by Rob Joyce
It’s among the most exciting weeks in the sports year. We’ve started to move beyond the fake outrage that Selection Sunday always brings, and we’re not at the point where all of our brackets are completely busted, leaving us hope that we can finally win this year! (Okay, maybe not). As the NCAA Tournament approaches, there’s always the double-digit seed that wins a game or two, thus donning Cinderella’s slipper.
In a year where the bubble was somewhat weak, some major conference programs are among the group that, if they catch fire, could find themselves playing beyond the first weekend. Of the teams with a double-digit seed, here are the ones most likely to do just that:
Statistically they’re the nation’s hottest team, entering the tournament on a 21-game win streak, not having lost since a 12-point setback at Butler in December. They don’t score a whole lot (172nd in the nation) but they allow just over 61 points a contest. Their first test is a challenge, as this Purdue team can score in bunches, led by Player of the Year candidate Caleb Swanigan. And if they pull off the first upset, another buzzsaw awaits in Iowa State, who boasts a three-headed monster of Monte Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long and Deonte Burton.
4) Middle Tennessee:
Last year millions of brackets were shattered when the 15-seed Middle Tennessee shocked second-seeded (and popular national title pick) Michigan State. This year the Blue Raiders are out to prove they’re no one-hit wonder. At 30-4 they’ve lost just once the calendar turned, a three-point loss at UTEP last month. Their wins include NCAA Tourney teams UNCW and Vanderbilt (by 23!), while they lost at VCU by just three.
They face an up-and-coming Minnesota squad in the opening round, likely followed by an enigmatic Butler squad. With a stingy defense, if they can make enough shots they can make a serious run.
3) Rhode Island:
URI was a preseason top-25 team, quickly falling out after close losses to Duke, Valparaiso and Providence. They were likely on the outside looking in, but took the decision out of the committee’s hands by pulling out eight straight victories, culminating in an A-10 Tournament title.
And they have a pretty favorable matchup, at least as much as an 11-seed can. They get Creighton in the opening round, which went from a top-10 team to outside the top-25 after point guard Maurice Watson went down with a season-ending injury, dropping six of their last 11. If the Rams beat the Blue Jays, Oregon could await. The Ducks just lost rim protector Chris Boucher to a torn ACL last week, given URI just a sliver of hope for a season that had high ones in November.
2) Wichita State:
At 30-4 the Shockers seem to be undervalued by the Selection Committee. Missouri Valley champs again, this isn’t your Fred Van Fleet group to be sure, but they aren’t that much worse. Their only losses – on a neutral floor against Louisville (by 10) and Michigan St (by 5), against Tourney team Oklahoma State, and at MVC runner-up Illinois State.
And there may not be a deeper team in the nation – they’re ranked 20th at over 82 points per game as a team. Yet their leading scorer (Markis McDuffie) only averages 11.8 PPG in 25 minutes, while nine players score five or more points. Dayton awaits in their opening game, most likely followed by Kentucky. They obviously aren’t as talented as the Wildcats (few are), but they can exploit UK’s weaknesses, and if they stop Malik Monk or De’Aron Fox, could certainly make another tourney run.
1) Oklahoma State:
The Cowboys weren’t even on the radar at the end of January, as they began 0-6 in Big 12 play. All it took was a single win to catch fire, and Oklahoma State has been a menace ever since. They closed out the regular season winning 10 of their last 12, including a win at No. 7 West Virginia. Their only losses in that span have come against ranked foes Iowa State (twice), Baylor and Kansas by a combined 20 points.
Juwan Evans (19.0 PPG) is a volume scorer, while Jeffrey Carroll (17.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG) is among the most improved players in the nation. Their defense is suspect, but if they catch fire against red-hot Michigan and against a Louisville defense that’s been porous the last few weeks, they could advance to their first Sweet 16 since 2005.