From starts to stops to pauses, the pandemic season has been the most unpredictable in recent memory. Couple that with the most unpredictable month of the season, in any year, and it’s the perfect storm for history-making runs as 68 teams prepare to duke it out in Indianapolis for the men’s NCAA title.
Since 1997, only one team below a No. 3 seed (No. 4 Arizona) has won the tournament, but in a year when practices are scarce and fans are limited (25% capacity), the stage is set for a lower-seeded veteran-laden squad to make it to April.
Yes, we know all about Gonzaga being undefeated, Baylor’s toughness and Illinois’s inside-outside dominance, but which lesser-known teams have the personnel and pedigree to dole out multiple upsets en route to a Final Four berth?
Here are the five most likely candidates.
North Carolina (No. 8, South Region)
Yes, we know that it’s almost blasphemous to pick a blueblood program this season with the dismal performances across the board, but the Tar Heels are trending upward. In a normal year, sweeping Duke would be a big deal, but the Blue Devils were left out of the NCAA tournament this season after being abnormally bad.
Still, North Carolina had a big win over Florida State just before the ACC tournament, smacked Louisville by 45 points and boasts a frontline that relentlessly controls the glass on both ends of the floor. The four-headed monster that is North Carolina’s frontcourt—Day’Ron Sharpe, Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot and Walker Kessler—helps it enjoy a plus-10.7 rebounding advantage over opponents. The problem for the Tar Heels is they also turn the ball over more than their opponents, averaging 14.8 per game. If their young guards Caleb Love and R.J. Davis can limit their propensity to cough up the ball, the Tar Heels could get back to vintage March form.
Oklahoma State (No. 4, Midwest)
The Cowboys showed what they’re capable of by knocking off then No. 2 Baylor, 83–74, in the Big 12 semifinals last week. That gave the Cowboys 10 wins over Quad 1 opponents this season and, more importantly, a much-needed confidence boost headed into the Big Dance. March highlights stars like no other month, and Cade Cunningham is arguably the best in show. He’s already earned Big 12 Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year after averaging 20.2 points per game with 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists this season. In Oklahoma State’s big win over Baylor, Cunningham posted 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
As the stakes rise, Cunningham has consistently raised his production, and that bodes well for Oklahoma State. He’ll have help from Avery Anderson, Kalib Boone and Isaac Likekele, but for the Cowboys to have a shot in the second weekend and beyond, Cunningham will likely have to post new career highs, a task he’s more than capable of.
Ohio (No. 13 seed, West)
The Bobcats are well equipped to deal with the adjustments that come with this COVID-19 season after two pauses this year. The rhythm interruption didn’t seem to have any effect on Ohio in the MAC tournament, where it rolled teams by an average of 14.7 points a game behind stellar play from all-everything guard Jason Preston. This season, Preston is averaging 17.1 points (53.6% overall and 41.3% from three), 6.9 assists and 6.7 rebounds a game. The beauty of his dominance is his versatility; Preston impacts the game in virtually every facet, and he’s got a strong supporting cast with Dwight Wilson III (14.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Ben Vander Plas (12.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.6 apg), Ben Roderick (12.2 ppg) and Lunden McDay (10.1 ppg). Not since 2013 has a No. 13 seed reached even the Sweet 16, but the Bobcats can score in bunches (80.9 ppg) and have all the pieces to become this year’s Cinderella.
Tennessee (No. 5, Midwest)
The Vols have been one of the most up-and-down teams all season with a special blend of potential and inconsistency. Still, they showed strong flashes in the end with a big win over Florida and a nail-biting loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament semifinals. The big question for the Vols is whether John Fulkerson will be able to go this week. Fulkerson underwent a surgical procedure last week after receiving two elbows during the Florida game. If he’s able to rejoin the team and freshman guards Jaden Springer (12.5 ppg) and Keon Johnson (11.2 ppg) continue to raise their level of production (combined to average 31 ppg at the SEC tournament), the Vols have the pieces to finally live up to their early-season hype.
Florida State (No. 4, East)
The prevailing theme for the Seminoles this season has been inconsistency, so perhaps it’s poetic justice that they’ll open against, arguably, the most talented No. 13 seed in the tournament (UNC Greensboro). There’s no buzz around Florida State making a spirited run to the Final Four like there was last season; expect Leonard Hamilton to use that as a golden opportunity to motivate his troops, specifically the Seminoles’ big three of M.J. Walker (13 ppg), RaiQuan Gray (12 ppg) and Scottie Barnes (11 ppg).
Despite the rollercoaster season, the Seminoles led the league in scoring (78.9 ppg) and three-point percentage (39%), and held teams to a league best 39.8% from the field. Add in Hamilton’s understated March magic—an ACC title, an Elite Eight finish and a Sweet 16 finish in the last three years—and the potential is there for the Seminoles to make a run.
Colorado (No. 5, East): The Buffaloes earned their highest seed in program history, and before a shocking 70–68 loss in the Pac-12 tournament title game to Oregon State, they were riding a six-game winning streak. Still, no player on the roster has NCAA tournament experience, and in March, experience matters.
Liberty (No. 13, Midwest): The Flames are riding a 13-game winning streak, and star guard Darius McGhee (15.6 ppg), the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year, will provide an interesting matchup against Oklahoma State star guard Cade Cunningham. Still the Cowboys are playing some of their basketball of the season at this point. Tough draw.
Georgia Tech (No. 9, Midwest): The Yellow Jackets are the ACC tournament champs, boast the league’s Player of the Year in Moses Wright and a fiery and capable leader at the point in Jose Alvarado; still, COVID-19 sent two legitimate contenders in Duke and regular-season champ Virginia away from the ACC tournament early and the Yellow Jackets don’t rebound well. Recipe for disaster.
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