The 5 Closest Projected Games of the NCAA Tournament
When it comes to picking out winners in the round of 64, most of the time you can pencil the top seeds into the next round without much thought. Since 2000, 21 of the last 22 NCAA champions were a 3 seed or better. They're high seeds for a reason!
Once we get past those elite teams, though, things start to get a little more interesting as the seeding gap narrows. We all know to pick at least one 5/12 upset, and trying to choose between an 8 or 9 seed can feel like a coin flip.
But which of this year's matchups are actually projected to be the closest? Can we unearth any potential upsets or ways to be contrarian?
Using numberFire's model, let's take a look at the games that project to be nail-biters.
5. Northwestern (7) vs. Boise State (10)
Given their seeds, this one is a bit of a surprise. Per our model, it's actually the Boise State Broncos that are showing a 57.8% win probability over the Northwestern Wildcats.
KenPom and BartTorvik also view Boise State as the better team -- but it's close. KenPom ranks the Broncos 31st and the Wildcats 42nd, whereas BartTorvik has them even closer at 30th and 35th.
Although FanDuel Sportsbook is still showing the Wildcats as the favorites, it's by just 1.5 points, further suggesting that they could be on upset alert. Also, as of this writing, the Boise State moneyline is +102, implying 49.5% win odds.
Digging a little deeper, both teams are strong defensively, but Boise State has the edge on offense. Per BartTorvik, Boise State is 72nd in adjusted offensive efficiency and 23rd in adjusted defensive efficiency. Meanwhile, Northwestern is 104th in adjusted offense and 14th in adjusted defense.
The Wildcats are a team that could struggle if they fall behind early, too. Not only does Northwestern prefer to play at a slow adjusted tempo (302nd), but they're a poor shooting team, sitting 319th in effective field goal percentage and 276th in three-point shooting percentage. If that wasn't enough, they're also 190th in offensive rebounding rate and 234th in free-throw rate.
Given that just 40.1% of the public is picking Boise State to beat Northwestern in ESPN brackets, there's added incentive in selecting them over the higher seed.
4. Iowa (8) vs. Auburn (9)
Picking these 8/9 games is always a headache, and as you'll soon, that's especially the case this year. But maybe there's still a way to find an edge in some of them.
This is once again a spot where the underdog (and lower seed) might not be getting enough credit. We have the Auburn Tigers defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes 56.9% of the time, and the line has dropped to the Hawkeyes being just 0.5-point favorites. The pick 'em nature of this game is also shown by the lack of plus odds on the Auburn moneyline (-108).
KenPom and BarTorvik once again side with the lower seed. Auburn is 29th and Iowa is 37th on KenPom, and the gap widens to 23rd and 37th on BarTorvik.
Ultimately, Auburn is simply the more well-rounded team. Iowa may have the nation's third-best adjusted offense, but they're thoroughly mediocre defensively (178th). Auburn is within the top 40 in both categories, ranking 38th in adjusted offense and 27th in adjusted defense.
While Iowa rates extremely well on offense, that has more to do with a lack of any glaring offensive weaknesses than anything else. Outside of a squeaky-clean turnover rate (8th-best), they simply aren't elite in any other category. That includes ranking just 163rd in three-point shooting percentage and 184th in three-point attempt rate, so they aren't as likely to blow you away from a hot shooting night.
That being said, it's worth noting that Auburn went 4-9 over their last 13, so they aren't exactly coming into the tournament firing on all cylinders. The good news is that many of those losses were close ones against quality opponents, including a recent five-point loss to the top overall seed, Alabama.
It's not like Iowa enters the Big Dance at their best, either, as they've won just four of their last nine games.
In all, the public is split on this one, with Auburn getting just over half the picks (51.3%) on ESPN. But when considering the entire resume, there's evidence that the Tigers should actually be favored, so the public could be undervaluing them a smidge against Iowa.
3. Maryland (8) vs. West Virginia (9)
Here's another 8/9 matchup where the 9 seed is getting more love in numberFire's model. The West Virginia Mountaineers are projected for a 55.3% chance to win over the Maryland Terrapins.
The difference is that in this case, the lower seed is also the betting favorite. The Mountaineers are favored by 2.5 points, and their -134 moneyline odds imply a win 57.3% of the time.
How do KenPom and BartTorvik see it? West Virginia ranks 17th on KenPom and 19th on BartTorvik, while Maryland comes in at 22nd and 28th. No surprises there, as well.
Nonetheless, this is a close matchup for a reason. These are a pair of balanced teams, with both featuring top-50 adjusted offenses and defenses.
Where the Mountaineers earn their slight edge comes down to offense, though. West Virginia's 13th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and while they're similar to Iowa with underlying numbers that aren't super flashy, they're 19th in free-throw rate and 32nd in offensive rebounding rate while sitting just outside the top 100 in effective field goal percentage.
In terms of recent form, these teams have played .500 ball over their last 10, though both have wins over ranked opponents during that stretch. Two of West Virginia's losses came against Kansas, who's now a 1 seed.
Like the prior matchup, ESPN brackets are tossing a coin for this one, and the Mountaineers are being chosen 49.7% of the time, but everything points to an ever so slight edge over the Terrapins.
2. Memphis (8) vs. Florida Atlantic (9)
We're really getting to the 50/50 games now. This is our last 8/9 on the list, and in this one, it's the Florida Atlantic Owls getting a 52.8% probability of advancing past the Memphis Tigers.
But what makes this matchup intriguing for brackets is that a whopping 68.9% of them are backing the Tigers on ESPN. Defeating Houston by double-digits -- the number one team in the country at the time -- to win your conference championship has a way of generating some buzz. They've also gone 14-3 over their last 17 games, and 2 of those losses came at the hands of the Cougars.
That being said, while Memphis deserves plenty of credit for the big victory, Houston was missing leading scorer Marcus Sasser (17.1 points per game), so it does come with a caveat.
Circling back to the matchup at hand, the Tigers are indeed the betting favorites, albeit by just 2.5 points. The Florida Atlantic moneyline is +112, which comes to 47.2% implied win odds.
This is also the first game we've highlighted where KenPom and BartTorvik go against our model. Both sites rank Florida Atlanta just outside the top 25, whereas Memphis is 19th (KenPom) and 16th (BarTorvik). Our nERD rankings place the two teams neck and neck, with the Owls 20th and the Tigers 21st.
Even if we give the nod to Memphis as the better squad, the public's confidence in them seems overblown. By BartTovik's numbers, the Tigers have the edge in both adjusted offense (22nd vs. 42nd) and adjusted defense (31st vs. 37th) -- but it's still really, really close.
Keep an eye on the chatter surrounding Memphis, but if it looks like they're the popular pick, going against the grain with Florida Atlantic could be the way to go.
1. Michigan State (7) vs. USC (10)
We're bookending this list with 7/10 matchups, and our final toss-up sees the Michigan State Spartans with a 51.6% chance against the USC Trojans. Michigan State is also favored by what's now a familiar amount (2.5 points).
On KenPom, Michigan State is 32nd, and USC is a mere stone's throw behind them at 36th. nERD is in agreement, granting the Spartans just a three-spot advantage. BartTorvik expands the distance to 29th and 41st, but it's still close.
Both teams are top-60 in adjusted offense and adjusted defense, but Michigan State owns a slight advantage in both metrics. In all, even if the margins are slim, the Spartans sure seem like the choice.
However, they're also the pick in 59.8% of ESPN brackets, which is a tad high for a game that could go either way. There isn't as much of an advantage in taking the underdog as some of these other matchups, but particularly if that number creeps over 60%, there could be value in being slightly contrarian with the Trojans.