This is the second of three posts that will preview the NCAA tournament. This one is for people who want to know which sleeper teams have the best shot at making some noise.
The field is a beautiful thing, but it ain’t all that beautiful this year. “The bubble is soft!” they said over and over. There was no glut of mid-majors clamoring for a limited number of berths, nor were the power conference’s mid-level squads overly impressive, with Bad Losses everywhere to be found. But this is a 68-team tournament, so now Kansas State, USC, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and the like all get their chance to play 2016 Syracuse and do some damage.
This post is meant to highlight the teams heavily favored to lose at some point before the Final Four; whether they come from a power conference or the Big West-Midwestern American League, these teams are entertaining and promising. I assure you it’ll be a helluva lot more fun rooting for them than any of those loaded, semi-professional squads in the top seeds.
This is not a mid-major specific list, by the way. There are quite a few talented, single-digit loss mid-majors lurking in the field this year, but there also some teams sitting back in the top conferences capable of an eventful run. I even included one from the Big Ten! (It’s not Northwestern! The Wildcats are a nice story and the history is worth appreciating, but they’re kind of a drag to watch. They also haven’t looked like a team capable of stringing together the necessary performances against actually good teams to make me think they’ll be around long.)
One last thing: Monmouth got jobbed, man. The Hawks have 53 regular season wins over the past two years. Twice, they’ve had to win the MAAC’s auto-bid; twice, they’ve lost in the MAAC tournament and been shuffled off to the NIT. This year’s loss was particularly painful because it was a 17-point comeback by a 17-16 Siena squad that should be nowhere near the tournament. Now they have columnists writing about how, “when you lose to Siena in the MAAC semifinals, that’s a pretty clear sign that you’re not quite there yet.”Bullshit says I, but that’s the way of the conference tournament system—for the top-tier, it’s little more than a show tournament; for the mid-majors, even the 27-6 mid-majors, it’s life or death. So pour some out for Monmouth and Justin Robinson—that little man was made for the big lights—and for every other star player on a bum team chilling on the outside. Here’s looking at you John Collins.
The last time we had an honest-to-God bracket-busting Vermont team, Sorrentine hit one from the parking lot and the Catamounts danced all over Jim Boeheim’s fourth-seeded Syracuse team. That was 12 years ago. Amazingly, this year’s Vermont team might have the tools to surpass even the 2005 squad’s accomplishments.
Vermont was impressive this year, losing just five games and becoming the first team to finish 16-0 in American East history. They enter the tournament on a 21-game winning streak, capped by a thrilling conference tournament title game victory against Albany. Watching them in the American East tournament, one thing that stood out was that this team is extremely comfortable on the court together. The five guys on the floor are constantly finding each other on quick cuts through the lane with tough, short-range passes.
Ernie Duncan is the team’s three-point specialist, hitting 2.1 per game, and he’s joined by forward Anthony Lamb as the only two Catamounts to hit at least 40 percent of their treys. Lamb doubles as the team’s leading scorer, putting in 12.1 points per game, and he’s backed by fellow forward Payton Henson and guard Trae Bell-Haynes, the only other two teammates averaging double digit scoring. Head coach John Becker’s team doesn’t take a ton of shots, but the Catamounts are insanely efficient, draining 49.6 percent of their shots, which ranks ninth in the nation.
They really make their money on defense, where they hold opposing teams to 61.6 points per game, good for 11th-best in the nation. The Catamounts are not going to blow anyone out, and should they face a team used to hanging 80 points per night, that will likely be all she wrote. But they’re in the tournament for a reason. Let Purdue come out and have a tough night shooting and Vermont just might be able to live to see Day 2.
The 30-4 Mustangs’s best player, Semi Ojeleye, was initially a Dookie, but Ojeleye bet on himself and transferred out when the majority of minutes went to Justise Winslow, Jahlil Okafor, and Marshall Plumlee during his sophomore campaign. Ojeleye might have missed out on being part of a championship team, but the 6-foot-7 forward took the opportunity to test himself as a team’s No. 1 option, and it has worked out wonderfully. He’s scoring 19 points and grabbing close to seven rebounds per game, and is fresh off being named the conference player of the year. Ojeleye alone is worth rooting for the Mustangs; luckily for them, they’ve got a couple more reasons.
