10 Teams Built to Bust Brackets in the 2018 NCAA Tournament
The Nevada Wolf Pack have only made it to the second weekend of the men's NCAA tournament once in program history (2004), but could this transfer-heavy bunch bust everyone's bracket by reaching the Final Four?
Last week, we took a look at some sleepers to watch out for in the tournament. But those were the at-large candidates from projected multi-bid leagues.
As promised in that piece, these are the teams from likely one-bid leagues who could be more than just one-hit wonders.
Teams are ranked in ascending order of how dangerous they are, which is based on a combination of star players and quality wins.
10. Vermont Catamounts
Star Player: Trae Bell-Haynes takes the cake in this spot, averaging around 15 points, four assists and four rebounds per game. He isn't much of a three-point shooter and he has occasional turnover woes, but he always seems to produce in spite of any flaws.
Second Fiddle: Anthony Lamb was Vermont's star before suffering a fractured foot at the end of December. Per ESPN's Jeff Goodman, he should be back in time for the start of the postseason, though, at which point he might be the second fiddle for the Catamounts. Until we know for sure that he'll be back, let's go with Drew Urquhart in this spot. The senior has accounted for 13.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.6 blocks per conference game.
Best Team Performance: Vermont was a three-point buzzer-beater away from winning a neutral-court game against St. Bonaventure, but its best game might have been the season opener against Kentucky. The Catamounts rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit in Rupp Arena and had multiple chances to tie the game in the final two minutes, only to fall short in a 73-69 thriller. Even at the time, it felt like a No. 5 vs. No. 12 type of first-round affair.
March Madness Ceiling: As was the case last year, Vermont is going to be a trendy first-round upset pick. Thanks to 17 wins in the last 18 games, the Catamounts are probably headed for a No. 13 seed. Against the proper No. 4 seed, they might be a five-point underdog. And if Lamb returns to peak form in a hurry, they might even win one game and put up a heck of a fight in the second round.
9. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Star Player: One of the reasons Virginia didn't appear in the preseason AP Top 25 is because it lost Darius Thompson as a graduate transfer to Western Kentucky. It's impressive that the Cavaliers have been this good despite playing without a guard averaging 14.8 points, 4.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds in his new home. Thompson had a triple-double (33 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in early January in a statement win at Marshall.
Second Fiddle: Justin Johnson is nothing if not consistent. The 6'7" forward averaged 14.9 points and 7.9 rebounds as a sophomore, 14.5 and 9.4 as a junior and is averaging 14.8 and 9.4 as a senior this season. It doesn't make headlines, but it's a heck of a Perry Ellis-like security blanket to know your power forward is going to give you something productive every night.
Best Team Performance: The biggest no-brainer for this category on the whole list, Western Kentucky knocked off Purdue in the Battle 4 Atlantis, just one day after the Hilltoppers gave Villanova a run for its money. And there's nothing outlandish in that box score. Western Kentucky didn't shoot 80 percent from three-point range. Purdue didn't miss every shot it took. No one dominated the turnover or foul battle. The Hilltoppers simply outplayed a title contender on a neutral floor.
March Madness Ceiling: Step No. 1 is actually getting into the tournament. The win over Purdue was great; however, Western Kentucky negated it with four Quadrant 3 losses. There's still an outside shot at an at-large bid, but the Hilltoppers are probably in "auto bid or bust" territory.
If they sneak in, though, they could steal at least one game. Possibly winning one game in the tournament is a far cry from the expectations when Rick Stansbury signed Mitchell Robinson. To be in this position without his ever playing a game is rather incredible.
8. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Star Player: Mike Daum isn't just the best player for the Jackrabbits. He's one of the best offensive weapons in the entire country. The Dauminator is averaging 23.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, and he has already put up at least 30 points 11 times this season. The big man is almost unstoppable once he gets the ball in the low post, but he's also a career 42 percent three-point shooter and 85 percent free-throw shooter.
