It’s that time of year again, the NCAA tournament has arrived.
For basketball fans, March and the NCAA tournament represents a three-week stretch of constant entertainment in a win-or-go-home format. High-major, blue-blood programs are pitted against each other, and those mid-major beasts looking to prove their worth set out to pull off the elusive “Cinderella Story.”
Simply put, the Big Dance gets everyone’s attention.
As this year’s rendition of the tournament gets set to kick-off, there are some under-the-radar teams that should catch your eye when filling out your bracket. General afterthoughts, these teams possess the qualities to give their favored opponents a run for their money.
With that said, let the Madness ensue.
Southern Methodist University
The Mustangs are the highest rated “sleeper” on this list, sitting in the field of 68 as a No. 6 seed in the East region bracket. Winners of 30 games this season, SMU dominates the American Athletic Conference and doesn’t even land a top-four seed? It would seem the committee doesn’t value the Mustangs’ body of work as much as a team from a power conference.
However, what separates SMU from a regular mid-major is Semi Ojeleye.
Ojeleye, the No. 40 ranked player in the Class of 2013, enrolled at Duke out of high school. After struggling to find the court through two seasons in Durham, Ojeleye decided to transfer. His decision now puts the Mustangs in a position to strike this March, and should he continue his regular season dominance, Ojeleye could secure a revenge game against his former school in the Sweet 16.
Averaging 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, Ojeleye is a matchup nightmare and hits nearly 43 percent of his attempts from three-point range, as well. Should Ojeleye lead the Mustangs past USC in the round of 64, they would get a crack at No. 3-seed Baylor. That game would pit Ojeleye against Johnathan Motley for the battle of the best player on the court.
A mid-major program with a high-major talent, the Mustangs and Semi Ojeleye are not a wise team to bet against.
A program with a résumé like the Spartans would normally be shocking to see show up on any “sleeper” list, but this is a down year for head coach Tom Izzo’s squad.
At just 19-14, the Spartans limped into the NCAA tournament for the 20th-consecutive season and a No. 9 seed placement in the Midwest region bracket. Their first test will come against the University of Miami.
Led by Miles Bridges, a freshman and projected lottery pick, the Spartans have the firepower to make a run now that they’re in the field. Along with Bridges, senior guard Eron Harris and freshman big man Nick Ward give Michigan State the in-and-out punch to make any team nervous. Harris shoots 39 percent from downtown and Ward is averaging 17.5 points and 10 rebounds per game over his last six contests.
Even amidst a down year, Izzo’s team has two wins against fifth-seeded Minnesota in conference play, along with losing by just five points in the Big Ten tournament. The Spartans also have a win against 25-win Wisconsin, so, beating good teams is by no means an impossible task for Michigan State.
But above all for Michigan State, the advantage they have over just about every team in the tournament is that of a hall of fame coach patrolling the sidelines. That alone can never be dismissed.
The Pirates are back in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. This will mark the first time since Seton Hall has appeared consecutively in the dance since four straight tournaments during 1991-94.
After stumbling as a No. 6 in the opening round to 11th-seeded Gonzaga last season, along with losing star guard Isaiah Whitehead to the NBA, few believed the Pirates could recreate more March magic.
Yet, here is Seton Hall, this time led by star big man Angel Delgado.
Delgado will lead Seton Hall as a No. 9-seed in the South region bracket against Arkansas in their first-round game. The Razorbacks play an up-and-down style of game that will push the Pirates to meet their pace. They are also anchored down low by big man Moses Kingsley, but Seton Hall features the nation’s most lethal rebounder in their arsenal.
At 13.1 rebounds per game, 4.9 of which come on the offensive glass, Delgado plucks missed shots off the rim better than anyone else in college basketball. Coupled with his nation-leading 26 double-doubles, Delgado is also more than capable on the offensive end.
Along with Delgado, fellow juniors Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington provide offensive firepower, as well. Over the last five games, Rodriguez has averaged 18.4 points while shooting 48 percent.
Should the Pirates upend the higher-seeded Razorbacks in their opening round game, they could pose a legitimate threat to No. 1 North Carolina by dragging them into a rock fight game.
Back over in the Midwest region bracket, another potential Cinderella story is waiting to happen. The No. 11 seed Rhode Island Rams take on sixth-seeded Creighton in their first game.
