By: Chris O’Brien
Alright, on the home stretch here. 24 teams covered, 13 to go.
The remaining teams aren’t for the risk-averse bracket filler-outer. These picks require a little off-roading. And some are certainly a stretch to make the Final Four. But if you’re looking for that gutsy underdog pick that no one else sees coming, this next baker’s dozen might be the right place for you.
This next grouping, “Don’t Call us Cinderellas.”
26. New Mexico State
27. Rhode Island
28. Loyola Chicago
29. St. Bonnaventure
One theme you’ll see in this year’s tournament is mid-major teams don’t really look like mid-major teams anymore. Several of them have players who transferred from major D-1 schools, and they end up looking very similar talent-wise to a No. 3 or No. 4 team from a major conference.
This definitely holds true for the Wolfpack.
Nevada is led by Caleb and Cody Martin, both 6’7” dynamic guard/forwards. Jordan Caroline is a big man inside, averages 17.6 ppg and 8.7 rpg. High scoring team, 83.1 ppg (18th in the country), 20th in 3pt shooting, 8th in turnovers.
I like their path too, don’t think Texas has the guards, don’t think Cincinnati will be able to shutdown their offense, and then I like their matchups against TENN/Miami/Loyola. There is a very realistic path to the Elite Eight.
How they get over Virginia/Arizona/Kentucky after that, your guess is as good as mine, but the potential is there.
New Mexico State
This is a very good team. 28-5 overall, 4th in rebounding, led by 6’5” Jemerrio Jones who has 55 rebounds in his last three games.
Look for Zach Lofton (averages about 20 ppg) to have a big game against Clemson. The Clemson Tigers are missing Donte Grantham, torn ACL. Grantham was second-leading scorer, second-leading rebounder. Need all the rebounding help they can get.
I like the next matchup against Auburn too, another victim of the injury bug. Auburn is just 2-4 in their last six, feeling the effects of McLemore’s injury.
Going further than that gets a little tricky. Give Bill Self a week to prepare for Nex Mexico State and hard to pick against KU. However, say NC State or Seton Hall knocks Kansas out second round, now that top half is wide open.
Felt way better about this pick a few weeks back. Rhode Island has lost three of five including a confusing 30-point Senior Night loss to St. Joseph’s.
Great senior guard play with Jared Terrell, E.C. Matthews, Stanford Robinson. Should be able to take care of Oklahoma and matches up pretty well against Duke. Talent wise, this team will not be overmatched by the three heavyweights in this Region (Kansas, Duke, Michigan State).
Unique to this list, they have a big-time signature win, their early season win at Florida, a true road game.
Lot to like here, 28-5 overall, No. 5 nationally in scoring defense. Their offense is interesting too because they’re all the way down in the 200’s in terms of points per game, but 3rd in field goal percentage and 20th in 3-pt field goal percentage. It’s like Loyola only takes good shots; they’re capable of scoring but only will if they have to.
Five players score over 10 ppg, watch for Clayton Custer and Donte Ingram to have big games against Miami.
After that, similar to Nevada, their path to an Elite Eight matchup with Virginia is surprisingly doable.
Barely in, Davidson winning the auto-bid probably knocked them down to the play-in game.
Two things to know about the Bonnies: Jaylen Adams, one of the best guards in the tournament. And you can’t spend all your time planning to stop Adams because there’s Matt Mobley averaging 18.2 ppg. Both guys are threats to drop 30. They are a weird case where their first two games (UCLA, Florida) I view as being harder than their next two (Texas Tech, Purdue).
They would actually match up pretty well with Villanova, West Virginia, or Wichita State. And that’s what this part of the list is all about, a dangerous team that might not even get into the actual field of 64.