The NCAA Tournament bracket has been announced, and in the coming week, we’ll all experience the excitement of trying (well, mostly failing) to pick our brackets correctly. But even though most of us will end up with a busted bracket by the end of the first weekend, there’s nothing like the thrill of picking a few upsets right. While it’s incredibly difficult to pick the next George Mason, VCU, or Florida Gulf Coast (yeah, none of us saw that one coming), there’s an art to seeking out Cinderella teams correctly — one that no one has yet to master and never will, really.
Of the double-digit seeds in this year’s tournament, I have a good feeling about five teams specifically. With their efficiency, depth, and leadership, I believe they all have what it takes to make a run (that, or lose in the first game; who truly knows, right?).
First Opponent: Texas A&M (7 Seed)
Providence has had their struggles this season. They suffered four non-conference losses, finished 10-8 in a stingy Big East, and coach Ed Cooley ripped his pants during a conference tournament defeat to Villanova. But it was that loss that found the Friars scratching and clawing their way to stay in the game, looking very impressive despite falling short in overtime. They beat Xavier and Creighton the previous two nights in overtime, and they took down both teams — and Villanova — during the regular season. So, they’ve shown they’re capable of hanging with anyone, perhaps even North Carolina. Cooley is a fantastic coach regardless of the state of his pants, and forward Rodney Bullock will be hard to stop.
2. New Mexico State
First Opponent: Clemson (5 Seed)
New Mexico State is another team that has shown they can play with anyone — they beat two tournament teams, Davidson and Miami (FL), earlier in the year. They’ve been absolutely dominant since dropping back-to-back road games in February. A quality inherent in many previous Cinderella teams is veteran leadership, and seniors Zach Lofton and Jemerrio Jones provide a deadly one-two punch of stealthy guard play and dominance in the paint. It also helps that the Aggies are playing Clemson, full of players who have never played in the tournament before and missing a commanding presence in Donthe Grantham. After several tournament appearances, look for the WAC champs to finally pull a big upset.
First Opponent: Miami (FL) (6 Seed)
You simply cannot overlook the Missouri Valley. From Wichita State making the Final Four as a nine seed to Northern Iowa upsetting #1 overall Kansas, the caliber of this mid-major conference always goes underrated. It’s the same story with Loyola-Chicago, who are making their first tournament appearance since the ‘80s after a season that currently finds them in RPI top 25. While rating indexes don’t mean much on paper, it’s hard to not be impressed by the Ramblers’ offensive and defensive efficiency. They shoot the ball well and limit turnovers, all while giving up only 62 points per game. Their formula is one that’s sturdy regardless of matchup, and it can at least get them past Miami (FL).
4. St. Bonaventure
First Opponent: UCLA (11 Seed)
Not enough people are talking about St. Bonaventure, and it doesn’t help that they didn’t win the Atlantic 10 regular season or the Tournament. But the heart and determination of veteran leadership, as intangible as it can be, is something that provides a lot of firepower to higher seeds come March (see Cornell in 2010). Of their five leading scorers, three are seniors and two are juniors. If they can get through a highly talented UCLA team, they get a Florida team that lives and dies by the three-pointer. It helps that they shot the three well themselves, an additional strength on top of their experience, as well as their ability to close out games with dependable free throw shooting and top-notch perimeter defense.
5. South Dakota State
First Opponent: Ohio State (5 Seed)
If you don’t know the name Mike Daum, you might after this year’s tournament is over. The junior for South Dakota State has put up yet another fantastic season without getting the recognition he deserves, averaging 24 points and 10 rebounds a game. But as much of a matchup nightmare as he’ll be for Ohio State, the Jackrabbits are frightening as a whole: They score 85 points per contest, shooting 40 percent from three while only turning the ball over an average of 10 times. Cinderellas take down more talented teams by controlling the game, and this team is built to do just that. I hate to go against a Buckeyes unit that’s been a great story under first-year head coach Chris Holtmann and Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop, but South Dakota State (as their logo suggests) is ready for a run.
Featured Image Credit: Jaylen Adams/St. Bonaventure (John Minchillo/Associated Press), Clayton Custer/Loyola-Chicago (Loyola University Chicago)