Can Northern Iowa crash the Sweet 16 party again?
Every year there are teams that capture the heart of America after making an unexpected run. VCU was just another school in terms of popularity before they went from the First Four all the way to the Final Four in 2011. Now, the Rams are always on people's minds when it comes to March. Dunk City was just Florida Gulf Coast before they were put on the map in 2014. So which team will it be this year?
Well, there are several things I like to consider when trying to identify the next Cinderella team. First off, you have to have been tested during the regular season and feature a star or a concept that I can get behind. It also would help if the team has good coaching and isn't too bad in the press conference. Finally, you also have to have a path that is conducive to making a run in the bracket. With that, let's take a look at the double-digit-seeded teams I like best this year.
12 Chattanooga Mocs
Notable Regular Season Games: W at Georgia (92-96 OT), W vs. Illinois (81-77), W at Dayton (61-59), L at Iowa State (83-63)
First Round opponent: No. 5 Indiana
Why Chattanooga? It's a good story with Matt McCall winning 29 games in his first year as a head coach. McCall took over for Will Wade, who is now at VCU making things happen. Ironically one of the stars on the Mocs is Justin Tuoyo, who started his collegiate career as a Ram before transferring. His size and athleticism will be needed against an Indiana team that can score. I really wanted this matchup because Chattanooga plays defense. The Mocs have held 11 teams to 60 points or fewer. I know that teams don't look ahead in the Tournament, but Indiana can't help but be thinking of a potential Round of 32 matchup against Kentucky.
13 Iona Gaels
Notable Regular Season Games: L at Oregon State (93-73), L at Tulsa (90-81), won 2 of 3 vs. Monmouth
First Round opponent: No. 4 Iowa State
Why Iona? Tim Cluess said what we were all thinking about the Monmouth bench — that that that group might have been cheerleaders wearing uniforms. Any guy who can call out the Bench Mob is good in my book. On the court, A.J. English, who is averaging 22.4 points per game, is awesome to watch. He adds five boards and more than six assists per contest as well so he can do it all. English has some help from Jordan Washington and Deyshonee Much. Three times this year, the Gaels cracked the 100-point mark. They should be able to keep up in a shootout with Iowa State even in the thin air of the Mile High City.
14 Fresno State Bulldogs
Notable Regular Season Games: L at Oregon (78-73), L at Arizona (85-72), won 2 of 3 vs. San Diego State
First Round opponent: No. 3 Utah
Why Fresno State? It's rare to see a conference champion of this ilk seeded so high. The other No. 14s are Buffalo, Green Bay and Stephen F. Austin, who are in lesser conferences than the Mountain West. Marvelle Harris is capable of taking over games, as evidenced by the 57 he has poured in the last two games when the Bulldogs needed him the most. I think Rodney Terry is an up-and-coming coach with his team making the postseason for the second time under his tutelage. You can't say enough about a team that has won nine straight too so confidence won't be an issue.
11 Gonzaga Bulldogs
Notable Regular Season Games: W vs. Washington (80-64), L vs. Texas A&M (62-61), W vs. UConn (73-70), L vs. Arizona (68-63)
First Round opponent: No. 6 Seton Hall
Why Gonzaga? Wait a second, Gonzaga is on this list? Well for once, they are no longer the hunted, checking in as a No. 11 seed. It's an odd version of the Zags with a backcourt that is severely lacking. Sure, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis are known commodities, but among Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Dustin Alberts, which guard is going to step up? We heard all about Perkins last year, but his inconsistency was the reason for some of Gonzaga's early struggles. Still, head coach Mark Few is a guy you can back and this team always makes things fun in the Tournament.
11 Northern Iowa Panthers
Notable Regular Season Games: W vs. North Carolina (71-67), W vs. Iowa State (81-79), won 2 of 3 vs. Wichita State
First Round opponent: No. 6 Texas
Why Northern Iowa? Ali Farokhmanesh. It's as fun to say as it is to type. He's no longer on the team, but he still gets mentioned often. The Panthers were America's darlings once before and there's no reason they couldn't be once again. Wes Washpun became a bigger name after his jump shot got UNI the automatic bid by winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. The Panthers’ offense is so precise at times and feature several solid shooters. Paul Jesperson has range that will make us think of Steph Curry. They clearly won't be intimidated by anyone having already beaten North Carolina, Iowa State and Wichita State. This isn't the deepest team so foul trouble will hurt the Panthers.
10 VCU Rams
Notable Regular Season Games: L vs. Duke (79-71), L vs. Wisconsin (74-73), L vs. Cincinnati (69-63), split two games with St. Joseph's
First Round opponent: No. 7 Oregon State
Why VCU? Google Will Wade press conferences from this season and you'll see a thoughtful coach who doesn't hold back his emotions. Wade has a lot at his disposal and although these Rams don't run the Shaka Smart-inspired Havoc defense as much, they are still fun to watch. Chances are when you watch their games, you'll hear a joke about Mo Alie-Cox playing in the NFL, but he's really that tough. Justin Tillman almost transferred away, but decided to stay and has made an impact. If that's not enough, VCU has the best pep band in America and a fan base that would travel to the moon if the Rams had a game there.
I also considered both Hawaii (No. 13) and South Dakota State (No. 12) for this list, but I think their opponents are too good. Both the Jackrabbits and Rainbow Warriors still have plenty of reasons to watch them play, even if they end up being one and done.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)