While a select few teams like North Carolina, Kansas and Maryland have lived up to their hyped NCAAB odds preseason expectations, and look like potential teams to reach the Final Four in Houston; nothing can be guaranteed for such teams. In main, this has got to do with the crazy upset-riddled nature of the season so far, which has seen six teams hold the No. 1 ranking this season—Villanova becoming the latest team to claim the top ranking. Helping with the parity and unexpected twists is the fact that we’ve seen an unprecedented rise of teams like Xavier and Iowa, while powerhouses like Duke and Kentucky haven’t played that well, at least compared to their usual high levels. Meanwhile, nearly every top team in the nation has struggled to win on the road, leading to constant shifts in the Power Conferences.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) February 15, 2016
So, if there’s ever a year for mid-major or double-digit seed to shake up the March Madness and win the National Championship, 2016 sounds just about the right year for that to happen. In line with this train of thought, here are some crazy but logical under-the-radar teams we believe have a legitimate shot to win the 2016 college hoops national championship.
No.15 Dayton Flyers (21-3, 11-1 in Atlantic 10)
If you’ve paying close attention to the Atlantic 10 Conference, then you are probably well aware of the pedigree brought by the Flyers, who currently leading the A10 standings, one game ahead of Saint Joseph’s. Besides their unexpected loss to La Salle, the Flyers have been absolutely dominant in conference play. And as far as top wins are concerned, Dayton already beat Iowa on a neutral court in November, underlining their ability to play hard in big games.
Key to Dayton’s success is the strong play of the team’s defense that is allowing 64.0 PPG (20th-best in the nation). Offensively, Charles Cook, who leads the team in scoring at 16.0 PPG, is the player to watch. The James Madison is also a beast on the defense, averaging over 6 rebounds and nearly 2 blocks per game. The experienced duo of Dyshawn and Scoochie Smith have been pivotal to the team, and after helping Dayton to considerable NCAA Tournament success in the last two seasons, both players could prove instrumental for another run this year. After all, this is a Dayton team that made an Elite Eight run in the 2013-14 season, followed by another strong run last year, which included an upset win over the sixth-seeded Providence Friars before suffering a respectable loss to a very good Oklahoma team in the round of 32.
With such a strong résumé, along with the increasingly piling number of losses being witnessed by the top teams in the nation; the underrated Flyers (No. 19 in last week’s AP Poll, No. 11 in this week’s Poll) not only have a chance of climbing higher in future rankings, but they also have a legitimate chance at earning at least a top four seed on Selection Sunday and going it deep in the March Madness.
No. 19 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (18-7, 9-4 in ACC)
The Jerian Grant-led Fighting Irish team of 2014-15 was the real deal, winning the ACC Tournament and coming oh-so-close to beating the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Eight. With Grant now in the NBA, the Fighting Irish are understandably not as dominant as they were last year, but they are still putting up big numbers. Star guard Demetrius Jackson, who leads Notre Dame in scoring (16.6 PPG) and assists (5.0 APG), has stepped up nicely in Grant’s absence and the duo of Zach Auguste and Steve Vasturia has equally been terrific.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish are just 1.5 games behind UNC in the ACC, giving the team a chance to win the conference title. But even if they don’t claim the ACC title, their star power and offensive potency should give them a chance to go the distance in the ACC Tournament. I mean, this is a team that beat the then #9-ranked Duke on the road earlier in conference play, followed by recent home wins over #2-ranked North Carolina barely a week ago and #13 Louisville on Saturday. That’s three wins against ACC’s top three favorites, a testament to Notre Dame’s potential in big games. Throw in the fact that Notre Dame has an excellent coach in Mike Brey, along with a potent offensive efficiency that is ranked fourth-best in the nation as per Team Rankings, this team is certainly poised for a top five seed in March and another deep tournament run.
No. 16 Oregon Ducks (20-6, 9-4 in Pac-12)
Even after dropping their last two games at Cal and at Stanford, the Ducks still own a solid 9-4 conference mark, which is actually tied with Arizona (21-5 overall mark) for the best Pac-12 record. The road doesn’t get any easier for Oregon that still has USC and UCLA both on the road, but Oregon has a winnable stretch of three home games against Oregon State, Washington State and Washington, which should help them in the bid to claim the Pac-12 regular season title.
Other than their fair schedule, the Ducks rose to No. 11 in last week’s rankings, showing that their impressive season is starting to get national recognition, and indicating that things could even be better if they can return to solid winning ways after the setbacks against the Bears and Cardinal.
In terms of title-contention credentials, the Ducks have a balanced offense that has four players averaging double figures, led by sophomore Dillon Brooks (17.2 PPG). Defensively, JUCO transfer Chris Boucher has been a monster in rim protection, a big reason Oregon is vastly improved on the defensive end. It won’t be smooth-sailing, but the Ducks have all the necessary pieces to finish the regular season strongly and make a deep swim in the Tourney.
No. 23 Providence Friars (19-7, 7-6 in Big East)
Despite making two successive NCAA Tournament appearances since coach Ed Cooley set foot in Providence, the Friars are still winless in March Madness dating back to 1997. That, however, may change this year, going by the way Providence has been playing some really good basketball this season. Losing three of their last five games entering Monday has undeniably dented their chances of claiming a top-5 seed on Selection Sunday, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Friars have a solid outside shot at upsetting their way into the Final Four.
The biggest factor working in Providence’s favor is that the team is led by two of the best ballers in the country in forward Ben Bentil (20.4 PPG, 46.6 GF% in 33.8 MPG and 7.8 RPG) and guard Kris Dunn (17.1 PPG, 6.6 APG and 5.9 RPG). As evidenced by their numbers, both players are having big seasons, with Dunn being an all-rounded guard and facilitator while Bentil mostly gets things done in the scoring and rebounding departments. If both players can stay healthy and Providence’s defense also tightens up before the end of the regular season, this Friars team should be due for its first NCAA Tournament win in nearly 20 years, possibly with a strong title run thereof.
No. 24 Texas Longhorns (16-9, 7-5 in Big 12)
Sure, the Longhorns don’t have what you’d typically describe as a good record or a team that is full of true stars, but there’s tons of value that can be found in this Texas team. For starters, the Longhorns’ 7-5 conference record is tied for third-best in the Big 12, and is just 2 games behind the 9-3 record held by Kansas and West Virginia at the helm of the conference.
More notably, the Longhorns have some pretty good wins in their résumé, including road victories over West Virginia and Baylor, plus a home win over Iowa State. In fact, hadn’t it been for the heroics of National Player of the Year hotshot Buddy Hield, the Longhorns could have even won last week’s 63-60 road loss to the then #3 Oklahoma. This shows just how good this Texas team could be, especially when the talented and experienced trio of Isaiah Taylor, Prince Ibeh and Javan Felix are firing on all cylinders. In the meantime, star center Cameron Ridley is expected to be back in the fold soon after being sidelined with a foot injury since December. Added to the proven coaching of Shaka Smart, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Longhorns in the Final Four.