Second Fiddle: Daum was also incredible last season, but the reason South Dakota State couldn't consistently win games was that Batman had no Robin. This year, the Jackrabbits have David Jenkins Jr., a freshman shooting guard averaging 15.9 points per game. SDSU is 22-1 when Jenkins scores more than 10 points, and the lone exception was a double-overtime road game against Colorado.
Best Team Performance: Though they didn't win the game, the Jackrabbits put up an impressive fight at Wichita State back in early December. They led 50-42 at the half before the Shockers finally flipped the switch for a 95-85 victory. And that was back before South Dakota State realized what it had in Jenkins, as he came off the bench and scored a season-low three points. The Jackrabbits also won games away from home against Ole Miss, Buffalo and Iowa.
March Madness Ceiling: This team is a disaster on defense. South Dakota State allowed at least 95 points in four of five games against teams from the seven major conferences. Thus, the ceiling for the Jackrabbits just depends on when they first run into a team that can find its offensive rhythm on a neutral court. But if they get a No. 12 or No. 13 seed, it's not outlandish to think they could knock off a No. 4 and/or No. 5 seed that backs its way into the tournament.
7. South Dakota Coyotes
Star Player: For the second straight year, former Air Force transfer Matt Mooney is the top dog for the Coyotes. Mooney averages 18.2 points per game, but he's also one of the top passers (3.1 assists) and easily the best on-ball defender (2.0 steals) on the roster.
Second Fiddle: The strength of South Dakota's scoring attack is its diversity. Six different players are averaging at least 7.0 points per game, and if and when Carlton Hurst returns from injury, he'll be the seventh such member of the rotation. But the primary supplement to Mooney is big man Tyler Hagedorn. For his size (6'10"), he's an above-average three-point (36.7) and free-throw shooter (82.3), which has enabled him to score at least 14 points in better than half of South Dakota's games.
Best Team Performance: The best win of the season was the 87-68 rivalry shellacking of South Dakota State, but the best performance was either the five-point loss at TCU or the three-point loss at UCLA. South Dakota challenged itself in nonconference play and proved on multiple occasions that it has the chops to battle a tournament-caliber high-major.
March Madness Ceiling: This team is good enough to win one game, but two seems unlikely, given its lack of quality wins throughout the season. South Dakota would probably be looking at a No. 14 seed, and it would not be intimidated by the No. 3 seed that it draws. A repeat of 2014 Mercer could be possible, in which this team pulls off an emotional first-round upset before laying an egg 48 hours later. (Luckily for Duke, it already played South Dakota during the regular season, so it wouldn't be the one facing this Mercer copycat.)
6. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
Star Player: BYU transfer Frank Bartley IV leads the team in scoring while South Carolina transfer Marcus Stroman runs the point and averages better than six assists, but the biggest star is one of the guys Louisiana originally signed out of high school—Bryce Washington. This team's biggest strength is offensive rebounding, and he's the leader in that department with 10.7 rebounds per game (3.6 offensive). He's also No. 2 on the roster in assists (2.1), steals (1.4) and blocks (0.9), filling up the box score on a nightly basis.
Second Fiddle: In addition to the two transfers listed above, Missouri transfer Jakeenan Gant has been a godsend for the Ragin' Cajuns. He's putting up 14.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. Gant is responsible for more than 50 percent of the shots Louisiana has blocked as an entire team. When he and Washington are both playing well, the duo of versatile big men makes it feel like UL Lafayette has six guys on the floor.
Best Team Performance: Louisiana was blown out by 29 at Clemson in its lone Quadrant 1 game. So, its best performance was a 25-point road win over Nicholls State, which isn't saying much. If NSU gets into the tournament, it would likely be a No. 16 seed. Complete lack of quality opportunities is easily the biggest red flag for Louisiana.
March Madness Ceiling: Though this team got destroyed in its one chance to prove something, there's still cause for optimism. Louisiana's roster is loaded with veterans, several of whom transferred in from high-major programs. (We haven't even mentioned guard Malik Marquetti from USC yet.) There's more than enough talent here to knock off at least one quality foe, and there's not a clear weakness on this KenPom profile. If you like to pick at least one No. 12 or No. 13 seed to reach the Sweet 16, this is one of the best options.
