By: Chris O’Brien
We were spoiled with last year’s NCAA Tournament. Not only did we get the Loyola run to the Final Four, but we also got the unthinkable upset, a Number 16 seed beating a Number 1.
And while I don’t think we’ll see another 16 over a 1, or even a 15 over a 2 in this year’s tournament, I do think we have several bonafide mid-major teams who could absolutely go on a run.
But be careful here. Don’t get carried away and take all of these teams to the Elite 8. However, if you’re looking for a few Cinderella candidates, here are my top eight picks to bring a little bit of March Madness to the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
I felt good about this one… until I saw them end up with Duke as their No. 1 seed.
But here’s the thing, I’d say 80 percent of the country is going to pick Duke to win it all. Probably 90 percent will take them to the Final Four and 99 percent will go with the Elite 8.
So, if Duke does fall early, you’ll immediately have a chance to win your office pool simply by going with the contrarian approach.
Question is, does UCF have any chance of pulling it off?
What’s going in their favor:
- Toward the end of the season, UCF was around No. 24/25 in the AP poll. Not common for a No. 9 seed
- They’ve got a guy named Tacko Fall who is 7’6”. Seven-foot six!
- Collin Smith is 6’11”, they’ve got the size to match Duke
- No. 14 in Field Goal percentage defense
- Big win @ Houston late in the season. The UCF that showed up for that game absolutely has a chance against Duke
If you’re only doing one bracket, I’d say just take UCF past VCU and call it a day. But if you’re filling out multiple ones on ESPN or CBS or whatever, go with one that takes UCF to the Elite 8, because not many other brackets will be so bold.
This is just a really a good team. Tied for first in their conference at 16-2, 27-5 overall. No. 1 in the country in assists per game at 19.7. No. 2 in points per game at a whopping 87.2. And No. 4 in field goal percentage, shooting right at 50 percent.
Belmont’s first round opponent is a 22-10 Maryland team who is 212th in scoring (71.3 ppg). Belmont has the advantage of having a game under their belt, already logging the play-in game on Tuesday night (defeated Temple).
It’s hard to tell someone you’re going with UC Irvine in your bracket. The text message chain ends up looking like this
I'm going with UCI.
You got a UTI?
You mean UCF?
But this is a really good pick for a first-round upset and I’m not just saying that to spite Kansas State fans for ending Kansas’ Big 12 streak. Alright. Maybe there’s a little bit of that, but check this out:
- UCI went 13-2 on the road this season
- They’re 30-5 overall
- Vegas only has K-State as a 4.5 point favorite
- Kansas State’s second-leading scorer and top rebounder will likely be out for this game (Dean Wade)
- UCI is No. 4 in field goal percentage defense, No. 20 in scoring defense, and 11th in total rebounds.
There’s a common theme for both Wofford and Utah State. Both of these teams are Sweet 16, even Elite 8 caliber, but they got stuck with a tough draw in their part of the bracket.
Wofford started the season by playing North Carolina close (67-78). They were blown out by Kansas (47-72) but got that experience of playing in Allen Fieldhouse. They played at Oklahoma (L), at South Carolina (Won, 81-61), and at Mississippi State (L). This team went out and scheduled hard in the non-conference season.
The result of their tough schedule? Wofford went 18-0 in their conference. A conference that had two legitimate bubble teams in N.C. Greensboro and Furman (beat Villanova, was ranked in the Top 25 earlier in the season).
Continuing to make the case:
- Fletcher Magee is one of the leading scorers in the country at 20.5 ppg. He’s a senior guard who will give Seton Hall (and potentially Kentucky) a whole lot of trouble
- Cameron Jackson, another senior, can hold his own in the paint, pulls down about eight rebounds a game
- No. 12 in scoring (83 ppg), No. 2 in 3-point percentage, and 14th in assist-to-turnover ratio.
But Seton Hall is a tough first-round draw (and actually, seed-wise and Vegas-wise, Wofford over Seton Hall wouldn’t even be an upset). And then Kentucky after that. If you’re thinking a Loyola-esque Final Four run, you’d then have to justify a win over Houston or Iowa State in the Sweet 16 and THEN North Carolina or getting Kansas again in a virtual home game (Kansas City). Or Auburn who just won the SEC tournament. Or New Mexico State who I have higher on this list. Yeah, the Midwest is brutal.
28. Utah State
I’m going to start out talking about Utah State… by talking about Nevada.
Nevada went to the Sweet 16 last year. They brought back the Martin twins + Jordan Caroline who’s very much an NBA caliber big man. Nevada spent a good portion of the year in the AP Top 10.
And yet there was Utah State tied for first in the Mountain West regular season. They won the conference tournament. Split with the Wolfpack 1-1.
- No. 12 in rebounds
- No. 9 in assists
- No. 11 in scoring defense
- Top 50 in free throw percentage
- KenPom (computer rankings) has them at No. 33
I think North Carolina is the second best team in the NCAA Tournament, but they’ve got the toughest potential second-round matchup of all the No. 1 seeds. If you’re determined to take out one No. 1 seed before the Sweet 16, this is the pick to make.
27. New Mexico State
New Mexico State went down to the wire in Allen Fieldhouse, losing to Kansas, 60-63.
That was a Kansas team that still had Lagerald Vick.
If New Mexico State can get past Auburn, they’d have a rematch with Kansas, away from Lawrence (the Jayhawks have been terrible on the road) and this time no Vick.
New Mexico State is 30-4 on the year and their four losses were by a combined 27 points. Had they pulled that Kansas game off, you’d be looking at a 31-3 squad probably on the No. 6 or No. 7 line.
31-3 overall. 5th in scoring. 3rd in rebounding. Three guys score more than 14 ppg.
Honestly, it may be wrong to even classify them in this Cinderella category. It wouldn’t really even be an upset until a win over Michigan in the Sweet 16. Even though I have Murray State higher, your best bet on this list for a Final Four run is Buffalo.
25. Murray State
Superstar talent? Check. Ja Morant is the No. 2 projected pick in the NBA Draft. And he lives up to the hype.
Strong resume? Check. 27-4 overall. Beat a really good Belmont team in their conference tourney. 10th in ppg, 9th in field goal percentage, 6th in assists, 8th in assist/turnover ratio, 29th in blocked shots.
X-factor? Check. They’ve got this big guy named Darnell Cowart who is 6’8”, 295 lbs (and really might be 310). But he’s got surprisingly quick feet and a great passer. Reminds me of Jai Lewis from back in the George Mason days. These wider guys always do well in the tournament.
Marquette will be tough, Florida State tough, Gonzaga, Michigan/Texas Tech, all tough but it’s always nice to have the top NBA prospect on your team all the way up until the Final Four where they would see Zion Williamson.