It's March Madness time and everyone wants a Cinderella team or two for their Tourney Pick'Em bracket. Here are a few teams from my clipboard to yours, worth a little extra consideration as you put those picks down in ink.
No. 12 Oral Roberts (East region)
My plan a few days ago was to pick Oral Roberts and Duke to win multiple NCAA games, no matter their path in the brackets. That’s an impossibility now, as they’re playing each other. Duke’s gaining plenty of steam; it’s perfectly reasonable that a young team with a first-year head coach would be better in March than it was in November. And don’t forget Duke had the best recruiting haul, by far, entering the fresh season. It’s come together nicely.
But while Duke’s future first-round picks kick up their heels, the Golden Eagles combat that with experience; ORU slots 26th in Division-1 experience (per the essential KenPom.com) while Duke slots 295th. Golden Eagles star Max Abmas introduced himself to the world in the 2021 tournament, when ORU took down Ohio State and Florida before losing a two-point heartbreaker to Arkansas. Abmas and his sweet jumper are still around (22.2 PPG, 37.7 from the arc, automatic at the line) and 7-foot-3 senior Connor Vanover is a handful inside.
I won’t question anyone who picks Duke to go deep. This team was a slow-developing Polaroid that is crushing now. But I also won’t blame anyone who expects two weekends of the Golden Eagles again.
No. 8 Memphis (East region)
The Tigers look absurdly underseeded as a No. 8 team — KenPom.com ranks them in the Top 20. Memphis occasionally is careless with the basketball but otherwise an efficiency dream on both offense and defense. Every important minute on the court is handled by a senior. Memphis decisively rolled through the AAC tournament over the weekend, and was just one shot away from beating No. 1 Houston twice in eight days. The Tigers won’t be afraid of anyone.
I don’t want to look past Florida Atlantic, who are a mere 2.5-point underdog to Memphis in Round 1 on BetMGM's board. But should the Tigers get past that game, I give them more than a puncher’s chance to take down Purdue in Round 2.
No. 13 Kent State (Midwest region)
I probably don’t have to twist your arm to pick against a Big Ten team or two, given that conference’s lack of results in recent years. And the Flashes aren’t going to cower to anyone’s jersey. They played a competitive non-conference schedule, and while Kent State did lose to Houston and Gonzaga, both games were close.
Kent State doesn’t turn the ball over and Indiana doesn’t turn you over; I like knowing my underdog pick is likely to be poised. Indiana has a notable size advantage and will try to win this game in the paint. Kent State power forward Miryne Thomas was excellent in the MAC tournament, and he’ll need rebounding help from the Kent State guards. I expect this game to be in doubt into the final minute.
No. 15 Vermont (East region)
Marquette comes into the dance on a high, rolling through the Big East tournament and securing the highest seed in the school’s history. But Vermont is a pesky draw as a No. 15 opponent, a veteran-heavy, cohesive team that plays efficient offense and rarely turns the ball over. This year’s Vermont squad needed some tinkering time — the Catamounts lost 7-of-8 games in November at one point — but enters this week on a 15-game winning streak.
Sometimes mid-major teams make occasional tournament appearances and they’re just happy to be invited, but Vermont doesn't fit that suit — the Catamounts are making their eighth NCAA trip over the past 20 years. Arkansas and Florida State beat them in recent visits, but both games were competitive. The oddsmakers expected a close Marquette-Vermont game from the start — the Golden Eagles opened as 13.5-point favorites, which is the smallest spread among the No. 2 seeds — and the public has rallied to the underdog, chasing down the line to 10.5 points. If nothing else, join me and punch a ticket on Vermont, plus the spot.