Help Filling Out NCAA Tournament Brackets: Sweet 16 Surprises
If everything went as it should with the NCAA Tournament then there wouldn't be a team higher than a No. 4 seed in the Sweet 16. Things, of course, don't turn out that way. Last year only one of the four regions turned out as expected, and four teams that weren't expected made the final 16. One, No. 7 South Carolina, went all the way to the Final Four. Another, No. 11 Xavier, catapulted themselves from the Elite Eight last year to a No. 1 seed this year. In 2016 it was six outsiders, including No. 10 Syracuse, who invaded the Final Four. In 2015 it was seven outsiders, including Final Four invader No. 7 Michigan State. And in 2014 six of the 16 final teams were outsider seeds, with No. 7 UConn beating No. 8 Kentucky in the final. I could go on, but the point is clear - we are very likely going to see multiple teams higher than a No. 4 seed advance to the Sweet 16. And the better we can do at spotting those teams, the more profitable it will be.
The challenge this year is that the tournament feels simultaneously wide-open but top-heavy. There are not a lot of teams that feel like they are primed for an upset - at least not to my eyes. Some years it is clear which teams have potential to do some real damage, but this doesn't feel like one of those years. I've picked five potential Sweet 16 surprise teams, but four of them feel like somewhat more of a stretch than we normally look for in these spots. But that's part of the fun of a tournament like this. Here are five that have at least some potential to do some damage:
No. 11 Arizona State: This team has lost eight of their last 19, including five of their last six, so you would be right to be skeptical about this squad. But they do have wins over two No. 1 seeds to their credit - Xavier and Kansas. They have some decent talent and nothing to lose. And they have a pretty reasonable path - even though they have to win three games to make the Sweet 16 when other teams only have to win two. Syracuse is manageable in Dayton - the Orange have plenty of issues, too. And TCU is a team that is over their heads right now - they are improving quickly but don't have a lot of experience to draw on. And that leaves Michigan State. The Spartans are a popular pick to make a deep run, but they have been off for almost two weeks, and their last loss was ugly. They could be vulnerable.
No. 12 New Mexico State: This is the only team on here that I actually feel pretty good about. The Aggies are a good team. Zach Lofton can score in bulk, and Jemerrio Jones is a top rebounder. They rolled through the WAC Tournament to win their fifth straight conference title, so there is lots of experience to draw from. And they have a pretty nice path. Clemson is a team that is far from rolling - they lost two of their last three and five of their final eight. They are vulnerable. And Auburn lost three of their last four, and they were humiliated by a very flawed Alabama team last time out. New Mexico State is in very good position to roll here.
No. 10 Providence: The Friars beat Xavier in their second-to-last game, and they took Villanova to overtime in their last game, so they are playing effectively and with confidence. Texas A&M is another squad that I don't much like - I don't like any SEC teams this year The Friars can beat them. And while North Carolina is a good team, they have dropped three of six and don't always show up with their A Game. They are obviously the better team, but Providence is solid and hot and could pull off an upset.
No. 8 Missouri: This one is admittedly a stretch, but it's worth at least a mention. Xavier is viewed as by far the weakest of the No. 1 seeds, so by definition they are vulnerable in the eyes of many. Missouri is a pretty ordinary team, and I just finished saying I hate the SEC this year. But this is the second game they will have Michael Porter Jr., a likely Top 5 pick in the NBA Draft this year, back from injury. He looked very rough in his first game, but he's had longer to get acclimatized this time around, and some of his talent could come out. He's very difficult to prepare for because no one has seen real tape of him against college competition. So, if he finds his game he could be a deciding factor. A long shot, but not impossible.
No. 12 South Dakota State: The No. 12 seeds win almost 36 percent of their games, so it only makes sense that we have two of them on this list (they have also gone 11-4-1 ATS in the last four tournaments if you are into such things). The Jackrabbits have an exceptional player in Mike Daum. He is averaging 24 points, 10 boards and shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. The last guy to do that in college was Kevin Durant - who has evolved into a pretty decent player. Daum isn't the same guy, obviously, or he wouldn't be playing in obscurity at South Dakota State, but he is excellent and playing well on a deep team. Ohio State has lost three of five, with two of those losses to a Penn State team that just isn't good. They are in a funk, and they have issues. They are more talented but less focused, and they haven't played for two weeks. They could easily be upset. That would leave the Jackrabbits with a likely game against Gonzaga that would be much, much tougher. But Gonzaga doesn't always play to their potential in March, so stranger things have happened. I'll admit that I like this team much more for one win than two, but two is still possible.
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