Winning your NCAA tournament bracket pool can be contingent on making smart picks. But the smartest picks aren’t just making Duke your national champion — you know, since everyone is probably picking Duke.
The first round is where all the decisive picks can separate your bracket from the pack, and the best way to win the first round is by selecting the right upsets and being a little gutsy. Every year, there’s a handful of them that nobody saw coming (ahem, No. 16 seed UMBC over No. 1 Virginia last year). But then there are the ones where you can sort of see the writing on the wall.
Here’s a look at the four best bets for bracket-busting by double-digit seeds:
No. 11 seed Belmont over Temple and No. 6 Maryland: The Bruins (26-5), one of the first mid-majors to garner an at-large bid in years, will start their tourney in the first-four round with a tough matchup in Dayton vs. Temple. Expect Belmont to advance there and then give a Maryland team that’s the fourth youngest in Division 1 (according to KenPom.com’s experience metric) fits with its offense that ranks second in the nation with 87.4 points per game. This group also leads the country in assists (20 per game), showing off a winning team chemistry, and shoots at 50 percent from the floor to rank top-five. Coach Rick Byrd has a nice mix of experience and youth, rotating several freshman into his lineup.
No. 13 Northeastern over No. 4 Kansas (Midwest Region): The Huskies (23-4) won the Colonial tourney for their auto bid, and have a very real chance of beating a Kansas team (25-9) that still hasn’t found its identity as March Madness officially begins. That’s because what started off as a season with national title expectations for the preseason No. 1 Jayhawks was disrupted by the season-ending injury of preseason All-American Udoka Azubuike and then the late-season departure of second-leading scorer Lagerald Vick. KU failed to win the Big 12 regular season for the first time in 15 years and that’s not by mistake. It’s an off year, and that opens the door for Northeastern to become a Cinderella. Vasa Pusica (17.8 ppg, 4.2 apg) can shoot the lights out, draining seven three-pointers in that CAA title game while helping Northeastern rank in the top-20 nationally in shooting percentage beyond the arc and top-25 in triples averaged per game.
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No. 12 Murray State over No. 5 Marquette (West Region): Perhaps the most dangerous mid-major vs. the most susceptible power conference team in a No. 5-No. 12 matchup? What could happen here? Even if this one’s obvious to general basketball fans, you should still pick it and don’t overthink it. The reason: Ja Morant (24.6 ppg, 10.0 apg) is an All-American and top-three projected NBA lottery pick. He’s already proven he can excel with high stakes, scoring the game-winning jumper in the Racers’ Ohio Valley tourney semifinal win over Jacksonville State. He followed that up with a 36-point performance in Murray’s upset of Belmont in the title game. Morant will be squaring up against another All-American in Marquette’s Markus Howard (25.0 pp), a 5-10 guard with a ferocious will to score. The reason the Golden Eagles are vulnerable is because they’re not peaking — having lost five of their last six — and over-reliant on Howard. Murray State, on the other hand, feeds off Morant’s contagious selflessness as much as his scoring.
No. 14 Old Dominion over No. 3 Purdue (South Region): The Monarchs (26-8) knocked off Syracuse in non-conference action behind their dynamic senior backcourt of B.J. Stith (16.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Ahmad Caver (16.5 ppg, 5.6 apg), and that tandem gives this team a good chance of knocking off a Purdue team that was probably over-seeded as a No. 3 seed and just lost to two of their last three games to Minnesota. It starts on defense for coach Jeff Jones’ group, as ODU ranks eighth in field-goal percentage defense (38.7 percent) and scoring defense (61.2 ppg). The Conference USA winner will have its hands full dealing with Purdue’s size, but ODU can rebound and protect the rim as well. Expect Stith or Caver to be tasked with stopping All-American Carsen Edwards.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.