As you look through this year’s NCAA Tournament field and enter your office pool, some of you will be poring through statistics. Others will pick the slightly less scientific route and pick their alma mater and favorite mascots. While both strategies are valid, we have a few tips for those of you who only watch college basketball for three weekends a year (or not even). Even if you’re not gunning for big money or office props, here’s what you need to know:
Buffalo, North Florida and UC Irvine Made the Tournament for the First Time
All three of these teams have phenomenal reasons to root for them beyond the fact that it’s each school’s first appearance. So, instead we’ll jeer the five schools that have been Division I programs since the inception of the Big Dance, yet have gone 0-for-77 in doing so. They are Northwestern, Army, St. Francis, The Citadel and William and Mary. Jeer.
Northwestern, the only member of the bunch in a “Power Five” conference, has faced more stringent academic standards and increased competition than most en route to their 0-for status; however, as the whipping boy of the Big Ten, Northwestern’s fate has ticked up thanks to hiring Chris Collins.
St. Francis came perilously close this season, only to have its dream fade at the free-throw line, like so many others have at this time of year. As for the other three, a combination of poor luck, having their coach turn down a bid, and having Frank Underwood as an alumnus give these teams a special distinction.
Buffalo’s Head Coach Won More NCAA Tournaments As a Player Than His Team Has Bids
The head coach of the State University of New York’s Buffalo Bulls, Bobby Hurley, won two NCAA Tournaments as a member of the Duke Blue Devils in 1991 and 1992. While Hurley was remarkable as a player, his coaching skills aren’t too shabby either.
Since getting his first head coaching gig at Buffalo after stints as an assistant at Wagner and Rhode Island, Hurley compiled a 42-19 record in his two seasons with the Bulls. As a 12-seed, they are the highest seed of the three first-timers and have a decent shot to knock off fifth-seeded West Virginia.
North Florida Has a Buffalo Wild Wings Commercial About Them (Kind Of)
From a basketball standpoint, North Florida has a couple of things going for them. They beat Purdue in West Lafayette way back in December and won their conference, finishing the year 23-11.
But the team was the Cinderella story of a Buffalo Wild Wings ad last season. While these Ospreys are not Mighty in their nickname, they most certainly are mighty when it comes to their spirit. They will take on Duke where they will almost assuredly lose, but they also have the chance to be the first 16-seed to ever beat a one-seed. If that’s not advertisement worthy, I don’t know what is.
Fun fact: The team is nicknamed the Ospreys after a large raptor that lives in Florida year-round.
UC Irvine Has a Freakishly Tall Player
In their opening game, the 13-seeded UC Irvine Anteaters will take on the four seed Louisville Cardinals. Beyond having an incredible nickname in “Anteaters,” they also have an ace in the hole: Mamadou N’Diaye.
Mr. N’Diaye, who stands 7’6” while weighing 300 pounds, contributes more than height to his team. Averaging 10.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game while shooting 63 percent from the field and blocking 1.7 shots per game, his statistics are pretty good. Beyond that, by parking N’Diaye in the middle of their zone defense, they’ve held teams to just 42.3 percent shooting from inside the arc. I’m not saying the Anteaters will win this game, but it’s certainly worth watching to see the tallest Division I player in action.
New Mexico State Has Almost As Many Torontonians As Americans
The Aggies of New Mexico State may not make it very far in this year’s tournament, drawing the second-seeded Kansas Jayhawks in their opening round tilt, but they take international recruiting to a whole new level.
Some particularly ardent college hoops fans will remember Sim Bhullar, the 7’5”, 360 pound man in the middle of last year’s team that took San Diego State to overtime in the first round of the tournament. While this year’s team doesn’t have Sim -- he left to pursue his NBA dreams, which have currently stalled out as he’s playing in Reno for the D-League Bighorns -- they do sport his brother, Tanveer, who is a paltry 7’3.”
Joining Tanveer are four other Torontonians, as well as two Parisians, a South African and a Cameroonian. In total, the team has nine foreigners against just six Americans. This is a part of a growing influx of international players, but few teams sell out on foreign-born players like the Aggies of New Mexico State.
