It’s that time of year, when everyone in your office pool tries to identify the under-the radar 12-5 upset, or the mid-major most likely to wreak havoc to the bracket. And while Porter Moser’s Loyola Chicago squad, a No. 11 seed, is the trending sleeper of the 2018 NCAA tournament, we’ve got you covered with four more matchups you’ll want to know about to secure bracket-picking immortality.
There is no greater glory than nailing the double-digit seed that reaches the tournament’s second weekend. But there’s also value in avoiding early-round heartache by helping you avoid low seeds that won’t make a run — like No. 13 Buffalo.
While the Bulls would be considered a potent Cinderella in any other March Madness, the MAC team has the misfortune of playing Arizona and DeAndre Ayton, an offensive savant of a 7-footer (and one who headlined The Post’s Tim Bontemps’s recent analysis of the top NBA prospects in March). Nate Oats’s squad will make the first-round matchup interesting, but UB’s defensive rebounding percentage and ball pressure can’t match Ayton’s efficiency when he catches the ball anywhere within the arc. Translation: This 13 seed won’t last until the weekend games.
From the Ramblers of the Horizon League to a potential (and historic) 16-over-1 upset, we examine the Cinderella squads that could transform March Madness while also boosting your bracket’s odds in any NCAA tournament pool:
No. 11 Loyola Chicago
Round 1: No. 6 Miami (Fla.)
Round 2: No. 3 Tennessee/No. 14 Wright State
Arguably the most popular upset pick in the field, Loyola’s path to a Sweet 16 (and potentially beyond) begins with the team’s superb shot selection.
Each Rambler is an offensive mismatch: Moser’s small-ball squad consists of dual ballhandlers in Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer with 6-4 Marques Townes at the wing and 6-6 Donte Ingram as a power forward. (Moser will sometimes go even smaller with Ingram as the Ramblers’ de facto center.) It’s a lineup built to shift the defense side to side with crisp ball movement (60 percent assist rate) and perimeter speed, continually probing for a seam until 17 or so seconds remain on the shot clock, at which point the Horizon League champs attack the subsequent opening. Five Ramblers connected on 38 percent or more of their threes, and only seven other Division I squads posted a higher effective field goal percentage (57.8 percent).
No. 12 Davidson
Round 1: No. 5 Kentucky
Round 2: No. 4 Arizona/No. 13 Buffalo
It has been a decade since Davidson entered the March Madness annals, and this season’s squad could be poised to repeat that Cinderella moment. Davidson’s offense revolves around perimeter shooting; nearly 50 percent of its attempts come from beyond the arc, and the Wildcats convert 39.1 percent of those shots — both percentages rank in Division I’s top 30. While Kentucky seemingly boasts an impressive defensive three-point percentage (29.9 percent), the stat is a bit misleading: Only six Southeastern Conference squads connected on 36 percent or more of their threes and, perhaps not surprisingly, five of UK’s conference losses were to those teams.
No. 12 New Mexico State
Round 1: No. 5 Clemson
Round 2: No. 4 Auburn/No. 13 Charleston
The Aggies’ upset résumé hinges on the effectiveness of the aggressive man-to-man defense that Coach Chris Jans imported from Wichita State, where he was a special assistant to Coach Gregg Marshall. Opponents manage to produce an effective field goal rate of just 45.5 percent against New Mexico State, a byproduct of the WAC squad’s swarming defense that seeks to deny ballhandlers — rather than pressure them. And should an opposing player break free and attack the rim, the Aggies held opponents to converting only 50.7 percent of their shots around the bucket, a significant drop from the pre-Jans-era Aggies of a season ago, who allowed 58.6 percent.
Key to New Mexico State’s defensive intensity are Sidy N’Dir, a junior guard and the squad’s best on-ball defender, and Jemerrio Jones, a 6-5 forward who grabs 37.1 percent of opponents’ misses. The Aggies thrive on forcing teams into attempting off-balance shots while ensuring there are no second-chance buckets. Facing Clemson (missing Donte Grantham, its most efficient scorer) and potentially Auburn (a listless 1.03 points per possession in the past four games), the WAC tournament winner is poised for a defense-driven Sweet 16 run.
No. 14 Bucknell
Round 1: No. 3 Michigan State
Round 2: No. 6 TCU/No. 11 Syracuse/No. 11 Arizona State
Only three NCAA tournament squads return a higher percentage of minutes from a season ago than the Bison (77.2 percent), whose upset bid against West Virginia in 2017 was cut short by six points. The team’s returning core, which includes Zach Thomas, Nana Foulland and Stephen Brown, is primed to dethrone a favorite. Upon first glance, the Patriot League auto-bid winner doesn’t seem overly intimidating, but look deeper and you’ll notice Bucknell, which played an aggressive nonconference schedule (losses to North Carolina, Maryland and Arkansas), efficiently scores by creating gaps within the opponent’s defense and scoring on the interior (55.2 percent).
Most important will be whether Bucknell can keep the Spartans from scoring in transition: Per Synergy Sports, 18.5 percent of MSU’s plays are the result of a fast break, and the Big Ten squad scores 1.11 points per possession, relying on those open-court buckets to swing momentum.
No. 16 Penn
Round 1: No. 1 Kansas
Round 2: No. 8 Seton Hall/No. 9 North Carolina State
We know a No. 16 seed has never beaten a top seed, let alone reached the Sweet 16, but hear us out — lacking any offensive consistency on the interior, Kansas has become extremely reliant on scoring from beyond the arc. Roughly 42 percent of its attempts are three-pointers (a high for Bill Self at KU), and among Penn’s greatest skills is nullifying the opponent’s perimeter offense. Not only do opponents attempt a scant 33 percent from deep, but those same teams convert just 29.6 percent of their shots (the nation’s second-best defensive three-point percentage). The Quakers’ defense is twofold: thoroughly chase an opponent off the three-point line and then, should an opening occur, aggressively contest the shot.
Plus, Penn isn’t your typical No. 16 seed — the team’s KenPom ranking is No. 127, which positions Steve Donahue’s squad as KenPom’s highest ranking 16 seed since 2002 — and if the Ivy’s auto bid winner can limit the Jayhawks’ three-point barrage, we could witness history.
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