SportsPulse: Scott Gleeson says Rhode Island, Nevada and Loyola Chicago are three teams to keep an eye on in the NCAA tournament. USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports dissected the field of 68 and selected six teams that aren’t expected to be in San Antonio but could get there — based on matchup path, late-season momentum and overall strength.
Wichita State Shockers
The Shockers’ showing in the American Athletic Conference’s regular-season finale (a loss to Cincinnati) and AAC tournament (a semifinal loss to Houston) didn’t go as planned, but a year of playing in a power conference instead of the Missouri Valley will suit Gregg Marshall’s team well in this tournament. It’s already paid off as WSU is a No. 4 seed this year, compared to a No. 10 last year as a 30-win club. In the East Region, experts described how easy Villanova’s path to the Final Four might be. Not if WSU has anything to do with it. Third-team All-American Landry Shamet came alive in last year’s Dance, and he’ll need to do the same this year for a run to San Antonio.
Syracuse did not deserve to make the tournament. But Jim Boeheim’s team could go on a deep run reminiscent of his 2016 team with similar long odds. The difficult task in facing the Orange is limited time to prepare and simulate their zone in a few practices. It’s much different than ACC foes who see Syracuse frequently. Syracuse is limited offensively, but Tyus Battle is a go-to player who can carry the load. The Midwest is stacked with Kansas, Duke and Michigan State. But consider 11th-seeded Syracuse a dark horse in the bracket’s toughest region. First, it needs to get past Arizona State in Dayton.
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TCU Horned Frogs
If there is such a thing as a Big 12 sleeper, look no further than Jamie Dixon’s sixth-seeded Horned Frogs, who finished .500 in the toughest conference in the country and have enough ammunition for an unexpected run in the loaded Midwest Region. The same group that won the NIT last season has virtually all of its players back, and this is an extremely balanced offense fueled by 6-foot-11 big man Vladimir Brodziansky’s 15.1 points a game. TCU lost a one-possession road game to Texas Tech late in the season and fell by two points to Kansas State in overtime at the Big 12 tourney.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Can Collin Sexton channel Shabazz Napier in 2014 — the last time a high seed won it all? (UConn was No. 7 that year when Napier steered an improbable run.) While Oklahoma freshman Trae Young has fizzled out late in the season, Sexton has come on strong, helping the Tide shoot off the bubble for a No. 9 seed. The 6-3 guard hit a buzzer-beater to lift Alabama past Texas A&M in the SEC tourney before scoring 31 in a quarterfinal win against Auburn. Sexton also scored 40 points in an early season loss to Minnesota. Can Avery Johnson’s team get all the way to the Final Four? With a player like Sexton on that side of the bracket, Villanova should be concerned.
Like Syracuse, Creighton maybe didn’t deserve to be in the field of 68. But unlike Syracuse, the Bluejays got a nice No. 8 seed in an interesting South Region. Now with Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter out with an injury, there’s a chance Creighton’s high-octane offense gets the best of the nation’s best defense. Yes, that means the top overall seed in the bracket would go down in the second round to an unlikely Big East team. Coach Greg McDermott’s team does a lot of things well, ranking fifth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio and 10th in scoring offense (84.3 points a game) and field-goal percentage (50%). Marcus Foster (20.3 ppg) is the X-Factor.
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St. Bonaventure Bonnies
Look, if VCU and George Mason can get to the Final Four, there’s got to be a mid-major on this list of the Bonnies’ stature. Winners of 20 of 21 games, St. Bonaventure is playing excellent basketball, evidenced by a solid win over UCLA on Tuesday in Dayton. St. Bonaventure faces tall odds, as it draws a dangerous No. 6 seed Florida in the first round and then would likely have to beat a team like Purdue to reach the Elite Eight. But for Cinderella’s sake, this team has the ingredients to shock better-seeded teams thanks to the 1-2 punch of Jaylen Adams (19.4 ppg) and Matt Mobley (18.4 ppg).