Considering just how unpredictable this season has been around the college basketball world, there’s a darn good chance we will see a ton of early-round upsets this week in the tournament.
That’s only magnified by the performances of some mid-major programs, who stand a fighting chance to take out power schools early on.
From a Northern Iowa squad that has already defeated North Carolina this season to a supremely talented California Golden Bears team that has the weapons to go up against any squad in the nation, here are seven potential giant killers heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Having 12 losses heading into the tourney isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially for a mid-major. Though, Northern Iowa isn’t really your normal mid-major program.
It beat a then No. 1-ranked North Carolina team at home in the third game of the season. Not to be outdone, the Panthers went on to oust a top-five Iowa State squad by two points just a month later. Those are two elite-level wins against upper-echelon competition.
These two games saw senior guard Wes Washpun average 24.5 points and 9.5 assists. That’s going to be the key in any potential upset for a program that has made it out of the first round of the tournament twice in the past six years.
Equally as important for Northern Iowa, balanced scoring needs to continue. They had four players average double-digit points during the regular season. Washpun’s distribution is going to play a huge role there.
With a somewhat favorable 11th seed in the west region, Northern Iowa will take on Texas in the second round. The big one-on-one matchup here is going to be Washpun against Texas guard Isaiah Taylor. If Northern Iowa’s best player is able to hold his own here, this team might just be able to come out on top. That would set up a potential third-round outing against a vulnerable Texas A&M team.
With just an 11-5 record out of conference this year, the Phoenix face a tough road after defeating Wright State in the Horizon League postseason tourney. With road games already under their belt against Georgia Tech and Wisconsin, this probably isn’t going to be a huge issue.
More so than having to perform on a big stage, Green Bay’s scoring ability should be able to allow it to stay with Texas A&M in the second round. Here’s a team that put up 90-plus points 14 times during the regular year. It also took out a darn good Valparaiso team in the conference tournament. You don’t accomplish that feat without being able to hang with the big boys.
Senior guard Carrington Love is the team’s leading scorer at 17.7 points per game. He’s going to have to play a major role in any potential upset over the Aggies come tourney time. Love has been pretty darn consistent, going for double-digit points in 17 of the past 19 games. Though, he’s going to have to hit the mid 20’s against Texas A&M in order for the Phoenix to pull off an early-round upset.
Florida Gulf Coast
In Division 1 basketball for just six seasons, the Eagles shocked the nation by earning a trip to the Sweet 16 back in 2012-13. They did so as the 15th seed in the southern region.
After taking out the Atlantic Sun’s regular season champion North Florida by 32 points in the conference semifinals, Florida Gulf Coast earned an invite to the tourney by beating Stetson 80-78 in the title game.
Not only did the Eagles average 84.5 points in those two games leading up to the NCAA Tournament, they held their opponents to a combined 34.5 percent shooting. Playing stellar basketball on both ends of the court will give a considerable underdog an opportunity against pretty much any team in the nation. This is exactly what Florida Gulf Coast did in making its run to the tournament.
Florida Gulf Coast took care of Fairleigh in a play-in game, earning a shot at top seeded North Carolina Tar Heels. But if there’s any season where a No. 16 seed can defeat a top seed, it’s this year — a year that’s been incredibly unpredictable.
Iona has frequented the tourney as much as any small-school program out there recently, earning seven trips to the big dance over the past 19 years. It’s also important to note that four of the players on this squad suited up for the Gaels when they last played in the tourney back in 2012-13.
Among those players, senior guard A.J. English is having himself a stellar season. He’s averaging 22.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game. He’s joined in double figures by Jordan Washington (13.8), Deyshonee Much (13.1) and Isaiah Williams (12.9).
For his part, Washington his doing his damage, including 6.2 rebounds per game, in an average of less than 19 minutes.
It’s this type of scoring prowess that will give Iona a fighting chance against Iowa State in the second round.
The Mocs’ five regular-season losses came by an average of 12.4 points per game. In their 29 wins, they outscored their opponents by 20-plus points eight times and double-digit points 14 times. This tells us a story of a team that gets up for some games while laying complete eggs in other games.
This won’t be much of an issue with the program going dancing for the first time since 2008-09. More than this generic analysis, the biggest key for Chattanooga against Indiana will be to get more than average production from Tre’ McLean and Justin Tuoyo, the team’s two leading scorers since senior guard Casey Jones went down for the season to injury back in December.
One of those two are going to have to best their averages against the Hoosiers in order for Chattanooga to pull off what would be a huge upset.
One of only two major conference schools on this list, California is added to the list of potential giant killers simply because it has the talent to go up against any team in the nation and come out on top.
We know about super freshmen Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, both of whom are projected to be lottery picks in the 2016 NBA draft. It is, however, the likes of Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird that make this team scary. That’s five players averaging double-digit points, three of which are also putting up five-plus rebounds per game.
One of the most-talented teams in the entire tournament, California will take on Hawaii in the second round before a potential matchup against Maryland in the third round. Interestingly, California also boasts the athleticism to make a game of it against Kansas should the two meet in the Round of 16.
Can the Pirates be considered a giant killer? After all, they did just win the Big East postseason tournament. And that right there’s the point. Seton Hall took out two top-five teams, Xavier and Villanova, on the road to the title. Considered a lock to earn their first tournament appearance in a decade, Seton Hall will now be a sixth seed in the midwest region.
The play of Isaiah Whitehead is one of the primary reasons why Seton Hall stands a good chance to knock off some elite competition come tourney time. The sophomore guard is averaging 24 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists over the past five games.
Add in the solid contribution of fellow sophomore Khadeen Carrington (23 points against Xavier), and Seton Hall is as dangerous as any team heading into the tournament.