The NCAA tournament is well known for making the improbable happen each season. These four teams are still able to inject a big surprise into the current NCAA tournament. Will they be able to leave one larger imprint on people’s bracket sheets?
South Region: UCLA Bruins
The Bruins were one of the last teams to get into the tournament, and they have made the most of the opportunity by making the Sweet 16 for the second straight season. UCLA’s Bryce Alford has scored at least 22 points in each of his first two NCAA Tournament games this year, setting him apart from the rest of the players in this tournament. Alford is riding a hot hand, and as long as he continues to shoot well (he hit nine three-pointers in UCLA’s controversial win over SMU last Thursday afternoon), UCLA becomes a tough team, because if Alford’s hitting shots on the perimeter, defenses will have to come outside to play him and take away his shooting stroke. This will enable UCLA forwards Kevon Looney and Tony Parker to operate in the low post without double-teams. UCLA already played Gonzaga once this season. The Bruins lost, but having played the Bulldogs should give the Bruins a much better idea of how they can fix the things they didn’t do well the first time around. This is a Cinderella in the making if it can get another big game out of Alford, so think about this when placing your NCAA Tournament picks.
West Region: Xavier Musketeers
The Musketeers are the last team remaining in the Big East, and they were the team few people expected to hold such a distinction. Villanova was supposed to be the last team remaining from the Big East in this year’s tournament, but Xavier is that team instead. Xavier just keeps making Sweet 16s. The program is now in its fifth Sweet 16 over the past eight seasons, a record of consistency matched by few programs across the nation. The seniors on this team were part of the 2012 team which made the Sweet 16 before losing to Baylor. They remember what it’s like to go this deep into the tournament. In this next game against Arizona, Xavier big man Matt Stainbrook will provide a space-eating presence in the paint against Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley. Stainbrook doesn’t have to dominate, but if he can merely neutralize Tarczewski and Ashley, he can free up Xavier’s guards and wings to do what they need to do in one-on-one matchups. Arizona is not a strong perimeter jump-shooting team, so if Xavier can rebound well at every position on the floor, it has a real chance of doing some damage against the Wildcats.
Midwest Region: Wichita State
There’s no doubt that a seventh seed is a Cinderella seed, and Wichita State looks like a very dangerous seventh seed. The Shockers are more of a Cinderella than Michigan State because the Spartans come from the Big Ten, and the Big Ten is not really the source of Cinderellas. The Missouri Valley Conference, on the other hand, is a legitimate Cinderella location. Wichita State made second-seeded Kansas look very bad on Sunday. If the Shockers can win by double figures against the Big 12 champions (the Big 12 was the top computer-rated league this past season), they can certainly do the same against Notre Dame on Thursday. They just might be the team in the Midwest Regional that matches up best with Kentucky as well.
East Region: N.C. State
This is a team that caught fire at the right time. North Carolina State was ordinary for much of the regular season, but against top-seeded Villanova, the Wolfpack were special on defense. They limited Villanova to 31 percent field goal shooting and outrebounded the Wildcats on the defensive glass, 32-20, winning the overall rebounding battle, 45-32. If North Carolina State’s defense can remain that good against Louisville, the Wolfpack have a great shot at advancing, and if they play Michigan State or Oklahoma in the regional final, they will meet a couple of teams that can go on long scoring droughts. The Wolfpack can get to the Final Four with their defense and rebounding.