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Why your favorite Mid-Major team could win a game or 2 (or 6) in the tourney: The East Region

Sorry Wyoming, the Hoosers spoiled the fun :(

Syndication: Evansville Courier and Press
A mid-major on mid-major battle awaits in the first round between Murray State and USF; alas, the tragedy of March.
DENNY SIMMONS / COURIER & PRESS / USA TODAY NETWORK

Didn’t forget about you, East Region fans! Here’s why your team might win is going to win:

Note: We are sorry Wyoming fans. We would have told you about Ike and Maldonado and all the greatness that is the Yellowstone state — and your state, while kind of empty, is indeed great — but Indiana short-circuited that conversation. ‘Til next year, Cowboy fans.

#5 Saint Mary’s

“Gritty not pretty” is the slogan for this year’s Gaels team, which boasts a steadfast combination of veteran play and elite defense. The phrase was coined by forward Kyle Bowen, the ultimate glue guy on a team of plucky players. The Aussie is the only Saint Mary’s starter not averaging double figures, but he is one of the most underrated defenders on the West Coast and leads the team in blood substitutions. Offensively, the ball runs through sixth-year point guard Tommy Kuhse. Once described as a “perennial senior,” Kuhse was born with a basketball in his hands, ready to run Randy Bennett’s deliberate offense. He is flanked by Logan Johnson, an aggressive guard with high-major hops and an uncanny ability to finish at the rim, three-point threat Alex Ducas, and the ever-steady inside presence of Matthias Tass. While known for their defense (ninth-best per KenPom), over their last 16 games, the Gaels have boasted the 24th-best offense in the country. During this stretch, they beat San Francisco twice and took down #1 Gonzaga. Saint Mary’s won’t blow many teams out, but Randy Bennett’s team has the chops to play with — and beat — anybody in the country. - Liam Hanley

#7 Murray State

I hate this. Mid-major on mid-major in the FIRST ROUND SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED. But here we are. I guess I can write about how Murray State, ranked in the AP Top 25 poll and high in the Other Top 25 for much of the season, can most definitely beat San Francisco (and go farther; I picked them over Kentucky). The Racers have a whopping two losses this season and one was Auburn and, oh, they beat mid-major darling Belmont 76-43 … lol. The Racers don’t play to their namesake, but oh man do they play efficiently. They are a stat-head’s wet dream: 52.9% EFG, 34.7 3P%, 53.5 2P% AND they hold teams well below the D-I average in those categories — basically every single reason a mid-major can make a tourney run. This may not be the Ja Morant run and fun team, but this edition of the Racers is primed to make some noise. - Lance Hartzler

#10 San Francisco

Todd Golden, the analytical mastermind, engineered the Dons first at-large bid in a few decades. USF has a top 50 offense and they rank in the top 20 in defensive efficiency. They have four guys with the All-Tournament name team. Yauhen Massalaski, Jamarree Bouyea, Khalil Shabazz, Gabe Stefani, come on! The Turner broadcasting crew has it’s hands full cause this group can make some noise.

Bouyea is the starter averaging over 16 points per game, over 4 assists and shoots 37% from three. Massalaski didn’t play the WCC semifinal due to injury. The Dons big man nearly averages a double-double and has 2.2 blocks per game. If the Dons get past Murray State, they can put Kentucky on notice. Watch out for the Dons. - Austin Montgomery

#13 Akron

Akron is where LeBron James is from. UCLA is where LeBron James currently plays (basically don’t yell at me). COINCIDENCE? Totally. Akron nearly upset fellow LeBron James’ liked school Ohio State only to lose 67-66 at the start of the season, so if the Zips can recapture some of that magic, UCLA is in for some trouble. Watch out for Ali Ali, a 6-8 sharpshooter who simply does not miss, and takes major advantage of the Zips’ snail-like pace and will put a scare into Crick Monin and the Bruins. - Lance Hartzler

#14 Yale

Yale wasn’t the best of the best in the nerd league, but handed Princeton an upset in the league tournament to make it so good on them. KenPom isn’t a fan of their chances against Purdue, but as a resident Big Ten Hater, let’s dig into why Yale will make it happen. Yale plays a fairly fast tempo, but hunkers down on defense forcing teams to an average possession length of 16.4 (half the damn shot clock), so it won’t be pretty, but to win over an Ugly Conference foe, make it ugly Yale must do. It is pretty much strength on strength between Purdue’s 3-ball and Yale’s defense against said long ball. The smart dudes at Yale need to come together and figure out some physics and the most efficient angles to stop Purdue. - Lance Hartzler

#15 Saint Peter’s

Back to that “defense wins championships” motto, Saint Peter’s has the 34th best in the country. They keep their opponents to only a 44.1% effective field goal percentage, good for sixth best in the country. KC Ndefo gets the blocks in, ranking 14th best in the nation. That front court is brought together with Fous Drame who ranks 71st in defensive rating. Just add in the pure offensive flow from Doug Edert and you have everything you want from a basketball team. The Peacocks have strutted their way into the NCAA Tournament on a seven-game winning streak and will look to be able to show off their feathers for longer than the Kentucky game. - Nick Lorensen

#16 Norfolk State

Some schools just pick up that giant-killing gene and it seems like they’re always in it. Stephen F. Austin. Richmond. Middle Tennessee. Norfolk State is trying to get onto that list. This is only their third appearance in the tournament (though it seems like more) with their first being their massive upset of then-Big 12 Missouri ten years ago now. When this team has been at full strength this year, they have looked near-impossible to beat in the MEAC. They have a couple of guys who can stroke it at over 40% from deep and a guy who can get buckets in Joe Bryant, Jr. (yes I checked, he’s not related to Joe “Jellybean” Bryant; his full name is Jamonda). This year, facing off against the suspect Big 12 again, they’re trying to get back into the win column against a Baylor team that’s a bit banged up heading into the tournament. - Garrett Lash

*For the rest of the series, have at it: West, Midwest, South.