Selection Sunday is behind us, and the field of 68 is finally set for the 2023 NCAA tournament. This year, for the first time in recent memory, we saw zero bid stealers win their conference tournaments. At the same time, there isn’t an overly dominant team at the top. When filling out our brackets, it’s important to identify which teams could fit into this year’s cinderella slippers. Last year, 15-seed Saint Peter’s played bracket busters, knocking off 2-seed Kentucky, 3-seed Purdue, and 7-seed Murray State. In order to qualify for this list, the team must be a double-digit seed, as 8-9 games are toss-ups by nature. In each of the groups (likelies and longshots), the games are in order of most to least likely upset, in my opinion.
SOUTH: #10 Utah State vs #7 Missouri
Utah State is the consensus favorite in this game among all major sportsbooks, and rightfully so. The Aggies were a bubble team, and also rightfully so. Since February 1st, however, they have been one of the most efficient teams in the country. In 12 games over that span, the Aggies rank 13th in Bart Torvik efficiency, sandwiched between 1-seeds Purdue and Kansas above them and 5-seeded Duke below them. It took until January 10th for Steven Ashworth to solidify his spot in the starting five, but he’s been one of the most efficient scorers in the country this year (16.3 PPG, 44.3% 3P%, 66.5% TS%). Forward Taylor Funk had a great year, and Dan Akin won the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year. The Aggies are deep, and they’re dangerous. Don’t be surprised if they beat Missouri and then take down the 2-seeded Pac-12 champion Arizona Wildcats.
As for Missouri, the Tigers had an incredible season in Dennis Gates’ first year at the helm, whether or not they win this game. Missouri has one of the best offenses in the country, ranking 10th in KenPom efficiency and averaging 79.5 PPG. Guard Kobe Brown made the All-SEC First Team after averaging 15.8 PPG and 6.3 RPG on elite efficiency (44.7% 3P%, 65.4% TS%). D’Moi Hodge, one of the best volume shooters in the country, averages 14.8 PPG and attempts 7.2 threes per game (40.1% 3P%). They have a great backcourt trio of Brown, Hodge, and DeAndre Gholston, but they lack size and depth.
The Tigers are a battle-tested SEC team who are 6-9 in Quad-1 games. But don’t underestimate Utah State’s strength of schedule in the Mountain West. They’re just 2-5 against Quad-1 teams, but they have a 9-1 record in Quad-2 games and rank 18th in the NET. Mountain West teams have a tendency to crumble in the tournament, but Utah State is one of the hottest teams in the country. Expect a shootout between these two offenses, but Utah State’s better defense should prevail.
MIDWEST: #13 Kent State vs #4 Indiana
Kent State is a battled-tested 13 seed. Typically mid-major teams have a few early-season out-of-conference games against power conference teams, but the Golden Flashes have already played both Houston and Gonzaga this year. At the Fertitta Center in November, Kent State lost to Houston by just 5 points. Then, a week later, they lost to the Zags by just 7 at the McCarthey Center. Super senior Sincere Carey averages 17.6 points and 4.9 assists per game, and put up 21 and 26-point games in the last two rounds of the MAC tournament.
Indiana has proven they can beat anyone. The Hoosiers took down Xavier in Cincinnati early in the year, then beat Purdue twice, both at home and on the road. Jalen Hood-Schifino has become one of the country’s premier freshmen, averaging 13.5 points and 3.7 assists per game. And Trayce Jackson-Davis may be the 2nd best player in college basketball. In his senior season, Jackson-Davis is averaging 20.8 PPG and 10.9 RPG while shooting 57.8% from the field. Next to their two stars, Miller Kopp (44.3% 3P%, 4.0 3PA) and Trey Galloway (45.2% 3P%, 2.1 3PA) are two of the best shooters in the country. Indiana is an all-around great team, but Kent State is an absolutely brutal draw as a 13 seed.
MIDWEST: #12 Drake vs #5 Miami
The Drake Bulldogs took down Bradley in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship to secure their spot in the NCAA tournament. Tucker DeVries is a mid-major star, while senior guards Roman Penn and Garrett Sturtz provide incredible stability. DeVries, son of the head coach Darian DeVries, is averaging 19.0 PPG (45.7% FG%, 38.7% 3P%) and 5.6 RPG. As a team, they don’t shoot a ton of threes, but they make them when they do. The MVC has a great track record of producing dangerous 11-13 seeds, and this year is no different.
Miami’s defense absolutely fell apart when they lost Norchad Omier after he logged just one minute against Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinal. With or without Omier, this offense is one of the best in the country. Between ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong, Kansas State transfer Nijel Pack, and do-it-all wing Jordan Miller, the Hurricanes have one of the best backcourts in college basketball. They combine for 44.7 PPG and lead the 12th-ranked offense in the country. Last year the Hurricanes made a surprise elite eight run as a ten-seed but they’re on upset watch now, especially if Omier isn’t fully healthy.
EAST: #12 Oral Roberts vs #5 Duke
I feel like I have been given no choice but to highlight this game, although I would expect Duke to win it pretty handily. Oral Roberts shocked the world in 2021, knocking off 2-seed Ohio State en route to a Sweet 16 appearance behind the heroics of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor. While Obanor has since moved on, transferring to Texas Tech, Abmas is back for his senior season in Tulsa. This year, he won his second Summit League POY Award, averaging 22.2 PPG while shooting 44.1% from the field and 37.7% from 3. Arkansas transfer Connor Vanover, a 7’5″ stretch forward, is averaging 12.9 PPG and 7.2 RPG.
