NCAA Tournament 2016: Ranking the Biggest Bracket-Busters Through the 2nd Round

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 21, 2016

NCAA Tournament 2016: Ranking the Biggest Bracket-Busters Through the 2nd Round

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    Bracket-busters thrill some observers but annoy others.

    The bracket-buster is a spoiler, a team that knocks off a favored team that was expected to go deep into the NCAA tournament. The surprising result creates the kind of excitement the NCAA tournament is known for.

    But it also ruins the brackets of prognosticators or fans who had picked the beaten team to advance through several more rounds. People who filled out a bracket for fun or profit may see their chance for success foiled by a bracket-buster.

    The difference between a bracket-buster and a Cinderella is that any low-seeded team can bust a bracket. It does not have to be a little-known team from a low-profile conference, as is the case with a Cinderella. 

    We selected and ranked nine bracket-busters from the first week of the NCAA tournament. The rankings are based primarily on four elements:

    • How far the eliminated team was expected to advance.
    • How early in the tournament the favored team was ousted.
    • The discrepancy in the seeding between the bracket-buster and the losing favorite.
    • Whether the bracket-busting team advanced to the round of 16 and is capable of causing additional havoc.

    In one case, a team's surprising advancement to the round of 16 without producing any major upset was enough to earn it a spot in the rankings.

9. Northern Iowa

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    No. 11 seed Northern Iowa seemed destined for bracket-buster stardom with 44 seconds left in its second-round game against third-seeded Texas A&M. But somehow it all slipped away, leaving the Panthers at the tail end of our bracket-buster rankings.

    Virtually everyone knew Northern Iowa was capable of outperforming its seeding. After all, the Panthers had beaten North Carolina once and Wichita State twice this season, and had won 12 of their last 13 games heading into the NCAA tournament.

    However, virtually everyone also knew the Panthers were properly seeded considering they finished tied for fourth place in the Missouri Valley Conference and had a losing overall record as of Jan. 24 at 10-11.

    Northern Iowa busted a few brackets by taking out sixth-seeded Texas 75-72 on Paul Jesperson's half-court heave at the buzzer in the first round.

    And the Panthers had a bigger upset in the second round well in hand before it all fell apart. Northern Iowa had a 12-point lead over Texas A&M with just 44 seconds left, a margin that is almost impossible to fritter away. But the Panthers did let it get away in a 92-88 double-overtime loss.

    In a matter of 44 seconds, Northern Iowa went from being atop these bracket-buster rankings, with the capability of doing more damage next week, to the final spot on our list.

8. Yale

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    Yale would have been placed much higher in these bracket-buster rankings if it had completed its second-half rally against Duke and defeated the fourth-seeded Blue Devils in the second round.

    As it was, the the 12th-seeded Bulldogs barely squeaked in based on their opening-round victory over No. 5-seeded Baylor. The Bears had road victories this season over Texas and Iowa State, and they led Oklahoma with less than three minutes left in Norman.

    Baylor had the talent and experience to beat fourth-seeded Duke in a potential second-round game, and there was reason to believe Baylor could upset No. 1-seeded Oregon if they had met in the round of 16. That's because the Bears led Oregon with less than three minutes left on the Ducks' home court early in the season, so they figured to have a shot at beating Oregon on a neutral court.

    Baylor had not lost a single game this season to a team ranked outside the RPI Top 35, so the Bears were expected to handle an Ivy League team with an RPI of 44 in their NCAA tournament opener.

    Analysts who took all those results and scenarios into consideration when making their brackets were dealt a severe early blow when Baylor was eliminated in the first round.

    Yale's 79-75 victory over Baylor ended the Bears' chances of making an impact in the NCAA tournament.

7. Little Rock

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    Little Rock ended up in much the same situation as Yale, producing only moderate bracket damage with its single upset victory.

    The Trojans' first-round victory over Purdue probably harmed some brackets, not only because a No. 12 seed had eliminated a No. 5 seed but also because Purdue's late-season results suggested it could advance deep into the NCAA tournament.

    Those who took their bracket picks seriously no doubt noted that Purdue had won five of its last six games coming into the postseason. In that six-game span, the Boilermakers beat three teams that earned at-large NCAA tournament bids (Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan) and took Michigan State to the wire, trailing by just a point with less than two minutes left before losing by four in the Big Ten tournament title game.

    That supposed momentum was halted by Little Rock, which overcame a 14-point deficit with less than five minutes left to win 85-83 in double overtime.

    However, No. 5 seeds are seldom picked to reach the Final Four, especially with a high-profile No. 4 seed awaiting in the next round. So when the Trojans got thumped by fourth-seeded Iowa State in the second round, their lone win probably made only a modest impact on fans' brackets.

    Brackets may have been slightly bruised, but they were not busted.

6. Syracuse

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    Syracuse did not do anything remarkable to earn a spot on this bracket-buster list. It just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

    But the fact is the 10th-seeded Orange are in the Sweet 16, and double-digit seeds are not frequent Sweet 16 picksespecially when a team like Michigan State figured to be standing in the way.

