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
Introducing Cinderella: Meet the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
Seeding: Given their RPI, the Lumberjacks are probably looking at a No. 12 or 13 seed.
Names you need to know: Thomas Walkup (15.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.6 apg), Jacob Parker (14.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
Stats you need to know: Stephen F. Austin does two things very, very well on the offensive end of the floor: They shoot 38.3 percent from beyond the arc as a team, and they grab 38.2 percent of the available offensive rebounds. That’s how you end up with the nation’s 23rd most efficient offense while turning the ball over more than 20 percent of the time.
Tendencies: The Lumberjacks are aggressive defensively, forcing the fifth-most turnovers in the country. They gamble a lot — and foul a lot, too — but their style of defense allows them to get a lot of easy looks in transition.
Big wins, bad losses: Buffalo has a terrific RPI, but they don’t actually have many great wins. South Dakota State and a sweep of Akron are their only top 100 wins.
How’d they get here?: Stephen F. Austin rolled their way through the Southland Conference once again. They went 17-1 in the regular season and steamrolled everyone — again — in the tournament. The Jacks have one loss since November ended.
Outlook: SFA is a difficult team to prepare for. They are aggressive defensively, pressuring in the half court and trying to force turnovers by risking picking up fouls. They also are a team that can really shoot it from deep with big men that can play out on the perimeter. It’s going to take a beneficial matchup for them to pull an upset — they don’t have the kind of size to matchup with, say, North Carolina or Oklahoma — but they are certainly good enough to land a win or two.
How do I know you?: VCU fans are going to be quite familiar with SFA. While their roster looks different than it did a season ago, the results haven’t been all that different from the team that knocked off the Rams in overtime in the opening round of last season’s NCAA tournament.
Kentucky entered the 2013-14 season with buzz about a potential perfect season on the horizon. However, it was Wichita State, the Final Four darling from the previous March, flirting with perfection in the NCAA tournament, taking a 35-0 record into the Round of 32. Kentucky’s shortcomings resulted in the Wildcats being slotted as a No. 8 seed, a dangerous third round matchup for the undefeated Shockers.
Wichita State led 69-64 with 4:30 left after a few 3-pointers from Cleanthony Early. James Young would led a run for the Wildcats who took a 70-69 lead with under three minutes to play. A two-possession lead, 75-71, was cut to a single point after Ron Baker banked in a three. Julius Randle hit a pair of free throws, and Fred VanVleet’s final 3-point attempt was off the mark.
Bo Ryan advanced to his first Final Four with a dramatic 64-63 win over top-ranked Arizona in the West Regional final. Arizona possessed the nation’s top defense, but Frank Kaminsky proved to be the ultimate mismatch with 28 points and 11 rebounds. Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon both guarded Kaminsky. Nick Johnson would front him. Nothing worked. Still, the Wildcats had a chance to win, although, a controversial charge call went against Johnson with 3.2 seconds remaining.
It needs to repeated because Harrison replicated a game-winner against Michigan in the Elite 8 in Kentucky’s Final Four matchup against Wisconsin. No seriously, look: identical shots. Harrison’s 3-pointer with two seconds left sent the Wildcats to the national championship game.
Kentucky was part of the toughest region in the bracket. The Wildcats needed to top Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan in order to reach Arlington. Thanks to Aaron Harrison’s long, contested 3-pointer, Kentucky topped the previous season’s national finalist, 75-72.
The long anticipated matchup between new conference rivals, Duke and Syracuse, did not disappoint. The Orange, in front of 35,446 fans inside the Carrier Dome, took down the Blue Devils 91-87 in overtime. Rasheed Sulaimon forced the extra frame with a buzzer-beating three. Syracuse, leading by one, was aided by a favorable no-call as Rodney Hood missed a dunk over Jerami Grant. The bigger Syracuse frontline was led by C.J. Fair’s 28 points and Grant’s 24. Duke countered with 15 threes. The second meeting between the two storied programs and two Hall of Fame coaches was equally as memorable.
The upset of the tournament was No. 14 seed Mercer over No. 3 seed Duke. The Blue Devils had struggled on the defensive end all season long, and those problems came to light in the Round of 64 with the Bears shooting 55 percent from the field. Duke hit 15 threes, but took close to 40 attempts from beyond the arc. However, as a team, Duke was 35 percent from the field with Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood combining for 20 points off 6-of-24 shooting.
The first of two games between the Cowboys and Cylcones went to triple overtime with Iowa State pulling out a 98-97 win. In the second overtime, DeAndre Kane’s offensive rebound turned into a 3-pointer for Naz Long, tying the score at 89-all and forcing an additional five minutes. Iowa State took control in the third overtime and while Oklahoma State had its chances, the Cowboys couldn’t convert.
The Lumberjacks were a trendy upset pick as the No. 12 seed. Stephen F. Austin had won 28 straight and had one of the nation’s top defenses, though, late in the game against No. 5 seed VCU, it looked as if that upset bid would come up short. That was until Desmond Haymon was fouled on a four-point play to tie the score with 3.6 seconds left, which forced overtime. The Lumberjacks prevailed in overtime and advanced to the Round of 32.
