2014 March Madness Handicapping: Possible Sweet 16 Surprises
by Trevor Whenham - 3/18/2014
There aren’t more than four people on his planet that really, truly believed that Florida Gulf Coast was capable of making the Sweet 16 last year, yet there they were. And so was No. 13 La Salle. And No 12 Oregon. And No. 9 Wichita State, for that matter. All teams that few expected realistically to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Every year, though, there are some surprise teams that break through and grab some glory. In most cases they run out of gas, get thinking too much in their time off, and don’t go much further. But then there are the George Masons of the world — teams that make this tournament so great.
So, as we settle in for some 2014 March Madness handicapping now, what possible Sweet 16 surprises could be awaiting us in 2014? Here are six teams that stand out as intriguing. Remember, any team lower than a No. 4 is technically an upset if they make the Sweet 16. Some of these would be much bigger upsets than others, but all qualify as underdogs:
No. 7 New Mexico: The Lobos were insulted by the selection committee when they were made a No. 7 seed. Stanford is not going to be an easy game for the team in their opener because of the way Stanford can stretch the court, but the Lobos should be up to the challenge. Then they face Kansas. The Jayhawks are obviously the better team, but if Joel Embiid is not ready to go at full strength then this team showed in the Big 12 tournament that they are vulnerable no matter how good Andrew Wiggins plays. New Mexico also has the advantage of having seen Kansas once this year already, so they know what to expect and where they need to improve. If New Mexico plays to the fullest of their capabilities they could make things interesting.
No. 8 Memphis: You don’t regularly see No. 1 seeds fall in the first weekend, but Virginia is the first of three that could be vulnerable. Only Florida is completely safe through the first weekend in my eyes. Memphis lacks consistency, but at their best they have won some nice games Oklahoma State, Louisville twice, Gonzaga, and more. Their opener against George Washington is reasonable, and the Tigers can come out on top. Then they face Virginia. I have very little respect for the Cavaliers — certainly not as a top seed. The ACC just wasn’t that good this year — at least not compared to other major conferences. This team lost badly to Wisconsin. And got crushed by Tennessee. They fell at home to VCU, and they were shocked at Green Bay. They just don’t stand up, and Memphis at their best would be a huge test for the Cavs.
No. 8 Kentucky: The Wildcats have had two straight disappointing seasons since their last title — a top seed in the NIT last year and a No. 8 this year after being the preseason No. 1. They have had struggles with chemistry and focus, but they have all sorts of talent, and they gave Florida all they could handle in the SEC Championship Game. Kansas State is no pushover in the opener, but Kentucky can win that. Wichita State has talent and experience to burn, but the pressure of being in the spotlight unlike ever before is going to be a lot to take, and Kentucky is a huge challenge. I expect Wichita State to survive, but I would not be even slightly surprised if the Wildcats came out on top.
No. 9 Oklahoma State: This team has been all over the place this year, but they have won five of their last seven, and the two losses were both in overtime. They are playing their best basketball of this calendar year right now. The combination of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown are a 1-2 punch that you typically don’t see from a No. 9 seed. Gonzaga is a tough opening game, but Oklahoma State is the better squad if they are playing to their capacity. Then comes Arizona. I like the Wildcats, but they have really been a different team lately, and their recent losses to Oregon and UCLA make me really question how much heart and determination this team really has. Arizona is very good defensively, but Oklahoma State can be creative enough to minimize that edge. Again, I expect Arizona to come through, but I would be not even a little surprised by the upset.
No. 12 Stephen F. Austin: Now we get into the realm of the real upsets. The Lumberjacks are the worst nightmare for opening opponent VCU. They play a version of the same Havoc offense that VCU has done so well with, and that minimizes the edge and makes a VCU team that relies on surprise much easier to handle. It’s a game Stephen F. Austin could win. Next up is UCLA. They won the Pac-12 tournament, but they also got crushed by lousy Washington State in their last game of the regular season, so you can never be truly sure what you will get from this team. The Bruins are obviously the better team, but VCU has shown us in the past that fearlessness plus a tenacious turnover-focused offense can do some magic in March.
No. 14 Western Michigan: You give me a team that is playing Syracuse in their opener, and I’ll give you a team that has the potential to pull off a big upset. The Orange have dropped five of seven and are a complete mess. Western Michigan won the MAC tournament, and they are playing feisty. They have a future NBAer and another one who will be paid to play somewhere, so they have talent. They are fearless and creative, and they could make this interesting. If they pull off that shocker then they face Ohio State. The Buckeyes are talented, but they have dropped three of six, including bad losses to Indiana and Penn State.
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