How to Spot an Upset in March Madness

Basketball Upsets

People love the March Madness tournament. Every year, sports bettors and regular office employees all over the nation fill out a bracket or place some bets on the games, making it the second-highest sports gambling event of the year. One aspect of the tournament that makes it so fantastic is the many upsets.

It seems that every year there are a handful of favorites that fall in the early round to their much lower-seeded opponents. Sometimes these underdog teams go on a run and become an inspirational Cinderella story. Other times they merely make it an extra round or two, which can be just as impressive, depending on who they beat.

For sports gamblers, spotting upsets is where the money is. These games pay out much more substantial sums of money, after all. They also make your bracket look much better, and if you want to win your pool, you’ll need to get a few of the big upsets right, lest they ruin your entire year’s predictions. Here are a few tips to spotting when the underdog team will triumph.

Check Out the KenPom Rankings

When hunting for upsets, an excellent place to start is Ken Pomeroy’s website provides a statistics-based breakdown of the tournament with a solid track record of success. He seems to have identified the most critical variables in predicting winners, as six of the last ten champions were ranked number one in his rankings. To identify upsets, he also provides two other statistics: adjusted defensive efficiency and adjusted offensive efficiency.

Teams that are strong in one of these categories tend to be able to overachieve when matched up with a favorable opponent. A top-ranked offense or defense may be able to knock off a more well-balanced team with a higher seed, but that doesn’t excel on one side of the ball to the extent a lower-seeded team may. A team with an 80th placed offense but the top-fifteen defense will have a solid chance of upsetting a team with rankings in the 40s for both stats.

Availability of Key Players

Injuries always play a significant role in sports, unfortunately. It may seem obvious to check each team’s roster for injured players when looking for upsets, but what we are talking about is a bit different. Key players don’t necessarily mean the stars of the team; everyone knows the impact they’ll have on the outcome when missing.

Instead, we are talking about the glue guys that hold a program together. The junior or senior players that keep everyone focused and motivated. The guys that will take a big charge when it’s needed the most. During March Madness, these players are worth their weight in gold.

While everyone else focuses on the one-and-done athletes with the NBA talent, it’s the glue guys that make the difference in an early elimination or deep tournament run. When games get close and the pressure rises, you’ll want these foundational players available, and that’s why you should research which players are available and who is injured when trying to spot underdog victories.

Out of Conference Games

Many of the low-seeded underdog teams come from weaker conferences. Their strength of schedule hurts their RPI ranking, so they get a tougher road to the finals. But some teams from weak conferences are every bit as good as the stats suggest.

Don’t just judge a team by their conference competition. Look at the early-season games that they played out of conference. It’s not even necessary that they win all of those games. But if they play teams close or hold top programs to low point totals, they are a prime suspect to catch a more favored team off-guard.

College athletes are prone to significant lapses in focus or motivation. If they feel like they’re going to roll over an opponent easily, they won’t always play with the same intensity. So, a scrappy low-conference team that’s performed well against the big dogs before may be a prime choice to upset a school looking past them.

Star Players Aren’t Enough

Teams that focus too much on a single star player rarely have much success in the NCAA tournament. This has been true since Wilt Chamberlain’s Jayhawks were upset by North Carolina way back in 1957. Well-balanced teams that spread the ball around and work together perform much better during March Madness.

ImportantA team counting on one player to pull them through can’t afford a single bad game from that athlete. Well, a national title requires six straight victories. There aren’t many basketball players that can shoulder that kind of a load for the entirety of the competition.

It doesn’t matter if a squad has the future number-one draft pick or the top recruit in the land; if they aren’t surrounded by a decent support staff, their tourney won’t last long.

10th, 11th, and 12th Seeds

Historically, many of the upsets have come in the same rounds from the same seeds. In fact, 75% of all March Madness upsets in the early rounds come from the tenth, eleventh, or twelfth seeded teams, with over 25% coming from the twelfth in particular. This leaves you with twelve teams across the four regions with the highest probability of scoring an upset victory for you.

From there, you can further break down the data to give yourself a better chance of picking the right schools. As it turns out, a third of the teams that successfully win these games against favored opponents have top-thirty offenses. This is an easy stat to look up and a reliable way to increase your chances of picking the right underdog.

Consider Coaching

Time and time again, we learn that March Madness is all about the coaching, no matter how a team’s regular season went or where they were seeded. The best coaches in the land seem to just find a way to get their athletes playing their best ball when it matters most. Coaches with that legendary pedigree consistently find themselves in the Sweet Sixteen to Final Four rounds, no matter where they start the tournament.

We’re talking about coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Coach Calipari at Kentucky, and Roy Williams at North Carolina. You can never count these guys out. Their pedigree and history become a significant asset during the tournament, and they rarely bow out without a fight. In the situation where one of their teams is an underdog, you should strongly consider placing that bet.

Defense Doesn't Necessarily Win Championships

“Defense wins championships,” is one of those sayings that we’ve all heard a thousand times, but it doesn’t necessarily ring true in the NCAA tournament. Sure, it’s one crucial factor in winning it all, but it doesn’t tell nearly the whole story.

Defense?In fact, statistically, the best defense in the land has not had a ton of success in winning the entire tourney.

A championship team does need a solid defense and preferably one that is above average. But the best teams pair those defenses with a slightly better offense. So, when you’re comparing the stats between teams, pick the one with the better offense; they’ve got the better chance of scoring an upset than the top defensive units.

Look at Recent Games

Sometimes a team will get seeded higher in the tournament than they really deserve because of their early- or mid-season performances. Look at a team’s last ten games to truly gauge how they’ve been playing recently. Teams that have only won six or fewer games in their previous ten contests tend to get upset within the first two rounds.

So, don’t let a high seed fool you; some of these teams have been struggling down the stretch. It could be due to missing players or an overall lack of form, but whatever the case is, prioritizing recent statistics over season-long stats is an excellent way to spot an upset.

In Conclusion

The truth is, there’s never going to be a sure-fire way to identify an upset in March Madness. That’s what makes them upsets; they’re incredibly unpredictable. But you can study history and locate the factors that have contributed to these surprise wins more often than not.

It’s worth your time to do this research, because whether you’re betting on individual games or filling out a bracket, it’s the gambler that spots the upsets that take home the money. We’ve learned that most of the favorites that lose do so against particular seeds or teams designed to play a certain way. A program that excels on one side of the ball has a great chance against a team that’s more well-rounded but closer to average at all facets of the game.

March Madness is one of the most exceptional sporting events in the United States because of the fascinating stories it creates. We all want to predict the next incredible Cinderella story before it happens. Not only does it make us look like geniuses, but it can also be insanely profitable as well. While there’s no advice that can guarantee you these underdog picks, following the advice above will give you a good start. Good luck!

Jim Beviglia
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About Jim Beviglia
Jim Beviglia has been a gambling writer at since 2018. During that time, he’s written just about every type of article related to gambling, including reviews of betting sites, guides to popular casino games, betting tips on both casino and sports betting, sports and casino blog posts, and game picks. In addition to online gambling, one of Jim’s other major interests is music. He has been doing freelance work for various music sites and magazines for two decades. Among his outlets past and present are American Songwriter, VinylMePlease, Treble, and The Bluegrass Situation. Jim has also written five books on music that were published by Rowman & Littlefield.