Unranked Men's College Basketball Teams That Could Make Waves in March

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 5, 2022

Unranked Men's College Basketball Teams That Could Make Waves in March

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    Illinois' Kofi Cockburn
    Illinois' Kofi CockburnMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    It's weird that we only rank 25 teams in men's college basketball, considering there are 358 Division I programs, 68 of which will eventually have a chance to play for a national championship. Proportionally, the AP Top 25 is the equivalent of an NFL ranking of the top two-and-a-quarter teams.

    The point I'm trying to make is that there are some quality unranked teams that deserve more fanfare.

    At this time one year ago, Alabama and Ohio State were both unranked, even though they would both go on to earn No. 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Also unranked in the first AP poll of January 2021 was 50 percent of the 2021 Elite Eight: Arkansas, Oregon State, UCLA and USC.

    Suffice it to say, if you're only paying attention to the teams that are currently ranked, you're missing out on a bunch of squads capable of doing some serious damage.

    But allow us to introduce you to nine teams outside the AP Top 25 that you're going to want to get familiar with over the next two months.

    Five of these teams were ranked earlier in the year and could be a hot week or two away from rejoining the Top 25. We've also highlighted a few mid-major Cinderella candidates.

    Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Abilene Christian Wildcats

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    Abilene Christian's Reggie Miller
    Abilene Christian's Reggie MillerMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Last March, Abilene Christian pulled off one of the more shocking first-round upsets in NCAA tournament history, forcing 22 turnovers in the process of knocking off No. 3 seed Texas.

    Lather, rinse, repeat for the ball-hawking Wildcats?

    Abilene Christian averages well over 20 forced turnovers per game, coming at you in waves of unchecked aggression. The Wildcats have 13 guys averaging at least 2.8 points per game, most of whom also average at least 2.0 steals per 40 minutes.

    Since an 0-2 start featuring a close-for-a-while loss at Utah and a double-overtime loss at Texas A&M, ACU has strung together 11 consecutive victories, most of them by double digits. Even Utah Valley shooting 52.2 percent from three-point range and 63.0 percent from inside the arc wasn't enough to beat the Wildcats, who turned 17 UVU turnovers into 17 points.

    In order to pull off another major upset, though, the Wildcats need to actually get into the Big Dance. That's going to be much tougher this year after the transition from the Southland to the WAC, where Grand Canyon, New Mexico State, Stephen F. Austin and Utah Valley are all legitimate March Madness Cinderella candidates.

    Abilene Christian will also need to get lucky with its draw, as it would have virtually no hope of upsetting a turnover-averse team such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Duke or Villanova.

    But last year was no one-hit wonder. Abilene Christian is a team that no coach wants to face in March.

Connecticut Huskies

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    Connecticut's Tyrese Martin
    Connecticut's Tyrese MartinJessica Hill/Associated Press

    Every year, without fail, there are a bunch of "if they could just get/stay healthy" teams that feel like good buy-low candidates for a Final Four run.

    And here in early January, Connecticut tops that list.

    At full strength, the Huskies beat Auburn in a double-overtime classic in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis. That's still the only loss Auburn has suffered this season.

    With Isaiah Whaley out the following day against Michigan State, though, the Huskies seemed to just run out of gas, blowing a seven-point lead in the final five minutes.

    They didn't have primary big man Adama Sanogo for the four-point loss to Providence.

    In the three-point loss at West Virginia, they were without both Sanogo and Tyrese Martin.

    But when the full primary nine-man rotation has been available, Connecticut has looked like a fringe title contender. The combination of Sanogo, Whaley and Akok Akok has been great for both rim protection and offensive rebounding. And while the team shooting percentages haven't been anything special, Martin, Sanogo and R.J. Cole are all big-time scorers who can carry the offense.

    Here's hoping the injury bug doesn't follow them into 2022, because this could be the best team in a deep Big East.

Davidson Wildcats

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    Davidson celebrates a shocking win over Alabama
    Davidson celebrates a shocking win over AlabamaVasha Hunt/Associated Press

    It's hard to believe it was 14 years ago when a baby-faced scoring machine by the name of Stephen Curry carried Davidson all the way to the Elite Eight, but 2008 was the last time the Wildcats won an NCAA tournament game.

    With the way this team takes and makes three-pointers, though, that drought might end this March.

    Relying on the deep ball is nothing new for head coach Bob McKillop. Per KenPom.com, Davidson has ranked in the top 63 in the nation in percentage of field-goal attempts coming from three-point range in each of the past 20 seasons. And in most of those years, it converted on better than 35 percent of attempts.

    But this year's squad has been particularly prolific from downtown, ranking second in the nation at 42.4 percent—which is incredible when you consider their former star, Kellan Grady, is currently shooting the lights out for Kentucky. In the marquee win over Alabama on Dec. 21, the Wildcats shot 12-of-24 from beyond the arc. They are a perfect 10-0 when making at least 36 percent of their three-point attempts.

