It happens every March, that first or second round upset that has you pulling your hair out. Not only because you can’t believe it happened but because your co-worker picked it correctly because Terriers are cuter than Wildcats. It is only January but that time will soon be upon us so here is a look at three teams that could pull off those hair-pulling upsets provided they get invited to the dance.
The UNC-Wilmington Seahawks are currently 15-2 and 4-0 in the Colonial with an RPI of 24 and non-conference RPI of 17. Their two losses have come at the hands of a team you will hear more about later, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson. One problem for the Seahawks, a team that averages nearly 87 points per game is that those two games are the only games they have against the RPI top 50. Over the past three seasons the Seahawks have gone from winning just nine games to giving Duke all they could handle in an eight point loss in last year’s tournament. Now Coach Kevin Keatts has them poised to take another step forward. UNCW is no stranger to pulling upsets; back in 2002 Brett Blizzard led the Seahawks to a first round upset of fourth-seeded USC before falling to Indiana. This season’s incarnation is led by a quartet of double figure scorers (two senior guards and two sophomores) that account for 62.7 of the team’s 86.8 points per game. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder are the sophomores. C.J. Bryce averages 17.8 points and 5.3 rebounds and Devontae Cacok averages 9.6 rebounds and 13.8 points per contest. The Seahawks’ leadership comes from its senior backcourt of Chris Flemmings and Denzel Ingram who combine average 31.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.6 assists while only turning the ball over 4.7 times per game leading UNCW to the 25th best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country.
The next team should sound familiar to college basketball fans. The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders are looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament a year after stunning #2 seed Michigan State last season. The Blue Raiders are currently 13-3 and 3-0 in Conference USA with an RPI of 17 and a strength of schedule at 25. The peripheral numbers look good for MTSU and the results back them up with a 5-2 record against the RPI top 100 and wins over the aforementioned UNC Wilmington, Mississippi and Vanderbilt. Their losses came on the road at VCU and a pair of home losses to Tennessee State and Georgia State. While looking at the stats nothing really pops out about Kermit Davis’ squad. They don’t score a ton of points, only three players average double figures, no one else is above five points per game and they don’t really crash the glass, those same three players lead the team in rebounding. What the Blue Raiders do well is keep their opponents from scoring (65.4 points), they shoot the ball well at 48.2% and they don’t turn the ball over (only 10.3 per game) while forcing 14.5. That formula has worked out well and allowed the trio of seniors JaCorey Williams, Reggie Upshaw and junior Giddy Potts to lead the team. They account for 46.1 points and 19 rebounds per game and MTSU will go as far as these three will take them and they have already proven they are not afraid of the big stage.
The final team to take a look at doesn’t have eye-popping numbers either but they are 11-5 and 2-1 in the Sun Belt with an RPI of 62 and a 3-3 record against the RPI top 100. The Arkansas State Red Wolves have only been to the NCAA Tournament one time, back in 1999 but could be poised to go back for a number of reasons. They shoot the ball well at 48% (38.9% from beyond the arc), they defend the three well at 28.3% and they have something in common with MTSU and UNCW, senior leadership, more specifically senior guards. Deven Simms and Rashad Lindsey are juniors who average 22 points per game but it is Devin Carter and Donte Thomas’ 25.8 points, eight rebounds and 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio that really makes Coach Grant McClasland’s team go. If the Red Wolves can survive what is always a wild Sun Belt and end up in a good match up they could pull off the unexpected.
The NCAA Tournament is always unpredictable but here are three teams to keep an eye on. If they end up in the bracket they could, and in the case of Middle Tennessee have already pulled off that unforeseen victory.