With some conference titles – and their auto-bids – still to come, here’s a look at four teams with significant bracket-busting potential, including two already in the field.
Loyola Chicago (28-5, Missouri Valley Conference), projected No. 12 seed
Chance of reaching Sweet 16: 11 percent
The Ramblers beat Illinois State, 65-49, on Sunday, earning them the MVC tournament championship and their first NCAA tournament berth since 1985.
Their leading scorer, Clayton Custer, produces a meager 13.4 points per game, and their best rebounders, Donte Ingram (6.5 rebounds per game) and Cameron Krutwig (6.3), don’t come close to nabbing double digits when cleaning the glass, but Coach Porter Moser oversees the 24th-best defense per KenPom.com’s ratings, and that could cause problems for an opponent facing the Ramblers for the first time.
Loyola locks down spot-up shooters (47.3 effective field goal rate against, 75th percentile) and is brutal on the ballhandler during the pick and roll, holding him to just 0.6 points per possession; only 16 other programs have been better.
You also don’t want to test your luck against the Ramblers in isolation: Marques Townes, Ingram and Custer rank in the top half of the nation in defending iso plays, with Custer allowing just 4-for-17 shooting when he is the primary defender.
Murray State (26-5, Ohio Valley Conference), projected No. 13 seed
Chance of reaching Sweet 16: 6 percent
Led by senior Jonathan Stark (game-high 24 points and tournament MVP), the Racers defeated Belmont, 68-51, on Saturday night in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship game to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.
A projected No. 14 seed in the Big Dance, Murray State boasts some of the best spot-up shooters in the country — Terrell Miller Jr., Stark and Byron Hawkins rank in the top 10 percent of college players for points per shot — with an above-average ability to score in transition. Among Division I teams with at least 500 possessions on the break, only Virginia Tech, Stephen F. Austin and Creighton have been more efficient in transition on a per-possession basis.
Vermont (26-6, America East Conference), projected No. 13 seed
Chance of reaching Sweet 16: 6 percent
Vermont, which will need the America East’s automatic bid to reach the NCAA bracket, ranks 40th in offensive efficiency per Pomeroy’s ratings, with one of the highest effective field goal rates in the college ranks (57 percent, 18th). Much of that is fueled by the Catamounts’ accuracy from behind the three-point line (40 percent, 12th) and spot-up shooting (61 eFG%), which ranks fifth in Division I.
Plus, the Catamounts have Anthony Lamb, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, back in the lineup. Lamb averaged 16 points before his injury cost him 17 games, giving Vermont Coach John Becker a versatile post-up player who can score (40 percent shooting) and pass (0.9 points per possession) out of the post. Lamb is also a solid finisher around the basket, converting almost two-thirds (63 percent) of his attempts near the rim.
New Mexico State (25-5, Western Athletic Conference), projected No. 13 seed
Chance of reaching Sweet 16: 5 percent
The only way the Aggies are making the field is with the WAC’s automatic bid, but they could do some damage if they get there.
Zach Lofton leads the team in scoring (19.2 points per game) and also grabs five rebounds per contest. Senior forward Jemerrio Jones drives the action down low, averaging 12.7 rebounds with 64 percent shooting near the rim. He also has great vision out of the post, producing 1.5 points per pass.
Additionally, the Aggies couple suffocating defense — 94.3 adjusted points allowed per 100 possessions, which ranks 13th-best in the nation — with a plus-124 differential in offensive rebounding. But their commitment to the offensive glass doesn’t hurt them in transition: They allow 0.8 points per possession on the break, the third-lowest mark this season.
That, in addition to a plus-38 turnover margin, is a perfect storm of extra possessions that typically indicates a first-round upset in the making.