Since the NCAA Tournament expanded its field to 64 teams in 1985, at least one underdog has emerged from the 12 seed vs. 5 seed pairing every year except for three. It has happened with such frequency that no bracket would be complete without picking one. The 2014 version of the 12th-seeded Cinderella is North Dakota State, who shocked no. 5 Oklahoma 80-75 in overtime Thursday.
The Bison finished well in 2013-14, despite a less than auspicious 2-3 start. Outside of a 73-69 victory over Notre Dame, there were really no stunners. North Dakota State did take care of business, though, in winning the games they should have and taking a solid 11-4 non-conference record into Summit league play. The Bison would ultimately surge to a 12-2 conference mark and take both the regular season and conference tournament crowns, all the while flying under the radar and earning a not so respectable 12 seed.
North Dakota State might just have the perfect makeup for a Cinderella run. They are a team made up of players that few recruited and even fewer have heard of. Leading scorer senior G Taylor Braun came out of Newburg, Oregon with no Division I suitors. The 6-7 guard/forward composite was reportedly only offered a scholarship to North Dakota State after a transfer opened up a roster spot. The Bison have four starters averaging double-figures in scoring and each shoots at least 44.1 percent from the floor. Seventh-year head coach Saul Phillips is now determined to take his upstart North Dakota State program beyond just its first ever NCAA Tournament victory.
Meanwhile, no. 4 seed San Diego State made a narrow 73-69 overtime escape in its second round clash with New Mexico State. The Aztecs were highly-regarded the entire season, reaching as high as 5 in the national rankings and rattling off 20 straight following their only non-conference loss to Arizona. San Diego State would drop just two regular season conference games to Wyoming and New Mexico to take the Mountain West regular season title before losing to New Mexico in the conference tournament championship game.
Against New Mexico State in the NCAA Tournament, the Aztecs struggled shooting the ball, connecting on just 39.0 percent from the floor and 35.3 percent from outside the arc. But San Diego State played pesky defense and held the Aggies to a similar clip of 40.0 percent from the floor and 31.3 from distance, while also topping their opponent from the free throw line 77.8 percent to 60.0 percent.
North Dakota State has already become a fan favorite in the way that Florida Gulf Coast did last year. They are flashy, unheralded and appear to have all the components in place to make a memorable run. And both the school and basketball program could desperately use the exposure. A pretty good program in San Diego State stands in the way, though. Head coach Steve Fisher, now in his 15th year, is poised to take the next step after his Aztecs have failed to get beyond the Sweet 16 in nine previous NCAA Tournament appearances. This looks to be one of the most intriguing matchups of the tournament and a prediction might not even do it justice.
Commentary By Rick Sarlat
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