First-round upsets are something of a formality in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Like clockwork, a mid-major school or two will knock off a Top 25-level team in the first round. And if things fall the right way, they just might make their way to the second weekend of March Madness and the Sweet 16.
But what does it take to be a true contender from outside one of the top three or four seed lines? There's a bit of luck involved, especially for teams that end up drawing another double-digit seed in the round of 32. But there doesn't seem to be any tried-and-true formula for winning as an underdog in the NCAA tournament.
Shaka Smart's 2011 VCU team did it with a suffocating full-court defense. Kentucky—never known as an underdog—made a run to the national championship in 2014 despite losing first-round picks Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin to injury during the regular season. In 2018, Loyola-Chicago didn't do any one thing particularly dominant on its run to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed but instead just strung together a few good-enough performances to pull off a series of upsets.
But each year, it seems someone fires on all cylinders at the right time and, with a combination of that and fortuitous matchups, makes its Cinderella run. In the past seven Final Fours, at least one team has come from outside a top-four seed line. And since 2011, six Final Four teams have been seeded No. 8 or lower.
So who should we be on the lookout for this year?
Typically you wouldn't refer to the national champions as underrated, but that's exactly what the Cavaliers have been this year. Gone are Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De'Andre Hunter, sure. But Tony Bennett's squad boasts national title experience and one of the most physically imposing trios in college basketball in Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff and Braxton Key.
Add in dangerous, diminutive guard Kihei Clark, a dash of suffocating defense and Bennett's coaching chops, and the Cavaliers have a recipe for a surprise Final Four run that, in many ways, wouldn't be all that surprising.
Mick Cronin's squad was left for dead by nearly everyone as recently as February—and for good reason. The Bruins were 12-11 in a very mediocre Pac-12 and seemed to have no direction. A few weeks later, and they have reeled off seven wins in eight games, barely losing to USC on Saturday night. They do much of their work by committee, with six players averaging at least 6.8 points per game.
There are few things as inexplicable or as powerful in basketball as a momentum swing, and that's what Cronin's group has on their hands. The Bruins' new-found confidence and balanced offense could spell trouble for teams come March Madness.
Is BYU underrated as projected No. 5 seed? Ask Gonzaga. The Cougars boast the best three-point shooting team in the country, and Mark Few's squad saw it on display during a 91-78 beatdown in Provo, Utah, in late February.
First-year head coach Mark Pope's squad has won nine straight heading into the West Coast Conference semifinals. And if they win, they will get another shot at the likely No.1-seeded Bulldogs in the final.
If you can imagine what Jimmer Fredette did in 2011 when he led BYU to the Sweet 16, picture an entire team shooting better than 42 percent from beyond the arc. If BYU can get hot and maintain that for a few games in the Big Dance, look out.
Follow Keegan on Twitter, @ByKeeganPope.