Every season, some double-digit seeds have legitimate chances of reaching the tournament’s second weekend. Who is it this year?
Every year, without fail, at least one double-digit seed snags an upset in the first round. These Cinderellas steal the hearts of the American public, and break the hearts of the blue-blood programs they cast aside.
Additionally, at least one double-digit seeded team has reached the tournament’s second weekend during each of the past 10 NCAA tournaments. It just wouldn’t be the Sweet Sixteen without a Cinderella standing there amongst the giants.
So who are the teams most likely to pull off that feat in 2018? Here is one team in each region that can make a deep run during this year’s Big Dance and keep playing into the regional semifinals.
South: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago
The Ramblers are the best team from a true mid-major conference not named Gonzaga in this tournament. Sure, that’s a lot of qualifiers, but Loyola is a very strong team. Head coach Porter Moser’s squad ranks 42nd in overall efficiency according to KenPom.com.
This team is similar to top-seeded Virginia in that it is a defensive-oriented squad (24th in defensive efficiency and fifth in scoring defense) that plays at an extremely slow pace (312th in adjusted tempo). The Ramblers don’t smother teams with a pack-line 2-3 zone like the Wahoos, though. Instead, Loyola tackles opposing offenses with one of, if not the most impressive, man-to-man defenses in the country.
But don’t think that the Ramblers only play defense — they are more than capable of putting the ball in the hoop, too. Loyola ranks 68th in offensive efficiency and has five different players averaging double-digit points.
The Ramblers also possess two more qualities required of less-physically-talented teams to make a deep run: depth and strong guard play. Loyola employs an eight- or nine-man rotation depending on the game, which allows them to account for foul trouble and make sure all players have enough rest to keep up the man-to-man defense throughout an entire contest. Only three players average more than 30.0 minutes per game, and nine players have appeared in at least 23 games.
Loyola’s top-four scorers are all guards, three different players average multiple assists per game, and, as a team, the Ramblers rank 21st in three-point field goal percentage. The veteran guards don’t turn the ball over (50th in assist to turnover ratio), they can shoot, and they control tempo. All of those are necessary components of not just pulling an upset in the tournament, but making a deep run, too.
As for their match ups, the Ramblers draw Miami in their opener, a semi-underrated team that finished tied for third in the ACC, but which isn’t particularly dominant on either side of the ball and will be without one of its best players, sophomore guard Bruce Brown. If they advance to play Saturday, Loyola will likely face Tennessee, probably the weakest of the 3-seeds in this tournament. All in all, those are favorable match ups for an 11-seed.
This team is balanced, deep, plays remarkable defense, isn’t deficient along the perimeter, and has a reasonable path to the regional semifinals. Don’t be shocked if you see the Ramblers in Atlanta.
East: No. 10 Butler
Based on overall efficiency, Butler is by far the best double-digit seed in this year’s tournament. The Bulldogs rank 25th in overall efficiency, and have one of the best scorers in the country in Kelan Martin. That makes them a threat to get hot and take down pretty much anyone they face.
Martin averages 20.8 points per game, which is 32nd in the country, fifth among major conference players, and second in the Big East. He’s scored in the double-digits in every game he’s played except two, he’s broken 20 points 19 times, and put up more than 30 points four times. Martin is one of the best players in this tournament, and he could singlehandedly carry Butler deep into the tournament.
What makes Butler most scary as a double-digit threat, though, is that he may not have to put up those points to win. Although the Bulldogs definitely need Martin near his best to take games against top competition, they have enough talent around him that he doesn’t have to go full Kemba.
When Butler beat Ohio State during the PK80 tournament in November, the team did it with defense, holding the Buckeyes to just 66 points and 33.3 percent from deep in a game that went to overtime. When the Bulldogs beat Villanova in late December, they dropped 101 points, only 24 of which belonged to Martin. They shot 68.2 percent from beyond the arc in the game and 60.0 percent from the floor overall.
The Bulldogs get Arkansas in the first round, a team that is strong on offense (19th in offensive efficiency) but extremely porous on defense (103rd in defensive efficiency). Martin should be able to have a field day against the Razorbacks. Should they win, they will then almost certainly face Purdue. The Boilermakers are absolutely a tough out, but their defense has struggled of late, making them susceptible to a hot offense.
Butler ranks 32nd in offensive efficiency, 48th in defensive efficiency, has one of the best scorers in the country, and isn’t tasked with facing either Duke or Carolina as its two-seed. The Bulldogs could definitely pull this off and reach Boston.
