There’s always a team nobody saw coming.
UCLA was undoubtedly that team in last year’s men’s NCAA tournament, pulling upset after upset to reach the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.
In 2013, No. 9-seeded Wichita State did the same thing, getting to the Final Four. UConn won the whole thing as a No. 7 seed in 2014. No. 10-seeded Syracuse got all the way to the Final Four as a former bubble team in 2016. And South Carolina later reached a Final Four as a No. 7 seed.
Simply put: Expect the unexpected. Here is a breakdown of six dark-horse teams you shouldn’t overlook when filling out your bracket.
The Tar Heels (24-9) were on the NCAA tourney bubble until they hit the high mark of their season by upsetting Duke in the regular-season finale, spoiling coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. UNC showed how good it can be in that game, and this dangerous team could pull off major upsets on par with the one at Duke. Armando Bacot (16.5 ppg, 12.5 rpg) was arguably the best player in the ACC, and coach Hubert Davis has a scrappy team that does momentum-shifting little things (rebounding, hustle plays, blocked shots) to outplay its seeding.
The Hawkeyes (25-9) have one of the best scorers in the country, sophomore forward Keegan Murray (23.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg). While last year’s Hawkeyes were heavily dependent on the interior game of All-American Luka Garza, we’re seeing a more free-flowing team that utilizes great perimeter play to lead the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, rank fourth in KenPom’s offensive efficiency and rank fifth nationally in scoring offense. Veteran Jordan Bohannon is coach Fran McCaffrey’s X-Factor as a sixth-year senior (thanks to the NCAA’s extra COVID year) who has started games in the Big Ten since 2016. His game-winner in the Big Ten tourney semis is evidence of his value.
COACHES SALARY DATABASE:See how much men’s college hoops coaches are making
The Bruins (25-7) undoubtedly claim the glory for being the biggest sleeper of last year’s NCAA tournament, going all the way to the Final Four as a play-in No. 11 seed. And somehow, they’re positioned to be overlooked in a different way this tournament: Overlooked in the Pac-12 due to Arizona and other blue-bloods that have gotten back to form. There is still a dynamic quartet of guards for UCLA – Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and Jules Bernard – poised to go on another deep run. Coach Mick Cronin knows how to get the most out of this veteran team when it counts, and it starts on defense.
The Hokies (23-12) played themselves off the bubble and it all started with a buzzer-beating win in the ACC quarterfinals vs. Clemson. Virginia Tech then rode that momentum to knock off blue-bloods North Carolina and Duke en route to the ACC tourney title. Coach Mike Young has this team rolling, having won 14 of its last 16 games. Marksman guard Hunter Cattoor erupted for 31 points off seven three-pointers in the victory over Duke.
The Huskies (23-9) haven’t been in the national conversation for a while, but coach Dan Hurley has gotten this program back to high-caliber play. UConn is smothering on defense and excellent at controlling the paint – ranking second nationally in blocked shots and 10th in rebounding. Guard RJ Cole (15.7 ppg, 4.1 apg) is the catalyst for this group, which owns victories this season over Villanova and Auburn.
The Razorbacks (25-8) were overshadowed in the SEC by Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee, but coach Eric Musselman has firepower to stage a deep March run, evidenced by this group’s victories over those top SEC squads. JD Notae (18.9 ppg, 3.6 apg) returned from Arkansas’ Elite Eight team of last year. Defensively, the Razorbacks can change the tempo of the game – ranking in the top 15 of KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson,