As the first round of the NCAA Tournament gets underway, everyone tries to pick the big upset or two, in an attempt to say “I called it!” if it actually happens.
But in this year’s bracket, there are multiple teams with double-digit seeds who have a realistic chance at winning not just one, but two games, and advancing to the Sweet 16.
These Cinderellas haven’t just been invited to The Big Dance; they may still be on the dance floor when the tournament enters its second weekend.
While I did not pick all of these teams in my bracket (in fact, I only picked one to advance to the Sweet 16), they are the teams that have the best opportunity to make a run through the first two rounds, based on both matchups and their own abilities.
Honorable Mention: Marquette (19-12, #10 seed, East)
Marquette’s draw is tough, against South Carolina in the Palmetto State, then potentially against Duke, but consider this: South Carolina has lost five of seven and hasn’t won a tournament game since 1973, while Golden Eagles coach Steve Wojciechowski was an assistant under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, and teams led by Coach K proteges tend to play well against Duke.
5. Florida Gulf Coast (26-7, #14 seed, West)
I know they’re a 14-seed, but this wouldn’t be fun without one really low seed on the list.
In 2013, FGCU captured the nation’s hearts with an improbable run to the Sweet 16, upsetting 2-seed Georgetown and 7-seed San Diego State, advancing further than any 15-seed in tournament history. Here’s the thing: this team is actually better.
The 2013 Eagles actually didn’t win the Atlantic Sun regular season title, but won the league tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. This year, FGCU did win the regular season title with a 12-2 league record, and the team is 19-2 since Dec. 17, including seven straight wins. The 2013 team, nicknamed “Dunk City,” had 148 dunks, but this year’s edition has 157, while this year’s team also has two more wins entering the tournament than the 2013 Eagles did.
They have their work cut out for them against Florida State, the 3-seed in the West Region, but while the Seminoles have had a great year with some really big wins, they also have been slightly inconsistent. The ‘Noles are an impressive 7-3 against the Top 25, but have four losses against teams that missed the NCAA Tournament. The game is in Orlando, so both teams will have a large fan turnout.
Looking ahead to a potential second round matchup, the Florida State-FGCU victor will face either 6-seed Maryland or 11-seed Xavier, and either will be beatable. Maryland enters the tournament having lost four of their last six, while Xavier lost six straight from Feb. 11 to Mar. 1 after point guard Edmond Sumner was lost for the season with an injury.
4. Vermont (29-5, #13 seed, Midwest)
The hottest team no one is talking about entering the tournament is Vermont, who has the nation’s longest winning streak at 21 games.
The champions of the America East Conference, the Catamounts have not lost a game since Dec. 21, and three of their five losses on the season came to fellow tournament teams.
Purdue is the regular season champion of the Big Ten, although this has been a “down year” for the historically strong conference, and the Boilermakers were one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament. Purdue also has a knack for inability to finish games in the tournament; the last two years they have blown big leads late to lose in overtime in the first round.
For a team to stop Purdue (34th in nation with 80.1 PPG), they need a good defense, and Vermont has it (61.6 PPG allowed is 11th nationally). One would imagine Vermont will have to overcome adversity to beat a team like Purdue, but that will be no problem for coach John Becker–before Vermont, he coached at Galludet, the nation’s leading university for the deaf.
5-seed Iowa State, the Big 12 Tournament champions, are a possible matchup for Vermont in the second round, although a potential defeat of the Cyclones by 12-seed Nevada is a trendy first round upset pick; such an upset would set up a second round matchup of two double-digit seeds should Vermont beat Purdue.
3. UNC Wilmington (29-5, #12 seed, East)
The regular season and tournament champions of the Colonial Athletic Association enter the NCAA Tournament having won 18 of their last 21. Last year as a 13-seed, the Seahawks played 4-seed Duke close, losing 93-85 after leading at halftime, and this year they will play 5-seed Virginia in the first round.
When people think Virginia, they think defense, and rightfully so: the Cavaliers allow a national-best 55.6 PPG. However, the Seahawks have the offense to match, ranking 10th nationally at 85.2 PPG. Devontae Cacok is shooting 79.9 percent from the field, a mark that is over five points better than the existing NCAA single-season record.
Virginia has, at least theoretically, underachieved in the last three tournaments as a 1- or 2-seed, and they have also lost their last three tournament games when they were a 5-seed or lower. The Virginia-UNCW game will tip at 12:40 pm ET this afternoon, and early afternoon games have a knack for producing upsets.
The winner of Virginia-UNCW will face the winner of Florida-East Tennessee State in the second round. While 4-seed Florida would be a tough matchup for the Seahawks (as they would be for anyone else in the field), it is within the realm of possibility that East Tennessee State could upset the Gators, as the Buccaneers are dangerous with four senior starters. Either way, UNC Wilmington has the tools to potentially compete with either team and threaten to make the Sweet 16.
2. Middle Tennessee State (30-4, #12 seed, South)
Last year, Middle Tennessee State pulled off arguably the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history, shocking 2-seed Michigan State 90-81. Even after three players from that team graduated, this year’s Blue Raiders are even better, winning the C-USA regular season title (last year’s team did not), then backing it up with the league tournament title.
