These Tournament Sleepers Could Make Your Men's Bracket
This article is part of our March Madness series.
As we wrote Wednesday, a handful of highly seeded teams in this year’s men’s NCAA Tournament are waving bright red flags — which make them risky picks for a deep run through the bracket. But there are also teams in the opposite category: those that aren’t seeded among the best of the best but possess characteristics that could make them more dangerous than they seem.
Looking at teams seeded outside the top four in each region, here are four types of unheralded squads to give real consideration when filling out your bracket:
Undervalued and unlucky squads
On the flip side of each dubiously seeded contender in the NCAA Tournament is a lower-ranked team that didn’t get the respect the computers suggested it should have. And this tournament has its fair share of teams that, by Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metric,1 deserved at least one seed higher than their actual placements.
In a historical sense, the committee wound up hewing closely to efficiency numbers when seeding; there were no cases like Utah State in 2005, which behaved like a KenPom 5 seed during the regular season but was rewarded with a No. 14 seed in the Big Dance — and a first-round exit. Nor was there another 2017 Wichita State, which had the misfortune of earning a No. 10 seed despite playing like a No. 2 seed before the tournament.2 But among the underseeded this year, there are some unheralded squads you should consider taking a chance on in your bracket.
Can these underseeded teams turn up their luck?
Among teams outside the top four seeds, biggest negative deviation between KenPom seed (derived from a team’s adjusted efficiency ranking) and actual seed in the 2022 men’s NCAA Tournament
|Team||Adj eff. rank||actual||Kenpom||Deviation||Luck Rk. 🍀|
|San Diego St.||22||8||6||-2||148|
Atop this list is No. 11 seed Virginia Tech, which rained down a barrage of threes in Brooklyn last week to capture the ACC Tournament and punch its ticket to the Big Dance. The Hokies caught fire just in time as they had finished just 11-9 in a historically down ACC and likely needed the automatic bid to dance. You might think Virginia Tech was due for a hot run: KenPom considers the Hokies one of the least “lucky” teams in the field — that is, Virginia Tech’s winning percentage has lagged behind what we would expect from its underlying efficiency ratings. Virginia Tech plays a fellow underseeded and unlucky team in Texas on Friday, but should they get past the Longhorns, the Hokies could get one of the biggest red-flag teams of the tournament in Purdue in the Round of 32. What’s a Hokie, you ask? It could be an upset special.
Other teams primed to upset the apple cart include No. 5 seed Houston, which followed up its first Final Four since Phi Slama Jama with another AAC title and another balanced squad; No. 11 Michigan, which started the season with high hopes only to face controversy over earning a bid at all; and No. 9 Memphis, which despite underachieving for much of the year is still among the most talented teams in the tournament.
More than a few highly seeded teams were on the losing end of early upsets past because their seasonlong aversion to defense finally caught up to their otherworldly offensive prowess.3 Conversely, teams outside the top-four seeds that overperform relative to expectation — meaning they advanced further in the tournament than their seed line would suggest4 — usually manage solid performances on both sides of the ball. It can be hard to find teams with a balanced blend of crisp offense and stingy defense among the lower-seeded teams, but this tournament has a few candidates of that ilk:
Houston checks the boxes of past dark horses
Teams outside the top-four seeds in the 2022 men’s NCAA Tournament with better offensive and defensive ranks than the average overperforming* team at their seed, 2002-2021
|Team▲▼||seed▲▼||Adj. off. rk▲▼||Adj. def. rk▲▼||Off.▲▼||Def.▲▼|
The Cougars stand out here as one of only four teams in the field to rank in the top 15 of both KenPom’s adjusted offense and adjusted defense metrics. Houston seems to find easy points from extra possessions; the Cougars rank third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and 30th in defensive turnover percentage. Meanwhile, Friday’s matchup between No. 11 Virginia Tech and No. 6 Texas promises to be a battle of styles; the Hokies have a much better offense than past No. 11 seeds that pulled off upsets, while the Longhorns boast a more impressive defensive profile than past party-crashers at the No. 6 slot.
