March Madness: Small Conference Teams That Could Bust Your Bracket

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March Madness: Small Conference Teams That Could Bust Your Bracket
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One of the biggest storylines of March Madness are the Cinderellas who knock off the traditional powers and make a deep tourney run. They become the nation’s darlings and generate more support the deeper they get.

With so much parity in college basketball this season, we could see multiple larger seeds make runs to the second or even third weekend.

Here are two teams I believe can make such runs. No, they’re not any of the higher seeds because predicting those to pull off multiple upsets is essentially like taking a lottery ticket. But a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight could be possible for the two teams I’m prepared to back.

Saint Mary’s

It’s not earth-shattering to project a No. 5 seed to advance far in the NCAA Tournament, but Saint Mary’s is a bit under the radar compared to other higher-ranked teams.

Yes, the Gaels beat Gonzaga at home for one of their signature victories of the season, but with the team playing on the west coast just an hour before midnight on the east side of the country, the Gaels likely haven’t been seen by the majority of college basketball fans.

The unknown factor could make them a popular pick for the 12-seeded upset over a No. 5. I’m here to say the Gaels should be on the opposite of that sort of thinking and be looked at as an upset team to make it to the second or third weekend.

Experience can be key in March and the Gaels have that in six-year starting point guard Tommy Kuhse, who was named the West Coast Conference Sixth Man of the year after he lost his starting role before gaining it later in the season.

He averages 12 points per game and is a fundamental stop-go point guard who creates space with his craftiness.

He’s improved his shooting, too, with teams regularly going under screens and daring him to shoot in the past, Kuhse has transformed into a 47% 3-point shooter to give the Gaels an offensive dimension they hadn’t had from him.

Joining Kuhse in the backcourt is senior guard Logan Johnson, the most athletic player on the team.

At center is 7-foot Matthias Haas, giving the Gaels a reliable rim protector and someone who can score with a reliable hook shot over defenders as elite as Gonzaga’s Chet Holmberg.

The rest of Saint Mary’s core is all upperclassmen, including junior Alex Ducas, senior Dan Fotu and junior Kyle Bowen. Each forward can defend bigs and stretch the floor on offense and knock down 3s.

In addition to the experience and how each player complements the other on offense, it’s Saint Mary’s style that makes them worth spending your college basketball betting money on them.

You won’t speed up the Gaels and rush them on offense into bad shots or mistakes. They prefer to play games in the 50s and 60s and if they can control the tempo, affairs become a grind and can test a team who isn’t used to halfcourt physical battles.

Defensively shows how Saint Mary’s can frustrate opponents. Teams average just 60.5 points per game against the Gales, which is the 12th-best mark in the country. KenPom is even higher on Saint Mary’s defense, ranking the team with the ninth-best adjusted defensive rating.

Looking at the Gaels’ path in the tournament, the Elite Eight is possible. Yes, the team can beat both UCLA in the second round and Baylor in the Sweet 16. At its best, Saint Mary’s showed it could beat Gonzaga. If the Gaels can draw it out into a halfcourt affair to limit a team’s athleticism, I like their chances to advance.

Colorado State

Yup, back on the Rams. I had them as a long shot to win the NCAA title before the season started, so I can’t back out now.

Would it be an upset to see a No. 6 make it to the second week? According to the opening odds and line movement, the answer is yes.

Against the spread, Michigan already opened as a 1.5-point favorite in the first round matchup and that line has grown to -3 moments after the pairings were released.

Like Saint Mary’s, I love Colorado State’s experience. This is the third year in a row this core has played together, led by one of the top forwards in the country, David Roddy.

During the regular season, he averaged 19.5 points, 7.6 rebounds per game while knocking down 46% of his attempts from 3. His 6-foot-5, 252-pound body, plus his versatility, allows him to take bigs off the dribble to the lane or post up smaller defenders.

Defensively, he can guard all five positions. If Colorado State advances far in this tournament, expect to hear a lot about Roddy.

Isaiah Stevens is one of the quickest guards off the dribble. He averaged 14.8 points and five assists per game thanks to his athleticism and shiftiness. With Stevens and Roddy, the Rams have two veterans they can play through to get a score.

Statistically, the Rams are one of the top offenses in the country. Colorado State has the 13th-best field-goal percentage at 48.5%, 24th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.41) and has the 20th-most efficient offense according to KenPom’s adjusted offensive ratings.

If you’re wondering who have the Rams beaten outside of the conference that would be deemed a quality win, they’ve topped two tournament teams already, beating Saint Mary’s and Creighton.

I like their continuity and consistency over a Michigan team that has yet to live up to its preseason hype. Tennessee will be the biggest test for Colorado State yet, given the Volunteers' athleticism and size. But I can’t quit on the Rams now after touting them all season.

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Bryce Derouin

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