The Cinderellas of March Madness 2017
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because little guys do the best dancin’.
By Matt Foley
Last year’s March Madness tournament kicked off with 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State University upsetting Michigan State in a monumental way. And it ended with perhaps the greatest game in NCAA hoops history — capped with Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating 3-point prayer, Villanova’s championship and college basketball forever turned on its head.
March Madness’ sudden-death structure allows chaos to ensue year after year. The opening weekend of the tournament provides an annual platform for tiny fan bases from Texarkana to New Haven, Connecticut, to roar gleefully as their teams become the next Cinderella. Last year, Stephen F. Austin, Yale, Arkansas–Little Rock and MTSU upset giants. This year, the door is wide open. Below, we’ve highlighted six underdogs with the chops to take down Goliath in the Big Dance. Know the names and fill out those brackets accordingly.
#12 The University of North Carolina Wilmington
Led by third-year rising star head coach Kevin Keatts, the Seahawks could be a very popular upset pick. Wilmington rolled through the Colonial Athletic Association going 29–5 (15-3 in CAA play) en route to a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Sophomore guard C.J. Bryce is the high scorer for a team that averages 85.2 points per game — the 10th-highest scoring average in the country. In the first round, UNCW will face fifth-seeded Virginia – a team whose slow style and top-ranked defense starkly contrast the Seahawks. If Wilmington wins the turnonver battle, they’ll pull off the upset.
Players to Watch: Bryce leads the way with 17.6 points per game, but the most important player is senior point guard Denzel Ingram. An experienced point guard makes all the difference in March, and Ingram averages 14.5 points and 5.5 assists per game. He’s the catalyst for UNCW’s No. 8 national ranking in turnover margin.
#13 Bucknell University
Following a Patriot League championship rout of Lehigh, the Bison will make their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005. That year, they shocked third-seeded Kansas in a 64–63 upset and beat Arkansas the next. But the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, institution has been cold since, limping out in the first round in both 2011 and 2013. The current odds were on Patriot League favorites all season, finishing the year 26–8 and 15–3 in conference play. They play a slow, deliberate offense, but can shoot the three and run with teams if needed. The Bison drew fourth-seeded West Virginia in the first round – a tall task, for sure, but this matchup evokes memories of that 2005 win over KU.
Players to Watch: 6’7 forward Zack Thomas (16 points per game) can shoot from range, slash to the basket, and will handle the ball in crunch-time. But, at 6’9, center Nana Foulland, is the man. The Patriot League Player of the Year is Bucknell’s only NBA prospect. He has elite athleticism — averaging 15 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks per game.
— Bucknell Athletics (@Bucknell_Bison) March 9, 2017
#16 Mount St. Mary’s University
Are you reading this in hopes of finding some obscure tidbit of trivia to impress a potential mate at your upcoming March Madness wine and cheese party? Well, that’s what I’m here for! At 19–15, the Mountaineers’ record looks average — until you realize that they began the season 1–11. The Mounts are 18–4 since December 22 and are the fourth team since 1985 to make the NCAA tournament after such a start. No 16-seed has ever won a game in the tournament and it will take a miracle to knock off the defending champion Villanova Wildcats, but if any sixteen has a chance to make Round 2, it’s the Mounts – arguably the hottest team in the country.
Players to Watch: Elijah Long is the pulse of this team. The guard from Mississauga paces the Mounts in points (15.4) and assists (4.4), and is second in boards (5.4). Keep an eye on Junior Robinson. Aside from averaging 14 points, I’m told that the 5’5” point guard does a mean Spud Webb impression on breakaway dunks.
#6 Southern Methodist University
Last week, NBA Hall of Famer and former UCLA Bruins star Reggie Miller told OZY that March Madness “is built for a running team.” If that’s true, SMU might win the whole damn thing. The Mustangs are the most esteemed program on this list, currently ranked 12th in the country and champions of the American Conference at 27–4. But recent history has not been kind to the Ponies; this is only their second tourney appearance since 1993. SMU looks poised to re-establish itself as a powerhouse, in large part because of their incredible athleticism. This team has Final Four potential.
Player to Watch: In his first year at SMU, Semi Ojeleye has been dominant. The 6’7” forward spent two seasons in the background at Duke before transferring. At 18.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, the junior is a potential NBA draft pick this summer.
— American MBB (@American_MBB) March 5, 2017
#14 Iona College
In typical New York fashion, the Gaels aren’t the prettiest team to watch, but they get the job done. Iona finished the season 22–12 — third in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference — then won the MAAC tournament, earning an automatic NCAA bid. This team has the veteran presence, toughness and scoring potential to advance past the first weekend. They have an incredibly tough matchup against third-seeded Oregon, but, the Ducks will be playing without recently injured star forward Chris Boucher.
Player to Watch: Queens native Jordan Washington is a certified baller, averaging 18 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in just 21.5 minutes of play. The 6’8” forward has a temper that often leads to foul trouble and extended time on the pine, but if he remains on the floor, he can score 30 against anyone. Boucher’s absence opens a huge opportunity for Washington to excel. Additional fun fact: The Gaels’ point guard is Sam Cassell Jr., son of the former NBA star.
#13 Winthrop University
Baseball fanatics know this Rock Hill, South Carolina, institution as a force on the diamond, but the basketball program is no slouch either. From 1999–2010, the Eagles made nine tournament appearances; this is their 10th. Winthrop went 26–6 and 15–3 in the Big South, averaging 80 points per game; they can score with anyone. With only two double-figure scorers though, the Eagles will need to get hot from the outside and have some surprise contributors step up. They’ll face Butler, an excellent former mid-major program who was promoted to the Big East. The teams have similar styles – this will be an exercise in perseverance.
If you like a good time, watch 5'7 Keon Johnson light it up for 13-seed Winthrop. #marchmadness
— matt foley ☁ (@mattyfoles) March 12, 2017
Players to Watch: 5’7” point guard Keon Johnson is one of the most entertaining players in the country. Johnson leads the team at 22.5 points per game while his 6’8” Australian counterpart, Xavier Cooks — also a guard — adds 16.3 points and 9.2 rebounds.