March Madness has started, and we’re ready for some upsets.
The most fun part of filling out the NCAA Tournament bracket is finding the diamonds in the rough, the low seeds that will go on to shock the world and become this year’s Cinderella in March Madness.
While every NCAA Tournament includes a few first-round shockers, it takes a unique combination of seeding, tournament draw coaching and personnel to win a couple games against top seeds and bust up everyone’s bracket in the process. Below, we’ve narrowed the field of possible Cinderellas to seven teams ripe to make a run.
It is improbable that we will see all of these underdogs advance to the Sweet 16 (and in the case of Middle Tennessee and Winthrop, impossible), but there’s a good chance one of them will be a bracket buster in 2017.
Iona (No. 14 Seed, Midwest Region)
First round: vs. No. 3 Oregon
The Gaels play an up-tempo style and have experience in the NCAA Tournament (fourth appearance since 2012). Jordan Washington is a star and they draw a hobbled Oregon team that just lost 6-foot-10 star big man Chris Boucher for the season with a knee injury. If Washington is on, Iona could not only knock off Oregon but also the winner of Creighton and Rhode Island.
Florida Gulf Coast (No. 14 seed, West Region)
First round: vs. No. 3 Florida State
Over the past 10 years, 11 teams that were a 14-seed or 15-seed have won in the first round. Dunk City played Baylor and Michigan State close, on the road, and took care of business in the Atlantic Sun. Florida State didn’t play great away from home and gets an FGCU staff that is still pretty familiar with Leonard Hamilton and the Seminoles’ style of attack.
Vermont (No. 13 seed, Midwest Region)
First round: vs. No. 4 Purdue
No one in the country is hotter than Vermont. The Catamounts have won 21 games in a row (nation’s longest active streak) and have a freshman in 6-6 forward Anthony Lamb who has played his best basketball since the start of February. Getting past the winner of Iowa State-Nevada, a tasty high-scoring title in itself, might be more challenging but I like Vermont to extend the streak to 22.
Winthrop (No. 13 seed, South Region)
First round: vs. No. 4 Butler
No one in Division I basketball won more road games than Winthrop (12), booking their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 17 years with the Big South tittle. Pat Kelsey has the Eagles in a good spot, getting a Bulldogs team that lost its Senior Night finale to Seton Hall and got bounced from the Big East tournament by Xavier, but the numbers still have Butler as a heavy favorite. If Winthrop wins, we’ll all know the name of diminutive but dominant 5-7 guard Keon Johnson, who dropped 38 points on Illinois in November and put up 26-plus in each of the Eagles’ conference tournament wins.
Middle Tennessee (No. 12 seed, South Region)
First round: vs. No. 5 Minnesota
Giddy Potts is back along with Reggie Upshaw and five other players from last year’s upset win against No. 2 seed Michigan State. Minnesota put together a banner year for Richard Pitino, but the lack of NCAA Tournament experience could end up biting them here in the first round. Potts is our player to watch, but the X-factor here is Upshaw, one of only three active players with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists, 100 steals and 100 blocks in his career.
UNC-Wilmington (No. 12 seed, East Region)
First round: vs. No. 5 Virginia
The Seahawks put up a good fight against Duke last year in its NCAA Tournament debut under Kevin Keatts. Facing Virginia, Keatts not only has a chance to notch his first tournament win but potentially carry this high-scoring bunch to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. UNCW has put up 100 points or more seven times this season and does a great job taking care of the ball. But to bust up the brackets UNCW will need an edge in what promises to be games of contrasting styles. Virginia and the threat of Florida in the second round some of the best defensive teams in the tournament, putting all the more pressure on CJ Bryce, Denzel Ingram and Chris Flemmings to produce at a high level.
Wake Forest (No. 11 seed, South Region)
First Four vs. No. 11 Kansas State, First round: vs. No. 6 Cincinnati
Every year since the First Four was added to the NCAA Tournament, a team has made it from Dayton to the second round with a pair of wins in the tournament’s first week. Wake Forest, led by John Collins, looks like the most likely candidate to accomplish that feat and could carry that momentum into the Sweet 16. Collins was the best big man in the ACC this year, averaging 18.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Danny Manning has him, and another sophomore in Bryant Crawford, that can absolutely take over a game if needed and that kind of offensive potency could power a run past both Kansas State and Cincinnati.