If anybody saw Saint Peter’s coming last March, it’s only because they were actually standing at the Pearly Gates.

But the Peacocks were far from the only surprise in last year’s NCAA Tournament. A handful of seeming also-rans from power conferences also went deep into the Tourney.

None was more noteworthy than North Carolina, which went from 8-seed to the national championship game. But there was also a Sweet 16 matchup between 10th-seeded Miami and 11th-seeded Iowa State. Michigan, as it seemingly always does, made a Sweet 16 run as an 11-seed.

Our goal here is to identify teams in that mold. You won’t find anyone from the selection committee’s initial reveal of the top 16 seeds here. Nor anyone on the brink of breaking into that group, such as Miami, UConn or Creighton.

We’re digging deeper to unearth unexpected gems. Though we must also provide a trigger warning — much like North Carolina last year, some of these names are the opposite of Cinderella.


I can already hear your laughter, and I remain unfazed.

The Fighting Illini haven’t reached the second week of the Tournament since their legendary 2005 national runners-up. The door was wide open for Brad Underwood’s squad the past 2 seasons, but they stumbled against Loyola and Houston in the second round.

But Underwood did something important in the transfer portal this year — he brought in guys who have actually won in March. Terrence Shannon Jr. (Texas Tech) and Matthew Mayer (Baylor) have done the thing at their previous stops, and have been the team’s best players this season. Dain Dainja didn’t play much at Baylor, but he was part of a championship culture.

Freshman point guard Jayden Epps will have to play beyond his years. But if he does so, there’s no reason the Illini shouldn’t reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in 18 years.

— Alex Hickey, Big Ten columnist for Saturday Tradition


The Wolverines are, as we say, back on their BS.

If the season ended today, Michigan wouldn’t even be in the NCAA Tournament. But the season does not end today. And as seemingly happens every year, the Wolverines are figuring it out at the right time.

This is the second straight year that Michigan has sleepwalked/underachieved through the majority of the regular season. But recent wins over Michigan State and Rutgers indicate that the Wolverines biological clocks know what month is coming, and it means Michigan is due for a 6th straight Sweet 16 appearance.

When Hunter Dickinson is locked in, he’s a first team All-B1G player. And Dickinson is locked in right now with the Wolverines winning 5 of their past 7 games.

Thing is, Dickinson isn’t even Michigan’s best player in the eyes of NBA scouts. Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard are both potential first-round picks, and with that level of talent a team can go far in March.

Michigan’s road may well begin in Dayton. But it could end in Houston. Because it’s about to be March. And that’s what Michigan does in March.

— Alex Hickey, Saturday Tradition


Yes, I know it’s hardly going out on a limb to pick the Blue Devils to play deep into March. They seem to do it every year, don’t they?

But this group is different. No Coach K. No defined go-to guy who can get a bucket anytime they need one. It’s a gritty bunch that has relied on defense and rebounding to get by until it’s offense started to come around.

Now that Dariq Whithead is healthy and Tyrese Proctor has adjusted to the pace of the game after coming to college a year early, that’s starting to happen. Rookie coach Jon Scheyer and his team are trending in the right direction at the right time and will be a dangerous team come tournament time.

— Brett Friedlander, ACC columnist for Saturday Road

NC State

The Wolfpack have all the elements needed to make a surprise tournament run.

Their roster is filled with veterans who won’t be intimidated by the moment. They’ve got an elite point guard in Jarkel Joiner, a 3-point gunner in Terquavion Smith and one of the best low post scorers in the country in big man DJ Burns. Coach Kevin Keatts’ team has a number of ways to beat you and plays defense with abandon.

They probably don’t have a Jimmy V miracle in them, but a spot in the second week is a definite possibility.

— Brett Friedlander, Saturday Road


I feel like Kentucky is an incredibly basic answer to give here, but I have to.

Does that mean I think the Cats have the upside to win a national championship? Absolutely not. Let’s not forget that we’re talking about a group that has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game since bowing out in the Elite 8 in 2019. But there’s absolutely a scenario in which Kentucky gets that 8-9 matchup and is a nightmare for a 1-seed in the second round.

Rotations have been a mess all year. Part of that was John Calipari’s doing, and part of that was injuries. But with the emergence of Chris Livingston, UK does look like a better team than the one that once seemed destined to miss the NCAA Tournament altogether.

This year’s squad is more efficient from beyond the arc, so perhaps UK won’t run into the “Oscar Tshiebwe needs to make it happen or else” mantra that doomed the Cats in the Saint Peter’s upset last year.

If UK can get CJ Frederick back healthy, who knows? Maybe a postseason with minimal expectations will be exactly what the doctor ordered and Calipari has a 2014-like run in him.

— Connor O’Gara, SEC columnist at Saturday Down South


I’m extremely tempted to go with Mizzou here because as our co-worker Adam Spencer has pointed out, the Tigers have the identity of a team that could get hot from deep and upset a top-ranked foe.

But with the limited experience of Dennis Gates, I’ll instead save that for a potential “giant slayer” argument. Let’s go with a different group of Tigers down in Auburn.

Bruce Pearl’s team isn’t as talented as last year’s with Jabari Smith Jr. and Walker Kessler, but in some ways, this team actually shares more DNA with that 2018-19 Final Four team. Auburn has guards who, while maddening at times, can absolutely take over a game in a moment’s notice. Plus, the Tigers still have a rim-protecting, post-presence big in Johni Broome.

This might be an unpopular take because Auburn is 3-6 in the past month, but 5 of those losses were by 8 points or less. They have to figure out how to close games, and that could be their undoing in March. But they also know that’s a weakness heading into the home stretch.

Don’t forget that the 2018-19 squad was unranked heading into the SEC Tournament and then they found their identity at the perfect time. Maybe that’s in store for Pearl’s squad 4 years later.

— Connor O’Gara, Saturday Down South


Two years removed from just their second Elite 8 in program history, the Trojans will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.

If they should make it.

USC is firmly on the bubble despite notching its 20th win, a plateau they’ve now reached for 4 consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. The Trojans have quietly blossomed into a top-6 program in the West, along with UCLA, Arizona, Gonzaga, Oregon and San Diego State.

With impressive perimeter players, including stud Boogie Ellis — the league’s 3rd-leading scorer — and do-everything guard Drew Peterson, as well as a collection of valuable role players, the Trojans feel like a team that can ride a No. 8 seed into the Elite 8 or beyond.

— Jon Gold, Pac-12 columnist for Saturday Out West

San Diego State

The Aztecs lost a pair of prove-it games during nonconference play, dropping back-to-back games to No. 14 Arizona and No. 9 Arkansas. Then came a 3rd loss to Saint Mary’s, and it looked like Brian Dutcher’s group was in trouble.

San Diego State has only lost twice since and has posted 9 double-figure wins during that stretch.

The Aztecs don’t have one go-to scorer but they do boast a terrific defense as well as 8 players in the rotation who could go for double-figures.

Much will rely on SDSU’s outside shooting, especially if leading scorer Matt Bradley catches fire.

— Jon Gold, Saturday Out West