The most wonderful aspect of the NCAA Tournament lies in its greatest inefficiency: A single-elimination tournament to determine a champion is a terrible way to determine which team is the best in the nation. The good news is it’s a blast, and every year, a team or three from mid-major conferences take advantage of this system by getting hot at the exact right time. Those squads always captivate college hoops, normally because they have to knock off at least one higher-seeded squad from a major conference and everyone loves a good underdog story.
This year, the Tournament is ripe with smaller schools that have the potential to make it to the second weekend and beyond. Between favorable matchups and squads just being, well, really good, there are a handful of teams that have the potential to make a whole lot of noise. These are the ones that have the best shot at a run to the Sweet 16 or later. (As a quick plug, if you would like to learn about all the mid-majors out there, a gigantic stamp of approval to the site Mid-Major Madness.)
Belmont (11-seed, East Region)
The Bruins have already picked up a win in March Madness with their convincing First Four victory over Temple. If you like teams in the same vein as the Florida Gulf Coast squad from six years ago that made a Sweet 16 run — a fearless mid-major that wants to get out, run, and outscore an opponent — Belmont is your squad.
Rick Byrd’s bunch is an offensive juggernaut, sitting second nationally in points per game (87.4) with the 31st-fastest tempo and the third-best effective field goal percentage in America. Dylan Windler, Kevin McClain, and Nick Muszynski will all score, and if they can string together stops, Maryland in round one and either LSU or Yale in round two are in serious trouble.
St. Mary’s (11-seed, South Region)
Randy Bennett is a damn good coach, and the Gaels are one hell of a basketball team. Just look no further than how they put the clamps on Gonzaga in the WCC championship game, holding the best offense in the country t0 47 points on 37.5 percent shooting from the field. They’re excellent at slowing games down and executing, and the two-man duo of Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts is as good as you’ll find.
Villanova and Purdue as a road to the Sweet 16 would be awfully tough to navigate, but when St. Mary’s can impose themselves on opponents, the nation’s 30th-best team is KenPom can knock them off. No matter when they bow out of the tournament, the Gaels are going to make sure their opponents have to fight tooth and nail to send them home.