- March Madness is back, and it’s time to build your bracket.
- When looking for an upset, it can be helpful to look to Las Vegas for guidance.
- As the spreads will reveal, sometimes an early upset isn’t much of an upset at all in the eyes of the oddsmakers.
Year after year, the first round of the tournament is defined by the shocking Cinderellas that seem to come out of nowhere to outperform the expectations of those watching at home.
But sometimes, those upsets are not so shocking in the eyes of bookmakers, setting the odds on games. By taking a look at the spreads set by sportsbooks for the first set of games, we can get a glimpse of some of the best early upset candidates.
Below are five games that Las Vegas says are much closer than the bracket would have you believe.
No. 11 Michigan over No. 6 Colorado State
Despite the fact that Michigan is a lower seed than Colorado State, the Wolverines are 2.5-point favorites over the Rams in their first-round matchup.
This shouldn’t come as a total surprise — games between 6-11 teams have been pretty evenly split in recent years, and dating back to 2014, 11-seeds have actually had a slight advantage over 6-seeds in these games.
If you were only going by what you see on the bracket, you might pencil in Colorado State without thinking twice about it, but given how Las Vegas thinks this game is going to go, it’s technically higher-seeded Colorado State that would be pulling off an upset if it won.
No. 10 Loyola-Chicago over No. 7 Ohio State
Loyola-Chicago has caused some chaos in the tournament over the past few years, beginning with its Cinderella run to the Final Four as an 11-seed in 2018. Last year, the Ramblers kept the party going, reaching the Sweet 16 as an 8-seed and taking down No. 1 Illinois along the way.
Given their recent success in the tournament, the Ramblers aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year, but you still might be surprised to learn that they are actually a 1.5-point favorite over Ohio State in their first-round game.
While 7-10 upsets aren’t too uncommon — 10-seeds have won at a 42.5% clip over the past 30 tournaments — it’s impressive that Loyola-Chicago is so respected by bookmakers to be favored over a powerhouse school with a higher seed.
No. 13 South Dakota State over No. 4 Providence
This might be the most intriguing difference between spread and seeding that we see all tournament. As a 13-seed, South Dakota State is just a three-point underdog against Providence, according to sportsbooks.
While the Jackrabbits are still technically ‘dogs, if you compare their odds to those of the other 13-seeds in the field, it’s clear that Las Vegas sees them a step ahead of the competition. No. 4 Illinois is a 7.5-point favorite over No. 13 Chattanooga in the South region. No. 4 UCLA is a whopping 14-point favorite over Akron in the East.
It’s also worth noting that 13-seeds have been on a bit of an upset run in recent years. Over the past three tournaments, 13-seeds have more upsets over 4-seeds in the first round (5) than 12-seeds do over 5-seeds (4). Given all of the attention paid to 5-12 matchups, it might be worth zigging against the zag and backing a lurking 13-seed this year instead.
No. 13 Vermont over No. 4 Arkansas
Vermont presents another very interesting 4-13 matchup against Arkansas in the first round. Like South Dakota State, the Catamounts are technically underdogs in this game, but the Razorbacks are only being given a 5-point edge by bookmakers in this contest.
Again, 13-seeds have had more success in recent tournaments than you might think, and given the tough outlook of the other two 13-seeds in this year’s bracket, Vermont and South Dakota State both present an opportunity for bracket chaos.
The Catamounts can play, as they showed in an absolutely dominating 82-43 win over UMBC in the America East final just a few days ago. If they can bring that same energy against Arkansas this weekend, there’s no reason to think they couldn’t make a run to the Sweet 16.
No. 14 Colgate over No. 3 Wisconsin
If you are looking for an upset that would 1) really impress everyone in your bracket pool and 2) actually has a chance of hitting, 14th-seeded Colgate is likely your best bet.
Colgate is clearly not the favorite against Wisconsin, but given that the Raiders are only 7.5-point underdogs against the Badgers, this game could be closer than the bracket would have you believe. Further, if you look at the other 3-14 matchups this year, this game is expected to be the closest by a longshot.
No. 3 Texas Tech is a 15.5-point favorite over No. 14 Montana State in the West region; No. 3 Tennessee is a 17-point favorite over No. 14 Longwood in the South; and No. 3 Purdue is a 16.5-point favorite over No. 14 Yale in the East.
While 3-14 upsets aren’t the most common you will see, they do happen. Over the past 30 tournaments, 14-seeds have advanced out of the first round in just over 14% of games. Since 2016, just one 14-seed has pulled off an opening upset. If you think we’re due for an extra bit of Madness this year, Colgate could be your answer.