NCAA Tournament Cinderella Watch 2012: Top 5 Candidates to Play Unsung Hero

Nathan GieseSenior Analyst IIFebruary 13, 2012

NCAA Tournament Cinderella Watch 2012: Top 5 Candidates to Play Unsung Hero

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    Welcome to the stretch run of the college basketball season, ladies and gentlemen.

    It's a marvelous time of year where we are all witnesses to some of the best basketball of the entire year.  

    One thing that every college basketball fan looks forward to this time of year is playing the brackets: deciding who will be the champion, who will be upset early and who will surprise everyone and make it further than most other teams.

    In the past few years, we've seen Davidson, VCU, George Mason and Butler (twice) surprise everyone by making it to the Elite Eight and even the National Championship Game.  

    With that being said, it's about that time to determine who could be the upset-minded teams when it comes time to play towards the big game.

    In order to figure out who could be the Cinderellas, we need to see who they would be playing in order to determine if they could, in fact, upset that team.

    For the sake of this article, we are going to use one of the latest bracket projections brought to us by Joe Lunardi of ESPN, one of the most well-respected bracketologists in the country. 

    According to Lunardi, the top four seeds are as follows:

    1 Seeds: Syracuse, Kentucky, Ohio St. and Missouri.

    2 Seeds: Michigan St, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina.

    3 Seeds: Florida, Baylor, Georgetown and UNLV.

    4 Seeds: Michigan, Indiana, Marquette and Michigan.

    With this information, we will determine the teams that could occupy the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th seeds. Play-in games were not taken into account when determining this list.

    Now that the rules are in order, let's take a look at some of the teams that could not only (possibly) sneak their way into the tournament, but also pick up a win or two while they are there. 

Mississippi Valley State (SWAC)

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    Overall Record: 13-11

    Conference Record: 12-0

    Games Against Top Competition: 0-9; Notre Dame, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi, Northwestern, Florida, Iowa State, Wisconsin

    In conference, the Delta Devils are unbeatable, as is stated by their undefeated in-conference record.  Out of conference, however, it's a totally different story.  

    Let's be honest, though.  If you were a young team from a small school and your non-conference opponents featured former national champions in North Carolina and Florida, along with other great teams such as Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Iowa State, you'd have some problems as well. 

    Senior guard Terrence Joyner has led his team through thick and thin.  Scrappy and tough, Joyner has accumulated substantial stats, raking up 14 points, three rebounds and two assists a game while shooting of 41 percent beyond the arc. 

    Overall, Mississippi Valley State may not look like much on paper, but with how well they have responded in conference play after their abysmal start to the year, Joyner and co. could do some damage in the dance.  

    After all, you don't play those nine teams and not pick up on a thing or two on how the big boys play.  What they learned in the early season could help them in the postseason. 

    Current tournament status: lead SWAC by three games; safe for now. 

    Potential seed: more than likely a No. 16 seed. 

Bucknell (Patriot League)

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    Overall Record: 20-6

    Conference Record: 10-0

    Games against top competition: 0-3; Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Syracuse

    Currently riding a 12-game winning streak, Bucknell has the makings for a team looking to knock off one of the big boys when it comes to tournament time. 

    Standing alone as the one bright spot in the less-than-miraculous Patriot League, Bucknell has taken it to its conference opponents, winning by an average of over 14 points per contest in league play.  

    Considering its conference, even though Bucknell is separating itself from the rest of the pack, the Bison most likely would end up with a No. 15 seed and take on somebody like Duke.  

    If this were the case, the Blue Devils' bigs would be greatly challenged by Bucknell's Mike Muscala, who is averaging 16 points and eight rebounds per game.  His 6'11" frame would give fits to any team they challenge.  

    It doesn't look like Bucknell is going to go down in its conference any time soon, so teams with higher seeds may count their lucky stars if they avoid facing the Bison.

    Current tournament status: In, by a fairly wide margin.

