It’s easy for the typical “March Madness” fan – you know, the one who only follows college basketball during March - to sit down with a bracket and pick each higher seed over its respective lower, arriving at the Final Four in the center with four number one seeds in the national championship.
But for those who are less casual followers of the sport, there are matchups in the tournament that are not only intriguing, but also have true upset potential. In these “David and Goliath” matchups, prestige of program goes out the window. Often, these teams have never played each other, and size, speed and athleticism, which major conference teams tend to specialize in, are not always enough against a cagey mid-major.
In recent years, there have been some notable early exits involving some prominent teams: Syracuse departing after losing to 13th seed Vermont in 2005; Duke leaving after their first round game against 11th seeded Virginia Commonwealth in 2007, and in the second round against 15th seed Lehigh in 2012, and No. 4 seed Louisville losing to No. 13 Morehead State in 2011. Obviously, upsets are called that for a reason; but for many, they make the tournament less predictable and more exciting.
That said, there are a few intriguing matchups in this year’s tournament that could be “bracket busters.” First, 12th seed North Dakota State versus No. 5 Oklahoma (7:27 p.m. Eastern time Thursday on truTV). The NDSU Bison blew through their competition in the Summit League tournament, and were 12-2 in conference, with eight double-digit wins. They have a great game in the post and can score reliably against anyone.
Oklahoma has one of the best guards in the country in Buddy Hield, who’s backed by fellow guards Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard as well as forward Cameron Clark―all of whom have contributed double-digit scoring this season en route to Oklahoma’s average of 82 points per game. NDSU is not a team to take lightly. A matchup to watch will be the Bison’s Marshall Bjorklund against Oklahoma center Ryan Spangler. But NDSU doesn’t rely on the three-ball as much as Oklahoma, and if the Bison get an inside game going, this could be a big upset.
Next, 14th seed Western Michigan against third seed Syracuse (2:45 p.m. Eastern Thursday on CBS). I feel this is a game to watch because it features a ascendant team, the Broncos of WMU who’ve won twelve of their last thirteen games against an Orange squad that have lost five of their last seven – starting with a horrific overtime loss to ACC basement-dweller Boston College in February. The momentum is definitely with WMU, and they are coming off a game where they dropped 98 points on Toledo to win the Mid-American Conference tournament. The Broncos have also been studying Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone defense, and are comparing it to that of Eastern Michigan’s. They will be prepared and dangerous in this game.
No. 12 North Carolina State over fifth seed Saint Louis (7:20 p.m. Eastern Thursday on TNT). This is another story of a team that played its way through a tough ACC schedule and dispatched Xavier in their first round play-in game by fifteen points. The Wolfpack have won five of their last six games, including one over Syracuse in the ACC tournament, and boast the ACC Player of the Year, sophomore forward T.J. Warren, who scored an impressive 25 points in the Xavier contest. If he gets on a roll tonight, it could spell trouble for the Billikens of Saint Louis, who are on a big downward spiral, having lost four of their last five games.
11th seed Tennessee over sixth seed Massachusetts (2:45 p.m. Eastern time Friday on CBS). Tennessee’s powerful triumverate - guards Josh Richardson, Jordan McRae, and powerful big man Jarnell Stokes - put on a second-half offensive burst Wednesday night, en route to a gutty overtime 78-65 win over the University of Iowa in their first-round play-in game. The Volunteers had momentum for most of the second half against the Hawkeyes, and looked as strong as they have all season.
The Volunteers, who have won six of their last seven games, now face a No. 6 UMass Minutemen team that many consider a fragile sixth seed – having lost three of their last five games against the likes of Dayton, Saint Louis and George Washington. In total, their inconsistency is what makes them an upset target. Stokes and fellow big man Jerome Maymon will likely have the advantage inside against Minutemen center Cady Lalanne, who tends to get into foul trouble frequently. UMass forward Maxie Esho and guard Derrick Gordon may have some decent luck on the outside against McRae, Richardson and fellow Volunteer guard Antonio Barton; but this game will be won inside. Tennessee will likely advance.