NCAA Tournament upset picks: New Mexico, Grand Canyon look to bust brackets in West Region (2024)

The West Region is home to the top upset on our board. Based on the analytics, New Mexico beating Clemson shouldn’t be considered an upset. The Lobos are favored by 1.5 points and are for a good reason.

Below, you’ll find deep analysis of that game and every other first-round matchup with Bracket Breaker implications in the West. We’ve already examined the Midwest and will break down the other two regions in the coming days, as well as every potential second-round matchup. To qualify as a Bracket Breaker game, opponents need to be separated by at least five seeds (which is why we don’t cover the 8/9 or 7/10 games). Our analysis adjusts teams’ basic strengths according to how closely they statistically resemble favorites and underdogs from past tournaments and, where appropriate, by style matchups. We can’t tell you how to bet — that depends on how richly your pool rewards deep upsets and your tolerance for risk. But if you’re interested in how our model works, definitely check out this piece.


And now, on to the upsets!

More Bracket Breakers: Men’s Top 10 Upsets | Midwest Region Preview | Women’s Top 10 Upsets

Odds are fromBetMGM. For more Underdogs, listen toPeter and Jordan’s podcast.For all our March Madness coverage, check outour content hub.

No. 6 Clemson Tigers vs. No. 11 New Mexico Lobos

Upset Chance: 57.8 percent

Spread: New Mexico favored by 1.5 points

Here’s some sophisticated analysis: You can tell the NCAA Selection Committee botched a matchup if it would make more sense with its seeds reversed. Our model sees New Mexico as a stronger team than Clemson, seeded five spots lower, by a margin of 1.9 points per 100 possessions. (If you’re wondering whether Ken Pomeroy disagrees, he does: His website estimates the Lobos are 2 points better. Lol.) We’ve been calling New Mexico a potential Cinderella for a while, and not even because of any particularly outstanding underdog traits they carry. They’re an excellent team whose handful of close late-season losses got them undervalued by most bracketologists.

Weirdly, the selection committee may have done the Lobos a favor by handing them an 11-seed even after they won their conference tournament. Clemson presents as a Generic Giant, a type of team we discussed when analyzing the Midwest Region. Generic Giants land high seeds without dominating the boards at either end or being particularly strong at forcing or avoiding turnovers. Without those possession-building tools, they rely heavily on their shooting. That leaves them vulnerable to off nights and opponents who can put together runs. And the more specific we get about this matchup, the worse the results get for Clemson. When Generic Giants faced lower seed teams who were strong offensive rebounders, like New Mexico, they went down in upsets in 52 percent of the games in our spreadsheets, which date back to 2007. And in 6-11 matchups involving Generic Giants, the higher seed has lost in a whopping 73 percent of cases (16 of 22 games).

The cherry on top of this upset sundae: The lower seed has won five times in the 10 historical games most similar to this contest. The closest match: In 2010, Washington, a statistical dead ringer for today’s Lobos, knocked off an earlier New Mexico team in an 11-3 upset. Put it all together, and consider that betting markets are already moving toward the same conclusion as Slingshot: Look out below!

Richard Pitino has put together an entertaining group of Lobos, with senior G Jaelen House (steals on 4.4 percent of opponent possessions) now in his fifth year of highway robbery and freshman F JT Toppin (12.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 64.7 percent eFG%) banging away inside. They shouldn’t have needed to steal a bid to get to the big event. But now that they’re in, their dance card looks pretty tasty.

​​No. 5 St. Mary’s Gaels vs. No. 12 Grand Canyon Antelopes

Upset Chance: 30.4 percent

Spread:Saint Mary’s favored by 5.5 points

Every now and then, we get a fun clash of styles that pit key characteristics of dangerous underdogs and safe favorites against one another. That’s the case as St. Mary’s takes on Grand Canyon in the first round.

Great rebounding teams tend to specialize on one end of the floor. Why? Rebounding isn’t just about ability; it reflects a stylistic choice. On offense, teams must decide between sending an extra body to the offensive glass or preventing fast breaks. On defense, some coaches opt to pressure the perimeter and are willing to live with a few put-backs; others play a tighter style and control the defensive boards. St. Mary’s mixes an aggressive offensive approach with a conservative defensive strategy. The result is a team that ranks third in the country in offensive rebounding (39 percent) and second in defensive rebounding (22.3 percent allowed). That’s a really, really good combination of skills to protect a favorite against a pesky underdog.


Grand Canyon is such a team. The Antelopes play an aggressive style, forcing turnovers on nearly 20 percent of possessions and, most interestingly, grabbing offensive rebounds on 34.6 percent of missed shots. That will directly challenge St. Mary’s top strength, and the outcome will be pivotal. But Grand Canyon does have a couple of other paths to an upset.

First, St. Mary’s plays at the country’s fifth-slowest adjusted tempo. We often remind our readers that more talented teams should want more possessions; limiting the number of individual battles gives underdogs a chance to hang around. Just ask Virginia how that has worked over the years.

Secondly, St. Mary’s has struggled with turnovers in losses. They gave the ball away on 22 percent of possessions in a March loss to Gonzaga, turned it over on 19 percent of possessions in an upset loss to Missouri St., and coughed it up on 23 percent of possessions in falling to Weber State. So pay attention to the pressure Collin Moore (1.8 steals per game) and Tyon Grant-Foster (1.7 spg) put on the ball. It could shift the course of the game.

