Unless you were living in a cave last March, you know the story of the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers. The Ramblers came out of the Missouri Valley Conference as an eleven seed and shocked the nation as they made a run all the way to the Final Four. The Ramblers personified what it was to be a Cinderella in the NCAA tournament, and they showed the world why March Madness is the greatest sporting event on earth.
The fact that a team that nobody had heard of before the tournament started was able to perform on the national stage is what the NCAA tournament is all about. So, as Selection Sunday gets closer and closer, we start to look at what teams could be this year’s version of Loyola-Chicago. To qualify, the teams I am looking at must play in a small conference, and they must project to be a double-digit seed in the tournament.
So, small conference teams like Gonzaga, Nevada, and Buffalo won’t be considered as they are expected to be highly seeded, despite the fact they play in small or mid-major conferences. The best way to win your bracket pool in March is to identify which sleeper teams are going to surprise everyone as big underdogs and look like a genius when they are still playing on the second weekend and you predicted it! Let’s get started!
The first team we will highlight are the Paladins of Furman. The Paladins play out of what might just be the best small conference in the nation this year, the SOCON. In a testament to just how talented this league is, the Paladins are in third place, with an overall record of 22-5. Furman started out the season 12-0, and that included wins against two of last year’s Final Four teams, Loyola-Chicago and Villanova.
When you are looking at what type of teams can make a run to the Final Four, they need to be able to beat Final Four caliber teams, and that is just what Furman has done this season. The Paladins are a strong offensive team as they score nearly eighty points a game and shoot 48% from the field as a team.
If Furman can win their conference tournament and sneak into the madness, don’t be shocked to see them pull off a big first-round upset, and maybe more.
I mentioned above that the SOCON was loaded this year, and here we have our second team from the SOCON, the Wofford Terriers. Wofford has put together a fantastic season thus far as they have a 23-4 record, that includes a 15-0 record in league play. The Terriers are used to playing in the tournament as they have heard their names called on Selection Sunday four times since 2010. So, unlike the Paladins, who haven’t made the tournament since 1980, this team knows what it takes to get to the Big Dance.
All four of Wofford’s losses were to good teams. And in three out of those four losses, they were very competitive. I am not a big believer in moral victories, but when a team like Wofford can play tightly contested games with the likes of North Carolina and Mississippi State, it shows me that this team isn’t scared of playing against high-level competition. That is the type of mindset it takes to upset highly ranked teams in March.
Old Dominion Monarchs
The Old Dominion Monarchs come to us out of Conference USA and have a record of 21-6. The Monarchs are dominating in league play as they have a full two-game lead in the conference championship race. ODU had a nice early season win over VCU, and they scored a huge upset over Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in a true road game in December. And they are getting hot at the right time as they have won ten out of their last eleven games.
The Monarchs have an elite backcourt duo in senior B.J. Smith, a transfer from Virginia, and senior Ahmad Caver. These guys are scoring a combined thirty-six points a game and having senior leaders at the guard positions are always key to Cinderella runs. The Monarchs seem to be the class of Conference USA and should have no trouble getting into the tournament.
Murray State Racers
If you haven’t gotten the chance to see Murray State superstar Ja Morant play, you are missing out! This kid is an absolute superstar. Morant is a high-flying human highlight reel and reminds me of a young Russell Westbrook. Morant has a shot to lead the nation in both scoring and assists as he is currently going for twenty-four points and ten assists a game. He even throws in five and a half rebounds, and two steals a game for good measure. This kid is the real deal and is expected to go high in the lottery of next year’s NBA draft.
And it hasn’t just been the Ja Morant show this year, this team is playing at a very high level, as they are 21-4 on the season. The Racers are seventh in the nation in field goal percentage and score over eighty-three points a game. When you are looking for teams that can pull off big upsets, being able to score efficiently is a big key. We have seen small schools make deep runs in the tournament before behind the play of a superstar like Morant. Most recently, Steph Curry at Davidson reminds me of how this team is built around their star guard. When you have what might be the best player in the country not named Zion on your team, it is hard to not expect big things!
We talked above about how talented the SOCON is this season, but if any league is going to give them a run for their money as the best small conference in the country, it is the Ohio Valley. We just mentioned how good Murray State is, and the Belmont Bruins are right there with them at the top of the league at 21-4. Belmont has wins over Lipscomb, Murray State, and UCLA already this season. And they are red-hot as they have won nine straight and thirteen out of their last fourteen games.
The Bruins are an up-tempo team that can score at will. They are third in the nation in points per game as eighty-seven a contest and shoot nearly 50% from the field as a team. They pass the ball and rarely turn it over. They are fourth in the country in assists to turnover ratio. The Bruins are led by senior leader Dylan Windler who is going for twenty-one points and ten rebounds a game. If I ran the Selection Committee, instead of putting the ninth best team in from the Big 10 or ACC, I would make sure that both of the top teams from the Ohio Valley get a pair of dancing shoes this year. And if not, whichever team emerges from the Ohio Valley, needs to be on your upset radar.
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
The Jackrabbits come to us out of the Summit League and feature one of the best players in the country in Mike Daum. Daum is a legend in South Dakota and is approaching the top ten for the all-time scoring list in NCAA division one history. Daum is scoring twenty-five points and is dragging down eleven boards a game. And he isn’t all alone either as both David Jenkins Jr and Skyler Flatten are both averaging over fifteen points a game as well.
The Jackrabbits are a truly elite team on the offensive side of the ball as they are top ten in the country in points per game, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and three-point percentage. It doesn’t matter where they are at on the floor, they can score the ball. They just had their big rivalry game against North Dakota State, and this happened.
And here they are folks, my picks for which teams might shock the nation this year in March Madness! It seems like just about every year we get either a Davidson, VCU, George Mason, or like last year, Loyola-Chicago team that improbably wins a bunch of games and finds themselves in the national spotlight.
When the brackets are finally released look for each of these teams to make an impact. Thanks for reading and good luck betting on NCAA men’s basketball!