5 Mid-Majors to watch for in NCAA Tournament

·13 min read

It is that time again, the best week of the season in the best month of the year. It is full-blown tournament week and we have already witnessed a handful of buzzer-beaters, upsets and conference champs crowned.

Every year, we research and ask who is this year's sleepers? Who will be the mid-major that becomes Cinderalla overnight? Who will be the No. 12 seed that beats the No. 5? How about the No. 6 and 11 matchup?

Well, here are some answers, trends and notes on mid-majors to back and fade over the rest of March. A few of these teams have already earned automatic qualifying bids and a couple still await their chance to claim a ticket to the big dance.

Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (24-4, 16-2), MVC Champion

The Ramblers finished the season 24-4 (16-2), winners of the Missouri Valley Conference. Loyola-Chicago enters the NCAA Tournament on a six-game winning streak and one of the nation's best defenses.

The Ramblers lead the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (86.4) and are fourth in defensive rebounding percentage (21.0%). They play at one of the slowest tempos (64.3) and hold opponents to an average of 19.0 seconds per possession, ranking 346th. They grind you out defensively and when they hit three-pointers - watch out.

Loyola-Chicago did just that in the conference tournament. They went 8-of-19 (42.1%), 10-of-21 (47.6%) and 10-of-17 (58.8%) in those games. That is a 49.1% average on 28-of-57 three-pointers.

The Ramblers shot 3-of-18 (16.7%) and 5-of-27 (18.5%) in the last two games to end the regular-season, so the three conference tournament games are enticing if they get a first-round matchup versus a weak three-point defense. Loyola-Chicago does not have any issues scoring on the interior with 58.0% from two-point range, ranking fourth in the nation.

Cameron Krutwig is a big reason for that. He is averaging 57.9% from the field, 15.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game on the season - all marking team-highs. In the conference tournament, the big man went for 15.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.6 steals per game.

Krutwig is the only player to average double-figures. However, the Ramblers have eight players to average 5.0 or more points and seven with 7.0 or more points per game. They roll with an eight-man rotation, all playing 10 or more minutes, with six over 20 per game. Of the five players who average 20 or more minutes, all of them hit the three at 30.0% or better, four at 35.5% or higher.

Loyola-Chicago is a deep enough team with a defensive grit to make it a round or two in the tournament, especially if the trey-ball is falling. The Ramblers are 11-4 SU (73.3%) in road and neutral court games this season, so they have proved they can win away from home. They lost those games by 14, 2, 5 and 1 (OT).

Loyola-Chicago is a Sweet 16 sleeper, if you could even call them a sleeper at this point.

PointsBet Betting Notes: Loyola-Chicago is +1200 to reach the Final Four and +6000 to win the NCAA Title. The Ramblers have gone 10-4-1 ATS (66.6%) in road and neutral court games this season, making them a valuable bet on candidate as a mid-major.

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Morehead State Eagles (23-7, 17-3), OVC Champion

Morehead State went wire-to-wire handling Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference Championship. This team has been on fire, winning 19 of the last 20 games to win their first conference championship in 10 years. The Eagles punched their eighth ticket all-time to the big dance and they are a team to consider as a Cinderella option.

Morehead State has three players averaging at least 11.7 points per game and all three at 5.0-plus rebounds. The Eagles' trio is made up of Johni Broome, DeVon Cooper and Skyelar Potter. Broome leads the team in points (13.9) and rebounds per game (9.0).

Six players on the squad average more than 20 minutes per game, and five of those six players shoot 31.3% or better from deep. The only player who does not is Broome, and he is Morehead State's big man, who has not attempted a triple all season. Morehead State ranks 113th on the season with 34.7% from deep, but in OVC play, that number increased to 36.3%.

In the last two games, the Eagles shot 5-of-12 from deep (41.7%) and 9-of-19 (47.4%). Surprisingly enough, Morehead State is shooting 36.0% on the road this season from three compared to 32.7% at home. That is interesting and worth backing in March.

The Eagles met a few of the power conference schools to start the season. Morehead State lost to Kentucky (81-45), Richmond (82-64), Ohio State (77-44) and Clemson (66-51). Since those games, the Eagles are certainly a different team, going 19-1 SU since losing to Clemson. The only loss along the way was a road game at Belmont and they got revenge twice, beating them on senior night in OT and for the OVC Championship.