    Primary shooters Foster Loyer, Hyunjung Lee and Michael Jones are a combined 94-of-206 (45.6 percent) through 12 games

    Not only can Davidson make it rain on offense, but it is also forcing turnovers on defense at a rate not seen since Curry was there. That isn't to say the Wildcats have an elite D. Far from it, in fact. But they are at least capable of getting stops and creating fast-break opportunities on a semi-regular basis. That's more than could be said in recent years, and it makes them a legitimate Sweet 16 candidate.

Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Illinois' Andre Curbelo
    Illinois' Andre CurbeloAaron Gash/Associated Press

    The big question with Illinois is: When will Andre Curbelo be able to play again, and will his return make the Illini even better?

    The 2020-21 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year averaged 16.9 points, 7.7 assists and 7.4 rebounds per 40 minutes as a freshman and was expected to make a leap this season with Ayo Dosunmu out of the picture. However, lingering effects from a head injury suffered in the preseason have kept him out of action since just before Thanksgiving.

    Factor in Kofi Cockburn missing the first three games of the year because of a suspension, and we still haven't seen Illinois at full strength.

    And yet, this team entered Tuesday night's game against Minnesota (which they won 76-53) ranked 14th on KenPom and 17th in the NET. Cockburn is one of the most unstoppable forces in the nation, while Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison have been red hot from three-point range.

    It sure does seem like they could benefit from the return of a true point guard, though. Illinois is committing nearly four more turnovers per game than it forces, and the current team leader in assists (Da'Monte Williams) was much more of a spot-up shooter than a distributor in his first four years on the roster.

    Per Jeremy Werner of Illini Inquirer, head coach Brad Underwood said Curbelo is progressing in his rehab, but no return date has yet been provided. If he's able to return within the next month, Illinois might be a sleeper pick to win it all.

Loyola Chicago Ramblers

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    Loyola-Chicago's Lucas Williamson
    Loyola-Chicago's Lucas WilliamsonMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Loyola Chicago busted countless brackets in both 2018 and 2021, but might the Ramblers shock the world yet again?

    The big man (Cameron Krutwig) who anchored those previous seasons is now playing in Belgium. The head coach (Porter Moser) who built those rosters is now at Oklahoma. But Loyola Chicago is still wildly efficient on offense and more than good enough on defense to hang with any foe.

    The Ramblers already have true road wins over DePaul and Vanderbilt, waxed Arizona State by 18 on a neutral floor and put up impressive fights against Michigan State and Auburn before losing both of those Battle 4 Atlantis matchups.

    Against the Spartans, the Ramblers shot just 37.3 percent from the field, and they still had a chance to win at the buzzer. Against the Tigers, they struggled from distance (7-of-23 from three-point range) and committed an uncharacteristic 18 turnovers, yet they led early in the second half and were still within striking distance until the final 90 seconds.

    And, just to reiterate, they almost won those games against current AP Top 10 opponents in spite of poor shooting. This is normally one of the most accurate shooting teams in the nation, ranking second in effective field-goal percentage. They just couldn't find their rhythm in that ballroom in the Bahamas.

    Chances are they'll drop a game or two at some point during Missouri Valley Conference play, but don't allow yourself to forget about the Ramblers. They knocked off a No. 1 seed last March, and with the way they can shoot it from distance, they might be even more dangerous this year.

Memphis Tigers

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    Memphis' Jalen Duren
    Memphis' Jalen DurenThomas Graning/Associated Press

    If you have given up all hope of this Memphis team amounting to anything this year, well, I can't blame you. The Tigers commit way too many turnovers, they struggle to finish defensive possessions with rebounds and they have already suffered a bunch of embarrassing losses.

    It's possibleperhaps even probablethat they won't even get into the NCAA tournament.

    But it still feels like this team could figure things out by March.

    There's certainly enough talent. And as we saw in the mid-December win over Alabama, the Tigers can succeed in spite of their sloppiness. In that one, they committed 17 turnovers and allowed 14 offensive rebounds, but they still won by 14 by consistently turning Alabama turnovers into points and getting to and converting from the free-throw line.

    Simply put, they for once showed why they were a trendy Final Four pick in the preseason.

    Unfortunately, right as it seemed like they might have turned a corner, they had to go on a COVID-19 pause that lasted more than two weeks, and then they came back still without three key players (DeAndre Williams, Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates) for a one-point loss to Tulane.

    The Tigers did bounce back for an 18-point road win over Wichita State three days later with Williams and Duren both available, so I'm inclined to believe the Tulane game was a hiccup and not the start of a whole new slump. And if they are turning a corner, with Houston recently losing both Marcus Sasser (foot) and Tramon Mark (shoulder) for the year to injuries, it's still feasible that Memphis cements itself as the best team in the AAC by the time conference tournament season rolls around.

