It seems as if everyone loves the same teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Arizona and Florida are the two #1 seeds that everyone likes while Michigan State and Louisville are getting love as if they were #1 seeds. But things don’t always happen that easily. You want to be somewhat risk-averse in NCAA pools, but you’ll need some picks that differentiate you from everyone else. Here’s a list of teams that could do that for you while busting up everyone else’s bracket. (They’re listed by region, not necessarily in order of preference.)
Connecticut – #7 – East Region
Guard play and defense can get you a long way in the tournament. UConn has both of those qualities, which is why they’re capable of making a run. Shabazz Napier is seen by some as the best guard in the country and his running mate Ryan Boatwright isn’t half bad himself. DeAndre Daniels and Niles Giffey round out the rest of the offense, but the Huskies make their money with the 11th-most efficient defense in the country. After a first round win against St. Joseph’s, UConn could face a very vulnerable Villanova team, who hasn’t won a game against a top 30 RPI team since November 29th. (That was also their only top 30 RPI win of the season.)
North Carolina – #6 – East Region
March is where legends are made, and Marcus Paige could easily become a legend. It’s weird that he really only heats things up in the second half, but he kills it when he does. He’s dropped numerous 20-point games this year including reaching the 30-point mark twice. The Tar Heels have some issues with foul trouble and foul shooting, but they surround Paige with enough quality players to scare Iowa State and make a possible run to the second weekend.
Syracuse – #3 – South Region
You might be asking how I place a #3 seed on this list, but the key to this list is public perception and value. Syracuse was #1 in the country for a while and for good reason. Then they dealt with a back injury to Jeremi Grant while slowing down somewhat on the offensive end. This led to a few losses, but the Orange can certainly do damage in a tournament setting. For starters, their 2-3 zone is extremely hard to prepare for, especially with only one day to prepare, because most teams don’t use one these days. Their point guard Tyler Ennis is one of the best at the country and has a knack for making the big shot. They’re a little short on the bench, but their zone helps protect them from foul trouble. A healthy Grant is more important than anything else right now.
UCLA – #4 – South Region
UCLA is peaking at the right time. Their slow start to the season was due to losing their leading scorer Shabazz Muhammad and point guard Larry Drew II, but they’ve got things going lately. Having won nine of their last 12 games, the Bruins have shown that any of six guys can have a big scoring night. They’re weak on the glass, but VCU and Florida aren’t that big on the frontline. And if you can beat Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament, it shows you can beat a more physical team when the offense is clicking.
New Mexico – #7 – South Region
New Mexico has one of the best players in the nation you don’t know about. It helps that he’s a big white Australian guy since that doesn’t exactly make him a top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. But Cameron Bairstow superior play is evident by the his 20.3 points per game average, which rose to 21 in the three games against the great defense of San Diego State. Tack in Kendall Williams’ scoring on the wing and Hugh Greenwood’s leadership in the backcourt and you have something cooking. New Mexico has the size to trouble a Kansas team without Joel Embiid and the offensive weapons to get past lower scoring teams like Syracuse and Ohio State. This is basically the same New Mexico team that everyone was so excited about last year.
Wichita State – #1 – Midwest Region
“Woah,” you say as you notice a #1 seed in this write-up. “Calm down” is my response and listen to me for a minute. No one is acting as if Wichita State is a #1 seed. Everyone’s picking Louisville from the bracket and a lot of people want to say Kentucky might beat the Shockers before they even make it to Louisville. The thing is Wichita State is a legitimately good team. There’s something different between being the hunter and being the hunted, but you can’t knock experience and shooting. Kentucky is a #8 seed for a reason and Louisville has the ability to lose a close game because they’re not a great scoring team. Michigan and Duke are both flawed defensively, so why can’t Wichita State make a return trip to the Final Four?
Iowa – #11 – Midwest Region
To say Iowa hasn’t played well in recent weeks is beyond stating the obvious. But they weren’t overachieving at the beginning of the season when they were winning games against good teams. They’ve got plenty of scoring, especially from three-point range, between Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White, and Josh Oglesby. Assuming they win tonight against a more physical Tennessee team, their path at greatness sets up well. Duke and Michigan are both lackluster defensive teams who Iowa could be in shootouts on the right day.
Baylor – # 6 – West Region
Baylor is another team that recruits extremely well. Scott Drew isn’t the best Xs and Os coach in the business, but sometimes his players’ talent takes over. We saw this in Baylor’s two runs to the Elite Eight. The length of Baylor’s forwards in the 2-3 zone is reminiscent of Syracuse’s best days. They’ve got scoring up and down the lineup with Brady Heslip and Royce O’Neale being the two guys that can really hit up from the outside. Their length will be an issue for both Nebraska and Creighton and their athleticism could give Wisconsin fits.
Oregon – #7 – West Region
Oregon was ranked 19th before the season started. They’re recruiting classes have been in the upper echelon for a while now and the transfer of Mike Moser to their program didn’t hurt either. It took them a while to get going, but they’re firing on all cylinders now since marginalizing Dominic Artis’ role. They’re up-tempo game could cause fits for a slower and less athletic Wisconsin and Creighton, who they’d be projected to face in rounds three and four.
Oklahoma State – #9 – West Region
This might be the best #9 seed we’ve ever seen in a bracket. The Cowboys went through a well-known bad stretch during the middle of the season, but they’ve won five of their last seven, with the two losses coming to Iowa State and Kansas, which are allowed. You don’t need to tell you again that guards win tournament games, but I will. Marcus Smart, Phil Forte, and Markel Brown can all elevate their game to push Oklahoma State through. They won’t be intimidated by Arizona (the Wildcats will probably be scared of them), and the rest of the region isn’t that intimidating if they can get past that one.