Little Rock over Purdue. Middle Tennessee State over Michigan State. Syracuse over their entire region. All examples of teams who looked harmless on paper entering last year’s NCAA Tournament and then proceeded to completely blow up your bracket.
So what teams can do the same this year? Here are seven to keep an eye on.
The Mustangs enter the NCAA Tournament with the label of “best team no one is talking about” with a 30-4 record overall and 26 wins in their last 27 games. More importantly, they are a matchup nightmare, as they play six guys who stand between 6’6 and 6’8 that can all handle the ball, catch, dribble and shoot. They are a walking definition of the term position-less basketball.
SMU will have an edge over whichever team they play in the first round, and as strange as it sounds, they might be a favorite in Vegas entering a potential second round matchup with No. 3 seed Baylor. This team has all the tools to make it to the Sweet 16. Or even further.
Nevada (No. 12 seed, Midwest Region)
Opening round game: No. 5 seed Iowa State
The NCAA Tournament is all about players.That’s what makes Nevada so terrifying in this matchup. Even though they’re the mid-major, they might have two of the three best guys on the court when these two clubs tip off Thursday night in Milwaukee.
America, meet Marcus Marshall and Cameron Oliver. Marshall was the Mountain West’s leading scorer at nearly 20 points per game this year and Oliver is a versatile forward who could be selected in June’s NBA Draft. Oliver scored 27 points in the Mountain West semifinals and then followed it up with a four-point, 14-rebound performance in the final. Put the two of them together, and they will cause fits for Iowa State – and its star Monte Morris – in the first round.
Middle Tennessee State (No. 12 seed, South Region)
Opening round game: No. 5 seed Minnesota
We alluded to the Blue Raiders’ upset of Michigan State last year. The scary thing is that Kermit Davis’ club is even better in 2017. They enter the tournament as a team everyone has wanted to avoid for weeks, coming off a 30-4 regular season with 21 wins in their last 22 games.
Not only is Middle Tennessee State capable of beating Minnesota in Round 1, but the Butler/Winthrop winner in the second round. Do not be surprised to see this team in the Sweet 16.
Marvin GentryUSA TODAY Sports
Rhode Island (No. 11 seed, Midwest Region)
Opening round game: No. 6 seed Creighton
The Rams are one of the best stories in the NCAA tournament this year. They had to beat VCU two weeks ago just to play themselves onto the bubble and even then needed a win in the A-10 Tournament to lock up their bid. They did that on Sunday with another win over VCU.
The scary thing about Rhode Island is that while their profile says mid-major, they have the talent of most Big East schools. As coach Danny Hurley mentioned on FOX’s “The Sidelines Podcast” the Rams’ two biggest stars – guard E.C. Matthews and forward Hassan Martin – were Top 75 recruits coming out of high school and chose Rhode Island over high-major schools. Role players Kuran Iverson (Memphis) and Stanford Robinson (Indiana) both started their career at high-majors.
For that reason alone the Rams have the potential to win one, or maybe even two games. Unlike so many double-digit seeds they have as much talent as their opening round opponent and actually would match-up with Oregon pretty well in a potential second round game.
Oklahoma State (No. 10 seed, Midwest Region)
Opening round game: No. 7 seed Michigan
The Wolverines are the feel-good story of the NCAA Tournament, after surviving a near-plane crash on the way to the Big Ten Tournament and then going out and winning the whole thing. But lost in the Wolverines’ incredible story is that they got a terrible round one matchup.
Oklahoma State is the kind of team that Michigan simply hasn’t faced all year in the Big Ten; small, quick, athletic, and capable of knocking down threes like few clubs in college basketball. Specifically, the Wolverines could have a world of trouble with Cowboys’ point guard Jawun Evans, who averaged 19.2 points and 6.2 assists per game this season.
That also makes the Badgers one of the single most compelling teams of the first weekend of the tournament. They’re an experienced and talented club, whose two best players (Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes) both played major roles on back-to-back Final Four teams in 2014 and 2015.
For that reason alone, the Badgers could be a nightmare matchup for second round opponent and reigning national champion Villanova. But first, they’ve got to get there; Wisconsin opens with a tough Virginia Tech squad.
Florida Gulf Coast (No. 14 seed, West region)
Opening round game: vs. No 3 seed Florida State
While it’s easy to look at the matchup and scream “Dunk City is back baby” at the top of your lungs, that isn’t really the case. One, the Eagles gave up their high-flying ways when Andy Enfield left for USC after the school’s 2013 Sweet 16 run. Two, this game isn’t really about FGCU so much as their opponent, Florida State.