Utah State Aggies and 10 College Basketball Teams That Can Crash the Big Dance
Approximately one month away from Selection Sunday, this much is certain—nothing is certain.
The balance of power has shifted from Duke to Ohio State and a number of other teams, several of which have legitimate title aspirations.
Along the way, though, are the upsets everyone has come to expect in March. Underdogs and fans of underdogs lie in wait, hoping for that favourable first-round matchup that propels a formerly obscure team and school into the national spotlight, even if the fame is fleeting.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, has an opinion about the potential spoilers in March. Some are ranked teams, flying under the radar or simply in the shadow of others in their conference. Some are small conference schools with a history of tournament success. Others are trying to get past the ignominy of past early exits.
So here's a look at some dark horse candidates. Some are very good teams but not usually in the conversation for national champs, but they are hitting their respective strides and will be dangerous opponents for whomever they face.
(This is the part where I say, "if they happen to make the tournament.")
1. Utah State Aggies
This seems to be getting like a broken record. Stew Morrill's crew is currently riding a 17-game winning streak, which is second to Ohio State. They are running wild in the WAC and have an overall record of 22-2 heading into play this week.
And, once again, the question arises: Who have they played?
They lost a close game on the road to BYU and a not-so-close one to Georgetown on the road. And, there are no big wins on the resume.
If they don't win the WAC tournament, which happened last year, are they still worthy of a bid? In perhaps the only Bracket Buster game with tournament ramifications, the Aggies get their shot at a big win when they travel to Moraga, Calif. to face the St. Mary's Gaels. If they win, they're in, regardless. If not, who knows.
Any team that wins this many games knows how to play, period. No, they are not an elite team, but neither was Murray State last season. They just knew how to win and how to compete.
Keys: The Aggies give up only 58.2 points per game, eighth nationally. Their three-point shooting is down a bit this year (38 percent) but their three-point shooting defense is excellent (32 percent).
2. George Mason Patriots
The Patriots are 19-5 overall and 11-2 in a very competitive Colonial Athletic Conference. Their two conference losses, to Hofstra and Old Dominion, were avenged and then some, recently, as the Patriots ran over both to move into a tie for first with VCU.
There are no Final Four dreams this year, but this is a good team. Senior Cam Long leads a balanced attack that features four players who average over nine points per game. They have an excellent RPI (23rd) but no real marquee non-conference win. They'll have to hope for a strong finish and have some faith in the RPI rankings.
Keys: The Patriots are first in scoring in the Colonial (74 PPG) and rank 28th nationally in scoring defense, giving up just over 61 points per contest. If their defense is sound, they have a shot as likely an 11 or 12 seed to pull off an upset...or two.
3. Xavier Musketeers
Despite injuries and a very limited rotation, the Musketeers have thrived in the A-10 and have also picked up some good non-conference wins, including Tuesday's road win against Georgia.
There is not much that stands out about Xavier, other than Tu Holloway, who at this point would have to be the A-10 Player of the Year. He consistently delivers at both ends, is an excellent foul shooter and frees up space for Mark Lyons on the perimeter and a vastly improved Kenny Frease down low.
Xavier is one of two teams that have made the Sweet Sixteen three consecutive years and this year, depending on their seeding, could be dangerous as well.
Keys: Injuries and fouls. The Musketeers can ill-afford to lose anyone as they tend to use seven players. Similarly, foul trouble puts them in a precarious position for the same reason.
4. Arizona Wildcats
Very quietly, Sean Miller (hey, another Xavier connection) has guided his team to the top of the Pac-10, where they currently have a two-game edge over preseason favourite Washington and UCLA.
Derrick Williams is probably the best player in the Pac-10. Everyone knows what he can do. The Cats have an excellent cast of supporting players in Solomon Hill, Kyle Fogg, Kevin Parrom, Jamelle Horne and Jesse Perry.
But the key to any postseason success may be the consistency of point guard Lamont Jones. His productivity has increased and coincides with Arizona's recent five-game winning streak. Jones averages close to 10 points per game but 17 in the past five contests.
