2022 NCAA Tournament Sleepers: 4 Lower Seeds That Can Make a Cinderella Run
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images. Pictured: Justyn Mutts (Virginia Tech)
When it comes down to it, there’s no doubt the majority of people are hoping to see the best programs in the Final Four and title game. That creates the highest-level games and in turn, gives us (and the television networks) unforgettable moments.
But what really separates college basketball from the other sports are the underdogs, the Cinderellas and the teams that come out of nowhere to make a deep run.
George Mason’s run in 2006. Steph Curry and Davidson’s Sweet 16 appearance in 2008. VCU’s magic in 2011. Loyola Chicago’s unbelievable streak in 2018. And Oral Roberts’ unforgettable path to the Sweet 16 last year.
So, which programs are going to follow the route of these five while staking their claim in March Madness history? Four of our experts offer their takes below.
Keg: After going on a four-game win streak in four days to win the ACC Tournament, the Hokies enter the NCAA Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country. The Hokies upset No. 8 seeded UNC and No. 2 seeded Duke (both by more than 10 points) en route to their ACC title.
Even before the ACC Tournament, the Hokies started playing up their potential during the final stretch of the season, winning eight of their last 10 games.
Now, after earning an 11 seed, the Hokies will square off against No. 6 seeded Texas in the Round of 64.
Virginia Tech matches up well with Texas, as both play at a pace that ranks in the bottom 20 in all of college basketball. The Longhorns may have one of the best defenses in the country, but their weak point has been defending the 3, an area in which Virginia Tech is third overall in Division I.
Tech should also be able to limit the Longhorns on offense. The Hokies had no problem doing it against two of the top-30 offenses in the country (UNC and Duke), holding both to less than 70 points in the ACC Tournament.
After Texas, things get significantly more difficult, with a likely matchup against 3-seeded Purdue. But again, I think the Hokies match up well against a strong opponent in that potential game.
Purdue already plays at a slow place — ranking 248th in tempo — and slowing the Boilers down even more will only benefit the Hokies. Not to mention, the Hokies have been better on defense, while Purdue has struggled consistently — it’s one of the bottom-five teams in the Big Ten in almost every defensive category.
Against Purdue, the biggest factor will be from beyond the arc. For Virginia Tech to get past the Boilermakers, it will have to be consistent from deep, while also limiting Purdue as much as possible.
Trying to beat Purdue in the paint or on the glass will be a losing battle. Slowing the Boilermakers down, limiting them from deep and creating turnovers is the easiest path to an upset for Virginia Tech.
Further down the line, the Hokies can challenge any team they might meet in the Sweet 16.
Virginia Tech is playing its best basketball of the season, it’s well balanced at both ends of the floor, it has a draw it matches up well against and it’s the second-highest ranked team that’s a double-digit seed, via KenPom.
I love the Hokies here to pull off more than one upset and make a run in the tournament.
Sure, Providence won the Big East regular season title, but losing to Creighton in its conference tournament seemed like the regression was starting to set in. In fact, the Friars rank first in KenPom’s luck metric by a sizable lead.
The Jackrabbits are poised for a potential Cinderella run. If they were to beat Providence, they would take on the winner of Iowa and Richmond.
Yes, Iowa is on a hot streak right now after winning the Big Ten Tournament, but Providence, Iowa and Richmond all have gaps in their defenses. Per KenPom, their adjusted defensive efficiencies rank 79th, 77th and 104th, respectively, and South Dakota State’s detriment lies on the defensive end. The Jackrabbits rank 220th in this metric.
The Jackrabbits’ defense can be concerning, but they are the most efficient 3-point shooting team in the country, per ShotQuality. They shoot 44.2% (!) as a unit, which is almost unheard of.
The three teams listed above cannot guard the arc well. Providence ranks 172nd in Open 3 Rate and 136th in Rim & 3 Rate (Shot Quality). Richmond ranks 78th and 138th in those categories. And finally, Iowa ranks 313th and 178th.
This says that no matter the team in its quadrant, SDSU will get open and efficient shots. If this is the case, the Jackrabbits just need to do what they have done all season: knock those shots down.
The Jackrabbits also can prevent teams from getting easy inside looks. They will need to do so against all three teams, but this is not as pressing against the Friars. Providence is only shooting 49.6% inside the arc this season.
