Once the 68-team field for the 2017 NCAA Tournament was announced on Sunday night, there were millions of people filling out brackets for office pools, web sites or just for fun. Each year there is a favorite to cut down the nets in April, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that team will win it all.
For example, many expected the North Carolina Tar Heels to win it all last year, but it was the Villanova Wildcats that hoisted the title in one of the best championship games of all time. North Carolina and Villanova will both be favorites to win this year, but they aren’t the only possibilities in what is considered a fairly wide-open tournament.
In fact, sometimes it comes down to which teams are peaking at the right time. Along those lines, here are eight teams that enter March Madness playing extremely well. One or more of these could make a deep run and worth paying attention to as you fill out your bracket.
(Seeding and first round matchup listed in italics)
Iowa State Cyclones (23-10)
No. 5 in Midwest Region, vs. No. 12 Nevada
On Saturday, Iowa State won its third Big 12 Tournament championship in four seasons by defeating West Virginia 80-74 in Kansas City. While the Cyclones are 9-1 in their conference tournament over the last four years, they haven’t been as successful in the Big Dance.
This will be Iowa State’s sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearances, but it is just 6-5 since 2012. The Cyclones haven’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since 2000, losing in the regional semifinals in 2014 and ’16. This could be the year they break through, however, behind four experienced guards in Deonte Burton, Matt Thomas, Naz-Mitrou-Long and Big 12 Tournament MVP Monte Morris, who averaged 17.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and five assists over the three games.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (30-4)
No. 12 in South Region, vs. No. 5 Minnesota
Last year, Middle Tennessee pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history by shocking No. 2 seed Michigan State 90-81 in the first round. It was just the eighth time in tournament history that a No. 15 seed took down a No. 2. This season, the Blue Raiders won’t be sneaking up on anyone.
Last week, Middle Tennessee was in the USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time in school history and is fresh off of its second Conference USA Tournament championship, beating Marshall 83-72 in the final. This Blue Raiders team is led by a pair of senior forwards in Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams, the conference player of the year. Middle Tennessee won’t be a No. 15 seed this year, but is definitely a team to keep an eye on.
Wichita State Shockers (30-4)
No. 10 in South Region, vs. No. 7 Dayton
Wichita State under head coach Gregg Marshall is no stranger to success in the NCAA Tournament. In 2013, the Shockers made it all the way to the Final Four and then two years later followed that up with a Sweet 16 appearance. Wichita State has advanced past the first round four years running.
The Shockers will look to stretch that streak to five after wrapping up their automatic bid by winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title with a convincing 71-51 victory over Illinois State. This version of Wichita State is balanced on offense and one of the best in the nation on defense, giving up just 62.4 points per game (14th).
UNC Wilmington Seahawks (29-5)
No. 12 seed in East Region, vs. No. 5 Virginia
For the second straight season, UNC Wilmington will get out its dancing shoes after winning the CAA Tournament. And with an RPI of No. 27 in the country, it’s entirely possible that the Seahawks would have gotten an at-large bid if they hadn’t beaten Charleston 78-69 for the CAA title.
Head coach Kevin Keatts has a run and press style of a team, which can give opponents fits. Last season, UNC Wilmington hung with Duke in the first round, including leading by three points at halftime, before eventually falling 93-85. This year’s Seahawks may be able to pull off an upset (or two) thanks to the presence of players like C.J. Bryce (17.6 ppg) and Chris Flemmings (15.8 ppg). Virginia, you've been warned.
Winthrop Eagles (26-6)
No. 13 seed in South Region, vs. No. 4 Butler
For the first time since 2010, Winthrop qualified for the NCAA Tournament after winning the Big South Tournament title over Campbell. This will be the Eagles’ 10th appearance in the Big Dance. Winthrop is just 1-9 in the NCAA Tournament, the win coming in 2007 against Notre Dame.
These Eagles enter the Big Dance on an eight-game winning streak and are led by top scorer Keon Johnson (22.5 ppg).
Vermont Catamounts (29-5)
No. 13 seed in Midwest Region, vs. No. 4 Purdue
Vermont has the nation’s longest active winning streak at 21 games, including the three in the America East Tournament to finish 19-0 in conference play. The Catamounts know what it takes to pull off the big upset in the NCAA Tournament, having beaten Syracuse back in 2005.
Vermont is led by freshman Anthony Lamb, the America East Tournament MVP after posting a double-double (12, points, 10 assists) in the championship game victory over Albany.
SMU Mustangs (30-4)
No. 6 seed in East Region, vs. winner of Providence/USC First Four matchup
SMU has been flying under the radar pretty much the entire season, mainly since the Mustangs play in the American Athletic Conference. But after winning its conference tournament to get its 30th win, SMU will have a chance to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
The Mustangs are led by national coach of the year candidate Tim Jankovich and Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye. A junior, Ojeleye is averaging 19 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. SMU also has senior guard Sterling Brown (13.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.1 apg) to provide leadership and steady production.
Kentucky Wildcats (29-5)
No. 2 seed in South Region, vs. No. 15 Northern Kentucky
On Sunday, Kentucky celebrated its 30th SEC Tournament championship after beating Arkansas 82-65. It was the 11th straight win for the Wildcats overall, who may be peaking at the right time.
Freshman Malik Monk has been Kentucky’s top scoring threat all season and poured a total of 37 in the victories over the Razorbacks and Alabama in the SEC Tournament. If the Wildcats continue to get steady contributions from fellow freshmen De’Aaron Fox (22 ppg over last three games and Edrice Adebayo (13.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg), they have as good of a chance as any team to cut down the nets at the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Iowa State photo courtesy of @CycloneMBB)