NCAA Tournament upset picks: New Mexico, Grand Canyon look to bust brackets in West Region (1)

Nate Oates and Alabama shouldn’t have too much trouble against Charleston in the first round of the NCAA Tournament (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 13 Charleston Cougars

Upset Chance: 17.2 percent

Spread:Alabama favored by 9.5 points

Alabama is one of the more fascinating teams in the tournament. Their offense is elite, ranking second in the country with an adjusted 125.6 points per 100 possessions, per When Mark Sears and Aaron Estrada are cooking, the Crimson Tide can score on anyone. But they will also allow anyone to score.

The Tide rank just 112th in defensive efficiency. They gave up 117 points to Kentucky, a combined 207 points in a pair of losses to Florida and 99 against Auburn. They don’t force turnovers, give up bundles of offensive rebounds and foul a ton.

Fortunately for the Tide, they are playing a lesser version of themselves. Charleston ranks 58th in offensive efficiency and 176th in defensive efficiency. Slingshot likes the fact that the Cougars embrace key giant-killing traits like high-volume three-point shooting (47 percent of shots) and offensive rebounding (33.5 percent, 46th in the country). But trying to win a track meet against Alabama isn’t a particularly wise strategy. In a game with an over/under of 173.5, our model thinks the higher-powered offense should prevail.


No. 3 Baylor Bears vs. No. 14 Colgate Raiders

Upset Chance: 8.2 percent

Spread:Baylor favored by 13.5 points

Baylor is a scoring machine, surrounding freshman C and coming superstar Yves Missi with a pack of terrific shooters and passers, including PG RayJ Dennis (6.8 assists per game), F Ja’Kobe Walter (14.2 points per game), F Jalen Bridges (11.9 ppg, 40.6 percent on 3-point attempts) and G Jayden Nunn (10.6 ppg, 43.1 percent on 3PA). The Bears are hitting 53.3 percent of their twos and 39.4 percent of their bombs, and grabbing 35.1 percent of the shots they happen to miss (ranking sixth in the country). It all adds up to 122.5 adjusted points per 100 possessions, giving Baylor the sixth-most efficient offense in the country. The Bears’ defense has slipped a bit since they won a national title three years ago, but that’s not to say many teams have given them trouble. Bad luck may be the toughest opponent they’ve met this season. (Well, bad luck and Iowa State.) Facing one of the nation’s strongest schedules, Baylor lost 10 games—including five by 3 points or less or in overtime. And they’re not likely to be challenged by these Raiders.

Colgate could be the dictionary image of the type of team we call “Schoolyard Bullies,” who are used to having their way on small-conference playgrounds but hardly ever fare well on bigger stages. These squads establish their dominance over weaker competition, then maintain their superiority by playing things safe. Their statistical hallmarks are avoiding turnovers and amassing defensive rebounds — they spend their energy cutting off all opportunities for opponents to gain momentum. They often pile up gaudy won-lost records, which can lure bracket-fillers. And seriously, we are not here to knock them. Building a program that can regularly nab NCAA tournament bids in any way is a big deal. It’s just that if you don’t take chances, you’ll never catch up to a team like Baylor.

Colgate defines this family of longshots as well as anyone. The Raiders rank 19th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage this season but 299th in offensive rebound percentage and 239th in forcing turnovers. This style has brought them another conference championship — in the first round of the Patriot League tournament, they walloped Holy Cross in a game where Colgate had three, count ‘em, 1-2-3, offensive rebounds. The Raiders are so dominant among the likes of Army, Navy, American and Lafayette that in the truncated season of 2021, when Colgate had no non-conference opponents, some ratings systems saw them as one of the very best teams in the country.

Bottom line: Colgate is now 87-15 in Patriot League play since 2019 — and 0-4 in the NCAA tournament. Vermont, Liberty, Bucknell and New Mexico State have all followed similar paths at different intervals over the past 15 years. Slingshot sees these bullies coming from a mile away and heavily downgrades their longshot potential. So should you.

No. 2 Arizona Wildcats vs. No. 15 Long Beach State

Upset Chance: 5.3 percent


Spread: Arizona favored by 20.5 points

We have so many questions about Long Beach State that Slingshot is not designed to answer. Can Coach Dan Monson, fired five days before his team won the Big West Conference championship, negotiate a better severance package than he originally got? Is it really true that Long Beach State has stopped calling its sports teams “49ers” without actually replacing the name, while its baseball players refer to themselves as the “Dirtbags”? What are the odds an NCAA tournament underdog could have two good players named Aboubacar Traore (12.0 ppg, 4.5 apg) and Lassina Traore (12.1 ppg, 10.4 rpg) who aren’t related?

But here are a few things we know: Arizona ranks 16th in the country in offensive rebounding (36.3 offensive rebound percent). When the favorite in a 2-15 game has been dominant on the offensive glass, it has won 88 percent of the matchups in our database. And when those overdogs meet longshots whose primary strength is offensive rebounding — as with Long Beach State — the higher seed wins in 85 percent of games. It’s never fun running into a better version of yourself. This is why the 10 historical games similar to this contest have produced zero upsets.

No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. No. 16 Howard Bison or No. 16 Wagner Seahawks

Upset Chance: 3.9 percent vs. Howard; 3.5 percent vs. Wagner

Howard Wagner, best known as Willy Loman’s boss in Death of a Salesman, could probably form a combined roster and still not challenge UNC. Credit both the Seahawks and Bison for reaching the field of 68: They should enjoy every moment, starting with their matchup in the First Four. But according to our model’s power ratings, UNC is almost 39 points per 100 possessions better than Howard and nearly 42 better than Wagner. Howard is ranked 334th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency; Wagner is 334th in offense. Regardless of which team advances, things won’t be pretty against the Heels.

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

(Photo Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Photo credit: Ian Maule / AP; Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire, Getty)

NCAA Tournament upset picks: New Mexico, Grand Canyon look to bust brackets in West Region (2024)


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