Chalk is for teachers and boring brackets. Sure, picking all teams with tiny numbers next to their names may give you the best chance of winning your office bracket pool. But it’s not called March Calmness. As famed American philosopher Jon Rothstein once said—actually, he’s said it several hundred times—college basketball is where the unexpected becomes the ordinary.
You’re going to want to pick an underdog to root for once games tip off. But you likely haven’t spent much time watching the America East, Big West, Southland, or Big Sky conferences. Use this as your resource; I’ve studied up on the 23 one-bid leagues in search of the best teams, players, and, of course, mascots to be aware of as you fill out your bracket.
Best Upset Candidate: Loyola-Chicago
Treat Loyola-Chicago’s game against Miami like an 8-9 matchup. The Ramblers are much better than your average no. 11 seed; the Hurricanes are considerably worse than the three other no. 6 seeds in the tournament. Vegas has the Canes listed as 1.5-point favorites going into Thursday’s clash, while KenPom gives Miami a 51 percent chance of winning.
Loyola admirably filled the power vacuum in the Missouri Valley Conference that was created when Wichita State bolted for the American Athletic Conference last year. The Ramblers beat Florida on the road in December and won 17 of their final 18 games, 10 by double-digit margins. They’re incredibly efficient: They shoot 40 percent from 3-point range and 56.8 percent from inside the arc, giving them the eighth-best effective field goal percentage in the nation. (Two of the seven schools ranked ahead of them, Villanova and Kansas, are no. 1 seeds.) They’re led by Iowa State transfer Clayton Custer, who barely played for the Cyclones but won MVC player of the year honors as Loyola’s star point guard.
The Ramblers won the NCAA tournament back in 1963, a run that featured the “Game of Change” between Loyola’s primarily black starting lineup and a Mississippi State team that was forbidden by Mississippi’s governor from playing racially integrated teams. Before head coach Porter Moser’s squad made this year’s tourney, the Ramblers hadn’t made the field since 1985.
Oh, and I should point out that Loyola’s fans dress like they’re rooting for Harry Potter to catch the golden snitch.
holy crap Gryffindor is about to make the NCAA Tournament pic.twitter.com/C2Gf4OxMdZ— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) March 4, 2018
Small School With the Best Player: South Dakota State
Get to know Mike Daum. The Jackrabbits’ redshirt junior ranked sixth in the nation in scoring (23.8 points per game) and 14th in rebounding (10.4 rebounds per game) this season. He went for 20 points and 10 boards a ridiculous 17 different times, including a 37-point, 12-rebound outing against Colorado, a 35-point, 18-rebound showing against Omaha, and a 33-point, 19-rebound performance against Western Illinois. Daum turned in the highest single-game scoring output of the 2016-17 season, a 51-point display against Fort Wayne.
Daum put his life in danger as a high-schooler while trying to get faster—he lacerated his spleen and liver after completing drills with a rubber belt tied around his stomach. He recovered, stopped trying to be fast, and embraced being who he is: a farm-strong version of Doug McDermott.
The son of a former NFL tight end and one of the best players in the history of the University of Wyoming’s women’s basketball program, Daum boasts both size (6-foot-9, 250 pounds) and range. He obliterates Summit League competition from inside the arc, but the no. 12 seed Jackrabbits’ best chance at pulling an upset against fifth-seeded Ohio State on Thursday rests with his ability to get hot from deep, like when he drilled seven 3s in a December matchup with Wichita State.
Funnest Team: Marshall
The recipe for a low-seeded team pulling an upset almost always includes a couple tablespoons of 3-pointers. And few teams in college basketball take more shots from beyond the arc than the Thundering Herd, coached by Dan D’Antoni—yes, the younger brother of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Dan D’an coached high school ball in South Carolina for 30 years before joining his brother’s staff with the Phoenix Suns during the Seven Seconds or Less era. After working with Mike for 10 years, the brothers’ collective alma mater came calling, offering Dan his first college head coaching job. Now, D’Antoni has led the Thundering Herd to their first NCAA tournament berth since 1987.
If you’re familiar with Mike’s NBA teams, you’re also familiar with how Dan’s Marshall team plays. He delivered one of the best lines in recent coaching memory during a 2016 press conference—“I haven’t finished my damn analytics story yet!”
The Thundering Herd average just 14.2 seconds per offensive possession, the third-fastest tempo in college basketball, behind only Savannah State and Oklahoma. More than 45 percent of their shots come from 3-point range, the fourth-highest mark of any team in the tournament. Marshall hit at least 10 shots from deep in 22 of its 34 games, including an 81-77 loss at Xavier. If the 3s fall, the Herd could knock off Wichita State.
