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The Factors That Could Make March Madness Mad: Upset Seeds, Deep 3s And Post D

This article is part of our March Madness series.

With Selection Sunday selected and brackets being furiously filled, the final component of college basketball season is always the best: March Madness. We offered some of our bracket superlatives a few days ago, but let’s dive into a few more of the storylines and numbers that could determine the fate of the men’s and women’s brackets.

Seeded for an upset

FiveThirtyEight’s model gives the No. 10 seed Utah State Aggies (26-8) the best chance of a first-round victory of any underdog in the tournament (64 percent) — and that could be because they’re simply a better team than their opponent, the No. 7 seed Missouri Tigers (24-9). According to’s power ratings, the Aggies are the 25th-strongest team, while the Tigers are only 56th. Utah had the 14th-ranked offense, led by elite-shooting junior Steven Ashworth. Shooting 44.3 percent from deep on the year, Ashworth was also the 14th-most efficient pick-and-roll ballhandler in the nation,1 according to Synergy Sports. Ashworth was also the most efficient pull-up shooter,2 with a game winner already under his belt this season. Meanwhile, Missouri finished with the 174th-ranked defense.

While we appreciate how difficult the selection committee’s job is, Mizzou-Utah State is one of three custom-made seed-line upsets that the men’s bracket has just handed to us. (Boise State over Northwestern and Auburn over Iowa are the other two.) Several other potential first-round upsets are within striking distance of 50-50 odds as well, including West Virginia over Maryland and Illinois over Arkansas. Perhaps it is simply an artifact of this odd college season, but there are more than a few teams that predictive rankings disagree with the seedings on.

The No. 8 seed Memphis Tigers (26-8) could be another under-ranked team. They are one of 16 teams with a top-40 ranked offense and defense and are fresh off a win over the No. 1 seed Houston Cougars (31-3) to capture the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship. Transfer Kendric Davis exploded for 31 points. Per Synergy, Memphis scores the fourth-most points in transition, largely because it spends almost a quarter of defensive possessions in a full-court press — the 32nd-most of any team. 

The Tigers have been successful in Quad 1 games. According to, Memphis finished with the fifth-best power rating of any tournament-qualifying team in the nation in Quad 1 contests despite going only 4-4; half of their Quad 1 games came against No. 1 seeds Houston and the Alabama Crimson Tide (29-5). As a result, their power rating from Quad 1 games alone puts them above three No. 1 seeds in the tournament, including the Purdue Boilermakers (29-5), whom they could face in the second round.

If they do, the game could be decided outside of the half court. Memphis would be happy to force Purdue’s guards to attack traps in a full-court press so as to take the ball out of center Zach Edey’s hands, who is the heavy favorite to win college basketball’s National Player of the Year. However, Purdue is used to facing such creative defenses; the last game in which it didn’t face at least one possession of full-court press was Feb. 1. Purdue scores the 12th-most points against the full-court press, according to Synergy.

3-point shot an equalizer

There are a number of lesser-seeded teams that hitch their wagons to the star of the deep bomb. This has long been a viable strategy. In 2019, for example, the No. 5 seed Auburn Tigers (30-10) were the worst seed to reach the Final Four. FiveThirtyEight’s model gave them an 11 percent chance to play so deep in the tournament. Three-pointers made up almost half of Auburn’s shots, the eighth-highest share of any team that year, and they shot the 22nd-highest percentage on triples. This year’s tournament has several teams trying to replicate that formula.

The College of Charleston Cougars (31-3) take the ninth-highest share of triples, and sophomore Reyne Smith takes the third-most per-game catch-and-shoot jumpers in the nation. Despite being tied for the most wins this season, Charleston’s only Quad 1 contest was a 102-86 loss to the University of North Carolina Tar Heels (20-13), as Charleston attempted its fifth-fewest triples of the year. The Pennsylvania State Nittany Lions (22-13), Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (30-4) and Florida Atlantic Owls (31-3) are other lesser-seeded teams that combine top-40 marks for both frequency and accuracy of threes. 

The No. 13 seed Furman Paladins (27-7) might be this year’s best adaptation of the high-variance strategy. They attempt the 13th-highest frequency of 3-pointers, but more than other teams, that feeds into other components of offense. They are the most efficient 2-point shooting team, as lead scorers Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson are both 3-point shooters who connect on over 60 percent of their shots inside the arc. As a result, Furman has a dynamic, multifaceted offense, as a team enjoying the 15th-best points per possession on isolations, 24th-best on pick and rolls, and 32nd-best on post-ups.

At least one team will likely get hot from deep and fire up an upset. It won’t happen for everyone on this list, but they’re all trying to game the efficiency system by increasing the number of balls spinning on their proverbial roulette wheels.

Stanford’s post D the blueprint against South Carolina

We’ve laid out the dominance of the South Carolina Gamecocks (32-0) before, and FiveThirtyEight’s tournament model unsurprisingly adores South Carolina. On the women’s side, this season is the first since 2018 in which the model features a team with pre-tournament odds over 50 percent of winning the championship. (The model has never had such an event on the men’s side.)

In a tourney of big favorites, South Carolina is among the biggest

NCAA women’s basketball teams with highest pre-tournament odds in FiveThirtyEight’s model, 2016-2023

Year Team Pre-Tournament odds of winning
2016 Connecticut 70%
2018 Connecticut 65
2023 South Carolina 64
2017 Connecticut 52
2022 South Carolina 46
2020 Oregon 37
2021 Stanford 36
2019 Notre Dame 30

The results are mixed for those overwhelming favorites, however. Of the two University of Connecticut squads with odds over 60 percent, the 2016 iteration won the championship game by 31 points. The 2018 version didn’t even reach the final game. 

For any team to have a shot at upsetting South Carolina, it could happen through the post. Post-ups are significantly more efficient and frequent within South Carolina’s offense than isolations or pick and rolls, according to Synergy. That makes sense with reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston working in the middle, as she is the fifth-most efficient post-up player in the nation.3

Unfortunately for South Carolina, it could face stout post defenders early in the tournament. The No. 16 seed Norfolk State Spartans (26-6) have the best post defense in the nation. (It should be noted, they also faced the 352nd most difficult strength of schedule of 361 Division I teams.) We’re going to go ahead and guess the Gamecocks will handle that matchup fine, but it could be a prelude for what’s to come.

Potential Final Four opponent Stanford (28-5, fourth-hardest strength of schedule) ranks 33rd in post defense. (Stanford is also the last team to win the women’s tournament before South Carolina.) If South Carolina and Stanford do play, Stanford’s Cameron Brink holds opponents to the third-lowest points per possession in the post,4 while ranking second in the nation in blocked shots. The one regular-season game between the two teams went to overtime, as Brink blocked four shots and led both teams in scoring. The five-point differential was South Carolina’s second-closest game this season.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.


  1. Among players with at least one such possession used per game.

  2. Among players attempting at least two jumpers per game off the dribble.

  3. Among players with at least 5.0 post-up possessions per game.

  4. Among players with at least 50 post-ups defended.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.


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