It’s hard to believe that we are less than three weeks away from the opening of this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. With just a handful of regular season games remaining for most teams, we have a good idea at which squads are poised to make their way into the 68-team tournament in March. In every iteration of the NCAA’s post-season tournament, there have been a handful of sleeper teams that come out of nowhere to bust brackets by upsetting some of the traditional powerhouses of the sport.

Identifying which teams have bracket-busting potential, while tough, is key for any March Madness fan looking to win their bracket pool. In honor of the tournament getting underway soon, we’ve decided to highlight some of this year’s noteworthy underdog teams that are poised to make some noise at the big dance.

University of Rhode Island

While not thought of as a traditional collegiate basketball powerhouse, the University of Rhode Island has produced a handful of NBA talent which includes the likes of Lamar Odom, Cuttino Mobley, and current Milwaukee Bucks guard Xavier Munford. The Rams have only made it to the Sweet Sixteen of the tournament twice in their history but seem primed for a deep run this season as they currently have a 22-4 record and are a nationally ranked squad.

An appearance in this year’s tournament would be just the second time in the school’s history that they’ve made back-to-back tournaments. URI has a very deep team this year with five different players averaging more than nine points per game, and it wouldn’t surprise us if they can advance deep into March thanks to the play of senior guard Jared Terrell (17.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.3 apg).

Saint Mary’s College

Without googling the answer yourself, would you be able to tell me where Saint Mary’s College is located? To tell you the truth, we had to look it up for ourselves while researching for this piece. Despite being located in a town with less than 20,000 residents in the Bay Area of California, and regardless of the fact that they play in the West Coast Conference, the Gaels of Saint Mary’s are an underdog worth keeping an eye on.

Under current head coach Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s has made the NCAA tournament four times since the year 2010 – a towering feat for a team with a relatively small stature. What makes this particular squad so dangerous is their efficiency. The Gaels are among the top 20 teams in the nation for two-point, three-point, and turnover percentages — three things that are very important for basketball teams to succeed. Whatever team ends up matching with Saint Mary’s in the dance is in for a long day as they have been a historically tough out in the tourney, as their last three losses in March have been by a combined margin of 14 points.

North Carolina State

In a state that has perennial powerhouses such as Duke University and the University of North Carolina, it’s easy to overlook a school like NC State – but I wouldn’t suggest doing that for this year’s tournament. The Wolfpack have struggled to find sustained success since the 1980s, making the tournament just three times since 1989, but they’ve been a giant slayer so far in the 2017-18 season.

NC State has not one but three wins over top-10 ranked teams this season, including a six-point victory over #2 Arizona in November and an 11-point win over Duke in January. However, they have lacked consistency, as evidenced by their 19-9 record, taking losses against lesser teams such as Northern Iowa and UNC Greensboro. Despite their Jekyll-and-Hyde form, it would be dangerous to ignore them in your March Madness brackets as they’ve shown the ability to beat upper-echelon squads already this season.

The University of Nebraska

When you think about the University of Nebraska, you likely think about their football program, which experienced tremendous success in the 1990s. However, the Cornhuskers have a sneaky-talented basketball team this season, experiencing success in the always-tough Big Ten. Nebraska has an impressive 12-5 conference record this season and has won seven out of their last eight games, which means they’re peaking at the right time.

Led by a talented trio of juniors in James Palmer Jr. (17.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.0 apg), Isaac Copeland (13.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Glynn Watson Jr. (10.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.3 apg), this current Cornhusker squad will be looking to give the school its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory – Nebraska has come up empty in all seven of its previous appearances in the big dance.

Loyola University Chicago

It’s been a long, long time without success for Loyola University in Chicago. After winning the 1963 NCAA Tournament and making the field again three other times in the 1960s, the Ramblers have played in the tournament just one time since – back in 1985. Just two seasons removed from finishing with a losing record, Coach Porter Moser’s squad has torn through the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference, standing tall with a 13-3 record.

While it would be easy to discount what Loyola is doing due to the relatively weak conference they play in, a deeper statistical dive on the team shows that they have some bonafide talent. The Ramblers have a very deep roster which has seven players that average 19 or more minutes per game. They also have five players that have averaged double-figures in scoring so far in 2017-18.

One knock on the team is that they haven’t played any real competition outside of #5 Florida (who they beat on the road), but you can only play who’s on the schedule. Loyola-Chicago will go into March as an unproven team with tremendous bracket-busting potential.

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