Field Of Dreams: 9 Potential Bracket Busters This March
30 days. 2 hours. 27 minutes.
The countdown to selection Sunday begins—a time when our lives are consumed by back-stories, bracket pools and finding a way to get out of your 1 o' clock meeting because the 5-12 matchup tips off Tuesday afternoon.
It's a break from reality—as each and every one of us in this fantasy driven world fills out a bracket with the hopes and dreams that we have the blueprint.
The reason tournament play is so promptly named, "madness," is because of the upsets, the underdog legend and the Cinderella story.
If not for the unexpected, we would call it "March Plaidness," or the NBA Finals. Now before I get completely off track, I am writing to list this year's group of teams that could enter the tournament like a lamb, and leave like a lion.
Is there a Butler or Michigan St. replica that can reach the Final Four in this anticipated field?
You be the judge.
Criteria—a team that is a 5 seed or lower, based on projected finish and current standing.
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Yes, The DUKIES!
No, not those Dukies.
Okay, before you stop reading I admit I may be going off the Richter Scale a bit with this one.
But the A-10 has endured enormous success in the big dance this recent decade. Xavier has been a mainstay, reaching the Sweet 16 in consecutive years, not to mention an Elite 8 appearance in 2008. Temple has consistently etched themselves as a sneaky upset pick and Richmond just last year was asexy pick to win a few, before falling to St. Mary's in a 7-10 matchup.
Even Dayton has won a tournament game as recently as 2009, as an 11 seed. I can go all the way back to the undefeated (regular season) St. Josephs team of 03-04 that reached the Elite 8.
The proof is in the pudding, and I can make the case that this conference has been the most consistent in terms of tournament success outside of the 6 major conferences, in the last ten years.
So what makes a team that's had only 5 tournament appearances in their program's history marginally appealing? Well for one, they're 16-6 overall, and tied for first at 8-1 in their conference.
Coaches these days don't put too much stock in the "quality loss" jargon, but we as journalists are allowed. Duquense undoubtedly has a few. A four-point loss at Penn State, and a three-point loss to West Virginia. The Dukes also had a contest with city rival Pitt in which they lost 80-66, but hung tough throughout.
They feature one of the premiere scorers in the A-10 in Bill Clark. The versatile senior can play the three or four position ably and averages nearly 18 points and 7 boards per contest.
Duquense was picked to finish 13th in the preseason A-10 coaches poll—this Sunday they play Xavier for a chance to take a two-game lead in the conference.
They've earned their respect, and the chip on their shoulder could earn them their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1977.
8. Virginia Tech
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The Hokies are 5-4 in arguably the worst year the ACC (as a conference) has had since before Va. Tech had joined.
The "Bubble Boys" of college basketball, Seth Greenberg's team is seemingly in this same position every year. So how do they enter this discussion?
Their schedule is favorable down the stretch—as Georgia Tech, Maryland, Duke and Boston College all travel to Virginia Tech, where the Hokies have not lost in-conference.
They are 11-3 in their last 14 games, and in those games Malcolm Delaney has added another dynamic to his game, facilitating. He is averaging 6 assists per game in Tech's last 10.
That's scary for ACC opponents, because Virginia Tech goes as Delaney goes, and the Senior still has a message to send to the committee after last year's snub.
This year Greenberg, Delaney and Co. can rest easy come selection Sunday.
The Hokies will be in the Dance.
7. George Mason
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Seen this movie before?
I'm not suggesting we will see another miraculous run to the final four, but after 10 consecutive conference wins the eyes of the college basketball world have once again turned to George Mason.
It's not Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn, or Will Thomas, but one can draw many comparisons to that Patriots team.
Balance and experience have Coach Larranaga's Patriots believing in miracles once again.
4 players on George Mason average double figures—led by Senior Cam Long and junior Ryan Pearson, who combine for nearly 30 points a contest.
George Mason will be featured in ESPN's Bracket Buster game of the day Feb. 19th vs Northern Iowa.
The real bracket busting for George Mason might not come until March.
6. St. Johns
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D.J. Kennedy - Senior
Malike Boothe - Senior
Sean Evans - Senior
Dwight Hardy - Senior
Dele Coker - Senior
Paris Horne - Senior
Justin Burrell - Senior
Justin Brownlee - Senior
Rob Thomas - Senior
I rest my case. The most experienced team in the country has adapted to a new coach and a new system, have responded with some resume building wins.
Wins vs. Duke, Notre Dame, Connecticut, and Georgetown.
This team is a giant-killer and consistently takes their game to another level against stiff competition.
Hardy is a 6'2 Senior from the area and has found his game under Steve Lavin, after playing the role of 6th man under Norm Roberts last season. Hardy scored a career-high 33 points against U-Conn en-route to a 17-point win, besting another beast from the East, Kemba Walker.
The Johnnies may not always be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but they find ways to get it done.
Led by four crafty, intelligent players and a coaching staff full of expertise (including Purdue legend Gene Keady playing the role as advisor), the forecast is calling for a Red Storm, this March.
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Yes, more love the for Atlantic 10. But when discussing bracket busters, it would be a crime to leave the Musketeers out of the conversation.
