NCAA Tournament Automatic Qualifiers: Underdogs to Watch on Selection Sunday
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images. Pictured: Porter Moser.
The NCAA Tournament already has 11 teams that have earned automatic bids after winning their respective conference tournaments with another 20 up for grabs before Selection Sunday.
Don’t wait until brackets are released and odds are posted before getting to know the teams you may not have seen much this year. We’ve got an early look at each team ready for you now.
Below, we break down each team with an automatic bid and which potential matchups underdogs will want to find and avoid.
Ohio Valley: Morehead State (23-7)
Morehead State earns its paychecks on the defensive end of the floor and on the backboard. The star of the show is 6-10 freshman sensation Johni Broome, who is a force inside on both ends. The defense is extremely devastating in the half-court, ranking in the 94th percentile nationally, per Synergy. Their athleticism can really disrupt offenses that rely on pick-and-roll/screening.
As a potential 14 seed, I think they wouldn’t mind seeing the current version of VIllanova in what would be a grind-it-out-affair. Morehead can switch everything to hang with Nova’s screening action, while also eating inside against the Wildcats soft interior. I think they’d want to avoid a Houston, which would take away everything in the paint and exploit Morehead’s turnover issues.
Atlantic Sun: Liberty (23-5)
Liberty is known for its packed in defense, so the Flames are very vulnerable against teams that can shred from deep in addition to dominant big men inside as they are very undersized. They play at a snail’s pace offensively, but run great offense (overall 100% percentile in terms of points per possession, per Synergy). They fire up a high-rate of three-pointers, which they can also hit at a high-rate. If they miss, they are generally one-and-done as they don’t crash the offensive glass and get back into their compact defense.
I’m sure the Flames would love to draw Tennessee’s offense in the first round. Conversely, they would not want to see USC’s massive interior.
Missouri Valley: Loyola Chicago (24-4)
I don’t need to tell you much about Loyola. The Ramblers rank No. 1 in Adjusted Deficiency, per KenPom. They play at a very slow place and don’t give an inch on the defensive end of the floor. The offense runs through crafty big man Cam Krutwig in the post and is not easy to prepare for. This is a bona fide top-20 (potentially top-10) team in the nation with Final Four experience and an excellence coach.
No team will want to face the Ramblers, especially since they could get severely under-seeded as a 7 or 8 seed. I would not want to be the No. 1 or 2 seed that potentially has to face them in the first or second round.
Big South: Winthrop (23-1)
An athletic and deep team with loads of versatility with a very positionless lineup. The Eagles will crash the glass relentlessly on both ends and prefer to play fast (12th in Adjusted Tempo and 11th in Transition Rate) although their half-court offensive and defensive numbers are significantly better.
As a potential 12 or 13 seed, they could have loads of success off the dribble against a vulnerable perimeter defense like Texas Tech. On the other hand, they would not want to see the length of Florida State.
Sun Belt: Appalachian State (17-11)
Undersized and lack depth, but extremely well coached and suffocating on the defensive end. The offense can grow stagnant at times, but can be dangerous if Justin Forrest, Michael Almonacy and Adrian Delph get hot from the perimeter for an offense that relies heavily on the three.
Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, they project as a 16 seed, which spells doom in this top-heavy season. That said, I could see head coach Dustin Kerns cooking up a game plan to keep Appalachian State inside a big number in the first round.
SoCon: UNC Greensboro (21-8)
Meet the Millers. Wes Miller is one of the hottest names in coaching, while senior point guard Isaiah Miller is one of the fiercest competitors in the country. That said, the Spartans had a very fortunate path to a conference title. They are known for their aggressive, pressing style on defense, which forces opponents into turnovers at a top-20 rate nationally. The half-court offense can go through extreme droughts as they really struggle to shoot the ball from 3 (30%) and the line (68.3%). The Spartans want to make their living on the offensive glass and by forcing opponents into mistakes.
