The 5 Most Underrated Teams in the NCAA Tournament
Top seeds, beware -- chances are, there are at least one or two strong teams lurking in your regions with deceivingly low seedings. And these "underseeded" teams can be the stuff first weekend nightmares are made of.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee seeds teams based on their resumes -- the full body of work a team compiles in terms who it played and who it beat. RPI-driven "team sheets," used by the Selection Committee, place a premium on strength of schedule and quality wins as driving factors for ranking teams for placement in the bracket.
Analytics-based ranking systems, such as our nERD Power Rankings, KenPom, Sagarin, and BPI, consider many other factors to determine the quality of a team's play. Inevitably these two approaches will diverge in some key areas. Here are the top five teams our rankings peg as the biggest sleepers lurking among the lower-seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas State/Wake Forest
Cincinnati will take on the winner of this First Four matchup in Dayton, and they may not like who it sees in either case. Both Kansas State and Wake Forest, despite barely escaping the bubble, both rank as undervalued teams according to our metrics. We've got Wake Forest ranked as the 30th best-team in the country, according to nERD, which measures the number of points we'd expect a team to win by against an average one on a neutral court, and Kansas State ranked 32nd. Neither, it appears, would be anyone's typical idea of a "play-in" 11 seed.
The matchup on Tuesday night will be strength versus strength. Wake Forest is an efficient and balanced offensive team, ranking 14th in our measure of offensive efficiency. The Demon Deacons are a top-30 team in terms of both three-point and free-throw shooting, and also have plenty of inside punch, led by sophomore big man John Collins. Kansas State is more defensively-oriented, ranking 31st in adjusted defensive rating, and one of the very best in terms of generating turnovers.
These teams could create challenges for prospective opponents in their pod -- Wake Forest with the offensive punch to hang with a high-powered team like UCLA, and Kansas State with the ability to generate turnovers against a more defensively-oriented Cincinnati team.
No one in the country shoots three pointers better than Marquette, making them inherently dangerous to anyone and everyone seeded in the East region. Marquette is the lower seed in its matchup with South Carolina, but nERD would call them slight first-round favorites. The Golden Eagles rank one spot ahead of the Gamecocks in our power rankings. And Marquette has the offensive firepower to give anyone trouble. They rank 12th in our measure of offensive efficiency, and even higher in others'. The Golden Eagles are also a top-10 team in terms of effective field goal percentage.
The Golden Eagles will be running into a top-five defensive team in South Carolina, but could give the stout Gamecocks' defense all it can handle. If Marquette wins, their perimeter prowess could make them an interesting candidate to take down their region's 2 seed, Duke.
Speaking of offensive firepower, Oklahoma State is our fifth-ranked team in terms of offensive efficiency. No one in the NCAA Tournament wants to see dynamic scoring guard Jawun Evans, and the Cowboys have plenty of other talented three point shooters to make opponents pay. They're top-10 in terms of three-point and free-throw shooting, as well as offensive rebounding. Although Michigan is riding a hot streak after winning the Big Ten Tournament, perimeter defense is perhaps their biggest weakness.
If Evans and the Cowboys' perimeter attack can get past the Wolverines, Rick Pitino's famed Louisville defense will likely await in the Second Round, making for a terrific strength-on-strength matchup.
Gregg Marshall's Wichita State squad isn't going to take anyone by surprise. Their reputation as March giant killers precedes them, and in recent years, the Shockers have lurked on Selection Sunday as a team no one wants to see in their region. For two years running, the Shockers have graded out as analytical darlings, but fallen by the wayside in terms of seeding because of the lack of opportunity for quality wins afforded to them by the Missouri Valley Conference.
Gone are the likes of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, but the Shockers are about as scary on paper as ever. They're the 10th-best team in the country according to nERD, and top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency before adjusting for schedule. As a 10 seed, they've got "bracket busters" written all over them. They'll face a tough task against Dayton in the first round, but if they advance, they'll have a chance to take down Kentucky, the champions of the SEC.
The Badgers are our 22nd-ranked overall team in our nERD rankings, so an 8 seed and potential second round matchup with Villanova seems like a pretty unfair fate. But Wisconsin has the tournament experience to concern any potential March opponent.
Last year, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig led the Badgers to the Sweet 16 as a 7 seed. This year, they'll face a tough matchup with Virginia Tech in the first round, but if they advance, would serve as a much more accomplished and experienced group than top-seeded Villanova would have expected to see in the second round. Wisconsin is a top-10 team in adjusted defensive rating, and coming off an appearance in the Big Ten final, could be righting the ship in time to be a formidable opponent in the East region.