BY CHAUNCE HAYDEN
MN magazine’s NCAA tournament bracket busters to remember for March Madness
Blue blood programs like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina are mainstays in the NCAA tournament but mid-major
schools — those outside the “Power Five conferences” (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) plus the Big East, American and
Atlantic 10 — are what makes March Madness special. And we don’t have to look back too far to remember how Cinderellas can
bust brackets wide open.
UMBC and Loyola-Chicago showed what they could do in the 2018 NCAA tournament. The former pulled off a
historic upset of No. 1 Virginia as the No. 16 seed while the latter, with Sister Jean in tow, made it all the way to the
Final Four as an 11 seed.
To identify this year’s potential Cinderellas and dark horses we used the seedings from Bracket Matrix, which takes predictions from NCAA tournament prognosticators across the country and slots those teams into one consensus bracket, to fuel 1,000 simulations of the 2019 NCAA tournament, taking note of how often each team advances to the Sweet 16 and beyond. Those probabilities were then compared to how often that seed is picked to win each respective round in large-scale contests such as ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, giving us a good gauge of how valuable each team is to a winning bracket. The best
values have been highlighted here.
For example, Nevada (26-2, 13-2 Mountain West Conference) is projected to be a No. 5 seed but based on
their adjusted scoring margin calculated by Pomeroy (plus20.2) we would expect them to advance to the Elite Eight
five percent of the time, slightly lower than the average No. 5 seed has historically been given credit for (seven
percent). Instead, the Wolf Pack is best penciled in to the Sweet 16 (36 percent chance vs. 29 percent chance for an
average No. 5 seed) and no further to both maximize and differentiate your bracket from millions of others.
Through this lens, here are four teams to track in the final weeks before Selection Sunday.
Fear the Terriers. Wofford is outscoring opponents by 18.8 points per 100 possessions, the 25th best mark in the
nation per Pomeroy, making them a dangerous foe in the 2019 NCAA tournament. Moreover, three-point shooting
and the creation of extra possessions off turnovers and offensive rebounds are key indicators of teams ready to
pull of an upset in the Big Dance, making Wofford one to watch.
Senior Fletcher Magee, the team’s 6-foot-4 guard is No. 2 in NCAA Division I men’s basketball history in career
three-point shots made, surpassing Duke’s J.J. Redick. Magee reached at least 100 three-point shots in each of
the last three seasons, raining threes as a spot-up shooter (1.5 points per possession, 99th percentile) and as the
ballhandler during pick and rolls (1.1 points per possession, 94th percentile) in 2018-19.
Senior forward Cameron Jackson is doing his part, too, scoring 14.8 points with 7.4 rebounds per game, including
giving the team almost a point per possession on attempts down low in the post and 1.2 points per put back off
Buffalo (25-3, 13-2 Mid American Conference)
Projected seed: 7
Chance to make Sweet 16: 18 percent | Elite Eight: 9
percent | Final Four: 3 percent
Buffalo, a No. 13 seed, upset No. 4 seed Arizona last year in first round by a decisive margin, 89-68, putting them
on the radar for another dazzling performance this time around. The Bulls won’t be a double-digit seed in 2019 but
they can be a team that makes it further than you might think a No. 7 seed can.
Buffalo ranks 21st in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency, and the average tenure of the roster
is 2.33 years, 18th-highest in the nation, with a bench that plays 29 percent of minutes this season. That balance and
experience could all pay off big in March.
Seniors Nick Perkins and CJ Massinburg will both leave school as one of the team’s top scorers of all time with
Massinburg passing former NBA player Wally Szczerbiak as one of the 20 best scorers in the Mid American
Conference. Massinburg is also averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game 6.2 rebounds and was recently named
one of 30 players in consideration for the Naismith Trophy, awarded to the men’s basketball college player of the year.
The most frequent lineup used by Coach Nate Oates, which features Perkins, Massinburg, Jeremy Harris, Jayvon
Graves and Davonta Jordan, is small — Perkins is the tallest on the court at 6-foot-8 — allowing them to dial up
the tempo and put opponents on their heels. In 2018-19, Buffalo ranks seventh in tempo (74.6 possessions per
game) while scoring 1.1 points per possession in transition. Only the Savannah State Tigers and Florida International
Panthers find themselves with more opportunities on the break than Buffalo does this season.
