The most exciting part of any NCAA Tournament isn't the nets getting cut down at the end. (That takes forever.) No, it’s the early round games that you stream while you’re supposed to be working. It’s the long shots, the unknown names and the chance of seeing something you’ve never seen before that makes March Madness special.
Odds are few, if any, of the teams seeded 13-16 will make it out of the first weekend. But, in a world where a 16 seed has now actually beaten a 1 seed (way back in...last year), who’s to say one of the unlikeliest of underdogs can’t make some noise this season?
No. 16 Seeds
Fairleigh Dickinson Knights (NEC): 20-13
Teams don’t come much thinner than the Knights. Usually, only six players see the floor in coach Greg Herenda's rotation. However, all of those six players can shoot the lights out. FDU shoots 40.5% from three, good for fifth in the nation. And while the Knights aren’t an elite defensive team, that shooting sure is fun to watch.
North Dakota State Bison (Summit): 18-15
The Summit League Tournament was supposed to be a coronation for South Dakota State’s Mike Daum. No one relayed that message to the Bison. NDSU may lack a true superstar on its roster, but eight players average at least 6 points per game. Expect a barrage of outside shots to come from the team from Fargo.
Iona Gaels (MEAC): 17-15
If the NCAA Tournament is truly about peaking at the right time, then the Gaels are a team worth monitoring. After stumbling out of the gate to a 2-9 start, Iona regrouped and turned it on late, winning its last ten games of the year. The key? EJ Crawford averaging nearly 18 points per game over that stretch.
Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs (Big South): 23-11
For the first time in their history, the Runnin’ Bulldogs are heading to the NCAA Tournament. If they want their first Big Dance to last more than one song, their two seniors David Efianayi and DJ Laster will need to carry the load as they have all year.
Prairie View A&M Panthers (SWAC): 22-12
The Panthers won the SWAC regular season title easily, then left no doubt by handling business in the conference tournament. Mid-majors who make the NCAA Tournament are generally undersized compared to power conference teams, but the Panthers, who sport the sixth shortest roster in college basketball, will really struggle to clean the glass.
North Carolina Central Eagles (MEAC): 18-15
Make it three straight tournament appearances for LeVelle Molton as his Eagles beat the odds to emerge from the MEAC Tournament with an automatic bid. If this is the first NCCU squad to claim a win in the NCAA Tournament, the Eagles will need to avoid the turnovers that have plagued them all year.
No. 15 Seeds
Abilene Christian (Southland): 27-6
The playbook for big upsets often relies on variety. Abilene Christian’s high-pressure defense that forces turnovers on nearly 25% of their possessions? That might just fit the bill.
Bradley Braves (MVC): 20-14
There will be no Sister Jean encore this year, thanks to the Bradley Braves. Elijah Childs and Darrell Brown provide the inside-outside punch, while co-Missouri Valley Conference Sixth Man of the Year Nate Kennell is a marksman off the bench. Bradley has the defensive chops to ruin your bracket.
Colgate Raiders (Patriot): 24-10
Colgate struck gold in the transfer market, landing 2019 Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas from Northwestern. The Raiders are on an 11-game winning streak and have frontcourt depth in spades.
Montana Grizzlies (Big Sky): 26-8
The Grizzlies ran roughshod over the Big Sky this year behind the most efficient offense in the conference and the second-most efficient defense. Montana shot a cool 56% on two-pointers this year. One of the most experienced rosters in the field should give Michigan all they can handle in the 1st round.
No. 14 Seeds
Northern Kentucky Norse (Horizon): 26-8
Northern Kentucky was one shot away from missing the tournament. Enter Drew McDonald.
It was just another day at the office for the Horizon League Player of the Year. The Norse love to share the ball, getting assists on more than 62% of their field goals. That’s appointment viewing.
Georgia State Panthers (Sun Belt): 23-9
The Sun Belt has blessed us with another NCAA Tournament that includes Ron Hunter. This team isn’t as strong as the unit that took down Baylor in 2015, but the Panthers’ experienced team crowds passing lanes very well. Georgia State will need to find a way to overcome their weakness on the glass if they want to conjure some March magic.
Yale Bulldogs (Ivy): 22-7
Once upon a time, Yale would try to overcome power conference foes by slowing the tempo and making just enough jump shots to stay in the game. James Jones’ Bulldogs aren't interested in that. Yale looks to get up and down the floor whenever they can, scoring 90 or more points eight times this season.
Old Dominion Monarchs (Conference USA): 26-8
The archetype of a sneaky No. 14 seed that can score an upset often includes a crafty senior point guard. Enter Ahmad Caver, who plays a staggering 37.6 minutes a night. He and fellow senior B.J. Stith provide the steady hands that steer the ship for Old Dominion. This team is also playing with a little extra motivation, rallying around coach Jeff Jones who has been battling prostate cancer all season.
No. 13 Seeds
Saint Louis Billikens (Atlantic 10): 23-12
The Billikens took their time to meet high expectations for this season, but a surprising run through the Atlantic 10 Tournament has earned the Billikens a pot in the field. St. Louis has had their share of problems scoring, but they crash the boards hard and give themselves plenty of opportunities for second chance points. A gritty 55-53 win over St. Bonaventure in the A10 Championship was a fitting way for the Billikens to punch their ticket.
Northeastern Huskies (Colonial): 23-10
Last year, Northeastern’s season ended in heartbreak after an overtime loss to the College of Charleston in the Colonial Conference championship game. The Huskies picked themselves off the mat and, behind one of the best offenses in the nation, cruised to claim the CAA’s’ automatic bid. They say shooting doesn’t travel, but when you have four players shooting better than 39% from deep like Northeastern does, it’s hard to imagine that axiom holding true.
Vermont Catamounts (America East): 27-6
Everyone will remember last season’s representative from the America East, thanks to UMBC scoring the first ever win for a No. 16 seed against a No. 1 seed. Vermont is a much better team than that UMBC squad. Get familiar with Anthony Lamb, the Catamounts’ brick wall of a forward. He’s a monster who can score all over the floor and has the physicality to mix it up with whoever has the unfortunate task of trying to stop him.
UC Irvine Anteaters (Big West): 30-5
Cult hero Mamadou Ndiaye is long gone, but the Anteaters have a better team this year than they ever did with Ndiaye. They’ve rattled off 16 straight wins to close their season behind the strength of their defense. A non-conference win over St. Mary’s shows this team should be taken seriously especially after St. Mary's took down Gonzaga in the WCC final.
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