2019 NCAA Tournament: Six possible Cinderellas

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For those who are looking to win their NCAA tournament bracket pools, identifying the teams most capable of pulling off an upset can be the difference between a decent bracket and winning the the pool. The 2019 NCAA tournament field has some solid options to choose from, with the formula for those teams over the years generally being the same.

Good guard play is paramount, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a high-level talent capable of putting the team on his back for stretches of time. Here’s a look at six teams capable of not only winning their first game doing even more beyond that point.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

TEMPLE (11-seed, East)

In every year of the First Four, which was established ahead of the 2011 NCAA tournament, at least one at-large winner in Dayton has gone on to win a game in the main bracket. Of course Temple, Belmont, Arizona State and St. John’s will all be aware of this fact, but the better choice for a win in the main bracket may come from the Temple/Belmont matchup.

Why? Because the 6-seed in the East, Maryland, did not finish its regular season in good form and has a habit of both getting off to slow starts and turning the ball over. The pick here is Temple due to a rotation led by guards Shizz Alston Jr. (19.7 ppg, 5.0 apg), Quinton Rose (16.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Nate Pierre-Louis (13.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), and the motivation that comes from wanting to send retiring head coach Fran Dunphy out on a positive note should give the Owls a boost as well.

NEW MEXICO STATE (12-seed, Midwest)

The New Mexico State program is one that’s used to taking part in the NCAA tournament. This will be NMSU’s 25th appearance and seventh in the last eight seasons. Chris Jans has a team that has won 30 games this season, and they’ve gotten the job done by committee on the offensive end of the floor. Junior guard Terrell Brown (11.3 ppg) is the lone double-digit scorer, but the Aggies have six players averaging at least 7.5 points per game.

The Aggies don’t shoot particularly well from the perimeter, shooting 33.5% from three on the season, but they’ve made up for this by being one of the best offensive rebounding teams in college basketball (36.8% offensive rebound percentage). And New Mexico State’s opponent, Auburn, has a defensive rebounding percentage of just 69.8%. If Auburn struggles to keep the Aggies off the offensive glass things could get interesting Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City.

OREGON (12-seed, South)

Dana Altman’s Ducks had to win the Pac-12 tournament in order to reach the NCAA tournament, and they did so by winning four games in as many days. Oregon’s run to the tournament actually began with one of the team’s lowest points of the season, a 90-83 loss at UCLA February 23 in which the Ducks gave up a staggering 62 points in the second half.

From that point forward the Ducks have been downright stingy defensively, as they’ve allowed 61 points or more in just two of the eight games they’ve won since. There’s no shortage of talent on this roster even with Bol Bol suffering a season-ending foot injury during non-conference play, with junior guard Payton Pritchard running the show and forwards Louis King and Paul White also being double-digit scorers. And with Kenny Wooten and Francis Okoro inside, Oregon has the players needed to match up with a Wisconsin team led by senior forward Ethan Happ.

MURRAY STATE (12-seed, West)

High-level guard play is a must in March, and Murray State has a player in sophomore Ja Morant who’s projected to be a lottery pick this June should be forego his remaining eligibility. The sophomore is averaging 24.6 points, 10.0 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game, and he’s an explosive athlete who can score at all three levels.

However, for all the attention Morant receives head coach Matt McMahon isn’t leading a one-man outfit. Three other Racers average double figures, including senior guard Leroy “Shaq” Buchanan, and the team is ranked eighth nationally in field goal percentage. The issue for Murray State is that their first-round opponent, Marquette, has an elite guard of its own (Markus Howard) and the Golden Eagles are deep on the perimeter as well. This sets up to be one of the most entertaining first-round matches.

UC IRVINE (13-seed, South)

With Kansas State senior forward Dean Wade’s status for this game yet to be determined, as he missed the Big 12 tournament with a foot injury, this sets up to be a dangerous game for the Big 12 regular season co-champions. Russell Turner’s Anteaters enter the tournament with a 30-5 record, and they’ve hung their hat on the defensive end for quite some time now.

Opponents are shooting just 38.0% from the field overall, 40.4% from two and 33.2% from three (defensive eFG% of 43.7%). Offensively the Anteaters are led by junior guards Max Hazzard and Evan Leonard, and nine players are averaging between 5.7 (Elston Jones) and 12.5 (Hazzard) points per game. Collin Welp (23 points in the Big West title game) is an effective option off the bench for UC Irvine, which gave Louisville all it wanted back in 2015 before losing by two. This matchup could be just as tight.

OLD DOMINION (14-seed, South)

ODU won the Conference USA regular season and tournament titles, doing so by controlling tempo on offense and limiting their opponents’ quality scoring opportunities on the other end. Guards B.J. Stith, Ahmad Caver and Xavier Green average a combined 43.1 points per game for a team that scores just 66.1 points per on the season.

The Monarchs drew a team in Purdue that’s been considerably better offensively — against tougher competition — and the Boilermakers are comfortable playing a half-court game as well. This may be the longest shot of the six listed here but funny things can happen this time of year, especially in lower-possession games.