The 2014 NCAA tournament is on the verge of beginning, but there is still plenty of time to identify some sleeper teams to get behind during the marquee event.
While the selection committee hasn’t yet revealed its choices for the 68-team field, there are a handful of under-the-radar programs that have already punched their ticket to the Big Dance. They might not be getting much respect right now, but could be hailed as a Cinderella by the end of the coming weekend.
Let’s take a look at some of these unheralded squads that appear poised to make some noise and have you looking like a bracketology guru when they pick up some early-round wins in March Madness.
The Crimson were the first team to officially get invited to March Madness, having won the Ivy League’s regular season title back on March 8. Since then, this group has been practicing and waiting for its seed, getting ready to stun the world once again.
This is the fourth straight year that Harvard has won at least a share of the Ivy League championship and third straight year that the prestigious university has advanced to the NCAA tournament.
After losing in their first appearance during this run, the No. 14-seeded Crimson came through in a big way in the 2013 event, knocking off No. 3 seed New Mexico in a stunning, 68-62 second-round contest.
While Harvard wouldn’t get to wear the glass slipper and had its advance halted by Arizona in the third round, the players earned invaluable experience and are ready to make a real run this March.
Head coach Tommy Amaker has completely turned this program around, helping morph it into a contender after a long period of ineptitude. He spoke about that being his goal with Pat Eaton-Robb of the Associated Press (as per the Charlotte Observer):
I think all coaches and programs are striving to be in a position where maybe you're the favorite or you're that type of team; you're a contender on a consistent basis. That's what we've talked about being.
His Crimson dominated not only their Ivy League schedule, but also the entire 2013-14 campaign. The team went 13-1 in conference play, continuing to improve its record in that regard over the last two years, and 26-4 overall.
Harvard picked up major wins over Vermont and Green Bay, only losing to Colorado, UConn and Florida Atlantic outside of the conference. One major reason for its success is three-point shooting, which is one of the best skills to have in the tournament.
The Crimson collectively shot 38.7 percent from beyond the arc, a number that approaches the 39.8 percent figure they averaged last year before upsetting the Lobos. The team went 8-18 from deep in that contest and shouldn’t be afraid to bomb away against whatever favored opponent it takes on in the upcoming tournament.
It would be extremely unwise for Harvard’s initial opponent to look past the Crimson, as Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated says this is the most underrated team in the field:
Harvard. Be very afraid RT @a_wills15: Who's the most underrated team heading into the tournament?— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 11, 2014
Expect Harvard to pick up where it left off last year, winning its second round game and stunning the world with a third-round victory to put this squad through to the second weekend.
Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens
The Fightin’ Blue Hens aren’t exactly a household name, but this group has what it takes to be one of the most dangerous low seeds in the entire bracket.
Delaware locked up an NCAA tournament appearance on March 10, overcoming William & Mary in the final seconds of the Colonial Athletic Association championship and punching its first ticket to the Big Dance since 1999.
Head coach Monte Ross deserves a lot of credit for this appearance, persevering and improving over the course of five straight losing seasons until going 37-28 over the last two years. His team finally made a 25-9 push in 2013-14 and it resulted in a much-deserved tournament berth.
Ross, who participated in March Madness six times as an assistant with Drexel and St. Joseph’s, made sure to explain just how special and rare this event will be for his players, as per Kevin Tresolini of The News Journal:
When we got back, I told the guys on the bus, what you are getting ready to experience, so many players never get this opportunity. It is a wonderful, tremendous opportunity, something you never forget.
Jarvis Threatt is going to be the key player to watch for Delaware, as the junior guard averaged a solid 18.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.5 steals per game this season. He stands just 6’2”, 170 pounds, but is capable of playing much bigger.
Is Delaware capable of becoming a Cinderella?
While he’s not much of a three-point bomber, Threatt can get to the rim at will and create his own shot. The offense will run through him and he can pass out of double teams to make the opposing defense pay.
The Fightin’ Blue Hens may lack size and rebounding skills, but this team has enough talent on the perimeter to catch fire and beat anyone they might face in the tourney. Keep an eye on Delaware during the tournament, as it might just surprise you.