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Selection Sunday is roughly two weeks away, but there’s a general idea of which teams should be in the tournament, and who is still on the bubble. Last season, we had #16 UMBC upset #1 Virginia, while #11 Loyola-Chicago made a run to the Final Four. Here is a compilation of lower-seeded teams that could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament:
Houston: It might be strange to start a list of dark horses with the current #8 team in the country, but Houston is a legitimate Final Four candidate. They might be forgotten with teams like Duke, Kentucky, and Virginia in the mix, but don’t sleep on the Cougars. Houston ranks 5th in the nation in scoring defense and rebounds, and 1st in opponents field goal percentage, allowing just 36.2% of shots to fall.
There is depth here with talents in Breaon Brady and Dejon Jarreau coming off the bench, although Corey Davis Jr and Armoni Brooks will be the players to watch for. Projected for a #3 seed, the Cougars could potentially move up to #2 if some of their colleagues fall.
VCU: Much like Houston, VCU will play solid defense; the Rams are 6th in opposing field goal percentage and 12th in points allowed. They seem to be peaking at just the right time too, as their 9-game win streak has propelled them to the top seed in the Atlantic 10. The Rams will likely go as Marcus Evans goes, as he leads the team in points, assists, and steals. Projected as a #10 seed, that will only go up if they continue winning.
St. Johns: A solid 14-1 start gave hope for the Red Storm early this season, but inconsistent Big East play has brought them an 8-7 conference record. Still, they are a 20-win team, with victories over Villanova and Marquette (twice). Shamorie Ponds is a candidate for Big East Player of the Year and could lead St Johns, who is currently projected as a #9 seed, into the second round.
A 30-point loss at Duke earlier this season, along with being swept by Providence may worry some, but if St. Johns plays the way they did against the top two teams in the Big East, they have potential for a tournament run.
Old Dominion: This isn’t a team that will light up a scoreboard, as Old Dominion only averages 68 points per game. However, they also rank 8th in scoring defense, allowing 61.1 per game. BJ Stith leads this team in points, with Ahmad Caver being another player to watch out for. The Monarchs are a top-40 team in terms of rebounding and blocked shots. The resume is there, as they are currently on top of C-USA and own a road win over Syracuse. Old Dominion is projected as a #13 seed, but their strength of schedule may cause some concern.
New Mexico State: The 24-4 record jumps off the page, and 3 of those losses were by six points or less, with one of them being a 3-point “neutral court” loss against Kansas in Kansas City. The Aggies hold an 11-game win streak and are on top of the WAC with a 12-1 conference record, but are projected as a #12 seed in the tournament.
Although there is no real star power with this team, they are incredibly well balanced. Terrell Brown is the only player averaging more than 10 points per game (there are 2 players at 9.9 and 9.8 however), and there is a different player leading all five statistical categories.
Utah State: Whether or not these Aggies end up making the tournament could come down to their game against Nevada on Saturday. However, a 2-4 record in quadrant 1 games won’t help matters. Utah State is 38th in the RPI rankings, rebound well (5th in rebounding margin), and play selflessly (10th in assists).
That is enough for a birth as a #12 seed in the first four, but the game against Nevada, as well as the Mountain West tournament, will be detrimental to their case. If Utah State manages to make it in, they can give opponents fits.
South Dakota State: If you haven’t seen Mike Daum play yet, you’re missing out. He averages 25.8 points and 11.8 rebounds for the Jackrabbits, who boast the 7th-best scoring offense. They are 23-7 overall, but have yet to win a quadrant 1 or 2 game, going 0-3 in such opportunities.
If South Dakota State wants to make a run, they’ll likely have to be in some offensive shootouts, as they rank 232nd in points allowed. A projected #14 seed, that will likely remain without many chances at resume-boosting wins.
The Southern Conference: Wofford is currently undefeated and the best team in the Southern Conference, but there is still more talent there. East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro, and Furman are all 20-win teams who have played well against ranked opponents earlier in the season.
The conference has never sent an at-large team to the NCAA tournament, but if one of these teams can upset Wofford in the conference tourney, it will likely happen this season. Even if the Terriers continue their run through the conference, one of these teams might be able to sneak in.