The Rams are led by a trio of upperclassmen in E.C. Matthews, Hassan Martin and Jared Terrell. These three college veterans steered the Rams to their first NCAA tournament since the Lamar Odom days back in 1999.
Martin will be key for Rhode Island as they start their tournament run against Creighton. Over his last 17 games, 14 being victories, Martin has averaged 14.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and two blocked shots.
While Creighton features potential lottery pick Justin Patton in its frontcourt, they don’t chase rebounds nearly as well as Rhode Island. The Rams rank 75th in the nation in rebounds while the Bluejays sit far below their impending opponent at 131st.
Should Martin continue to impose his will on the block, Rhode Island could ride their big man to an NCAA tournament win. Even better for the Rams, their potential second-game opponent in Oregon just lost their leading shot-blocker (Chris Boucher) last week.
The matchups are in Rhode Island’s favor, and with their track record over the last two months of basketball, it’s hard to picture them not capitalizing.
Middle Tennessee State University
Yes, that Middle Tennessee State University.
The same team who bounced No. 2 Michigan State out of the tournament last season is back, and this time they have reinforcements.
Featuring the team’s two leading scorers from last season, Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw, the Blue Raiders have now added Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams. The 6-foot-8 forward leads Middle Tennessee in both scoring and rebounding, at 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, respectively.
Looking to build off their momentum from last season, the Blue Raiders turned in a 30-win season and get set to face fifth-seeded Minnesota in the always entertaining 5/12 matchup.
Middle Tennessee boasts three double-figure scorers (Williams, Potts, and Upshaw), but can also lock down their opponents defensively. Throughout this season, the Blue Raider defense has given up just 63.3 points per game, good for 20th in the nation.
With their combination of scoring, defense and experience in upsets, Middle Tennessee is poised to recreate last season’s magic.
East Tennessee State University
The state of Tennessee has more than one pending Cinderella story, however, the Buccaneers aren’t working with any previous upset magic. In their first NCAA tournament since 2010, East Tennessee State has the talent to make some noise in the field.
As the No. 13 seed in the East region bracket, the Buccaneers get a favorable draw to their playing strengths with fourth-seeded Florida. Despite having only two players that average double-figures in scoring—T.J. Cromer and Desonta Bradford scoring 19.1 and 10.6 points per game, respectively—the team as a whole is extremely efficient from the field. Shooting 49 percent as a team, East Tennessee State ranks 10th in the nation in field goal percentage.
With Florida having lost starting center John Egbunu to a torn ACL earlier this season, the Gators are left without their biggest interior defender against a smart shooting team.
Along with picking their shots well, East Tennessee State also has a slew of athletes ready to attack Florida’s weakened interior defense.
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) March 15, 2017
For their first tournament action in nearly a decade, the Buccaneers have the capability to top Florida and start some magic of their own.
What makes the NCAA tournament so entertaining is that it always keeps you on your toes. The best team doesn’t always come out on top, and every year seems to produce a feel-good underdog story.
Here’s to another year of Cinderella teams trying to fit into their glass slipper.
Devin Robinson Flourishing in Spotlight
Florida’s Devin Robinson has picked a perfect time to put up career performances, writes Cody Taylor.
Florida Gators forward Devin Robinson picked a great time to tie a career high in scoring.
With the Gators fighting to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament, Robinson scored 24 points to help lead the Gators to an 80-65 win over East Tennessee State on Thursday.
“He was a big factor,” teammate Kevarrius Hayes said. “We always love his hustle. Everybody has those nights and I’m just glad he had one. He is probably right there with one of the hardest playing people we have on the team so I feel like tonight was his night to shine.”
Robinson paced the Gators in scoring throughout the game, coming out of the gate to throw down several highlight-reel dunks and set the tone offensively. He scored eight of his 10 first half points within the first five minutes of the game.
“My teammates just found me,” Robinson said. “I just came out here and I knew that we had to win or go home so my teammates found me in the right positions and it gave me the confidence to just let the ball fly.”
East Tennessee State never seriously threatened the Gators in the game. The Bucs grabbed their first lead of the game to begin the second half, but the Gators responded and opened up a 16-point lead to seal a trip to the next round against Virginia tomorrow.
The Gators entered the tournament with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, having lost three out of their last four games. Many around the country projected East Tennessee State to knock off Florida in the first round as the No. 13 seed.
