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4 NCAA tournament opponents your team should hope to avoid on Selection Sunday

4 NCAA tournament opponents your team should hope to avoid on Selection Sunday

Each year, the NCAA tournament committee spends months painstakingly evaluating college basketball to ensure that every team is in its right place come Selection Sunday.

Then, just hours into each tournament, the committee is proven laughably wrong as lower seeds score signature upsets to ignite improbable tournament runs. Such is the nature — and the fun — of the NCAA tournament and its single-elimination format.

The committee — despite its best efforts — is going to get plenty wrong this year with teams that make you wonder: How were they seeded so low?

Here are some strong candidates to outplay their projected seeds and deliver upsets, aka the matchups you hope your favorite team avoids come selection Sunday. Let's start with a familiar face entering tournament play with lowered expectations.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

25-7, 14-2 WCC | Projected seed: 7 | KenPom: 15

Following an 11-5 start with no Quad 1 wins, there was talk of perennial power Gonzaga actually missing the NCAA tournament. Those concerns were quashed by a 14-2 finish that included wins over Kentucky and Saint Mary's.

The Bulldogs are now safely into the NCAA tournament for a 25th straight season. But they're entering tournament play with a considerably lower profile than than the title contenders Mark Few has produced for the better part of the past decade.

Is that fair? Wells, yes. There's no Jalen Suggs here. There's no Rui Hachimura. There's no Chet Holmgren. There's no Brandon Clarke. There's not a bonafide NBA player in sight.

What there is, is a strong top-to-bottom team with a coach and a profile that bodes well for March success. The Bulldogs produced three First-team All-WCC selections in Graham Ike, Ryan Nemhard and Anton Watson, each of whom has at least three years of NCAA experience.

Anton Watson is one of three All-WCC players leading Gonzaga into the NCAA tournament. (David Becker/Getty Images)

They're entering tournament play on a heater. Since Jan. 11, their only two losses came against a Saint Mary's team that could have also easily made this list. In between, they beat then-No. 17 Kentucky and that same Saint Mary's team when it was ranked 17th in the nation.

And the metrics like Gonzaga more than the prognosticators. The Bulldogs are ranked 16th in KenPom and 17th in NET Rankings, a measure that's both results-based and predictive. By both measures, the Zags are better than their widely projected No. 7 seed suggests. A trip to the second weekend here would not be a surprise.

St. John's Red Storm

20-12, 11-9 Big East | Projected seed: 10-11 | KenPom 24

On Feb. 19, Rick Pitino called his first year coaching St. John's "the most unenjoyable experience of my life." That statement followed a 68-62 loss to Seton Hall, St. John's third straight. The Red Storm had blown a 19-point lead to their longtime rivals, prompting Pitino to take his frustrations out on his team's effort and the program's "sh***y facilities."

Since then, St. John's hasn't lost. The Red Storm enter Friday's Big East tournament semifinal against UConn on a six-game winning streak that included a win over then-No. 15 Creighton and a victory over Seton Hall in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.

Rick Pitino rocked the white suit against Creighton on Feb 25, and St. John’s didn’t lose another regular-season game. (Porter Binks/Getty Images)

In an 80-66 win over Creighton on Feb. 25, St. John's dominated a team widely projected to enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed. In a Thursday rematch against Seton Hall with its tournament hopes at stake, St. John's answered the bell with an emphatic 91-72 win that should render Friday's result against UConn meaningless in terms of the Red Storm's at-large hopes.

They're likely in for the first time since 2019. They're coached by a Hall of Famer with seven Final Fours and two NCAA championships (one vacated) on his résumé. They sit in the top 40 of KenPom's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, the type of balance that breeds tournament success. They're led by an All-Big East senior guard in Daniss Jenkins who's capable of scoring 25 on any given night. And they're red hot.

This is not the profile of a team you want sitting on the No. 10 or 11 line in your bracket.

Michigan State Spartans

19-13, 10-10 Big Ten | Projected seed: 9-10 | KenPom 19

Some might scoff at this pick. The Spartans have been a mess for much of the season and fizzled down the stretch. So why don't you want them in your bracket?

Their profile reads considerably stronger than their 19-13 record suggests. Michigan State's No. 19 KenPom ranking and No. 24 Net Rating places it in the 5-6 seed range rather than the 9-10 range that's widely projected. It's got four Quad 1 wins including against No. 13 Baylor and No. 14 Illinois.

There's reason to be skeptical. The Spartans lost four out of their last five regular-season games before averting potential disaster by beating Minnesota in the first round of Big Ten tournament play. They're capable of disappearing on offense. See a 1-of-20 effort from 3-point distance in a season-opening loss to James Madison.

But they're outstanding on defense (11th in adjust defensive rating), an asset that bodes well for tournament play. They're anchored by All-Big Ten guard Tyson Walker, an elite defender who averages 18.4 points and 1.9 steals while shooting 37.2% from 3-point distance. A.J. Hoggard and Malik Hall earned All-Big Ten honorable mention selections. They're all seniors with plenty of NCAA tournament experience and they're led by a Hall of Fame coach in Tom Izzo with eight Final Fours and a national championship on his résumé.

Could Michigan State be bounced in the first round? Absolutely. But it's a real threat to advance to the second weekend from a bottom bracket line. There are safer spots to be than opposite the Spartans in the tournament's early rounds.

Florida Atlantic Owls

24-7, 14-4 AAC | Projected seed 8-9 | KenPom 36

Florida Atlantic's not sneaking up on anybody after last season's stunning run to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. The Owls returned all five starters this season, which is reason enough alone to not want to take them on in the first week of NCAA tournament play.

The last time we saw Johnell Davis, No. 1, and the Owls in the NCAA tournament, they were playing in the Final Four. (Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images)

The Owls upgraded to the AAC from Conference USA and responded with a second-place finish in their first season in the league. Last year's tournament heroes Johnell Davis and Vladislav Goldin were joined by Alijah Martin with All-AAC honors. Davis was the AAC's Co-Player of the Year alongside South Florida's Chris Youngblood. Head coach Dusty May is coveted by major programs looking for a coaching upgrade.

FAU has one of the signature wins of the season this year, a 96-95 double overtime thriller over projected No. 2 seed Arizona in December. Davis scored 35 points to outduel Pac-12 Player of the Year Caleb Love in a win that propelled the Owls to No. 7 in the nation.

The Owls have since fallen out of the Top 25 and won't enter play with a high seed. Their metrics are in line with the prognostications with a 33 NET Rating and 36 KenPom ranking projecting a placement on the No. 9 line. But does any No. 8 seed want to face this team?

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