Brackets won’t be unveiled for another two weeks, but conference tournaments are about to begin and there’s no better time to start gathering information for March Madness.
Every year, I like to make a cheat sheet before the tournament begins and before I even see any matchups. I make a list of championship contenders, teams most susceptible to early upsets, underdogs I believe in and highly ranked teams I don’t believe in.
Of course, you can analyze every team a thousand different ways and still make incorrect picks in the tournament. The NCAA tournament is probably the hardest thing in sports to predict because it’s single elimination and the “best” team doesn’t always win.
Also, it should be noted I watch a ridiculous amount of college hoops each year and still end up losing in my bracket pools to my sisters, so take this analysis with a grain of salt.
I’ve decided to share my cheat sheet this year in case you want to be prepared to fill out your bracket on Selection Sunday. Or, you can just pick whichever mascots you like better and you’ll still probably end up doing better than me.
I’ll run several posts over the next couple of weeks that break down which teams I’ve put into each group.
Everyone loves a good Cinderella story in March, so I compiled six potential double-digit seeds who could bust your brackets and pull off upsets in the tournament.
Group 1: the Cinderellas
In each of the last two seasons, the Blue Raiders have pulled off an upset as a double-digit underdog. Their upset as a 15-seed over Michigan State was the most shocking, and they followed that up with a win over Minnesota as a 12-seed last season.
The ingredients are there again this season for another upset if Middle Tennessee makes the tournament. Senior Giddy Potts is back, and in addition to being on the All-Name team, the guard from Athens, Alabama has been the catalyst for the Blue Raiders in the tournament the last two season. Former Memphis and Alabama transfer Nick King is a dynamic scorer as he’s averaging 21.4 points per game this season, and this team is cruising through the Conference-USA.
The lack of quality wins is a bit concerning and they haven’t exactly played the toughest schedule, but they should still make the tournament even if they don’t win the C-USA conference tourney. They’ll be a trendy upset pick regardless of the opponent and for good reason.
I’m never right about Baylor and Scott Drew in the tournament. I can’t decide if he’s underrated or overrated as a head coach, and his teams have had major hits and misses in the Big Dance. Drew’s led Baylor to two Elite Eight’s and two Sweet 16s in the Bears’ last six tournament appearances, but they were also bounced in the first round as a 3-seed and a 5-seed in 2015 and 2016.
The Bears are still on the bubble and might not even make the tournament this year, but they’re trending upward as of now. Entering February, Baylor was 12-10 overall and 2-7 in the Big 12. Now, they’re 17-11 and 7-8 in the league. The Bears are 14th in defensive efficiency according to KenPom, and their length can really bother opposing offenses. They aren’t very efficient on offense, but this is a team capable of pulling off an upset or two if they can sneak into the tournament as an 11 or 12 seed.
The Bulls probably need to win the MAC tournament to make it into the field despite having a top-40 RPI, but they could be a dangerous 12 or 13 seed if they make it into the tournament. They play at one of the fastest paces of any team in the country, though they do struggle on the defensive end — especially against teams with size. Buffalo came close to pulling upsets against Syracuse and Cincinnati earlier this year, and they have tournament experience after making the field and nearly upsetting Miami as a 14-seed two years ago.
East Tennessee State
The Buccaneers had a terrific year a season ago as they made the tournament under coach Steve Forbes, and they’re on track to return to the Big Dance this year. Forbes was Bruce Pearl’s top assistant at Tennessee, and he was also Gregg Marshall’s top assistant during two of the best year in Wichita State program history.
ETSU lost to Xavier by two on the road earlier this year, and they have a defensive efficiency that’s hovering around the top-50. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has them projected as a 13-seed right now, and they would be a very tough matchup in the first round if they can win the Southern Conference tournament.
Over the last two seasons, Vermont has only lost one game in the America East Conference. John Becker has the Catamounts poised to return to the tournament this year if they can win their conference tournament, and they would be a very difficult matchup for a 4-seed.
Last year, Vermont lost to Purdue, which was a terrible matchup for the Catamounts given the Boilermakers’ size. But with the right matchup, Vermont’s offense could be lethal considering they are around of the 30 most efficient offensives in the country. They nearly upset Kentucky to start the season, and this is a team that no high seed will want to see in March.
The Bonnies are firmly on the bubble, but this is a team I really hope makes it into the tournament. Senior guard Jaylen Adams is one of the most dynamic players in the country, and he’s averaging over 20 points per game while hitting nearly 50 percent of his 130 3-point attempts. Fellow senior guard Matt Mobley is also a threat from the outside, and they form one of the best backcourt tandems in college basketball.
They can be a frustrating team at times because they often play to the level of their competition. Even in their current nine-game win, the Bonnies were nearly upset by Duquesne (twice) and St. Joseph’s. But they beat a great Rhode Island team last week, and they also boast wins over other bubble teams such as Syracuse, Buffalo and Vermont.
Selfishly, I want this team in the tournament. Lunardi has them as one of the last four teams in as of now, and they need to avoid any regular season losses down the stretch. Obviously, winning the A-10 tournament would lock up a bid, and if they don’t win, they need to hope Rhode Island wins it. If they do make the tournament — even if they’re playing in Dayton in the First Four — they can bust a lot of brackets in March.