Utah State (23-6, 13-3 Mountain West Conference)
Projected seed: 12
Chance to make Sweet 16: 14 percent | Elite Eight: 2 percent Nevada is going to represent the Mountain West in the
tournament either as an at-large or automatic bid, but Utah State could earn the conference a second bid for the
second year in a row.
Double-digit seeds don’t normally make a Sweet 16 appearance yet the Aggies shouldn’t be quickly dismissed.
They limit second-chance opportunities off the offensive boards (21.3 percent allowed) and are very good at
defending the rim (45 percent field goal rate against) and the post (33 percent against).
Utah State is also good at getting open looks: more than half of its catch-and-shoot opportunities have been
classified as “unguarded” by Synergy Sports (54 percent) and they are averaging 1.1 points per possession on these
attempts; only seven other Division I teams are enjoying more wide-open opportunities off this play type this season.
New Mexico State (25-4, 13-1 Western Athletic Conference)
Projected seed: 13
Let’s start with what New Mexico State doesn’t have. It doesn’t have height (average of 75.4 inches per player,
340th), a rim protector (1.2 points allowed per attempt, 38th percentile) or elite one-on-one defenders that can
neutralize players in isolation.
The Aggies can, however, rebound on both ends of the floor — 37.2 percent offensive rebound rate, 6th in nation,
and 23.5 percent rate allowed on defensive end, 13th — and use those rebounds to get second-chance opportunities
(1.2 points per play on put backs) and trigger fast breaks the other way (1.1 points per possession in transition).
If their first two opponents have weaknesses that align with those strengths, Coach Chris Jans could get the program
its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1992.
The Darkhorse Dozen: 12 Underrated Players Primed to Become Breakout Stars in March
A year ago, in looking ahead toward the NCAA tournament, SI.com presented its first edition of the Darkhorse Dozen,
a list of 12 less-heralded players who could prove pivotal in March. After all, it can be easy to highlight a crop of obvious
star players as the ones who will steer the postseason’s course. But, as we wrote then, March legends often end
up in position to be enshrined in tourney lore because supporting players contributed beyond their usual role to
help put their team over the top.
Cut to last April and Villanova’s national championship. Who is that week’s SI cover star? Donte DiVincenzo, an NBA
prospect masquerading as a sixth man who was among the group of talented Wildcats whose profile was eclipsed
by eventual National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson and lottery-bound wing Mikal Bridges. DiVincenzo actually
wasn’t Villanova’s entry in the Darkhorse Dozen—that would be Phil Booth, who, despite a quiet national title
game, did facilitate a semifinal blowout of Kansas with his 10 points and six assists. Yet even that effort was not
tops among Nova’s non-stars against the Jayhawks: Eric Paschall, the team’s sixth-leading scorer in the regular
season, went off for 24 in that game while making 10 of 11 field goals.
Of course, those are relatively drastic examples. More often it’s a matter of a player chipping in some timely buckets,
coming up with key rebounds, or playing tight defense during an important stretch of a close game. Who will
make their presence known this season? Here are a dozen guesses:
Marques Bolden, Duke
Also featured on last year’s list, the Blue Devils’ 6’11” big still offers enticing scoring upside despite his secondary
role behind Duke’s fleet of freshman stars. This time he’s healthier and has improved on the defensive end, opening
the path to more extensive playing time. In the right matchup, he could give opposing defenses enough trouble inside to make them pay for the attention paid to his lottery-bound teammates.
Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky
A starter for seven of the Wildcats’ first eight games, Quickley was swapped out of the lineup for Ashton Hagans in December and has come off the bench since. But given Kentucky’s short rotation, that has still meant significant minutes (16.8 per game) behind Hagans and Tyler Herro, and should either of his classmates struggle or get into foul trouble, the five-star recruit could,
ahem, quickly find himself in a major role on the big stage.
