NCAA Tournament upset picks: Can Duquesne, Oregon continue the upsets in second round?

Well, that was a hell of a first day, right? Once again, our model caught things that others didn’t, especially regarding the Oakland vs. Kentucky game. Slingshot gave the Golden Grizzlies more than a 19 percent chance of winning, compared to just the 12 percent odds that the moneyline implied. And wouldn’t you know it: The game played out just as we said it might.

But we don’t get to analyze another potential Oakland upset because they face 11th-seeded NC State in a game that doesn’t qualify for Bracket Breakers status (no five-seed difference). The Wolfpack’s upset of Texas Tech was the third-likeliest on our board. And now we’re guaranteed a double-digit seed will advance to the Sweet 16.

Could we get more? Well, check out the upset projections for Saturday’s second-round games.

Odds are from BetMGM. For more Underdogs, listen to Peter and Jordan’s podcast. For all our March Madness coverage, check out our content hub. 

No. 3 Creighton Bluejays vs. No. 11 Oregon Ducks

Upset Chance: 35 percent

Spread: Creighton favored by 5.5 points

Just like Mom always used to say, if you take an 11 to beat a 6, you’ve got to at least consider taking it to beat the 3, too. Here’s why: NCAA tournament upsets depend just as much on the vulnerability of favorites as the gumption of longshots, and once an underdog gets in, it might just face two weak Goliaths in a row.

Creighton is a great shooting team. Full stop. Though we liked Indiana State this season, we’re not sure we would take any squad over the Bluejays in a game of Horse. But how many liabilities are they carrying into this game? Well, how many fingers, toes and Achilles’ heels do you have to count on? They force turnovers on fewer possessions than any team in the NCAA (just 11.1 percent). While they don’t miss many shots, they give themselves very few second opportunities (OR% of 25.8 percent, ranking 283rd in the country). They rely on threes more than almost anyone (48.6 percent of FGA as 3PA, ranking eighth). They play slow, too (67.9 possessions per game, ranking 215th). Translation: They don’t take chances to build possessions, but they do take risks to shoot, and it’s difficult for them to separate from opponents. Overall, Slingshot pegs Creighton as the 11th-best team in the country — but estimates its statistical profile will lead the Bluejays to underperform by a whopping 7.8 points per 100 possessions in the setting of this tournament.

As we have written many times before, if a team relies nearly exclusively on its shooting prowess, a one-off night at this time of year can send them home for good. Already this year, Creighton has shot 6-29 on threes (20.7 percent) and lost to Colorado State; shot 8-29 on threes (27.6 percent) and lost to UNLV; lost close games to Butler and Providence where the Bluejays were in single digits in both offensive rebounds and turnovers forced; and lasted for all of 40 minutes in the Big East conference tournament after a 6-26 (23.1 percent) performance from downtown.

The team most similar to Creighton in our database is last year’s Bluejays, and it’s still more likely than not that Creighton will dispatch Oregon the way their 2023 squad was able to handle North Carolina State and Baylor. But the most similar team to Oregon is Oregon from 2021. And the risk is real that in this matchup, the Ducks will do to the Bluejays what they did to Iowa three years ago.

No. 2 Tennessee Volunteers vs. No. 7 Texas Longhorns

Upset Chance: 28.4 percent

Spread: Tennessee favored by 6.5 points

At first glance, this game doesn’t pass the upset eye test. Tennessee isn’t just a good team; it’s a good giant — with success in a lot of categories that help stave off upsets. And Texas doesn’t play a high-risk/high-reward brand of basketball. So why does this game have the second-highest chance of an upset on Saturday?

History plays a part. Four of the 10 most similar matchups in our model’s database ended in upsets, and most were games between two power conference teams: Marquette over Syracuse (2011); West Virginia over Duke (2008); Wichita State over Kansas (2015); and NC State over Villanova (2015). Several other games ended in close calls: Oklahoma beat VCU 85-81 in 2016; Oregon squeaked past Rhode Island 75-72 in 2017; Kansas held off NC State 60-57 in 2012; and Kansas outlasted UNC in the 2022 national championship game, 72-69.

