Dangerous Teams with Most Cinderella Potential in 2020 NCAA Men's Tournament

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2020

Dangerous Teams with Most Cinderella Potential in 2020 NCAA Men's Tournament

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    The Wofford Terriers were one of the biggest stories of the 2018-19 men's college basketball season, emerging from the Southern Conference with a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament en route to a 30-win season.

    Which mid-major team could shake things up this year?

    Ahead we've highlighted the seven best squads who reside outside of the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) and four other major conferences (AAC, Atlantic 10, Big East and Mountain West). Perennial contender Gonzaga was also excluded from the mix.

    That left us with a handful of intriguing teams to watch, and we narrowed our focus to seven mid-major teams who are projected for double-digit seeds and could be ready to step into the role of Cinderella this March.

Akron Zips (21-7, 11-4 in Mid-American Conference)

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    Loren Jackson
    Loren JacksonMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    NET Rating: 79

    Bracket Matrix Seed: No. 13

    While the Akron Zips are 0-4 in Quadrant 1 and 2 games this season, they have looked the part of a legitimate March Madness threat.

    They played Louisville (82-76) and West Virginia (94-84) both tightly on the road in November, and they do not have any terrible losses on their resume, with a 10-0 record in Quad 4 games.

    The Zips have not reached the NCAA tournament since the 2012-13 season, but in their third campaign under head coach John Groce, that's where things may be headed for an experienced squad.

    Of the seven players who average at least 15 minutes per game, six of them are upperclassmen. Junior guard Loren Jackson (19.7 PPG, 4.5 APG, 43.5 3PT%), senior guard Tyler Cheese (15.9 PPG) and senior forward Xeyrius Williams (13.4 PPG, 9.3 RPG) lead the way.

    The Mid-American Conference will almost certainly be a one-bid league, so the Zips will have to emerge from their conference tournament in order to punch their ticket.

    That's far from a given with Bowling Green (21-7, 12-3) sporting a better conference record, but the Zips still look like the team to beat. With their experience and offensive firepower, they will be one an underdog to watch in March.

ETSU Buccaneers (25-4, 14-2 in Southern Conference)

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    Tray Boyd lll
    Tray Boyd lllCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    NET Rating: 39

    Bracket Matrix Seed: No. 12

    East Tennessee State has made the NCAA tournament just once in the past nine seasons, despite five straight years with at least 24 wins.

    The Southern Conference is strong once again, as Furman (23-6, 13-3) and UNC Greensboro (23-6, 13-3) also have compelling mid-major resumes.

    That said, ETSU has gone 3-1 against those conference rivals, with the lone loss coming to Furman on the road. Those three victories, along with a road win over LSU (NET: 29) back in December, give the Buccaneers a strong foundation.

    They have also taken care of business against lesser foes with a 19-1 record in Quad 3 and Quad 4 contests. The lone bump in the road was a 71-55 loss at home to Mercer, which they avenged 10 days later with a 73-60 victory on the road.

    With an offense that ranks No. 52 in KenPom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency metric, this team is capable of hanging around with anyone.

    Tray Boyd lll (13.7 PPG) and Bo Hodges (13.5 PPG) lead a well-balanced attack that features seven players averaging at least seven points per game, and their 47.5 field-goal percentage as a team is good for 20th in the nation.

Liberty Flames (26-3, 12-2 in Atlantic Sun Conference)

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    Caleb Homesley
    Caleb HomesleyEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    NET Rating: 51

    Bracket Matrix Seed: No. 12

    The No. 12-seeded Liberty Flames pulled off an upset of No. 5 seed Mississippi State with an 80-76 victory in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament.

    Last year's leading scorers—Caleb Homesley (14.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG) and Scottie James (11.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG)—are both back and leading the way once again, along with five others from last year's nine-player rotation.

    A road loss to LSU (74-57) and a neutral-site win over Akron (80-67) have been the team's only Quad 1 and Quad 2 games, so the Flames have not been tested much this year.

    However, there's no ignoring the experience much of the roster gained last year, and this team appears to have a clear path through the Atlantic Sun Conference.

    Close losses on the road to North Florida (71-70) and Stetson (48-43) are the only blips on their conference slate, and those two teams sit second and third in the A-Sun standings. 

    That said, the Flames avenged both losses at home earlier this month, and they will enter their conference tournament as the heavy favorites to emerge with the automatic bid.

Northern Iowa Panthers (23-5, 12-4 in Missouri Valley Conference)

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    AJ Green
    AJ GreenCliff Grassmick/Associated Press

    NET Rating: 46

    Bracket Matrix Seed: No. 12

    With a terrific road win over Colorado (NET: 17) and a 5-3 record in Quad 1 and Quad 2 games, Northern Iowa has a strong case for an at-large bid if it comes up short in the Missouri Valley conference tournament.