Senior Sterling Brown and sophomore Shake Milton are a pair of standout Mustang guards. Milton spends more time distributing the ball and Brown crashes the boards a tad better, but both average around 13 points per game. Milton lives up to his sweet first name; he’s shown he’s capable of going on a multi-game hot streak (a useful trick when you need a six-game winning streak), having dropped at least 19 in five straight games in the heart of AAC play. When Ojeleye isn’t bullying opposing players in the paint or stretching them with his three-point shot, Brown and Milton are more than capable of picking up the slack.
One thing that seems likely to bite SMU when it faces a top seed is that the Mustangs rely heavily on their starting rotation—five players average at least 29 minutes per game. After Ben Emelogu, there’s a distinct drop-off in proven talent on their depth chart; give them Florida State, UNC, UCLA, Arizona, or a similar team with length and numbers and SMU will likely be headed home.
The Bearcats have an advantage from the jump—not just in basketball, but life, as their coach, Mick Cronin, while a little fiery on the sidelines, is wise to the NCAA’s game. He’s also coached Bearcats to be a defense-first squad with just enough firepower to make them look like a serious threat to make it to the second weekend.
Cincinnati’s game has a nice look to it because unlike some defensively focused teams, all five of their starters are capable of finding their own shot. This team is about the best offensive squad, from positions one through five, that Cronin has fielded in his years at the helm. Troy Caupain and Jacob Evans are both long, strong guards with 200-pound frames and the side-to-side speed to give top-level offensive guards some trouble finding their stroke. They turn around and contribute well on the offensive end—Evans leads the team on offense at 13.7 points per game while Caupain handles the set-up, dishing out 4.5 assists per night.
The offense works through the paint, too, as the Cincinnati interior is flourishing thanks to a pair of killer juniors in Kyle Washington and Gary Clark. Both are scoring at least 10 points and snagging seven boards per game. Clark in particular has impressed as of late, his high point coming in a 25-point outing in the AAC semis against UConn.
The Bearcats aren’t a high-flying dunk show, nor will they drown you with three-pointers. They won’t venture to the 70s if they don’t have to, but they’re a long, bothersome, and sound defensive squad with at least four players capable of going for 25-plus on a hot night.
Do you like three-pointers and offenses that look at UCLA and Duke and say, “Hell yeah, we’ll run with them”? Then UNC-Wilmington is your team.
A year ago, the Seahawks came within eight points of being everybody’s new favorite mid-major, pushing Duke to its limits in the opening round before succumbing 93-85. Now, UNC-W is back, high-scoring offense and all, ready to make some big boys sweat. In Colonial Athletic Association play, UNC-W suffered three losses: two one-point losses to Charleston and Elon and a 21-point blowout loss to William & Mary. Otherwise, the Seahawks cruised to a 15-3 conference slate, finishing the regular season 26-5 and tacking on three more wins on their way to claiming the CAA tournament crown and automatic bid.
The Seahawks are led by a trio of homegrown guards in leading scorer C.J. Bryce and the senior duo of Chris Flemmings and Denzel Ingram. The veteran pair serves up 30.3 points per night while Bryce, a Charlotte native, adds 17.3 points of his own. Combined with guard Ambrose Mosely, the best three-point shooter on the team, the Seahawks have a quartet that hits 8.4 of their 22.1 treys per game, which was more than enough to snatch the CAA title. While the fast-paced, three-point action is enough to lure in most fans, be sure to look out for forward Devontae Cacok, who only takes 6.6 shots per game but hits 79.9 percent of them—they’re mostly put-backs from missed treys, but he mixes in a soft-handed interior game. He covers the court well and at 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds, he’s as big of a player as Wilmington will trot out.
