10 Unranked Teams Which Could Do Some Serious Damage in the NCAA Tournament
Every week, 65 of the most knowledgeable sports writers and broadcasters from around the country submit a list of what they believe to be the 25 best teams in the college basketball landscape. Despite all that collective brain power, they never quite get it right, do they?
You could argue for days over the order in which the 10 best teams should actually appear, but the real tragedy of the rankings is the surging teams that just barely get mentioned in the "others receiving votes" category. Let's give some of those afterthoughts some much-deserved attention.
What follows are the 10 teams currently outside of the AP Top 25 that could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, starting with the remotely possible and culminating in a near guarantee.
Others Receiving Votes
In an effort to proactively defend against some of the “You’re crazy not to include...” debates, allow me to briefly explain why these teams don’t crack the Top 10.
North Carolina: The lack of a reliable ball-handler makes the Tar Heels too inconsistent, especially on the road.
Kentucky: Ranked 0-5 against teams in my latest projected bracket. It’d be tough for the Wildcats to make a deep run into a tournament they might not even qualify for.
Texas A&M: The road win over Kentucky was nice, but I’ll need to see more than that before we start taking the Aggies seriously.
Oklahoma State: It’s been two full months since the Cowboys impressed anyone.
Arizona State: Upcoming games against Arizona and UCLA could change my mind, but the Sun Devils rely too heavily on two guys to hang with the big boys.
Iowa State: The Cyclones have developed a tendency to let teams back into games rather than put them away.
Miami: Kenny Kadji has shown some real promise over the past three games, but I’m not ready to believe in a Hurricanes team missing Reggie Johnson due to injury.
10. Cincinnati Bearcats
Statistical Difference-Maker: Rebounding
The Bearcats are sixth in the nation in rebounds per game (42.9), even though no one on the team grabs more than six boards per game.
Individual Difference-Maker: Cashmere Wright
It feels weird to argue for Wright as their linchpin, given he had 23 points and 10 rebounds in a loss to St. John’s earlier this month, but he’s clearly the emotional leader of the team and has been for a while.
If you were buying shares of Cashmere Wright on Amazon, it would suggest that you might also like Rotnei Clarke and Isaiah Canaan.
Though Wright doesn’t take quite as many shots as those guys (because Sean Kilpatrick needs to get his shots too), he’s the type of guy who can and will shoot his team into or out of any game.
9. Bucknell Bison
Statistical Difference-Maker: Turnovers
The Bison turn the ball over fewer times per game than all but four teams in the country.
Individual Difference-Maker: Mike Muscala
The 6’11” senior averages just shy of 20 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks per game, and he has already recorded 12 double-doubles on the season.
Better yet, Muscala shoots 82 percent from the charity stripe and entered Thursday night with the third-most free throws made in the nation. How many teams aside from Creighton can rely on its big guy to preserve a late lead at the free-throw line?
The only reason I don’t have Bucknell higher on this list is because it won’t get anything better than an 11 seed; but that certainly didn’t stop VCU two years ago.
8. Wichita State Shockers
Statistical Difference-Maker: Consistency
Unlike the other nine teams on this list, the Shockers don’t have any one thing in particular they excel at, but they are slightly above average in most of the major statistical categories.
Individual Difference-Maker: Carl Hall
Wichita State’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer is just now returning from a seven-game absence due to hand surgery, providing a much-needed lift to a team that struggled through the first two weeks of January.
Hall and fellow (but better shooting) big man Cleanthony Early led the Shockers to their two biggest wins of the season over VCU and Iowa. They could foreseeably lead them a few rounds into the Big Dance.
7. Saint Mary's Gaels
Statistical Difference-Maker: Points Per Shot
When you’re tied with North Carolina State for seventh in the nation in any offensive category, it’s hardly a bad thing.
Individual Difference-Maker: Matthew Dellavedova
The game-winning shot on Wednesday against BYU would have been the career highlight for 95 percent of college athletes, but it was just business as usual for Delly.
Maybe it’s the West Coast Conference connection, cultic following or permanently unkempt hair and debatably disgusting facial hair, but Dellavedova takes me back to the days of Adam Morrison.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who means more to his team on both a statistical and emotional level. As such, the Gaels will only go as far as Delly takes them.
6. Boise State Broncos
Statistical Difference-Maker: Three-Point Shooting
The Broncos are the fifth-best three-point shooting team in the nation—better than Duke, Indiana and Michigan. If they do make the field of 68, mentally prepare yourself for every talking head to make the Broncos their sleeper du jour.
