The key to a successful bracket is taking calculated risks by finding the best bang for your buck, and it's never too early to start figuring out which middling seeds are most poised for a deep tournament run.
On the next five slides, you'll find the teams most likely to outperform their current projected seed, in ascending order of how long they could realistically last in the tournament.
The first team could pull off a couple of upsets while the last team is a legitimate dark horse to cut down the nets.
(Seedings referenced on each slide are based on Joe Lunardi's Bracketology Update from this past Tuesday.)
Were it not for Ben McLemore’s banked three-pointer and a collapse in the final two minutes against Oklahoma State, the Cyclones would be 18-4 and in sole possession of first place in the Big 12.
If those two games had gone in their favor, they would probably be a No. 3 seed in this week’s projected brackets, so hopefully you can understand my optimism in their ability to outperform expectations for a typical No. 10 seed.
As I’ve mentioned earlier this week, their inability to win games not played in Ames is a growing concern. There’s no shame in losing close games at Kansas or at Oklahoma State, but losses at Iowa and at Texas Tech, especially, could be signs of a bigger issue.
That admittedly creates a Catch-22 for this article; if they don’t win a few of their remaining road games, I’ll lose faith in their ability to perform in the tournament. If, however, they do start winning road games, they’re far more likely to be a No. 5 seed than a No. 10.
I’ll change my tune if they lose back-to-back road games against Kansas State and Texas, but I’m still buying stock in the Cyclones for now. The senior leadership of Will Clyburn, Tyrus McGee, Korie Lucious and Chris Babb gives them an edge over most teams in the tournament in terms of both experience and desire.
They’ll continue winning until they run into a team with a dominant post presence. Though they are 17th in the nation in rebounds per game, the tallest Cyclones averaging better than 15 minutes per game are 6’7” Clyburn and Georges Niang.
This is just speculation to an extent, because they haven’t faced many teams who try to run their offense through their big men. However, they let Anthony Bennett score 22, conceded 20 points to Brandon Davies and allowed two of Kansas’ bigs to register a double-double.
Whether it’s against Missouri in the first round or against Indiana in the Elite Eight, they’ll eventually run into a team that takes advantage of a height disadvantage. Until then, the Cyclones will at least have a puncher’s chance in any game played along the perimeter, as they hit more threes per game than any non-Creighton team in the field.
The problem with including the Wildcats here is that regardless of their seed, they’re going to be overvalued by everyone, by virtue of being both the University of Kentucky and the reigning national champions.
However, a No. 9 seed for the Wildcats is almost insulting. Of all the teams currently projected for a seed in the 7-10 range, they’re easily the most likely to pull off an upset of a No. 1 or No. 2 seed to make the Sweet 16.
I’m well aware of the struggles they’ve had thus far, but I’m ready to completely write-off the first seven games of their season. Aside from Julius Mays, it was a group made up of walk-on Jarrod Polson and four freshmen trying to figure out the college game.
Since getting Ryan Harrow back and gaining more experience for the freshmen in the process, the Wildcats are 12-3 with a near upset at Louisville, a home loss to Texas A&M behind the game of Elston Turner’s life and a disappointing second half in Tuscaloosa.
Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin have been borderline unstoppable for the past month, and getting Willie Cauley-Stein back on the floor in the past week could be a big difference maker down the stretch, as he seemed to be figuring out how to play in the post before his knee surgery.
Recent road wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M speak volumes to their return to bracket significance, but next Tuesday’s game at Florida will further tell us whether they’re finally ready to compete on the big stage this season.
After losing four non-conference games in relatively uncompetitive fashion, I’ve spent most of the past two months waiting on Wisconsin to stagger through a difficult conference schedule and play its way right out of the tournament field.
To the contrary, the Badgers are 10-3 in their past 13 games, including six wins over the RPI Top 100. They could go 4-4 in their final eight games and still make the tournament; once they get there, it’ll be difficult to argue that any other team in the nation has been more battle-tested.
