It seems that just about every year an unheralded group of underdogs bands together to make an unforgettable run in the NCAA tournament.
These low seeds are often referred to as “Cinderellas” and are a huge part of what makes March Madness so memorable on an annual basis. It should be no different in 2014, especially with so many quality programs playing great basketball out of the spotlight around the country.
Let’s take a look at a handful of schools that are knocking on the door of the 68-team field and could very well make a surprise if they are selected to participate in the Big Dance.
George Washington Colonials
The Colonials are exactly the type of team that no powerhouse contender wants to play in March. They boast a strong defense and balanced offensive attack and have a closer who demands the rock in big moments in order to deliver wins.
While George Washington isn’t guaranteed to impress the committee and have its name called come Selection Sunday, it is getting quite close to locking up a spot in the field.
This team is currently sitting at 20-7 and may need to run the table against George Mason, St. Joe’s and Fordham in order to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament. George Washington has a big signature win against No. 20 Creighton but narrowly missed an opportunity to secure another against No. 10 St. Louis on Feb. 22.
Regardless, this underrated juggernaut should be able to pick up enough wins to close the regular campaign and punch a ticket to the Big Dance in the conference tournament. Once there, the Colonials will be tough to stop.
They feature one of the better defenses in the country, holding opponents to a mere 66.4 points per game. That number is more impressive when you factor in that George Washington plays at a pace that allows it to put up an average of 74.0 points per contest.
Maurice Creek is the closest thing to a star that this team has, but he averages just 13.7 points per game and is one of five players on the team currently scoring in the double digits.
The senior transferred from Indiana and has given the Colonials a major boost, especially when it comes to finishing close games. Head coach Mike Lonergan described his impact on the program to ESPN’s Myron Medcalf:
You look at a game like Maryland this year. We’re up 14 [points] with five minutes left. Fouled out Dez Wells. Coach [Mark] Turgeon got a technical, started pressing and we started falling apart. It kind of reminded me of last year. And Maryland came all the way back and tied it. So we call timeout, probably like 10 seconds left or whatever it was. Maurice said, "Give me the ball." He wanted the ball. And we didn’t have anybody that really wanted the ball or could really do anything last year at the end of the game, and he made a jump shot. It gave our team confidence that they had a teammate we could put the ball in his hands at the end of the game and he would make a shot. That just gave all our team confidence that, "Hey, we can win close games."
That is exactly the kind of talent that tends to swing games when it comes to the NCAA tournament. While he may not become one of those Stephen Curry-esque bombers who will put the team on his back and hit 10 treys in one game, Creek is connecting on 38.2 percent of his six three-point attempts per game and can nail them when they count the most.
If he’s in the zone, the Colonials will be able to hang with anyone. They will prevail as long as the 6’5” guard has the ball with the chance to win as the clock is winding down.
The Bulls continue to sit atop the MAC East and appear poised to make a run into the NCAA tourney, especially if they finish the last three games of their season on a high note and win the conference tournament.
Should they accomplish that, this rag-tag group will be a tough out for any opponent—as the Bulls are capable of playing great basketball for 40-minute stretches against anyone.
Javon McCrea is the catalyst behind this run of success in Buffalo, as the 6’7”, 250-pound forward is stuffing the stat sheet to the tune of 18.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 2.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game.
The senior is simply dominant, putting up double-doubles on a regular basis and doing so efficiently—as he is shooting a scorching 56.7 percent from the field.
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports called McCrea a name to remember come March after his 30-point, nine-rebound outing in a 78-69 shellacking of Kent State:
He’ll need to keep playing well and even crank it up a notch come the conference tournament, however, if this team is to emerge from the MAC. It’s doubtful that the conference sends more than two teams to the Big Dance, and it is highly probable that just the overall victor winds up in the field.
Considering the Bulls have beaten West leader Western Michigan, second-place East team Ohio and third-place East team Akron, they should be able to navigate through the conference bracket in order to play a spoiler role in March Madness.
It’s certainly no shoo-in, but Buffalo is undoubtedly a team to watch for if things fall into place ahead of the NCAA tourney.