Kentucky Is Taller Than Every Division I School -- And Almost Every NBA Team
Kentucky, the overwhelming favorite to win this year’s tournament (Las Vegas has them at even money to win), has few if any weaknesses. One of the team’s numerous advantages is that it is nearly impossible to defend against its immense size.
While they do have a 5’9” point guard (Tyler Ulis) in their rotation, the Wildcats have an astounding six players who are 6’9” or taller and have a taller rotation than every Division I team plus 29 of the 30 NBA teams (only the Minnesota Timberwolves sport a taller rotation).
The Best Mascots Don’t Equal the Best Teams
If inexplicably the Wildcats are your favorite mascot, you could comprise a bracket featuring an all-Wildcat Final Four that could win your pool. With Kentucky (a one-seed), Villanova (another one-seed), Arizona (a two-seed) and Davidson (a 10-seed) comprising your last group, only Davidson would be a true surprise to make it to Indianapolis.
But let’s play a game. Try to match the school nickname to what the mascot is:
You probably won’t have a perfect bracket anyway. Statistically, the odds are steep—anywhere between one in 9.2 quintillion for a coin-flip bracket and a far more reasonable one in 128 billion by making educated guesses—so why not go with the Lumberjacks or Anteaters when deciding which upsets to choose. Check to see how well you did at matching the nickname to the mascot at the bottom of the article.
Georgia State Has a Formidable Father-Son Duo
Before Georgia State’s head coach Ron Hunter made headlines for tearing his Achilles while celebrating his team’s NCAA Tournament berth, he was notable for being a part of a small group of Division I coaches who coached their son.
His son R.J. leads the Panthers in scoring at 19.8 points per game. With 1,783 career points, R.J. hopes to join Doug McDermott, who also played under his father while at Creighton, on the leaderboard for most career points -- that is if the NBA doesn’t come calling first.
The Panthers, a 14-seed, get Baylor in the opening round and hope that their backcourt—made up of Hunter, Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow and Louisville transfer Kevin Ware—can propel them to their second NCAA tournament victory in school history.
Manhattan Isn’t Actually in Manhattan
The Manhattan Jaspers, who finished the season 19-14 and 13-7 in conference play, find themselves playing in the “First Four” this season. They also find themselves not in Manhattan. Ironically, Kansas State, some 1,300 miles from New York City, will get to play in Manhattan while the Jaspers do not.
Manhattan College, a small Catholic school, is located in the Bronx; it’s not far from Manhattan, but it’s like saying you live in New York City when you actually live in Hoboken. Their coach also likes to stretch the truth, stating on his resume that he graduated from Kentucky though he never finished his degree, an omission that cost him the job at South Florida. His loss was the Jaspers’ gain as he returned to Manhattan for a fourth season and led them back to the NCAA Tournament.
Albany Has an Extra Dose of Magic on Their Side
On January 30, Albany’s junior guard Peter Hooley’s mother died of colon cancer. Hooley returned to Australia to be with his family as the team won eight straight without their second-leading scorer. After returning to the team just two weeks after her passing, Hooley scored in double-figures in seven of the final eight games.
But it was his buzzer-beater against Stony Brook in the America East conference tournament finals to send the Great Danes to the NCAA Tournament that brings this story full-circle. “With angels watching over you, you can do anything,” Hooley told Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports. The Great Danes will certainly need to play their best game of the year if they hope to knock off the third-seeded Oklahoma Sooners in the opening round, but they might just have that special something to make a run.
Last But Not Least, Pick Your Alma Mater
With so much uncertainty, if you happened to go to one of the 64 schools in the field, pick them to win at least one game. Hell, pick them to win the whole thing. If you went to Hampton University or Manhattan College, your bracket will almost assuredly be busted by the end of the first day, but last year, a seven-seed and an eight-seed made the National Championship game.
Answers: 1-D, 2-E, 3-A, 4-B, 5-C