Bubble Watch 2013: NCAA Tournament Darlings Fans Will Fall in Love with

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2013

Bubble Watch 2013: NCAA Tournament Darlings Fans Will Fall in Love with

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    No matter how many Anthony Davises or 2011-12 Kentucky teams there will be, fans will always remember the Lorenzo Charleses and 1982-83 North Carolina State teams more fondly.

    When given the choice between cheering for an underdog or favorite, fans will almost always root for the underdog. Rocky over Clubber Lang; Diamondbacks over Yankees; Villanova over Georgetown. All upsets, fictional or not, that captivated a nation’s attention.

    It’s natural. We root for the underdog because, psychologically, we all feel like the underdog. If Scrappy Doo from Private Liberal Arts College X can take down coach Mike Krzyzewski and his evil empire of robotic Duke minions, then anything can happen.

    It’s the overarching reason that so many get obsessed with picking first-round underdogs on their bracket rather than who they actually took to win the national championship. Greatness is boring (for some)—upsets are fun and endearing.

    Who are the players and teams that will make the nation swoon this season? Here is a breakdown of a few players and teams that are sure to capture the nation’s attention in the 2013 NCAA tournament.  

    Don't forget to print out your bracket and follow along with the live bracketMake your picks for the 2013 NCAA tournament here with the Bracket Challenge Game.

Ramon Galloway (G, La Salle)

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    Likely needing a win over Butler to make themselves a mortal lock, La Salle sat with bated breath on Selection Sunday to see whether or not it had made the Big Dance. Perhaps the player who was happiest that the committee had mercy on the Explorers and sent them to a first-round matchup was Ramon Galloway.

    Galloway, the Explorers’ best player by a country mile, failed to come through against Butler in the team's Atlantic 10 tournament loss. He made only one of his 10 shots, including a 0-of-7 performance from beyond the arc, to finish with four points and six assists. It was the second time in as many games Galloway had struggled in a La Salle loss, following an eight-point performance versus St. Louis.  

    That being said, Galloway remains one of the few volume scorers in college basketball talented enough to shift the entire paradigm of a game. The combo guard is averaging 17 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists and has shown the ability to get hot almost in an instant. He carried the Explorers with 31 points in their win at VCU in January, had a stretch of five straight 20-plus-point games in December and helped lead La Salle to a 2-1 record versus RPI Top 25 teams.

    A South Carolina transfer, Galloway is more of a volume shooter than one would like, but he’s been the driving force behind an efficient offensive attack all season. While most fans’ recent memory of him will be that negative performance versus Butler, Galloway is a kid that can change public perception with one titillating jumper.  

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

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    Middle Tennessee may have been Patient Zero for finding out what the NCAA’s selection committee really emphasizes in the war room. While there were some weaknesses, notably in the schedule department, it looks as if this year's group emphasized season-long greatness. 

    The Blue Raiders went 28-5 during the regular season, including 19-1 in the Sun Belt, and currently have an RPI of 28. That latter statistic was better than just about every major-conference “bubble” team by a long shot and is what likely what pushed Middle Tennessee over the edge.

    The Blue Raiders still have to take down St. Mary's on Tuesday to make the round of 64, and you can rest assured Memphis is hoping that doesn't happen. 

    Forcing opposing offenses into fits with a rotation that runs 10 players deep, Kermit Davis’ squad is a team in every sense of the word. There are no stars—guard Marcos Knight is the only player who remotely qualifies—and every player buys into the system wholeheartedly.

    The Blue Raiders have drawn countless comparisons to Virginia Commonwealth—and for good reason. They employ a similar defensive strategy to Shaka Smart’s “havoc” system, on the ball handler and trapping with a bevy of athletic players who possess high basketball IQs. According to Ken Pomeroy, Middle Tennessee is among the 25 best teams in the nation in defensive efficiency, effective field-goal percentage against and turnover rate, among other metrics.

    A couple of seasons ago, Smart led VCU from the first four to the Final Four. I’m (obviously) not saying the Blue Raiders will do the same, but this has been the best team no one knows about all season long.