Keys: Turnovers and defense. The Cats average around 14 turnovers per game, which is a few too many when playing a top team. They will score (20th in the nation in points per game with 78.5) but need to get stops. Miller uses a lot of players so foul trouble isn't usually an issue.
5. Notre Dame
Sure, the Irish are ranked ninth but they don't get a ton of hype, and this team has the ingredients to make a deep run.
They are a veteran team, led by Ben Hansbrough, a smaller version of brother Tyler, in terms of toughness. They can score or they can "burn", as they did against the Pittsburgh Panthers. Their ability to win in a hostile environment was justifiably questioned until a win at Pitt, something very few teams do.
Veteran teams don't often get first weekend jitters and if the Irish finish strong, a two or three seed isn't out of the question.
Keys: Depth and guarding the post. The Irish are pretty much a seven-man squad and have to avoid injuries and fouls (familiar theme). They are not a big, physical team but do a good job of team rebounding. Playing an elite big man (and there are precious few) could give them some trouble.
6. Wisconsin Badgers
The disparity of their play at home and on the road is startling.
That aside, the Badgers are much better now than they were two months ago and appear to be hitting their stride. They shoot well, have two stars (Jon Leuer, Jordan Taylor), have players who understand their roles and they absolutely don't turn the ball over. They have, far and away, the lowest number of turnovers in the country (7.8 per game).
Some late-season road tests and a home game with Ohio State will tell us what we need to know about the Badgers come March.
Keys: Controlling the pace of the game. With the Badgers offense, there are very few "empty" possessions. They work the clock and almost always get a good shot. They just have to perfect this formula on the road as well.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels
They fell off of the map after being ranked as high as eighth early in the season, but the Heels are back. Of course the game against Duke is huge and will be a barometer for how far they have come in the last few weeks.
The departure of Larry Drew won't hurt them. Nothing against Drew but now the positions are settled and the players can just play. Kendall Marshall had 16 assists in his first game since Drew's departure.
John Henson and Harrison Barnes are beginning to live up to some of the hype as well, while Tyler Zeller is a steady, consistent player at both ends.
Keys: Offensive rebounding and foul shooting. The Tar Heels are first in the ACC with 13.5 offensive rebounds per game. Conversely, they are 11th in free throw percentage at 65.2 percent. The former needs to stay consistent; the latter needs to improve.
8. Charleston Cougars
At 18-7, and playing in the Southern Conference, the Cougars will need to win their league tournament to make the tourney.
Charleston has a veteran coach in Bobby Cremins, a bonafide star in Andrew Goudelock, a veteran team and some experience this season with some Big Six teams.
Close losses to Maryland, North Carolina and a surprisingly good Clemson team, coupled with a resounding win at Tennessee means this team can compete. They are good at all positions but not very deep as the Cougars rarely use more than seven players.
Keys: Seeding. I like their chances for an upset a lot more if they can somehow get onto the 13 seed line.
9. Belmont Bruins
Leaders in the Atlantic Sun, the Bruins are 22-4 overall, including a 14-1 mark in conference play. Looking to get back to the tournament after a two-year absence, Belmont had three consecutive appearances from 2006-2008.
Their success was limited, although in 2008 the Bruins took Duke to the wire in a 71-70 first round loss, a moral victory of sorts.
The individual stats don't jump off of the page as their top scorer, Ian Clark averages just under 12 points per game. But they have size in Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders, both of whom average over ten points per game while playing only 22 and 17 minutes per game respectively.
Keys: Seeding and getting more minutes from their starters. Being on the 15 line won't help. Anything higher could make it interesting. Their starters have very good stats based on their minutes played.
10. The Winner of the Horizon League
This is a pretty wide-open race. Butler's stranglehold appears to be at an end and it won't host the final of their conference tournament this year, which opens the door for Valparaiso, Cleveland State and Wright State.
Butler has beaten Cleveland State twice this season but a third time might be asking too much. Wright State has been a bit of a surprise, but like most teams in league play is much better at home.
So, Valpo might be the pick. Former Southern Illinois transfer Brandon Wood leads a balanced, deep team longing to get back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2004.
Keys: Different things for each of these teams. They will likely get an 11 or 12 seed, which is not a bad spot to be for the first two rounds.
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