Ranking the Most Likely Cinderellas in the 2014 NCAA Tournament
With more answers than questions now about who’s going to be playing in the 2014 NCAA tournament, we can get on to the issue of who’s going to be playing the tournament’s most popular role: lovable underdog.
Every year, some low-seeded team from a sub-major conference earns national goodwill for the service of proving that the biggest, strongest and most famous don’t always win.
One team with a familiar pedigree in this department is Mercer, which comes out of the same Atlantic Sun Conference that sent Florida Gulf Coast to last year’s Big Dance. In fact, the veteran Bears got their upset efforts off to an early start by beating Dunk City on its home floor in this year’s A-Sun title game.
Read on for more on the Bears’ prospects, along with nine more potential giant-killers, ranked according to the likelihood that they’ll pull off one of those surprises that make the March Madness name so fitting.
The Jaspers aren’t nearly as one-dimensional as a lot of small-conference teams, having both the offensive punch to average 77.4 points per game (38th nationally) and the defensive acumen to hold conference favorite Iona 15 points below its scoring average in winning the MAAC title game.
On either end of the floor, most of that success starts with George Beamon.
Beamon, a 6’4” senior, leads the team in scoring, rebounding and steals (19.2, 6.6 and 1.6, respectively). He gets plenty of help inside from classmate Rhamel Brown (10.1 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game), who’s every bit as tough as his 6’7”, 230-pound build suggests.
8. George Washington
Even after getting flattened by VCU in the Atlantic 10 semifinals, George Washington’s many notable wins (over the Rams, UMass, Georgia and Creighton, among others) have the Colonials ticketed for an at-large berth.
Many of those wins were products of a relentlessly balanced offense. From 6’10” sophomore Kevin Larsen to ex-Indiana guard Maurice Creek, the starters all deliver between 11.3 and 14.5 points per game.
The defense has its weapons, too, especially senior shot-blocker Isaiah Armwood (a former Villanova reserve) and Kethan Savage (1.9 steals per game), who’s just returned from a broken foot.
The D played the starring role in the Colonials’ most publicized success story, holding Doug McDermott’s Blue Jays 27 points shy of their season average in a convincing upset.
7. Saint Joseph’s
The 2003-04 Hawks (who were the last team prior to Wichita State to win every game in the regular season) seem like they've been getting more national buzz lately than the 2013-14 edition.
That could work to Phil Martelli’s advantage, because his team—which has wins over VCU and UMass and will play for the A-10 title on Sunday—has more than enough talent to sneak up on an overconfident opponent.
The Hawks’ No. 1 weapon is shooting guard Langston Galloway, a 17.4 point-per-game scorer who hits 43.2 percent of his treys. Setting him up is Halil Kanacevic, one of the nation’s top point forwards at 6’8” and 4.4 assists per night.
6. Eastern Kentucky
Eastern Kentucky really only does two things, but it does them exceedingly well. The Colonels rank third nationally in three-pointers made and sixth in steals per game.
With the likes of 6’0” Glenn Cosey (18.8 points per game) and 6’2” Corey Walden (2.2 steals a night) playing vital roles, size can be an issue for EKU, but only if the bigger team can hold on to the ball long enough to shoot it.
The Colonels are too specialized for a deep run, but even a No. 2 seed could easily fall to them if the matchup is right and the three-pointers are dropping.
5. Western Michigan
Western Michigan has an inside-outside combo that would impress in the AAC, let alone the MAC.
The Broncos’ 6’11” senior, Shayne Whittington, can score, rebound and block shots, while David Brown (who hit 78 three-pointers for the year) led the Mid-American with 19.4 points per game.
WMU is also notable for its remarkable height as a team: the starting lineup averages a touch over 6’6”. That much size is especially an edge in the half-court game, where it takes some pressure off nondescript point guard Austin Richie.
Whatever big-name team Mercer faces in its March Madness opener, the Bears are sure to have the edge in one category.
Unlike almost any other team in the nation, and certainly any team that’s headed for a top-four seed, Mercer features five seniors in its starting lineup.
The ringleader is conference Player of the Year Langston Hall, a 6’4” point guard who’s also the team’s top scorer.
The Bears won’t get any help from the selection committee on seeding, but then, neither did conference-rival Florida Gulf Coast last season, and we all know how that turned out.
3. North Dakota State
The Bison look a lot like Central Casting’s version of a dangerous team from a one-bid league.
They’re not especially big or fast, but they’ve got a go-to scorer—Taylor Braun, at 18.2 points a game—and senior leadership (three of the starting five).
They also have an ace in the hole, in that they rarely make a mistake on offense. They’re 12th in the country in turnovers per game, not to mention No. 1 in field-goal percentage.
Cinderella rarely strikes twice, but then, so many Cinderella teams lean heavily on seniors who won’t be back for a second try.
Last year’s Crimson, though, toppled third-seeded New Mexico with a boatload of underclass guards, and this season’s edition added a couple of new weapons.
Point guard Brandyn Curry and power forward Kyle Casey, seniors who left school prior to last season in the wake of a cheating scandal, have returned to add even more experience and talent.
The battle-tested duo, who played in the 2012 tourney, losing to Vanderbilt, join versatile swingman Wesley Saunders and explosive point guard Siyani Chambers in a lineup with offensive weapons to spare.
The CAA has lost a lot of its cachet—and, indeed, a huge fraction of its teams—in recent years, but Delaware is the kind of potential giant-killer the league used to turn out with regularity.
The Blue Hens’ portfolio starts with a giant of their own: 6’9”, 260-pound Carl Baptiste.
His considerable presence in the middle lets coach Monte Ross use plenty of guards around him, a group led by high-scoring Devon Saddler (19.7 points per game). Wrangling that flock is the job of junior point guard Jarvis Threatt, who’s also the team’s most dangerous ball hawk.