A projected 13 or 14 seed, it’s not a team I have circled for a potential upset, but they could potentially scare a team like WVU, which hasn’t been great against the press this year and can be exploited on the offensive glass. They do not want to see a team like Creighton.
Northeast: Mount St. Mary’s (12-10)
Junior point guard Damian Chong Qui is one of the best stories in all of college basketball. He runs the show and has hit countless clutch threes throughout the season. That said, this Mount team struggles mightily on the offensive end, ranking in the 18th percentile in terms of overall points per possession, per Synergy. The Mountaineers earn their living on the defensive end where they rank 12th in Effective FG% nationally. With decent size for an NEC team, Mount also has played at the second-slowest adjusted pace in the country, trailing only Virginia.
As a likely 16 seed, they have almost no chance of pulling off an upset against any of the projected No. 1 seeds.
Horizon League: Cleveland State (19-7)
Dennis Gates is one of the more underrated coaches in the country, so the Vikings have that going for them. I’m sure he will throw the kitchen sink at their first round opponent, especially with ample time to work on things after the Horizon title game on Tuesday night. After all, this is a CSU defense that will throw in zone and press at a decent clip. That said, this team just screams average in everything they do. CSU sags on the perimeter, so it gives up a ton of threes. The Vikings just got fortunate most of the season when it came to opponents missing.
They also take so many bad shots. They pulled out so many close victories they had no business winning, including a triple overtime win over Fort Wayne in their first game of the conference tournament. They even banked in a three in double overtime to force that third extra frame. The Vikings rank No. 1 in KenPom’s Luck metric and eighth-luckiest from a Shot Quality perspective.
CSU is experienced and well-coached, but unless it can pull another rabbit out of its hat, I don’t envision them pulling off an upset as a 15 (maybe 14) seed. As I’ve mentioned before, I highly doubt we will see any 1 or 2 seeds go down in the first round this season.
Colonial: Drexel (12-7)
Drexel really benefited from a league that was absolutely obliterated by COVID-19 at the end of the season heading into the conference tournament. The Dragons were extremely fortunate from the three-point line since the start of February, shooting over 50% from beyond the arc. The offense does have a plethora of shooters that paced a Drexel team that finished in the top 40 in both 3PT and FT shooting. Camren Wynter is the go-to scorer, but it’s a very balanced attack. On defense, they will press at times, but grade out below average across the board on that end of the floor.
It’s hard to envision Drexel pulling off an upset as a likely No. 15/16 seed in this extremely loaded field at the top.
Summit League: Oral Roberts (16-10)
Unlike some of the other automatic qualifiers (Morehead, Mount) — Oral Roberts is not known for its defense. In fact, this will probably be the worst defense in the field from an advanced metrics standpoint. The Golden Eagles also are extremely vulnerable on the glass on both ends. However, they have an absolutely explosive offense that ranks in the 98th percentile in the half court, per Synergy. ORU prefers to play fast, doesn’t turn it over, takes and makes a lot of threes (38.8%) and is automatic at the free throw line (82.6%).
Almost all of that firepower comes from two players who will play professionally in some capacity: Max Abmas, who leads the nation in scoring at 24.2 points per game, and Kevin Obanor, who averages 18.2 points per game. Those two will try their best to put up a combined 70 points against a No. 1 or 2 seed in the first round. I’m not sure how they could ever get enough stops to pull off an upset, but it will be fun to watch Abmas and Obanor try.
For reference, they were super competitive in three road games against three projected tourney teams (Wichita State, Arkansas and Oklahoma State) in three high-scoring losses.
West Coast: Gonzaga (26-0)
Gonzaga is a juggernaut and should be the top-rated team in any set of power ratings. Not only do the Bulldogs have the best offense in the country, they also rank 11th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. There are really no holes on Mark Few’s squad which plays at warp speed (4th in Adjusted Tempo) and can score in transition as efficiently and quickly as any team I’ve ever seen. And don’t get caught up in their weak conference schedule as the Zags beat Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia all on neutral courts in the non-conference. It will take a special effort to take out the Zags this season.