The “David vs. Goliath” matchups are an aspect of sports universally loved everywhere. Seeing an undermanned, smaller, less prestigious team take down the proverbial ‘bully on the block’ is a sight to behold. This premise holds exceptionally true when looking at the NCAA College Basketball Tournament.
Virtually every year, a little-known team comes out of nowhere to showcase their talent on the biggest stage. The high frequency of upsets is what makes this tournament as special as it is. One could argue about the supposed parity within the sport, but there’s something to be said about the magic of March.
Picking Wichita State as a double-digit seed to watch almost seems like breaking the rules. The Shockers have no business being a 10-seed. Coming off a 15-game winning streak, Wichita State ended the regular season ranked 19th in both the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll. The slight is nothing new for the Shockers, but it puts any potential opponent in the hazardous position to face a team that is far better than the seed they are slotted in.
Not having much competition in the Missouri Valley Conference outside of tourney-snub Illinois State, it’s easy to discredit the Shockers for facing a mediocre level of competition. However numbers and statistics are difficult to overlook, and all stats say Wichita State is a great team.
The Shockers play both ends of the floor, and have no clear weaknesses. Ranked number six in offensive rating and number three in defensive rating, Wichita State join the Gonzaga Bulldogs as the only schools in the nation in the top-6 for both categories. They sport high marks in two of the more important categories for making deep runs in the tournament – shooting an impressive 40.8 percent from three and grabbing 45 rebounds a game (4th in nation for both). They have considerable depth and experience, running a 10-man rotation with seven upperclassmen. And they have a coach and players that have already been here before. The tournament is no longer foreign to the Shockers. They’ve experienced success, and know what it takes do experience it again.
A first-round matchup with Dayton will be no cakewalk, as the Flyers have flirted with tournament greatness over the past few years in their own right. If the Shockers can make it to the Round of 32, an intriguing matchup against the Kentucky Wildcats could be in sights. In 2014, these two schools met up in the third round with an almost complete role reversal. The Shockers were the top seed in the Midwest while the Wildcats were an underachieving 8-seed. Kentucky ended up upsetting Wichita State in a wild game and don’t think for a second coach Gregg Marshall has forgotten about that game.
When it all comes down to it, all the teams that make the tournament have talent. The factor that separates the early exits from the Cinderella stories is opportunity. Rhode Island entered this season with top-25 expectations, but faltered a bit throughout the season due to several aspects. Star player E.C. Matthews had an adjustment period after returning from a season ending injury last year and the Rams don’t play their best unless he’s clicking on all cylinders. There’s no doubt this team has the talent, but it’s the path that makes them so intriguing.
A first-round matchup against Creighton looks like a formidable game. The Blue Jays have two legit talents in Marcus Foster and Justin Patton, and performed admirably in the Big East tournament before falling to Villanova. But Creighton is just not the same team without lead guard Maurice Watson Jr. running the offense. They will sorely miss his playmaking in the tournament, and could struggle to get easy looks without a true facilitator.
If the Rams can make it their first game, a likely clash with the Oregon Ducks await. The Ducks have been tremendous all year, having been only a couple possessions away from claiming the Pac-12 tournament championship. Dillon Brooks has the ability to win any game on his own, and Jordan Bell is a terror on the defensive end. The Ducks though will be playing the tournament without big man Chris Boucher, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Boucher provides excellent rim-protection and outside shooting. His absence will hamper the Ducks spacing and interior defense, making them far more susceptible than they appeared just a week ago.
There’s no telling how an inexperienced Rams team will handle teams as highly-touted as Creighton and Oregon, but injuries have certainly made a run to the Sweet 16 plausible for Rhode Island.
Each year since the First Four was conceived in 2011, a winner from one of those games has went on to win at least one game in the NCAA tournament. Teams that have played in Tuesday or Wednesday’s made-for-TV tourney teaser have gained enough momentum from their play-in game to upset a lower-seeded team in the Round of 64.
Wichita State did it in 2016, beating the 6-seeded Arizona after defeating Vanderbilt two days earlier. VCU famously ran off four consecutive wins on their way to the Final Four in 2011 following a victory against USC in the play-in game. Those games have given teams the confidence they need to pull off a few upsets, and there is plenty of reason to be excited for the teams in the First Four this season.
Realistically, no 1-seed is getting upset this year. So congratulations to NC Central, UC Davis, Mount St. Mary’s, and New Orleans, but the next win you get will be the last of your season. It’s more likely to focus on the 11-seeds vying for the final spot in the tournament, those teams are Wake Forest, Kansas State, Providence and USC.
Playing in the always competitive ACC, Wake Forest has taken a beating from some of the best teams in the nation. They’ve gained experience from playing that level of completion though, and are only two weeks removed from a big win over Louisville.
