On Sunday, the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled, launching the annual tradition of fitting smaller basketball programs for Cinderella’s sneakers. With college basketball so wide open this season, and top teams unable to separate themselves from the pack, the tournament could be turned on its head early on.
Although some strong mid-major teams were bounced in their conference tournament (Monmouth and Valparaiso, to name two), there remain enough strong ones, and too few truly great teams this season, to make some noise in the first week of the tournament.
Stony Brook Seawolves
First round matchup: Kentucky
Second round potential matchup: Indiana/Chattanooga
Why they are a Sweet Sixteen team: Jameel Warney
Warney is one of the most talented players in the country, and is capable of putting the Seawolves on his back and carrying them to the second weekend. His 20 double-doubles are the 11th most in the country, he has 17 games scoring over 20 points—including a monster 43-point performance in the American East title game—and hasn’t scored less than double digits in a game this season.
He has an excellent back-to-the-basket game, showcasing a wide array of post moves—roughly 76 percent of his shots come at the rim according to hoop-math, primarily through post-ups and offensive rebound putbacks. His decision making is top-notch and he rarely gets flustered when facing a double team. He’ll be a tough matchup for any center in the country despite standing just 6-foot-9, and coaching staffs will have to face the difficult decision of how to slow him down without compromising their entire defense.
Stony Brook has played only two games against major conference teams, losing by seven to Vanderbilt in OT and by 25 to Notre Dame. Warney played well in both, averaging 19 points and 9.5 rebounds on 48.6 percent from the field. Stony Brook will need Warney to lead them in the postseason and there is little evidence to show he won’t do his part.
Why they are a first round exit: Lack of Depth
The Seawolves are basically six deep, with just one substitute playing over 20 minutes per game. While this might not mean anything if they can stay healthy and out of foul trouble, they have very few battle-tested backups if they need to call upon anyone outside of the starting lineup. This could also make it tough for an underdog team to win two games in three days without much rest in between. Elite teams have been known to overcome this (Duke much of last year comes to mind), but that extra hurdle for a team like Stony Brook might be too much for them.
The team especially can’t afford to be without Warney and point guard Ahmad Walker for extended periods of time—something their teammates aren’t accustomed to.
According to lineup data parsed by hooplens.com, Stony Brook has played without Warney and Walker for only eight percent of their total possessions, and they’ve been a mess without them, scoring a chilly 93 points per 100 possessions. It makes sense that a team would be worse without its best two players on the floor, but it’s exacerbated here because of the lack of depth behind them. The Seawolves can’t afford losing any of their core six players for any reason. If they do, they will have a bigger battle to fight to make it to the second weekend.
They have two extremely tough match-ups to navigate the first weekend, first against the red hot Kentucky Wildcats and then likely the Indiana Hoosiers, who have been a tough team since conference play started. The Warney-Skal Labissiere matchup should be a battle in the paint, but Kentucky likely has too much firepower on the perimeter for Stony Brook to match. The Wildcats have been on a tear, winners of eight of their last 10, and are a really bad draw for Stony Brook (Duke or Iowa State would have been much more favorable).
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
First round matchup: California
Second round potential matchup: Maryland/South Dakota State
They are a Sweet Sixteen if: They continue to draw fouls at an elite rate
As rotations tighten up when coaches prefer to have their best players on the court for as much as possible, getting the other team into foul trouble is key to spring an upset. With many coaches auto-benching a star for two fouls in the first half, it can allow underdog teams to stay close or take the lead into the halftime, keeping the game close through the final 20 minutes.
Hawaii is elite at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. They have a current free throw-to-field goal attempt rate of 46.3 percent, sixth in the nation according to KenPom. With the inside combination of Stefan Jankovic and Roderick Bobbitt, they can quickly get teams in foul trouble by having Bobbitt drive into the paint and create offense. They also ping the ball around the floor, which can shift the defense out of position, leaving them prone to foul with individual defenders off-balance.
Not only do they get opponents in foul trouble, they don’t foul much themselves. This could put them in a position to have their starters matched up against their opponents backups for an extended period of time. They just need to capitalize on this by not leaving too many points out there by wasting trips to the free throw line.
They are a first round exit if: they can’t close out games
Hawaii could find themselves in a tight game down the stretch, something they haven’t had much exposure to with just three games decided by five or fewer points this season—going 2-1 by losing to Oklahoma and beating UC Irvine and Nevada.
What could hurt them as they attempt to close down games is their poor shooting from both the three-point and free throw line. While they are great at drawing fouls, they aren’t as adept at converting them, shooting 68.1 percent from the line as a collective unit, with only Bobbitt over 85 percent. Also, if they need to make a few threes quickly to close a deficit, the team shoots only 33 percent from beyond the arc. The team has a few more shooters they could turn to in this case in Jankovic (37.8 percent), Bobbitt (35.5 percent) or Sai Tummala (40 percent), but their options are still limited.
Bobbitt will be key, especially in lead preservation, but if he fouls out or is taken out of the play, somebody will have to step up big to finish the game for Hawaii.
