Looking for help filling out your bracket? You’ve come to the right place. Since 2018, I have written a guide to picking upsets in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Since 2018, my “Best Upset Pick” has hit every year, from Loyola-Chicago to UC-Irvine to Ohio.
Which Cinderella will turn heads this March? Which player you don’t know will have everybody talking? And which mascots should you pick to advance out of principle alone? Without further ado, let’s get to it.
Best Upset Pick: South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Is picking South Dakota State to win as a no. 13 seed even an upset? While the bracket seedings would indicate as much, other measures suggest this game is really more like a coin flip. FanDuel lists the Jackrabbits as two-point underdogs against fourth-seeded Providence. Ken Pomeroy gives SDSU a 44.1 percent chance to win. But because of the seed lines, most people in your office pool will assume Providence should win in a rout. It’s the easiest upset pick ever. It’s like if Cinderella simply matched with Prince Charming on Tinder instead of the whole thing with a magical pumpkin carriage and a kingdom-wide foot search.
What the hell happened here? Why is a 4-13 matchup so likely to be competitive? The first reason is that South Dakota State is drastically underseeded. The Jackrabbits went 18-0 in Summit League play, with 12 double-digit wins, and proved that they can punch above their supposed weight class by beating a Washington State team that finished above .500 in the Pac-12. SDSU’s offense is incredible: It led Division I by making 44.9 percent of its 3s, and ranked second in points per game with 86.7, behind only Gonzaga. This is a highly efficient team that clearly should’ve gotten a better seed: When the Jackrabbits played now-14th-seeded Montana State in November, they rolled by 17 points.
On the flip side, Providence is significantly worse than your average no. 4 seed. They’re ranked 49th in KenPom’s ratings, which is 29 spots lower than the next-lowest no. 4 seed (Arkansas, ranked 20th). While the Friars won the Big East regular-season title, they didn’t do so convincingly: They had four double-digit wins and three overtime wins. And although they lost just five games this season, three were lopsided: They lost by 18 points to Virginia, 32 points to Marquette, and 27 points to Creighton. The latter two teams are no. 9 seeds in this year’s tourney; the former isn’t in the tournament at all.
Beyond that, there’s also reason to believe that this is a particularly bad matchup for Providence. The Friars don’t excel in many areas offensively; they don’t rank among the top 100 nationally in 3-point percentage, 2-point percentage, field goal rate, or offensive rebound rate. But they get to the line a lot. They’re tied for 48th in free throws made and tied for 11th in free throw rate. Providence’s biggest win of the season came against Texas Tech in a game in which the Friars attempted 38 free throws.
But avoiding fouls is an area where South Dakota State excels. While Providence is tied for 11th in free throw rate, SDSU is seventh in defensive free throw rate. If the Friars can’t get to the line, they could struggle mightily to keep up with SDSU’s shooting.
The brackets say a South Dakota State win here would be an upset. The analytics say it’s a toss-up. But looking at the way these teams play, it almost feels like the Jackrabbits should come out on top.
Best Mascot: Saint Peter’s Peacocks
If you’re filling out your bracket based solely on mascots—a time-honored tradition that, let’s face it, works as well as any other strategy—there’s only one direction you can go. You must hail our magnificent, multicolored feathered friends from Saint Peter’s, who have made it past the pearly gates of the men’s NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
The small Jesuit school in Jersey City adopted the peacock as its mascot early in the 20th century to celebrate the institution’s reopening after it closed for World War I. The peacock was selected because it’s considered a symbol of the Resurrection in the Bible. The mascot, Peter, sadly does not feature a prominent tail, although I suppose that would make life difficult for the person wearing the suit.
The men’s basketball team associated with this mascot is fun too. Saint Peter’s has several people who have experience making surprising tourney runs. Head coach Shaheen Holloway was the star of the Seton Hall team that made a run to the Sweet 16 in 2000; twins Hassan and Fousseyni Drame led Mali to a silver medal at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup, losing only to a Team USA roster featuring Cade Cunningham, Tyrese Haliburton, and Jalen Suggs—a feat as impressive as any Cinderella run you’ll see in the NCAA tournament. The Peacocks take pride in their defense, as 6-foot-7 forward KC Ndefo led all of Division I in blocked shots last season.