I already talked about their recent tourney runs, reaching the Sweet 16 in each of the last two seasons and the Elite 8 in 2008.
Xavier possesses one of the best players in the country you've never heard of in Tu Holloway. Holloway has shouldered much of the load in the scoring department after the departure of Jordan Crawford to the NBA, but also has become a three-dimensional player from the point guard position.
Holloway averages 20 points, 5 assists, and 5 boards per game.
"Tu has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches. His name is as unique as his talent and potential"—Xavier Head Coach Chris Mack
Holloway is not the only guy wreaking havoc these days for Xavier. One of the fastest players in college basketball, guard Mark Lyons has averaged nearly 18 points per game over the last 8 contests, while Holloway's production has dropped off a bit.
The dynamic duo has Xavier believing once again that they can fly under the radar come tournament time, and continue their string of success.
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News flash ladies and gentlemen: The Bruins are back.
UCLA is 17-7 overall, 8-3 in conference and 8-1 over their last 9. The Pac-10 is still not what it once was, but Howland's team's non-conference work speaks for itself.
On the 2nd of December they nearly snapped a 64-game win streak at Allen Field House as Kansas barely eeked out a 77-76 victory over the Bruins.
On Dec 18th, they handed the then-18th-ranked BYU Cougars their first loss of the season.
A theme of my picks seems to be balance and UCLA may be the best of the bunch in that regard.
FIve players average in double-figures, led by Reeves Nelson (a poor man's Kevin Love—which is like saying a poor man's Wilt Chamberlain this season) and Malcolm Lee—a former Mcdonald's All-American and one of the NCAA's true shutdown defenders.
3. Utah St.
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Rare to see anybody skeptical about a team that sits at 22-3. But Utah State's most impressive wins thus far have come against New Mexico St. and Utah—both of whom were defending the homestead.
They were defeated by Idaho recently, snapping a 17-game winning streak, and 25-game winning streak in the WAC conference.
Here's why you can't sleep on them come tourney-time: they've won three-straight WAC Championships and are on their way to number four.
They are 6-21 all-time in tournament history and have lost their last two trips—last season to Texas A&M, and in '09 to Marquette.
THEY ARE DUE!
When you keep inviting the little guy to the party, sooner or later he's going to take one of the best-looking girls.
2. North Carolina
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Seeing UNC in "sleeper team" talk is more rare than a freshly-dead cow, but this year's team may fit the bill better then any in their history.
The Tar Heels came into the season overhyped, glorified, and praised for the second consecutive year—which was unfair to the inexperienced and unproven core of this team coming off the worst season Carolina has seen since the industrial revolution.
Through hardships and tried times, the 'Heels have come together to look like a team prepped to make a deep tourney run.
A Marshall's has opened up next to Barnes N' Nobles in Raleigh and customers have never been this satisfied. Kendall Marshall has provided stability to a point guard position that simply has not been that in the post-Ty Lawson era.
He sees the whole court at once and just has a knack to know what position guys will be in. His intelligence and basketball instincts have taken this UNC team from on the bubble to a projected four or five-seed in the dance.
Marshall's ability has also heightened some of his teammates' play. Tyler Zeller, one of the more underrated big men in the country, is finally living up to his one-time top recruit in the country potential.
Defending National Champion Duke needed career highs from both Nolan Smith and Seth Curry, at Cameron, to hang on and beat Carolina. That should tell you enough right there.
They will seek revenge against Duke on the final day of the regular season, March 5th.
Come March 20th, you may see Carolina shopping in Houston, at the final four.
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And the underachiever of the year goes to.......
Wildcats and bears, two animals you don't want to run into in the forest.
Jacob Pullen and Lacedarius Dunn, two animals you don't want to run into in the tournament.
With apologies to Kansas St, we're going to excuse them from this conversation because they have a ton of work to do to even take their talents to the bubble.
Hold the phone on Baylor.
They may be the strongest nine-seed in the tournament's history once the brackets are unveiled. Baylor was chosen 14th in the preseason poll after nearly making their third Final Four trip in team history, in only their 7th trip to the tournament.
Losses of starting PG Tweety Carter, and lottery pick Ekpe Udoh were heavily underplayed going into this season. Top recruit Perry Jones, expected to fill some of the scoring void left by Udoh and Carter, struggled early on but his game has come on as of late.
Point guard AJ Walton's role last year was to simply give Tweety Carter a breather off the bench, and it had become apparent early on this season that he was not apt to run the team to the ability that Carter previously had. But he has made small strides, hitting a crucial shot at the end of their recent Texas A&M win, and is currently the Big 12's leader in total steals.
Lacedarius Dunn is one of the premier scorers in college basketball, and is one of the few players that can give you 30 points on any given night.
The bears may be getting just what they need as they travel to Texas to play the third-ranked team in the nation—that is, a chance to get a signature win that can propel them in the right direction for the remainder of the season.
Baylor is arguably the most talented team in the country, they just have yet to piece the puzzle together. If they can, beware of the bear...
You know what they say, just get in, baby.