If you’re a Kansas fan like me, you’ve had your heart broken numerous times in the NCAA tournament. In fact, as KU fans, we’re used to it. After falling to Stanford in the Round of 32 last season and blowing a ridiculous lead to Michigan in the Sweet 16 the year before, we’re almost to the point where we expect it. (Note: This article does get a little cheerier. Hang on.)
Yet, the most embarrassing tournament exits aren’t to those major-conference universities. They’re the ones at the hands of those tiny, no-name schools—and we’ve had more than our fair share of them through the years.
Just in the Bill Self era alone, we’ve been upset by the likes of Bucknell (2005), Bradley (2006), Northern Iowa (2010), and of course Virginia Commonwealth (2011). Hardly a murderer’s row.
Fortunately, we’re not alone. Every year a Cinderella emerges and ruins someone else’s dreams too. (See! Told you so.)
Last year it was 11th-seeded Dayton who made it all the way to the Elite 8 (in KU’s bracket, of course). The year before 9th-seeded Wichita State crashed the Final Four. Two years before that, both Butler and VCU made the national semifinals, which marked the second straight appearance in the title game for the Brad Stevens-coached Bulldogs.
So which team will do it this year? Here are the top no-name contenders to make a run:
SMU (23–6): The Mustangs had a rough start to the season but have rebounded since. Early losses to Gonzaga, Indiana, and Arkansas had them at 2–3 in late November. They’ve won 20 of 23 though, including wins over Michigan, Memphis, Temple, and UConn. They’re a balanced team that’s shooting 48.6 percent from the floor (11th-best in the country) while holding opponents to just 59.7 points per game—the 24th best rate in the country. Besides the statistics though, they have one of the best ever tournament coaches in Larry Brown. Brown has been to the tournament eight times, resulting in three trips to the Final Four—including the 1988 national championship while at Kansas.
BYU (23–8): The Simple Rating System has the Cougars ranked 25th in the country, following their shocking win at Gonzaga. Yet Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology prediction only has them as a 12th-seed facing Colorado State in one of the four first-round play-in games. Besides beating Gonzaga, BYU had also topped Stanford back in December and suffered close losses to San Diego State (92–87), and Utah (65–61) as well as Gonzaga (87–80) the first time around. They’re riding a six-game winning streak entering the WCC tournament this week.
Murray State (26–4): The Murray State Racers will surely enter the tournament with some sizable chips on their shoulders. The Racers started the season 2–4 but have since won 24 straight games, including all 16 Ohio Valley Conference matchups. Murray State has done it with offense. In an era marked by lower scoring across the board, the Racers are 12th in the country in points per game at 78.8, 23rd in assists at 15.6, and are shooting 48.3 percent from the floor—16th best in the country. Though their last loss was back in November, Murray State is suffering from a strength of schedule problem, in that they’ve played no one other than Xavier (which they lost to). Oftentimes though, a smaller school like this will relish their chance to finally play a big school.
Butler (21–8): After their back-to-back Final Four trips in 2010 and 2011, the Bulldogs might have trouble sneaking up on anyone, but with Brad Stevens having graduated to coach in the NBA, they have a new leader. New head coach Chris Holtman has led them to wins over North Carolina, St. John’s (twice), and Georgetown. Although starting forward Andrew Chrabascz, who scored 30 in a win over Marquette in January, has missed the last four games, the Bulldogs won three of the four. Of all the teams mentioned here, Butler has the highest SRS ranking (17th in the country).
Northern Iowa (27–3): Defense has also been the calling card for Northern Iowa. The Panthers allowed just 54.6 points per outing—fifth in the nation—and were riding a 16-game winning streak until the Shockers beat them in the regular season finale. The team is 12th in the country in shooting at 48.5 percent from the floor. They did beat the Shockers in their earlier matchup and boast a nonconference win over Iowa, though most of the rest of the schedule is pretty weak. They’ve seen conference foe Wichita State break onto the national scene the last few years and seem ready to do it themselves.