NCAA Basketball: 10 Teams Poised to Be Next Year's Tourney Cinderella
Coming off a historic 2012 NCAA tournament featuring two wins by No. 15 seeds, it’s never too early to start looking for the top upset contenders in next March’s field of 68. Some of the country’s least-heralded conferences are going to be fielding some very dangerous teams in 2012-13, so there should be no shortage of surprises come tournament time.
One squad that very nearly pulled off a massive upset last season was South Dakota State. The 14th-seeded Jackrabbits—playing in their first-ever NCAA tournament game—gave Baylor all it could handle, and with Nate Wolters leading a slew of returning players from that squad, they’ll be at least as dangerous next year.
Read on for more on SDSU and nine more lesser-known teams that could shock the big boys in next year’s Big Dance.
Note: Some of last season’s most successful underdogs, particularly Lehigh and Ohio, have been left off this list deliberately. These are teams that should be too strong—and earn seeds that are too good—to warrant the Cinderella label by next March.
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While tournament-tested Lehigh will be the favorites in the Patriot League next year, Bucknell should make a strong push for a rare second bid for that conference.
The Bison (who won the regular-season league title at 12-2 last year) bring back a potent group of four starters themselves.
The headliner here is 6’11” center Mike Muscala, who led the squad with 17 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks a night.
He’ll have plenty of help outside from rising junior Cameron Ayers, who will try to improve (somehow) on a season in which he shot .468 from three-point range.
9. St. Joseph's
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St. Joseph’s never quite managed to put things together in 2011-12, finishing with a respectable but unremarkable 20-14 record and a first-round NIT exit.
With all the talent returning for Phil Martelli’s squad, though, even a brutal conference grind (Xavier, Butler, VCU) won’t stop them from getting a shot in NCAA tournament play next season.
Rising junior C.J. Aiken has finished in the nation’s top four in blocked shots each of his first two years, and his 6’9” presence in the middle will anchor the defense once again.
On the offensive end, sharpshooter Langston Galloway (.466 from beyond the arc) and tiny backcourt mate Carl Jones (pictured) have a chance to top last year’s impressive total of 32.5 combined points per game.
8. Illinois State
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The Missouri Valley has produced its share of NCAA tournament surprises in the past, and it’s going to be a tough league again in 2012-13.
High-powered Creighton should cruise to the conference title, but don’t sleep on potential runner-up Illinois State, hoping for its first trip to March Madness in 15 years.
The Redbirds’ hopes will rest largely on rising senior Jackie Carmichael, a 6’9” PF who led the squad with 13.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game a year ago.
Three other starters return along with Carmichael, though, with three-point gunner Tyler Brown (79 treys made, .454 long-range shooting) likely to be just as critical to any upset hopes for the Redbirds.
Note: the original version of this slide erroneously stated that PG Nic Moore would be returning to the Redbirds roster, when in fact he is transferring. Thanks to Taylor in the comments for catching this problem. The author regrets the error.
7. Loyola (MD)
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Iona’s graduation losses (Mike Glover and Scott Machado) should pretty much sew up the MAAC title for Loyola next season.
Once they get to the NCAA tournament, the Greyhounds should put in a much better showing than the thrashing they took from Ohio State this year.
Losing big man Shane Walker will take its toll, but 6’7” rising senior Erik Etherly (team highs of 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest) should pick up some of the slack.
Just as important, Loyola returns the core of a playmaking defense that grabbed eight steals per game, a weapon made even more dangerous by Etherly’s 1.5 blocks a night down low.
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If Keith Wright had had one more year in a Crimson uniform, Harvard probably would’ve joined Lehigh and Ohio in the “too good for Cinderellas” pool.
As it is, the defending Ivy League champs are still a safe bet to make their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance—which will be just the third in program history.
Harvard’s offense isn’t world-beating, but rising junior Laurent Rivard is a big-time sniper (.410 from long range), and leading scorer Kyle Casey returns for his senior year.
More importantly, another year of experience for the four returning starters will make the nation’s fourth-best scoring defense even tougher this time around.
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Bryce Drew is no stranger to Cinderella stories in March, but he won’t be putting up any miracle three-pointers in the 2013 Big Dance.
As head coach at his alma mater, though, Drew has put together a roster that would have given his own celebrated Crusaders team a run for its money.
This Valpo squad will rely heavily on the performance of its talented wings, led by 6’5” Australian native Ryan Broekhoff (pictured) and his 14.8 points and 8.6 rebounds a game, both team highs.
The Crusaders also have some muscle down low, with 6’8”, 245-lb Dutch import Kevin van Wijk adding 14.1 points and 5.2 boards a night.
One of the most surprising teams omitted from the 2012 NCAA field was Drexel, champions of the CAA in the regular season and owners of a 27-6 overall record at the time of the snub.
The Dragons will be a terrific team again next season, but in a weaker CAA (no VCU, no Old Dominion or Georgia State for the conference tourney). they'll have no guarantee of a decent seed next March.
Losing rebounding ace Samme Givens will hurt, but PG Frantz Massenat—a revelation last year with 13.7 points and 4.8 assists a night—will be back to lead the charge.
With a defense that finished fifth in the country in points allowed per game, the Dragons will be a very tough out now that they should (perhaps a year late) be assured of a spot in the Big Dance.
Note: the original version of this slide erroneously listed Butler instead of VCU as the team leaving the CAA. Thanks to Addison in the comments for catching the mistake. The author regrets the error.
3. South Dakota State
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A fearsome collection of long-range shooters carried South Dakota State to a Summit League tournament title and a near-upset of Baylor in the Big Dance.
With all but one of its high-powered scorers back, SDSU will be one of the scariest draws for any power-conference team next March.
Griffan Callahan’s departure costs the Jackrabbits a team-high 77 treys, but with snipers such as Chad White (50 three-pointers on .472 shooting) returning, the loss of Callahan will hardly be backbreaking.
Most crucially, do-everything point guard Nate Wolters (who led the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals) returns for his senior year—meaning that South Dakota State has a realistic shot at the first NCAA tournament win in school history in 2013.
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Despite a 25-8 regular season, LIU was saddled with a No. 16 seed for the Big Dance.
They kept it close for a half against top-seeded Michigan State before getting battered into submission, but that strong first half should give the Blackbirds plenty of confidence for their return to the NCAA tournament.
The nation’s third-best scoring offense (81.9 points per game) brings back its top four point producers from last season.
That group includes speedy 6’7” PF Julian Boyd—17.4 points, 9.5 rebounds per game—and standout PG Jason Brickman with his 7.3 assists per contest.
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A dangerous No. 13 seed last year, Davidson ran into a buzzsaw by drawing Louisville for its NCAA tournament opener.
Despite facing one of the hottest teams in the country, the Wildcats only lost by seven points, and that postseason experience will serve them well next year.
Every member of coach Bob McKillop’s eight-man rotation returns, led by the physical frontcourt of 6’10” Jake Cohen and 6’7” De’Mon Brooks (a combined 30 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game).
Keep an eye on point guard Nik Cochran, a 6’3” rising senior who could be in for a monster year after turning in a strong 2011-12 (3.6 assists per game, .373 long-range shooting).