In each of the last five NCAA tournaments, there’s been at least one double-digit seeded mid-major that’s managed to advance.
The 2013 NCAA tournament boasted two such teams, 14-seed Harvard and a 15-seed in FGCU, that became national darlings over the course of the opening weekend.
Since then there have been repeat winners (Harvard won as a 12-seed in 2015, and Middle Tennessee advanced in both 2016 and 2017), and Loyola-Chicago reached the 2018 Final Four as an 11-seed.
What traits do these teams tend to have in common?
In many cases experience is key, be it from winning an NCAA tournament game the season prior or bringing back many experienced pieces (or both).
And for some teams, the presence of a star player has been the key.
Below is a look at ten teams that could pull off at least one upset in next spring’s NCAA tournament.
NOTE: For this post the following conferences (and teams) are not under consideration: ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12 and SEC, as well as BYU and Gonzaga.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
As noted above the Ramblers reached the program’s first Final Four since 1963 last season, knocking off Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State on the way to San Antonio. Porter Moser will have to account for the loss of two double-digit scorers (Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson) and the Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year (Ben Richardson) from that team, but reigning Valley Player of the Year Clayton Custer is back as are fellow starters Marques Townes and Cameron Krutwig.
Sophomore Lucas Williamson and junior Bruno Skokna will need to take a step forward after serving as supplementary options last season, but the Ramblers’ ability to defend and share the ball on the other end of the floor should serve them well. Will it be enough to cause some mayhem in the NCAA tournament for a second straight year? That’s the question, especially with their top challengers in the Valley having improved.
Nate Oats’ Bulls dominated Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament, shooting nearly 55 percent from the field and 50 percent from three in the 89-68 beating in Boise. Three starters from that team, guards CJ Massinburg, Jeremy Harris and Davonta Jordan, return as do valuable reserves Nick Perkins and Dontay Carruthers. Buffalo will have to account for the loss of Wes Clark, who was third on the team in scoring and first in assists, and forward Ikenna Smart, but there’s more than enough talent to get the job done. In addition to the returnees, Buffalo adds freshmen Ronaldo Segu and Jeenathan Williams to the mix. Not only does Buffalo have the tools needed to win an NCAA tournament game for the second consecutive season, but it could go beyond that in 2019.
Marshall’s style of play made the Thundering Herd an entertaining team to watch last season, and with the tandem of Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks back on campus for one last hurrah expect more of the same in 2018-19. Elmore and Burks combined to score an average of 42.8 points per game, with the former also responsible for 6.8 assists and 5.8 rebounds per contest. Dan D’Antoni did lose his best front court player from the team that knocked off Wichita State in Adjin Penava, who averaged 15.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game.
Penava’s departure that means players such as sophomore Jansson Williams and Darius George and juniors Mike Beyers Ante Sustic will need to step forward. That being said the backcourt rotation, which in addition to Elmore and Burks includes the likes of Rondale Watson and Jarrod West (both averaged 7.8 ppg last season), is talented enough to cause some chaos in the NCAA tournament yet again. That being said Marshall won’t lack for challengers within Conference USA, one being Western Kentucky.
South Dakota State
Three of South Dakota State’s top four scorers from last season’s NCAA tournament team are back, with the leader of that bunch being one of the nation’s best scorers in senior forward Mike Daum (23.9 ppg, 10.3 rpg). “The Dauminator,” who’s won the last two Summit League Player of the Year awards, is on pace to become the ninth 3,000-point scorer in Division I history, and his ability to score from anywhere on the court (46.2 percent FG, 42.5 percent 3PT, 85.1 percent FT) makes the 6-foot-9 forward an extremely difficult matchup for opponents.
Sophomore David Jenkins Jr., the Summit League’s top freshman last season, and senior guards Tevin King, Skyler Flatten and Brandon Key return as well. T.J. Otzelberger’s roster has both talent and experience, and with a player like Daum this could be the season in which the Jackrabbits break through and pick up the program’s first Division I NCAA tournament victory.
