Nothing is more American than filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket this time of the year. Maybe perhaps more American are the countless people filling them out and picking teams left and right, acting like they know what they hell they are doing after admittedly watching little-to-no basketball during the season (you know who you are).
Regardless of your level of fandom for the sport, one constant remains when filling out a bracket: which under-seeded teams will upset the opposition and subsequently bust said bracket? We see it every year. Sometimes it is a trendy mid-major, sometimes it’s the higher-seed just getting flat ambushed by the “little guy” catching lightning in a bottle, or a combination of both.
These are the true bracket-busters. The key is finding the handful or so that will pull off the upset. With regards to this year’s big dance, here are five teams to keep an eye out for.
SAN DIEGO STATE
It’s good to see San Diego State back dancing. After a two-year hiatus, the Aztecs have returned to the field of 68 on the heels of a conference tournament title.
This most definitely is not uncharted waters for SDSU, they made the tournament six straight years from 2010-15, ranging from as high as a 2-seed to as low as an 11-seed, which is what they were given this season. They posted a 6-5 tournament record during that span as well. It’s safe to say that these Aztecs are not your ordinary 11-seed. And they come into the dance one of the hotter teams in the country, winners of nine straight that included a pair of wins over Mountain West regular-season champion Nevada.
SDSU already popped a bubble or two on Selection Sunday, now they look to bust some brackets here and there. The Aztecs will open up tournament play against the 6-seed Cougars of Houston, who are making their first showing in the bracket since 2010 and second in 26 years. Should they get by Houston, they’d have a date with either (3) Michigan or (14) Montana. A third Sweet 16 appearance in eight years is a very logical possibility for the San Diego State.
NEW MEXICO STATE
Like the Aztecs, New Mexico State is no stranger to the tournament. The Aggies are representing the WAC for the second straight year and eighth time in the last 12 years.
Carrying a top-10 scoring defense and three-point field goal percentage defense nationally, the Aggies ranked at or near the top in every major defensive category in their league this season. And with regards to their schedule, they’ve done what mid-majors have been encouraged to do: challenge themselves with top-tier programs. Two of the Aggies’ 28 wins are over a pair of teams in the field in (6) Miami-FL and (12) Davidson. They also have a win over Illinois this year, and gave teams like Southern Cal and Saint Mary’s real fits in losing efforts.
NMSU drew Clemson this year, who was picked preseason to finish 13th in the ACC but finished in a four-way tie for 3rd this year. Despite the Tigers being much improved, they are just 4-8 against the rest of the ACC that is dancing. And for whatever it is worth, of the eight teams playing out in San Diego for the first weekend of the tournament, New Mexico State has by far the shortest travel.
|NEW MEXICO STATE||681.3 mi|
|WICHITA STATE||1,363 mi|
|MURRAY STATE||1,915.4 mi|
|WEST VIRGINIA||2,430.8 mi|
|COLL. OF CHARLESTON||2,438.5 mi|
Welcome back, Ramblers! The Chicago-based Loyola University has returned to the tournament for the first time since 1985 and the sixth time ever in the program. Loyola is one of the charter “Cinderella” members when they hoisted the trophy in 1963 without substituting any players in the title game.
Back to the present. This year’s Ramblers secured their first Missouri Valley Conference title since joining the league back in 2013; the league is more wide open now since perennial power Wichita State left for the AAC.
You know how there’s “3 and D” type of players? Well Loyola is a “3 and D” squad. Besides being one of the absolute stingiest teams defensively (5th nationally in PPG allowed at 62.2), the Ramblers also love to tee it up from deep and are efficient at doing so, a couple ticks under 40 percent as a club is good for top-20 in the country.
Miami-FL should be careful, especially if the Ramblers get on a hot streak early from outside. Both of these teams have a defensive-first mindset, which could play into Loyola’s favor if the game is close from start to finish. Also, history is siding with the Ramblers in this one.
11-seed Loyola just a 2.5-point to 6-seed Miami. Missouri Valley teams are 8-0 in the Round of 64 over the last 5 years with 4 of the 8 wins coming as a lower seed.
— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) March 12, 2018
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN
History lesson, kids. Stephen F. Austin is considered the “Father of Texas” for his early-1800’s entrepreneur work in colonizing the region. The university named after him has turned into a steady mid-major program on the hardwood.
The 14-seed Lumberjacks (fitting, right?) are carrying the Southland flag for the fourth time in five years; fifth time ever. And in this current five-year window, they have collected a pair of first-round tournament wins, including two years ago as a 14-seed when they bounced West Virginia on day one; they narrowly upset Notre Dame that year as well, losing 76-75.
Not much is different with this SFA club compared to their recent bracket-busting teams, as in they still score at an efficient rate (81.1 PPG – 35th in NCAA) and create multiple opportunities for their offense by pressuring their opposition at a crazy clip (nearly 20 turnovers forced per game – 1st in NCAA). It’s a recipe that has worked for them.
This could end up being one of the more entertaining first-round games when Stephen F. Austin plays 3-seed Texas Tech in Dallas. The Red Raiders have had their best basketball season since probably the Bob Knight era nearly two decades ago. Tech was the best defensive team in a high-powered Big 12 Conference this year, so something has to give in this game. Don’t be afraid to take the ‘Jacks though.
Since 2012 Big 12 has had 15 Top 3 seeds, 4 have lost in the 1st round. Rest of country has 5 in that span. Texas Tech in danger vs SFA?
— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) March 13, 2018
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
It’s five trips to the tournament in the last seven seasons for South Dakota State, which accounts for all of their trips in program history. The Jackrabbits (leader in the clubhouse for best nickname?) are 0 for their first four visits, but seem extra prepared to bust a bracket or two.
Two words: Mike Daum. He’s probably the best player in the country that nobody knows about. It’s not every day that a true mid-major is carrying around an NBA prospect on their team, but that’s the case with SDSU. The Daum-inator had the highest-scoring per game average from last year (25.1 PPG) to return to school this season (23.8 PPG). And as if averaging a double-double wasn’t impressive enough, the 6-9 and 245-pound Daum is shooting over 42 percent from three-point land, indicative of the Jackrabbits’ 40+ percent shooting from deep as a team.
Simply put, he’s an absolute matchup nightmare, inside and out.
In addition to South Dakota State’s prolific shooting ability, they crash the boards (top 15 nationally in total rebounds) to limit second chances for the opponent and take care of the basketball (top 20 nationally in fewest turnovers committed). And as if Ohio State was not going to have enough problems slowing down Daum, SDSU has another pair of double-digit scorers in David Jenkins Jr. and Reed Tellinghuisen, both of whom are shooting a shade under 40 percent from deep.