March Madness Upsets 2021 – Most Likely Upsets

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Updated: March 13, 2021

Clock Icon Mar 13, 2021 – 7:03 PM ET

If there’s one thing March Madness is known for it’s the upsets. It seems like every NCAA Tournament features a few surprise results in the opening two rounds, as lesser-known mid-major teams take down some of the higher-ranked power conference programs in the country.

Upsets are a huge reason why basketball fans love betting on March Madness and you’ll need to select a few if you plan on winning your bracket contest. We’ll give you our predictions on the most likely upsets in 2021, some thoughts on the number of upsets your bracket should have, and some tips on how to identify possible upset teams.

Most likely upsets in 2021

Once the official March Madness bracket is set following the Selection Sunday show, our betting analysts will be making picks for every single game of the tournament. Check back here on Monday for their most likely upsets in 2021.

The average number of upsets each year

On average, there have been 12.7 total upsets each year at the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, per NCAA.com. This is assuming that an upset is defined as when a team two seeds lower beats a higher-seeded team (i.e. a nine seed beating an eight seed would not be considered an upset). The most total upsets in one tournament was 19 at the 2014 tournament and the fewest was four at the 2007 tournament.

When building out your bracket, you may want to consider the average number of upsets per round:

Round Average number of upsets
First Round 6.1
Second Round 3.6
Sweet 16 1.7
Elite Eight 0.5
Final Four 0.2
Total upsets 12.7

First Round upsets

As we saw above, most of the upsets at March Madness come in the First Round — which really shouldn’t be a surprise as the First Round has the most amount of games. But nailing the First Round upsets also helps you shape your bracket, so it’s crucial to get a few of these right. Let’s have a look at each of the First Round matchups (all numbers since 1985 and courtesy NCAA.com).

No. 16 over No. 1

Don’t even bother slotting one of these upsets into your bracket  — it has only happened once in tournament history (0.7 percent of matchups) when UMBC shocked Virginia in 2018.

No. 15 over No. 2

This has been a bit more common, occurring eight times (5.7 percent) since 1985, with the last one coming in 2016 when Middle Tennessee took down Michigan State.

No. 14 over No. 3

A 14 seed has taken down a three seed 21 times in tournament history (15 percent), most recently in 2016 with Stephen F. Austin knocking off West Virginia.

No. 13 over No. 4

Now we’re climbing over 20 percent (20.7 percent to be exact) as a 13 seed has won 29 times in the First Round. This happened once at the last tournament in 2019 when UC Irvine beat Kansas State.

No. 12 over No. 5

Every year you’ll hear about the 12-over-five trend. This is always a popular bracket upset and it paid off for those who gambled on it in 2019 when three 12 seeds advanced. It also happened three times in 2014, 2013, 2009, and 2002. In total, a 12 seed has won 50 times (35.7 percent).

No. 11 over No 6

This happens just slightly more often than the 12-over-5 upset at a clip of 37.1 percent or 52 total times since 1985. No. 11 Ohio State beat No. 6 Iowa State 62-59 in 2019. 

No. 10 over No. 7

This has been the most common upset, happening 55 times or 39.3 percent of the time, which shouldn’t be a surprise as these teams are more evenly matched on paper.

Tips for predicting March Madness upsets

When looking for teams to circle as having the potential to pull off an upset, here are a few factors to consider:

Scout The Schedule Strength of non-conference schedule

Most March Madness upsets involve schools from smaller conferences, so it’s tough to measure the level of competition. However, many mid-majors will take on power-conference opponents during non-conference play at the beginning of the schedule. Go over any early games against notable opponents and see how those small schools held up.

Basketball Pace mismatches

Pace and tempo are big X-factors that have played into plenty of March Madness upsets. Get a grasp on a team’s style of play and how it clashes with its opponent, and whether it can impose that pace and style in the opening matchups.

Basketball Net 3-point and foul shooting

For a March Madness upset to occur, the underdog usually has to play near-perfect basketball. That means making big shots and not leaving any points on the table. A number of notable NCAA Tournament shockers have been fueled by hot hands beyond the arc and solid free-throw shooting. Measure those two metrics when scanning for potential upsets.

Sleeper Superstars

Fans of March Madness can likely name some small-conference stars from years past off the top of their heads (Ali Farokhmanesh anyone?). Those lesser-known talents jumped into the national spotlight following notable NCAA Tournament upsets but had been making plays for their respective programs all season long. Sometimes having the best player on the floor is all you need to spark a Big Dance shocker, so take a close look at the big guns from the small conferences. 

Biggest March Madness upsets

These 10 infamous March Madness upsets not only busted their share of brackets but also blew up the bankrolls of those who bet against these all-time great NCAA Tournament underdogs. 

The 10 biggest March Madness upsets since 2000:

No. 10: Duke vs Indiana (+13) 2002 / Duke vs Mercer (+13) 2014

Funny enough, a pair of Duke losses tie for the 10th biggest upsets since 2000. It’s even funnier if you’re among the legions of Duke haters.

The No. 1 Blue Devils blew a 17-point lead to lose 74-73 to the No. 5 Hoosiers in the Sweet 16 of the 2002 tournament – a finish best known for Jay Williams missing the free throw on a potential game-winning 4-point play.

Twelve years later, the No. 3 Dukies were stunned 78-71 by No. 14 Mercer in the Round of 64 with the little-known Bears out of the Atlantic Sun Conference cashing in as +850 moneyline underdogs. This upset was just two years removed from the Blue Devils’ loss to Lehigh as 11.5-point chalk in the opening round of the 2012 tournament.