Wish you’d been smart enough to pick Loyola-Chicago in your bracket pool last year? Well, you could’ve been if you had read The Ringer’s 2018 March Madness Cinderella Guide. While normal people watch teams like Duke, I’m more passionate about following lower-level college basketball, studying up on which mid-majors could possibly storm the DJ booth of the Big Dance. Last year I picked Loyola-Chicago and Marshall, and then bragged about it a lot. Three years ago I picked Little Rock, Hawaii, and Stephen F. Austin, and also bragged about it a lot. (Did I write a Cinderellas post in 2017? Nobody knows, and you definitely shouldn’t search for it.)
Based on their talents, uniforms, and mascots, here are some 2019 teams that I’ve singled out as potential March heroes. Credit me if they succeed, and destroy any evidence that you read this post if they do not.
Best Upset Pick: UC-Irvine
Great upset picks do not crawl to you. No, you must take your 2-foot-long tongue and thrust it out of your proboscis and into a massive mound of dirt, seeking whatever morsels lie within. While your tongue sifts through the dusty innards, you’ll probably think: What am I doing here? Why am I probing the depths of a dirt mound when I could simply pick chalk? Wait, why do I even have a 2-foot-long tongue—quite frankly, it’s disturbing. Why do I have a proboscis? And then you will realize: You are an anteater.
Not much about UC-Irvine makes sense. This is a school based in Orange County, California, whose mascot is basically a large South American sloth. There is no connection between Irvine and anteaters; the nickname came about because it won a poll in 1965. (I’m assuming there were a lot of hippies at the college in 1965; they really came through for us.) Nobody knew what noise anteaters make, so Irvine trusted a comic strip and decided that the noise anteaters make is “Zot,” and now that’s what you’re supposed to yell at UC-Irvine games. (Free idea: a UC-Irvine basketball hype video entitled “Zot in Herre.”) The Anteaters’ most famous player is a deep bench reserve, Spencer Rivers, the other, other son of Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. Their highest-usage player is a backup power forward named Collin Welp, who has sacrificed the apathy his family is presumably known for by taking a shot every two minutes he’s on the floor. UC-Irvine landed a Stanford grad transfer, a former top-100 recruit named Robert Cartwright, who plays fewer minutes at UC-Irvine than he did during his most meaningful season at Stanford.
All of this combines to fuel a program that’s become an odd defensive powerhouse. Of the 353 Division I teams, nobody allows a lower shooting percentage on 2-pointers than the Anteaters, with opponents hitting just 40.6 percent of their shots from inside the arc. Irvine also led college basketball in this category in 2014, which made sense, because back then the Anteaters had 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye. But Ndiaye left the school in 2016, and the Anteaters have still finished among the top 10 in the category in each of the three seasons since. So is Irvine allowing a ton of 3s? No—in fact, it has the 15th-best ratio of opposing 3-point attempts to opposing field goals attempted of any team in the country, as just 32.7 percent of opposing shots are 3s. Somehow, the Anteaters shut down opponents inside the arc while also convincing them to take the vast majority of their shots there. It doesn’t make sense, but hey, neither does UC-Irvine.
I like Irvine’s chances in its first-round matchup against Kansas State. According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Anteaters are the best no. 13 seed, and the Wildcats are the worst no. 4 seed, resulting in UC-Irvine having a 27 percent chance at victory. The Anteaters are hot, as they enter the NCAA tournament having won 16 games in a row dating back to January 19. Four of their past eight victories were decided by 20 points or more, including a 92-64 rout of Cal State Fullerton in the Big West tournament championship game. And they won both of their matchups against eventual tournament teams this season, including one against Saint Mary’s.
So are the Anteaters likely to win? No—remember how I just said Kenpom gives them a 27 percent chance at an upset? But the NCAA tournament isn’t about making guaranteed picks. If you were solely interested in making the safest picks, you never would’ve clicked on this link. If you make the picks recommended here, your bracket is going to look weird, like a massive sloth with a giant proboscis and a horror-movie tongue. But while the anteater may be strange and, when you really think about it, extremely gross, it’s also perfectly designed to outlast its competitors whose normal-looking bodies can’t access those protein-rich ants that keep ’eaters happy. May your bracket resemble the bewildering anteater—strange, but successful. Pour some Zot sauce over that bracket of yours. It may just be delicious.
