With Wichita State still holding on to a perfect season and Gonzaga having another strong campaign, it looks as though this could be a great year for mid-major teams in college basketball. The definition of "mid-major" seems to be evolving, though.
While the Shockers and Zags are technically mid-majors due to the fact that they come from smaller conferences, the mid-major tag ends there. Both are big-time programs that have had a large measure of success in March over the years, and they won't enter the NCAA tournament as underdogs by any stretch of the imagination.
True mid-majors are looked at as a group of Davids in comparison to the Goliaths of the power conferences. They aren't expected to make it past the round of 64, and it is considered a triumph of epic proportions whenever they do.
For every Wichita State and Gonzaga, there are many more mid-major teams that will enter the NCAA tournament in hopes of becoming this year's Florida Gulf Coast. Here are three programs that are in position to make that a reality.
A quick look at the MAC standings shows the Buffalo Bulls as the No. 4 team in the conference in terms of overall record at 16-8, but a deeper dive reveals much more. The Bulls are currently first in the MAC East with a 10-4 conference mark, and they have a golden opportunity to make their first NCAA tournament appearance this season.
UB has been on fire in MAC play, with three of its four conference losses coming by three points or less. The Bulls have beaten top competition like Akron and Western Michigan, and they will absolutely be in the mix for a MAC title along with Toledo and Ohio. While the MAC has a solid core of teams this year, it looks very much like a one-bid conference, which means that Buffalo will have to win the MAC tournament in order to take part in March Madness.
The driving force behind UB's surge this season has been the play of senior forward Javon McCrea. At 6'7" and 250 pounds, McCrea is built like LeBron James, and he has decimated MAC competition to the tune of 19 points and 10 rebounds per game, along with better than two blocks and assists per game and nearly two steals per game.
Few players in college basketball stuff the stat sheet like McCrea, yet he hasn't received the credit he so richly deserves. Following a dominant showing earlier in the month, UB head coach Bobby Hurley had high praise for his star forward:
Proud of our team- great road win! @JavonMcCrea 25 pts 20 Rebs. Best kept secret in College Basketball.— Bobby Hurley (@BobbyHurley11) February 9, 2014
McCrea may be a secret right now, but that won't last much longer. The national media is finally starting to take notice, including Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, who pegged McCrea as a name to keep in mind come tournament time:
A name to remember for March --- Buffalo's Javon McCrea. Had 30 and 9 today in Bulls' win over Kent State. MAC star. #CBSSuperSocial— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 22, 2014
McCrea rates third in the nation on player efficiency rating, according to ESPN.com, well ahead of stars like Duke's Jabari Parker and Kansas' Joel Embiid. McCrea won't be able to do it all on his own, but if supporting players like Joshua Freelove and Will Regan step up in the latter stages of the season, then Buffalo will be a very dangerous team come tournament time.
While Harvard is certainly better known for its academics than its athletics, the Crimson have built quite a competitive basketball program in recent years. Harvard is unquestionably the class of the Ivy League once again this season, and it already has some experience in terms of playing spoiler in the NCAA tournament.
Last year, Harvard knocked off No. 3 New Mexico as a No. 14 seed, and there is no reason why it can't do something similar in 2014. Harvard boasts a record of 22-4 with some quality wins, including one over a Boston College team that handed Syracuse its first loss. Also, Harvard lost to Connecticut by just five points, which is proof positive that the Crimson can hang with power-conference giants.
Depth is the name of the game for Harvard, with six players averaging 9.5 points or more per game this season. Harvard also boasts a player who can take games over in the form of junior swingman Wesley Saunders. He has been a dominant force in the Ivy League, but Rothstein believes that he could be productive anywhere:
There's not a conference in America that Wesley Saunders wouldn't have an impact in. 6-5 + has a great feel. Very calculated scorer.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 15, 2014
That will be put to the test come tournament time since Harvard will likely be faced with a big-name opponent. Even though the Crimson aren't being talked about much right now, they are battle-tested and ready to break some hearts in the tourney once again.
Which mid-major team will have the most success in the NCAA tournament?
The Green Bay Phoenix women's basketball program has developed into a national power over the past several years, and that has naturally overshadowed the men's team in many ways. The roles have suddenly reversed, however, and the men's program now appears poised to potentially do some damage in March.
Green Bay has dominated the Horizon League to the tune of a 12-2 conference mark and 22-5 overall record. Although the Horizon League is viewed as weak by some, Green Bay has an impressive resume. The Phoenix beat a Virginian team that is now ranked No. 12 in the nation, and they lost by just three points to No. 14 Wisconsin. Add in the fact that diminutive point guard Keifer Sykes is averaging over 20 points per game, and there's a lot to like about Green Bay with the season winding down.
One person who believes in the team's tournament prospects is head coach Brian Wardle, who feels as though the underdog tag will work in Green Bay's favor, according to Brian Hamilton of SI.com.
We have to keep our edge. We've got a lot of guys in that locker room that have chips on their shoulders, that want to prove to people what they're made of. We need to keep that and stay grounded and humble and hungry. And if we have a little bit of luck, I'd love to have the opportunity to show people what Green Bay basketball is all about.
The Phoenix have everything that you look for in a potential bracket buster, with a pair of stars in Sykes and Alec Brown along with some quality performances against top teams. All of that points to Green Bay being one of the NCAA tournament's most feared mid-majors.
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