St. Mary's punched its ticket to the Big Dance by beating No. 1 seed Gonzaga
This week, millions will enter office pools and fill out brackets just before the start of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. While everyone knows how good No. 1 seeds Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, and Gonzaga are, whic teams are some of the potential bracket-busters this year?
Some of the teams that could ruin brackets are programs fans have heard of. Others are teams most people are unfamiliar with. With that said, here are the eight red-hot teams to watch in your 2019 bracket:
The Ducks (23-12) earned an automatic bid after winning four straight games in the Pac-12 Tournament, defeating Washington in the title game. Oregon opened as 1.5-point underdogs for Friday's first-round matchup with No. 5 Wisconsin (23-10) but it wouldn't be a surprise if the 12th-seeded Ducks came away with the victory.
Oregon has won eight in a row and is clearly playing its best basketball at the ideal time. The Ducks have plenty of size as they feature four players 6-foot-9 or taller, including freshman forward and leading scorer Louis King (13.1 ppg).
Murray State Racers
Murray State (27-4) will play against Marquette (24-9) in the famous No. 5 vs. No. 12 matchup on Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut. The Racers earned the first NCAA automatic bid by defeating Belmont (who also made the 68-team field) to win the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.
Murray State has one of the best players in the country in sophomore guard Ja Morant (24.6 ppg, 10.0 apg), who could end up as a top-10 pick in June's NBA draft.
Saint Mary's Gaels
The Gaels (22-11) have already made waves in this year's tournament without playing in a game. Last week, Saint Mary's upset Gonzaga to win the West Coast Conference Tournament and earn the automatic bid. The No. 11-seeded Gaels will face No. 6 Villanova on Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut. The Wildcats (25-9) won their fourth straight Big East Conference Tournament title last week and have also claimed two of the past three national championships.
Utah State Aggies
The Aggies won the Mountain West Tournament by beating San Diego State in the final. Utah State (28-6) has won 10 in a row and 17 of its last 18. The No. 8-seeded Aggies will face No. 9 Washington (26-8) on Friday in Columbus, Ohio, with the winner likely to get No. 1 seed North Carolina in the second round.
The Aggies have a variety of players who can step up and score, including Mountain West Player of the Year Sam Merrill (21.2 ppg, 4.2 apg) as well as Abel Porter and Quinn Taylor.
New Mexico State Aggies
No team may be hotter entering the NCAA Tournament than the Aggies. On Saturday, New Mexico State won its 19th consecutive game to claim the WAC Tournament title and to improve its record to 30-4. Next up for the No. 12 seed in the Midwest Region is a matchup on Thursday with No. 5 and SEC Tournament champion Auburn.
The Aggies rely a lot on their three-point shooting to help generate their offense. In the WAC Tournament championship game against Grand Canyon, New Mexico State made 17 shots from beyond the arc to fuel its 89-57 victory.
Michigan State Spartans
March is always Spartans head coach Tom Izzo's favorite time of the year. On Sunday, Michigan State (28-6) defeated archrival Michigan 65-60 to win the Big Ten Tournament.
Although some people believe Michigan State should have been a No. 1 seed, the Spartans are instead a spot behind Duke in the East Region. Michigan State will face No. 15 Bradley (20-14) on Thursday in Des Moines Iowa and look to extend its winning streak to six in a row.
While the Bulls don't necessarily come to mind when talking about one of the best programs in the country, don't be surprised if they make noise once again in this year's NCAA Tournament. Buffalo (31-3) has not lost a game since Feb. 1, a streak of 12 in a row which includes winning the MAC Tournament for the fourth time in five years.
On Friday, Buffalo will face the winner of the St. Johns vs. Arizona State First Four game, which will be played on Wednesday. Last year, the Bulls upset No. 4 Arizona but this year they will be the team with the target on their backs. Fortunately, Buffalo has the senior trio of guards CJ Massinburg and Jeremy Harris and forward Nick Perkins to lean on as the Bulls look to win more than one game this time around.
UC Irvine Anteaters
UC Irvine (30-5) has the potential to be this year's bracket-buster as the No. 13-seed Anteaters will play No. 4 in South Region play on Friday in San Jose. UC Irvine earned the automatic bid by defeating Cal State Fullerton 92-64 to win the Big West Conference Tournament. The Anteaters have already established a new school record for wins in a season and are riding a program-best 16-game winning streak entering the NCAA Tournament.
Redshirt junior guard Max Hazzard leads the way in scoring at 12.5 points per game. Hazzard was named MVP of the Big West Conference Tournament after scoring a game-high 23 points, including going 5-for-6 from three-point range.
— 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, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo by Todd Fierner/St. Mary's Athletics, courtesy of smcgaels.com)