Morehead State has not beat a team inside Kenpom's top 100 rankings since 2012. Belmont (101st) is the highest-ranked team they have defeated this season, with Marshall (105th) in 2017 being the highest prior to this year.

Depending on the matchup, this appears to be Morehead State's year to get that win. Given that Morehead State has not played an opponent better than Belmont since the Clemson game (Dec. 21), it is hard to imagine a deep run in the tournament.

However, it is March and if Morehead State gets the No. 12 or 13 seed, watch out. In 2019, three No. 12 seeds upset a No. 5 seed. In 2018 and 2019, three combined No. 13 seeds beat a No. 4 out of eight tries.

PointsBet Betting Notes: There are no odds currently being offered on a Final Four run or an NCAA Championship title for Morehead State. Unfortunate, I know. The Eagles are 19-9 ATS (67.8%) in the 28 games versus DI opponents this season. On the road, the Eagles are 8-4 SU (66.6%) and 7-5 ATS (58.3%).

VCU Rams (19-6, 10-4)

VCU meets St. Bonaventure for the A-10 Championship on Sunday, March 14. Even if the Rams lose, an at-large spot is likely or receiving a bid as a No. 11 or 12 seed. VCU received great news heading into the A-10 Tournament that boosted the Rams to two victories over Dayton and Davidson.

Nah'Shon "Bones" Hyland returned and he did not disappoint one bit. Versus Dayton, Hyland recorded a double-double with 30 points and 10 rebounds, adding three assists and three steals.

Hyland played a hefty 37 minutes and followed that up with 34 minutes against Davidson the next day. He totaled 12 points, five rebounds and four assists versus Davidson. Hyland scored 20 or more points in 11-of-23 games this season and averaged 19.4 per game.

Other than him, VCU has one scorer over 10 points per game (Vince Williams) as they are a defensive team first. The Rams rank 10th in the nation for average adjusted efficiency (88.9), sixth in defensive turnover percentage (24.0%), fourth in block percentage (15.1%) and second in steal percentage (13.3%). VCU has allowed opponents to score 61.7 points per game over the last three contests and shoot 39.5% from the field and 33.7% from three.

The Rams have won nine of the past 11 games, losing by three in OT to George Mason and eight at Davidson. VCU had their revenge on Davidson in the previous round of the A-10 Tournament, winning by 12.

VCU is an impressive 7-0 in Quad 2 wins this season, 5-2 in Quad 3 and 5-0 in Quad 4. The Rams went 2-4 in Quad 1 games, with their losses highlighted by St. Bonaventure (70-54) and West Virginia (78-66).

VCU also beat St. Bonaventure 67-64 at home and non-conference neutral court victories versus Utah State (85-69) and Memphis (70-59). VCU is always one of those March teams to watch out for and this season is no different. VCU has made the tournament in eight of the last nine seasons, missing in 2018.

VCU lost their first-round matchup in the last two tourney berths and are 1-5 since 2014. The Rams had won at least one game in the tournament four of the previous eight bids. VCU last won as a No. 10 seed, beating No. 7 Oregon State to advance to the second round in 2016.

PointsBet Betting Notes: VCU is +2500 to make the Final Four and +10000 to win the NCAA Title. They open as a slight underdog to St. Bonaventure to win the A-10 title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Winthrop Eagles (23-1, 17-1) Big South Champion

Winthrop finished the regular-season and conference championship at 23-1, only trailing Gonzaga for the best record. The Eagles' only loss came on the second night of a back-to-back to UNC Asheville by two points - that close to a perfect season. Winthrop has also claimed the Big South Championship in two consecutive seasons after beating Campbell, 80-53.

Winthrop plays at one of the fastest paces in the nation, ranking ninth in offensive average possession length (14.9) and 13th in adjusted tempo (73.8). The Eagles are among the best rebounding teams in the country, owning a 35.7% offensive rebounding percentage (12th) and 22.1% defensive rebounding percentage (10th).