As is the case each March, college basketball fans around the country are constantly looking for a potential upset. With the Gators playing inconsistently toward the end of the season, many believed they were a possible candidate to suffer a defeat.
The Gators were aware of the outside chatter and were happy to play “spoiler” as the higher seed.
“We heard on ESPN and all of the other bracketology type stuff that we were going to be the first upset,” Robinson said. “That put a chip on our shoulder. We knew we just had to come out here and prove everybody wrong once again. That put everything into perspective and we knew that we just had to take care of business.”
Playing in the national spotlight, Robinson surely didn’t disappoint in his first tournament game. He looked to be the best player on the court for most of the game, and gave fans watching at home a great look at why he’s a likely draft pick come June.
Robinson withdrew his name from draft consideration last year and opted to come back to school for his junior year. While his averages of 10.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and one steal per game don’t necessarily jump off of the page, he has improved in each year at Florida.
Perhaps the biggest area of his game that has improved is his shooting. His three-point percentages have increased in each year. He shot just 25.6 percent his freshman year but improved to 34 percent in his sophomore year and 38.9 percent this year. He was 21st among all players in the SEC in three-point shooting.
With the Gators up by just one early in the second half, Robinson knocked down three-point shots on consecutive trips down the floor to help extend the lead to seven points and put the Gators up for good. He finished 2-of-5 from three-point range.
Improving his shooting has been a point of emphasis over the past few summers.
“[Shooting] was a big priority of mine,” Robinson said. “It actually got better this past summer when I was injured. I just focused more on my form and just put more arch on the ball and just being more comfortable with where I am as a player and my shot. My guys out here are finding me so that just helps me 10 times more.”
Listed at 6-foot-8, Robinson appears to fit the standard for a big man in today’s NBA. He flashed a little bit of everything yesterday against East Tennessee State and was efficient in doing so. He has great athleticism for his size and is a capable defender.
“When he wants to, he runs like a deer,” head coach Mike White said. “When he’s in space, he’s got the ability to get his feet set and make jumpers, and he can really straight line-drive it, of course. He can take off before physicality and explode to the rim. He’s a really talented guy.”
Robinson entered the tournament ranked eighth in DraftExpress’ juniors rankings and is projected to be drafted No. 41 in the second round. Of course, many prospects have helped improve their draft stock the deeper their team plays into the tournament.
While a decision beyond this season likely hasn’t been made yet, it doesn’t sound crazy to think Robinson could enter his name for draft consideration this year. If the Gators can go on a run in the tournament, and Robinson can continue to shine in the spotlight, we just might see his name called in the first round.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
NBA AM: Most Insane First-Round Upsets
Four years ago, #15 Lehigh beat heavily favored #2 Duke. A look at the crazy upsets in tourney history.
With the field officially selected for this year’s NCAA Final Four tournament, millions of people across the continent, including plenty that know zilch about college basketball, will undergo the task of filling out their brackets – whether they’re for office pools, friendly wagers or online competitions. It sure would be nice if the higher seeds just won all the time because it would make predicting winners a whole lot easier, but we all know that’s not the way this thing works. Upsets happen, and they happen fairly often.
The NCAA actually published an article at the end of February detailing the nature of upsets, pointing out that, on average, there are six first-round upsets every year that come at the hands of 10-15 seeds, while most Final Four teams are at least a 7 seed. The art in winning a bracket is determining which of those lower seeds will be responsible for upsets and which of those higher seeds will run the table.
It is a delicate art, though, particularly because there’s at least one shocking first-round upset every year, and that one bracket-busting loss can almost immediately destroy hopes of winning a pool. While there’s no way to predict which team that will be in 2016, the following are some of the more notable first-round upsets of the last 25 years:
#15 Richmond upsets #2 Syracuse (1991) – This particular first-round shocker was significant because it was the first time that a 15-seed had ever won an NCAA Final Four tournament game. It wouldn’t be the last time that Richmond would play spoiler to a significantly higher seed (they did it again in 2011 as a 12-seed when they beat 5-seed Vanderbilt en route to a Sweet Sixteen appearance), but this particular upset was such a huge deal because it never had been done before. Syracuse was a monster in the Big East that year, and it all came crashing down the first game of the tournament. Six other 15 seeds have done it since, but there was a time when this particular brand upset seemed as unlikely as a 16-seed upset. There still hasn’t been one of those, but as Richmond once proved, it just takes one to burst the bubble.
