With Selection Sunday for the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament finally taking place, twelve teams have already punched their ticket to the Big Dance, and by Wednesday night we’ll have our 68 team field (32 conference champions and 36 at-large bids) cut down to the righteous number of 64 as we look to hit on all of our brackets.
Every year in March, you’ll hear a lot about the blue-bloods like Kansas, UCLA, North Carolina, Kentucky and Duke; the well-established college basketball powerhouses from the Power 5 (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12) conferences who are almost expected to make deep tournament runs each year. But what about the little guys, the teams that are often their conference’s lone representative in the Big Dance?
Over the last decade or so, we have seen, to paraphrase legendary broadcaster Gus Johnson, “the slipper still fitting” for droves of Cinderella teams not expected to do well against teams with perceived talent and skill advantages. George Mason (11-seed in 2006), VCU (11-seed in 2011), and Wichita State (9-seed in 2013) are all examples of mid-majors to make unlikely trips to the Final Four in recent years. Just last year alone, five teams seeded 12 or lower (Arkansas-Little Rock, Yale, Hawaii, Stephen F. Austin, Middle Tennessee State) all won their first game and moved on in major upsets. So who is likely to be Cinderella this year? Here are the most likely candidates to make deep runs in 2017.
This could arguably be the best and most talented mid-major team ever on paper. With a 32-1 record, a #1 ranking for the last month-plus of the season, and a fifth consecutive West Coast Conference championship after handling fellow WCC rival Saint Mary’s for a third time this season, Gonzaga deserved to be rewarded with a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Led by WCC Player of the Year and Wooden Award finalist in point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (16.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.8 APG) along with experienced Polish center Przemek Karnowski and an NBA prospect off the bench in freshman center Zach Collins, Gonzaga beat several NCAA Tournament-caliber teams this season in Arizona, Florida, Iowa State, and Saint Mary’s (three times). Expectations couldn’t be higher for Coach Mark Few and his Bulldogs, who despite remarkable consistency under Few over the past two decades, have never been to a Final Four. Is this the year Gonzaga finally gets it done and makes it all the way to Phoenix?
Wichita State Shockers
One of the hottest teams in all of college basketball, the Shockers enter the Big Dance on a 15-game winning streak and 21 of their last 22, capping it off with a convincing 20-point win in the Missouri Valley championship game over Illinois State, the last team to beat the Shockers in mid-January. Anytime a team enters the NCAA Tournament on a roll, they should not be taken lightly, and Wichita State is no exception especially when considering their past successes in the tournament like the aforementioned Final Four run in 2013. Coach Gregg Marshall has a well-oiled, balanced machine this season, with no player averaging more than 11.8 points per game. Shooting guard Conner Frankamp, who transferred from Kansas last year, is a name to keep an eye on; Frankamp (pictured above) was named the Missouri Valley tournament’s most outstanding player after averaging 18.5 points in the last two games.
Saint Mary’s Gaels
Despite losing thrice to the Zags during the season, the Gaels still posted a 28-4 record. Known for their international recruiting, their best player is 6’11 center Jock Landale, a junior from Australia who averages 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Seemingly sitting in the shadow of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s had one of the best seasons in program history under longtime coach Randy Bennett, and as Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the WCC final, “They’re very worthy and going to be a handful for someone who hasn’t played them before.”