The Top 6 Teams Most Likely to Upset the Favorites in the NCAA Tournament
Let’s set the criteria for which teams we’re looking for here.
Are these sleeper teams? No. Most play in power six conferences against the best teams in the NCAA and aren’t intimidated by higher seeds. They’re often on national television, have huge alumni bases and significant name recognition. It’s not their fault if you don’t know about them.
Teams talented enough to take down the elite, but too inconsistent to be trusted with the sleeper status are exactly the type of profiles we’re considering.
For one reason or another, these teams haven’t performed at an elite level, even if they have the personnel to do so. Some losses are inexplicable, but their victories suggest that the potential is there. Whether suspensions, injuries or simply inconsistency impacted their season is immaterial now.
What matters is that these teams, based on their histories, have a chance to upend the favorites, throwing what’s already been a season rife with upsets into more postseason chaos.
Don’t disregard the following teams because they didn't earn a top-three seed. Instead revere them for potentially upsetting the order of March.
Illinois has the potential to hang around until the second weekend of the tournament, or it could just as easily flop in its opening round game. When its three-point shooting is locked in, the Illini can bury elite teams under a barrage of long-range shots.
The No. 7 Fighting Illini drew 10th-seeded Colorado, which defends the three-point line well. But Brandon Paul has already guided his team to two upsets of No. 1 seeds this season, along with a win over No. 2 Ohio State. All three teams defend the three-point line exceptionally well.
In early December, Paul dropped 35 points against Gonzaga as the Illini handed the Bulldogs their first loss (and what would be their only home loss) of the season. If that wasn't enough to bolster a resume sure to be ravaged by the Big Ten's schedule, Illinois then mounted a furious 14-point comeback to stun No. 1 Indiana in February.
In the two wins over No. 1 seeds, Illinois shot 20-of-50 (40 percent) from three-point range, while Paul in particular hit eight from deep.
While the Illini aren’t always on target (32 percent on the season), the fact that four of their five starters are capable three-point shooters make Illinois an extremely dangerous, albeit inconsistent, team.
Not to mention that they take after John Groce, their gritty, blue-collar coach who led No. 13 Ohio to a first-round upset over Michigan last season. This Illinois team is dangerous, and should it beat Colorado, the No. 2 seed Hurricanes had better be ready to defend.
2. Notre Dame
The Irish have been a trendy pick to get upset against a more athletic team in Iowa State. But Notre Dame doesn't beat itself, and if the Cyclones have a bad shooting night, the Irish could easily advance into the next round against No. 2 seed Ohio State.
By playing at its preferred pace, Notre Dame takes away opponents' transition opportunities and relegates more athletic teams into half-court sets.
Specifically, the Irish’s adjusted tempo is 61.6 according to KenPom, the 320th-fastest team in the country.
Behind veteran point guard Jerian Grant (5.6 assists, 2.8 turnovers per game), the Irish run a slow but efficient offense that rarely gives their opponents a chance for transition points.
Senior forward Jack Cooley (13 points, 10 rebounds per game) is the point man in the middle, often relaying the ball through the paint and out to the perimeter to keep the defense on a swivel. Cooley’s post production has been down (6.8 points in his last six games), but as long as he’s rebounding, the Irish have a chance to take down the country’s elite because of their outside shooting.
Notre Dame hits on 37 percent of its three-pointers but doesn’t shoot them nearly enough. Coach Mike Brey has implored sophomore sharpshooter Pat Connaughton (57 threes on the season) to launch from outside anytime he has the chance. In his last four games, Connaughton is 17-of-29 from beyond the arc.
His shooting from distance, along with the Irish’s pace, could make for a slow, drawn-out game that plays out in favor of Notre Dame, regardless of how athletic its opponent is.
UNLV is a scary, scary team.
It missed injured power forward Mike Moser, a lynchpin to the Rebels' defense, for part of the season, and coach Dave Rice struggled to get consistency from his talented but young squad.
That helps explain two bad losses to Fresno State (11-19 overall), which hurt the Rebels’ chances at the Mountain West regular-season title. But the Rebels are healthy, which they haven't been all year.
The No. 5 Rebels will face No. 12 California in a rematch of an early season win on the road.
Potential lottery pick Anthony Bennett (6’8", 240 pounds) is the force that makes UNLV nearly impossible to match up with. He’s equally capable of corralling 12 rebounds (which he’s done seven times this season) as he is at getting hot from the perimeter.