Marshall Henderson (G, Ole Miss)

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    Depending on your perspective (and whether or not you’re an Auburn fan), the words “love” and “darling” might not exactly come to mind when describing Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson.

    The junior guard has been a lightning rod of controversy throughout the 2012-13 season, catapulting to national recognition as much for his garish behavior as his jump shot. Criticism started to mount mostly around the time he openly taunted Auburn fans after hitting a game-winning jumper, but those who have followed Henderson on Twitter know he’s always a wide-open book.

    His style of play has also come under a bevy of scorn. A shoot-first-ask-questions-last combo guard, the 6’2” Rebel led the SEC in scoring at 20 points per game. He also took a whopping 10.9 shots per game—from beyond the arc alone. The Utah transfer lives beyond the three-point arc, shooting unbalanced, early-in-the-shot-clock jumpers with the nonchalance of Don Draper dismissing a side piece.

    But that’s the thing about Henderson: You hate him...or you absolutely adore his existence. In the most superficial sense, Henderson is Allen Iverson-esque. He doesn’t care what people think, he’s arguably the most competitive player in the nation and he puts his heart and soul on the line every time he sets foot on the floor. Henderson's emotional outpouring on the floor following Ole Miss' SEC championship victory was one of the more touching moments of conference tournament play. 

    Sure, Henderson rubs people the wrong way. But he'll also make March a whole lot more entertaining with his brand of madness. 

Iowa State Cyclones

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    In an era where teams are so over-controlled and tightly wound on the offensive end—to the point where lowering the shot clock has become a necessity—Iowa State is one of a select few major-conference exceptions.

    The Cyclones average 72.7 possessions per game (19th in the nation), an astounding number considering the slower pace of many Big 12 teams. In fact, only four “major conference” teams rank ahead of Iowa State's possessions per game heading into the tournament.

    Even more impressive is the efficiency with which Iowa State runs its offense. At a shade under 80 points per game, the Cyclones are fourth in the nation in scoring and eighth in offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. They boast a top-20 effective field-goal percentage, have a better-than-average turnover rate and knock down shots from everywhere on the court—including the free-throw line, which is critical in March.

    Iowa State also isn’t overly reliant on one player. Michigan State transfer Korie Lucious runs the high-octane attack from the point guard spot, deciding which of the five Cyclones players (including himself) who score in double figures will get the ball. Guard Will Clyburn leads the team with 15 points per game and he’s joined by senior Tyrus McGee, who is arguably the best shooter in the Big 12.

    Combined, Iowa State may have been the most feared bubble team in the entire nation. The team took Kansas to overtime twice, proving it can play with any top team put in its face, and the Cyclones’ scoring ability is bloodcurdling for more conservative opponents. 

    Notre Dame awaits on Friday for the No. 10 seed, and if the Cyclones are able to pull a mini-upset in their first game, a major one may await in the form of Ohio State.

Akron Zips

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    Heading into the MAC tournament, very few knew what to make of Akron. The Zips had been a mid-major darling throughout the season—even spending some time inside the AP Top 25—and were an in-vogue choice for the underdog to watch in March.

    However, everything changed when star point guard Alex Abreu was arrested for marijuana trafficking charges and suspended from the team. Abreu was considered the lifeblood of Akron’s offense, a guy who kept everything running smoothly and allowed stars Zeke Marshall and Demetrius Treadwell to excel.

    Without him—and with inexperienced backups taking his place—the undercurrent of positivity in Akron quickly withered.

    Nevertheless, the conference tournament proved the Zips could withstand Abreu’s absence. They played a close, hard-fought game again Kent State in their first game and then eviscerated Ohio in the second half to win the MAC championship. Marshall and Treadwell stayed their dominant selves, while Carmelo Betancourt handled himself fine manning the point guard duties.

    Overall, Akron remains a very strong defensive team, ranking 17th in the nation in opponent effective field-goal percentage and 32nd in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. With two very good interior presences in Marshall and Treadwell, VCU is not a guarantee to take Akron down.

    And if Abreu’s suspension gets lifted? The Zips could threaten Michigan for a Sweet 16 run.