Most Likely to Remake an Iconic Tournament Run: Wofford
The NCAA selection committee made writing this year’s post harder than expected, as it actually paid attention to low-level college hoops and gave a variety of teams from lesser leagues the respect that they deserve. I didn’t expect the committee to hand an at-large bid to Belmont, a 26-5 squad that absolutely deserved inclusion in the field. But it did, giving the Ohio Valley Conference multiple tournament teams for the first time since 1987. I didn’t expect the committee to give a high seed to the MAC, which hadn’t had a team seeded in the top half of the bracket since Toledo was a no. 5 seed in 1979. But it did, giving the Buffalo Bulls a no. 6 seed. It almost feels weird to write about Belmont and Buffalo as upset picks, since the Bruins got an at-large bid and the Bulls will be favored in their 6-11 matchup with the winner of a play-in game.
But I still must focus on a small-league school that got a bit of respect from the committee—but not quite enough. Wofford went 18-0 this season in the Southern Conference, a league that hadn’t received a single-digit seed since 1999. The committee recognized the Terriers’ very impressive body of work, giving them a no. 7 seed.
Good, but not good enough. The Terriers remain underseeded. Just like last year, when the numbers pointed to Loyola-Chicago being on par with a no. 9 seed, Wofford is a few lines too low. The final AP poll ranked Wofford 20th; KenPom ranks it 19th. These lists suggest that the Terriers should be a no. 5 seed. Instead, they’re two lines lower. This means the Terriers will likely have to take on one of the nation’s best teams by the end of the tourney’s opening weekend—if they win their first-round matchup with no. 10 seed Seton Hall, second-seeded Kentucky should await in the second round.
But Wofford stands a legitimate chance against any team it plays, because of the extravagant shooting exploits of senior guard Fletcher Magee. Magee led college basketball in made 3-pointers this year (151) and will probably set the career record by halftime of the Terriers’ first game. (He’s just two 3s away from the record of 504, held by Oakland’s Travis Bader. Magee averages 4.6 made 3s per game.)
And Magee is not the only shooter on the Terriers. Wofford was one of five Division I teams this season to crack 40 percent from 3-point range, with point guard Storm Murphy hitting 48.5 percent of his 3s. (Makes sense, storms are typically wet.) With a slew of elite-level shooters, the Terriers didn’t just win the SoCon, but demolished it, winning nine games by 20 points or more.
Wofford reminds me of another tiny private school from the Carolinas that went undefeated in league play, featured a spectacular shooter who was named the Southern Conference Player of the Year, and embarked on a surprising NCAA tournament run—the 2007-08 Davidson Bulldogs. I’m not saying Fletcher Magee is Steph Curry; while I’m intrigued by Magee’s pro prospects, I don’t think that he will ever be unanimously elected NBA MVP. But if Wofford does rip off a few wins, it’ll probably do so in a similar fashion to the Davidson team that introduced the world to Curry.
The one caveat is that Wofford went 0-4 this season against top-tier teams from major conferences. The Terriers lost to North Carolina, Mississippi State, and Oklahoma by exactly 11 points, and got demolished by 25 points against Kansas. But Wofford also blasted South Carolina, a team that went 11-7 in the SEC, by 20. And Magee proved he can shoot down a big school last season, when he dropped 27 points in a win over fifth-ranked North Carolina and had 36 and a 30-foot game-winner to beat Georgia Tech.
Magee and the Wofford woofers just need to shoot the lights out once to become tournament legends. Remember: God loves a Terrier.
Goodest Mascot: Gardner-Webb
I know what you’re thinking. The people who fill out their NCAA tournament brackets based on team mascots and colors are the worst. You’re smart! You want basketball analysis!