Midwest: No. 12 New Mexico State
New Mexico State is entering its sixth NCAA tournament in seven years, but it’s the first for head coach Chris Jans — though, to be fair, that’s because it’s his first season at the helm. But despite their third head coach in as many seasons, the Aggies keep on chugging along in the WAC. Perhaps this is the year they grab their first NCAA tournament win since 1993 (spoiler: I think it is).
The Aggies have everything going for them that a successful tournament-team needs: experience, depth, strong guard play, and an inexhaustibly relentless defense.
Let’s start with the defense. The Aggies rank 14th in defensive efficiency, 10th in scoring defense (despite an adjusted tempo much faster than most of their defensive contemporaries), fifth in field goal percentage allowed, and ninth in three-point field goal percentage allowed.
Like Loyola, New Mexico State runs its top-tier defense through the man-to-man. That makes its depth extremely important, and without it, the Aggies would be gassed by the end of the first half. Instead, Jans’s team works with a nine-man rotation that keeps everyone fresh for the late stretches of the game so you’re locked down from start to finish (just ask Miami how frustrating that is).
The Aggies offense isn’t prolific — they rank 117th in offensive efficiency and t-109th in scoring offense — but that has rarely been a problem. Senior guard Zach Lofton is averaging 19.8 points per game and is shooting 38.2 percent from three-point range. He’s also proven himself capable of scoring in the clutch, creating off the dribble, and finding a way to get a bucket when his team needs it most.
Outside of Lofton, the Aggies scoring is more balanced. Senior guard-forward Jemerrio Jones averages 11.0 points per game, sophomore guard A.J. Harris notches 9.6 points per game on average (along with an astonishing 13.2 rebound per game from a player listed at 6-foot-5), and two more players average more than 8.0 points per game.
In the first round, the Aggies get Clemson — a comparable defense-first team — so the offense will only need to do a little. So long as the defense holds as firm as it has all season, and Lofton gets his as usual, New Mexico State can get that first upset. Clemson slumped down the stretch and lost their second-best player for the year a month ago. After that, the Aggies would likely get Auburn, a high-tempo, offense-oriented team that has been struggling of late. The Tigers have lost four of their last six and five of their last nine.
Defense is the key, but with a relatively favorable draw, the Aggies could get that first tourney victory in more than two decades and add another for good measure.
West: No. 12 South Dakota State
Two words: Mike Daum.
The junior forward is everything to the Jackrabbits. Daum averages 23.8 points per game, sixth in the nation, and 10.4 rebounds per game, 14th in the nation. He can post up and beat you near the basket, and he can shoot it from deep. Daum is shooting a remarkable 42.1 percent from beyond the arc, and it’s not as if he’s particularly choosy about his deep shots. He’s taken 216 three pointers so far this season.
South Dakota State has some solid role players — freshman guard David Jenkins Jr. is averaging 16.1 points per game, senior guard Reed Tellinghuisen is averaging 12.0 points per game, and junior guard Tevin King add 9.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.7 steals per game — but this team is built around Daum. But it doesn’t matter because, and this is important, YOU CANNOT STOP HIM. Even in last season’s tournament, against Gonzaga’s nation-best defense, he still dropped 17 points on 7-of-16 shooting and 2-for-4 from deep. Put him up against lesser competition and 99 out of 100 times he will pile up points.
The Jackrabbits are no powerhouse. They rank 75th in overall efficiency, 41st in offensive efficiency, and 148th in defensive efficiency. But they have Daum, a man who has dropped 30 points not once, not twice, but 12 times so far this season. That keeps them in contention to beat just about any team.
South Dakota State drew Ohio State in the first round, a team with its own stud in Keita Bates-Diop. He may be able to do what Daum will likely do (i.e. decimate the opposing defense), which could pit this game down to supporting cast vs. supporting cast, giving the Buckeyes the edge. But if Daum can have a particularly spectacular day, Bates-Diop can be slightly mitigated, and the Jackrabbits support can at least match Ohio State’s, this game is winnable.
Unlike the other teams on this list, South Dakota State isn’t particularly strong on defense. But they have Daum and in the NCAA tournament, one spectacular player can take you far. It will be tough to get past Ohio State, and it will be even tougher to win a second game if they get Gonzaga in the second round, but if Daum gets hot: look out.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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