Individual Difference-Maker: Derrick Marks
If you haven’t had a chance to watch any Boise State games, Derrick Marks is a more assertive and fearless version of Victor Oladipo.
He had a rough stretch of games against some no-name teams prior to serving his one-game suspension in the win over Wyoming, but he has certainly come to play in the big ones. He's averaging 27.3 points against Creighton, New Mexico, Michigan State and LSU.
Interestingly, the 6’3” guard has hardly done any of his damage from behind the arc, registering just nine made triples through 15 games.
5. Temple Owls
Statistical Difference-Maker: Non-Conference Strength of Schedule
With games against Duke, Syracuse, Kansas and to a lesser degree Kent State, Canisius and Villanova, Temple is more battle tested than just about any team in the country.
Individual Difference-Maker: Khalif Wyatt
Aside from a slight uptick in assists, Wyatt has declined in every major category from his junior to senior season, but he’s still the irrefutable leader of this Owls team.
He was invisible against Duke and equally ineffective in the loss to Xavier, but he carried Temple to an upset over Syracuse with 33 points and nearly did the same to Kansas behind a 26-point effort.
I would say he’s a slightly poor man’s version of Illinois’ Brandon Paul, in that when he’s on, the only way to “defend” him is to hope you can outscore him.
4. Memphis Tigers
Statistical Difference-Maker: Steals
The Tigers aren’t quite on the level of VCU or Louisville (which is no doubt why they lost to those teams), but they tally 10 steals per game, turning most of them into fast-break points.
Unfortunately, this advantage is mitigated by their carelessness with the ball. They turn it over 15 times per game.
At the end of the day, they take a lot of risks in an effort to get a lot of easy buckets. Sometimes it pays off; other times they get burned.
Individual Difference-Maker: Joe Jackson
Baseball had Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Memphis has Reckless Joe Jackson. "RJJ" leads the Tigers in points, assists, steals and turnovers.
In their 13 wins, he turns the ball over once every 14.9 minutes; in their three losses, he turns it over once every 3.6 minutes. Granted, those three losses all came against teams in the top 15 in the nation in steals per game, but they’re a markedly better team when Jackson is under control.
3. Pittsburgh Panthers
Statistical Difference-Maker: Assists/Turnover Ratio
At 1.85 assists per turnover, Pittsburgh leads the nation in the category. Only Notre Dame (1.76) is within 10 percent of catching the Panthers.
Individual Difference-Maker: Steven Adams
The 7'0'' Kiwi freshman hasn’t been a very big factor for the Panthers thus far, but he’ll need to be if they’re going to make any sort of run in the tournament. In their four losses, he’s averaged just three points and five rebounds, which is far from what they recruited him for.
Slowly but surely, Adams is increasing his minutes and blocked shots while adjusting to life in the Big East.
If he can become more of a scoring presence in the paint and a little bit less of a liability at the free-throw line (31 percent), he would be the fifth piece of Pitt’s potential championship puzzle.
2. Ole Miss Rebels
Statistical Difference-Maker: Points
The Rebels are fourth in the nation in points per game. To be fair, though, four of the other five teams in the top six have no chance at an at-large bid, so a high-powered offense doesn’t necessarily make you a team to beat.
Individual Difference-Maker: Marshall Henderson
The junior transfer is both taking (10.6) and making (3.8) more three-pointers per game than any other player in a major conference. John Jenkins held that same honor last year in shooting Vanderbilt to a second-place tie in the SEC and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
If Ole Miss wins a few games in the tournament, the Stephen Curry comparisons will be fast, furious and overexaggerated, but Henderson could absolutely shoot the Rebs into the Final Four.
1. UNLV Rebels
Statistical Difference-Maker(s): Assists and Rebounds
These Rebels are in the top 10 in the nation in both boards and dimes thanks to outstanding play from their Anthonys.
Individual Difference-Maker: Anthony Bennett
Despite no-showing on Wednesday in UNLV’s biggest win of the season, Bennett is unequivocally the key to UNLV’s success. The Rebels' ability to beat San Diego State without much output from Bennett was a testament to UNLV’s staying power.
Bennett has scored 20-plus points in more than half of UNLV’s games. Just as notably, he has yet to foul out of a game.
One of the biggest keys to the success of power forwards, especially in the tournament, is whether they can stay out of foul trouble. Bennett seems to have that element under control.
With the road games against New Mexico and SDSU already out of the way, Bennett and Co. could realistically not lose another game until the NCAA tournament, if at all.