Upsets galore. Such was the case during the first weekend of March Madness as none of the top-ranked programs were safe. With Virginia and Xavier already heading home, only Villanova and Kansas remain as the top seeds still in the tournament. While glorious and jaw-dropping upsets have always been a prevalent and coveted aspect of watching the NCAA Tournament, it is the sheer number of underrated programs winning emphatically combined with their last-second victories that have truly made this postseason affair especially entertaining. Feasibly, all of the top seeds in the tournament could be gone before the Final Four commences next week, which is something that has rarely occurred in the history of the tournament. Regardless of which programs ultimately make it to the final game of March Madness, you can certainly expect there to be at least a couple of more intense contests that see the underdogs move one step closer to making it to the final week of the tournament.
Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (11) vs. Nevada Wolf Pack (7)
Efficient on both offense and defense in their second-round victory against the Tennessee Volunteers, the Ramblers were able to win another close game to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Shooting 50% from the field, the Ramblers once again bided their time when finding their open shots on the floor, which was vital in preventing the Volunteers from making a comeback down the stretch. Down 22 points to one of the toughest defenses in the country in Cincinnati, the Wolf Pack were able to persevere in the second half thanks to their efficiency when shooting from the field (49.2 FG%) while turning the ball over just two times during the entire contest. While the Ramblers may not be the most prolific scoring team in the tournament, their intelligence when it comes to playing both offense and defense will allow them to defeat another higher seeded opponent to advance to their first Elite Eight in school history.
Final Score: Ramblers 70 Wolf Pack 67 Spread: Nevada -2.5
Texas A&M Aggies (7) vs. Michigan Wolverines (3)
Shutting down a relentless offensive program is one thing. However, when a team is able to outrebound and outscore an opponent that is exceptional at both, it’s hard not to take notice. Outrebounding the Tar Heels 50-36, the Aggies were able to beat the Tar Heel at their own game while North Carolina shot an abysmal 33.3% from the field, which is a testament to how physically imposing the Aggies were defensively throughout the contest. Although Michigan needed a buzzer beater shot to win a thrilling matchup against Houston in the second round, the Wolverines played to their strengths by preventing the Cougars from finding open shots while being disciplined with the basketball (seven turnovers against Houston). While the Aggies have the size to test the Wolverines aggressive inside shooters, they lack the strong perimeter shooters to test what is a dynamically gifted defense in Michigan.
Final Score: Aggies 72 Wolverines 74 Spread: Michigan -3.0
Kansas State Wildcats (9) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (5)
Despite scoring under 70 points against Creighton and UMBC, Kansas State’s formidable defense did more than enough to overcome their first two opponents in the NCAA Tournament. Holding the Retrievers to 29.8% shooting from the field, Kansas State relentlessly attacked the defensive glass, preventing the opportunistic Retrievers from getting their somewhat potent offense going. Against Buffalo in the second round, Kentucky’s streaky offense exploded as they shot a mind-boggling 56.3% from the field while dominating the defense glass to stifle the elite offense of the Bulls. While Kansas State’s tenacious defense will give Kentucky some issues when getting to the basket, they can hardly expect to slow down the burgeoning shooters that are starting to hit their stride at the right time.
Final Score: Kansas State 68 Wildcats 76 Spread: Kentucky -6.0
Florida State Seminoles (9) vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs (4)
Taking the lead with less than two minutes left in the game, the Seminoles did what Xavier is usually adept at doing: hitting clutch perimeter shots. However, it was the opportunistic defense of the Seminoles that allowed them to hold the elite offense of Xavier to just 70 points as they garnered 10 steals and blocked four shots to seal what was an impressive victory against a top-seeded program. Although Gonzaga’s defense was abused against Ohio State, the Bulldogs still managed to overcome their lapse in this regard thanks to their highly efficient offense (53.4 FG%). Better still, the Bulldogs were able to hit 81.3% of their free throw shots, which allowed them to pull away from a Buckeyes team that was relentless in finding ways to get to the basket. While the Seminoles have the clear rebounding advantage in this matchup, Gonzaga possesses the more prolific shooters and disciplined athletes that are adept at securing the basketball.