5. Boise State Broncos
Star Player: It's absurd how good Chandler Hutchison is. He missed one game early in the season and played sparingly in the two games surrounding it, yet he leads the Broncos in total points, rebounds, assists and steals. In conference play, he's averaging 22.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 39 percent from beyond the arc. He might be a lottery pick, and he's going to be a serious problem if the Broncos can make the tournament.
Second Fiddle: Early in the season, the obvious answer here was Justinian Jessup, but he has regressed a bit against Mountain West foes. Christian Sengfelder, though, has been an excellent sidekick to Hutchison. This 6'9" senior also has a 38 percent stroke from three-point range and enters the final week of the regular season tied with Hutchison in total rebounds in league play (112 each). It's primarily because of this duo that the Broncos lead the nation in defensive rebound percentage, per KenPom.
Best Team Performance: Boise State annihilated Loyola-Chicago 87-53 back in late November, but just as impressive was the 73-70 road win over Oregon a few days later. Granted, the Ducks aren't anywhere near as good as they had been for the past few years, but that was the moment where Boise State's argument for an at-large bid began.
March Madness Ceiling: Everyone on this team rebounds, and there are five legitimate three-point shooters in the primary seven-man rotation. The Broncos also defend well and do so without fouling often. They don't have great odds of making the tournament as an at-large and would likely need to beat Nevada in the MWC championship to get an auto bid. But if Boise State can get into the dance, it can win a game or two. The Broncos only have one Q1 win on the season, but they've also only been badly beaten once all year. Worst-case scenario, they put up a valiant fight in a first-round loss.
4. New Mexico State Aggies
Star Player: Zach Lofton averaged 11.3 points per game as a freshman at Illinois State back in 2013-14. Last season, he put up 16.8 points per game at Texas Southern. Currently, he's averaging 19.3 points (and 5.0 rebounds) for New Mexico State. He doesn't stay anywhere for long, but this guy can ball.
Second Fiddle: New Mexico State has a knack for finding rebounding machines. A few years ago, it was Pascal Siakam. Now, it's Jemerrio Jones, who averages 12.7 rebounds in just 28.2 minutes per game—even though he's a 6'5" forward who leads the team in assists (3.4). Jones grabbed exactly 20 rebounds in three consecutive games earlier this month and had a career-high 27 points against Grand Canyon in the third one.
Best Team Performance: Without a doubt, New Mexico State's best showing of the year was the win over Miami in the Diamond Head Classic. That might not seem like much now that the Hurricanes are a bubble team, but at the time, it was a neutral-court win over a 10-0 team.
March Madness Ceiling: New Mexico State has been fool's gold far too often. The Aggies almost upset No. 4 seed San Diego State in 2014, but they are 0-9 in the NCAA tournament dating back to 1994. It's not a fair way to assess this year's team, but it's why it will be so difficult to trust a team that—until recent losses to Utah Valley and Seattle—looked the part of a bracket-buster. Assuming they get in as a No. 12 or No. 13 seed, though, the Aggies could defend their way to the second weekend.
3. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Star Player: Five Ramblers are averaging at least 10 points per game, but there's no question which one is the most valuable. Clayton Custer—a former transfer from Iowa State—leads the team in scoring, assists and steals at 14.2, 4.2 and 1.7, respectively. And when he missed five games earlier this season with an ankle injury, Loyola suffered three of its five total losses. He shoots 46.2 percent from three-point range, and since returning, he scored at least 11 points in 14 straight games.
Second Fiddle: Cameron Krutwig is the No. 2 player this team couldn't function without. The 6'9" freshman leads the team in rebounds and blocks—albeit with just 19 blocks on the season—and is the only Rambler taller than 6'6" who gets legitimate minutes. Depending on the frontcourt strength of the opponent, Krutwig could be indispensable.