Michigan Wolverines

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    Michigan's Caleb Houstan
    Michigan's Caleb HoustanPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Michigan falls into the same bucket as Memphis: Gigantic disappointment for a team with multiple NBA-caliber players, but there's still time to turn things around.

    One of the biggest reasons the Wolverines have struggled has been the hit-or-miss play by their most highly touted prospect. True freshman Caleb Houstan was hailed by many as a likely 2022 lottery pick in the preseason, but he has shot 11-of-53 (20.8 percent) from the field in their six losses compared to 29-of-57 (50.9 percent) in their seven wins.

    It's hard to win with any regularity when the guy who ranks second on the roster in minutes played is a part-time ghost. If Houstan can start consistently contributing, though, that's a game-changer for Michigan.

    But the bigger issue is the defense, which had been Michigan's strong suit in recent years.

    The Wolverines ranked top-four in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency in three of the past four seasons, per KenPom, but they keep finding new ways to struggle this year.

    Both North Carolina and Arizona destroyed Michigan in the paint. Minnesota only committed two turnovers in its surprising 10-point road win over the Wolverines. UCF shot 18-of-25 from the field (8-of-8 from three-point range) in the second half of that recent 85-71 embarrassment. And Rutgers canned 11 triples Tuesday night while the Wolverines shot 3-of-15 from deep.

    More often than not, it's a second-half collapse, which is the maddening part. It's one thing if you simply don't have the personnel to hang defensively, but Michigan tends to dig in its heels in the first half and then lose track of its assignments left and right after the intermission.

    Figure out how to carry that defense into the latter 20 minuteswhile also getting a decent number of buckets from Houstan on a nightly basis—and Michigan could bounce back from a rough two months to contend for a title.

North Carolina Tar Heels

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    North Carolina's Caleb Love
    North Carolina's Caleb LoveBen McKeown/Associated Press

    Not only is Duke the only ranked team from the ACC, but the Blue Devils were the only ones to receive so much as one vote in the most recent poll.

    North Carolina is certainly still on the voters' radar, though.

    The Tar Heels are 10-3, with all three losses coming on neutral courts against currently ranked teams (Purdue, Tennessee and Kentucky). The two games against the SEC teams got ugly in a hurry, which is largely why UNC was nowhere to be found in this week's ballots, despite checking in at No. 30 in the KenPom rankings.

    They did blow out Michigan in the ACC-B1G Challenge, and they opened up the 2022 portion of their schedule with a 91-65 shellacking of Boston College. Five Tar Heels are averaging at least 10 points per game, three of whom are shooting better than 43 percent from three-point range.

    When this offense gets into a groove, look out.

    The problem has been the defense.

    In all three losses, North Carolina's opponent shot at least 54 percent from the field. And aside from the two remaining games against Duke, we're not going to get a chance to figure out if they've improved enough to slow down a Sweet 16-caliber offense. But when you can score 90 against just about anyone, maybe it won't matter?

    The Tar Heels are probably going to go something like 15-5 in ACC play and gradually gain a lot of public momentum as a team capable of reaching the Final Four.

West Virginia Mountaineers

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    West Virginia's Taz Sherman
    West Virginia's Taz ShermanSarah Stier/Getty Images

    Trying to promote West Virginia as a Final Four sleeper will undoubtedly ring hollow in the aftermath of the New Year's Day loss to Texas in which it trailed 55-27 midway through the second half.

    However, the Mountaineers had to play that game without one of the nation's leading scorers (Taz Sherman) and without their primary frontcourt reserve (Gabe Osabuohien) because of COVID-19 protocols. It was also a true road game against a Texas team that has been outstanding on defense, save for that one night that the Longhorns were completely hopeless against Gonzaga's Drew Timme. So, we're not putting much stock in that one outcome.

    Up until that point, the 'Eers were 11-1, with the lone loss coming early in the year against Marquettea loss that doesn't look great now, but which came when Marquette stormed out of the gates with a 5-0 record and had us all bending over backward to praise the Shaka Smart hire.

    Of the 11 wins, WVU defeated Connecticut, Clemson and UAB, leveraging a revived Press Virginia approach on defense to get those W's. The Mountaineers got away from that mid-2010s turnover-forcing bread and butter for a few years, but veterans Kedrian Johnson and Malik Curry are leading one of the top turnover-forcing teams in the nation.

    Offense has been a struggle for West Virginia, even when Sherman has been available. That will likely be this team's undoing in the NCAA tournament, and it may result in a few more lopsided regular-season losses against the likes of Baylor, Kansas and Texas Tech. But the Mountaineers feel like a team destined to land somewhere in the Nos. 7-10 seed range before becoming a colossal headache for whichever unlucky No. 1 or No. 2 seed draws them in the second round.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics and records are current through the start of play on Tuesday, Jan. 4.

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