NCAA Tournament 2017: Ranking the Biggest Bracket Busters Through the 2nd Round

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2017

NCAA Tournament 2017: Ranking the Biggest Bracket Busters Through the 2nd Round

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    Looking for someone—or some teams—to blame for ruining that perfect NCAA tournament bracket you constructed a few days ago? Look no further.

    With the opening weekend of the 2017 tourney in the books and the Sweet 16 set, we can separate the remaining teams into two categories: the ones we expected to be here and those who have crashed the party, not concerned with seeding or projections.

    Seven of the 16 remaining schools are seeded fifth or lower, meaning they technically shouldn't still be alive, but they had other plans. In doing so, they've messed with quite a few brackets, as was the case with the handful of lower-seeded teams that won in the first round.

    We've ranked all of these bracket busters based on how likely they are to have wrecked things, using pick statistics from ESPN's Tournament Challenge as a barometer. 

7. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

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    Ever since shocking No. 2-seed Michigan State in last year's NCAA tournament, Middle Tennessee has been a name to remember, though it's understandable if the casual basketball fan didn't closely track the Blue Raiders throughout the regular season. When the 2017 tourney field was announced, though, seeing MTSU as a No. 12 seed against No. 5 Minnesota instantly set off "upset" alarms.

    And a near majority of bracket-fillers agreed, with 42.9 percent of ESPN Tournament Challenge entrants selecting MTSU over Minnesota. But that still means more than 57 percent ended up kicking themselves for not remembering that a 12th seed had beaten a fifth seed in eight of the previous nine NCAA tourneys.

    The Blue Raiders made it look easy, actually, leading almost wire to wire in winning 81-72. They weren't able to keep that run going against No. 4 Butler, though, falling 74-65 to finish with a 31-5 record.

6. Rhode Island Rams

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    How long had it been since Rhode Island made the NCAA tournament? Let's put it this way: It was before that state became best known for a foul-mouthed fictional family and its talking dog.

    The Rams' previous appearance was in 1999, the same year Family Guy premiered on Fox and forever changed how we view the Ocean State.

    And they weren't content just being there this year, either. As an 11 seed they easily beat No. 6 Creighton 84-72 and then nearly knocked off third-seeded Oregon. It led much of that second-round game before falling 75-72, missing out on the Rams' first Sweet 16 since 1998.

    Rhode Island (25-10) needed to get hot late just to ensure itself a bid, winning its last eight games prior to the NCAA tourney, including all three in the Atlantic 10 tournament to win that title. It began the season in the Associated Press Top 25 but was out of the rankings by December and was a paltry 12-7 in late January.

    Knocking off Creighton impacted more than 60 percent of ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets but beating Oregon would have done even more damage. The Ducks were Sweet 16 entrants on 70.7 percent of brackets with 11 percent of those having them in the Final Four.

5. USC Trojans

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    The First Four round was added to the NCAA tournament in 2011 when the field expanded from 65 to 68 teams, and every year since, at least one of the at-large squads sent to Dayton for those play-in games has advanced to the round of 32. USC is the latest after it followed up a win over Providence by taking out No. 6 SMU.

    And the Trojans (26-10) nearly went one step further, leading No. 3 Baylor by two with under five minutes left before falling 82-78 to end their run. That game saw them rally from down 10 during the first half, meaning had they held on for victory it would have been their 14th double-digit comeback of 2016-17. That includes their wins over Providence and SMU.

    Winning those first two games wasn't widely expected, with only 18.4 percent of ESPN brackets having USC getting past the first round. That number dropped to 4.8 percent that thought the Trojans could make the Sweet 16 while 53.2 percent of bracket holders are relieved to see Baylor survive.

4 Xavier Musketeers

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    A six-game losing streak late in the regular season put Xavier (23-13) in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, but it squeaked in as a No. 11 seed after reaching the Big East tourney final. The loss of point guard Edmond Sumner to a torn ACL significantly impacted the Musketeers' chances of making a deep postseason run.