Kansas State gets after it defensively, averaging just under 8 steal a game. The Wildcats’ two wins over Baylor helped them become one of the last four bubble teams to be admitted to the field, and just one point separated them from beating West Virginia in the Big 12 conference semifinal.
The Friars of Providence quite possibly have the most impressive resume of all the play-in teams. Before losing in the Big East tournament, the Friars owned a six-game win streak that included an impressive span of defeating Butler, Xavier, Creighton, and Marquette. Add that to wins over Vermont, Rhode Island and Seton Hall, and the Friars have wins over seven teams currently in the field.
USC is coming off a hard fought loss to UCLA and have already beaten the Bruins earlier in the season. A tough February schedule dimmed the lights on an instant tournament bid for the Trojans, but there is reason to be optimistic. Southern Cal might have the most talented roster out of all four play-in teams, with Bennie Boatright and Jordan McLaughlin leading a solid cast of players. The Trojans have the size and pedigree to matchup with top-ranked teams.
Florida Gulf Coast
Dunk City is back in the tournament! In 2013, the Eagles were the darlings of the tournament — taking down Georgetown and San Diego State en route to a Sweet 16 appearance with Florida. For a No. 15 seed, this was pretty remarkable.
The high-flying, up-and-down pace made Florida Gulf Coast a known entity throughout the country. Fast-forward to 2017, and the Eagles are back in the tournament — this time as a No. 14 seed versus in-state foe Florida State.
The “Dunk City” premise is yet again applicable with this team. On the year, the Eagles are shooting a blistering 57.2-percent on shots inside the arc. They’re down to 35-percent on three-point attempts. The goal for head coach Joel Dooley’s team is to push the tempo as much as possible. The Eagles will be undersized compared to their counterparts, but this could be negated by the fact FGCU routinely plays 10 players.
Leading scorer Brandon Goodwin transferred to the school from Central Florida. Having played at a high major school prior, he will not be intimidated by the likes of Jonathan Isaac and Dwayne Bacon.
This is a team that lost to Baylor by single-digits, and against Michigan State (in East Lansing) by a single point. Couple that with the fact FGCU had a tournament appearance last year, and this contest will not be a cakewalk for the Seminoles. Many of the players on the Eagles’ roster are Floridians. Surely none of them were recruited by Florida State. As such, the “underdog role” could be enhanced even further.
The Blue Raiders are a very trendy pick to not only win their opening game, but also do some real damage in the tournament.
As of Tuesday, the No. 12 seed is only a 1.5-point underdog to No. 5 Minnesota. Kermit Davis’ team is led by a bevy of talented playmakers — including leading scorer JaCorey Williams (17.3 PPG). The Arkansas transfer is a load inside. He has nice touch around the rim, and can overpower people with his considerable athleticism.
Guard Giddy Potts is also a very talented player. Aside from having a terrific name, Potts can really play. The guard is shooting 49.2-percent from the field, and 39.2-percent from three. Rounding out the troika of talented Blue Raiders is forward Reggie Upshaw. Coming in with 14.5 PPG, the 6’8″ forward forms a very potent tandem with Williams down low.
Middle Tennessee is a very experienced squad. Last year in the tournament, the then-No.15 Blue Raiders took down No. 2 Michigan State in the second round by a score of 90-81. Much of the roster on that team returned this year. It also proved its mettle against SEC opponents — defeating both Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. The win versus Vandy was particularly noteworthy, considering it was by 23 points.
This is a dangerous team. Not only do they possess a strong lead guard and two solid big men, but the veteran bunch can also defend (No. 30 nationally in defensive efficiency).
UNC-Wilmington has a nice mix of veteran leadership and youngsters ready to emerge under the brightest lights.
The senior guard duo of Denzel Ingram and Chris Flemings combine for over 30 points per contest. Similarly, the super sophomore pairing of C.J. Bryce and Devontae Cacok also score nearly 30 points when put together.
The Seahawks like to get up speed up the tempo and get as many possessions as possible. UNC-Wilmington has taken the sixth-most shots in the country, and only three programs have made more field goals. They also average 85.2 points per game, ranking them 10th nationally in this category.
The first-round match-up versus Virginia will not be an easy one. The Cavaliers rank No. 4 in defensive efficiency. With that said, UVA has lost 6 of their last 11 games. Tony Bennett’s team also struggles to score (as evidenced by a 66.6 points-per-game average).
Should UNC-Wilmington get past Virginia, the Seahawks would have a very manageable third-round contest against the winner of East Tennessee and Florida.
Source: Jeff Curry, Mike Carter, Jasen Vinlove /USA TODAY Sports