If Winthrop gets matched up with a team that struggles to rebound or defend the three, Winthrop could make a run for the Sweet 16. The Eagles find 31.9% of their offense from beyond the arc and made 35.3% of their triples on the season (92nd).

The Eagles were head over heels better than the other Big South teams as they ranked No. 1 in offensive (109.4) and defensive (94.0) adjusted efficiency. Winthrop has four players averaging 10.0 or more points per game this season, three of them playing 22 or 24 games.

The Eagles are led by Chandler Vauldrin, who averages 12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 31.5 minutes per game - all-team highs. The other three double-figure scorers are Adonis Arms (10.5 PPG), Charles Falden (10.1 PPG) and D.J. Burns Jr. (10.0 PPG).

Winthrop plays a deep rotation of 11 different players averaging 10 or more minutes and seven with 15 or more. Only three players average 20 or more minutes per game for the Eagles, so opponents will see plenty of faces for 40 minutes versus this Winthrop team.

Winthrop had not made the NCAA Tournament since 2017, when they lost to Butler in the opening round (76-64) as a No. 13 seed. Winthrop has lost their last three NCAA Tournament games. The previous victory came in 2007 as a No. 11 seed beating No. 6 Notre Dame (74-64), then falling to No. 3 Oregon (75-61) by two points.

Winthrop is likely to be somewhere in the neighborhood of a No. 11 to 13 seed, more than likely 12 or 13. If so, mark them for a first-round upset, but I would not bank on the Eagles to win multiple tournament games.

Winthrop has played two teams in the top 100 of Kenpom rankings all season, beating UNC-Greensboro (75-67) and Furman (87-71). When they played both those teams, they were outside of the top 100 but finished slightly inside. They have yet to play power competition this season, so March will be interesting and a true test for this 23-1 Eagles' quad.

PointsBet Betting Notes: There are currently no odds offered on Winthrop futures. Winthrop is 10-0 SU (100%) on the road this season and 5-5 ATS (50%).

Liberty Flames (23-5, 11-2), ASUN Champion

Liberty is on a 12-game winning streak, 11 versus DI opponents entering March. The Flame earned an automatic bid with their ASUN Conference Championship. The Flame has been one of my favorite teams to bet earlier in the season and despite their 12-game winning streak, they are 6-4 ATS (60%) in the last 10 games and 1-2 ATS (33.3%) in the previous three.

Liberty only played five teams ranked 113th or higher in Kenpom's rankings, with the last one coming on Dec. 9 at Missouri. Liberty went 2-3 SU (40%) in those games, beating Mississippi State (84-73) and South Carolina (78-62). They lost to Missouri (69-60), Purdue (77-64) and TCU (56-52).

The Flame are one of the most efficient offenses in the country, ranking fourth with a 57.4% effective field goal percentage. They hit the two at 56.7% (11th) and 38.8% from three (9th), both impressive marks.

One knock on Liberty is the tempo they play at. The Flame rank 348th in the nation with a 63.2 adjusted tempo and 337th with 19.5 seconds per possession length. If they get into a track meet, it could get complicated for the Flame to hang around despite their impressive offensive numbers.

Liberty shot 25% from three versus Missouri, 21.4% versus TCU and 34.4% versus Purdue in those three early losses. Liberty also shot 24.1% against Lipscomb and 26.3% versus Stetson in their two conference losses.

The triple is the downfall to this Liberty team, so if they get matched up versus a quick-paced squad that defends the three well, watch out as Liberty could be an early exit compared to the previously mentioned teams.

This will mark Liberty's sixth-ever bid and third straight. The Flame won the ASUN last year and earned an automatic bid, but COVID destroyed their 30-4 season. They also had a ticket to the big dance in 2019 as a No. 12 seed. They earned their first win, beating No. 5 Mississippi State (80-76), then lost in the following round to No. 4 Virginia Tech. Liberty is 1-4 all-time in the NCAA Tournament.

Liberty is projected as a No. 13 seed on most outlets and depending on their matchup, they are a 50/50 team to advance.

PointsBet Betting Notes: Liberty's odds for a Final Four run have flirted around +5000 and +10000 to win it all this season. Liberty is 5-3 SU (62.5%) on the road this season and 4-4 ATS (50%).