The Seahawks don’t roll that deep, but as shown last year, Kevin Keatts has his starting five in shape to run with the best. Seeing as they drew Virginia—the Cavs held UNC to 43 points in the regular season finale—the fast-paced Seahawks attack may be grounded before it has a chance to really take off, but fingers crossed that UNC-W can somehow get the game into the 50s and make things interesting
Richard Pitino’s Golden Gophers pulled off one of the best turnaround stories in college basketball, improving from 8-23 to 24-9 in a year’s time and nabbing the five-seed in the South region. They hung back in the Big Ten, flexing their muscles on occasion, but sticking with the conference standard of having at least one the-season-is-over, it’s-all-a-lie losing streak.
Guards Nate Mason and Amir Coffey lead the Minnesota attack, combining for 27 points a night, but this team’s money-maker is its defense. Center Reggie Lynch, a 6-foot-1o junior, protects the rim as well as any big man. His 3.5 blocked shots per game and 111 overall blocks in 2017 rank second in the nation only to Nicholls State’s Liam Thomas. He’s a large part of what’s helped Minnesota hold opposing teams to 39.8 percent shooting from the floor. As he displayed against Michigan State, the Illinois State transfer can score a little bit, too, coming through with 16 points and five blocks in the five-point win.
The perimeter defense is also strong, locking down long-range shooters to a 10th-ranked clip of 30.5 percent. Aside from Mason, the entire Minnesota lineup stands over 6-foot-4, giving them the length to bother shooters and slashers alike.
The Gophers bowed out of their conference tournament with a loss to a Michigan team apparently sent from God to to win the Big Ten, but with an opening round game against Middle Tennessee State and potential second-round clash with Butler or Winthrop, I like Minnesota’s chances to keep the magic going.
This is a damn good year for Coach K acolytes. Chris Collins helped Northwestern make history, Mike Brey has Notre Dame humming as usual, Johnny Dawkins revived a dead UCF program and got them over the 20-win mark in his first year, and now Steve Wojciechowski (revealing my evil roots, I spelled that on the first try) has his Golden Eagles dancing for the first time in four years.
The Golden Eagles are similar to UNC-W in that they want to run with you, but this team just also happens to be a model of efficiency. Marquette scored 82.5 points per game by way of shooting the fucking lights out—this team hits 43.0 percent of its threes, the best mark in the nation. A telling stat via SportsReference: They rank 15th in overall field goal percentage, 75th in field goals made, but 219th in field goal attempts.
They achieved this thanks to solid play from veteran players like Katin Reinhardt, JaJuan Johnson, and Andrew Rowsey. That trio combines with a pair of freshman in Sam Hauser and Markus Howard to shoot teams out of the arena—all of them hit at least one three per game. Center Luke Fischer, who cleans up on the boards and is good for a block or two a game. Howard, all 5-foot-11 of him, is the star-to-be of the group.
The freshman from Chandler, Az., scored at least 15 in five of his last six games, including a season-high 34-point explosion in win against fellow tourney team Xavier. He slayed the Musketeers the same way the Golden Eagles took down Crieghton—by draining a ton of threes. Howard shoots 54.9 percent from behind the three-point line, tops by nearly 10 percent on a team with five players that take at least 2.5 treys per game.
Marquette was on-and-off in Big East play this year, never winning or losing more than two in a row—that’s a blaring alarm considering this is a tournament where winning consecutive games kind of matters. The Golden Eagles have losses to Georgetown and St. John’s, and were blown out by Michigan. I know, I know, but stay with me here, because Marquette’s upside is nuts—Wojo’s team scored wins against No. 1 seed Villanova, Creighton twice, and Xavier twice. Those are legitimate tournament victories
The field is a fickle beast; all of these teams could lose on Day 1, because some of them are supposed to, and it wouldn’t strike anyone as abnormal. But for God’s sake, if you’re going to pick a team to cheer for, make it one of these squads. Picking them to last until the second weekend might ruin your bracket—show us your bracket here!—but it’s worth it on the off chance that they make a Final Four run and earn you some bragging rights for being lucky.