There tends to be at least one “Cinderella” in every NCAA tournament, be it a team from a smaller conference that springs an upset that wrecks some brackets or a middling squad that gets hot at the right time and makes a deep run.
While this year’s bracket certainly has some powerhouse programs at the top, beginning with top overall seed Virginia, there are also teams capable of causing some chaos this week (and beyond).
Here are some teams you need to keep in mind as possible Cinderellas as you go through the time-honored tradition of filling out your bracket.
FOUR TEAMS THAT CAN WREAK HAVOC EARLY
LOYOLA-CHICAGO (11-seed, South): It’s been a while since Loyola-Chicago has reached the NCAA tournament, with this being the program’s first appearance since 1985. But this isn’t a team that’s going to show up for its game against Miami with a “we’re just happy to be here” attitude. Porter Moser’s team has won 28 games and the Missouri Valley regular season and tournament titles, and they’ve been flat-out stingy defensively. The Ramblers have limited opponents to 41.2 percent shooting from the field and 32.9 percent from three, and they’ve also forced a turnover on 20 percent of their opponents’ possessions.
Senior guard Ben Richardson, the Valley’s Defensive Player of the Year, sets the tone on that end of the floor but the entire team is committed defensively. Offensively, league Player of the Year Clayton Custer has led the way for a balanced attack that has five players averaging double figures. According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, Loyola’s ranked in the top 20 nationally in both two-point and three-point percentage and eighth in effective field goal percentage. The Hurricanes should be on notice for this dangerous matchup.
DAVIDSON (12-seed, South): There’s no denying the fact that Kentucky is playing its best basketball of the season, with the Wildcats having won the SEC tournament title. There’s also no denying the fact that, while young, John Calipari’s got a team that doesn’t lack for talent. That being said, their matchup with the Atlantic 10 tournament champions is one that Kentucky cannot afford to take lightly because of the presence of senior forward Peyton Aldridge and freshman guard Kellen Grady.
Aldridge, Atlantic 10 Co-Player of the Year, is averaging 21.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, with the offensive production coming by way of his shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three-point range. Grady, the A-10’s top rookie, is averaging 18.0 points per game and is shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from three. As a team Davidson’s shooting 39.1 percent from three, and they’re one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. If Kentucky doesn’t remain disciplined defensively, this game could be a handful.
NEW MEXICO STATE (12-seed, Midwest): In the program’s first season under head coach Chris Jans, all the Aggies did was win 28 games and the WAC regular season and tournament titles. New Mexico State’s two best non-conference wins came at the Diamond Head Classic in December, as they beat NCAA tournament participants Davidson and Miami before falling to USC in the championship game. And this is a group that has prior NCAA tournament experience, from Jans’ time on Gregg Marshall’s staff at Wichita State to the returnees who reached the Big Dance last season.
Jemerrio Jones was one of the nation’s best rebounders last season and he’s been even better in 2017-18, averaging 13.2 rebounds per game along with 11.0 points per contest. Zach Lofton, a former SWAC Player of the Year at Texas Southern who also has prior NCAA tournament experience, leads the way offensively with 19.5 points per night, and A.J. Harris, Eli Chuha and Sidy N’Dir shouldn’t be overlooked either. A concern for the Aggies is the foul shooting, as they’ve made just 64.3 percent of their attempts, but they’ve got enough to make things tough on Clemson.
MARSHALL (13-seed, East): For much of this season, the conversation regarding Wichita State has centered on the team’s defense. In short, this particular group isn’t as good on that end of the floor as they’ve been in the past. A big issue for the Shockers has been defending the three, with opponents shooting 36.3 percent from beyond the arc (247th nationally).
Under head coach Dan D’Antoni, Marshall can spread opposing defenses out and in guards Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks the Thundering Herd has a tandem that’s averaging a combined 43.3 points per game. Marshall shoots 35.6 percent from three, but while that number isn’t all that impressive 45.6 percent of their field goal attempts have been threes. And that could prove problematic for Wichita State given its struggles defending that shot.
SLEEPERS THAT CAN MAKE A RUN TO SAN ANTONIO
GONZAGA (4-seed, West): While the other west coast juggernaut in the field, Arizona, was placed in a region that looks absolutely loaded the Bulldogs’ path to San Antonio may be a bit more manageable. UNC Greensboro followed by either Ohio State or South Dakota State, and Mark Few’s team is in a region that’s led by top seed Xavier and 2-seed North Carolina. Not to say that either of those teams is weak, but Gonzaga has the pieces needed to reach a Final Four for the second consecutive season.
Killian Tillie was outstanding at the WCC tournament, and the front court has other talented options in Johnathan Williams III and Rui Hachimura. Josh Perkins has done a good job of running the show, and players such as redshirt freshman Zach Norvell and Silas Melson have been notable contributors as well. Per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers there are only three teams in the country ranked in the top 20 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency: Duke, Michigan State and Gonzaga.
FLORIDA (6-seed, East): This feels like a pick that could either work out well or go up in flames from the start, as either St. Bonaventure or UCLA has the potential to be a tough matchup for the Gators given some of the personnel on both of those teams. That being said, Florida has shown at various points in the season that it is capable of beating just about anyone. Chris Chiozza is a more than capable leader at the point, and in total Mike White’s team has four double-digit scorers in Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov and KeVaughn Allen.
The issues Florida will need to address if its to play deep into the tournament: defending the three and closing out possessions with a rebound, and making sure Allen is engaged and in “attack mode.” Allen’s had a tendency to play passive at times, and Florida cannot afford for that to be the case this week and beyond. If he’s on and attacking defenses, that benefits everyone in the rotation.