It is still hard to believe that the previously unknown, unheralded and generally unexciting Butler Bulldogs have played in the past two national championship games.
Unfortunately, the Cinderella story has ended this year as Butler failed to make a run to its conference championship and likely will not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Good news for basketball fans who love the underdog: There are quite a number of teams ready to follow in Butler’s footsteps.
This might be the most successful season for mid-major basketball programs in modern history, as three teams outside of the BCS conferences are ranked in the top 25.
But there are plenty more where that came from.
Some squads already have buzz surrounding their play, but others have not managed to crack the national stage…yet.
No team in the NCAA tournament can take a night off, no matter its seeding, because these 15 teams will be waiting.
Everyone wants to be the next Butler. These are the teams that have the best shot.
The Long Beach State 49ers were on virtually everyone’s radar at the beginning of the season, but ever since conference play began, the team is getting no love.
Long Beach State is still one of the best mid-majors in the country. The team had one of the most brutal non-conference schedules for a mid-major and bore the brunt of it, beginning conference play with an 8-6 record.
Since then, the 49ers have gone 15-2, losing only to the Creighton Bluejays and the Cal State Fullerton Titans in the last game of the regular season.
Long Beach State will benefit from having faced tough teams at the beginning of the season. Keep in mind, the 49ers have played both the Kansas Jayhawks and North Carolina Tar Heels.
After taking on two of the best teams in the country, LBSU will not back down from any opponent.
Casper Ware leads the team in points per game and assists and is one of the best point guards in the nation. Ware will be the key as Long Beach State begins its NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament run.
The Wichita State Shockers have been moving up the polls all year. The team has found its stride at the right time and is poised to pull off some upsets in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Wichita State has only lost twice in the New Year—a triple-overtime thriller against the Drake Bulldogs and in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship to the Illinois State Redbirds.
The Shockers shoot the ball well—guard Joe Ragland is connecting on 50 percent of his shots from behind the arc—and play solid defense, both key factors in advancing in the tournament.
Seniors Ragland and Garrett Stutz lead an experienced Wichita State squad. The two are basically tied for the team lead in scoring and Stutz leads the Shockers in rebounding while Ragland is first in assists.
The Shockers will benefit from having two upperclassmen leading the way. The team will be composed and under control, no matter what is going on in the game.
Is it really fair to consider it an upset if a team ranked ninth overall with a 30-1 record advances in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament?
In the case of the Murray State Racers, yes.
Approximately 12 people believe that Murray State has what it takes to make it to the Final Four, let alone get out of the first two rounds unscathed.
Yet, Murray State has all of the ingredients needed to make a run through the tournament.
First, the team plays great defense. In the Racers’ conference championship win against the Tennessee State Tigers, the team buckled down on defense in the last few minutes of the game and were able to erase a six-point deficit.
Second, the team has a true star. Isaiah Canaan is one of the best players in the country. He is a true team leader and a great competitor. Canaan rises to the challenge in every game.
But he is not alone. Guard Donte Poole and forward Ivan Aska are both great players in their own right. Murray State has a number of talented players and it is impossible for any team to defend just one of them.
Not many people are counting on the Racers to live up to their ranking in the NCAA tournament, but the team is very capable of doing that and more.
Doug McDermott is one of the best players in the country. The coach’s son is averaging a ridiculous 23.2 points per game to go along with 8.2 rebounds a contest.
And McDermott has done all that with every player in America trying to stop him. Good thing he will have experience with double teams when he plays in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Of course, it is McDermott who gets the most attention when discussing the Creighton Bluejays, but the team is much more than just one player.
Creighton is ranked in the top six nationally in points per game, assists per game and field-goal percentage.
The Bluejays have a very efficient offense, led by Grant Gibbs and Antoine Young, who both average close to five assists per game.
While Creighton did not play a ranked opponent this season, it has faced a number of very talented under-the-radar teams like the San Diego State Aztecs, Wichita State Shockers and Long Beach State 49ers, winning against all three.
With McDermott leading the way, Creighton has a shot against almost any team in the country.
The New Mexico Lobos came out of nowhere to finish in a tie for first place atop the Mountain West Conference.
The team was completely unheralded at the beginning of the season and opened up the year with just a 2-2 record. However, the Lobos then reeled off 13 straight wins before finishing the season 24-6.
New Mexico beat conference-leading UNLV and San Diego State behind good coaching and great team chemistry.
