The NCAA tournament always has underdogs who simultaneously make a deep run and break brackets.
This year there are a smaller number of mid-major “Davids” who fit the profile of being able to slay a high-ranked “Goliath.” But if you’re looking to get on board with a Cinderella, here is a look at the best sleeper candidates.
Arizona State (20-11) – No. 11 in the Midwest (First Four)
Arizona State was once a top-five team in the nation and was the last undefeated team in the country. Now they’re an 11 seed.
That’s quite the fall from grace mainly because nine of their 11 losses are to teams who didn’t make the tournament. However, the Sun Devils can compete with the best as they’ve beaten two No. 1 seeds this season.
Not many teams can say they beat Xavier and they got a win at Kansas, nor boast a 4-2 record against teams with a BPI in the top 50 the way Arizona Sate can.
The Sun Devils have to play Syracuse in the First Four just to get into the real dance Wednesday first, but on any given day this is a team that can beat anyone in the field.
Butler (20-13) – No. 10 in the East
Butler has 16 NCAA appearances and was been a runner-up for the national title twice in 2010 and 2011, despite this past success the program’s continually been undervalued by the selection committee and this year’s no different.
The Bulldogs are ranked 25th in BPI, a mark too high for just a No. 10 seed. As such they’re actually favoured in their first-round game against Arkansas.
Taking a closer look at the team, you’ll see that Butler has top end talent. Kelan Martin can go for 30 points on anyone and Kamar Baldwin is one of the best guards in the nation on both ends of the floor. Remember, this is a team that beat Villanova this season so there’s no team in the field it can’t beat on its best day.
Loyola Chicago (28-5) – No. 11 in the South
This is one of the most balanced teams in the field, a great shooting squad that can defend — and by defend we mean really D up.
Truly elite at the defensive end of the floor the Ramblers are top 10 in most of the defensive metrics by forcing opponents to go east-west with great ball pressure. They allowed just 62.2 points per game this season, good for fifth in Division I.
On offence they’ve got five guys who score in double figures and, stylistically, they play a lot like No. 1 overall seed Virginia.
They’ve proven they can hang with the big boys this season, beating Florida in Gainesville when the Gators were ranked fifth in the country. They also come from a conference that punches above its weight class during tournament time. Missouri Valley teams have been 8-0 in the round of 64 the last five years with four of those wins coming as the lower seed.
The 11-seed upset is a trendy pick. In the last three years 11 seeds have won eight of the 12 games.
Marshall (24-10) – No. 13 in the East
Marshall has never got out of the first round despite appearing in the tournament five times, but this year is the Thundering Herd’s best shot.
They led Conference USA in scoring with 84.3 points per game and are a really good passing team that boats a 60 per cent assist rate. Don’t be surprised if Marshall make alum Billy Crystal proud and advance in the tourney.
Missouri (20-12) – No. 8 in the West
Missouri has beaten Tennessee and Kentucky this year and feature one of the biggest x-factors of the tournament ith Michael Porter Jr. being back healthy.
He took 17 shots in his first game back, so the future lottery pick isn’t shy about letting it fly, and his presence really helps their ball-handling.
Nevada (27-7) – No. 7 in the South
Nevada has eight previous NCAA tournament appearances but this group is different. Its best finish is the Sweet 16 and it might be able to get even further in 2018.
Kendal Stephens and brothers Caleb and Cody Martin transferred to Nevada to give former NBA coach Eric Musselman power-five conference level talent.
Nevada has the best assist to turnover ratio in Division I to go with a No. 30 BPI ranking.
New Mexico State (28-5) – No. 12 in the Midwest
New Mexico State is a great rebounding team with a 35 per cent offensive rebounding rate.
Jemerrio Jones is one of the best rebounders in the nation leading them on the glass (13.2) and dropping dimes (3.1) as a forward.
Meanwhile, Zach Lofton scores just under 20 points a game. This is Lofton’s fifth college after starting out in junior college. He’s 25 years old so the super senior should be able to provide poise to an under-seeded team that has become a trendy pick to go far.
When you rebound effectively and have a reliable scorer, you have a chance in the tournament.
Oklahoma (18-13) – No. 10 in the Midwest
Oklahoma started the season 14-2, scoring 93.6 per game in that span. But the Sooners ended the season 4-11 scoring just 76.1 points over their final 15 games.
Trae Young can be the Kemba Walker of this year’s tournament and carry the Sooners all by himself with his ability to score the basketball, but if he isn’t on the team they probably don’t make the tournament. Good thing for Oklahoma he is on its side, though.
Young’s hard to prepare for if you haven’t played him before which is why he was easier to scout in Big 12 conference play. Teams in the tournament won’t have that luxury, though, and after not being named a finalist for the Naismith Award Young will be motivated to turn heads during the tournament.