The upset is arguably the greatest part of March Madness. Three years ago, Florida Gulf Coast became the first no. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16. The Eagles stunned no. 2 Georgetown in the opening round and followed that up by knocking off no. 7 San Diego State. FGCU captured our collective attention and put “Dunk City” (aka Ft. Myers, FL.) on the map. If you’re a college basketball fan, indubitably, you remember that magical run. But do you remember who won the National Championship that year? (Hint: rumor has it, they throw a wild party.)
We all love Cinderella but the real fun is trying to find her before she emerges. Let’s take a look at a double-digit seed from each region that’s capable of making a run in this year’s tournament.
South Region: #11 Wichita State
It hardly seems fair to put a long-shot label on the Shockers. This is a great basketball program and is now an annual participant in the Big Dance. Head coach Gregg Marshall has built a consistent winner and has two senior, All-American-caliber guards leading his team (point guard Fred VanVleet and shooting guard Ron Baker).
WSU opens as a three-point favorite against Vanderbilt in a Tuesday night play-in game. Neither team lived up to preseason expectations but the Shockers have a solid excuse: VanVleet was injured throughout the team’s early season struggles. Perhaps a stunning loss to Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley tournament was a final wake-up call for WSU. This team went to the Sweet 16 last year and the Final Four in 2013. They’re focused on peaking in March once again.
The Vandy match-up is favorable for Wichita State. Each team is guard-oriented and plays great defense. However, the Shockers are more experienced, apply more effective defensive pressure, and are better at rebounding the ball. The Commodores live and die by the three-point shot and will need to make a high percentage to win. That’s not likely against the pesky D of the Shockers.
If Wichita gets by Vandy, no. 6 Arizona awaits on Thursday night in Providence. This is another winnable game for WSU. Defensive pressure would be a constant nuisance for the Wildcats. The question would be if Wichita could control the pace enough to limit Arizona’s overwhelming size advantage on the interior. Arizona would be a small favorite but this match-up wouldn’t be decided until the final minutes.
Miami would be a difficult draw in the Round of 32. VanVleet and Baker would have to shoot the lights out in order to keep up with the Canes.
West Region: #10 VCU
VCU is another established program which is no stranger to success in March. The 2011, Rams went all the way to the Final Four under former coach Shaka Smart. Will Wade was the assistant coach on that team before heading to UT Chattanooga where he built a winner in the Southern Conference. Wade is back in Richmond and has enjoyed success as the first-year head coach of the Rams.
The VCU trademark is a smothering defense which applies constant pressure. Opening-round opponent Oregon State is well equipped to handle the pressure and should do an adequate job of returning the favor. Both teams will have to work on offense but should be able to take care of the basketball and get consistently good shots. This ball game could come down to experience and rebounding ability. The Rams have advantages in both.
A potential second-round match-up with no. 2 Oklahoma is also somewhat favorable for VCU. The Rams would have a tough time scoring but could neutralize the potent perimeter attack of OU with their team quickness. The Sooners probably win in the end but not before a gruelling 40-minute struggle.
East: #12 Chattanooga
Will Wade left a stacked roster of skilled vets when he headed back to VCU. First-year coach Matt McCall has stepped in and led the Mocs to a 29-5 record along with regular-season and conference championships in the Southern. McCall is a former Billy Donovan assistant and has proven to be a perfect fit in Chattanooga. His roster features a rotation of upperclassmen that excel defensively. (2012 Norfolk State, anyone?) The greatest strength of this squad is togetherness and chemistry. They’ve played as a unit for three full seasons and are poised for a successful showing in the NCAA tournament.
Chattanooga will not be able to match no. 5 Indiana’s offensive potency in the opening round. However, the Hoosiers are prone to turning the ball over which may prove to be a decisive advantage for the Mocs. These teams match-up relatively equally in team speed and length. The Mocs can win if they prevent IU from going on extensive scoring runs.
If the Indiana upset happens, Kentucky will be waiting for the Mocs in the second round. That’s a terrible match-up, but hey, it’s March and Chattanooga won’t fear the Wildcats.
Midwest: #12 Arkansas Little Rock
Purdue coach Matt Painter cannot be happy about drawing the Trojans in the opening round. UALR won at San Diego St. and played competitively at Texas Tech before dominating the Sun Belt Conference. Their rotation is filled with juniors and seniors who know they can hang with anybody in the country. The Trojans should be seeded higher and will expose Purdue’s vulnerabilities.
The Boilermakers have an overwhelming size and skill advantage inside, but Little Rock has the edge on the perimeter. UALR coach Chris Beard will need to be creative with personnel and keep his defense swarming in order to frustrate the PU big men. The Trojans should be able to find open looks from three-point land; if they knock down enough of them, they’ll find themselves playing Iowa St. in another winnable game for a berth in the Sweet 16.
(Photo credit: TonyTheTiger [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo may appear cropped.)