We can dream can’t we? A team from a non-major conference hasn’t won the title since UNLV in 1990. Since then, many have gotten so close but fallen just short. It would appear that the only fool-proof way of getting another small-conference winner would be to have the entire Final Four made up of teams from small conferences.
I’m here to try and show you what that would look like. To be clear, my primary goal is not to show you why a certain team will advance or is likely to advance; certainly the probabilities do not dictate that. Mainly, I just want to prove to you that it is within the realm of possibility that, taken individually, a team from each region could make it.
Since even the most unpredictable upsets happen with some regularity in the tournament, some of the highest seeds may not be there in the regional semifinals and finals, and that in itself is a major route for sleeper teams to go deeper in the tournament than most project they might. As such, I try to focus on the more daunting matchups in earlier rounds that are more certain to occur.
Oh, and since these are dreams and rules don’t matter, I invented the Garrett Scale, which is a completely made up gut-feeling-based metric that predicts a team’s chance of making the Final Four.
The West Coast Conference is not considered a power conference, so the West is easy: Gonzaga.
I shouldn’t need to make a case for them to get to the Final Four. For the No. 1 overall seed, that should be the floor; their sights are much, much higher. The metrics love them. They defeated all their power conference competition, most of them soundly. They have an embarrassment of riches at nearly every position.
Of course that’s not to say that they will make it. Picking a top-ranked Bulldogs squad when you play “Gonzaga or the field” in the WCC is a pretty safe bet. In this year’s West regional, it’s much more towards an even split, considering there’s 15 other teams and some strong ones in their ranks. But let’s not forget that they destroyed the 2, 3, and 4 seeds in their region. This might be their best team yet, and they’re ready for the big time.
If you’re looking for a true mid-major team out of this region, try looking at the Drake Bulldogs. They lost just one game all season with a fully healthy squad, and they might get one of their key injured pieces back for the tournament in star ShanQuan Hemphill. Though a First Four to Final Four run seems unlikely, it’s been done before.
Probability to make the Final 4:
FiveThirtyEight Probability: 55%
BPI Probability: 48%
Garrett Scale: 60%
FiveThirtyEight Probability: <.1%
BPI Probability: .2%
Garrett Scale: .5%
There are a couple dark horse candidates here.
Let’s start with San Diego State. The Aztecs are currently as hot as any team in the country, having won 14 straight games, the second-longest active streak to Gonzaga.
Don’t forget that last year, this was a legitimate championship contender. The Aztecs undoubtedly lost great players in Malachi Flynn, Yanni Wetzel and KJ Feagin, but they also return two veteran starters from that team in Jordan Schalkel and Mountain West POY Matt Mitchell. Mitchell is a fourth-year starter, having averaged double figures all four years and puts up over 15 a game; Schalkel has started games in three straight years now and averages more than 14. Both have tournament experience as freshmen. They also have Nathan Mensah, a big man with great athleticism, back after a season-ending injury last year.
They’re actually the fourth-highest KenPom-rated team in the Midwest region, behind only Illinois, Houston, and fellow mid-major Loyola . They allow the sixth-lowest opponent shooting percentage in the nation. All that to say: this is still a really good team.
They get Syracuse in the first round. Though the Orange have been playing better, they’re significantly worse in defensive efficiency, and are only 3-8 away from the Carrier Dome. If the Aztecs control the pace (they are one of the most deliberate teams in the country), they have a good chance of winning that one. SDSU would likely go against West Virginia next, a team that’s gone 4-4 in its last eight games, with only one win against a tournament team. Press Virginia loves to force turnovers, but San Diego State doesn’t turn the ball over too much and has the senior guards to break the press.
Who awaits them if they can get through to the Sweet 16? Really, none of the four possible teams seems overly formidable. Clemson and Rutgers have sputtered down the final stretch. Even Houston has looked a bit mortal as of late, beating up on the AAC’s bad teams but losing to ECU, Wichita State and twice nearly beaten by Memphis, which neither time played a particularly stellar game.
Then comes the final step. If it’s Illinois, it might prove to be too much, but crazier things have happened, especially if someone like Kofi Cockburn gets into foul trouble. But what if it’s not Illinois? Could it be a more beatable Tennessee? Oklahoma State?
Could it be Loyola?
There’s another fantastic team on the 8 line in the Loyola Ramblers. You might have heard of them from three years ago. Well they’re back, and as our head honcho Russ writes, they’re much better than that Final Four team. Heck, they’re the ninth-ranked team in KenPom, and they have the top adjusted defense in the entire country. Wow.
The key is that second matchup against Illinois, because as good as the metrics say the Ramblers are, the Illini are one of the best teams in the country and could beat just about anyone with their best game. The game would be full of fascinating matchups, and my favorite would be Krutwig and Cockburn down low, each with a different style (and a different build). In order to advance, Loyola would undoubtedly need to have one of its best offensive games of the year against the Illini, who are also elite defensively. Loyola has at times shown tremendous offensive strength but has been a bit inconsistent down the stretch.
If they can pull the upset there, it’s not crazy to see them in the Final Four with their incredible defense, which will keep them in any game. Next could be a test against a red-hot Oklahoma State and Cade Cunningham, though that is an inexperienced team that BPI doesn’t like at all.
