Upsets are what make the NCAA Tournament so special, however much they bust brackets in office pools around the country. In past years, fans were treated to improbable runs from the likes of No. 11 seed George Mason in 2006, No. 11 VCU and No. 8 Butler in 2011, or even No. 9 Wichita State back in 2013.
There was also last year’s championship game, when the No. 7 Connecticut Huskies topped the No. 8 Kentucky Wildcats, 60-54, in one of the more unlikely final matchups.
All of those teams benefited from an underdog status, and also got hot at the right time. This year, several teams will get the same benefit, but let’s take a look at three schools in particular who could bust thousands of brackets by getting hot at the perfect time.
They all have a mix of upperclassmen, lethal three-point shooting, a history of making significant runs in the tournament.
No. 5 Utah (24-8, 13-5 Pac-12) 33/1 Odds to win it all
A second-place finish in the Pac-12 regular season and early exit in the conference tournament, along with losses in all but one of their games against ranked opponents, afforded the Utes the fifth-seed in the South Region.
But Utah has plenty on its side to make a Final Four run. For one, the South isn’t exactly loaded. Other than No.1 seed Duke, the region is arguably the weakest in this year’s tournament.
Also, the three-point shot has proven to be the great equalizer for many hopeful teams, which Utah has in spades. The Utes have excellent three-point shooters in leading-scorer Delon Wright (37.1 percent), Brandon Taylor (43.9), Jordan Loveridge (43.8) and Brekkott Chapman (46.3) coming off the bench.
Assuming they get past No. 12 S.F. Austin in the second round, they’ll take on either No. 4 Georgetown or No. 13 Eastern Washington, two teams the Utes can outlast with their deep shooting.
No. 7 Michigan State (23-11, 12-6 Big Ten) 40/1 odds
There was a time, however brief, that the Spartans and head coach Tom Izzo were on the bubble. But their victory over Ohio State, upset over Maryland in the Big Ten tournament, and pushing Wisconsin into overtime in the championship game showed that Michigan State is a true force.
Nearly knocking the Badgers out of a No. 1 seed should be all the confidence Michigan State needs before the start of the tournament. The Spartans' half of the East Region bracket isn’t exactly loaded with elite programs, and in their opener they’ll face a No. 10 Georgia squad that hasn’t defeated a ranked team all season and suffered an 11-point loss in the SEC tournament semifinals.
After that, No. 3 Virginia appears to be Michigan State’s only major opponent before the Elite Eight. The Cavaliers are one of the best defensive teams in the country, but the Spartans (fourth in the country in assists per game) have a senior backcourt tandem of Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice to break them down. A run to the Final Four isn’t out of the question for the Spartans.
No. 7 Wichita State (28-4, 17-1 MVC) 50/1
The darlings of the 2013 Final Four, the Shockers were ranked No. 8 in the nation before falling to Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game, but they’ll be ready for their opener against No. 10-seeded Indiana in the second round of the Midwest Region.
Like the Spartans, Wichita State will roll out a solid backcourt of juniors Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, both talented all-around scorers who also average more than four rebounds per game.
After the Hoosiers, a team that barely made the tournament after losing four of its last five games and going 5-9 in their last 14, the Shockers will draw either No. 2 Kansas or No. 15 New Mexico State, both teams ripe for a third-round exit.
The Jayhawks did claim the Big-12 regular season title, but slipped up in the conference tournament, and likely haven’t shaken that nasty seven-point loss to rival and unranked Kansas State last month.
The Aggies enter the tournament on a hot-streak, winning 13-straight, but they played two ranked opponents all year and lost both, including the season opener to the Shockers, 71-54.
The Sweet 16 will be difficult for Wichita State, where they are likely to play a hot No. 3 Notre Dame squad, but the Shockers can make it as far as the Elite Eight where No. 1 Kentucky likely awaits.