I’m convinced that Wisconsin fans can’t even actually enjoy watching the team. I’m sure there’s an element of pride and happiness similar to that of a parent at a youth league game, but on some level, they have to be able to admit that it isn’t basketball in its most beautiful form, right?
However unattractive, Bo Ryan’s game plan is effective and has been giving other teams fits for over a decade. The Badgers have made the tournament in every season under his tutelage and have won at least one tournament game in 10 of the past 11 years.
Are the Badgers a Final Four candidate? Doubtful. Will I give serious consideration to picking them to win multiple games? Absolutely.
Once ranked as high as No. 11 in the AP Top 25, the Bluejays have fallen from grace over the past three weeks. The three-point loss to Wichita State certainly wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, but the subsequent losses to Drake and Indiana State may have irreparably damaged their resume.
Perhaps I’m misinterpreting public perception, but it feels as if Creighton’s stock is suffering from middle-child syndrome. When you talk about “mid-majors” who could make a deep run, everyone brings up Gonzaga, Butler and VCU. Conversely, when you bring up potential sleepers, most turn to Belmont or Middle Tennessee.
Presumably because they’ve lost three games in the Missouri Valley, Creighton falls somewhere in between those two groups—not quite sexy enough to get into the Final Four discussion, but too well-known for anyone to feel like they’re breaking new ground by telling you to watch out for them in March.
Recent struggles be darned, what’s not to like about any team with a sure-fire finalist for the Wooden Award? Doug McDermott is second in the nation in points per game and eighth in three-point shooting. Assuming he stays for his senior season, he could go down as the greatest college basketball player of the past 20 years.
But they’re more than just the Creighton McDermotts. Gregory Echenique can bang with anyone in the post, and Grant Gibbs’ court awareness is downright silly. As a team, they lead the nation in field-goal percentage and three-point shooting and are third in the country in assists per game.
Omitting Creighton from the Final Four discussion would be foolish. Of all the teams currently in the No. 4-6 range, Creighton is the team that I’m praying my favorite No. 1 seed doesn’t draw in the Sweet 16.
New Mexico as a No. 4 seed has to be some sort of practical joke, right? The Lobos are fifth in RPI, fourth in SOS and tied for second in RPI Top 100 wins, with 11. By every traditionally meaningful metric, they are, at worst, a No. 2 seed.
What am I missing here? Was the loss at San Diego State really THAT bad? Yes, they scored a grand total of 34 points in the game, but the Aztecs are No. 25 in RPI. And if I’ve learned anything this season as a Duke fan, it’s that one bad night does not define your entire season.
Are we considering the loss to South Dakota State a resume killer? That’s hardly fair, because the Jackrabbits are a solid team, Nate Wolters played out of his mind, as usual, and no team should be penalized for losses that occur within three days of Christmas.
Then it must be the 14-point loss at Saint Louis on New Year's Eve? I’ll admit, I was a little concerned that they only scored 13 points in the first half, but these things happen. And Saint Louis is a good team that’s only getting better.
That’s the end of their list of losses, all of which came against the RPI Top 100. Ohio State is 6-5 against the RPI Top 100, but that's worthy of a No. 3 seed? This is definitely a joke.
Okay. That’s enough griping about a seeding that will fix itself if the Lobos keep playing the way they (mostly) have been playing for the past month. Let’s explain in two words why I think they could win it all:
The seven-foot sophomore can single-handedly alter the outcome of a game just by staying out of foul trouble. He’s been terribly inconsistent, but in the win over UNLV, he scored 23 points, grabbed nine rebounds and held super-frosh Anthony Bennett to one of his worst outputs of the season.
No doubt Kendall Williams and Tony Snell will need to put together a string of great games in order to make a deep run, but they’ve been the consistent members of the Lobos trio. If Kirk starts firing on all cylinders, he’s a matchup nightmare for just about every team in the nation.