NCAA Tournament Bracket Predictions: High Seeds That Could Surprise
Guided by Sister Jean, Loyola worked their way right into our hearts as they made it all the way into the Final Four as a No. 11 seed. It had all the elements of a great story, and they were so easy to cheer for. They weren't the first upstart low seed to go on a crazy run, and they won't be the last. It's a big part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so special. Every year when the bracket is released, it's fun to look for which teams could be the ones to steal our hearts. We never truly see them coming, which is part of the fun, but we can at least try to spot possible candidates. Here is a look at five teams this year that have a chance to capture our hearts and minds - to become the next Loyola (though probably without the incredible nun leading the way):
No. 13 Vermont: Picking a No. 13 is risky, but this squad is the best of that group and is worthy of attention. This team was a No. 13 two years ago as well, and while they weren't successful against Purdue they played them tough. This is their third straight strong season, and they play sound defense. They are an experienced team, and that will help. And they have an opening matchup that could go well for them - Florida State is talented but vulnerable. On top of that, Vermont doesn't have to travel far to get to Hartford for the opening weekend, so they will be well supported. Tallahassee is much further away.
No. 12 Murray State: You can drive yourself crazy if you get too obsessed with the bracket and the oddities contained in it. This one is a head-scratcher, though - Murray State tied Belmont for the regular season Ohio Valley title and beat them soundly in the conference championship game, but the Racers are a No. 12, while Belmont is a No. 11. Sure, Belmont has to play a play-in game, but it's still a bit of an odd look. This team is led by Ja Morant, the likely second pick in the coming draft, so they already have much more attention than the typical OVC champ. Morant leads an explosive offense that is in the top dozen nationally in points scored, and he will have a chance to really make a mark in his opening game against Markus Howard, the Marquette star who is another top-level talent. This is a fun team to watch, and they are one win away from a whole lot of public love.
No. 12 New Mexico State: This is a team that doesn't get nearly enough credit for their consistent strength - they have made the tournament in seven of the last eight years. They haven't won a tournament game since 1993, so there is work left to do. And they have a tough opening draw in newly-minted SEC champion Auburn. But they are a strong, balanced team that is effective on both sides of the ball and would be easy to like if they pull off the upset. And if they upset Auburn, they would likely face a Kansas squad that is the most vulnerable we have seen them in years, so they could pull off a second upset.
No. 12 Liberty: Coach Ritchie McKay is in his second stint leading Liberty. In between he was the associate head coach at Virginia for good friend Tony Bennett. He clearly absorbed a lot from that stint, and it is evident on the court. This team plays stingy defense, takes the air out of the ball, and is very good at finding their shot in spots that other teams could struggle. Mississippi State is a vulnerable team that got too much attention from the selection committee, so it is a manageable pairing if the team can dictate how this game goes.
No. 12 Oregon: The No. 12 line is a very strong one this year, so we might as well include all of them. The Ducks are a bit of a different case than the others because they are in a major conference - if we can really call the Pac-12 a major basketball conference at this point. And they are only two years removed from a Final Four, so this isn't a team climbing from nowhere. But Dana Altman is a brilliant coach, and he has his team peaking at the right time - they won their final eight games and crushed Washington to win the Pac-12 title game. The South is probably the region with the most opportunities for teams to move on, so the Ducks could have an opportunity to take advantage of.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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