The Madness is upon us.
Sixty-four teams are now competing in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which officially begins Thursday, as underdogs and powerhouses alike vie for the title in a series of high-stakes single-elimination contests.
While the later rounds of the tournament showcase the highest quality college ball on the planet, it's the early rounds that inject the Madness into March Madness. Sure, you may fill out your bracket conservatively, with the hopes of winning a few bucks in the office pool — but the real pride comes in correctly predicting the massive upsets. Those are the games that everyone remembers, and they're what make March Madness the one sporting event that almost everyone has a stake in.
Here are four teams perfectly poised to upend your colleagues' lame all-chalk brackets. What unites these teams is that each boasts the ideal qualities for an upset-minded squad: one or two players who can take over a single game, tough defenses to keep it close, and the ability to pop off 3-pointers to quickly close gaps.
If you want to seem like the Nostradamus of your bracket pool, try pinning your hopes on these mid-majors. They may not be as good as Virginia or Villanova or Michigan State, but on their best day, they could beat anyone in the Big Dance.
1. Rhode Island (No. 7, Midwest)
Yes, Rhode Island ended the regular season on a two-game losing streak, then followed that up with a stinging one-point defeat at Davidson's hands in the Atlantic-10 conference tournament finals. But don't count them out. Despite the late slump, the Rams are a team that can frustrate any opponent. Their defense forces teams to take inefficient shots rather than lucrative 3-pointers; no team allowed fewer 3-point attempts than the Rams during the regular season. If teams can't get off clean looks, it's hard for them to build early leads — and that's when upsets are most likely to occur.
While Rhode Island doesn't have the most star-studded roster, the pieces they do have play well together. That synergy was on display throughout the regular season as the Rams ran through the A-10, winning the conference title and grabbing the top seed in the conference tournament. And that's not to say that Rhode Island doesn't have a player that can take over games: Consider Jared Terrell. The senior guard fits the profile of a March Madness sparkplug: fast, efficient, and not afraid to turn into a gunner when the situation calls for it. His 41 percent clip from beyond the arc could prove lethal in a do-or-die game.
Outside of the usual mid-major powers (Gonzaga, Wichita State) and some surprises (Nevada, St. Mary's), Rhode Island is the field's best team outside of a big conference. The Rams, a 7-seed this year, are a team everyone wants to avoid. As a bonus, they'll face No. 2 Duke in the second round if both teams advance — and you always want to put your hopes in an underdog facing the Blue Devils.
2. St. Bonaventure (No. 11, East)
If Rhode Island falters, conference rivals St. Bonaventure might just pick up the slack. Thanks to a thrilling triple-overtime victory over Davidson in the last week of the regular season, the Bonnies finished the A-10 slate in second place, just one game behind Rhode Island. In that game, senior guard Jaylen Adams went bonkers, scoring 34 points on 56 percent shooting.
For St. Bonaventure to pull off a historic upset in the NCAA tournament — they face No. 6 Florida in the first round — Adams will likely have to repeat that feat. As it is, the Bonnies barely made the tournament: They needed that Davidson win plus a semifinal showing in the A-10 tournament to sneak into the play-in round, where they notched an underdog victory over UCLA on Tuesday to win entrance to the Big Dance. Doubt them at your own risk, however: The Bonnies shoot 3-pointers at a top rate, sinking nearly 40 percent of their tries from deep as a team, and get to the free-throw line often, with the 18th-most makes in the nation. With a little bit of shooting luck, St. Bonaventure could be a brutal matchup for a team unprepared for their gunslinging.
3. Davidson (No. 12, South)
Heading into the final weekend before March Madness began, Davidson had a simple mission to ensure a tournament berth: Beat St. Bonaventure and then, most likely, Rhode Island, en route to the A-10 crown and its attendant automatic bid into the Big Dance.
Would you believe that they did it?
That miracle run is emblematic of the fact that anything can happen, especially in a season lacking any truly dominant teams around the country (save for two-loss Virginia, and defensive teams generally don't fare as well in do-or-die situations). First, the Wildcats avenged an epic triple-overtime loss against the Bonnies last month by bouncing them from the conference tournament in the semifinals, and then they scraped by Rhode Island by 1 point to win the A-10 title.
Now, their reward is a bout with Kentucky in the first round. (And yes, both teams are called the Wildcats.) But luckily for Stephen Curry's alma mater, Kentucky's roster features a much weaker cast of one-and-done talent than it has in years past. Moreover, Kentucky has a poor record against underdogs, having lost six of their last 16 games to lower seeds under coach John Calipari. Meanwhile, Davidson is a highly disciplined squad that doesn't turn the ball over — they enter the tournament with the second-fewest turnovers in the country — and is talented shooting from deep. Kentucky has played better of late, winning the Southeastern Conference tournament, but No. 12 Davidson is perfectly poised to sneak up on No. 5 Kentucky and deliver the mythical 5-12 upset that so many brackets rely on. Don't count out the Wildcats from North Carolina.
4. Murray State (No. 12, East)
Turning away from the loaded A-10, we come to the Ohio Valley Conference and the Murray State Racers. Winning both a conference's regular season schedule and postseason tournament is always a good sign for a mid-major, and Murray State did just that this year: First, the Racers went 16-2 in conference play, then they steamrolled through the OVC tournament, beating second-ranked Belmont by 17 points.
Now, they're riding into March Madness at the peak of their powers. This year, their first task will be to defeat a perennial tournament team in No. 5 West Virginia. The Mountaineers aren't particularly strong, however. Of the 5-seeds, they are likely the most vulnerable to an upset, due to their trademark staunch defense; when opponents are able to break their suffocating press, West Virginia tends to struggle in the one-off tournament games. If the Racers are able to deploy their smart, measured play to stave off the Mountaineers' pressure, they may be able to make a good run, fueled by their low turnover rate, 3-point proficiency, and efficient free-throw shooting.