By Ryan Mayer
Filling out a bracket for the NCAA Tournament is a study in insanity. Every year, we try to do the same thing: pick a perfect bracket. Each year, we get the same result: not a perfect bracket. Yet, for as frustrating, and tear your hair out in anger as the entire exercise can be, it’s one of the most fun times of the sports calendar. Watching the underdog upset the big bad top seed will always engender a certain amount of wonder and excitement in fans.
This year will likely be no different. Teams that have taken the number one spot in the AP poll have routinely been knocked off that throne throughout the year. To try and help you in your bracket selection process, we’ve singled out five teams that could make your life a nightmare if you don’t consider them for a run.
A quick note, we’re going based off of teams that are an 8-seed or higher. Reason being, anything above that truly isn’t an upset type run. If a 5 beats a 1 in the Sweet 16 it’s unsurprising. But, if an 8 beats a 1 in the Round of 32? Chances are your bracket is being lit on fire. So, with that in mind, away we go.
Gonzaga Bulldogs: 11 seed Midwest region
Gonzaga is safely in the tournament once again, for the 18th year in a row. Mark Few’s squad is just one year removed from an Elite Eight run and they lost Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell to graduation. But, they returned Kyle Wiltjer who has hit his stride recently, Domantas Sabonis, Eric McClellan, Josh Perkins and Przemek Karnowski. Granted, Karnowski was lost for the year early this season, but the Bulldogs have plenty of experience in the line-up. Gonzaga at this spot, is the lowest seed for the ‘Zags since 2011 when they were also an 11 seed.
The ‘Zags drew a tough 1st round match-up in Seton Hall, one of the hottest teams entering the tournament after winning the Big East title. That said, Gonzaga has the firepower as mentioned above to be able to pull the upset and then get on a roll.
Northern Iowa: 11 seed West region
The Panthers upset Wichita State on their way to winning the Missouri Valley Conference and locking up an automatic bid. However, that’s not the only upset they pulled off this season having also beaten UNC (albeit without PG Marcus Paige and on their home floor), Iowa State (neutral site, impressive win), and beating the Shockers twice. They’re 4-1 against the top 25 this season.
Now, the Ken Pom and Sagarin ratings don’t favor them because they had some bad losses along the way (80th & 73rd respectively), but, they’re a nightmare to play against on offense. They’ve allowed opponents just 63 points per game while averaging nearly six steals and three blocks. The Panthers ability to play stingy defense allows them to match-up well against Shaka Smart’s Texas team that has had problems scoring at times this year.
St. Joe’s: 8 seed West region
Yeah, yeah I know. 8/9 seeds don’t often pull the upset against the one seed. But, Phil Martelli’s squad has a future NBA player in DeAndre Bembry, a 4 who can stretch the floor in Isaiah Miles, and a crafty senior guard in Aaron Brown. Bembry is coming off a weekend in Brooklyn in which he averaged 20 points per game as the Hawks won the Atlantic 10 conference tournament, including 30 in a demolition of VCU in the title game. The 6’6″ junior’s array of pump fakes, euro steps, and mid-range jumpers is fun to watch and difficult to stop.
The Hawks draw Cincinnati in the first round, and the Bearcats are no pushover. Mick Cronin’s team is physical, experienced and balanced with four players averaging double figures. They were a last-second prayer away from beating UConn and advancing to the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament. If the Hawks can get past them, barring the never before seen 16 over 1 upset, the Hawks would face Dana Altman’s Oregon Ducks in the second round. The Ducks are hot having run off five wins to end the regular season before rolling through the Pac-12 tournament including a 30-point shellacking of Utah in the title game. Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook and Chris Boucher are a formidable front court and freshman Tyler Dorsey has been fantastic in his debut season averaging 13 points and shooting 42% from three.
It won’t be easy, but the Hawks can certainly pull the upset to knock out the Ducks. Bembry, Miles and Brown can match-up well with Dorsey, Brooks and Cook. The Hawks defense has held opponents to just 31.5% from three and 41% overall, and if you watched the VCU game yesterday you saw just how suffocating they can be.
Wichita State: 11 seed vs Vanderbilt First Four South Region
What a difference a year (or two) makes. The Shockers were a 7-seed comfortably in the field a year ago and were a 1-seed in 2013. Now, they found themselves squeaking into the field and will play in the “First Four” in Dayton for the right to play Arizona. They’ve had their share of bad losses this season, but have also battled injuries to star guard Fred Van Vleet and senior forward Anton Grady.
However, when healthy, the Shockers are a dangerous squad. Consider the fact that they have possibly the most experienced back court in the country in Ron Baker and the aforementioned Van Vleet. Both players have been in the NCAA tournament contributing significantly for the entirety of their four year careers. That kind of experience pays off in spades come tournament time.
The resume doesn’t look all that impressive but the advanced metrics are. The Shockers are the 11th best team according to Ken Pom and the 25th best according to the Sagarin ratings. Ken Pom has the Shockers as the number one team in the country in defensive efficiency. Experience and defense? Yeah, that’s a formula that will make teams sweat big time if they find themselves on the Shockers side of the bracket. Yes, the Shockers have to “play themselves in” by beating Vanderbilt in a first four match-up. Vandy’s another team that can really pose problems if they figure things out, but the biggest reasons to like the Shockers? That back court. Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker come with a ton of tournament experience. They know what it takes this time of year.
Hawaii: 13 seed South region
Hawaii? Yes. Hawaii. You probably don’t know much about the Rainbow Warriors because they play long after most people go to bed and haven’t been in the spotlight too often this season. This is a team that beat Northern Iowa by 13, and lost to Oklahoma by just three points back in December. They had no problems taking home the Big West conference title.
The Warriors are led by Stefan Jankovic a 6’11” junior who shoots nearly 40% from three (39.5%). Combine that with two tough guards in Aaron Valdes and Roderick Bobbitt who are both averaging over 13 points per game and they can put teams in a hole quickly. More importantly, they’re not overly reliant on the three to win games. They can shoot it well enough when they need to, but it’s not a necessity for them to win games.
In addition, defensively they’ve shut teams down from beyond the arc allowing opponents to connect on just 31.5% of their three balls this year. They face a Cal team that has NBA level talent in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, two potential lottery picks come May, but their problem is depth. The starting five (Brown, Rabb, Wallace, Mathews, Bird) can all score, but there isn’t much scoring to be had off the bench. Don’t get me wrong, this is an uphill battle for the Warriors, but one that wouldn’t surprise me as a win. Looking ahead, the possibility of seeing an inconsistent Maryland team in the second round provides a possibility for the Warriors to make the second weekend.
One thing to keep in mind, a double digit seed has made the second weekend of the tournament in 29 of the last 31 years. Consider that before scoffing at some of these teams, and think about it when picking your bracket.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.