Just as teams with great seasons that come out of nowhere are often prime candidates for regression in the NCAA Tournament, teams that were highly regarded in preseason but had so-so regular seasons are intriguing options to outperform their seed expectations. In most cases, these teams’ lofty preseason rankings represent a certain amount of talent on the roster, which — even if latent (or injured) for most of the year — can gel late in the season.5
These touted teams have been mostly lying in wait
2022 men’s NCAA Tournament teams with the largest negative difference between their current FiveThirtyEight power ranking (among tourney teams) and their preseason ranking, based on polls and Elo ratings
|Team||Region||Seed||AP Poll||Coach||Elo||Composite||Current Rk||Diff.|
The ultimate example of that in this year’s bracket is Michigan, which was ranked sixth in the preseason AP poll but struggled to distinguish itself all season — going 11-9 in the Big Ten while making more headlines for coach Juwan Howard punching an opposing assistant than for its play on the court. Ultimately, Michigan secured a lowly No. 11 seed in the tournament (tied with the 2016 squad for the school’s lowest-ever seed in the NCAAs). But the Wolverines do have their conference’s sixth-leading scorer (Hunter Dickinson), a nice mix of experienced guards (Eli Brooks, DeVante’ Jones) and hyped freshmen (Moussa Diabaté, Caleb Houstan), and a very favorable first-round draw against No. 6 seed Colorado State. Our model gives Michigan a whopping 69 percent chance at the upset there, and its talent could even help it be competitive against the likes of Tennessee and Villanova later in the tournament.
No. 9 Creighton and No. 14 Yale each fell by similar amounts relative to their preseason Elo rankings, through the Bluejays have the greater chance of winning in the first round (45 percent). And further down the list, it’s worth keeping an eye on No. 6 Texas and No. 6 Alabama, both of whom were top-10 preseason teams according to our composite and have the talent to make it to the tournament’s second weekend.
In our story about favorites with glaring red flags, we noted that certain styles of play make upsets more probable by introducing extra randomness into the game — including slowing down the pace, shooting a lot of 3-pointers and playing aggressive defense with an emphasis on forcing turnovers. That’s a bad combination for highly seeded teams, which generally want a more controlled, predictable flow of play over which to exert their talent advantages. But for underdogs seeking to tilt things back in their favor, those characteristics can be the difference between winning and losing.
Just as before, we created a composite ranking to measure how chaotic a team’s tendencies are, using Pomeroy’s metrics for pace (from slowest to fastest), turnovers forced on defense (from highest to lowest) and reliance on 3-pointers for scoring (from the largest share of team points to the smallest). Looking again at seeds five through 16 in each region, here are the teams with the best combinations of those attributes:
These tourney teams play an upset-friendly style
Teams outside the top four seeds in the 2022 men’s NCAA Tournament ranked by a combination of slow pace, high turnovers and reliance on 3-pointers
|Team||Region||Seed||Pace (Slowest)||Turnovers Forced||3P
At the top of the list, we find another reason to consider Virginia Tech’s potential, given its status as a slow-paced team that forces a solid number of turnovers and shoots a lot of threes. In fact, all of those upset-friendly factors were on display in the ACC Tournament, as the Hokies toppled favored Duke in the championship by keeping the game to just 66 possessions (one of the Blue Devils’ slowest games of the year), forcing 10 turnovers and going 10-for-22 from downtown. That formula could benefit Virginia Tech in the first round against sixth-seeded Texas, which also shows up on this list — so get ready for a potentially chaotic game.
Two other teams that stand out in the chaos department are both in the South region: No. 10 Loyola of Chicago and No. 5 Houston. The Ramblers are practically bracket fixtures at this point, having followed up their incredible Final Four run from 2018 with additional tournament appearances in 2021 and now 2022. They are a relatively strong pick (45 percent) to knock off seventh-seeded Ohio State in the Round of 64, and they could at least pose some threat to Villanova after that, particularly considering the Wildcats’ own chaos-friendly style of play.
As for the Cougars, they are not exactly a Cinderella-type team — as we mentioned above, they went to the Final Four last year and have a 45 percent chance of reaching the Sweet 16 in our model. However, Houston is a real threat to potentially go even further than that, with winnable matchups looming against No. 1 Arizona and No. 2 Villanova if everything plays out according to chalk. The Cougars’ slow pace and turnover-heavy defensive tactics could help turn those potential upsets into a reality on the road to another Final Four berth.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.