2022 March Madness Preview: Upsets, Cinderellas, and Final Four Predictions

The 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament begins tomorrow with the Round of 64 kicking off. This tournament will span 3 weeks, eliminate 63 teams, and crown one national champion after a season of hard work. Using my college basketball model, I have found some likely upsets, underrated and overrated teams, and the most likely final four teams and national champions. I am using my SABER (Schedule Adjusted Basketball Efficiency Ratings) Rankings to make predictions. These ratings account for team performance, strength of schedule, recency, location, and 3-point defensive luck to create a value that measures the expected margin of victory over the average college basketball team over 100 possessions (this is what the SABER rating should be interpreted as).

First Round Matchups

1 and 2 Seeds

Every year, the 1 and 2 seeds in the tournament usually win their first round matchups. There are some anomalies, such as UMBC’s win over Virginia, MTSU’s win over Michigan State, and Oral Roberts’ win over Ohio State, but it is still very rare. When making brackets, it is best to avoid any upset picks for these types of matchups.

Using my SABER ratings, it is almost impossible to predict a 1 or 2 seed losing in the first round. Even though it is very unlikely, the 1 and 2 seeds most at risk to lose in the first round are Duke and Villanova, although I would still advise against picking any upsets for these teams.

3 vs 14 and 4 vs 13 matchups

The 3-14 and 4-13 matchups in the first round tend to have some more upsets. The 3 seed has won 85% of first round matchups and the 4 seed has won 78% of first round matchups, so these teams are still very likely to win. On average, there will likely be one or two 3 or 4 seeds that lose in the first round each year. Last year, 4 seed Purdue lost to 13 seed North Texas and 3 seed Texas lost to 14 seed Abilene Christian.

Using SABER ratings can help a little bit in the 3-14 matchups. Using past data, if a 3 seed has less than a 90% chance to win, they are in a little bit of danger. SFA in 2016, Georgia State in 2015, and Abilene Christian in 2021 all had a win probability greater than 10%. This year, Colgate is the most dangerous 14 seed, as Wisconsin ranks 41st in SABER despite being a 3 seed. Wisconsin is very overseeded, and if Colgate gets hot with their shooting, they could cause an upset.

SABER can also be used to predict 13 seeds that win in the first round. Since 2015, if a 4 seed has an 85% or less chance to win, they may be in some danger. This year, that includes Illinois, Arkansas, and Providence. Arkansas and Providence are especially on upset alert, both with a win probability below 70%. Providence is even ranked lower than South Dakota State! SDSU boasts the 11th best offense in the nation according to SABER, so they are a team to watch this weekend. When choosing upsets for a bracket, I would heavily consider South Dakota State over Providence and Vermont over Arkansas.

5 vs 12 matchups

The 5 vs 12 matchups in the tournament are always popular upset picks. 5 seeds have won in the first round just 65% of the time, so there are usually 1 or 2 of them that get upset per year. This year, however, I don’t think there will be many 5 seeds losing in the first round. This year’s crop of 5 seeds are strong, with each ranking inside the top 17 of SABER (Houston is 4th, Iowa is 11th, UConn is 14th, and Saint Mary’s is 17th). If there is one upset candidate, it would be Indiana over Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s has about a 60% chance to beat Indiana, similar to Marquette’s chances against Murray State in 2019 and Minnesota’s probability vs MTSU in 2017 (both lost).

6 vs 11 matchups

Lately, the 6 vs 11 matchups have been pretty random. The 6 seed has gone just 11-13 against 11 seeds over the past 6 tournaments. The trend should continue this year. While Alabama looks safe to win in the first round, each of LSU, Texas, and Colorado State are on upset alert. In fact, Texas ranks just one spot ahead of Virginia Tech in SABER (22nd and 23rd) while Colorado State is ranked 20 spots lower than Michigan! (48th and 28th) When making a bracket, I would suggest picking Michigan and Virginia Tech to advance as lower seeds.

7 vs 10 and 8 vs 9

Historically, the 7 vs 10 and 8 vs 9 matchups have been close to 50-50. Therefore, it is best to simply look at who has the better chance of winning to choose the winner. This year, San Francisco and Davidson are expected to beat Murray State and Michigan State, respectively. Additionally, Loyola Chicago has a good chance against Ohio State despite being ranked slightly lower. In the 8-9 games, Seton Hall, North Carolina, San Diego State, and Memphis are expected to win.

