There are few things worse in the world than watching your NCAA Men’s Tournament Bracket blow up in the first two rounds. It’s like having an awful fantasy draft and having to sit through four to six months of agony and hearing your friends talk trash.
That’s where I come in. As your resident guru of college basketball, I’m here to educate you on the under-the-radar teams that can ruin March Madness for you. These are the teams that are respected by basketball people in the know but aren’t household names for John Q. Bracket.
Study hard and you won’t have to come back the Monday after the tournament starts and worry that Betty from accounting is giggling about being 6 points ahead of you in the company office pool with all four of her Final Four still intact.
Consider yourself warned.
The Southern Conference winners set a school record this season for most wins at the Division 1 level. They showed they were willing to go toe-to-toe with the big boys early in the season, beating SEC squads Georgia and South Carolina and dropping a tough three-point loss to Pittsburgh.
Wofford barely slid into the NCAA Tournament by a 56-51 score in the SoCon Tournament finals, holding off a furious Appalachian State rally from 18 points down in the second that saw the Terriers lead cut to four in the final minutes. However, Wofford hung tough to win their 13th straight game and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, the school's first.
Forward Noah Dahlman has paced the team in scoring the last two seasons and has scored in double figures in 47 consecutive games. Guard Junior Salters, who declared for the NBA draft last year before withdrawing, is a long-range bomber who’s hit 63 threes on the season.
HOW FAR THEY CAN GO? Two rounds, but more likely one tournament win, or at least a dogfight of a first-round game based on who they’re matched up with
The Racers set a school record for wins in breezing to the Ohio Valley regular-season and tournament championships and have a tournament-ready coach in Bill Kennedy, who also took Southeastern Louisiana to the NCAA Tournament in 2005-2006. Don’t underestimate the value of a coach who has been to the Dance before and isn’t just happy to be there.
The knock against the Racers is their schedule and they dropped the only challenging out-of-conference game they played against Cal from the Pac-10. Murray State is deep and balanced and spreads the ball around. On the flipside, they can struggle offensively at times because the Racers have no true go-to guy with four players averaging at least 9.9 ppg.
The Racers defining moment for the season may have come when Isaiah Canaan connected on a halfcourt shot from his knees, sparking a YouTube phenomenon that resulted in 1.5 million views.
HOW FAR CAN THEY GO? Two rounds if everything breaks right but the Racers weak non-conference schedule may have them star-gazing and stumbling after the first round
The Big Red are paced by three-point marksman Ryan Wittman, the son of former Indiana Pacer Randy Wittman, who has made All-Ivy League first team two straight years and is a lock to do it again this season. Wittman averages 17 points a game and has drained 42 percent of his three-pointers, drilling 100 on the season. Seven-footer Jeff Foote is also a lane-clogger who can score around the basket, earning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year honors a year ago.
This isn’t your typical egghead Ivy League team, instead winning at Alabama, UMass, St. John’s and LaSalle and dropping a five-point game at Kansas and falling to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. That schedule was put together with the NCAA Tournament in mind and Cornell responded with 27 wins, tying for second-best in Ivy League history. The goal for the Big Red isn’t just to get in, but to become the first Ivy League team since Princeton in 1998 to win a tourney game.
The biggest mistake a power conference team can make will be to take the Big Red lightly and trot out a zone defense—Cornell is deadly from three-point range with five players hitting at least 39 triples on the season.
HOW FAR CAN THEY GO? Two rounds, but more likely a celebration of the Ivy League’s first NCAA Tournament win in 12 years
The Monarchs, who survived an OT scare against VCU in the CAA Tournament semifinals, still need to win the CAA Tournament Championship Monday night to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
With all five starters back from last season’s NIT team, the Monarchs are an experienced, defensive-minded bunch led by two-time First Team All-CAA Selection Gerald Lee, a 6-10 import from Finland who shoots 53 percent from the floor.
Old Dominion sports a signature win at Georgetown—not sure who at G-Town thought scheduling a tough mid-major opponent in addition to the rigors of the Big East season was a good idea—along with a victory over Charlotte and a five-point loss to Missouri.
HOW FAR CAN THEY GO? Probably only one round but possibly two if they can get into a low-scoring, grind-it-out kind of game
Led by Omar (The Sandman) Samhan and a bevy of imported three-point shooters, the Gaels could be a tournament darling, a year after they got jobbed by the NCAA Tournament committee and lost point guard Patrick Mills to the NBA Draft.
As long as the Gaels don’t see Gonzaga in the tournament—St. Mary’s dropped two regular-season decisions to the Zags before burying them in the WCC Tournament Finals—they could confound NCAA opponents with their international style of play, a result of five players from Australia on the team roster.
St. Mary’s favors isolating Samhan in the post, a 6-11 load who earned WCC Defensive Player of the Year honors, and spreading the floor with four players behind the three-point line. The strategy paid off as the Gaels rank fifth nationally in three-point percentage and All-WCC First-Team selection Mickey McConnell is the nation’s most accurate shooter from three-land at 50.8 percent.
HOW FAR CAN THEY GO? Two rounds and a shot at being in a third-round game if the three-pointers are falling. But a Sweet 16 appearance would be huge for St. Mary’s.
