By Sunday night, the carnage of the first week of March Madness will have reduced the field of 68 to the regional semifinalists known as the Sweet 16. Here are four teams – three that are carrying double-digit seeds – who have a chance to bust brackets and advance.
Middle Tennessee State
No. 12 seed in Midwest Region
The Blue Raiders are the No. 12 seed in the South Region that includes blue bloods North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA. Twelve seeds have a history of staging upsets. That means that No. 5 seed Minnesota should be on full alert. A year ago as a No. 15 seed, Middle Tennessee posted one of biggest upsets in tournament history by stunning No. 2 seed Michigan State.
And this season coach Kermit Davis has a team that is arguably better than last year’s group. Two key players who helped defeat the Spartans – Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw – return and the Blue Raiders added JaCorey Williams, a transfer from Arkansas. The 6-foot-8 senior forward leads the team in scoring and rebounding.
In the second round, if Middle Tennessee State advances its probable opponent would be No. 4 seed Butler – which has never lost in the NCAA Tournament to a team with a worse seed. There’s a first time for everything.
No. 11 seed in Midwest Region
The Rams are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999 when Lamar Odom brought a white-hot spotlight. Danny Hurley is in his seventh season coaching Rhode Island and has finally broken through to reach the NCAA Tournament.
The Rams are finally the team they hoped they could be. Injuries prevented consistent lineups and performance and a desultory loss to Fordham a month ago was the low point. Since then, Rhode Island has won eight in a row.
Rhode Island has length and quickness which it uses to good effect on the defensive end. The Rams limit foes to 29 percent 3-point shooting and are good rim protectors. The key for a trip to the Sweet 16 will be how well they shoot it. In winning the Atlantic 10 tournament title, Rhode Island shot 47 percent from 3-point range. If that hot shooting continues, the Rams will be a tough out.
No. 10 seed in West Region
One could say that to make the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed you have to be “ram tough.” If the Rams from Rhode Island can do it, so can the Rams from VCU.
After all, VCU is playing in its seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament. In 2011, the Rams started in the play-in game but reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed. Last season, in Will Wade’s first go-round as coach, the Rams advanced to the second round as a No. 10 seed.
VCU is led by senior guard JeQuan Lewis, who averages 14.7 points, 4.6 assists and 1.8 steals. In the first round, the Rams will need to counter St. Mary’s big man Jock Londale who averages 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.
No. 6 seed in East Region
Of the four teams discussed as Sweet 16 threats, the Mustangs have the best chance. SMU finished 30-4, won the American Athletic Conference regular-season and postseason titles. A year ago, the program was banned from the NCAA Tournament due to probation.
Coach-in-waiting Tim Jankovich became coach in July when Larry Brown unexpectedly resigned. Jankovich has done a marvelous job with a short-handed roster. SMU is down to seven scholarship players and often play just six players.
One of those players, though, is the talented and versatile Semi Ojeleye. A 6-7 forward who started his career at Duke, was named the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. He’s averaging 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds.