It's a Madness tradition more inevitable than awkward dancing from band geeks, all-chalk predictions from experts and ear-piercing calls from the gorge of Gus Johnson. The Selection Committee does an amazing job seeding the Field of 68, but when push comes to shove, we know there's a double-digit seed poised to break through and play on the tournament's second weekend.
Don't believe me? Just take a look at the past five years:
|Year||Double-Digit Seeds in Sweet 16|
|2012||3 – Xavier, Ohio, North Carolina State|
|2011||4 – Marquette, Richmond, Florida State, VCU|
|2010||3 – Cornell, Washington, St. Mary's|
|2009||1 – Arizona|
|2008||3 – Villanova, Davidson, Western Kentucky|
It's understandable to approach your brackets with "upset trepidation." If you agree with the consensus, it's harder to make yourself look stupid. "Sure my national champion went down, but everybody picked them." The same can't be said for sending underdogs to the later rounds. If they lose early and you're the only one who selected them, you're also the only one who looks like an idiot.
That bias tends to sway people in the direction of conservatism, which is again comprehensible, but also kind of a shame. If you know that there are going to be double-digit seeds playing in the Sweet 16, how, in all good faith, can you fill out a bracket with none of them?
On that note, I present the three double-digit seeds most likely to make the Sweet 16 this season. Maybe there's another sleeper lurking in the weeds, a team that even I counted out too early. In fact, there probably is. That's the beauty of college basketball—you never know where the next George Mason will come from.
But for now, these are almost definitely your smartest bets.
No. 11 Minnesota (South)
Competition: No. 6 UCLA, No. 3 Florida, No. 14 Northwestern State
This has nothing to do with Florida's tournament bona fides (or rather, the Gators' lack thereof). Ken Pomeroy ranks them first in the nation, and to be completely honest, I agree. Most of my brackets have them cutting down the nets in Atlanta.
But their road will not be easy, and that's thanks in large part to being paired (potentially) against the tournament's most qualified double-digit seed: the Minnesota Gophers.
Tubby Smith's crew ranks 23rd in Pomeroy's aforementioned rankings, fractional points behind St. Mary's, the only other double-digit gracing the top 30. More important than numbers, however, is the Gophers' track record against quality competition.
Playing in a historically strong Big Ten, Minnesota was tested night-in and night-out during conference play. And while the results weren't always favorable—they finished 8-10 and almost missed the tournament—the residuals certainly were. That is, they're a better team now for having suffered those 10 losses than they would have been playing against the SWAC.
The Gophers' resume includes wins against Memphis, Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana—a CV that rivals almost any team in the country, not just quote-unquote sleepers. They're deep, they're talented and they're under the guidance of a man who's no stranger to success in March and April.
Don't rush to bet against the Gators
if when Minnesota "upsets" UCLA. That's a disservice to the unit Billy Donovan's put on the floor this season. Just know that in a vacuum, no double-digit seed would surprise me less by making the Sweet 16.
No. 11 Bucknell (East)
Competition: No. 6 Butler, No. 3 Marquette, No. 14 Davidson
The Lexington pod of the East region is ripe with time-tested giant killers. Butler, as you may well know, has scrapped and clawed its way to consecutive national championship games, while Davidson, behind distinguished alum Steph Curry, made a run to the Elite Eight in 2008.
But at the end of the day, it's forgotten giant killer Bucknell—largely irrelevant, in the broader scheme of college basketball, since besting No. 3 Kansas in 2005—that has the best chance of shocking Rupp Arena.
The Bison went 28-5 on the season, including 12-2 in Patriot League play. More importantly, though, they have the one piece Marquette and Butler don't have, a constituent that's become indispensable for teams looking to pull sustained upsets: Star Power.
Senior center Mike Muscala, a bruising near-seven-footer who averages a double-double, is almost undoubtedly the best player in the Lexington pod. Like Steph Curry and Gordon Hayward before him, he's fully capable of putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them. He certainly did so in a near-upset at Missouri this January, racking up 25 points and 14 rebounds on 10-of-17 shooting.
Playing Butler will be tough. No coach, as we're sure to be reminded ad nauseam, game-plans better come March than Brad Stevens. But Marquette is assailable should the Bison advance to play them. Ken Pomeroy ranks them 25th in the country, by far the lowest of any top-three seed.
For an 11-seed, that's a good recipe for second-weekend basketball.
No. 11 Belmont (West)
Competition: No. 6 Arizona, No. 3 New Mexico, No. 14 Harvard
Belmont has been an exercise is unfulfilled expectations the past two seasons. They shoot the lights out, score well in computer rankings and generally follow the purported blueprint for giant killers to a tee.
But despite appearing on trendy list after trendy list about "sleepers," the Bruins haven't won a game in the past two tournaments. Heck, they haven't even come within 14 points.
So what, exactly, makes 2013 the year they finally break through? Well, the quality—rather, the nature—of their opponents. 2012 Georgetown and 2011 Wisconsin, Belmont's last two tournament foes, were tailor-made to handle plucky detachments like the Bruins. They're well coached and disciplined and consistent out on the court.
Arizona is none of those things. The Wildcats lost six games in a soft Pac-12 conference, including twice against UCLA, and once (by 11, no less) against 14-18 USC. They're unorganized, at all-too-frequent times, on defense, which could be their undoing against a methodical attack like Belmont's.
After that, New Mexico likely waits in the Round of 32. And while the Lobos are Sweet 16-worthy in their own right, the talent disparity between them and Belmont is smaller than usual for a double-digit seed in that position. Plus, their past two NCAA tournaments have also ended in the second round, including an 18-point loss to University of Washington in 2010.
The Huskies seed that season? Lucky No. 11.