Best Team Performance: Hands down, Loyola-Chicago's claim to 2017-18 fame was the road win over Florida in early December. The Gators simply could not buy a bucket, shooting 2-of-19 from three-point range in the 65-59 loss. But the Ramblers put pressure on Florida right away, draining four triples in the first 10 minutes in jumping out to a 27-14 lead.
March Madness Ceiling: This is a well-rounded team loaded with veterans. The Ramblers have two seniors and two redshirt juniors in the top four in scoring. And since getting Custer back to full strength, a two-point loss to Bradley is the only thing standing between Loyola-Chicago and the nation's longest winning streak.
No one wants to be the No. 5 seed matched up against Porter Moser's bunch, because they are certain to be the trendy pick for a first-round upset, no matter their draw. The Ramblers probably aren't good enough to knock off a No. 1 seed to reach the Elite Eight, but they're good enough to face one in the Sweet 16.
2. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Star Player: Nick King was a top-50 recruit in 2013. It only took five years and three schools, but he's finally living up to that billing, averaging 21.5 points and 8.3 rebounds, leading the Blue Raiders in both categories by a wide margin. He has scored at least 20 points in 18 of 28 games and is going to be a matchup nightmare for the unfortunate team(s) on Middle Tennessee's path to the second weekend.
Second Fiddle: The best name in college basketball still resides at Middle Tennessee—Giddy Potts. The three-point specialist isn't converting anywhere near as often this year (39.0 percent) as he did two years ago (50.6 percent) when MTSU stunned Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. But he's still a darn fine shooter and the second-leading scorer on this team. He has drained multiple triples in 23 games this season.
Best Team Performance: It's a tough call here, which is a testament to how dangerous MTSU is. The Blue Raiders have three RPI Top 100 wins, as well as a pair of victories over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. They also played nail-biters against USC and Miami on a neutral court in Hawaii. But give me the 76-70 loss to Auburn in Alabama. King played arguably his worst game of the season (12 points on 13 shots, seven turnovers), and they still almost won a de facto road game against a team that was in the conversation for a No. 1 seed until a few days ago.
March Madness Ceiling: It's beyond difficult to envision this team winning the national championship, but it would also be foolish to imply there's any ceiling here. Middle Tennessee won one game in each of the last two NCAA tournaments, and this might be Kermit Davis Jr.'s best team yet. The draw will obviously be key, but this is a No. 11 or No. 12 seed that should get serious looks as a Sweet 16 team; maybe even the Elite Eight.
1. Nevada Wolf Pack
Star Player: Caleb and Cody Martin transferred to Nevada from North Carolina State, and there's an argument to be had over who's the star and who's the sidekick. We've got Cody as the star, though. He's fourth on the team in scoring at 13.5 points per game, but he's second in rebounds (6.4), second in assists (4.0), first in steals (1.6) and first in blocks (1.4). He's the rock in the paint the Wolf Pack could least afford to lose.
Second Fiddle: Caleb Martin has been stellar in his own right, leading the team with 19.2 points per game while shooting 43.3 percent from downtown. He's also top three in rebounds (5.1), assists (2.4) and steals (1.3). In addition to these two transfers, Jordan Caroline (17.0 points, 8.7 rebounds) and Kendall Stephens (13.8 points) also began their careers elsewhere before becoming top producers for the Wolf Pack.
Best Team Performance: All the way back in the first week of the season, Nevada scored an impressive home win over Rhode Island. Despite all the talent on the roster, we weren't sure how well it would all come together. Martins, Stephens and Hallice Cooke had never played a regular-season game for the Wolf Pack, but it became quickly apparent that this was going to be one of the best mid-majors in the nation.
March Madness Ceiling: As with Middle Tennessee, imposing any sort of cap here would be silly. A championship run is rather unlikely, but if you think this team isn't at least capable of beating just about any team in the country, you haven't watched Nevada enough this season.
The Wolf Pack did recently lose Lindsey Drew for the season to an Achilles injury, which makes it a lot tougher to blindly say this team should reach the Sweet 16. But keep an eye on them in these final few games. If they look OK at point guard, there's still more than enough high-major talent here to possibly make a run to the Final Four.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.