10 Most Underrated Teams in 2014 NCAA Tournament

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2014

10 Most Underrated Teams in 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    A seed is just a number, right?

    Seedings for the NCAA tournament are based on a team's performance during the regular season and in their conference tourneys, but this isn't a scientific designation.

    A selection committee votes to select, seed and slot all 68 teams, and with its subjective nature, there's plenty of room for debate.

    Determining which teams are too high or too low is a common debate following the announcement of the field. For those on the bottom end of that spectrum, they also get tabbed with the vague "underrated" label.

    This tournament is no different, and we've identified 10 schools that, either because of their seeding or diminished expectations, are the most underrated in the 2014 NCAA tournament.

     

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10. Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 27-6

    Seed: No. 5 (East Region)

    Cincinnati began this season with a 22-2 record, but even after a rough stretch toward the end, managed to finish in a tie for first in the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats only went 2-4 against the RPI top 25, but that included a rare win at Louisville.

    This team is only slightly underrated, as it probably deserved a No. 4 seed. The selection committee apparently looked at the Bearcats' late fallback with more displeasure than Syracuse, which was 25-0 but ended 27-5, yet still earned a No. 3 seed and games in nearby Buffalo.

    Regardless of the seed, Cincinnati has one of the most dangerous players in the field in senior Sean Kilpatrick, but the draw of opening with Harvard and then likely facing red-hot Michigan State will be a tough one to navigate.

9. Iowa Hawkeyes

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    JIM SLOSIAREK/Associated Press

    Record: 20-12

    Seed: No. 11 (Midwest Region; playing in First Four game)

    Iowa was a very trendy pick to make a deep run back in January, when the Hawkeyes were 15-3 and ranked in the top 10. But as was the case with seemingly every strong Big Ten team this season, Iowa hit a major midseason skid that hasn't let up.

    Losses in six of seven down the stretch, including to Northwestern in the opening round of the Big Ten tourney, completely soured the country (and the selection committee) on Iowa. It fell all the way from a projected high seed into the "First Four," which means having to play Wednesday against Tennessee just to earn its No. 11 seed in the main bracket.

    This is Iowa's first trip to the tourney since 2006, but the expectations of a little run through the field have diminished. But if the Hawkeyes get past the Volunteers, No. 6 Massachusetts would be wise to remember how highly rated this team was earlier in the year.

8. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 21-11

    Seed: No. 10 (Midwest Region)

    Arizona State is making its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2009, and that appears to be all most people notice about the Sun Devils. Call it West Coast bias or whatever, but ASU seems to be a bit of an unknown quantity in the field.

    But the Devils are a dangerous team, one that has beaten Arizona and has a pair of explosive scorers in Jahii Carson and Jermaine Marshall. And then there's the Devils "secret" weapon, which is hard to say about a 7'2" guy in senior Jordan Bachynski.

    Bachynski has 132 blocks this season, tops in the nation and more than nearly two-thirds of the teams in Division I had as a whole. ASU's opponent, Texas, has only had 120 shots blocked all year.

7. Oregon Ducks

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 23-9

    Seed: No. 7 (West Region)

    Make no mistake, these Ducks can fly. While Oregon has had plenty of breakdowns on defense—if you can call what they do most of the time a form of defense—they've usually compensated with a breakneck scoring pace.

    Oregon is 10th nationally in scoring at 81.8 points per game, and shoots a very respectable 46.8 percent from the field. Six of its top seven scorers shoot better than 46 percent, and its 39.2 percent three-point efficiency is 18th overall.

    But the Ducks have managed to win lower-scoring games as well. It's how they knocked off Arizona to end the regular season, and could be a way to throw off opponents expecting nothing but running and gunning.

6. Providence Friars

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 23-11

    Seed: No. 11 (East Region)

    Hot teams heading into the tournament are often the ones that make the deepest runs, regardless of their seed. So Providence should be looked at far more by its recent run through the Big East (and impressive shutdown of Creighton in the final) than the "11" next to its name.

    The Friars aren't particularly flashy or standout in any one category, but they possess one of those very rare commodities that become extra valuable in March: a senior leader.

    Bryce Cotton plays 39.9 minutes per game, during which he scores 21.4 points and dishes out 5.8 assists. Breaking down the numbers, he's been involved in 414 of the Friars' 821 field goals this season, not to mention all of the made free throws he's helped set up with his passing (along with the 219 he's made himself).