But check out the edition of this post I wrote last year. Did I praise UMBC’s 3-point shooting ability, which would go on to drown Virginia in the most stunning upset in tournament history? Did I call out the potential of VCU transfer Jairus Lyles, or highlight the heady playmaking of K.J. Maura? No. I just wrote that UMBC’s mascot was a particularly good dog, a Chesapeake Bay retriever. And now, Virginia faces an equally lovable foe. The Cavaliers are matched up with the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs, and I must report: They are also good dogs.
There are many bulldog mascots in college sports—Gardner-Webb isn’t even the only bulldog representative in the 2019 bracket, as Yale won the Ivy League—but Gardner-Webb is the Runnin’ Bulldogs. That’s a crucial distinction. There are only two Division I teams that specify their mascot is sprinting, with the other being the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. I understand that one, because you can imagine a rebellious person running, possibly while shooting weird guns.
But bulldogs are not meant to run. Here, watch this video of a big, beautiful doofus plotzing down a hill:
Here’s a French bulldog trying to run, with disastrous consequences:
And here is Roebuck, the Gardner-Webb mascot, wearing a birthday hat while hitting a peak speed of about 7 miles per hour.
Why did Gardner-Webb choose to highlight bulldogs’ least useful trait? I don’t know, but it feels ominous for their opponents. Every flabby fold of bulldogs’ chubby bodies and stubborn brains screams that they should not run, so if you see a bulldog hightailing it, they must have a good reason. What’s their game plan? Are they trying to escape? Are they trying to slam into you at the highest speed possible (which is not particularly high), and knock you off balance? There’s no way to know, but perhaps there’s something to fear. Put Virginia on upset watch once again.
Most Unkillable Mascot: Saint Louis
What is the Saint Louis Billiken? A generous explanation is that it is a whimsical childish doll that experienced a brief wave of popularity in the early 1900s. A more honest summary is that it is the spawn of hell, a horror-ghoul that will appear at the moment of your death and goofily smile as your soul exits your flesh.
Here it is, feeding:
(I say “feeding” because so far as I can understand it, the Billiken feeds off the fear of children.)
The Billiken has undergone several transformations over the decades. The original incarnation was a fat baby with sideburns. When I came face-to-face with the Billiken at the Atlantic 10 tournament in 2014, it had evolved into an impish weirdo with distinct alien vibes. Could you beat this Billiken in a fight? Probably, but it could also maybe cause your brain to melt by staring at you with its lopsided, never-blinking eyes. Then in 2016 Saint Louis unveiled a meaner-looking Billiken with angular features, flame-shaped hair, and human eyes with furrowed brows.
So what is the Billiken? I don’t know. All I know is that time and marketing departments should have destroyed this strange monster long ago. But no one has killed it. It has only changed and endured, ever evolving toward a final form that will surely destroy us all while maintaining its creepy smile. I don’t know how basketball players are able to concentrate with a Billiken in their midst, and therefore suspect Saint Louis will win the 2019 NCAA tournament.
Best Newcomer: Abilene Christian
Abilene Christian is amid the most meteoric rise of any program in college basketball. In 2013, the Wildcats finished ninth in the 10-team Division II Lone Star Conference. Last year, in their first season of NCAA tournament eligibility, they were ninth in the 10-team Southland Conference, missing out on the eight-team conference tournament. And this year the Wildcats went 27-6, in spite of the fact the team dismissed leading scorer Jalone Friday and starting forward B.J. Maxwell halfway through the season for undisclosed rules violations.
Abilene Christian can’t be stopped! At this rate, the Wildcats are going to win the 2023 NBA Finals, capture gold at the 2028 Summer Olympics, and defeat the Monstars by 2040. (The Monstars are real, and judging from LeBron’s play of late, we really need Abilene Christian to come through for the human race.) Those steady increases don’t guarantee success at this year’s tournament, as Abilene Christian will be vastly outmatched by no. 2 seed Kentucky in a Wildcat Battle. Still, the world has no long-term answer for the steadily increasing power of ACU hoops.