Final Score: Seminoles 76 Bulldogs 81 Spread: Gonzaga -5.5
Clemson Tigers (5) vs. Kansas Jayhawks (1)
Blowing out one of the most gifted offenses in college basketball in Auburn, Clemson seemingly did everything right from a competitive standpoint as they garnered 41 defensive rebounds and held their opponent to an awful shooting percentage of 25.8%. While Clemson has not been known for their scoring capabilities this season, their potent rebounders coupled with their dynamic defense has allowed this inspired program to excel consistently. While Kansas’ offense has been nothing short of fantastic in the tournament thus far, it has been their wavering play defensively that has almost knocked them out of the tournament twice. Getting outrebounded 39 to 32 against Seton Hall, the Jayhawks were fortunate to escape with a victory as they were reliant on their clutch shooters to avoid being upset. Even though Kansas has the better athletes and a superior offense, the Tigers are incredibly effective at rebounding the basketball and playing defense, two attributes that will make it difficult for the Jayhawks to win down the stretch for the third time in March Madness.
Final Score: Tigers 78 Jayhawks 72 Spread: Kansas -4.0
West Virginia Mountaineers (5) vs. Villanova Wildcats (1)
Although the full court press defense of the Mountaineers may not be as intimidating as it has been in years past, their gifted offense has been able to effectively cover up the aforementioned blemish as they destroyed Marshall in the second round by hitting 48% of their shots from outside the perimeter. Almost as impressive as their offense has been in the tournament is the physical rebounders of the Mountaineers who are especially strong at playing the defensive glass. While the Wildcats struggled to score in the first half of their game against the Crimson Tide, they came out on fire in the second half as Miles Bridges and Jalen Brunson was supremely accurate at hitting their three-point shots (combined to shoot 8-14 from three-point range). Even though the Wildcats are almost always exceptional at hitting perimeter shots, they can hardly rely on this skill to slow down a Mountaineers team that has the tough-minded athletes and scorers to overcome the sharpshooters of Villanova.
Final Score: Mountaineers 84 Wildcats 78 Spread: Villanova -5.5
Syracuse Orange (11) vs. Duke Blue Devils (2)
Holding all three of opponents they have faced in the tournament to under 60 points (ASU, TCU and Michigan State all averaged over 80 points per game during the regular season), the Orange have executed their 2-3 zone defense to perfection thus far in NCAA Tournament. Despite being fairly dreadful at scoring the basketball, the Orange have always found a way to score clutch baskets during the waning seconds of every contest they have played in during the postseason. Taking a page out of the playbook of Syracuse, the Blue Devils utilized their size to lockdown the smaller athletes of the Rams in a blowout win in the second round with their exceptional zone defense. Offensively, Duke bombarded the Rams from the perimeter (47.6 3P%) while allowing their bigger playmakers to attack the rim tenaciously (56.9 FG%). While the top tier defense of the Orange should not be taken lightly, their lack of a dominant scorer will be to their detriment against a Duke team that has looked impenetrable on defense and unstoppable on offense.
Final Score: Orange 66 Blue Devils 75 Spread: Duke -11.5
Texas Tech Red Raiders (3) vs. Purdue Boilermakers (2)
Despite their issues when it comes to scoring the basketball, the resilient defense of the Red Raiders stepped up in a big way as they blocked nine shots and held the scrappy offense of the Gators to just 66 points. However, even more importantly, the Red Raiders turned the ball over just eight times, which was vital in preventing the prolific scoring guards of the Gators from making a comeback. Even without Isaac Hass, the Boilermakers were still able to hold off the adept scorers of Butler as they were able to make most of the shots they attempted from the field. While guard Carsen Edwards has to be much more careful when it comes to committing reckless fouls, the versatile playmaker has what it takes to lead his team to a Final Four on both offense and defense. Even though the Red Raiders defense has been sensational thus far, their lack of a dominant scorer will prevent them from keeping up with a Boilermakers team that has enough offensively skilled assets to win tight games.
Final Score: Red Raiders 71 Boilermakers 74 Spread: Purdue -1.5