The 2015 NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off in earnest Thursday1 as the round of 64 gets underway with a slate of 16 games. One of the joys of the tournament’s opening day is the sudden onslaught of wall-to-wall basketball starting around noon. But with multiple games being staged at once, it can be tough to decide which ones to watch and which to simply monitor in the background.
That’s why we’ve decided to reprise our Crib Notes series from last year’s World Cup and apply it to March Madness. Every day that there’s an NCAA tournament game, FiveThirtyEight will highlight a game to watch, what to look for and what it means. Where will you find the matchup of the most talented teams2? Are there any upsets waiting to happen? Which players should you keep an eye on and why? It’s all here.
This one features the usual Day 1 mixture of lopsided sleepers and evenly matched contests. For instance, undefeated Kentucky will face Hampton in a game that our model says the Wildcats have a mere 1-in-984 chance of losing. But there are more exciting matchups to be had as well, including a couple of games that FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver likes to call “fake upset” opportunities — matchups for which our win probabilities and the selection committee’s seedings don’t agree on who should be the favorites. So let’s get to it!
Game to watch: At 7:27 p.m. on TruTV: No. 5 Utah vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (a harmonic mean of 84.7)
Upset alert! At 3:10 p.m. on TruTV: No. 11 UCLA (37 percent win probability) vs. No. 6 SMU
Most lopsided matchup: At 12:40 p.m. on TruTV: No. 3 Iowa State (91 percent) vs. No. 14 UAB
Game to watch: At 4:40 p.m. on TNT: No. 7 VCU vs. No. 10 Ohio State (84.9)
Upset alert! No. 10 Ohio State (64 percent) vs. No. 7 VCU
Most lopsided matchup: At 2:10 p.m. on TNT: No. 2 Arizona (99 percent) vs. No. 15 Texas Southern
VCU vs. Ohio State
Player to watch: D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
VCU earned a well-deserved reputation over the past decade as the ultimate “giant killers,” culminating with a surprise Final Four berth in 2011. And it still does many of the things that successful underdogs specialize in: shooting a lot of threes and forcing a ton of turnovers, particularly via the steal. Anything that creates more variance gives the underdog a better chance of pulling an upset.
The trouble with VCU, though, is that it isn’t an underdog anymore; it is the establishment. VCU ranked as high as 14th in the Associated Press poll this season, and, even as a No. 7 seed, the customary expectation is at least a first-round win. The hunters have become the hunted — a status that doesn’t necessarily suit such a high-variance style.
Then again, according to our power ratings, VCU’s opening tilt against Ohio State is going to be an uphill battle for the Rams. The Buckeyes were badly underseeded at No. 10 in the West; as a comparison, our ratings have them ranked 18th … in the entire country. They’re one of only 12 schools to rank among the top 40 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings on both offense and defense. And their freshman guard D’Angelo Russell was one of the most valuable players in the country this season, a backcourt dynamo for whom VCU has no counterpart without the injured Briante Weber in the lineup.
Above, we spoke of “fake upsets,” in which the favorite (according to our model) is actually the inferior seed, and this is a textbook example. Our numbers give the Buckeyes a robust 64 percent chance of pulling the “upset” here. But in an odd way, that probability might be underestimating VCU. It is secretly the underdog here — seedings be damned — so this is a situation in which the Rams’ high-variance strategies could pay off again, helping them pull the upset in a game in which the selection committee thought they were favored.
Game to watch: At 2:45 p.m. on CBS: No. 6 Butler vs. No. 11 Texas (84.8 percent)
Upset alert! No. 11 Texas (54 percent) vs. No. 6 Butler
Most lopsided matchup: At 9:40 p.m. on CBS: No. 1 Kentucky (~100 percent) vs. No. 16 Hampton
Game to watch: At 9:20 p.m. on TBS: No. 8 N.C. State vs. No. 9 LSU (82.7)
Upset alert! No. 9 LSU (41 percent) vs. No. 8 N.C. State
Most lopsided matchup: At 6:50 p.m. on TBS: No. 1 Villanova (98 percent) vs. No. 16 Lafayette
Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions.