Hereâs what I find most interesting about this yearâs NCAA Tournament field, in a general sense. Though itâs not a good year for mid-major teams in terms of at-large resumes, the reality is that weâve got a group of smaller-conference schools that are pretty darn good, teams that seem bound to pull off an upset or two.
So while you havenât heard much talk about the preseason Cinderella darlings (Valparaiso, Chattanooga, East Tennessee State, for example), donât believe that this yearâs first round will be overrun by big programs stomping the little guy. The NCAA Tournament is a lock for upsets every year, and the 2017 iteration could bring us three or four Cinderella-type stories.
In advance of the one-bid leagues playing out this week and next, here are the seven teams I like best to pick off a big boy in the Big Dance. The first weekend is about the upset, so consider this your primer, and prepare accordingly.
John Beckerâs team has been outstanding this season, running the table in the AE and forcing the locals to ask the question: Is this yearâs UVM squad better than 2004-05? That was the Taylor Coppenrath team. That was the team with the memorable upset over Syracuse. That was âSorrentine from the parking lot!â This team is getting very close to that group, which did not run the table in the conference.
In fact, no team had ever gone 16-0 in AE play until this season. Vermontâs last loss came on Dec. 21, a respectable 12-point loss to a Butler team thatâs probably going to play its way to a 3 seed. Vermont ranks 69th in KenPom and will climb even higher if it can get to 29-5 and earn the auto bid. An at-large is off the table, but this would probably be the most dangerous 13 seed on the board come Selection Sunday. UVM is a top-10 team in 2-point field goal percentage, and itâs not prone to foul. The concern is Vermontâs lack of wins against big-conference competition this season, but that shouldnât sway you entirely from picking them on a lark to break through to the second round.
The Mavericks are the closest thing this season to Monmouth from a year ago (more on the Hawks below). UT-A won at Texas and at Saint Maryâs, lost by just four to Arkansas, and now Scott Crossâ team could play its way to a 12 seed if it can win out. An at-large will probably be too big of an ask, though Iâd love it if the committee were to give a chance to the Mavs, should they lose in the Sun Belt title game.
This is a senior-laden team that pushes the tempo and takes advantage of its size. UT-A gets a lot of second-chance looks, and its led by an NBA prospect in Kevin Hervey. Win or lose, Hervey could put up 24 on almost any team in the country. Jalen Jones, Jorge Bilbao, Drew Charles and Faith Pope (holy holy!) are four seniors who contribute real minutes.
The Mavs have never won the Sun Belt regular season title before â until now. Cross just got his 200th career victory with the home win over Troy on Monday night. Heâs the best coach in program history. The Mavs need two more wins to set a program record for most Ws in a season. Crossâ 2011-12 team won 24.
Dunk City is the only team in this group already involved in postseason play. Joe Dooleyâs guys got by Stetson on Monday night in the A-Sun quarters. Hereâs why you want to consider FGCU, if it gets in: The Eagles played Baylor tough at Baylor, should have won at Michigan State, and won on the road against a good Louisiana Tech team. I think FGCU is fairly battle-tested.
Thereâs also reason to think this team has enough because itâs got bigs. Antravious Simmons, Marc-Eddy Norelia and Demetrius Morant can bang. Brandon Goodwin is efficient. Thereâs scoring balance and a lot of depth. Dooley recently told me heâll run nine, maybe 10 deep if his guys make the NCAAs. Iâm not sold on depth as a concept that helps you win games deep into the tournament, but I do think having a second line of guys who can roll out and play with energy in that first-round game against a 2, 3 or 4 seed is a big-time asset.
With so much trouble in the OVC itâs kinda hard being Rick B-y-r-to-the-D.
The best shooting team in the country from 2-point range, Belmont averages 62.3 percent from the field, and is one of the toughest scouts youâll come across. The Bruins run efficient offense, rely on their starters to beat you, and since Dec. 15 this team has lost just once.
The interesting result: Belmont fell at home by 13 to Middle Tennessee back in December. It was the only home loss of the season for Byrdâs team. The star is Evan Bradds, a senior wing whoâs kind of a poor manâs Ethan Happ. But the beauty with Belmont is how it can spread the ball and how many guys can shoot from deep (Bradds is the only minutes-getter who doesnât take 3s). They beat you off the pass, not the dribble.
Belmontâs been a chic upset pick in past tournaments but is still searching for that first win in program history in the NCAAs.
Probably the best team from a one-bid league. Middle made March magic last year when it minced Michigan State right to the morgue. That 15-over-2 was an all-timer, arguably the most stunning first-round upset in tournament history. Now Kermit Davis has almost all of his team back, led by Reggie Upshaw, Jacorey Williams and Giddy Potts. Middle has wins over two of the teams on this list, plus defeated two SEC teams, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.
I love a team that can win on the road. Even though the NCAA Tournament is not played in a road environment, Iâm much more likely to trust a team thatâs proven it can beat opponents on their home floor. Middle has 11 road wins and 14 total away from home. The Blue Raiders also have the strongest case for an at-large bid of any team on this list.
If MTSU wins out â which is far from a guarantee â then I wouldnât be shocked to see this team hit the 10 line. Itâs got the goods to make a Sweet 16. It could take out a 2. The interesting element in play here is how Middle handles being a known underdog, how the team gets up for the tournament. A good sign for their success is their lack of turnovers. Hard not to fall for this group. The committee needs to take a long look at their at-large case if they donât win out.
Remember Wilmington from last yearâs tournament? Its game vs. Duke was the first tip of that opening Thursday. Kevin Keattsâ team pushed the Blue Devils. Now Keatts, who will be in the coaching carousel rumor mill over the next month, has the most ball-responsible team in the nation. The Seahawks turn it over just 13.8 percent of the time, better than anyone in America. And UNC-W ranks as a top-30 points-per-possession team, too.
While I think schools like Middle and Monmouth would be the two most popular 12/13/14-seed upset choices, Wilmington would probably be third. The Seahawks did lose to Middle on a neutral floor but took out East Tennessee State and St. Bonaventure, and crushed a lot of bad teams along the way. Also: a top-10 team in 2-point field goal percentage, and the way Wilmington plays defense (they donât give up a lot of 3s) inherently keeps games close; opponents shoot 28.7 percent of their field goal attempts from deep, which is well below the nationâs average of 36.4.
For a broader read on Monmouth,. I caught the Hawks in person over the weekend and just had to write about their prospects and redemption tour. The interesting angle here is that Monmouth hasnât defeated big programs like last year. It hasnât been on SportsCenter or major websites because of its bench mob.
But the Hawks are so dang good. I believe this is one of the 60 best teams in America, even in spite of the record/metrics not reflecting that Justin Robinsonâs toughness and King Riceâs coaching make me think this group is going to put up a really good fight against any opponent. This group is better offensively than it was last year, can just cut out your knees in transition, and itâs a fairly unselfish group.
âIâm confident because I have these kids,â Rice told me on Sunday. âWeâre an older group now.â
Monmouth deserved to be in last year, but itâs better equipped to handle the pressure and competition this year. Weâre virtually guaranteed to have a crazy March, but this strong crop of mid-majors (and you know at least one or two teams WAY off the radar right now will pop up, too) stand to make it even more memorable.