#15 Santa Clara upsets #2 Arizona (1993) – In retrospect, watching Steve Nash and Damon Stoudemire go at it in a game that proved to be unexpectedly thrilling might have been the single most interesting college basketball game to attend that year, especially since the game ended up being so close. Things stayed tight to the very end, with Santa Clara missing four free-throws in the game’s final moments to help keep Arizona in the game. Stoudemire missed a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer that would’ve tied it, and Nash’s Santa Clara team stole a win away from one of the early 1990s’ most stacked college rosters.
#13 Princeton upsets #4 UCLA (1996) – While a 13-seed toppling a 4-seed doesn’t seem quite as impressive as a 15-seed upset, this one was particularly shocking because it came the year after UCLA won the National Championship. It was a hell of a game, too, tied in the game’s final moments and won on a backdoor cut and layup that has held up as one of the more exciting finishes in tournament history.
#15 Coppin State upsets #2 South Carolina (1997) – Coming into this game as 30-point underdogs, Coppin State ended up embarrassing the Gamecocks in a 13-point win, proving that the betting experts were wrong in assuming they were 43 points worse than reality that game. It was the first time Coppin State had ever won in tournament competition, and they ended up losing their second-round game to Texas by just one. They could’ve been one of history’s more improbable Cinderella teams, but that upset over South Carolina was enough to enshrine them as one of the more storied upsets in NCAA tournament history.
#14 Weber State upsets #3 North Carolina (1999) – While this wasn’t exactly the golden era of North Carolina basketball, the Tar Heels came into the 1999 tournament having won their first-round game every single year since 1978. After Dean Smith but before Roy Williams, this Brendan Haywood-led roster massively disappointed in a shocking loss to Weber State. North Carolina has had its highs and lows in the past 15 years, but they’re one of college basketball’s most storied programs. Losing like they did in 1999 truly was a shock.
#15 Hampton upsets #2 Iowa State (2001) – Down by 11 to Jamaal Tinsley’s Iowa State team well into the second half, the Hampton Pirates chipped away at the lead until the crowd in Boise started to realize the possibility of a pretty significant upset coming together before their very eyes. Up 57-48 with seven minutes to go, Iowa State didn’t score a single point the rest of the game, which was just enough for that Cinderella Hampton team to eke out a one-point victory.
#14 Bucknell upsets #3 Kansas (2005) – It’s always shocking when Kansas loses a first-round matchup, but they had a rough stretch in the mid-aughts that started with this upset to the Bucknell Bison, courtesy of a last-second, banked-in hook shot by Bucknell’s Chris McNaughton. Wayne Simien did have a chance to sink a shot at the buzzer but clanged the attempt and sent the Jayhawks home much earlier than expected.
#13 Bradley upsets #4 Kansas (2006) – The next year wasn’t any better, as Kansas stepped into the tournament hoping to redeem themselves, only to lose immediately to Patrick O’Bryant’s Bradley squad out of Peoria, Illinois. To make it even sweeter for the Braves, Bradley won again in the second round, toppling #5 Pitt on their way to the Sweet Sixteen.
#14 Northwestern State upsets #3 Iowa (2006) – If anyone was gutsy enough to have selected Kansas over Bradley, there definitely wasn’t anybody with the gumption to also select this upset, which not only was outrageous but also very entertaining. Northwestern State’s Jermaine Wallace hit a fade-away three-pointer at the buzzer to shock the Hawkeyes, who at one point in the second half held onto a 17-point lead.
#15 Lehigh upsets #2 Duke (2012) – There’s nothing spiteful college basketball fans love more than a good Duke loss in the tournament, and they got their crown jewel in 2012 thanks to a 30-point explosion from future Portland Trail Blazers star C.J. McCollum. We now know exactly what he’s capable of as a scorer, but four years ago he was just the best player on a college team nobody had ever heard of, until they felled the mighty Blue Devils on the largest stage possible.
According to statistical trends, at least six more surprising upsets on the horizon for this year’s tournament, and millions of basketball fans (or just millions of people who put a few bucks down on a bracket) will watch later this week to see how it all pans out.