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Tuesday, June 22, 2021
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Virginia Tech sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker hopes to prove the Hokies are a dark horse pick to reach the Final Four. 

Dark Horses: potential bracket busters can could reach the Final Four

When filling out a bracket, everyone has that moment where they reach the Final Four, and realize they chose all the No. 1 seeds to advance. It feels like when five straight answers on an exam are B. “It can’t be this easy,” you tell yourself. 

Sometimes it really is that easy; for the last two years, there’s been two No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. But there have also been No. 7, 10, even 11 seeds that have made it to that last weekend. The only constant in March is chaos, so here are some teams ready to tear apart your bracket.

Buffalo Bulls (16-2 MAC, 31-3 overall), No. 6 seed in West 

The wild West Region really has it all this year. It has No. 1 seed Gonzaga, who struggled against top teams this year, ACC runners-up Florida State, Syracuse’s zone defense threat and two electric players in Murray State’s Ja Morant and Marquette’s Markus Howard. But let’s not forget about the Buffalo Bills.

The MAC champions have won 13 of their final 15 games and have averaged almost 85 points per game as a team, giving them the sixth best scoring offense in the nation. The Bulls return a majority of their team that upset No. 2 Arizona in the first round last year and are led by seniors CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris, all of whom average over 14 PPG. Buffalo’s three point shooting has been as wet as Niagara Falls, ranking 16th in threes made.

This doesn’t mean you should bet the house on Buffalo, as they’ve got plenty of flaws. First, they suffer from the same issue as every mid-major does: a weak schedule. The Bulls are 1-1 against teams in the NCAA tournament and have the same record against ranked opponents. Their 18-point loss to Marquette is definitely concerning, and beating NIU and Akron doesn’t exactly make up for that. The Bulls also lack height; Perkins is their tallest starter at 6’8," but the team still ranks 4th in the nation in total rebounds, meaning their height disadvantage is solely a defensive liability. Overall, Buffalo basketball is a lot like buffalo wings. They don’t really look that hot at first, but once you dig in and realize this isn’t the mild team from years past, it’s already too late. 

Auburn Tigers (11-7 SEC, 26-9 overall), No. 5 seed in Midwest 

Maybe the SEC Tournament Champions aren’t exactly a sleeper anymore after smoking Tennessee in the title game, but a tough hypothetical path to the Final Four didn’t reward the Tigers. To make it to Minneapolis, they have to get through a scorching hot New Mexico State team and three basketball blue bloods in Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.

Here’s why that might not matter: Bruce Pearl’s squad boasts the most-made threes and the second most steals in the nation. Auburn also ranks 8th in total blocks and has the third best turnover margin in the NCAA. The Tigers are a premiere “three and ‘D’” team, and their lightning-fast offense can tear apart even the best teams. The backcourt pairing of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown can be deadly alone, averaging over 15 points each and a combined six threes per game. However, Auburn’s depth stands out above all else. Of the ten players who play over 11 minutes per game, six of them shoot over 35% from three point range and nine shoot over 40% overall.

Auburn is a team with a clear identity, experience, and unquestionable talent. They have one of the tougher roads to Minneapolis, but it won’t be shocking if they get there.

Virginia Tech Hokies (12-6 ACC, 24-8 overall), No. 4 seed in East

The Hokies have been a strong all season, boasting top-15 rankings in both scoring defense and three-point percentage. Most of their losses come to legitimately-ranked teams and they picked up wins against impressive opponents like Purdue, Syracuse, and Washington. So what exactly makes them a sleeper? The Hokies had the death sentence of being drawn into the East Region, which houses No. 1 seeded Duke and likely demigod Zion Williamson. Any team that plays Duke is likely going to be in trouble, but the teams with the best chances of taking them down are the ones that have already done so.

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Virginia Tech is one of four teams that conquered Duke, though perhaps that victory came with an asterisk considering Williamson was injured. The Hokies’ style of play is the blueprint to taking down Goliaths: suffocating defense, deadly efficiency from three-point range and elite ball security. Sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker is one of the ACC’s best two-way guards, leading the Hokies in both points and steals per game. Six-foot-ten junior Kerry Blackshear Jr. is his team’s thunder, averaging over 14 points and 7 boards per game, all the while shooting a clean 35 percent from deep. 

The Hokies are a deadly, methodical team bound to frustrate even the most talented of opponents. The hypothetical doomsday of Duke in the Sweet 16 is nothing short of terrifying, but maybe lightning can strike twice in Blacksburg.

Wisconsin Badgers (14-6 Big Ten, 23-10 overall), No. 5 seed in South 

A man can dream, can’t he?

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