    Whether Providence is properly seeded as a No. 11 is debatable, but what isn't is the fact that No. 6 North Carolina could not have been happy to see the Friars as their opening opponent.

5. Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Record: 21-12

    Seed: No. 9 (West Region)

    It's easy to speculate how OK State's season would have turned out had Marcus Smart not been suspended for three games in mid-February, but considering the Cowboys had lost four in a row before the ban, it might not have made a difference.

    What is more constructive is to look back at how good this team has been when playing at its best. Evidence of that could be seen during the 15-2 start as well as during the late-season run that included a win over Kansas to get the Cowboys off the NCAA tournament bubble.

    Smart came back to school for another year to help the Cowboys win, and he's got to feel like he's let them down to this point. That extra motivation could be just the spark he and his team need to make a run as one of the deadliest No. 9 seeds in tourney history.

4. Kentucky Wildcats

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    Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 24-10

    Seed: No. 8 (Midwest Region)

    You can't really compare Kentucky teams from one year to the next because of the mass overhaul in starters that's happened the last few seasons as part of John Calipari's recruiting approach. But what is evident is that this year's Wildcats team has more heart and dedication than the 2012-13 squad that missed the NCAA field.

    No doubt, Kentucky has struggled, a product of youth and (college-level) inexperience, but this team is far better than what you'd expect from a No. 8 seed. The Wildcats have the talent to beat anyone, it's just a matter of having it all come together at the right time for a sustained period.

    Their last game against Florida is a perfect example of what the Wildcats are capable of, but also what they tend to be: trailing significantly for most of the game, Kentucky ramped it up in the second half and had the top-ranked Gators on the ropes. But then, when it came time to move in for the kill, the approach that got it so close went out the door and was replaced by individual play.

     

3. New Mexico Lobos

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    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 27-6

    Seed: No. 7 (South Region)

    New Mexico has won three straight Mountain West Conference tournament titles, knocking off San Diego State in the final on Saturday. While the MWC didn't get the love it's received from the selection committee in the past (earning only two bids), it's still considered by CBS Sports' Jerry Palm as the No. 10 league in the country.

    For their efforts, the selection committee awarded the Lobos a No. 7 seed. Yet the Lobos' most recent victim, SDSU (whom they beat twice this year), got a No. 4 seed that would allow the Aztecs to play in Anaheim if they reach the Sweet 16. New Mexico, on the other hand, starts in St. Louis and then would have to go to Memphis.

    The Lobos were a first- (er, second) round flameout last season, but that shouldn't matter this year. What should be taken into account was going 9-3 against a challenging nonconference schedule and then winning 18 of 21 matchups with league opponents who know everything about them.

    New Mexico lost handily to Kansas earlier in the season, but that was with Joel Embiid dominating inside. Embiid probably won't play this time around if the teams meet in Sunday's third round.

2. Michigan State Spartans

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Record: 26-8

    Seed: No. 4 (East Region)

    This underrated designation isn't about what seed Michigan State earned, because it's pretty spot on for how the Spartans performed throughout the course of the year. But many of MSU's losses came when one or more starters missed time because of injury.

    The MSU team that heads into the NCAA tournament is at full strength, and as the teams Sparty bulldozed through during the Big Ten tourney will tell you, that's a scary sight. The Spartans were ranked second in the Associated Press' preseason poll, and right now they're playing like a team worthy of such a ranking.

    Adreian Payne and Keith Appling are the kinds of seniors that championship teams ride at this time of the year, and the Spartans' lineup as a whole is clicking right now. It wouldn't be much of a surprise to see MSU come out of the East, not with how it looked last weekend.

1. Louisville Cardinals

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    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 29-5

    Seed: No. 4 (Midwest Region)

    The defending national champions appear woefully underseeded, regardless of what the numbers might say regarding strength of schedule and RPI. The Cardinals didn't beat a ranked team until the last month of the season, but since then they've rolled over everyone they've faced, including a dominant run through the AAC tourney.

    Those back from the 2013 title team don't plan on making this tournament a victory lap, they want to go for the repeat. And the way senior guard Russ Smith has played of late, that's not a very far-fetched notion. 

    The No. 4 seeds, as a whole, appear to be very dangerous in this tournament, with all four reaching their conference finals and three taking the title. But Louisville stands out above the rest, not just because of what it did in the past but what it's been doing in the present.

     

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