Iona and College Basketball Mid-Majors That Could Be This Year's VCU
VCU and Butler in a Final Four game? Against each other?
That happened last year.
Neither team looks sharp early in 2011-12, but several mid-majors are off to hot starts. Which of them could be this year's Cinderella?
Including Gonzaga—a perennial Top 25 team—would be boring, so the Bulldogs are not on the list.
Belmont's 5-2 record doesn't catch your eye like Murray State's 9-0 mark or even Campbell's 7-1 standing.
But don't be fooled. This Belmont team is good—really, really good—and a one-point loss to Duke on opening night proves it.
The Bruins have averaged 85.3 points through three games—an average that pits them at No. 7 nationally—and have six players averaging between nine and 15.1 points per night. Their 1.54 assists per turnover ranks No. 9.
Rick Byrd returned all but two players from last year's 30-win team, and so far, five of his six leading scorers are upperclassmen.
Junior Kerron Johnson has led the way early on with 15.1 points, six assists and 2.1 steals per game while fellow upperclassmen Ian Clark, Drew Hanlen, Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth have also fueled Belmont's attack.
With their wealth of options and offensive firepower, the Bruins can score with anyone—an ability they displayed against Duke. They currently rank No. 11 in Ken Pomeroy's offensive efficiency.
Usually, though, offense alone cannot fuel a Final Four run. The 2011 Final Four was actually the first since 2003 to include teams outside the top 30 in defensive efficiency.
Belmont has the defense to make a deep run—they're currently at No. 59 but finished 2010-11 at No. 18.
Wichita State Shockers
Nine Wichita State Shockers average more than 10 minutes per game. Only one is not an upperclassman.
That means that seven Shockers—Carl Hall transferred in—played for an NIT winner. The Shockers returned every key player from that team with the exception of J.T. Durley, and six players are averaging between 9.1 and 13.3 points per game.
Although Wichita State has lost to Alabama and Temple, the Shockers just trounced UNLV a week after the Rebels upset UNC.
Wichita State currently ranks in the top 40 in offensive and defensive efficiency.
UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos
Orlando Johnson appeared on the preseason Wooden Award list for a reason—he's one of the nation's best players.
Currently averaging 23.8 points per game, Johnson has scored 1,740 career points and is one of the best rebounding guards in the country. He poured in 36 points and snatched 10 boards in the Gauchos' narrow loss to UNLV last week.
Because of Johnson's dominance throughout his three years in Santa Barbara—he transferred from Loyola Marymount—fellow senior James Nunnally has been somewhat overshadowed.
However, Nunnally has been right behind Johnson every single season they've played together and is averaging 18.7 points through six games this year.
Add up the duo's scoring averages, and you'll see they account for 42.5 points per game. Santa Barbara averages 82.
In other words, Johnson and Nunnally account for more than 50 percent of the Gauchos' points.
So, yes, an off night from either could put Santa Barbara in peril. Early on, though, the duo has risen to the occasion, combining for 50 points at UNLV and 42 at San Diego State.
Santa Barbara has two more key seniors in Jaime Serna and Greg Somogyi—a 7'3" shot-blocker—but the rest of the core is young. Offering reason for more optimism, the freshmen and sophomores have been responsible with the ball early on, and the team is averaging just 10.8 turnovers per game, which ranks No. 10 nationally.
We don't know how much those freshmen and sophomores will mature over the next few months, but we do know that Johnson and Nunnally can keep the Gauchos in any game.
Long Beach State is an obstacle in the Big West, but Santa Barbara beat the 49ers in last year's conference championship and is certainly equipped to do so again.
Long Beach State 49ers
Long Beach State became a trendy Cinderella pick after upsetting Pittsburgh, but the 49ers have gone 2-3 since their signature win.
With the exception of a two-point loss at Montana, though, Long Beach hasn't suffered any devastating losses. An overtime loss at San Diego State and a 13-point loss at Louisville shouldn't discourage bandwagoners—the 49ers were within seven before the final minute against the Cardinals.