    The Panthers do have a pair of Quad 3 road losses to Southern Illinois (NET: 141) and Illinois State (NET: 207), and they lead Loyola of Chicago by just a half-game in the conference standings. But they are clearly the cream of the MVC crop.

    While they are no strangers to the NCAA tournament, they are working on a three-year drought after advancing out of the first round in back-to-back years.

    Sophomore guard AJ Green (19.8 PPG, 40.7 3PT%) leads the conference in scoring, junior guard Trae Berhow (13.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 45.0 3PT%) has been lethal from deep, and sophomore big man Austin Phyfe (11.1 PPG, 8.1 RPG) leads the MVC with a 66.8 field-goal percentage.

    Back-to-back losses on the road in February raised some eyebrows, but the Panthers were able to right the ship with a victory over Southern Illinois at home last Sunday.

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (24-3, 15-1 in Southland Conference)

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    Kevon Harris
    Kevon HarrisBrandon Wade/Associated Press

    NET Rating: 88

    Bracket Matrix Seed: No. 13

    An overtime victory over then-No. 1 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium back on Nov. 26 is proof that this year's Stephen F. Austin team is capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone.

    Lumberjacks guard Kevon Harris led the way in that game with 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting, and he is once again one of the most productive players in the Southland Conference, averaging 17.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.

    There's something to be said for having that go-to star when the pressure is on.

    Two of the team's losses have come to potential tournament teams in Rutgers (69-57) and Alabama (78-68) on the road, but the other is an ugly Quad 4 loss to Texas A&M Corpus-Christi (NET: 317).

    The Lumberjacks have racked up 11 wins in a row since that shocking defeat, and there is a real chance they will win out in a fairly weak conference.

    While it missed the tournament last year, Stephen F. Austin has reached the Big Dance four times in the last six seasons, so it is no stranger to the bright lights of March.

Vermont Catamounts (22-7, 12-2 in America East Conference)

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    Anthony Lamb
    Anthony LambRyan M. Kelly/Getty Images

    NET Rating: 85

    Bracket Matrix Seed: No. 13

    Vermont has won at least 20 games in each of the last 12 seasons (including 2019-20), but the Catamounts have made the NCAA tournament just four times so far during that span.

    They were a No. 13 seed last year when they played a terrific Florida State team tough in a 76-69 loss.

    Anthony Lamb is back for his senior season after leading the America East Conference with 21.2 points per game last year, and he once again leads the team in scoring (16.4 PPG), rebounding (7.2 RPG) and blocks (1.3 BPG).

    A road win over St. John's (NET: 71) gives them a Quad 1 victory, and they beat St. Bonaventure (NET: 113) away from home en route to a 2-4 record in Quad 1 and Quad 2 games.

    On the other end of the spectrum, they also have three Quad 4 losses against Stony Brook (NET: 168), Rider (NET: 201) and UMBC (NET: 224), so they will once again be banking on an automatic bid.

    If they do punch their ticket to March Madness, they have a chance to pull off a shocker thanks to the star power that Lamb brings to the court.

Yale Bulldogs (20-6, 8-2 in Ivy League)

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    Paul Atkinson
    Paul AtkinsonMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    NET Rating: 60

    Bracket Matrix Seed: No. 12

    Yale snapped a lengthy tournament drought that stretched back to the 1961-62 season in dramatic fashion a few years ago, upsetting No. 5-seeded Baylor during the 2016 NCAA tournament.

    They returned to the dance as a No. 14 seed last year, pushing LSU to the brink in a 79-74 loss.

    While the top three scorers from last year's squad have since departed, including NBA second-round pick Miye Oni, others have picked up the slack.

    Juniors Paul Atkinson (17.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG) and Azar Swain (16.8 PPG, 38.6 3PT%) have taken the reins on offense after filling supporting roles last season, and their inside-outside combination makes the team a handful offensively.

    The Bulldogs have a 1-4 record in Quad 1 and Quad 2 games, with their lone win coming against Clemson (54-45), but they hung right with Penn State (58-56) and Oklahoma State (64-57) on the road.

    They have taken care of business against lesser competition with a 12-0 record in Quad 4 games, and they beat another team on this list in Vermont (65-52) at home.

    After getting a taste of the tournament last year, the one-two punch of Atkinson and Swain could be enough to propel the Bulldogs on a March Madness run.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference, while Quadrant information comes courtesy of WarrenNolan.com.