Most Resilient Team: Montana
Montana was far and away the best team in the Big Sky this season: It went 16-2 in conference play, beat Pittsburgh (then again, who didn’t?) in November, and nearly pulled off an upset in a 66-63 loss to Washington in December. But the Grizzlies’ most impressive win came after this happened in their Big Sky tournament semifinal against Northern Colorado:
AHHHHHHHH! That’s Northern Colorado’s Jordan Davis dunking Montana big man Fabijan Krslovic through the earth’s crust. Probably the dunk of the year. Had I been the victim, I would’ve collapsed in tears on the court, refusing to move until stretchered off by medical personnel.
But Montana showed resolve. The Griz won 91-89 in overtime and advanced to beat Eastern Washington and capture the league title.
Yep. I have that’s my big man and we playing in the championship tonight on ESPNU. What’s good? https://t.co/hAnHKZnxTc— Ahmaad Rorie (@ahmaadrorie) March 10, 2018
Third-seeded Michigan will present a tough matchup for no. 14 seed Montana, but we know that this group can handle any adverse situation. No matter what Michigan does—if a Wolverines player rolls a Montana player into a ball and dunks him through the hoop, or if a Michigan crossover somehow results in a Montana player’s pants falling down to reveal that he’s wearing embarrassing underwear—the Griz will continue to battle.
Hottest Team: Murray State
A lot of college basketball’s best mid- and low-major teams floundered during conference tournament week, robbing us of some of the best potential Cinderella candidates. Middle Tennessee followed up its 16-2 Conference USA campaign with a first-round tournament exit to 7-11 Southern Miss; Louisiana-Lafayette went 16-2 in Sun Belt play, but the Cajuns stopped Ragin’ when they lost to UT-Arlington; Vermont went 15-1 in the America East before losing to UMBC on a buzzer-beater.
But Murray State is (wait for it) racing into March on a 13-game winning streak. Senior guard Jonathan Stark, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, is an incredibly efficient shooter considering the high volume of shots he takes; he averages 21.8 points per game, 16th in the nation, and is one free throw away from being a 50-40-90 shooter. The no. 12 seed Racers almost beat Auburn, falling 81-77 in December, so they’ve got what it takes to potentially take down fifth-seeded West Virginia.
Most Intriguing No. 16 Seed: Penn
I wouldn’t say the Quakers have a good chance of knocking off top-seeded Kansas on Thursday, but they do have an unusually high chance for a no. 16 seed. Coached by Steve Donahue, who led Cornell to the 2010 Sweet 16, the Ivy League champs are KenPom’s 127th-ranked team. The average KenPom ranking for a no. 16 seed in the last five years is 208th. Meanwhile, Kansas is KenPom’s ninth-ranked team—the second-lowest ranking for a no. 1 seed in the past decade. (In 2016, Oregon was 12th.) FiveThirtyEight says the Quakers are the best no. 16 seed of all time. They’re a seeding error: Penn should really be a no. 14 or no. 15 seed; the Jayhawks have the résumé of a no. 1 seed but the talent of a no. 2 seed.
KenPom gives Penn an 11 percent chance of upsetting Kansas. By comparison, KenPom gives UMBC a 3 percent chance of beating Virginia. ESPN’s BPI gives the Quakers a 7.1 chance of pulling the stunner, about four times better than the average odds for a no. 16 seed.
No. 16 seeds are famously ohfer against no. 1 seeds; to date, they’re 0-132. Even if we were to presume that no. 16 seeds have a measly 1 percent chance of winning these matchups, they would be overdue. The Quakers’ chances aren’t good, but they might be the best a no. 16 seed will ever have.
Most Unkillable Mascot: Radford
There are 68 teams in the NCAA tournament, and 67 will ultimately lose. There can only be one. And that’s why you must pick THE HIGHLANDER:
Radford, located in the hills of western Virginia, is represented by a burly Scotsman with a kilt and a shield. Like the Highlander, its team apparently is impossible to take down—it won the Big South tournament on this buzzer-beater by Carlik Jones:
It will be tough for Radford to win in the tournament; it’s a no. 16 seed, and had to win a play-in game against LIU Brooklyn to even earn the right to take on top-seeded Villanova. But these are the Highlanders. They will decapitate everybody in their path until they gain their prize.
Cutest Mascot: University of Maryland, Baltimore County
They might be big underdogs, but they are also very, very, very good underdogs.
