Stock Watch for Top Cinderella Candidates in 2014 NCAA Tournament

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2014

Stock Watch for Top Cinderella Candidates in 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Spor

    The shoe-fitting has begun.

    If past NCAA tournaments are any indication, Cinderella's slipper should comfortably slip onto a few previously unknown teams here in the next few weeks. And while some of those could be power-conference teams far down in the conference standings, the best bets are from the one-bid leagues that make March Madness what it is.

    We've identified the 12 most likely candidates, some of whom are already headed to the Big Dance, and gauged the value of their stock heading into the NCAA tourney next week.

Boston Univ. Terriers

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    Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 24-9

    Conference: Patriot League

    The Terriers rolled through the Patriot League in its first season since moving from the America East Conference, winning the regular-season title by two games. Boston plays for the conference tournament title Wednesday night at home against second-seeded American.

    Boston has won four straight, winning its two conference tourney games by an average of 29 points. It split with American during the regular season, but lost by 30 to the Eagles on the road in late January.

    The Terriers have a win at Maryland under their belt, which shows they can beat the big boys. They're likely to be no better than a No. 13 or 14 seed next week.

    Stock trend: Holding steady

Delaware Blue Hens

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    Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 25-9

    Conference: Colonial

    The Blue Hens earned their first NCAA tournament bid since 1998 with a thrilling 75-74 win Monday over William & Mary, going on a 7-0 run in the final 81 seconds. It was their fifth straight win and 19th in their last 21 outings.

    Delaware played Notre Dame, Ohio State and Villanova tough early in the season, losing all three by a combined 21 points. As a No. 13 or 14 seed, the Hens will likely face another power-conference foe, but with their late-season momentum could be trending toward pulling off an upset.

    Stock trend: Going up

Georgia State Panthers

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    Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 24-7

    Conference: Sun Belt

    Georgia State won its regular-season title by a full five games, a margin only bettered by Florida in the SEC and Wichita State in the Missouri Valley. But while this speaks well of the Panthers, it might also indicate how weak the Sun Belt was.

    GSU has won 21 of 22 games heading into the Sun Belt tourney, which begins Thursday but won't include the top seed until Saturday's semifinals. The Panthers only need to win twice to make their first NCAA tourney since 2001, and would benefit from getting challenged in those games to offset an otherwise weak schedule to this point.

    GSU has only faced one potential NCAA entrant, losing in overtime at Southern Mississippi in early December. Ron Hunter's team has been nearly unstoppable since, but whether that momentum would carry over when paired against a No. 3 seed is uncertain.

    Stock trend: Moving down

Harvard Crimson

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    Jessica Hill/Associated Press

    Record: 26-4

    Conference: Ivy League

    The Crimson are in the NCAA tourney for the third straight season, and a good portion of the team that upset New Mexico in the second round last year is back for another run.

    Harvard went 13-1 in the Ivy, earning the automatic bid by virtue of its regular-season title. It clinched on March 7 by avenging a previous loss to Yale.

    The Crimson hung close in early-season losses to Colorado and Connecticut, and knocked off power-conference doormats Boston College and TCU. This team has looked better than the 2012-13 version, but the chance of a Cinderella run will depend on who it's matched up with in the NCAA tourney.

    Stock trend: Holding steady

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

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    Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 25-6

    Conference: Conference USA

    The Bulldogs finished in a four-way tie for the C-USA regular-season title at 13-3, and through tiebreakers ended up as the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. That will mean a likely semifinal matchup with either co-champ Southern Mississippi or tourney host UTEP on Friday, both of whom Tech has lost to this season.

    Louisiana Tech plays the kind of helter-skelter game that could wreak havoc on an unprepared higher seed, with eight players averaging more than 20 minutes for a team that scores more than 81 points per game. The Bulldogs have a quality upset under their belt, having won at Oklahoma in late December, and if they can navigate through a challenging C-USA tourney field would rate as a strong Cinderella candidate.

    Stock trend: Moving up

Manhattan Jaspers

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 25-7

    Conference: Metro Atlantic

    Manhattan finished second in the regular season, splitting with champion Iona, but beat the Gaels twice in a 10-day span, including Monday's 71-68 victory in the MAAC final in Springfield, Mass. George Beamon was one of four Jaspers in double figures in the title game, sending the program to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2004.

    The Jaspers' non-conference resume wasn't particularly impressive, though they did score an 18-point victory at South Carolina. But this is a senior-led team that, like the Manhattan squads that pulled off NCAA tourney upsets in 1995 and 2004, has the experience and potential to knock off a higher seed.

