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You’re doing yourself a disservice when filling out your bracket if you’re not at least considering a team seeded sixth or lower in its own region to make it to the second weekend of the Big Dance. After all, it’s called March Madness for a reason. Even if the national champion is a high seed, as it often is, you can expect at least one double-digit seed to get to the second weekend, as it’s happened in every NCAA Tournament since 2007. Below we will give our favorite mid-major in each region to make a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 or better. Disagree? Have questions? Hit me up any time on Twitter @G_Frank6:
The West: #12 UC Santa Barbara - If you wanted to take them into the second weekend just because their nickname is the "Gauchos" then, well, I simply wouldn’t argue with you. When it comes to putting the ball in the basket, the Gauchos are led by Big West Player of the Year JaQuori McLaughlin, a senior guard who averaged 16 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from the three-point line. Santa Barbara Coach Joe Pasternack just won the Big West Coach of the Year award, too. You’re already intriguing enough to me in this tourney when you have a guard who can take over a game at any time and a coach that seems worth trusting in late-game situations. UCSB checks both boxes here.
Then we look at the draw for UCSB - the Gauchos get a Creighton team that was just whitewashed by Georgetown in the Big East Championship game and barely slid past UConn in the Big East Semis. If they can pull off the 5-12 upset, the Gauchos would likely see Virginia in the second round. Given all the uncertainty surrounding UVA’s COVID-19 situation, it’s hard to know what kind of form they’ll be in come this weekend. Keep an eye on the status of Ajare Sanni, another good outside shooter for UCSB, who is day-to-day with an ankle injury. However, if he’s out there, a moneyline rollover on the Gauchos to win their first two games in the tournament makes some sense. UCSB is currently +7 vs. Creighton in the teams' first-round matchup on Saturday and also +255 on the moneyline (DraftKings Sportsbook).
- Where to watch: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EST on truTV (@ Unity Court, Lucas Oil Stadium)
- The Odds: UCSB +7 (+255 ML), 138.5 O/U
The East: #15 Iona - I’ll fully admit that this one definitely plays to the narrative crowd, as the national media would be oozing over Rick Pitino’s team pulling a massive upset against Alabama in the first round, let alone winning another game and getting to the Sweet 16 in his first season with the Gaels. But the reality here is that Iona would likely be a seed line or two higher if it weren’t the team most impacted by COVID-19 all season. Slick Rick’s squad endured two pauses this season, one that went from December 23 all the way until February 12, and another that started just eight days later on February 20 and lasted until the MAAC Tournament. The Gaels then won the conference tournament and went 3-0-1 against the spread in the process, a sign that they’re finding their form at the perfect time. To even be here says a lot about the mental toughness of Iona, and we’ll soon find out how Alabama does with a target on its back now. Remember, Kentucky wasn’t Kentucky this season, which likely took a few eyeballs off the SEC altogether. The league only got six teams in the tournament, and both the Crimson Tide and Arkansas are the only two in the bracket’s top 16 overall seeds (four seed or better.) It would be interesting to see the chess match between Pitino and rising star/head coach Nate Oats in a close game, and if the Gaels do shock the world in the first round, what’s particularly scary about UConn or Maryland after that?
- Where to watch: Saturday, 4:00 p.m. EST on TBS (@ Hinkle Fieldhouse)
- The Odds: Iona +16.5 (+1050 ML), 147 O/U
The South: #12 Winthrop - Much like the aforementioned Gaels, the Winthrop Eagles won their conference tournament in impressive fashion, going 3-0 ATS and winning each game by an average margin of 25.7 points per game (!). Obviously these teams are automatic qualifiers, so they’re going to have to come in on some kind of winning streak, but margin of victory can often give a better feel for how ready they are for the big boys. Here’s a stat that’s very telling for Winthrop’s opening round game with Villanova - the Eagles are 11th in KenPom’s adjusted tempo metric, which ranks possessions per 40 minutes. The Wildcats are 320th. Villanova’s Justin Moore will be another injury to monitor this week, as the guard missed the Big East Tournament with an ankle sprain. We already know Collin Gillespie is out for the season for Villanova, and if Moore misses the game on Friday night, Villanova will be down its two best guards against a team that loves to run up and down the floor. An upset for Winthrop would pit the Eagles up against Purdue (in all likelihood), but the Boilermakers first must get past North Texas, a team we also considered as one of our Cinderella possibilities out of the South. Like most Purdue teams, the Boilermakers are better in the frontcourt, so the matchup wouldn’t be a daunting task for Chandler Vaudrin, Adonis Arms and Charles Falden, the trio of double-digit scorers in Winthrop’s backcourt.
- Where to watch: Friday, 9:57 p.m. EST on TNT (@ Indiana Farmers Coliseum)
- The Odds: Winthrop +6.5 (+235 ML), 143.5 O/U
The Midwest: #6 San Diego State - You can call me a cheater for using a #6 seed with one of the better mid-major pedigrees in the country, but I’m not going to get caught up in the semantics of defining a Cinderella. When push comes to shove - and despite a 23-4 season - the Aztecs never really got very high in the AP Poll this season and are only a three-point favorite in their first tournament game against Syracuse. Should they square off with West Virginia in the next round, they will likely be at least a 5-6 point underdog, and having said that, I’m more concerned about the Syracuse game for San Diego State than I am a potential matchup with West Virginia. After all, upon entering the tournament KenPom rates San Diego State as the 20th team in the nation and West Virginia comes in at 27. So the advanced metrics seem to support my previous assertion that the Aztecs still aren’t getting the respect they deserve.
I have two reasons for concern with the Syracuse game for San Diego State though: the Orange have thrived recently in the underdog role under Jim Boeheim, getting to the Sweet 16 as a #11 seed in 2018 and all the way to the Final Four in 2016 as a #10 seed. There might be something to the idea of a big-name coach going into the tournament with far less pressure than normal, and that also might make Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans intriguing in the East region if they're able to win their First Four game against UCLA. Ironically, it was Michigan State that Syracuse beat to get to the second weekend in 2018.
The other concern I have with San Diego State is its focus this week, which I believe is a bigger concern in its first game. Coach Brian Dutcher has already been linked to the vacancy at Minnesota and is a graduate of the university. Dutcher’s father Jim also coached at Minnesota from 1975-86. As the week progresses, I would expect the rumor mill to continue to swirl surrounding Dutcher becoming Minnesota’s next coach.
If these concerns are enough for you to hold off on backing the Aztecs in their first game then I’m not going to fault you, but I'll undoubtedly back them in their second game should they beat Syracuse. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they upset Houston in a potential battle of mid-majors in the Sweet 16. The inside-outside combination of Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel has been lethal all season for San Diego State. In the Mountain West Championship against Utah State, those two combined for just 23 points and went 7-for-21 from the field. The Aztecs still won by double digits against a team that also ended up in the NCAA Tournament. This opening round game could be one of the most competitive all weekend.
- Where to watch: Friday, 9:40 p.m. EST on CBS (@ Hinkle Fieldhouse)
- The Odds: San Diego St -2.5 (-148 ML), 139.5 O/U