Let’s start here: It’s not crazy to pick multiple 12-over-5 upsets on your bracket. It’s not crazy any year, and it’s especially not crazy this year.
First, some historic numbers, starting with the 1985 tournament (when the field expanded to 64 teams):
35: years at least one 12 seed pulled off an upset
13: years at least two 12 seeds pulled off an upset
5: years three 12 seeds pulled off an upset
5: years no 12 seeds pulled off an upset
That’s incredible, right? On the overall seed list, teams on the 5-seed line are ranked 17-18-19-20. On that same seed list, teams on the 12 seed line are ranked 46-47-48-49. That’s a big difference in quality of teams. At least, it seems like it would be. And yet, in the 40 years of an expanded bracket, 12 seeds have actually won 35.7 percent of their games (50-90).
Now, let’s look at the 12-vs-5 matchups in the 2021 tournament.
12 Winthrop vs. 5 Villanova, South Region
FanDuel odds: Villanova -6, o/u 141
Why this could happen: Look, nothing’s certain in the NCAA Tournament. Especially upsets. The ones that seem like obvious upset picks often wind up with the higher seed winning in a blowout. That said, this matchup has pretty much every single element you’d look for when picking an upset.
Let’s start with Winthrop. The Eagles are 23-1, which is crazy impressive, and they’re playing their best basketball of the season. Here are the winning margins for Winthrop in the Big South tournament: 29 points, 21 points, 27 points. The Eagles’ point guard, Chandler Vaudrin, is the active NCAA leader in career triple-doubles (eight). Big man D.J. Burns, a former four-star recruit who transferred from Tennessee, scored 22 in the Big South title game, on 11-of-12 shooting from the field. Winthrop runs waves and waves of players out on a regular basis — 11 players average 11 minutes or more, but Vaudrin is the only one above 25 per game — allowing them to force the tempo and wear teams down. Especially teams dealing with injury issues (hint, hint).
And then, there’s Villanova. The Wildcats were in the 1/2-seed conversation for a long time, but they are not now what they once were. They’ve played four games in the past two-plus weeks and lost three of them. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is still an incredible player capable of taking over a game, no doubt. But senior point guard Collin Gillespie, who averaged 14.0 points and 4.6 assists per game and shot 37.6 percent from 3-point range, is out with an injury. Justin Moore, who’s averaging more than a dozen points, has been dealing with a painful ankle sprain. And even when Gillespie and Moore combined to play 70 minutes at Butler, the Wildcats lost on the road by a dozen. Let’s just put it this way: Most coaches would prefer that their team is playing well and fully healthy heading into the NCAA Tournament, and Villanova checks neither of those boxes.
12 Georgetown vs. 5 Colorado, West Region
FanDuel odds: Colorado -4.5, o/u 138
Why this could happen: I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I’m relatively confident that there has never been a time that a “power” conference team won its league championship game by 25 points and wound up as a 12 seed. And the thing is, that’s probably the right seed for the Hoyas, who are just 13-12 and had to win all four BET games just to climb over .500 for the first time since they were 1-0. But who in their right mind would want to face a team that’s playing like Georgetown is right now?
Look, Colorado is solid. The Buffaloes had won six in a row — including two Ws against a very good USC team — before falling to Oregon State in the Pac-12 title game. But they’re capable of hiccups; the Buffs lost games this year to three Pac-12 teams that didn’t even sniff at-large bids (Washington, Utah and California), and might have been a bit overseeded at a 5.
12 UC Santa Barbara vs. 5 Creighton, West Region
FanDuel odds: Creighton -6.5, o/u 139
Why this could happen: Creighton has been an odd team this season. There are games when they look Elite Eight-good — like when they beat Villanova by 16 on Feb. 13 — and games when they look like they’re completely lost on the court — like the Big East title game, when they lost to Georgetown by 25 points. That hit-or-miss nature is not a great trait for a team in March, to say the least. And will the awful comments by coach Greg McDermott play a role in distracting the team when they should be focused solely on the next game? It’s impossible to know for certain, of course, but it’s not impossible for that to be the truth.
And, yeah, UC Santa Barbara is legit. They were 4-3 at one point early in the season, having dropped back-to-back games at UC Irvine at the end of December. Since then, they’re 18-1, and the 18th win was in the Big West title game against, you guessed it, UC Irvine. UCSB won that one by 16 points. They’re balanced, with guard JaQuori McLaughlin leading the way at 16.2 points per game on 40.4 percent shooting from beyond the 3-point arc. Forwards Amadou Sow and Miles Norris combine to average 23.3 points and 12.1 rebounds.
12 Oregon State vs. 5 Tennessee, East Region
FanDuel odds: Tennessee -7.5, o/u 133
Why this could happen: I think this is the least likely 12-over-5 upset in this year’s bracket, but don’t completely count out the Beavers. They chewed up three Pac-12 at-large teams — UCLA, Oregon and Colorado — during the league tournament to earn the Pac-12’s auto bid. They wouldn’t have made the NCAA Tournament without it. They love to slow down the tempo, and that works from time to time in March. Oregon State was 315th in adjusted tempo this year, with an average of 65.4 possessions per game.
Tennessee is really solid, though. The Vols play a deliberate brand of basketball, too — they’re 233rd in tempo, at 67.3 — so controlling the pace isn’t a big advantage for Oregon State. And the Tennessee defense is tenacious; the Vols are fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency (87.0). Those types of squads are difficult to upend in March.
Which 12 seed is best bet for an upset?
If you’ve gotten this far, you know I’m picking Winthrop. The combination of how good the Eagles are and Villanova’s recent injuries/struggles makes that an easy pick.
If you’re looking at the odds — and you’re not Han Solo — Georgetown is probably your best bet; the spread in that game is the smallest (4.5) of any of the 12/5 matchups.
If you only pick Pacific Coast time zone teams to win games, then by all means go with Oregon State over Tennessee.
If you’re a believer in potential team chemistry issues being a problem, you could do worse than picking Creighton to lose its opener.
As for a ranking, from most likely to least likely: Winthrop, Georgetown, UCSB then, finally, Oregon State.