March can be a cruel, cruel mistress.
Mississippi State has already felt the sting. The Bulldogs came a tenth of a second from a berth in the tournament and inclusion on this list. Kentucky ended their dream in overtime in the SEC Final. Nine potential teams shrank to eight just like that.
Here are the rest. Eight teams with the potential to win the entire tournament and shock the world. None is seeded better than fourth and there is only one of those. There are two nine seeds on the list, two sixes, and three fives.
Let the debates begin.
Fill out your bracket. Then go back and add a win or two for Michigan State. Most bracketologists do exactly that. Why? Because Michigan State always overachieves in the NCAA Tournament.
No coach in the game gets more out of less than Tom Izzo. You don’t have to go back very far. Coach Izzo lost only one significant player (Goran Suton) from last year’s national runner-up squad. Kalin Lucas, Raymar Morgan, and Durrell Summers are all back and ready to go.
No one said it was going to be pretty. The year 2000 featured perhaps the most boring Final Four of all time. Michigan State was just able to make fewer mistakes than Wisconsin and Florida en route to their title. It’s not the most exciting brand of basketball, but it puts banners in the rafters.
2005 and 2009 followed the same scripts for the Spartans. Early exits from the Big 10 tournament, then runs to the Final Four. This year it was a hot Minnesota team that sent ended Michigan State’s hopes for a conference tournament title. No worries in East Lansing. This is a program that always seems to save the best for last.
With Bruce Pearl calling the shots, the Tennessee Volunteers have turned a turbulent early-season into a great success story. Lacking a pure shooter since Chris Lofton left, and without the team’s best player in dismissed forward Tyler Smith, a group of role-players has kept Tennessee right in the thick of the always-tough SEC.
Don’t read this the wrong way. Tennessee has it's fair share of talent, especially in guard Scotty Hopson and SEC All-World forward/center/sniper Wayne Chism. It’s just that the aftermath of the New Year’s incident left them without any depth for much of the season. It got so thin in Knoxville that the offensively-challenged coach’s son had to be counted on for quality minutes.
Still the Vols managed to find a way, and are the only team in the nation to have beaten two of the top seeds, in Kansas and Kentucky. The cobbled-together team and it’s variety of lineups got the job done. Even Steven Pearl became a contributor.
For Tennessee to make a run, it’s going to take some sustained brilliance from Hopson. He’s displayed it thus far, but mostly in flashes. You can count on Chism keeping his high level of play up in the NCAAs. With the recent emergence of Brian Williams in the low post, the Vols might be the team to watch in March.
Ah, the pride of the Horizon League. Butler is the first mid-major on this list. They would also be the first mid-major to win a national title, were it to happen this year. Here’s why it might:
Prior to entering the friendly confines of Horizon League play, Butler scheduled every major team that would take them on. Do Minnesota, UCLA, Clemson, Georgetown, Ohio State, and Xavier sound okay to you? Most Big East teams don’t schedule that tough.
Of course, Butler has to, as they are well above the level of the rest of their conference. By the way, Butler also beat Ohio State and Xavier. They came within a point of Clemson. In no loss were they badly beaten.
Butler has not lost a game since December 22, 2009. That’s right. They swept their entire conference and its tournament. There’s nothing like being on a roll headed into tournament time.
While not terribly big, Butler gets offensive production from four of its five starters. Guard/forward Gordon Hayward might be the best player in America that you’ve never heard of. This guy scored 24 point against both Georgetown and Ohio State. Then he dropped 22 on Xavier. Similar performances in his next few games and that anonymity could change quickly.
If George Mason can make it to the Final Four, Butler can win a title.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford said it best. If you can win the ACC, you can win the national championship. Maryland took a share of the regular season crown but is somehow still flying under the radar.
Allegations of the conference being “down” this year are entirely unfounded. That perception is based on the performance of the North Carolina Tarheels and on that alone. The RPIs show a different story. Regardless of perception, Maryland may be primed at a run towards a title.
Forget the quarterfinal dive in Greensboro. That’s just what happens in the ACC Tournament. The Maryland title team of 2002 didn’t make the ACC Final either.
Forget the ranking. No one expected much from the Turtle this year. This team has been playing catch-up in the polls all year.
