Every few seasons, a new mid-major college basketball powerhouse emerges from seemingly nowhere, and we're about due for another school to join the ranks of the recent greats.
Less than 20 years ago, most of us had never even heard of Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs have now been to 16 consecutive NCAA tournaments. Butler sprang to power around the same time, winning at least 22 games every season from 1996-2003.
Long before the days of Dougie McBuckets, Dana Altman coached Creighton to seven out of nine NCAA tournaments between 1999 and 2007. And before Stephen Curry really put Davidson on the map, the Wildcats were already well entrenched in a run of 13 consecutive seasons above .500 with 10 SoCon regular-season titles.
More recently, Belmont, VCU and Wichita State have been dancing more often than not. Each of those teams has won at least 26 games in each of the last four seasons.
So who's got next?
With Butler, Creighton, Davidson and VCU all now playing in bigger and better conferences than when they first appeared on the national radar, there's a scarcity of mid-majors that we can count on seeing in the tournament on an annual basis.
Fortunately, there are a few quality candidates to fill the void.
Somewhat amazingly, there are a handful of common trends among those powerhouses listed above.
First and foremost, they attempted and made a ton of three-pointers in their first noteworthy season. The 1996-97 Butler team was the "worst" of the bunch, shooting 36.4 percent from three-point range and making just over five per game.
Everyone else on the list shot at least 37 percent and made at least seven triples per game.
As a result, they were typically high-scoring teams, as well. Save for Butler, every team averaged at least 75 points per game. Four of the six teams ranked in the top 25 in the nation in scoring for their respective seasons.
They all got to that point by relying heavily on veteran guards. Davidson had Kenny Grant, VCU had B.A. Walker, Belmont banked on Brian Collins' leadership and Wichita State hit it big with Joe Ragland and Toure' Murry manning the backcourt. All of those players were seniors during their teams' first big year.
Who do you consider the best mid-major powerhouse of the past 20 years?
But, perhaps, just as important as those senior guards was the pipeline of eventual seniors behind them. Davidson might have been a one-hit wonder if it only had Grant, but Bob McKillop also had Jason Richards (So.) and Max Paulhus Gosselin (Fr.) waiting in the wings to take the reins over the next few years.
Similar story for Gonzaga, which went from Quentin Hall to Matt Santangelo to Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp without so much as a hiccup.
It's one thing to build toward one great season like North Dakota State did this past year, but we're looking for teams capable of establishing a precedent that can be carried on for at least a few years.
Lastly, steals are a plus but hardly a prerequisite for consideration. VCU and Creighton played great defense during the early years of their dynasties, but Davidson was actually the worst team in the entire country at creating steals, according to KenPom.com (subscription required).
It should be noted that meeting those criteria is anything but a guaranteed recipe for success. Between Travis Bader and Duke Mondy, Oakland had some of the best senior guards in the country, made a lot of threes, scored a ton of points and forced a lot of steals. Yet, the Golden Grizzlies won all of 13 games last season.
Rather, the criteria should be considered a means of weeding out the non-contenders, leaving us with a small pool of teams from which a powerhouse may appear.
In the end, there are three teams that we'll be circling as potential Cinderellas for the next few years.
Unless you count Southern Methodist, Georgia State has been this summer's most popular sleeper team—if such an oxymoron can actually exist.
The Panthers were 25-7 last season before blowing an 11-point lead in the final six minutes of the Sun Belt title game and missing out on the NCAA tournament by one point in overtime.
It was a heartbreaking way to end the season, but they bring back their two most important players and add a couple of key transfers, while the other top teams in the conference get just that much weaker. Last year, they averaged 78 points, 7.5 three-pointers and 7.7 steals per game.
With R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow leading the way again—and Louisville transfer Kevin Ware off the bench after last month's announcement that he'll be eligible to play—they're pretty much a guarantee to win the 2014-15 regular-season Sun Belt title.
If Hunter stays with the team until he runs out of college eligibility, Georgia State is set up pretty well for the future. The Panthers lose Devonta White this summer and will be losing Harrow the following year, but having Hunter as a senior for the 2015-16 season is quite the stretch of veteran leadership in the backcourt.
And with the way head coach Ron Hunter has been pilfering the transfer market over the past few seasons, it seems safe to assume that they'll only get stronger as they start making tournament appearances, thus becoming an even more popular destination for players looking for a fresh start.
Since this may well be your first time ever hearing a single thing about Lipscomb, here are a few things about last year's team that you should probably know.
- The Bisons had four players average at least 13.0 PPG.
- All four of those players will be back this year, giving the team a starting rotation made up of a redshirt sophomore at point guard, a senior shooting guard, a sophomore "small forward" and a senior "power forward."
- The Bisons averaged 76 points, 9.2 made three-pointers and 6.7 steals last season.
- On February 27, they beat a fully healthy Florida Gulf Coast team by 21 points.
If you're wondering about the quotations around the forward positions in the second factoid above, it's because Lipscomb didn't have a single player taller than 6'6" who logged so much as 50 minutes last season. The Bisons gave "small ball" a whole new meaning by starting five players 6'5" or shorter.
Not surprisingly, their interior defense was among the worst in the country as they allowed opponents to score 78.5 points per game.
A lack of quality height doesn't have to be a bad thing, though—especially in a minor conference like the Atlantic Sun. During VCU's run to the 2004 and 2007 NCAA tournaments, the Rams relied almost entirely on players 6'7" or shorter.
The Bisons clearly have the offensive firepower to contend with good teams. To have a shot at greatness, they just need to step up their defensive game in Casey Alexander's second season at the helm.
An oldie but a goodie!
The Eagles already had a very long moment in the sun under Gregg Marshall's guidance, appearing in eight of the 10 NCAA tournaments between 1999-2008. But that's no reason to remove them from consideration for a return to power.
Like Lipscomb, the Eagles are an extremely undersized team. Their starting center was 6'6" James Bourne, and 5'7" Keon Johnson was their primary shooting guard. (No wonder they had nearly twice as many of their own shots blocked as they rejected on the defensive end of the court.)
But also like Lipscomb, Winthrop brings back the bulk of its important players from last season. Johnson shot 44.1 percent from three-point range and averaged 12.3 points per game last year as a freshman. Keon Moore and Andre Smith will lead the team as seniors who shoot about 40 percent from three-point range as well.
After those two graduate, Pat Kelsey should get two solid years out of the backcourt duo of Johnson and Josh Davenport before having to figure out what to do next.
Perhaps the best news of all for Winthrop is that its conference is about as bad as it has ever been.
According to KenPom.com, VMI was the 193rd-best team in the country last season, but that was good enough to be the best in the Big South. The year before that, Charleston Southern was tops in the Big South despite ranking 187th in the nation.
Dating back to 2004, those are the two lowest-ranking teams to serve as the best team in the Big South.
And last year's top team has realigned, as VMI joins the Southern Conference for the 2014-15 season.
By merely being the 170th-best team in the country, Winthrop could dominate the Big South for years to come. Given the players on the Eagles roster, that's more than feasible.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.