Small-School CBB Teams You Need to Watch Before the Men's NCAA Tournament
Power-conference and high-major teams soak up most of the attention in a men's college basketball season, but the NCAA tournament helps shift the focus to smaller schools.
Every year, there's a decent-sized group of respected teams in mid-major leagues. And every year, they grow in popularity around March Madness because basketball fans are looking for the best potential Cinderella team for the tournament.
What exactly constitutes a small school or mid-major team is up for debate. Our definition is programs not from the Power Five (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) or American, Atlantic 10, Big East and Mountain West conferences—and not Gonzaga.
The list of teams is subjective and ordered alphabetically.
The Familiar Names
Since the 2005-06 season, Belmont has appeared in the NCAA tournament eight times. While the Bruins only have a victory in a play-in game, they nearly upset No. 2 Duke as a No. 15 seed in 2008 and took sixth-seeded Maryland to the wire in 2019. Belmont, which ranks tied for 12th nationally with a .593 true shooting percentage, meets SIUE in the Ohio Valley tournament on Wednesday, March 3.
While the program hasn't landed an NCAA trip in six years, BYU earned 11 NCAA bids from 2000-01 to 2014-15. Three-point marksman Alex Barcello headlines this roster, which has both excellent depth of long-range shooters and excellent rebounding. BYU holds top-30 rankings nationally in both categories. Seeded second in the West Coast Conference tournament, the Cougars start in the semifinal round on Monday, March 8.
Drake captured a fair bit of attention during its 18-0 start and ended the regular season 24-3. The Bulldogs have a couple of key injuries, but the offense ranks 19th on KenPom.com. Drake is the No. 2 seed in the Missouri Valley tournament and begins play Friday, March 5, in the quarterfinals.
The top-seeded team in the MVC is Loyola, which most basketball fans remember for its Final Four run in 2018. Star center Cameron Krutwig held a starting role on that roster and is now the team leader, averaging 15.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists. Most impressively, though, Loyola has the nation's top-ranked defense, per KenPom. The Ramblers also open the MVC tourney on March 5.
Abilene Christian Wildcats
Abilene Christian is spectacularly annoying.
That's meant as a major compliment for the Southland Conference team, which has the nation's best defensive rating. The Wildcats have forced the highest turnover rate and surrendered just 60.7 points per game en route to a 19-4 record. Reggie Miller and Damien Daniels both average multiple steals.
In the right matchup, Abilene Christian could be a nightmare opponent. Respectable losses to Texas Tech and Arkansas should mean the Wildcats are prepared for a high level of competition, too.
Before the Southland Conference tournament starts March 10, Abilene Christian closes the regular season with Stephen F. Austin and Incarnate Word.
Two years ago, Colgate secured its first NCAA tournament berth in 23 seasons and put a scare into Tennessee. Jordan Burns scored 32 points in that 77-70 loss.
And now, he's a senior propelling one of the nation's top offenses.
Colgate ranks second nationally at 85.7 points per game and 18th in three-point percentage. Burns—who leads the Raiders with 17.1 points and 5.5 assists—is one of four players who attempt four-plus triples per game at a 35-plus percent rate.
Additionally, the defense is No. 1 in the country with a 26.3 three-point clip allowed. While it's true the Patriot League isn't full of incredible competition, strong perimeter defense is a huge positive if Colgate can reach the NCAA tournament.
Colgate, which has an 11-1 record, opens the Patriot League tournament Saturday.
Toledo is pretty good at the whole "scoring" thing. If you like offense, be sure to watch the MAC regular-season champs.
Marreon Jackson has team-best averages of 17.5 points and 6.0 assists, and four more provide 12-plus points per game. Spencer Littleson boasts a 48.4 three-point clip while launching 7.4 triples, and the Rockets rank 20th nationally from beyond the arc.
Similar to Colgate, though, Toledo is also a thorn on the other end. Opponents have made 29.1 percent of their long-range attempts, which is 16th-worst in the country.
Toledo has two regular-season games remaining but already locked up the No. 1 seed in the MAC tournament.
UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
Efficiency is the key for UCSB, a slow-paced but unselfish team.
Led by JaQuori McLaughlin, the Gauchos have the 27th-highest assist rate in the country. McLaughlin has team-best marks of 16.0 points and 5.4 assists per game, while senior guard Devearl Ramsey also dishes 3.8 assists per game.
These final victories have eluded UCSB lately, however. Although the program has three straight 20-win seasons and six of 19-plus in the previous seven years, the Gauchos haven't appeared in March Madness since 2010-11. The 17-4 team is hoping to break the streak with a Big West tournament title.
After a weekend series with Cal Poly to close the regular season, UCSB is likely to play March 11.
Winthrop has quietly put together a tremendous year, heading into the Big South tournament with a 20-1 record.
Chandler Vaudrin, who averages 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists, is the most important player on the team. If the Eagles earn a trip to March Madness, their upside is largely dependent on Vaudrin's production—which may seem odd, considering Winthrop has 11 players with 10-plus minutes per game.
Winthrop begins the Big South tourney on Monday against eighth-seeded High Point.