Cinderella Rankings for 2014 March Madness Hopefuls Ahead of Conference Tourneys

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 9, 2014

Cinderella Rankings for 2014 March Madness Hopefuls Ahead of Conference Tourneys

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    Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

    The 2014 edition of March Madness is just over a week away, meaning that (with apologies to spring training) the national pastime for the next 10 days is going to be predicting upsets. Even with most of the field of 68 still up in the air, it’s not too early to start hunting for the underdogs who will make headlines in this season’s NCAA tournament.

    One team that’s already proven itself as a bracket-buster is Ivy League champion Harvard, a winner over third-seeded New Mexico a year ago. Swingman Wesley Saunders, whose 18 points led the Crimson in that victory, is back to spearhead another upset bid for his team’s deep offense.

    Herein, a look at Tommy Amaker’s squad and nine more of the most promising Cinderella candidates from smaller leagues around the country, ranked according to how likely they are to send some high-seeded opponent to a painful exit.

10. Southern Miss

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    Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

    The Golden Eagles aren’t a team with a lot of length, but they have muscle to spare. Senior leader Michael Craig (a 6’5”, 230-lb bulldog) is a poor man’s version of St. Louis star Dwayne Evans.

    Add in 6’7”, 235-pound Daveon Boardingham, and Southern Miss can bang with much more heralded teams.

    The Golden Eagles also have one of the best late-game weapons in the country: Senior PG Neil Watson is a .392 three-point shooter for when they're behind and a .933 foul shooter when they have the lead.

9. Georgia State

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    MacGyver would be proud of Georgia State coach Ron Hunter, who’s taken bits and pieces cast off by bigger-name programs and assembled a team that cut a swath through the Sun Belt Conference.

    Now the question is whether Hunter’s crazy-quilt roster can be more than the sum of parts including ex-Kentucky PG Ryan Harrow (with his third program in four years) and ex-Virginia Tech forward Manny Atkins.

    One of the few Panthers who doesn’t have an "ex-" in front of his affiliation is sophomore R.J. Hunter, the coach’s son who leads the team at 18.5 points per game.

    If the younger Hunter—a 6’5” three-point gunner who placed 19th nationally in treys made—can get hot, he’ll go a long way towards making up for GSU’s lack of reliable rebounding.

8. UC Irvine

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    With two freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup, UC Irvine doesn’t exactly fit the traditional profile of the small-conference powerhouse.

    However, when one of the freshmen is 7’6”, 290-pound center Mamadou Ndiaye, that can throw a lot of assumptions out the window.

    If the Anteaters get the version of Ndiaye that showed up in an upset win over Washington—18 points, eight rebounds, nine blocks—he’ll make up for the team’s lack of a go-to scorer.

    Ndiaye’s perimeter teammates are also exceptional passers—the team is 164th nationally in scoring but 17th in assists—so even power-conference foes won’t have an easy time of it if the game comes down to one defensive stop.

7. Eastern Kentucky

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    In the first upset of the conference tournament season, Eastern Kentucky upended Ohio Valley favorite Belmont in the OVC title game.

    There’s a good chance that win won’t be the last surprise EKU manages this month, especially if Corey Walden (2.2 steals per game) and company keep forcing turnovers.

    Offensively, the Colonels are living up to their nickname with an attack that resembles a fusillade of artillery.

    If senior Glenn Cosey (18.8 points a night) and his fellow three-point gunners are shooting well, they can play with any opponent in the country.

6. Mercer

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    When Florida Gulf Coast became 2013’s defining Cinderella team, it had only reached the Big Dance on the strength of an upset of Mercer in the Atlantic Sun final.

    Mercer returned the favor Sunday, pounding FGCU on its home floor to earn a March Madness trip for an offense that ranks eighth in the nation in assists per game.

    With a year of extra experience, the Bears—led by versatile 6’4” PG Langston Hall—are even more dangerous than they might have been in 2013. Hall is part of an all-senior starting five that also features 6’10” Daniel Coursey in the middle.

5. Iona

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    Without super-scorer Lamont “Momo” Jones, the Gaels haven’t enjoyed as much Cinderella buzz this season as they did a year ago. However, many of the same assets they featured last March are in place again for another upset bid.

    Jones’ former right-hand man, Sean Armand, is now leading the offense to the tune of 17.8 points and 4.0 assists per game.

    He’s got a prolific sidekick of his own (A.J. English III, whose father A.J. spent two years in the NBA), but more importantly, they both have a legitimate post presence to feed in the form of 6’9”, 255-pound David Laury.

4. North Dakota State

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    With Nate Wolters gone to the NBA, his old South Dakota State team will be replaced in the field of 68 (in all probability) by its fiercest rivals, North Dakota State.

    The Bison boast a staggeringly efficient offense that leads the nation in field-goal percentage, a paradigm that’s earned its share of upset wins in the past (think Cornell’s 2010 Sweet 16 squad).

    Also like plenty of Cinderellas past, NDSU has leadership in spades: The top four scorers are three seniors and a junior.

    Although the Bison’s rebounding performance has been disappointing, they’re also not going to get pushed around too easily with 6’7” Taylor Braun and 6’8”, 250-pound Marshall Bjorklund leading the way.

3. Harvard

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    After going 66 years between tournament berths, Harvard has now landed its third straight spot in the Big Dance. The Crimson showed off their Cinderella chops by flooring New Mexico last March, and they’re a deeper, better team this season.

    The return (from academic suspension) of Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry gives coach Tommy Amaker two more weapons for what was already a deep offense in 2012-13.

    The 6’7” Casey also adds some welcome size to a team that’s still led from the perimeter, with versatile guards Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers making most of the plays.

2. Toledo

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    John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s never a good idea to ignore a team that can hang with Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Toledo didn’t pull the upset in that December game, but it did pile up plenty of points in a 93-83 defeat by hitting nine of its 16 three-point tries.

    The sweet-shooting Rockets also have the benefit of a first-class point guard, junior Julius Brown (14.8 points and 6.3 assists per game).

    Size is a concern for the 5’10” Brown and his cohorts, but with a rotation that goes nine deep, Toledo can run plenty of bigger teams into the ground with its uptempo attack.

1. Delaware

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    The Blue Hens’ lineup—6’9”, 260-pound Carl Baptiste surrounded by a platoon of guards—and numbers (8.2 rebounds per game from Baptiste, 20 points a night from Devon Saddler) make them look more like a favorite than an underdog.

    Their track record says they may play more like one in March Madness, too.

    Delaware took on a vicious nonconference schedule and came achingly close to a signature upset, losing by four points at Villanova and five at Notre Dame (before the Irish fell apart).

    They’ll be ready for the intensity of a more celebrated tournament foe, and their prolific offense—with PG Jarvis Threatt at the helm—will give them a great chance to beat one.