Conference action is just getting underway, and the field of 68 for the 2014 NCAA tournament is beginning to develop. We will know for sure which teams will squeeze in come Selection Sunday; however, some lower-ranked teams are already poised to make some noise in March Madness.
It happens every year. Teams come out of nowhere and find ways to defeat some of the nation's toughest clubs. Let's take a look at one such team from each quadrant of the bracket and explain why each one is set to make a splash in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
South (Memphis): Oklahoma State (projected seed: No. 10)
The Cowboys started their season off in stellar fashion, winning 15 of their first 17 games. Unfortunately, the team suffered a rough stretch in 2014, losing seven straight games—four of which were to unranked teams.
Part of the problem was the suspension of Marcus Smart. It just so happened that Smart was suspended over the final three games of that losing streak. What happened when he came back? The Cowboys regained their form in a big way.
Over the next four games, Smart led Oklahoma State to some decisive victories, including a 72-65 victory over No. 5 Kansas. The Cowboys lost their season finale to No. 16 Iowa State in overtime by a score of 85-81, but their revamped offense was on display.
If the Cowboys can gain some momentum in the Big 12 tournament, they have the firepower to stand up against teams such as Michigan and Virginia in the South.
West (Anaheim): St. Joseph's (projected seed: No. 11)
St. Joseph's quietly put together a nice regular season, finishing with a 21-9 record and claiming the third spot in the Atlantic 10. This team had a roller-coaster season, gaining a big 73-68 win against No. 21 Massachusetts on Feb. 1 but also dropping the last two games of the season to unranked squads.
A balanced team, St. Joseph's combines the perimeter shooting of Langston Galloway with the monstrous inside threat of Ronald Roberts Jr. Four players are averaging better than 10 points per game, and two are averaging at least seven rebounds per game.
When this team gets hot and puts it all together, it can hang with some of the better teams in the nation. After beating UMass, Halil Kanacevic mentioned that he didn't feel the win was an upset, per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com: "Take nothing away from UMass but we played them already and we almost beat them. We feel like we should have beat them. I don't feel like it's an upset."
Depending on St. Joseph's final bracket seed, it has the ability to stand up to teams such as Texas, Massachusetts and Connecticut in the early rounds of the tournament.
East (New York): Baylor (projected seed: No. 9)
Baylor put together a solid 21-10 regular-season record thanks to its offense, which averaged 75.1 points per game, ranking 72nd in the nation. The team proved that it can flourish with its back against the wall, emerging victorious in each of its three overtime games this year.
The Bears ended the season strong, winning each of their final three games, including a 74-61 drubbing of the high-octane No. 16 Iowa State on March 4.
Brady Heslip, who has been fantastic this season, explained his excitement over the win, per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com: "You guys don't know how happy I am right now. All I wanted to do was win. I just wanted to leave everything out there so we could win. This was the best feeling I've felt in this gym, no question."
Heslip finished the game with 18 points, draining all five of his three-point attempts in the second half. He put the team on his shoulders and led the Bears on a 13-0 run to end the game. His drive and the team's confidence will go a long way in the NCAA tournament.
If Heslip remains on fire, expect the Bears to keep pace with teams such as Oregon, Villanova and Iowa State in the NCAA tournament.
Midwest (Indianapolis): Xavier (projected seed: No. 11)
Xavier finished the regular season with up-and-down performances. It fell to unranked Georgetown and Seton Hall but emerged victorious against a surging St. John's team and No. 9 Creighton.
Led by Semaj Christon, who is averaging 17.0 points per game and shooting over 40 percent from downtown, the Musketeers scored over 70 points in six of their final seven games. Although they ended the season with a loss, they hung in there with No. 6 Villanova, losing by just seven points.
Xavier was without center Matt Stainbrook for the game, which hurt the team in a big way. Isaiah Philmore, who scored 15 points in the contest, elaborated on Stainbrook's absence, per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com: "Us not having Matt was tough, but I think we learned more about each other. It didn't turn out the way we wanted it to, obviously, but we stuck together. It just wasn't enough. Sometimes, it's not always enough."
The team showed that it can still be effective without the junior center, but it won't be without him for long. Joe Kay of USA Today reported that Stainbrook will aim to return for the NCAA tournament.
When the team is back at full strength, it will be able to provide stiff competition to the likes of Ohio State, Syracuse and Kansas in the tournament.
All projected tournament seeds courtesy of ESPN bracketology, current as of March 12.
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