The Blue Raiders have won 20 of their last 21, led by four seniors and three players averaging at least 14.5 PPG (JaCorey Williams, Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw). The Blue Raiders rank 11th nationally in field goal percentage; their first round opponent of Minnesota ranks 213th.
Minnesota is 24-9, but has lost two of their last three, and a five-game losing streak in January is a dark spot on their resume. The Golden Gophers are coached by Richard Pitino, the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino (the pair are becoming the first father-son duo to coach in the same NCAA Tournament, although they cannot meet until the Final Four).
Minnesota is over-seeded, at least in my opinion, while Middle Tennessee State is under-seeded; as a result, even though this is a 5-vs-12 game as seedings go, ESPN’s BPI gives Middle Tennessee State a 46 percent chance to win. That’s the fourth highest percentage for any double-digit seed, and by far the highest for any team seeded 12 or worse.
As far as a potential second round matchup, the Minnesota-MTSU winner will face the winner of Butler and Winthrop. Butler is a heavy favorite, and is responsible for two of Villanova’s three losses, but have shown they are beatable with a trio of “bad losses.” Winthrop is a heavy underdog, but may have the best player on the floor on Thursday in Keon Johnson, a 5-foot-7 guard who scores 22.5 PPG.
1. Rhode Island (24-9, #11 seed, Midwest)
Rhode Island enters their first NCAA appearance in 18 years with wins in eight straight games and 12 of their last 14, having played their way onto the tournament bubble, then off of it by winning the Atlantic-10 Tournament (and automatic NCAA bid). The Rams are looking to repeat the success of the last time they were an 11-seed: in 1988, they went to the Sweet 16.
The Rams’ first round opponent is Creighton. The Blue Jays started the season hot, but are just 8-7 since losing guard Maurice Watson Jr. for the year, with half of those wins coming against the bottom three teams in the Big East.
An intriguing individual matchup to watch is on the inside, between Creighton’s Justin Patton and Rhode Island’s Hassan Martin. Patton has a decided height advantage (7-foot to 6-foot-7), but Martin plays bigger than his height and has led the A-10 in blocked shots four straight seasons.
Creighton is a 61 percent favorite in ESPN’s BPI, and just a 2-point betting favorite, despite the 6-vs-11 seeding of the matchup.
In the second round, the Rams could potentially meet Oregon or Iona. Oregon is without post-man Chris Boucher, who blew his knee in the Pac-12 Tournament and dealt a big blow to Oregon’s chances at a deep run. The Ducks won the first NCAA Tournament in 1939, but haven’t been back to the Final Four since.
14-seed Iona is capable of upsetting Oregon if leading scorer Jordan Washington (17.9 PPG) can stay on the floor; he averages just 21.7 minutes per game. Whether Oregon or Iona wins, the potential second-round matchup would play to Rhode Island’s favor.
#1 Villanova vs. #16 Mount St. Mary’s (Thursday, Buffalo)
#8 Wisconsin vs. #9 Virginia Tech (Thursday, Buffalo)
#4 Florida vs. #13 East Tennessee State (Thursday, Orlando)
#5 Virginia vs. #12 UNC Wilmington (Thursday, Orlando)
#3 Baylor vs. #14 New Mexico State (Friday, Tulsa)
#6 SMU vs. #11 USC (Friday, Tulsa)
#2 Duke vs. #15 Troy (Friday, Greenville)
#7 South Carolina vs. #10 Marquette (Friday, Greenville)
#1 Gonzaga vs. #16 South Dakota State (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#8 Northwestern vs. #9 Vanderbilt (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#4 West Virginia vs. #13 Bucknell (Thursday, Buffalo)
#5 Notre Dame vs. #12 Princeton (Thursday, Buffalo)
#3 Florida State vs. #14 Florida Gulf Coast (Thursday, Orlando)
#6 Maryland vs. #11 Xavier (Thursday, Orlando)
#2 Arizona vs. #15 North Dakota (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#7 Saint Mary’s vs. #10 VCU (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#1 Kansas vs. #16 UC Davis (Friday, Tulsa)
#8 Miami (Fla.) vs. #9 Michigan State (Friday, Tulsa)
#4 Purdue vs. #13 Vermont (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#5 Iowa State vs. #12 Nevada (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#3 Oregon vs. #14 Iona (Friday, Sacramento)
#6 Creighton vs. #11 Rhode Island (Friday, Sacremento)
#2 Louisville vs. #15 Jacksonville State (Friday, Indianapolis)
#7 Michigan vs. #10 Oklahoma State (Friday, Indianapolis)
#1 North Carolina vs. #16 Texas Southern (Friday, Greenville)
#8 Arkansas vs. #9 Seton Hall (Friday, Greenville)
#4 Butler vs. #13 Winthrop (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#5 Minnesota vs. #12 Middle Tennessee (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#3 UCLA vs. #14 Kent State (Friday, Sacremento)
#6 Cincinnati vs. #11 Kansas State (Friday, Sacremento)
#2 Kentucky vs. #15 Northern Kentucky (Friday, Indianapolis)
#7 Dayton vs. #10 Wichita State (Friday, Indianapolis)