Every March there’s a sea of familiar faces making the NCAA Tournament, but these aren’t the only teams we should be looking towards: in 2017 the NCAA Tournament will feature five newcomers to the Field of 68. These five teams each had an interesting journey, so let’s learn a little more about the programs that got their dancing shoes on for the first time!
Matchup: 8 seed, playing 9 seed Vanderbilt
Story: What’s to say that hasn’t already been said about the Northwestern Wildcats? They were the only team from a major conference to have never made the tournament, and although they’ve had a few talented teams in recent years (including last year’s team) none have gotten their dancing shoes on. This team broke the tradition of losing and finally, finally made it to the bracket.
It wasn’t easy – it never is in the Big 10 – but the Wildcats certainly earned their bid. Yes, they finished in a tie for 5th in the Big 10, but in a strong conference the Wildcats were able to get wins over Michigan (the eventual Big 10 champions), and a win at #7 Wisconsin helped propel this team to the first NCAA appearance ever.
How Far Will They Go? The 8/9 game will be a challenge for the Northwestern Wildcats, but it’s not unreasonable to see this team making it out of the first weekend and dancing into the Sweet 16. Gonzaga isn’t an invincible one seed, and Northwestern, despite their flaws, has enough potential to get a second-round upset against the Bulldogs.
Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Matchup: 15 seed, playing 2 seed Louisville
Story: When you’re in a single-bid conference your options are pretty limited for NCAA Tournament appearances. You have to win your conference tournament, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sweep the conference. Jacksonville State, for example, was not the in-conference titan you might assume an automatic qualifier would be. They finished with a respectable 9-7, yes, but with Belmont taking a 15-1 conference record and having postseason experience it was natural to assume that they would be punching their NCAA ticket.
What a surprise it was for the Belmont Bears to take a 65-59 loss to Jacksonville State in the semifinals of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.Maybe the success should be attributed to Head Coach Ray Harper, who’s at his first year with Jacksonville State. Harper is no stranger to success – he’s won two DII NCAA National Championships with Kentucky Wesleyan, and even got Western Kentucky to back-to-Back NCAA appearances in 2012 and 2013. But, whether you want to attribute the success to Harper’s coaching experience or a “right team, right time” this was a team that earned their bid, and did not have an easy path getting there.
How Far Will They Go? Don’t expect a 2/15 upset from Jacksonville State. Yes, the 2/15 game may be more vulnerable in the past few years than it has been before, but that doesn’t mean the Gamecocks are going to creep by Rick Pitino and his talented Louisville Cardinals. This team may be a one and done, but it takes nothing away from what they’ve accomplished making it into the field.
UC Davis Aggies
Matchup: 16 seed play in game against North Carolina Central (winner will face 1 seed Kansas)
Story: When your team is headed to the Dance for the first time, it’s usually a good thing to have a coach who’s bringing some experience playing at that level. Luckily for UC Davis, Head Coach Jim Les is that guy. From 2002 to 2011 Les coached at Bradley, getting Bradley all the way to the Sweet 16 in 2006. That kind of experience was instrumental throughout the Aggies season, earning a 2 seed in the Big West Tournament and a thrilling 50-47 victory in the title game over top-seeded UC Irvine to punch their ticket.
— UCDavisMBB (@UCDavisMBB) March 12, 2017
Of course, this was also a team with middle-of-the-pack expectations. Picked to finish fifth in the Big West preseason coaches poll, but an 11-5 conference record shows they played well above their expectations. And now, for the first time, the Aggies will be dancing – and hopefully making it out of Dayton!
How Far Will They Go? Here’s something interesting – when Bradley had a first round upset over 4 seed Kansas, it was Jim Les at the helm. Now, should Jim and his Aggies make it out of Dayton, they’ll again have a first round matchup with the Jayhawks. Does this mean that Les can do the unthinkable and will his team to become the first 16 seed to beat a 1 seed? Unlikely, but it is something to watch out for.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Matchup: 15 seed, playing 2 seed Arizona
Story: North Dakota had been building a case all season to make the NCAA Tournament, but in a single-bid conference those plans can often go awry come March. For North Dakota the top seed in the Big Sky Tournament wasn’t a promise they’d run through the matchups and move on to Selection Sunday – far from it. After a 69-64 victory over Idaho on Friday in the semifinals, North Dakota was matched up with Weber State in the championship game. The game went into overtime after North Dakota, seeing their chance slip in regulation, rallied from being down six with less than a minute left to force OT, including a layup with seconds remaining on the clock.
These are the types of wins that make March so special. North Dakota may not make it past the round of 64, but there’s something remarkable about making it into the field by digging deep, seeing your opportunity despite huge odds, and seizing it.
How Far Will They Go? Although the 2/15 game has become an early bracket buster for many in the past few years (looking at you especially Michigan State), this may not be the case with this game. Look for Arizona to advance, but North Dakota to relish in the opportunity of playing in the Tournament.
Northern Kentucky Norse
Matchup: 15 seed, playing 2 seed Kentucky
Story: You have to hand it to Head Coach John Brannen, in just his second season he did something pretty remarkable. Northern Kentucky has been a great program at the Division II level for a long time, but the transition to Division I can be a huge hurdle to overcome. Five years into that transition and Northern Kentucky is dancing for the first time at the DI level. What’s even more impressive is that the year before this 24-win team won only 9 games, so the jump from 8th in the Horizon League to a tie for third the next year, plus winning Horizon League Coach of the Year, speaks volumes for the work Brannen has done in just his second season.
How Far Will They Go? I appreciate the NCAA’s commitment to creating drama by matching up Northern Kentucky with Kentucky, but I don’t foresee the Wildcats losing this game. However, I don’t think this is the last we’ll see of Northern Kentucky in the Tournament either.