March S[imulation]adness: Mid-major matchups, teams to keep an eye on

COLLEGE PARK, MD - DECEMBER 08: Stephanie Jones #24 of the Maryland Terrapins boxes out against Kayla Cooper-Williams #31 of the James Madison Dukes at Xfinity Center on December 8, 2018 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)
COLLEGE PARK, MD - DECEMBER 08: Stephanie Jones #24 of the Maryland Terrapins boxes out against Kayla Cooper-Williams #31 of the James Madison Dukes at Xfinity Center on December 8, 2018 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images) /

The Cinderellas have arrived

[Please enjoy our March S[imulation]adness content. For more about this project, check out our explainer post.]

March Madness isn’t just a time for the best teams in the country to compete for a national championship. It’s also a chance for some of the nation’s best mid-major schools to show off, perhaps for the first time — or, alternatively, remind the fans that, hey, the team that upset your fave last time out is going to do it to someone else this year!

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The same goes for March S[imulation]adness, where it’s both a gift and a curse that so many of the country’s most impressive (yet, often, largely overlooked) teams are facing off in the first round. But, as few chances as we get to see these teams during the season, why not relish the opportunity to see them all at once on the biggest stage of the year?

Check out three must-see matchups and six must-see teams, all coming from the mid-majors:

No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. No. 13 Stony Brook Seawolves

Until February, Gonzaga owned the nation’s longest winning streak. When it finally lost, Stony Brook picked up that title. Both have lost at least once more since then — the Bulldogs to Portland in the WCC Tournament semifinal, and the Seawolves to Maine and then-winless Hartford in their regular-season finale.

Both teams are known for their staunch defense, with the Zags ranked third in the nation in points allowed to the Seawolves’ 11th. They’re also known for slowing things down, with Gonzaga often using the pace to its advantage. When a team can rank in the middle of the pack within its conference in points per game but decimate the field in scoring margin, that’s the team that’s used to being in total control of a game.

Despite being very similar teams across the board, Gonzaga’s more efficient shooting combined with its unnerving home-court atmosphere should carry it to the next round, even if a lack of confidence stemming from the Portland loss persists.

No. 5 South Dakota Coyotes vs. No. 12 IUPUI Lady Jags

It’s not the most recent rematch to take place in the first two rounds, but it is one that both teams are familiar with — South Dakota and IUPUI were both in the Summit League until 2017, when the Lady Jags departed for the Horizon League.

“We built our program to compete in the Summit League,” IUPUI head coach Austin Parkinson told High Post Hoops. “It’s kind of a big post player-type league, but now we kind of have that mix of the inside out.”

The Coyotes ran the table on the Summit League this season, winning each of their 16 conference matchups by an average of 32.1 points. Winning on their powerful offense alone is certainly one way into the next round. But the Lady Jags’ defense has been similarly stifling, most notably holding Green Bay to a zero-point fourth quarter en route to the Horizon League tournament title.

No. 6 Missouri State Lady Bears vs. No. 11 Drexel Dragons

Not winning the (simulated) Missouri Valley Conference tournament appears to have cost Missouri State more than its already-slim chance of hosting. Now, it faces a team having one of its biggest seasons in history.

While the Lady Bears own big advantages in scoring and rebounding, the Dragons counter with nationally-ranked defense, fueled by limiting opponents’ total chances. It’s one way to get around allowing a better opposing field goal percentage than they produce themselves.

Missouri State, though, is used to playing teams like Drake, whose high-powered offense and speedy pace must be contained in order to stand a chance against them. So it’s not that the Dragons don’t have a chance against the Lady Bears, but this really is Missouri State’s game to lose.

Now, a few more teams to know about as March S[imulation]adness tips off:

No. 5 Princeton Tigers

How they got in: Won the Ivy League

Princeton was one overtime loss away from being the nation’s only undefeated team this season. (And, one must assume, one overtime loss away from earning the right to host?) Luckily, three-time Ivy League Player of the Year Bella Alarie and the Tigers have a near-immediate chance to avenge that loss — if they win their first-round game against Dayton — as they head back to Iowa City, Iowa. Princeton had a grand time blitzing through its Ivy opponents this season, leading the conference (or being a stone’s throw from the top) in both offensive and defensive categories. Its near-perfect non-conference slate proves it’s ready for a deep run here.

No. 7 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles

How they got in: Won the Atlantic Sun

With six ASUN tournament titles in the past seven seasons (including our simulation), Florida Gulf Coast isn’t just an NCAA Tournament regular, it’s also a perennial NCAA Tournament threat. Though it’s won just two games in those five tries so far — once as a No. 7 seed, once as a No. 12 seed — its three losses have come by one, two and seven points. No matter its opponent, the Eagles (and their award-winning players and coach, led by senior Keri Jewett-Giles) are always primed to extend their successful regular season into the postseason.

No. 8 Drake Bulldogs

How they got in: Won the MVC

The Valley can’t keep the Bulldogs off the championship line for long — Drake’s third MVC tournament title in four seasons (per our simulation) bears testament to that. With three-time MVC Player of the Year Becca Hittner and Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year finalist Sara Rhine leading the charge, the Bulldogs and their nation’s fifth-best scoring offense can get hot quickly and often. Though its early-season win over Iowa State didn’t quite set the tone for the season that it may have hoped for, it still posed just one example of how Drake can see an opponent do everything right and respond by doing everything right just a little better.

No. 9 James Madison Dukes

How they got in: At-large (CAA)

Getting in as an at-large bid — as Drexel won our simulated CAA tournament — means big things are expected from James Madison, and they’ve been happy to provide big things this season. In non-conference play, the Dukes managed a win at Villanova and nearly defeated top-10 foe Maryland. They also boast CAA Player of the Year Kamiah Smalls, Defensive Player of the Year Kayla Cooper-Williams and Rookie of the Year Kiki Jefferson. Though the Dukes aren’t the NCAA Tournament regular they used to be, that’s kind of like saying UConn isn’t the national champion it used to be — they won’t be counted out without a hard fight. (But also timing-wise: UConn’s last national championship came in 2016, which was also the last time James Madison made the NCAA Tournament.)

No. 14 Portland Pilots

How they got in: Won the WCC

The best a No. 14 seed can ask for is to be playing at its peak when the NCAA Tournament arrives, and, boy, is Portland doing that. In a tough West Coast Conference dominated by defense, Portland emerged with the conference’s best offense. It also played nationally-ranked Gonzaga close three times — including the time it knocked off the top-seeded Bulldogs in the WCC tournament semifinal. Though the Pilots skew young, talent-wise, that they were able to get to this point this season should terrify not just their own conference in the coming years, but also this tournament field.

No. 14 UTEP Miners

How they got in: Won Conference USA

After an outstanding, upset-filled run through our simulated C-USA Tournament as the No. 7 seed, the Miners’ 8-10 conference record is now but a small piece of their epic story. Much like fellow No. 14 seed Portland’s star freshman Alex Fowler, UTEP star freshman Katia Gallegos made her presence known in C-USA this season with a freshman program-record 146 assists, in addition to leading the team in steals as she started every game. And also like Portland, any team that gets this hot at the end of the season is a force to be reckoned with in the tournament, no matter their opponent.

In short: Miners. National champs. Book it.

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