NCAA Tournament Teams You Should Favor and Avoid Given the Public's Picks

It's important to keep expectations in check in almost every situation.

When it comes to March Madness, that's very much the case.

Few things can make you feel sharper than nailing a mid-major pick that makes it to the Sweet 16, but on the flip side, few things can ruin your hopes by getting too upset-happy and seeing your bracket drown in red ink.

It's important to find that balance of making smart picks while also trying to beat the field when it makes sense to deviate.

Which games are projected to be very close? Which teams might be overvalued or undervalued by the analytics?

And which teams might be over or undervalued by the public?

To figure out that last bit, I'll be comparing numberFire's stage projections to ESPN's Who Picked Whom data to help us find leverage where it exists.

Keep in mind that avoiding consensus is more valuable the closer we get to the championship game, which should be worth more points in your bracket pool.

To Reach the Round of 32

These are the biggest outliers to reach the Round of 32.

To ReachRound of 32 ESPNPublic numberFireProbability Differential
Utah St. 42.0% 71.2% 29.2%
Florida Atlantic 31.3% 52.5% 21.2%
Oral Roberts 18.8% 36.6% 17.8%
Boise St. 40.3% 57.7% 17.4%
Saint Mary's (CA) 65.5% 79.8% 14.3%
Kent St. 19.8% 33.0% 13.2%
Providence 29.7% 41.4% 11.7%
Drake 28.0% 39.4% 11.4%

The Utah State Aggies are the most under-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament, and the Missouri Tigers are one of the most overrated teams in the bracket, so it's no surprise that we're seeing leverage here based on our process. The public is often siding with the 7 seed over the 10 seed in this South region matchup; our model sees it very differently.

The Florida Atlantic Owls are also offering leverage in the 8-9 matchup against the Memphis Tigers, but it's important to note that their Round 1 win probability is only 52.5%. The winning team will face the Purdue Boilermakers in the next round, so either team's run is likely done after this game. But that amount of leverage is worth a roll of the dice to gain some ground on the field, which is heavily leaning on the Tigers over the Owls.

We've got other relatively low-risk bids to gain some leverage in the opening round. You don't want to get careless, but a few extra points here and there in the opening rounds can make all the difference. Some games are closer to coin-flips than the public perceives them to be, and the bottom of this table shows a few such options.

To Reach the Sweet 16

These are the biggest outliers to reach the Sweet 16.

To ReachSweet 16 ESPNPublic numberFireProbability Differential
Tennessee 41.6% 68.0% 26.4%
San Diego St. 29.0% 53.0% 24.0%
Utah St. 6.8% 29.2% 22.4%
Arkansas 9.2% 23.9% 14.7%
Florida Atlantic 4.8% 19.3% 14.5%
Creighton 28.5% 41.8% 13.3%
Saint Mary's (CA) 24.4% 37.1% 12.7%

The Tennessee Volunteers are a tricky team. They're really, really good overall but are very one-sided. Historically speaking, their offense is too weak to check the box that eventual champions check in that department. Despite that, they're fourth in numberFire's power rankings and are likely trending toward a Round of 32 matchup with the Duke Blue Devils, who are trending up but are overall overvalued based on the full season.

A pretty common pick to reach the Sweet 16 is the San Diego State Aztecs at 29.0%, but numberFire's model sees that as way too low and gives them a 53.0% chance to get there. The Aztecs drew the College of Charleston Cougars in the opening round and will face either the Virginia Cavaliers (the most overrated team in the tournament) or the Furman Paladins, a subpar 13 seed based on historical averages.

To Reach the Elite Eight

These are the biggest outliers to reach the Elite Eight.

To ReachElite 8 ESPNPublic numberFireProbability Differential
Tennessee 16.6% 38.9% 22.3%
Saint Mary's (CA) 5.6% 19.5% 13.9%
Utah St. 2.2% 15.5% 13.3%
San Diego St. 4.9% 17.4% 12.5%
Connecticut 20.3% 31.7% 11.4%
Creighton 11.0% 19.5% 8.5%

The Saint Mary's (CA) Gaels are a top-11 team in numberFire's power rankings despite drawing a 5 seed, so it's no real surprise they're in the leverage tables eventually as the tournament thins out.

Similar notes can be written on the Creighton Bluejays, who are a 6 seed despite ranking 13th in our power rankings.

The Connecticut Huskies are shaping up to face the Iona Gaels in the opening round and then the Saint Mary's (CA) Gaels in the classic Gaels/Gaels gamut we see all the time. They're far from a lock to reach the Elite Eight (31.7%) but are offering us some leverage against the public to do so.

To Reach the Final Four

These are the biggest outliers to reach the Final Four.

To ReachFinal Four ESPNPublic numberFireProbability Differential
Tennessee 10.1% 26.4% 16.3%
UCLA 22.6% 31.0% 8.4%
Saint Mary's (CA) 1.9% 8.6% 6.7%
San Diego St. 1.8% 8.4% 6.6%
Connecticut 10.0% 16.0% 6.0%
Utah St. 0.6% 6.2% 5.6%
Creighton 2.9% 8.0% 5.1%

Swinging into the conversation behind the Tennessee Volunteers are the UCLA Bruins, who are actually third in numberFire's power rankings. They're the sixth-most likely team to reach the Final Four according to the public picks but are third here at numberFire in that regard. They do possess the traits of eventual champions, as well.

To Win the NCAA Tournament

These are the biggest outliers to win it all based on the leverage found.

To WinNCAA Championship ESPNPublic numberFireProbability Differential
UCLA 6.0% 10.8% 4.8%
Tennessee 1.9% 6.6% 4.7%
Houston 14.0% 17.1% 3.1%
Connecticut 2.1% 4.7% 2.6%
Saint Mary's (CA) 0.3% 2.0% 1.7%
San Diego St. 0.3% 1.6% 1.3%
Creighton 0.4% 1.6% 1.2%
Utah St. 0.1% 1.2% 1.1%

Despite being +500 favorites in the NCAA tournament odds at FanDuel Sportsbook, the Houston Cougars are actually offering some leverage according to the public picks. numberFire's algorithm views them to be 17.1% likely to win it all, besting the public percentage of 14.0%.

Teams to Consider Avoiding

These are the four biggest outliers to reach the Final Four -- in the negative sense.

To ReachFinal Four ESPNPublic numberFireProbability Differential
Kansas 38.2% 14.5% -23.7%
Alabama 54.0% 40.0% -14.0%
Purdue 33.8% 23.1% -10.7%
Duke 14.9% 4.3% -10.6%

Talk about some chalky programs.

The Kansas Jayhawks are picked by nearly 40% of public brackets to be a Final Four team; numberFire's model sees that as two to three times too high.

A fascinating team in this conversation is the Alabama Crimson Tide, who are reaching the Final Four in 54.0% of public brackets. They're still 40.0% likely to do it, according to numberFire's model, which is second-best in the tournament. They're far from a must-fade team. That being said, you can bet against 54.0% of the brackets you're facing if you are willing to predict an early departure for the Crimson Tide.

Rounding out the list are Purdue and Duke. Both are on the top-10 list for being over-seeded (as is Kansas).