NCAA Tournament Odds, Picks: 4 Potential March Madness Cinderellas, Including Drake & Utah State
Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Drake’s Roman Penn.
No college basketball fan will ever forget the 2005-06 George Mason Patriots.
After entering the NCAA as an 11-seed, the Patriots ran through No. 6 Michigan State, which made the Final Four the previous season, and No. 3 North Carolina, the defending national champions.
Following two more victories over No. 7 Wichita State and No. 1 UConn, George Mason made history by becoming the second double-digit seed to reach the Final Four and the first double-digit mid-major to accomplish the feat.
Since then, only four double-digit seeds have made their way past the Elite Eight and into the Final Four: No. 11 VCU in 2011, No. 10 Syracuse in 2016, No. 11 Loyola Chicago in 2018 and No. 11 UCLA in 2021.
Now, after Saint Peter’s reached the Elite Eight as a No. 15 seed in last year’s tournament, there are a number of double-digit seeds looking to put on the proverbial glass slipper in 2023.
Our college basketball writers broke down four teams in this year’s Big Dance that could carry on the tradition and make some noise.
No. 10 Utah State Aggies
Thursday, March 16 vs. No. 7 Missouri
A common thread of many double-digit seed darlings of past tournaments has been veteran leadership.
Experienced rosters – particularly in the backcourt – tend to be more composed and unbothered by the pressure of the do-or-die format in March. If roster continuity and experience proves to be paramount again in 2023, Utah State is the most equipped team of any double-digit seed in the field.
Most “Cinderella” runs have been a product of teams with a defensive identity that happen to catch fire on the offensive end and outshoot their mean performance.
The defense of coach Ryan Odom’s Aggies often left something to be desired throughout the regular season, yet they have improved greatly in the last month and a half.
The Aggies have not allowed an opponent to score 80+ points since losing at Mountain West champion San Diego State on Jan. 25.
Improved defense will likely be a requirement if the Aggies have designs on escaping the first weekend unscathed. Both of Utah State’s likely opponents – Missouri and Arizona – have top-10 offenses according to KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric.
If the current line holds (USU -2.5) by the time Utah State and Mizzou tip on Thursday in Sacramento, the higher-seeded Aggies will actually be favored over the seventh-seeded Tigers. Such a situation is somewhat unusual, but certainly not unprecedented.
Should the favorite Utah State ultimately prove oddsmakers correct by winning its opening game, it will likely meet a vulnerable No. 2 seed in Arizona. The Wildcats have many of the same deficiencies they had last year.
This year’s version of Arizona, however, does not have the safety net of being able to fall back upon an NBA lottery pick in Bennedict Mathurin. Arizona’s roster is as talented as almost any in the field. The Wildcats’ offense is unquestionably their strength.
However, teams reliant upon scoring to win are often more vulnerable to upsets in the NCAA tournament. The shooting backdrops of many of the sites can be uncomfortable and unfamiliar, even for great shooters like Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa and Courtney Ramey.
Should Arizona struggle to make shots in the Round of 32, Utah State is trending up and more than capable of sneaking by the Wildcats and into the second weekend.
No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions
Thursday, March 16 vs. No. 7 Texas A&M
By DJ James
The Penn State Nittany Lions are a sharp-shooting team, ranking ninth in the nation at 38.5% from 3-point range. In their first matchup, they take on the Texas A&M Aggies, who are allowing opponents to shoot 32.3% from deep and attempt 3s 45.9% of the time.
The Aggies rank 304th in defending shots at the rim, per ShotQuality, while also ranking 194th against catch-and-shoot 3s and 238th against off-the-dribble 3s.
This is a horrible matchup against Penn State because Jalen Pickett can back down any guard in the paint and kick it to Seth Lundy, Andrew Funk and many others for a triple.
In the next round, the Nittany Lions would likely play the Texas Longhorns, who also struggle with defending 3s. Opponents are hitting 33.3% of thie shots from deep against Texas while maintaining a 3-point attempt clip of 37.5%. The Longhorns are a better defensive team than the Aggies, but they rank 134th in Open-3 Rate and 221st in defending catch-and-shoot 3s.
Texas should limit Pickett, but the Nittany Lions have far too many deep threats to be looked over by any higher seed in the preliminary rounds of this year’s tournament.
No. 12 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
Thursday, March 16 vs. No. 5 Duke
By John Feltman
There are a few double-digit seeds that I could see making it past the opening weekend, but this Oral Roberts team, in my opinion, has the best shot out of all.
If they can make it past the Blue Devils, I have full confidence that they should be able to take down the injury-riddled Tennessee Volunteers or Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns.
The Golden Eagles have the nation’s longest current winning streak at 17 games and have one of the most efficient offenses in the entire country (23rd in AdjO). They’re the No. 1 team in the country at protecting the basketball, which is an area in which the Blue Devils’ defense tends to struggle.
Guard Max Abmas is an absolute electric factory on offense, and many will remember the sensational run he led his team on during the 2021 NCAA tournament.
Complimenting Abmas is big man Connor Vanover, who stands at 7-foot-5 and can give any opposing team trouble down low.
I am a bit concerned about the Golden Eagles’ depth – if they were to win on Thursday, they may experience some fatigue on Saturday – but regardless, there is too much to love about the overall makeup of the team.
The Golden Eagles’ offense can outscore anybody in this tournament, and they are more than capable of holding their own on the defensive side of the ball.
No. 12 Drake Bulldogs
Friday, March 17 vs. No. 5 Miami
I’m a big fan of the feature on Bart Torvik’s website that lets you filter what dates to pull data for his metrics. With a little cherry-picking, those numbers look exceptionally good for Drake’s chances to advance to the second weekend of tournament play.
Since Feb. 8, just north of a month, Drake has performed as the 12th-best team in the nation by Torvik’s T-Rank metric. The Bulldogs are 8-1 over that period and 8-1 against the spread in those games. A road loss at Bradley in which Drake shot 23% from long range is the only blip for the Bulldogs in more than a month.
They’ll face a Miami team that has been less impressive over that same period. Since Feb. 8, Miami ranks 62nd nationally by T-Rank, highlighted by a brutal home loss to Florida State. Add in an injury to big man Norchad Omier, and Miami seems ripe for the taking.
Indiana sits one game below in the bracket, a potential second-round matchup for Drake, and looks even worse analytically over than span. Since Feb. 8, the Hoosiers are 82nd in T-Rank, just 5-4 down the stretch in the Big Ten.
IU fans hoped some of their woes would be resolved by Xavier Johnson’s return, but he’s been confirmed as out for the season.
Drake is one of the most experienced teams in the field, with four fifth-year starters. That doesn’t include MVC Player of the Year and legitimate NBA prospect Tucker DeVries. Playing for his dad, head coach Darian DeVries, Tucker could become one of the stars of March.
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