Despite what ESPN and the like would have you think, there are no Cinderellas left in this year’s NCAA tournament—the real Cinderellas were offed by programs designed to chew up teams with limited talent and depth.
There are still underdogs to root for, of course, but they’re names any college athletics fan should be familiar with at this point. Michigan, Butler, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Xavier—all fine stories for teams few expected to see on the second weekend a month ago. Considering all of these programs, except South Carolina, have been to at least one Sweet 16 in the past six tournaments, they don’t exactly inspire or entertain fans the same way Middle Tennessee or Saint Mary’s or Rhode Island would have. But this is the NCAA tournament, and you have to root for somebody, so it might as well be these teams.
As much as it pains me to admit it, even considering the other two teams on this list had tougher roads, Michigan might still have the best case for underdog of the tourney. (Before I get into their team dynamics, though, I will simply remind you that the Wolverines played for the national title four years ago and that prior to their airplane mishap, they were just a middling Big Ten team. But I guess you can’t “Well yeah, but...” an near-airplane crash, so the Wolverines take the top spot.)
Michigan was like the rest of the Big Ten this season—just fine, and not much else. They broke double-digits in the loss column, but hung around the top of the league because everyone but Purdue had at least six conference losses. Nine of their 11 losses came against eventual tournament teams, Iowa and Illinois being the other two. After their brush with death, the Wolverines reeled off four straight to win the Big Ten tournament, claiming three of the four by double-digits and beating two fellow Sweet 16 teams along the way.
Michigan’s approach to basketball is basically them taking a shit-ton of threes and playing some pretty decent defense—they ran with Oklahoma State and drained 16 treys in a 92-91 opening-round thriller, and ground it out with Louisville in a 74-69 second-round upset. While they hit just six threes against the Cardinals, the Wolverines are a perimeter-heavy offense, ranking sixth in the nation in made treys, led by senior point guard Derrick Walton’s 2.6 per game.
Walton has been a bit of revelation for John Beilein’s team. After hovering just around 10 points per game the past two years, he improved his shot this season, bumping his three-point clip to 41.9 percent and raising his two-point clip to 45.2 percent, helping him to assume the role of the offensive spearhead. He goes for 15.4 points per night and works efficiently as a distributor, dishing out nearly five assists per night compared to 1.7 turnovers.
Down low, a pair of 6-foot-10 forwards in sophomore Moritz Wagner and junior D.J. Wilson constitute an effective, fluid frontcourt—Wilson snags the boards and is the chief rim-protector while Wagner uses his perimeter offensive game to stretch opposing defense.
Against Louisville, Wagner tormented Anas Mahmoud from every spot on the floor en route to dropping 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting—he’s still developing his off-the-dribble game and will add some muscle before the pros come calling, but Wagner already seems set to be among the game’s top forwards by the time next season comes to a close. When he plays like he did against the Cardinals, Michigan looks like an honest-to-God Final Four contender.
Next up on the underdog list is Xavier, a team plenty of people had pegged as the Big East’s dark horse before it lost its second-best player. Like Wisconsin, the Musketeers entered the tournament after a horrendous end to the season. They posted a 19-12 record in the regular season, due in large part to the loss of star point guard Edmond Sumner to a torn ACL at the end of January. The Musketeers fared well in the three games immediately following Sumner’s injury—they beat two tournament teams in Seton Hall and Creighton, and downed DePaul the next game—but the wheels fell off after that.
Xavier went on a six-game losing streak, nearly derailing its season and dashing its postseason hopes. Had the Musketeers not upset Butler in the second round of the Big East tournament and played Creighton within three points in the following round, Xavier would be prepping for its next NIT opponent right about now. But they did what they needed to earn a tourney berth—one that just as easily could have gone to one of this year’s few mid-majors smushing their face against the glass, like Monmouth—and proceeded to absolutely dominate their first two high-major opponents, Maryland and Florida State.
The 91-66 victory against the three-seed Seminoles was particularly impressive. Florida State finished the regular season second in the ACC, and while it was far from a model of defensive efficiency or effectiveness, the Musketeers became just the second team all year to drop 90 on the ageless Leonard Hamilton’s squad—North Carolina was the first. Xavier successfully shut down future lottery pick Jonathan Isaac, holding him to eight points on seven shots, and prevented two other Florida State starters from even registering field goals.
Only three 11-seeds have ever made the Final Four—Xavier could be the fourth, but it’s going to be a helluva uphill battle. First up, the Musketeers have Arizona, one of the best defensive units in the nation with a ton of offensive weapons, though it seems they can never agree on one day in which they all play well. If Xavier knocks off former coach Sean Miller’s squad, they’ll be served up with a matchup of either one-seed Gonzaga or the defensive monster that is West Virginia. Either way, the Musketeers will need their star player, guard Trevon Bluiett, to continue having an insane season if they want to see next weekend.
The junior is one of the purest scorers in college basketball—in his third year, the veteran understands floor spacing extremely well and has a beautiful stroke. Look at his work against the Seminoles. Bluiett can go 0-60, stop-and-start, or step-back, and the whole time he seems to know exactly where his teammates are for a last-second dish on the drive. He’s shooting 53.3 percent from long range in the tournament. You can expect the Wildcats’ loaded backcourt to test him on this—they hold opponents to 30.9 percent from deep—but you can also count on Bluiett to torch the shit out them anyways.
The Gamecocks should be No. 1 on just about everybody’s list for beating Duke, but since I personally believe that the Blue Devils are actually good and probably God’s favorite team (and since South Carolina fans still rock with the Southern Cross), they are bad. However, their play on the court and their 65-point second half that ultimately killed Coach K’s squad of misfit five-stars was more than enough proof that the Gamecocks are right where they should be.
Underwhelming losses suffered throughout the season—to Memphis, Clemson, and Ole Miss—paired with the fact that South Carolina plays in the SEC, kept South Carolina’s stock pretty low throughout the season. While writers like yours truly had their eyes planted firmly on conference play in the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, and a smattering of other top programs like Kansas and Gonzaga, the Gamecocks chugged along through the SEC, going 12-6, good enough to tie for third with Arkansas. A first-round loss in the conference tournament had many considering South Carolina as a first-round out in the NCAA tournament—poor Marquette.
The seven-seed Gamecocks, headed up by coach Frank Martin (if you recall, Martin is the psycho who patrolled the sidelines at Kansas State for five seasons) knocked off the Golden Eagles, exploding in the second half behind SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier. The pair combined for 50 points to send Wojo’s team packing. Somehow, the Gamecocks improved upon their 53-point half against Marquette in the following round, massacring the Blue Devils 88-81.
Thornwell is a motherfucking star with a future. Entering Friday’s matchup with Baylor, Thornwell has gone for at least 20 points in four of his last five games—he broke 20 just seven times in 2016; he’s accomplished the feat 17 times, including a 34-point game against Kentucky, this season. His emergence as the team’s main offensive weapon has turned him into an unstoppable force. At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, the senior shoots 40 percent from long range, can score in the paint against a triple-team, and will pick your pocket on defense with ease. I had Duke in the Final Four and then Thornwell came along. I’m not saying there aren’t other players on South Carolina’s team you should care about, but this is a tournament where one man can win a game for you—of the remaining players, Thornwell can go toe-to-toe with any of them.
Once these three lose tonight and tomorrow, you’ll have to pick from the rest of the field, so cherish the remaining underdogs before you have to pick between UNC and Arizona in the title game.