Ken Pomeroy has Hawaii as just a five-point underdog to Cal in the opening round game. Stefan Jankovic will be able to defend both Ivan Rabb in their opening game and Diamond Stone in a hypothetical matchup against Maryland. Cal does have a tendency to foul with all their young players still learning to defend, which could play to Hawaii’s strengths. Cal and Maryland are both filled with future pros, but they have been inconsistent throughout the season. Both are ripe for upsets.
University of Arkansas Little Rock Trojans
First round matchup: Purdue
Second round potential matchup: Iowa State/Iona
Why they are a Sweet Sixteen team: Experience and Depth
The 29-4 Arkansas Little Rock Trojans have had one of the biggest turnarounds of any team in the country after a 13-18 record last season. They’ve made a monumental leap in defense, up to 35th in KenPom’s rankings, after being one of the worst teams last season at 281st in the nation. They haven’t just been beating up on the Sun Belt, as they took down San Diego State and Tulsa in non-conference games, and could become a tough out in the first or second round.
To advance to the Sweet Sixteen, they are going to rely on their player’s maturity as well as their depth to pull off two upsets. The team is filled with juniors and seniors and is ranked 13th in KenPom’s experience metric, which makes them one of the oldest teams in the country. They don’t have any postseason experience to draw from but they will still need to be the less flustered of the two teams when the lights go on. They will also need to capitalize on any physical advantage due to the gap in player ages, and UALR has the interior players (6-foot-11 Lis Shoshi and 6-foot-9 Mareik Isom) to do damage against younger players.
They are a deep team with only two players averaging more than 30 minutes per game, four players over 20 minutes, and nine players over 15 minutes per game. While this rotation will need to be slimmed down come tournament time, UALR has insurance against injuries, foul trouble, fatigue, or ineffectiveness with backups at each position prepared to step in if trouble hits. Tournament games can be impossible to predict and having the security blanket of second options could be crucial for head coach Chris Bear.
Why they are a first round exit: If they can’t control the pace
One of the slowest paced teams at 64 possessions per game, controlling the tempo is key for UALR. They won’t have as much talent as the higher seeded teams they will be facing in the postseason, so they will need to impose their pace on the game to limit possessions and keep the game close for as long as possible. They have three losses at this point in the season, with two of them coming in their three highest tempo games.
The Trojans don’t have an elite offense at just 108.3 points per 100 possessions per KenPom, but their deliberate, motion-based offense helps to kill the clock. They move the ball around the perimeter patiently seeking the best shot, but if a team can pressure them into quick looks, their efficiency could slip.
They slow the game on defense as well by putting token pressure on the point guard in the backcourt, which cuts off seven to eight seconds off the shot clock. The defense plays straight up and rarely takes chances, limiting quick-hitting plays. Their defense efficiency shows they are tough to score against regardless, allowing only 96.1 points per 100 possessions, and slowing the game down limits the chances for a team to build a big lead.
If UALR can’t keep the possession count low, they could be faced with an early deficit that would be difficult for them to overcome.
Everyone looks for a 12 vs. 5 upset, and this could be one of the popular ones by the time the bracket locks. UALR has the bigs to control the inside threat of Purdue, and the Boilermakers won’t look to speed up the game, playing right into the hands of UALR.
This should be a low-scoring, contested affair that will come down to the last few minutes. If UALR can win this game, they will go into a second round matchup feeling good about their chances to advance to the Sweet Sixteen with a favorable second round matchup no matter who they face.
First round matchup: Baylor
Second round potential matchup: Duke/UNC Wilmington
Why they are a Sweet Sixteen Team: Justin Sears
Just like Stony Brook, Yale will need their man in the middle to be the cornerstone. Justin Sears has to be their senior leader on both ends of the floor, spearheading the offense and being the anchor on defense, to have a chance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen—making them the first Ivy League school since Cornell in 2010 to achieve this feat.
Sears is an excellent back-to-the-basket player in his own right, with much of his offense coming out of the post or on putbacks. He carves out premium position and has excellent footwork to beat his defender. He can also step out and shoot the face-up jump shot when pushed off the block. His more needed contribution is on defense, where he has to play an undersized center at 6-foot-8. This doesn’t affect him too much in the Ivy League, but he’ll need to play at a level above his height in the postseason.
Sears has a little more help than Warney in the form of Makai Mason. His point guard can take some of the scoring load off him, but no question about it, Yale will need superstar performances from Sears to win two games come tournament time.
They are a first round exit if: they are unable to control glass
The Bulldogs are one of the best overall rebounding teams, pulling down 39.2 percent of offensive rebounds (seventh in the nation) and 76 percent of defensive rebounds (also seventh in the nation). It’s surprising how effective they are since their frontline measures out at only 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-6, but they make it work.
On the defensive glass, all five are committed to boxing out with at least three, and usually four, players crashing the glass. They have three players averaging over seven rebounds per game and defensive rebounding is a true team effort for the undersized team. Offensively, it’s up to Sears and frontcourt mate Brandon Sherrod to do most of the dirty work, and they corral 13.8 and 11.8 percent of offensive rebounding chances, respectively.