And I think their mascot gives them good hoops karma. Auburn also adopted the peacock as the icon of its men’s basketball team in 2022, adding to the school’s complex array of mascots. In January, the Tiger-Eagle-War Damn Peacocks knocked off Kentucky … which just so happens to be Saint Peter’s first-round opponent. Inserting a 15-over-2 upset into your bracket is kind of like having a massive iridescent tail—it doesn’t seem to make sense, but it will look beautiful if it fans out.
Most Terrifying Mascot: Richmond Spiders
Recently, it has been reported that the East Coast will be overtaken by a springtime invasion of large parachuting spiders. I regret to inform you that the invasion has already begun. Richmond has qualified for the men’s NCAA tournament for the first time since its 2011 Sweet 16 run, meaning the Spiders are parachuting in and casting a web across our brackets, using all eight of their spindly limbs to crawl through March.
Richmond has two spider mascots, each of which I have seen in person, and each of which is equally terrifying. One is named WebstUR, and is a person inside of a spider costume. This isn’t like Peter Parker wearing a costume that has spider-like features; it is a 6-foot tall representation of a spider, which is several feet larger than spiders are supposed to be. I, on principle, am against 6-foot-tall spiders. Past models of WebstUR weren’t particularly arachnorealistic, and some were arguably cute. But the current version of WebstUR is extremely spider-like.
The second Richmond spider mascot is Tarrant, a blue Venezuelan tarantula named after former coach Dick Tarrant. Just like the Butler Bulldog, Tarrant attends games. Unlike the Butler Bulldog, Tarrant is not available for fans to approach and pet, because Tarrant lives in a cage eating insects and nobody wants to take photos with her.
The terrarium is wheeled out during warm-ups, when the team practices under the many watchful eyes of a large and hairy arachnid. One time, when I covered the Atlantic 10 tournament, I asked a Richmond representative why the spider wasn’t in attendance; I was told it was molting, which somehow upset me more than if the hairy beast had been present. And when I had the gall to complain about the school’s terrifying mascot back in 2016, Richmond’s official athletic department accounts took to cyber-bullying me by sending me images of spiders.
Richmond even honors its mascot with its playing style: The Spiders are led by Jacob Gilyard, a 5-foot-9 point guard who has absolutely obliterated the NCAA’s all-time steals record. He has 466; nobody else even has 390. It’s like he has eight arms and webby hands.
Normally I root for teams with distinctive mascots, but the Spiders are my least favorite mascot in Division I. Every second Richmond remains in the tournament is another second I have to think about spiders. Please, Iowa, stop these horrors, before they can lay thousands of eggs at the Final Four in New Orleans.
Most Likely to Win Via Buzzer-Beater: Chattanooga Mocs
The Mocs have already delivered an iconic March moment: A little more than a week ago, guard David Jean-Baptiste secured Chattanooga’s spot in the men’s NCAA tournament by drilling a ridiculous, off-balance, 35-foot 3-pointer in overtime to clinch the Southern Conference tournament:
It wasn’t the first time this season that the Mocs have triumphed as time expired. They beat VCU in November on a last-second Malachi Smith shot:
And they beat Mercer in February behind a buzzer-beating A.J. Caldwell 3-pointer:
The Mocs are legitimately good. Smith averages 20.1 points per game, 18th in Division I. Chattanooga also has a former five-star recruit in forward Silvio De Sousa. The onetime Kansas center is probably best known for the viral image of him threatening to obliterate Kansas State players WWE-style with a stool, but he has moved on from the Jayhawks and become a dominant interior force in a smaller conference.
Let’s hope the Mocs can play Illinois close for 39 minutes and 45 seconds. Because they’ve proved that once they do that, it’s an automatic W.