Powered by the experienced backcourt of A-10 Player of the Year Kevin Anderson and Second Team selection David Gonzalvez, the Spiders have sizzled down the stretch, winning 10 of 11 games and only dropping a double-OT thriller at Xavier.
Richmond quickly served notice that they weren’t a team to be taken lightly as they opened the season with tournament wins over Mississippi State and Missouri, topped Florida and dropped a hard-fought OT decision to Wake Forest.
The Spiders will give NCAA Tournament opponents fits because of the Princeton-style offense they run, featuring plenty of back cuts. Richmond ranks among the nation’s leaders in turnover margin and with a veteran backcourt, they’ll be tough to beat if they get the lead in a tourney matchup.
HOW FAR CAN THEY GO? Two rounds seems about right based on their athleticism but their style of play could put them in the George Mason category of Cinderellas.
The long journey of former top Louisville recruit Derrick Caracter, one of the most sought-after players in the nation a few years ago, has landed him in UTEP where he’s experienced a rebirth. The 6-9 Caracter virtually ate himself out of Louisville before dropping off the radar and resurfacing in El Paso.
With a great touch around the basket and the ability to pass out of the post, Caracter still looks like he’s working himself back into shape as he’s generously listed at 275 pounds. But his skills as a big man are off the charts and he’s virtually unstoppable down low, shooting an amazing 55 percent and scoring 14 ppg.
Along with trigger-happy guard Randy Culpepper (18.1 ppg), the Miners have a great inside-outside combo and blew through Conference USA, easily dispatching the likes of Memphis, Tulsa and UAB en route to a 15-1 league mark.
The Miners have the look of a legitimate NCAA Tournament team but their soft non-conference schedule, which only includes a win over Oklahoma, and the team’s propensity to play out of control at times and forget how good Caracter is could cost them.
HOW FAR CAN THEY GO? I like this team and they could go two rounds or possibly as far as the Elite 8 but a first-round implosion wouldn’t shock me.
With all five starters and nine of 10 top scorers back from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, Northern Iowa is a tough defensive-minded team that has captured the past two Missouri Valley Conference Tournament titles.
The second-ranked team in the country defensively, the Panthers are 18-0 when they score at least 60 points and they’re used to playing a slug-it-out style that can frustrate more athletic NCAA opponents.
Led by Larry Bird Conference Player of the Year Adam Koch, an athletic 6-8 forward who can handle the ball and score off the dribble, the Panthers play unselfish team ball, can shoot the three and don’t miss free throws, which will be huge come tournament time.
HOW FAR CAN THEY GO: Two rounds, maybe three with a favorable matchup
The two-time Mountain West Conference champions are coached by a legendary college hoops figure (Steve Alford) and powered by do-everything forward Ramon Martinez and transfer Darington Hobson.
One of the most beloved players in the history of New Mexico’s legendary home court, The Pit, the 6-6 Martinez ranks as only the third Lobo to reach 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 150 3-pointers in a career and is on pace to be a four-year Academic All-MWC selection.
The addition of Eastern Utah transfer Hobson has been a godsend for New Mexico as he exploded on the scene as the first Lobo to lead the team in scoring, rebounds and assists in a single season.
Ranked eighth in the most recent AP poll, the Lobos may not look like a tournament underdog but people don’t associate New Mexico with success in March. That could change for this prolific offensive team that has beaten six ranked teams and hasn’t lost since Jan. 9.
HOW FAR CAN THEY GO? Three wins and an Elite Eight appearance aren’t out of the equation if the Lobos maintain their torrid shooting pace.
Rarely is a team from the Big 12 seen as a Cinderella but Baylor has climbed back from the depths of the 2003 murder of Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson and an NCAA investigation into violations that left the program decimated.
Scott Drew took on the unenviable task of rebuilding the program from the ashes, winning only 21 games from 2003-2006 but the Bears made a run to the NIT Championship Game last year, fueling this year’s dream season. Drew, the son of Valparaiso Coach Homer Drew and brother of NCAA Tournament last-second shot legend Bryce, boasts a team with balance, scoring and defensive intensity.
The Bears have everything you look for in an NCAA Tournament team—an experienced senior point guard (Tweety Carter), an explosive scorer (LaceDarius Dunn) a first-round NBA prospect in the Big 12’s leading shotblocker (6-10 Michigan transfer Ekpe Udoh). Mix in 7-foot space-eater Josh Lomers and two more high-flying wingmen in 6-10 Anthony Jones and 6-7 Quincy Acy and you’ve got a team to be reckoned with. Jones put on a dunking exhibition with 10 slams in Baylor’s regular-season finale, a 15-point win over Texas.
Picked 10th in the Big 12 pre-season poll, I love the way this team has jelled and competed all season and I look for them to make a deep tourney run.
HOW FAR CAN THEY GO? This team has only lost one game outside of the Big 12 all season and stood toe-to-toe with Kansas and Kansas State. I just have to root for Scott Drew and the job he’s done in rebuilding a decimated Baylor program. He’s absorbed a lot of lumps along the way, now it’s his turn to a dish few out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bears make a run to the Final Four, but an Elite 8 appearance would be a reason to rejoice.