If you’re looking for a freshman hero in the NCAA tournament, forget about anyone from Kentucky. In a few weeks, you just may be remembering Jordan Williams. This power forward just keeps getting better, game after game.
There’s another Williams who has done this kind of thing before, and his first name is Gary. An experienced coach and a super freshman forward? Sounds kind of like Syracuse in 2003…
Here’s another team that is a lot better than their ACC Tournament resume would initially suggest. The ‘Noles got popped in the semis by the always tournament dangerous “Cardiac” Pack. They also laid a big egg last year in the first round of the dance. Expect this year to be different.
Florida State is dangerous because they can get stops. It’s really that simple. Forward Chris Singleton is the ACC defensive player of the year.
Center Solomon Alabi has the raw potential to take over a bracket. He blocks, he scores, and he rebounds. Teams can’t just foul him, because he makes his free throws, too. Not the average mold of a seven-plus footer, but it works.
You won’t see Florida State engaged in any high scoring affairs. You will see them frustrating other teams for 40 minutes at a time. A couple of nights where the scores stay in the 50 and 60 point range, and you may see them cutting down some nets.
They’ve been to the NCAAs before, and been sent home early by the likes of Georgia Tech, Purdue, Wisconsin (pictured here), and Georgetown. This time, things may be different.
The Panthers play defense for the entire game. In fact, on this list, only Florida State may be a better defensive team. In terms of national rank, Northern Iowa comes up second in terms of scoring defense. Expect pressure at both ends of the floor.
The Panthers are also extremely deep. In any given game, you will see ten or more different jerseys on the floor.
The Panthers also have a true seven footer in the middle. Jordan Eglseder is as complete a big man as you will find. Between him and Adam Koch, Northern Iowa has a front line to be reckoned with.
A record of 28-4 and the Missouri Valley Conference title should ensure that Northern Iowa gets a better seed and a more favorable opening matchup this time around. An early win would mean momentum. That could mean a sustained run for this overlooked team from middle-America.
Remember those great Cincinnati teams that featured (among others) Danny Fortson, Reuben Patterson, Kenyon Martin, and Kenny Satterfield? Xavier can remember beating a bunch of them. In those days, the Musketeers were the little thorn in the side of the mighty Bearcats, located just across town. Well, not anymore. Xavier now rules the Queen City of Ohio.
It wasn’t a bad year to be in the Atlantic 10, and Xavier took full advantage. This group finished with the same record as champion Temple, losing the tie-breaker only because they lost to the Owls in a close one, on the road. Jordan Crawford has been an absolute stud. Averaging near 20 points a game, he has no lack of explosive ability. He can also shoot the lights out.
The most resounding win for the Musketeers came on February 13. The Musketeers travelled to Gainesville, Florida, and absolutely stomped on the Gators. The final score in that one didn’t tell the full story. Xavier went out of conference, on the road, and got a big win over a perennial power trying to make a push for March.
The last decade has had a lot of “almost” moments for Xavier. This is a program that almost popped Duke in 2004 to go to the Final Four. Xavier played their way back to a national semifinal in 2008 before they ran into UCLA. They almost made it to the A-10 final a few days ago. Could this be the year that an “almost” squad takes the next step into immortality?
Want excitement? Temple’s guard Juan Fernandez may be the player to watch. This guard is capable of scoring 30 plus in any game. He shoots .447 from behind the arc. Anyone remember Pepe Sanchez?
Temple ended up winning both the regular season and tournament championships in the Atlantic 10. Winning the tournament in Atlantic City bodes well for the Owls. Eight of the last 12 national champions have won their conference tournaments before going to the NCAAs.
Temple didn’t just take care of business in the A-10. Their non-conference schedule suggests a team that is concerned with winning in March. Georgetown, Virginia Tech, St. Johns, Villanova, and Kansas were all on the slate this season.
Virginia Tech and Villanova were both wins for the Owls. Georgetown was a near miss. The Kansas game wasn’t pretty, but at least Temple has seen the best in the country.
Temple should at the very least make the Sweet Sixteen. At that point, anything can happen. A team that can shoot the ball this well is going to scare a lot of others over the next few weeks.