The bottom of the bracket is wide open, and a number of teams could be left standing. The Ramblers’ seniors Krutwig and MVC Defensive POY Lucas Williamson would know exactly what it takes to get to the next stage — they’ve done it before — and could easily step up and take it.
Also, a Sister Jean-backed Loyola squad is UNDEFEATED before reaching the Final Four, and at the ripe age of 101, she’s (vaccinated and) back for more blood. These are things that cannot be overlooked.
San Diego State:
Normally I don’t like to pick 8/9 seeds to make huge runs because, barring UMBC popping up as the 16 seed in their region, they are guaranteed to catch the top seed in just their second game.
St. Bonaventure might be in a slightly different position in its second round game. Of course, the Bonnies would first need to beat a surging LSU team — certainly a challenge, but as the 8/9 game, neither result would be a surprise.
They’d then likely take on Michigan. Michigan, the lowest ranked 1 seed, has had an incredible season but just lost star forward Isaiah Livers to an unfortunate foot injury that may sideline him for the rest of the year.
This sounds similar to Virginia’s situation a couple of years ago, where it lost De’Andre Hunter just prior to its first game. Some thought the Cavaliers would use a couple of games to “adjust” to his absence, but UMBC destroyed them, perhaps in part because UVA was unprepared for its own new personnel look.
And let’s not forget, St. Bonaventure isn’t exactly a slouch. Its 23rd NET ranking and 25th KenPom ranking indicate it may even be a bit under-seeded at 9. Bona has an efficient defense with players like Osun Osunniyi averaging nearly three blocks per game, and corralling almost 10 rebounds per game to clean up defensive possessions. Additionally, the Bonnies have a balanced scoring attack with five players in double figures, making it tough to key in on one player to shut down.
Would they be favored against the Wolverines? No. But the surrounding circumstances indicate that it might not be so out-of-this-world unlikely.
From there, the Bonnies would need two wins, and the mental gymnastics don’t seem as daunting. They would likely play 4 seed FSU, who has lost three of five, or 5 seed Colorado, who sports strong metrics that may be bolstered by playing in a down Pac-12. Or they would catch a double-digit Georgetown/Ohio.
If the Bonnies make it through that round, they would get to the Elite Eight. By this point, any number of upsets could have come from the bottom of the bracket.
But say it’s Alabama from the 2 line. The Crimson Tide have certainly overachieved this season, running through the SEC. But what if the SEC is massively overrated? Alabama’s non-conference resume is pretty underwhelming at 5-4, with losses to Clemson, Stanford, Western Kentucky, and a three-point nail-biter at home against Furman. They’re an explosive team with an excellent coach, but appear beatable.
Don’t forget about BYU. Some say they are a bit over-seeded at 6, but this is a solid team on both ends of the floor. In Brandon Averette and Alex Barcello, they have senior guards that can create their own shot, and Matt Haarms can score out of the post. The Cougars also just gave Gonzaga — the definitive overall 1 seed — their toughest challenge before fading away late in the second half.
They have a chance for much of the same reasons that St. Bonaventure does. Get to the later rounds of the tournament, and they could potentially face strong but beatable teams. Before that, they’d have to go through blue-blood UCLA or Michigan State in the First Round, both of which have been inconsistent over the course of the year. In the second, they’d likely face a strong Texas team, but one that is prone to turning the ball over at high clips, and to horribly off shooting nights. The Cougars, meanwhile, are one of the top shooting teams in the nation, and are capable of shooting their way past anyone. KenPom has this as an even matchup.
This region is certainly the longest shot of all, with the mid-majors occupying only the 11-16 seeds. But if you’re Utah State, you might be happier as an 11 than an 8, 9, or 10.
The 11 seed has punch far above its expected weight, especially in recent years. It’s been publicized that the 11 seed is 21-19 against 6 seeds in the first round over the last 10 tournaments. Of those 21, over half (11) advanced to the Sweet 16.
You likely also know that four teams seeded 11 have made it to the Final Four, which is better than seeds 6 (3 appearances), 7 (3) , 9 (1), 10 (1), and any seed below it (which have all combined for zero).
Utah State has an experienced team that would be embarking on its third straight trip to the dance if not for last year’s cancellation; players like Brock Miller and Justin Bean feel like they’ve been there since the WAC days. And of course, they have the ultra-athletic matchup nightmare Neemias Queta, who not only has improved his offensive game this year, but elevates them to a top-notch defensive team, especially inside. They held opponents to the sixth-lowest shooting percentage in 2-point attempts.
That’s going to be most of my argument for getting the Aggies to the promised land. Past the First Round matchup against Texas Tech, which as stated above has been a toss-up for the last 10 years, they would need to rely heavily on their defense, and likely exceed their mediocre offensive statistics during the year. But Arkansas doesn’t shoot from outside particularly well, so perhaps the Aggies are able to shut them down inside and out. From there, we could hope that the upsets reign supreme. Instead of 2 seed Ohio State, maybe it’s a beatable Florida or Virginia Tech. Instead of top-seed Baylor, maybe it’s North Carolina or Purdue? By that time, the Aggies would be rolling, and could definitely take down any one of those strong teams, but non-juggernauts.