Mid-Major Schools with Cinderella Potential in the 2018 NCAA Tournament

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2018

Mid-Major Schools with Cinderella Potential in the 2018 NCAA Tournament

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    When brackets are busted and several favorites have been eliminated from the NCAA tournament, men's college basketball fans regularly hitch their fandom wagons to the upstart program making a run.

    The 2018 tournament is approaching, so which mid-majors are most likely to emerge as the darling of March Madness?

    Experience tends to prove critical for surprise teams, as does three-point shooting and efficient offense.

    Teams considered are not members of the AAC, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC. We also excluded yearly contender Gonzaga, recent standout Middle Tennessee and a trio of teamsRhode Island, Saint Mary's and Nevada—that have been ranked in the AP Top 25 at least five times in 2017-18.

Belmont Bruins

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    Is there anything more annoying for a March Madness favorite than to face an offense with seemingly anybody who can score?

    Belmont has six players averaging at least 6.7 points per game, and four—Dylan Windler, Amanze Egekeze, Austin Luke and Nick Hopkins—are connecting at a 39.7 clip or better while attempting 5.0 or more threes per game. Kevin McClain also has a 35.7 mark on 5.0 attempts per contest.

    Largely because of that three-point prowess, the Bruins rank third nationally with a 59.1 effective field-goal percentage.

    Belmont owns victories over Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky, and Washington and Providence needed last-minute efforts to hold off the Bruins. They're tested, they can shoot, and they're not an ideal opponent in the Big Dance.

Rider Broncs

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    Though it has a couple of bad losses (Drexel, Monmouth) on its resume, Rider pushed Providence and upset Penn State on the road with a buzzer-beater.

    The Broncs shouldn't be fazed by the NCAA environment, provided they outlast Iona, Canisius and Monmouth during the MAAC tournament. Those are the only programs to beat Rider in conference play.

    Five Rider players are averaging 9.7 points or more per game, and Stevie Jordan has dished 6.0 assists per game. The Broncs rely on Jordan Allen for perimeter scoring, and he's notched a commendable 40.0 three-point percentage while launching 7.4 triples per game.

    As long as Allen is shooting well, Rider's balanced attack could be a serious thorn for a top-seeded team having a poor defensive day.

Vermont Catamounts

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    Will sophomore Anthony Lamb be healthy?

    That's an enormous question that can't be answered. Vermont coach John Becker recently said Lamb's fractured foot is healed and that he could return for the America East tournament, per Alex Abrami of the Burlington Free Press.

    Last season, the Catamounts entered the Big Dance on a 21-game winning streak and tested Purdue in the first round. This season, Vermont has triumphed in 17 of its last 18 outings—all but one of which came without Lamb, whose 16.8 points and 6.0 rebounds per game lead the team.

    Ernie (40.8 percent on 5.1 attempts per game) and Everett Duncan (47.3 on 3.1) are great three-point shooters, and Payton Henson (40.0 on 2.8) can stretch the floor a bit. The Cats rank 33rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.

    Pending Lamb's availability, Vermont should be a challenging No. 12 or 13 seed to dispatch should it emerge from the America East.

Buffalo Bulls

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    Though its depth is a bit lacking, Buffalo has created a margin for error because it doesn't lean heavily on a dominant scorer.

    The Bulls are the only program in the nation with four players contributing at least 14.9 points per game, and they are led by CJ Massinburg's 17.0. Nick Perkins, Jeremy Harris and Wes Clark complete that group, and they're all at least decent perimeter shooters (39.4, 33.7, 42.0 and 38.9 percent from long range, respectively).

    The Bulls' 22 outputs of 80 or more points are tied with Villanova, Duke and South Dakota State for the most in the country.

    Buffalo won't appear in the field of 68 without earning the MAC title, especially since its resume includes a couple of bad losses in Kent State and Northern Illinois. But the Bulls would present a tough matchup in the NCAA tourney.

New Mexico State Aggies

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    Don't miss too many shots against New Mexico State, because you won't win on the glass.

    The Aggies rank seventh nationally with a 55.8 rebounding rate. They're also 29th in offensive rebounding percentage, securing 34.4 percent of their own misses.

    Senior forward Jemerrio Jones is the primary factor down low, averaging 12.7 rebounds per game with 10.7 points and 3.4 assists. Zach Lofton leads NMSU with 19.3 points per game and is one of three other players (Eli Chuha and Johnny McCants) who snatches 4.0 or more boards per game.

    Additionally, the Aggies boast the 14th-stingiest perimeter defense. Their opponents are shooting a mere 30.9 percent from beyond the arc.

    Its abilities to shut down the three-point game and limit second-chance opportunities make NMSU a potential nightmare to face.

South Dakota State Jackrabbits

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    South Dakota State is likely familiar to some because of Mike Daum, who carried the program to the Big Dance last year. This season, the sweet-shooting forward has a little more help.

    David Jenkins Jr. (15.9 points per game) and Reed Tellinghuisen (12.2) are consistent scorers, and they are shooting 38.8 and 39.9 percent from three-point range, respectively, while attempting 6.3 and 4.6 each contest. Along with Daum (23.6 points; 42.4 three-point percentage on 6.2 attempts) and Skyler Flatten (50.5 on 3.2), that's a dangerous perimeter group.

    As mentioned about Buffalo, South Dakota State is a premier scoring team. No other offense has more 80-point outbursts than SDSU's 22, and only UB, Villanova and Duke have as many.

    Should the Jackrabbits win the Summit League tourney, a more favorable matchup would await than they had last year. South Dakota State put a scare into top-seeded Gonzaga and is an even better team in 2018.

Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns

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    Louisiana surged to the pinnacle of the Sun Belt behind an experienced, transfer-heavy roster.

    Frank Bartley and JaKeenan Gant are averaging 17.4 and 14.7 points per game, respectively, while Malik Marquetti boasts a 42.4 three-point percentage and Marcus Stroman is dishing 6.2 assists per game. They previously played at BYU, Missouri, USC and South Carolina, respectively.

    Couple those transfers with double-double machine Bryce Washington and a productive sixth man in Johnathan Stove, and the result is the nation's 17th-highest offensive rating (115.7). Louisiana also has the ninth-best rebounding rate (55.4) and 17th-best assist percentage (61.1) in Division I.

    Provided the Ragin' Cajuns win the Sun Belt tourney, they could become the trendiest underdog picked to spring an upset in the round of 64.

        

    All statistics accurate through games played Saturday and courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.