A lot of these games included teams from the same “clusters” of Giants and Killers facing off. Texas is part of a group that we call “Slow Killers,” who play a slower tempo, limit opponents’ shooting percentage and grab offensive rebounds at an above-average rate. They tend to drive Gambling Giants — Tennessee’s family — crazy: Slow Killers beat Gambling Giants 33 percent of the time.

That’s a strong case to expect a close contest, and maybe even to bet Texas getting 6.5 points. That said, Tennessee is still the better team and the Vols play fast, grab offensive rebounds and force plenty of turnovers. So even though they shoot more threes than we’d like from a favorite, they have other options when Dalton Knecht and Co. are not … um … connecting.

No. 3 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. No. 11 Duquesne Dukes

Upset Chance: 24.3 percent

Spread: Illinois favored by 9.5 points

We write a lot about how favorites who rely on shooting to win are more susceptible to upsets. Case in point: BYU entered their first-round matchup against Duquesne taking more than half of their shots from three-point range, while also hitting 58 percent of their twos. It turned out that neither approach worked against the Dukes, as the Cougars shot 8-for-24 on threes and 42.4 percent on twos in a 71-67 loss.

Duquesne didn’t even have to unleash many giant-killing tactics: BYU grabbed more offensive rebounds, and the turnover and three-point battles were essentially even. The Dukes simply made a decent percentage of their shots, and BYU had nowhere else to turn when theirs weren’t falling.

We bring this up because our model sees Duquesne having almost the same chance of beating Illinois as it did BYU. Illinois, too, relies on its offense. Granted, it’s a better offense than BYU’s (and almost anyone else’s), ranking second in the country in offensive efficiency. And the Illini are less reliant on three-pointers than the Cougars and more effective on the offensive glass, where they grab 36 percent of their missed shots (16th in the country).

But defense is a problem for Illinois. In particular, they rank third-to-last in the country in forcing turnovers (12.3 percent). And turnovers have been a bugaboo for Duquesne this year, so that’s big — the Dukes should get more bites at the apple than usual.

Our model’s similar-games database also paints an optimistic picture for Duquesne. Three of the six most similar matchups ended in upsets: Stanford over Kansas (2014); Lehigh over Duke (2012); and Winthrop over Notre Dame (2007).

Illinois is tough, especially if it plays like it did in the second half against Morehead State. But they’d better not let their guard down because the Dukes have a fighting chance.

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Tom Izzo talks with Tyson Walker during the second half in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)

No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. No. 9 Michigan State Spartans

Upset Chance: 24.1 percent

Spread: North Carolina favored by 3.5 points

The analysis for this game is simple. Throw out most of our model for a minute. Just focus on overall team strength. There is not an eight-seed gap between these teams. Not even close.

Slingshot’s power ratings have UNC eighth in the country. Michigan State is 17th, separated by fewer than four points per 100 possessions. KenPom has the margin even closer: UNC is 9th, and Michigan State is 16th. That’s why UNC is favored by only four points.

So why does our model give the Spartans only a 24 percent chance of winning? The rest of the factors that we typically see in upsets don’t go their way. North Carolina does many of the things our model wants to see from safe overdogs. The Tar Heels are strong rebounders at both ends, play fast, don’t rely too heavily on three-point shooting and rarely turn the ball over.

Michigan State, meanwhile, isn’t especially risk-seeking. It plays slow, which our model likes, and forces turnovers at an above-average rate. But the Spartans are pedestrian rebounders and don’t shoot a ton of threes.

But there’s one catch.

Michigan State has Chameleon potential. Yes, they don’t shoot a lot of threes. But they make 36 percent of them. We’ve written a ton in the past week about how some teams have the ability to increase their variance in certain situations. In Michigan State’s first-round win over Mississippi State, the Spartans took 23 of their 54 shots from three-point range and made 10 of them (44 percent). So, if the Spartans are willing and able to increase their deep-shooting frequency against UNC, our model may be underrating their chances at an upset.

