It's conference tournament week around the country for college basketball and that can only mean one thing—Selection Sunday is on the horizon and March Madness is to follow.
There is still plenty up for grabs in these next few days before the NCAA tournament selection committee finalizes the field of 68 for this year's bracket. But we also have a good idea of who's in and who's out, as some conferences have already crowned their postseason champions.
Here's a look at three lesser-known teams which are primed to surprise once the tourney gets going next week.
Delaware (25-9 overall, 14-2 CAA)
The Blue Hens have already jumped into March Madness, turning in an impressive come-from-behind victory to earn their ticket to The Big Dance.
Trailing William & Mary, 74-68, with just 80 seconds left in the game on Monday night, Delaware stormed back to score the final seven points of the contest to earn a 75-74 victory and the Colonial Athletic Association title.
In a fitting ending, 6'9", 260-pound forward Carl Baptiste scored the winning bucket with just 12 seconds to go, setting a new career high with 24 points.
David Ginsburg of the Associated Press passed along comment from Delaware after its huge victory, which will send the program to the NCAA tourney for the first time in 15 years.
Delaware trailed by a point when coach Monte Ross gathered his team to draw up a play with 25 seconds left. Ross wanted to have (Devon) Saddler, the Blue Hens' all-time leading scorer, take the pivotal shot.
"The first thing he said was, 'Get the ball inside to Bap,'" Ross said.
Good move. Carl Baptiste made the go-ahead layup with 10 seconds left, and not long after that the Blue Hens (25-9) were cutting down the nets at the Baltimore Arena to celebrate their fifth trip to the NCAA tournament.
"We've had a heck of a year," Ross said. "To cap it off like this is really special."
"Bap" was the go-to guy on Monday, going 9-of-11 from the field, 6-of-7 from the line with eight rebounds. His emergence is encouraging for a team that has relied on a stellar trio of guards all season long.
Devon Saddler (19.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 43.8 FG%), Davon Usher (19.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 45.1 FG%) and Jarvis Threatt (18.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 41.8 FG%) create a formidable backcourt for any team to try to defend.
While the team went 1-5 against RPI 100 teams on its schedule, which featured a tough nonconference slate of games and losses to Villanova (84-80), Ohio State (76-64) and Richmond (71-69), the Blue Hens are peaking at the right time, going 19-2 to close out the year.
They can score in bunches with a variety of players, they take care of the ball and they have a lot of momentum after their big CAA Championship Game victory. Keep an eye on Delaware once the brackets are announced on Sunday.
Oregon (22-8 overall, 10-8 Pac-12)
It's tough to make sense of these mercurial Oregon Ducks.
On some nights, they'll look like world-beaters—like this past Saturday, when Oregon claimed a 64-57 home victory over likely No. 1 NCAA tournament seed Arizona despite trailing by as many as 12 points. But then there was the stretch in the middle of the conference schedule, when the team 2-8 against a deep group of Pac-12 teams.
As it stands now, Oregon's win over Arizona all but stamped their ticket to the NCAA tournament heading into this week's conference tournament in Las Vegas.
Winners of seven straight, Oregon will play archrival Oregon State on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network) in the first round of the tournament. While they're currently penciled in as a No. 8 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology for ESPN, the Ducks still could use a couple more wins to cement their status in the Big Dance.
Andrew Greif of The Oregonian recently spoke to former Oregon coach and current Pac-12 analyst Ernie Kent about this year's squad:
Kent said UO's 7-gm streak was great but "as a coach I’m sure telling them they need one more win. Go win the tournament."— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) March 10, 2014
Even though he's the team's third-leading scorer, Jason Calliste (12.5 PPG, 52.3 FG%, 51.7 3FG%) has taken up a huge role on this team in clutch situations, per Greif:
During the Ducks’ 13-0 start they held to the belief that with so many offensive stars, any one of them could take the last shot in a close game. Saturday’s game should officially end that democratic approach. This is Jason Calliste’s team when it matters.
“I thought, ‘If we lose it's going to be on me because I'm going to shoot it regardless,’” Calliste said Saturday from the postgame podium.
Other top contributors include guard Joseph Young (18.2 PPG, 46.3 FG%) and forward Mike Moser (13.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG), on a team that is full of potential. With a 4-5 record against Top 50 RPI teams and 1-1 against the Top 25, Oregon has shown it can hang with the heavy hitters.
Now it's just a matter of this team holding on to momentum as it enters the upcoming Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments. If the Ducks can keep up this pace, look for them to be in prime position to knock off a top team in the second round to reach the Sweet 16.
Massachussets (23-7 overall, 10-6 A-10)
UMass enters this week's Atlantic 10 Conference tournament without a single vote in the AP Top 25 poll, but the team checks in at No. 16 on the RPI.
A quick look at their schedule will reveal a bevy of quality wins, including a win over VCU in late February that likely sealed UMass' first NCAA tournament bid since 1998, per Matt Norlander of CBS Sports:
It's been such a long time coming. The fans have been dying for it. They proved it Friday night, as they packed the place -- a rare sellout these days at the Mullin Center -- and the home team rewarded them with one of the biggest victories in years.
UMass held off VCU 80-75 to improve to 21-5 and lock up another fantastic win. Add it on to the conquers against bubble teams LSU, Clemson and BYU. Plus, it also owns a win over another comfortable NCAA tourney team in New Mexico. It's a done deal, barring a total collapse, which seems very unlikely given this team's experience and talent.
This was one of the best atmospheres at the arena in years. Those who'd been coming to Minutemen games for years said it felt like how used to feel like, when the program was rolling under John Calipari in the 1990s.
Following a 64-62 loss against No. 18 St. Louis in its regular-season finale, UMass is 6-3 against the RPI Top 50 this year heading into Thursday's A-10 tourney opener against Rhode Island.
Coach Derek Kellogg's team is highlighted by a trio of seniors—guard Chaz Williams (15.8 PPG, 7.1 APG, 40.6 FG%), forward Sampson Carter (10.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 42 FG%) and forward Raphiel Putney (9.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 46.6 FG%), while 6'10", 253-pound junior Cady Lalanne (11.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 57 FG%) has been the key man in the middle.
With their resume, talented core of experienced players and overall depth, it would be no surprise if UMass made a deep run during March Madness.