    Or so we thought. Xavier is back in the Sweet 16 after taking out two higher-seeded opponents, first No. 6 Maryland and then No. 3 Florida State. The number of ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets that had the Musketeers pulling off that combo (or at least winning twice to get this far): 15.3 percent.

    Sumner's absence has been somewhat negated by the play of freshman Quentin Goodin, who has a combined 15 points and 14 assists in two NCAA games, but Xavier's best player has also taken on a bigger load. Junior guard Trevon Bluiett is averaging 25 points per game in the tourney and has made 8-of-15 three-pointers.

    Next up for the Musketeers: No. 2 Arizona, which eliminated them from the Sweet 16 two years ago. Win that game and they'll have really busted some brackets, since only 3.2 percent of entries have Xavier in the Elite Eight, while more than 37 percent have the Wildcats getting to at least the Final Four.

3. Michigan Wolverines

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    For the "there's no such thing as momentum" crowd, we present to you Michigan. Few teams entered the NCAA tournament hotter than the Wolverines, who had won five straight, including four in four days, to take the Big Ten championship.

    Oh, they also had to survive a plane crash when their charter flight to Washington, D.C., for the Big Ten tourney slid off the runway because of high winds. After going through something like that, playing basketball must feel so inconsequential. Instead, it became a rallying cry for a team that was 14-9 in early February but has since won 12 of 14.

    "We’re just trying to have fun, a lot more fun," junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said, per the Louisville Courier-Journal. "Before maybe things were a little bit serious, talk about being on the bubble maybe or being in the NCAA tournament. Since then, I think that we're just trying to have more fun."

    Seventh-seeded Michigan (26-11) has had to play two distinctly different games to get this far, first outlasting No. 10 Oklahoma State, 92-91, in a shootout and then taking down No. 2 Louisville, 73-69, in a far more defensive-minded game.

    And in knocking out the Cardinals—in addition to avenging a loss to them in the 2013 national title game—the Wolverines wreaked havoc on a slew of brackets. Per ESPN, more than 47 percent of its Tournament Challenge entries had Louisville going to at least the Elite Eight, with nearly 20 percent having it in the Final Four.

2. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    The Gamecocks didn't start the East Region fire, it was already churning when it burned that corner of the bracket to the ground with Sunday night's upset of Duke.

    Chaos had already hit the East—more on that with the next slide—when No. 7 South Carolina (24-10) took the court in front of a decidedly friendly crowd in Greenville. This was the case in the second half when it scored a whopping 65 points to turn a seven-point halftime deficit into an 88-81 victory over the second-seeded Blue Devils.

    That came after the Gamecocks dropped 93 against Marquette in the first round. Not bad for a team that was averaging less than 67 points per game entering the NCAA tourney.

    Despite playing just over 100 miles from home, few people thought South Carolina could get to its first Sweet 16 since 1973. A mere 4.8 percent of ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets had it going that far.

1. Wisconsin Badgers

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    When you take out the defending national champion and top overall seed in the tournament, you blow right past bracket-buster status to a completely different label: bracket annihilator.

    Villanova was the second-most popular pick to win it all this year, per ESPN, filling that final line on 13 percent of brackets. That's in addition to being in more than a quarter of title-game pairings, 41 percent of Final Fours, 74 percent of Elite Eights and 86 percent of Sweet 16s. All of that went out the window when eighth-seeded Wisconsin took out the Wildcats in the round of 32, making 'Nova the 10th consecutive defending champ to bow out by the Sweet 16 (or earlier) of the following tourney.

    Only a little more than nine percent of brackets had the Badgers (27-9) in the Sweet 16, and we can only assume Wisconsin fans filled out the majority of those. The rest probably put a lot of stock in the amount of tournament experience they had on the roster, since several players were part of the Final Four team from 2014 and the squad that played Duke for the national title in 2015.

    Wisconsin's seniors are now 13-3 in the NCAA tournament with four Sweet 16s and two Final Fours, so it won't be a shock to see it continue advancing. That means getting past No. 4 Florida in the East Region semifinals Friday.

    All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com, unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.