Providence does not launch many 3s, either. Much of its offense comes from getting to the basket and getting fouled. This is actually 21.8% of its total point distribution on the season.
The Jackrabbits, on the other hand, are elite on the defensive end when it comes to not fouling. Now, this could be due to the fact that they allow a lot of open shots for their opponents, but if the Friars expect to manufacture points, they will need to do so by knocking down looks, not going to the strike.
South Dakota State can also rebound on the defensive end. Even if its tallest player is 6-foot-8, it should be able to negate Nate Watson & Co. from offensive rebounds. If that is the case, the Jackrabbits will also, in turn, foul less often.
Much of the Jackrabbits’ success relies on matchups, and they have a reasonable draw to make a run to the Sweet 16 here.
How they play the Friars defensively on the first few possessions could predict the story of how that game will unfold. However, since South Dakota State is an elite offensive team, Providence may be in trouble.
Since SDSU hits so many 3s and moves well in transition, it might just out-launch its opponents in this tournament, which should allow it to match up with (possibly) Kansas before hitting a wall.
Stuckey: Chattanooga may be a mid-major, but it has high-major size and athleticism. The Mocs are led by two outstanding guards in super senior David Jean-Baptiste and the extremely dangerous Malachi Smith, who can take over a game for long stretches on any given night.
But most importantly for this particular exercise, UTC is one of the few mid-majors that has a big capable of matching high-major physicality underneath. That big is former Kansas product Silvio De Sousa.
That’s a huge plus for the Mocs in their first-round matchup against Illinois, and will serve them well if they pull off the upset.
While that’s far from a given against a very good Illinois team, the Mocs have a lot better chance of winning a few more games than other low-seeded mid-majors that may eventually get overwhelmed athletically in a particular matchup.
Chattanooga also plays slow (302nd in adjusted tempo), which is generally a good thing for an underdog making a deep run. The Mocs can also be elite when in transition, which highlights just how talented this team is.
Lastly, they are very capable from 3, aka the great equalizer.
Of course, Davidson has been hot all season. The Wildcats have four players that average at least double-digits, and all do it with insane efficiency.
That list includes:
- Hyunjung Lee: 16 PPG, 25.8 shot%, 64.2 TS%, 37.6 3P%, 115.8 ORtg
- Luka Brajkovic: 14.2 PPG, 24.6 shot%, 63.3 TS%, 40.0 3P%, 120.2 ORtg
- Foster Loyer: 16.3 PPG, 26.0 shot%, 64.2 TS%, 44.5 3P%, 122.8 ORtg
- Michael Jones: 11.9 PPG, 63.0 TS%, 43.0 3P%, 122.1 ORtg
Those are some staggering numbers. As a team, Davidson was third nationally in half-court PPP (1.023) and sixth in spot-up PPP (1.092).
The Wildcats space the floor well, can drive to the rim, pass effectively and shoot the lights out. It’s pretty to watch.
Lee is the Wildcats’ best player. His draft stock has risen like crazy during this season, as he’s a high-quality, off-ball player and owns one of the smoothest jump shots in the game.
Potential March Madness breakout stars: Hyunjung Lee from Davidson 👀🔥
— SLAM University (@slam_university) March 14, 2022
The defense isn’t as good, but it’s been trending up all year.
I also think Davidson takes down Duke in the second round to advance to the program’s second Sweet 16 and its first since 2008.
Duke’s advanced metrics are impressive, but the Blue Devils looked surprisingly unimpressive in a very weak ACC. They let too many bad teams hang around in too many games, and it cost Duke an ACC Tournament title vs. Virginia Tech.
Duke also will not pressure Bob McKillop’s sharpshooters, as the Blue Devils were sub-300 nationally in defensive turnover rate and sub-350 in non-steal turnover rate.
The Blue Devils will try to out-run and out-gun Davidson, but the Wildcats can run-and-gun with any team in the nation.
It’ll be tough to get past Texas Tech and Gonzaga. But the Wildcats have the necessary firepower to beat anyone on the right night.
Oh, and I’m not even remotely worried about Michigan State, which has played down to its competition all year.
I’ve been carrying water for Davidson all season, and I’m ready for their run.