When a star has led a mid-major to an NCAA tournament upset, it’s usually be an upperclassman who’s done the honors with Georgia State sophomore R.J. Hunter (2015) being a notable exception. The Hilltoppers land here because of the presence of a freshman many scouting services pegged as a Top-10 recruit in 6-foot-11 center Charles Bassey. Bassey has the size, athleticism and skill needed to make an immediate impact at WKU, and he’ll need to with forwards Dwight Coleby and Justin Johnson having moved on.
That being said, Rick Stansbury has two really good guards in senior Lamonte Bearden and sophomore Taveion Hollingsworth, with the latter having scored 30 in the Hilltoppers’ Postseason NIT win at Oklahoma State. Add in the likes of sophomore guard Josh Anderson, transfers Desean Murray (Auburn) and Jared Savage (Austin Peay) and Top 100 prospect Dalano Banton, and Western Kentucky has enough in the cupboard to reach the NCAA tournament after missing out last season. And they have the potential to do some damage if they get into the field.
More than 99 percent of the scoring from last season’s Ivy League regular season co-champion team is back, and that includes three all-league selections in juniors Seth Towns, Chris Lewis and Justin Bassey. Towns and Lewis combined to average 28.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game last season, with Bassey being part of a perimeter rotation that includes fellow juniors Bryce Aiken and Christian Juzang. Tommy Amaker has a roster that isn’t short on depth, talent or experience, which is why they enter the 2018-19 season as the clear favorite to win the Ivy League. And if the Crimson can successfully navigate the Ancient Eight’s four-team postseason tournament, something they were unable to do last season, look out.
All five starters return from a team that won 20 games and finished second in the Missouri Valley last season, led by seniors Armon Fletcher (14.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Sean Lloyd Jr. (12.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Kaivon Pippen (12.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg). The experience stands to serve Southern Illinois well in what projects to be a tighter Valley race than a season ago, which Loyola won by four games.
Two things to keep an eye on regarding the Salukis: what senior center Thik Bol can give them off the bench after missing all of last season due to a knee injury, and how they perform in close games. Ten of SIU’s 18 regular season conference games were decided by six points or less, with the Salukis winning eight. Will that good fortune carry over? Or better yet, can Barry Hinson’s team do enough to cut down on the number of close games it has to play? Either way, this sets up to be a good season for Southern Illinois.
Cal State Fullerton
Dedrique Taylor’s Titans won 20 games and the Big West tournament last season, earning the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2008. And with four starters back from that team, Cal State Fullerton may be in line for a return trip. The perimeter tandem of seniors Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad is outstanding, with the former being a first team All-Big West selection as a junior after averaging 19.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. As for Ahmad, he earned second team all-conference honors and averaged 15.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
Add in junior forward Jackson Rowe (12.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg), and all three double-digit scorers from last season’s NCAA tournament team are back. The NCAA tournament experience for the Titans was a humbling one, as Purdue limited them to 48 points, but that should serve as motivation for this talented squad. Cal State Fullerton has the talent to become the first Big West team to win a Round of 64 NCAA tournament game since Hawaii did so in 2016.
All five starters are back for Rider, which won 22 games and the MAAC regular season title in 2017-18. But like Harvard, memories of how that season ended (a loss in the MAAC tournament quarters) could serve as fuel for the Broncs in 2018-19. Redshirt sophomore guard/forward Dimencio Vaughn, a first team all-MAAC performer, leads the way after averaging 16.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game with Jordan Allen, Frederick Scott, Stevie Jordan and Tyere Marshall all back as well.
Add in grad student Anthony Durham, and Kevin Baggett has his top six scorers from a season ago to work with as Rider looks for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994. Navigating the MAAC tournament has proven difficult for the Broncs since joining the league in 1997, but this could be the group that breaks the run of bad luck. And given the production and experience on this roster, Rider could be a team first round opponents hope to avoid come Selection Sunday.