It never fails.
Every March some plucky underdog seemingly comes out of nowhere to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament, wrecking brackets across the country in the process. The key word in that sentence is “seemingly,” because each year there are teams that show signs throughout the season that they’re capable of winning once in the NCAA tournament.
Below are ten programs capable of pulling off an upset in the NCAA tournament as we approach the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
1. UAB: Jerod Haase’s Blazers pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2015 NCAA tournament, as they sent home three-seed and trendy Final Four pick Iowa State in the round of 64. All five starters from that team have returned, including two players in forward William Lee and guard Nick Norton who ranked among the top freshmen in Conference USA a season ago and conference tournament MVP Robert Brown. Reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Chris Cokley anchors a deep and experienced bench. And with Brown being the Blazers’ lone senior, they could be at the top of this list in 2016-17 as well.
2. Valparaiso: The Crusaders narrowly missed out on an upset back in March, falling by just three points to four-seed Maryland. Vashil Fernandez receiving his fourth season of eligibility means that head coach Bryce Drew can call upon one of the top front court tandems around, pairing Fernandez with junior Alec Peters. Peters was a first team all-Horizon League selection last season, with Fernandez being the Defensive Player of the Year. In total ten of the eleven players who scored a point for Valparaiso last season are back, with guards Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker and wing E. Victor Nickerson among those contributors.
3. Stephen F. Austin: Brad Underwood’s first two seasons at SFA have produced consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and the Lumberjacks have enough experience and talent to push that streak to three. Five seniors led by reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup have seen a lot in their college careers, including a wild win over VCU in the 2014 NCAA tournament. A group that was good on both ends of the floor (they ranked fifth in defensive turnover percentage, too) and won 29 of their final 30 games a season ago should pick up right where they left off in March.
4. Belmont: Like the three teams ahead of them on this list Rick Byrd’s Bruins reached the NCAA tournament a season ago, where they ran into a tough matchup in Virginia’s pack line defense. However it should be noted that Belmont scored 67 points in that loss, a mark met or surpassed by Virginia opponents just four times in 2014-15. Four starters from that team are back in Nashville, led by the OVC’s best player in senior guard Craig Bradshaw and the nation’s field goal percentage champion Evan Bradds (68.8 percent). The Bruins are highly efficient offensively, and that could make life difficult for an opponent unfamiliar with their style/personnel.
5. Old Dominion: Jeff Jones’ Monarchs fell short of their goal of an NCAA tournament bid a season ago, but they didn’t sulk once in the Postseason NIT. Trey Freeman and company reached the semifinals of that event, and the postseason experience should serve this group well. Freeman’s one of the best players in Conference USA, and in total ODU welcomes back three starters and four of their top six scorers. East Carolina transfer Brandan Stith pairs up with leading rebounder Denzell Taylor to help ODU account for the loss of Jonathan Arledge and Richard Ross from their front court, and this is a group that can be dangerous in a one-and-done scenario.
6. UC Irvine: The prohibitive favorites in the Big West, Russell Turner’s Anteaters had eventual Elite Eight participant Louisville on the ropes back in March. UC Irvine fell by just two points on that day, and many of the key contributors from that team have returned for another run at the NCAA tournament. That includes experienced guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson, wing Dominque Dunning and a front court with some serious size led by 7-foot-6 junior Mamadou Ndiaye. While UC Irvine isn’t an explosive offensive team, their defense is what makes them such a tough matchup for team not used to their style and personnel.
7. Iona: There’s no denying the fact that Tim Cluess’ Gaels are going to score points. Last season Iona averaged 79.5 points per game, and from an adjusted tempo standpoint only 11 teams played faster. Iona does have to account for the loss of MAAC Player of the Year David Laury, but four of the team’s top five scorers from a season ago are back led by high-scoring guards A.J. English and Shadrac Casimir. The key for Iona, especially in the MAAC tournament where they’ve fallen to rival Manhattan in each of the last two title games, will be their commitment on the defensive end. As we saw with Eastern Washington in March, being able to score doesn’t mean much if you can’t get stops.
8. Evansville: The Purple Aces have one of the better inside/out combinations around in high-scoring guard D.J. Balentine and forward/center Egidijus Mockevicius, who combined to average 32.6 points per game in 2014-15. That tandem helped lead Marty Simmons’ team to the CIT championship, and with all five starters back expectations are high for the Purple Aces. They’re in position to challenge preseason Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State, and given their talent and experience should Evansville reach the NCAA tournament they can cause trouble.
9. Central Michigan: Keno Davis’ Chippewas won 23 games and a MAC West Division title last season with an offense that shot the ball well and took good care of it too. All five starters, led by guard Chris Fowler and forward John Simons, are back on campus which should allow them to hit the ground running in 2015-16. The key for this group will be to get better on the defensive end of the floor (MAC foes shot nearly 54 percent from two), as they ranked 11th in field goal percentage defense, seventh in three-point percentage defense and ninth in effective field goal percentage defense (conference games only).
10. Louisiana: The biggest reason for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ inclusion on this list is the fact that they’ve got a likely pro in Shawn Long in their front court. The 6-foot-11 senior is the preseason pick for Sun Belt Player of the Year, coming off of a junior campaign in which he averaged 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. All five starters are back for head coach Bob Marlin, and while the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t reach the NCAA tournament they did play in the CIT (losing to Evansville in the quarters) so there is some postseason experience to call upon.
Five others to keep in mind: Hofstra, Columbia, North Florida, Stony Brook, Pepperdine