Look, we know what you’re thinking. It’s impossible to put together a list of the most compelling, the most exciting, the most deserving, the most rootable teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament, and not spend a few moments pining for what could have been.
Alas, poor Monmouth Bench, we knew you well.
But here’s the good news. Even without everyone’s favorite pine-riding entertainers, there are still plenty of great stories to cheer for in this year’s tournament. In fact, we chose 16 of them, listed here from the least likely to make noise, all the way through some teams that one can assume will be dancing up to the Final Four. So take a look through, because as always, the beauty of March means there is a little something for everyone.
What’s more enjoyable than a team with no business in the Big Dance, and absolutely nothing to lose? The Crusaders will have to upset Southern University in a play-in game simply to advance into the 64 team bracket. If they make it, they’ll earn the honor of being summarily crushed by #1 seed Oregon. But when you have a record of 14-19, when you were the #9 seed in the Patriot League tournament, when you’re one of the most unlikely NCAA tournament teams in history, well, then this is how excited you are for all of it.
Florida Gulf Coast
“Dunk City” is back! Ok, sure, Andy Enfield now calls Southern California his home, and as a #16 seed that needs a victory simply to set up a game with #1 North Carolina, the chances that the Eagles can replicate their 2013 Cinderella run are slim to none…and slim just left the building. But that’s ok, this team is still worth cheering on, not simply because of the nostalgia from that glorious stretch three years ago, but also because this team boasts some of the top sneakerheads in the country!
Of course, March Madness isn’t just about past tourney history. It’s also about teams making their mark for the very first time. Enter Cal State-Bakersfield, a school that joined Division I less than a decade ago, and punched their ticket with one of the most dramatic moments of Championship Week, Dedrick Basile’s last second game winning three-point shot.
Need another reason to pull for these guys? In a field with, let’s be honest, way too many canine mascots, who doesn’t want to root for the Roadrunners?
You’ll be hard pressed to find a better story in the entire 68 team field than the Bulls. Buffalo is dancing for the second consecutive year, but it’s hard to overstate how difficult the return trip has been. Head Coach Bobby Hurley departed after last season for a plum job in the Pac-12 with Arizona State, leaving the newly promoted Nate Oats, whose only previous head coaching experience was in high school, and who has kept the program going in the right direction, even as his wife Crystal battles lymphoma. The good news is that her recovery is trending in the right direction, and she was able to attend the team’s Mid-American Conference victory. In fact, the last piece of the net that was cut down, belongs to Crystal Oats.
First things first. Do you know what comes up when you google “Stony Brook”? “Public sea-grant and space-grant research university.” Space grants! So you know we’re off to an auspicious beginning. But what’s even more compelling is that fact that Stony Brook has had some of the most heartbreaking near misses in college hoops over the past six seasons. As chronicled by Rodger Sherman at SBNation, the Seawolves have consistently been one of the top teams in America East, and have consistently underachieved in the conference tournament. Until this year, when Jameel Warney scored a career high 43 points to take down Vermont, and carry his team, finally, to the NCAA Tournament. Was he excited? What do you think?
Arkansas – Little Rock
Two teams finished the season with 4 losses or fewer. The all-everything, perennial power, Kansas Jayhawks, and the Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans. Ok, sure, they’re playing in the Sun Belt, rather than the Big-12. But make no mistake, this team is legitimate, and has a real chance of pulling off the 12-5 upset this year. With an RPI ranking of 45, a KenPom ranking of 56, and a tough, reliable defense, Little Rock can make some noise, and if so, it’ll be a pretty satisfying story for a team that Head Coach Chris Beard basically pieced together from junior college transfers.
There’s no denying that this hasn’t been the season the Bulldogs anticipated. The most recognizable mid-major in the country was expected to stroll right into the NCAA Tournament as usual, and possibly do some real damage once they got there. Instead, injuries and adversity derailed the Zags’ season, and appeared to put them on the wrong side of the bubble.
No matter, Coach Mark Few and company got things done the hard way, knocking off St. Mary’s to win the West Coast Conference, and extend their streak of 18 straight Big Dances. Gonzaga enters the tourney as a #11 seed, which means they’re back to being the underdog of whom little is expected. What’s more fun than that?
Yes, you’re reading that right, Tulsa. The team that everybody spent Sunday being pretty steamed at, simply because nobody could quite figure out how they snuck into the field. And to be clear, you’ll get no real argument here. With an RPI ranking of 61, a 4-5 record against the Top-50, and a rather dismal 22 point loss to Memphis in the AAC Tournament, the Golden Hurricanes don’t really belong in the Big Dance. You know who else that described? Virginia Commonwealth University, back in 2011.
Sometimes, the teams that have no business dancing are the ones who have the best time. Call it a hunch, but maybe Tulsa is motivated to silence all the haters.
Speaking of VCU, looks who’s still here! It was only fair to wonder what the future held for America’s favorite overachievers, once the perennially sought-after Shaka Smart departed for Texas. But the school did the logical thing, emphasizing continuity by hiring Will Wade, Smart’s first assistant coaching hire, and someone quite familiar with the fast paced “Havoc” system that had seen so much success.