Most Likely to Annoy Opponents: Peter Kiss, Bryant Bulldogs
There’s nobody in college basketball I’d want to guard less than Kiss. For one, he’s a prolific scorer, as he led Division I by averaging 25.1 points per game to lift Bryant to its first Northeast Conference championship. For another, he doesn’t just score on opponents. He also calls them out after scoring. Kiss went viral during the NEC title game for screaming, “That’s for you, bitch!” at a Wagner player after drilling a 3 in his face:
The nation’s leading scorer is hooooping rn.— SLAM University (@slam_university) March 9, 2022
Peter Kiss is like that. pic.twitter.com/HKohfqCmVi
He doesn’t call out his defender after every bucket, but he does have a tendency to make a face or show his opponent up. Against Wagner, Kiss also followed a layup by doing push-ups as the Seahawks tried to inbound the ball. A sixth-year senior who bounced from Quinnipiac to Rutgers before ultimately settling at Bryant, Kiss racked up ten 30-point games this season, punctuated by a 34-point performance in that championship win over Wagner. He likely would’ve had more if not for two separate two-game suspensions, one for an unspecified violation of team rules and one after a chippy game against Long Island. (“Kiss probably deserved to be ejected twice,” wrote an NEC blogger about the kerfuffle.)
The 16th-seeded Bulldogs face Wright State in a play-in game Wednesday. If they win, they’ll take on top-seeded Arizona on Friday night. That means Kiss could have two chances to go off in the tourney—and two chances to cement his legacy as one of college basketball’s great instigators.
Best Newcomer: Longwood Lancers
Congratulations to Longwood—officially the Lancers, unofficially the Fightin’ Phalluses from Farmville—on making their first men’s NCAA tournament appearance. It’s well-deserved, after the Lancers went 15-1 in Big South play and won the conference championship game by 21 points. They’re ranked 19th in 3-point percentage, making 37.9 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. Yeah … I thought they’d be better at penetrating too.
The Lancers are coached by Griff Aldrich, who served as an assistant at Hampden-Sydney College in 1999 and 2000 before leaving the profession to work as a lawyer and businessman for 16 years. He decided to get back into coaching a few years ago, and was offered a spot on the staff of his college teammate, Ryan Odom, at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Sure enough, UMBC did something interesting in March, and Aldrich got a job as a head coach. Clearly, he’s doing something right—I recommend that all lawyers quit their jobs to do something they actually enjoy.
It’s been a long wait for Longwood, but the Lancers finally made the dance. You might think it’s dumb to pick them just because they sound like they’re named the boners, but take the guy who picked Oral Roberts to make the Sweet 16 last year. He looked like a genius. Pick Longwood to go deep in the tourney.
Most Unkillable: UAB Blazers
In last year’s version of this piece, I pointed out that the Drexel Dragons had the most unkillable mascot in the tournament. The same rationale applies to UAB. Even fantasy characters with magical powers struggle to defeat dragons, which are hundreds of feet long and breathe fire. If March Madness was a tournament in which all of the mascots battled it out, the dragons would easily win.
But these Blazers also feel pretty unkillable as a team, as demonstrated by their 102-98 triple-overtime victory in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament. UAB trailed late against Middle Tennessee in regulation, and then overtime, and then double overtime. Yet they kept extending the game thanks to a series of clutch buckets from Jordan “Jelly” Walker, who finished with 40 points.
Walker earned his nickname as a member of the Jelly Fam, a social media phenomenon around New York high school hoops in 2017 that celebrated players for flashy finger-roll layups. Jelly’s college career got off to a bad start. He never caught on at Seton Hall, so he transferred and starred for a lackluster Tulane team. Since coming to UAB, he has thrived, averaging 20.4 points per game (14th in Division I) and winning C-USA Player of the Year honors.
He’s representative of a roster of players who have found second—or third—chances at UAB. While the transfer portal has helped out many mid-majors, the Blazers’ entire starting five is made of transfers, including players from Clemson and Georgia Southern. Fittingly, they’re led by former Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who transferred to UAB as a player and became the school’s second all-time leading scorer.
The UAB Blazers & Jelly Walker are going to be an ELECTRIC 11 seed next week.— Mid-Major Madness (@mid_madness) March 13, 2022
Spewing fire and jelly and not caring what anybody thinks, UAB looks like this tournament’s most menacing Cinderella. The Blazers also might just be the most fun team in the whole field.