On the season he’s shooting 38 percent from deep and averaging more than one three-pointer per game. When he’s knocking down shots from outside, it opens up the paint for UNLV’s massive frontcourt tandem of Moser and Khem Birch, a transfer from Pittsburgh who only became eligible in mid-December.
His integration into the rotation has played a role in their inconsistencies as well. Birch, the league’s defensive player of the year with 2.6 blocks per game, is paramount to the Rebels’ 13th-ranked defense in the country.
UNLV has the frontcourt size of Michigan State, which alone is enough to get them to the Sweet 16. If they can limit turnovers (14 per game) and balance out its interior strengths with decent outside shooting, the Rebels could match up well with Indiana in a potential Sweet 16 matchup.
The Gophers have been as inconsistent as any team in the country after winning 15 of their first 16 games, then losing so often throughout conference play that some bracketologists questioned their inclusion into the field of 68.
Nevertheless, the strong start kept their NCAA hopes alive. A somewhat favorable matchup against No. 6 UCLA gives Minnesota a real shot at advancing to the next round, where it would likely take on No. 3 Florida, one of the favorites out of the South Region.
The Gophers’ best attribute is their size, which stems primarily from forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. Both are nationally ranked in terms of their rebounding rates by KenPom.com. In the win over Indiana, the two had 17 combined rebounds.
Minnesota is actually favored heading into the game despite the lower seed. The injury to Jordan Adams removes UCLA’s second-leading scorer at 15.3 points per game and takes out one of its better rebounders. UCLA’s rebounding rate is atrocious and the Gophers will have a massive advantage inside.
Should they meet No. 3 Florida, Minnesota matches up well with the Gators in the paint, which is where the game will be won. The Gators are a slightly better version of Michigan State, who the Gophers beat by 13 points earlier this season.
The odds aren’t in Minnesota’s favor, especially after losing seven of its last 10, but who knows what type of effort we’ll see from the seniors Mbakwe and Williams?
No team’s stock has fluctuated more than that of Jim Boeheim’s Orange.
They lost four of their last five regular-season games heading into the Big East tournament and dropped all the way to fifth in the conference standings, but a strong showing in New York earned them a No. 4 seed against No. 13 Montana.
Should they beat the Grizzlies and knock down enough threes to take out UNLV, Syracuse's zone is unlike anything Indiana has seen this year—not to mention that the Orange have the athletes to hang with the Hoosiers.
With their defense in order, forward James Southerland (suspended earlier in the season) has been raining three-pointers, and Michael Carter-Williams has regained the form of an elite prospect. Senior guard Brandon Trice has been more decisive with his passes and their leading rebounder, C.J. Fair, has been active on the glass and shown a decent outside shooting touch.
The 39-point, four-assist effort in the embarrassing loss to Georgetown in the regular-season finale will scare some away. But keep in mind, this is the same team that beat No. 1 Louisville on the road behind an outstanding effort from Triche and Carter-Williams on Jan. 19.
Syracuse's confidence is growing, and it's just now rounding into form.
6. Oklahoma State
Behind Big 12 Player of the Year Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State has the talent to hang with any team in the country. The Cowboys are physical, aggressive and most importantly, they've been groomed on Big 12 competition.
Unfortunately, the Pokes drew a vastly under-seeded No. 12 Oregon team. But Oregon's pace should help the Cowboys prepare for Louisville's speed if the teams ultimately meet in the Sweet 16. First Oklahoma State would need to dispatch the veteran-laden Saint Louis squad, but both the Ducks and the Billikens would be building blocks towards the Cardinals.
Oklahoma State is 1-1 vs. Kansas this year, and the Cowboys suffered another one-point loss to Gonzaga on Dec. 31.
When the Cowboys took down Kansas 85-80, it ended the Jayhawks’ 18-game winning streak and their 33-game winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse. Smart had 25 points and eight offensive rebounds to go along with five steals on defense. Fellow guard Markel Brown led the Cowboys with seven three-pointers.
The Cowboys don’t have a ton of size. But what they lack in height, they make up for with strength and athleticism. Smart, Brown and combo-guard Le’Bryan Nash make for a lethal backcourt combination. With the ninth-best defense according to adjusted metrics, Oklahoma State has a chance to stun Louisville in what's perceived to be the hardest region in the bracket.