There’s a reason they call it March Madness. 68 teams compete to win the elusive NCAA Tournament. With single elimination rules, almost anything can happen. We see incredible upsets, delightful Cinderella stories to root for, and surprises galore. Just look back last year to little known Loyola University making it to the Final Four. More often than not, the teams that shock us the most are winners of the mid-major conferences.
Mid-major is a term for all the conference in college basketball that aren’t among the “power five.” Those five are the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. Every other conference is considered a mid-major. The winners of those conference tournaments automatically earn bids to the NCAA Tournament, regardless of how the rest of their season goes. Among those tournaments that have already ended, these are the teams who have the best chance to surprise in March Madness.
5. Northern Kentucky
Understand that when we say these teams can surprise in the NCAA Tournament, it doesn’t mean they have a great chance to win it all. Just that they can be a team who busts some brackets. Though we don’t know any of the matchups yet, a team like Northern Kentucky can cause real problems. At 26-8, the team defeated their conference’s top-seeded Wright State to win the Horizon League. It’s only their second NCAA Tournament appearance, but they did come close to beating Kentucky in their first appearance. Led by impressive senior Drew McDonald and sharpshooting junior Tyler Sharpe, they may be suitable for an upset in the first round.
Wofford has been something of a staple in the NCAA Tournament in recent years. They’ve won the Southern Conference five of the past ten years. This year, they beat UNC Greensboro to earn it. Most projections have Wofford ending up as a 5 or 6 seed, meaning they might be a favorite in several matchups. At 29-4, including 18-0 against their conference, Wofford has one of the best records of any team in the tournament. They’re a versatile team with plenty of dynamic players. Fletcher Magee, Storm Murphy, and Cameron Jackson all lead them in various statistical categories. That means they don’t have to rely on one guy to win.
3. Murray State
Even if you’ve never seen Murray State play, you’ve probably heard of them this year. That’s because the school is home to Ja Morant, who has vaulted past big names like RJ Barrett and Nassir Little to become the projected number two pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. He’s that good. In fact, he scored 36 points to lead the Racers to the Ohio Valley Conference title over Belmont. More often than not, Murray State will have the best player on the court. That’s usually a recipe for at least some success. Morant is filling up the stat sheet (24.6ppg, 10.0apg, 5.5rpg) and is a safe bet to lead his guys to a win or two in the tournament.
2. Saint Mary’s
They’ve already shocked us. Earlier this season, Saint Mary’s got demolished by Gonzaga and lost by 48 points. They met again in the West Coast Conference championship and won 60-47, shutting down a Gonzaga team that was ranked number one overall. Not only that, but they ended the nation’s longest winning streak and the Bulldogs’ six-year stranglehold on the conference. That is just the kind of win that can propel a team towards a string of victories. Depending on who they’re matched up against, the Gaels could make serious noise.
With a 20-14 record, the Bradley Braves don’t sound like the kind of team to rank first here. However, momentum means a ton in a single elimination tournament and there might not be a hotter team in college basketball than them. Bradley was just fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference, yet they made it to the title game. There, they rallied from down 18 to beat Northern Iowa and win the championship. En route to that win, they also beat the Loyola-Chicago team that made the Final Four last year. It’s tough to see them repeating Loyola-Chicago’s efforts from last year, but they’re hot enough to win a few games.