OVERNIGHT SENSATIONS?Several underdog teams stand a good chance of extending their stays past the opening round
IF MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE cost you money a year ago, at least you were in good company. Michigan State entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed and a popular title pick. So when the No. 15 Blue Raiders stunned the Spartans 90--81 in the opening round in St. Louis, they not only dashed the hopes of countless office poolers but also sent one of their own scrambling for cash.
JaCorey Williams, a 6'8" senior forward who redshirted in 2015--16 after transferring from Arkansas, drove his 2007 Chevy Tahoe five hours from Murfreesboro, Tenn., to the Scottrade Center to root for his school. NCAA regulations prevented him from sitting on the bench, so he cheered deliriously from the stands, having gained admission with one of the school's allotted tickets. Yet even Williams had not accounted for the possibility that his teammates might extend their stay in the tournament. "I was planning on driving right back after the game," says Williams, who had no hotel reservation and insufficient funds to pay for a room. "I had to call my mom."
On Thursday, Williams will be on the court (after a night at the team hotel) for a first-round matchup against No. 5 seed Minnesota, which would make another protracted stay by Middle Tennessee—this time in Milwaukee—considerably less shocking. Alongside 6'2" junior guard Giddy Potts (15.8 points per game, 39.2% from three) and 6'8" senior forward Reggie Upshaw (14.5 points, 6.8 rebounds)—who combined for 40 points in last year's win over the Spartans—Williams helped the physical, unflinching team go 17--1 in Conference USA and throttle a pair of SEC foes, Ole Miss (77--62 on Nov. 30, at Oxford) and Vanderbilt (71--48 on Dec. 8). In Upshaw and Williams, who averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 boards, the 12th-seeded Blue Raiders have a dynamic front line capable of handling the ball and manipulating the defense as well as banging inside; their defensive rebounding rate (24.4) ranks 12th nationally. "I think they are the two most versatile forwards in the country [who play] on the same team," says 15th-year coach Kermit Davis, an earnest if biased booster. "When you put those two on the floor at the same time, there's a lot of matchup problems."
While Middle Tennessee may be in the best position to bust brackets again, there are others to look out for. Consider UNC-Wilmington. Last year the Seahawks gave Duke a scare as a No. 13 seed before fading in the second half. Kevin Keatts's squad plays quick (50th nationally in average possession length) but under control (second lowest offensive turnover rate), while boasting the country's 18th-most efficient offense and most efficient scorer, period: 6'7" sophomore forward Devontae Cacok, a transition-dunk specialist who converts a blistering 79.9% of his shots while averaging 12.3 points. And the team's second-leading scorer, Chris Flemmings (15.8 ppg), is no stranger to underdog success, having walked on to the team as a practice player after transferring from Division II Barton College in nearby Wilson.
Any discussion of underdogs and throwdowns calls to mind Florida Gulf Coast, the Dunk City darlings of 2013. Fourth-year coach Joe Dooley's Eagles are not the pace-pushing, freewheeling lobbers of the program's recent past, but their efficiency inside the arc (55.5% two-point shooting, 14th nationally) and the well-rounded talents of 6'2" Central Florida transfer guard Brandon Goodwin (18.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.0 apg) will make them no easy out for No. 3 seed Florida State. The Seminoles should compare notes with Michigan State, which escaped with a one-point win over Florida Gulf Coast at home in November.
The spirit of Cinderella takes many forms, and whom she may inhabit in any given March is anyone's guess. Perhaps it will be the Blue Raiders' directional cousins, East Tennessee State, led by sharpshooting senior guard T.J. Cromer, who takes 38.1% of the Buccaneers' three-pointers and makes 40.4% of those. Or maybe Bucknell, which starts three players who shoot 39.6% or better from beyond the arc, will channel the magic of the 2005 team that upset No. 3 seed Kansas in the first round.
The Mountain West offers ball-protecting Nevada, guided by former Warriors and Kings coach Eric Musselman, and the America East sends red-hot Vermont (winners of 21 straight), led by John Becker, whose first head coaching job was at Gallaudet University, a Division III school for the deaf. And Princeton coach Mitch Henderson knows what it feels like to topple a giant, having scored eight points in the Tigers' first-round upset of UCLA in 1996. This season his team backdoor-cut its way to an undefeated Ivy League season, arriving in March ready for a glass slipper fitting of its own.
There is a reason we remember the George Masons, the Bucknells, and, yes, the Middle Tennessees of tournaments past. Pulling off a seismic upset is worth celebrating because it is so rare. But the mystery remains: No one can predict who might stick around after midnight.
ANY DISCUSSION OF UNDERDOGS AND THROWDOWNS CALLS TO MIND FLORIDA GULF COAST, THE DUNK CITY DARLINGS OF 2013.
Men's ALL-AMERICA TEAM
PG LONZO BALL, 6'6" freshman, UCLA
The Bruins remade their offense around the highly efficient passing savant, who averaged 14.6 points, 7.7 assists and 6.1 boards.
SG JOSH HART, 6'5" senior, Villanova
A Swiss Army knife of a player, Hart scores (18.9 ppg), rebounds (6.5), defends (1.6 steals) and shoots (40.7% from three).
PG FRANK MASON III, 5'11" senior, Kansas
He began the season by hitting a game-winner over then No. 1 Duke and will most likely end it as the national player of the year.
PF CALEB SWANIGAN, 6'9" sophomore, Purdue
Biggie's 12.6 boards per game rank second nationally, he's tied for first in double doubles (26), and he shot 43.1% from deep.
PG NIGEL WILLIAMS-GOSS, 6'3" junior, Gonzaga
He led the Bulldogs in scoring (16.9 points), assists (4.8) and steals (1.8), while also grabbing 5.7 rebounds.
THE NAME GAME
Six players whose monikers have as much star quality as their basketball skills
LOURAWLS NAIRN JR.
5'10" junior PG, Michigan State
The high-energy Bahamas native is widely known as Tum Tum.
EDRICE (BAM) ADEBAYO
6'10" freshman PF, Kentucky
Fittingly, he's a frequent and fervent finisher at the rim.
6'2" junior SG, Middle Tennessee
We're deliriously happy to see Nathaniel back in the Big Dance.
DAYSHON (SCOOCHIE) SMITH
6'2" senior PG, Dayton
This will be the Bronx native's third tournament as a starter.
6'11" junior PF, Oregon
The juco transfer from London grabs 21.0% of available boards on D.
6'5" junior PF, Notre Dame
Playing bigger than his height, he averaged a double double.