    Stock trend: Moving up

Mercer Bears

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    Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 26-8

    Conference: Atlantic Sun

    A year after losing at home in the conference title game (and thus unleashing Florida Gulf Coast and "Dunk City" on the world), Mercer returned the favor by winning at FGCU on Sunday for the A-Sun championship and its first NCAA tournament berth since 1985.

    The Bears have wins over Ole Miss and Seton Hall and lost by three at Texas in early November, but they also lost twice to A-Sun sixth-place finisher North Florida. A high-scoring team by nature, Mercer used a slow-down strategy to knock off FGCU and would probably try to employ a similar strategy in a bid to pull off an NCAA upset.

    That approach will only work against select opponents.

    Stock trend: Moving down

New Mexico State Aggies

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 23-9

    Conference: Western Athletic

    New Mexico State is one of the more intriguing yet also perplexing mid-majors out there. The Aggies feature the largest man in Division I in 7'5", 355-pound sophomore Sim Bhullar, as well as a roster stocked with foreign players that pulled off road wins over Hawaii, New Mexico and UTEP during the non-conference schedule.

    However, NMSU also lost on the road against three bad WAC teams, and then made national headlines for all the wrong reasons after players got involved in a brawl with Utah Valley fans who stormed the court following a Feb. 27 game. Guard K.C. Ross-Miller earned a one-game suspension for inciting the brawl after throwing the ball at a Utah Valley player as time expired.

    NMSU has made the NCAA tourney the past two seasons but is the No. 2 seed in the WAC tourney. If it can get a third straight berth, it's anyone's guess which Aggies team will show up.

    Stock trend: Holding steady

North Carolina Central Eagles

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    Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 25-5

    Conference: Mid-Eastern Athletic

    North Carolina Central has the nation's third-longest winning streak at 17 games, but only one of those (the regular-season finale at Norfolk State) came against a team that has a winning record.

    The Eagles are the No. 1 seed in the MEAC tourney and face No. 8 Howard on Wednesday. All signs point to them being able to survive the weak field and earn their first NCAA tournament bid, at which time some unsuspecting power-conference team is going to have to figure out what this team is made of.

    NCCU is eighth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 59.1 points per game. And while the league competition it faced was dismal, it had plenty of tests in the non-conference portion and won in overtime at North Carolina State.

    MEAC teams have only three wins all time in NCAA tourney, all as No. 15 seeds. That's probably where NC Central would end up.

    Stock trend: Holding steady

North Dakota State Bison

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    Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Spor

    Record: 25-6

    Conference: Summit

    North Dakota State had to rally late to knock off IPFW to win the Summit tournament by three points on Tuesday, sending the Bison to their second NCAA tournament. The game was one of the most challenging for NDSU in some time, as the normally hot-shooting and high-scoring team struggled from the field and scored 16 points below its season average.

    The Bison feature a solid, senior-heavy lineup that features dynamic scorer Taylor Braun and the nation's most accurate shooter in 6'8" forward Marshall Bjorklund, who makes more than 63 percent of his field goals. NDSU as a team shoots 50.9 percent from the field, tops in Division I.

    NDSU has all the makings of a trendy upset pick, but so did 2012 and 2013 Summit qualifier South Dakota State, which lost by eight and 14 points in those brief appearances.

    Stock trend: Moving up

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

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    Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 29-2

    Conference: Southland

    Stephen F. Austin enters its conference tournament with the nation's longest active winning streak, having won 26 straight, including an 18-0 mark in league play. The Lumberjacks were nearly as hot at this point last season, only to fall in the conference final to Northwestern State.

    The 'Jacks are playing solid defense yet again, allowing just 62.6 points per game, but the scoring is up under first-year coach Brad Underwood, thanks to a lineup that has nine players average more than 10 minutes.

    SFA has faced only one NCAA tourney candidate, losing by 10 at Texas nearly four months ago. Whether its success since then can manifest into an upset of a higher seed is hard to say.

    Stock trend: Holding steady

Toledo Rockets

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    John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 26-5

    Conference: Mid-American

    Toledo began the year 12-0 before losing by 10 at Kansas. Since then it's been all MAC opponents, with the Rockets losing four times on the road to finish in a tie for the West Division title. They've generally been an uptempo team, but they've also scored as few as 44 in a 21-point loss at Eastern Michigan.

    Junior guards Justin Brown and Julian Drummond are solid scorers and assist men for the Rockets, who as the No. 2 seed won't play until Friday's MAC tournament semifinals.

    Toledo hasn't been in the Big Dance since 1980, but if it can make it in, it has the league's rich upset history on its side. Ohio pulled off shockers in 2010 and 2012 as a No. 14 and No. 13 seed, respectively, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2012, and in 2002 Kent State made the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed.

    Stock trend: Holding steady