The Louisville All-American hit a game-winner with two seconds left to led the Cardinals to a road victory over Cincinnati in February. Smith was clutch down the stretch with a pair of assists in the game’s final moments.
Tennessee became a dangerous No. 12 seed, rolling through UMass in the Round of 64 while missing out on a matchup with Duke — thanks to the Mercer upset — in the following round. The Volunteers nearly reached the Elite 8, erasing a double-digit lead only to have a controversial charge call go against them late in the game. Jarnell Stokes was called for a player-control foul on Jordan Morgan, with Michigan leading by one, with six seconds left.
No suspense here, as the Rupp Arena court will be chock full of players who rate among the nation’s best. Kentucky’s ten-man rotation has been one of college basketball’s biggest conversation points thus far, but the Longhorns are one team who (at least in the front court) won’t be at a major disadvantage from a depth standpoint. The problem for Texas is that they’re without guard Isaiah Taylor, who’s out with a broken wrist. Javan Felix is an adequate fill-in and Rick Barnes has solid options on the perimeter, but Taylor is their “difference-maker.” That could be tough to overcome in this matchup.
MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE NIGHT: Long Beach State at Stephen F. Austin, 8:00 p.m.
This is a game that in years past would be played in mid-February thanks to the now-defunct BracketBusters event. In fact, it’s a return game from SFA’s visit (and win) back in February 2013. Friday’s matchup is key for both teams but especially for Long Beach State, with this being the first of six straight on the road. Two players to keep an eye on: Long Beach State’s Mike Caffey (18.7 ppg, 4.2 apg) and Stephen F. Austin’s Jacob Parker (15.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg). The Lumberjacks have won three straight, and their defense could be the difference against the 49ers.
WHO’S ON UPSET ALERT?: SMU (vs. Wyoming, 7:00 p.m. ESPNEWS)
In all honesty a Cowboy win in Dallas wouldn’t be a major surprise. Larry Shyatt’s team may not roll up the points, but they’ve been efficient offensively (Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Adams are fun to watch) and at times stifling defensively. Larry Brown’s Mustangs certainly don’t lack for talent with point guard Nic Moore leading the way. But how will they deal with a slow, slug-it-out affair? While SMU wouldn’t be characterized as a “running” team, tempo will be key in this one.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
1. No. 11 Kansas is back in action, hosting a Florida team that has struggled offensively and can use a quality win for its resume. Forwards Perry Ellis and Cliff Alexander played well for the Jayhawks down in Orlando, and now the key is to get sophomore guard Wayne Selden Jr. going.
2. UConn enters tonight’s game against Yale at less than full strength, with Ryan Boatright (ankle) a game-time decision and both Rodney Purvis (knee) and Omar Calhoun (knee) also being question marks. But regardless of who the Huskies have on the perimeter, their front court better come ready to play with Yale’s Justin Sears being one of the Ivy League’s best.
3. City rivals Duquesne and Pittsburgh meet at the CONSOL Energy Center, with the Panthers looking rebound from what was a disappointing defensive performance in their loss at Indiana earlier this week.
4. No. 22 Oklahoma returns to the court for the first time since the Battle 4 Atlantis, as they host Missouri in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Are the Sooners any more comfortable with forward TaShawn Thomas, who if worked into the flow consistently can give them the low-post scoring threat they lacked last season?
5. Former Big East foes Providence and Boston College meet in Chestnut Hill, and something to keep track of is the health of Providence’s Kris Dunn. Dunn was affected by an ankle issue during Sunday’s loss at No. 1 Kentucky, and when he’s hampered the Friars are as well. Also this is a chance to get another look at Providence’s LaDontae Henton and BC’s Olivier Hanlan, two of the best players in their respective leagues.
In one of the better head-to-head matchups of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Wolverines got the best of Syracuse thanks to Spike Albrecht’s big second half and late-game heroics. Albrecht’s three-pointer with 31 seconds left in the game put Michigan ahead by three and while his 11-point, nine-assist game looks average on paper, much of that production came when Michigan needed him to step up. Zak Irvin also scored 18 points and All-American candidate Caris LeVert had 12 points and six assists.
1. Stephen F. Austin 64, Memphis 52
Things were already off to a dicey start for the Tigers this season, but the heat is going to be on after a double-digit home loss to drop Memphis to 2-3. Guard play continued to be really bad for the Tigers as the Lumberjacks won despite shooting only 41 percent from the field and 35 percent from the three-point line. Memphis will need to bounce back quickly and start to string together some wins if they want to build momentum heading into conference play.
2. No. 5 Louisville 64, No. 14 Ohio State 55
The Cardinals jumped out to a 35-18 halftime lead, but the Buckeyes made them sweat out a home win by making the game close in the final minutes. Freshman D’Angelo Russell struggled to shoot consistently for Ohio State but he still made enough plays to finish with 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds. For Louisville, senior Wayne Blackshear had one of the finest performances of his career as he led all scorers with 22 points and added six rebounds while junior forward Montrezl Harrell had a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds.