Best Look: Iona
Last year I wrote about Iona’s (still fire) jerseys. This year I’m focusing on these incredible facial expressions:
Get your Tajuan Agee facial expressions ready!— Maroon Maniacs (@ICMaroonManiacs) March 11, 2019
Three hours till game time!
: https://t.co/mxY1IBhVBg (ESPN2)
: https://t.co/amNp12RQWq#ICMBB #MAACHoops19 #GaelNation pic.twitter.com/ZantcGUqkx
Best Player: Murray State
The most fun part of Ja Morant’s college career is probably over. For me, the joy of watching Ja stemmed from seeing a player who will probably be a top-3 NBA draft pick unleashed in the Ohio Valley Conference, where he went up against some of the worst teams in college basketball. It’s unclear how every major-conference program totally whiffed on Morant—he did receive a late offer from South Carolina, but was more-or-less unscouted when Murray State offered him. (My personal belief is that Ja picked the Murray State Racers as an homage to the profession of Ja Rule’s character in The Fast and the Furious.) Here’s Ja dunking viciously on UT-Martin, which is 289th in KenPom’s rankings:
And here he is dunking again, against 307th-ranked Eastern Illinois:
The level of competition will increase in the tourney, but it’s still going to be fun to see a future top-3 pick unleashed against reasonably good college basketball teams. After all, another part of the joy of watching Ja is, well, no offense, but his teammates look like Ohio Valley Conference players. They often need Ja to do everything, which is why he’s in line to become the first Division I player ever to average 20 points and 10 assists over the course of a full season. (He’s currently at 10.01 assists per game, so he’ll need to keep performing to keep this intact.) Ja hit a game-winner over Jacksonville State to save Murray State in the OVC semifinals:
And then Ja dropped 36 points in the conference championship game to beat Belmont and get the Racers into the NCAA tournament.
If no. 12 seed Murray State is to upset fifth-seeded Marquette, Ja is going to have to go off. Oddly, this is not the first time the Racers have turned to an NBA-caliber guard in hopes of beating Marquette in the tourney—in 2012, the Racers faced the Golden Eagles in the second round, but fell short when Isaiah Canaan bombed with just 16 points on 17 shots. Ja is a better player than Canaan—he is, somewhat literally, in a league of his own. Morant kept the Racers close in matchups against Alabama (38 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, one huge dunk) and Auburn (25 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists). He’ll need that and a bit more to topple Marquette.
Best Upset Style: Northeastern
I look for two things in any underdog attempting to pull off an upset. The first is the ability to slow down games—because the fewer possessions in a given contest, the higher the likelihood that something fluky will happen. The second is 3-point shooting proficiency—because any team that hits an absurd amount of 3s can win in the tourney, and teams that are good at shooting are more likely to hit absurd amounts of 3s.
Northeastern fits both criteria. It plays at an uncommonly slow pace (its average possession length of 18.8 seconds ranks 309th of 353 Division I teams), it shoots a ton of 3s (46.3 percent of its field goal attempts are 3s, the 22nd-highest proportion in college hoops), and it makes a lot of them (Northeastern shoots 38.8 percent as a team, the 14th-highest mark in college hoops). This strategy has worked for the Huskies. In November, they played a neutral-site matchup against Alabama, limited the game to 60 possessions (well below the average of 67.6), and went 9-for-17 from beyond the arc to beat the Crimson Tide 68-52. Star point guard Vasa Pusica hit all four of the 3s he took. (The Serbian senior was later named Colonial Athletic Association tournament MVP, which I presume stands for Most Vasa Pusica.)
Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t always lead to success. The Huskies lost all three games they played this season against eventual NCAA tournament teams, including an 88-60 defeat against Virginia Tech and a 72-49 loss to Syracuse. Northeastern also lost 75-70 to Vermont, a team that lost by 16 points against Kansas, Northeastern’s first-round opponent. KenPom gives the Huskies a 23 percent chance of beating the Jayhawks, which might be a bit optimistic considering their brutal track record against tournament-quality teams. But if they can slow things down and shoot well just once, they’ll fulfill their destiny.