Can our mascot make a comeback after the dominance of UMBC-squirrel-eats-pizza? For all of Gritty's fans, a bday pic: pic.twitter.com/0c8Pl4X816— UMBC (@UMBC) February 4, 2015
UMBC is the Retrievers—specifically, the Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, because UMBC stands for University of Maryland, Baltimore County. You can call them Chessies for maximum adorableness. These dogs even have special coats that prevent them from getting wet.
At various points, UMBC has had live Chessie dog mascots, all named Gritty, although I don’t believe they currently have one. They do, however, have a very, very, very good statue.
The dogs proved that they are better than cats by beating the Vermont Catamounts in the America East title game, snapping a 23-game losing streak against the league’s powerhouse.
Best Mascots: Stephen F. Austin
College basketball fans may remember the Lumberjacks from the 2016 NCAA tournament, when the 14th-seeded Jacks axed West Virginia and came one point away from beating Notre Dame to reach the Sweet 16. A lot has changed since then in Nacogdoches—Brad Underwood, the coach who led that team to an 18-0 regular season, left for Oklahoma State and is now the head coach at Illinois. But there are two constants with Stephen F. Austin: This team still leads college basketball in turnover percentage, forcing a takeaway on 26.2 percent of opposing possessions. And it’s still cheered on by two of the best mascots in sports.
Look at that photo again. Everybody can get behind the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjack and Ladyjack. (Yes, she is called the Ladyjack and not the Lumberjill; not only is this a huge missed opportunity, but it also implies that his job is jacking lumber and her job is jacking ladies.) Most mascots hide behind big costumes; the Lumberjack doesn’t even cover up his arms. And why would he?
Two years ago, the Lumberjacks’ sheer burliness was enough to power SFA past the West Virginia Mountaineer, an equally beardy man with a gun. This year, SFA faces Texas Tech, whose mascot is, well … take a look.
Best Look: Iona
Everyone should be rooting for Iona: It’s playing Duke and is therefore the most popular team in America. Beyond that, though, I think it has the freshest fit in the tournament.
Maroon and gold is a great color combo; I love the font; and I love the Celtic cross in the O. (Iona is an island off the coast of Scotland with an old abbey on it, and the university’s team is named the Gaels, which basically means a person from Ireland or Scotland.)
The Gaels are making their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament, although their uniforms failed to carry them to victory in the last two years, as they lost by double-digits to both Iowa State and Oregon. They’re due.
Best Track Record: New Mexico State
The Aggies showcased their potential in a neutral-site tournament this season: They nearly won the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii over Christmas break, taking down two tourney teams (Davidson and Miami) and falling just short against USC. In that last game, NMSU held a six-point lead with nine minutes remaining before the Trojans went on a tear.
It’s been a strange time at NMSU. In 2016, head coach Marvin Menzies left for UNLV; his replacement, Paul Weir, coached just one season at NMSU before breaking bad and accepting a job at cross-state rival New Mexico. But under new coach Chris Jans there has been no drop-off in production: The Aggies clinched their sixth trip to the NCAA tournament in seven years, and at 28-5, they represent the program’s best team since the one that made the 1970 Final Four.
New Mexico State has already beaten a team that’s roughly as good as Clemson—the no. 5 seed Tigers went 11-7 in ACC play, just like the Miami team NMSU toppled in Honolulu—so this is one of my favorite upset picks.
Best Newcomer: Lipscomb
Only one team from the Never-Made-The-Tourney Club managed to break free from the college basketball equivalent of the kids’ table and join the dance floor: the Lipscomb Bisons, enemies of accurate pluralization. (The school has been calling itself the Bisons since before “bison” was decided upon as the properly accepted plural form; a 2012 referendum on whether to make the schools’ nickname grammatically accurate resulted in the teams proudly maintaining their S’s. “For all of us with feeling,” a student wrote at the time, “the S is what adds the extra magic.”)
The Nashville school has been playing Division I basketball since 2002 with little success but turned its program around by hiring Casey Alexander away from the staff at crosstown Belmont University in 2013. The no. 15 seed Bisons will be thoroughly outmatched against second-seeded North Carolina—they lost all four of their games against NCAA tournament teams this season by an average of 21.8 points—but junior Garrison Mathews is now playing the best basketball of his life. He lifted the Bisons into the bracket with a ridiculous run in the Atlantic Sun tournament, going 17-for-31 from beyond the arc over three games and hitting seven 3-pointers to take down Florida Gulf Coast in the final.
Lipscomb plays at a fast pace—it averages 74.8 possessions per game, fifth most in the country—and Mathews is preternaturally gifted at drawing fouls. He averages 7.4 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, the ninth most in the country. If Mathews drills 3s and gets some of Carolina’s stars into foul trouble, an upset isn’t entirely out of the question.