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.
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