March Madness bracket busters 2024: The best sleeper picks, upset predictions for NCAA Tournament

The potential bracket busters in the 2024 NCAA men’s basketball tournament have a tough act to follow. 

Last year, five double-digit seeds won in the first round – including No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson and No. 15 Princeton. No. 9 Florida Atlantic, however, had the deepest run – and it followed  a simple rule. 

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Mid–major teams that win 30 or more games heading into the tournament are primed to pull that first-round upset. Not including the six major conferences and Gonzaga – a bracket buster turned blue blood – a total of 14 teams with 30 or more wins have made the Big Dance in the last 10 seasons. Those teams combined for a 10-4 record in the first round, too. Three of those teams – Stephen F. Austin (2014), Middle Tennessee State (2017) and UC-Irvine (2019) – won as double-digit seeds. 

The 30-win rule isn’t absolute, but it’s a good place to start. Four double-digit seeds made the Sweet 16 in 2021 and 2022, and Princeton made the Sweet 16 last season.  

There are some interesting bracket busters worth watching: 

EXPERT PICKS: DeCourcy (UConn) | Bender (UConn) | Iyer (UConn) | Yanchulis (South Carolina women)

March Madness sleeper picks, upset predictions

Best bets to reach Sweet 16

No. 12 James Madison (31-3) 

Watch out for the Sun Belt tournament tournament champions. Second-year coach James Byington has built a winner in two seasons, and the Dukes rank in the top-10 in scoring (84.4 points per game). James Madison beat Michigan State 79-76 overtime thriller in the opener on Nov. 6. Junior guard Terrence Edwards (17.4) and Boston College transfer T.J. Bickerstaff (13.4 ppg.) are a dynamic back-court, and that always pays off in the tournament. James Madison got a No. 12 seed, which already makes for a popular upset pick against No. 5 Wisconsin in the first round. Would the Dukes be good enough to take out No. 4 Duke in the second round? 

No. 12 McNeese (30-3) 

Is this another 5-12 upset waiting to happen against No. 5 Gonzaga? The Cowboys are the other 30-win team worth watching given they rank third in the nation in turnover margin (6.7) behind Houston (7.1) and Iowa State (6.9). Coach Will Wade will be the focus given the former LSU coach is back in the Big Dance, and this is a high-scoring team that averaged 80.5 points per game. McNeese also ranked fifth in scoring defense (61.5 ppg.). Four Cowboys average double figures, led by senior guard Shahada Wells (17.8 ppg.). The Cowboys beat Michigan, UAB and VCU in non-conference play before putting up a 17-1 record in the Southland Conference. 

HISTORY OF UPSETS BY SEED:
16 vs. 115 vs. 2 | 14 vs. 3 | 13 vs. 4 | 12 vs. 5

Bracket busters who could pull first-round upset

It’s easy to pick an upset on that 5-12 line. Here are potential first-round upsets from a No. 10, No. 11 a No. 12 and No. 13 team in the first round: 

No. 10 Drake (28-6)

Indiana State got most of the attention in the MVC, but the Bulldogs were the ones who took the automatic bid. Darian DeVries is an up-and-coming coach, and Tucker DeVries is the type of player who can spear-head a tournament run. Tucker ranks sixth in the NCAA with 21.8 points per game, and he had 13 games with 25 points or more. The Bulldogs shot 43.7% from 3-point range in the conference tournament. Drake faces No. 7 Washington State and could get an in-state matchup against No. 2 Iowa State in the second round. This is the right time to make a break through as a program. 

No. 11 Duquesne (24-11) 

Keith Dambrot – who was LeBron James’ high school coach at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary – has the Dukes in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1977.  Duquesne won its last eight games, and they rank No. 34 in adjusted defensive efficiency (98.2). That’s the best mark among the mid-major busters that made the tournament. Dae Dae Grant (16.9 ppg.) and Jimmy Clark III (15.3 ppg.) will have to be on, but it’s doable against No. 6 BYU, but the defense will have to be on point. 

No. 12 UAB (23-11) 

UAB won 29 games and made the NIT championship last season. Fourth-year coach Andy Kennedy led the Blazers to an American Athletic Conference tournament championship in their first season. UAB is hot at the right time, and forward Yaxel Lendenborg averages 13.8 points and 10.5 rebounds. LSU transfer Eric Gaines averages 5.2 assists. The Blazers did give up 80 or more points 11 times. It’s a rough matchup against No. 5 San Diego State, but the Aztecs have been more inconsistent this year coming off a Final Four run. 

No. 13 Charleston (27-7) 

Charleston was a 30-win team last season before losing 63-57 to San Diego State in the first round last season. The Aztecs, of course, advanced to the national championship game. Talk about a tough draw. Pat Kelsey has led the Cougars to 12 straight victories, and their top three scorers – Reyne Smith (12.8 ppg.), Ante Brzovic (12.3 ppg.) and Ben Burnham (11.7 ppg.) were part of last year’s team. There is enough experience here to make it interesting – even if they didn’t make the 30-win mark, and the matchup is brutal against No. 4 Alabama, which led the nation in scoring.  

PRINTABLE: Download a 2024 March Madness bracket here

Will NC State be a bracket buster in 2024? 

NC State was the ultimate Cinderella in a 1983 national championship run, and this year’s team channeled that by winning five games in five days at the ACC tournament. NC State lost its last four regular-season games before the conference tournament run. The Wolfpack allowed 82.3 points per game in the losing streak, and they cut that down to 72 points in the ACC tournament – and that included victories against Duke and North Carolina. If NC State’s defense holds up, then they could pull a first-round upset against No. 6 Texas Tech, but that’s a tall order. 

Other bracket busters are worth watching

There are some familiar names among the bracket busters, but they need to prove it in the first round: 

No. 14 Colgate (25-9) is making their fifth appearance since 2019. The Raiders have lost those previous four games by an average of 12.8 points per game. Colgate got No. 3 Baylor in the first round. 

No. 13 Vermont (28-6) is a tournament regular, but they are 0-4 in their last four tournament appearances dating back to 2017. A matchup with Duke won’t be easy. 

No. 12 Grand Canyon (29-4) lost in the first round in 2021 and 2023. That experience could pay off in their third appearance under Bryce Drew. The Antelopes rank in the top 50 in scoring offense and scoring defense. They will hang with No. 5 Saint Mary’s. 

No. 13 Samford (29-5) has come a long from a 98-45 loss to Purdue in the opener. Forward Achor Achor averages 15.8 points and 6.1 rebounds, and the Bulldogs shoot 39.3% from 3-point range. Coach Bucky McMillan’s style is known as “Bucky Ball,” and they will be popular against No. 4 Kansas, which is dealing with injuries. 

No. 14 Akron (23-10) is 0-5 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. Coach John Groce led Ohio to a Sweet 16 in 2012, and now he will try to do the same at a second MAC school. It’s not a favorable matchup against No. 3 Creighton in the first round. 

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