Their rebounding edge didn’t go their way in most of their power conference non-conference games and not being able to rebound effectively means they will likely struggle to win their opening round game. Against Duke, SMU and USC, the team had three of their four worst outputs on the defensive glass while losing all three games, two of which were rather convincing defeats.
Baylor is an interesting draw because they also dominate the glass, but with similar size to Yale. Rico Gathers has a 75 pound advantage on Sears, but doesn’t have a height advantage, which gives Sears some hope. Gather will look to overpower Sears for easy putbacks on every possession, and Sears will have to stay out of foul trouble to advance.
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
First round matchup: West Virginia
Potential second round matchup: Notre Dame/(winner of play-in game between Michigan and Tulsa)
They are a Sweet Sixteen team if: They can get easy shots at the rim
A senior laden team that has tournament experience with a first round exit in a loss to Utah last season, Stephen F. Austin is hoping to turn the tide and win a game or two this year. The team is used to playing with each other and should be heading into the tournament with a ton of momentum and confidence as they are currently undefeated in conference play. They failed to get a signature non-conference win like some of these other teams, falling to Baylor and Arizona State.
To win, they have to be able to convert at the rim. They are one of the best teams at this according to hoop-math ranking 16th overall at 68 percent. They are led by the 6-foot-4 Thomas Walkup (81 percent) and 6-foot-5 Ty Charles (69 percent). These numbers may not be completely accurate, but it demonstrates how strong the guards have been at paint points. Against bigger rim protectors, they will need to have a similar success to get easy points in the paint to spring the upset.
They are a first round exit if: They can’t create turnovers
In order to achieve their goal of advancing in the NCAA tournament, the Lumberjacks will have to force turnovers at the high rate they have been able to in the regular season. They force turnovers on 25.4 percent of possessions, best in the nation. They play the passing lanes for deflections, gamble for steals, and look to trap the ball.
Much of their prowess at creating turnovers have come against lesser competition and they will have to find a way to wreak havoc against teams that are better than them, but it remains to be seen whether they can create them against elite competition. Their first game of the year was against Baylor, the best team they have faced all season, and they were unable to force them into turnovers and got beat pretty bad.
As nearly every matchup does against West Virginia, it comes down to the guard play. Which team will be able to force more turnovers? Both create turnovers on defensively while at the same time turning it over at an above average rate on offense. The Mountaineers don’t have any dominant shot blockers, so if SFA can get into their offense, they can break down West Virginia in the half-court and get shots at the rim. If they win the turnover battle, they could spring the upset, leading into a favorable second round matchup no matter their opponent.
UNC Wilmington Seahwawks
First round matchup: Duke
Second round matchup: Baylor/Yale
They are a Sweet Sixteen team if: They go small and get hot from the perimeter
UNC Wilmington almost exclusively plays with at least four guard oriented players on the court. To start the game, they surround 7-footer C.J. Gettys with 6-foot Denzel Ingram, 6-foot-1 Craig Ponder, 6-foot-5 C.J. Bryce, and 6-foot-7 Chris Flemmings. Gettys doesn’t play that many minutes, either due to foul trouble or because the slower big man doesn’t fit into the up tempo style desired by head coach Kevin Keatts. They can stay big but get a little more athletic with the strong, 6-foot-7 Marcus Bryan, but he isn’t as good offensively as Gettys.
The Seahawks may be at their best when they go small and substitute Jordan Talley for Gettys. They step back into a zone defense to hide their lack of size and push the tempo of the game, looking to create driving lanes with shooters spotting up around the perimeter. They aren’t a lights out shooting team, but they have been better since conference play started, converting 36 percent of their attempts. They will need to do better to swing two upsets, but it’s possible they can get hot over a short period of time and shoot the lights out on their way to two victories.
They are a first round exit if: They lose minutes to foul trouble
Since they are so small, both from a height and strength perspective, their players have a tendency to get into foul trouble early and often. When they have Gettys anchoring the paint, their guards can be outmuscled in man defense on the perimeter and prone to fouls. But if they let their opponent drive by them, Gettys is left vulnerable and isn’t quick enough to protect the rim without fouling.
This can lead to some crucial missed minutes by the key players of UNCW and they could find themselves in an inescapable hole in the first half. Playing exclusively zone defense can limit this, but if Ponder (4.3 fouls per 40), Talley (4.8) and Bryce (4.7) pick up early fouls, the Seahawks will be vulnerable with their bench unit on the floor.
There aren’t too many seeded teams they matchup up well with, but Duke is one of their better chances to steal a victory. If they can limit Marshall Plumlee on the boards, they can focus on a perimeter oriented game and play to their strengths.
Duke doesn’t have a rotating cast of big men on the floor and they will probably match the four or five out style of UNCW. This will allow UNCW to play a zone and attempt to avoid fouling, even with one of the best in the nation at drawing fouls in Grayson Allen slicing through the middle. If they get hot from the three-point line, they could have enough offense to pull the upset. A second round matchup against Baylor would be tough as they would be completely outmatched on the interior.