No. 2 Arizona Wildcats vs. No. 7 Dayton Flyers

Upset Chance: 21.5 percent

Spread: Arizona favored by 9.5 points

Here’s a fascinating contrast: very different styles collide, but not head-on. Arizona is particularly strong on the boards and ranks 16th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (35.9 percent). Dayton’s key strength is its long-range shooting: The Flyers take 44.5 percent of their FGA from downtown (ranking 32nd) and are shooting 40.2 percent on threes, the third-best rate in the nation. How do you make sense of that showdown?

Here’s how: In 30 previous meetings between teams from the families of high and low seeds to which Arizona and Dayton belong, the underdog has won just four times. That’s an upset rate of just 13 percent, 10 percentage points lower than for all giant vs. killer matchups in our database. It turns out that this is just an awful matchup for sharpshooting underdogs.

The 10 historical games most similar to this contest produced just two upsets, and that specific sample also carries red flags for the Flyers: It includes several where bombs-away longshots who had pulled off big early-tournament surprises faced power-conference powerhouses who then stomped out their runs. Kansas-Davidson in 2008, Kentucky-Cornell in 2010, Kansas-Richmond in 2011 … We haven’t seen a snuff film like those in a while, but if you remember any of them, they seem like pretty ominous prequels for what Dayton is about to face. Especially considering the Flyers give just a little more than 20 percent of their minutes to their bench, and relied on superheroic effort from just six players to bring them back from a 17-point deficit in their Thursday win against Nevada.

Our model sees the Wildcats as the fourth-best team in the NCAA, with a top-10 offense and defense. And the matchup edge here will only make them more efficient.

No. 2 Iowa State Cyclones vs. No. 7 Washington State Cougars

Upset Chance: 20 percent

Spread: Iowa State favored by 6.5 points

This is another interesting strategic battle — and another matchup that tilts toward the favorite. You know about Iowa State’s defense. The Cyclones, who began their rise from the ashes of 2021 by focusing on creating utter chaos for opponents, are as disruptive as ever. Iowa State steals on 15.4 percent of possessions, which ranks second in the nation. (And raises the interesting question of how the heck UTEP, which ranked first, was only 18-16 this year.) Fun fact: There are 70 teams in D-I that didn’t get turnovers on 15.4 percent of possessions this season, let alone live-ball turnovers. Over the past six weeks, the Cyclones have had just one game where an opponent scored more than 1 point per possession — and that was against Houston, whom they mauled by 28 the next time they saw them.

Iowa State is extremely aggressive at the perimeter (and beyond), which not only hassles opponents into coughing up the ball but limits the effectiveness of their long-range shooting. And the Cyclones work the offensive boards, too (31.3 percent OR%, ranking 100th). We call teams that play this style “Gambling Giants,” and because they amass so many possessions, they are typically very safe in the early rounds of the tournament. Washington State, on the other hand, does not take many of the kinds of risks that longshots need to advance. The Cougars rank 271st at forcing turnovers and are a sub-300 team in their propensity to launch from behind the arc (3PA just 31.8 percent of FGA). Slingshot sees them as a poor longshot — and their principal statistical strength hurts them further in this matchup. Washington State does excel at grabbing offensive rebounds (32.9 percent OR%, and keep an eye on big man Isaac Jones). But strong-OR underdogs give Gambling Giants the least trouble of any clan of killers. Contests between members of these two families trigger upsets in just 18 percent of games.

The 10 most similar games to this matchup did produce three upsets, and show possible paths to a Washington State victory. Two years ago, Michigan won an 11-3 game where Tennessee’s 3-point shooting disappeared, and the Volunteers collapsed in the final minutes. But those Vols depended on bombs much more than these Cyclones do. In 2015, No. 8 seed N.C. State knocked off No. 1 seed Villanova by massively outshooting them on 2-point FGA. That’s probably the Cougars’ best shot, whether or not they can hold onto the ball — to take it to Iowa State inside, exploit second chances and give the Cyclones the same kind of trouble they faced this season in losses to Texas A&M, Baylor and Kansas State. But it’s not anything close to likely. Historically, 7 seeds have upset 2 seeds 31 percent of the time; Slingshot sees a significantly lower chance than that here.

Thanks to John Harris, Kevin Hutson and Liz Bouzarth of Furman University for research assistance.

(Photo of  Fousseyni Drame: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

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