Everybody wants to win their March Madness bracket pool, but if you can’t take home the big prize, the next most gratifying thing is calling a first-round upset. Even if you pick 10 underdogs to the second round and only one advances, you can still gloat about that pick every March for the next decade. Obviously, the bragging rights increase as the seed gets higher, but even calling a 7-10 upset in the NCAA Tournament feels like an accomplishment.
Simply put, it’s more fun to pick upsets. If you stare at your bracket long enough, you can convince yourself that almost every game is a toss-up. Of course, the higher seed is much more likely to win in the first round, but going out on a limb with a few bold picks is what March Madness is all about.
How do you decide which underdogs to actually pull the trigger on? There are a variety of ways, from looking at advanced stats to listening to the experts to simply guessing, but one underutilized method is looking at the Vegas odds.
You often hear some variation of “Vegas knows something we don’t” when people are talking about games. That usually refers to a point spread being smaller or larger than expected. If two seemingly disparate teams have just a three-point spread, that usually tells you Vegas thinks the game will be relatively close. That doesn’t always happen, of course — top-seed Virginia was a 20.5-point favorite over 16-seed UMBC back in 2018 — but it’s still a useful tool when hunting for upset picks.
With that in mind, below we offer up some of the most notable point spreads for double-digit seeds, starting with the lone double-digit favorite, Rutgers.
March Madness upset predictions 2021
Odds courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook
No. 10 RUTGERS (-1) vs. No. 7 Clemson
A 10-seed beating a 7-seed isn’t really that big of an upset, but it still feels like one when you look at your bracket and see a double-digit seed in the second round (or beyond). Rutgers being favored isn’t a surprise, as these teams are both in the “mediocre” camp, at least as far as tournament teams go. The Scarlet Knights are ranked 34th on kenpom.com compared to Clemson at 42, and TeamRankings has Rutgers slightly higher in its power ratings.
Overall, this is pretty much a toss-up, but given the likelihood that more people pick the 7-seed than the 10, it’s a rare situation where there’s value in going with the favorite. You can read more about this matchup here.
No. 10 VIRGINIA TECH (+1) vs. No. 7 Florida
Here’s another 7-10 game that’s a virtual toss-up. Virginia Tech has played just three games since Feb. 6 — two of which it lost — so you can’t really say the Hokies are “hot” or “cold.” They are rested, though. Florida is 5-5 in its past 10 games, so it’s also pretty lukewarm. Ultimately, this looks like a forgettable game, but since you’re trying to win you bracket, you don’t want to get it wrong.
No. 10 MARYLAND (+2.5) vs. No. 7 UConn
Kenpom.com is much higher on UConn than Maryland, so it’s a bit surprising Vegas sees this as one of the closest first-round matchups. TeamRankings breaks it down pretty favorably for UConn, too, as you can see below. Once again, though, Vegas clearly sees something we don’t.
As we said before, no 7-10 outcome would truly be a shocking upset, but this is another situation where most people in your pool will probably default to UConn, especially if they do any research. That gives you an opportunity to pick up a game on most of your pool in a contest that will likely come down to a basket either way.
No. 11 UTAH STATE (+4.5) vs. No. 6 Texas Tech
The Aggies were one of the last teams in the tournament, but winning six of their final seven games helped them into the dance. Vegas thinks they’ll hang tight with Texas Tech, likely because of Utah State’s stellar defense (ranked eighth in kenpom.com’s adjusted defense metric). Both teams struggle shooting from deep, so this could be a real rock fight. In that kind of grind-it-out game, the defensive-minded underdog always has a decent shot.
TeamRankings overwhelmingly has all “win odds” factors in Texas Tech’s favor, but that’s not surprising for a 6-11 matchup. However, it’s clear from even their numbers that Utah State has a superior defense. This one could go either way, so even if you pick Texas Tech, you probably don’t want to pick the Red Raiders going further than the second round.
No. 12 GEORGETOWN (+4.5) vs. No. 5 Colorado
Georgetown’s unlikely run to the tournament thanks to a Big East championship certainly surprised many, but now that the Hoyas are in and they’re playing well, people are ready to jump aboard the bandwagon. The fact they’re playing a Pac-12 team that isn’t a natioinal power probably has bettors driving this line down, but either way, this will be a popular 12-5 upset pick (not as popular as Winthrop, who’s a 6.5-point underdog, over a banged-up Villanova, but still popular).
Should it be? Well, kenpom.com doesn’t think the teams are particularly close, ranking Colorado 17th and Georgetown 55th. TeamRankings seems to like the Hoyas a little more, but not much. This is more about going with the “hot” team, and Vegas at least expects it to be close.
No. 13 LIBERTY (+7.5) vs. No. 4 Oklahoma State
There are probably more people predicting Oklahoma State to make the Final Four than lose in the first round, but make no mistake — Liberty will put up a fight. The Flames finished tied for 10th in the nation in three-point percentage (38.8), and any underdog that can fill it up from deep can be a problem in the tournament.
Oklahoma State is the superior team and has a one-man wrecking crew in freshman Cade Cunningham, but this game having just a 7.5-point spread might surprise some people. If you’re in a big pool and need to make a bold pick or two, this is a good opportunity to zig while everyone else zags.
No. 13 OHIO (+7.5) vs. No. 4 Virginia
This spread might be more about Virginia than Ohio. Most of Virginia’s team is in quarantine after positive COVID tests within the progam. At best, the Cavs will have a slightly thinned-out roster after a week of just virtual practices; at worst, Virginia will withdraw from the tournament. A middle option — one or two stars out after a week of no practice — is also in play. Either way, Ohio has an advantage.
Ohio has a legit offense that can put points on the board in a hurry (14th in points per game). If Virginia is undermanned, then a Bobcats victory wouldn’t be a big shock. Vegas sees this as a relatively close 4-13 game, so stay on top of the news out of Charlottesville and pick accordingly.
No. 14 ABILENE CHRISTIAN (+9) vs. Texas
A nine-point spread isn’t exactly narrow, but anything less than 10 in a 3-14 game is somewhat notable. Abilene-Christian is known for having a solid defense (30th in kenpom.com‘s adjusted defense metric), but it’s also an efficient three-point shooting team (tied for 21st at 37.7). The 3-and-D underdogs are always dangerous in March. Texas isn’t particularly great at one thing — just generally solid and well-coached — so it doesn’t really have anything to “fall back on” if things go south early.
Obviously, picking the Longhorns is the safer play, but it’s not crazy to pick the Wildcats if you’re in a big pool and need some differentiation.
No. 14 COLGATE (+9.5) vs. Arkansas
Colgate is all offense, all the time. The Raiders were fourth in average margin of victory this year (17.7) and third in three-point percentage (40.2). The Hogs can get after it on defense and play with a solid pace on offense, so Colgate won’t be able to run all over them like they’re a Patriot League team, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario where the Raiders simply never seem to miss and pull off an upset.