Best Stylistic Matchup: New Mexico State
The 12th-seeded Aggies have become tournament fixtures, winning the WAC in seven of the last eight years. Unfortunately they’ve lost their last 11 NCAA tournament games, dating back to 1993. But I think this could be the year they break through, because of their matchup with no. 5 seed Auburn.
Bruce Pearl’s Tigers live and die by forcing turnovers. They led the nation in that category, forcing turnovers on 25.4 percent of opposing possessions. If Auburn’s opponents can avoid coughing up the ball, though, they have the opportunity to launch a ton of 3s (Auburn allows its opponents to take 3s on 44.2 percent of their shots, 327th nationally) and dominate the boards (Auburn rebounds just 67.0 percent of opposing misses, 330th).
The Aggies are almost perfectly designed to beat this team. They rarely turn the ball over (opponents get steals on just 7.1 percent of New Mexico State possessions, the 15th-best figure in college hoops). They also shoot a ton of 3s (46.4 percent of their shots are 3s, 20th in the country) and brutalize opponents on the boards (they grab 36.8 percent of their misses, eighth).
New Mexico State is a legit force to be reckoned with. It’s won its last 19 games after a January 3 loss to Cal Baptist, with four of its final six victories coming by at least 20 points, including an 89-57 beatdown of Grand Canyon in the WAC title game. It almost beat Kansas, grabbing a late lead on the Jayhawks before falling 63-60. And the fact that the Aggies’ offensive style is so well suited to toppling Auburn makes them even more appealing. Of course, things could go the other way—perhaps Auburn’s strength will neutralize NMSU’s strength. But I find this matchup reminiscent of Stephen F. Austin’s 14-over-3 win in 2016, another game in which the major-conference team was designed to force turnovers and the little guys were perfectly suited to beat them.
Plus, if all else fails, New Mexico State can drill 50-footers.
Seems pretty tough to defend.
Best Gag: Yale
I just can’t get over the fact that the NCAA gifted us a matchup between no. 14 seed Yale and no. 3 seed LSU, a first-round SCANDAL THROWDOWN. LSU, of course, is in the midst of NCAA controversy, as head coach Will Wade was reportedly caught on tape talking about making a “strong-ass offer” to pay a sought-after recruit. Yale is also in the midst of NCAA controversy, as federal prosecutors say that various coaches at the school accepted money to allow untalented children of rich parents to sneak past the university’s stringent admission standards under the guise of being athletes.
It’s incredible how diametrically opposed these scandals are. In the one corner, a university employee allegedly paid one or more of the school’s most talented athletes. In the other, parents of untalented athletes are said to have paid university employees.
I give the edge to Yale, whose players will be desperate to prove that they are actually talented and not simply spoiled trust-fund kids whose actress moms forked over $400,000 to secure them a bench spot. After all, the Bulldogs did upset Baylor in the 2016 NCAA tournament.
Actually, now that I think about it, I take that back—I’ll pick the team whose players are actually good enough to get paid.
Best Opportunity for Revenge: Vermont
We all remember UMBC, the stars of March Madness 2018 and winners of the biggest upset in college sports history. But time forgot why they made the tournament in the first place: After Vermont went 15-1 in conference play, the Catamounts screwed up and lost the America East title game to the Retrievers, opening the door for the very good boys to make history.
Not this season. The Catamounts went 14-2 in conference play and crushed UMBC 66-49 in the America East final. They have the league’s best player (Anthony Lamb, who averages 21.4 points per game) and a trio of siblings, the Dunkin’ Duncans—Ernie, Robin, and Everett. (I assume that people call them the Dunkin’ Duncans. I also assume that playing against three brothers really weirds opponents out in a way they can’t describe.)
The Catamounts have been waiting a year since the team that beat them went on to become famous. Their chance to shine begins with a first-round matchup against fourth-seeded Florida State. Maybe the Catamounts can continue the America East’s trend of giant-killing. Or maybe they can’t, and I’ll delete this post and all evidence I ever wrote it to preserve my record of occasionally making smart upset picks.