Everywhere I look I see proof that my country has the correct priorities. For one thing President Obama will attend tonight's First Four games in Dayton along with British Prime Minister David Cameron. (Love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. I cover this stuff for a living and even I find the whole notion of a play-in round a bit abstruse. Imagine trying to explain this stuff to one of our friends from across the pond.)
Still another testament to the sunny status quo in hoops is the fact that in 2012 even the most casual of three-week casual college basketball fans in your office pool knows about the 12-5 upset. Every year a plucky small-school 12 with weird uniforms shocks a talented but lethargic and underachieving 5 from a major conference. It's the circle of hoops life, right?
Well, sort of. Last year Vanderbilt obligingly supplied the only 12-5 upset when they lost to Richmond. The Golden Age of this particular brand of upset, however, was clearly 2009, when the feisty 12s went 3-1 against the poor overmatched 5s. That year Arizona beat Utah, Wisconsin beat Florida State, and Western Kentucky beat Illinois. (Yes, young people, there was once a time when Utah and Illinois had basketball teams capable of making the NCAA tournament. Take my word for it.) You have to go all the way back to 2007 to find the last NCAA tournament where there wasn't at least one 12-5 upset. So, yes, there's good reason to expect that one of these "unexpected" outcomes will indeed occur this week.
But I'm going to crawl way out on a limb and put my money on the truly unexpected: I think the No. 5 seeds this year will go 4-0. I predict that New Mexico will beat Long Beach State, Vanderbilt will triumph over Harvard, Wichita State will take care of Virginia Commonwealth, and Temple will prevail over either California or South Florida.
Now, is there a chance one or more of the 12s could win in spite of my fearless forecasting? Of course! One of these games in particular has me wondering if I'm crazy to believe the 5s will go undefeated. I just think this is the year when the pairings have lined up pretty nicely for the favored teams.
Let's look at each of these four games, which I've listed from most- to least-likely to provide an upset according to my odd (but bold!) lights.
(12) California or (12) South Florida vs. (5) Temple
Upset Probability: High to Moderate
My crystal ball's so powerful I can forecast the likelihood of a 12-5 upset even when I don't know who the 12 is yet. Wow, I'm good! I actually like Cal's chances against South Florida in the First Four tomorrow night. I know the Bears come to us from the Pac-12, and that league's supposed to be one step up from high school ball. Just remember this "worst major conference in recent years" stuff you've been hearing is in large part the statistical residue of a particularly ill-timed (from a hoops perspective) acquisition of struggling Utah. Meanwhile the teams at the top of the league were about as good as they've been the past couple years -- not great, certainly, but good enough for a conference representative to take North Carolina to the 40th minute in Charlotte last year in the round of 32.
Which is all well and good, but I'm picking Temple to beat either Cal or South Florida. I'd have more faith in the Bears' chances to reach the round of 32 if they weren't coming into the tournament having lost three of their last four. And I'd have more faith in the Bulls' chances to beat Cal if Stan Heath's team rated out higher than No. 15 on offense in a 16-team Big East. True, Fran Dunphy's Owls have a record of recent NCAA tournament exploits that can charitably be termed "uneven," but they did come within an overtime period of the Sweet 16 last year. With an "I can't believe I'm really doing this" shake of the head, I'm picking Temple here.
(12) Long Beach State vs. (5) New Mexico
Upset Probability: Moderate
I submit to you that New Mexico is the most puzzling team in the entire field of 68. As you peel back the layers on Steve Alford's men, each successive increment of additional information seems to contradict what's come before. Start here: New Mexico tied for first in the Mountain West (with San Diego State) during the regular season, and they won the conference tournament. To accomplish the latter feat the Lobos had to beat UNLV on the Rebels' home floor. All of the above is impressive. But even with the league putting four teams into the NCAA tournament, I can't shake the feeling that this may not be the strongest Mountain West we've seen in recent years. And as for UNM's undeniably impressive per-possession performance in league play, a lot of that was accomplished through the medium of two blowouts against Air Force. So, no, I'm not penciling Alford's team into my Final Four. I just think they'll be good enough to prevail against a Long Beach State team that lost to Cal State Fullerton 10 days ago.
(12) Harvard vs. (5) Vanderbilt
Upset Probability: Moderate
You've heard that Vanderbilt has not experienced much in the way of good fortune in recent round of 64 games. You've heard correctly. The last three times Kevin Stallings' team has reached the NCAA tournament they've been sent home after their first game. True enough, but this is the year that changes. Harvard, goodness knows, is an unusually strong Ivy representative, and if Festus Ezeli is thinking he'll have an easy time against these scholars from Cambridge a few possessions against an interior beast like Keith Wright will correct that impression in a heartbeat. But the last time we saw the 'Dores they were beating Kentucky and, not to put too fine a point on it, the Wildcats are better than Harvard.
(12) Virginia Commonwealth vs. (5) Wichita State
Upset Probability: Low
I swear I've been ranking Wichita State in my own top 10 at ESPN since, I don't know, last summer, but everyone and their cousin is still picking VCU in this game. Doesn't anyone listen to me? (That's rhetorical. Clearly you are here right now.) Mind you, I have the proper awe for what Shaka Smart was able to accomplish this season. He watched four starters walk out the door from last year's Final Four team and somehow propelled his young group to a 15-3 record in the tough CAA. But here's the thing. Wichita State is really good. As in I think Gregg Marshall's team is the equal of Duke, Marquette, or Baylor, to name three. I'll take WSU in this one.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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