Senior Drew Gordon has made a name for himself nationally after finishing the regular season with a double-double average—13.2 points and 11 rebounds per game—and having monster games on the biggest stages.
In an utter dismantling of the Running Rebels, Gordon scored 27 points and pulled down 20 rebounds, and rounded out his stat line with two assists and three steals.
Coach Steve Alford is very capable of putting together a smart game plan and utilizing his players to the best of their abilities. New Mexico is a definite threat to upset some good teams.
The Saint Louis Billikens somehow are still flying under the radar for almost everyone in America.
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is likely to change all that.
Saint Louis is second in the Atlantic 10 Conference behind the Temple Owls, but is 24-6 overall and boasts just about every quality a team needs in order to surprise some powerhouse schools and advance in the tournament.
The Billikens can do three things extremely well that give them a great chance to succeed in March: play defense, hit threes and take care of the basketball.
Saint Louis is ranked seventh nationally in opponent scoring per game, allowing just 56.4 points. The team can lock down on just about anyone in the country and opponents might be surprised with the Billikens’ defensive intensity.
Saint Louis is also a great three-point shooting team, converting on 37.1 percent of their shots from behind the arc. Solid shooting helps the team score in bunches and gain momentum at key points in a game.
Lastly, the Billikens are not prone to turning the ball over. In fact, the team is turning the ball over on just 17.9 percent of possessions.
No one is worried about Saint Louis now, but in a few weeks, don’t be surprised if it is one of the few teams still left standing.
The Belmont Bruins have had quite an up-and-down season.
The team began the year by nearly upsetting the Duke Blue Devils, losing by one point in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Then, the Bruins dropped surprising games to the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks and Marshall Thundering Herd, casting serious doubt on just how talented the team was.
But Belmont finished the season by winning 14 straight games, including rallying from 14 points down to beat the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles and earn an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament berth.
The Bruins streak should not end at 14. The team is great offensively, scoring over 80 points a game thanks to good passing and effective shooting.
The team uses offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive and convert field goals from anywhere on the court.
And don’t forget, Belmont has already played both Duke and the Memphis Tigers. The team should be familiar with good competition and ready to take on any team the seeding committee throws its way.
While many consider the Virginia Commonwealth Rams to be one of the first teams to steal an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bid (VCU beat the Drexel Dragons in the Colonial Athletic Association championship), the Rams cannot be counted out.
Remember last season? VCU lost its conference tournament and was one of the last teams selected for the big dance, playing in one of the first four games.
What happened next? Oh, nothing, the Rams just made it to the Final Four, beating the Georgetown Hoyas, Purdue Boilermakers and Kansas Jayhawks.
If there is one lesson VCU has taught us, it is to never count out any team.
This year, the Rams specialize in wreaking havoc on the defensive end of the ball. The team leads the nation in steals and creating turnovers and never lets the opposing team get comfortable.
One of the best ways to advance in the tournament and to upset traditional powerhouses is by not letting them run their offense or find a scoring flow.
And lets not forget that Shaka Smart, VCU’s head coach, has some experience in preparing his team for the NCAA Tournament. Expect the Rams to be mentally and physically ready for any opponent.
The Southern Miss Golden Eagles do not do any one thing exceptionally well, but they are very good at a lot of things.
For instance, the team ranks just 258th nationally in field-goal percentage, but shoots 36 percent from deep—a solid, but not outstanding mark.
The team forces turnovers at a decent rate and collects offensive rebounds well, too.
Simply put, Southern Miss can beat a team in a variety of ways. Since the team does so many things well, it will be very difficult for their opposition to defend them.
The Golden Eagles can also tailor their game so that it fits its opponent.
If the team is playing the Missouri Tigers, for example, Southern Miss will crash the offensive boards to take advantage of Missouri’s lack of size.
The Golden Eagles have beaten some good teams this season and should be ready for any team it may face in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The Saint Mary’s Gaels just won the West Coast Conference Tournament by beating the Gonzaga Bulldogs in overtime. The win should give Saint Mary’s confidence heading into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The Gaels are unquestionably led by Matthew Dellavedova, who looks nothing like a basketball player, but leads the team in points per game and assists. He is the kind of point guard who will run through a wall if it will help his team win.
But Saint Mary’s has a few more threats up its sleeve.
Big man Rob Jones is averaging a double-double, scoring 14.8 points per game to go along with 10.7 rebounds. He is also grabbing three offensive boards a game and is always active underneath.