    Possible seed: 15, only because of its conference.

Middle Tennessee (Sun Belt)

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    Overall Record: 23-4

    Conference Record: 12-1

    Record against quality opponents: 3-1; wins against Belmont, @UCLA, Akron, Loss against Belmont

    Middle Tennessee was one of those mid-majors that you heard about after they had thumped the all-mighty and powerful UCLA on the road and didn't hear too much about from after. 

    Well, the Blue Raiders took that huge confidence booster in the UCLA win and turned it into two more quality non-conference victories over Belmont and Akron—both of whom are currently leading their respective conferences —and a 12-1 conference record, good enough for a two-and-a-half-game lead in the Sun Belt conference. 

    One of the things that makes this team so special is their ability to spread the ball and finish their shots.  Not only do they have a trio of double-digit scorers, but shoot just under 50 percent from the field, good enough for eighth in the country.  

    Stopping the Blue Raiders isn't a very easy task.  Just as Ben Howland how it went for him.

    Current tournament status: In, with some decent distance between their counterpart.

    Potential seed: No. 13 or No. 14, possible matchups include Wisconsin, which could be a very interesting game. 

South Dakota State (Summit)

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    Overall Record: 20-7

    Conference Record: 12-3

    Record against quality opponents: 2-2; wins-@Washington, vs. Mercer (current leader of Atlantic Sun)  losses-@Minnesota (before Trevor Mbakwe injury), @Georgia

    This pick may be a little bit of a homer pick, but I wouldn't put them on the list unless I firmly believed they could, in fact, do damage.

    South Dakota State has the chance to do something that their men's basketball program has never been able to do before: make it to the big dance.  Granted, they just recently entered the ranks of D-I competition, but it's a nice story nonetheless. 

    Led by Junior point guard Nate Wolters—who averages 21.6 points and six assists per game, good for eighth and 17th in the nation respectively— the Jackrabbits are on a mission to prove to the rest of the country that their early-season victory in Washington was, indeed, no fluke.  The Jacks also have the 19th-rated offense, scoring 78.6 points per game.  

    Unlike the first three teams mentioned, however, SDSU does not currently lead their conference and the only way they can make it into the tournament at this point is to win their conference tournament.  While the first and second spots in the Summit League (first being Oral Roberts) would be the favorites to win, during tournament time anything can happen. 

    If South Dakota State can get past everything they've been through this season and make their first NCAA tournament appearance, Wolters and co. could very easily sneak up on an unsuspecting three or four seed and knock them off, just like they did with Washington. 

    Current tournament status: Out, must win conference tournament; any hope of an at-large bid went out the window with their loss on Thursday at South Dakota.

    Potential seed: No. 14, a matchup against Florida would be a great contest, pitting two quality backcourts against each other. 

Long Beach State (Big West)

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    Overall Record: 19-6

    Conference Record: 12-0

    Record against quality competition: 2-5; win-@Pittsburgh, vs. Xavier  losses-@San Diego State, @ Kansas, @ North Carolina, vs. Kansas State, @ Louisville 

    Much like Mississippi Valley State, Long Beach State staked their non-conference schedule with top-tier opponents and made a name for themselves by taking down two big names in Pittsburgh and Xavier.

    They took what they learned from those big-name teams and applied it to their conference schedule, currently standing undefeated with a 12-0 record, winning each game by an average of over 12 points per contest.  

    Normally, a Big West team wouldn't be talked about as being a team that could surprise the world and advance deep into the tournament.  But it's been a long time since we've seen a team so talented and tough like Long Beach State that we have to consider them for it.  

    Casper Ware and friends will look deeply to find themselves against top competition again. Just because they've had their success against good schools already this year doesn't mean it won't happen again three months later. 

    Current tournament chances: In, with room to spare being ahead three-and-a-half games.

    Potential seed: No. 13, possible match against Michigan could give us a great point guard battle with Ware going against Tim Hardaway Jr.