Yesterday’s upsets got me thinking: Is an all mid-major Final Four within reach?
I’m a daydreamer by trade, so it’s pretty easy for me to imagine such a thing based on vibes only. I tried to supplement facts and data to help out where I could, even though it was hard sometimes. Here goes nothing!
Obviously, the fantasy starts and ends in the little 4-13/5-12 pod that sprung one of yesterday’s biggest upsets.
Furman, with good defense, perseverance and a bit of luck, knocked out perennial first-round losers UVA and pushed themselves into the next round on an amazing sequence. They did it without even playing their best game – they shot poorly for almost the entire contest, and their leading scorer Mike Bothwell was limited by foul trouble throughout, he eventually fouled out. And still, the Dins made a run at the end of the game to put them in position to pounce, which they did.
Their win sets up an all-mid-major date with San Diego State, who took down an impressive Charleston team in the midst of a tough run for Mountain West schools. Still, they feel a bit overlooked, with most not putting them through to the Sweet 16, let alone not having picked them to win their first game.
This may be a combination of East Coast bias/lack of West Coast exposure, plus a bit of negative energy surrounding the Mountain West in their recent tournament struggles. However, this year is a new year, and every team is a new team. The Aztecs are ELITE defensively, and defend the paint very well. Offensively they are not quite in the top tier but they have balanced scoring almost down the entire bench, and that could be useful if they’re able to advance deeper in the tournament.
Whoever wins between San Diego State and Furman, they’ll undoubtedly have a very tough matchup against Alabama, one that if played multiple times, they’d lose, well, most of the time. San Diego State probably has a significantly better chance, because their elite defense will keep them in the game against a seriously potent ‘Bama offense. It will be a tough ask, but against other top-10 KenPom defenses, Alabama is 3-2 (close wins over Houston and Mississippi State twice, losses to Tennessee and Gonzaga). And, if there’s a silver lining after Day 1 of action, it’s that Bama’s top scorer Brandon Miller appears to not be at 100%, or at least not for their most recent game in which he scored zero points. If the Aztecs can put together one of their best defensive games, they can be just one step from the Final Four.
Also helping out on the other side of the bracket is Princeton, who cleared out a giant in their upset of Arizona. Princeton may not make it to the Elite 8 round (although you can never say never about 15-seeds from New Jersey), the only seed higher than San Diego State is Baylor, very comparable with San Diego State in metrics. They may not win such a game, but that’s definitely a game they can win. Boom, Aztecs to the Final Four.
Well, if we *technically* include Memphis, this is one of the more talented teams in the country, and one of the hotter ones. They just beat Tulane by like 200 points and then beat Houston convincingly, which is a feat even if Marcus Sasser wasn’t playing, and they have some of the most talented recruits up and down the roster. People would be surprised, but not shocked, to see them beat Purdue, and from there they could easily win two more games to go to the Final Four.
But if you’re trying to avoid using them as a mid-major, how about FAU? The Owls have had a dream season, and they are likely unknown in the minds of many, but these guys can absolutely play – top 40 in both adjusted offense and defense, top 40 in shooting percentage, and a very strong rebounding team. That could be the formula to any upset – limiting the opposition to just one possession, and making shots. The metrics really like this team, and they feel deeply undervalued at a 9-seed (and got screwed by playing a scorching hot Memphis in the Round of 64).
Purdue has looked beatable of late, and will be favored, but teams have been showing blueprints to stopping Zach Edey and company, and at least FAU has one sizeable piece in 7-foot-1 Vlad Goldin to combat Edey.
Perhaps the most dangerous team in that region is Duke, who has been absolutely on fire of late, easily defeating Oral Roberts who had themselves been something of a sleeper pick. Nobody would be picking the Owls over them, but they have two playmaking guards in Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin. I’m just gonna kind of ignore their extreme hot streak and hope they play back to how they had been playing during the middle part of their season. After that, you’re playing some other teams that have rarely been in this spot – Kansas State with a first year head coach, Marquette with a coach that hasn’t won NCAA Tournament games in a while. Everyone’s new to the big stage, and the destiny train of the Owls will be too hard to stop.
The Saint Mary’s Gaels are hoping you forgot about them after their most recent on-court appearance, a destruction at the hands of Gonzaga. This is still the 12th-ranked team in KenPom, a team with an elite defense – holding teams to just around 60 points per game, an impressive mark – and have more playmaking in Logan Johnson, Aidan Mahaney and others than many Saint Mary’s teams of the past. They limit other teams’ production from the perimeter, rebound well, and don’t turn the ball over, all key ingredients to making a big run.
Of course, this is a region with five teams in the top 12 of KenPom, which seems criminal. Still, if the Gaels able to make it to the second weekend, certainly not an outlandish ask for a 5-seed as talented as Saint Mary’s, they could perhaps face a slightly more fallible Kansas with a coach out, if the Jayhawks get past Arkansas tomorrow (wishing all the best to Bill Self). If the Gaels can shut down the normally strong offense of their opponents in that round, they could be staring at a matchup against UCLA or *gulp* Gonzaga. Neither one would exactly be a treat, but UCLA is banged up, and the Gaels have already beat Gonzaga once this year. If such a dream matchup occurs, the pressure will be on Gonzaga, who will have to avoid a slip-up at the most critical time to a team they generally handle. This Gaels team is better than perhaps any other Gaels outfit that’s come before them, and while the road won’t be easy, it’s there.
This is probably the hardest region to figure, as no true mid-majors sit above the 12-seed line, assuming we’re king of ignoring Big 12-bound Houston for the moment. (Of course, if they fit the mid-major vibe for you, more power to ya.)
However, this region has two of the more popular upset picks in the first round, both in the same pod. Drake is getting hot at the right time, having lost once since Jan. 18, with a dude with in-the-gym range in Tucker DeVries and a sneaky good defense, going against a Miami team that has been up-and-down. On the other side of the same pod, Kent State feels undervalued at 13 after awesome performances in close losses to Houston, Gonzaga and Charleston.
It’s easy to envision a matchup between the two of them, although forecasting an unprecedented Final Four run from the 12/13 spot may be asking a lot. Houston, who would be a Sweet 16 opponent for either of the two, looked mortal last night, letting Northern Kentucky hang in with them despite the Norse shooting less than 30%. Maybe Houston isn’t the juggernaut we all think they are, especially with Sasser limited.
On the other side of the bracket, how about a little upset special helping to clear a path for us? I unironically chose Kennesaw State to make the Sweet 16. Now, I pick my brackets mainly on vibes, and maybe I picked them because I really don’t like Xavier and Iowa State, and the Owls have all the good vibes.
Even with our dream scenario, we’d be staring a Kent State/Drake vs. Texas regional final, and Texas has been looking really good. Texas, the karma is coming for ya for bolting to the SEC and ruining college sports forever. Give me the Golden Flashes.
And there you have it. San Diego State takes on FAU, and Kent State plays Saint Mary’s. It’s a dream coming true.