Everyone loves to find the sleepers in their NCAA brackets, and this year is no different.
Most nonconference games in November and December were canceled due to COVID-19. So many of the best smaller and mid-major schools never got their chances against the major conferences this season. These smaller schools, limited to mostly conference games, did not really have the opportunity to show the nation how good they were.
That all changes Friday morning when the first round of the NCAA tournament tips off. Most smaller and mid-major conferences are sending their top teams to the Big Dance this year after winning their conference tournaments. This is a huge reason the upsets will come, and possibly in bunches. In many previous seasons, we had so many conference tournament upsets at the smaller and mid-major level that these leagues often did not get to show off their best teams. But this year the biggest upsets came in the power conferences, so the best of the smaller schools will get an opportunity to show up the power conferences.
Let’s break down the NCAA bracket by region and try to find the Cinderellas.
The Ohio Bobcats have what it takes to knock off Virginia. They have an NBA talent in guard Jason Preston, who can hit big shots and sinks over 40% of his 3-pointers. To pull off upsets you need balanced scoring in case your star is cold, and Ohio has just that as all five starters average in double figures. This upset is looming not only because of the Bobcats’ talent but because of the craziness surrounding Virginia. Tony Bennett’s team had to pull out of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament last week due to positive COVID-19 tests. Even if the Cavaliers pass all health protocols, they will not be allowed to practice as a team until Thursday and will travel to Indianapolis on Friday, just one day before the game against Ohio. Coaches like consistency so the players are in sync with one another, but Virginia has been thrown off schedule. Look for Ohio to pounce on the Cavaliers early. As solid as Virginia is, playing from behind with their slow, deliberate defensive style is not Bennett’s game plan. Ohio moves on to the second round.
Might we see a 12th seed play a 13th seed in the second round? Very possibly. UC Santa Barbara has the big-time talent and coaching to take down Creighton. Gauchos coach Joe Pasternack is in his third season after learning under Sean Miller at Arizona, so Pasternack is familiar with winning in the NCAA tournament. The Gauchos have a very tough inside-outside game led by star guard JaQuori McLaughlin and big man Amadou Sow. This duo combines for 30 points per game. UCSB has the size down low to rebound with Creighton, and if the Bluejays’ outside shots are not falling, it could be a long night for coach Greg McDermott’s team. The Gauchos have lost one game this calendar year, so they have that winning mentality down the stretch. Don’t be afraid to pencil in a 12-vs.-13 game in the second round of this region.
Look for top-seeded Michigan to have its hands full just to make the second weekend of the tournament. The Wolverines lost forward Isaiah Livers to a foot injury in the Big Ten tournament and will miss his defensive toughness and senior leadership immensely. Michigan looked like a different team without him. The team best suited to take advantage of Michigan’s troubles is St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies have two studs in guard Kyle Lofton and forward Osun Osunniyi. Together they average more than 25 points per game, and they shine on defense for coach Mark Schmidt. The Bonnies’ tough, in-your-face defense will make it difficult for LSU and Michigan, and St. Bonaventure is a real threat to see the second weekend.
If you have not seen Neemias Queta play, be sure to watch Utah State face Texas Tech. The Aggies’ big man shines on both ends of the court. Offensively he is skilled and has a nice touch around the basket, and on defense he is everywhere. Blocking shots, rebounding and making opponents alter their shots in the lane make Queta a name everyone will know by this weekend. The Aggies also rely on sharpshooter Brock Miller, who is one of the best 3-point shooters in the nation. The Aggies face an inconsistent Texas Tech team from the Big 12. Chris Beard is one of the best coaches in the country, but the Red Raiders have been unable to close out games this season. If Utah State plays its usual solid defense, coach Craig Smith’s team could make a deep run in the wide-open bottom part of the South Region bracket.
Joining Utah State as a Mountain West Conference team primed for a deep run is San Diego State. When looking for upsets, look for teams led by seniors — and the Aztecs have two good ones in Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel. Brian Dutcher is one of the best coaches no one talks about. If the Aztecs can attack the Syracuse zone, hit their outside shots and slow down sharpshooter Buddy Boeheim, the Orange could get squashed. This would not necessarily be an upset, but SDSU making a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight run would be, and the Aztecs have what it takes. Don’t be scared to advance San Diego State in your bracket.