Jay Huff, Virginia
The 7’1”, 232-pound sophomore reserve doesn’t get extended playing time very often, but when he does, he makes it count: In the 11 games Huff has played 10-plus minutes, he has scored eight or more points seven times, including 12 points in 17 minutes
against Louisville this past weekend. If the Cavaliers’ offense again struggles come tourney time, he could provide a needed lift, inside or out, off the bench.
Sterling Manley, North Carolina
The 6’11” sophomore has been out since the end of December with a knee injury, but has reportedly been practicing in a limited capacity of late. A strong rebounder who can block shots, Manley could be a valuable reinforcement to the Tar Heels’ front
line and let Roy Williams deploy some bigger lineups when the matchups prove advantageous.
Isaiah Livers, Michigan
Though their defense may, like last year, be stifling enough that the Wolverines’ merely good offense doesn’t hold them back, one of the easiest ways for their scoring to get a quick boost would be through some well-timed threes. Livers, Michigan’s leading outside shooter at 43.9%, doesn’t pull up especially often—he averages just 3.2 three-point tries per game—but as defenses focus on stopping the Wolverines’ more likely shooters, he would make a sneaky candidate to provide a dagger or two.
Jeremy Jones, Gonzaga
A senior forward who’s averaging a career-high 14.5 minutes per game, the 6’7” Jones is quietly a very strong defensive rebounder (grabbing 19.0% of available boards on that end, roughly the same rate as teammate Brandon Clarke) and plays with an energy level befitting a former walk-on who originally entered college (at Rice) as a football player. His most important contributions this March may come beyond the box score, via defense and loose balls.
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State
A recent addition to the Spartans’ starting lineup, Tillman leads the team in blocks per game (1.5) and is second in rebounds (7.0) while being tops among rotation regulars in defensive rating (87.1). He’s also Michigan State’s best scorer on put-backs, averaging
1.45 points per possession, which puts him in the 93rd percentile nationally. Those second-chance points can be
backbreakers in elimination games.
Kyle Alexander, Tennessee
With (generously) 6’7” Grant Williams at the four, the 6’11” Alexander’s height and length are key for the Volunteers,
especially on the defensive end, where his block rate ranks ninth in the SEC. His usage rate on offense is often miniscule—he has accounted for less than 10% of Tennessee’s possessions in six of the team’s last 13 games—but he can be a highly efficient
scorer when needed, making 64.8% of his two-pointers. That’s a good recipe for a darkhorse difference-maker.
Grady Eifert, Purdue
On a similar note, Eifert starts for the Boilermakers, plays 24.6 minutes per game, has the second-highest offensive rating (141.4) in the country… and is used so sparingly that on Purdue’s kenpom team page he is listed in the tier labeled “Nearly Invisible.” The 6’6” wing can knock down threes (39.7%), and against Nebraska this weekend he showed a knack for heads-up plays late in the game.
Dejon Jarreau, Houston
Jarreau’s case for inclusion is an inversion of Alexander’s and Eifert’s: He doesn’t play a ton (17.4 minutes per
game), but when he’s on the floor, he involves himself heavily on offense (a team-high 30.2% usage rate). The spindly former UMass guard has a high-energy style that lends itself to the kind of secondunit burst of production that can change a game.
Theo John, Marquette
The Golden Eagles may be driven by Markus Howard and the Hauser brothers’ scoring, but they will need their defense to step up if they’re going to string together wins against top-notch opponents. John, a 6’9”, 240-pound sophomore who ranks 13th
nationally in block rate (12.0%) and ninth in defensive box plus/minus, will be key to that effort and provide a safety
net for his teammates guarding the perimeter.
Brandone Francis, Texas Tech
The lone top-100 recruit on the Red Raiders’ roster, Francis has been up and down since transferring from Florida two years ago, and his production has dipped this season despite an increase in playing time. But Francis has found his shooting stroke
of late, following a 35.5% three-point shooting month in January with a 52.2% clip in February. A couple treys could go a long way toward helping Tech grind out a big win.
Let’s go mad and good luck!