Lastly, sophomore guard Stephen Holt does a little bit of everything for the Gaels, scoring 10.4 points per game to go along with 4.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals.
Holt, the team’s best perimeter defender, injured his knee Feb. 15 and has not played since, but should be ready for the NCAA Tournament.
With so many key players, Saint Mary’s is a tough matchup for any team.
The Harvard Crimson have been in and out of the national rankings all season, but because of their Ivy League status, the team is rarely taken seriously by foes in the Big East or SEC.
But Harvard is very capable of surprising some teams in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The Crimson live off of their defense. The team is ranked 17th in the country in defensive efficiency and held the Florida State Seminoles to just 41 points when the two teams played in November.
Harvard has held 11 of its opponents under 50 points, a statistic that bodes well for advancing in the tourney.
If the Crimson can slow down the pace of the game and make their opponent work for every basket, they will get frustrated and try to force shots.
As long as Harvard can make its opponent shoot bad shots and convert at a decent rate offensively, it has a good chance against anyone.
The team is 26-4 overall and it is clear that coach Tommy Amaker is a pro at developing players (ever heard of Jeremy Lin?) and promoting team basketball.
One problem with the Iona Gaels—the team will likely not make the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The Gaels were upset by the Fairfield Stags in their conference tournament.
But if it did, Iona would have mid-major Final Four team written all over it.
The team is one of the most exciting squads to watch in all of college basketball. The Gaels lead the nation in points per game (83.3) and assists per game (19.3) while also coming in second overall in field-goal percentage (50.4 percent).
Iona plays a fast-paced style of basketball in which teammates throw beautiful passes to one another to set up easy shots.
The offense is led by senior point guard Scott Machado, who is a finalist for the Wooden Award this season. Machado leads the nation in assists per game with 9.9 and also chips in 13.6 points and five rebounds a game.
One of the best ways to advance in the NCAA tournament is by shooting well and by playing team basketball.
Iona does both of those things incredibly well. The team plays eight players consistently and each finds an important way to contribute.
If the selection committee is looking for one last team to give an at-large bid, look no further than Iona. Forget this year’s Butler, the Gaels will be this year’s VCU.
It took two overtimes, but the Davidson Wildcats finally emerged victorious in the Southern Conference Championship, beating the Western Carolina Catamounts to punch their ticket to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Davidson is no team to sleep on. The team is 25-7 overall and has faced some pretty tough competition already this season.
Don’t forget, this is the same Wildcats team that beat the Kansas Jayhawks in Kansas City, looking like the better team for all 40 minutes.
Davidson has also faced the Duke Blue Devils and Vanderbilt Commodores this season, remaining competitive in both games.
The Wildcats are a great rebounding team, ranking 19th overall in rebounds per game. Davidson also excels at spreading the wealth, as five players average double-digit scoring.
Any player can take over for Davidson, making the team especially dangerous in a tournament setting because there is no way to prepare for which player might have the hot hand.
The Drexel Dragons are in the uncomfortable position of not being assured a bid to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
After losing their conference championship to the VCU Rams, Drexel must hope the selection committee is impressed enough by their 27-6 overall record to grant them an at-large bid.
On Drexel’s resume? A 19-game winning streak, snapped only by the loss to VCU. The team is clearly hot at the right time and putting all of their pieces together for a tournament run.
The Dragons have five different players who rank in the top two on the team in points, rebounds and assists. Drexel can get production from any number of players—that is what makes them such a dangerous team.
The team can also hit threes reliably and does not turn the ball over, both key ingredients for success against higher-profile opponents.
If Drexel is rewarded with a bid, it could very easily make some noise in the tournament and upset some highly-seeded teams.
NBA lottery pick Kawhi Leonard? Gone. Three other valuable starters from a top-25 team a year ago? Also gone.
The San Diego State Aztecs began the season with virtually no hype whatsoever.
That is no longer the case.
San Diego State’s only two losses before conference play were close defeats to the No. 12 Baylor Bears and the No. 22 Creighton Bluejays.
The team finished the season tied for first in the Mountain West Conference and ranked 21st in the nation.
In some ways, this year’s Aztecs team might even be better than last year’s counterpart. For one, the star power of Leonard is gone, but in its place is a more balanced offense led by Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley.
The team is more well rounded and gets contributions from many different players instead of relying on just one.
San Diego State has finally entered the national stage, but its spotlight could get much brighter when the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament begins.