Here comes the most fun task in the run up for the NCAA Tournament: Attempting to predict the unpredictable.
Teams from mid-major leagues upsetting heavy hitters, schools tucked away in the middle over nowhere knocking off state schools, programs with tiny enrollments and barely recruiting players defeating rosters full of McDonald’s All-Americans make the Tournament fun. Could this be the year for South Dakota State's Nate Wolters and other mid-major stars?
Here we’ll try to pinpoint the mid- to low-major programs with the best opportunity to advance in the NCAA Tournament.
For this list we looked at teams in the bottom half of the bracket -- i.e., teams seeded ninth or lower -- and then examined their early-round matchups for their likelihood to advance.
Related: Our best tips for your bracket pool
10 POTENTIAL CINDERELLA TEAMS IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
No. 11 seed vs. Butler in the East
One of surprises of Selection Sunday may be one of the surprises of the first day of the NCAA Tournament. The Bison are overseeded at No. 11 (keep in mind, Oregon and Cal were No. 12 seeds out of the Pac-12), but Bucknell has a legitimate star player in the frontcourt in Mike Muscala. The Bison won at Purdue to start the season and defeated Tourney teams New Mexico State and La Salle comfortably. But the eye-opening game may have been a 66-64 loss at Missouri when Phil Pressey was on his game and Laurence Bowers was healthy. It’s tough to pick against Butler and Brad Stevens in the NCAA Tournament, but this is not one of his better teams.
No. 11 seed against Arizona in the West
Has the time come for the Bruins’ first NCAA win? Belmont gave Duke all it could handle in a 71-70 loss 2008 and has been a trendy upset pick in its last two Tournaments. Led by an underrated backcourt of Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson, Belmont is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, leading the nation in shooting inside the three-point line and second in effective field goal percentage. Arizona isn’t the strongest defensive team and has questions at point guard. Not to mention the Wildcats are 0-3 against Bruins (of the UCLA variety).
First Four vs. Saint Mary’s for No. 11 seed against Memphis in Midwest
One of the last teams in the field has a good shot to advance, even beyond the First Four where the Blue Raiders will meet Saint Mary’s. Should the Blue Raiders defeat the Gaels and face Memphis, they’ll encounter a team that hasn’t won a Tournament game since 2009 under John Calipari. Can Middle Tennessee, ranked fifth nationally in points allowed per possession, guard Memphis’ athleticism? Of course, that’s only if Middle Tennessee can guard Saint Mary’s guard Matthew Dellavedova first.
First Four vs. La Salle for No. 13 seed against Kansas State in West
The Broncos have ascended to major program status in football, but they remain a plucky upstart in basketball. If Boise State can defeat La Salle in the First Four, the Broncos are a strong candidate to win one more game. Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks can score in bunches, and the Broncos won’t be overwhelmed by Kansas State. Boise State already defeated Tournament teams San Diego State, Colorado State, UNLV and Creighton this season.
South Dakota State
No. 13 seed vs. Michigan in the South
A tricky game to pick for any college basketball junkie: South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters (22.5 points per game, 5.8 assists) is an NBA prospect and a favorite of college basketball nerds. Meanwhile, Michigan is an enigma in your bracket. The Wolverines looked the part of a national title contender when they started 20-1, but Michigan finished 6-6 and went 2-6 against the Big Ten’s other top five teams. Pick against Trey Burke at your own risk.
No. 13 seed vs. Syracuse in the East
Syracuse limped into the Big East Tournament with an offensive attack that looked lost. The Orange rebounded in Madison Square Garden, including a win over Georgetown. Will that inconsistency be enough to sink Syracuse against Montana? The Grizzlies won 25 games, but keep in mind their personnel: They lost Mathias Ward (14.8 ppg) for the remainder of the season but gained Will Cherry (13.9 ppg).
No. 9 seed vs. Pittsburgh in the West
Perhaps unfair to call Wichita State a Cinderella as the Shockers have won 20-plus games in each of the last four seasons. Nevertheless, they're seeded ninth out of the Missouri Valley. Wichita’s round of 64 game could be decided on the glass, where both the Shockers and Pittsburgh rank in the top 10 nationally in rebound rate. The No. 8/9 games are a crapshoot, so it’s an even bet for Wichita State to advance to face presumed opponent Gonzaga. The Bulldogs were the last No. 1 seed in the field.
Florida Gulf Coast
No. 15 seed vs. Georgetown in the South
Georgetown remade itself after January, winning 13 of the last 15 games, and Otto Porter is a legitimate superstar. But Florida Gulf Coast may be the best bet for a No. 15 to win a Tournament game. Since reaching the Final Four in 2007, Georgetown has had three early Tournament exits to NC State, Ohio, VCU and Davidson (granted, VCU reached the Final Four that year and Davidson had Stephen Curry). It may be a stretch for FGCU to upset Georgetown in its first appearance, but the Eagles defeated Miami in November and have been tested against VCU and Duke.
No. 14 seed vs. Marquette in the East
Davidson was pinpointed as a mid-major to watch in the preseason and delivered with 17 consecutive wins to end the year, including an overtime win over Montana. The Wildcats defeated high-major programs Vanderbilt and West Virginia, though neither are in the field, and gave New Mexico all it could handle at The Pit. This is a tough draw, though, against a Buzz Williams team that has reached the Sweet 16 in each of the last two seasons.
No. 15 seed vs. Ohio State in the West
It seems everyone is back on the Ohio State bandwagon after the Buckeyes won the Big Ten Tournament. But Ohio State will have a tough opponent in Iona, a MAAC team led by a Pac-12 transfer. Momo Jones played on Arizona’s Elite Eight team with Derrick Williams before transferring East. Aaron Craft should be able to guard Jones in front of the friendly Dayton crowd, but don’t be surprised if Ohio State is challenged.