Bracket Buster Breakdown

Tommy+Kuhse+%2812%29+of+the+Saint+Mary%27s+Gaels.
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Bracket Buster Breakdown

Tommy Kuhse (12) of the Saint Mary's Gaels.

Tommy Kuhse (12) of the Saint Mary's Gaels.

Getty Images/TNS

Tommy Kuhse (12) of the Saint Mary's Gaels.

Getty Images/TNS

Getty Images/TNS

Tommy Kuhse (12) of the Saint Mary's Gaels.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year for sports fans. Yes, March Madness is finally here –– starting Thursday, the NCAA tournament will commence as 64 teams battle it out to be crowned the champion of college basketball.

It’s a commonly held belief that only a select few teams truly have the chance to win the big dance. While that often holds true, it doesn’t mean there can’t be a few upsets along the way.

It’s tradition for a few surprise schools to become Cinderellas –– teams that were some of the last to be invited, but also end up some of the last standing. Last year it was Loyola Chicago, an 11-seed that shocked the world by making it to the Final Four, cheered on by the infamous chaplain Sister Jean.

With the Ramblers missing out on the tourney this year, people are starting to wonder what team will take Loyola’s place. Here are a few teams that have the potential to pull off a few big upsets.

11-seed Saint Mary’s Gaels, South Region

There’s no better way to start off the tournament than with a win against the defending national champion. The Gaels will get a shot to knock out the Villanova Wildcats in the first round. The Wildcats breezed through the tournament last year, but are vulnerable this year after losing a collection of talent to the NBA.

Saint Mary’s is fresh off a statement victory against Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference tournament championship. The Gaels held the Bulldogs, a one-seed averaging almost 90 points a game, to a mere 47 points. They proved they’re capable of setting the pace by slowing down arguably the best offense in the country. Saint Mary’s takes care of the ball and does not commit many turnovers — a big deal, as every possession counts in the tournament.

The Gaels also have a star player, junior forward Jordan Ford, who averages more than 20 points a game and shoots more than 40 percent from three. Big performances from him could carry the Gaels down the stretch. Although Saint Mary’s would have potential matchups against Purdue and Tennessee if it continues advancing, the Gaels proved they’re a force to be reckoned with when they beat Gonzaga.

12-seed Murray State Racers, West Region

Murray State’s sophomore guard Ja Morant alone puts this team on the list. Morant is a potential top-five pick in the NBA draft and is following in Steph Curry’s footsteps. Luckily for Morant, Curry already proved star power can carry a mid-major team deep into the dance. Morant averages a double-double, pouring in almost 25 points and dishing out 10 assists per game.

Morant and the Racers will face off against Marquette, a team that has lost five of its last six games. Meanwhile, Murray State hasn’t lost since the end of January and captured the Ohio Valley tournament championship against Belmont, a team good enough to receive an at-large bid from a small conference.

While Morant is the focal point of the Racers, they have other guys who can get it done. Four of five starters average double-digit scoring. Murray State’s path also goes through potentially the weakest one-seed in Gonzaga. Buckle in for this first-round matchup between Morant and Marquette junior guard Markus Howard, two players from our March Madness preview last month.

11-seed Belmont Bruins, East region

The Bruins have to win a play-in game to officially enter the bracket, but if they can win, they have a great chance to make some noise in the tournament. Belmont’s received an at-large bid out of the Ohio Valley conference, the first team since 1987 to do so, proving how much potential the team has. Belmont is this year’s bet to make some noise.

First, the Bruins will have to beat Temple, a team that lost early in its conference tournament and could be cold heading into the matchup. If the Bruins take down the Owls, they will officially be in the tournament and will take on a Maryland team that has been up and down in performance all year. The Terps utilize five first-years in their rotation, and the big stage of the tournament is often too much for young players.

Belmont has all the odds stacked against it. The Bruins have to win the play-in game and they didn’t face much tough competition all season. They also have never won an NCAA tournament game. Head coach Rick Byrd was brought to tears upon hearing the news his team made the tournament, and the players were clearly ecstatic. This is a team you can enjoy rooting for as the Bruins look to advance and face off against the likes of LSU, Michigan State and maybe even the formidable Blue Devils.

Six-seed Buffalo Bulls, West Region

A Bulls victory over either Arizona State or Saint John’s in the first round wouldn’t qualify as an upset, but they are a solid squad that has the potential to make a deep run and pull off some upsets later on in the tournament.

Last year, the Bulls gave fans a brief glimpse of what they could do when they blew out powerhouse Arizona. This year, the Bulls have a shot to win more than just a game. They’ve only lost three games all season, with quality wins over Syracuse and West Virginia. The Bulls also have a solid roster across the board and a star in senior guard CJ Massinburg.

A first-round win could create a face-off between the Bulls and one of the better defensive teams in the country, Texas Tech. If it makes it that far, Buffalo would also have a Michigan team –– which struggled scoring at times this year –– standing in its way of a Final Four appearance. Gonzaga is the one-seed in Buffalo’s region and there’s always the chance of an early exit for the Bulldogs.

While 10-seeds and higher are fun to pick in the first few rounds, it is rare that they ever go as far as Loyola Chicago did last year. It’s a much better bet that a five-, six- or seven-seed makes a deep run to the Final Four and the Buffalo Bulls are a popular pick to be the ones to do so. The team that pulled off one of last year’s biggest upsets may have a few more tricks up its sleeve and act as a dark horse among this year’s madness.

The NCAA tournament will tip off Thursday at 12:15 p.m. with No. 7 Louisville facing off against No. 10 Minnesota. Let the madness begin.

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