    Syracuse had offered no hints that it would win two postseason games. It barely made it into the NCAA tournament at all, although Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said anyone who doubted that the Orange deserved to be in the tournament "obviously doesn't know anything about basketball," per CBSSports.com's Chip Patterson.

    It didn't take much knowledge to note that Syracuse had lost five of its final six games before the NCAA tournament and did not look like much of a postseason threat.

    The Orange turned it around in the NCAA tournament, playing two solid games. They knocked off seventh-seeded Dayton 70-51 in the first round, then benefited greatly from Middle Tennessee's first-round upset of second-seeded Michigan State, a heavy favorite to reach the Sweet 16.

    Syracuse took out the 15th-seeded Blue Raiders with ease to occupy the third-round spot expected to go to the Spartans.

    Syracuse's good fortune continues into the Sweet 16, as the Orange will meet a team seeded even lower than them, 11th-seeded Gonzaga. Syracuse is playing well enough to beat the Bulldogs, and its zone defense may be able neutralize Gonzaga's 6'11" Domantas Sabonis, who is averaging 20.0 points and 13.0 rebounds in the postseason.

    Syracuse's bracket-busting days may not be over, which is why it is ranked so high.

5. Hawaii

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    Certainly injuries to key California players played a role in 13th-seeded Hawaii's first-round upset of the fourth-seeded Golden Bears, but that did not prevent that result from causing significant damage to bracketsespecially for people who submitted their picks early last week.

    Unless a selector waited until Wednesday night to fill out his bracket, he or she would not have known that Cal point guard Tyrone Wallace, the team's leader in scoring and assists, had broken his hand on Wednesday morning and would not play in Friday's game against Hawaii. That information might have prompted some people to pick the Rainbow Warriors.

    But even the fortunate few who made their picks later in the week did not know that Cal starting guard Jabari Bird, a reliable perimeter threat who averaged 14.1 points over the final 10 games, would not play either after waking up with back spasms on Friday.

    Even with the absence of Wallace and Bird, Cal had a lineup that featured two projected NBA lottery picks (per ESPN.com's Chad Ford) in freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb.

    It is that wealth of individual talent that had helped the Bears win nine of their final 11 games and led some observers to believe Cal might do well in the NCAA tournament. Half of the 10 Sports Illustrated experts who filled out brackets had Cal reaching the Sweet 16.

    Hawaii simply outplayed Cal to record its first-ever NCAA tournament victory 77-66. Brown had just four points and seven turnovers before fouling out, and the Warriors never trailed after taking a 14-13 lead about eight minutes into the game.

    The Warriors were competitive in their second-round game against Maryland but could not hang with the Terps in the second half of a 73-60 loss to fifth-seeded Maryland.

4. Wisconsin

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    Perhaps teams seeded as high as No. 7, as Wisconsin is, should not be called bracket-busters this early in the tournament. But a No. 7 seed that knocks off a No. 2 seed in the second round can at least be called a bracket agitator, especially when it wins on a last-second shot.

    Xavier did not get much pre-tournament acclaim as a likely national champion, but as a No. 2 seed with a No. 9 national ranking, the Musketeers were certainly pegged to reach the Sweet 16 and probably more.

    Xavier had an easy time in polishing off No. 15-seeded Weber State in its opener, but it could not get past the Badgers, who improved significantly over the second half of the season.

    Wisconsin started the tournament slowly, getting behind Pittsburgh 18-6 before finding its footing and winning a rather ugly first-round game 47-43.

    The Badgers looked to be on the way out again in the second round, as Xavier held a nine-point lead with six minutes remaining. The Musketeers could not hang on, but it took two big-time shots by Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig to eliminate Xavier. Koenig hit a long three-pointer with 11.7 seconds left to tie the game, then hit a difficult three-point shot at the buzzer to win it 66-63.

    And the Badgers' late-season revival suggests they have bracket-buster potential left in them. Following a Jan. 12 loss to Northwestern, the Badgers were 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten.

    They seemed to be heading nowhere under new coach Greg Gard, who was 2-4 at that point after taking over for retired Bo Ryan.

    The Badgers are 13-3 since then and rolling.

    Add that momentum to the fact that Koenig, who was 3-for-17 on three-pointers in Wisconsin's three previous games, regained his shooting touch with six treys on Sunday, and you have a team that will give sixth-seeded Notre Dame all it can handle in the third round.

    The Badgers know what they are doing at this stage of the season, as their 15-5 record in the NCAA tournament over the past six seasons can attest.

3. Stephen F. Austin

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    Stephen F. Austin came within 1.5 seconds of being the top bracket-buster of the opening weekend.

    However, with 1.5 seconds remaining in Sunday's second-round game, No. 6-seeded Notre Dame scored the winning basket in its 76-75 victory over 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin, erasing the Lumberjacks' chance to become just the fourth team seeded 14th or lower to reach the NCAA tournament's third round.