While Abmas and Oral Roberts caught the national eye with their improbable Sweet 16 run in 2021, this year’s team may be better. This year, they rank 56th in KenPom, ahead of a couple of 11 seeds. The Golden Eagles may have seen an at-large bid if they lost their conference tournament, but still find themselves on the 12-line. And it’s not just the seed number, they got a rough draw with their opponent.
The Duke Blue Devils are in a transitional period in their program in the wake of Coach K’s departure, but rookie coach Jon Scheyer‘s team is getting hot at the right time. Duke enters the tournament on a nine-game winning streak including two huge wins over Virginia and Miami to win the ACC Tournament but it wasn’t enough to get the bump up to the four-seed line. As it stands, the Blue Devils are a dangerous team with legitimate Final Four potential, especially given the region they were placed in. Oral Roberts will certainly be a popular upset pick, but I’d expect Duke to take them down.
In addition to some of the closer upsets, both odds-wise and seed-wise, I would like to highlight some double-digit point underdogs who have a shot to shock the world and bust brackets. While before these games are played picking an upset may seem crazy, we’ve seen a #2 seed fall in the Round of 64 two years in a row. So who can be this year’s Oral Roberts or Saint Peter’s?
EAST: #14 Montana State vs #3 Kansas State
Jerome Tang’s first year in Manhattan was an incredible success, even if they exit to the 14-seeded Bobcats. The Wildcats were picked last in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll and were coming off an offseason that saw the departure of head coach Bruce Weber while just two players returned. One of those two returners, Markquis Nowell, is averaging 16.8 points and 7.6 assists per game despite his 5’7, 155-pound frame. Tang picked up star forward Keyontae Johnson in the transfer portal, who has been one of the best stories in sports, bouncing back from a life-threatening on-court collapse early in the season two years ago. Johnson has appeared in each of Kansas State’s 32 games, averaging a team-high 17.7 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting 41.9% from three.
In Montana State’s three-game run through the Big West tournament, RaeQuan Battle averaged 21 points per game with a 43.1% FG%, 50% 3P%, and 100% FT%. In his last 15, he’s averaging 19.3 PPG on 46.8% shooting. Alongside Battle, Jubrile Belo averages 13.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while Tyler Patterson (35.5% 3P%, 4.1 3PA) and Darius Brown (40.9%, 2.0) can light it up from deep. The Bobcats play a slow game, draw a ton of fouls, and limit their turnovers. One of Kansas State’s strengths is its transition offense and they cause 14.8 turnovers per game. But on the other hand, they turn the ball over at a high rate themselves. If Montana State can control the ball and slow the game down, expect a close game with a good chance for an upset.
SOUTH: #14 UCSB vs #3 Baylor
I would pick the Santa Barbara Gauchos to beat any of the four-seeds and two of the three-seeds, but they drew a tough matchup with Baylor. Two years ago, UCSB was a popular upset pick as a 12-seed but lost by one to Creighton. Although a lower seed, this team may have more potential to turn heads. They’re led by the duo of sophomore guard Ajay Mitchell, the Big West Player of the Year, and senior forward Miles Norris. In his 2nd season in Santa Barbara, Mitchell averaged 16.4 PPG and 5.1 APG while shooting 50.9% from the field. The Gauchos enter the NCAA tournament on an eight-game winning streak, including wins over UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton to secure the Big West championship. They haven’t had an opportunity against any Quad-1 teams, but UCSB does have a 3-1 record against Quad-2 teams.
Baylor, led by their three-headed monster of a backcourt, boasts one of the country’s top offenses but ranks just 104th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. Their reliance on the three-point shot makes them vulnerable to an early exit. Baylor had a great season, but back-to-back losses to Iowa State may have cost them their spot on the 2-seed line. Their guard trio of Keyonte George, Adam Flagler, and LJ Cryer makes up the best backcourt in the country, but they combined for just 35 points on 9-31 shooting in Baylor’s quarterfinal loss in the Big 12 tournament. I’ll pick Baylor to win the game, but watch out for Mitchell and UCSB in the Bears’ backcourt struggles from deep.
WEST: #15 UNC Asheville vs #2 UCLA
Before Jaylen Clark went down, this would’ve been an easy, no question, UCLA win. Now, there are a couple of questions. Clark, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, was the anchor of a Bruin defense that ranked #1 in the country. In addition to Clark’s injury, freshman center Adem Bona went down in the Pac-12 championship against Arizona. If you asked me two weeks ago, I would’ve told you UCLA was a legitimate National Championship contender. Jaime Jaquez Jr. won the Pac-12 Player of the Year after averaging 17.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
Jaquez Jr. is a star with the potential to single-handedly win this game, but UNC Asheville has one too. Tennessee transfer Drew Pember averages 21.2 PPG and 9.4 RPG while shooting 46.3% from the field and 37.3% from three. Pember can do it all, as he has for this UNC Asheville team all season. In three conference tournament games, Pember dropped 29, 31, and 29 points while winning the Big South championship. In addition to Pember, super-senior guard Tajion Jones averages 15.0 PPG on ridiculous efficiency (51.4% FG%, 45.6% 3P%). The duo of Pember and Jones makes UNC Asheville a scary 15 seed who can keep this game close, but UCLA should be able to take care of business.
EAST: #13 Louisiana vs #4 Tennessee
This is a very popular upset pick, and I understand why. Tennessee doesn’t score the ball well, and that problem only got worse when Zakai Zeigler went down for the season. Zeigler was the only true point guard on this roster, but they should still be able to get by Louisiana, a team who doesn’t have the type of defense to cause issues for the Vols. It’s possible that Louisiana pulls off an upset here, as Tennessee has gone cold as of late. But Santiago Vescovi is an incredible long-range shooter and Tennessee’s 2nd ranked defense should give the Ragin’ Cajuns fits.
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