College basketball parity expands every year. Every year since 2009, a team seeded 11th or lower has found its way into the Sweet Sixteen. Even last year, when all the 12 seeds lost their openers for the first time since 2007, the likes of Loyola Chicago went marching all the way through to the Final Four.
This year’s 9-12 seeds bring next-level talent, conference champions, bubble-team darlings and a 7-foot-6 center. March belongs to the underdogs. Here’s why this year should be no different.
No. 12 Seeds
Liberty Flames (Atlantic Sun): 28-6
Trying to knock off a more talented team? Research says to milk the shot clock and control the pace of play. Liberty plays with the third slowest tempo in the nation, making them a prime candidate to frustrate and shock a more talented team this postseason.
Oregon Ducks (Pac 12): 23-12
Oregon is not a team accustomed to being seeded this low. The Ducks were in the top 25 early on this season, but when hyped freshman Bol Bol went down with an injury, the wheels quickly fell off. But, after a mostly disappointing season, Payton Pritchard and Louis King led the Ducks to eight straight wins to finish the season and a Pac-12 tournament championship. Now, this Ducks squad has a renewed confidence and is the most dangerous team on their seed line.
Murray State Racers (OVC): 27-5
Ja Morant is the truth. The hype around this human highlight reel is only going to grow as we get closer to the beginning of the NCAA Tournament, and for good reason. Can Russell Westbrook Lite take down Markus Howard and Marquette? Bet against him at your own risk—Morant’s doubters tend to get quiet pretty quickly.
New Mexico State Aggies (WAC): 30-4
If New Mexico State beat Kansas way back in December, it’d probably be getting a little more buzz right now. Even with that close loss, the Aggies hit the 30-win mark and were never in danger of losing in the WAC Tournament. Former Ohio State Buckeye A.J. Harris runs the show, and the 5-foot-9 junior point guard is a sawed-off spark plug who’s turned himself into a dangerous scorer.
No. 11 Seeds
Belmont Bruins (OVC): 26-5
Perhaps no team is more thankful for the NCAA’s new NET Ranking than Belmont. Now that the Bruins are in the field, their high-flying offense makes them a trendy upset pick. Dylan Windler has legitimate next-level talent, and Rick Byrd’s bunch are always as well coached as anyone in the nation.
Temple Owls (AAC): 23-9
Temple made the field by the skin of the skin of their teeth. Four times, the Owls went to overtime this season, and four times, they came away with the win. Teams that take care of the ball have a way of winning close games, and the Owls certainly do that. It’s been six years since the Owls have won a game in the NCAA Tournament. They’ll need to find an extra something if they want to silence the doubters this time around.
St. Mary’s Gaels (WCC): 22-11
Any team that beats Gonzaga is a good team. Any team that dominates Gonzaga on a neutral floor is a dangerous team. Saint Mary’s whooped Gonzaga 60-47 in the WCC Championship. Good luck making this team uncomfortable. They aren’t afraid of any challenge.
Arizona State (Pac 12): 22-10
Get familiar with Luguentz Dort. The pride of Quebec has averaged nearly 18 points per game in Arizona State’s eight games against NCAA Tournament-bound competition. Freshmen who can score from the outside, attack the rim, and get to the foul line are few and far between. Despite this, Dort has flown under the radar so far.
Saint John’s Red Storm (Big East): 21-12
Shamorie Ponds is a big-game player making his debut on college basketball’s biggest stage. Last year, Ponds scored 33 points to beat Duke and 26 points to beat Villanova in back-to-back games. He’s a much more efficient player this season and is ready to elevate his game. Get ready for Ponds to put up big points.
No. 10 Seeds
Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten): 21-13
The Golden Gophers shoot fewer threes than any other team in the field. When you have forwards who can get buckets in the paint like Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy, you don’t need the outside shot. Coffey is a rangy player who likes to attack off the bounce from the perimeter, while Murphy is a freight train who demolishes opponents on the block. If Dupree McBrayer can hit a few threes, Minnesota becomes a scary team.
Iowa Hawkeyes (Big Ten): 22-11
Like every Fran McCaffrey team, Iowa gets contributions from up and down their roster. Tyler Cook is a freakish athlete who can get to the rim at will. Luka Garza has saucy footwork on the block. Jordan Bohannon is an experienced distributor who has a penchant for hitting big shots. If Iowa can get stops on the defensive end, watch out for the Hawkeyes.
Florida Gators (SEC): 19-15
Entering the SEC Tournament, the Gators’ NCAA Tournament hopes were all but left for dead. Wins over Arkansas and LSU changed that, catapulting the Gators into the field. While this team isn’t close to the level of the Joakim Noah-Al Horford-Corey Brewer teams that won back-to-back titles, they do have an elite defense and a young squad stacked with potential, continuing to improve.
Seton Hall Pirates (Big East): 20-13
Seton Hall did its best work late in the season, closing with two wins over Marquette and one win against Villanova. Kevin Willard is in his fourth straight NCAA Tournament but only has one win. The Pirates will need to do a better job defending the three-point arc if they want to move into the second round, while Myles Powell must continue to light it up from all over the court.
No. 9 Seeds
UCF Knights (AAC): 23-8
We can talk about the red-hot streak UCF is on and how they beat Houston and Cincinnati back-to-back to earn their spot, but that’s far less exciting than UCF’s starting center. Tacko Fall is 7-foot-6 and 310 pounds. He shoots 75% from the floor, swats 2.5 shots a game, and generally makes opponents’ lives miserable. He’s truly a one-of-a-kind player, and we’re lucky we get to watch him play in the NCAA Tournament this year.
Oklahoma Sooners (Big 12): 19-13
Trae Young may be gone, but the Sooners are still back in the NCAA Tournament. This time, they’re driven by a deep cast of contributors rather than a single superstar. Oklahoma has lost seven of its last ten, but has a laundry list of eye-catching performances, including a dominant performance against Kansas a few weeks ago. Oklahoma has the defensive capability to make higher seeds sweat.
Baylor Bears (Big 12): 19-13
Baylor limped to the finish line this year, dropping its last four games. The good news is the Bears drew a cushy matchup against Syracuse, who struggle to limit second chance opportunities. Baylor attacks the offensive glass as well as anyone in the nation. The Bears also have Makai Mason, who’s a proven NCAA star after scoring 31 in a first round game for his previous team Yale in 2016. Yale’s opponent that day? Baylor.
Washington Huskies (Pac 12): 26-8
The best team from the Pac-12 this season has a tremendous amount of upside. Mike Hopkins did a wonderful job with this year’s squad, making the Huskies an elite defensive unit. The other side of the ball is where the questions lie, especially after scoring just 48 points against Oregon in a dismal Pac-12 Tournament loss.
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