This didn’t look like it would be one of the best ACC/Big Ten Challenge games on the schedule entering the season, but in a battle of unbeatens, Miami was able to slow down Illinois’ high-scoring offense for another solid win. Junior guard Angel Rodriguez was limited to nine points on 2-for-9 shooting for the Hurricanes, but Miami’s offense did a nice job piecing together a balanced scoring effort as Deandre Burnett had 19 points off the bench and and Manu Lecomte added 15 points.
1. The Big Ten
The conference jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge early in the night before dropping a few and winning the final game of the evening to finish ahead 6-2 with one more night to go. While Wednesday night’s game between top-five teams Duke and Wisconsin and a fun matchup between Iowa and North Carolina will still draw the nation’s attention, it looks like most of the Big Ten’s non-elite teams are stronger at this point in the season.
2. James Madison guard Andre Nation
James Madison guard Andre Nation has only played in two games so far this season after serving a suspension and he made his presence felt for the Dukes in their 63-61 win over Campbell. How, you might ask? With the game-winning alley-oop with 1.9 seconds left.
3. Purdue big men
One of the most fascinating “platoons” in college basketball this season is the center duo at Purdue in junior All-Big Ten candidate A.J. Hammons and freshman center Isaac Haas. The duo combined for exactly 40 minutes in Tuesday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge win over N.C. State and finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds on 10-for-17 shooting. Hammons is a load to handle on the interior on his own, but now teams have to worry about the emergence of Haas, who has improved tremendously over the last year coming into his first year of college basketball.
1. Pittsburgh starting guards
It looked like Pitt had some momentum entering the ACC/Big Ten Challenge after a big Maui Invitational win over Kansas State last week but the Panthers starting backcourt of James Robinson and Chris Young struggled in the 81-69 loss to Indiana. Robinson was 1-for-9 from the field and Young was 6-for-17 as neither could get consistent production as scorers.
2. VCU’s offense
For much of the season, the Rams have struggled to generate consistent offense — especially when Havoc isn’t working. But thankfully for head coach Shaka Smart, VCU began forcing a lot of Illinois State turnovers in the second half and won despite shooting only 33 percent from the field and 37 percent from the three-point line in a 66-62 win. The Rams will have to figure out some more ways to free up offense in the half court, but they did fight back for a nice comeback road win over a tough Missouri Valley opponent.
Khadeem Carrington had the best game of his young college career as the Seton Hall freshman guard went 8-for-8 for 16 points off the bench in the Pirates’ 78-55 win over Mount St. Mary’s.
D’Angelo Harrison had 16 points and nine rebounds to help St. John’s get past Niagara, 70-57.
Hofstra junior guard Ameen Tanksley had a night to remember, going for 30 points on 9-for-9 shooting and 5-for-5 three-point shooting in the Pride’s 88-74 win over Norfolk State.
Georgia used the scoring of Kenny Gaines (25 points) and Marcus Thornton (24 points) to run past Chattanooga, 86-55.
LSU had a big night from Josh Gray as the junior guard had 25 points, five assists, four rebounds and three steals in a 82-60 win over UMass.
Minnesota got 27 points and seven rebounds from guard Andre Hollins in an 84-69 win over Wake Forest.
In a high-scoring affair, Louisiana Tech got past Northwestern State, 99-88, as guard Alex Hamilton finished with 30 points.
Coming off the bench, Texas freshman Myles Turner had 18 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a 63-53 win over UT-Arlington.
One of the best mid-major guards in the country, Evansville’s D.J. Balentine, went for 28 points in the Purple Aces’ 86-78 win over Wright State.
Iowa State had five players in double-figures as the No. 20 Cyclones cruised to a 96-59 win over Lamar. Bryce Dejean-Jones had 12 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists to lead the way.
Nino Williams only played 20 minutes but had 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting as Kansas State rolled past Omaha for an 84-66 win.
Bradley junior guard Warren Jones dropped 33 points as the Braves won 84-73 over Central Michigan.
Stanley Johnson and Gabe York each had 18 points as No. 3 Arizona got past Gardner-Webb 91-65.
Gonzaga actually trailed Southeastern Louisiana, 33-32, at the half before taking over and running away with a 76-57 win. Kyle Wiltjer led the Zags with 20 points.
Alabama was able to knock off South Florida as Rodney Cooper had 20 points and Ricky Tarrant added 17.
An efficient Tuesday evening for Larry Nance Jr. as he led Wyoming with 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting in a 68-42 win over Denver.
There aren’t many duos on the west coast better than Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth and they had another big night in a BYU road win at Utah State. Haws went for 35 points and Collinsworth had 20 points and 10 rebounds.
DePaul had five players finish with at least 13 points in a 78-67 win over Northern Illinois. Junior forward Myke Henry and sophomore guard Billy Garrett Jr. each had 15.