    The Lumberjacks had assured themselves a spot on this list by beating No. 3-seeded West Virginia in the first round. The Mountaineers were expected to advance deep into the NCAA tournament, with a berth in the championship game not out of the question.

    After all, the Mountaineers were ranked No. 8 in the final regular-season Associated Press Top 25 poll, had finished in second place in the tough Big 12 behind only No. 1-ranked Kansas and had reached the Big 12 tournament final before losing to the Jayhawks. That loss to Kansas was West Virginia's only defeat in its final seven games, a run that included wins over Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma. 

    Those who picked West Virginia to reach the Elite Eight or Final Four had evidence to support that choice.

    Meanwhile, Stephen F. Austin's capabilities were hidden from casual observers because it played in the low-profile Southland Conference, along with the likes of Incarnate Word and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

    Those in the know were aware of the Lumberjacks' potential. Two starters from this season's Lumberjacks team, Thomas Walkup and Trey Pinkney, were starters on the 2014 team that upset fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in the NCAA tournament's first round.

    And nearly every player was back from last year's Stephen F. Austin team that lost to fifth-seeded Utah by seven points.

    Stephen F. Austin simply outplayed West Virginia, using its effective double-teaming defense and 33 points from two-time Southland Player of the Year Walkup to post a convincing 70-56 victory, causing significant damage to many brackets.

    The Lumberjacks could not quite get past the Irish in the second round despite holding a five-point lead with less than two minutes remaining.

    Perhaps the most disappointing element of Stephen F. Austin's last-second defeat was that the Lumberjacks could have continued busting brackets next weekend.

2. Gonzaga

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    Gonzaga has returned to its bracket-busting roots.

    Few knew anything about the school from Spokane, Washington, in 1999 and 2000, when 10th-seeded Gonzaga beat teams seeded No. 7, No. 2 and No. 6 in succession to reach the Elite Eight both years.

    Those were the days when Gonzaga needed to win its conference tournament to earn an NCAA tournament berth. Since then, the Bulldogs have built a reputation as a perennial national power.

    However, the 2015-2016 regular season was a disappointing one for the Bulldogs, who started the season ranked No. 9 but were so unimpressive that they needed to win the West Coast Conference tournament just to get into the NCAA tournament, where they were seeded 11th.

    It was like the old days, and so were the Bulldogs' results in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

    Gonzaga's wins over No. 6-seeded Seton Hall and No. 3-seeded Utah in the first two rounds were not stunning results, given the talent the Bulldogs have available in Kyle Wiltjer and Domantis Sabonis.

    However, two factors put these Bulldogs near the top of these bracket-buster rankings.

    First of all, teams seeded 11th are not expected to get to the Sweet 16, and any time a double-digit seed knocks off a No. 3 seed to reach the second weekend, it messes up a lot of brackets. Few are willing to pencil an 11th-seeded team into the Sweet 16.

    Second, Gonzaga carries additional bracket-busting potential into the next round. Not only did the Bulldogs beat Seton Hall and Utah, but they dominated both games, winning by a combined margin of 39 points. Gonzaga now resembles the team it was expected to be when the season started, and with 10th-seeded Syracuse awaiting the round of 16, the Bulldogs have a reasonable chance to reach the Elite Eight again.

    A Final Four berth does not seem out of the question for Gonzaga, and that would destroy brackets across the country.

1. Middle Tennessee

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    Middle Tennessee State busted more brackets in one glorious game than any other team could manage in two.

    Michigan State was one of the leading candidates to win the 2016 NCAA tournament. The Detroit Free Press reported that the Spartans were made tournament favorites by some oddsmakers, and the newspaper noted that analysts were stunned when Michigan State, which was ranked No. 2 in the final regular-season Associated Press poll, was not a No. 1 seed.

    So brackets that had Michigan State going all the way went up in smoke when the Big Ten powerhouse with a tradition of postseason success was ousted in the first round by a 15th-seeded team that finished three games out of first place in Conference USA.

    Middle Tennessee had lost to Georgia State, Marshall and Western Kentucky during the season, while the Spartans were riding a nine-game winning streak that included victories over Indiana, Wisconsin, Maryland and Purdue.

    But Middle Tennessee jumped out to a 15-2 lead in their first-round matchup and answered every Michigan State challenge in the closing minutes.

    The Blue Raiders' 90-81 victory over Michigan State represented the eighth time a No. 2 seed lost to a No. 15 seed. However, this result may have been the biggest bracket-buster ever based on the expectations for the Spartans.

    ESPN.com received more than 13 million entries in its NCAA tournament selection competition. After Michigan State lost, only six had perfect brackets

    The Spartans were picked to reach the Elite Eight by 80.9 percent of the entrants, the highest percentage of any team. They were picked to reach the Final Four in 66.9 percent of the brackets, and 22.3 percent of the entrants picked Michigan State to win it all.

    When Michigan State lost its opener, a lot of brackets were busted in a hurry.

    The Blue Raiders were unable to parlay that upset into a berth in the Sweet 16, as they lost decisively to 10th-seeded Syracuse 75-50 in the second round. But the damage had already been done to many brackets.