in one of last week’s most stunning results.
Something’s gotta give, and while Colorado’s been more consistent all season long, the Hoyas’ recent run seems to have that classic March fairy dust written all over it. Georgetown has neither an NBA-caliber talent nor a star elder statesman. It’s just a solid collection of players playing locked-in team basketball at the perfect time.
In four conference tournament games against schools as notable as Villanova and Creighton, Ewing’s club limited opponents to 36.8 percent overall shooting (and 26.4 percent from three) as well as just 56.5 points per game. They’ve been able to win multiple ways as well, emphasizing tactics as disparate as defensive playmaking, balanced scoring, and drawing fouls from game to game.
These kinds of multi-faceted teams are better suited to succeed in March than just about anybody, which reflects well on the Hoyas’ chances to continue this magical stretch. McKinley Wright IV has had a sterling career, and it would be nice to see him cap his decorated collegiate tenure off with an NCAA tournament victory. Unfortunately, the luck of the draw ensures that Colorado will have its hands full with Georgetown this weekend.
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Andrew Shurtleff/Associated Press
Opponent: No. 13 Ohio (16-7)
Money Line: Virginia (-315)
In ordinary circumstances, Virginia would be on shaky ground against the upstart Ohio Bobcats, and the past ten days have been far from ordinary for Tony Bennett‘s club.
Since being forced to withdraw from the ACC conference tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test, the Cavaliers have been in quarantine. That test occurred last Thursday, and the team hasn’t so much as practiced together since. Star forward Sam Hauser recently described the frustrating lack of activity over the past week, saying: “We’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of individual shooting and conditioning sessions, but that’s pretty much it.”
Of course, quarantines have been somewhat normal this season, and teams have returned with varying amounts of verve. Virginia itself had a three-week layoff in December and responded with a 36-point victory, while ACC rivals Clemson dropped three straight following a ten-day break in January.
This circumstance is particularly difficult, though, as Ohio has been able to prep normally all week and would have been a challenge anyway. Junior point guard Jason Preston has played himself onto the NBA’s radar with a standout campaign, and he’ll be motivated to solidify his draft standing by delivering against Bennett’s storied pack-line defense.
Virginia is the more talented squad on paper. But Preston and Ohio are tailor-made national darlings, and the present circumstances are as favorable as possible for the green and white.
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
Opponent: No. 12 UC Santa Barbara (22-4)
Money Line: Creighton (-335)
You’ve got to be on your game when facing elite small schools. Many of them don’t play the strongest schedules and can’t wait to prove themselves on a big stage. This seems to be the case for UC Santa Barbara, who’s lost just one game in 2021 and are presumably itching to compete with Creighton, a team that’s hit its roughest patch at the worst time.
After winning 13 of 16 between Dec. 17 and Feb. 24, the Bluejays have gone on quite a roller coaster ride. They dropped a game to Xavier, then coach Greg McDermott was suspended for two games due to racially insensitive comments made after that loss. Creighton subsequently fell to Villanova, crushed Butler twice and edged out a victory over UConn, then got run out of the gym by Georgetown in the Big East title game.
All in all, the team’s last three weeks have been wildly inconsistent, and that certainly doesn’t bode well against a club as locked in as UCSB has been.
Creighton’s players have publicly stated they’d like to move on from McDermott’s poor choice of words. However, these types of incidents have a tendency to linger, and it’s not like the team is currently playing its best ball of the season anyway.
If we had to rank these five teams from least to most likely to get upset, Creighton would be last. This game is ripe for the taking.
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Kathy Batten/Associated Press
Opponent: No. 14 Abilene Christian (23-4)
Money Line: Texas (-400)
Admittedly, Texas is the least likely to lose of the five favorites highlighted here. It’s coming off a Big 12 conference tournament championship, beating Texas Tech and Oklahoma State to do so, and Shaka Smart’s team boasts a top-40 offense and defense, per KenPom. But consider this warning less a denigration of the Longhorns than an appreciation for how dominant Abilene Christian has been this year.
As champions of the Southland Conference, it’s not like the Wildcats played a schedule even remotely as difficult as Texas’ this year. But considering who they did play, the season hardly could have gone better.
Abilene Christian lost two conference games by a combined nine points, two non-conference games to very good high-major opponents (Texas Tech and Arkansas), won the conference championship by 34 points and led the nation in turnover rate. Very few schools enter the tournament with more positive momentum, and given the kind of groove the Wildcats are currently in, they might look at the combined length of Jericho Sims, Kai Jones and Greg Brown and shrug.
Of course, Texas has had plenty of long, NBA-caliber bigs in recent years and underachieved. This team is different because it marries that raw talent with intelligent guard play from Andrew Jones, Matt Coleman III and Courtney Ramey. But if Smart doesn’t have his players locked in from minute one today, they might run into trouble against such relentless pressure.
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