Overrated and Underrated Teams

By comparing each team’s SABER ranking to their seed, we can find the most underrated and overrated teams of the tournaments. The most overrated teams include Providence, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Colorado State, and Murray State. Each of these teams are candidates to be upset in the first round since they have their skill level does not match their seed. Providence has the skill level of a 10 or 11 seed despite being a 4 seed, and Wisconsin has the skill of an 8 or 9 seed despite being a 3 seed.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech, Davidson, Indiana, and Houston are the most underrated teams. Virginia Tech, Davidson, Indiana, and Michigan should all be populate candidates for Cinderella type runs to the Sweet 16 or Elite 8. Additionally, Houston is an under the radar national championship candidate as they are a top 5 team despite their 5 seed. Watch out for Virginia Tech, Davidson, Indiana, Houston, Michigan, and Loyola Chicago to make long runs in the tournament.

Best Teams by Region

West

In the West region, Gonzaga and Texas Tech are the most likely final four contenders. Gonzaga, Duke, and Davidson possess the best offenses, while Texas Tech, Gonzaga, and Arkansas lead the way on the defensive side. This is a very strong region with 7 top 20 teams. A Cinderella candidate is Davidson, while it should not be surprising if Duke loses earlier than expected.

South

The South region is the most top heavy region this year. Arizona, Houston, Tennessee, and Villanova each rank within the top 8 of SABER. A potential Sweet 16 matchup between Arizona and Houston would be massive, pitting the top 2 teams in the region against each other before the regional final.

Midwest

The Midwest region is by far the weakest region in this year’s tournament. There are only 3 top 20 teams (Iowa, Auburn, and Kansas). Furthermore, it contains the weakest 3 seed (Wisconsin) and the weakest 4 seed (Providence). If any region turns into chaos, this should be it. Wisconsin, Providence, and LSU are candidates to be upset in the first round, while Iowa would be expected to beat Kansas in a potential sweet 16 matchup.

South

1 seeded Baylor is surprisingly not expected to win the South region. 4 seed UCLA and 2 seed Kentucky both rank higher than Baylor, and they should play each other in the Elite 8 if everything plays out as expected. Additionally, 11 seed Virginia Tech is a team to watch as they just won the ACC tournament and possess a top 20 offense.

Final Four Teams

Using the characteristic of past final four teams, we can create a small groups of final four candidates for this year’s tournament. Since 2015, teams in the final four tend to have an offense ranked in the top 30, a defense in the top 50, and an overall rank in the top 20. This excludes outliers like South Carolina in 2017, Syracuse in 2016, and Loyola Chicago in 2018 since these runs are unlikely and nearby impossible to predict.

This year, there are 10 teams with a top 30 offense, top 50 defense, and top 20 overall team. Gonzaga and UConn are the final four candidates from the West, and UCLA, Kentucky, and Baylor are the candidates from the East. In the South, Arizona, Houston, Villanova, and Illinois are possibilities for the final four, but the Midwest has just one final four caliber team (Auburn). Some highly ranked teams fail to make this list because they have a significant weakness. For example, Tennessee and Texas Tech have really good defenses but their offenses are outside the top 30, while Purdue and Iowa possess great offenses but poor defenses.

National Champions

While watching all the tournament games are fun and create lots of upsets, the eventual champion is almost always a team that was expected to win. A 1 or 2 seed has won each of the past 6 tournaments, and each of the last 6 national champions have ranked within the top 7 of SABER. Offense is a better indicator than defense when it comes to picking national champions, as all but 1 of the last 6 champions had a top 3 offense. However, it is still necessary to have a good defense, with all the national champions having a top 40 defense. The list of teams in 2022 that has a top 11 offense, top 38 defense, and top 7 overall team includes Gonzaga, Arizona, Houston, and Kentucky. These are the national champion contenders for this season. And because most champions have had a top 3 offense, Gonzaga becomes the most likely champion. Gonzaga is the only team with a top 3 offense, top 40 defense, and top 7 overall team, which is why they are the most likely national champion.

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