Potential 2014 March Madness Sleepers Impressing in Conference Tournaments
College basketball's conference tournament season often serves as a coronation for potential top seeds such as Wichita State, but it also has opportunities to offer the dark horses of March Madness. Less heralded programs can build valuable momentum by stringing together wins in the postseason-before-the-postseason, whether or not they need those wins just to make the field of 68.
One team that was already secure with its at-large chances entering the week was the Pittsburgh Panthers. However, when Pitt opened its ACC tourney with one of its best defensive games of the year against Wake Forest, it gained good reason to hope that February’s doldrums are in the past.
Herein is a closer look at the Panthers and seven more conference tournament success stories from teams poised to surprise in the Big Dance.
The top seed in the Conference USA tourney looked the part Thursday, thrashing a solid Charlotte team by an 86-65 margin. In the process, the Bulldogs showed off several of the assets that give them a great chance to pull an upset in the Big Dance.
Chief among those is 6’9” junior Michale Kyser, who ate up the 49ers for 20 points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
La Tech also has a perimeter game to go with its interior muscle, highlighted by playmaking point guard Kenneth Smith (eight assists and five boards against Charlotte).
As UConn reminded the country Thursday, when the good version of the Huskies shows up, they’re almost unbeatable. Facing an outstanding Memphis squad in the AAC quarterfinals, Shabazz Napier and company rolled to a 72-53 win.
Of course, the bad version of the Huskies (the one that lost its regular-season finale by 33 in Louisville) has shown up often enough to prevent this team from getting too high of a seed on Sunday.
Even as a No. 5 or No. 6, though, they’ll be a serious threat with their wealth of three-point shooters.
A Panthers team known for its offense put on a defensive show in its ACC tournament opener. In crushing Wake Forest by an 84-55 margin, Pitt held Demon Deacons stars Travis McKie and Devin Thomas to a combined 10 points and nine rebounds.
We haven’t seen much of the Panthers at their best lately, not while a February swoon was turning them from a Top 25 contender into something just north of a bubble team.
If Lamar Patterson and his mates can keep playing top-level defense to go with their prolific offense, they’ll be a very tough out during March Madness.
Although Stanford opened its Pac-12 tournament with an eminently predictable win over a weak Washington State team, the Cardinal opened plenty of eyes in the next round.
They didn’t just beat third-seeded Arizona State—they smothered the Sun Devils in a 79-58 rout.
While a towering Stanford front line (the team’s biggest edge for March Madness play) did its job against ASU, the real triumph was the perimeter game.
Chasson Randle piled up 21 points and four assists, while his team hounded Jahii Carson into 4-of-13 shooting and a mere 10 points on the day.
North Dakota State
North Dakota State only lost two games in Summit League action this season. It took down both of the teams responsible en route to the conference tournament title, including an 83-48 whitewashing of Denver.
The senior-studded Bison showed their toughness in coming from behind to edge IPFW in the league final, but it’s their offensive efficiency that will really make them a threat as a double-digit seed.
With the No. 1 field-goal-shooting attack in the nation, Taylor Braun and company will punish some of the scattershot offenses that have survived on athleticism alone in the power conferences.
The Buffaloes don’t necessarily win pretty, but they do win. They’ve advanced to the Pac-12 semis by edging USC (which is a fairly meaningless win) and doing the same against California (which isn’t).
The powerful Colorado front line ground down physical Cal, out-rebounding the Golden Bears 38-29. Meanwhile, Askia Booker (from two-point range) and Xavier Talton (from beyond the arc) combined for 30 points to head up the offense.
It’s been a rough year for the favorites in one-bid conferences, but Delaware dodged the upset bug. Having swept Hofstra, Northeastern and William & Mary to win the CAA crown, the Blue Hens are ready to go from front-runners to scary underdogs.
The 6’9”, 260-pound Carl Baptiste, who racked up 24 points and eight boards against the Tribe, gives Delaware an inside presence to stand up to bigger-name schools.
The Blue Hens’ perimeter game is even tougher, led by scorer Devon Saddler and distributor Jarvis Threatt.
Largely forgotten after collapsing at the start of the Big 12 Conference season, Baylor is now among the hottest teams in the country. The Bears’ two wins to open the Big 12 tourney give them five in a row and nine in their last 10 games.
Even better for Isaiah Austin and his mates, Thursday’s triumph over AP No. 17 Oklahoma provided some welcome evidence that they’re ready for NCAA tournament-level opposition.
If they can keep shooting anywhere near 50 percent from the field to go with their top-flight rebounding, the Bears will beat an awful lot of teams.
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