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As we gear up for another exciting NCAA tournament, we can’t help but wonder which school will be this year’s Cinderella story.
Last year, it was Xavier.
The Musketeers rode a No. 11 seed all the way to the Elite Eight, and now they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum after landing the No. 1 seed in the West Region.
Every underdog tournament story begins with a first-round upset, and we’ve ranked the seven most likely to watch for this Thursday and Friday.
For the sake of this discussion, the 8-9 and 7-10 matchups were not considered upset-worthy.
Matchups are ordered from least to most likely to occur.
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Record: 26-8 (15-3 in MAC)
A battle-tested Buffalo team won’t be intimidated by a matchup with Arizona in the First Round after playing the eighth-toughest non-conference schedule in the nation.
While a pair of wins against Toledo are the best on the Bulls’ resume, a tight 73-67 neutral-site loss to No. 2 seed Cincinnati is proof they can hang with the big boys.
So what will it take for Buffalo to pull off the upset against a Wildcats team loaded with star power?
Ideally, a turnover-riddled track meet.
Buffalo ranks seventh in the nation at 84.8 points per game, and it won’t be afraid to push the tempo, even against a more talented Arizona.
The Bulls have a well-balanced offense with C.J. Massinburg (16.9 PPG), Nick Perkins (16.6 PPG), Jeremy Harris (15.4 PPG, 43.2 3PT%) and Wes Clark (14.6 PPG, 39.1 3PT%) all capable of doing significant damage.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats were turnover-prone at times this season, ranking 117th in the nation at 12.3 turnovers per game. A fast-paced encounter could further expose that issue.
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Record: 21-11 (13-5 in A-10)
Two of the hottest teams in the country are set to collide in the South Region.
Kentucky has won seven of eight, steamrolling Georgia and Alabama in the SEC tournament before knocking off No. 3 seed Tennessee in the title game.
The freshman-led squad is hitting its stride at the perfect time, and potential lottery picks Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are capable of carrying the team well beyond its No. 5 seed.
However, Davidson won’t be a cakewalk.
The A-10 tournament champions had to knock off No. 11 seed St. Bonaventure and No. 7 seed Rhode Island to secure the title, and they have plenty of big-game experience with Virginia, North Carolina and Nevada all part of the non-conference slate.
First Team All-Atlantic 10 performer Peyton Aldridge (21.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG) and freshman standout Kellan Grady (18.0 PPG) lead a dangerous offense that ranked No. 18 in KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency rating.
Expect this one to be a nail-biter from start to finish.
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Murray State Resume
Record: 26-5 (16-2 in Ohio Valley)
Murray State is no stranger to pulling off the upset.
The Racers upset Vanderbilt as a No. 13 seed in 2010 with a roster that included future NBA player Isaiah Canaan.
While the Ohio Valley Conference champs had a weak schedule with just two games against teams with an RPI higher than 80, it looked like they belonged in those games, playing Auburn (81-77) and Middle Tennessee (72-67) both tough in losses.
Aside from that, the Racers were largely dominant en route to an impressive 26 wins.
A 13.4-point average margin of victory was good for seventh in the nation and tops among all mid-major schools, and they smoked a good Belmont team by 17 points in the OVC title game.
Led by OVC Player of the Year Jonathan Stark (21.8 PPG, 41.0 3PT%) and fellow senior Terrell Miller Jr. (14.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 39.2 3PT%), the Racers have are capable of slowing the game down and won’t be intimidated by the West Virginia defense.
Murray State should have a real chance in this one as long as it can find a way to slow down Mountaineers star Jevon Carter, who is averaging 18.1 points and shooting 43.1 percent from beyond the arc in his last 10 games.
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South Dakota State Resume
Record: 24-6 (13-1 in Summit)
South Dakota State is in the tournament for the third year in a row and the fifth time in the past seven seasons.
The Jackrabbits are still looking for the first NCAA tournament win in school history. They came close in 2016, losing by five points to Maryland as a No. 12 seed.
Can junior star Mike Daum finally get them over the hump?
The 6’9″ forward finished third in the nation in scoring last year (25.1 PPG) and sixth this season (23.8 PPG) and his career 21.4 points-per-game average would go down as the best in Summit League history if he decides to declare for the draft.
This season, he also pulled down 10.4 rebounds per game and made 91 three-pointers at a sizzling 42.1 percent rate.
Simply put, he’s a matchup nightmare.
He’ll be going head-to-head with Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop (19.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG), and whoever turns in the better game could decide which team advances to the Second Round.
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San Diego State Resume
Record: 22-10 (11-7 in MWC)
A victory over No. 4 seed Gonzaga and two wins against No. 7 seed Nevada—including a 90-73 thumping in the Moutain West tournament—should be all Houston needs to know it would be wise not to underestimate San Diego State.
While the Aztecs don’t have one clear-cut area of strength, they possess a well-balanced team.
They have some size with 6’10” Malik Pope (12.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG) and 6’9″ Jalen McDaniels (10.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG) both in the starting lineup and the rotation legitimately goes nine deep.
Those two big guys help anchor a solid defense that checked in at No. 36 in KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and limited opponents to 67.9 points per game.
As winners of nine in a row, the Aztecs are also riding some solid momentum.
Shutting down point Cougars guard Robert Gray might be the key to pulling off the upset.
The 6’2″ junior has averaged 23.6 points per game in his last seven games—including a trio of performances with at least 30 points
It’s worth noting then that the Aztecs managed to hold Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins to five points on 1-of-7 shooting earlier this year.
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New Mexico State Resume
Record: 28-5 (12-2 in WAC)
If you’re looking for a high-scoring, run-and-gun game, then you’ve come to the wrong place.
This game will feature two of the best defensive squads in the nation:
The Tigers allowed an opponent to score more than 80 points just three times—one of which was an overtime game—while the Aggies surrendered over 80 just twice.
It’s easier to stick around in a low-scoring game, and the Aggies did just that in grind-it-out wins over Miami (63-54) and Davidson (69-68) back in December at the Diamond Head Classic.
Zach Lofton—second in the WAC at 19.7 points per game—gives the Aggies a consistent offensive threat, and WAC Player of the Year Jemerrio Jones (11.0 PPG, 13.2 RPG) was a double-double machine despite standing just 6’5″.
Clemson is a really good team, with wins against North Carolina, Ohio State and Miami among an impressive 12 victories over RPI top 100 teams.
The Aggies present a less-than-ideal matchup, though.
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Record: 28-5 (15-3 in MVC)
This one would be an upset in seeding only.
The Miami Hurricanes opened as a one-point favorite against Loyola-Chicago, according to OddsShark.
The Ramblers announced themselves to the college basketball world with a 65-59 victory on Dec. 6 over a Florida team ranked No. 5 in the AP poll at the time.
That’s by far the best win on their resume, but there’s a lot to like about the Missouri Valley champions who are in the tournament for the first time since 1985.
First is a defense that ranks No. 25 in KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and holds opponents to 62.2 points per game—good for fifth in the nation.
Riding a 10-game winning streak and winners of 17 of their last 18 overall, Loyola has grown accustomed to winning games at this point, and they won’t step onto the floor against the Hurricanes feeling like the underdog.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference, unless otherwise noted.