The Rams haven’t missed a beat this season, finishing 24-10 behind senior guard Melvin Johnson’s 18 points per game. It’s only natural to root for one of college basketball’s pluckiest programs to continue their success on the biggest stage.
Gosh, why oh why would someone want to watch the UConn Huskies in March? Hmmm.
It’s impossible to explain why the fellas from Storrs seem to have a knack, year after year, for marathon games, heart-stopping moments, and crazy tournament runs. But with Jalen Adams suddenly looking quite capable of following in the illustrious footsteps of Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker, Rip Hamilton, Ray Allen, and, heck, Kevin Ollie, there’s no reason why the Huskies aren’t capable of another deep run in the tournament. Although you can’t help but feel like, at least somewhere along the way, 40 minutes isn’t going to be enough.
When it comes to star power in college basketball, this is the era of the one-and-done, and there’s really no use fighting it. The NBA’s age restriction has ensured that the best young players in the country will mostly just be passing through the NCAA Tournament, (or, as we see this year with Ben Simmons, not stopping by whatsoever). That’s what makes Kris Dunn so special, and the Providence Friars so compelling.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with marveling at the incredible pro prospects that Kentucky runs out year after year. But there’s undeniably something compelling, and uplifting, about Dunn, in his senior season, continuing to impress as one of the nation’s top talents, following two rotator cuff surgeries, and a childhood that saw he and his older brother often forced to fend for themselves. There’s few players in the country that have done more for their school than Dunn has for Providence, and it’s impossible not to root for a deep tourney run.
Oh look! Here’s our good friend Andy Enfield, and he’s back from the hot seat, sliding in as a #8 seed in his 3rd year as USC head coach. This may not seem remarkable, but given that USC finished at the bottom of the Pac-12 in each of his first two seasons, this year has been quite the turnaround tale. It’s good to see patience rewarded, and a balanced roster that sees five players average double figures in scoring, has led the program back to health.
So take heed, SoCal basketball fans! Sure, the Lakers are a mess, and nobody really knows when Blake Griffin will be healthy, but there’s still time to jump on the Trojan bandwagon. Or, is it a wooden horse?
For anyone still mourning the unfortunate end to the prior iteration of the Big East Conference, allow Seton Hall to cheer you up. Because let’s be honest, for years the Pirates were resigned to “also-ran” status, routinely serving as mere fodder for Syracuse, Connecticut, Pitt, and the rest of the perennial powers. But this year, with the slimmed down Big East proving that it’s still quite formidable, Seton Hall has taken advantage of its chance to step into the spotlight. Upsets wins over Xavier and Villanova gave the school its first Big East Title since 1993, but make no mistake, with Isaiah Whitehead steering the ship and one of the country’s most efficient offenses, this team is no fluke. Which may mean more delightful Kevin Willard reactions like this one.
A little more than year ago, SBNation’s Spencer Hall wrote what must be considered the definitive primer on the current Head Coach of Indiana Basketball, “The Fascinating Weirdness of Tom Crean”. Somehow, as is his gift, Hall was able to make sense of the weird faces, the ill-fitting clothes, the bizarre haircut, and arrive at something approximating understanding, of the strange individual who has seemed perpetually on the hot-seat from the moment he arrived at one of college basketball’s most prestigious programs.
This year, Indiana has extended Crean a little more breathing room, by virtue of a 25-7 season, and an outright Big Ten regular season championship. That means we should all be rooting for Indiana, not merely because they have outperformed expectations, but also because there is no such thing as a bad Tom Crean cutaway.
Hahaha, no… but seriously…
Odds on favorite to win the Wooden Award? Check. Talented group of teammates who have started 100 games alongside him? Check. One of the most exciting, three-point heavy offenses in the country? Check. There’s a lot to love about the Sooners, and even though it begins with the incredible Buddy Hield and his 25 points per game, it doesn’t end there. Lon Kruger’s team was sensational from start to finish, and has a real chance of advancing to the Final Four for the first time since 2002. Hield was denied his miracle in the conference tournament when his half-court buzzer beater against West Virginia was just a hair late.
But a deep NCAA Tournament run would ensure the moment becomes a mere footnote to an otherwise wonderful season.
Yes, we’ll finish things off with the other half of perhaps the most compelling game of this entire college basketball season. Sadly, Oklahoma and Kansas would meet in the NCAA Tournament Semifinal, meaning there’s no chance of a reprise with the National Title on the line. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still root for the Jayhawks to make a little more tourney history. Sure, rooting for the consensus #1 team in the country may seem a little tacky. Do Bill Self and company really need any extra support? But between the 12 straight Big-12 Conference Titles, the compelling history of Dr. James Naismith, and the truly timeless career of Perry Ellis, (who hasn’t been around quite as long), Kansas is, in our minds at least, the powerhouse most deserving of the nation’s cheers. Now say it with us folks…