This is still a team of upperclassmen—six of the seven primary rotation players are either juniors or seniors—and has one of the best guards in the country. If you missed the Pittsburgh game, his name is Casper Ware, and he's the Big West's reigning POY and Defensive POY. Oh, and he also earned player of the week honors in the Drew League this summer while teaming up with Lebron James.
But Ware isn't the only force on the 49ers. Larry Anderson is clutch and nearly as capable of carrying the team, and T.J. Robinson is a double-double machine.
James Ennis, a junior college transfer, has been an invaluable acquisition for Dan Monson. The junior's length makes him a versatile defender, and he's also averaging 9.4 points per game.
Eugene Phelps has been a solid second post presence, and Michael Caffey will only improve as his freshman year progresses.
Long Beach has a loaded non-conference slate. The 49ers still have Kansas, UNC and Xavier to play, so Monson's team will be battle-tested by March. They've already picked up one signature win, and another could go a long way in building confidence.
Creighton Blue Jays
Read Ballin' is a Habit's story on why Creighton's win at San Diego State was quite a statement.
In short, the Blue Jays overcame a 17-point deficit in one of the most raucous road environments to beat an underrated San Diego State squad 85-83.
Doug McDermott has dominated, averaging 23.7 points and nine rebounds while shooting 62.6 percent from the floor and 57.7 percent from deep. He's the leader of his father's team—yes, there is a connection between Doug and Greg McDermott—but five other Blue Jays are averaging over 7.9 points per game.
Creighton has shot the ball at an exceptional percentage—52.6 percent from the floor and 45.4 percent from long range—and ranks No. 9 in Ken Pomeroy's offensive efficiency.
When MoMo Jones joined the top four scorers from Iona's 25-win team of a season ago, the Gaels instantly became the talk of mid-major basketball.
And why not?
Jones contributes scoring and defense, but he's also the only player on this team with NCAA tournament experience. We all remember his 16-point performance against Duke in the Sweet 16.
Though Jones played the point for Sean Miller's Arizona squad, he had to shift to the two, his more natural position, upon transferring to Iona because the Gaels already had Scott Machado. Jones has thrived, averaging 14.3 points per game.
Machado, who ranked No. 2 nationally with 7.5 assists per game last year, is currently leading the nation with 11.4 dimes per night. The floor general is also playing exceptional defense and scoring 15.4 points per game.
Mike Glover improved his perimeter and ballhandling skills this offseason, making him a nightmare for defenders. The senior is averaging 19.9 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
The trio of Glover, Machado and Jones comprises Iona's core, but the Gaels have other valuable players, such as forward Taaj Ridley and guards Kyle Smyth and Jermel Jenkins.
Perhaps one of the scarier facts about this team: Smyth hasn't shot the ball nearly as well as he has throughout his career—33.3 percent from long range vs. 40.5 percent—yet the Gaels are still averaging a nation-best 92 points per game.
They've already topped 100 points twice, and their sole loss is by one point against Purdue.
Others Worth Keeping an Eye on
Cleveland State has a rotation of upperclassmen and solid wins at Vanderbilt, Kent State and Detroit, but the Vikings also started hot last year before tapering off. With Norris Cole lost to graduation, it might be too early to jump on Cleveland State's bandwagon.
Kent State has Justin Greene and several other upperclassmen. Though the Golden Flashes lack NCAA tournament experience, this group of players has won at least one game in back-to-back NITs.
Northern Iowa only has a few upperclassmen, but the Panthers are shooting 38.3 percent from deep and are 7-1 with wins at Old Dominion and Iowa State.
Saint Mary's lost Mickey McConnell to graduation, but the Gaels have an experienced team led by Rob Jones and Matthew Dellavedova.
Middle Tennessee State is 8-1 with a win over UCLA. Although the Blue Raiders have an experienced roster, it's too early to tell just how good they are.