Small-School CBB Teams You Need to Watch at Least Once Before March Madness

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 2, 2020

Small-School CBB Teams You Need to Watch at Least Once Before March Madness

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    Anthony Lamb
    Anthony LambRyan M. Kelly/Getty Images

    Even if you're a fan of a power-conference program, March Madness is a time to love the underdogs in college basketball.

    While the bracket you complete will probably end up focusing on top-ranked teams, picking an upset in the early rounds is exciting. The key is identifying those schools from a traditional one-bid league that are best prepared to pull off a shocker.

    Your research can start before the bracket is released, though.

    Of the programs we've highlighted, several will not reach the field of 68. They must win their respective conference tournaments to qualify for the Big Dance, but upsets will happen. As those tournaments are happening, though, be sure to monitor these schools and gain an understanding of how they play.

    Because when the Madness starts, this group will probably be causing the mayhem.

East Tennessee State Buccaneers

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    Bo Hodges
    Bo HodgesCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    East Tennessee State has navigated a few absences throughout the season to hold an impressive 27-4 record.

    Senior forward Jeromy Rodriguez missed the vast majority of January and February with a foot injury. Star guard Bo Hodges grieved his cousin's death. Patrick Good experienced a dramatic change, preparing with his girlfriend for the birth of their first child.

    But now, the Buccaneers are back to full strength. Earlier in the season, a near-full roster stuck with Kansas in a 75-63 loss, and a complete rotation knocked off LSU on the road. They would demand the full respect of a top-five seed.

    ETSU will begin the Southern Conference tourney Saturday, March 7, needing three wins to reach the Big Dance.

Northern Iowa Panthers

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    Spencer Haldeman
    Spencer HaldemanLizzy Barrett/Getty Images

    If you have a glass-half-full view, Northern Iowa is consistently a thorn. While finishing the regular season 25-5, the Panthers lost either in overtime or by a margin no greater than six.

    Conversely, they regularly start slowly and are prone to playing from behind on the scoreboard. Close losses are still losses.

    In other words, decide for yourself!

    Since the offense has four legitimate perimeter weapons in AJ Green, Trae Berhow, Spencer Haldeman and Isaiah Brown, it's no surprise UNI ranks fourth nationally in three-point percentage. That strength will be tested beginning Friday, March 6, in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley tournament.

Vermont Catamounts

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    John Becker
    John BeckerSteven Ryan/Getty Images

    One of the most recognizable small-school stars is Anthony Lamb, who's helped Vermont win four straight America East regular-season championships.

    The Catamounts are less reliant on him in 2019-20, though. Stef Smith is averaging 14.1 points, followed by Ryan Davis (9.9), Ben Shungu (8.3) and Everett Duncan (7.7). What's more, Vermont has allowed the fourth-fewest points per game in the nation (59.2).

    And after forcing a 40-minute battle with Purdue in 2017 and Florida State last year, Vermont is familiar with the big stage.

    If they can navigate the three-game AEC tourney, the Cats may be both a familiar and popular upset pick.

New Mexico State Aggies

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    Jabari Rice
    Jabari RiceRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    New Mexico State has the 343rd-slowest tempo out of 353 teams, per KenPom.com, but the sixth-best rebound rate.

    Given the limited number of possessions, it's imperative to have an efficient game against the Aggies. Clearly, that has been difficult; NMSU boasts a perfect 15-0 record in conference play and hasn't dropped a game since mid-December.

    Despite the slow pace, the Aggies are enjoyable to watch because they attempt three-pointers at the nation's 16th-highest clip.

    NMSU has a regular-season game remaining with Cal Baptist on Thursday, March 5, but should otherwise waltz through the WAC tournament with three victories.

Hofstra Pride

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    Desure Buie
    Desure BuieJayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    Similar to Northern Iowa, Hofstra has a perimeter-heavy attack. All five startersDesure Buie (18.5), Eli Pemberton (17.3), Isaac Kante (11.5), Jalen Ray (11.5) and Tareq Coburn (11.0)—score at a double-digit clip with Buie, Pemberton, Ray and Coburn each attempting four-plus threes per game.

    But if we suggest that quintet is basically the whole rotation, would that concern you?

    During the 31-game regular season, those five players started the game together 29 times and averaged at least 28.8 minutes. It's a seven-man group with Kevin Schutte and Stafford Trueheart, though Omar Silverio had a regular role earlier in the year.

    Hofstra will begin its Colonial Athletic tournament run Sunday in the quarterfinals.

Yale Bulldogs

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    Jordan Bruner
    Jordan BrunerMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    If for no other reason, flip on Yale to see Jordan Bruner. He's racked up 11.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.8 blocks per game but cannot return to Yale because of Ivy League redshirt rules. Bruner could be a coveted grad transfer this offseason.

    First, though, he's hoping to help the Bulldogs reach their immediate upside.

    Bruner is the No. 3 scorer behind Paul Atkinson (17.5) and Azar Swain (16.2), and Eric Monroe has dished 4.5 assists per game. Yale is 15th nationally in rebound rate, a strength that helped the program stun fifth-seeded Baylor in 2016. Last year, the Bulldogs only lost to third-seeded LSU by five points.

    In addition to a pair of regular-season contests left on the docket, Yale has sealed a place in the four-team Ivy League tournament, which tips off Saturday, March 14.

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

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    Kevon Harris
    Kevon HarrisGerry Broome/Associated Press

    You've probably seen highlights of Stephen F. Austin this season, considering the Lumberjacks dethroned Duke in November. However, they deserve two hours of your time.

    Kyle Keller's squad plays at the country's 39th-fastest tempo, per KenPom, and both commits and forces turnovers at a top-six rate nationally. If you prefer max entertainment within your basketball viewing, SFA is a prime option.

    Oh, and the Lumberjacks are 26-3. They're pretty great.

    Two regular-season contests stand between SFA and the Southland tournament, in which the top-seeded 'Jacks need two victories to secure a March Madness bid.

Belmont Bruins

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    Adam Kunkel
    Adam KunkelGregory Shamus/Getty Images

    As usual, this roster is full of scoring. Belmont ranks 13th nationally with 80.4 points per game in 2019-20.

    Adam Kunkel is averaging a team-high 16.6 points, while Nick Muszynski (15.2) and Tyler Scanlon (12.6) are well into double figures. Grayson Murphy has provided 9.8 points, 6.3 assists and 2.7 steals per game for the Ohio Valley front-runners.

    However, the major reason you should watch Belmont is there's no guarantee it will escape the OVC tournament.

    The Bruins split the regular-season series with both Murray State and Austin Peay, who split with each other. In all likelihood, Belmont will encounter at least one of them during the conference tourney. But if the Bruins escape, it should show why they're a March Madness threat.

                    

    Statistics courtesy of KenPom.com or Sports Reference unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.